The sky outside her hotel room promised rain. Typical April day in England, but it would have been nice if just once the weather would cooperate. Buffy sighed and dropped the curtain. She poured another cup of tea from the pot left by room service and settled on the settee.
Eventually she'd have to get ready, but she just needed a little more time to contemplate the day. This day.
Her wedding day.
Buffy took another sip of the tea and settled the cup back in its saucer. She took a minute to admire the china, porcelain so thin she could almost see through it. It was the prettiest pattern she'd ever seen, and Buffy'd seen a lot of them as her future sister-in-law had insisted she pick out her own pattern and had dragged her to every housewares store in London.
It still seemed weird to Buffy to even be considering kitting out a house. She was 40, after all, and had managed just fine for all these years without china or silver or linens with tatted lace edging. It made Lee happy though and what made Lee happy made Bryce happy and there they were, a big happy circle.
A knock on the door.
Willow, at last.
"I keep forgetting that traffic is crazy in this city," Willow said by way of greeting. "It's just not orderly, which in a country that prides itself on order makes absolutely no sense."
"It's just British order," Buffy said, taking the damp coat and umbrella Willow offered. "It makes sense in a British way. Do you want some tea? It's still hot."
Buffy hung Willow's coat in the closet and leaned the umbrella against the wall and then headed back to the sofa and the tea tray.
"Bryce sure went all out," Willow said, remarking on the room's plush luxury.
"Go big or go home," Buffy said smiling as she poured.
"Yeah, you'd think he was from Texas instead of Surrey."
"Here," Buffy said, holding out the dainty cup and saucer.
"So," Willow said.
"I couldn't find him."
Buffy sat on the sofa and Willow joined her.
"I tried, Buffy. I called in every favour I could. I turned over every rock, figuratively speaking."
"I guess I'm not surprised. If he doesn't want to be found, he knows how to be lost."
Buffy looked at her friend. "Don't be. It was an impossible request. It was - stupid."
Willow shook her head. "Not stupid. Understandable."
"I haven't seen him in a long time. I just thought..."
"I know," Willow said, putting her hand on Buffy's arm in a gesture of solidarity. "It's probably time to start getting ready. Do you want me to run you a bath?"
Angel had been watching the hotel since the moment Buffy had arrived. He'd seen her pull up in the black limousine; seen her pull the flimsy raincoat she'd been wearing more snuggly around her thin shoulders; seen the casual way she'd reached for the hand of the dark-haired man she was with. Everything about her was familiar and lost.
London was loud and grey. It would have been better to get married in June. You could expect the weather to be nicer then, but Angel supposed Buffy didn't really care too much about that. Not now. Not after all this time.
Angel still knew how to hug the shadows and that's what he did for the first couple of days. Through the grapevine he'd heard that Buffy, by way of Willow, was looking for him, but he wasn't sure it was the wisest thing to be found. After all this time. Now, when Buffy seemed to finally be ...happy.
He'd checked the guy out. Byrce Winthrop III. Big time social media advertising guru. Perfect British pedigree: Oxford, polo captain, a few Earls in the family tree. Married once before. Widowed young. No children. Still had a full head of hair, even. Clearly, from all accounts, he adored Buffy.
Angel couldn't exactly find fault with that.
Buffy sank gratefully into the bathwater, silky with the lavender oil Willow had added. She actually preferred bubbles in her bath - easier to hide her body's betrayals beneath clouds of suds - but she didn't want to hurt Willow's feelings. She'd been trying so hard, looking for Angel and doing the matron of honour stuff Buffy knew she loathed.
Now, beneath the slick surface of water, she could see how time was reaching out its cunning fingers, reshaping her flesh, pulling and twisting. Bryce didn't care. We're all of us getting older, love, he'd murmured, that first time and all the times after. His body was trim, still, but not solid muscle like it must have been fifteen years ago.
It wasn't even the fact of her body's slow rebellion, although Buffy would admit to a certain amount of vanity. It was that she'd never really appreciated its perfection when it actually was perfect. And when she could have been enjoying it, she'd been moping after a vampire who couldn't even actually appreciate its treasures.
And yet - there'd been that night, one jewel in a bed of coal and just thinking about it made Buffy's knees knock reflexively.
She really, really needed to focus on the here and now. What was the saying: the hardest thing about moving forward is not looking back.
The banns had been in the paper. He hadn't seen them; he didn't often read the paper anymore. Too biased. Spike couldn't resist calling attention though.
"Looks like our girl's gone and got herself a man." Spike had thrust the London Times in front of Angel, on top of his copy of Proust.
"I'm busy, Spike."
"Oh, please. You're only pretending to read that shite. I mean, Proust? What a wanker."
"I promised him that I'd read it," Angel said, pulling the book out from under the newspaper.
"He's been dead forever; I doubt he'll care." Spike said. "Fine then. I'll read it to you." Spike cleared his voice grandly. "Mr. and Mrs. Bryce Winthrop II are thrilled to announce the wedding of their eldest son, Bryce Winthrop III," here Spike paused in his reading to comment on his distaste for British titles, "to Buffy Summers, daughter of Hank and the late Joyce Summers."
At this point, Angel had had no choice but to snatch the paper from Spike, if only to shut him the hell up.
"Can you believe it?" Spike had said, smugly. "I always knew that cookie speech was a crock."
Spike never failed to mention the cookie speech when the occasion presented itself. Even Angel had to admit that it was not one of Buffy's finer moments, but the remarks had been intended for his ears only. And he'd meant what he'd said: he wasn't getting any older, but apparently Buffy was.
"Not surprised by the choice, though," Spike said. "All squeaky clean like that git, Riley."
Angel scanned the rest of the announcement, noting the date and the church. Finding out where she was staying prior to the event had been a piece of cake.
Willow had popped the cork on a bottle of Prosecco.
"Oh, I dunno, Will," Buffy said, tying the belt on the soft, velvet robe provided by the hotel.
"You only get married once," Willow laughed, pouring a flute of the bubbly drink. "Well, if you're lucky."
"I don't know. Luck and I have had an ongoing feud."
"Perhaps your luck is about to change," Willow said, raising her glass in a toast.
Buffy lifted her glass and they clinked. "Bryce is a good man," she said just before she took her first delicious sip. "Nectar of the Gods."
"Oh my God! Do you remember how many bottles of this we drank in Italy?"
"A million." Buffy laughed.
The women enjoyed their drinks and the momentary silence.
"It seems like a long time ago," Buffy said finally.
"It was a long time ago."
"Another lifetime," Buffy said and then laughed self-consciously. "Give me some more; I'm getting maudlin."
Willow refilled their glasses.
"Buffy," she said.
"What do you suppose would have happened if Angel'd stuck around? Or if he'd, y'know, got his Shanshu, or whatever."
Buffy sighed. It's not like these weren't the sort of hypothetical questions she'd asked herself ad nauseum for the first ten years after Los Angeles had become a big sink hole. In the beginning, she and Angel had at least communicated. And then, something changed. Angel started to retreat until, finally, without a word, without even saying goodbye, he'd vanished. He was always really good at that.
Buffy twisted her hair into a simple knot and stepped back from the mirror.
"You look beautiful, Buffy. Really. Radiant."
You have to say that, Will. You're my best friend."
"No. You're going to take his breath away," Willow said and leaned in to give Buffy a kiss on the cheek.
"Is it time?"
Willow regarded the clock on the bedside table. "The limo is supposed to be here at two and it's one forty-five. We could go down to the lobby."
"No, I don't want to make a spectacle. Let's just wait here until two."
Buffy reached out and squeezed her friend's hand. "Okay."
Angel watched the limo pull up in front of Buffy's hotel. It was now or never. Now or never.
Angel dug his hands into his black trench coat and took a step forward.
Suddenly, the front door of the hotel opened and there she was, Willow at her side.
There was something about her dress - simple, no fuss or frills - that took Angel's breath away. His actual breath - because he had it now. His heart clenched; a fist in his chest.
When Buffy hesitated, looked up across the hood of the limo, Angel stepped back into the shadowy alcove.
He couldn't let her go.
He had to let her go.
"You look beautiful, my dear," Giles said, leaning on his cane. His arthritis had crippled his body, but not his mind. He was waiting for her at the entrance to the church. Dawn was there and Xander. Faith. Buffy was so happy to see them, her family.
"I was so afraid I wasn't going to be able to get away," Dawnie whispered into her ear. "Damn vampires."
Buffy pulled back to admire the familiar faces beaming at her. "I'm so happy you're all here. This day just wouldn't have been complete without you." She realized how little of the truth her words conveyed, but it was the best she could do without breaking down and ruining her eye makeup.
"We'd better get in there, eh," Xander said. "There's about eight hundred Winthrops and we need to even things out a bit or the church is gonna tilt."
"Exaggerate much?" Willow said.
"I'll see you after, okay," Buffy said. "At the reception. I hope you brought your dancing shoes."
"You know it, B," Faith said. "Any hot Dukes or wannabe Kings on the guest list?"
Buffy smiled. "I'm sure there's someone to scratch that itch, Faith. Just don't break any hearts."
"Now that's a promise I can't make," Faith laughed and slipped between the huge oak doors of the church.
"She never changes," Willow said mildly.
"She never does."
"I'm just going to sneak in and see what the timeline is. You okay on your own for a minute?"
"I'm not Julia Roberts, Will," Buffy said.
Willow cocked an eyebrow. "Just checking."
The sun pierced the clouds just as Angel started up the gravel path to the steps of the church. When Buffy turned to face the sound of footsteps, his face was in shadow, but she'd know those shoulders anywhere.
"I knew you'd come," she said.
"Am I that predictable?"
"No. But I had a dream, like the one I used to have back when I was in high school. The one where we're standing in the church and we're married and we walk down the aisle, out into the sunlight..."
"And you burst into flames."
"Only this time I didn't."
"Maybe that's because this time you aren't marrying me," Angel said.
"I would have," Buffy said, smiling.
"I know that, too" Angel said.
They regarded each other carefully.
"He seems like a good man, Buffy. I'm happy for you."
"He is a good man," she agreed. "But I'd rather you weren't quite so happy."
"Are you staying?"
Angel looked at the ground. He twisted his head a little, looked out across the cemetery adjacent to the church. Then he looked back at Buffy. He held out his hand and she took it.
His kiss was sweet.
Buffy reached up and placed her palm against Angel's cheek.
"Thank you," she said.
So much time lost.
So little left.
When the strains of Pachelbel's Canon drifted out into the church courtyard, it was empty except for the sunshine.
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