Buffy sat in front of the vanity mirror, fingering the blunt edges of her hair. She leaned forward, squinting at the image of herself: older, weary, thin. She tried a smile, pulling her pale lips up, stretching them over her teeth. Nothing worked; no matter how she faked it, she couldn't rearrange her features in anything that resembled good health.
She sat back with a sigh. This was ridiculous. It was just a rumor, anyway. And she could hardly put much stock in it considering the source: It wasn't like Willy always batted a thousand.
Buffy stood up, pulling at the frayed edges of her pullover. Moving Mr Gordo, she sat on her bed, propping herself against the pillows. She shifted, trying to get comfortable, and then stood again. Cripes, she thought.
He's got his, you know, stellar vision on another chick, Buffy. Willy had said, offering the information as though he were telling her the time. She'd gone into the bar for something else, something else entirely, and Willy's information had startled her into silence.
What are you talking about? She'd finally managed to push the words past her airless lungs.
Willy had taken a step back, rattling bottles of demon piss and type O negative. He shook his oily head ineffectually. What, oh, it's nothing, I was thinking of something else.
Buffy had reached across the grimy bar with lightning speed and grabbed a handful of Willy's scruffy shirt, yanking him with a jerk toward her.
Willy. She'd put as much manufactured menace into her voice as she could manage. You'd better not be yanking my chain.
Willy held up his palms submissively and shook his head. No. No. C'mon, Buffy, you know I would never…
She'd let go, of course, and stepped back, eyeing him suspiciously. But the seed had been planted and planted deep. If he wouldn't tell, there were other ways to find out.
But it hadn't been as easy as she'd thought to find out what was going on in Los Angeles. She'd asked all the usual suspects in all the regular places and no one seemed to know anything. Rather, no one was willing to spill. So she'd done what she swore she'd never do. She went to see Spike.
He was sober, barely. He was sitting in front of the television, the sound on mute, watching "Absolutely Fabulous," and giggling hysterically.
"I know you're there, Slayer," he murmured, when she came up behind him.
"Yeah, I know you know. I wasn't trying to be stealthy," she replied.
"Well, that's a relief, then." He turned in his seat to look up at her, checking surreptitiously for a concealed stake. "What do you want?"
"How can you watch TV without any sound?" she asked, sitting on the edge of the ratty armchair, pulling immediately at the exposed stuffing.
He reached over and stilled her hand by placing his larger, rougher hand on top. She stood up quickly, moving away from the chair, away from the hot look in his eyes. "What do you want?" he asked again, his voice tinged with impatience. She watched him pat his jacket for his smokes.
"Do you know something about Angel?"
"Yeah," Spike said, retrieving the package of Marlboros from his pocket and shaking a cigarette out. He flipped open his zippo, lit the cigarette and sucked, tisking a bit of tobacco off his tongue.
"What?" she asked, already afraid of the answer.
"Well, he's a poufter for one," Spike said, blowing a stream of smoke out through his nose as he said the words.
Buffy resisted the urge to fly across the crypt and slam Spike's smug platinum head through the television, putting an end to Edina and Patsy's drunken ramblings once and for all.
"You need some new material, Spike," she said instead.
"Whatever," he replied, returning his gaze to the television. "You should've stuck with a sure thing, baby."
"And that would be you, I suppose?" Buffy said, hating herself for even hovering on the edges of this discussion.
"No, I was talking about soldier boy," Spike said, sarcastically. "Of course I was talking about me."
Buffy shook her head in disbelief. "You didn't do anything for me, Spike, that I couldn't manage on my own."
"Oh, really. I'd 've thought it would be difficult to get those handcuffs on and off by yourself," he said, thoughtfully. Standing, he moved across the room to where he could breathe in the smell of her. "But I suppose Slayers have special abilities I was never privy to."
"You're unbelievable, Spike."
"There's nothing for you here, pet," he said, not unkindly. "Go home."
She moved around him and had almost made it to the entrance of Spike's lair when she stopped. The words were out of her mouth before she could prevent them. "It was never about you and me, Spike. You were a fool to think it ever could have been about you and me." Then, out into the cool clear night.
She was almost out of sight of the crypt when Spike's voice, clear and horrible, sliced through the night. "He's moved on, pet. It's about time you did, too."
Between the point where Buffy had heard Spike's words and the ornate gates of the cemetery, she killed three vampires. Dust. Dust. Dust.
At home, she'd showered and sat in front of the mirror, wondering about the girl looking blankly back at her. The room was too small. Her skin was too tight. She was all alone and, for the first time in her life, she felt it.
She went to the bed, tried to find some place there that felt familiar, but in the end it just felt empty. She rolled onto her side, drew her knees up to her chest and cried.
Buffy watched them through the gauzy curtains of sleep. His broad, naked back, marked with the tattoo, stretching and pulling as he dipped down to kiss the girl below him. Her hands, hooked behind his neck, fingers twined together. Soundless kisses.
She tried to move closer, tried to push the filmy material away, to clear her view, but it was impossible. She couldn't tear her eyes away from them. He rolled away from the woman who lay beneath and Buffy felt her breath catch, a sob of relief. It was her. He was with her: her own blonde hair spilled across the pillow. She pressed closer, tried to hear the words…and then she saw the blonde head turn and she felt her heart stop. Not her. Not. Her. Cordelia's doe-eyes blinked solemnly at Buffy through the mist and then, she turned her face up to Angel's, lips parted, waiting to receive his kiss.
Buffy woke up. She uncurled herself, stretching the stiffness out of her cramped limbs. The dream retreated from her mind like the tide, slow ripples smoothing the sand, pulling further and further away.
Buffy swung her legs off the edge of the bed and stood. She was overcome with dizziness and remorse and sat back down. Cordelia. But it was just a dream. It couldn't mean anything.
A knock on the door.
"I'm up," Buffy said.
The door opened and Willow stepped into the room, holding a mug of steaming coffee.
"Here, Buffy. Thought you might be needin' this," she said, joining Buffy on the bed.
Buffy accepted the offered mug and took a tentative sip of the hot liquid. "Thanks, Willow. How'd you know?"
Willow smiled. "Heard you, you know, crying and stuff, in your sleep." She reached out a hand and rubbed Buffy's hunched back.. "Bad dreams, huh?"
"The worst," Buffy said.
Buffy nodded. "And Cordy."
"Angel and Cordy…together?" Willow squeaked. " Oh, Buffy, that's not possible."
"Really?" Buffy said, with more doubt in her voice than she had intended to share with her best friend.
"Well, yes, really," Willow said, firmly. "Cordy and Angel? I mean, what're they gonna talk about, Rodeo Drive?"
"She's not like she was, Will. She's got…"
Willow cut her off abruptly. "Yeah, yeah, she's got the visions. Whatever. For all we know that comes with a big ol' scaly butt, too."
Buffy took another sip of coffee and stood up. "I wish there was a way of knowing for sure," she said.
"Would it make any difference, Buffy? I mean. Would it change anything?"
Setting the mug down, Buffy pushed her finger against the cross that Angel had given her those long years before. It caught the sun and glittered, casting sparkling light against her bedroom walls. "It would change everything, Will."
Willow pushed a hand through her bed-tousled red hair. "There is a way."
"No. No magic," Buffy responded seriously.
Willow dropped her gaze. "I was just thinking, that's all."
"I know, Will. Think about something else. Ice cream or puppies or…"
"Those are the usual subjects of my denial," Willow said, wryly.
"There's really only one remedy for this bee in my bonnet," Buffy said resolutely.
"Road trip?" Willow asked.
Buffy smiled. "Road trip," she confirmed.
Buffy hated Los Angeles, now more than ever. It was smoggy and crowded and every time she came here she expected to bump into Angel on a street in front of a restaurant or a movie theatre. She always imagined the unimaginable: him coming out of a place of leisure with his arm around some beautiful girl, both of them laughing. But in her dreams, the girl never had a face because the girl was never real. She was never real because Buffy never felt, even for a second, that Angel had really left her. Now the girl had a face, and not just any face: Cordelia Chase's face.
Buffy parked on the street in front of the Hyperion and sat in the car gathering her fractured thoughts. Just what was her goal here? Confirmation of a stupid rumour? Seek and destruct? A little begging? Buffy tilted the rear view mirror to assess the damage the long drive and lack of sleep had done. There she was: wild-eyed and sleep-deprived. She shook her head miserably and opened the car door. Smoothing the front of her wrinkled white shirt and tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear, Buffy headed for the grand hotel's front door.
Cordelia's brow wrinkled when she saw Buffy walk into the lobby. "Great," she thought, plastering a huge, fake, heroic smile onto her face. "Buffy," she said, rising from her desk and moving out from behind the lobby's counter. "What brings you to LA? Shopping? Taking in a show?"
Buffy scanned Cordy's face briefly and then swept her eyes around the lobby.
"Not here," Cordy said. "Big case. That's what he does."
"Thanks for the news bulletin, Cordy." Buffy sat on the edge of the donut-shaped sofa and crossed her legs nonchalantly. "I'll wait."
"Yeah, whatever," Cordy said, displaying some of the curtness Buffy expected from her. "You could be waiting for…." The words had barely left her mouth when the double glass doors opened and Angel, Wes and Gunn strode through, looking very much like the male equivalent of Charlie's Angels.
Silence filled the room. Buffy smoothed her shirt once again and said nothing.
Wesley stepped around Angel and held out a welcoming hand. "Buffy. How nice," he said.
Swallowing, Buffy slipped her hand into Wesley's and then let it slide bonelessly out again. "Angel," she said, looking past Wes.
He nodded his head and handed Gunn a dripping broad sword. "Sorry. I wasn't…."
"Expecting me, I know." She moved toward him and was dimly aware of Wesley moving back into the hotel's dim recesses, taking a quietly protesting Cordelia with him. Gunn moved off in another direction as if possessed with telepathic powers.
"Where's Connor?" Buffy asked.
"Fred's got him. Why are you here?" Angel answered and asked.
Buffy shook her head. "I don't know, actually. Now that I'm here, standing here, I don't know."
"Come upstairs," Angel said. "I want to get cleaned up. Then we can talk."
Buffy nodded and followed Angel up the sweeping staircase to his rooms.
While Angel stood under a scalding shower, Buffy stood watching LA's skyline. She kept her back turned away from Angel's room, felt incredibly invasive just standing among his things. The window did reflect an armchair and a crib, a small kitchenette and a king-sized bed. She pressed her forehead against the cool window, hoping to abate the throbbing there. She felt totally at a loss. What had she come here for? They weren't together? They'd decided that they were over. Everyone knew it. Everyone but her, it seemed.
Buffy turned as Angel came out of the bathroom preceded by a gust of steam. Shirtless, he padded to the bureau and pulled out a white tee shirt, slipping it over his head. He moved to the kitchenette and filled a kettle with water, putting it on the stove and lighting the gas element. Then he turned, pinned her to the window with his gaze and said: "Why have you come?"
Buffy shook her head, sadly. "I don't know."
Angel took a tentative step toward her, and paused. Stepped back. "You had two hours to think about it, Buffy."
"I know. But now it doesn't make any sense to me," she said.
The kettle started to hiss and Angel removed it from the heat, setting it on another element and reaching for a cracked teapot.
"Not for me," Buffy said, moving across the room to sit on the edge of a chair in the small kitchen.
"All right, no tea," Angel said, moving to join her at the table. "Habit, I guess. I always make tea for Wesley. He only ever comes up here when he has something important to talk about. I automatically put on the kettle." Angel gave her a small, encouraging smile.
"I need you to tell me something, Angel," Buffy said. She was aware of her heart smashing in her chest, and was sure Angel could hear it, too.
"Alright," he said, solemnly.
"Are you seeing someone?"
Buffy watched Angel's face, saw the muscle in his jaw jump, and looked down into her lap, pressing her hands together to still them.
"I…" Angel started.
"I should be more specific, here. Are you seeing Cordelia?" Buffy said to her hands because she couldn't bear to watch his eyes register anything other than surprise.
"I don't know how to answer that, Buffy," Angel said, quietly.
"Lie to me," Buffy said and watched with dismay as the first tear landed on her interlocked fingers.
"No. No, I'm not," Angel said.
"Well, that's good. That's great," Buffy said. "Terrific."
"You don't understand…."
Buffy stood abruptly and moved away from the table, dashing her tears away with an angry hand. "Please. You don't think I know what it's like to be alone? What it's like to be afraid?" She spun around to face him, stepped back when she realized he had followed her into the main room and was too close, too close to her. "Don't come near me, please," she said desperately.
"It's not what you think, Buffy," Angel said.
"How in the hell would you know what I think, Angel?" Buffy said, sharply. "Oh, right, you've always known what's best for me."
"Don't do this," he said.
"No, we never got to do any of this, Angel, and I need to do it now."
He held out his hand beseechingly and she pushed it away.
"Once, a long time ago, when I first found out about Drusilla, you asked me if I loved you, do you remember?"
"It was early for us and early for you to be asking me, but I answered you and I told you the truth. You never thought I ever understood what you are or could ever understand your past, but I did, Angel."
"I know you did, Buffy. But understanding doesn't change anything between us," Angel said, softly.
"Does Cordy understand?"
"I don't know. It doesn't matter."
"Why? Why doesn't it matter?"
"Because I don't love her, Buffy," he said, stepping closer. "I only love you."
"Okay, this would be an unusual way of showing it, then," Buffy said.
"Buffy, every day I stay away from you, every moment that I keep you safe from the temptation I am too weak to fight, I prove my love for you."
"It's not enough, Angel," Buffy said through fresh tears.
He stepped close, gathering her into his arms and pulling her into his hard chest. He rested his chin on her head and murmured, "It's never going to be enough. Shhh. Don't cry. Please don't cry."
"Are you…will you…with Cordy?" Buffy sniffled against Angel's chest.
"No. No." Angel led Buffy to the bed and sat her down. Kneeling in front of her, taking her two small hands in his much bigger ones he said: "Cordy is my friend. She is not my lover. Whatever feelings I have for her are…unresolved. We've been through a lot, Buffy. I'm not going to lie to you about that."
"I need something to hold on to, Angel. I'm not…"
Placing his thumbs on her cheeks, Angel wiped away the tears and said, "Hold on to me, Buffy. It's hard, I know, but I want you to hold on to me."
Angel rested his head in her lap and she felt her fingers loosen from his and come to rest in his thick, silky hair. They were still for a long time, each taking silent comfort in the presence of the other.
"Angel," Buffy said, breaking the serenity that had enveloped them.
"What's going to happen?"
He lifted his head, deep mahogany eyes meeting shining hazel ones.
"Lie to me," she whispered.
He shook his head, rolled up onto his knees and placed his large hands on either side of her face. "I don't have to lie to you, Buffy," he said. "Someday...happily ever after. I promise."
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