Rome was a revelation to her. She could start over here, leave her past behind and she did so with unbridled enthusiasm. For now, Giles was sending her a stipend, so that even though she still went out and slayed for a few hours each night, her days were hers to spend as she wished. She made it clear that unless she was needed to prevent an apocalypse, her leadership days were over. She didn't want that burden. She spent her time connecting with Dawn, reading novels (both trashy and a bit more serious) and learning to cook (although it gradually became obvious that she would never be especially good). What she most enjoyed was taking long walks through Rome. She never would have guessed that looking at old churches, checking out statues, window shopping and people watching were enjoyable activities but she now saw that she knew very little about herself in general.

The clip clop of her heels against the cobblestones soothed her, as she strolled among the twisty streets. Here, away from the tourists, she examined various store windows, occasionally entering one. Back in Sunnydale, she would have had a shopping bag full of clothing and her heart ached at all the things her mother must have forgone, so that she and Dawn would never be without. But now she took her pleasure in looking, not owning and she headed into the tiny jewelry store with the sole purpose of briefly living a fantasy.

She almost walked right out. One of the fluorescents was making a loud buzzing sound as if a mosquito had taken up residence and the air was so stale, she wondered when the last customer had entered. The salesclerk looked up at her with thinly veiled desperation and Buffy decided that looking for a few minutes would be a small kindness, so she stayed. The cases were arranged in an upside down U around the store and she started at the counter on the right. The jewelry was all overly ornate with large stones, the kind of thing worn by overweight society matrons with too much money and too little taste. Every case was more of the same, heavy gold jewelry that didn't appeal at all. The last case on the left was filled with what Buffy privately called "vampire protection gear", i.e. crucifixes. Partly out of professional interest, she scanned these a little more closely, but they all fell into two camps; incredibly ornate with all sorts of scrollwork or crosses with all-too-realistic depictions of a suffering Christ on the cross. And then she spotted it, in the last row, two from the end. Two plain bars of silver, a duplicate of the one Angel had given her all those years ago.

As she put it on, she didn't feel more protected; she had learned the hard way that a cross wouldn't save you. She didn't feel more powerful, after eight years of slaying she knew her own strength and limitations. But as she looked in the mirror, she thought she could hear her mother telling her to eat some breakfast. She smelled leather and yellowing paper, as Giles researched yet another demon. She could see Willow's shiver of excitement as she successfully hacked into yet another off-limits site. She could hear Xander's declarations of cowardice, even as he always followed her into danger. And she could taste Angel's lips as he kissed her, kissed her, kissed her…

She walked back to her apartment, still fondling the cross, until it was warm against her skin. That evening, as it clinked against her breastbone, she wrote a long overdue e-mail to Willow telling her about what she and Dawn were doing and what she was thinking about. When Willow sent an equally long e-mail back, Buffy released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.

The Trevi fountain was her destination today, and while still a popular spot, the cool February weather insured that it wouldn't be overrun by tourists. Standing in front of the fountain, she looked at the statue of Neptune and wondered if he ever found himself overwhelmed by his role as the ocean's protector. She staked out a spot, pulled a book out of her knapsack and began reading. She wondered what Giles would say if he could see his reluctant researcher reading for pleasure. True, she was reading fiction not Araminth's Demon Compendium, but she suspected he'd be impressed, nevertheless. She was so engrossed in it that it took her a moment to realize that the voice calling "L'Americanna" was directed at her.

He was wildly waving to her, but she didn't recognize him. Tallish, medium-dark wavy hair, a nice smile. As she wandered over to him, she realized he was standing next to an easel. "No lira," she said in halting, horribly accented Italian.

"It doesn't matter. I was hoping you'd let me paint you, no charge."

"You're American," surprise coloring her voice.

"Charlie Hornsworth," holding his hand out for a shake.

"Buffy Summers," she replied, taking his offered hand. He pointed to a folding chair and she sat down, wondering if she needed to keep perfectly still, but for the next few minutes he didn't speak. Instead he squirted a variety of colors onto a palette, mixing various pigments, always looking at her for a moment or two and then intently mixing once more. Finally, he picked up a brush and began to paint.

"What were you reading?"

"Cold Mountain. My best friend, Willow, is also reading it. We IM each other our impressions. Kind of the world's smallest book discussion group." He stopped painting for a moment and smiled at her. She noted the dimple that appeared as well as the long eyelashes that framed his light brown eyes. He was a cutie, no doubt about it.

"I liked the book," he said gesturing so that a few drops of paints spattered on the ground. "The descriptions made me understand what it must have been to like to live during the end of the Civil War."

"I pretty much like it too, but I just can't believe in the plot at times."

"Trouble with the mystics and the witches? It is a bit fantastic."

She laughed a little, thinking if he only knew. "No, I'm actually fine with that. It's Inman walking halfway across the country to get back to a woman he's kissed once and spoken to maybe three times. And Ada, who's equally enraptured with him and hoping against hope that he'll find his way back to her. Just doesn't seem realistic."

He stopped painting and observed her for a long moment. "You don't think there's one special person for each of us? That there's someone who makes us complete?"

She thought briefly of feeling loved and accepted and understood. And just as quickly of betrayal and hurt and loss. "No I don't."

"Maybe you just haven't met the right someone," he said sincerely and then went back to the portrait.

When he handed her the finished work, it was apparent that he was quite talented and she told him so. She debated asking him out for an espresso, but she decided against it. He obviously believed in some sort of romantic fairytale and she had long ago given up on that. Later, she stared at the painting. The woman in it seemed rather sad, but she didn't want to think about it.

"Cappuccino."

"Stunty growth."

Dawn rolled her eyes at that. "Just because you're height challenged."

"Fine, whatever." A moment later, Dawn was giving their orders to the waitress in flawlessly accented Italian. Buffy looked on with a mixture of pride and irritation. Seven months and the only things she could say were ciao, spaghetti and pizza. The two sisters began engaging in small talk, Dawn happily regaling Buffy with various tales about school. Suddenly Dawn hissed at her sister, "Don't turn around."

"What?"

"Good looking guy, two tables behind you, giving you the once over."

"What? Where?" Buffy started to twist in her chair, as Dawn again stage whispered, "Don't look. He'll see you." After an interminable amount of time passed, Dawn barked, "Now."

Buffy turned and noted a man in three-quarter profile. His features were somewhat craggy, but very, very good-looking with a strong chin. His hair was straight, thick and black, olive skinned and, if she wasn't mistaken, he was wearing an Armani suit.

They wound up going out every night, sometimes out to eat, sometimes out to a show and sometimes out to a club for dancing. Buffy found it strange and exciting in its normalcy; she hadn't done the dating thing since before her destiny was thrust upon her. When she called Giles a few days after her relationship initially started and haltingly told him she hadn't been patrolling recently, he didn't seem upset or worried. "There are two other very capable slayers patrolling Rome," he reminded her. "I think a well deserved break is in order." After she explained to Giles just who and what her boyfriend claimed to be, Giles called back a few hours later. Demetrio, also known as The Immortal, was neither quite human nor quite demon. There were plenty of instances of him helping the Watcher's Council over the years and none of him doing anything questionable. Buffy breathed a sigh a relief and wound up in his bed that night.

She woke up in the middle of the night, a combination of being in a strange bedroom and sleeping next to someone after so long. She shifted a bit, trying to get comfortable and the heavy silk sheets glided over her body, caressing her just as Demetrio's hands had done earlier. Unbidden, an image of Angel asleep rose before her. She had only seen him asleep once, during those terrible months when every day yet another topic or activity would become off-limits. Years had passed since that day, yet she didn't find it peculiar that she could still recall every detail of what had transpired.

She had left school in the middle of the day, having an urgent need to see him, although she no longer remembered the cause. Maybe she had had a run in with her mother or she hadn't done her homework or she had overheard a cutting remark made about her.

The living room seemed dank and chilly without the usual glow of the fireplace and it hit her that at one in the afternoon, any self-respecting vampire would be deeply asleep. She turned to leave but at the last minute keep turning until she faced the hallway. Creeping carefully, she went through the semi-open bedroom door and looked in. He was on his side, facing away from her, with the hunter green sheet bunched around his waist, the calf of his left leg sticking out. He didn't breathe so there was no telltale movement of his chest and his body stayed perfectly still. His eyes twitched under the lids however, even vampires dreamed.

His face had been open and vulnerable, the sins and sadness he carried about him normally, gone. She thought that this was the man he had been once upon a time and she thought that he likely had laughed easily then. She still remembered how she felt, the urge to hold him almost too much to bear and how finally she backed out of the room. She cried silently when she got home, her face buried in the pillows.

She turned and examined the face of her current lover. Even in repose there was something hidden and hardened about him. She wondered if that was safer.

Loaded down with fruits and vegetables from the open-air market, Buffy's stomach rumbled as the sweet smell of ripe fruit hit her nose. Although she was more than tired of having Andrew as a houseguest, she couldn't deny that he had a flair for cooking. She ambled along the narrow streets, enjoying the feel of the sun on her skin. Tonight, she and Demetrio were going out clubbing. She had bought a short, sexy outfit for the occasion and she was looking forward to the evening. They had been dating for almost seven weeks now and Buffy couldn't remember the last time she'd been so content. He was a fabulous conversationalist, knowledgeable about every subject under the sun and yet he never made Buffy feel ignorant. He was amazing in bed; truthfully she hadn't imagined that she was quite that…flexible. Plus, he always picked interesting places to take her.

She carefully transferred her packages to her left arm and opened her door, using her hip to push her way in. "Anyone home?" The resulting silence answered her question. Walking into the kitchen, she put her purchases on the table and stopped dead. On the counter directly in front of her was a vase filled with red roses. Her hand flew to her mouth and she shivered involuntarily. She shut her eyes tightly, forcing back the images of long ago. She was being stupid. Angelus wasn't exactly a factor to her knowledge and besides; she doubted she would be foremost on his mind. She noted the envelope next to it and opened it. These flowers pale in comparison to your beauty. She smiled and breathed in the spicy floral fragrance, wondering exactly what she had been worried about.

That night she danced in wild abandon, knowing that his weren't the only eyes staring at her. An image came to her of Angel watching her as she danced at the Bronze, or was it Spike? She stopped abruptly, needing to leave, the acrid smells of smoke and sweat assaulting her.

They strolled for a few blocks, as she walked gingerly among the cobblestones, overly mindful of her high heels. The high-pitched scream was completely out of place among the majestic buildings. Buffy stopped dead, already slipping into slayer mode as she scanned the area. "Come on, I think it was this way" as she pointed to the left, down a side street.

Demetrio stood, utterly impassive. "Cara, it's at least four blocks from here, by the time we get there, it will all be over."

"I don't understand. You're not going to do anything. I thought you were one of the good guys."

He gave her a thin-lipped smile, his expression a parent explaining the world to a small child. "I am indeed a 'good guy' as you so charmingly put it. I would never knowingly harm anyone. I have made my vast organization available on numerous occasions. But evil is always present. I do not see the point of seeking it out."

"I'm the slayer. It's my job to seek evil out."

"A slayer. There are several others in Rome to do just that." For a brief second, his face seemed to shift into something dangerous, but it was gone so fast, Buffy wasn't sure what she saw. "All those evenings you spent in my company, did you think that there was no death on those nights?"

She didn't (couldn't) formulate an answer. Instead she ran, body tilted backward to compensate for the shoes, stopping for an almost imperceptible half-second at every intersection, until she saw it; a crumpled ball of lemon yellow fabric. She was all too familiar with the wide gaze, staring at nothing, the crimson slash, and the limbs that were already starting to stiffen. Her final thought before she called the police was that there were always thorns and that she had been a fool to think otherwise.

When she spoke to Giles later and told him that she had decided that she wanted to be an active participant in the Watcher's Council and help make all the decisions, he didn't seem surprised. Neither of them ever mentioned her former boyfriend.

It was a lie on the grass and eat ice cream kind of spring day, which made the fact that Buffy was currently inside a cramped, poorly lit bookstore almost unbearable. She had promised Dawn though and here she was, while Dawn happily skipped from shelf to shelf, each book she pulled out seeming to remind her of something else she needed to own. Buffy had already decided that she would endure this for five minutes and would then hightail it over to a café she had noticed several storefronts down.

She wandered through the stacks, occasionally pulling down a volume with some unpronounceable Italian title off the self. Inevitably, there would be no photos or illustrations, so Buffy promptly replaced it. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a title that seemed familiar. As she got closer, she realized she had found three shelves of books written in English. She pounced, a lifeline for a drowning woman. Stephen King, two Dean Knootz, Theory of Calculus, The Art of Flower Arranging and…Sonnets From the Portuguese.

She took the slender, hard covered book and held it in her hand for a while. She opened it to the front piece, half expecting to see the word "always" written, even though it wasn't even the same edition. She sank to the floor, unmindful of the other customers now forced to step over her and read the first poem.

She wound up reading it three times. She wasn't sure who Theocritus was, but she gathered that love was a stronger force than death for the poet. She read poem after poem, breathing out the words like a benediction. She got to sonnet 43 and her eyes widened, she hadn't realized that this poem was included. How do I love thee/Let me count the ways. Poems of love and devotion, a bond that would endure even after death. Their relationship had been reduced to almost nothing by then, no touching, no awkward discussions, no longing glances allowed. With startling clarity, she knew that he had already realized that he would have to leave her. She wished she had understood then what he meant when he had written always; it would have made everything that came after easier to bear.

That same night, she decided to call Angel. They hadn't spoken or communicated in any way after he had shown up in Sunnydale, but seeing that book of poetry forced her to admit things to herself that she had tried to pretend weren't true. The simple fact was he still owned that greater part of her heart and she needed to know if anything could come of that. Did he still think the word always when he thought about her? Did he even think about her? Instead, the news on the television changed her world forever. The phone started ringing before she even had time to collect herself. As soon as she heard Giles' voice, relief swept through her. He would make it all right, he always did. But instead, he made it worse.

There had been a huge outpouring of demonic energy centered in Los Angeles. Every slayer within a seventy-five mile radius had been mobilized and was already on her way to the area. Faith was flying in from Chicago to coordinate. She could hear the slight hesitation in his voice and then he continued, in the same quiet, calm voice he had used so long ago on the day her mother died. Wolfram and Hart was vaporized. It was the only way to describe it. She gripped the phone tighter but there was no other reaction from her. The coven had determined that the law office was the epicenter of whatever had occurred. He would call with updates as soon as more was known. She thanked him for the information and stood there unmoving, until Dawn finally grabbed her arm. "Buffy, what's going on." The slight edge of panic was unmistakable.

"It's all right, Dawnie." She tried to smile but, strangely, her mouth wouldn't bend to her will. "Apocalypse in L.A. Slayers are already on the move." Dawn reached out for her sister, but Buffy deftly sidestepped the gesture. "I'm going out to patrol."

She didn't come back home until the first streaks of pink were already lightening the sky, having dusted 21 vampires. She slipped into bed before anyone could see her. When she woke up, neither Dawn nor Andrew was present in the house. She had a quick omelet and then blindly wandered the streets until nightfall. Then she became the slayer and nothing else mattered. On the fifth morning of this routine, Dawn was waiting for her.

"It's ok to grieve, Buffy".

"I don't know what you're talking about." She tried to move around Dawn, but the entryway was too narrow for her to slip by.

"I know you loved Angel and now he's gone."

"Angel and I have been over for, what, five years, six years? I last spoke to him over a year ago and in between those two points, I saw him once a year at most. He was a high school romance."

"Then at least mourn the fact that another piece of your past is gone."

"I did that a long time ago." The weary resignation in her voice caused Dawn to let her pass without further comment.

When she finally woke up, hours later, she silently crept down the hallway but abruptly stopped when she heard voices in the kitchen.

"…acting so weird."

"I told you why. Angel's death is hitting her hard."

"It's not like she's crying over him. She cried over Spike a lot."

Buffy could hear the refrigerator opening. "She cried over Spike because she felt guilty. He died for her and she never loved him, not like he loved her."

"It doesn't make sense to me. It's like preferring Cyclops over Wolverine. I met him and he wasn't all that impressive. Spike's the one who bravely put himself in danger finding that girl, Dana. Angel was too busy running an evil cabal of lawyers to even care."

Buffy quietly went back to her room. She wanted to grab Andrew and throw him against the wall. She didn't understand what he was talking about; when had he ever met Angel? Just as suddenly, her anger sputtered out. Roughing up Andrew would accomplish nothing. She checked for stakes and escaped out her bedroom window.

The first three cemeteries turned up absolutely nothing. Neither did the fourth, fifth or sixth and she was forced to face the possibility that the vampires had found out that there was a slayer on the rampage and were laying low. The seventh cemetery was just the same, only the silent dead. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a tombstone that beckoned to her and she went over to it. It was intricately carved with flowers all over it; even the sides seemed to have cascades of daisies and various other wildflowers. "Aletta Conti 1834 – 1838". She couldn't translate the inscription, but she wondered what this child had looked like and what had so cruelly ended her life.

She thought about all those young girls who had so courageously faced down the armies of The First and how they had met their death, all with her barely knowing their names. Distancing herself hadn't worked; she still saw their faces at night in her sleep. She thought of all the new slayers out there and how some of them had died already, older than Aletta but still children nonetheless. She thought about Anya and wished she had been friendlier to the strange, blunt ex-demon. She was sitting by now, hands nervously playing with her hair, as she allowed memory to overtake her. She thought about Tara and she wished she had gotten to know the sweet-natured woman better. She had always been so kind. She thought about Jenny and wished she had been selfless enough to forgive Jenny's transgressions before her death. She thought about Spike and how he had died for her and the world. She wished it had been different between them, she only hoped he knew that she believed that he could be a good man. She drew .her knees up to her chest and clasped them tightly. She thought of her mother and tears began to leak from her eyes. If only she could see her one more time. The passage of time hadn't lessened the ache, sometimes Buffy thought she missed her mother more with each passing day. And finally she thought about Angel. The way he kissed her, with a passion so fierce she thought that she would faint from the pleasure. The way he would protect her if need be, but he never assumed that she automatically needed protecting. He had never demanded anything of her, and so she had wanted to give him everything He loved her for herself and she felt the same way about him. She wished she had told him. She buried her head in her knees and began to sob in earnest.

After she came home, things began to return to normal. She patrolled for three or four hours, the way she had before meeting up with The Immortal. She talked to Dawn again and spoke as much as she ever had to Andrew. But inside she felt brittle, as if any moment she would turn to dust.

Two and a half weeks passed. She was getting ready to leave on patrol when she heard an odd scratching at the door. She opened the door and then found she couldn't move.

"Sorry. Didn't know where else…" His voice drifted off, the effort of speaking too great. His face was swollen and misshapen; she observed with shock that his right cheekbone was shattered. His left arm was dangling, useless and what was left of his shirt was covered with mostly dried blood although some wounds were still weeping. She couldn't fathom how he could have made it halfway across the world in this condition. She suddenly realized he was still standing outside, as she yanked her cross off her neck.

"Come in, Angel." As soon as the words left her lips, the mystical barrier disappeared and he pitched forward. She managed to semi-catch him, his bulk awkwardly pressing on her. He was slumped over her shoulder and she managed to shuffle them over to the wall where she rested him against it. She took a half step back, assessing the situation and trying to decide how best to get Angel into her room. "Angel, if I help you, do you think you can walk?" He nodded slightly and she draped his right arm over her shoulder, encouraging him to use her body as a support. She reached up to touch his hand and then stopped. Both his right index finger and middle finger were missing, all she could feel was edges of bone were they had been. She gasped in anguish and then noted that his ring finger was still there. She carefully touched the finger along its length, trying to reassure herself when the hard metal band interrupted her movement. Even after all this time, she knew the outline she was touching. A crown for loyalty, hands for friendship and the heart facing inward meant he still belonged to her. She blinked rapidly to keep her tears from falling.

She had never seen him like this, completely devastated both physically and emotionally. However long it took, she would heal him. Once he was well again, she had no idea what would happen. She suspected he would leave her again. But now she knew he would always come back to her in the end and that certainty was enough for her.

He started to tremble in her arms, but she didn't know if it was blood loss or shock or exhaustion or something else entirely and she wound up saying the first thing that came into her mind.

"You're cold." She gripped him tightly around the waist and slowly they began to make their way down the hall. "But that's all right because now you're here and we'll keep each other warm."