Big, Scary Apolcalypse

Big, Scary Apolcalypse

By Calla

Author's Notes

Rating:PG Some bad language and mild sexual references.
Summary: It's Buffyís birthday and a few old faces are in town to give her a unique surprise...including Angel. Answer to Julietteís challenge.
Notes: Spoilers: Replaces 'Older and Far Away' and 'Waiting In The Wings', then goes its own way from there. Two things are different: Connor doesnít exist and A/C was never even hinted at. In case you miss where itís mentioned in the story, Buffy is no longer involved with Spike.
Warnings: My stories are not guaranteed 'happily ever after' events. They're usually angsty in places and sometimes involve character deaths. I've been known to pair Buffy and Angel with other people (for plot purposes) and I regularly toy with the other characters' pairings - just for fun. If you require specific warnings about that kind of thing, please feel free to ask. I *do* promise that I am a staunch B/A shipper. All my stories are B/A centric. All my stories present the couple in a sympathetic and respectful light.
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the series, concepts and characters are the property, copyright and trademark of UPN, Mutant Enemy and Joss Whedon. Angel, the series, concepts and characters are the property, copyright and trademark of Warner Bros., Mutant Enemy and Joss Whedon. No ownership or claim on said property, copyright or trademark is made or implied by the use in this work. This work constitutes a personal comment on the aforesaid properties pursuant to doctrines of fair use and fair comment. This work is non-commercial, not for sale or profit, and may not be sold or reproduced for commercial purposes. All other characters and situations which are not specifically owned by the above mentioned are sole copyright of the author.
Dedication: This is dedicated to Trammie for working on it despite her lack of time, Laux who agreed to beta "More Than Words" for me, Tanya for being so excited about it and, of course, Juliette for such a creative challenge.

***

PROLOGUE

Buffyís Diary. January 18th, 2002

You know what? Iím sick of it. No, really, Iíve had enough. How long am I supposed to just keep doing this? Iím a tolerant person. Actually, Iíd say I was more tolerant than most. I mean, I save people. I save the world, like, what - annually now? And Iíve never even gotten a paycheck. Mostly, all I get is crap from people who expect me keep up with all these Ďnormalí responsibilities: be a reliable employee, be a role model for Dawn, be a good friend blah blah blah. Then thereís the sacred duty thing. Obviously I should devote all of my time to ridding the world of evil - yeah? Tell that to Batman with his millionaire alter ego. Some people have to keep house, take care of a kid sister - who practically begs for trouble to come out to play - work a soul-sucking job and THEN go fight the soul-sucking demons. So, overall, Iíd say I have a right to get piss-y now and then. Letís go with the now....

Itís been a long time since Iíve let myself want anything. Itís my birthday tomorrow, so I asked Willow and Xander to get me this really pretty silk scarf, but thatís not the kind of thing I mean. Iím talking about serious WANTING. Itís easier not to. In fact, itís all really easy. Have such a huge life that you canít possibly live it. No time to worry about the future, no time to mope about the past...you just keep going and hope youíll eventually burn out and get to take a nap on the scrap heap. Only thatís all I got - a quick nap. Letís be clear: I died. When people get disturbed in the middle of the night, they get grouchy and maybe call the cops on some noisy neighbor. I actually DIED and everyone was like, ĎOh hold on, Buff, could you just come back and run a few errands?í Okay, so maybe thatís harsh. I know why they did it, I really do, and I love my friends. But they donít get it. Iím the one on the front line, I make the decisions, I take the blame...you get the picture. They try to help me, support me, make me stronger, but sometimes....

Sometimes I need to be NOT strong.

It didnít matter how many super powers I had, to my mom, I was always a little girl. Sheís gone now. My momís gone. And Giles? Giles was always my Watcher. That little bit of authority made me feel better, safe - and thatís not an easy feeling to come by when itís your job to protect almost everyone. Thereís a question: How do police officers feel? Like, if thereís some kind of danger at home, do they ever want to just call for help? I mean, who do you call when you ARE the help? Anyway, Giles is gone too. Closest thing I have to a guardian now is Spike. Gee, should we take a moment to celebrate my new low?

I feel a little guilty for thinking that. Spike tries. But Spike tries for all the wrong reasons. Iím not saying he doesnít understand me because, in some ways, he does - and Iím not saying he doesnít care. He just doesnít want to look at the big picture. He never wanted to be a part of my life, he just wanted me to be a part of his. Well, that makes sense...except for the part about Spikeís life, what with him being dead and all. Not that it really matters much anymore; itís over with us. I knew that as soon as Tara told me I didnít come back wrong, as soon as I had no more excuses to give myself - and I told him.

It was harder than I ever expected - isnít everything? But I had to. It stopped working, when I knew he wouldnít make the pain go away, when I knew he couldnít block it out for me. I have more than my fair share of distractions, but they all wear thin in the end. Thatís what Iím doing now by the way, all this deep wallow-y thinking, itís a distraction. I do it a lot.

The point Iím trying to avoid? Angel.

So, whatís new, right? Nothing. Why should it be? Seriously, the love of my life - and Iím sorry to use a clichť, but itís true - had to leave me or risk losing his soul and killing, like, EVERYBODY. Excuse me for not being over it. Here I am, still whining about it a WHOLE three years later. Sue me. It hurts. A lot. Still. And I know that if I talk about him, my friendsí eyes will glaze over and theyíll say something soothing and Iíll have to smile like itís suddenly all better. So why bother? Itís not like I imagine I can see him in every crowd, like whenever ĎTouched by an Angelí is on the T.V. I think of him (okay, get your mind out of the gutter), or when someone mentions L.A. I wonder what heís doing right that second - or actually almost every second when Iím conscious...of course not. I donít do any of that. Nuh-uh, because I moved on, didnít I? I moved on with Riley. Right. Sure.

Angel was what - my high school sweetheart? Yep, that fits, except the part where heís over two hundred years old, a vampire, we spent more time worrying about having to save the world and each other than about angry parents after curfew and, oh yeah, he drank my blood.

Whatís the plan then, frame a photo of him and hang it in the hall? Isnít that what everyone else does? See, Iím not sure on the rules here. Whatís the standard practice? Do I actually have to forget about him or am I just expected to pretend? ĎHeíll always have a place in my heart, but weíve both changed.í Isnít that the party line?

Give me a hundred vamps any day, THIS is what makes me tired, what scares me: missing him. I feel like it could bury me, like I could drown myself in remembering. My stomach is in knots, my head is all muzzy, and I feel so sick half the time I donít know how to stay upright. Itís weighing me down - itís too much, itís too heavy. It burns.

I love him.

I love him.

I love him. Iím the only person I can say that to. Maybe thatís whatís driving me slowly mad - oh yeah, Iím a regular whacko these days. Or maybe just a bit vacant, which is really a fancy way of saying I feel empty, I guess. I know I shouldnít feel like this. It doesnít help anyone and it doesnít mean heíll come back. That could be the worst part - well, for the minute anyway, because I can always find a shiny new Ďworst partí if I think about it for long enough - I know heís out there, I know itís possible, but I know that he wonít be with me. He just wonít do it. I mean, I know all the reasons, I can recite them faster than the alphabet, not that Iím a total dumb ass - Iím fully competent with all twenty six letters, I swear - but I have to keep reminding myself what itís all for.

I donít get why it isnít any easier yet. Isnít time supposed to have gotten all heal-y with me by now? And how exactly is he doing whatís in my best interests when Iím so damn miserable? This always happens, you see, I start getting mad at him and I know itís not his fault. Itís nobodyís fault (thatís the new worst part now, by the way). I have no one to blame and no one to beat to a bloody, satisfying pulp. Canít blame Darla, canít blame the gypsies - without them I would never have had him at all. Angel-free Buffy. Doesnít even bear thinking about. I probably would have given up a long time ago, wanted out like Spike said, one day gotten tired of the whole thing and had some random vamp kick my butt all the way to Slayer heaven. Sad, huh?

I could become one of those people who tells complete strangers their life story in the line at the checkout. Maybe if itís just another sob story it wonít seem so huge, so stomach churningly hard to contemplate dealing with. Then again, if someone could wave a magic wand and fix it all, or a genie popped out of my soda bottle, Iíd have no idea what to ask for. Angel, minus the curse? Heíd still have to watch me get wrinkly and die. Angel human? What if he got hurt? What if, because I wanted him, he died? See? I donít even know what to wish for now - except the chance to fix it all. Iím the Slayer, romantic angst is really an unfair burden, okay? If I could face it, just once and for all confront the ghosts, and be forced to do whatever it is that needs to be done to straighten out the nest of spaghetti in my head....

I said that to the new girl at work today. She must think Iím crazy. Then again, she wasnít dazzlingly normal herself - no one in that place is, so itís a moot point.

What now then? Nothing. When Iíve thought about it some more, maybe even cried a little - hey, we all do that donít we? Turn out the lights, find a stuffed animal and play a sad song. When Iíve done all that - again - everything will stay exactly the same. There were never any actual choices, any options, just great big helpings of hope, which get harder and harder to swallow. Iím your typical helpless female when it comes to Angel. Slayer strength doesnít cut it. I canít research it away, or have Willow do a spell. I canít do anything. So? So, Iíll live with it and take the next heroic dive into a reality-screwing portal out of here.

Roll on big, scary apocalypse.

PART 1

The pie smelt delicious, sitting there in the oven, all snug and-

Okay, so I hardly ever bake. Canít a girl pat herself on the back for trying? I planned a nice quiet dinner for my birthday. Dawn promised to come straight home from school (a minor miracle) and the others were going to come by a bit later to eat with us, but there would be absolutely no celebrating - just some very casual, very *safe* marking of the occasion. End-of-the-world doom...pending, or something. Itís tradition after all. When youíve had a string of birthday disasters like mine, you learn to expect the worst - although, that whole thing about the worst being yet to come?

Yep.

*Thereís* a lesson you can just learn over and over....

I whipped up the chocolate mouse, the occasional blob slopping over the side - ready to be wiped away and licked off my finger - thatís half the fun of making it, right? Then there was the temptation to stir a little harder, get greedy with the spillage, and suddenly I had ugly, brown sludge creeping down the front of my brand new, oh-so-white, should-never-have-worn-it-without-an-apron shirt. Great. You ever have one of those days? Iíve had one of those *lives*. Maybe thatís a bit dramatic, but my whole week was extra suck-y, so youíll forgive the woe. I gave up on the whipping - lumps be damned - and shoved the bowl into the fridge, making a mental note to have a clear out soon - just one more of the million things my mom did that I never even thought of.

I figured it was time for a quick change. If I can roll around a cemetery in vamp dust all night and still maintain some level of cool - or should that be hot? Oh, whatever. A little baking sure as hell wasnít gonna beat me. I jogged up the stairs, which was the closest I was going to get to any training. Hello? Birthday, remember? First stop: Dawnís room. That was my best chance of finding my fuzzy, blue sweater and ugh - the mess! I was fully disgusted. She was *so* grounded for, like, well - for however long it took her to find carpet under the mountains of crap.

Suddenly, I was like this old person whoís all parent-y and stuff - worse than that - I became "the folks", except thereís only one of me so technically, I guess, I was being "a folk". Is that even possible? Never mind. It was right there on the bed: *my* sweater - a little crumpled, but who was going to care anyway? My friends have seen me not-so-fresh from the grave. What difference is a wrinkle here and there gonna make?

Gee, how morbid am I?

I heard them then, just as I pulled the sweater over my head - voices. I went out into the hall, Slayer senses ringing like crazy (how helpful was that - not.) They were coming from my bedroom. It sounded like - a lot like - men talking and I would swear....

I went over to the door and pushed it open really slowly, like there was a mountain of toxic...stuff...waiting on the other side. Careful is key in my house, actually, careful is key in my whole life. Now, the toxic stuff was best-case scenario, I guess, not that I thought that at the time. How would it have gotten there? No idea, but the reality was even more insane - it usually is - trust me.

I stood there and gaped like an idiot - or maybe a fish. How could I be expected to speak? I mean, really? I just about managed to blink. I was sure that when I opened my eyes, theyíd be gone - because there was just no way it could be real. With a destiny like mine, you can pretty much expect to crack up and start hallucinating before you hit your twenties. Iíve been dead lucky to get this far.

Dead lucky!

Well, I thought it was funny.

Thing is...I opened my eyes and they were still there.

Right around that time, my stomach started with the churning, my breathing got kinda shallow and fast and, guess what? I still wasnít speaking. What the hell was I supposed to say? I stood in the doorway of the room - my room - and I just stared.

Youíll never believe the faces that stared back at me.

Brace yourselves. I wish I had.

PART 2

"Buffy."

His hello, surprise, good to see you, damn this hurts...all rolled into one word - as usual.

Angel. I-

"Alright, pet?"

Spike.

And Angel.

Both of them. Right here in my room. Together. And no, Iím not joking. Iím not *that* sick.

Riley.

He moves forward like heís making some kind of dramatic entrance. Isnít he supposed to be Mr. Jungle now?

"Hey, glad you could join the party."

Is he trying to be funny? My room. My house. My Birthday. And they definitely werenít on the guest list.

Why?

And how?

There are all these guys in my room.

And Angelís here....

And...Pike? What the-

"Longtime no see, Buff. Nice pad."

Heís grinning. Why is he grinning?

They canít all be here by coincidence. What, they all got up this morning and thought sending a card was passť? They all decided to come in by the window, just for that extra scare-the-life-out-of-the-Slayer-like-she-doesnít-get-enough-surprises kick?

Even Tylerís here. For Godís sake, heís giving Pike that macho, you-invaded-my-territory-donít-think-Iíve-forgotten look. Way to hold a grudge. Besides which, *he* dumped *me* - although, to be honest, I couldnít give a flying demon-monkeyís ass (long story) about that right now.

Iím trying so hard not to catch his eye. Not Tylerís.

Whose?

Angelís, of course. No one else is staring at me that way. No one else *can* stare at me that way. This is why weíre not supposed to see each other. Thereís staring and tingling and we promised to stay away.

Donít look, donít look, donít look....

"Uh, hi...."

The stammering makes for a perfect distraction. Until I realize itís coming from Scott.

Scott Hope.

Heís nervous. Thatís sweet - but he dumped me and took Alison Martinez to homecoming. Heís not sweet. Heís a mean little...dumper guy.

"Scott, wow. Itís been a while."

I manage to sound innocent.

Angel is looking at Scott now. Hello? Relieved here. I knew heíd recognize the name.

A sneer.

Yes, that was a definite sneer. Angel is not feeling the warm fuzzies for the little guy - and he is little. Compare him to Angel or Spike or Riley and - hey, it just hit me - heís not nervous! Heís fully scared! My modest pack of evil-fighting/evil-doing exes are quite intimidating, and on that note....

I smile.

"Parker, what an unexpected pleasure."

I didnít say the smile was sincere.

He straightens. "Good to see you, Buffy."

Three sneers now: Rileyís, Spikeís and Angelís. Wait. Angel doesnít know about Parker.

He canít know.

Iím turning an unattractive shade of pink....

Iím sure itís doing my outfit no favors. I want to disappear. Angel is looking at me again. What is that? Guilt? Pity? I donít like the look in his eyes.

Spikeís looking at me too.

This could get so much worse. Iím a stupid, stupid girl who does stupid, stupid things and it looks like theyíre going to get their own stupid, soap-opera style ending right now.

And Angel's stuck in a front row seat.

God.

I know what youíre thinking. Itís my birthday, so I shouldíve expected something like this to happen. Well, yeah, but I was leaning towards a purple slime-demon that eats toes or a giant, evil goldfish with a yen to end the Universe. This is just weird.

It isnít happening. I canít believe theyíre all here.

Angelís here.

Itís my birthday and heís right here. I could just-

Please stop staring at me. Please.

PART 3

"So....Would it be rude of me to ask why youíre all here? Or should we start with 'how' instead?"

I think that had just the right balance of please-inform-me and tell-me-or-die. Calm, yet assertive. Yay, me!

Spike smirks. "Donít you like your present, love?"

That is so irritating. Canít he remember my name? I am so not his Ďloveí. If Angel finds out....

"Itís your birthday."

He looks straight at me, or through me, or into me - or whatever it is that he does - and the tingly feeling sinks right down to my toes.

Ten points to the vamp with a soul.

Not your most creative assessment of the situation, I agree, but I liked it. He said it like he already knew, like I should know he remembered, like he would always remember.

The apartment. Angelís bed. Claddagh. Angelus. Arm in a box. Rain. Poetry. Always....

I want one of those fan thingies - Iím going to swoon any second now.

"That doesnít really explain our being here," Riley points out.

Well, duh.

He doesnít seem too pleased with this little scenario. No surprise there, but then I doubt anyone had this penciled into their diaries for today. How the hell *did* they get here?

Angelís here - I know, I know, we covered that already.

Heís gone to stand by the window now. Thatís the way I remember him, where he belongs. He fits. The window is his - someone should just give him the damn thing - theyíre a match. Heís thinking, the others are yapping and heís thinking- apart, unique, special....

Stop it stop it stop it.

Scott speaks up. It's either brave or stupid - depends how you look at it.

"W-we just kind of...well, we appeared here. I was at work and then I wasnít-"

"What Cutie here is trying to say is that we donít bloody know why weíre here. Gotta be magic. Question is, pet, whose?"

Now Iím frustrated, this makes no sense, whatís wrong with a good old-fashioned birthday apocalypse? Nobody likes change. Change is bad. I want a world-in-peril crisis instead.

"This is crazy."

Not original, but I had to say *something*.

"We have civilians here-"

"Oh cut the poncy military-talk, Soldier Boy-"

Great. Riley and Spike kicking off. That helps.

Riley has a point though. Tyler, Parker and Scott must be seriously confused right now....

Scott perks up again. For some reason he still thinks speaking is a good idea.

"So this is, like...a Slayer thing? Thatís cool."

Huh? Did I mention Iím confused?

"How did you - uh, you probably shouldnít-"

"Itís okay, Buffy. I think we all know about you killing vampires and everything. Iíd just like to say thank you. You donít get the credit you deserve...."

So Parkerís hasnít actually finished talking, but I canít bear to listen to it any longer. Heís just so disgustingly nice - only not.

"It must be part of the spell thing. I mean, I take it you havenít been running commercials? Sacred duty, secret identity and all that. Well, thatís how I remember it."

Pike was always one sharp cookie.

Tyler raises his hand. I have no idea where he got that habit. Itís not like we went to class a lot at Hemery or anything.

"If it helps any, I pretty much got it after the whole thing with the gym - you know, with the vampires and stuff."

Yep. Heís definitely more your blunt cookie, isn't he?

Riley tries to take charge, heavy on the *tries*.

"So, you knew before today - sorry Tyler, was it?"

Tyler nods proudly. Geez, our school gets attacked by a whole truck load of vampires and he noticed - give the boy a round of applause or a cookie. Yeah, a cookie, one of the blunt ones. What did I ever see in him?

Riley continues, "Parker and Scott *didnít* know before today and we all appeared here as if-"

"The conclusion was magic, Riley. We reached that point. Then we passed it."

Sarcasm.

From Angel.

He didnít even turn away from the window. My stomach just did a deep flip flop. That could be the most ridiculous thought Iíve ever had, but it also happens to be completely true.

"Well *maybe* Iím trying to figure out what the hell happened here instead of staring out the window like eternity wonít be long enough to brood."

Oh boy, Riley. Way to make him mad.

Angel turns and Iím half expecting to see his game face. I donít think I could handle that - not now - too many memories, too much pain....

Then again, heís here, in this room, and I canít touch him. There *is* no more pain, at least none Iím prepared to remember right now.

He surprises me. He looks completely calm as he studies Riley, his head tilted thoughtfully to the side.

"How about I deal with eternity," he suggests, "And you concentrate on making it through the next ten minutes."

I know I should probably intervene, but I can see I'm about to get beaten to the post.

"Címon guys-"

Pike stops and holds his hands up in surrender. One look - no, one *glance* - from Angel and he obviously figured it was best not to get involved. Even Iím hoping this one will ride itself out.

Riley tenses. All those muscles clenching at once, how does his brain cope? Yeah, I know, my head is a freaky place.

"Are you threatening me, vampire? You think because Buffy was in love with you back in high school I wouldnít-"

"Heíd kick your arse, mate, and I have to say Iím behind him all the way on that one. Much as I hate the wanker - I hate you more."

Spike manages to make things just that little bit worse. Did I say change is bad? If I get time later, I might take that as a do-over.

"Hold up!"

Why does Pike feel the need to speak? Was he always this keen to *join in*?

"Buff? You dated a vamp?!"

Spike laughs, "Likes the mean in her man."

Heís leering, oh God, heís leering. Please donít see, Angel, please donít see.

"Commando Kid over there knows all about that, donít you? Tried to get all dangerous, letting a couple of vamp honeys use him like their own personal cocktail bar. Oh yeah, he lives on the edge."

"Why donít you shut up?"

Riley swings for Spike, who manages to dodge the carelessly thrown fist. From a professional point of view it was a pretty crappy attempt. He can do better.

Time for me to step in. Actually, Iím probably a bit late, but here goes.

"No fighting in my house-"

The words have barely left my mouth before Angel has crossed the room and taken Riley by the throat, Rileyís two marginally improved attempts to punch him having failed embarrassingly.

"Try taking your own advice, Riley, before I do something my soul might regret," he warns. "As you so kindly reminded me, I have an eternity to repent."

"I donít need you to fight my battles, Peaches. I might have this bloody chip, but I-"

"Angel."

Iíve laid my hand on his arm. My turn to be brave. Or stupid.

Soft, black leather beneath my fingers, flesh just centimeters away. That familiar sensation pulsing up my arm. Heat where there is none. Feeling. Connection.

He looks at me, so does everyone else, I canít see that because Iím staring straight back at him - staring straight back into the intense brown eyes that I keep trying to stay lost in - but I can feel it, I can feel them watching. Riley stops struggling, but Angel doesnít let go. Everyoneís poised for something.

All I said was his name.

PART 4

I watch the anger in his eyes shift and fade as he scans my face. I can feel myself flush at the attention. He could be sketching a picture in his head, saving it for later, to put down in charcoal or ink. I wish I knew if he still likes to draw. I wish I knew what his last picture looked like, what it was of, what heíll draw next. Who heíll draw next.

I want it to be me.

"Itís okay."

My voice is too quiet, my eyes are saying too much. Angel finally lets Riley go, dropping him like week old trash.

"You deserve better," he says.

You were better, Angel. Donít I deserve you?

"Or worse."

I catch Spikeís wink out of the corner of my eye. I want to rip off his eyelids. Why is he making me suffer? I broke up with him, actually, we were never even together so thatís a misleading comment, but still - he needs to deal...and he needs to *not* tell Angel.

"He had everything. And he hurt you."

Angelís words sound a little choked.

I can hardly believe he just said that in a room full of people. He isnít usually the sharing type.

I take a glance at Riley. He was mostly a good boyfriend. Mostly. Angel is just *really* protective - or jealous. Could he still be jealous? I know itís silly and immature and - look, I know all that stuff alright, but maybe if heís still jealous...

Riley bristles - almost literally, well, Iím sure he would if he had some spine-y things to do it with.

"The way I hear it you took *all* the medals in the hurt Buffy contest-"

Iím almost glad to have Pike interrupt this time.

"I never hurt you, Buff."

"Uh. No...."

Iím *trying* to see the point in his comment, but Iím not entirely sure there was one.

"If you hadnít left L.A.-"

Oh, look! Tyler can do the bristly thing as well - maybe they teach it at Manly Men School.

"If *you* hadnít muscled in on my girl, Pike - you have to admit, we were good together, Buffy. We could be again."

And I repeat: huh?

I hope I look as confused as I feel and then someone might try explaining. Me and Pike? Tyler? Weíre, like, historical or something. I know anything I say now will sound dumb so what the hell, right?

"Thatís really sweet of you guys, but-"

"We almost went to homecoming together!"

Scott blurts out that little gem without really thinking it through. Come on? Itís not like heíd want to remind me on purpose.

Heís not done....

"Homecoming is important, right? I-I think we have some good history-"

Oh give me a break.

Have I said *huh* yet?

"You dumped me and took someone else, Scott, I really donít think-"

You know eventually someone will actually let me finish a sentence, it wonít be now of course, and it wonít be Spike.

"Youíre not gettin' it, love," he grins. "Anyone here not in love with Buffy today?"

Silence.

A cold stare.

"See, pet? Every girlís dream come true and all before you even blew out the candles."

I have no idea whether I even have a facial expression right now. Iím just...stunned. This canít be happening. This is a nightmare.

Angel is scowling.

A small flicker of hope sparks in my stomach - and just yesterday I thought I couldnít stomach hope. Angel didnít say anything. He didnít deny it. He loves me. Itís not so long ago he told me, but still, Iíd just risen from the dead - he could have been exaggerating... and sometimes I need reminding. Heíll never stop - and neither will I - it would be easier to stop existing.

It *was* easier.

Spikeís smiling. I feel my arms prickle as the chill reaches me. He looks bitter. It canít be easy for him having Angel here.

"There you go, Slayer, take your sodding pick."

Okay, so he sounds bitter too. And heís not done yet.

"Iíd steer clear of the L.A. boys. Long distance relationships are a bitch - plus, Old Soulful has his forbidden-love-feel-my-pain curse to think of. Now, Tweedle-*Dumped*-You and Tweedle-Shagged-You-*Then*-Dumped-You over there, well, they arenít the finest specimens. So...itís pretty much Sergeant Smart Arse - or me...and can I just say that *Iím* not planning to go sulk in the jungle at the drop of a standard-issue, save-my-charmingly-empty-bonce military hat."

End Spike rant.

Angelís eyes are becoming a black, inky blur...like heís closing the shutters on me. He knows.

I want to scrub at myself until every trace of Spike is gone, until I can forget everything we ever did.

He knows.

"She would never-"

Angelís voice cracks totally this time, heís looking at me, piercing right through me.

He needs me to tell him itís not true. I can see myself reflected in his eyes, see my own disgust. Why does he have to know? Why does he have to be here *now*? Why not before? Before all this? Iím too angry with myself to speak, too ashamed. So ashamed...and it hurts so bad.

PART 5

Iím screaming at them to stop.

Theyíre not listening.

Everyone else has backed away and Angel is tearing into Spike - only it canít be Angel because I *know* him and Iíve never-

Spike is thrown back against the wall, heís barely hit the floor and Angel's there, towering over him. God, I canít ever remember seeing Angel like this. Itís like Angelus has taken over, just like that, only he doesnít seem crazy, or really mad, or anything *like* that. Iíve seen him wild - vicious even - when he came back from- from...he was like some kind of animal, but he was never...never this cold.

Heís kneeling on Spikeís chest, his fists belting down in relays. Total precision. Easy, flawless precision. Heís so in control that itís scary. Itís like Angel has gone and whoever this is - whoeverís pounding Spike over and over, slamming his head back against the floor, ignoring the yelling and cursing - canít see anything else. Spike is the only thing that matters to him, the only thing heís wired to do right now is cause pain. Itís so pure, and instinctive, and he canít stop.

His words - theyíre so confused, theyíve all melted into some kind of growl, itís low and harsh and itís hard to make out all the things heís saying.

"...Think you can touch her?...Do you?....Dru should have ripped your throat....Let you die on the stinking street....You never touch whatís mine...never. My mark...understand?...Hear me?"

Heís leaning over Spike, his fists raining down over and over like theyíll never stop, like heíll never get tired. Spikeís no match for Angel in this state.

I try to pull him off, but he shoves me away - and itís rough, like he doesnít know who I am. Or he doesnít care.

I donít know what to do. God, what have I done? Heíll never forgive me. He canít.

Riley is shaking his head. He comes to my side.

"Animals," he spits, like the word is beneath him as well as the people - sorry, vampires - it was aimed at.

He lays an arm across my shoulders as the first tear slides down my cheek - I have this irrational panic about my mascara before I remember Iím not wearing any and that even if I was I wouldnít care - and I want to shrug him off. I donít. I donít know what to do. Theyíre all watching. They can all see what Iíve done. Riley pities me. I can see it - I can hear the words forming in his head: Iím sure you were going through a difficult time, Spike played on your vulnerability....

Itís a lie. Itís all lies. They donít know. They donít understand. They canít. I just wanted the feeling back. I wanted *something*. Spike was- he was the closest thing I could get to Angel, the easiest way to pretend. After I came back and we met I just couldnít live with the void anymore, not after being *there*, being at peace, being so full. The space here is too big, the edges too harsh. I had to numb the pain - or create more - or *something*. I had to do *something*. Iím sorry.

God, Iím sorry.

My breathing is getting sharp and ragged. Iím struggling to drink any air in. Itís like someone sucked it all out of the room. My hand automatically clutches at my throat. I can see them all rushing towards me. Iím losing it and theyíre still competing. What is wrong with these people?

I think Iím hyperventilating - this has never happened to me before - God, whatís happening. I canít breathe....Angel, I canít breathe.

Angel- vA hard sob escapes me.

He stops.

This is it, weíre frozen. This moment is going to last forever. Or Iím going to die.

He turns to look at me, the amber fading from his eyes, his forehead smoothing quickly.

"Had enough then? You hypocrite...you bloody left her! Ponced off to play Dick Tracy in L.A.!"

Spikeís ravings are ignored. Angel drops him like his brand of trash is even worse than Rileyís.

In a split second heís in front of me, his hands on my shoulders - Riley removed from my person as thoughtlessly as if he were some kind of bug - strong hands, cool hands. My stomachís churning again. I just canít breathe....

Please, Angel, help me.

Spike takes a brown paper bag from his coat pocket as he tries to drag himself up off the floor. He removes the bottle of whiskey inside.

"Here."

He hands the bag to Riley, who looks predictably disgusted, then he laughs.

"Come on, this bintíll turn anyone to drink."

His bruised, bloody face contorts with the effort of speaking.

"Will she be okay?" Parker asks, full of concern.

Oh, the irony.

Angel gives Parker a thoughtful glance then takes the bag and sits me on the bed, holding it in front of my mouth.

"Breathe into this, try to relax...."

And heís back. Just like that. Like nothing happened.

"Youíll be fine. Itís okay...."

Only itís not okay because heís touching me and he still expects me to breathe. I donít deserve it. He should hate me. Instead he slips his arm more securely round my waist, my breathing begins to even out, and I feel like I might faint instead. Heís brushing the exposed flesh above my jeans with his fingertips - I donít even think he realizes.

"Shhh...Iím sorry...itís okay...."

Heís murmuring softly in my ear, through my hair, and the room begins to tilt and swirl as my eyes fill with tears.

Not now, please, not now.

He takes the bag away and guides my head down onto his chest, holding me there while I cry, shielding me from all the intrusive eyes. He strokes my hair and rocks me gently and Iím home. Now everything can stop. Right here is just fine.

But that would be too easy.

Riley is holding Mr. Gordo in front of me, offering him for comfort. I manage a choked laugh as I take my little pig and hug him tightly.

Riley seems pleased. He shrugs modestly.

"Just thought it might make you feel better."

I nod and smile a bit in return.

I can feel Angel tense immediately. He needs reassurance, he needs to understand. I turn to him and shake my head.

"I donít think Mr. Gordo has ever forgiven you for the attempted pig-napping," I tell him with a sigh. "Heís still traumatized."

Angel gives me one of those spine tingling half-smiles and I know heís grateful for what I just did.

"Iíll have to think of a way to make it up to him," he says.

Iím trying to remember that a grin would be really inappropriate right now.

Riley folds his arms, and Angel glances briefly in his direction before continuing, "The pig and I - we go way back."

Okay, so maybe that remark was just the teeniest bit too pointed for an ensouled vampire of his maturity, but I can hardly blame him - considering the nature of my very special birthday reunion.

Never one to be left out, Pike comes closer and tickles Mr. Gordo under the chin.

"If you want to hear about *way* back, I remember when this fella was much newer and much pinker," he adds subtly- or actually not very subtly at all.

Scott looks confused.

"Anyone else not in the loop?"

Now I think about it, Scott always did look confused. I have that effect on guys.

Tyler raises his hand again. What is with that?

"Iíd have to say Iím kinda lost," he admits.

Iím not surprised he doesnít remember. He was never big on details.

Spike decides to be helpful and explain, "Theyíre gettin' sugary over the stuffed toy."

He manages to sound two parts bored and two parts disgruntled. Oh yeah, heís all about balance.

"I donít think I met him, Buffy and I didnít really..."

I narrow my eyes into two tiny, dangerous-looking little slits as Parkerís sentence trails off. He will *not* got there. I have to stop this. I make a move to stand up, then change my mind, smiling at them all instead.

"Not that it hasnít been great seeing you all and everything...but isnít it time you were going?"

It was worth a try, right?

Spike nods at Angel.

"Iíll go, soon as he does. Itís alright, with his record, I wouldnít even bother puttiní the kettle on."

I roll my eyes.

"Spike-"

"Iím not leaving you with these two, Buffy, you just saw how quickly they turned."

Pike raises his eyebrows at Riley in obvious disbelief. "Sheís the Slayer, man. She has super powers, whatís your deal for f-?"

"Hero complex," Spike answers.

Theyíre finishing each otherís sentences now. Iíve just realized how similar they are. Spike and Pike...creepy.

Kinda like Pod-Tyler.

"We have so much catching up to do," he says, like he actually thinks thatís possible.

Itís not. There will never be time to catch up with my life.

Uh...fought with master vampire, died, dated vampire, killed him, run in with giant mayor snake, killed it, blew up high school, run in with government, got a sister, run in with a godÖoh, died of course, came back-

Parker and Scott seem to share the sudden desire to overwhelm me with apologies, talking over each other, as well as Tyler - whoís started on his own one-way catch up session.

I end up staring blankly between them, knowing thereíll be a headache waiting for me when theyíre done.

"This isnít the time," Angel barks protectively.

Thereís that swoon-y thing again.

He marches over to the door, leaving me practically gasping at his absence.

It wonít budge.

Oh joy.

I go over and try it for myself. The handle slips round easily and the door opens.

"Slayer strength!" I grin and then I get all worried that Iíve insulted his manhood. Heh. No, wrong ex. vAngel frowns. He walks past me, but as soon as he reaches the doorway he bounces back, like he had an impact with something, like thereís some kind of invisible barrier.

Just when things canít possibly get worse.

I decide to test it for myself - just to be sure. They watch me in silence.

I walk straight out, no problem.

This canít be good.

"Maybe itís a vampire thing," I suggest, doing my best to sound positive.

Iíve hardly finished speaking when Riley marches towards the doorway with impressive determination. Heíll order that barrier right down, yes sir. He certainly has the build up for it.

He sizes it up.

Takes a deep breath.

He approaches.

He hits it.

And bounces back - landing in an embarrassing heap on my bedroom floor.

Iím the only one that manages not to laugh, but itís there bubbling at the back of my throat. You know when itís really wrong, but it just feel like you *need* to laugh or youíll bust something? Iím so there. And that look on Rileyís face is in no way helping.

He is not happy. Not at all. He looks like he wants to introduce Angel to a chair leg. Angel looks like he might want to use whatís left of the chair to beat Spike into a really messy pulp.

Theyíre all stuck in my room.

I should probably call Willow, huh?

PART 6

I can feel her absence already, the loss is tangible. She only went downstairs, but itís too far, too far when Iíve been gone so long. Iím so glad I donít need to breathe. Why am I such a mess?

Stupid question.

I have to get it together. I need to focus. I can handle this....

Is she back yet?

"What've we got here then...."

Spike opens Buffyís closet and starts casually thumbing through her clothes, like he does it all the time. Theyíre hanging there in a neat row and he just-

Hell, what if he does it all the time?

I can feel my blood start to boil again - thatís no insignificant thing, Iím a vampire, my blood is supposed to be cold.

I have to calm down. But heís *touching* her things. Itís almost as bad as him touching her. Almost. Heíll taint them, the fabrics that are going to cloak her soft skin-

Donít go there. I canít go there. Buffyís skin is off limits. All of Buffy is off limits.

Just minutes ago I was holding her. I could smell her coconut shampoo and lavender scented soap, I let my fingers trail along her waist - just a little - it felt so good to touch her, warm flesh instead of empty air.

I need to get out of here.

Where *is* she?

"What the hell are you doing, Spike?"

I hate that I nearly asked the same question as Ricky, or whatever his name is. I could snap him in two. Or three. Three would probably be more satisfying. Thereís even a part of me thatís angry at him for speaking to Spike that way - thatís my job. Iím practically his sire. If he wants to be Mr. Alpha, Iíll fight him.

Itís part of my duty. The only honorable thing to do.... No, Iím not convincing myself either.

"Keep your khakis on, Private Ponce, Iím just lookiní."

"Anything interesting?" that Parker kid asks.

He makes me want to-

Tyler joins in, "She used to have this really cute dress. Let me see if itís here."

I could settle for smashing their heads together. It would save time.

"Címon, guys, leave her stuff alone."

Pike at least has some decency, but so help me - I hate him.

"I always liked the black one, you know, with the little straps."

We all turn to look at Scott, whoís glowing red with embarrassment.

"What? Buffyís legs looked good in it!"

How am I supposed to resist the urge to propel my fist into his face, or at least snarl at him? He looked at her legs. A lot I would imagine - and who can blame him?

Me. Thatís who.

He probably touched her as well, held her hand and brushed the hair back off her face.

I feel like killing him.

What? Iím a vampire. Itís not unheard of.

Spike smiles deliberately and I know the next thing that comes out of his mouth could very likely be the last. He knows it too. Gutsy boy I raised.

"The ones that hug her backside are the best. I love those tight curves-"

He got me. Iím out of my seat before the flash of anger across my brain has even registered in my conscious mind.

I slam the closet shut.

"The next person that lays a finger on something of Buffyís will only have *one* finger left. Clear?"

I scrutinize the faces in front of me. I think weíre all on the same page now.

"Arenít you just the big man-" Riley begins.

Spike snickers at him, "Heís not a man. Buffy would never get her knickers in such a twist over a man. You should know that first hand. Well done with the big part though."

And he just keeps on snickering....

And it occurs to me that somehow I managed to spend years with this infuriating creature and I only tried to wrap his vocal chords around a flag pole *once* - that time in Sienna. Itís a long story. When you exist for as long as I have, you end up with one or two of those.

"Well, if this is gonna turn into some macho pissing contest," Pike interjects - while I consider how it would feel to have my fist interject with his head, "Iíd just like to say, just for the record, that Buffy and I never...well, letís just say if we had...Iím plenty man."

Heís grinning. Heís trying to bait me, or us, or...he just felt like boasting would be a fun way to up the tension in the room and maybe increase the potential for extreme violence. Heís boasting. Thereís boasting here now. Oh, Iím going to rot in hell - again - for even *thinking* the things I want to do to him. The boy would learn from some pain.

I canít believe Iím letting him...them...get to me so much. I should be above this. Iíve come further than this. See how crazy she makes me?

I shouldnít be here, Iím already forgetting, so help me I donít care about anything else. L.A., my friends, Wolfram and Hart...it all seems so small now that Iím in Sunnydale, in her house, in her room. But it doesnít work this way. It canít. If I learnt anything from Buffy itís that I have a mission, that Iím no good for her like this. I need to be in control. I need to be somewhere in the vicinity of normal, stable. I need to know that I wonít risk my soul and everything that matters just to be close to her again, just one more time.

He could- Angelus....

Someone could get hurt. She could get hurt.

It appears Tyler - from way *way* back in the boyfriend timeline - has taken offence too.

"I just know youíre not talking about doing my girl, Pike. Why would she have wanted you when she had me? Iíve got enough for Buffy...and then some."

His girl?

*His* girl?

Scott giggles, the boy is actually giggling.

What was Buffy thinking?

Iím having a hard time deciding which of them is going to go first: Option (a) cocky high school boyfriend who still thinks Buffy is *his* girl; option (b) the guy she obviously liked enough to dump aforementioned high school boyfriend for; or option (c) the other nasty example of a high school boyfriend who thinks this is funny.

I know - Iím a high school boyfriend too. But we saved the world together and that makes it different. Okay?

"Well, boys, it was just the once - okay, maybe twice - but I did do h-"

The words arenít even out of Parkerís mouth before the decision is made: Option (d) none of the above.

In a split second, Iíve got him pinned to the bed by his throat. I can smell the fear on him.

If I could only bottle that scent.

Angelus is singing through my veins. This pathetic boy, this useless piece of vermin, used her. He took her and hurt her. I left her so she would be safe, so she could be happy and loved like she deserved and - the very second my back was turned - he caused her more pain, made her feel cheap and alone.

She was alone.

Because I left her.

I release him, like heís nothing. He is nothing. Then I turn away.

Parker stands up and straightens his shirt.

"Geez, I know Buffy is a fine piece of ass-"

Alright. I tried not to. I tried, okay. Give me credit for that.

I whip around and punch the smug, arrogant little brat in his weak, Xander-like jaw. It gives a satisfying crack, synchronizing perfectly with his yelp of pain.

"Buffy isnít a *piece* of anything. And I hope for your sake you werenít about to follow that with the word Ďbutí."

For a second I think Iím done, but theyíre all staring at me and I realize there are some things that need to be said here, things that these children donít understand.

"Iíve been around for well over two centuries. Iíve traveled all over the world and Iíve seen every kind of woman you can imagine - and some you canít. Iíve seen pretty ones, sophisticated ones, innocent onesÖand out of all those women, in all those places, during all that time, not one of them, not *one*, even came close to Buffy. Sheís the most beautiful woman Iíve ever met. Inside and out. Iím not talking about on one campus, or in one country, or even in one lifetime....You people donít even see her. You think itís her duty that makes her so special?"

I shake my head.

"Itís her. Itís who she is. Sheís given up everything to protect the people she cares about. Sheís made sacrifices for a world that canít even begin to appreciate the burden she carries or the pain sheís suffered. Do you have any idea how it must feel to have that much responsibility? To know that if you relax for just a second people will die, if you get caught off guard youíre history - just another Slayer gone? To know that and still go on and do all the things a normal girl has to do and all the things Joyce used to do. While sheís taking care of her sister and her friends and the world, who takes care of her? Whoís there when she canít be strong? Which one of you has given her that? Which one of you didnít take much more from her than you could ever offer in return? I left because I wanted her to have everything, to have someone who could always be there for her, day or night, who could give her children and sunshine and a real life. And this is all she got?"

They stare back at me. I know there are no answers to my questions, none that they can give anyway.

"None of us are even close to good enough. Weíve all hurt her over and over. And the worst thing? She had to carry on anyway. Sheís still fighting. She doesnít believe thereís anything left for her at the end of it, but she still has to fight. Do you get that? Are any of you even sorry? That one, tiny woman single-handedly saved all of our lousy asses at one time or another. If you canít show her some respect, at least for that, then I really have no idea why she bothers anymore. A world full of people like you isnít worth saving. You deserve every apocalypse the powers can throw at you and I wouldnít blame her if she just sat back and watched."

Iím laughing now, and I can hear it, hard and bitter, like it isnít coming from me. Things are starting to make more sense. I can see it all clearly when I take a look around this room.

Itís no wonder she wanted out.

"Man, I thought I had it bad...."

Pikeís murmur is barely audible above the sound of Riley grinding his teeth - my hearing is really, really good.

Spike snorts derisively....I doubt that was his specific intention of course 'cause Spikeís intellect doesnít stretch to derision.

"Well, boo-bloody-hoo. Give the Ross his Rachel and weíll all watch it crash and burn. *Again*."

Is he still speaking English?

"Uh - a pop culture reference - thereís this T.V. show...." Scott offers helpfully.

Nice to know my confusion is so embarrassingly obvious - you see? How can I be with Buffy when I know more about what happened the year they invented television than what was on last night?

Scott has rambled on for a while - lost me somewhere between the lesbian wedding and the face painting in Vegas - and now he looks like I should be grateful for the barrage of useless trivia and, he seems so damn earnest, I think I almost *want* to thank him - almost.

I have to get out of here. Soon.

"Tell you what, those guys are doomed. Rachel needs a real man. Now Joey-"

Whatever Pike is talking about seems to upset Riley - so Iím all for it.

"Because a beautiful woman couldnít possibly want security and stability?" he argues.

Poor boy really doesnít have a clue. Maybe he looked better in uniform, I canít see any other way Buffy would give him a second look.

Oh great, now itís Parkerís turn. Please come back, Buffy. Please.

"Thatís not what she sees in him. Heís vulnerable and women like-"

"Yeah, you wanker, youíd know all about that wouldnít you?" Spike mumbles as we all sneer at Parker in unison.

Now, *him* we can all agree on.

"I think that Chandler guyís funny," Tyler informs us. "You have to be able to make a woman laugh."

Spike looks at me like weíre in this together. Vampires against the moronic human masses. He nods.

"Yeah mate. Course."

"At least *Ross* has some kind of integrity," Riley snaps. "He doesnít rely on sex to fulfill his emotional needs."

Pike laughs, "Emotional needs? Joey doesnít have any!"

"And Chandler canít get any!" Parker adds.

Theyíre laughing *together* now.

What is this, some kind of no-member-too-infantile social club?

Riley sighs like the whole conversation is beneath him and then puts his two cents in anyway.

"Ross and Rachel arenít all burning passion and intensity, but theyíd sure as hell outlast any half-baked, forbidden love, destiny garbage that only high school girls are into. I wouldnít let these guys bug you, Angel. Youíre not Buffyís ĎRossí. Most girls have their hearts broken by some emotionally unavailable crush, but then they grow up. The *real* relationships come after."

So help me Iím gonna turn the little bastard and spend eternity torturing him.

Slowly.

With white-hot skewers. And shards of glass. And some teeny, tiny little razor blades....

And some acid.

Riley doesnít stop, "...You know you canít give Buffy that any more than Spike can."

Iím adding a chainsaw to the list.

Only one person can stop me doing it. And she does. I can feel her coming down the hall even before the soft padding of her bare feet on the carpet reaches my sensitive ears (are you getting that my hearing is good yet?). Almost, but not quite, a tingle - a faint warmth creeping through my long dead veins, as if her proximity stirs my blood. An instinct. One of the few I have that arenít in some way predatory.

The door opens. Breathing. Heartbeat. Coconut. Lavender. She breezes in like sheís in perfect control of this insanity. Beautiful, honey blonde hair. Tiny, immaculate, golden body. And finally, finally, those impossibly soft hazel eyes looking up at me. Iím trying to ignore the protests my mouth and my hands are making at being excluded from the experience.

Mustnít touch.

Mustnít even think about tasting.

Absolutely not.

PART 7

Theyíre all staring at me like Iím nuts or something. Iím resisting the urge to point out that theyíre the ones who appeared in their exís bedroom like some thought-that-counts birthday gift from hell. Or at least the Hell-*mouth*. Alright, it wasnít funny, fine, but I have to distract myself somehow. Angel is giving me that look. The one where I feel like I should root myself to the ground before he absorbs me completely.

You know the one I mean.

"So, letís get this straight, pet. Youíre sayiní Anyaís old partner in scorned demoness vengeance-"

"Hallie," I confirm. "She came for the wedding."

"Right, love, so this Hallie decides that, while sheís in town, sheíd do a spot of burger flipping, to pass the time-" Spike continues, amusement sparkling in his voice.

I might have found that kind of attractive if Angel werenít in the room. Itís probably best I donít let him take it too far.

"She started working there because of me," I explain. "Apparently, my crappy life gives off bad vibes that carry right across state *and* dimensional lines."

"Sheís a vengeance demon," Riley states thoughtfully.

"No. A justice demon," I correct, then I sigh heavily.

Well, wouldnít you? I explained this once already.

"Look, I called Willow. Then I called the magic box to see if Anya could do some research. She was suspicious right away. Sheís trying to find Hallie."

"So what now?" Parker asks.

He looks far less confident than he did before I left the room and itís probably safe to assume the blue-black swelling spreading up his face can explain it. Iím trying to feel angry at whoever did it. I know violence is kinda my job, but Iím trained and chosen and stuff, and it really isnít the answer to anything etc etc.

I hope it was Angel.

"You made a wish."

His voice is calm and understanding and thick with all the things we canít say. Now that *is* attractive. All warm and chocolate-y....

What? You canít relate to chocolate?

I nod, I can feel my face flush lightly.

"I was upset....I mean, you know how bad my birthdays usually suck. I just wanted to face it all and deal - the past - all the-"

"We understand."

Thanks for the vote of pity Riley, but, do you?

"So, if you face it, if you deal with it, everythingís cool again, right? Not that I havenít enjoyed seeing you, Buff, itís just this situation is pretty whacked."

I miss Pike. Not like *that*, but I miss him.

Maybe heíll stick around for a while.

"Maybe you should try to weigh things up, you know? Get it all out in the open, work through the issues - go through the pros and cons. Since weíre all stuck here anyway...."

Hello, and welcome to the Parker Abrahms show! Todayís pathetic needy guest: Buffy Summers! Young Buffy has a tragic love-life and weíre here to drag her through every painful, embarrassing moment!

I smile, one of *those* smiles.

"Should I start with you then, Parker?"

So help me, heís taken it as a compliment. Heís actually smug. The others know me better, they can see it coming.

"Letís see. Youíre smart...and cute, I guess, and that night we spent together...."

Oh, heís practically glowing now.

"You know, if it hadnít been a huge mistake that Iíd never stop regretting, had I not already totally wiped the whole crappy thing from my mind, it *might* have been a vaguely enjoyable experience."

A low growl escapes from Angelís direction. I donít know if anyone else heard, but I felt it way before the sound reached me and I think maybe I should get to the point.

"Assuming, of course, that I could get over the fact that youíre conceited and a liar and you have no respect for women. Then thereís the fact that you use the same line *every* time, you tried to hit on Willow, you bragged about me to your friends, you clearly have no morals and probably some serious self-esteem Ďissuesí hidden under all that testosterone...."

I could probably get to like this game.

Parker looks deflated, he stares at the floor.

Angel looks proud.

Thereís my girl - I can almost hear him say it to himself, itís like the longer weíre in the same room the more in tune we are, and I canít help but feel a little proud too. I really told him, didnít I?

"Whoís next?" I challenge.

Iím not really giving them a choice here. Iím on a roll.

"Tyler? How about you? You were my first boyfriend....In fact, thatís really all I have to say. It was a long time ago and you couldnít handle not being the center of my world when I was first called. We had fun, I think, Iím sure youíve turned out to be a great guy and all that-"

"Gee, Buffy, be blunt, huh?"

"Sorry, Tyler, but we're, like, pre-past and you did drop me and take someone else to that dance, remember? Which is a great way to move onto you, Scott."

He winces as I turn on him. He really is too innocent looking to be such an asshole. Like Parker really, which begs the question: Why do I keep falling for it?

"I really thought you were a sweet guy. I *so* wasnít ready for a relationship, but you made me feel like it was okay, like I could relax and have a good time with you. Shame you didnít have the decency to stick around when things got complicated or at least admit you wanted to date someone else."

That was probably a bit harsh, but Iím still glad I said it. Consider my wrist slapped.

His brow gets all squished, like heís trying to work out if he should be offended or if Iím right. He doesnít respond, so I decide move on while I still have the guts.

"Pike-"

"Skip it, Buff, we were better as friends. I know the score."

Pike grins at me. Iím grateful, I really am.

Heís one of the good ones....

And this is where it gets tricky.

"Riley...."

He looks kinda surprised at being next.

"Iím sorry. I really am. It wasnít fair of me to get involved with you. I wasnít ready, my heart wasnít free-"

Did I just say something that corny out loud?

God.

Why quit there, I guess.

"I cared about you. A lot. You made me smile and you made me feel safe and comfortable when I really needed to feel those things. Youíre a good man, Riley, and for a long time I thought that was enough, but you werenít the right guy for me. And I wasnít the right girl for you. You need someone who can settle down with you and give you her full attention, give you everything. It wasnít fair of me to expect-"

This is hurting him. I thought heíd be ready to hear it. Iím a horrible, horrible, selfish...mean-person. I just donít know how else to make him understand.

"I went after you that night, you know?"

Heís shaking his head and it looks like itís part in answer to my question, part in disbelief. I risk a glance at Angel.

He looks queasy.

So stake me, Iím glad.

He left me because he wanted me to be with someone like Riley. He needs to see that he was wrong.

They *both* need to hear this.

"I saw you leave. The last thing I wanted was for you to be gone from my life, but maybe it was best for both of us. We were too comfortable. It was difficult for either of us to see what we were lacking. The things you did before you left - we could spend hours figuring out who was to blame. I know you were trying to be what you think I wanted and I know I was distracted with my mom."

I have to stop there and catch my breath as I realize yet again that my mom is gone. Theyíre quiet for a moment, patient, and I also realize how lucky Iíve been to have some of the men in this room care about me so much - *some* of them - for however long. Riley is waiting for me to continue and suddenly the rest of what I have to say seems really inadequate.

"I was shocked when you left - I donít know why, itís pretty much a pattern with me."

That was meant to be cynical. I wish it hadnít come out so sad.

Lines are crossing Angelís forehead. I look at him, pleading silently for a sign that he didnít take it personally. His lips twist up, just a little at one corner, and I know, as always, he understands.

"You know Iíd never leave you, love."

Spike speaks quietly, I wasnít prepared for that. He sounds sincere and I believe him, but he and I...itís too recent for all this. To just talk about it like-

"Because you donít give a damn about her future," Angel mutters with total contempt - trying hard to keep his voice low, to keep his cool.

Iím grateful, but still - I remember how mad that used to make me, when I needed him to react, when I needed to see-

Spike wonít let it go and he *wonít* keep his cool.

"At least I let her make her own bloody choices!"

"Enough!"

Being the only female in the room has its advantages. Theyíre glowering at each other again now, but theyíre doing it quietly.

"Spike, Iím glad that youíre around okay? You understood me better than most of my friends when I...came back. For a soulless demon, you know, you really have become a thoughtful, caring friend, but you canít extend that to everyone can you? Itís about getting what you want. I donít want you to change for me. I donít want to tame you, thatís not what Iím about - itís *not* about danger and darkness - I donít want to keep fighting with you that way."

He watches me, looking for something- something to tell him Iím lying.

"Donít get me wrong, you ever get that chip out and start snacking on my friends or, actually, *anyone* and Iíll stake you so fast you wonít even have time to lick your lips-"

"Oh thatís charming, pet. Iím touched-"

Spike doesnít get to finish his little sarcasm trip, the door opens.

Itís Dawn.

How bad does this have to get?

"Hey, birthday girl-"

She stops to take in our freaky mix of house guests.

"Ever think of knocking, Dawn, ícause I think we decided this was my room."

What? Sheís my little sister. This is how weíre supposed to be.

"Sorry for not knowing you had the entire Buffy Summers fan club over. Is this like some weird memory lane orgy?"

Did she just-

"Dawn!"

"What?" she asks, all innocently. "You gotta admit itís pretty susí, Buffy."

"When did you become a person old enough to use the word Ďorgyí?"

Ugh. I hate that Iím the parent here.

Okay, tell her. Sheíll get bored. Sheíll go away.

"Look, Anyaís friend. Vengeance demon. I made a wish. Have to deal with my past. Happy Birthday, Buffy."

Thatís all I have by way of an explanation - the third time around.

"Oh, nice."

She shrugs her little Buffyís-strappy-top-wearing shoulders casually.

Iím kinda sorry that sheís not thrown by any of it. This shouldnít be Ďnormalí for her. I donít remember what Ďnormalí is like, but she should. Iíll take her to a movie tomorrow, or maybe shopping, and weíll be your average snippy sisters for a while. Just for a while.

But now?

She needs to leave.

"So...."

I glare at her like thereís even the slimmest chance sheíll take the hint.

"You can leave now."

"No way! Iím not missing this! Besides itíd be rude of me not to say hello to everyone."

She grins, pulling Pike into an enthusiastic hug. Geez, Dawn, the guy needs to breathe - easy mistake to make with my exes, but still...

Pike laughs and ruffles her hair.

"Hey, Squirt, long time no smooch."

He taps his cheek and Dawn giggles, like sheís still that little girl with pigtails he used to tease mercilessly. Then she deliberately goes for the other side.

My eyes hurt from rolling so hard.

"Hey, Dawn."

Riley smiles and she practically runs to him. Iím gonna throw up. They do this ridiculous twirl-y thing, like heís *her* ex or something, and she giggles all over again. When he finally puts her down she waves and says hi to Tyler - who looks a bit awkward as he waves back - and then takes in the rest of the room, looking Parker and Scott over carefully.

She scowls at them, narrowing her eyes.

"Think I can guess who *you* two are."

They look embarrassed. Okay, so my sisterís not all bad.

Eventually, she turns to the two vampires behind her.

"Alright, Bit?" Spike nods.

"Uh-huh...but why are you here? Youíre not...youíre not...Buffy?"

Sheís looking right at me and I want to deny it, but itís already too late. I must look so guilty.

Oh, God.

"Oh my God - Buffy! You and- you and...and Spike?"

"Dawn, I have enough to deal with right now."

She looks around.

"I can see that."

She glares directly at Angel as she speaks. The missing Ďhelloí hasnít gone unnoticed. I think heís trying not to look hurt.

Dawn obviously doesnít care.

"Shall I break out the tissues now or wait ítil heís gone?"

Spike laughs, "Sheís got your number, Peaches."

Angel picks up a bear - ironically enough, I think Riley bought it for me. Its eyes are a little close together. That always bugged me.

Heís throwing it from palm to palm. He swallows and looks down at the floor. I want to kill them all. Okay, maybe not kill them, but yell at them a lot. He spends enough time punishing himself-

Dawn sits herself on the bed.

This just keeps getting better.

"So, you were doing me, love. Sícuse the pun."

"Spike!"

Okay, at least three of us said that, just donít ask me who.

"What? Itís true."

"Could you not discuss my sex life in front of my little sister?"

What is up with him?

"She knows the facts of life, Buffy," Spike says gravely, "And *our* sex life is nothing to be ashamed of. Iíd say it was bloody good in fact."

"I think youíve said enough," Angel warns, his voice still low and controlled.

Just.

Riley wonít let the subject drop.

"Thatís all you had though, wasnít it, Spike? Nothing but sex. You're no better than the rest of these clowns."

"Hey!"

No one even acknowledges Parkerís protest.

Spike cocks an eyebrow. "Whatever, mate. I suppose you had something else?"

Of course, Riley is only too happy to defend 'us', or 'ex-us', or whatever you call it.

"We had a relationship, we made love-"

Angel clears his throat conspicuously. I didnít think heíd like hearing that.

Oh.

Heís no longer tossing the bear between his hands. Thereís no need: because they have half each. Heís ripped the head right off. He coughs and looks way too guilty. I want to tell him it doesnít matter, tell him I didnít like it anyway, tell him about the thing with the eyes being too close together, but that would be too cruel with Riley standing right there.

"Buffy, I-I didnít mean to-"

He looks confused and anxious and I hate that Iíve put him in this position.

"Itís okay," I promise, ignoring Rileyís stiffening jaw line.

The tiny bit of fun I was having with this has shriveled up. I just want it to be over. I saved the best and the worst for last.

"I think Iíd just about gotten to your turn hadnít I?"

Angel nods like heís voting for his own execution. Iím just going to look at him for a while. Thereís nothing I need to say out loud. And I donít give a damn whoís watching.

Just so you know.

The air between us hums just that little bit louder when our eyes connect, like weíve had these invisible wires running between us the whole time and someone flipped a switch to turn the power on.

nHow can he not know that none of it matters?

How can he not know that it would work out somehow?

That's not something a girl says because she's too naÔve and trusting to know any better - itís something you say when youíve found the other half of yourself out of the huge mess of people in the world and you know youíll do anything, fight anything, to make it work.

How can he not know?

PART 8

She isnít speaking. Is that good or bad? Christ, I love that woman.

Christ?

Well, I *was* keen to rebel against my Catholic upbringing when I was alive. Some habits canít be broken.

Do I have a religion now? I have Buffy. Iíve been around too long to believe that Iím important enough to know anything about God, the gods or whatever goes on where we canít see. I just know whoever's running this show needs to get me out of this room before I can't bear to leave.

It never gets any easier.

How am I supposed to go back now? How am I supposed to pretend all this didnít happen? How am I supposed to pretend itís alright? Again.

She died and I wasnít here. All that sacrifice so that she could have a normal life and she ends up with no life at all. And now?

Riley was right.

I canít offer her anything better than Spike. I can love her in ways heíll never even understand, but I canít *make* love to her.

He can.

He has....I want to split his over-dyed head in two and I want to shake her. So help me, I want to shake her until she can see straight. How could she let him touch her, let him violate her body like that? Did she whisper his name? Did she run her powerful little hands through his hair? Plant tiny, Buffy kisses all over his face?

This shouldnít be happening. How can she have let any of these men close to her? Theyíre not worthy. They canít-

I could be having another epiphany...or maybe just making a confession to myself.

No one ever will be.

No one can love her more than I do. No one. But Iím not worthy either. I know that. I canít give her what she needs. I could hurt her. Angelus could hurt her. Itís dangerous - I would have stayed, I would have kept her, ignored the future, dealt with it later, who knows, but I couldnít risk hurting her.

He loves her too, I know that. In his own sick way, Angelus loves her. He wants her for himself, heíd turn her to darkness, take her from everything she knows, from who she is. I canít allow that.

So keep your pants zipped: Is that what youíre thinking?

Well, first of all, have you *seen* this woman? And second? What we have, this thing between us, itís not about words and thoughts and rational decisions - itís want and need and to hell with the consequences - sometimes literally. There *is* no control, no denial, or at least, not enough for me to stake the lives of her family on it.

I know all the cons, and the pros, well...thereís just one of those, but itís a big one.

Sheís my girl.

She belongs with me. We all know that, even this bunch of miscreants. It might sound arrogant and presumptuous, but itís just a fact - and itís frustrating the rest of these guys in grand style.

Canít say I mind that part.

Throats are being cleared now, eyes are rolling...it must feel like theyíre intruding on something private.

They are.

She walked towards me, I hardly noticed, but now sheís right there. A single step away.

Just one.

Itís enough to make me resent whoever built this house to be so damn big.

I know what sheís trying to tell me. Even if I hadnít heard it a hundred times before, Iíd still know. And I donít want to share it with the people in this room. I donít want to share it with anyone. I donít want to share *her* with anyone. Ever. So, when she starts to speak, I canít help but touch my fingers to her lips, even though they burn with the sense of loss, even though it intensifies the hunger and makes it all so much harder....I do it anyway.

Her mouth makes a perfect little Ďoí, like I just gave her a gift with expensive department store wrapping - thatís the kind of girl she is.

Sheís exquisite.

And for a few seconds, sheís mine again.

The throat clearing would be deafening, if that were possible. We both force ourselves to turn away and I can almost feel the jagged tear that will be left when Iím gone from here and I remember this moment. Iím trying not to blame the new arrivals.

Willow.

Wow, thatís Willow?

Sheís standing there with Anya - at least I think itís Anya. Did she change her hair or something?

"Whereís Hallie?" Buffy asks.

She sounds confused again.

"Uh- uh, well yísee, Buffy...we, well, we thought-"

Sheís stalling.

This canít be good.

"Willow, what is it?"

That is not a happy Buffy.

She wants me gone?

No, she wants *them* gone. Or maybe all of us.

"We decided not to help. You made a good wish. Hallie said as soon as youíve got things straight, things will be as they should be."

Anya smiles.

Uh-oh.

Buffy is stunned, her eyebrows arch prettily - well, I think itís pretty.

"Excuse me?"

Willow backs away a little.

"N-now, donít get mad. You just have to sort out the past here. Itíll be good for you- please donít hate me!"

Buffy sighs.

I love it when she sighs. I have a really vivid memory of-

Something else Iím not willing to share.

The girls go and sit with Dawn on the bed and I notice for the first time that Anya is carrying a grocery bag. She pulls out various snacks and finds herself looking up at one incredibly angry Slayer.

"What. The. Hell?"

"Bugger it, why not enjoy the show?" Spike chuckles maniacally.

Iím starting to wonder if maybe he spent a little too much time with Dru....

Buffy snaps, whipping round to face him with naked aggression in her eyes.

"Shut it, Spike. Iíve had enough of this."

Good girl.

I want to kiss her so badly right now. I have to stare out of the window for a while just to keep myself in check.

Spikeís unfazed.

"My point exactly," he says. "I canít see much progress, love."

He calls her that again and I swear Iíll introduce him to the conveniently open window and the sharp end of one of the conveniently protruding branches on that conveniently placed tree outside it.

"Why are you here, Spike?"

Willow asks the question so guilelessly that itís obvious she hasnít a clue whatís been going on in her best friendís life. It strikes me as odd, but in this case I think ignorance really could be bliss.

What I would give to not know.

"Buffyís been getting a taste of the bad she loves best. You surprised?"

Buffy looks horrified and ashamed and I want to tell her itís alright. Mistakes happen all the time - and she has a better excuse than most.

No one here is in a position to judge her.

The insensitive bastard doesnít stop.

"Well you have, pet, and now we need to get it sorted one way or another."

"And what do you suggest, Spike?" Riley asks, like he canít wait to hear the next atrocity that might skip out of the screwed up little mind I helped create.

If he had any sense, he would know the last thing Spike needs is encouragement - sincere or otherwise.

"Kill or cure, mate. None of this should be about talking. Itís about feeling. Buffy just needs to learn how she really feels."

Pike looks amused.

I could change that. I could - and it wouldnít take long.

"Sheís gonna do that how exactly?"

Spike. Doesnít. Need. Encouragement.

"A kissing contest."

See.

I canít believe he said that with a straight face. Thatís what one bottle of peroxide too many will do. Oh. Thisíll be fun. Yes. Now, I get to rip some real heads off.

I get jealous. A lot.

Donít pretend youíre surprised.

PART 9

So. Itís my birthday. Iím in my bedroom. And Iím kissing my first proper boyfriend.

Again.

How did I get talked into this? I mean, not only is it ridiculous and degrading, but Angel is in the audience - yes, thereís a whole audience, lucky me - and heís going to snap any minute.

I donít want to kiss anyone else.

I donít do very well at finding the enthusiasm to kiss other guys when heís *not* here. Right now I could be kissing my own hand.

What?

Everyone used to practice, didnít they?

Tyler is sweet. Heís not a skillful kisser, but he tries. It reminds me of being young and happy and it reminds me of a time when a kiss was just that. Thereís nothing behind it, no feeling, no fire and I have to fight really hard not to open my eyes and peek at Angel.

Is he angry?

Why didnít he try and stop this crazy thing? Maybe he doesnít care who I kiss.

Iím probably being irrational.

Spikeís right - mostly. This isnít about talking. When itís *there* you know, you feel it, in your stomach, on your skin. Iíve felt it, so you can trust me.

And Iím not talking about lust. I know about that too and I know itís part of the whole package, but itís a detachable part thatís real easy to find walking around all by itself, and you get to have a whole lot of good times with it, and it can feel like itís all you need-

For a little while.

Maybe this is the solution. Maybe here, all in the same room, I can convince Angel what I need and what I want *are* the same thing...or maybe Iíll find out he was right all along.

Itís okay, I donít believe that either.

If Iím honest, Iím going along with this because I get to kiss Angel. More than a small part of me is hoping thatís why he didnít fight the idea too hard. That, and the fact that he probably feels like he has no right to complain about who I kiss, which is technically true, but Iíd like to see him kiss some of his exes in front of me.

That was a threat by the way, not another Buffy-birthday-wish.

Iíve just realized that Tylerís already pulled away. Heís gazing down at me like I should react somehow. I suck in some air and attempt a smile.

"I...uh...well, thanks, Tyler."

"I missed you, Buffy. I really-"

"Donít."

I couldnít bear to hear him finish the sentence.

Itís the spell, it has to be.

"But, Buffy-"

"Whoís next?"

Oh, my God, did I really just say that?

Well done, Buffy.

Classy.

Once again my mouth beats my brain cells to the action.

Dawn pulls another scrap of paper out of the would-be hat, which is in fact an old jewelry box. This was apparently the fairest way of deciding. Spike was pushing to start with the most recent, then Tyler and Pike wanted us to start with the earliest and no one was impressed when I suggested we go in alphabetical order. Except Angel, of course, who gave me one of those adorable little half smiles and made me want to tell the others to go to hell and throw myself at him shamelessly.

Will someone remind me why I canít do that?

Next up is Spike.

Well, it could have been worse, Iím more worried about kissing Riley, to be honest, about disappointing him - because of all the history we have, because I donít feel the same way he does. Because I never did.

I can see the mix of curiosity and horror on everyoneís faces as Spike saunters over to me - yes, saunters - like only guys in the movies are supposed to.

He does love a bit of drama.

He slips a hand around my waist and jerks me roughly towards him.

Nice to see heís not putting on an act for the other guests.

He stares at me with those ice blue eyes, just for a second, like he wants to remember what I look like *before* the kiss. He attacks my mouth with passion, as always, crushing me to him with a force thatíll Iíll admit I enjoy. Iím the Slayer, this is going to sound totally pathetic, but sometimes I need to feel like someone can compete with me, like Iím not in control, like I donít have to be.

Heís had plenty of practice at pushing my buttons and thereís definitely some heat here, but itís empty. Usually, I can close off my mind and let the experience take me, but Angel's here and Iím hyper-aware. I couldnít lose myself to this kiss even if I wanted to.

Spikeís kissing me harder, urging me to respond as I normally would...trying to breathe some life into me.

Without the actual breathing, of course.

I break it off and turn my head aside. I donít want to see the accusing look, see how cheated he feels.

And to think, I was more worried about disappointing Riley.

He lets me go and I risk a glance at him. Heís not angry, itís worse than that, heís hurt. I have to believe itís just his pride.

"Weíll see what happens when all this is over. You know where youíll be runniní to, Slayer."

I let him have that. Let him dust off his ego and back off, heading over to lean against the doorframe again.

"Okay," Willow yelps, a little too cheerily. "Letís move it along."

She makes a show of ruffling around in the box and chooses another piece of paper.

Sheís pursing her lips and blushing in that special Willow way.

"Oh, boy. Angel, itís you."

I notice then that Angel has his back turned. Heís at the window, his hands balled into tight fists at his sides. As he faces me, I can see that his teeth are clenched and the muscles across his neck and shoulders are tensed. His eyes have clouded over somehow. I canít read them.

I go to him, my heart thumping hard, blood thundering in my ears like you read in books - yes, I read, I took English at school you know - I wonder if he can hear it?

God, Please.

I donít know what Iím asking for, but it feels like I should pray or something.

It feels like Iím floating across the room, mainly because Iím honestly not in control of my legs. I think someone switched them for a pair of shoe laces. Iím suddenly afraid he might refuse, or I might faint. I just kissed two other guys - Iím like a used car. Maybe I should brush my teeth?

I wish I would just shut up.

Anyone in the room who has breath is holding it, including me.

Heís reaching out his hand, Iím so relieved....

Thank you, thank you.

He rests it on my cheek, cool, gentle and still more passionate than anything I could ever experience with anyone else.

He looks into my eyes and lets me see into his, past the anger and jealousy and confusion, to where he just wants to forget everyone else and kiss me, not because of the spell, not to prove a point. I will always belong to Angel. Being here with all of them has shown me that, shown me that I canít doubt it anymore, so, you see, thereís nothing *for* him to prove.

Angelís *here*.

Sorry, I just needed to remind myself that the lips Iím tilting my head up to kiss belong to him, like the hand resting between my shoulder blades, encouraging me to move closer, like the hand easing across my cheek and into my hair....

He kisses me so softly; I want to die all over again. Nothingís changed, he holds me like he never wants to let go, but heís afraid he might break me. Another time I might see the irony there. I wish I could describe it better. Heís much smarter than me and he could do it with long words and make it sound like art or something. I can only say that it feels like he wants me, really, really badly (we talked about lust right?), but heíd be happy for the rest of eternity if all he ever got to do was look at me. He pours everything into the kiss, appreciates every sensation and Iím trying to do the same, like he taught me to. I want him to feel it like I do.

He smells of fresh air and the night, the hairs at the back of his head are smooth and short, and his skin prickles when I scrape my nails lightly across his neck. His hands are strong and controlled, obviously controlled, like if he lets them move too fast or linger too long heíll lose it. He leads the kiss with his wide, supple lips, waiting for me to respond to each movement, taking me with him, never pushing, never needing too, Iíll always follow.

It feels like everything else is fading away.

I canít pretend it matters. Iím kissing Angel...Angelís kissing me.

What else *is* there?

PART 10

Iím kissing her. Iím actually kissing her. In my rather weak defense, there was a spell....

Who am I kidding, right?

Have I mentioned that I love this woman? Is that a good enough defense? Have I mentioned that sheís the only natural light Iíll ever see no matter how many centuries I have to live through? Sheíll be gone - in less years than I spent wallowing in self pity, sheíll have lived and saved the world and died. More than once. And Iím supposed to go on fighting in her memory when that happens, supposed to remember that other people are relying on me? Sure.

If I didnít think - if there wasnít some tiny, forbidden recess in my mind that believed - one day, somehow, in some lifetime, weíll be together....Iíd have been watching the sun come up a long time ago. Fate, Heaven, reincarnation, the Powers That Be, another dimension...I donít care how or where or who makes it happen - only that it does.

I wanted Buffyís life to be everything she dreamed when she was a little girl. I canít give that to her. Not yet. And I donít want her to waste her life waiting for me. Thatís not what loving her is about.

I canít stand what these men have done to her, that theyíve hurt her, but I donít begrudge her any of it. Sheís my soul mate. Thatís practically common knowledge. Okay, Iím immortal, but there are stakes and thereís sunlight and a good few people whoíd be happy to cut my head off. Neither of us will live on indefinitely. Even if we canít be together now at least we know. I thank the Powers everyday just for the knowledge that sheís out there.

And after? Whatever happens when you die, if I have to spend another eternity or two in a hell dimension first, I know Iíll find her. We could have a white picket fence in Heaven, or come back as Jill and Bob normal and have a whole swarm of beautiful children, warm and graceful and loving, just like their mother.

Eventually.

As for now? Right now, sheís in my arms and Iím surrounded by silky, gold hair and coconut and lavender and her lips are breathing the very essence of her life into mine.

Right now, Iím wondering why the hell I ever settled for eventually.

When she pulls away itís actually an effort not to whimper like a little puppy dog.

She looks around and I follow the path of her eyes with my own.

Oh.

The room is empty.

Guess we got a little distracted.

So much for good hearing, huh?

"Where-"

Buffy starts to voice the question when she notices the pair of eyes that Iíve just seen peering around the door. Willow pokes her head back into the room.

"Oh, sorry guys!"

She blushes.

I like Willow, but in my mind when I see her I always hear her telling me Buffy is dead, hear the finality in her small, guilty voice....

Even thinking about it makes me shiver.

"Iíve taken Dawn and Anya downstairs, well, I bribed them actually, but thatís not for you to- anyhow, guess you have some more uh...talking to do."

She starts to close the door.

"Will, wait! What happened?"

Buffy looks confused some more. I canít say I blame her.

"The spell was broken, wish granted," Willow says matter-of-factly. "I think you found a solution."

Sheís grinning and I feel like I might blush.

"Anya says the others wonít remember anything, like they were never here."

Now *Iím* confused.

"But you-"

"The rest of us werenít part of the spell. We were just along for the ride...."

Iím actually sorry when Willowís gone because I have no idea what to say.

Okay....

Think.

Whatís changed?

"Iím sorry - about today, I mean, you were probably busy and-"

"No. I was just-"

What was I doing? Of course....

"I bought tickets today, for the ballet."

"Oh."

She looks hurt.

Why did I tell her that?

I am the least-sensitive ensouled creature ever to walk this Earth.

Two seconds alone together and her eyes are about ready to be glistening with tears. My next attempt will, no doubt, be equally pathetic.

"I thought of you."

Sheís trying to smile, but she doesnít believe me, or itís not enough.

"I mean, I remembered it was your birthday. I-I picked out a gift. I didnít- I mean, I didnít get you a gift, but I picked something out that I would have if-"

Someone stop me.

Thereís a little frown tugging at her eyebrows.

"What was it?"

"It was a snow globe...."

I am ridiculous.

"...Thereís a miniature town in it. It reminds me of Ireland and, when you shake it, it reminds me of-"

Her eyes are shining now, not with tears.

"I love it."

"I love you."

Iíve said it before I can stop myself and she looks so wonderfully happy, and so unbearably sad, I canít stand it.

"I know nothingís changed, Buffy, but you should-"

My throatís constricted. All the words are so mixed up in my head....

"I believe in us. I always have...and I wonít stop. No matter what. Even if-"

I have to stop talking now, before I canít.

I have to leave now, before I canít.

Sheís stunned, Iím not sure if she understands - if I really said those things out loud.

"You must have birthday plans," my voice says...without my consent.

"Nothing fancy," she assures me.

I find myself walking over to her and pressing a kiss to her forehead.

My hands are shaking, demanding that I touch her.

"I should probably go, leave you to get on with things. Todayís been..."

She opens her mouth, but her words wonít come. I steal the opportunity like the coward I am.

The last time I look at her thereís a tear slipping silently down her cheek where I know more will follow.

More tears that I wonít smooth away.

More pain that Iíve caused.

More pain that I canít ease....

Then Iím out in the street.

It all happened so fast. I donít know how I got here, how I made it down the stairs, past Willow and Anya and Dawn or even if I said goodbye.

All I know is that my girl is up there alone in her room, crying, and Iím walking away.

Again.

Only, this time, I canít seem to remember why.

PART 11

Mr. Gordo is too small. My face is too wet. Itís my birthday today, Iím twenty-one and...

Why canít I cry?

It hurts. It hurts like I knew it would and a little more too. Always more than the last time.

There are tears, but I canít cry.

Any moment someone, probably Willow, will come up to check on me, see what happened, if Iím okay, and Iíll tell her and pretend Iíll get over it and weíll go downstairs and celebrate my birthday like I didnít just die inside, like I didnít feel it burning there again, like I havenít been alive today for the first time since- since I donít know when. Like it hasnít all just been stamped out.

Like I have some kind of future.

They want me to pretend some more?

I will.

In a couple of minutes, Iíll start pretending all over again.

Iím curled up on my bed. Itís almost like the day hasnít started yet, like none of it was real. What was the point if it was going to end like this?

What was the point?

The jewelry box is lying open next to me. Three names still lay unfolded in the lid, the names of the guys I kissed not half an hour ago: Spike, Tyler, Scott-

Scott?

But he wasnít-

Willow.

She wins a small, impossible smile from me for that well-meaning lie.

Maybe she does understand.

I look through the rest of the box and unwrap the scraps of paper until I find it: Angel.

I stare at the name, scribbled quickly, in Dawnís typical teenage handwriting. Before I can stop myself, Iíve slipped it into my pocket.

I donít know why.

Iím in the bathroom all of a sudden and I donít know how I got here. Iím in a daze - on autopilot. For some reason, Iím splashing water on my face....

It occurs to me that I intend to go downstairs and get on with dinner. Theyíll know. The pie will be burnt. I havenít made the salad yet.

Itís obvious.

I carry on anyway.

Thereís a meal. I eat some of it, they tell me itís good and I watch myself smile at the compliment. I listen to Xander joke that Iíll make quite the little wife and security system package-deal.

Willow and Tara are quieter than usual and I know itís because theyíre worried about me.

They saw him leave then....

Dawn's cross, she wants me to open up to her, she wants me to blame Angel.

Xander's over enthusiastic. He wants to blame Angel too, but he wants me to laugh on my birthday.

Maybe I do, maybe I donít. Iím not paying much attention.

They give me presents and I thank them graciously, trying to forget that this is the first birthday without my mom, that she wonít get mad when I leave paper and ribbon all over the floor and she wonít hide a special present in her closet upstairs for later.

Itís Willowís closet now anyway.

They bought me the scarf. Itís beautiful....

Ireland in winter.

Snow-

God, Buffy, donít.

Anya makes blunt remarks about how much it cost. Xander tells her not to be rude and they fight a little. I donít think Iíve ever been so jealous of anything before in my life. To be so close, so involved in each otherís lives, to bicker like family and know it canít touch what you share, that itís not important in the end. They have all that and they donít even know.

Angel and I will never be that way. We never were.

We have always and destiny and forever, but we canít have tomorrow, or a week next Thursday or a stupid argument about money.

"Buffy-"

Willow is at my side, her eyes full of concern, but I canít look. I canít see that she understands or Iíll break, and I canít be that person again, I canít.

Dawn needs me.

I realize that a tear has slipped out and down my cheek. I hadnít even noticed. Willow brushes it away like she can take some of the pain with it.

"You could go after him."

My breath catches in shock - thatís not what I was expecting to hear. I canít believe she even....

Sheís serious. Her eyes are so powerful and expressive and I know she thinks-

Thereís a knock at the door. Three loud taps ringing in my head. My heart stops beating for a second as Dawn goes silently, without complaint, to answer it.

"Hey," I can hear her say, with a strange mix of surprise and understanding.

It canít be.

PART 12

"Partyís in here."

My little sister leads the way and I canít seem to look up to see whoís behind her. Half of me doesnít want to see.

"Happy birthday aní all that, Slayer. Bought you somethiní."

Spike.

He holds out a package and I thank him.

I knew it. I knew it couldnít be. I would have sensed it. But why- why doesnít it feel like heís gone? Why canít I just feel numb again?

"Open it then, love."

I stare dumbly at Spike and remember the present in my hands. I start opening it cautiously.

"Probably the heart of a sacrificial-"

I glare at Xander before he finishes quipping. I feel bad enough about today, about Spike. He doesnít need my friends making fun of him. Heís trying. And he doesnít remember.

Thank God he doesnít remember.

I turn the knife over in my palm and smile.

"Thank you."

Iím forcing myself to look him directly in the eye and I know he appreciates it.

This is who I am to Spike. I'm the Slayer, dangerous, armed.

"Yeah, well, if Iím gonna keep patrolling with you I want you prepared. I canít always save you, you know."

I nod.

I understand. And so does he. Itís over, but heíll be there for me, heís a friend.

"Oh give me a break-"

"Xander, donít- " Willow warns, and I wonder if sheís told him about Spike, if she made him promise not to get involved.

I donít care.

"Thatís right, donít. Now, be a good boy and go put my beers on ice-" Spike taunts.

I can see another round of verbal sparring on its way.

I donít think I can handle it.

"Look, guys, Iím sorry, but I think I need to go lay down for a while-"

"But itís early, Buffy-"

I can see the disappointment on Dawnís face and I canít help feeling irritated. She should understand, surely sheís old enough to understand.

Iím careful to keep the anger out of my voice, careful to remember how fragile she is right now - after Mom died, after I died...I donít need to go there.

"Just for a little while, Dawn. Iíll come back down, I promise-"

"Let her go, Bit," Spike says quietly, and Iím sure Dawn wonít argue.

He might not know, but, like I said, he understands. Maybe he can see that Iíve been crying, maybe my face is too pale or my smile is too false.

Maybe I forgot how to pretend today.

"Call me if you want to talk or anything."

"Thanks, Will, Iíll just- Iíll be back in a while okay?"

I leave and hope they can get on without me. Without worrying, or talking about it, or doing any of those things that will make me feel so guilty later. Guilty for being so weak.

Iím heading up the stairs. Iíd bet Mr. Pointy there are twice as many as there were on the way down. I just need to be alone. I need to close the door and-

I know. Before I even look up, I know.

"Celebrations over so soon?"

His voice reaches me, soft and deep and more familiar than my own. Itís like we actually touched, like my chin is guided up slowly because he wants me to meet his eye. Heís sitting at the window, one leg swung over into my room like he just arrived, the other outside, like heís about to leave.

Never like heís staying.

And heís wearing a tux.

A tux?

PART 13

I remember the prom, the night we said goodbye. That was the night the Angel left me, not before, not after. We danced and we closed our eyes and pretended...and he left me. He looks just like he did that night, like nothing has happened in between, like Mom is right downstairs, like I should still be able to remember the last time I was happy.

"I thought youíd gone."

I realize that itís almost a lie.

"Couldnít stay for the party without a gift for the birthday girl."

He opens his palm and shows me what heís holding.

Itís a snow globe.

I donít know what to say....

I donít understand whatís happening here.

"Itís not the one I wanted to- I mean, this has ducks and I think thatís a tiny windmill-"

He stops himself and nods gently, asking me to accept the gift.

I go over to the window, like I have so many times, and it doesnít seem strange at all. No matter how much time passed, how *over* him I was supposed to be, I never stopped expecting to see him there. Every night when I came in here, even last night when I got home from work, my eyes strayed to the window and a little knot of surprise and disappointment swelled in my stomach to find it empty.

Time doesnít always heal, sometimes it just buries.

He watches me take the globe from him and itís obvious weíre both trying to ignore the brief contact of skin. Iím holding it up to the light, I canít make out whether heís right about the windmill, but there are definitely ducks. I shake it until the little, white bits stir. They begin to swirl and float and bring back too many memories - an extreme cold front in Sunnydale, heavy snowfall...and a miracle.

"Itís perfect."

He doesnít smile at me, but then Iím not smiling at him either. Itís not really necessary.

"So, early night?"

I nod.

"I have work tomorrow. Doublemeat Palace."

I grimace and he laughs, like weíre just a couple of friends chatting, like thereís no goodbye waiting in the wings.

"Why are you-"

"Donít go there. Itís not something Iím exactly proud of-"

I get cut off as he takes my hand - I mean that literally - talking isnít so easy when you canít breathe. I hope this hyperventilating thing isnít going to become a habit with me.

"Working to take care of your family is plenty to be proud of, Buffy. But youíre better than that place, we both know that."

Heís lifting my hand to his mouth, oh God, why is he doing this? He presses a kiss against my palm, his lips cool and promising.

I pull my hand away from him, and it does more damage than any punch I could throw, superhero or not. Heís confused. He doesnít understand that Iím ashamed. I can see what Iíve become, I can see-

"You donít have to be ashamed...."

Okay, color me wrong, maybe he does understand.

"You are the most amazing woman I have ever and *will* ever know, Buffy. A job in a burger joint and a few nights with Spike canít change that."

I look at him doubtfully, it wasnít easy for him to mention Spike, I know that, but for the first time I donít feel so guilty. I donít feel worthless.

I think I actually believe him.

"Youíre still fighting, after everything, youíre still fighting. How could I be disappointed in you?"

Heís trying to catch my eye, but I canít bring myself to let him. What if he doesnít see past it all, if he canít see what he remembers? I know Iím going to lose when crooks a finger under my chin and tilts my head up from destination floor.

"Iím disappointed *for* you, Buffy, not *in* you. You deserve better. And weíre going to fix it."

"But-"

Itís lucky he doesnít let me finish because I have no idea what Iím about say.

"Please, just listen."

Iím trying to stay calm and reasonable, but heís getting my hopes up and I donít know if I can stand it.

"I pay people with much less experience than you, and no Slayer-strength, to work for me. We need you. I need you."

"But you work in L.A.-"

"Yes, and there are more than enough people there that need our help, whether they can pay or not. You work in Sunnydale and it just so happens that the Sunnydale division of Angel Investigations needs a new manager."

He canít be serious.

"The Sunnydale division?"

"Sure. Opens tomorrow. This is the Hellmouth, there's big business here. Of course, there will be times that all members of staff are needed in L.A.-"

Heís almost grinning now.

Angel doesnít grin.

"Angel, I canít charge people for slaying and I canít take money from you."

A sigh slips past my lips. He makes it sound so simple.

"Iím not asking you to. Iím offering you a job. You have a duty here, Buffy, but there are so many other people you can help, people I canít reach...people you wouldnít usually notice. The women scared of their ex husbands, parents whose kids are mixed up in all kinds of trouble, people who youíre not already helping...."

Thereís excitement in his voice, heís passionate about what heís doing, and I have to smile now. He probably knows heís already convinced me.

"Youíll do it? Is that a yes?"

"Itís a yes"

What else is there to say?

He pulls me closer, resting a hand at my waist, slipping the other past my cheek, to the back of my neck. My hair falls forward as I lean down to him, itís brushing his face - I canít believe this is about to happen. Our lips are almost touching and now neither of us can breathe.

"Iím going to kiss you, Buffy," itís barely a whisper, "And then I donít ever want to say goodbye again, so if you donít think-"

I donít need to hear the rest. He just gave me everything I could ever dream of wanting with those few words and I kiss him, not like itís the first time or the last or anything major and dramatic, but like heís the man I love, the man that just gave me my birthday present, the man Iíll see again tomorrow.

And itís wonderful.

I bring my hands up to his face. Itís like heís always been here, itís all so familiar and so real. Iím smiling into the kiss, I canít help it.

"Gods, Buffy, I missed you, I missed you...Iím sorry. Iím so sorry...."

Heís murmuring the words over and over like he can take back all the time he was away.

He canít, he canít take it away, but it doesnít matter, none of it matters.

I break the kiss to stop him. Itís not his fault. He canít keep blaming himself....

"Shh, Angel."

I let him see my smile, see how happy I am, what it means to have him here today. Any day.

Finally, he smiles back. He looks at me. And I look at him.

Weíre quiet for a moment.

My hand strays across his cheek, rediscovering the lines of his face, the texture of his skin and I realize that I have to know.

"What made you change your mind?"

"You did."

He takes both of my hands in his and studies my face closely, like heís deciding how much to tell me.

"I knew that my being here today was painful for you. That youíd be hurt when I had to leave. If I could have spared you that pain, I would have. If I had the choice, I would have stayed away today and none of this would have happened."

He looks at the floor like he feels guilty for what heís about to say.

"Then I realized that I was glad it did and that you probably were too, in spite of the pain, in spite of everything, because being apart is so much worse. And not just for me. For both of us. Iíve tried so hard to stop you being unhappy in the future, Buffy, and all Iíve done is stop you being happy now."

"Angel, all Iíll ever have is now. I canít plan and dream like other people-"

He brushes his cool lips across my knuckles and stares up at me with that no-arguments-please-Buffy look of his.

"You can always dream, Buffy. I donít ever want you to stop believing because, somehow, thereíll be a way. Thereís magick and The Powers That Be and my Shanshu....Weíll deal with the future. But after today, after what Iíve seen, I donít plan on wasting any more of the present."

I canít wipe the stupid grin off my face.

Okay, so it took him a while, but he got there in the end.

PART 14

"Iím assuming thatís another yes?"

I roll my eyes at him and try not to laugh.

"Well, duh."

He smiles.

"Thank you for your mature and understanding response-"

His sarcasm earns him a playful swat across the arm and that earns me another kiss...which reminds me, and I donít really know how to do this so Iím going for blunt....

"The curse, Angel, the happiness thing-"

"Like I said, weíll find a way...eventually. I hope. Maybe Willow can look into it? Sheís obviously quite the witch these days."

He read my mind.

Again.

I wish he knew what I want to say next, it would make things a hell of a lot easier.

"Iíll ask her, but could you- would it be too risky for you to...."

Breathe Buffy, for heavenís sake this is getting ridiculous. Itís Angel. Whatís there to be shy about?

"Iíd like it if you would stay with me tonight? I mean, not to- you know- just to be with me. You donít have to- itís probably a bad idea, safer in L.A. if you, well, if you-"

"Lose my soul? Buffy, if that happens, nowhere is safe. Where do you think Angelus will head first, huh? He wants you as badly as I do...itís just *slightly* more difficult to avoid perfect happiness when youíre around. Thatís a compliment by the way."

Heís starting to seem all troubled and broody again and I know heís trying to decide if heís putting me at risk by being here.

Iím not about to let him change his mind

"Thank you...and we know how to restore your soul now. Willow is more than capable, besides, how much safer will my whole family be with you in my life? I hear youíre quite the superhero now. Thereís risk in everything...."

Thereís a tell-tale whine in my voice and I give in to the truth.

"Please, Angel, you canít do this to me again."

I sound desperate, I know, but I canít let him go now. I canít have it all snatched away from me again, not now.

Not now.

He pushes the hair back off my face and tucks a strand behind my ear.

"You donít need to convince me, Buffy. I donít like putting you at *any* risk, but youíre right. Things have changed since last time. We know what weíre dealing with, youíre older, you know what you want and Iíve changed to....I- Buffy, I said no more goodbyes, and I meant it."

Thank you.

Thank you thank you thank you.

"So youíll stay? Tonight I mean?"

He checks his watch.

Heís checking his *watch*?

What, does he have another party to go to or something?

"Uh, no, actually I should be going...."

He makes a move to leave and Iím searching for the words to make him stop. He *canít* just leave! Iím still gasping in shock as he turns back to me with a faint sparkle of mischief in his eyes.

"Oh, wait, what if you...hmmm...how do you feel about the ballet?"

His plan is revealed and I get another Angel smile - Iím really stacking them up today.

"There are worse things," I respond casually.

"We could still make the second half. I could fill you in on the way...."

I drag him back through the window and he stands full height in my room, *not* like heís leaving. I plant a brief, excited kiss on his lips, standing on the very tips of my toes to reach him. My toes are going to be really well toned now that heís back.

And my thoughts just get weirder donít they?

"Good. Another yes. We need to hurry though."

I look down at my clothes and wrinkle my nose.

"I canít go like this. I have no idea what to wear!"

Angel sighs deliberately.

"You look beautiful just as you are and youíll look beautiful whatever you decide to wear...but let me take a look."

His eyes wander towards my closet and I nod in agreement. Heís welcome to choose, I just wish there was more to chose *from*. Slaying outfits and striped Doublemeat uniforms, pretty much not the thing for the ballet, Iím thinking.

"Hmmm, no, not the black one, although I have it on good authority from a certain young boy that your legs look great in it."

He winks at me, Angel actually winks at me. Iíve never seen him this way, so relaxed and happy, suddenly I canít wait for tomorrow and the next day and the day after and all the days after that.

"AhÖhere it is."

He positions me facing the mirror first and then sweeps my hair back off my neck as he comes to stand behind me. It looks like my hair is moving by itself and I know Iím the Slayer and Iím all knowledge-y with the fun facts about vampires, but itís still strange not to see him sanding behind my reflection.

I have to giggle.

Okay, itís girly and silly and hereís a flash: I donít care.

Iím working the happy vibe now, so go with it.

The gown he holds up in front of me still has a clear plastic cover over it. The reflection is familiar, Iíve seen it before.

My prom dress.

Angel places one gentle kiss on my shoulder and I imagine him looking up into the mirror, just like all those times before, the times when I imagined and he *wasnít* really right there behind me. But maybe he was, maybe he was right here the whole time, it feels like it.

"Always so beautiful."

He smiles - like he can hardly believe his own words - and Iím blushing as he heads for the door.

"Ten minutes," he says, then, "Iíll wait downstairs."

"Angel-"

I call him back, not ready to be alone, not knowing what to say.

I think he knows Iím still a little afraid. He looks so far into my eyes it feels like thereís nothing he canít see.

"Iím not going anywhere," he swears.

"Say it again...not the part about me being beautiful-"

But I donít need to explain anymore.

"Always."

He holds my gaze for a few moments longer, before he closing the door, and I pull a little scrap of paper from my pocket. It really is his turn now - I donít know what will happen next - you never can tell in my line of work, but...

Today is my birthday.

Iím twenty-one.

And Angelís here.

The End

Feed Calla
Visit Calla
Return to Writercon Archive
Main

AUTHOR's NOTES:

Message: 3
Date: Thu, 2 May 2002 06:43:57 +0200 (CEST)
From: Juliette Marchewka
Subject: Challenges

Wouldn't it be funny to lock up all of Buffy's past boyfriends/lovers, etc. in her room? You know -Taylor, Pike, Angel, Parker, Spike, Riley, Scott...

MUSTS:
-Taylor has to know about her being the Slayer, Parker and Scott have to have found out about it before the beginning of the story.
-The line: This is the scene of my worst nightmare. Spoken by Buffy of course, in mid-shock...
-Buffy freaking, 'cause she has to stop Angel from torturing Spike from time to time, not to forget Parker, or Riley (he's - in a way - been cheating on her, didn't he?) .... Angel's attitude towards the other males in the room is horrible and he's only moping and teasing all around.
-After some time locked in there, Buffy joins again, sitting down and telling each person the pros and cons to them. (Please let her start with Parker... one or two nice things which he smirks at the others about, thinking he's already won, when Buffy begins with the cons... and goes on..... and goes on..... and goes one.....See my point? hehe)
- ALL of them has to be interested in her, it's just not fun if they're not. Angel'd be jealous without reason and he needs to be jealous to the point of raging anger in order to realise how much he can't stand the thought of his mate with other men or vampires, doesn't he?
- Dawn entering at some point and simply laughing like a loon and joining, pointing out she wouldn't miss this for the world.
- Sex talk
- Kissing contest. Which is actually Spike's idea, 'cause he's sure to win, but then Buffy just doesn't seem to stop kissing Angel....
- Anya and Willow joining after some time, sitting in the corner of Buffy's room along with dawn piled up in popcorn, chips, candy, chocolate....
- A serious argument about who's got the biggest. (between the males of course.)
- Serious argument about who's the best. (Males talking...)
- Serious argument about who's the best character in 7th Heaven or other TV show... You know, with type analizings, etc.
- Buffy realising how much she still loves Angel...(of course)
- Mr. Gordo. (Who half of the males know about, half not)
- the majority of the guys lurking through her closet while she's gone....
- Buffy beginning to hypervantelite at some point
- Buffy desperately trying to make them all go home, but failing. .... 'cause 'if he stays, I stay!'