Disclaimer: As usual, the characters are not mine, nor will they ever be.
That doesn't mean I can't take them out for a little air now and again, however.
Rating: PG13 I guess
Spoilers: Up through "Who Are You?"
Summary: An injury causes Buffy to reevaluate the choices she has made in Angel's absence.
"I love you, Buffy."
The words spun unceasingly past her mind's eye, as though they were bannered just below the Daily Planet sign on the globe outside Clark Kent's office. Over and over again, as she trudged through the dark and lonely cemetery, Buffy Summers replayed them in her mind.
"I love you, Buffy."
Riley had said it again tonight just before she left for patrol, and just after she'd refused to let him come with her. Ever since the first time he'd told her he loved her, she'd stopped letting him patrol with her. She'd also stopped dropping by his room unexpectedly, and hanging around after class to talk with him. What had once been a simple, uncomplicated romance was now rife with pitfalls and hidden dangers.
Because she couldn't repeat the phrase to him, and she knew how that must hurt him.
He never said anything specific, of course. He would just look at her with those blue puppy dog eyes of his, and flick that single lock of hair off his face so he could see her clearly. Then, when she changed the subject, or simply bolted, he would sigh and pretend it didn't matter.
But it did matter.
Buffy wanted to answer him with the words he was longing to hear. She would have even settled for explaining why she couldn't offer them. But whenever she tried, a great dark wall came down in front of her. She couldn't breach it, or climb it, or even see past it. All she could do was back away, and then it would disappear. Until the next time.
"It's not fair," she complained to herself as she swung her crossbow and scanned the area for demons. "He's a great guy. He's everything I ever said I wanted. He's smart and considerate and human, let's not forget human." She contemplated her new boots for a moment before she grudgingly continued. "Okay, so he's also a steroid-dependent commando-type yes-man, but I can deal. I should be able to say this. It's just three little words. It was never this hard before."
Before. That was the problem. She knew the wall she couldn't breach was also the past she couldn't talk about. Riley knew nothing about Angel, or their deep and ultimately doomed passion. He knew nothing because Buffy couldn't bring herself to trivialize the past with mere words. As long as her past with Angel remained a mystery to Riley, she could keep a small flame of it alive in her heart. Once she broke that seal and let the past go…it would be gone. And she wasn't ready for that yet.
Unfortunately, clinging to the past was disrupting her here and now. Buffy was desperately trying to establish a solid relationship with a solid, dependable guy, but she couldn't help comparing it, and him, to what she had lost. It was like comparing fluorescent lights to moonbeams. The trouble was, you couldn't hold on to moonbeams.
"It's just so frustrating. I have worked so hard for this." Buffy paused to lean against a tall headstone. She tried to keep a weathered eye out for trouble, but the majority of her attention was focused inward. "I have really tried to make things right, and I can't blow it all on three stupid words."
Three stupid words that once meant the world to her when they were said to, and heard from, the right guy.
She glanced up to the heavens, searching for an answer to her dilemma. "Why are you doing this to me? I thought I was acting just like I'm supposed to. Moving on and letting go. All right, so maybe I can't exactly let go but I am moving on, as fast as I can. Why isn't that enough for him? Why do we have to bring the L-word into it?"
The only answer she received came in the form of a large tree limb applied to the side of her head. She saw a shower of stars fall from the sky as a single burst of pain shot through her skull.
Then there was darkness.
* * * * *
The dead grass was tickling her nose.
Buffy sneezed, and sat up slowly. The cemetery, she was in the cemetery. Not an unusual place for her to be at night, but why was she lying on the ground? And why did her head throb so badly? She put a hand just above her ear and felt a large swollen area. When she took a look at her hand a moment later, she saw blood.
"Oh boy," she muttered grimly. She quickly glanced around the graveyard. "Faith," she called out hesitantly. "Faith, old buddy, old pal, are you out there?"
No answer. Given Faith's recent turn to the dark side that was probably a good thing. But someone had clocked her, and she couldn't for the life of her remember who. Most vamps wouldn't have left it at simple assault and battery, and she would have had to be pretty distracted to let a mugger get the best of her. Still, there was no sign of her purse or backpack, and she never went slaying without at least one of them. There was also the absence of a weapon to consider. She never left home without one of those.
She managed to get to her feet, but the pounding in her skull was really bugging her and she felt a little weak in the knees. Experience told her these symptoms would quickly fade, but since she seemed to be without weaponry or back up, it was probably a good idea to head for home and live to fight another day.
Buffy was too tired by the time she reached Revello Drive to make much of the fact that her mother had locked her out. With a sigh, she climbed the tree outside her bedroom, scrambled across the roof and forced the lock on her window, which was also inexplicably fastened. She barely noticed the cluster of boxes in her room, or the jumble of linens on the unmade bed. She simply kicked off her boots and crawled across the bed, pulling the closest blanket over her.
Home at last.
* * * * *
Buffy dimly heard a voice call to her, as a hand gently shook her shoulder.
"Buffy, honey, you need to wake up." The voice, and the hand, became more insistent.
"Mom?" Buffy rolled over on the bed, noticing the tangled blankets and scattered boxes lit by the morning sun. "Mom, what's all this stuff doing in my room?" She sat up and rubbed her eyes, trying to make sense of what she saw.
Joyce Summers sat down on the edge of the bed and regarded her daughter with some alarm. "More importantly, what are you doing in your room? Did you and Willow have a fight?"
Buffy stared quizzically at her mother. "No, we're good," she responded slowly. "But what does Willow have to do with me sleeping in my own room? And I still want to know why…" her voice trailed off as her gaze fell upon her mother's wristwatch. "Holy cow!" she cried as she grabbed her mother's wrist and pulled the watch closer for a better look. "Is that the right time? Oh man, Snyder is going to kill me if I'm late for French one more time." She jumped off the bed and ran to pull open the louvered closet door.
"Buffy, what are you…"
Buffy interrupted her as she turned back slowly to face her mother. "Mom, where are all my real clothes? These are just the things I vowed never to wear again upon pain of death. Or the hellmouth reopening; whichever comes first."
Joyce hurried over to look at the offending clothes, but when she stood next to Buffy she suddenly noticed the traces of dried blood in her daughter's blonde hair.
"Honey," Joyce said as she parted Buffy's hair to inspect the underlying bruise, "do you remember getting hurt last night? On your head, maybe?" She pulled Buffy around so she could take Buffy's face in her hands and look deep into her eyes.
Buffy stared back, slightly confused but reassuringly alert. "I'm not sure. I remember I had a headache, and I think I was lying on the ground. I guess I could have been knocked out. But I don't think I patrolled last night."
"We need to call Mr. Giles," Joyce said firmly. "You get back in bed and let me take care of this." She pushed Buffy towards the bed, but Buffy evaded her hands and spun around to face her.
"Mom, I told you, Snyder is looking for a reason to flunk me. I am so close to graduation; I don't want to blow it now." Her hazel eyes pleaded for understanding.
Unfortunately, Joyce understood too well. "Buffy, what day is it?" she asked very gently, trying not to show her rising panic.
It immediately raised her daughter's antennae. She leaned forward and peered into Joyce's eyes. "Wednesday. What day is it on your planet, Mom?"
"The date, Buffy. What's the date?"
Easy, Joyce, she told herself; just breathe. She clenched her jaw and tried to project the correct answers into Buffy's head.
"April 28th." Joyce made a circular motion with her hand and Buffy continued. "1999. Did you lose your filofax or something?"
Joyce closed her eyes as her suspicions were confirmed. "Just go back to bed, honey. I'll explain when Mr. Giles gets here." Buffy started to protest, forcing Joyce to continue. "And I'll call the school and tell them you'll be out today. I'm sure Principal Snyder will understand."
"As if," Buffy grumbled, but she climbed back in bed anyway. "I may have saved the school from the killer lunch lady yesterday, but he takes the 'what have you done for me lately' attitude to the extreme.
* * * * *
Voices outside her room woke Buffy the next time. For a moment she thought her clairvoyance had returned and she whimpered as she pulled the pillow over her head. The sound of footsteps and bickering made her realize her error. She pulled the pillow from her head and smiled weakly at her mother and friends in the doorway.
"Sorry guys, rough couple of days." She sat up and checked out the worried expressions on her friends' faces as they filed into the room. Her mother had only said she was going to call Giles, but the whole gang seemed to be here. Well, there were one or two exceptions, but it was daylight after all. "Umm, why is everyone in my room? Did my mom call everybody in sick? You know Snyder will think something is up if we're all out at the same time."
There was a universal wince at her mention of the late, and unlamented, Principal Snyder. Buffy noticed the reaction, but since mentioning Snyder rarely brought a smile to anyone's face, she thought nothing of it.
Giles sat down on the bed beside her, resting his hand gently on her own. "Buffy, I'm not quite sure how to explain this. Your mother said you have a bruise and some dried blood on the side of your head when you awoke this morning. I believe you were attacked on patrol last night and that has caused some memory loss. Just temporary, I'm sure," he hastened to assure her.
"Giles, I don't think I patrolled last night." Buffy was getting very confused. She could feel the sore spot above her ear, and the dried blood, but she didn't remember how they got there. She remembered last night very clearly, though. "I went over to Angel's after dinner, and he walked me home. I don't know how I got to the cemetery, but I remember waking up there with this bump. Could I have been sleepwalking?"
"Angel's?" Giles said faintly. "You were with Angel last night?"
Buffy blushed slightly, but looked him squarely in the eyes. "Yes, I was. We had a lot of things to talk out, but I think we're cool now. The whole Faith thing is totally behind us."
She felt a warm glow at the memory of last night. They had talked long and hard about their past misunderstandings, and it hadn't been easy. But eventually the talking was done, and then they just held each other in front of the dying firelight. She awoke just before dawn to find herself still wrapped in his arms, and the smile on his face when he woke up a few minutes later was blinding. There was barely enough time for him to walk her home and get back to shelter himself, but he insisted and she didn't want to waste one more minute of their lives apart.
"That's weird," she mused, not realizing she was thinking out loud. "He walked me home at dawn, but it was dark in the cemetery when I woke up later."
"Gulp," Willow said.
"The Faith thing?" Giles was fairly certain where Buffy's memory ended in terms of events, but he wanted to feel his way carefully lest he reveal more than she was ready to hear. His brief study of amnesia, made during the wait for Anya to find an appropriate pair of shoes for the occasion, suggested memories should be retrieved rather than given.
"Giles, you're scaring me." There was genuine concern in Buffy's voice, and on her face as she looked around the room at her friends. "You're all giving me the wiggins. What is wrong? Angel cured me, I stopped Jonathan from killing himself, and the lunch lady from killing everyone else and now Angel and I are back together. And they all lived happily ever after." She fought back the little voice inside her that said slayers never actually got that particular ending to the fairy tale.
"Okay, how much do we say? Any suggestions?" Xander was trying to remain calm, but Buffy wasn't the only one with the wiggins. The Slayer was the one they all depended upon to keep it together when the world was coming apart. Suddenly she had retreated in her own mind and he felt helpless and abandoned.
Buffy lost patience with her family and friends at that point. She threw back the covers and scrambled out of bed, pushing past Anya on her way to her closet.
"I don't know what is wrong with you guys, so I'm going to go ask someone who will give me a straight answer." She grabbed a pair of grubby old sneakers from the bottom of her closet and shoved her feet in them as she spoke. "If you need me, I'll be at Angel's."
"Buffy, wait!" Willow grabbed Buffy's arm as she tried to leave. She knew she couldn't forcibly restrain Buffy, she just needed to slow her down. "You can't see Angel right now. You'll…you'll wake him up," she stammered.
Buffy glanced narrowly at her. "He won't mind, Will. Trust me." She looked more closely at her best friend. "And what did you do to your hair?"
"He's not there," Anya said flatly. She threw up her hands at the resulting glares she received from the Slayerettes. "What, you want her to go wander around an empty mansion calling out his name like some pathetic gothic heroine? Tell the girl she's gone Anastasia and have done with it."
Buffy looked from one averted face to another. Only Anya would face her, so she cautiously approached the former demon.
"Are you trying to tell me I have amnesia, or my family has been killed by communist revolutionaries?"
"If the brain disorder fits…" Anya replied cheerily. She regretted her flip response a moment later, when she saw Xander wince. "Sorry, I mean yes. We're live, you're on not-so-instant replay."
Buffy wandered past her friends to stand in front of her bedroom window. She rested one hand on the glass while she absently rubbed her aching head with the other. "This is nuts. I know what day it is, I know what happened yesterday and I know what we'll be facing in a few weeks. I'm fine. Why are you all doing this to me?" She whirled around to face her tormentors, but saw only old friends with pained expressions.
"Buffy," Giles began, but she cut him off with a wave of her hand.
"Okay, so I'm broadcasting from Planet Denial. So tell me the real story. When is it supposed to be? And where is Angel?" She crossed her arms and perched on the windowsill, waiting for an answer.
"Almost exactly a year later than you think," Willow answered gently. "We're in college now, Buffy, you and me and Anya. UC Sunnydale actually. Xander is living…"
"Where is Angel?" Buffy repeated urgently, leaning forward to stare into Willow's eyes. They were hiding something from her, she could feel it. She had a sudden, desperate fear that it concerned Angel. Maybe the cause for all this confusion was that the truth was too much to bear.
"He's gone, sweetie," Joyce said as she crossed the room to stand by her daughter's side. "He left town almost a year ago. He's fine, I'm sure, but he's not in your life anymore." Concern for her daughter's welfare overrode her usual gratitude for that particular development.
Buffy dimly heard them begin to debate how much else she should be told. She pushed away all the noise as unimportant. The only thing that mattered was Angel, and he wasn't here. He saved her life, they spent most of the night working out their problems, and now he was gone.
So much for "No matter what, I'll always be with you."
* * * * *
"I still think she needs to be at home for a few days. She needs rest and someone to look after her."
They were arguing about her again. They had been at this for an hour now, going round and round. Her mother had sent her off to shower, and by the time she got out the party had moved downstairs. Buffy sat at the top of the stairs, neglected and forlorn, as her family and friends decided what to do about Amnesia Girl.
"Joyce, I understand you want to take care of her, it's only natural." Giles' voice was patient, but strained. It had been many months since he'd had to deal with overwrought maternal instincts, and he really hadn't missed the experience. "I do feel, however, that Buffy would recover her memory quicker if she resumes her normal life. Willow and Anya are right there; they can keep an eye on her."
"And Riley," Willow added helpfully. "She'll probably remember everything once she sees him."
"Yes, I'm sure this is just a temporary situation anyway," Giles eagerly agreed. "She's a Slayer, she heals very quickly."
"I still think…"
Buffy recognized Joyce's stubborn 'I'm your mother and I know what's best for you, young lady' tone in an instant. If Willow and Giles thought they could convince Joyce Summers anyone else could care for her sick child, they were in for a rude surprise. With a sigh, Buffy got to her feet. They could argue all they wanted; she had other plans.
The window worked as well as it always had for speedy and private exits. She slid down the roof and dropped to the ground with none of her well-meaning captors any the wiser. From there it was just a brief jog to the mansion on Crawford Street. Regardless of how much she trusted her friends, she needed to see for herself that Angel was truly gone.
* * * * *
She could tell the moment she walked in the door that Angel didn't live there anymore. It wasn't the sheets on the furniture, or even the absence of the few works of art he'd kept with him over the centuries. There was an intangible void where she usually felt his essence, the part she'd always been able to feel when he was near. She didn't know whether she was actually able to sense his mind (contrary to his belief that vampires can't project thoughts), or if it was his soul she could feel. Whatever it was, it was gone, and there was nothing but an empty aching hole in its place.
She didn't call out to him; there was no point. Instead, she wandered silently through the rooms, plucking at the dustcloths and searching for some sign she too had almost lived there. There was nothing of hers left, in any of the rooms, but this pleased her in an odd way. It was possible she had removed her possessions herself, but she preferred to think he had taken them with him as talismans against the dark. She hoped that somewhere among her things were similar tokens from him.
She wondered if he'd left in a hurry, or had they had a long good-bye? Did he tell her where he was going, or did he just vanish into the night as mysteriously as he'd appeared? Did they call, or write to each other?
Did he still love her, or had last night just been comforting words offered to a sick child?
In the end, there was nothing left to hold her there. Without Angel's presence, it was just a dusty old mansion filled with as many ghosts as cobwebs.
Buffy slowly made her way back to her mother's house, but she didn't bother with the window this time. She walked in the front door and into the living room, startling her still-quibbling friends.
"Show me the way to the dorm, Will. I'm not going to find any answers here."
* * * * *
Willow was nervous. Buffy hadn't said a word on the drive back to school, or during the brief, Giles-sanctioned, tour of the campus designed to reacquaint her with her new home. Buffy looked, and nodded and even half-smiled on occasion, but it was clear her mind was elsewhere.
Elsewhere unfortunately being a year in the past.
Willow was so busy watching Buffy not paying attention, she herself didn't notice a major danger until Buffy was already trapped in an unfamiliar embrace. She quickly realized that the Slayer's reflexes had not been affected by the head trauma when Buffy easily flipped her captor over her shoulder without an instant's hesitation.
"What the…"Willow bent over to help Riley to his feet. "Oh, I'm sorry," she stammered, glancing at Buffy standing calm and self-assured in front of them. "She's not feeling exactly herself today. I actually thought maybe seeing you might…but I guess not. You might want to wait…oh, please wait."
Riley was in Buffy's face again before Willow could stop him. He reached out to lightly touch her cheek, but stepped back in confusion when she flinched and knocked his hand away.
"Listen, Romeo, I really don't appreciate the touchy-feely stuff from strangers, and my boyfriend doesn't find it too amusing either." With a stab of pain, she realized she couldn't use those words anymore. Whatever she and Angel had been, they were no longer.
Riley smiled in relief. Games again, she was always playing games with him. "So, is this boyfriend big and tough, or is he the sensitive type?" He moved a little closer, invading her personal space. His body language screamed of an intimacy she could not understand.
She gazed coolly at him, absently noting the bland, blond good looks and confident manner. Obviously another frat boy on the make, very much like Cordelia's lecherous demon snake-worshipping object of desire junior year. Actually, subtract an inch or two of height and the resemblance to Richard was uncanny. Now there was a turn-on.
"He's all of the above, actually," she said at last. There was no point in backing down now and admitting that he was also no longer in town. "But I don't need him to protect me from someone like you. Run along, little boy. I'm sure somewhere there's a helpless co-ed who enjoys being stalked. But it's not me."
Buffy turned and began to walk toward the building Willow had indicated was their dorm, not bothering to check if the annoying stranger was following her. She only hoped Willow would catch up before she actually reached Stevenson Hall and had to locate their room.
* * * * *
"Willow, I'll be fine, honest." Buffy crossed her legs on her bed and pulled Mr. Gordo onto her lap for comfort. "You don't have to baby-sit me, no matter what Giles or my mom say."
"Buffy, I'm still not sure this is such a good idea," Willow said doubtfully as she rummaged through her dresser drawers. "You don't know your way around here, or at least you don't remember it, so what if you need something? And after what happened with Riley this afternoon…"
"Willow, I'm sorry. I promise I won't flip any more strangers unless they have fangs. Now will you please go meet your study group?" Buffy barely suppressed the whine she could feel building in the back of her throat. She had been under constant observation from her well-meaning friend since they left her mother's house, and it was getting on her nerves. Unfortunately, she was also without her usual option of killing things to let off steam. Giles made it clear he would handle patrol tonight, and she had other plans anyway. That is, if Willow would leave her alone.
"Buffy, he wasn't a stranger." Willow gave up looking through her drawers for her favorite choker and joined Buffy on her bed. "He's your boyfriend. You really like him, and you threw him over your shoulder like he was Spike or something." A thought suddenly occurred to Willow. "Oh, and if Spike comes by, don't stake him. I know I'm supposed to let you remember stuff on your own, but he's sort of with us now. I wouldn't want to be dusting him up off the floor just because you forgot some stuff."
"Like the past year," Buffy grumbled. She cocked her head and eyed Willow curiously. "Spike is a good guy? How did that happen?"
"I wouldn't say good guy, exactly," Willow hedged. "He just can't be a bad guy anymore. Performance problems." She suddenly jumped up from the bed with a stricken expression. "And I'm not going to say another word about it."
"As if I wanted the gory details. Okay, no staking Spike, or Riley for that matter. You did say his name was Riley, right?" She frowned. "Riley Finn. What kind of a name is that, anyway?"
"I wouldn't throw those stones too hard, Buff," Willow replied with a gentle smile. "If you're really sure you'll be okay…"
Buffy scrambled off the bed and began to push Willow towards the door. "Go. Have a life. I'll catch up…when I catch up."
Willow glanced quizzically at her, but obediently grabbed her rucksack and left for her coven meeting. Buffy firmly closed the door behind her and leaned against it until her sharp ears heard the sound of Willow's footsteps on the stairs at the end of the hall. A quick twist of the lock to further ensure privacy and she was good to go.
"Okay, time to turn Amnesia Girl into Research Girl," she murmured, wandering around her side of the room. Her eyes darted from one object to another, some familiar and some not. "Now, if I were me, where would I hide my diary?"
* * * * *
Two hours later Buffy hastily stuffed her diary back into the fake book where she'd found it as she heard the rasp of Willow's key in the lock.
"Ye gods, what a mess I've made," she said as she put the book back on her bookshelf. She sighed and ran a hand through her strangely long blonde hair, trying to figure out where to begin repairs.
"Hey, Buff," Willow called out cheerily as she pushed open the door. "Miss me?" She threw her rucksack on her bed and gazed at Buffy with a determinedly cheerful expression on her face.
"Willow, I'm missing almost everything right now, including my mind," Buffy replied honestly. She started to slowly approach Willow, trying not to make any sudden or intimidating movements as she stalked her. "Umm, I have something I need to ask you, and I know you're not going to want to answer because of what Giles said, but you have to. I absolutely, positively need to know and I need to know now." She looked steadily at her best friend, willing her the strength to disobey their surrogate father.
Willow inched away from Buffy's hypnotic gaze. "Buffy, I really think…" she began uneasily, as she looked around for an escape route.
"Where's Faith?" Buffy interrupted her.
"Faith?" Willow abruptly ceased her retreat. The question was puzzling, but unexpectedly simple. She never thought she would be so happy not to know the right answer. "I have no idea where Faith is right now. Why?"
"So she's out there somewhere roaming around?" Buffy turned away from Willow and began to wander around the room. She ran her hands over the debris on her dresser, picked up and discarded stuffed animals, all the while trying to carefully formulate her questions. She needed to attain maximum information with minimal exposure of her own knowledge. "Faith hates me, and she hates Angel, and we have no idea where she is or where she could strike next. She could have even been the one who hit me last night," Buffy added craftily. She whirled around to face Willow. "Does Angel know?"
"About Faith?" Willow squeaked. Uh oh, we're back on Angel-track. Dangerous waters ahead. "Umm, no, not really. I mean, we never called to let him know we don't know where she is."
"To warn him, you mean. Faith could be dangerous to him. She was really mad when he pretended to go bad and she thought she actually had a shot with him." Buffy wasn't feigning her anxiety in the least. So far she had only skimmed the parts about Faith in her diary, but she knew the other Slayer was very angry, and highly unstable.
"Buffy, you're the one she wants to get even with. I'm sure Angel is fine." Tenderhearted Willow forgot her fear of revealing the truth in the face of Buffy's pain. She hurried across the room to slide a consoling arm around the other girl's shoulders. "She already took her shot at Angel and it was all to get at you really, and I've said too much again!" Willow wailed as she stomped her foot.
Buffy felt a stab of fear at Willow's revelation, but she ruthlessly suppressed it. Whatever had happened to Angel at Faith's hands was in the past, and he had obviously survived. She would get to that truth eventually. Protecting him in the present was the goal right now, and she had to concentrate on that.
"I should call him to…" Buffy reached for the phone on the nightstand as she spoke. She yelped when Willow suddenly knocked it from her hand. "What did you do that for?"
"You shouldn't call him," Willow said anxiously. "Bad, bad idea."
"Then you call him," Buffy replied as she processed Willow's nervous behavior. Okay, note to self. We don't call, or write probably, and it's a major issue for at least one of us. "Or call Giles and have him call Angel. One way or another, I want him warned. But don't tell him about my little memory problem," she hastily added. "I don't want him to worry."
"Done," Willow promised with a sigh of relief. At least there wouldn't be any awkward phone calls to Angel and still more-awkward explanations. They needed to put Buffy back together again without Angel's help, or Buffy would never forgive them once she was herself again. She had made it very clear toone and all that Angel was not to be involved in her life in any fashion.
Buffy tapped her foot on the floor. "I'm waiting, Will." She nodded pointedly at the phone. "Either call Angel or call Giles. Now."
"Gulp." Willow reached for the phone.
Buffy was drawn back to her bookshelf as she heard Willow explaining the situation to Giles. Her fingers itched to pull down the fake book that concealed her diary, but she resisted. She needed privacy to rediscover her past, both to give herself time to absorb the information and to prevent anyone from taking it away from her. Giles had made it clear she would have to remember things for herself, without being helped by anyone else's perception of events.
While she respected his opinion, she apparently had wasted a lot of her short life already. There was no more time to spare.
"Okay, that's the big one for damage control," Buffy murmured. A glance over her shoulder revealed Willow was still absorbed in her phone conversation. She risked pulling open her dresser drawer to gently caress the prom photo she had discovered while searching for her diary. "Now for the reconstruction.
* * * * *
"Giles, it's been five days. That's almost a week. I'm getting scared." Willow curled up her legs on Giles' old sofa and tried to get comfortable for what promised to be a lengthy chat.
Giles ran his hand through his already disheveled hair and threw his latest useless reference book down on the table. "Willow, I don't know what to say. According to everything I've read, about amnesia and about slayers, she should have regained her memory by now. I just don't understand it."
"The doctor said we have to be patient, but I don't know if I can be much longer."
"Did she get back to Buffy yet with any of her test results?" Maybe, Giles thought, medical science might actually be able to out-magic the paranormal this time. Buffy's situation certainly seemed to beyond his powers to solve.
She shook her head, wisps of red hair flipping across her gloomy countenance. "Tomorrow maybe, but I don't think it will help. Are you sure this isn't the result of some sort of spell?" Willow Rosenberg, two-time secretary of the Sunnydale High Science Club, desperately wanted to believe Cordelia's PTBs could help where the AMA could not
"Since we are on a hellmouth, I can't entirely discount a supernatural cause, but the head wound suggests a more prosaic explanation."
"That would be a no." Willow sighed almost as ponderously as Giles had spoken.
"Correct." He didn't sound pleased at being edited.
"It's just…she's trying so hard to remember stuff, and I know we're supposed to let her do it on her own, but it's tough to watch. She's almost got Angel beat in the brooding department." Willow glanced at Giles with concern as a thought struck her. "You didn't let anything slip about her amnesia when you talked to Angel, did you? Cause she'd be really mad if…"
"No, no," Giles interrupted. "I was very careful. I think he assumed I was the one calling because she couldn't bear to speak to him." He didn't say how concerned Angel had been for Buffy, or how hard Angel tried to conceal his hurt when he realized Buffy wouldn't call him herself. Decisions had been made, and regardless of Giles' opinion about them, his place was on the sidelines lending support, not advice.
"Giles, she wanted to call him. She was more concerned about Faith coming after him than her, and she wasn't happy when I said someone else should warn him. It's not like her." Willow was worried about her friend, and more than a little confused by her these days.
"On the contrary, it's very like Buffy. The Buffy of a year ago." Giles sighed and sat down next to Willow on the sofa. "You must remember she is reasoning based on experiences no longer fresh to you or me. Until she regains her memory, we're going to have to think of her in her own terms."
"She is kind of different," Willow conceded. "I guess I didn't realize how much she'd changed until I saw how much she's changed back again. Her grades are going to suffer if this lasts much longer, but I think we're a little safer on the demon front than we were. Not that she wasn't trying before, but…" She felt a little guilty insinuating her best friend had been slacking off from her sacred obligations, but she couldn't ignore the evidence.
"Yes, now that conforming to the expectations of Riley and the Initiative is no longer an issue for her, she can focus on her Slayer duties. I can't deny she was more attentive on patrol last night."
"And she has time for her friends again. It's funny, cause Xander always said Angel took up so much of her time, but at least he was one of us. With Riley, she had to become one of them." Willow felt a slight guilty pleasure in knowing Buffy was one of them again, at least temporarily.
"Has Riley been around to see her? Since that first encounter you told me about, that is?"
"Every day," she admitted reluctantly. "I told him about her amnesia, and he was like totally understanding, but now he's always underfoot. He's convinced he can bring her back to the here and now, and it's really starting to bug her." She unwound her legs and got up from the sofa for a refrigerator raid. "She doesn't like him anymore, Giles. It's really sad. Who drank all the Yoo Hoo?"
"She's still in love with the great poof, that's why," said a voice from the top of the stairs.
Willow raised an eyebrow at the shamefaced Giles as she pulled the tab from her diet soda can. "Spike is staying here again?" She settled herself on a chair at the breakfast bar to await an explanation.
"The Initiative turned me out of my old place," Spike grumbled as he came down the stairs. "Holy water, crosses, all the bells and whistles. Now why is it such a shock to you that she's giving GI Joe the heave-ho? Sounds like she's finally come to her senses to me."
"She likes Riley," Willow protested. "Well, I guess I should make that past tense now. But even if she doesn't remember how or why, Angel is gone. He left her. She needs to move on, and she did, but now she's moved back and I'm really confused. Riley is still the same guy." She took a long swig of her soda and tried to let the caffeine work its wonders on her overwrought nerves.
"But now she's seeing him through different eyes, Willow," Giles said gently. "I think Spike is right. Memory or not, deep down she's always been in love with Angel, and she doesn't have the resources to pretend anymore."
"But they don't have a future together. They both agreed they didn't. That hasn't changed either, just because she doesn't remember it. If we explain it to her…"
"No, Willow." Giles' tone left no room for argument. "She must remember her life on her own, when she's ready. You telling her what happened won't help her to accept her loss."
"It's not like anyone really needs to tell her anyway," Spike said offhandedly as he strolled around Giles' living room. "All she needs to do is read that blasted diary of hers; it's all in there."
"What are you talking about?" Giles asked in unison with Willow.
"Her diary," Spike repeated impatiently. The living could be so slow on the uptake sometimes. "She writes all her 'feelings' down in that bloody little book. I've seen it and it's enough to make me want to heave." He perched on the hearth and waited for the inevitable question.
"You've seen her diary. Her slayer diary." Giles couldn't believe his ears. Buffy, who hated Spike with a passion, had shared her most intimate secrets with him. Maybe their engagement had not just been the result of Willow's spell. Maybe there was actually something…no, not possible. The mind reeled at the possibilities.
Spike let loose a loud and derisive hoot. "Her slayer diary? The one where she writes all about the vamps she's killed today? Why would I want to read that? No, I mean her real one. I used to sneak into her house and read it from time to time. You know, between revoked invitations. One thing Angelus taught me was to know your enemy, and the way to know a woman is through her diary. She'll tell it things she'd never in a million years tell a lover or friend."
Giles and Willow shared horrified glances. All their careful circumspection was for nothing. Buffy knew the truth the whole time.
* * * * *
This time Buffy was too deep into her reading to hear Willow's step in the hallway. When her roommate burst into the room, Buffy was tearfully reaching the end of her entries from the previous fall.
"I can't believe it," Willow exclaimed. "Spike was right; you've been reading your diary." She was humiliated; the vampire knew her best friend better than she did.
Buffy gently laid the book on her bed and wiped the tears from the corners of her eyes. "Diaries, actually. I had to get the 99 one from Mom's house the other day." She drew a deep breath, raising her hands in mock surrender. "You caught me, sheriff."
"But you were supposed to remember," Willow almost whined. "This is cheating." She threw her bookbag on her bed in disgust.
"This is my life, Will." Buffy stared at her best friend in disbelief. "Everything has gone horribly wrong, and I need to fix things before something even worse happens."
This time it was Willow's turn to throw up her hands. "Like what? You're doing great in school, for like the first time. You have a nice boyfriend and your friends and your mom are still alive and breathing thanks to you. What is so horrible?"
"Do you really have to ask?" Buffy asked quietly. She was grateful the pretending was over, but now came the really hard part.
"Angel." Willow sat down beside her bookbag. "You're still obsessed with him. You know I'm the last of the hopeless romantics, Buffy, but this one was really hopeless. And now it's over." She gazed beseechingly at her friend, trying to will her the strength to let go.
"It is never over." For just a moment, the barest trace of a memory flickered through the back of Buffy's mind, and then it was gone. She resolutely brought herself back to the present. "I'm not obsessed, Willow, I'm in love. And so is he, I know it. We screwed up, I'll admit that, but it's not too late to fix things. Maybe it's even a good thing we spent a little time apart, but it's gone on long enough." Too long, she thought, as she remembered waking up after her clairvoyant episode to the feel of him holding her hand to his lips.
"He has a new life, Buffy. So do you. You don't even talk to him anymore or about him, for that matter. Why do you think I didn't want you to call him the other night about Faith? You'd hate me for letting you, when you're…you again."
"That's what I mean, Will. I've been reading about the past year in my diary, and I can't believe how far away from me I've gotten." She began to nervously pace around the room. "I don't even recognize the person who could act this way. I mean, my God, this Riley guy is my instructor. I'm sleeping with a teacher, Willow, and only getting an A-, I might add."
"No buts, Willow. I read about that Parker creep too. Didn't you wonder about me when I got so fixated on getting him back and why he didn't like me? Did that really strike you as Buffy-like behavior?" She stopped pacing and faced her friend, ready to hear the brutal truth.
"Well no, but…I know, no buts. No it didn't." She tried again. "We've all changed, though, Buffy."
"And the whole thing about fitting in with the Initiative?" Buffy followed up triumphantly. "What's up with that? I may complain now and then about wanting my old life back, but you know I would never ditch you guys just to fit in with my boyfriend's friends. That's too high school."
"That was kind of weird," Willow admitted grudgingly. "But Riley seemed to make you happy, so I guess I didn't want to wreck things." She contemplated her shoes, so the remembered hurt would not show on her face.
Buffy flopped down beside Willow on her bed. "Seemed is the operative word, Will. Whatever I may have told you, and I think I know pretty much what that was, I told my diary something different." She pointed to the journal lying on her own bed. "That little book says I was hiding a lot of things. I've tried so hard to make the best of the life Angel left me, because I didn't know what else to do. But I'm tired of putting in so much effort and ending up with things I don't want or need."
"Like Riley?" Willow asked hesitantly as she raised her head. She had a feeling she wasn't going to like the answer. That suspicion was confirmed by Buffy's nod.
"That's one. Not the only, but the biggest."
"And the one who'll be hurt the most. Buffy, you have to give him a chance," Willow pleaded. She grabbed Buffy's arm and looked deep into her friend's eyes. "You can't let everything go because of some venting you don't even remember doing. Give it time."
Buffy eyed her doubtfully. "I'm a Slayer, Willow. Time isn't always on my side."
"But you can't live your life like you're going to die the next minute. You have to think of the future. That was why Angel left in the first place."
"I am thinking of the future. But I don't want to spend so much time trying to arrange the perfect components that I run out of time to live it."
"All I'm saying is give Riley a chance. If you use this time to get to know him again, it won't be wasted when you get your memory back. But if you go chasing after the past…you're only going to get hurt."
"Willow…" Buffy sighed as she tried to think of a way to phrase her position. "I like Riley, or at least my diary says I do. But I don't love him, and I don't need him. I don't want to spend my life feeling like that."
"But you're already building a future together," Willow protested, "and the right now stuff is pretty darn swell too. Well, except for all the hellmouthy evil, and fighting with the…oh no! I will not spill any more beans and that's final."
Buffy slid off the bed and grabbed for her diary in one fluid movement. "Do you want to hear about my wonderful present, Will?" She opened the diary she had been reading, then discarded it on her desk in favor of retrieving her current journal from its hiding place. "Okay, here's a good one. 'I should be furious with Riley. He slept with Faith, actually had sex with her and never realized it wasn't me. Even now that he knows, he just keeps saying he made love to me, and it doesn't matter that Faith was actually the one in my body at the time. I should break up with him for that alone, for saying that he knows so little about my soul he could sleep with my body and not realize what's missing. But I won't break up with him, because then what would I have? He's supposed to be my normal life, my normal future. Besides, I'm really not all that angry. Angel only kissed Faith, after I insisted he do it, and I couldn't look at him for weeks afterwards because I was in so much pain. But Riley doesn't have that kind of power over me. It just doesn't hurt that much.'" Buffy closed the diary with a snap and looked expectantly at her best friend.
"Is that the fairytale life you want me to fight for?"
Willow's eyes faltered for a moment then she met Buffy's gaze squarely. "All I'm asking is that you don't do anything stupid." She realized a moment too late how that sounded and tried to soften her words. "What I mean is, think about what will really make you happy, long term, before you do anything. Please."
"No problem, Will."
The relief on Buffy's face should have been Willow's first clue.
* * * * *
"Willow, just calm down. Tell me what you know once more, but speak slow enough for me to understand you this time." Giles was tired, and worried, and in no shape to decode nervous Willow-babble.
Willow glared at him, but she obediently drew a deep breath and tried to focus her thoughts. "Like I told you, about four times now, when I woke up this morning she was gone. There was just a note on the pillow that said, 'I have to go. Be back in a few days, Please don't worry.' As if I had a choice!"
"But this is very irresponsible of her," Giles huffed. "Adam is still on the loose and there are fresh perils every day for her to defeat. To go running off like this…" He was painfully reminded of Buffy's last flight from Sunnydale, and that was a time in his life he had no wish to revisit.
"Giles, she doesn't know about Adam," Willow pointed out gently. "She doesn't remember, remember? And you haven't predicted anything F5ish on the demon front for the near future, so she probably thought this was her best opportunity."
"And you have no idea where she's gone? Any of you?"
Giles glanced around his living room at the assembled Scooby Gang, plus Spike. They were all in various stages of consciousness, due to their unexpected early morning summons, but as usual they were willing to help in any way they could. Well, Giles knew Spike's presence was purely based on self-interest, but the rest of them were willing.
"Gee, there's a stumper," the vampire drawled from his bed on the sofa. "She's already tried the teenage runaway thing. Do you think she might possibly be going after Angel?"
"But she doesn't remember where he is," Xander said quickly. He looked around the room for confirmation. "She doesn't remember anything yet, right?" He pushed Spike's legs off the couch to make more room for himself and Anya. The vampire looked like he wanted to strike him, but a sudden wince of pain seemed to do wonders for Spike's concept of sharing.
"No," Willow answered slowly, "but she's been reading her diary. She might have written it in there. Or maybe she called Cordelia, or she found something Cordy sent her, or…"
"We get the picture, Willow." Anya pillowed her head on Xander's shoulder as she tried to stifle a yawn. "She could have found it anywhere. And odds are, that's where she's headed." The mystery was solved; she closed her eyes.
"We should warn him." Willow caught Giles' eye and nodded towards the phone."If she shows up and he doesn't know that she doesn't know…"
"Doesn't know what?"
They all jumped at the sound of an unexpected voice, and turned as one to stare at Riley standing in the doorway.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," he began politely, "but Buffy seems to be missing again, and I figured this would be where the conference would take place. I just wish I'd been invited."
"Too bad some of us don't have to wait to be invited," Spike grumbled as he settled back on the sofa. He closed his eyes and prepared to enjoy the fireworks, if not the company.
"Umm, yes, Riley, do come in. Please have a…have a seat," Giles stammered as he waved at a free chair by the fire. "We probably should have called, but it was so early, we just thought…well, we thought we could find Buffy before anyone else knew she was gone."
"We haven't called her mother yet either," Willow added helpfully. She gestured wordlessly to the refrigerator, but Riley paid no attention to her social amenities.
"Yeah, she means well, but she'd just get in the…" Xander stopped himself scant microseconds away from uttering the last irretrievable word of the sentence, but the damage was done.
"In the way," Riley finished for him. "Like me." He ignored the chair Giles had proffered, choosing to lean up against the banister instead.
"Good, so you can take a hint. Now leave." Anya's tone bore no warmth for the demon-hunter; in this case she was definitely on the side of the angels, or rather Angel. She raised her head from Xander's shoulder and commanded Riley with her eyes to vacate the premises.
"What doesn't she know?" Never having experienced the wrath of Anyanka, Riley thoughtlessly turned his attention back to Willow and Giles. He sensed they had the answers he was seeking. "Do you know where she's gone? And why?"
Willow and Giles shared a guilty look before she replied. "Well, we think we know where she might have gone," she hedged, "but she didn't actually say anything specific so…"
"She went after her old boyfriend," Anya blurted out. "She doesn't like you, she does like him and she wants him back. Don't you have any poor helpless demons you could be torturing instead of us?" She ignored Xander's glare and shared a satisfied smile with Spike. Score one for the demons.
"Her old boyfriend?" Riley was completely at sea now. "She never even mentioned any old boyfriends. I mean, she's so beautiful I assumed there had been guys in her past, but she never talked about…well, maybe one or two, but no one serious. This was serious?" His eyes implored them to deny it. His future depended on the right answer.
There was a moment of silence; even Anya and Spike couldn't formulate a glib response to the pained confusion they saw on his face.
Giles cleared his throat at last. "It was very serious, on both their parts. I'm afraid Buffy's memories end just before they broke up, so in her mind they still have a future together."
"There has to be a reason her memories end there." Willow pounded her fist on the arm of her chair in frustration. "This all has something to do with where they end, on both ends. I mean, why now, with all the blows to the head that she's taken, does this one wipe out her memory? And why does her memory leave off with Angel?"
"Angel? That's his name?" Riley wracked his brain to remember any reference to an Angel, but he came up empty. She had told him nothing.
"In this life," Spike muttered as he sat up. He and Anya shared another secret smile, which made Xander very nervous, and unexpectedly jealous.
"Something must have happened." Willow chose to ignore Spike's asides and concentrate on the issue at hand. "Something happened that night, before she got in the fight, that made her want to forget the present and go back to when Angel was here." She turned quickly to Riley. "She was fine when she left the dorm to go on patrol. Did she stop by to see you on the way to the cemetery?"
Riley shifted uncomfortably and stared intently at his feet. "Well, no, she didn't exactly stop by," he stumbled, "I was actually kind of waiting for her outside." He quickly looked around at Buffy's friends. "She's been a little distant lately, and she's kind of been, well, avoiding me almost."
"You were stalking her," Xander said slowly, shaking his head. "Boy, what is it with Buff and stalkers?"
"I wanted to find out what was up," Riley replied indignantly. "I thought we were past the whole Faith thing. I mean, we were. And then I told her I loved her and I thought…what?" He quickly stopped his explanation when he saw the lightning quick glances dart around the room.
"You told her you loved her," Spike said with an evil smile. "And she said?" He looked expectantly at his newest nemesis, enjoying the human's embarrassment to a degree that was almost painful in his evil-neutral state.
"She said…well, actually she said…she didn't say anything, okay!" Riley glared at Hostile 17, wishing in vain for his trusty M-16 to wipe that smirk right off the vampire's face. He knew it wouldn't kill Spike, but that could be saved for later.
"Ladies and gentleman, I think we found our trigger," Xander murmured. "Farm Boy here makes his declaration, post-Faith snogging and our heroine can't reciprocate in kind. So she take a little mental vacation back to be with the one she could say it to, post-Faith snogging." He looked around at his assembled friends and enemies. "Hands?"
Riley saw red when five hands were raised in accord with Xander's psychiatric diagnosis. "You're all nuts!" he exploded. "Buffy loves me, even if she can't say it. She told me she had a hard time trusting people and I knew from the start she was going to need some time, but she loves me now. I swear it." He stood at attention, challenging anyone to disagree with him and face the consequences.
"Oh get over yourself," Anya sneered. "You've been a handy little boy-toy, one who doesn't break as easily as others might, thanks to all those lovely steroids you've been popping at mama's command. But don't mistake convenient companionship, or even sex, for love." She smiled sweetly at Xander, and shyly took his hand in her own. "It might sneak up on you, but you know when companionship turns to love." She turned back to Riley. "And you also know when it doesn't."
* * * * *
It was still very early in the morning when Buffy arrived at the offices of Angel Investigations. She knew from her previous visit at Thanksgiving that Cordelia would be in by nine, so she figured she still had a few good hours to catch a sleeping vampire and shake some sense into him before he could draw strength from reinforcements
With a mental apology to Angel, she broke the lock on his outer office door with a quick wrench of her wrist. After she did a swift scan of the room, she determined she was indeed alone and safe to continue unimpeded. Buffy slid off her shoes and made her way down the hardwood stairs she assumed led to Angel's apartment.
* * * * *
Angel was sleeping soundly, though dawn was barely an hour in the past. In his dreams, he and Buffy were in Ireland, and he was finally free to release the burden of his past by sharing it with the other half of his soul. They held each other, and she forgave each and every one of his sins with a kiss until he could no longer withstand the unbearable nearness of her…the unbearable nearness of her. His mind swiftly separated illusion from reality and his eyes flew open to behold his love standing over him.
"Hi," she said softly. "Miss me?"
* * * * *
It was a dream. She was a dream. She must be a dream because Buffy was back in Sunnydale and he was alone in LA. She was building a normal human life without him and he was making amends for the sins of ten lifetimes. She was not here. She was not here.
"Angel? Aren't you going to say hello or anything?"
She was real. He slid slowly into the waking world when he felt her warm fingers gently caressing his cheek. For just a moment he closed his eyes and breathed in her essence. He knew he should resist the temptation, but it had been so long, and he missed her so desperately.
"Buffy," he murmured, surrendering to her touch as he reached up to clasp the hand that stroked his face. He lightly kissed her palm, and smiled when she uttered a tiny inarticulate sound of delight.
She was like air to him, or sunlight. She was all that he thought he would never have again. All that he didn't deserve to have. He choked on the pain that welled up in his chest and abruptly pulled away from her, dropping her hand as though it was a cross dipped in holy water.
"What are you doing here?" His dark eyes were wide with pain and confusion. She had promised she would never come again. She said she would stay away until they both forgot, and to him that meant forever. Yet here she was.
Buffy tried to suppress the hurt she felt when he pulled away from her. She sat on the edge of the bed next to him with a carefully assumed air of nonchalance.
"I needed to see you. There are some things we left unsaid, and I think we should say them."
She was almost amused to see him shrink back against the headboard. A five-foot tall blonde teenager reduced Angelus, the Scourge of Europe, to cowering against the bedpost. What countless slayers had tried to accomplish by brute force was made simple by the power of love, and the threat of open discussion.
"There's nothing left to talk about. Anyway, I thought you said you never wanted to see me again." He knew she wouldn't understand the true measure of his anguish; she did not remember the alternate past where those words were made false by a kiss, and so much more.
"Actually, I said I thought we shouldn't see each other until we'd forgotten," she carefully replied, trying to dig the exact words from her memories of her diary entries. "But I realize now that was wrong. I don't want to forget us, and I don't think you do either. What we should do is be mature and work out our problems. We can't do that if we're hiding from each other."
"There's nothing left to work out. It's over, Buffy." He avoided looking into her eyes, because he knew one glimpse into their hazel depths would drag him back into the whole fantasy again. He had to be strong for both of them, again.
"Yeah, you said that before, but you never let me have a chance for rebuttal." This was not going quite how she'd envisioned, and it was beginning to annoy her. "You just walked away and didn't look back. You let the guilt and the past pull you down and you didn't even fight it." She stood up and stalked away from the bed.
He winced at her view of their parting. She would never know how many nights he lay awake in his bed in the mansion, trying to envision a way out for them. She could never understand how hard it was to give up, not once but twice, the one person in his long life who loved him without reservation, knowing he would mourn her loss for eternity.
"I just wanted you to be happy," he replied softly. What else was there to say? Her well being was his goal, his quest, his Holy Grail.
Her back was still turned to him. "Well, I'm not. Got any brilliant ideas for Plan B?"
"Buffy, I…" he started to get out of bed to go to her, but quickly realized he had a slight problem. "Umm, could you toss me my pants?"
Buffy whirled around to see him gesturing to a pair of sweats on a chair nearher. She flushed slightly when she remembered he preferred to sleep in the nude. All this time they had been arguing and he had been…why was she wasting time arguing? She put her hands on her hips and smiled at him.
"It's not like I haven't seen you before, Angel. Why don't you get them yourself?" She could only hope that flirtation would work where reason could not seem to prevail.
"This isn't funny, Buffy. Get me my sweats. Please." The note of desperation in his voice didn't please him, but he felt seriously disadvantaged in an argument when he wasn't wearing clothes. Besides, he was starting to get certain impossible ideas he had to make sure stayed unfulfilled. Nudity and denial just didn't go together.
She grimaced and tossed the sweats on his bed. "You're being a baby, you know."
"Nice to know what you really think of me," he mumbled as he slid into the sweatpants under the covers.
Buffy was seized by another brief flash of what must have been memory. She and Angel were arguing in the streets of Sunnydale. She saw a box, and her favorite blue coat, and heard a weird whooshing noise, then nothing.
"Buffy, are you okay?"
She shook her head to clear it and realized Angel was standing next to her, his hand hovering over her arm as though he were afraid to touch her.
"You look so strange. Are you okay?" he repeated.
"I'm…I'm fine," she stammered, brushing a hand across her forehead. "I've been having, well, a little problem lately. Nothing serious," she hastily added when she saw a gratifying flare of concern in his dark eyes. "I just don't remember stuff."
"What stuff?" he asked suspiciously. He risked putting his hand to her elbow and guided her over to the bed.
"This year stuff." She settled herself on the edge of the bed and looked expectantly at him when he didn't join her. "I remember being able to read minds, and you killing the demon to save me, and the talk we had that night, and then…nothing. The next thing I remember is waking up in the cemetery with a headache and finding out it was a year later." She shrugged her slim shoulders. "I said I wouldn't see you until enough time had passed and I'd forgotten. Well, now I have, so here I am."
"Are you okay? Where were you hit?" He leaned over to examine her wound, his long fingers carefully searching for it through her hair. The shock of his cool hands touching the skin just below her ear sent a tiny frisson of delight down Buffy's spine.
"I'm fine." She reached up and pulled his hands to her mouth for a kiss. Regret slammed through her chest when he disentangled his hands from hers and sat down on the far end of the bed.
"You've got amnesia?" He was still reeling from the shock, and a sense of betrayal. "Why didn't anyone tell me? Giles just called a few days ago to tell me about…you don't think Faith was responsible, do you?" The idea scared the hell out of him.
"I don't know," she replied honestly. "I've been catching up on my life from my diaries, and from the sound of them Faith is long gone, but it's possible. I don't actually care why it happened, I just don't want to waste the opportunity." She reached over and gently clasped his hand in hers.
He stared at their intertwined hands and fought back the memories of the last time they were together on this bed. What he remembered was little more than a dream, he told himself firmly. Reality for him was loneliness and penance, not ice cream and sunshine. This bright creature, so close and yet so very far away, could never truly belong to him.
"What opportunity?" he asked hoarsely, hating himself for asking. He didn't dare look in her eyes.
"Us," she replied softly, squeezing his hand. "Angel, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately along with my reading. Never thought you'd hear me say that, did you?" She flashed him a quick smile. "Looking at this whole situation as an impartial observer, which, funnily enough, I am because I don't remember how it all felt, I realize we screwed up in a major way. Well, you screwed up, but I let you. You shouldn't have listened to what everyone else was thinking, Angel, and I shouldn't have let you walk away without a fight. But we've been given another chance. We can't waste it."
He wrenched away from the warm pressure of her hand and the seductive pull of her reasoning. He began to pace the length of the room, running his hand roughly through his dark hair as he tried to marshal his defenses against theonly one who had ever defeated him.
"There are no second chances, Buffy, not for us. We never had a first one. We were never supposed to be." He told himself that every night as he lay in his lonely bed, his thoughts drifting to their one perfect day. The day that never was. If it had been meant to be, there would have been another way out.
She felt the familiar despair swell inside of her at his defeatist attitude, but she forced herself to remain calm. She was fighting against a century-long habit of remorse, and it would take more than a few words to vanquish this demon.
"Angel, we were brought together for a reason," she said with all the patience she could muster. "I don't think it was just so you could help me stop the Harvest, or even to bring you together with Acathla, which is Giles' pet theory. I know there has to be a bigger reason why a vampire and a vampire slayer would go against every instinct and fall in love." She ached to put her arms around him, but she was still afraid of being pushed away.
"It doesn't matter why, Buffy. Why and who and how are all moot points now. We have to move on." His voice was low and weary with the strain of trying to follow his own advice.
"I don't buy it." She set her jaw. "Every time I fight a demon, Giles finds an explanation for that creature being in Sunnydale. Every time I face the apocalypse, there is a reason it came to me. Do you think only bad things are meant to be? I know there is a plan for us."
"And what if the plan is over?"
"It's not," she flared, angered by the hopelessness in his voice. "We wouldn't still have all these feelings if it was over. I love you, Angel, and I think you still love me. Why would we be left with all of these emotions if we were never supposed to be in the first place?" At last she dared to approach him, catching his arm as he strode past her.
Angel was stopped in his frantic attempts to outrun his feelings by the pressure of her small hand on his arm. He suddenly felt ashamed of indulging in his fears, when clearly Buffy was led to him by her own.
"What's really wrong, Buffy?" he asked softly. Without thinking, he reached out to brush a stray lock of blonde hair from her cheek. "Why are you here?"
"Nothing is right without you," she whispered. She leaned into his hand and closed her eyes, taking solace from his cool touch. "I'm not me anymore, and I don't like the me that I've become. You walked away to give me a normal life, and I've tried, and it sucks. You wanted me to be happy, but I think the last time I was, was when we were together."
She stood very close to him, holding only his arm to maintain contact, but wanting so much more. They both did, she could feel it. If only he would let his guard down for an instant, she knew they could find a way to make things work.
"Baby, nothing's changed." He hated himself for the heartache he saw in her eyes, but he steeled himself to go on. "I can't give you a future anymore now than I could a year ago. I'm so desperately sorry you're unhappy, but I can't make it go away. Maybe you just need to try again with someone else. This obviously isn't the right guy for you."
"No, the right guy is so convinced he's the wrong guy he can't see what's in front of his face," Buffy replied bitterly. She dropped his arm as though it were on fire and turned away to face the wall.
Angel reached out to her, but she eluded his grasp and folded her arms to keep her traitorous hands from seeking comfort in his.
"I thought I was the right guy," said a voice from the stairs.
* * * *
Buffy and Angel both turned to the stairs when they heard the quiet voice behind them. Riley stood on the last step, surveying the little drama that was putting an end to his own visions of the future.
"Riley," Buffy said helplessly, glancing at Angel. The anguish on Angel's face made her flinch, but looking into Riley's eyes wasn't much better.
"They were right." Riley's voice was quiet and controlled. He refused to give way to the anger that was surging inside of him; it would only alienate Buffy. "They told me you would have come to him, and I didn't believe it, but they were right."
"I'm sorry," she replied sincerely, but she made no effort to leave Angel's side. "You know I don't remember the past year, so I feel a little funny apologizing for leading you on.but I think that'swhat I did. I am sorry."
Riley slowly walked across the room, reaching out to her as though he was trying to coax her off a ledge. "I know you've been really confused lately, Buffy. It has to be tough being in an unfamiliar situation and having everyone else know more than you do about your own life. But you can't make any rash decisions right now. You need to give it time."
Her furious outcry took him by surprise, though Angel could have told him it was coming. Slayers don't react well to the mention of time.
"Why do people keep saying that to me! Everyone keeps telling me to take it slow, give it time. But unlike some people, I'm not going to live forever, dammit! From where I stand, I've already wasted a year of my life, so I think maybe I'm entitled to make a few rash decisions."
"Oh, that's flattering."
"No, I'm sorry," he interrupted. He dropped his eyes to the floor for a moment before confronting her. "The thing is, I'm also tired of saying it. I'm sorry every single minute of every single day for almost every single thing I've done over the past." he glanced at Riley, "in my life. I don't want hurting you to add more regrets to the ones I already have. We can't be together. It's not an option."
Buffy couldn't believe her ears. She had worked so hard the past week to find out where and how things went so wrong. She tried to plan for every possible argument Angel could come up with, but everything was spinning out of her control. What should have been a rational conversation, followed by a rapturous reunion, was turning into a nightmare. It was time to make her lover take responsibility for his part in this little drama she called her life.
"Now it's my turn to ask why," she choked out at last. "Why did you come back from Hell, if not for us? Why did you spend months trying to make peace with my friends, and acting like the world ended when we had a fight, only to dump me in the sewers?"
The words were pouring out of her like water from a ruptured dam. She didn't even know what she was saying; she just rode the crest.
"Why did you tell Willow you could never leave me, and then leave me without even saying goodbye? Why did you ask the Oracles to turn you back without even asking me first how I felt? Why?" She was gasping by the end of her speech, but it was the look on Angel's face that truly took her breath away.
"What did you say?" he whispered. "The Oracles, what did you say about them?"
"You asked them to turn you back, but you never.oh God," she breathed, as she lost all color in her face. "I remember. I remember everything now, even the stuff I'm not supposed to." The strength suddenly left her legs. She reached out to Angel as she sank to the ground.
Angel and Riley both made a grab for her, but Angel caught her first, and snarled at Riley to warn him off. Riley backed up a pace in alarm, but years of training overcame good sense and he approached Buffy again as she sat huddled on the floor in Angel's arms.
"Shhh, it's all right," Angel crooned as he held her close and stroked her hair. "You'll be fine, you just need to catch your breath. It's all right."
Buffy closed her eyes and truly relaxed for the first time in almost a year, as she felt the sweet succor of Angel's embrace. Here was peace, and joy, and hope. Despite all the confused thoughts whirling through her head, she was certain of one thing: here was home.
"I told you I wouldn't forget," she repeated over and over, as she rocked in his arms.
Riley squatted down in front of them and tentatively reached out to touch Buffy's hand. In spite of what she had just said, he had his doubts about her total recall of her life. She was, after all, not in his arms yet.
"Buffy, do you remember me now?"
Buffy raised her head from its comfortable, and achingly familiar, resting-place on Angel's shoulder. She acknowledged the concern in Riley's blue eyes, but it could not compare to the consummate devotion she felt from Angel's every touch.
"I remember everything, Riley," she quietly responded. She felt Angel's arms start to relax, and instinctively held him fast with all of the slayer strength at her command. "Oh no, not so fast, lover. We're not done yet." She completely forgot about Riley, as she looked steadily at the one who long ago promised to warm her heart with his own.
"We've reached the end of Memory Lane, sweetheart," Angel said gently. "It's time to go back to your new life and make it work. I can't help you with that." He tried to pull himself free, but she still clung to him.
"You walked away once because you said you couldn't give me a normal life, that I deserved more. Then, when you could give me all that, you walked away again because normal still wasn't good enough." She risked releasing her deathgrip on his arms to capture his beautiful, troubled face in her hands. "How many prophecies and demons do I have to defeat before you realize you are my destiny? What dragon do I have to slay, or ancient scroll do I have to steal from the Nazis to make you admit that I belong to you and you belong to me and that's the end of the story?"
"You're confused right now, Buffy," Riley piped up anxiously. His own destiny was on the line here, and things were not looking good for the good guys. "We have a lot of talking to do, and some fences to mend, but you can't throw everything we have away on a memory. I'm here and I'm real. We can build a life together. I love you."
"And I love him," Buffy replied softly. The look she bestowed on him was compassionate, but it bore none of the wrenching tenderness she'd shown Angel, and Riley could feel the difference. "I care for you, Riley, honestly I do. You're a nice guy, basically, but you're not the one for me. If nothing else, you're way too young for me."
Angel told himself it was the tension that made him laugh.
Buffy swiftly smiled at Angel, relieved to know she could give him something besides regrets. "I love you, Angel," she said firmly, holding his eyes with her own. "I care about Riley, but I don't love him. I wouldn't kill for him and I wouldn't die for him. In our world, that's what love comes down to and you know it."
Angel's hand came up to caress the scar on her throat before he could stop it. "I know, but it shouldn't. You deserve more than."
He honestly wasn't expecting the shriek of frustration, or the blow that sent him tumbling back against the wall. Surprise brought the demon in him to the surface for just an instant, long enough to shame him and galvanize a sulking Riley.
"Oh my God!" Riley yelled as he grabbed Buffy's arm. "He's a vampire!" He dragged Buffy to her feet, and tried to push her behind him. She firmly resisted his weak human tugging and stared at him in disbelief.
"Well, duh." Disgust dripped from her voice. "I know he's a vampire, Riley. I've known for a long time. It has nothing to do with this." She took in Angel's wry expression and amended her statement. "Okay, well, actually it has a lot to do with this, but it's no reason to panic. If he were going to kill you he would have done it long before now, and it wouldn't be because he was thirsty."
"You never told him." Angel wasn't asking a question.
Buffy shook her head, wanting to look anywhere but into his eyes. As usual, she had humiliated him by forcing him to admit to his demon half. "No, I never told him anything about you. I couldn't. It would have meant letting you go and I wasn't.I mean I'm notwilling to do that." She faced him squarely now, daring him to deny the strength of her commitment to him.
"You dated a vampire? Is he the one who gave you that scar?" Riley couldn't seem to get past it. An ex-boyfriend was one thing but a ."you actually dated a vampire?"
Buffy crossed her arms and glared at him. "We've established that," she snapped. "Move on. You're embarrassing Angel." She turned back to the shamefaced vampire. "And you. You think you're sick of apologizing? Well I am sick of being apologized to. I am also really tired of hearing from you and everybody else how you're not good enough for me. You want to know what I deserve? I deserve to get what I want. I want you."
Angel was dumbstruck. He had struggled long and hard to do 'the right thing' when it came to Buffy. In his work, he never had trouble distinguishing right from wrong, good from evil, but when it came to this girl he got all turned around. Eventually, and with considerable help from others, he had come to realize whatever he wanted to be right, was wrong. If it felt good, and it made him happy, it was the path to her ultimate destruction. Now she was saying all his grand deductions were incorrect. Wrong. What he had come to believe was right for her was actually wrong. Wait, wasn't that how this whole thing started? It was enough to make his head spin.
"I don't care about picnics in the sunshine, Angel," she continued, ruthlessly stalking him as he tried to back out of her life again. "I don't mind growing old while you stay young, because it's not like I'd grow old unless you were there anyway. And the only one I would ever want to have kids with is you, so if you can't, we can't. I remember all the arguments and every last one of them is garbage. You make me happy, only you, and without you I am miserable. If that isn't reason enough for you, then I don't know what else to say."
"But what about the curse?" His overwrought neurons managed to fire up a memory of the biggest obstacle in their path as his back hit the wall. No amount of determination would will this one away, and they could only overlook it for so long.
"I don't care," she said firmly. She saw the doubt in his eyes and answered it before he could find the words. "Angel, I know eventually we need to do something about it, and we will. We'll finish translating the curse, and if it's the same one we'll fix it. Willow has made friends with another witch who's pretty powerful, and Anya was a witch a couple of centuries before you were born. I think she's picked up a thing or two over the millenium. We will find away, I promise, but for right now we'll deal." She gently traced the outline of his lips with her fingertip, but he brushed off the caress with a stubborn shake of his head.
"It's not that simple. There may not be a way around it."
"Then we'll just deal. Believe me, I've realized sex isn't that important if it isn't with the right person." Too late, she remembered Riley was still in the room.
"Umm, oh, Riley," she said weakly as she turned to the wounded commando, "I don't think that came out very well." She looked back at Angel and realized she'd made a double blunder. "Oh boy, took out the eight ball and the cue ball with that one. Angel, you said you wanted me to move on."
"I did. I do." I didn't. I don't.
"Well I was only doing what you said you wanted me to do." She decided to go on the offensive. "And it's not like you were Mr. Celibate before we met, or after, for that matter. We've never discussed sleeping arrangements when you were camping out at the warehouse with Spike and Dru, and we never will. We learned, we were punished, we will move on."
While Angel fought to reorganize his Buffy-philosophy, she took advantage of his confusion and slipped her arms around him. Withoutthinking he returned the embrace, and his last chance at escape fled when the scent of her perfume drifted into his brain.
"We can't do it alone, Angel," she whispered into his neck. "We tried, but not even a vampire or a vampire slayer can fight fate. I'm not a little girl. I know we have a lot of problems to face, but we're supposed to face them together. If there is anything I'm sure of, it's that."
She felt his arms convulse around her as he absorbed her words.
"I love you so much, Buffy. I just wanted you to be happy." He kissed her lightly on the top of her head, relishing the silky feel of her hair against his lips. This was all he'd ever hoped for, but something inside of him still fought against the release.
"I am, silly. Right here and now, with you."
It was time to let go, once and for all.
"Then this where I'll stay."
"Riley," Buffy murmured as she pillowed her head on Angel's broad shoulder, "you should go. Angel and I have a lot of talking left to do, and none of it concerns you." She smiled as she felt accustomed weight of Angel's head come to rest on her own.
"Buffy, you can't expect me to leave you here with this.this demon. He's got you under some spell or something. I'm not leaving without you."
"You will leave without her or without your pulse, take your pick," Angel growled, only partly in idle threat.
Buffy reluctantly disentangled herself from Angel's arms when she realized she was being unkind. She faced Riley, but she made no move to approach him, preferring to show her commitment to Angel in deed as well as word.
"Riley, I've said I'm sorry a couple of times, and I really, really mean it. You've been very patient with me, and in your own way you tried to be a good sport about the slayer thing. But we're not right for each other. Ultimately you want me to turn into some little housewife in Iowa, driving carpools and volunteering as a playground monitor. That would be a great life for some girls, but not me. It's not what I want, and if I've led you to believe otherwise, then I was wrong."
"This is still about Faith, isn't it? I swear I thought she was you."
Angel was puzzled, but decided to remain silent and see what he could learn that way. He could always coax the fine points out of Buffy later.
"This has nothing to do with her." Buffy sighed; this guy was harder to ditch than she had imagined. He almost made her think fondly of Parker. "I mean, I wasn't thrilled that you slept with her, but what it comes down to is that you and I don't belong together. You were just the answer to a problem. I thought I wanted a normal life, and a normal boyfriend, because that's what I used to have before I was the Slayer." She impatiently flipped her hair over her shoulder. "But you know what? I don't give a damn about 'normal' anymore. It's overrated. I like being a Slayer, and I like the fact that my boyfriend is a vampire because he can actually understand and admire my work. Nobody else really does."
"I admire your work," Riley protested. He was insulted; he had always supported Buffy's career. That is to say, her calling. Or was it her fate?
"Please! It scares the camouflage pants off of you," she retorted. "And it embarrasses you in front of your friends. I lied when I said you tried to be a good sport. You've been trying to keepme one pace to the rear since you found out I killed more vampires my first week on the job than you have in your whole life. I want someone who appreciates me for who I am, like Angel. He's only embarrassed by who he is, not me."
"I am proud of you," Angel said softly. It was true, he had never been intimidated by her calling, only his worthiness to assist her. And she had always accepted him as he was, fangs and all; it was her own heritage that she tried to deny.
"Riley, you need to go find a girl who wants to be that perfect housewife, and who has no interest in being a better hunter than you are. She probably shouldn't even know what you do. I think denial works better for some people." Counseling session at an end, Buffy returned her attention to her own wayward mate.
"You, on the other hand, have spent a little too much time at the denial well. You are good and kind and you deserve to be some happiness, Angel." She waggled her finger sternly at him. "So consider yourself warned: I'm going to make you happy even if it kills you." She winced at a not-so-pleasant memory. "Oh, wait, let me rephrase that."
"Buffy, are you sure?" Angel desperately wanted to believe her, but it was all too much to absorb. Just because he was committed to this wonderful insanity didn't mean that she.this was always the partof his dream where he woke up to an empty bed and an emptier life.
She growled and balled up her fist in a mock threat. "One more discouraging word and you will be home on the nice sunny range before you can say 'spontaneous combustion.' Are we clear?"
Angel grinned in spite of himself. Buffy rarely threatened him, and never in his dreams. He was almost starting to believe this was real.
"Yes, dear," he drawled, as he pulled her closer to him. Once again, the slayer triumphed over her vampire prey, but never had there been such a blessed defeat. The demon inside Angel howled in outrage as he was submerged in simple humanjoy.
When she felt his arms slide around her this time, Buffy swore no force on heaven or earth would ever remove them again. Not demons, or parents, or friends or.was there actually anyone else in theworld but she and Angel? Nope, not possible.
Neither of them noticed Riley Finn disconsolately climbing the stairs.