Even once the Hyperion belonged legally to Buffy, it took some time for her to step through its doors in person. The initial sprint around the world that she and the Scoobies had made to recruit Slayers had carried her name overseas, and with her business so spread out, on a few occasions she had found herself needing to be two places at once. Now she was knocking on a door in Italy, even farther from home than New York had been, but with touches of familiarity that she had missed without realizing it.
Julia was a warm, modest young woman who had been among those called as a Slayer the moment Willow cast her spell. The first time they had met, Buffy had been amazed at how closely the girl matched her height, build, and even facial features, despite their age difference. She had immediately approved her as the Rome-based Buffy doppelganger - her ambivalence about even having a doppelganger notwithstanding.
Now, seeing Julia with her naturally brown hair dyed to match Buffy’s shade of blonde, and wearing an outfit that Buffy would have bought for herself in a heartbeat, the illusion was almost disconcerting. She wasn’t sure what to say. It seemed like such success at recreating another person’s physical appearance deserved some praise, but any compliment she came up with would just sound like vanity.
Fortunately, Julia saved her by speaking first. “Wow,” she said with a shy smile. “I got so used to playing you, it’s weird seeing the original again. Come on in.”
She stepped back, opening the door wider to welcome Buffy into the spacious, modern apartment where she was living, reportedly on her own. Buffy and Dawn had chosen the place and stayed there together briefly, but when they handed it over to Julia, Buffy made it clear that it was now hers to do with as she pleased, as long as she kept up a convincing front of being the real Buffy Summers. The reputation she developed for the persona didn’t matter; in fact, Giles had suggested that it would be better for Buffy to be seen as a little irresponsible in her retirement, so Julia was free to host whatever parties and overnight visitors she wanted.
Buffy snapped out of the trance that was starting to take her as she looked at the girl with her name and approximate shape. She reminded herself that Julia wasn’t a clone; she was a person with dreams and quirks of her own, who just happened to be living a Buffy-inspired life at the moment. “So how are things going?” Buffy asked, settling on the couch. “What have you been up to?”
Heading to the kitchen instead of sitting down, Julia answered over her shoulder, “Oh, nothing new. I keep a public presence, go to clubs and stuff. When I hear about vampires in the area I go take care of them, so everyone knows I’m still ‘the’ Slayer. You want an espresso?”
“Sure,” replied Buffy, without stopping to try to remember if she liked espresso. “Do you get a lot of vampires?”
“Not really. I mean, I don’t think they’re organizing. And anyway I’m not the only Slayer in town, so we’re keeping ‘em in check. Especially since Wolfram & Hart went under. God, how weird was that?”
Buffy winced, glad that Julia couldn’t see her at the moment. She didn’t want to explain that she was now in possession of the bulk of Wolfram & Hart’s fortune, or why. “So weird. At least some good came of it, though.”
The hum of a machine started up in the kitchen, and Julia raised her voice to be heard over it. “Yeah! And it’s not just here. It looks like the vamp population is going down in, like, every city that used to have one of their offices? Is that what you heard too?”
There was a clatter of dishes, and then Julia came back into the room, holding two tiny cups on saucers. Buffy smiled at her. “That’s right. And we’re going to have a lot more flexibility in how we use our mobile Slayer teams, now. Great things afoot.”
Julia’s own smile wavered for a second as she handed Buffy one of the cups and sat down across from her. “Yeah. But, um, is that why you’re here? Are you moving me onto one of those teams?”
Buffy blinked. “What? No, that wasn’t it at all. Unless you want to be. I’m just here to check up on things. There are a lot of changes happening soon at our New York and LA offices, and we’re adding one in Cleveland, and I wanted to make sure you were okay on your own here, since you’re the Rome leader. Actually, I guess this is a promotion.”
“And if you are okay…”
Buffy shifted uncomfortably and tried a sip of espresso, which turned out to be too hot to taste. “Last year you had a couple vampires with souls trying to find you, right? What do you remember about that?”
“Angel and Spike?” Julia’s expression was innocent, but it felt odd for Buffy to hear those names coming from someone with such resemblance to herself. “I never actually talked to either of them. Andrew said they knew you personally, so he put them off my trail.”
“He didn’t trust them to know I wasn’t here?”
“He thought you didn’t trust them to know.”
That did sound like Andrew-logic. Buffy sighed deeply. “So he came up with that big fish about The Immortal?”
Julia held her own cup to her nose and inhaled. “He’d been working on that one for a while, just to add some color to your CV. Thing is, the guy found out about it and showed up here one day. Warned me to stop spreading rumors.” She looked down at her lap. “I think he thought I was just some upstart trying to namedrop, but he freaked me out. Gorgeous, but kind of...radiating power, you know?”
Buffy nodded slowly. “We shouldn’t have put you in that position. I’m sorry.”
“Well, now I take Andrew’s advice with a grain of salt,” Julia smiled. “And it didn’t ruin the decoy. The rumors just stopped circulating, so everyone thought that The Immortal and I - you - broke up.”
“Huh. I guess Angel and Spike didn’t hear that part?”
Julia gave a rueful shrug. “I don’t know what they heard. Andrew told me that Angel couldn’t handle it that you moved on, and Spike was letting Angel influence him too much. Like, you and Spike were meant for each other, but Spike had to play it cool or he was going to ruin it.”
Buffy groaned. “And you can take that one with a whole saline plant.”
“I figured,” said Julia, stifling a giggle. “But...I mean, if you don’t mind me asking? Did you really have some kind of romantic history with two different vampires?”
To buy herself a few seconds before answering, Buffy tried another taste of the espresso. It was bitter, and she didn’t think she’d be able to finish it. “Can you keep this on the DL? It’s a lot more complicated than ‘romantic history’, but yes. They were both unique situations, and…” she stopped to think again, and then finished lamely, “...they were both a long time ago.” And everything is different now.
Julia looked rapt, but preoccupied, as if the secret were a puzzle she had to piece together. “Is there any way I can help? Talk to them, maybe?”
The way that she so freely offered her assistance, knowing there was no personal gain to be had and no moral obligation, gave Buffy a warm feeling that was tainted by the memory of her friendships in Sunnydale. How long had it been since Willow or Xander had given her that feeling? “Thanks,” she replied with a sincere smile. “I already talked to Spike, though. I think we’ve established that we’re not meant for each other.”
The question was expected, but somehow it still hit Buffy hard enough to make her drop her hands into her face for a moment. “Oh, God. I don’t know. I keep thinking it’s all in the past and I’m over him, and then something insane happens and I have to reevaluate our entire relationship.” She looked up. “Am I seriously unloading this on you?”
Julia gave her a lopsided smile. “You can. I won’t talk about it. Hey, if it helps, just pretend you’re talking to the mirror.”
Buffy pondered that. If she started to cry, the resultant blurry vision might even make her decoy into a believable reflection. The thought made her laugh, though the sound of it was a little choked. “Okay. Well. Back in New York I met this friend of his, and she gave me a diary he had been keeping the year after he broke up with me and left town. This woman, Kate, she came across the country to track me down and give me his diary, just because there were some references to me in it. She thought he was dead. I knew he wasn’t, but I had this smelly old book in my hands, and I’m not made of stone, I missed him, I wanted to know, you know? He’s been so damn frigid, I thought he was just totally done with me. So I read the thing.”
“And now you think he’s not?”
“See, that’s what’s driving me crazy. He wrote so many entries about how much he loved me, how he would always love me, he wished we could be together...he was always paranoid about saying that kind of thing in person, but of course he never meant for anyone to see the diary. What I mean is, he sounded exactly like I remembered him. Like I could always count on him loving me, even if we never saw each other again.”
Julia’s eyes widened with compassion. “Why did you break up in the first place?”
Buffy sighed, beginning to appreciate exactly how lengthy and convoluted her history with Angel had become. “He loses his soul and turns evil if he’s ever truly happy.” She checked Julia for skepticism or judgment, but there was none, and without that to cling to, she sank deeper into her introspection. “I’m not sure if the journal is really him. It’s his handwriting and his sketches and there are things that only he would know, but he also talked about this day that he and I spent together...and it never happened. It doesn’t sound like he lost his proverbial marbles, I’m just afraid there was a crossed-beam incident at some point and now there’s an alternate-dimension Angel running around in place of the old one. Or there’s both, and I don’t know which is which. I know I sound crackpot, but I swear, this is the kind of thing that happens around him! How am I supposed to talk to him about this diary when for all I know, he never even wrote it?”
Julia bit her lip. “Um, you’re the boss, Buffy, but...if there are two Angels, that sounds like the kind of thing he should know about.”
“Oh. Good point. Hey, you’re not supposed to be giving me logical reasons to talk to him.”
“Sorry. I’ll go back to mirror mode. Do you want another espresso? Or maybe something you’ll actually drink?”
Buffy took a look at her little cup, cold and lonesome on the coffee table. “I tried. I guess this is why Italy didn’t work out for me. Can I have something with sugar in it?”
During the minutes that followed, in which they both went into the kitchen and talked about nothing more significant than Rome’s best restaurants, Buffy felt like her tirade about Angel had been a streak of madness, from which she had emerged again as the rational, stoic woman she had to be. She decided that when Julia asked her to continue the story, she would tie it off with a generic statement and change the subject. She was no infatuated teenager, taking every chance she could to talk about her crush.
“So,” said Julia as they sat back down in the living room. “What--”
“The thing about Angel’s diary is that his apartment building got blown up like five years ago and Kate found the diary in the salvage, okay, so there’s been all this time since he wrote in it, and maybe none of it is relevant anymore. I mean, I saw him the next year, when my mom died, and then again when I was resurrected, and he even came to Sunnydale to help me craterize the Hellmouth, and we kissed that time so I thought we were on the same page, but I also gave him this line about cookie dough and I don’t know, maybe he just really took it to heart. And I tried to see him again after that, I really did, but I had all the Slayers to train and it was weird with him being at Wol - at Woolworth’s, because that’s not his style at all, and I know Giles talked to him, and Andrew saw him, and Spike was living with him so that’s like the perfect storm for getting a bad impression from my people. And then wham, there’s an apocalypse and he doesn’t even call me.” She laughed bitterly. “Giles and I had so many arguments about whether I could trust Angel. And now it turns out Angel doesn’t trust me.”
Julia sat silently through this like a spooked cat, and when it seemed Buffy was finished, she inquired with utmost caution, “Do you think you could summarize that for me?”
A long sigh shuddered through Buffy’s body. “Something changed,” she said simply. “He was in love with me, and now he isn't, and I don’t know what changed.”
When they said goodbye about an hour later, Buffy tried to apologize for her behavior. “Don’t think I’m not grateful for having your ear, but I didn’t mean to go off like that. Did I completely blow my cred as an authority figure?”
“I’m the authority figure here,” Julia replied with a mischievous smirk. “If anyone tries to tell me Buffy Summers isn’t the one in charge, I’ll set ‘em straight.” Her voice turned somber. “Buffy, I have to tell you, when you showed up I was so scared that you wanted to take back your flat and live by your name here. I love Rome. I love what I do, and the people I’ve met. I know sooner or later I have to go back to being Julia, but for now - well, being Buffy is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Alone at last on the streets of the ancient city, Buffy leaned back against the comforting permanence of solid stone, and tried to take stock of her life yet again. “Being Buffy,” she mused out loud. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Is this Buffy Summers?”
The voice on the line was young and male, and Buffy didn’t recognize it. She was familiar enough with the undertone of desperation, but after everything the team had done to finally get her installed in her hotel, surrounded by assistants and willing fighters, she wasn’t supposed to be the one taking calls from desperate individuals anymore.
“Who is this?” she challenged in response.
“I need help. I’m sorry to bother you but there is some seriously freaky stuff going on, and I was told Buffy is the one to go to. Can you meet me right away?”
“Who is this?” she repeated, more sharply.
“My name’s Connor.”
Connor. She didn’t know everything about him, but she knew enough. If this was really Angel’s son, he should have been safe at college - or Angel should have been the one keeping an eye on him.
Before she could end the pause herself, the voice continued, “Yes, that Connor. I’m at 450 Church Street. Will you come?”
Buffy’s mind clicked onto the address, and she blurted out, “Wait, that doesn’t make any sense. What are you doing there?”
“It’s a long story. Come as soon as you can. Thanks Buffy!”
Her next objection met a dial tone. She stared at the receiver for a moment, too confused to really be angry, and then shrugged and threw on a jacket with a stake tucked inside.
“Hey, where are you going?” came Willow’s voice as Buffy jogged down the stairs. “Thought this was Scooby meeting time.”
Buffy hopped to the side and came to a quick halt to avoid running into her friend’s form - not that it would have mattered. The real Willow was somewhere in South America and always on the move, but to keep in contact she had begun to rely on astral projection. At least twice a week she appeared in the Hyperion, and made regular ‘visits’ to other Slayer bases around the world, providing the best link that all of them had to each other. It worked well enough, but it had been going on so long that Buffy was starting to wonder if she’d ever be able to get a Willow hug again.
“Sorry. Got an emergency. I think.” As quickly as possible, she relayed the conversation she’d just had with Connor.
Willow frowned. “Wait, 450 Church St.? Isn’t that where Robin has his HQ?”
“Yeah. Doesn’t make sense, right?”
“Buffy, do we need to have the talk about walking into blatant traps?”
Buffy rolled her eyes in spite of herself. “You think Angel’s son and our friend Robin Wood are teaming up to lay a trap for me?”
“We’ve never even met Connor! You don’t know that was him. Maybe someone was using his name to draw you out.”
“If I’ve never even met Connor, why would anyone think I would go running off to save him?”
Willow threw up her hands. “Hey, really good question! At least tell me you’re bringing back-up.”
Buffy shook her head. Long minutes had passed since she got off the phone with Connor, and she was anxious to resolve the situation, whatever it was...and, if she was being honest with herself, to satisfy her curiosity about what kind of young man Angel had brought into the world. The most she had really heard from those who knew was that Angel loved him ferociously, which she would have assumed anyway. She supposed it didn’t matter; that alone was enough information for her to know that Connor’s safety was vital. “No,” she answered Willow. “This isn’t Slayer business. If it turns out to be a trap, tell someone to come rescue me. And let’s reschedule the meeting to tomorrow. Bye!”
Willow’s protests followed her out the door, but insubstantial as she was, she couldn’t do anything to stop her. Buffy moved quickly out into the night and reached Wood’s building in record time.
It was in an upscale neighborhood and six stories high; Buffy had bought it with Angel’s donation and given it over to Wood completely. He now used it as an office and training facility as well as a home for himself, his girlfriend, and a few students. Buffy was buzzed in by a red-haired girl who seemed around the right age to be a Slayer, though Buffy didn’t recognize her. Robin himself was nowhere in sight, but there were sounds of life coming from behind various doors.
“You’re here for Connor?” said the girl, without surprise or concern. She pointed to an elevator. “Top floor, balcony.”
The contrast of the casual encounter to Connor’s urgency on the phone only heightened Buffy’s impatience to find out what was going on, and she glared through the elevator’s entire journey, knowing she could have outrun it if she had been pointed at stairs instead. Finally it released her, and she immediately saw a pair of double doors that opened onto a balcony.
There was nobody there, and she whipped herself around, expecting the doors to lock behind her and seal the trap. Instead they swung lazily with the remainder of their momentum, and Buffy took a second look. There was a fine view of the brightly lit city, a few hanging flowerpots, and a small table with two chairs. The table had a single sheet of paper on it, held down by a rock. Buffy picked it up and saw to her surprise that it was a printout of an email, sent from a “c.reilly” at a Stanford University address. The text box read,
Thanks for coming to rescue me. I’m currently in my dorm eating Oreos and pretending to research a paper. Things are pretty good but if anyone wants to send me a care pack, I wouldn’t turn down some new clothes and more cookies.
Sorry about the deception, but it’s frankly ridiculous that the two of you are living in the same city but haven’t lifted a finger to get together and talk out your issues, which, from what I hear, are substantial.
Good luck. See you next time I’m in LA - hopefully, both of you at the same time.
As Buffy finished reading, she heard the elevator door open, and she stepped back to allow Angel to burst through the doors to the balcony, wielding a broadsword and wearing a panicked expression, which changed to bewildered when he saw her. He lowered the sword without loosening his grip on it. “Buffy?”
Wordlessly, she handed him the printout. “Ah,” he said as his eyes glided over it, and then, “Aheh.”
“I take it he gave you the same story I got?”
Angel grimaced. “I wonder if he knew I was supposed to be negotiating with a demon lord tonight. Kid might have just made me an enemy.”
“Well, the important thing is that he’s safe,” said Buffy mechanically. “I guess you’ll want to go back and see if you can salvage your demonic business relationships.”
“No.” Angel set his sword down on the little patio table and sat down heavily in one of the chairs. “I know I owe you an apology, Buffy. Let’s just do what Connor says.”
Buffy remained standing, leaning back against the rail and letting her peripheral vision take in the view. “I don’t even know where to start.”
“Ask me anything. I’ll tell you the truth.”
Anything. He hadn’t said she would only get one question, but she chose it as carefully as if he had. There was so much she wanted to know, about his feelings and his motives and everything he had been through since they parted, and she knew instinctively that his promise to tell the truth, at least this time, was unbreakable. She drew a deep breath and asked. “Where did you get your set of silver spoons?”
He paused to concentrate before answering, but she couldn’t tell if he was trying to analyze the question, or just to remember the spoons. “Istanbul,” he said.
Buffy nodded. “Have I asked you that before?”
He hadn’t moved from his chair, and finally she pulled out the other and sat across from him, hands folded gravely on the table. “Sometimes I have this dream. You’re human, and I’m making love to you in your bed and falling asleep in your arms, and we talk about our future, and I’m so happy and content...I’d been writing it off as my brain being naughty, but some things always confused me. Before the part in bed, there’s a part that’s just me in LA feeling lousy, and then I’m sitting with you at a kitchen table, drinking tea and making small talk about spoons.” As she talked she began to hear the agitation in her own voice. “I couldn’t figure out why my subconscious mind would come up with that. It’s the same thing every time, all those irrelevant details, and, and I don’t even like tea…”
Angel twitched. “You don’t like tea?” he asked in a tone of personal affront.
“No. I never have.”
“You never told me.”
She rolled her eyes. “So? It never came up. Sometimes I drank it around Giles so I wouldn’t destroy his universe, but when you and I went out, I always ordered hot chocolate.”
“But if I offered you tea, why wouldn’t you just tell me you didn’t like it?”
“Well golly, Angel, I don’t know! Have we tested this hypothesis? Did you offer me some tea, and did we drink it sitting at your table in your kitchen, and did I stir it with a cute little spoon you got in Istanbul? Are you concealing something incredibly important that happened to me and bitching because I’m concealing my fucking beverage preferences?”
He looked away from her, his shame evident. Good. She wanted a lot of explanation from him now that they’d begun this, but she wasn’t going to give any quarter to get it.
“It didn’t happen,” said Angel quietly. “You read the diary, didn’t you?”
Surprised that he was the first to bring it up, she didn’t hesitate before answering, “Yes. But providing an informative recap didn’t seem like your priority during that part.”
“I turned human through contact with Mohra blood. We had that one day, just like it was in your dream, but I found out that if things went on like that you would die. The Powers That Be turned back time so that the day didn’t happen and I was the only one who remembered it.”
Buffy’s surprise turned to astonishment. Angel was speaking so plainly, in such a toneless cascade of words, that he sounded like a veteran telling war stories. Rather than attempt further comprehension of his Mohra story or press him with another question, she sat silently, waiting for him to choose to speak again.
“Kate told me you had my diary. I asked her what she wanted me to do about it, and she said I should talk to you. Now Connor. Even Nina told me I had ‘unfinished business’ with you.” He gazed at her with weary eyes. “I always envied you, having a family. Now I wonder how you put up with them. When people care about you, nothing is ever enough. I let go of everything I could - you, Wolfram & Hart, my connections to the Powers That Be, the Shanshu - but I’m still not free. I can’t even work myself to death without someone having something to say about it.”
Buffy’s voice was hoarse. “Is that what you want?”
Angel responded with a slight shrug. “What else is there?”
“Kate, apparently. Connor. Nina.”
“Kate lives three blocks away from me and I haven’t seen her in months. Connor’s better off without me, you saw his letter. Nina broke up with me back in Cleveland.”
“Oh.” It had been a long time since Angel left Cleveland, Buffy knew, and she felt ashamed to have such outdated information. “I’m sorry. Was it bad?”
He shook his head emphatically. “No. She’s happier without me too.”
“Faith,” said Buffy in sudden triumph. On some level she knew it was absurd to be trying to come up with people aside from herself who cared about Angel, but she couldn’t let him go on in such despair. “Faith is still there for you.”
Angel nodded. “Always. But right now she’s there for the Cleveland Hellmouth and Nina’s new pack. And she’s dating Spike.”
Buffy let out a long breath that turned into a shuddering laugh. “We really do have substantial issues, don’t we?”
“We do,” he agreed, making no mirthful sound of his own. “You know Wesley and Gunn are dead?”
There was no implication of accusation in his tone, but Buffy wanted to shrink into herself until she disappeared. She had tried to mourn Wesley and felt like her history with him left her with no solid basis for it, so she had put it off like so many other demands of her personal life. Only now did she comprehend that Wesley was a true human soul, a good man killed prematurely in battle, and that she had been trying to file his existence away in her brain. “I knew about Wesley. Who was Gunn?”
“Someone who was there for me.” Two tears, hot and angry, emerged from Buffy’s eyes. “Angel, I would have come! I would have fought with you, died with you, if you had just told me what you were doing! I was here with dozens of Slayers the day after I heard the first thing about the battle. We could have been here sooner, we - maybe we could have saved your friends!”
“Yeah. Great. You know who else is dead? Fred. Kindest, most innocent person I’ve ever known. She was in trouble and I called Giles to ask you for help. He said you wouldn’t give it. She was evicted from her own body by a hellgod and that’s the last time I asked your people for anything.”
The fragment of her mind that wasn’t drowning in guilt and swearing revenge on Giles was engaged in something far more sinister: finding a way to get the higher ground back. It delivered quickly. “Then why did you try to find me in Rome?”
A quick flicker of his eyelids showed that she had managed to take him by surprise. “I heard you were involved with The Immortal. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“So you talked to Andrew and decided I was hunky-dory and left without seeing me?”
This time he did laugh, though it was without humor. “Of course not. I knew you weren’t there as soon as I set foot in that apartment.”
“What? But Willow did this incredibly gross spell that she said would make the place smell like me.”
“Yeah. But Andrew said Dawn was living there too, and there wasn’t any scent of her. Seemed like the most logical answer was that the whole thing was a set-up, so I followed your fake trail with Spike to make sure.”
Buffy was dumbfounded. “You mean Spike knew, too?”
Angel made a noncommittal motion. “For all I know, he did, but if so he was a lot more subtle about it than you’d expect. I didn’t want to give it away if he was really buying it, so I tried testing him - told someone we were looking for a blonde woman with blue eyes. He didn’t correct me. Maybe he just never noticed the color of your eyes, though.”
It was a lot to consider, but the pieces seemed to fit together well enough. Buffy selected her next question carefully. “Did you think I was going to choose Spike over you?”
He raised his eyebrows, almost seeming amused. “No. Were you?”
“No! I wasn’t even thinking about choosing between the two of you. That’s your thing.”
Angel glared. “Spike’s thing.”
It was time to bring out the big guns. Buffy hadn’t forgotten the deep sorrow and remorse she had felt when he talked about his dead friends, but he needed to face this, too. “Angel, Spike told me what you said that day. That you told me to kill you at Acathla, for instance. Funny, I remember it differently.”
“Killing you ruined my life. I won’t rephrase that. Even after you came back, I was never the same again. Every day since it happened, I’ve had to be the person who sent my lover to Hell while he stared at me wondering why I had betrayed him. The only thing that ever made it even a little bit better was explaining it to you and knowing that you finally understood why I had to do it and how terrible it was to make that choice on my own.” She stood up again and turned back to the view. “And now I find out that you don’t even respect me enough to tell the truth about it.”
She refused to look at him and see how he was taking this particular nugget of blame, but his sigh sounded genuinely remorseful, and his words came haltingly. “That day, when I -”
On impulse she decided it was a good opportunity to interrupt. “Is this going to be an in-depth analysis of what you actually meant to say, or is it an apology?”
“I’m sorry.” Those words came much more easily, perhaps accelerated with the relief of having the correct response spelled out for him. “I shouldn’t have demeaned you like that. Spike brings out the worst in me.”
He could have done a lot better with the apology than to transfer the mishap to Spike so swiftly, but at the moment all Buffy could think about was how entirely factually wrong was that statement. She laughed bitterly. “Unless he gave you a moment of perfect happiness and transformed you into a ruthless killer, I think that distinction is still mine.”
There was a long pause, and Buffy sensed that Angel’s evident shame was about more than his quarrel with Spike. She tried to introduce some compassion into her voice when she continued, “...Except it isn't, is it?”
“What did you hear?” he asked reluctantly.
“Cordelia. It’s okay. I know how much you cared about her.”
“It’s not okay. Why would you say that? Do you think it would change anything for you and me if I loved another woman? If that woman were dead? I’m still not free. Not from her, not from you.” He shook his head. “Anyway, Cordy didn’t give me perfect happiness. Dark magic did.”
Buffy, feeling unaccountably frightened, was nevertheless compelled to inquire. “What do you mean?”
“We intentionally brought forth Angelus by casting a spell on me. I was in a dream that was meant to put me in a euphoric state and make it believable enough that I would lose my soul. Every detail was produced by my own subconscious mind to convince me that I was happy. I did have sex with Cordy. But it wasn’t real.”
The fear was turning to nausea. “Just because it happened in your head doesn’t mean the happiness wasn’t real. Your mind gave you what you wanted, didn’t it?”
“You’re not listening. I got what I wanted because I invented something to want. I took all the pain out of all the good things in my life so they were simple and accessible and false. I turned my friends into a supportive, effective team of heroes. I turned the Beast into a puzzle we could solve by working together. I turned Connor into - forget that, there’s too much to explain about him. But do you see? Loving Cordy would have been such a good move. She was everything a man could ask for, and we had been through enough already that I would never have to doubt our commitment to each other. We weren’t passionate, but so what? That just meant I would never be truly happy and my soul was safe.”
He stopped talking for a moment, as if to breathe, but he didn’t seem to need to collect his thoughts. Buffy felt that he was no longer talking to her but telling this story as a means of purging it from his directory of sins, and in a way, she preferred that. Maybe she could help him come a little closer to internal peace after all.
“There was one thing Cordy didn’t have,” Angel continued. “She couldn’t handle my past. Have you ever wondered why we use ‘Angelus’ now to refer to me when I’m soulless? Cordelia started that. She needed to separate me from what I used to be, so she put the difference in the names. It didn’t matter - it’s convenient, and I liked the way it felt to be someone else. I liked it that she wanted me to feel that. But when she found out that she was wrong, that Angelus wasn’t just my evil twin taking over my body, whatever romantic feelings she’d had for me just dried up. It was hard. By that time I wanted her love, and it looked like I was losing her friendship, too.”
Buffy didn’t say what she could have: that the truth of ‘Angelus’ had never had an effect on her own love for Angel. She had a feeling that the topic had come up in the first place because he already knew.
Angel was still going. “In my dream, Cordy said the horrible things I had done didn’t matter anymore, and she wanted to be with me. I turned her into the perfect woman. A mannequin. She was a genuine, precious human being, but I had to twist her beyond recognition to make someone who could stand me.” He stared down at the table. “But I twisted myself more than anyone. I was the lonely, noble, self-sacrificing champion I always wanted to be. I had passion where I wanted it, and purpose, and confidence. I knew I would reach my redemption someday, and that I would be content until it happened. And I had never met you.”
Buffy could have been crushed between his fingertips right then. “In your perfect world, I don’t even exist?”
“In my perfect world, I didn’t exist.”
“Angel.” She sat down in the other chair and reached for his hands, lying limp on the table. He didn’t resist, but he didn’t look at her either, or return the pressure when she squeezed his hands with both of hers. “I’ve been wrong about you. I’m sorry. When did it get so bad?”
“You’re worried now. You shouldn’t be.” He reinforced the words with a softer tone and his eyes raised to meet hers, but she didn’t forget that he was a master performer. It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to convince her that he was fine when he was assuredly not. “I won’t go bad again and I won’t hurt myself.”
“Forget that. Just talk to me about it. I’m here now. I can help.”
“Not like this.”
Angel pushed back his chair, removing his chilly hands from her warm ones without jerking them away. He stood up and looked out at the view, as she had. “Connor’s helping me the most. He has a good life, and he knows it. You could do that.”
“Being Buffy?” Buffy asked dryly.
Angel didn’t get the reference, of course. “Yes. Didn’t I say something like that in the diary?”
She nodded and tried talking around the lump in her throat. “I was afraid that was obsolete.”
“Did you keep it because you didn’t want me to know you had it? Or because you wanted it?”
“Good question,” said Buffy, and it really was. She had cringed at the thought of confronting Angel, showing him the evidence that she had pried into his past, having the very conversation they were having now, but she had also treasured the little book for its own sake. She realized that the decent thing to do now was return it to its owner, and her heart fell. The diary had troubled her, but not as much as it had comforted her. “I don’t suppose this is a case of finders keepers?”
“If you do want it, it’s not obsolete.”
“I think that’s the most hopeful thing you’ve said all night.” She looked around. The view hadn’t changed, but then, there weren’t any stars to move across the LA sky. “How long have we been here, anyway?”
“‘A moment of indeterminate time’,” said Angel as if quoting something. “Buffy, everything around me falls apart. I wasn’t just trying to keep you safe, not this time. I was trying to keep you happy. If I’ve learned anything over the past few years it’s that changing my approach to relationships is no use. I can have friends, good friends, but if I’m central to someone’s life, that life is going to be worse for it, and that’s not worth whatever benefit I get. I saw a chance to let you have the life you ought to, and I took it, but it had to be drastic this time. No more complications.”
Buffy hugged herself, already feeling lonesome again. “But it doesn’t make me happy to think you don’t care about me anymore.”
“Thought you were too smart for that.”
She didn’t rise to the bait. Lonesome was better than enraged or sobbing, but she still wasn’t ready to start joking with him. “I gave you a lot of reasons to have a change of heart.”
“Like what?” he inquired.
“I thought you were disgusted with me. Because you found out I…” She steeled herself. “...Slept with Spike.”
The confession, if that’s what it was, met with surprise, though the source of the surprise was hard to identify. Angel looked over his shoulder at her for a long moment, then completed the turn and sat back down in his chair. Buffy wished that he would take her hands as she had taken his, but it was enough that he left them open and pointed toward her. “Is that it? Buffy, I’ve slept with Spike. You never disgust me.”
Buffy blinked twice, considered some more, and blinked again.
“Okay,” said Angel, “looks like I should have couched that in some kind of metaphor.”
“No, it’s okay, just...I didn’t even know you were bisexual.”
“I’m not.” His mouth twisted in frustration. “I’m a vampire. I can’t really explain it any other way. I prefer women because I was straight when I was human, but when you have no soul and no biological functions, sex is just a game.” He gave her a look that was somehow both shrewd and kind. “What was it for you?”
She met the look with the unspoken comprehension that she had missed sharing with him so much. “Valium.”
At that, he took her hands after all. They sat for a moment of indeterminate time, looking over each other’s faces and letting their throats recover. “Are you seeing anyone now?” Angel ventured at length.
Buffy smiled, which came as a surprise to her. “No, I shouldn’t.” She stopped his impending repetition with a gesture. “I don’t want to go on dates and roll in the hay and evaluate the potential for permanence in a variety of suitors right now, Angel. Let me rest.”
“You’re okay on your own?”
“Am I on my own?”
His eyebrows turned quizzical. “I still can’t -” he started, then made a comical whole-body shrug which Buffy somehow divined was meant to represent his sexual restrictions as a token of his overall inability to be her lover.
She chose to get it wrong anyway. “You still can’t conceive of a woman leading a fulfilling life without a good man to lean on?”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“You always mean that. We decide we can’t be together, and immediately you’re replacing yourself with some hypothetical worthy piece of manflesh, except that nobody is ever worthy, so all you can see is the hole in my life where a husband should be. Plenty of single women get by in this world with their careers to give them purpose, and I have more than that. I have a calling.”
Angel ruminated briefly, then said, “So do I. But I still wanted to have a girlfriend. And when I got one, I still kept noticing that she wasn’t you. Maybe I’m wrong about what you want, but I don’t think it’s because I’m just being sexist.”
“I didn’t like you having a girlfriend,” Buffy admitted. “I didn’t find much to complain about when you were alone and pining for me, though, which now that I think about it is kind of perverse.”
“It’s not. I’d rather be alone and pining for you.”
“That’s what I thought. But as far as I understood our relationship and please remember that I was a doltish teenager when it began, your world revolved around me. You wanted me to have everything, at whatever cost to yourself, and the best thing I could do for you in return was spoil myself rotten and disregard all of your own needs. And that’s pretty much how it’s all played out since then, isn’t it?”
“So where’s the problem?”
Buffy tapped a restive finger on the table. “Spike wanted me to use him. So I did. Please allow me to not go into detail about all the ways that went wrong.”
Angel’s eyes caught the dim light of a minor epiphany. “You’re better than that, aren’t you? I’ve been trying to get you to behave selfishly, and it’s against your nature.”
“Yes. I think we’re onto something.”
“Ordinary couples stay together because it’s good for both of them. They don’t have to sacrifice the happiness of one for the sake of the other.”
Buffy smiled again, finding a better kind of humor, tinged with futility instead of sarcasm. “Need I remind you that we’re not an ordinary couple?”
Far below them and off in the distance, an emergency vehicle’s siren howled as it surged through the dark streets, finding someone to rescue or punish.
“Buffy, what are we going to do?”
Connor’s pocketknife tore through the brown paper and revealed a generously sized cardboard box. He hadn’t recognized the handwriting that had written his name and address on the outside, but the return address was LA and he didn’t think that anyone he knew there was likely to mail him a bomb.
Inside the box, some surprisingly acceptable articles of new clothing, in his size, were nestled around a large bag of cookies. This he instantly lifted to his face and inhaled; yes, they were definitely home-baked. There was also a package of Oreos, perhaps to emphasize the point or perhaps because the sender hadn’t been sure if he would like chocolate chip. Connor chuckled. Only one person in his life would allow for that kind of pickiness over free baked goods.
When he got to the bottom of the box, though, the small piece of notepaper there showed the evidence of more than one person. You have created substantial issues, Angel had written, and below that, in a woman’s writing that matched the address on the package, Both of us are dealing with them at the same time. The duality was repeated below in the two signatures: Buffy and Angel.
So that's that. Now for a little background. I've come to learn that nobody really wants to read a story that starts out with the author fretting about whether it's any good, which is why this is at the end and under a cut, but it's been a while since I really talked about writing fanfiction and I swear I'm not digging for reassurance.
I didn't have an idea for what to write for IWRY this year. There's no "until" coming. I just never came up with an idea. I wasn't going to just skip the marathon, of course, so I kept fiddling with a scene I had discarded last year for being aimless and not that B/A. There wasn't much of a theme emerging as I wrote, but filling in Buffy's post-NFA activity in a way that synched with my other post-NFA fiction at least gave me something to write about, and I steered it toward Buffy's doubts about Angel so that it would be suitable for IWRY.
I also used it as an opportunity to finally purge a few scenes I've had in my head for nearly as long as I've been a fan. Don't know if you can spot them, but there are a lot of (unapologetic!) instances in this story of characters acting as my mouthpiece for issues I have with the show's writing. Most of them sounded better in my head - or maybe it's just been so long that I've forgotten what I wanted to say. Anyway, they served their purpose: all I had to do was keep moving the characters around until the ones I wanted were set up right to have the conversation I wanted.
As with all stories, I got a few pleasant surprises out of it, but I couldn't save it. Truth is, it was too ambitious. The logistics of keeping it in line with the other stories in the verse was a bitch, and unfortunately after dealing with that, I didn't have much space (let alone time) to inject a thorough examination of Buffy's state of mind, or some real in-the-meantime adventure for her, or much of anything for Angel. A broken epic romance shouldn't be healed by a heart-to-heart talk about it; that just isn't compelling storytelling. I tried to compromise by not really healing it in the end, but the loose ends are showing (hey, does Buffy ever deal with her strained friendships?). And for that matter, I tried to incorporate the loose ends too, to make them part of the giant emotional mess that was standing in for a plot, but if your impression was one of missing cohesion and unsatisfying resolution, the secret is that there is no secret.
If I sound like I'm really down on myself, I'm honestly fine with this, just a little bummed perhaps that I'm not one of the crown jewels in the marathon this year. I can imagine readers thinking "Hm, ol' Kairos seems to be losing her touch" or "Okay, I'll finish skimming it, but definitely won't reread this one", and I think I'm finally ready to listen to hardline criticism and not let it bother me, though I don't know if anyone is ready to hand it out.
Of course I'm also thinking about what this says about my future fanfic writing. I don't really think I am losing my touch, which is part of what was so frustrating about "Indeterminate Time" - I kept having a feeling that there was a better way it could be written and that I was the one to do it, but the characters weren't talking to me and I was on a deadline. The vitality in any given piece of fiction is usually all about the writer's passion for it, and that's something that waxes and wanes. I'm just not in a Buffy headspace right now and I think it shows.
On the flipside, and here's a piece of good news I can use to end the ramble, I have an idea for next year's story and it's about a hundred times more ambitious than this one. It also only really works as a sequel to this one. So, what to take from this? Maybe, in spite of everything you feel about it, you really do end up writing the story you need to write.