Midnight's Choices

Summary: As the Millennial New Year approaches, a new prophecy threatens Buffy, and several of her friends face significant decisions.

Disclaimer: None of these characters are mine, as they remain the property of their owners/creators. . .I'm just cutting them some slack for a change.

Rating: PG, for themes.

Time Frame: After "Hush" and "Parting Gifts". (this is your spoiler warning, folks).

Archiving: Please do, but e-mail me at eilandesq@aol.com because I'm interested in where stuff I write ends up, and I'll want to see what else you've got there.

Author's Note: This story is a follow up to my story "Other Options", in which Giles acknowledged that he had been concealing romantic feelings for Willow, which Willow was not uninterested in, though she needed to resolve issues with Oz before she considered pursuing them.

MIDNIGHT'S CHOICES

Part I


Rupert Giles glanced over at Buffy Summers, who nodded once. With that gesture of approval, he delivered a perfect right uppercut that propelled his opponent into the nearby wall. Ethan Rayne bounced off of the wall and slumped, unconscious. Giles grinned and turned to his Slayer, commenting, "I never get tired of that. Thank you, Buffy."

Buffy grinned back at him and replied, "Glad to let you have the fun. . .but next time it's my turn." They turned to Willow and Xander, who were standing by in case they were needed, and motioned for them to come over. When they did, Buffy breezily announced, "All right, with Captain Chaos here out for the count, I think we've taken out the last of the jokers that wanted to wreck New Year's for everyone. . .I think we can call it a night. Remember, everyone, tomorrow at my mom's house for New Year's Eve. . .it'll be fun."

Willow smiled and replied, "It sounds like it will be great, Buffy. . .who's going to be there?"

Buffy replied, "The four of us. . .and Mom-Xander, will Anya be coming?"

Xander glumly shook his head, and replied, "No. She said she had a prior engagement. . .with any other woman, I'd assume she was fooling around on me. . .but with Anya, I think she may be involved in something I don't really want to know about." He shrugged and concluded, "Probably still trying to get her powers back. . .guess that takes precedence over spending New Year's with the boyfriend."

Buffy felt a pang of sadness for her friend. His actions during the siege of silence made it clear he had strong feelings for Anya, and vice versa, but the relationship was still shaky, and she worried about the effect it would have on him. She smiled sympathetically as Willow asked, "Is Riley going to be back for the party?"

Buffy shook her head and replied, "No. . .he's doing the whole millenium thing with his family." * Assuming that his story isn't cover for stuff he hasn't been willing to tell me yet * she thought. When they had finally talked, Buffy had left out a lot of details in explaining to him who and what she was, including the fact that the vampire that had escaped the Initiative's custody was living in Giles' apartment. She was sure he was holding back some details, including that Professor Walsh had to be involved: her dream strongly suggested a connection between them. Ironically, the mutual caution had actually contributed to an increased level of comfort between them: they understood each other. She took a deep breath and looked attentively at Xander as she announced, "Oh, and Angel and Cordelia are coming."

Buffy was surprised to see Xander's face remain calm as he asked, "What, they couldn't scare up a party in L.A.?", and grinned. She smiled back, relieved at the good humor with which he was taking the news, and replied, "Cordelia's still pretty shaken up over the whole thing with Doyle and getting his visions power after he died. Angel thinks some familiar faces would be good for her morale." After the Thanksgiving incident, Buffy had spoken with Angel and agreed with him that they would exchange information on a regular basis: she did not want a repetition of his lurking about without her knowing it, and she knew his information sources were excellent. She had felt a pang of sympathy for Angel and Cordelia when she heard of the death of Doyle, who she had only met once, but who had seemed to be an OK guy, and she knew that the sudden arrival of a new, frightening power had to be upsetting to Cordelia.

Xander nodded and commented, "She's having a rough time of it. . .we can try to get her mind off things. . .maybe I should dress down, let her insult my wardrobe." Buffy and Willow giggled, and even Giles uttered a snort of laughter before calming down and commenting, "Well, that's taken care of. . .what shall we do with Sleeping Beauty here? I've made arrangements for him to be confined elsewhere, but my contact says that the delivery service won't be by for a few days. . .Buffy, I may have to pass up your party. . .someone has to keep an eye on Ethan tomorrow."

Buffy gave him a mock glare, then replied, "Not a problem, Giles. I've made arrangements." The others stared at her as she dismissed the subject and ordered, "All right, Willow, Xander, you get back and get a decent night's sleep. . .we'll be partying late tomorrow night." Willow and Xander departed, and Buffy waited for them to get well out of earshot before turning to Giles and asking, "You're sure of the translation of that prophecy?"

Giles reluctantly nodded, and replied, "Yes. A convoluted series of references to events that translates to midnight Pacific time, January 1st, 2000, and the words, 'the slayer must face her most dangerous opponent alone just before the fated hour, or court future disaster.'" He frowned and commented, "It is rather dodgy, Buffy. . .just by living on the Hellmouth you are courting disaster. . .I think you should let the others know, and let us help."

Buffy shook her head and replied, "Not a chance. This time, even the prophecy says to go it alone. I'm not going to risk my friends by going against the wording of a prophecy that excludes them."

Giles sighed and commented, "Buffy, you're not indestructible. You have to learn to accept help when you need it. . .or we will lose you, and I can't bear that thought."

Buffy smiled sympathetically, and replied, "I'll be careful. . .I'm just wondering who my most dangerous opponent is." A chill went down her spine and she looked intently at Giles. "Make sure you have all of the ingredients for another curse, Giles. Someone like your old buddy the soul-sucking guy might pull his whammy on Angel, and turn Angelus loose on Sunnydale again. . .that might be what the prophecy is."

Giles nodded, but he doubted it: there would be no reason for Buffy not to be able to recruit help against Angelus. He nodded and looked down at Ethan, asking, "So who's going to baby-sit our friend here?"

Buffy gave him an evil smile and replied, "I've decided to let your tenant work for his keep."


*****

Ethan gradually regained consciousness. As his vision cleared, he could also detect the faint odor of chloroform: apparently Ripper and his Slayer had decided to keep him under longer than that nasty punch would have. He realized that he was in a closet: from the light coming under the door, he suspected that there was someone there. He was not happy, and decided to let his captors know it. "Ripper, you bloody bastard! Get me out of this damned closet, or I'll make you regret you ever heard of Ethan-"

The door opened, and Ethan found himself looking up at a young man with bleached blond hair wearing an amused smirk. The man effortlessly lifted the chair that Ethan was tied to, moving it into what appeared to be Ripper's living room. During this process, Ethan noted that the stranger was rather pale, was not breathing, and showed no pulse in his throat. He paled, but managed to ask calmly, "So, you're a vampire?"

The blond vampire nodded, and elaborated, "William the Bloody. . .or more commonly. . .Spike."

Ethan paled: he had heard of this vampire before, and what he had heard made his blood run cold. Puzzled, he asked, "What are you doing in Ripper's apartment?"

Spike watched Ethan for a moment, then replied, "I'm doing the Slayer a favor. . .best way to keep in her good graces, you know." Smirking again at the shocked look in Ethan's eyes, he elaborated, "Don't you know anything about this town, man? This Slayer has kicked the ass of every nasty that has blown in here for the past three years, including yours truly. I just got tired of it. . .so I made a deal with her. I don't kill people in her neck of the woods, do her a favor now and again, and she doesn't spend her life making my unlife unpleasant, if you get my drift." He looked at the increasingly uneasy man tied up in front of him, and his vampiric face appeared. He leaned in and whispered, "The Slayer asked me to tell you if you got out of line that I was free to make a midnight snack of you. . .and I could bloody well use one. . .it's the Millenium New Year, you know, and nothing beats Dick Clark with some nice warm blood." His face returned to its human appearance, and he asked, "Are we clear now, friend?"

Pale as a sheet, Ethan managed to nod. Spike commented, "Good. Now let's put you back in the closet so I can watch Dick Clark in peace, all right?" This was accomplished without complaint or incident, and Spike settled down with a cup of blood and the sounds of the television. * The Slayer had better come through with that extra blood, or I'm not going to be happy * Dismissing the matter, Spike watched the screen with no further interruptions from Ethan.

*****


Buffy frowned: it was eleven and no sign of Angel or Cordelia. She hoped that they would still be coming, as she knew that Cordelia needed cheering up. She walked back into the house, passing the sign which read "Math Geeks not welcome: Come back next year": Willow had laughed and Giles had raised an eyebrow at the humor. She saw Xander standing forlornly near the punch bowl: she met his eyes and gave him an encouraging smile, and he responded with a smile of his own and a raising of his glass. Willow, Giles and her mom were conversing about some unknown topic across the room. Buffy watched Giles and Willow carefully: they seemed perfectly at ease, but Buffy knew that their conversation from earlier that month still was rattling around in their heads. Buffy had filled her mom in on what had happened (it wasn't as if Giles and Willow were being terribly subtle about it) and Joyce had counseled her to just butt out: things would work out however they were meant to. Given her recent experiences with Parker, Buffy was inclined to agree.

There was a knock at the open door, and Buffy turned to see Angel come in, with Cordelia following just behind him. Buffy moved over and gave him a friendly hug before saying, "Glad you're here." She turned to Cordelia, and was shocked to see the expression in her eyes: she looked a lot like Buffy had after she had sent Angel to hell, though her makeup and clothing, as always, were picture perfect. Obeying a sudden impulse, she walked over and hugged the taller woman tightly, then looked up to see the reaction. No distaste or annoyance, just a brief flash of appreciation and then a return to that beaten look as she whispered, "Thanks, Buffy, nice to see you too." She moved over to hang up her coat while Buffy gave Angel a worried look, which he returned with an "I know" look.

Buffy watched Cordelia exchange greetings with Willow, Giles, and Joyce: the words were perfectly correct, but the tone was flat, containing none of Cordelia's usual energy. She wandered over to the snack table and began to fiddle with the cracker dish, and Buffy had seen enough. She walked over to Xander and hissed at him, "You've got to talk to her, Xander. She's really in bad shape."

Xander looked back at her and hissed back, "What do you expect me to do about it? In case you haven't noticed, I've generally been better at causing her pain than ending it."

Buffy stared at him for a moment, then realized for the first time the true guilt he felt over having cheated on Cordelia and indirectly causing her injuries: he had masked it well at the time with bitterness over her unwillingness to forgive him and about his perception that no one trusted him and Willow any more. She adopted a more sympathetic tone and commented, "I thought you two had patched things up during the prom."

Xander nodded and replied, "We did. . .but I really hurt her, Buffy. I don't want to be the cause of any more of her pain. . .even if she's dished out a fair amount of her own at me."

Buffy sighed, and looked at Xander with a determined expression as she commented, "Xander, I've never totally understood how you've ended up with the women you have. Cordelia, Faith, and now Anya. . .a lot of people would have written them off as lost causes, but you tried to do right by all three of them. . .it nearly got you killed with Faith. When you first started going out with Cordelia, I was convinced that you were crazy. . .that you deserved better than her. Well, you were right and I was wrong: as annoying as she can be, she was worth the effort. You've almost got me sold on Anya, though this whole still trying to get her powers back thing has me a bit tense." Xander laughed at the truth in that comment, and she continued, "Xander, if you go to her wanting to help, you won't hurt her: it's not in your nature. . .at least where Angel's not involved."

Xander laughed ruefully as he watched Buffy: he had gone over the line more than once regarding Buffy's relationship with Angel, and he felt lucky that she had not just walked away from their friendship over it. He looked for condemnation in her eyes, and only saw encouragement. He nodded once and walked over to Cordelia, retrieving two glasses of punch as he did so.

Angel glided over to Buffy and asked quietly, "Do you think he can get to her?"

Buffy looked up at him and nodded before elaborating, "If anyone can, he can. . .it's what he's good at." Angel noted the briefly wistful expression on her face before it changed, but chose not to comment on it. She turned to him and asked, "So what's new in the supernatural detective business?"


*****

Xander moved next to Cordelia and watched her fiddle with the cracker dish for several seconds before commenting, "You know, some people actually eat those things, rather than just playing around with the dish." He waited for a sarcastic comeback, only to see her look over at him and nod absently, then reach for a cracker. He was startled by the look in her eyes: it was worse than the dead look she had given him in the hospital room when she told him to stay away from her. He repressed the outburst that was his first impulse and reached for her arm, squeezing it gently and whispering, "Cordy, I can't stand seeing you like this. . .won't you talk to me about it?"

Cordelia looked at him for a long moment, then looked around the room. Buffy and Angel were conversing quietly, with both of them looking away from Xander and Cordelia. Willow, Giles, and Joyce were laughing at something that Giles was saying, and saw no signs of interest in the tense pair standing near the front door. She looked at Xander, and saw very little of the young man who had so recently spent much of his time trying to maneuver the two of them into the nearest broom closet. He looked concerned and protective, much as he usually did on the occasions where he had saved her life, and she believed that he felt that he was in that situation again. She blinked and tried to struggle through the blanket of despair that she had been living under for the past month as she smiled at him and replied, "Xander, you're sweet, but I don't know if you can help me with this. . .I'm not sure that you can understand what I'm going through."

Xander frowned and replied, "What, I don't know what it's like to lose a friend? Jesse, Miss Calendar. . .Buffy almost dying, and you-" Cordelia saw his face cloud over in guilt, and she reached over and grasped his arm and interjected, "Xander, don't. That's done with. . .I know you didn't mean to hurt me. . .and that's not what I meant. . .not exactly." She paused and gathered her thoughts for a moment before continuing, "Xander, I was just starting to deal with losing Doyle. . .when this damned vision thing comes along and really messes up my life. You can't know what that's like. . .you just can't."

Xander suddenly looked hurt, and seemed ready to back off when Cordelia realized the problem and tightened her grip on his arm before continuing, "No, Xander, this isn't a sequel to my Zeppo riff in January. . .besides, you showed me on that, didn't you? Helped save the world the very next day. . .although I bet you were really smirking because Faith let you sleep with her. . .oh, by the way, ewww on that little accomplishment." Xander had the good grace to look embarrassed as Cordelia continued, "Xander, the point is, when you help Buffy, Giles, and Willow, you just pitch in and do your best: you haven't been given any special power or responsibility by some higher authority. Now, The Powers That Be have dumped this big important vision thing in my head without giving me any warning, and now the fate of the whole world might depend on my ability to tell Angel what I see when my head feels like it is going to explode. . .and I'm scared to death. What if I can't handle it? What if they screwed up and gave it to the wrong person? The world could end. . .and it would be my fault."

Xander was taken aback by Cordelia's confession: he had seen her angry, dismissive, amused, and in any number of other states, but never had he seen her in such a state of self-doubt before. He watched the play of emotions on her face for a long moment, then clasped her hand in his and met her eyes confidently. "They chose the right person, Cordelia," he began, willing her to believe what he was saying, "because if you weren't, you wouldn't have the sense to ask these questions about yourself. You'll figure it out. . .because when you put your mind to something, you don't quit or back off." He paused, then smiled ruefully, "Cordy, as fun as our broom closet sessions were, I didn't want to be with you as long as I was just for that. . .you're tough, smart, and brave. . .and when I'm not busy ducking whatever verbal artillery you're throwing my way, I respect the hell out of you. I'm glad Dead Boy is getting help from someone I trust as much as I do you."

Cordelia blinked, and when she met Xander's eyes again, he could see that most of the gloom had lifted, though he could still tell that some doubt remained. She managed a rather sardonic smile as she whispered, "Boy, if you can manage a speech that good for an ex, I'd love to see what you're telling your current squeeze." Xander could see the look of gratitude in her eyes that belied the casual sarcasm in her voice as she asked, "So how is the former vengeance demon you call sweetie, anyway?"


As always, comments are welcomed and desired