All of This and Nothing

All of This and Nothing

Why now? Why does the sight of someone she hasn’t seen in almost a decade bring her to her knees?

These are the questions she considers, locked in the bathroom stall at Chez Monique, a trendy downtown eatery. Mid-bite, her dinner companion, Willow Rosenberg, had gotten a horrified look on her face, prompting Buffy to ask if there was something wrong with the spinach ravioli.

“Don’t turn around,” Willow had hissed, slouching down in her chair.

“Oh my God,” Buffy said, ducking her head. “Is it Oz? Is he here?”

Willow shook her head.

“Worse,” she’d whispered, her face pale, her eyes emphatic.

“Worse than Oz?” Buffy had asked. “Jesus.”

Willow seemed to be holding her breath and Buffy couldn’t resist a quick glance over her shoulder. The room tilted crazily and Buffy had the strangest feeling she’d staggered through a portal into another dimension, a feeling she was not altogether unfamiliar with. She had no breath and the incredible appetizer of squid ink linguine with garlic roasted prawns threatened to make a return appearance.

“Buffy,” Willow had asked.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” she’d replied and now, fifteen minutes later, she was still here, sitting on the closed toilet seat and craving a cigarette, a habit she’d had for about a minute over five years ago.

“This is just bullshit,” she muttered to herself. “I’m a grown woman, locked in a toilet while my very expensive dinner gets cold.”

She pushed open the stall door and was greeted by her own pale reflection.

“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” she said to herself. “I mean when you decided to come back to L.A. you knew there was a chance that your paths would cross.”

But not now. Not so soon. Soon being a relative term, of course.

The door to the bathroom opened and in the mirror’s eye Buffy saw another blast from her past. The evening was going from the proverbial bad to worse.

“Buffy?” The other woman said her name uncertainly. A question.

Buffy forced a smile to her lips and turned.

“Nina. Wow. I haven’t seen you in…”

“Forever.”

Buffy nodded. “You look…”

Nina shook her head. She joined Buffy at the vanity and opened her beaded handbag. She extracted a tube of lipstick and twisted it open.

“So, I thought you lived in New York now,” Nina said, pausing to reapply her lip colour. “Are you just visiting?”

“No,” Buffy replied. “I moved back.”

Nina mashed her lips together and then erased an imaginary smudge with a finger. She turned to face Buffy and seemed to be considering her next words with great care.

“Look Buffy, I know we hardly know each other and I know that there’s stuff between you and…”

“Please,” Buffy said, “it’s in the past, Nina.”

Nina smiled carefully and held up her hand. A diamond ring winked under the overhead light. “I married him, Buffy.”

*

Her chance encounter with Nina in the bathroom and the tiny glimpse of Angel leaning casually against the bar waiting for his wife to return, had almost sent Buffy scurrying back to New York.

It was a ridiculous and dramatic reaction; she knew that. After all, L.A.’s population was well over three million people. They traveled in significantly different circles. What were the chances that they would see each other again in the immediate future?

Buffy stared at the ceiling, her fingers laced across her stomach. The room was stifling despite a fan which whirred in the corner. Buffy considered briefly going for a run and then dismissed the notion. Instead, she rolled over. Closed her eyes and tried to remember what she’d spent that last ten years trying to forget.

*

She awoke several hours later to the shrill ringing of the phone. She fumbled with the cordless receiver before locating the ‘on’ switch and mumbling ‘Hello.’

“I should hardly have expected you to play hooky so soon.”

“What time is it?”

“Almost 11 a.m.,” Giles said. “Are you ill?”

Buffy pushed herself up in bed and peered over at the alarm clock. “Shit.”

“Well, you needn’t come in today if you’re not feeling up to it,” Giles continued. “But we’re in the corporate world now; surely I don’t have to remind you.”

“It’s not like I was skulking around cemeteries last night, Giles,” Buffy said, massaging the throbbing vein at her temple.

“I should think not,” was the astonished reply. She missed the old Giles. This Giles was, ironically, too stiff and formal.

After offering Giles her assurance that she would be at her desk in the morning, Buffy slipped out of bed and headed for the kitchen where she started a pot of coffee. While the water worked through the coffee machine, she showered and dressed, collected the mail and fed the cat.

She settled with her mug and the mail at the little table by the sliding glass door that led down to the apartment complex’s kidney-shaped pool. The midday heat rose in waves off the water.

Buffy slipped her finger under the flap of the first letter. Phone bill. She tore the envelope in half and set the bill to one side before reaching for another envelope. This was a notice telling her that her subscription to TV Guide was about to expire. Buffy ripped both the notice and the envelope in half and put them on the table, pausing to take a sip of her coffee before reaching for the third envelope.

Definitely not a bill, she thought, as her fingertips grazed the thick vellum. She tuned the envelope over and studied the sender’s handwriting: strong black lines, innocuous and carefully spaced. No return address.

Buffy opened the letter, careful not to tear the envelope. She pulled the single folded sheet made of the same luxurious paper from the envelope.

Please Come to Dinner
June 17
8pm
14 St. Mark’s Place
Xander and Bethany

Buffy smiled. Xander and Bethany. Happily married and boffing like rabbits ten years later. And just like Bethany to be so formal, too. Xander would be just as likely to invite everyone over for beer and pizza and the evening would be every bit as much fun as this night would be. Bethany’s razor-sharp sense of humour never failed to draw laughter from the table and the food would be scrumptious.

Stretching, Buffy reached down to tickle SD’s ears. The cat meowed plaintively and twined around Buffy’s bare legs.

She needed a really good bottle of wine and a fabulous dress.

*

Buffy slipped out of the taxi and headed up the sidewalk towards Xander and Bethany’s house, a sweet little bungalow tucked along a canyon road.

The sky was purple: a combination of sunset, smog and residual cityscape lights.

Buffy smoothed her pale lavender dress and adjusted the satin bow on the bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau before ringing the doorbell.

She heard a short burst of laughter and could feel the warmth of knowing she was about to spend an evening with some of her dearest and oldest friends.

The door swung open and Xander’s cheerful face appeared.

“It’s Buffy,” he called over his shoulder before reaching for her hand and drawing her into the house, closing the door behind them. “You look terrific.”

“So do you,” she said, reaching up to touch his cheek. It was strange, but Buffy could barely remember what Xander looked like before he’d lost his eye. Modern science could have given him a life-like glass eye, but Xander had opted to stay with the patch. Bethany liked it because it made him look, he recounted, “like a swash-buckling pirate and pirates were hot.” Thank you, Mr. Depp.

“Come on,” Xander said, taking the bottle from her and leading her down the hall. “Everyone’s in the kitchen.”

Everyone turned out to be Willow and Andrew, an unlikely combination of people and Buffy’s closest friends in the world.

“You made it,” Bethany said, smiling.

“You invited me,” Buffy replied, accepting the glass of wine Xander handed to her. She lifted her glass in a toast and took a sip.

*

Three courses and four bottles of wine later, the gathered friends sprawled across various couches and chairs in the living room reminiscing about the past.

“He absolutely told me that,” Andrew said, laughing.

“No way,” Xander said.

“Spike likes blooming onions?” Willow asked again.

“Yes!” Andrew and Buffy said simultaneously and then giggled.

“Bizarre.”

“It’s not anymore bizarre than anything else that happened back then,” Bethany said, placing a tray of steaming coffees on the ottoman. Although she’d met Xander in L.A. and had known nothing about Sunnydale other than some freak natural disaster had sucked it into the earth, Xander had filled her in on the whole phenomenon of the Hellmouth.

A small comfortable silence fell over the group.

“We are, after all, talking about a vampire.”

“Not anymore,” Buffy said quietly.

“Yes, all the vampires have been neutered,” Willow said happily. “Like little puppies: all bark, no bite.”

“Willow said you saw Angel,” Bethany said, handing out coffee mugs.

Willow met Buffy’s eyes guiltily.

“I saw Nina up close and personal; I saw Angel from a safe distance,” she said. “Nina looks amazing.”

“She’s a little on the needy side,” Xander said.

“Xander,” Buffy cautioned, “it’s okay.”

“How’s Dawn?” Andrew asked suddenly, sensing the need for a change in topic.

The awkward moment passed.

*

Well past midnight there were kisses all around at the door. Andrew, Willow and Buffy shared a cab back to the heart of the city, a ride spent in companionable silence punctuated by sudden bursts of laughter brought on by remembered snippets of earlier conversations.

Andrew got out first, leaning back into the taxi to kiss both Buffy and Willow.

“Let’s do lunch,” he called as the taxi moved away from the curb.

Buffy leaned her head back against the seat of the cab. The Los Angeles streets, still vibrant with life, slipped by the window. Despite several years of living in Manhattan, L.A. still surprised her with its vastness and the juxtaposition of palm trees and sky scrapers.

“I’m sorry about tonight,” Willow said and Buffy turned her head away from the street and toward her friend. “Telling Xander and Bethany about seeing Angel.”

Buffy reached over and took Willow’s hand.

“Why didn’t you tell me he’d married her?” Buffy asked, regretting the question as soon as it left her mouth.

“I just…I didn’t know how to tell you,” Willow said. “I figured that what you didn’t know, couldn’t hurt you. You weren’t here and…”

Buffy turns her face back to the passing streetscape.

“Buffy?”

“Mmmm.”

“He’s moved on; so should you.”

“Moving as we speak,” Buffy said, her eyes blurring.

*

Almost ten years ago, Angel had faced a pretty bleak choice. Take on the evil center of a supremely evil corporation of which he was the head or give up was essentially human about himself: his hope for the future.

He’d weighed all the odds and they hadn’t been in his favour. But it hardly mattered. Cordy was gone. So was Fred. Wolfram and Hart had split apart at the seams revealing its slimy but vulnerable underbelly.

So he’d formed a plan and he offered the remaining members of his team a role, calling in favours from Lindsay and appealing to Illyria’s growing fascination with humankind.

In the end, in a city flowing with blood, alive with fire and screaming, only he and Spike and Illyria remained. And utterly beyond his comprehension, they were human. There they stood: the three people with the least to live for, alive.

*

Going to Italy hadn’t been his first thought or even his second. First he’d found the fallen members of his team: Gunn, Wes, Lorne, Lindsay and he’d buried them, murmuring prayers he hadn’t believed in or forgotten in almost two centuries.

Then he’d stuck around helping to clean up the mess he’d caused. He and Spike had worked tirelessly, restoring and recreating the city one block at a time.

After a few weeks, Spike had looked at Angel and said: “I’m going if you’re not.”

And Angel had nodded and let him go.

*

When Nina returned to L.A. she found a much changed man. But of course she was changed, too. The defeat of the Circle of the Black Thorn had, it seemed, rendered all the half-breed demons null and void. Essentially vampires and werewolves, any demon with human blood, became wholly human again. It was the last thing he’d expected and he couldn’t even say for sure it was something that he wanted. He didn’t know how to be human.

He couldn’t say that he was altogether surprised when Buffy arrived in L.A.. He knew that once Spike got to her it would only be a matter of time until he spilled the beans and ultimately she’d have to see for herself.

She called him from the airport. He hadn’t expected anything to have changed between them and he was right. As soon as he saw her from his perch on the barstool at a local dive, he was lost. That’s why he’d invited Nina. No point in making this more difficult than it already was.

He felt the fragile bones beneath her skin, smelled the sunshine in her hair and knew, just knew what he’d always known. She was the one.

And his penance would be that he could never have her.

*

Over beer they exchanged superficial information and then, right on cue, before Angel had an opportunity to linger over the face he’d dreamed about nightly since he’d first seen her, Nina walked into the bar and laid her claim to him.

Angel made awkward introductions. Buffy’s smile faltered, but held. She declined another drink, said she had to be going, gathered her bag. Reached across the table to shake Nina’s hand.

And it was all wrong. Every minute of it. But Angel walked her to the curb, helped her hail a cab and handed her into the back seat like she was a friend he’d be seeing next week.

Later, not for the first time, he made love to Nina and after she’d fallen asleep, he remembered the story of the vampire and the Slayer.

*

Giles had returned to L.A. to chronicle the battle between Wolfram and Hart’s upstart employees and the Circle of the Black Thorn. The problem was that there was hardly anyone left at Wolfram and Hart and the few who did remain refused to speak of the event. He’d had no choice but to hunker down and piece together the events, one grim detail at a time.

When Buffy suddenly tired of New York City, he’d offered her a position doing research with money from the Watcher’s Council.

Giles had spent the last ten or so years keeping tabs on his former charge from a safe distance. Letting go had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done, but he’d done it. Left her to her own devices in Rome, closed his ears against the rumours that Spike had made a not altogether unexpected appearance in Italy, welcomed Buffy in England for a brief, superficial visit where she had announced a return stateside. Crossed his fingers that she would settle down and get on with the business of living now that she actually had a life to live.

In between transcontinental visits, there were short chatty e-mails and occasional phone calls, but Giles had always felt as though Buffy wasn’t happy. And even that wasn’t exactly it. It was as if Buffy was longing for something that not even she was sure existed.

All the fatherly advice in the world wasn’t going to make this gaping wound heal.

*

Giles’s idea of a research company was storefront office space on Bay Shore Boulevard. It was hardly corporate, but Buffy didn’t mind the work. At least it was subject matter with which she was intimately familiar.

“Take a look at this,” Giles said handing Buffy an open folder.

Buffy trailed a finger down the list of names.

“That’s like a who’s who of evil,” she said, peeling back the plastic tab on her Starbuck’s frappuccino.

“I should think it is,” Giles agreed. “And they took out every one of the bastards.”

Buffy shrugged.

“And Spike didn’t tell you anything?”

“You already asked me that question and if I’m not mistaken I said, ‘no’.”

“I don’t mean to pry…”

“Then don’t,” Buffy said.

“But, what in the blazes did you two talk about?” Giles said, ignoring her.

“Stuff. We talked about stuff, Giles,” Buffy said. “I thought he was dead. He was dead.”

Giles picked up the file folder and crossed the room to his own desk. “Yes, I know he was dead and then suddenly he showed up…”

“As a ghost.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t forget the part where he was a ghost who couldn’t call me to tell me that he was a ghost,” Buffy added.

“It was quite some time ago, Buffy.”

“I’m still sulking. A girl’s allowed to sulk, isn’t she?”

Giles smiled. “Indeed.”

Buffy opened her laptop and moved the curser to check her e-mail. She scanned through the items as they loaded into the mail program, deleting junk mail as she went.

“Perhaps you should make contact with Angel,” Giles said from across the room.

Buffy’s eyes left the computer monitor and searched him out.

“Have you not heard a word I’ve been saying to you these last few weeks?”

“It’s been years, Buffy.”

“I’m perfectly aware of how long it’s been, Giles,” she replied, returning her gaze to her computer screen. “You’re just going to have to find some other way to cross your T’s and dot your I’s.”

“Sooner or later…”

“Try sooner,” Buffy mumbled around another mouthful of her designer coffee.

“What was that?”

“Sooner. I saw him.”

“You saw Angel?”

“That is whom we’re talking about, isn’t it? Tall, broody former vampire?”

Giles set the folder down on his desk and returned to stand in front of Buffy.

“How did he seem?”

“Well, from my vantage point, which was from under my armpit across a crowded restaurant, he looked good. The same,” Buffy said. “I got a better look at Nina.”

“Nina?”

“His wife.”

“Oh dear,” Giles said, sitting on the corner of Buffy’s desk.

“You didn’t know?”

Giles shook his head.

“How could you not know?” Buffy asked. “You’re research guy. Geesh, you’ve spent the last six months documenting Wolfram and Hart and the Black Thorn and all that crap.”

“Angel’s personal life has never come up,” Giles said. “Spike didn’t tell you?”

“Not a word.”

“Oh dear,” Giles murmured.

“Look,” Buffy said, closing her laptop. “It’s not as if he doesn’t have a right to go on with his life. I’m happy for him. Really.”

“Of course,” Giles said.

“A long time ago I told him I wasn’t ready. I told him I was,” Buffy paused, “never mind. The point is Angel and I weren’t ever in the same place at the same time. That doesn’t mean he can’t be happy. I want him to be happy.”

Giles stood and, removing a handkerchief from his pants pocket, began to polish his glasses. The gesture was so familiar that Buffy felt tears prick her eyes and she looked back down at her computer again.

*

Willow owned a little magic shop on Vine. It catered, mostly, to tourists although she did stock the more serious accruements for authentic witches and warlocks.

On Tuesday nights she had an open house for anyone who might be like-minded when it came to the dark arts. She was just putting the finishing touches on a tray of cheese and crackers when the bell over her door tinkled.

Slipping out from behind the wall that separated the store from the office, Willow’s smile faded.

“Hello, Willow,” Angel said.

Willow slid her gaze up to Angel’s handsome face. He’d aged, it was true, but he was still beautiful.

“Did you need some toad eyes or something?” Willow asked, trying to keep her voice neutral.

“No.”

“A book on the Dark Arts?”

Angel shook his head.

“Just passing by?” Willow said hopefully.

“Where is she?” Angel asked.

Willow folded her arms. “You don’t need me to tell you that, Angel. If you really wanted to find her you could. She’s not hiding.”

“Her number’s unlisted.”

“What- your detection skills disappear along with your appetite for blood?”

“I just thought…”

“What? What did you think? That I’d make it easy for you to break her heart again?”

“I…” Angel stopped. “I’m not going to break her heart. I just –want to see her.”

“See her and what? Tell her how happily married you are? Hey, maybe you can show her some wedding photos.”

Angel pursed his lips and took a step back. “I’m sorry…I wasn’t…”

“Thinking? No, I guess not.” Willow leaned forward. “I was always on your side, Angel. I always believed that someday you two would work it out, but then you married someone else.”

Angel reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “If Buffy wants to see me, this is how she can contact me.”

“Does Nina know you’re here?”

“Yes,” Angel said.

Willow took the card.

*

After a while, Buffy stopped looking for him on every street corner. She stopped expecting to see him materialize in the line at Starbucks or the movie theatre or the deli. She didn’t know whether he’d actually seen her in the restaurant, but she couldn’t imagine Nina keeping the meeting from Angel. She wouldn’t have, if she’d been in Nina’s place.

She was lulled by her life, by the work she did with Giles, by her very normal routine: sleeping, eating, exercising, socializing with Willow and Xander. As days melted into weeks, she felt more and more like seeing Angel had been some sort of dream. The image of him slipped away, no more tangible than the memories she had of him from when she was just a girl.

Of course, given that she had never been “just a girl,” Buffy should have known to expect the unexpected.

*

“What about this one?” Dawn held up a colourful scarf with a pretty fringe.

Buffy ran her finger along the smooth cloth. “Too busy.”

“You’re turning into a frump, Buffy,” Dawn said.

“Am not,” Buffy groused hugging her sister’s skinny shoulders. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“England is great, but I really needed a break from the studying. Who knew becoming a Watcher would be such an ordeal.”

Buffy laughed. “Did you really think it was going to be easy?”

Dawn shrugged. “Easier than this, I guess.”

“You should take advantage of Giles while you’re here,” Buffy said. “You know, ask him stuff. He knows everything about…”

“Everything. I know. Maybe we could go for dinner. I’ll spare you from having to sit through it and everything.”

“That’s sweet…” Buffy stopped mid sentence. Across the street, speaking into a cell phone, stood Angel.

Dawn followed her sister’s gaze. “Is that Angel? Oh my God!” And before Buffy could stop her, Dawn started across the street.

*

Angel’s face showed no sign of recognition as Dawn parked herself in front of him.

“I’ll have to get back to you,” he said into his cell before snapping it shut.

“Can I…” he paused. “Dawn?”

“One and the same.” She threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. Angel had no choice but to hug her back, scanning the street as he did.

“She’s across the street,” Dawn said, stepping back from Angel.

His eyes found Buffy in an instant.

“How is she?”

“Right now? Pissed off that I’m over here talking to you,” Dawn said.

Angel rubbed his chin and looked down at Buffy’s sister.

“Come say hello,” Dawn urged.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Don’t you want to?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Come on then. You might as well get it over with.”

Angel let Dawn lead him back across the street where Buffy stood, the hand holding the colourful scarf limp at her side.

*

Buffy’s first reaction upon seeing Angel was to run. She watched, horrified, as Dawn crossed the street to the other side and threw her arms around Angel. She felt her stomach flip-flop uneasily as Dawn crossed back to her side of the street, Angel in tow.

“Look who it is,” Dawn announced needlessly.

Buffy and Angel stood silently on the pavement eyeing each other cautiously.

“Let’s have lunch,” Dawn said.

Buffy shifted her eyes from Angel to her sister. Surely to God Dawn understood how impossible it was for her and Angel to share any time together. Well, impossible for her at any rate.

“I’m sure Angel…” Buffy started to say just as Angel said “I’d like that.”

Oh God.

Dawn set off down the street in search of someplace to eat; Buffy and Angel trailed behind.

Two blocks away, Dawn found a little Irish pub and they stepped into its cool, dark depths.

“I’m just going to go to the bathroom,” she announced, leaving her sister and Angel alone. “Order me a pint, Buffy.”

The waiter, a red-faced man with thick black hair arrived at their table and Buffy ordered Dawn’s beer and a glass of wine for herself. Angel ordered a pint of Guinness.

They sat silently, waiting for their drinks and Dawn’s return.

*

The drinks arrived first and Buffy sipped her wine gratefully. It was ridiculous that she couldn’t even make small talk with this man, someone with whom she had shared so much. Everything, really. But Buffy felt sure that if she opened her mouth her heart would spill out and she couldn’t let that happen. She weighed her options.

“So, you saw Nina,” Angel said, his voice quiet, his eyes blank.

Buffy fingered the rim of her wineglass. “I did.”

“You didn’t say hi to me though,” he said.

“I didn’t. No.”

“Why not?”

Buffy shook her head.

Surely he wasn’t asking her to explain the reasons why she hadn’t even been able to come out of the bathroom until Willow had assured her that Nina and Angel had left the restaurant. Surely he wasn’t expecting her to congratulate him on his nuptials, his happy life. To sit here beside him, so close she could smell his skin, (warm, human skin) and act like being in this booth having a drink was in any way normal was incomprehensible.

“Never mind,” he said. “Stupid question. If the situation were reversed…”

“But it’s not, is it Angel?” Buffy said, cutting him off.

“No, I guess it isn’t.”

“And you want me to be okay with that, don’t you? You want to know….”

“Buffy,” Angel said, interrupting her and placing his hand on her forearm. “I don’t know what I want. I just know…”

“What? What do you know, Angel?”

Angel shook his head.

“I know that I mi…”

“Don’t say it. Don’t you dare say it,” Buffy said.

Dawn suddenly appeared and pushed her way into the booth, reaching for her beer.

“What are you guys talking about?”

*

When Nina came home from work, she found Angel sitting at his desk, fingers tented under his chin, staring into space.

She leaned down and kissed his temple.

“How was your day?” she asked.

“Good,” he said, dropping his hands to the desk and shifting some papers.

“What did you do?”

Angel hesitated. Should he tell Nina that he had run into Buffy on the street? They’d built their relationship based on honesty, well, as much honesty as Angel was prepared to give. He couldn’t be honest about everything. So, while Nina knew that Angel was a “recovering” vampire (as she liked to joke) she didn’t know every single detail about his time as The Scourge of Europe. While Nina knew that Buffy had been an important part of his re-entrance to the land of the living, she didn’t know that she’d also been responsible for the loss of his soul or that she’d sent him to hell. There were some things that Angel just didn’t want to share. Couldn’t share.

“Same old,” Angel said. “Oh, I met with the plumber. He’ll fix that…” Angel stopped talking.

More than anything he’d wanted to be human. He’d wasted his chance the first time around and when the Shanshu Prophecy had been dangled like the proverbial carrot before him, he’d clung to it as though it were a lifeline. All he could think about was that someday he’d have something to offer Buffy; the means to take her into the light. But, somehow, it hadn’t worked out that way. Their missions had driven them apart and they hadn’t been able to find their way back to each other.

Now that he was human and had to deal with the things that other humans had to deal with, (death, taxes and the plumber) Angel wasn’t quite so enamored. It was ridiculous.

“You know, I think I’m going to go out tonight,” Angel said. “Do you mind?”

Nina smiled and touched Angel’s cheek with her knuckle. “Of course not.” She was used to Angel’s occasional broodiness, his need to be alone to contemplate his past, their future.

“I won’t be late,” he said, kissing his wife on the cheek.

*

He sat in his parked car for an hour before he made it to the front door of Buffy’s building. It was security locked, but Dawn had given him the entrance code before she’d flown back to England. Thank God for Dawn: still too young to see his relationship with Buffy as anything but romantic, too naïve to understand that he was married and not free to pursue any kind of relationship with her sister.

Spike had been right all along.

You're not friends. You'll never be friends. You'll be in love till it kills you both. You'll fight, and you'll shag, and you'll hate each other till it makes you quiver, but you'll never be friends. Love isn't brains, children, it's blood...blood screaming inside you to work its will.

He entered the numbers Dawn had given him into the keypad and pulled open the door when it started to buzz. She was on the main level, at the back and Angel started down the hall. The building smelled of chlorine and mold, but the walls had been newly painted. Outside her door Angel paused again.

Shit.

For a moment Angel closed his eyes and pictured Nina. Nina returned, wholly human, to L.A. after the fight with the Black Thorn; Nina warm and rumpled in his bed, Nina on the day he married her, a vision. His wife.

Angel knocked on Buffy’s door.

*

Buffy glanced up at the clock. She wasn’t expecting anyone, but Willow might have decided to drop by for pizza and a movie.

Stretching, Buffy moved away from the table and the stack of files she’d been going over. Giles was relentless in his efforts to piece together Wolfram and Hart’s involvement with the Black Thorn. Buffy wasn’t nearly as intrigued by the whole notion of evil anymore, (been there, done that) but he paid her to help him look and so she looked.

She didn’t bother with the peephole and so the sight of Angel standing outside her door was, understatement of the year, the last thing she’d expected.

“Hi,” he said.

“How did you…Never mind. Dawn told you, right?”

Angel smiled. It was a smile Buffy had never expected to see again and it almost undid her.

Buffy waited. She wasn’t sure what Angel expected from her. She wasn’t sure what she was prepared to give.

“Can I come in?”

“You don’t need an invitation anymore, Angel,” Buffy said.

“I kind of do.”

Buffy stepped aside. “Come in then,” she said.

Angel stepped into Buffy’s apartment and she closed the door behind him. Already she knew this was a horrible mistake. Despite the fact that everything had changed between them (she was no longer ‘the’ Slayer; he was no longer a vampire) having him here, so close, was harder than she could have ever imagined.

“This is nice,” Angel said looking out the patio doors to the pool.

Buffy tried to see the small, bland apartment through his eyes. She’d never intended to stay here and so the space was devoid of personality. Or maybe it went deeper than that; maybe she just hadn’t figured out who she wanted to be yet. With Angel standing there, the room seemed small and colourless. Even when he’d lived underground, his space had always been filled with art and antiques and sumptuous materials.

“I’m sure you didn’t come here to check out where I was living,” Buffy said. “Plus, you’re a terrible liar; this place is anything but nice.”

“Well, you haven’t been here that long…”

“Angel, please…the small talk is…”

“I’m sorry. Now that I’m here, I’m not sure…”

“What you came for?”

“No. I know what I came for.”

Before she could react, Angel had crossed the room and taken her by her shoulders. He bent his head to hers and kissed her full on the mouth ignoring her resistance, her stiff back and tight lips, her hands pushing against his chest. He slid his hands up her shoulders, along her trembling jaw, tilting her head to allow himself better access.

“Buffy,” he murmured against her mouth.

Her name, whispered against her lips, seemed to undo her and she surrendered to his mouth.

Her acquiescence took him by surprise and he pulled away, but she reached up and lowered his mouth back to hers. She wound her arms around his neck and found herself lifted from the floor, Angel’s arms tight around her waist. When her back hit the wall she stopped kissing him.

“God. Oh God,” she moaned. “Stop, Angel, you have to stop.”

Angel met her lips one more time, groaning against her mouth.

“Please,” she said.

Angel lowered her to the ground and stepped back. He watched as Buffy touched her fingers to her mouth. It nearly broke his heart to see that her fingers were trembling.

“Buffy,” he said.

“You should go, Angel.”

“I don’t…we need to talk, Buffy.”

“Talk?” Buffy said. “I don’t have anything to say to you.”

“We need to find a way to co-exist.”

Buffy laughed: a sharp, unflattering bark. “Is that what you call this? Finding a way to co-exist? I think L.A. is big enough for both of us.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Buffy stepped around Angel and crossed the room to the fridge. She yanked open the door and reached for a bottle of wine. She picked a tumbler off the dish drainer and poured herself some, taking a huge gulp. When she looked back to Angel he had turned to face her, his face dark.

“You made your choice. You made it a long time ago,” Buffy said quietly. “I didn’t come to L.A. to get in between you and Nina. I didn’t even know that you married her. I didn’t…” Buffy’s throat closed. “I came here to be with my friends, to help Giles…”

“And you never thought…”

“That we’d meet? Date?” Buffy laughed again, but she could feel the tears stinging her eyes. “When we met that day in the bar, you remember, I hoped….I don’t know. Everything was so crazy. You were human, Angel. Everything I ever wanted seemed…there…waiting for us. And then Nina came to the bar and I knew that whatever was between us was gone.”

Angel took a step forward. “No, Buffy, not gone.”

“But you married her.”

“Yes. I did.”

“That isn’t something you can just undo.”

“No,” he acknowledged quietly. “It’s not.”

“Please, Angel, just go.”

*

She didn’t break down until Willow was standing at her apartment door. When she saw her friend she could no longer hold back the sobs which had been gathering like a storm in her throat.

“It’s Angel, right?” Willow said, leading her friend to the couch and patting her hand carefully. “I didn’t tell him where you were, I swear.”

“No, we saw him, Dawn and I…” Buffy stopped to blow her nose. “Wait, you saw him?”

“He saw me. He came to the store,” Willow explained. “He wanted to know how he could find you. It was just after we saw him in the restaurant. Should I have told you this?”

“I don’t know,” Buffy said, grabbing another Kleenex. “I was sure this was all in the past.”

“The past can sometimes bite you in the ass,” Willow said sadly.

“We should watch a chick flick and eat ice cream,” sniffed Buffy.

Willow reached into her bag. “’13 Going on 30’ or ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’?”

*

In the blue-black of the room, he reached for her, his hand finding her full breast, the swell of her hip. He pulled her closer, stroking her legs open with his hand, finding the warm juncture of her thighs, the wet heat.

She arched into him, her hair spilling golden across the pillow, her eyes shot through with desire.

He couldn’t look at her, though. He slid his forearm underneath her and rolled her over, traced his fingers along the curve of her spine, up over the swell of her ass, down the back of her thigh and she sighed against his touch.

For the first time since he’d become human he had the urge to bite and he leaned close to her shoulder, reached out for her dewy skin with his tongue. She turned her head to look back at him and he hesitated, just a moment, before he let his face morph and he sank sharp fangs into her neck, semen spilling across her back as he came.

“Jesus,” Angel moaned, his eyes snapping open. Nina was silent beside him, sleeping peacefully, unaware of his dreams.

Angel rolled away from his wife and stared out at the sky. He was still very much a creature of the night and the stars beckoned to him. With a backwards glance over his shoulder he slipped out of bed and pulled on the pants he’d left discarded on the floor when he’d crawled into bed earlier.

Nina moaned and stretched a hand out to the empty place Angel had vacated. Angel felt a twinge of regret. She looked so vulnerable sleeping there, her hand flung open as if waiting to catch something soft against its tender palm. No matter what choice he made, someone was going to get hurt.

*

Buffy switched her desk light on and glanced over at Giles’s empty desk. He’d gone off to London to do some work in the Watcher’s library. The Internet was great, but you couldn’t Google every demon known to man (not to mention the ones that weren’t known.)

It was a gray day. The sky seemed ready to split apart from the weight of accumulating rain and Buffy would have liked nothing better than to stay at home. She would have, too, if she hadn’t forgotten her laptop.

She unplugged her computer and slipped it into her bag, winding the power cords she needed into a neat coil and slipping them into the zippered front compartment.

“Buffy.”

Buffy felt her heart sink. She turned around. Angel stood just inside the door to the office, his face shadowed and strange.

“I know you think my feelings for you have changed,” he said. He took a step towards her. “I know you think I…”

“Stop, Angel. Just stop. You don’t know what I think. How could you? We haven’t spoken to each other in almost ten years. You’re making assumptions and you shouldn’t.”

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you, Buffy.”

“That’s lame, Angel,” Buffy said, the beginnings of anger curling through her body like a lungful of acrid smoke. “I suppose now you’re going to tell me that things with Nina aren’t working out, that you don’t even sleep with her anymore.”

Angel took another step closer. Another. Suddenly he was close enough to touch her and Buffy backed up, the desk halting her escape.

“No, Buffy, that’s not what I was going to tell you,” Angel said, his voice low and dangerous.

Buffy slung the strap of her bag over her shoulder and met Angel’s eyes. Her stomach dipped low when she saw the feral look in them.

“I have to go.”

Angel stepped aside, but when she passed he put his hand on her shoulder.

“Just one thing,” he said. “A long time ago, when I came back … from hell…you wanted to end things. You said it was impossible for us to be together and to prove your point, to prove that we couldn’t be just friends, you asked me to tell you that I didn’t love you.”

Buffy remembered. She remembered the way he’d looked at her when she was at the mansion, delivering his blood, training with him to help him regain his strength; she remembered the way her body ached almost constantly to be touched; she remembered the question and she remembered the answer, a long, poignant silence that had stretched forever.

She turned to face Angel. “What do you want from me?” she whispered.

Angel reached out and traced a long finger down the curve of her cheek, over the barely visible scar on her neck, his mark, his claim. Buffy shivered under his touch.

“I need you,” Angel said.

Outside the sky opened and the rain began to fall.

*

For three days Buffy considered Angel’s admission. She also considered his omission. He hadn’t told her that he didn’t love his wife; he hadn’t told her that they were separating, that they were no longer sleeping together.

Buffy wasn’t sure what Angel was proposing, but she knew in her gut that whatever it was, it wouldn’t be enough.

She fingered the card Willow had given her: Angel’s contact information. She could call the number; she could meet Angel; she could even admit that she still loved him, but what difference would any of it make?

Angel had married someone else and there was no escaping that fact.

*

Nina moaned beneath him, her pretty face contorted with pleasure. He could get her off with his eyes closed, fingers holding her down, open, quivering on the edge.

“Angel,” she moaned and he stopped, disoriented. “Oh, God, don’t stop,” she said.

Her eyes glittered yellow between half-closed lids. “Come on, baby. Do it,” she said, baring her neck unconsciously. Biting had been a big part of their coupling before they’d been given the gift of their humanity.

Just for a moment, Angel considered the woman beneath him. He was hard and anxious for release. He shifted, found the comfort of her slick centre, and slid into her.

She tilted her pelvis, locked her legs around his hips, rocked forward. Angel buried his head in her shoulder and started to thrust into her. The sex between them had always been good. It was still good.

He slid his hand between them, rubbed her expertly, felt her tighten around him, felt his own descent into orgasm. Mourned the loss of the moment of mindlessness it offered him before Buffy’s face filled his senses once more.

*

Angel missed Wesley. He missed his friend’s calm counsel, his rational approach to problems. More than once since Buffy had returned to Los Angeles he wished that he’d been able to call Wes up, invite him out for a drink, ask his advice. There wasn’t anyone he could talk to now. Wes, Cordy, Gunn, Fred, Lorne…they were gone. All of them. Even Spike would have been better than nothing, but the last Angel had heard of him, Spike was soaking up the rays on some tropical island, a bevy of sun-drenched babes at his beck and call.

Spike had returned from Italy a changed man. Whatever had happened between him and Buffy, Spike was different. He wouldn’t talk about it and Angel knew that whatever had transpired between the former lovers had concluded their business and that Spike, for whatever reason, was ready to let go and move on.

Angel wished he could say the same for himself.

*

Buffy scratched SD’s ears and flicked the remote absently. Eight hundred channels and not a thing to watch. The cat stood, arched its back and jumped off the couch, heading towards the kitchen and his dish of food.

The patio doors were open and a moist breeze drifted through the room. It was not quite dark.

Buffy reached for her wine glass just as someone rapped on her door.

“Shit,” she said, knocking the glass to the floor, where it shattered and spilled its contents. “Shit.”

Buffy crossed the room to the door and peered through the peephole. “Shit,” she muttered again.

“Buffy,” Angel said. “I know you’re in there.”

“What do you want?”

“Open the door.”

Buffy deliberated for a moment before reaching for the lock. She pulled open the door and stepped back.

“I have to clean up,” she said. She went into the kitchen and retrieved a roll of paper towel, crossing over to the spilled wine and broken glass. She knelt down and started to pick up the shards of glass.

“Let me help,” Angel said, kneeling beside her.

“It’s okay, I’ve got it.”

She didn’t know how long she could stretch out the task, but minutes went by before she actually admitted that there wasn’t a single piece of glass left on the floor. She wiped up the wine and then took the soiled paper towel and the glass into the kitchen. Angel stood and waited, silently, for her return.

“So,” she said, twisting her hair into a pony tail and securing it with a scrunchy she’d found by the kitchen sink. “I thought we were…”

“I didn’t come here to talk, Buffy,” he said.

“Game of Scrabble?”

Angel’s jaw tightened. “You continue to make light of this,” he said.

Buffy laughed. “What am I supposed to do, Angel? I keep telling you to stay away from me and you keep coming back.”

“I told you…”

“You told me that you needed me. Great. I need a million dollars; that’s probably not going to happen.”

Angel crossed to room in four long strides, so close Buffy could smell him: not the same smell, less like metal and more like deodorant, but familiar just the same.

“I came to prove to you…”

“What?” she said. “That I love you. Is it an ego thing? Do you need to believe it to get through the day? If I tell you that it’s true, will you leave me alone?”

Angel reached out a hand and cupped Buffy’s chin, tilting her head so he could meet her eyes.

“Say it,” he said.

Say it.

It was all true, of course. She loved him, had never stopped. He’d always been her Ace in the hole, the one thing she could count on, even if he was a card she never played. He’d been out there, a steady presence, a light in the dark. But if she admitted that to him, she knew there would be no going back.

“Say it,” he whispered.

She remembered that day with painful clarity. Spike’s words in The Magic Box had done their damage. She and Angel hadn’t been able to look at one another when Spike had finished.

And then she’d gone to the mansion, stood in front of him and done her best to sever the ties.

What I want from you I can never have.

Hard to believe she was in the exact same position a decade later.

“Buffy.”

“What I want from you I can never have,” she whispered as the first tear fell.

He pulled her close, her cheek pressed against the hard wall of his chest, the steady thump of his heartbeat assaulting her, loosening her hold on the emotions she’d worked so hard to reign in ever since she’d seen him at the restaurant.

And then he was kissing her, his mouth hot and sweet against hers, his fingers working at the pony tail, loosening her hair.

What was it about his kiss that shot a rush of pure adrenaline up her spine? Her good sense spiraled away from her and she struggled to snatch it back. She shouldn’t be kissing Angel.

Shouldn’t.

“Say it,” he whispered against her mouth.

“I love you,” she whispered back.

Angel pulled away, caught her face between his large hands and met her eyes.

“I love you,” he said.

Buffy risked a small smile. Her heart was hammering in her throat and she wondered if Angel still had the ability to hear it. She was certainly aware that he still had the ability to break it.

He kissed her again, his mouth slow and lingering.

Buffy was torn between wanting to twist her hands through the hair at the back of his head, pulling him closer, or resting them against his chest, pushing him away. He made the decision for her, lifting her easily and striding past the cat that was regarding them, solemn eyed, from the back of the couch.

*

This is a dream, she thought.

Her unmade bed beneath her: Angel, shirtless, above her.

His fingers were at the buttons of her cotton shirt, undoing them efficiently.

She watched his hands: his long, skilful fingers, absent wedding ring.

He spread open her shirt, baring her braless breasts, and his eyes searched for hers in the murky room.

“You are so beautiful,” he said.

His hands skimmed over the surface of her skin and she arched into his touch. He slid her shirt down her shoulders, arms, lifting her slightly to rid her of it completely, tossing it to the floor. Pants were easier, just a drawstring and then she was bare to him.

She started to shiver, gooseflesh mapping her body. His fingers smoothed over her, burning the tiny bumps away, leaving something else in their wake. She felt sluggish, drugged.

He stood and stripped off the rest of his clothes. Buffy saw the man that he was. Not a vampire, not super-human: mortal, vulnerable, like she was.

His shoulders could block out the sun, the prominent muscles in his belly were new, his cock was hard, barely able to hold itself aloft it was so full of blood and longing.

“We shouldn’t….”

Angel knelt on the bed, coaxed her thighs open, sliding his hands up to her liquid center.

“We don’t have a choice, Buffy,” he said, stroking her carefully. “We never did.”

And it was true.

He leaned forward, sank his mouth into her crotch and she felt his tongue press against her. She couldn’t help it; she bucked against him. He put his hands on her bony hips and held her still, worked his magic against her clit.

“Angel…”

He bit down, gently, and she came.

This was a dream.

Angel cupped her mound as she pulsed beneath him. Her orgasm seemed to last forever, but then Buffy couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually had one with another person in the room.

And then he was kissing her again, kissing her anxiety and her fear and her guilt away, drawing it out like venom. His hands were on her breasts; she felt her nipples harden against his palms, felt the alarming rate of her renewed desire.

He was wedged between her legs and she could feel him, hesitating.

Don’t stop, Angel. Not now.

“Promise me you won’t regret this,” he said against her ear.

She nodded and clutched at his shoulders when she felt him breach her slickness. She moaned out loud as he slid into her, that feeling of first penetration like no other.

Angel stilled, lifted his head, touched Buffy’s trembling lips with his thumb.

His eyes were fierce, his biceps corded with tension, and when he was sure she was with him, he began to move. Their rhythm was one of old lovers, the awkwardness of their first coupling long gone.

He tugged her nipple and she felt it deep inside of her; she bit into his arm and he moaned; he lifted her legs to his shoulders and pushed deeper; she touched her clit and watched his eyes darken, his shoulders tense with desire.

I can’t cry.

“Buffy,” Angel said as he came.

*

Afterwards they lay entwined, Angel’s arm wrapped around her, holding her close. His eyes never left her face and she knew that he was waiting, had prepared a reply even, for her to say something, anything.

Her mind seemed unable to hold a coherent thought. Every time she tried to project herself into a future that didn’t include him, her heart exploded in panic. And yet what choice did they have but to leave each other: Angel back to Nina, Buffy forward, alone.

“Buffy,” he said, his voice cautious.

She turned her head and met his eyes.

“Do you ever wonder how things might be different if--” Buffy paused.

“If,” Angel repeated. “That’s a pretty big variable.”

“If we’d never met, or if you’d been staked or if I’d died the times I was meant to--”

“No,” Angel said firmly. “If we’d never met I’d still be living in a sewer eating rat. My life would be meaningless. Nothing mattered until I met you, Buffy.”

“But, ultimately, you gave yourself to someone else,” she whispered.

Angel closed his eyes, breaking contact with her.

“I can’t explain that to you. Not so that you’ll understand,” he said finally, opening his eyes to look at her again.

“Try,” she said. “You leave me because you think it’s for the best, because you can’t take me into the light or make love to me, but then when you can, you marry someone else. You love someone else.”

“No, that’s not true. I mean, yes, I love Nina but…”

Buffy smiled: a thin, careful smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

“You said you needed time. Then, after Sunnydale, you went away. Spike said--”

“What,” Buffy interrupted. “What did Spike say?”

“That you were happy.”

“I was,” she admitted. “I felt—at peace.”

“It’s what I wanted for you.”

“I know. It’s what I wanted for you,” she replied.

Angel pulled her closer, rested his chin on the top of her head, closed his eyes and breathed in the smell of her.

“Peace isn’t something I ever longed for,” he said, “not as much as I longed for forgiveness.”

“You need to be able to forgive yourself first,” Buffy said, tracing his forearm with her fingertips.

“This can’t ever…”

“I understand,” Buffy said.

Angel shifted, twisting Buffy so that their foreheads touched.

“Do you?” he murmured.

“It’s weird, but I do, Angel. For us to be…you’d have to feel you deserved to be happy and even though the Powers think you should, I mean they gifted you with your humanity, you’re not at that place yet,” she said. “Or something like that.”

“Something like that.”

He kissed her.

And then he opened his arms and let her go.

*

Willow put the last of the suitcases into the trunk and closed the lid.

“Are you sure about this?” she said

Buffy leaned against the car and shook her head.

“I don’t want this to turn into some stupid Hallmark movie or Harlequin romance,” she replied, attempting a small smile.

“Buffy.”

“I know. You don’t need to say anything,” Buffy said. “I know.”

Willow touched her friend’s shoulder. “He’s going to come after you,”

Buffy nodded. “Maybe.”

Someday.

I hope.

The End

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