TITLE: After the End

AUTHOR: violaclaire

DISCLAIMER: Not mine. Not even close.

SUMMARY: The B/A meeting post-Flooded/Carpe Noctom.

RATING: PG

FEEDBACK: I will do unspeakable things for con crit. And also any other form of feedback that you'd like to send.

"It was no big deal." she says. "Willow did this spell—a little chanting, a little sparkly light, and poof: Buffy-in-a-box." She doesn't look at him as she speaks; she's hunched protectively over her mug of diner coffee, propping her head up on her hands. Her hair is curtain-spread, obscuring most of her face.

"In a box?" he asks. His hands are spread on the tabletop, loose. He hasn't touched his coffee, and he hasn't been able to stop staring at her.

"Mmm," she says. She worries her lower lip between her teeth. Then, "Little bit of a mix-up with the live-and-rise spell. Willow handled the 'live' half, but I had to take care of the 'rise' deal."

"Buffy . . ." He almost reaches for her, but stops himself. Says instead, "I'm sorry."

She tilts her head. "For what? Not your fault. None of this was your fault."

It is all his fault. That's one thing he is always sure of: he did something, or he didn't do something, and she died. And came back to life in a box six feet under ground. The nature of his failure, of whatever it is he did or didn't do, changes from night to night, but he is sure that it is all his fault.

And then again how egoistical, how utterly self-centered, to believe that he could change anything in her world anymore. So all he says is, "I should have been there. When you woke up, or when you—" He swallows and says again, "I should have been there."

Her fingers skitter through the empty sugar packets littering the table. "Be honest," she says, "I kind of expected you to be there." She picks up her spoon and dips it into the coffee mug. "But I wasn't really surprised that you weren't," she adds. "You had your own apocalypse, right?"

"Yeah," he says. "Well—sort of. Not really an apocalypse. I was in another dimension. Cordy was—" and he almost bites his tongue off. Because Cordelia might have changed, but to Buffy she's still the girl who made Willow cry in high school. The last thing he wants to tell her is that he wasn't there to help her because he was saving Cordelia Chase from a dimension where she was a princess. "There were some people enslaved in another dimension, and we had to get them out."

Buffy looks up at him, her face expressionless, and for a moment he is almost certain that she knows, that she can see him laughing at his reflection in the doubled sunlight of Pylea—was that the moment that she died?—but when she speaks, her voice is light. "The Harriet Tubman thing, huh? I did that once. Very therapeutic." She pulls her spoon out of the coffee mug, but the angle of her reach is awkward and she drops the spoon to the floor. She bends to pick it up, and the motion sweeps her hair off of her neck so that he can see that it's unmarked. Smooth and corded with muscle.

Unscarred.

Death, he supposes, changes things. And so does resurrection.

This is not what he imagined.

She's alive; Buffy's alive. There were a few moments after Cordelia called across the Hyperion's courtyard where all that he could hear were those words, and then his mind was full of what he would do when he saw her again. Most of his fantasies were, he acknowledges now, fairly implausible, given his curse and her trauma, but he hadn't been completely blown away. He remembered the way she cried after the Master killed her, he remembered running through the woods like an animal after Acathla and Hell. He was prepared for her tears; he was even prepared for her to try to stake him.

But Buffy just sits on her side of the diner booth and drinks cheap coffee. She is calm, rational, dispassionate. She laid down the ground rules over the phone before she agreed to meet him. She doesn't want to be touched, and he's obliged. She doesn't want to talk about what happened to her while she was gone, and he hasn't asked.

But, god, she's changed so much. What did they do to her in Hell?

Buffy's fingers tap restlessly against her coffee mug. "Can we go outside?" she asks abruptly. "I feel like getting some air."

"Sure." He leaves a few bills on the table and holds the door open for her. He suddenly has the, surreal feeling that nothing has changed after all, that this is four years ago, that he's taking her out for coffee before patrol and trying to figure out how modern dating works. But she brushes slightly against him as she passes, and there is a familiar smell that lingers under the coffee and the regular Buffy-scent. Cigarettes, and blood, and leather. Spike.

So, Buffy's been hanging around Spike. A lot, to judge by the scent. Angel thinks of Darla and knows that he has no right to be angry. But still.

After her funeral, when night fell, Spike sat by her grave and cried, as if he weren't evil, as if he hadn't tried to kill her; cried the way Angel thought he might weep over Drusilla's dust. It infuriated him, because what gave Spike the right to grieve for her, to be so goddamn sure of his place at her grave, when Angel had to stay in the shadows and know that he'd given up any chance of a place in Buffy's world long ago?

Apparently Buffy has given Spike that right. Angel thinks he should probably respect that. But he hates it.

In the parking lot, Buffy scans the rows of cars. "Which one?"

He nods to the convertible. "There."

She climbs over the door before he can put his key in the lock and leans back into the seat, looking straight ahead, through the windshield.

He climbs in after her. "Buffy . . ."

She turns her head to look at him. The moonlight bleaches her golden skin pale; the cross around her neck gleams faintly. "What?"

"I just—" he doesn't know how to say it, exactly, but he has to, because she's here, she's really here, "Buffy, I'm just so glad you're back."

She smiles faintly. No teeth, just a slight curving of her closed lips. "I know."

The sky is black. Even an hour from LA, the smog obscures most of the stars, and the light from the neon diner sign kills the rest. Buffy stares at the black sky, her face set. Composed. She still looks lost.

"Look, if you ever need anything," he says, "Buffy, you know you can always call me, right? If you need to talk, or anything."

She turns her head to face him. Leans over and presses her lips briefly to his cheek. "Thank you, Angel," she says.

And she's gone.

He watches her reflection walk away in the rearview mirror, and he knows he has failed her again.