In Ev'ry Angle Greet
Copyright March 2001
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
– October 2000 –
During the brief chase she had permitted herself to be steered into a blind alley, and now she stood facing her pursuers ten feet from the wall at the end, as far as she could draw them in and still have room to maneuver. There were four of them, and this could get tricky; somehow she had to keep a straight face for the next twenty or thirty seconds.
The obvious leader swaggered to the fore, creaking and jingling with the leather and chains of the archetypal biker bad-ass. "What's the matter, little girl?" he taunted. "Nowhere left to run?"
She really would have broken down laughing if it hadn't been so pathetic. Vampires as a rule weren't long on imagination, and this guy had zipped straight to one of the more common and ludicrous routines for would-be masters: he had gathered a harem, three females doubtless chosen for their living beauty and unavailability. When would these morons recognize that the women always rebelled and killed their self-appointed overlords?
In a single tiny spark of originality — or more probably the fulfillment of a long-cherished fantasy — he had made his grouping multiracial, one Asian, one black, one Caucasian redhead. "Please," she said, unable to keep a tremor of mirth out of her voice. "What's this supposed to be, affirmative action for bloodsuckers? Newsflash, people: even diversity can be carried too far." Ten seconds.
He scowled, the harsh not-quite-handsome face flushing with anger. "Well, maybe I'll just make you part of our little rainbow quilt," he shot back. "Or maybe …"
"I don't like this," the Asian girl broke in. "She should be scared. Why isn't she scared? Could she be the Slayer?" (Okay, note to self: this one was sharp. And the black girl had been watching her with the unblinking intensity of an ocelot ever since taking her position. They'd be trouble, both of them.)
The leader quelled the protest with a sharp gesture. "Nah, the Slayer does her schtick in southern California. This skirt's just seen Blade too many times." He turned back to his intended victim, his features shifting to feeding mode. "Time for your close-up, sweet meat." Twenty seconds.
The Asian girl wouldn't be silenced. "I tell you, something's not right here. Why isn't she afraid?"
"She will be," he said, and darted forward with cobra-strike swiftness.
Dumb, dumber, dusted. She killed him even as he was reaching for her — one down — and then the black girl was on her, fast, too fast, launching herself straight through the collapsing cloud of ash that had been her sire, seizing her enemy's wrists and driving for the throat. Back and around, twisting desperately, she had to get this vampbitch off her, she spun into a springing hip throw that slammed her attacker into the side wall, and swung back just in time to meet a ridgehand strike from the Asian girl. She blocked it, but the black girl had bounced to her feet as if from a trampoline and snapped in a horizontal roundhouse kick, smacking the stake from her hand, and the redhead was coming in from the other side, don't panic don't panic you can do this —
The black girl screamed and dissolved in shuddering dust, and she used the distraction to recover the stake with a diving forward roll, taking out the redhead in a lightning exchange of chop and block and thrust. There was no point in going after the only survivor; again demonstrating her intelligence, she had fled the instant the odds shifted below acceptable tolerances, and now sprinted for the alley's outlet, where a silent figure placidly awaited her. Stand, relax, watch. Can't get there first, so leave it to your partner, he can hold his own.
This time he was denied the opportunity. Ten feet from the alley's mouth, the Asian girl hurled herself upward, passing over him in a twisting flip, well out of his reach. He swiveled without hurry to watch her land on her feet in the street beyond; she was running again the moment she touched solid ground, and vanished from view an instant later.
"Whoa." He shook his head, and returned the stake to the narrow pocket in the leg of the painter's pants he wore, then bent to retrieve the folding crossbow he had leaned against the alley wall. "Hey, Buf. You gotta admit, that was a cool move."
"Yeah, kudos to Matrix Girl." She stepped past him to gaze down the street. Empty, of course. "That was one we couldn't afford to lose. We'll never find her now, she'll change territories and stay out of sight, maybe start a nest of her own." She sighed. "I hate it when a smart one gets away."
He passed it off with a shrug. "Well, vampires … you know … suck. Can't expect 'em to line up for you. And you got three."
"Two," she corrected him. "Loved your timing, picking that one off when you did. Another couple of seconds and it would have been Ladies Night at the all-you-can-drink Buffy bar."
"You've handled worse odds than those," he replied with offhand confidence. "So, what, Szechuan?"
Buffy considered. "Actually, I'm in the mood for Greek food. Not that I expect Dallas to be overrun with places that serve stuffed grape leaves. Hasn't anyone here ever heard of ethnic cuisine?"
"This from somebody who spent two years scarfing down Bronzeburgers." He had collapsed the crossbow and stowed it in the oversized backpack, which he now slung casually from one shoulder. "Come on, we'll find something."
As always, he drove. It was a matter of continuing embarrassment and frustration to her that, however proficient she became with sword or bow or rocket launcher, she still spazzed out whenever she got behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. That hadn't been much of a problem in a small town like Sunnydale, or in big cities (L.A., for instance) with extensive public transportation. Now that she'd taken the Slayer gig on the road, though, she would have been severely handicapped if not for …
Well, him. Not just for transportation, either, his aid and support were indispensable in more ways than she could name. Remembering the impression he had made the first time they met (unprepossessing, extremely not-macho, a little strange), she could hardly believe how important he had become to her; his capabilities had grown so gradually and unobtrusively that she largely took them for granted.
That thought brought another. "Back in the alley," she said, "could you tell she was going to jump like that?"
He gave her an absent nod. "Right before she did it, and no way to stop her. I don't have your throwing arm."
And that was plain fact. He was now her better at hand-to-hand combat; not because of speed or superior technique, he simply knew what an adversary was about to do next, and was already striking at the opening an attack would create at the same instant the attack itself began. She could still take him in unarmed sparring, the strength differential was too much for him to overcome, but put a stake in his hand and not one vampire in a hundred could last five seconds against him.
The original intent in training with him had been to give him an edge in those too-frequent situations that spun out of her control. When exactly had she stopped taking it easy on him during practice? How reliable was her recent suspicion that he might now be going easy on her? Watching that last vampire race toward him, she hadn't been worried at all … at least, nothing past the normal tension accompanying any lethal encounter. They meshed so smoothly that it was no longer possible to clearly distinguish individual contribution; they were a composite entity, more than a team and only barely less than a single combined consciousness.
It had come upon them so slowly and with so little fanfare — and had felt, still felt, so perfectly natural — that she had been allowed the luxury of accepting it without having to notice it. It was the same way with the rest of their relationship; only, could it really be called a relationship? People used the word to mean something personal, intimate. What they had was less than that, and incalculably more. He was simply there for her, and had been for …
Could it really be almost two years? She had fled Sunnydale, so blind with the pain of multiple losses as to barely be sane; and he had found her, somehow, and been by her side ever since. Asking nothing, offering nothing, providing whatever she needed without question or comment, never speaking of his own wounds. Looking back on how she had been, she was certain she wouldn't have lived a month without him beside her.
She owed him more than she could ever hope to repay, but that wasn't the point. This was about facing reality. The events just past had brought … not a realization, exactly, more the one-time-too-many that finally made it impossible not to recognize what she had known for longer than she had been willing to admit. With his help she had ridden the currents, going wherever they led; now it was time to actively embrace what fate had brought her.
No less sensitive to her moods than to the intentions of an enemy, he was already pulling over to the curb as she turned in her seat to face him. "Yeah?" he said, eyes as grave and gentle as the soul that had been her salvation.
It was almost a replay of the confrontation in the alley, only this time she was the one wondering why she wasn't afraid. She was about to change everything, set the course of the rest of her life, and there was no hint of indecision or anxiety inside her. It was the thing to do, and long past time.
She looked to the man who had been her mainstay since a week after her eighteenth birthday, and said, "Oz, do you want to get married?"
~ – ~ – ~
When nearly a minute had passed without an answer, she observed flatly, "Not exactly drowning in the flash-flood of enthusiasm here."
"Buffy, I …" He shook his head. "It's complicated."
"Really?" She could hear the brittle edge in her voice, and hated how desperate it made her sound. "And I was just thinking that 'yes' or 'no' pretty much covered the spread."
He gave her the small, crooked smile that was theirs alone. "When did we ever get anything that easy? We play with a deck where you never know if a card's wild till after you throw it. Same thing here, this is a major deal and we have to know the layout before we can move." Something must have shown in her face, for he reached out to take her hand in both of his. "Believe me on one thing, Buf: there is no way you can love me more than I love you. It's just, there are issues. We can check 'em together, but they gotta be checked."
She forced herself to relax, to disregard the abrupt and unexpected fear of rejection. Whatever else might change, Oz would never lie to her. (And he had said he loved her. Said he loved her. Loved her.) Gathering the courage she had never suspected she would need, she said, "All right. What issues?"
He nodded, accepting her trust. "So. Back when I was working at burying the wolf, part of it meant looking inside myself and admitting how much of him came from me. Y'know, the whole 'beast within' riff. Wasn't pretty, and I can be kinda stubborn, so it took awhile." Again the tiny, conspiratorial smile. "Thing is, once you look at any truth straight-on, you start being able to see the truth other places, too. That's how I know what a vamp's gonna do next when we're jamming: I got no illusions between me and what's in front of my eyes."
"Oh, yeah." Buffy let out a shaky laugh. "Seeing what you want to see, instead of what's really there. I never have that problem, nuh-uh."
"Right. Now, this thing between you 'n' me, we've been headed that way for awhile and I'm down with it. Step back and scope a wider view, though, and …" He broke off, eyes downcast, and sighed. "Okay, let's try it this way. Three years ago, looking at personal, who'd you think Giles would wind up with?"
"Miss Calendar," she responded automatically. "And then when she … well, this may sound totally icksome, but after she died I kinda thought he and my mom might hit it off if they ever gave it a chance."
He favored her with a raised eyebrow. "Huh. Didn't think of that one, but I can see it. Okay: Willow."
"Xander," she said, then stopped with a stricken expression. "Oz, I'm sorry, I didn't …"
"That was then," he told her, his tone gentle. "You're telling me what you saw, it's what I asked for. Me, I really thought she and I would make it work. And there's no secret who you expected to be with."
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. The name that was never uttered …
He patted the center console of the van, where he kept the enhanced Palm VII that had been their roving communications center for a year now. "All right, we know how things are, back in Sunnydale. Wes, he's kept us pretty much up to speed." (So many things left unsaid there. For her to communicate with Giles — or either of them with Willow — had been unthinkable, so the e-mail link had been arranged with Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, information moving both ways without the snares of old personal interaction.) "Some of what we hear makes a weird kind of sense, but … well, come on, Buf, could any of us have predicted how all this turned out?"
"Life on the Hellmouth," she said, in a dismal attempt at levity. "Keeps you hoppin'."
"Yeah, we caught the sharp end on plenty of that. But the way it is now …" He stopped again, gazing out the window while he gathered his thoughts. "There was this poem I saw in English Lit: Herrick, I think, or at least in that period. I kept wishing there was some way to update it and set it to music, it was just so, well, cosmic. The guy spends seven verses talking about how him and his lady are right for each other, only fate keeps pushin' 'em apart, and then he winds up:
Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.
"That's what I'm feeling here, only … not. It's the opposite, it's like something is pushing people together even if they don't necessarily belong together."
Buffy's voice was steady but faint. "You think … we don't belong together, you and I? That it's wrong somehow?"
"It feels right," he said, with a ghost of the old quirky smile. "It feels so right. But that's kinda the point, y'know? The more I want you, the more I have to be sure you're not being crowded into a place you don't belong.
"And there's something else," he added before she could respond. He opened the console and took out the Palm VII. "I got a post this morning, been running it through my mind all day. Had to tell you, no question there, but that still left deciding on the when and how."
She knew. Knew what he was going to say, or at least the main thrust of it, and knew that her own decision tonight had somehow been triggered by the pensiveness she had sensed in him without recognizing it. She waited, wondering why you could never find something to kill when you needed it.
"It's not from Wesley," Oz told her. "It's from Giles. He wants us to come back. Something's going down, and he says we need to be there."