Fallen From Grace

Fallen From Grace

Notes

Nibbling on the lime gelato she’d purchased from the vendor next to the Trevi Fountain, Buffy headed back towards the Piazza di Spagna. She’d been working at the Keats-Shelly House. It made her smile; life certainly had thrown her a few curve balls and taking American tourists around the small rooms where Keats had taken his last breath was certainly not what she had pictured herself doing when and if she ever escaped the Hellmouth.

Sidestepping a scooter, Buffy hurried past the Spanish Steps ignoring the proffered rose clasped in the hand of a handsome young Italian man and slipping into the front entrance of the house.

“Ciao, Alberto,” she called.

A small, bespectacled man emerged from the salon, a pink feather duster in his hand.

“Gelato is not breakfast, bella,” he said, coming forward to kiss either side of her mouth.

Buffy shrugged. “I had to stop eating the pastry, Alberto. My clothes weren’t fitting anymore.”

“You could stand the weight. You were altogether too thin.” He stepped back and admired Buffy, her neat white linen dress and flat white sneakers crisp against the golden glow of her skin.

“Alberto,” she said, her voice a warning.

He lifted his hand and shook the feather duster in defeat. “I shall say no more.”

“Thanks.”

Alberto nodded and headed back into the room which housed over 10,000 prized books. Buffy moved behind the counter, which served as a reception desk, and stowed her bag. She finished the last bit of tangy lime from the cone and pitched the empty shell into the waste can. When she turned her eyes back to the door Dawn was standing there.

“Hey you.”

The light pouring in from the street made it difficult to see the expression on Dawn’s face, but her lack of a cheerful response alerted Buffy to the fact that there was something wrong. Her first guess would be boy trouble; there was always boy trouble in Italy. But when Dawn stepped forward into the room and Buffy saw her face she knew that some under-aged Lothario was not the reason for the look in her sister’s eyes.

“What?” she whispered.

Dawn held out a crumpled envelope.

“It came just after you left. I opened it.”

Buffy stepped out from behind the counter and took the letter. She stood for a moment, examining the envelope, the smudged ink and British stamps.

“It’s from Giles,” Dawn said.

Buffy moved to a row of chairs lining the wall and sat down. She flipped the letter over, saw Giles’s carefully scripted return address and slid her finger under the loosened flap.

“Buffy,” Dawn said. “It’s bad.”

Buffy nodded. The fact that she was holding this letter at all was enough proof that its contents would be devastating. If he’d had to write it down, it must be bad.

Dearest Buffy,

I apologize for the lack of correspondence. Things have been rather hectic here. I might have called, but I couldn’t. That’s of no consequence now. I write to tell you of Wesley’s death. There is no kinder way to give you that news. Wesley is dead. The details are sketchy, but from what I can gather Angel bravely, or perhaps foolishly, decided to lead Wes and the others against a rather nefarious group called the Circle of the Black Thorn. His goal, it appears, was to dismantle the single most evil organization in Los Angeles, the underworld of the underworld as it were. Each of Angel’s team was to take out a member of this group, and apparently they all knew that the consequences could be lethal. The result was that whilst they did kill each member of the Thorn, they also unleashed unholy war in Los Angeles, a battle that raged for several weeks. I only know this much second-hand. I do not know who else has been lost to the battle, but Watchers are mystically connected to the council and we do know, eventually, when they have fallen.

I am sorry that I had to tell you this news and in this manner. Giles

Buffy clutched the letter to her chest, her eyes burning. She felt Dawn beside her, her sister’s hand stroking her hair.

“I’m so sorry, Buffy,” Dawn whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

Alberto appeared in the doorway from the library.

“Buffy, che cosa è la material? Dovete dirmi che cosa è accaduto?”

Buffy looked up at Alberto with horrified eyes.

“I can’t,” she said. “Non ci sono parole.”

“There are always words, bella,” Alberto said. He sat beside Buffy and took her hand.

Buffy pressed her lips together and shook her head. “I can’t.”

“Very well,” Alberto said softly. “But you can not stay here like this. Go home. Sonno. Dawn will help me.”

Dawn nodded.

“All right.” Dawn knelt in front of Buffy. “I’ll stay, you go.”

“I need my bag,” Buffy whispered.

Dawn stepped behind the counter and grabbed Buffy’s bag. She stopped in front of her sister and waited for Buffy to meet her eyes.

“Thanks,” was all Buffy said and taking the bag she slipped out of the door and into the bright morning light.

***

Via Condotti was crowded with morning shoppers and eager tourists. Head down, immune to the noises of the city, she put one foot in front of the other and let the smells lead her through the streets to Piazzo St. Sylvestro and the little alley that led to the third floor flat she shared with Dawn.

She kicked off her shoes, dropped her bag and went over to the shuttered windows, throwing them open to the morning air. Soon it would be too hot in the rooms, but for now Buffy couldn’t stand the thought of being in the gloom.

Buffy padded across the cool tile floors into her bedroom and slipped out of the dress. She put it in the laundry basket and took off her bra and panties before heading across the room to the bathroom. She ran a lukewarm bath, added lavender oil and slid gratefully into the tub.

The news about Wes had shocked her. He had seemed, for some reason, indestructible. Or maybe it was just that his closeness to Angel had made it seem that way. Angel would look out for him and in return, Wes would look after Angel. What did it mean that he had been killed?

Part of her felt as though she would know if anything had happened to Angel. Part of her knew she should accept the possibility that their tenuous connection was long gone. Still another part of her berated herself for focusing on Angel at all. Wesley’s death was confirmed. He was gone; that alone should have been enough to make her cry.

She stayed in the tub until the water was cold and then she stepped out onto the cork bath mat and reached for her towel. She twisted her hair into a sloppy knot and dried herself off roughly. Back in her room she selected a midriff baring tank top and cotton yoga pants. There was nothing else to do then except brush her teeth, which she did for a long time, careful not to meet her own eyes in the mirror.

***

How many weeks had it been since she’d picked up a paper? She didn’t own a television. She rarely used the computer, leaving it to Dawn for schoolwork and chatting. It wasn’t as though there had been an open line of communication between Rome and Los Angeles. She knew stuff of course: Spike’s reappearance first as a ghost and then as something corporeal; Fred’s resurrection as a blue-tinged super God; Harmony’s pay raise; Cordy’s death. The information wasn’t always accurate, but as long as Angel’s name came up Buffy could go on pretending that she was happy where she was, dating The Immortal, working at the Memorial House, learning to cook.

And, truth be told, she wasn’t unhappy. Rome agreed with her. She liked the weather, the city and the fact that she wasn’t defined solely by being the Slayer. She wasn’t just the Slayer anymore.

She had to get a grip and the best way to do that was to find out for sure what had happened in LA. She headed into Dawn’s bedroom and sat in front of the sleek silver notebook on Dawn’s desk.

She typed ‘LA + demons’ into Google’s search bar.

Hundreds of hits materialized on the results screen and Buffy scanned the titles, not quite sure what she was looking for. There were stories about an earthquake in California, vague stories about some sort of explosion which had leveled a city block, rabid dogs; the kind of stories the Sunnydale Herald had often printed to explain the unexplainable.

When she was tired of looking at the screen, she called Giles. The concern in his voice almost undid her, but she steeled herself against it and asked her questions. He didn’t really know much more than what he had already told her in his note. He didn’t specifically say anything about Angel and Buffy didn’t specifically ask. They’d been talking in code for years now when it came to the vampire.

Giles gave her as much detail as he could about the battle and the little background he’d managed to dig up on the Circle of the Black Thorn. It was enough to send Buffy’s stomach plummeting. The Circle sounded iniquitous and as though they’d be more than a match for Angel and his team.

“It’s been too long since we’ve talked,” Buffy said when Giles had exhausted his information.

“I agree,” Giles said. “It’s been far too long. Perhaps a visit is in order.”

“You should have called me Giles. The letter was--”

“I know,” he agreed. “I’m sorry. I could barely get the words onto the paper; I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have been able to make my mouth work properly. Over the years Wes had become quite a remarkable Watcher. No. That’s not what I mean to say. He was a good man.”

“Yes. He was,” Buffy agreed.

Next she called Faith.

“Look, I don’t have much time, Faith. What do you know about LA?”

There was a small, pointed silence. “I don’t know much and what I do know, well, none of it’s good.”

“Faith.”

“It was a massive show down, Buffy. Angel pissed off the wrong people or, I guess depending on your point of view, the right people.”

“Wesley’s dead.”

Another silence, although this one was weighted with Faith’s regret. “I know, B.”

“Is Angel?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’d tell me, right?”

“I’d tell you,” Faith paused. “We were just hanging on here in Cleveland, but the last few days, things have been better. I can only assume that’s because they’ve plugged up whatever godforsaken hole they opened in LA.”

“How will I find out if he’s okay?” Buffy mused, half to herself.

“You probably won’t,” Faith said pragmatically.

“That’s not good enough.”

“I know,” Faith said. “But it’s all I got.”

Buffy sighed into the phone and could hear, across the ocean, Faith’s answering sigh.

***

Dawn checked in on Buffy before she headed off to a disco on Via Rasella. Teenagers rebounded fast or, even more likely, found ways not to deal with unpleasant things.

Buffy couldn’t think of one occasion when Dawn would have met Wesley in person, so she didn’t begrudge her sister the ability to move on. After Dawn left, Buffy poured herself a glass of Orvietto, stepped out onto the balcony and looked out over the streets below. Across the Tevere she could see the Castel St. Angelo, and beyond that the gleaming spires of the Vatican.

When she’d arrived in Rome several months back, she had insisted that Dawn accompany her to the world’s most famous church.

“But we aren’t even Catholic,” Dawn had whined.

“What difference does that make?”

Dawn crossed her arms petulantly in front of her chest. “I want to see the Colosseum.”

“Dawn,” Buffy had said, in her best grown-up voice, “this is where we live. The Colosseum will still be here tomorrow.”

“So will the Vatican.”

It was hard to argue with her logic, but Buffy had stood her ground. She wanted to stand on holy ground; she wanted to hear the whisper of the nun’s skirts as they floated across the church’s tiles; she wanted to feel peaceful, staring up at the statues of the Saints.

“Please,” she’d said.

So they had gone, stood in line with hundreds of other tourists, covered their shoulders with the shawls the guide books had suggested they’d bring and even Dawn had been amazed by the building and its religious artifacts.

It was one of the things Buffy liked best about Rome; everything here was ancient, everything had a story that was hundreds of years old. It made Buffy feel immortal, as though her story could be told for centuries to come.

Thinking of that now reminded Buffy that she still owed Dawn a trip to the Colleseum. She tipped her glass up and swallowed another mouthful of the acidic wine.

“You did not forget our date, did you?”

The voice slid up her spine and settled at the base of her neck. She turned around, leaning against the wrought iron railing. “I did.”

“State bevendo.”

“Just a little.” Buffy gestured towards him with the glass. “I’d actually like a little more.”

Long, slender fingers reached out and took the glass from Buffy’s outstretched hand. “Perhaps there would be a more suitable way to drown your sorrow.”

Buffy smiled brittlely.

The Immortal shrugged wide shoulders. He stepped back into the apartment and returned with a full glass of wine.

“If you drink this, you will not want dinner.”

Buffy took the glass from his hand and shrugged. It was hard not to admire The Immortal’s composed features, the expensively tailored silk shirt and the clearly defined muscles that rippled beneath it, but tonight he seemed to have lost some of his luster, as if the glossy façade had been buffed up once too often.

“Ho perso un amico,” she said.

“Immortality is overrated.”

“You’d know,” Buffy said quietly.

“May I ask who you lost?”

“You wouldn’t know him.”

“Perhaps, but if it will help you to speak of him I will pretend to know him.”

Buffy glanced up into The Immortal’s depthless, colourless eyes. At first she had found the lack of colour infinitely interesting; it was wonderful to look into them and not be able to see the hurt or longing or love or fear that was easily discernable in human eyes. Tonight, though, the eyes seemed as empty as the man.

“This isn’t working,” she said.

“Pardon me?”

“I need a break.”

“Do you know how many lovers I have had, Buffy? Thousands of them. Do you know how many have left me? None. Nessun.”

“I’m not breaking up with you,” Buffy said conciliatorily. “I just have to—leave the country for a bit.”

“I do not grant breaks. Bella,” he added, trying another approach, “you are obviously in some distress. Let me help.”

“There’s nothing you can do. I need to be alone.”

He stepped forward and trailed his fingers across Buffy’s shoulders and down her arms. She felt the electric heat from his fingertips, felt her body’s automatic response.

“Lo no ditto,” Buffy said. “No!”

For a second, Buffy thought that he would use his tremendous physical strength against her, but instead he held up his hands passively and backed away from her. “Fine. You know where I am.”

“I do.”

He nodded once and left the apartment.

***

The little bar on Via del Tritone was only half full when Buffy arrived. This was one of her cherished finds in Rome, a trattatoria that the locals frequented, a place of solemn conversations and backgammon boards, plates of fresh mozzarella and tangy olives.

“Ciao, bella,” Salvatore said when she walked into the main room.

Buffy waved her hand.

“You want wine?”

“Oh, yes,” Buffy said.

Salvatore smiled and grabbed a small pitcher, filling it with the robust wine made from grapes from his own vineyard in Sienna.

Buffy had already settled at her favourite table, a scarred wooden square beside a huge open window that looked out onto the street. A window box, overflowing with a riot of trailing lobelia and geraniums, sweet peas and begonias, perfumed the air.

Salvatore poured Buffy’s wine into a small juice glass and said: “You should eat, I think.”

Buffy shook her head and Salvatore shrugged and headed back to the bar.

The sun slanted across the street, the lengthening shadows a reminder that the day was waning. Buffy fumbled in her bag for Giles’s letter and spread it out on the table in front of her. There were the words again. Wesley is dead.

Buffy traced the scrawling letters and contemplated their meaning. She’d had a lot of first hand experience with death, had been on both sides of it. For some reason, losing Wes hurt more than she had expected. He couldn’t have been more than 30 and had proven, more than once, to be a good friend and an ally to Angel.

Angel. It all came back to him.

What had Giles said about the Circle of the Black Thorn? Some super-secret evil organization. Some battle that needed to be fought and won. Buffy took a sip of her wine and closed her eyes, trying to imagine the battle itself, the incredibly uneven playing field.

Salvatore arrived at Buffy’s table with a basket of crusty bread and a dish of fragrant cheese and olives.

“I didn’t order this,” Buffy said.

“It’s on the house,” Salvatore said. “You should eat. Per favore, per me.”

“Grazie,” Buffy said.

With a little nod, Salvatore went back to the bar where he began a heated conversation with one of the locals; his Italian sounded like gunfire, quick and sharp.

Buffy picked up a piece of the bread and considered it. Salvatore was right; she should eat. She took a small bite and chewed thoughtfully.

She had a number of different options.

She could leave the bar and make her way to The Immortal’s apartment on the Piazza Madalena. Once there, she could apologize to him with her body and take comfort in his. He wouldn’t ask questions because he didn’t care: not about her dead friend, not about her, not about anything. Buffy assumed that this was one of the side effects of having lived so long.

Or she could leave things as they were between them. The Immortal would sulk, but he’d soon move on. Everyone did.

Or she could book a flight back home.

Buffy popped an olive into her mouth, her tongue reacting to the tang of the vinegar.

Maybe not home, but she could go back to California. She could use some of Giles’s contacts to find out what had happened there.

“I thought I might find you here.”

Buffy looked up. Dawn stood there, one hand on her bony hip, looking very much like an annoyed parent about to lecture an unruly teenager.

“I thought you went out with your friends.”

“I did. I wasn’t having any fun. I went back to the apartment, but when you weren’t there I came here. The Immortal called, by the way.”

“Hmmm.”

“Did you dump him?” Dawn asked.

“I told him I wanted a break,” Buffy said.

“He sounded sorta upset.”

Buffy snorted. “Oh, please.”

“I know.” Dawn smiled. “Look why don’t we go home.”

“I was thinking about that, actually.”

“Well, come on then. I’ll go pay Salvatore.”

“I mean home home.”

Buffy watched Dawn’s eyes grow solemn.

“Back to Sunnydale?” Dawn paused. “No, no, of course not. There’s nothing to go back to. Buffy,” she said quietly, leaning forward and placing her hand on Buffy’s forearm. “You can’t really think that going to Los Angeles will help.”

“I have to do something.” She looked at her sister. “I have to know.”

***

Dawn didn’t argue when Buffy told her that she’d be staying with Alberto for a few days.

She sat on the edge of her sister’s bed and watched as Dawn packed tank tops and ruffled skirts into a pretty pink bag.

“I can always come back to get more stuff if I need to,” Dawn said reaching for a pair of jeans she’d left draped over the arm of a chair.

“Of course.”

Dawn zipped the case up and moved it off the bed so that she could sit beside Buffy.

“This might not work out the way you think it will,” Dawn said.

Buffy nodded.

“Maybe you’ll be surprised,” Dawn smiled. “In a good way.”

***

Buffy was amazed at how alien Los Angeles seemed. How big American cars were when compared with Italian scooters, how much more frantic the pace. By the time the taxi dropped her off, she was cranky and out of sorts.

From the outside, the hotel looked vacant. Willow had given her a vague description of a huge, austere lobby, sweeping twin staircases, a shadowy courtyard, a cluttered office, but Buffy had never had any sense of the Hyperion as a place where Angel lived and worked.

For some reason Buffy had a better sense of the subterranean rooms Angel had inhabited when he had first moved to Los Angeles. While her visit there had been brief, for some reason it had resonated with her. She had been able to smell Angel in those rooms, could feel him.

Now, as the taxi and its cheerful driver pulled back out into traffic, Buffy wondered if this was the best place to start looking for Angel. It might have been better if she’d gotten settled first, rested, showered. But she couldn’t stand the thought of wasting any time. If there was something to be learned by coming here, she may as well get started.

***

The lobby was a mess: overturned chairs, litter, a long smear of blood along one wall. The doors of the elevator were propped open with a two by four and a rat as big as a Pekinese disappeared behind the front desk. The smell: death, bile, rotten food. Buffy didn’t dare put down her bag, barely dared to draw a breath as she stood just inside the doors observing the carnage.

She took a small step to the left where one staircase disappeared into the gloom above. She listened carefully for a sound. The room was silent now that the rat had gone. She set her bag on the bottom step and started up the stairs. At the top she was surprised to discover that the long corridor was mostly free of debris. On either side of the hall, doors like blank eyes.

Buffy started down the hall. If asked, she wouldn’t have been able to say what propelled her forward. Curiosity, maybe. A sixth sense. Dread.

At the very end of the corridor, one door stood slightly ajar. She paused, one hand pressed against the door frame, and listened. The room was quiet. She toed open the door and suddenly found herself staring into a room that was obviously still being used.

Black sheets covered the windows but in the gloom Buffy could see that a narrow single bed was pushed snugly into the right angle of the walls, rumpled sheets tangled at the bottom. A desk at the foot of the bed was home to a small television. Beside the bed, a mostly empty bottle of something; on the chair beside the bed, a black T-shirt.

“Spike?” Buffy whispered.

She hadn’t imagined this meeting; hadn’t even considered the possibility that Spike might have survived instead of Angel. Didn’t know how she would feel if it were true. She didn’t know how to feel, standing here in a room where he obviously spent time.

Buffy shivered. This room reminded her of dark deeds, of the casual way Spike said her name just before he kissed her.

She walked into the room and reached for the T-shirt, buried her nose in it as she sank into the chair. The long flight, the hot day, the unknown: it was too much. She closed her eyes.

***

“Hello, cutie.”

Buffy opened her eyes and blinked.

Spike was squatting on the floor in front of her. Night had fallen and if Spike’s skin hadn’t been so pale, Buffy might not have noticed him right away considering he was dressed entirely in black. He turned his head and exhaled a plume of smoke before lowering the cigarette to the floor and grinding it out against the bare planks.

“Spike.”

“One and the same.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Live here, don’t I?”

“Of course.” Buffy sat up in her chair and ran her tongue over her lips. “What time is it?”

Spike shrugged. “Not dawn. Thought you were in Italy.”

“I was.”

Spike nodded and stood. Pulling his Zippo from his pocket, he walked to the window ledge and lit several small candles.

“Wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again.”

“I know.”

“Wasn’t sure I wanted to.”

Spike turned and came back across the room.

“You don’t seem surprised to see me, then,” he said, moving to sit on the edge of the bed.

“I knew you came back,” Buffy said. “And I know you were in Italy.”

“Andrew?”

Buffy nodded.

“Bloody ponce. So how is The Immortal then?”

Buffy shook her head. “Not really your business.”

Spike cocked an eyebrow. “S’pose not,” he said. “But for old time’s sake.”

“Well, if you’re going to play that card so soon: I broke up with him.”

Spike snorted a laugh. “You dumped The Immortal?”

“What’s the big deal?” Buffy asked.

Spike patted his pockets looking for his smokes and laughed again. “Nothing, pet. Bet he must’ve been mightily impressed.”

“I don’t care how he feels.”

Spike smiled. “You’ve no idea, do you? The effect you have. The way you are.”

Buffy sat up a little straighter. “What way am I?”

Spike pulled a Marlboro from its pack and slipped it between his lips. The lighter flickered and then died. He ignored her question, asked his own instead.

“So, what brings you to the city of angels?”

Buffy stood up. She’d forgotten what it was like to have a conversation with Spike: the double talk, the innuendo, casual remarks that cut like glass.

Spike stood, too, blocking her way to the door.

For a second, Buffy was afraid he was going to touch her. Equally afraid that he wasn’t. His eyes narrowed as if he could read her thoughts and then he stepped aside to let her pass.

She turned back at the door. His back was to her and she watched, fascinated, as the smoke curled around his head.

“What?” he said without turning around.

“Nothing,” she said. But that wasn’t true. “I’m glad you’re okay, Spike.”

She watched as he dropped his cigarette, snuffing it out with his toe, and sat back down on the bed.

***

Buffy used her cell to call a cab and stood outside the Hyperion’s gates waiting, her bag at her feet, and wondering why she hadn’t asked Spike the crucial question.

Is Angel alive?

A Yellow cab pulled up to the curb. Buffy reached into her bag and felt around for the keys to Giles’s flat. He kept a small studio apartment on Winston Street and he’d graciously offered Buffy the use of it while she was in L.A.

She gave the cab driver the address and leaned her head back against the seat. He delivered Buffy to her destination without saying a word, nodding curtly when she handed him two twenties and told him to keep the change.

Giles’s flat was clean and devoid of personality except for a small teapot on the counter and a stack of books on the coffee table. Buffy dropped her bag and shut the door behind her.

First: shower.

Second: sleep.

Or maybe a bagel. The thought of food made Buffy’s mouth water. She hadn’t thought about stopping for provisions and she doubted Giles would have anything. She walked into the tiny kitchen and was surprised to discover an envelope with her name on it taped to the fridge.

Buffy, I had Bernie, the super, pick up a few things. At least you’ll be able to make a cup of that dreadful instant coffee. He’s in apartment 2-A, and can be very discreet should you need him. Be careful. Giles.

Buffy smiled. She pulled the handle of the fridge and peered into the appliance: cream, cheese, butter, a loaf of bread, milk, orange juice, six eggs. Her stomach grumbled and Buffy reached for the carton of juice. She opened a couple of cupboard doors until she found a glass and poured herself a drink. Drank. Poured a second glass. Drank that, too.

An hour later, she was clean, had eaten some scrambled eggs and was almost asleep on the couch when it occurred to her that Spike was surely not the only person in Los Angeles who might be able to help her find Angel.

***

By four o’clock, Buffy was back at the Hyperion. Her optimism at being able to find people willing to give her information about Angel, Wolfram and Hart or the battle had diminished. Either her skills as an investigator sucked, or people just didn’t want to spill. She felt disheartened.

She’d ridden the bus, walked endlessly and was only slightly surprised when she gave the taxi driver the address to the Hyperion at the end of a long, fruitless day. It wasn’t as though Spike was any more likely to tell her anything than he’d been last night and it wasn’t as though she was any better prepared to ask, but Buffy had an almost uncontrollable desire to sit with him.

When Buffy thought about her relationship with Spike she thought of two things: the quiet spaces between the words and the angry electricity that crackled between them whenever they touched. Such a contradiction, she thought.

Buffy pushed the door open and stepped into the lobby. The smell was less obvious and it looked as though someone had tidied up; the smear of blood was gone from the wall.

She went up the stairs to his room. His door was closed; he might still be asleep. Buffy hesitated and then twisted the doorknob.

Sure enough, Spike was asleep on the bed, one booted foot on the floor, one arm flung over his eyes. He was shirtless. Buffy moved closer. She didn’t want to disturb him so she sat in the chair next to the bed and waited. He’d be awake soon enough.

***

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” Spike said.

Buffy’s eyes fluttered open. She’d fallen asleep again and her neck hurt.

“What are you doing back here, Buffy?” Spike asked, reaching for his T-shirt which was bunched in a ball at the foot of the bed. Buffy watched, mesmerized, as he pulled the wrinkled garment over his head.

“I don’t know. This is just where I ended up.”

Spike shook his head. “Couldn’t ever stay away, could you?” His voice was mocking.

“I’m not the same person anymore, Spike,” Buffy said dryly.

“Had an epiphany, did you? Saw the light? Came to your senses?” Spike stood and headed for the door. “Never figured you for a quitter.”

Buffy dropped her eyes. “I’m not.”

“Are you coming?”

“Where?”

“You’ll see,” Spike said and left the room.

***

He took her down the stairs, through the lobby, down a hall and through a kitchen piled with dirty dishes. Thankfully the room was dark and Buffy didn’t have to see what insects were making that horrible scuttling noise.

“Sorry about the mess,” Spike muttered. “Maid service has been a little lax.”

He pushed a door open and then they were standing in an alley. The sky was purple, starless.

“It rained that night,” Spike said leaning against the wall opposite the door they had just come through. “We’d made a deal to meet here after we’d all done our parts, played our roles in the puppet show.”

“Spike…”

He pushed himself off the wall and came closer. “What? You don’t want to dance now? Is that it?”

“No, that’s not…”

“I didn’t much want to dance either, come to think of it but then, in the end, I didn’t really have anything to lose,” Spike said.

“I’m sorry,” Buffy said. It seemed that Spike was talking about what had happened back in Sunnydale as much as whatever horrendous thing had happened in this alley. The two events seemed interwoven.

Spike laughed. “I got the Fell Brethren as my little gift. Had to save a baby and all.”

“I don’t understand,” Buffy said.

“No, you wouldn’t. Couldn’t.”

“Okay, ix-nay the double speak, Spike.” Buffy spotted a wooden crate and sat down. “I’m tired. I’ve come a long way. Everything is different. Wes is dead.”

“Ah, yes. Well, war has casualties.”

Spike squatted in front of Buffy looking down the alley for a long moment, before he turned to face her.

“This is where we fought, Buffy. It was glorious, if you go in for that sort of thing. I thought I was getting a bit soft and I thought maybe Peaches was, too. That’s what comes from sitting in cushy chairs, havin’ your Type 0 negative delivered by a saucy secretary. You get complacent, dim-witted.” Spike paused. “You remember? What it’s like to fight, don’t you?”

The way he asked the question made Buffy’s skin prickle.

“But you weren’t here, were you?” Spike asked rhetorically. “Gathering the troops in Italy, that’s what Andrew said. Enjoying the good life. Didn’t trust us over here.”

“Andrew shouldn’t have spoken on my behalf,” Buffy said. “He didn’t have any right.”

“Wasn’t lying though, was he?”

Spike’s eyes were piercing blue, even in the nearly dark alley. Buffy looked away.

“Try to see things from my point of view, Spike.”

“Try to see them from mine,” Spike said. “Course, you never could.”

When Buffy turned back to face Spike again, she discovered his face dangerously close to hers. And then he kissed her.

At first Buffy didn’t react. She was shocked to discover that Spike’s mouth wasn’t familiar, that his lips- lips she had felt against her own hundreds of times- felt strange. He put his hands on either side of her mouth and pulled her closer. She wrapped her hands around his strong wrists and pulled her mouth away from his.

A long, nearly silent moment passed.

“Spike,” Buffy whispered.

Spike took Buffy’s hand and placed it against the hard wall of his chest. There she could feel what she had felt only faintly in his wrists, the steady thrum of his heart.

“Bloody big reward, don’t you think, for killing a few bad guys,” he said, standing and walking away from Buffy.

“Spike, I didn’t know. I had no idea.”

“Would it have made any difference, Buffy?”

It was a question she could not answer, not that Spike was waiting for an answer anyway. Buffy watched him walk down the alley and out into the street.

***

It was too early to call Dawn, but Buffy desperately wanted to hear a familiar voice. It suddenly occurred to her how remote her friends were, spread out across the globe each in a race to outrun their own demons.

No one came through their youth unscathed; Buffy was fairly certain of that. But she wished that things had gone a little better for Willow and Xander, for Tara and Anya, for all the people who had helped her survive.

She tried not to think about Sunnydale very often, but it wasn’t always possible to shut her brain off completely. Some nights her brain set up the Sunnydale slideshow and there was no escape from the images that flashed in her head.

The Master, Darla, the mansion, Faith with a knife in her gut, the Preacher with his thumb in Xander’s eye, her mother making pancakes, her mother lifeless on the couch, Giles pouring tea, Principal Snyder’s crooked little teeth, Angel at the Bronze, Spike above her, Acathla just before she’d driven the sword through Angel’s belly, the tree outside her window, Willow’s dead fish…

“Stop,” Buffy said, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes.

It had been better in Rome. In Rome she could be a different girl, not “one girl in all the world”, just a girl with a mindless job, a little sister, enough money to shop, friends in exotic places.

Here, in L.A., she was reminded of all the ways in which she had failed the people she loved.

Standing in the alley behind the Hyperion, Buffy had felt--nothing. It was just an alley, a dirty passageway where people dumped their junk. Shouldn’t there have been some overwhelming feeling, some energy left lingering that spoke of loss and, maybe, hope?

She couldn’t feel him there and that scared her. If there was one thing Buffy had always been able to count on, it was her ability to sense Angel. Of course, her senses were obviously not in full working order; she hadn’t picked up on the fact that Spike was human.

There were no clues. He was still living like a vampire, sleeping all day in a blackened room, sliding out into the shadowy dusk to do God knows what.

Buffy touched her lips. Now she knew why his kiss was unfamiliar; his lips were warm.

***

Back at Giles’s, Buffy slipped off her boots and pressed the flashing button on the answering machine.

“Where are you?”

Dawn’s voice on Giles’s answering machine. “Um. I’m just about to go to school but I thought I’d call. Maybe you’re…um…busy. I hope in a good way. Call me.”

Buffy listened one more time before erasing the call. She set the coffee maker up, had a hot shower, slipped into loose cotton pants and a tank and turned on the television. She poured a cup of coffee, added cream from the fridge and sat on the couch.

Research had never been her strong suit. When she had the facts, usually provided by Giles with help from the other Scoobies, she could often form a brilliant plan. She could strategize and she could act, but she wasn’t so great with gathering the information necessary to doing what she was actually good at.

So she felt stymied here.

She’d seen the alley where the battle had taken place.

She’d discovered Spike, almost too easily, in the place where she had hoped to find some lingering sign of Angel.

If she were Giles, she’d crack open a book about now and peer into it, looking for answers. If she were Willow, she’d Google something. If she were Xander, she’d go for donuts. Buffy smiled and sipped her coffee.

She’d only been in L.A. a couple of days. It was too early to get discouraged.

***

“Where’d you bury Wes?”

Buffy was waiting for him when he came back to the hotel in the morning.

He looked like shit. She hadn’t seen him in the daylight since he’d worn the Gem of Amara and then she’d been in a battle to the death. Now she could really look at him: the soft skin under his eyes, bruised by too many sleepless nights, the hair curling over his ears, a split lip, blood on his T-shirt.

“Spike, have you been fighting?”

“Sod off, Buffy,” Spike said brushing past her.

She grabbed his sleeve. “Are you okay?”

He shook off her hand and went through the doors into the hotel. Buffy followed. Up the stairs. Down the hall. Into his room. The shower was running, so Buffy sat on the edge of Spike’s bed and waited.

He took his time and when he emerged from the small bathroom, clad only in a towel knotted sloppily at his hip, Buffy recognized him for the first time.

Spike was a scab Buffy just couldn’t seem to stop picking.

***

Spike was implacable.

He’d stood at the bathroom door for a long time and more than once Buffy considered leaving, because leaving is what she should do. Instead, she followed teardrops of water as they traveled over the sinewy muscles in his chest and stomach. Neither said a word.

Then he was on her, the hard length of him pressed against her, insistent. He didn’t kiss her, he just lay there, pinning her to his damp sheets, waiting.

If Buffy closed her eyes she could imagine every single time she had ever been under Spike, astride him, shackled to him, trapped by his blue, blue eyes.

Except Buffy could feel his heart thumping wildly in his chest, feel the warmth of his human breath against her face, the heat he transferred from his body to hers.

His mouth was so pretty.

“Is this what you’re after, Buffy?” he whispered. “Is this the reason you keep coming back here?”

Buffy shook her head.

Spike bent his head lower.

“You’d kiss me back, though. You wouldn’t be able to help yourself. You’d want to know what it was like, how it’d be different, how it’d be the same. You’d want to know if I could still make you scream when you…”

“Stop,” Buffy said pushing against Spike’s shoulders.

Spike rolled off suddenly, dropping the towel to the floor to reveal his smooth pale backside. He reached for a pair of jeans and slid them on. Buffy pushed herself up onto her elbows and watched.

“There’s no one left,” she said quietly. Buffy wanted to touch him, to feel the warmth of him under her hand more than anything.

“So, what? I’m some goddamn consolation prize, is that it?” Spike pulled a T-shirt from a box on the floor and yanked it over his head. “Fuck that.” He sat on the edge of the bed, pulled on yesterday’s socks and worn army boots, lacing them quickly.

“That’s not what I meant,” she said.

“Isn’t it?” Spike said, pausing to light a cigarette before getting off the bed and heading for the door.

“Spike, wait." Buffy stood beside the bed.

Spike stopped, smoke curling around his head.

“If you can’t even ask the bloody question, Buffy…”

Buffy sighed.

“Do you know where he is?”

He turned back to face her, his eyes narrowed and dangerous. He looked every bit the vampire he used to be. For some reason, this comforted Buffy.

“I know I’m asking a lot,” she said.

Spike laughed derisively. He moved away from the door, back into the room, closer.

Buffy took a step back and another, until he had her hemmed into the corner between the window and the bathroom. He leaned into the bathroom and flicked his smoldering cigarette into the open toilet.

He turned back to her. “Don’t know where the wanker is. Don’t much care.”

It suddenly occurred to Buffy that she was shivering. Was it because she had finally managed to ask the question and Spike, the only living person who might be able to help her, couldn’t or wouldn’t? Or was it something else, something that Buffy was not ready to admit to herself?

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, close to her ear. He lifted a finger and traced the smooth curve of her jaw, down her throat, into the little pool between her collar-bones. “You think I’m lying, that I won’t tell you where Angel is out of spite.”

Spike dropped his finger lower, added a couple more, drifted them down between her breasts, lower to her stomach, hooked them into the waistband of her pants and hauled her forward so she was pressed against him, could feel him, hard. She felt charmed, snake-like beneath his fingers.

“I’m certainly petty enough,” he said, just before he kissed her. Spike deepened the kiss, slanting his mouth across hers possessively. He tasted like smoke. His mouth was as talented as ever.

Buffy groaned and she felt Spike’s mouth curl into a smile. He pulled away.

“If I was a betting man, I’d say you’re wet right now.” His voice was low and mean.

Buffy ducked under Spike’s arm and headed for the door.

“Go on, then,” Spike said. He followed her to the door, shouting at her back as she headed down the hall.

“You won’t find him. He doesn’t want to be found,” Spike said.

The last thing Buffy heard before she stepped out of the Hyperion was Spike’s door slamming shut.

***

Buffy woke up with a pounding headache and a mouth full of sawdust. Groaning, she rolled over and reached for the little traveling alarm clock she’d left on the bedside table beside the empty wine glass. It was just past 9 p.m. She’d slept the afternoon and early evening away. At this rate she was never going to re-adjust her body clock.

She lay quietly for a few more moments, careful to keep her head still. It was raining outside. She’d left the patio doors open and the curtain lifted and fell, lifted and fell.

Finally Buffy got up and, slipping through the sliding doors, stepped outside onto the wet balcony. She tilted her face up to the sky, welcomed the cool rain. Soon she was drenched, her skin beaded with wet, her hair hanging in long, lank ropes, her clothes clinging to her.

Lightning snapped across the horizon, illuminating a moody sky. But the tempest outside wasn’t anything compared to how Buffy felt inside.

She’d done everything wrong. Suddenly she wasn’t so sure that coming to L.A. had been the right thing to do. What if Spike was right? What if Angel didn’t want to be found? And, if she lucked out and she did find him, what if he was different?

Was that thunder? Or was someone was banging on her door?

Buffy stepped back into the bedroom and crossed through the room into the living room. Without bothering to look, she undid the chain and pulled open the door.

It was Spike, looking every bit as wet and miserable as she felt. His eyes flashed with grim humour.

“And here I thought wet t-shirt contests were passé.”

Buffy was suddenly conscious of her sodden clothes. She knew they would leave nothing to Spike’s overactive imagination.

He nodded toward her living room.

“Can I come in?”

“No,” Buffy said.

Spike brushed past Buffy. “Don’t really need an invitation. Just being polite.”

“You can’t imagine how much I don’t want to do this right now, Spike,” Buffy said shutting the door after him.

Spike shrugged out of his dripping jacket and tossed it on the back of a wooden chair.

“Wouldn’t say no to a beer.”

“I don’t have any beer.”

Spike nodded and ran his hands through his wet hair.

“Right.”

Buffy went into the bedroom and grabbed a sweater, pulling it on over her wet clothes and clammy skin. “How did you find me?” She started weaving her wet hair into a sloppy braid.

“Followed you.”

Buffy sighed. She wrapped a rubber band around the end of her braid and flipped it over her shoulder. In the mirror her eyes looked bright, feverish. She didn’t want to go back into the living room; she didn’t want to face Spike again.

She started when he appeared behind her, reflected in the dresser mirror.

“Weird, isn’t it?” He said, stepping closer. “First you’re a ghost, a shadow, vapor and then, suddenly, you have substance. You can see yourself and you reckon other people can see you, too.”

He was watching her with those damn eyes and the fact that she was only seeing him in reflection did nothing to dilute the power they had over her.

“You asked me where we buried Wes and I didn’t tell you,” Spike said looking down at his feet, breaking the contact between them. He turned and went back into the front room, Buffy trailing behind him.

“We never found his body.” Spike said. “He went to fight Cyvus Vail. I believe he was successful in killing him, but he didn’t make it. I only know that much because of Ilyria.”

“The God or whatever.”

“Or whatever,” Spike said. “She came to the alley and she told us Wes was dead. And then we fought. The end.”

“Why are you telling me this, Spike?” Buffy asked.

“No reason for you not to know.”

Buffy sagged into the couch. "It's weird to think of him as gone."

"Who told you?"

"I had a letter from Giles but he didn't have any details. He told me about the Black Thorn, but he didn't know anything specific."

Spiked nodded and sat down on the couch next to Buffy, close but not touching. The tension seemed to have drained from the room.

“Ah, details, slippery things, those,” Spike said. He slanted his gaze towards Buffy. “Knowing them won’t change anything, y’know.”

“I know,” she said.

“Well, I’ll leave you be then,” Spike said. “You’ll be wanting out of those wet clothes.”

Buffy couldn’t help a small smile. Spike smirked beguilingly. He took his wet coat off the chair.

“See you around,” Spike said.

“I could make tea,” Buffy said suddenly.

“Yes, I expect you could, Buffy,” Spike said, not unkindly. “But tea isn’t what I want here.”

Buffy pulled at the cuffs of her sweater.

“Look. I’m sorry about earlier. I was--wrong to be so--antagonistic. You bring out the--”

“Worst in you?” Buffy interjected.

“Yes,” Spike said. “And the best.”

“I’m sorry,” Buffy whispered.

“I’m not. You made me human before I ever was, pet. Ironic that now that I am--human I mean--I don’t know how to behave.”

“It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have assumed…”

Spike shook his head.

“Don’t. Let’s just leave it,” Spike said.

***

Buffy showered, dressed and headed out. She wasn’t patrolling, exactly; she was hoping that some innate sense would kick in and lead her somewhere useful. It wasn’t much, but it was all she had.

The rain had cut through the humidity like a knife and the air was cooler now. The streets were wet, puddles reflecting the lights in office towers and, high up, a three-quarter moon. Waxing gibbous, Buffy thought and smiled. Having a werewolf friend certainly increased your knowledge of moon phases.

Buffy stopped for a falafel from a street vendor, chewing thoughtfully as she moved further and further away from the main streets, into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles.

A noise to her left, garbage cans rolling, a cat’s plaintive mewl. Buffy moved closer. Another noise: definitely not a cat.

At the far end of the alley, pressed against a metal fence was a girl. Her fingers were curled around the fence links, her legs wrapped around the hips of a large man, her eyes half-closed. Buffy hesitated. Was this a crime or was this just two people getting each other off? She heard the sound of cloth tearing, a low moan.

Buffy stepped into the alley, hugging the brick walls but moving quickly. She could already feel the welcome and familiar surge of adrenaline rushing along her fingers. She pulled the stake out of her pocket and considered her next move.

To hell with it she thought. She’d bagged a lot of vampires in her day, but it had been so long she might as well take the scenic route. She stopped behind the vampire, whose neck was buried in the crook of his victim’s neck and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, did no one ever tell you it was impolite to eat standing up?”

The vampire shoulder’s stiffened and then, quicker than Buffy would have imagined, he whirled around, landing a solid punch to Buffy’s face. Buffy staggered back and looked up.

“Angel,” the girl behind him said just as Buffy said “Angelus.”

Blood glistened on his fangs and Buffy could clearly see that he was struggling to shed the demon.

“Here, let me help you with that,” Buffy said, driving a round house kick into his midsection.

“Are you crazy!?” The girl stepped away from the fence and rushed to Angel’s side.

Angel held up his hand, leave me alone, and stood up, his face human. Beautiful.

“Let’s go,” he said to the girl. He turned and headed down the alley.

The girl pressed her fingers against her bleeding neck and shot Buffy a withering look before following Angel down the alley and out onto the main street.

For a moment, Buffy was too stunned to move and when she did finally convince her feet to move forward, she was too late to follow them.

***

In the dream the alley was white, suffused with light, pristine.

The sound of a moan pulled her along. There, against a wall of white flowers, was the woman. She seemed to float, Christ-like. Buffy couldn’t stop watching her, her diaphanous dress, her golden hair, her arms outstretched. Buffy walked closer.

And then, there he was. Buffy couldn’t see his face; he was in shadow. He stood in front of the woman, reaching out a hand to palm her breast. Buffy watched, transfixed, as the woman sighed and closed her eyes.

The sound of tearing cloth and the man was between her thighs, her slim calves urging him closer. Heavy breathing, hers. She was perfect, this girl, her throat unblemished, the arch of her back as she fucked him.

Angel, Buffy said in her dream.

The man didn’t turn. He leaned forward and bit into the curve where the woman’s neck met her shoulder.

No! Buffy screamed.

Bliss on the woman’s face, her hips bucking helplessly against the man, her blood soiling her dress, ruining the alley’s white floor, running red around Buffy’s feet.

***

The only other place she knew to look was the only other place she’d ever had any contact with Angel. She knew that the building had been destroyed by an explosion, but Angel’s apartment had been below street level; maybe something of that still remained. Maybe she’d get lucky.

***

She found the sewer access easy enough. Buffy climbed down the ladder into the hole, stepping into a puddle of brackish water.

Buffy stood for a moment waiting for her eyes adjust. She’d only been to Angel’s place a couple times. Both times had been a misery. Still she made her way down the tunnel until she came to another door, which she knew, somehow, would lead his apartment.

She went up the six rungs and pushed against the door. Stuck or wedged shut. She pushed harder. It creaked and then flew open.

Buffy stood in the center of what had once been his apartment. It had been picked over; perhaps Angel had come back and gathered his books and weapons, anything salvageable.

Buffy walked towards what would have been the kitchen. The fridge door hung open; the table was overturned.

There was weird energy in this room. She turned and headed back out into the main room. Other than bricks and some charred remains of furniture, there wasn’t much to see. Across the rubble was the open door to another room. Buffy picked her way through the mess.

The room was empty and Buffy turned to go. In the dark corner she could just make out something on the floor. She walked over and bent down.

Someone was sleeping here. A piece of foam was rolled out on the floor and on top of it, a blanket. When Buffy reached out and touched the blanket’s satiny edge her fingers connected with something hard. She pulled at it and discovered a sketchbook. Her hands began to shake. Still holding the book, she stood up and went to stand in the doorway where the light was marginally better. She flipped it open.

On the first page was a sketch done in pencil: A girl sitting primly on a straight-backed chair, her eyes serene, her pale hair pulled over one shoulder. Buffy flipped to the next page. The same girl, this time leaning against a wall, her head thrown back, her hands clasping the front of her legs. Another: naked girl splayed on a bed, arms outstretched, hips twisted to hide her sex, mouth open, eyes blank. The artist was careful, reverent. The girl: familiar. Buffy brought the book closer, staring at the girl’s carefully composed features, her calm demeanor. She turned the page. There was no mistaking her eyes or the look in them. It was the girl from the alley. Buffy felt as though those eyes were staring straight through her, knew all her secrets.

She closed the book and headed back to the tunnel.

***

She threw the book hard and it smashed against the wall above Spike’s head, hitting his sleeping shoulder on its way to the floor.

“What the hell?” he mumbled, struggling to a sitting position.

“Who is she, Spike?” Buffy walked over to retrieve the book and thrust it in Spike’s face.

“Who is who? What are you goin’ on about?” he rubbed at his eyes and sat back, reaching for the ever ready cigarettes on the chair beside the bed.

“The girl.”

Spike paused to light a cigarette before taking the book from Buffy’s outstretched hand. He opened it, looked quickly through the pages and then shut the book.

“Where’d you get that then?”

“What difference does it make?” she asked. “Who is she?”

Spike inhaled deeply and slid his glance to the left, avoiding Buffy’s face.

“If I told you I didn’t know…”

“I’d say you were a goddamn liar,” Buffy said. “I saw her. I saw them. In an alley.”

“You saw Angel?” Spike asked incredulously.

“Who is the girl, Spike?”

Spike shrugged. “Could be anyone, really.”

“But it’s not anyone. The girl in those sketches, the girl in the alley, the girl Angel was feeding from… same girl.”

Spike smirked.

“Please don’t,” Buffy said quietly.

“Her name’s Nina. She’s a werewolf.”

“Is that why you said he didn’t want to be found? Because of her?”

“I didn’t know he was still with her.”

“With her?”

“Sometimes you are incredibly naïve, you know that?”

“Yes, well I haven’t been alive for two centuries,” she replied sarcastically.

“Go home, Buffy,” Spike said swinging his legs off the bed and striding across the room to stub out his cigarette on the windowsill. “Go patch things up with the Immortal or find some new guy. There’s nothing for you here.”

“Why won’t you help me, Spike?”

Spike narrowed his eyes and moved back across the room.

“Because I know what you’ll find and, really, if you’d just think about it,” he punctuated the words by tapping a finger against her temple, “so do you. He’s only what you think he is in your head. He isn’t noble or even worthy of your obsession.”

“I’m not obsessed.”

Spike laughed derisively. “You always want what you can’t have.”

“Are we just gonna fling platitudes now?” Buffy asked.

“I’m not flinging anything,” he said. He punched at his chest. “I’m alive. I’m mortal. I have a soul and a conscience and a beating heart. Not good enough, though, is it?”

“Spike,” Buffy said, reaching out.

He swatted her hand away. “You think he left Sunnydale to protect you but the truth is he left because he couldn’t have you and soul or not, Angel has what he wants. That’s the truth of it.”

The firm, thin line of Spike’s mouth blurred.

“I saw you in Sunnydale, Buffy. In the crypt with Angel.”

“What?”

“If it were Angel been made human, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. You wouldn’t be beggin’ him to help you find me, would you?”

“You don’t know that,” Buffy said.

Spike shook his head. “Thing is, I do know that. What burns me up is the fact that you don’t.”

Spike stepped closer to her and lowered his voice to a whisper.

“There was a time, Buffy, when I think I might have done anything for you,” he said, reaching out a hand to brush against her cheek. “But not this. I can’t help you with this.”

***

There was only one place to go and that’s where Buffy went. She did her best to stay awake. She looked at every line of the drawings in the book. She turned over every brick looking for some sign of Angel. She ducked under fallen beams and peered into dark corners, but the only indication that he might occasionally use this space was the pallet, the blanket and the book. Finally, fitfully, she slept.

***

“Who in the hell are you?”

The voice wrenched her from sleep. In the gloom, just a few feet from her, was a woman.

“I’m sorry,” Buffy said, scrambling to her feet. “I was waiting for the person who—sleeps here.”

The girl stepped forward. “That’d be me and I don’t know you from Adam. Of course, I don’t know Adam, either.”

“Funny,” Buffy said.

“Is that my book?”

Buffy looked down and realized that she must have fallen asleep holding the sketchbook and she was still clutching it to her chest.

“I’m sorry,” Buffy said, holding out the book. “I thought…”

“Yeah, curious now.”

“I thought you might be someone else.”

“Well, as you can see I am clearly not someone else. I’m me.”

“Nina?” Buffy asked.

Nina was close enough now to reach out and snatch the book away from Buffy.

“Look, I’d love to have tea, but it’s not a great night for that,” the girl said. She walked over to the pallet and reaching down, lifted a shackle attached to a long chain bolted into the wall.

How had Buffy failed to see that?

“You are Nina, right?”

Nina looked at her wristwatch. “For about five more minutes.” She snapped the shackle around her left ankle.

“You’re the girl in the pictures.”

Nina reached for the other shackle and fastened that around her right ankle. She settled comfortably on the makeshift bed and looked up at Buffy.

“I could go with the obvious questions,” Nina said. “How did you find me? Why did you find me. But, really, the most important question is ‘What do you want?’”

“I don’t want anything. I wasn’t looking for you. I thought…”

“I was someone else?” Nina paused thoughtfully. “Yeah, I get that all the time.”

“I should go,” Buffy said taking a step towards the door.

“Probably a good idea,” Nina said reaching for a third shackle. “Can I ask you something before you go?”

“I guess.”

“Why aren’t you even a little curious about why I’m chaining myself to the wall?”

“I knew a werewolf back in Sunnydale.”

“Oz,” Nina said.

Buffy nodded.

Recognition dawned in Nina’s eyes and was quickly replaced with a feral, yellow gleam.

“You’re Buffy,” she said as the change took her.

***

Buffy ate some toast and drank some weak tea. She showered for a long time, washing her hair twice. Then she sat on the couch and dialed Alberto’s number back in Rome.

“Ciao,” she said, when he answered.

“Bella,” he cried happily. “Dawn, your sister. Si! Buffy, how are you? How is Los Angeles?”

“Los Angeles is great, everything’s great, Alberto, but I don’t have a lot of time. May I speak with Dawnie?”

“Si. Of course. She’s standing right beside me.”

“Buffy!” Dawn squealed happily.

“I’m sorry I haven’t called before now,” Buffy said.

“ ‘s okay. I just figured, you know, things were good.” Dawn had lowered her voice to a dramatic whisper even though Buffy knew that Alberto would be standing beside her, hanging on every word. “Is everything okay?”

More than anything Buffy wanted to tell Dawn that everything was not okay, that she wanted to come home, that Spike was human, that Angel may or may not be Angel and was carrying on with a werewolf, that L.A. wasn’t a shiny happy city by the ocean anymore, but a strange and vast labyrinth for which she no longer had a map.

“Everything’s fine, Dawn,” she said instead. “I haven’t found Angel yet but I’m close and then I’ll be home. Are you okay with Alberto for a little while longer?”

“Don’t worry about me, Buffy. Do what you have to do.”

***

Do what you have to do.

In the morning, Nina was human once more. Naked, but human. Buffy was waiting when she woke up.

“How do you do this normally,” Buffy asked, releasing Nina’s bound arm.

“Depends.”

She handed the other woman a t-shirt and some yoga pants and watched while, unashamed, Nina dressed.

“You chain yourself up willingly?”

Nina looked at Buffy curiously. “Didn’t Oz?”

“Yes, of course. I just…”

“How did you know who I was?” Nina asked running her fingers through her tangled hair.

“Spike.”

“That figures. I suppose he’s all noble now that he’s alive.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“How did you know who I was?” Buffy asked.

Nina stared at her blankly.

“You said my name just before you changed last night,” Buffy explained.

“Of course I did,” Nina said.

Buffy opened the bag she’d brought and pulled out a latte and a Danish, handing them to Nina. “Sorry, I didn’t know what you’d want.”

Nina accepted the food. “Is this one of those cases of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?”

Buffy took the lid off her latte and said: “I don’t know. Are we enemies?”

Nina shrugged, biting into her Danish. “I don’t imagine we’ll ever be friends.”

“I guess not.” Buffy sat next to Nina on the pallet. “So what happens now?”

“Usually I sleep,” Nina said.

“That’s not actually what I meant.”

“I know,” Nina said sipping her latte.

The two women fell silent. Nina put her cup down and turned to face Buffy.

“You’re like some mythological creature. You’re larger-than-life, supernatural and a fairy tale princess all rolled into one.” Nina leaned closer. “But you don’t belong here. Not anymore. Look around, Buffy. There’s nothing to come home to.”

“Still, I’m not sure you’re gonna want a Slayer doggin’ you,” Buffy paused. “So to speak.”

Nina smiled. “You’ve got a point.”

***

His eyes were blank. He didn’t speak. One hand rested on the door frame, the other hung at his side. His shirt was open and there was a long, gruesome looking scar running haphazardly from somewhere near his armpit down to his naval. He wasn’t wearing shoes.

He turned and walked back into his apartment.

Buffy stood there, unsure of what she should do. Finally, with more confidence than she actually felt, she followed him, shutting the door behind her.

***

She went down the hall and stopped at an arched entrance to a large room. A television, picture on, sound off, stood in the corner. The windows were shuttered, the narrow slats leaking fractured, but harmless, light.

She settled on the edge of the armchair and stared at the television. It was an old western. John Wayne she thought. He looked capable, commanding on his horse, his kerchief tied smartly around his neck, his gun secure in his holster. All was right in his world.

On the floor beside the chair was a sketchpad. Buffy leaned over and picked it up. More of Angel’s drawings of Nina.

She saw Angel out of the corner of her eye and she stood abruptly, dropping the book to the floor. He’d finished dressing. His face was impassive.

“I had a letter,” she said. The words sounded lame.

Angel remained silent.

“Wes is dead.”

He nodded slowly as if the movement was painful.

“I thought you…might be, too,” Buffy whispered.

“I am,” he said. His eyes were fixed on some spot on the wall.

Buffy took a step closer. “Not to me, Angel,” she said.

A long, excruciating moment passed.

“I’ve been looking for you.”

“I know,” he said.

“Who told you? Nina?”

He leveled his dark, emotionless eyes at her and said: “No one told me. I knew you were in L.A.”

“But Nina must have…”

Angel shook his head. “No.”

“Angel,” Buffy said, her voice breaking, “are you okay?”

“I have to go now.”

“No, wait,” Buffy said. “I’ve come all this way…”

“You’ve come for nothing,” he said and turning he left the room.

***

She set her suitcase on Giles’s bed and started to fold her shirts and pants. Her head was aching, her hands trembling, her stomach clenched around nothing.

When she was done, she ran a bath. She pinned her hair on top of her head, shed her clothes and sank into the water gratefully.

She would go to the hotel and she would say goodbye to Spike and she would go to the airport and get on the first plane out of L.A. She would make up a sweet reunion story to tell Dawn and she would try to get on with her life.

The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach wasn’t unfamiliar; the last time she’d felt like this Angel had broken up with her, had told her flat-out that he didn’t want to share a life with her. Buffy had believed his words, but his eyes had told another story. Today though, she hadn’t even had that reassurance.

***

There were voices in the hotel when she entered. She stood at the bottom of the steps trying to figure out where they were coming from.

She started up the stairs and headed down the hall to Spike’s room. The further down the hall she went, the more distant the sounds. She turned around and went back the way she’d come.

In the middle of the lobby she paused again. She heard a crash and she headed in that direction. She stopped again just before the double doors which led into the industrial kitchen.

“Bugger off.”

Spike.

“Did you tell her about Nina?”

Angel.

“She had the bloody sketches. She fuckin’ saw you in the alley. You looked right at her,” Spike said, his voice angry. “Did you really think she was gonna get back on a plane after that?”

“Why did she come at all?”

“Jesus,” Spike said. “You really aren’t the sharpest knife in the drawer are you?”

There was an ‘ompf’: the distinct sound of a fist hitting flesh.

“Swell, that’s the thanks I get,” Spike wheezed. “She came because of Wesley, you git. She thought you were dead or hurt.”

“Who told her about Wes?”

“Giles told her. She has friends; they talk. Nothing’s changed, Angel. Unlike you, she doesn’t exist in isolation.”

Something crashed to the floor and then it sounded as though someone kicked whatever is was across the room.

“She knows about you?”

“Well I couldn’t very well deny it, could I?” Spike said and there was a pause before he added: “I kissed her.”

“What did you say?” Angel’s voice was low and mean.

“You heard me. I kissed her.”

There was a deadly silence in the other room.

Then Spike’s mocking voice: “Yeah, you could stab me with that knife, Angel, and being mortal and all, it’d hurt like hell. Possibly even do me in. Except who’d be around to remind you of what you gave up? I’m your hair suit, Angel. Self-flagellation wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without me.”

“Fuck!” Angel roared and the sound of his voice cut through Buffy like the knife she imagined he was holding up to Spike at this very moment.

“Look mate,” Spike said reasonably, “she’s a smart girl; she’ll’ve figured it out by now.”

The double doors to the kitchen rattled; someone had smashed something into the wall next to them.

Spike’s wry voice: “Bet that hurt.”

It sounded as though the two men were moving away from the door, maybe heading out back into the alley. Buffy stood up on her tiptoes and looked through the windows into the room. It was empty.

Cautiously, she pushed the doors open and slipped inside. She tiptoed across the room as quickly as she could. The door out into the alley was ajar. She could smell the acrid smoke from one of Spike’s cigarettes.

“I know you’re there, Buffy. He’s gone; you may as well come out.”

Buffy stepped out of the kitchen and into the alley.

“Drink?” Spike said, handing her a bottle of tequila.

Buffy took the bottle. “I guess,” she said, wincing as she took the first swallow.

“You heard?”

She nodded, tipping the bottle once more.

“Right then.”

***

Buffy sat down next to Spike and handed the bottle of golden liquor back to him. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten anything substantial and already she could feel the tequila working its magic in her fingers and along her scalp.

“I feel like we should be playing kitten poker,” she said.

Spike laughed.

“You remember that?”

“I remember everything,” Buffy said softly.

“Not everything, I expect,” Spike said handing back the bottle.

Buffy turned to look at Spike. In the dark alley she could still clearly see the sharp line of his cheek and the vulnerable curve of his lower lip. It was hard not to remember the damage they had done to each other with their words and their hands. Now that he was human it was almost more painful to recall the nasty things he’d whispered in her ear as he’d popped the buttons on her blouse, or slid her pants down her legs. But the fact that he was human didn’t change anything between them; their past would always be a train wreck.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Spike?”

“Tell you what, pet? That he’s an asshole; that he’ll only hurt you in the end? That he’s been shagging another girl-- wolf, whatever,” Spike said snatching the untouched bottle back from Buffy and taking a long swallow.

“No. Why didn’t you tell me you’d seen him; that you knew where he was?”

“Oh. That.”

Buffy stood up and grabbed the bottle from Spike, throwing it across the alley. It smashed against the wall, releasing the stench of agaves.

“Hey! What’d you do that for?” Spike said.

“Because if I drink anymore I’ll puke and if you drink anymore you’ll be useless to me,” Buffy said. “What in the hell is going on?”

Spike smiled humourlessly.

“Before you go thinking you can beat the truth out of me…you can’t, because I honestly don’t know what Angel’s truth is.”

“I could hurt you,” Buffy said seriously.

“And I’d probably like it every bit as much now as I did when I was dead,” Spike said. He paused and then said: “Angel took on the Black Thorn as if it was the last thing he’d ever do because I think he believed that it was the last thing he’d ever do. He’d lost so much already. The only way he could have entered into a battle like this one, on this scale, was if he believed he had nothing left to lose. At the end of the day, we won. But look around you, nothing’s changed.”

“But that’s not true, Spike. Everything’s changed. For one, you’re human.”

Spike dug the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Don’t you get it, love? It was never supposed to be me. I never wanted it to be me.”

“But Angel did,” Buffy whispered.

Spike nodded carefully. “Course he did, because he had something to live for or so he thought. At the end of the day, Angel’s greatest role is martyr. Nothin’ would’ve made the bloody fool happier than if we’d all bought it in this alley that night. But the forces of good were on our side; I don’t know why. At the end, with just me and him and Ilyria still standing, it hardly seemed like a fight we could win.”

“Where was Nina?” She had to know.

“He sent her and her family out of town. Promised to go to them when it was over and it was a promise he actually kept, though I suspect he didn’t think he’d ever really see her again.”

“Does he love her?”

Spike didn’t say anything for a long moment.

“I think that’s probably a question you should ask him,” he said finally.

He pushed himself up onto his feet. “Everything’s black and white when you’re a vamp: you eat, sleep, fuck, fight. Living, as it turns out, has a much muddier complexion. Fucking ironic, really, that I’m smack dab in the middle of you two again.”

He held out his hand to her and she allowed him to pull her to her feet. He gave her a strange smile and said: “Angel and I spent the whole time in Italy arguing over who loved you more, when it was pretty obvious you weren’t even thinking about us. You’d moved on.”

“It sure doesn’t feel that way right now,” Buffy said grimly.

“But you had, hadn’t you?” Spike said. “Gotten away from all this?” He raised his hands and gestured around the dark alley.

“I’m not sure it’s actually possible to get away from all this,” Buffy said gesturing as well, “when you’re The Slayer.”

“But not the one and only Slayer anymore, right?” Spike said, resting his fingertips on her arm, just at the curve of her elbow. “So walking away isn’t quite as impossible as it once was. You could be a normal girl.”

She looked up at him, blinking.

“I’m not going to waste my breath.” He paused. “That saying suddenly has new meaning, doesn’t it? Anyway, I’m not going to waste it telling you that you should go home. I know you won’t. But can I just offer up one word of advice?”

Buffy nodded.

“He’s not the same.”

“That’s actually four words,” Buffy said.

Spike ignored her attempt at levity and continued: “Once, I think, he believed in his chance for redemption, but he doesn’t believe that anymore, not really.”

“Got it,” Buffy said.

Spike let go of Buffy’s arm and walked back into the Hyperion kitchen.

***

Bernie was a tall thin man, with a shock of orange hair and pale green eyes. He came to the door holding small watering can.

“Come in, come in,” he said. “I’m just watering the orchids, poor babies.”

“I’m…”

“Buffy,” Bernie said, shuffling down the narrow hall. “I know. Rupert has told me so much about you.”

“None of it’s true,” Buffy said. She turned the corner and was amazed to find herself in the middle of a room filled with flowers. Every available space had a pot on it and every pot was overflowing with orchids in every conceivable colour. “Wow.”

Bernie beamed with pride. “They say orchids are hard to grow, but they just need a careful hand.”

“This is amazing,” Buffy said.

“But you haven’t come to see my flowers, have you?” Bernie said, gently repositioning one slender arched plant.

“No.”

“What do you need?”

Buffy hesitated, her finger reaching out to touch the silky petal of a pale pink flower.

Bernie ‘tutted’ quietly and rushed across the room, taking Buffy by the arm and leading her away from the spectacular array of prized flowers.

“I need to find out about the battle here, the one involving Wolfram and Hart,” she said.

“You mean the one involving the vampires?”

“Yes.”

Bernie motioned to a chair and he sat once Buffy was settled.

“I know some, I can find out more,” he said.

“It’s just that I lost friends and I need to know what happened.”

“Sometimes there are no answers to the questions,” Bernie said. “You do understand that.”

Buffy nodded. “But I can try.”

“There’s no law against that,” Bernie agreed.

***

There was a brown envelope waiting outside Buffy’s door. She juggled her bag of Indian take-away and bent down to pick it up.

Inside, she set both items down on the counter. She grabbed a diet Coke from the fridge, unpacked the balti and rice and took everything over to the small table. Her stomach rumbled as the smells of ginger and coriander drifted up to her.

Buffy tore at the sealed flap of the envelope and pulled out the contents. A folder stamped “Top Secret” across the company logo of Wolfram and Hart.

Buffy took a mouthful of food and started to read.

***

At shortly past three a.m., Buffy pushed the folder away and stood up. She stretched, folding her body over, grasping her ankles and feeling the grateful release of muscles that had been confined to one position too long.

Her mind was turning over the vast amounts of information contained in the confiscated file. She had realized, as she was reading, just how little she and Angel had told each other about their lives after he’d left Sunnydale. On the rare occasions they did meet, it wasn’t as if they’d had time to give each other an update.

Buffy straightened and twisted left, reaching out with her fingertips.

She needed to work out more. Life in Rome had been too slack. Too much pizza on the piazza and dancing at the disco. Too much daydreaming at work while Alberto fluttered around her with his feather duster and his small, knowing smile.

Yes, she could say that she still had a hand in ‘the big picture.’ Sometimes she found a Potential and she’d help Giles get them all ‘up to speed’, but she didn’t patrol like she used to. She didn’t train like she should. If she were to meet more than one newly risen vamp in a graveyard, Buffy couldn’t say with any degree of confidence that she could stake them without breaking a sweat.

She got down on the floor and stretched her legs out into a wide ‘V’ and then leaned over and grabbed her left foot, pressing her upper torso against her thigh.

“Damn,” she moaned.

She smiled against the pain and leaned over her right leg. She was rewarded with the same stretch and pull of neglected muscle.

Standing, she took the empty take away counters to the trash bin. She’d been here for almost a week now and the bin was almost empty. How had she been surviving? The warm curry in her belly made her feel optimistic.

Having read the files Bernie had pilfered from Wolfram and Hart, Buffy had a better understanding of what had happened in the weeks before and after Angel had come to Sunnydale and given her the amulet.

Those evil lawyer types certainly kept detailed notes.

Every single encounter the firm had had with Angel was present and accounted for from the minute he’d made himself known to them by pushing one of their biggest clients, Russell Winter, from the 34th floor of Winter’s big corporate office right down to the minute he’d slain the dragon.

***

When Buffy got back to Angel’s she went down the narrow passageway between his building and the next and found gloomy shelter beside a gnarled and thorny rose bush which hugged a fence at the back of the property.

The sky was beginning to blush when he appeared from the mouth of the alley. He stopped and wiped at his mouth. In the pre-dawn light he looked feral, dangerous. He peered into the garden and Buffy knew the exact moment he spotted her. She was over her initial shock of having seen him now, but her heart hammered in her chest anyway.

She stepped forward, away from the protection of the bush.

In his black shirt and pants, he looked like a bad boy trying to sneak home after a night of partying.

Buffy walked closer and for one horrible second she wondered if he actually recognized her.

“I know what you want,” he said mildly.

Buffy stopped. She was near enough now to see that his knuckles were bleeding.

Angel looked down at the uncut grass, then up at the sky. The horizon was edged with a smudge of lilac, the exact shade Buffy sometimes put under her eyes to make them look greener.

“What do I want?” she asked quietly.

Angel lifted his hand and licked at his bloody knuckles.

“You want to save me,” he said.

“Do you need to be saved?” Buffy asked.

Angel smiled. It was a smile that Buffy knew all too well. It was a smile that revealed the demon sleeping restlessly, soul or not, inside Angel. Her skin prickled, but she held her ground and Angel’s gaze.

“I don’t need anything,” he hissed.

“Angel.”

“Stop saying my name like that,” he said.

“Like what?”

He leaned closer, his eyes dark and hooded. “Like it means something.”

A back window of the house flew open. Nina appeared. Her hair was sleep tousled and she was wearing a tiny top. She looked beautiful and the sight of her filled Buffy with regret.

“Are you coming in, baby?” she asked.

Angel turned to go.

“I just need to talk to you about Wes. About what happened in the alley. Please,” Buffy said.

***

“Angel,” Nina called again and Buffy felt an unexpected sense of victory wash over her.

Angel looked up at the sky and then reached out to take Buffy’s wrist. He half dragged, half led her to the back door and pushed her inside. Without letting go of her, he pulled her through the kitchen and into the room she had not been in on her last visit.

The room was empty except for a bed and dresser; a closet door hung open revealing a line of neatly hung shirts. There was no sign of Nina’s presence anywhere.

He dropped Buffy’s wrist and she rubbed it absently. He walked over to the windows and lowered the blinds. Pink light leaked in at the edges. He turned back to face her.

“I’m tired,” he said. He unbuttoned his shirt revealing his smooth chest, dissected by the fading scar.

“What happened?” Buffy asked, pointing.

Angel sat on the edge of his bed and untied his shoes, pulling them off one by one: socks, too. “Nothing,” he said.

There was a knock on the bedroom door.

“Angel, can I come in?”

He stood and crossed the room, pulling open the door. Nina had dressed in a hurry and her face was flushed.

“Hello, Nina,” Buffy said.

Nina shot Buffy a look that was part horror and part amusement.

“I’ll be up in a minute,” Angel said to Nina.

“I’ll wait,” Nina said.

Buffy couldn’t help but remember Angel and Riley squaring off in her dorm room. They’d seemed ridiculous to her, but then she’d had more pressing matters to consider with Adam on the loose.

“Nina,” Angel said in a voice Buffy had never heard before. “I’ll be up in a minute.”

Nina chewed at her upper lip for a moment and then she said, “Okay,” and disappeared down the hall. Angel shut the door behind her.

“Maybe I didn’t make it clear before, Buffy,” Angel said. His voice was flat and expressionless.

“No, I got the whole ‘I’m an asshole, leave me alone’ loud and clear,” Buffy said.

Angel smiled grimly. “I was always an asshole.”

“That’s what Spike said.”

“He got the prize. Go crawl back into bed with him,” Angel said.

“Is that what this is about? You’re jealous of Spike?” Buffy said incredulously.

“I just want to be left alone. That’s all.”

“Really,” Buffy said. “Does Nina know that you just want to be left alone?”

Angel’s eyes went blank; his lips thinned into a dangerous line. He shook his head, a silent warning, and headed for the door. Buffy caught him with a hand and called on strength she hadn’t used in weeks to halt him and pull him around.

He reacted instantly, smashing her in the face with his bloody knuckles. She flew back, landing on the bed, bouncing once and rolling over to the other side. She felt the first surge of adrenaline pulse through her veins. Her cheek stung and she smiled because this-- this was better than staring at Angel’s dead eyes.

She cocked her hands and catapulted back across the bed, kicking Angel squarely in the chest. The force of her blow knocked him against the bedroom door, which shuddered on its hinges. He seemed to hang there for a moment, stunned, and then he stepped forward, his hands loose at his sides.

Buffy hit him again, knocking his head back, splitting his lip. He turned to look at her.

“Hit me again,” he said without inflection.

Buffy hesitated.

“Go on,” he said.

Buffy felt her fists unfurl, the fight draining out of her.

“Better still,” Angel said, walking to the bedside table and reaching into the drawer for something, “use this.” He tossed a stake to Buffy.

Buffy stared down at the weapon in her hand as if she had never seen one before. Then she looked up. Angel’s chest was splattered with blood from his split lip. Buffy couldn’t stop staring at the tiny crimson drops dotting his white skin. She barely noticed when he took her wrist, held it up and stepped into the stake’s point.

“Do it,” he hissed.

She shook her head, lifted her eyes to meet his.

“Why?” she asked.

He sighed. Then, pushing her hand out of the way, he pulled her closer and kissed her.

His mouth was slippery slick with his blood. He tasted of copper and earth. She reached for the cut with her tongue, slid along the blunt edge of his teeth, darted into his mouth as though he might seal the way.

She felt his hands in her hair, tilting her head. His mouth was a poem and she shuddered. She felt his hesitation and she knew she shouldn’t, but she lifted her hands and stroked his face, leaned into his body. Some perverse part of her wanted to know, needed to know if she could still affect him.

She slid her hands over his shoulders, over the ridge of his collarbone, down the slope of his chest, skimming carefully over the not quite healed wound.

His tongue was in her mouth. Her hands were pressed against him. And then, his mouth was gone. He stepped back, wiping her kiss and his blood away with the back of his hand. Then, without a word, he left the room.

***

Spike was sprawled outside her apartment door when she got back. She fumbled with her keys and unlocked the door. Spike followed her inside, shutting the door behind him.

“You look like you could use a drink,” he said. He stepped closer, reaching out to tilt her head sideways. “Or a trip to the emergency room.”

Buffy slapped his hand away. “It’s nothing. Nothing happened.”

Spike took a position on the coffee table, leaning close.

“What do you want?” Buffy asked.

“He hit you,” Spike said, stroking his finger against the bruise on Buffy’s cheek.

“I’m okay.” She lifted her eyes and met Spike’s. She understood, suddenly, the saying ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’ because all of Spike was there to see- blindingly, intensely obvious.

“I should go home,” she said.

“You really should, pet.”

“But I can’t,” she said.

“I know.”

Spike reached for her hand and stroked her knuckles with his thumb. For once, he seemed to have nothing to say.

***

Buffy woke up with a start. Spike was asleep in the room’s only chair, his arms flung wide, his jacket folded across his knee. His mouth hung open just a little and Buffy could hear him breathe.

Carefully, Buffy got up from the couch and went into the bathroom. She turned on the shower. She ached all over. She stepped under the spray of water and sighed. She washed and conditioned her hair, squirted shower gel into her hand and rubbed at her skin and then just stood under the warm water.

Maybe the time had finally come to say goodbye.

Maybe Spike was right, had been right all along. Maybe she was just being stubborn. Maybe Angel had fashioned a life for himself that just didn’t include her.

“Are you all right in there?”

Spike at the door. Buffy turned off the water and reached for a towel.

“I’ll be out in a sec,” she called.

Spike was across the room, looking out the big picture window. He turned to look at her as she came out of the bathroom.

“I’m sorry I woke you,” she said.

He nodded. Buffy could see the appraisal in his eyes, the way he looked at the towel she’d wrapped around herself, her dripping hair. “I should go,” he said quietly.

He picked up his jacket and headed for the door.

“Spike--”

He stopped, taking the opportunity to shrug into his jacket. He lifted one scarred eyebrow expectantly.

“I’m grateful to you,” Buffy said.

“You shouldn’t be,” he said.

***

The earliest flight she could get out on didn’t leave until 8 a.m. She booked her ticket and packed her suitcase and sat on the couch stroking the remote, her eyes glued to the Shopping Channel’s advertisements for amber jewellery.

“…this item has actual bugs embedded…”

“…oh, look at that, Jerry.”

“Three easy payments of…”

A quiet knock on the door.

“You’re up then?”

Buffy nodded and walked back to the couch.

“I brought my own beer,” Spike said, kicking the door closed and following Buffy to the sofa.

“Great. All we need is a pizza.”

“Well, at least you’ve still got your sense of humour,” Spike said, popping the tab on a can of Budweiser.

“Yep. Still making with the jokes and merriment,” Buffy said. “I’m leaving in the morning.”

Spike took a long drink. “I figured. Want one?” He held up a can of beer.

“Sure.”

Buffy took the sweating can and held it without opening it.

Spike sat beside Buffy on the couch.

“Look pet, I haven’t been completely honest with you,” Spike said. He reached for the remote and pressed the mute button. “Now you’re going and I just can’t--”

“Can’t what?”

“Let you go without telling you,” he said.

Buffy braced herself. There wasn’t a trace of animosity in Spike’s voice. Maybe, when all was said and done, this was the way it was meant to be.

“I know you have the facts of what happened with Wolfram and Hart,” Spike said, “but I doubt you have the truth.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Buffy said quietly.

“It might.”

***

“I don’t understand,” Buffy said when Spike had parked the bike. She climbed off, pulling off the helmet and fluffing up her hair. “Why would he come here?”

A muscle jumped in Spike’s jaw and he got off the bike, took the helmet from Buffy and headed towards the door.

“Spike,” Buffy called.

He stopped and turned to face her. “It’s complicated.”

Spike went in through the door and Buffy followed him into the Hyperion’s kitchen, down the hall and out into the lobby. It was dark and she picked her way carefully over litter and discarded furniture. The smell was less imposing now. Up the stairs, and then up another flight and then another.

“Down there,” Spike said pointing. “Go on then, get it over with.”

When she started down the hall he said: “We didn’t think you’d ever come back here. We thought you were happy.”

“I was,” Buffy said, looking down the hall and then back at Spike. “What’s down there, Spike?”

Spike inclined his head towards the door. “Go see for yourself.”

***

Buffy stood at the door, her hand trembling. She hauled in a big breath and pushed the door open.

The room was dimly lit. The scrap of light Buffy had seen from under the door came from the television set. The picture was on, the sound barely audible. Buffy took a step closer and let her eyes adjust to the poor light.

“Shut the door.” Angel’s voice, somewhere in the gloom.

Buffy turned and closed the door. She moved further into the room, closer to the television and the direction from which she thought she’d heard Angel’s voice. She stopped when she saw him, sitting on the floor, his back against an ottoman, his face pale and still.

“Spike brought you.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes.” There was no point in denying it.

Angel looked up at her. His face was shadows and narrow passages, his eyes black. He rubbed his jaw, scraped his fingers through his hair and sighed.

“There wasn’t anyone left to demand anything from me anymore,” he said. “I wasn’t anyone’s champion. They were all—dead. The way you look at me--” He paused. “I can’t bear it.” He dropped his gaze to the floor.

“Angel,” she said.

Angel lifted his head. His eyes were filled with remorse.

“You don’t have to be my champion. You don’t have to be anything. I just want you to be okay, that’s all.”

“You’re so young,” he said.

He reached up to touch her face and she instinctively leaned into the curve of his palm.

“Don’t you see?”

“See what?”

“Me? Who I am. Who I’ve always been.”

“I know who you are,” Buffy said quietly.

“No, Buffy, you know who you want me to be.”

“But isn’t that partly who we are?” Buffy asked. “Aren’t we just a reflection of how others see us, of what we do for them?”

Angel thrust a handful of loose photographs into Buffy’s lap. They slid down onto the floor. She glanced down: Cordelia Chase smiled up at her, her glossy hair pulled back in a sleek pony tail.

“What did I do for these people?”

“You loved them.”

“And now they’re gone,” Angel said. He pulled Cordy’s picture off the pile revealing Wesley. “Gone.”

“But I’m not gone,” she whispered.

Angel looked up, met her eyes and said: “You are to me.”

Buffy swallowed carefully.

“I did an impulsive thing, Angel,” she said. “I came to LA without really thinking it through. Then I found Spike and, I admit it, that threw me. I mean, okay, back from the dead, who hasn’t done before, but alive, too. He was all uber-intense and jumpy and he wasn’t interested in helping me find you which, clearly, he could have done just by pointing me--” Buffy pointed up to the ceiling.

Angel closed his eyes. “I really never thought I’d see you again,” he said quietly.

“What was that whole speech about ‘not getting any older’?” Buffy asked.

“It seemed okay to believe it then; better than to think about the possible outcome of the battle ahead of you.” He paused. “I couldn’t lose you. Not again.”

“And see,” Buffy said, “you haven’t.” She reached out and traced the slant of his cheek with her fingers.

***

Spike strapped Buffy’s small Italian suitcase onto the back of his motorcycle with bungee cords and they headed to the airport. They parked and went through the sliding glass doors onto the concourse. He waited while she went through the line to get a new ticket and waited again while she got her boarding pass. Through it all they said nothing.

Spike took Buffy’s hands in his and she let him. She wanted to remember what his hands felt like, warm, his thumb rubbing the smooth flesh between her thumb and forefinger.

“I’m happy for you Spike,” Buffy said, finally. “You might not have wanted it, but I believe—I know—you deserve this. You should believe it, too.”

He smiled and then lifted Buffy’s hands and kissed her palms gently, first one then the other.

“Good bye, Buffy.”

“Good bye, Spike.”

***

She got a black coffee from the Starbucks closest to her gate.

Then she went to the nearest pay phone and called Rome, dumping in quarter after quarter.

“I’m coming home,” she said when the answering machine in Alberto’s flat clicked on.

Then she called Giles collect.

“I’m at the airport,” she said.

“Are you alright, Buffy. You sound--”

“Just tired, honest,” she said. “I just wanted you to know what was going on.”

“Fine, yes.”

“Maybe Dawn and I could come for a visit when the dust settles.”

Giles cleared his throat theatrically. “I assume you mean metaphorical dust.”

“I haven’t dusted a vampire in weeks, Giles. Not sure I could even if I wanted to.”

“Some training perhaps,” Giles suggested. “I can always use a hand with the Potentials.”

“I’ll call you once I’m home and have a chance to catch my breath, okay?”

“And Angel?”

“He’s going to be okay.”

***

Dawnie was waiting at the airport, a huge bouquet of lilies held high, her squeals of delight alerting Buffy, and everyone else, to her whereabouts.

“How did you get here?” Buffy said when she’d disentangled herself from Dawn’s gangly grip.

“Alberto’s outside. He didn’t want to pay for parking. He says it’s too much,” Dawn said breathlessly. “But before we go outside, tell me everything.”

“Later okay. I am so tired.”

“Oh, sure, of course, later,” Dawn said. “But you’ll tell me, right?”

“Everything. I promise.”

***

Buffy was amazed at how much she’d missed her bed. She flung the shutters open and breathed in the air, so different from the air in LA. It was hot, but the heat in Rome was different. It caressed her skin like a bath.

Alberto had dropped them off, kissed them soundly on both cheeks and made Buffy promise to stop buy for cappuccino as soon as she’d recovered from the jet lag.

It was late and Buffy needed to sleep.

***

“Are you awake?”

Buffy rolled over. She rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand and sat up. “Come in.”

“It’s way past noon,” Dawn said. “I brought you some OJ and the mail you missed. I gotta go, but I’ll see you at dinner.” Dawn bent down, the silky curtain of her hair falling forward and brushing against Buffy’s cheek as she kissed her.

Such a simple gesture, a kiss.

And then, out the door and the apartment was silent. Buffy took a long swallow of the orange juice, fresh squeezed and not quite cold. Then she picked up the mail and flipped through it: bills, a post card from Faith checking in and checking up on her. An illegible letter from Xander. A thick vellum envelope with American stamps and no return address.

Buffy slipped her finger under the flap and eased the envelope open. More of the same, heavy paper: two sheets folded in neat thirds.

Dear Buffy,

I’m sorry that I can’t talk to you in person. But I can’t. This is better anyway. If you were still in California, you might want to help and I wouldn’t want that. Just as you didn’t want my help, not on the front line anyway. So, consider this my way of asking you to be my second line- even though I doubt it’ll come to that.

She turned the envelope over and examined the postmark. She should have received this letter weeks ago. If she had she might have never gone to L.A.

I’ve made some powerful enemies. Not surprising, I know. That’s the trouble with having been evil for a century or so; you piss people off. But, this time I have to do something about it. And I’m going to and there may be casualties. I don’t expect to survive. My death, finally, will be a good thing, I think.

I think.

Would we have met again? Maybe. Would we have had a chance together? Maybe.

But we’ll never know.

And that is how I get through these days.

I’ve loved you, Buffy, more than I ever thought it was possible to love someone. I’ve loved you selfishly and foolishly and inadequately and completely.

I’m sorry I couldn’t offer you more.

Be safe.
Angel

***

Buffy leaned out of the window. Someone was cutting watermelon; she could smell the ripe fruit in the air. Across the Tevere, the spires of the Vatican gleamed in the sun. Maybe later, Buffy would visit its peaceful corridors or maybe she’d take Dawn to the Colloseum, as she’d promised when they’d first arrived.

Somewhere in the apartment, her sister was singing along to Green Day. Alberto had invited them for dinner and he’d promised to make his homemade ravioli. Next month she was going to go to England; Giles had promised to put her through her paces. Buffy liked the thought of that.

***

Sometimes she sat by her window. She imagined him, far away, living. Not literally, maybe, but out there in the world fighting. In some far corner of her heart, she acknowledged the respite she knew Nina offered him.

She imagined how things might have been different and acknowledged that, honestly, things had played out just as they should. Perhaps that’s why finding him had been so important. She’d done it for herself as much as she’d done it for him.

Buffy never indulged the ‘what ifs’ for long. Eventually, Dawn would appear at her door and Buffy would smile. She’d put the reminders of her past away and she’d go off with her sister- out into the light.

The End

Story Index
Thoughts

Notes:
Spoilers: everything is fair game…
Summary: Buffy returns to Los Angeles after NFA to look for Angel. B/A, B/S
Rated Strong PG
Note: The Italian was manufactured
here. I apologize for the inaccuracies. Although I have been to Rome, I also depended on other Internet resources for street names and points of interest, just to lend this story an air of authenticity. I have never been to LA…and I suspect it shows.
This story was originally posted as a WIP in my Live Journal. It has since had its ass kicked, hard, by the immensely talented Starlet. It is not the same story. Apologies to those who were expecting something different.