A young girl is in despair over love, and so she despairs over her lover, because he died, or because he was unfaithful to her. This is not a declared despair; no, she is in despair over herself. This self of hers, which, if it had become "his" beloved, she would have been rid of in the most blissful way, or would have lost, this self is now a torment to her when it has to be a self without "him"; this self which would have been to her riches (though in another sense equally in despair) has now become to her a loathsome void, since "he" is dead, or it has become to her an abhorrence, since it reminds her of the fact that she was betrayed. Try it now, say to such a girl, "Thou art consuming thyself," and thou shalt hear her reply, "Oh, no, the torment is precisely this, that I cannot do it."

--Søren Kierkegaard



It was hardly to be borne. Not that it would be borne for any amount of time, of course, because the sun was high in the sky and soon there would be no turning back. The plaza was teeming with humans, some clad in red, some in tourist garb. Some were eager, certainly, but none was truly ready to see a vampire's real face.

Or chest, for that matter.

It would be chaos. He could imagine the sounds—the sharp intake of breath here, the suppressed scream there—he could even imagine laughter. In his mind's eye, he saw how mothers would cover the eyes of their young children, all the while craning their necks to get a better look while their husbands looked on in bemused but resentful disbelief.

Already their eyes were darting toward him, as wives struggled to hide their arousal at the barest glimpse of Edward Cullen, half hidden in dark shadows.

They would do their part, the witless humans, just as they always had. They were, in the end, instruments to be used when needed, but for the most part, ignored as much as possible, although he rarely had that luxury, thanks to his "gift." Which, like everything else about him, had failed utterly when it was most important.

Humans meant nothing to him now. If anything, Edward resented them because they were alive when she was not. The only one who mattered—the one who had spoken to him like no other, but whose mind had kept its own council—was gone. Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,/ And thou no breath at all? Why indeed? Because he had failed. Thou'lt come no more,/ Never, never, never, never, never!

Despair, despair was the sickness unto death. These moments of waiting, were as nothing to that pain, of course. To bear this last trial better, Edward could take strength and fortitude from the knowledge that his shirt would soon be off.

Sparkles would sign his death warrant soon enough.

Admittedly there was something off about that.

Because there was something off about the whole thing—not the horrible aching hole of Bella's death, which was not off, of course, but devastation defined. No, what was off was the intermittent static nattering of whoever it was that kept cutting through his pain.

Whether his own mental anguish was causing his reception trouble, or if it was just the girl's own inadequacy as a thinker, Edward had no way of gauging. All he knew was that—there it was again? Her thoughts made no sense.

Oh, perfect. A thrash metal fan. Thrash, but not even the quasi-good stuff—at least according to Emmet. Naturally Edward himself would never choose to listen to such rubbish of his own free will, but vampiric hearing had its down side when dwelling with Philistines . . .

But of course—this git couldn't even cough up a decent Metallica reference. His unwitting and truly witless tormenter had to be obsessed with . . .Slayer.

And with every pointless interruption, the renewed consciousness of Bella's death came crashing down on Edward again, each momentary distraction only increasing the horror when his full awareness of this single, unimaginable, inexorable fact returned.

Never, never, never, never, nev--.

And then the blond girl was back, quoting Streetcar Named Desire again—Edward assumed—he couldn't think of another reason why her mind seemed to call out to Stella again and again. He couldn't pick up enough to hear if she was trying to do it in some pathetic imitation of the young Brando.

If so, it was a doomed project. Brando was so far from blond. Stella . . .In Brando's mouth the call had sounded like a plea from a torn soul, desperate with animal desire. In her mind, it sounded cutesy. Rather like the person saying it might wear sparkles, but pink sparkles, and by choice.

As if soul-piercing agony was not enough.

He had to be annoyed, as well.

Stupid vampire. . . For the love of all that was holy—if there was anything holy left, which Edward doubted intensely—could she not shut up? Did even his suicide have to be destroyed by human idiocy?

And to top it all off, one of her chief problems seemed to be that she couldn't decide between the Cubs and the White Sox. Of all the idiotic inconsistencies in the history of the universe.

It was like not being able to decide between the Allies and the Axis . . . the Old and New Testament . . . Kirk and Picard . . .

And there it was again, the dagger through his eye. Bella was still dead, it was still his fault, she died believing he had never loved her, and now on top of it all, he was besieged by idiocy. He couldn't even do Bella the justice of dying with dignity in her honor.

He had to be reduced to this.

Perhaps, since he was dying anyway, he should rethink matters. Perhaps one more human death would be . . .understandable, under the circumstances.

No. That was no way to honor his Bella.

The button slipped through its hole smoothly.. It would be soon, so soon that he would be delivered from this pain.

And, consequently, from this idiot.

"All right, all right, keep your shirt on."

This was too much. Before, the chirpy yet sullen blondness had been coming through in static bursts, intermittent in his head, disjointed phrases raspy around the edges. Its newfound clarity took aggravating to a new level.

It sounded now, ironically, as if she were trying to talk to him, her ridiculous idiom spilling over into the actuality of his situation. "Keep your shirt on. Just one more taunting slap in the face from fate's eager palm.

He would not be distracted. He would do this right.

Edward closed his eyes, took a deep, cleansing breath—too soon, perhaps, to be his last, but he could hope. Slowly, methodically, his fingers trailed again over the buttons of his shirt, threading each pale disk through his fingers, through fabric, and away. There was a comfort in ritual, all cultures had found. This would be no different. Each button, released mercifully from its confines, exposed a little more flesh, promised other, more fatal exposures in minutes—perhaps in only seconds.

Of course, there would be the Volturi and their procedures to contend with. But their justice—if not swift, if not painless—would at least be final.

"Edmund. English much? I mean, you're more likely to pass for human than for Italian, buddy. But no need to tempt fate. I said, keep your shirt on." And, in the last possible straw on top of the last straws that had already fallen on Edward's worn nerves, a small, warm hand gripped his wrist.

That hand was really strong.

Edward's head snapped around, his eyes already black from hunger now obsidian with hatred. His own hand closed over the twiglike interloper as he met the face—pretty, vapid, framed with blond hair.

Big surprise.

The girl was the one who was tempting fate. She would have no way of knowing, of course, but a desperate, lovesick vampire is not to be toyed with.

She started chirping again. "Wow, you really are cold, aren't you? See? You should listen to your friendly neighborhood Slayer. You might need that shirt." The small yet curiously strong woman looked appraisingly at his clothing. "Which by the way is very nice in kind of a trad. way. I mean, it's no Italian designer, but it suits you. L. L. Bean?"

Edward felt his lip curl up of its own accord—but that only saved him the trouble of curling it himself.

"I'll let you take your fashion advice somewhere less dangerous," he snapped. "I must insist that you leave immediately. You are meddling in things of which you know nothing and in so doing putting yourself in grave danger." His ice cold, razor sharp tone brooked no resistance.

He would have thought.

But the execrable annoyance managed—Edward had no idea how—to free her wrist from his grasp. He then realized, of course, should have let go of her wrist of his own accord, given that he'd ordered her away yet she could hardly be expected to evade a vampire's clutches—more testament to his extremely disrupted state of mind.

He watched her with dark amusement as she placed her newly free hand with her other one on either side of her hips.

How threatening, sneered his monster, more than ready to go at her.

"Oh, my, God!" she squealed. "You are so right. A broody guilt-ridden vampire warning me I'm in grave danger. I am so out of my comfort zone! Whatever shall I do? Calgon! Take me away!"

The excrescence looked around her, expectantly, then disappointed. "Huh. Never an enormous foaming tub of scented bubbles around when you really need one, you know?"

So apparently, Kierkegaard had been wrong. It was not despair that was the sickness unto death. It was chirpy little blond girls.

Unless, of course, death had already happened. Kierkegaard had also said that death would not be the end, that the torment of the self that could not bear itself was eternity. Edward had just figured all that stuff didn't apply to him because he wasn't a Christian. Which was what the Dane had said, he thought.

What was it with Danes? Seemed to be a broody bunch. Hamlet had had some of the same issues—to be or not to be?

Of course, Edward had already chosen. He just hadn't realized he'd already chosen. He hadn't realized he was already dead.

Edward looked down and leaned heavily against the stone wall at his back. In the shade. He gave up. Apparently, he'd already given up. He must have sparkled without realizing it.

Because this was surely hell.

And Sartre, Kierkegaard's great heir in existential angst (until Edward), had been right. Hell is other people.

Prescient, really. The philosopher hadn't even known this blond girl.

He darted another glance in her direction, willing her to be gone. If she was his eternal torment, he'd just made the worst mistake of his entire life.

Except for the whole part when he brutally lied to Bella, cruelly left her in the woods, crushed her soul, and hastened her death in an attempt to save her.

His eternal tormenter was cocking her head quizzically to one side and playing absently with a strand of her long blond hair.

"So," she said thoughtfully, "that was easier than I thought. I can't believe Giles made me come all this way and all I had to do was praise your shirt. I guess I'm good, but I think really anyone could have done the job. I mean, you don't need Slayer strength for that, right?"

Edward said nothing. Her thrash metal obsession was bordering on the insane. And by bordering, he meant that it had long since crossed deep into mental illness territory.

And she just went on and on.

"You're not really the chatty type, right? But I'm glad you rethought the whole suicide thing, because it could have gotten really ugly with one of your kind fighting the Slayer right here in the Volari back yard." She rolled her eyes, then paused for a minute as if in thought. "Hey, do they have anything to do with the cars? Because I think my dad had one when I was little."

Burying his head in his hands, Edward realized his diagnosis had one too many letters. It was not so much that she was completely insane, it was that she was completely inane. Leave off the s for extra savings.

And now he, Edward Cullen, was stuck in an eternal loop with late-night mattress ads and a nattering blond girl inexplicably singing automobile commercials dating from decades before her birth. Bella was still dead, and suicide was no longer even an option, because, apparently, he was dead too and it was no improvement.

The lost are like this, their scourge to be/ As I am mine, their sweating selves . . .

"Are you going to start playing Slayer soon?" he asked weakly. "Because otherwise I don't see how this could get any worse."

****

Buffy swatted the now very young-looking, very crushed-looking vampire on the arm. Ow, she thought, he is really built. Oroh, right. Granite-like construction. No stakes. Get a grip, Buffy. He's seventeen and obviously a totalgit. "Edmund. Seriously. I don't have to play Slayer. But listen, how do you know about the whole Slayer thing anyway? I thought that was totally not—you know, your thing. I thought there were rules or something."

The vampire snorted. "There should be." Then he sighed heavily "But I guess when I decided to break all the rules, I was signing my own warrant. For here. Let's just say I know about it because I have a brother with less than impeccable taste and leave it at that."

Leave it at that? Not likely. She'd just saved his life, and now he had to get all snippy? Less than impeccable taste? Seriously? How many times had he saved the world, she'd like to know. Hey—had she just used the word git in a sentence? Ok, fine, it was just a sentence in her own head, but still, Spike would be so proud.

Spike. She winced. Where are you?

After losing herself a moment in memories, Buffy looked over to the current impossibly good-looking suicidal love-sick vampire in her life. He was wincing too. Buffy drew a deep breath. Surely one impossibly good-looking suicidal love-sick vampire at a time was enough for any girl. She should be glad Spike was AWOL. Still, she felt pouty.

Well. Fine. She had been about to take pity on Edmund and tell him that Stella was alive—no thanks to him, she thought darkly—and that he could relax, enjoy the sunshine—from a safely shady location—and wait for his loving girlfriend and sister to show up.

She wondered, actually, where they'd gotten to. Traffic had been pretty atrocious—but from Giles had said, the girl Alice could be pretty much a demon behind the wheel.

Hee. Literally. Buffy suppressed a giggle.

Just then, Vampy McBroodsalot Junior whipped his ridiculously beautiful face toward her, his eyes deep black again, his face a mixture of rage and panic. Buffy felt all her defenses go up as every muscle tensed, ready for his attack.

Maybe this was not going to be so easy after all.

He was incredibly fast. His hand darted out toward her throat like it was made of stone lightening but her own hand headed him off, gripping his wrist again. His stare did not waver. "What do you know about Alice, and what have you done to her? What's happened? Why is she coming here?"

Oops. I said that out loud? What else did I say out loud? She looked at him, but he still looked tortured and miserable. Chances were good, then, that she hadn't actually said any of that stuff about Stella. But then, you never knew with broody lovesick vampires. He could have already gotten over the happy part and moved on to leaving her again for her own good. Stupid vampire.

"Why is your sister coming here?" Buffy rolled her eyes. "Duh. Why do you think, Mr Rocket Scientist?"

Through gritted teeth, he repeated, "Where is she? Even here, I assure you I can make you regret your silence."

Retaining her grip on his weirdly hard arm, Buffy said slowly, "Believe me, it's not my silence I'm regretting now. Anyway. Alice is coming here because of you, you idiot, and as for where she is—" Buffy shrugged. "Probably stuck in traffic. I could get here fastest cause, you know, Slayer—I guess that's why I was needed," she said, the last part obviously more to herself than to her companion, "I'm a post-apocalyptic traffic workaround now."

"Slayer." Buffy watched as the vampire's eyes narrowed in contempt and his lips formed a sneer around the word. So there were some things, she guessed, that the two vampire species did have in common. But the fear in his eyes was not because of her. He was afraid for his sister.

Well, too bad. So he was stressed out. No vampire got to say "Slayer" in that contemptuous way and walk away from it. Ok. Some did. But Buffy really, really hated it when that happened.

Turns out he wasn't even finished yet. The contempt was still just oozing out of his beautiful but annoying lips. "You really just can't let go of that Slayer business, even for a minute, can you?"

"Me let go of it?" Buffy fumed. This was, after all, something of a sore spot with her. "It can't let go of me, more like it. Just try having a sacred calling someday. You'll see. It's not so easy to get out of. Even though it's not like I'm the only one. I mean—you know there are a lot of us now, right?"

Snorting derisively, the vampire shook his head in disbelief. "I assure you, I am not overwhelmed by a sense of your originality, if that's what you mean. I have no doubt Hell is filled with legions of fawning, idiotic girls just like yourself."

"You. Are so cruising for a bruising. Do you have a death wish or something?" Buffy clapped her hand over her mouth. "Oh—I mean. Of course you—Oops. My bad."

Gorgeous the Git didn't grace her with a response and instead just flexed his newly liberated wrist, examining it as if for damage. "Curiously strong," he muttered.

"You want a breath mint?" Buffy was surprised. Nonsequitor much? But whatever. He was in pain. And really, when you thought about it, not surprising a vampire would have an oral fixation. Or that he would take an instinctual dislike to a Slayer. "That's funny. Vampires aren't usually the fresh and minty type. I don't think they sell that brand here and anyway, I'm more of a gum girl. Doublemint?" She pulled out the green package and extended a foil-wrapped peace offering to him. He was incredibly offensive, but he was still grieving the loss of his great love. She could be generous.

Buffy considered that it would be an even greater peace offering to tell him Bella was still alive, but at this point, she felt so sorry for the girl, she didn't want to. After all, poor Stella had flown halfway around the world to try to save the guy who'd ditched her. Let her have her big moment.

But then Buffy saw that the ditcher in question was looking at her perfectly friendly gum offering as if it were a disease or a slug. Or a slug with a disease. A contagious disease. Whatever. He wasn't being very nice about it. He sighed. "Are you insane?" he asked, in a weary tone.

"Ok. So. Gum not your thing." Buffy stared at her shoes for a moment. They were cute. Maybe she could go shopping later. Italy had the best shoes and this whole lovesick vampire suicide thing had put her in a bad enough mood without the unrelenting pissiness.

In fact, it was suddenly clear that even shoes would not be enough. She had had it with this. "What say we rethink the whole I save you thing. I hear shirtless vamps are all the rage this year, anyway. Go ahead. Give in to despair. Give in to fashion. Whatever gets you through the night—or gets you, you know, dead. I wash my hands of the whole thing."

"You save me," laughed the vampire hollowly. "Everyone's a comedian in hell, apparently."

"Trust me. That's not what I've heard." Buffy's thoughts flashed to scenes of Angel, trembling and animal-like on his sudden return from the hell dimension she'd sent him to. Then, inevitably, she saw his face, despairing, beyond wounded as he realized what she'd done, how she'd responded to his outreached hand. And she had loved Angel. Edmund should really learn to watch his step. "And you wouldn't be the first vampire I've sent there, either, so if I were you, I would stop flirting with disaster."

"As if I would ever flirt with you. Hell would freeze over first. And it's looking pretty balmy at the moment." Edward's lip curled in disgust again. "Nothing could ever have tempted me toward you. Even before your death. Or mine."

Buffy couldn't remember the last time she'd been so angry. Probably Spike had been involved. "Oh thank God. Because otherwise I'd be in so much trouble, I just swoon for petulant teenagers. And what do you know about my death? What do you know about my life?"

"Trust me," the disgust in Edward's tone only deepening, "more than I would ever want to."

"And what's that supposed to mean?" Buffy reflected. It really was far too public a place to dismember and burn a vampire corpse. Especially in front of all these vampire fans. Pity.

"It means, I would give a great deal not to have had my mind polluted by even fleeting images of what you did with that—bleach blond—punk rock wannabe—which is, I'd have to say, a little inconsistent of you, given your Slayer—thing." His voice made scare quotes around the word "thing" as if the colloquialism was beneath him but he knew he needed to translate himself for the benefit of his listener.

Did he think he was offering some kind of fresh analysis of the Slayer-vampire forbidden love business? "A little inconsistent? Newsflash! Mr Rocket Science defeated by Captain Obvious! The crowd goes wild! And how in the hell you keep going on about do you know anything about Spike and me? I thought the whole—our side of things—was supposed to be some kind of big secret." Buffy started pacing, her voice getting louder. "I mean, were there regular Buffy broadcasts that I should know about?"

"Who's Buffy?" He looked confused. As if.

"Oh! Rocket Science makes a surprise comeback! I'm Buffy, you moron." She grabbed his hand and shook it violently. "Pleased to meet you. You're a vampire, and I'm Buffy the Vampire Sl—"

"Edward?" A trembling, desperate voice cut her off. Both Buffy and Edward whipped their heads around to face the direction it had come from. Buffy saw a young, slight, brown-haired woman making her way through the fountain at the center of the plaza.

"Who's Edward?" Buffy whispered, confused. But the vampire made no response. He was completely motionless, staring at the woman in the fountain as if he'd seen a ghost.

Wait a minute. It must be--

"Stella?" Buffy called out, hopefully. "STELLAAA!"

"Edward!" The girl was running toward the shadows where Buffy and Edward stood, their hands, forgotten, still clasped in Buffy's sudden handshake of scorn.

Buffy watched, puzzled, as the frantic-looking girl stopped dead in her tracks. She watched her tired brown eyes take in Edward, whose entire body was still frozen in shock, and then Buffy herself, which made them grow wide and fill with tears. She watched as those tear-glazed eyes trailed down Buffy's arm to where her hand was still grasping Edward's. She heard the painful intake of breath.

Huh. Neither the happy-reunion Buffy had been expecting, nor the righteous woman-scorned ass-kicking she'd secretly hoped for. Crazy kids.

"Edward?" Bella's voice faltered. "What's going on?"


So, it's been a while . . . this fic is meeting the needs of, er, a select group of dedicated readers, and they were getting restless. Thank you for your support and friendly nagging. Reviewers get . . .a perfectly friendly gum offering (slug and disease free). Or a vampire with an oral fixation of their choice.