"Say something," demanded Francie. "Why don't you say something?"
"What can I say?"
"Say that I'm young-that I'll get over it. Go ahead and say it. Go ahead and lie."
"I know that's what people say-you'll get over it. I'd say it too. But I know it's not true. Oh, you'll be happy again, never fear. But you won't forget. Every time you fall in love it will be because something in the man reminds you of him."

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

~*~

Then: Buffy regrets the fact that when she looks at Riley, the first word she thinks of to describe him is "solid." He is obviously cute, he is smart enough to be the TA for a professor whose credentials made Willow giddy, he is brave and patriotic, he is goofy and amusing, but what pops in to her head when she thinks of him is his solidity. She likes his height and his bulk and his shape, the muscular weight of his arm on her stomach or his hand in hers, the way she has to look up to see his face. She likes the way he makes the mattress depress next to her, how he makes the bed feel less empty. She likes the way she can pretend with him, just for a little while, that if a demon were to attack, he would be the one everyone turned to for rescue. She likes how he makes her feel normal, even if in the end it isn't real.

Unfortunately, when push came to shove, Riley didn't turn out to be that solid after all.

Now: She sometimes laughs to herself at how immature, how deeply into denial she was, how she kept trying to fool herself even when it was obviously not working. The way she acted, helpless half the time and then angry when Riley treated her that way, was not conducive to a relationship. Thinking about it almost makes her want to get up to put on some girl power music,something from Aretha Franklin or Helen Reddy.

Riley was a good man. She's accepted that she really didn't communicate with him. It sounds callous but she thinks that the reason for this was because Riley was always just a placeholder, a warm body in her bed and at her back. When she chased after him, it wasn't because he was "The One," it was because she was afraid of the loneliness. (After all, a wise person had once told her that it was the scariest thing there is.)

They could have been happy together, but it would have been a shallow, imperfect happiness stemming from lowered standards and superficial acceptance and she does not miss it.

~*~

Then: One night during the year she was twenty, she watched Spike watch her as she patrolled. It was a slow night; the only distraction was a solitary vamp mellowed out on drugged blood. She played with him for a while, needing to relieve some tension. Her moves were precise, taking advantage of his slow reflexes but not wounding him enough to end the fight. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Spike watching her. He was grinning, not moving to help her, knowing that she would have no trouble. She liked that about Spike, how he had confidence in her strength.

As they walked back together, Spike had an odd, contemplative look on his face. Buffy would never admit it to anyone ever, no matter how drunk or close to death she was, but she often thought of Spike as one of the wisest people she had ever known. She knew that he had been around for a long time, could quote literature and recall historical facts that slipped through her mind like grains of rice but she also knew that he could be startlingly astute.

Buffy felt an odd breeze against her ankle. She looked down and saw a scrap of fabric torn from the hem of her pants and flapping against her leg. She stopped, propping her leg up on a low wall so she could see the damage. It turned out to be a jagged rip that reached about six inches up her calf. She must have caught it on the rough edge of a mausoleum or tombstone.

"Crap," she cursed. "These were new pants! I hate this gig!"

"No you don't," came his quiet, measured reply. She glared at him, daring him to defy her diagnosis. "It's in your blood. You've got the darkness in you and you can't ever get it out. You crave this, Slayer. It feels good to you."

She couldn't deny that he was right, that he knew her so well and understood the parts of herself that she was still trying to understand.

Now: Spike asked her one night as they were getting drunk in her apartment in Rome, whether she could love him. The first part of her answer came without hesitation.

"I do love you, Spike. You were there for me for a really long time and you understood me when no one else was." She lay on her back for a moment, considering. She took a sip of the drink Spike had made for her. It was a Bloody Mary. She drank it quickly and chewed the celery stick in thought, grimacing at the bitter taste. She was pretty sure her celery had rotted. She spoke slowly and deliberately, but her words were not neatly placed shots meant to hurt him. Instead, she simply wanted to tell him the truth. She liked that about Spike, too. She could tell him the truth about things, even when the truth was dark and bloody and violent.

"I don't think I could ever get past what we did. Even the things that were consensual. And the things that weren't..." She looked at his serious face. "I know that's not who you are now, but you're still not so different." The vampire who had changed drastically after receiving a soul went unmentioned.

Spike's face was slightly pained. He slugged back the last of his whiskey and forced his face into passivity."So just friends, eh?"

"Really good friends," she replied, rolling over and sloshing some kind of clear liquor from a bottle that was lying on the floor into a couple of shot glasses. "The kind who get drunk together."

~*~

Then: Maybe she should have known that it would never work out with Gio because she met him in a rare bookstore while looking for a book for Willow. He was browsing on the upper shelves; she was searching on the lower. As they switched, they bumped heads.

"Scusi," he said in Italian, just as she was saying "Oh, I'm sorry!"

"American?" He asked in moderately accented English. "Here for school or for vacation?"

"Oh, I live here. Actually just a street over."

"What are you looking for?" She gave him the title of the book Willow had hinted that she desperately wanted for her birthday. His face lit up and she noticed his appearance for the first time: he was lean with light, sandy hair and coffee bean eyes. He was cute in a mild sort of way, but he was transformed when he got excited. She felt a shiver at the light in his face. He was talking about the book, his hands moving. Even if she couldn't catch every word, she understood from his face and gestures that he loved it. She interrupted as he was going into a description of his favorite character.

"I'm Buffy." She extended a hand. "Do you want to go for coffee?"

"Oh!" He juggled his three books into his other hand and grasped hers. The bright smile he gave her in response to her invitation assured her that it had been the right decision. "I'm Giovanni, but you may call me Gio."

As a couple, Buffy and Gio mostly lay around her apartment and went out to cafés or to the movies. He massaged her feet while they read together, translated the Italian films they went to and ordered what she asked him to if she wanted two different things but couldn't choose which one. Dawn came in to her room at night and giggled about how perfect a boyfriend Gio was. The term "sweetheart" was used often. It was true, Gio was a sweetheart. It was unfortunate that there was no spark. They hadn't slept together. When they touched, it was always casual and didn't inspire any fire, and when they kissed, it was mostly light pecks, often on both cheeks, as even simple acquaintances would. About three weeks into their relationship, Buffy knew it would not last much longer. But Gio was so sweet, bringing her little gifts and taking her to meet his friends and doing a thousand other little kindnesses for her, that she didn't want to break his heart.

As it turned out, she didn't need to. On a Thursday night as they were leaving a jazz club, they heard screams coming from a nearby alley. Buffy, trained since she was a teenager to respond to cries for help, jogged towards the source without even looking to see what Gio was doing.

Why do people always think to themselves 'Gee, why don't I walk down this dark and deserted alley alone at midnight'?

The two vampires who were attacking a couple of young, college-aged men were obviously the idiot type. They were more interested in their heavy bracelets and expensive watches than in their blood and when they saw Buffy approaching, they tried to flirt with her in crude English. She dusted them in short order, practically rolling her eyes all the while. As she sent the two victims on their way with a warning to stay out of dark alleys and to tell their friends the same, she remembered Gio. He was not behind her in the alley, so she went back into the lit road. Although she was grateful that he hadn't tried to rescue her, she was a little puzzled and put out that Gio, who was always the perfect gentleman, would leave her investigate by herself. It seemed unlike him. When she turned the corner, she saw him sitting on a stoop, his head in his hands.

"Gio!" She knelt in front of him. He seemed unhurt. Perhaps he was just worried about her or ashamed that he had not followed her into the alley. "I'm okay. Are you?"

He cleared his throat a few times, but his voice when he spoke was still croaky and cracked just a little. "What are you, Buffy?"

Now: Upon consideration, she has decided that the strangest part about her relationship with Gio was that she did not even consider telling him who she was. She liked him very much, he was a truly lovely person and perhaps he could have handled it if she had just told him. But somewhere along the way, she had lost most of her skills at living in the real world. When she had been a teenager, the order would have been:

Cuteness noted.

Light flirting.

Asked out.

Go on date.

DO NOT TELL HIM THAT YOU ARE A SLAYER.

At twenty-four, telling her significant other was no longer a priority. Somehow she had changed enough so she somehow expected that everyone she interacted with lived in her world, that they all knew what she knew. And even when she didn't, when she was saving victims or walking in the street or holding hands with her boyfriend, she was still disconnected from general humanity, enough that it had never occurred to her to be honest with Gio.

Gio was one of the nicest people she had ever known, but in the end, he couldn't handle her. He didn't know who she really was and he unfortunately disappointed her with his reaction when he found out. She hated that not telling him had been the right decision, but he really couldn't live in her world.

~*~

Then: She met Marcus while she was flirting a vamp into the alley behind a club. He followed them, snuck up and chopped a really huge sword (probably charmed somehow to keep it lightweight and concealed) across the vamp's throat leaving Buffy in the middle of the alley, covered in dust.

"Are you alright, miss?" His voice was low and soothing, almost hypnotic, and faintly Australian. "How much have you had to drink?" He was obviously trying to do damage control.

"Nothing," she snapped, slashing a hand to decline the jacket he offered to counteract the shock he imagined she was in. "I wanted my head clear so I could get the kill I've been tracking for two weeks!" She was fuming by the end, screaming and spitting the words. She crossed her arms to stop herself from hurting him.

"You're a hunter?" He raised his eyebrows slightly, which she supposed was his version of surprise.

Rage was tiring, especially when you've been chasing a demon through all the hot clubs in Rome. She extended a hand tiredly.

"Vampire slayer. Buffy the." (She still had trouble thinking of herself as one of many slayers.)

"That's cool. I'm Marcus." He had a warm, firm grip. "Listen, I'm all keyed up from that kill. Sorry I took that, by the way. Anyway, I've got a lead about some trouble at a youth hostel near the Colosseum. Care to join me?"

She did, as it turned out. She also joined him for some slaying at the cemetery near her apartment the next night. She invited him out for coffee afterwards.

"How did you get into this, anyway?" She hadn't really met enough hunters by profession to tell if there was a common reason for choosing to give up your life to rid the world of evil and possibly get killed in the process.

He was scooping the foam off of the cappuccino that the waitress had given him instead of the black coffee he had ordered. "I was fifteen when vampires slaughtered my whole family. Two little brothers, an older sister, my parents, even my grandmother. I was sleeping next door. I saw the whole thing from the window. I was depressed, institutionalized for nearly a year. When I came out, the only thing on my mind was to kill anything that might have had to do with my family's murder."

"So, this is a vengeance gig for you?" The words slipped out, hurtling her back in time.

"Yeah, you could say that." He did not go according to the script, but she had warmed to him. She felt an odd kinship with this man she had only known for three days.

It seemed to Buffy that one moment she was drinking coffee in the café across the table from Marcus and the next she was carrying him a cup to drink in her bed. A month had passed in a blink and suddenly they were living together, passing each other as they ran leads on vamps and demons, sparring and screwing every so often.

Their mugs crashed by her feet. She retched slightly, the air seeming too dry, her saliva too viscous. She barely knew him at all.

Now: Being with Marcus was so obviously a rebound from Gio that she always feels like a moron for not recognizing it while it was happening. Gio had lived in the normal world, while Marcus lived in hers. It was easy to be with him because they were so similar. He understood that they couldn't have actual dates because she was busy with slaying. After Gio, she had thrown herself into it, determined to separate herself even further from normal society. Marcus seemed the perfect companion for her escape from normalcy. He was all business. He could take care of himself in a fight. It barely mattered that he was handsome or that he was good in bed. Their relationship could accurately be called coworkers with benefits. It makes her a little ill and very cold to think of it now, that she could be so shut off, as if none the healing she had done in Italy had happened.

~*~

Then: She met Reuben in England while she was visiting Giles. She had crept out of his apartment to a club when she couldn't sleep and marveled at how when Giles couldn't sleep, he would get a cup of tea and a book and listen to soft music in his robe, while she would get dressed in a tight, revealing outfit, walk twenty minutes in the bitter cold and get drunk while dancing to loud music. There were more differences between her and Giles than age and a lifetime of tweed.

Reuben was the center of the crowd, the axis of it. She could see that central point from the moment she entered. She found herself drawn there. If she had remembered high school biology, she would have thought of cohesion. If she had remembered physics, it would have reminded her of magnetism. Mostly what she thought of when she saw Reuben for the first time was heat and electricity. She channeled the heat into dancing. She fell in to the beat easily, closing her eyes and just letting go. She pretended she was a teenager again, dancing at the Bronze, blowing off homework and patrol to go out with her friends and be normal for a while. When she opened her eyes, she saw that the axis of the crowd had grown from the hot guy in the middle to the hot guy in the middle and her.

"I'm Reuben," he told her in an upper-crust London accent that her inner Giles told her was a well practiced fake. Her inner Buffy hit him with a backscratcher and told him to shut his mouth because the accent was hot.

"Buffy," she replied. She didn't bother to shout over the music. If he was interested, he would ask again. If not, he would nod and smile as if he had heard.

"Sorry, what was that?"

She grinned predatorily. Gotcha.

Now: Her night with Reuben could be neatly sorted into good and bad. For example, good: his apartment was clean, bad: having to explain to Giles where she had been. Or, good: the sex (and it had been really good), bad: the way she felt after. That was the worst part of it. She felt cheap afterwards. She was nearly twenty-six, but she had never purposefully had a one night stand. In the morning, she felt awkward. She didn't know if she was using him or vice versa and she didn't really care. It is hard to be philosophical when you're groping for your underwear. She remembers looking at Reuben's sleeping face and just feeling sick of it. Waking up in the bed of a man who was basically a stranger, who she had only slept with for his looks and the chemistry between them...that woke her up. She thinks of it as one of the defining moments of her life, one that she'll always be grateful for even though it pierced her at the time.

~*~

Then: She never thought she would carry a tote bag this size anywhere but the beach. She had always been a little purse kind of girl, but she would make an exception in this case.

Angel's house did not look like anywhere she could imagine Angel living. She checked the post-it that Willow had written the address on twice because of it. Firstly, 2434 Lillie Ave, Summerland, California was a house. A house seemed so ordinary for Angel. She always imagined him living in a subterranean apartment or a mansion or an enormous floating castle. Secondly, this particular house was a pretty little white one surrounded by palm trees and neighbors that was in walking distance of the beach. It was in the top ten of most normal (and idyllic) things she had ever seen. The whole appearance of the place flew in the face of everything she knew about Angel. Buffy stopped, her hand on the very ironic white picket fence in the front yard. She was really ready to do this until she remembered exactly how much she no longer knew about Angel. Even when they were dating, she knew so little, but she had always thought that if there hadn't been the curse between them, if they had been able to be around each other and really talk without wanting to touch...The thought that they could have that now gave her the strength to push open the gate and walk up the path. She took two steps up together and then the last one slowly, by itself. She knocked and waited, shifting her bag to her other shoulder. She fiddled with the rings on her fingers, the chain around her neck. She turned her cell phone off so they wouldn't be interrupted. A full minute had passed before she knocked again. She was almost ready to try to peer in through the mail slot when she heard him call "I'm coming!" She straightened her hair hurriedly as his footsteps came closer and stopped in front of the door.

"Buffy." His voice was surprised and, thankfully, warm, but she was distracted by his very bare chest and his very worn looking blue jeans. He looked very tan, as if he were definitely taking advantage of the proximity to the beach, and his hair- damp and curling- seemed to show that he had just showered. When she didn't answer right away, he shifted. "Buffy, what are you doing here?"

She shook her head, clearing it. "I'm here to tell you that I'm in love with you."

He stood frozen. "Still? Buffy, it's been years. How do you know that we can still be anything...?"

She pulled one strap of the bag away from her and pulled out an egg. "Hold this," she said, and shoved it into his hands.

"Buffy, what-?" He held it anyway, cradling it in his big hands, protecting it.

"What year was Napoleon exiled?"

"Which time?"

His answer seemed to satisfy her and she moved on.

"What does it mean when I eat Cream of Wheat for breakfast?"

"You're having your period," he answered promptly, and blushed immediately. She grinned but continued on.

"What do you think I would have been if I weren't the Slayer?"

"Buffy, I don't understand what's going on."

"Angel, will you please just answer this question for me? I know we haven't seen each other in, like four years, but can you just go with me on this? Now, just say I had lost my powers after high school. What would I have done when I grew up?"

His answer this time was immediate. "You would have been a police officer or a grief counselor or something that helps people. You wouldn't have been able to stop helping people, not matter how shallow you thought you were. Which you weren't," he added hastily.

She didn't seem to have cared about his slip. "Good answer," she smiled. She looked into his face and took the egg gently out of his hands and stowed it back in her bag. He looked surprised that he was still holding it. She stood on tiptoe and kissed him softly on the corner of his mouth. She pulled back and watched his closed eyes, his slightly opened mouth. She felt his breath against her face, making her hair flutter. She brushed his hair higher up on his forehead. He opened his eyes and looked at her.

"Angel," she said slowly and deliberately, still on tiptoe, right near his face. "I've been in love with you for almost ten years now. I've dated, I've slept with enough men to count them on both hands and I've figured something out: I'm never going to get over you because you were...you are perfect for me and I've realized that I've been looking for another you for ten years now." She lowered herself to the porch floor, but stayed near enough to stick her fingers into his pocket if she wanted. "You are gentle, you are kind, you are smart, you know me, I can tell you things, when I touch you I feel fireworks and you're human now-and we're going to talk about you not telling me- so we can be together and..." She bit her lip briefly. "I came here and I had all these brilliant, meaningful things to tell you, all these perfect words to say. I was going to be witty and inventive and original- and you have to admit that the whole egg thing was a first for you, right?- but now all I can think to say is that I've seen parts of you in a million different guys and I finally realized that I don't want to settle for just those parts. I want the whole you." She looked down, noticing that his feet were bare and that he had really tiny baby toes for such big feet. She gathered whatever courage hadn't been deadened by embarrassment and looked up at him. His face had been impassive through her whole speech. "So what do you say?"

"Buffy," he said, pausing, and she swallowed. It sounded like the voice he used when he was going to disappoint her. "Do you want to come in? I feel a little awkward standing out here without a shirt on. I think Mrs. Laslow across the street was checking me out while I was mowing the lawn last week."

"Yeah," Buffy said, grateful that it didn't seem that he was kicking her out even if he wasn't swinging her around and running through sprinklers with her. "Yeah, I'd like to come in."

The door led to a short hall. They walked down. Buffy noticed that Angel had hung pictures along the hall, black and white ones of his friends. It seemed that they were in chronological order, starting with a simple candid of Angel, Cordelia and Doyle in front of a brick building (Buffy couldn't even begin to guess who had taken it, or the circumstances) and then contracting to be just Angel and Cordy. Wesley was included in the next picture, surprising Buffy in leather pants. She couldn't see the rest of them before they entered the living room. It was simple, with blonde hardwood floors and pale furniture. The wall opposite the doorway had a huge window, glazing the room with light. Angel went over and sat against the left arm of his couch, which was small, comfortable and ice blue. Buffy sat in a wooden rocking chair across from him.

"So do you have a girlfriend? Wife? Significant other of some kind? Non-significant other of any kind?" Buffy blurted the deluge of rapid-fire questions as he opened his mouth to talk. She and Angel would always love each other, but she was afraid that he would say that he was happy with someone else just now, thanks very much and maybe he'd see her next time there was a crisis.

"No, I don't have girlfriend," he replied.

"Good, because I just wanted to make sure that some woman wouldn't come wandering in wearing your shirt and being all "oh, baby, come back to bed," because that would be a situation that would call for Willow's special hot cocoa and I don't have any with me."

"Buffy," he said, amused and irritated at once. "No one but me lives in this house. I haven't dated anyone in almost a year."

"Why not?"

He didn't seem to think that the question was intrusive, even though she practically demanded an answer. "I went out on a date with this girl, Melina. She was an employee at the book store I work at. Well actually, I own it as of a couple of weeks ago." The smile he gave her was so proud and sheepish and happy and it was more of a grin and she just had to kiss him. She leaned over and pressed her mouth to his. He tasted like fresh popcorn, the kind you eat when you go to a rainy day movie with your best friends and you flirt with the boy at the concession stand so he puts moreandmoreandmore of the delicious fake butter on your popcorn, even though you can already feel your arteries clogging with its buttery yellowness.

She yanked herself back to her chair and cleared her throat. "Sorry about that. Go on. You were on a date with Melina the book girl."

A smile still lingered on his face as he continued. "So we went to dinner and then to a movie. She was sweet and pretty and very intelligent. She went to a good college and she loved books and she wanted kids. She was a good person. Well, I imagine she still is. I could have loved her, Buffy. I know that I could have. But we got to her porch and I thought about what it would be like to be with her every day, to sleep with her, maybe to marry her one day. And then I thought about what it would be like if you came to town. I would have gone to see you and what always happens between us would happen and suddenly it was ridiculous that I wasn't going on a date with you instead, that it wasn't you I was standing on the porch with. So I flew to Rome. And you were sitting in a park with a guy. You were feeding birds. He bought you a sandwich. He made you laugh. You looked right past me. You seemed happy. So I left."

"Angel." She laughed a little because she loved him, but he was such an idiot and such a man, thinking that she couldn't live without him. She moved to sit on the sofa next to him and brought a hand to his cheek. "I've learned that I can be happy without you. Getting a new haircut, eating ice cream, being with my friends, watching a sunrise...all those cliché things make me happy. But I'm happiest when I'm with you. It's about being complete, Angel. I need complete happiness, and I find that with you. I love you."

He pulled her towards him, on top of him. "That's really good. Because I love you too." He pushed up towards her and kissed her firmly, directly on the mouth. "And," he continued, pulling back a little and then changing his mind. He kissed her on the mouth again, briefly, on the cheek, on the nose, on her eyelashes, her eyelids: all tiny kisses, like he couldn't take being separated for her long enough to speak. She feels his hands on her hips, pressing into their new slight plumpness and she can't help but feel amazingly grateful that for once, she and Angel aren't about lips and hearts and clutching fingers but can instead be necks and thighs and fleshy arms. Finally, he took a breath, winding a piece of hair around his finger. "And I really want to marry you. I want to give you everything I have. I want to give you all of me."

"Well, that's good to hear because I've got a bag full of clothes and I'm planning to stay a while." She laid back on his chest.

Right this minute NOW: It's half past nine and Buffy isn't out of bed yet.

Dawn bangs on the door. "Buuuuuuuffffffffyyyyyy!! You're getting married today. You have to get UP!!!"

"Okay, okay," she groans and tosses off the covers. It's okay to get up now. She's reviewed her whole life. She knows what she did wrong, what she should have done better. She knows that she loves Angel more than anything. She's been close to falling in love a couple times and it all comes back to him. This is her final circle. She's tired of waiting and avoiding and near-missing.

She puts on her dress by herself. She has bridesmaids and Giles, but she chose to do it like this. She just needs a few minutes by herself. She adjusts the waist, smooths it in the mirror. She grabs her makeup case and her veil and turns to go see Willow. She touches the doorknob and pauses. She takes a deep breath and shakes her head slowly. She's being silly. She knows that this is it. She is ready.