Title: Not That Girl
Summary: Post NFA. Perhaps the feelings that we experience when we are in love represent a normal state. Being in love shows a person who he should be.– Chekov
A/N: This was supposed to be a ficlet for Lee. She wanted BA post NFA, a chance meeting, a clock, a palmtree (will you take a dogwood?) and the two quotes that are used in here. It sort of turned into a not-ficlet.
The dogwoods are in full bloom. The blossoms are scattered on the grass like lace discarded. The air is sweet with the scent of magnolias and I never thought I'd end up here. Maybe I did, maybe a couple of lifetimes ago before demons and darkness, before I knew the plural form of apocalypse. I curl my feet up underneath me and consider my surroundings once more. I own a bookstore, a rare bookstore. Giles kind of got me into it. That summer after Sunnydale I was sort of lost. I didn't know where I fit in or what I wanted to do. Giles stuck me in his library cataloging his rare books. It piqued my interest, all those ancient, pretty words and the images they invoked. Images intended by the authors, and some not like nights spent by a fireplace curled up into the only place I've ever called home. My bookstore runs a pretty good second though.
I'm halfway through a cup of coffee and a first edition of Emerson's poetry when the bell on the door rings. I jump, lost in words that no one actually uses anymore. I slosh coffee all over my white shirt.
"Crap," I mutter and dab at the coffee with a tea towel. "Be right with you!" I say as cheerfully as I can without looking up at the customer, most likely they'll go ahead and peruse the stacks without my assistance. Damn this stain is not coming out. I glance at the clock, 8 pm. Oh well, the store closes in another hour and I'm not likely to get very many customers after dark. I paste on a smile that's not that hard to find nowadays and glance up.
The world folds inward until its one tiny pinprick and the center of the universe hasn't changed, at least not for me. The lights are dimmer, wavering slightly or maybe I'm the one wavering because I realize I'm gripping the edge of the counter so hard my knuckles are turning white. I'm not sure if I stood there merely moments or an entire lifetime. I'm not sure it matters. I clear my throat, advert my eyes and lay my Emerson on the counter.
"Can I help you?" My voice sounds normal, funny since the rest of me doesn't feel normal.
He pauses, glancing at me and then the bookstore, as if the two don't jive. I guess the person he knew wouldn't own a bookstore, much less one for rare books. I haven't been that person for a long time.
"Buffy?" He says my name like a question, still wondering if he's in the right place, maybe the right dimension.
"Yes," I answer and part of me longs for the girl that was once unable to answer with anything but his name.
My answer seems to puzzle him and he steps closer to the counter, resting one large hand on it. I want to lay my hand next to his just to see if it still dwarfs mine the way it once did. "Can I help you?"
His brow furrows and he nods. "Yeah, I was looking for some first editions of the Eloise books…do you carry children's books?"
An involuntary smile curves my lips. Those are some of my favorite books. I have the entire collection at home. It surprises me that he would choose those books though. I nod. "Yeah, the children's selection is over here. I think I've got a couple of the books in stock."
It doesn't take very long to find the books and wrap them up for him. He pays for them with a credit card. The name reads Liam O' Hare. "You stopped using Angel?"
He smiles. The sixteen year old inside of me melts into a puddle. The exterior of me doesn't react. I'm not that girl anymore. "No, but I needed a name with a social security number to get a line of credit."
I place the books in one of my nicest gift bags. "Who are you buying them for?"
I've never seen a smile burst over Angel's face before, not a full blown smile. It transforms him, makes him…less ethereal but not any less beautiful.
"My grand daughter, she's four," he says.
I nod. I know about Connor. I heard it through the grapevine several years ago. Apparently he also has not only a son, but a grand child. Interesting considering he couldn't give me children, the bitter feelings choke me and I push them down where they belong.
"Do you read to her?" I don't want to know, but the sixteen year old that surfaces at the very thought of him is dying to know.
He nods. "Yeah, Grandpa is her favorite reader, at least that's what she tells me. I have a sneaking suspicion that she tells Uncle Spike the same thing."
I smile in spite of myself. "I'm sure he colors the stories with words that probably aren't appropriate for a four year old."
Angel grins again. "Which would explain why she yelled bloody hell when the cat scratched her the other day."
I laugh and a part of me aches because I don't know this little girl's name, I can only guess what she looks like and I love her already, not because she yells bloody hell or Grandpa is her favorite reader, but because she's a part of the man standing in front of me.
I hand the bag to Angel, careful not to brush his hands with mine. "I hope she enjoys them. They're my favorites. I've got the entire collection at home."
The looks he gives me is holds the most genuine surprise of this evening. Maybe he always assumed I could run a rare book store and learn to love Emerson, but he didn't assume I could love a set of children's books.
"Would you have coffee with me?" He asks.
I shake my head. That's opening a door I'm not ready for, a door I will never be ready for. The point in life is to go forwards, not backwards and certainly not several lifetimes backwards. "I really can't. I have the shop to run."
"I've got time. We can wait until you close up for the night."
I sigh. "I'm not that girl anymore, Angel."
"The girl who swoons when you walk in a room, says your name like a prayer, saves the world in a stylish pair of boots or gives you cookie dough speeches."
Hurt crawls across his face and I want to cover his face with my hands, smooth away the pain and whisper until he understands. I can't do that. I don't understand. He takes a deep breath. "I don't care which girl you've become, Buffy. I am in love with every person you have been and every person you can be. There are certain things about a person that don't change, like their heart and their soul. Those are the parts of you I'm in love with. The rest is just packaging."
I stare at him, mouth open and shake my head. I hear my teeth clack together as I close my mouth. "You can't do this. You can't walk into my store after nearly a decade of not seeing me and proclaim to be in love with someone you don't even know anymore."
"Your heart beats 65 times per minute, 7 beats slower than the average human heart, when you're sleeping. When you're fighting it beats anywhere from 85 to 92 times per minute. When you're scared that jumps up to 103. When I'm around it sits at 78 beats per minute, almost ten beats faster then when I'm not in the room. If you'd like to know how many breaths you took a minute ago, I can tell you."
"No! I don't want to know that, Angel. That's weird. People don't know those things. No one in my life right now can hear my heart beat and no one I know counts my breaths. A person's heart beats and breathes don't make up the person. That doesn't count for anything, it just means you've taken stalking to a whole new level," I snap at him.
"You have ten different smiles. You don't use my favorite one much anymore. It's the one that makes your eyes crinkle at the corners and sparkle like emeralds. You've never used that one enough in my opinion. Your eyes are pale green when your happy, gray when your sad and a shade of blue gray when your tired. You cry when you watch Hallmark commercials, sleep with a nightlight and you still smell like vanilla."
I shake my head. He's wrong on that one. "I stopped using vanilla perfume years ago, Angel. Maybe you should have your sniffer checked."
He chuckles softly. "No, you're wearing Happy by Liz Claiborne, but you smell like vanilla. Your skin, your blood, your hair…it all smells like vanilla and the way I remember sunshine used to smell."
"Okay, you know I think you've reinvented the stalking profession."
He smiles, just that little half grin that I love—used to love so much. "If you look at it that way, all relationships are a form of stalking. Besides, I haven't been stalking you. I was as surprised to see you in here as you were me."
"So, what you just walk around with this speech planned inside your head?"
Angel shakes his head. "It's not a speech." He reaches over my counter, takes a piece of paper and a pen. He scribbles a number on it with the name of a local hotel. "I'll be there for a week." He pauses, looks at my Emerson book lying on the counter and then back up at me.
"He who is in love is wise and is becoming wiser, sees newly every time he looks at the object beloved, drawing from it with his eyes and his mind those virtues which it possesses. Emerson, you'll find it about half way through the book. Think about it, Buffy. I see your virtues, no matter how much the packaging changes. I'll love you forever and more than anyone else possibly can. We're always, I promised that once and I keep my promises."
He's gone a long time before I lock up and go to my apartment over the book store.
It's been four days since Angel made his declaration of love. I half expected him to stalk me. My slayer senses are dulled, but I'm fairly sure I could pick up Angel stalking vibes. He still makes my skin tingle and my bones burn. The sixteen year old girl inside of me is disappointed by that. She always thought the stalking was romantic, but I'm not that girl anymore. This is what I tell myself when the night falls and doesn't bring Angel back. I keep the number he left me with me all the time…kind of. I've thrown it away a dozen times and fell to my knees to scrabble in the trash can, retrieving it. I don't know why. I know the number by heart.
Six days since he bought those books for his grand daughter, and I've dialed the number at least four times. I waited until he answered once and hung up. I don't need this in my life. I am not that girl anymore and I am not ready to open that door again. I know what lies there and I don't want to repeat it. I like my cozy days with the books, my coffee and my miniscule apartment.
The problem is I don't know if there are enough cozy days in all eternity to make me not love Angel.
If I love Angel, I'll need him.
I'm not that girl anymore.
The rain is pouring outside and I'm about to lock up early when he slaps his hand on the glass door of the bookstore. He's soaked to the skin. It's the seventh day; I hadn't expected to see him again. I can't leave him standing in the rain, not with the way he's looking at me. I couldn't stake him when he looked at me all wet and dripping like that either.
No, I'm not going to ponder the past. I am not that girl anymore.
I unlock the door, pour him a cup of tea from the pot I just made and turn the heat back up. Neither of us say anything for a long time. I don't know what to say that won't betray the woman I've become and he…well I guess he just doesn't know what to say.
"I was supposed to leave on a plane three hours ago," he finally breaks the silence.
I nod, giving him time to tell me why he didn't. I don't ramble anymore, not even around him. I'm not that girl anymore.
"I couldn't get on that plane, Buffy, not knowing you were here. I had to try one more time, give us another chance."
"Angel, you're out of chances. I think you were out of chances before you showed up in Sunnydale that last time. I just couldn't admit that then."
He looks up at me, his eyes holding mine and I want to break away. I want to take all that slayer strength I keep bottled inside and use it to break his stare, to look away. I can't. I'm not that strong and God knows the girl inside of me isn't. "Do you love me?"
He knows the answer or he wouldn't ask the question. Angel never asked me that question without knowing what the answer would be and besides my eyes have always been painted with the truth where he's concerned. I clear my throat and take a sip of my tea, finally ripping my eyes from his. I search for an answer that won't be telling. The sixteen year old inside of me refuses to let me lie. I am reminded of the day I asked Angel to tell me he didn't love me. He answered with a painful look. I give that look back to him now. He understands and nods.
"Are you still my girl?"
I bite my lip hard enough to draw blood. The sixteen year old inside of me screams 'Always'. The practical woman wins out. "I'm not that girl anymore."
"I didn't ask if you were that girl, Buffy. I asked if you were still my girl."
I slam my tea mug on the counter a little too hard, the mug breaks and shards scatter across the rich wood, scratching and scarring it, a little like Angel is doing to my heart right now. "Dammit, I hate you. I hate that you can walk in here and shatter my world. I hate that you're still the center of my universe. I hate that the lights still dim, that I can still feel you and I hate that I still love you!"
Well…probably not the reaction he was looking for, but now he knows for sure.
"Let me pick up the pieces," his voice is a whisper. His eyes convey all the double meanings in between his words. He gets up calmly, picks up all the shards of the mug, takes a tea towel from behind the counter and cleans up the mess. He wraps the shards in the towel and hands them to me. "Let me pick up the pieces." He says again and presses the towel harder into my hand.
"I don't do apocalypses anymore, Angel. I haven't for years and that's what you and I were, an apocalypse with the ability to cause me more damage than the First ever thought about."
"We don't have to be an apocalypse, Buffy. Yes I'm still a vampire with a soul. I will always be a vampire with a soul. Before Moira, my grand daughter, was born I panicked and ran. I was so afraid that having a grand daughter with a foreseeable normal future would tip that scale just a little too far into happiness. I went to India, China, Japan, Turkey, eventually found Oz. He'd been all over the world finding different techniques of controlling the demon within. We worked together and I'm in control of my soul now. I can't lose it in a moment of perfect happiness, the loophole is defunct. I will always be a vampire with a soul."
He pauses, giving me a moment to digest that information. It changes everything and nothing. I'm still not that girl anymore and my fondest wish isn't that Angel's soul would be bound. More along the lines of Dawn's daughter growing up without ever seeing a demon.
"I'm not the slayer anymore, Angel."
This dark look comes over him, almost like anger but more…bitter maybe. I don't know. He whirls faster than I can see and I'm holding a dagger that he threw at me inches from my face. I can't help but laugh. Merrick did the same thing to me. The laughter is cut short and my face sets in hard lines. I slam the dagger down into the counter all the way to the hilt. "Yeah okay, I get it. I'm a slayer. I'll always be a slayer. I quit though, after Sunnydale I let the hoards of other slayers take over. I haven't killed a vampire in years."
"I guess you have changed then, in more ways then I ever thought. I never figured you for a quitter, Buffy. I never figured you'd give up on the world and I never thought you'd give up on us."
It's a slap in the face as surely as he'd physically done it. "Excuse me? You have a fucking world to save because I saved it for you! I earned the right to stop slaying. Maybe if I had a hundred and fifty years of innocent blood on my hands, I'd feel the need to keep working for redemption."
"I thought maybe you'd keep slaying because of your heart, or your soul." Angel's voice is loud in the quiet of the bookstore.
I laugh. "You want to talk about souls. We'll talk about souls. You left me to save yours, you were just too much of a coward to admit that. Now you're back because your soul is safe again. Well guess what, mine isn't! You can still rip it to shreds. You can still stomp on my heart and I can't take that much hurt. I put my heart and my soul back together with these tiny little stitches and I had to sew it up so many times that there's no place else to put the stitches. If you rip it to shreds again, there will just be dust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
"I can make it better. We're complete when we're together. You are my soul mate, Buffy. I've done so much thinking and so much analyzing in the years since my soul has been safe. There's a reason for everything. We're all born with a purpose in mind. We're all Chosen for something. I was made a vampire to release my soul into the ether. I fed on that girl so that my soul could be returned. I spent years dealing with the backlash so that when I met you I'd be ready to let my soul return to its other half, so I'd be ready to be complete."
"So you could trample on the other half of your soul and leave that completeness," I snap.
"I was stupid. I'm trying to show you how smart I've become."
"Angel, you don't understand. Love like we hav-had is an altered state of reality, like smoking pot. Feeling like I'm walking in the clouds when you're near and like I'm in the fiery pits of hell when you're not isn't normal! It's not normal for the world to fade away when you kiss me. It's not normal for the lights to dim and it's not normal for me to feel like I'm going to die if I don't touch you, feel you or kiss you in the next second." I'm near tears. Angel steps toward me and I hold out both my hands to ward him off. If he touches me now…
He pulls his lips into a thin line, furrows his brow and then looks up at me with a soft smile. He walks into the stacks, his fingers lighting over the spines of books and finally pulls one out. He flips through the pages and then places the book on the counter in front of me.
Perhaps the feelings that we experience when we are in love represent a normal state. Being in love shows a person who he should be. – Chekov
"Let me show you who you should be," he whispers.
Angel would know just what book to use to counteract my arguments. He knows any further arguing from him will cause me to yell stalker, so he lets the classics speak for him. I sigh, rest my elbows on the counter and cradle my head in my hands. That door is standing open in front of me and all I have to do is walk through it, but I can't see what's through the door and I know what happened last time I walked through the door. I'm not that strong, that brave or that girl anymore. I shake my head and look up. "I'm sorry, Angel. I can't."
He nods, accepting my answer piece by piece. He looks up at me and his eyes are filled with pain. His eyes always have betrayed how old he is, even if his face never will. "Alright, then give me one moment, something to last the rest of eternity."
I shake my head. "Nothing lasts that long, Angel."
He steps behind the counter, pulls me close. His body is cool against the length of mine. His hands feel achingly right on the small of my back, caressing the line of my cheekbone and jaw. He holds my chin in his fingers as if it is a delicate, priceless piece. His lips are a whisper from mine. "This does."
The walls I put up start crumbling at the touch of his cool lips, by the time my mouth has warmed his, there's nothing left of those walls but dust. Whether I want to be or not, I am that girl.