You Oughtta Know
S J Smith
Disclaimer: Never been, never will be Joss Whedon.
Rating: R for language.
Spoilers: Some time after "Chosen".
Summary: You think you know everyone about someone....
A.N.: Thanks as always to DME for comments and critiques.
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You can't remember when she'd looked more beautiful, dressing for tonight's fund raiser. In a little black dress, more little than black, the way you like it, seamed panty hose and strappy heels, her hair swept up and held in place by a pair of judiciously placed sticks enhanced by a trio of little rhinestones, she was gorgeous. A goddess, you told her, to hear her laugh. She gave you a kiss in way of thanks, rubbing her lipstick off of your cheek with her calloused thumb. You always wanted to know about those rough patches of skin but now isn't the time. It's getting late already and you needed to make your entrance with the prettiest girl in town on your arm. She laughed again, accepted her wrap and purse from you and the two of you swept out of her apartment.
It was a gorgeous night, clear and brilliant with stars. You drove; she'd admitted she's a lousy driver and living two years in England and traveling around Europe hadn't helped matters any. She'd said it in an off-handed sort of way, the way she did when she didn't want to talk about it. You'd learned those little cues; the way her eyes tightened just a bit and her mouth hardened when it was a closed subject. She didn't like to talk about her past much. You remember your first date, when she'd ticked off, literally, her information on one hand: "Mom's dead; sister's in school, Dad's divorced and somewhere; I don't even know if he's in the States or somewhere else any more." Friends? School? Past jobs? They didn't seem to figure into the conversations much. Danny, your best friend and a serious geek, asked her once if she really was a Parker girl; one of the black widow-types in Danny's comic book world. She'd laughed and pointed out she didn't have a Parker lily, earning Danny's utter respect and worship. Your family thought she was a little weird but Dad, behind your back, had her checked out. After you yelled at him, he calmed you down by saying that she was exactly what she said she was, a girl from California who'd lived abroad for a while. Nothing remarkable in your little Buffy, aside from everything.
You entered the party with her on your arm, your height and coloring a compare and contrast study with hers. You fetched her some champagne and some appetizers and the two of you mingled, working the room. She was good at it; had some wonderful ideas that people tell you about, making you that much more proud of her. You're getting dancing and conversation and a good meal out of this night; plus the added attraction of the looks of many of the men and a lot of the women, taking a peek at what was yours.
And soon it would be legal, too. You'd bought that ring, had it sized, nothing too ostentatious, since she just wasn't the type. Tonight, you had everything planned. Sweep her back to your place, that special late-night snack you'd ordered, the music and candles the way she liked them, then, if the night cooperated and somehow, you thought it might, propose to her on the balcony under the stars.
You made your way over to her, a pair of champagne glasses in your hands, one for each of you. She was talking to Senator Richards; well, he did the talking and she nodded at the appropriate moments. You interrupted gently, offering her the bubbly first, then the Senator, who at least appreciated that you did offer. You talked a few minutes more and escorted your girl away. There was a thread of tension in her spine as she said something about his 'Take Back the Night' project. She wasn't that impressed, for reasons you couldn't understand and when you asked, she waved it away.
"I've got an idea," you said, leaning in and whispering in her ear, "why don't we go home."
She rocked back, obviously liking your idea, finding a waiter to leave her champagne glass with and all but running for the hostess to say her goodbyes. You smiled to yourself, shook hands with the host and gathered up your jacket and her wrap.
The night was cooperating; still gorgeous as you drove back home, heading for your apartment automatically. "Where are we going?" she asked, her cute scowl in place.
"Home," you said to her.
"Oh, no," she said, her dismay nearly cutting through her, "I don't think I can do it tonight. I mean," she realized what she'd said and tried to fix it, "I'd love to but I've got such a headache." She rubbed her temples for emphasis.
Your girl couldn't lie for shit but you knew better than to press the issue. Once she decided something she was particularly stubborn , so you sighed and turned your car back to her place, halfway across town. She lived in a little place, nothing grand. It was near one of the local parks where she jogged every morning. The apartment wasn't in the best neighborhood but she liked it. The buildings there had character and she liked the huge windows that she constantly left open, though you argued with her about the safety of doing that. She always listened, then shrugged but the windows remained open. The floors were uneven there and the wood groaned when you hit certain spots in the room and she loved the place. You almost can't imagine her in your place, either.
You parked your car and opened her door, assisting her out. She squeezed your arm, pressing her cheek against your shoulder and looking up at you and you heart swelled. You could almost hear music and you leaned in for a kiss when she drew back, frowning just a little, her body suddenly both alert and tense. "What is it?" you asked, looking around, trying to see what she did. She had some sort of super sight, Danny said; she could see beyond what everyone else could.
"Buffy?" The voice was tentative and a shadow detached itself from the wall. You started to thrust her behind you but her frown just got deeper and she somehow avoided your grasp.
"Riley?" she said, disbelieving.
"Hey, Buffy." The relief was all too evident in both the man's voice and the stance, the way he walked closer. He smiled openly, tossing his head back to sweep his hair from his eyes. His arms were open and she went to them without a care. They hugged in a familiar way, the man bending over your girl and folding her close and her holding on tight. An ember ignited in your stomach then they parted and she stepped back, her smile as bright as you'd ever seen it, though very confused.
"What are you doing here, Riley?" she asked, shaking her head just a tiny bit.
"We're looking for you." A woman peeled off from the shadows, taller than Buffy with darker hair and eyes.
"Didn't think I'd let Finn out on his own, did you?" she asked, grinning at the man next to her.
He smiled back but he sobered up when he faced Buffy. "There's a problem," he said.
She stiffened, her spine straightening. She looked at you, her expression unreadable. You blamed the sky; no moon and the electric lights cast too many shadows. "Maybe we should get inside," she said. She led the way, her...did you dare call them friends?...following you. You could feel their eyes resting on your back. That double gaze made your shoulder blades itch.
Buffy unlocked the door, ushering them inside but taking your arm. "You might not want to stay for this," she said, completely serious.
You grasped her shoulders, smiling down at her. "Hey. How bad can it be?" You glanced into her apartment; worn, though painted in inviting colors. "Besides, you might need me, facing your past like this." It was meant to be a joke but a spasm of pain crossed her face. "Baby," you said, no, pleaded, "let me in."
Her shoulders rose and fell under your hands and she nodded, albeit with a hint of reluctance. "Come on," she said, taking you inside with her. She introduced you to the Finns on her way into her bedroom to change into something a little more comfortable. Your half-formed fantasies of helping her undress flew out the window and instead you perched on the edge of the chair, watching the Finns.
They looked good together but they were eyeing you so closely. He smiled, dimples flashing for an instant. "So, how long have you known Buffy?" he asked, his fingers indicating her closed door. A simple question. Something innocuous.
"Almost a year." It had been, too; you'd only been dating for half of it. You figured Finn didn't really need to know all the particulars. "What about you?" You smiled back.
"I met her in college," Finn said with a little shrug. You almost want to tell him to take a picture, it'll last longer, with the way he stared. But something stops you, Finn's words.
He knew something about your girl. He knew something about her past. That thing she never talked about, that she shied away from like a spooking horse. "So, you knew her well?" you asked.
"He used to date her," Mrs. Finn said, with a look at him. It wasn't a hostile glance; more something shared between the two of them.
"That," Finn said, with a sort of a chuckle in his voice, "was a long time ago."
"What was?" Buffy appeared out of her room, dressed for her comfort, sweat pants, tank top; hair in a scruffy ponytail and makeup wiped from her face. You tried not to react but this was Buffy, who never let anyone but you see her casual.
"When you and Finn dated," his wife said.
Something passed between the woman and your girl held up her hands, palms up. "What can I say? I was young. He was handsome."
"Was?" Finn asked, mockingly put-out.
She preened. "I only date hotties," she said, reaching over to touch your forearm then slapping her hands together. "So. You didn't come all this way to check on me," she said. "What's up?"
They looked at you, the Finns. "It's a bit of a situation," Finn said slowly.
You leaned forward, resting your elbows on your knees. "What sort?" you asked.
"One we need Buffy for, if you're willing, that is." Finn's attention turned to your girl.
"You know I'm out of it," she said, her voice pleasant but steely.
You wondered exactly what she's out of; thinking back again to your father's background check of her. Automatically running through scenarios in your head, you discarded each one almost as it flipped into place: Buffy a spy? No. Buffy a drug dealer? No. Buffy an undercover cop? No. Before you could lean forward and ask, the other woman spoke.
"We thought this one might interest you," Mrs. Finn said, dangling bait like an expert fisherman.
"I'm not. Really."
Finn sighed, rising to his feet and moving, as if he couldn't sit still any longer. "Look, Buffy," he said, standing in front of her, towering over her, "we wouldn't have come if it wasn't important. I know you asked for time." He spread his hands. "Giles told us. Will, Xander, they all did."
You blinked, trying to contain your surprise. These were not names you recognized. Buffy's address book only had the names and numbers of people from the gym and your family and friends. Buffy wore her past like a piece of chiffon; there was little enough of it in her apartment. No photos, no scrap books, nothing save the drawing in her bedroom. You remembered the day that the box arrived in the mail for her, a huge, heavy thing, forcing you to carry it up to her apartment. It was a framed portrait, done in pencil of a woman and two girls. You recognized Buffy, guessed the woman was the mother and the other girl was the sister, Dawn. The artist had a good hand and you'd commented on it only to see that Buffy had covered her mouth, staring at the portrait, tears standing in her eyes. She'd put the portrait in her room, hung it carefully where she could see it first thing in the morning. It was a birthday present, she'd said, letting you know for the first time when her birthday was. She never said who it was from even when you'd asked. You knew your mother would like a portrait like that and anyone who drew that well probably had a waiting list but Buffy always turned the conversation to something else.
She was damned good at it, you realized all over again.
"So?" Buffy said, not at all intimidated by Finn standing over her. Pride flared up in your chest. Your girl stood up to anyone.
"Buffy, I know this is difficult," Mrs. Finn said, rising to gather in her husband and settle him on the sofa again. "But it really is important."
She sighed, her chin dropping against her chest as she contemplated her entwined fingers. "It must be," she said grudgingly, "for you to come all the way here to talk to me. What, you hadn't heard of telephones?"
"Just seemed easier," Finn said. He was aping your position, you realized as he straightened. "We were on our way west, thought maybe we could talk you into coming along."
"West?" Her eyes narrowed. "Why west?"
"Buffy, I can't lie," Finn said, though he looked at you, as if to convey something else. "It's Angel."
All of these unfamiliar names. Will, Giles, Xander. The Finns. Buffy did have a past and it was peopled. You'd never thought her apartment tiny but now it seemed that ghosts filled it almost to suffocation. You noticed her eyes. They were sharply focused on Finn. "What about Angel?" she asked sharply.
"Buffy," Mrs. Finn said, eyeing you again then giving up and plowing ahead. "He's missing."
"How hard is he to lose?" she asked, through gritted teeth.
"You tell us," Finn said. "You're the one who knows him."
She was on her feet, pacing the room before you even realized it. "Not any more," she said, stopping, frowning at both the Finns. "I...we." She met your gaze. "I haven't talked to him even, since that last night in Sunnydale. That was," she waved her hand in the air, "years ago, Riley."
"And under any other circumstances, do you think I'd be asking you to drop everything, Buffy?" Finn stood in front of her, taking her upper arms in his hands. He bent slightly to meet her eyes. "Listen, what you and I had, hell, I knew it wasn't what you had with Angel. But he's gone missing now and he - and we - need your help to find him."
"But why me?" Her voice wavered between plaintive and annoyed.
You couldn't help it, they were all pretty much ignoring you. "Yeah," you said, realizing how belligerent you sounded and not really caring at all, "why Buffy?"
Mrs. Finn said in complete seriousness, "Willow said he had a blood link to you. She needs that to find him."
"Oh, God." Buffy sank onto the coffee table, her hands over her mouth.
"What is this?" you asked, looking from one to the other. You reached out to Buffy but she didn't notice. Knowing the Finns did, you slid your hand back into your lap, folding it around the other one.
"It's hard to explain," Finn said slowly.
"Why don't you try," you said, hearing the tightness in your throat.
"Stop it," Buffy said and the very real threat in her voice outweighed yours. "Riley, tell me what happened. In short, easy to understand sentences."
"Angel; demon dimension opened, he went through." Finn shrugged. "That's the long and the short of it."
"Why would he." Buffy shut her mouth with a snap, one of her hands raising to stop any flow of words, her fingers curling down to her palm. "Don't answer that."
"Demon dimension?" The words fell out with a chuckle and you grinned. "What the hell is this?" The look the Finns gave you matched nearly perfectly; one of disbelief possibly mixed with disdain. The ember in your belly sparked and you barked out, "This is about the stupidest thing I've heard, Buffy. Danny put you up to this, right?" You waved at the Finns. "Demon dimensions."
She turned her head slowly, her eyes meeting yours over her shoulder. You had always loved her eyes, the way they changed colors like opals, how bright they always were. You'd never realized how old they seemed, a set of antique gems in a youthful setting. The harsh laughter that had been building in your throat was swallowed down, the ember igniting it. "Michael," she said, her voice low. 'Michael'. She never used any affectionate terms, not 'baby' or 'honey' or 'love'. "Michael, you might not want to hear this."
"Oh no," you said, feeling the back of your neck heating up. "I want to hear all of it. You've been keeping your past pretty well hidden, haven't you, Buffy?"
"He doesn't know?" Finn asked and Buffy shook her head once. "Oh, god, Buffy, I'm sorry."
Her mouth curled in a heartbreaking smile, one you never saw before, one you had the feeling that Finn knew well. "Yeah, well," she said, one of her shoulders lifting in a shrug. "Can't keep things in forever." She turned to look at you again. "Even if you want it to, the past never stays hidden."
"Maybe we should go, Finn, let Buffy talk this over with Michael," Mrs. Finn said, touching her husband's shoulder. You couldn't see the expression on Buffy's face but her shoulders relaxed a little bit. "Here." Mrs. Finn handed Buffy a card. "We'll be moving out at oh-two-hundred hours. Call us if...."
"I'm not gonna call," she said, her voice soft but firm and the Finns exchanged another of those long looks. Buffy's head tilted slightly as if she was warding off their unspoken thoughts. She sounded tired as she said, "It was a long time ago, Riley. I was a different person. I am a different person." Something in the set of her shoulders, the way her head hung down made you wonder. Your girl had never lost a battle that you knew of; she won even the stupid little ones over what type of toothpaste to buy. These two strangers stepped into her apartment and mentioned a man's name and suddenly she wasn't strong any more. The burn in your stomach blazed hotter.
Finn leaned forward, capturing Buffy's hands in his own. Her tiny fingers were swallowed up in his huge palms. She looked down at them and said, "You'll have to tell me how you came to be so concerned about Angel. Last time, you were ready to, you know." Something passed between them and you felt even more definitely out of the loop.
He lowered his head, bangs falling forward. "Not that much of a story. Jealousy makes you do a lot of stupid things."
"Oh, yeah?" The words sounded sardonic and Finn glanced up at her from under his bangs, meeting her tiny grin with a larger one. He squeezed her hands and rose slowly, as if he was afraid to leave Buffy alone with you. "I guess I know what you mean." From the expression on Finn's face, you gathered he's as much in the dark as you are. You got to your feet and followed him and his wife to the door, saying your goodbyes almost politely when you really wanted to throw them out into the street. The only thing stopping you was the fact that they seemed so serious about demon dimensions and the thought that they might not be lying meant that maybe they were more than they appeared to be. You closed and locking the door behind them, releasing a heavy sigh. If only there was a way to go back into time. If you hadn't brought Buffy back here, if you'd spent the night at your place, like you'd originally planned, this wouldn't have happened.
When you turned back around, Buffy hasn't moved, still sitting on the coffee table, her hands loosely laced and hanging between her knees. She seemed tiny and fragile, her head drooping like that and the fire in your belly was suddenly quenched with ice water. "Buffy," you said, wondering why your legs felt as if they wouldn't hold you upright.
She moved, a swift, fluid gesture that carried her halfway across the room, almost before you could get your eyes around it. "It's a thing, Michael," she said, pausing in front of one of those huge windows and looking out of it. You wondered what she saw. "Just a thing."
"Who are they?" You waved at the door, at the dramatic entrance and exit of the Finns.
"He, Riley, well, we dated." Her slim shoulders lifted and dropped again.
"And the others?"
She hesitated, folding her arms. "The others."
"Will. Xander. Giles?" You couldn't say the other name.
"Friends of mine," she said. Simple. Short. To the point.
You forced his name to cross your lips. "And Angel?"
She didn't quite wince, you could give her that but her eyes shimmered from the blow. "Angel was someone else I dated," she said levelly. "A really, really long time ago."
"Riley seemed to think there was still something there," you said and waited for her to say 'no', to say something. To say anything. Silence hovered between you like a tangible thing and your voice was as watery as your guts when you asked, "Buffy?"
You wondered where your girl had gone as she asked, "What do you want me to say, Michael?" One hand sped over her hair, the other joined it at the back of her neck and she squeezed her elbows together. She didn't sound bitter, only tired when she said, "Angel is...Angel. We had something special." Another pause. "And it was a long time ago. I was still in high school."
You couldn't help it, you had to worry it, like a dog did a bone. "Then why would Riley think that?"
Something flared then, a brilliance you didn't recognize. Buffy, angry. You wondered at it. She'd never really pointed her anger at you before. Now it blazed forth, a beacon. "Because. Because Riley was the guy I dated after Angel. And I never loved him, not the way," her hands described something but you couldn't, or maybe you just simply wouldn't, read what they were saying. "Not the way I loved Angel."
The words fall from you like diamonds, nearly as hard, but much more brittle. "Do you still love him?"
She faced you then, tossing her hair back over her shoulders. Her gaze fixed you, holding you down like a pin through a butterfly. Her eyes seemed ancient then, older than time and nearly as difficult to understand. "Does it matter?"
"I don't know. Does it?" You cross the room in two large steps, standing over her. "Two people appear out of nowhere, Buffy, and ask you to go hunting some man named Angel who got lost in a," you floundered for a second, it seemed ludicrous, "a demon dimension and you're asking me if it matters?"
She wasn't afraid. Not your girl. Maybe never your girl. Maybe you were confusing everything all along. You stared down at her and she met your gaze, her head tilted to one side, her stance showing just what little threat she thought you were. Your hands clenched into fists and you wanted to wipe the idea of anyone named Angel, or Finn for that matter, from your immediate memory. "Yeah," she said.
"It matters," you said and forced your voice to calmness. "It matters because it matters to you."
"No. It doesn't." She shook her head tiredly. "It really, really doesn't." Her gaze went to the beckoning open door of her bedroom and she turned it back to you, her smile suddenly wicked. "Need me to prove it to you?" She crumpled the card and tossed it in the wastebasket. "Come on." She beckoned you and you followed her lead, suddenly unable to keep your hands off of her. A part of you understood completely; that analytical side that tells you that you need to brand her, make her yours. It's completely masculine, testosterone laden and you couldn't help yourself and from the sounds she made, she didn't mind at all.
But you woke later in the night, reaching across the mattress to find her side of the bed cold and a shiver ran through you. You stumbled out of bed, knowing where you'd find her; perched in one of those damn windows, that crumpled card smoothed out in her hand.
She didn't look at you, her head turned away, towards the night but she knew you were there, somehow, despite the fact that your feet made no noise even across that creaky floor. "I didn't want it to be this way."
"I don't want you to go."
She turned around, still sitting in the window, but her bare toes, painted some impossible shade of red, rested on the floor. "I know."
Something rushed over you, that ember again, flashing up into an inferno. You managed to keep your voice under some sort of control as you said, "I thought this was in your past."
Buffy dropped her head and raised it, the smile that quirked the corner of her mouth saying that she was wrong. "There are things you just can't escape." She slipped out of the window, meeting you, her hands linked lightly behind her back. "Do you believe in destiny?"
"I didn't either." She made a noise that might have been a laugh but you somehow doubted it. "At fifteen, I found out I had a special ability. I lived with it for eight years before I could lay it aside. It was a curse, Michael. But it was also a blessing." She stretched her neck, sighed, laced her fingers together in front of her. "I had the best friends," she said, almost wistfully. "A boyfriend. A man who took care of me, better than my Daddy did. My Mom. My sister. And then, poof! It went away. I lost a lot. So did they." Her fingers moved up to push a strand of hair behind her ear. "I owe them. I owe him. We put each other through hell." Her eyes widened and you knew it wasn't for dramatic effect. "I mean literally."
"So you're going."
She reached out, taking your hands in hers. You feel the callouses press against your flesh and wonder at them, again. "I have to," she said. She released her grip, walking away from you, staring out the window again. "But when I go with them." She sighed, pressing her fingertips against the frame. "When I help them find Angel." Buffy turned back around to face you.
"You won't be coming back here."
"So, it's dangerous, where he is?" You wanted to touch her but something in her stance, her tone of voice, warned you off.
She swept a hand over her hair. "Probably. The line of work he's in...that I used to be in, let's just say that coming back alive is always the option you try for."
Your stomach fell to your feet. "You could die doing this?"
"Oh, I'll make it out alive," she said, obviously a private joke but by the tone in her voice, a dark one. "I always leave a trail of bread crumbs."
"And Angel?" You were pleased that your voice didn't skip or drag over your previously unheard of rival's name.
Buffy's smile was a little pained but you saw something in her expression. Affection? Love? God, she never gave that look to you, not in bed, not...ever. "He'll follow me."
"So," you couldn't look at her, you just couldn't. "This is it."
"I'm sorry, Michael." She almost reached out to you but stopped herself, tucking her hands together. "God, I suck at this. I wish...I wish it didn't have to end this way."
You wanted to say, 'Stay.' You wanted to fall on your knees in front of her and propose. You didn't do either. It wouldn't have made a difference if you had, you knew it. She had made her decision and you'd been found wanting. "It's okay." It wasn't and she knew it but she nodded and stepped in close then, giving you a quick kiss on the cheek. "You do what you have to do," you told her, giving her a tight embrace. "Stay safe."
"Thanks," she said, her return hug completely devoid of emotion.
You gathered up your things, dressed quickly. Now that she'd told you her decision, you could see her desire to get gone. As you walked to the door, she followed you, telephone already in hand. You wanted to give her a last kiss goodbye but she already was closing the door, turning away from you, going back to whatever that other life was. You could just hear her voice on the other side of the door. "Hello, Riley? Come get me."
Walking down the hallway, you ran your fingers over the ring box in your pocket. You hesitated before getting into the elevator, hoping that maybe she'd come out of the door, tell you it was a mistake, she wasn't going anywhere.
It didn't happen and you stepped inside, the door closing behind you. You wanted only to go home, polish off that bottle of vodka in your liquor cabinet. Drown the sorrows. You almost laughed to yourself. Danny wouldn't be surprised by any of this, you thought, as the elevator doors opened in the lobby.
You stepped out of it, squaring your shoulders, about to go quietly into the night, leaving behind one girl in a million.