Closing Time

She couldn't sleep… which for Buffy Summers was actually an unusual feat. By the time she collapsed into bed at night, she was normally so tired that she was out cold before she could even reach up to turn off her bedside lamp. It wasn't that she wasn't exhausted, for she was. After months of doing nothing for herself and everything for what seemed like everyone else, she was a bad day away from falling to pieces, but, at the same time, she felt restless, trapped, like she was about to stretch and scratch her way out of her own skin. Though it wasn't a pleasant experience, at least she was feeling something. After weeks of numbness, any sensation was better than nothing.

Glancing at her alarm clock, she noted that it was nearing two in the morning. In all likelihood, no one else she knew would be up at the late… or, in some ways, early hour, and Buffy wasn't sure she wanted to talk with them anyway. After all, when she did spend time with her friends, they inevitably ended up discussing one of two things. Either they waxed nostalgic about 'the good old days,' or they commiserated over the turn of events which had led her life to the shambles it was currently in. Single, a college dropout, and the sole guardian of a rebellious teenager did not engender many feelings of joviality and camaraderie.

No, what Buffy wanted was to forget the sorry state of her life. She wanted to talk to someone who would look at her like she was a normal twenty-something woman. She wanted to go somewhere where she wasn't 'Poor Buffy,' somewhere where she could blend in and just be. She wanted to temporarily pretend that she wasn't working dead end jobs to pay for a household she never wanted, a household that the other occupant seemed intent upon complaining about. No matter what Buffy did, Dawn was never happy, and, for the life of her, Buffy couldn't figure out why her little sister couldn't appreciate the fact that she didn't ask for their mom to die young and suddenly either, how she didn't want to be responsible for the both of them either but she did so because it was what she had to do. All she asked for from her sister was a little cooperation, but even that Dawn was unwilling to give.

Shoving her blankets aside, the same white lace coverlet that she had used as a virginal, naive sixteen year old when they had first moved to Sunnydale, Buffy almost laughed out loud at the irony. While every other vestige of innocence had been stripped from her – her security, her sense of family and wellbeing, her future, that one token of her past, of her virtuousness remained, and she hated it and its mocking purity. She felt as though her bedroom should reflect the woman she was now today – dark, desperate, and desolate, bleak and bruised by the cruel hands of fate, but she couldn't afford to redecorate. Hell, she couldn't even afford a box or two of dye to at least partially cover up the last visual remnant of her past, and she certainly couldn't afford the drink or two she was about to go buy.

Pulling on a simple white tank top and a pair of old, worn jeans – they were faded but they fit her body like a second skin, and, though not intentional, the slight tear on her right knee and the left thigh were in keeping with the current fashion trends, Buffy left her bedroom and moved downstairs where she grabbed her wallet, slipped on a pair of casual, flat sandals, and locked the door behind her as she left, unmindful of her appearance. She didn't care if her hair was in disarray or if there were still smeared traces of the makeup she had hastily washed off her face earlier that night. After all, she wasn't going out on a date… not that she would even know what such a thing was anymore at that point; rather, she was simply going out, escaping, trying to find a means to an unknown end.

The streets of Sunnydale were quiet as she walked through them, the slight breeze raising goosebumps on her bare arms despite the warmth of the otherwise idyllic Southern California evening. Up one road and down another, she traversed the sidewalks of her forgotten youth as if she took their cracked, crumbling paths every day. Even the straightforward simplicity of walking instead of driving was a soothing balm to the raw and gaping wound of her disposition. For a moment, if she closed her eyes and ignored the rough calluses on the pads of her fingers, the slight ache that always seemed to be present in the small of her back, and the ever present dry and stinging reminder of tears in her eyes, Buffy could imagine herself young and beautiful again, untouched by the harsh reality of her current life.

Some time later, she came to a stop in front of the first bar she encountered. With its warm, welcoming light streaming out of the slightly dingy windows and its loud boisterous noises escaping the confines of its walls and closed door to tempt her inside, Buffy paused and simply inhaled shakily. It had been so long since she went somewhere new, spent time with people she didn't know. After her mom got sick, her social life shriveled up and died, and, after her mom was supposedly healthy again, she died unexpectedly before Buffy could return to the normal hustle and bustle of a regular college sophomore. And, now, she had Dawn, so she worked during the day, and took care of her sister at night, but she didn't even have the basic comforts of companionship other mother-figures relied upon. She didn't have friends who were going through the same thing that she was, and she didn't have a husband or a significant other to help share the burden. Surprise, surprise, men didn't seem to want to date someone who came with a readymade family, and, worse than that, Buffy didn't have a baby-sized amount of baggage; she had a teenager sized amount.

Taking a deep breath, she attempted to bolster her own confidence before strolling into the friendly if not slightly rundown looking bar, but the effort was wasted, because no one looked up from their beer, or their game of pool, of their basket of peanuts to glance in her direction. They didn't care who had just walked in, and they didn't care why she was there. The anonymity was a very welcome respite to the normal notoriety of her life.

With a slight upward quirk to her otherwise composed lips, Buffy made her way to the bar and jumped up onto a leather bar stool near the back corner but not directly in the shadows. Not that she didn't want the hidden position, but someone else had already claimed it, so she left a few seats of distance between them and considered it safe. Before the bartender could even ask, she produced her ID. After all, despite her rather unfortunate set of living circumstances, she still knew that she appeared young, younger than her actual twenty-one years allowed, and then sat there stumped as to what to order. She didn't really like alcohol. In fact, the few times that she had imbibed in the past, the rancid liquor had been so disgusting, she had promised herself she would never take another drink again, but here she was, in a bar, and completely clueless as to what to order.

"Whiskey, neat," the cloaked stranger in the corner said for her without moving. Squinting into the shadows, Buffy tried to get a better glance at him, but his face was turned away from her, only offering up his profile for perusal. "Put it on my tab."

Well, she certainly hadn't been expecting that. Despite her restlessness, maybe her luck was shifting. After all, she had been granted the day off from both of her low paying, menial jobs without asking for it, her friends had, again, without provocation, taken Dawn off her hands for the evening, and, now, to cap off a relatively perfect day in Buffy's new imperfect life, a stranger – and a handsome one at that if, given her limited view, the stranger's profile wasn't deceiving to her gaze – was offering to buy her a drink, seemingly free of charge, for he didn't appear interested in her in any way. Hell, he hadn't even asked for her name or attempted to start a conversation.

So, with a simple, accepting shrug of her bare, slightly tanned shoulders, Buffy accepted the tumbler from the tired, quiet server, grinning before she took a healthy gulp, and, as the burning liquid first touched the back of her throat and scorched its way down into her belly, it took every ounce of her willpower to not cough it back up and spit it out. She felt as though her insides were on fire, as if the whiskey was singeing her from the inside out, and, without conscious thought, she found herself admonishing the stranger, engaging him in conversation when, just seconds before, she had been pleased that he seemed uninterested in talking to her.

"Please tell me you don't drink this stuff all the time. I think it just barbequed my tongue."

The man chuckled, a deep, hypnotizing, rich chuckle, and Buffy immediately felt a flame, unrelated to the whiskey she just downed, spring to life deep and low within her abdomen. Teasingly, he replied, "it's not that bad."

"What, are your insides fire proof or something?"

Her drinking companion nodded to the barkeep and, before he responded, there were two new glasses on the bar, one before each of them, with another finger of liquor swirling around their bottoms. "You get used to it," he told her before drowning his own serving.

Not wanting to be shown up, which was a ridiculous idea considering the fact that she never drank and the man several stools down from her apparently did, Buffy did the same, gasping as soon as the alcohol cleared the space of her still fiery mouth. After coughing several times, she asked, "after how many centuries?"

His response wasn't immediately forthcoming, but, when he eventually gave it, she could hear the sincerity bleeding throughout his kind, enigmatic voice. "It always burns, but, eventually, if you're someone like me… and, for some reason, I think you are, you start to welcome the pain, not because you necessarily enjoy it but because it reminds you that you're still here, that you're alive, that there are things in life that can hurt worse than loneliness."

The truth behind his words touched her, but, like she usually did when reality hurt too much to confront it, Buffy covered up her feelings with humor, with flippant wit. "If you start speaking in iambic pentameter, I'm going to think you're a poet."

"Nope," the stranger grinned, finally angling his face in her direction. His brow was smooth, the hollows below his cheekbones silhouetted in mystery, and his chocolate brown eyes seemed to glow with amusement. "Just Irish."

"You're a little out of your natural environment then."

"Passing through," he shrugged, returning his gaze towards that of the mirror behind the bar, its reflective surface disturbed by the lines of bottles placed before it. Through the interruptions, though, Buffy realized that they could watch each other, see each other, feel each other.

He didn't offer any more information about himself, and she didn't ask. It wasn't that she wasn't necessarily interested. After all, the handsome man seemed to be one of those people who could tell his life story in a few simple words. However, she wasn't there to explain herself, to live in her present; rather, she was there to elude the ever encroaching shadows of her existence, and she didn't expect the stranger to justify his late night drinking to her either.

Instead, she simply said, "I've never been there… to Ireland. In fact, sometimes it feels as though I've never left Sunnydale. I mean, I know that I have. My mom took me to see my Aunt in Illinois before, and I went with her to this art show in Seattle a few years back, but I've never been anywhere that felt different, you know?"

"It's beautiful - Ireland," he told her, almost sounding wistful. "Lush and green, and there's nowhere else in the world that smells just like it, but it's lonely."

"Isn't everywhere, though?"

"I guess," he admitted, fiddling with the empty glass tumbler perched before him. "But I think there's someplace out there that won't feel that way. I just have to find it."

Meeting his observant, steady gaze in the mirror, Buffy shook her head, silently negating his statement. "Then we disagree, because I think it's up to us to determine if we're lonely or not. I've lived here my whole life. I know practically everybody in this town, and they know me." Giggling slightly and wondering if it was the whiskey or the company, she dismissed the question from her mind and explained her sudden bout of absurdity. "Sorry, I just realized how much I sounded like the Cheers theme there, but, hey, we're in a bar, right?"

The stranger's narrowed expression told her she had lost him. "Never mind," she instructed, waving a hand dismissively. "Anyway, as I was saying, there's no logical reason why I should ever feel lonely, but, until tonight, for the past six months, that's all I felt, but then I came here, and you bought me a drink – two, in fact, and, suddenly, I'm not so lonely anymore. We laughed, we drank, we had a real meaningful conversation, and never once did we even exchange names. It's not because I was here that I didn't feel lonely; it's because I was with you, because you took that plunge and talked to me, because we, together, decided that we weren't going to be lonely tonight."

"Was that a hint that you want me to tell you who I am?" Buffy considered his question for several seconds before she grinned and shook her head no. "Alright, but what if I wanted to know your name?"

Before she could respond, the bartender yelled out last call. Curious, she turned to the stranger, actually pivoting around on her stool, and asked, "what does that mean?"

"What, last call?"

"Yeah."

"Haven't you ever been in a bar before?"

Buffy laughed. "Can't say I have."

"Are you even legal to drink?"

"I'm legal, and what's with the twenty questions. Last call," she prompted him. "You were just about to tell me what it was."

"It's the last call for drink orders before the bar closes."

"Oh," she realized, her smile diminishing rapidly. "We have to leave soon?"

"In a few minutes."

"Well, then, should I extend your nice gesture in return and offer to buy us both a last drink?"

"I don't know if that's such a good idea," the man stated, standing up and dropping several bills onto the mahogany bar top. Picking up a leather duster she had previously not seen, he proceeded to walk towards her, stopping by her stool to further explain himself. "You've never been in a bar before, you didn't know what last call was, and you had two fingers of whiskey consecutively in less than half an hour. If you're going to get home without managing to wrap your car around a tree, I think it'd be better if you stop while you're still ahead."

Unsure of where such audacity came from but going with it anyway, Buffy leaned in closer to the handsome stranger. "But I walked."

"Good," he announced, slipping his arm through hers and lifting her swiftly, smoothly from her seat. Once she was standing, though, beside him, he released his grip upon her. Though an admonishment for such brazen behavior had been on the tip of her tongue, Buffy acutely felt the loss of his touch once it was gone, both startling and confusing her. "So did I, so I'll walk you home."

"Oh, no, Mister, I don't think so," she refuted, negatively shaking her head despite the fact that she continued to walk beside him as they exited the bar. "While we might be casual acquaintances, even drinking buddies now, we are not friends. You're still a stranger, and I know better than to willingly lead a stranger to my house. You might be big and bad, and I might be blonde, but I am no Little Red Riding Hood."

"Fine, then," he agreed amicably. "Then you can walk me back to my hotel, seeing as how this is your hometown, and, once we get there, I'll call you a cab."

Buffy pondered this idea. Screwing her face up in intrigued consideration, she queried, "so, I'd be escorting you safely to your door? I'd be protecting you?"

"Only if you insist," he teased her. "I might have dark hair, and I certainly don't wear hoods, but I've been told I look good in red."

"Just as I'm sure you look good out of it, too."

"Is that a proposition, or is that the whiskey talking?"

"Neither," Buffy replied. "That's just one lonely person making sure that, at least for tonight, two people won't be alone."

* ^ *

Time seemed to stand still when you had nothing to look forward to and no one to wait for you. Hours blurred into days, days turned into months before you realized even a week had passed, and months turned into a year without you remembering to buy a new calendar. You didn't look forward to the changing of the seasons, because you moved along to the next town before you could see the difference. Everything passed you by in a blur, but, still, you remained unhurried, protracted, immovable.

But, as he moved inside the woman beneath him, it felt as though life began anew. All of a sudden, he could smell, taste, hear, touch, and see everything. The combination of her soap, shampoo, and laundry detergent as he stripped each item of clothing off her delicious, lithe body reminded him of his mother baking bread in the fall when he was a little boy. Apples, cranberries, and oranges – sweet, bitter, and juicy separately, but, when combined, it was an essence as near to perfection as he had ever experienced. The skin behind her left knee sent a myriad of colors washing over his palate. So pure, he tasted the richness of the sun's rays, the crispness of the cerulean sky, and the red of her passion as it escaped her tight form in tiny beads of salty moisture.

Mewing and moaning, purring and pleading, the sounds her mouth emitted was the music he never listened to, and they urged him to greater heights, a faster pace, and a deeper penetration. With her arms and legs wrapped around him and her right breast captured by his mouth as he slid into her silken folds, it felt as though he was cocooned in a bed of the finest Irish linens, her softness so welcome he wanted to sleep inside of her, within her, around her for the rest of his life. And, as he felt the first waves of her release wracking through her body, triggering his own, he saw the trust, the sincerity, the acceptance in her gracious, green gaze, but he wanted to see more.

"Liam," he whispered, bending down to run his mouth against the shell of her ear. "My name is Liam."

Crashing into her, their waves of pleasure colliding and combining into one, his name spilling from her kiss swollen lips, he locked his own gaze with hers once more, and, that time, he saw himself reflected in her wide, luminous orbs. Time caught up with him, and he wasn't lonely anymore.

* ^ *

Since the day her mother died, time seemed to race past Buffy, leaving her coughing and sputtering in its tracks. No matter what she did, she never seemed to be able to catch up. With so much to do and no will to do it, there never seemed to be enough hours in the day or ambition in her heart to accomplish life, let alone actually live and enjoy it. She worked, and she cleaned, and she took care of Dawn, and she slept enough to make sure that she didn't get sick, but she never played, and, after months which felt like a few nightmarish days despite the tediousness of her grueling existence, she now knew that it was fun and laugher, joy and tenderness which made everything else worth it, which made time slow down enough to touch it, to embrace it.

But, as she lost herself in the man above her, below her, around her, beside her, inside of her, Buffy finally felt the world slow down. Suddenly, she was in control of time once more. With a simple brushing of her fingers against the stranger's cheek, she could practically freeze the moment, the man loving her quelling his movements, his attentions to silently, with his eyes, ask her what she wanted. If she shifted her legs, lifting them higher and squeezing them just that much tighter against her lover's waist, he would increase his pace, thrusting into her at a more relentless rhythm and demanding more from her more than willing body.

Kissing him softly on the lips made him practically beg for her mouth, brushing her lips against his jaw made him tighten his arms around her, and sliding her mouth down his throat, across his chest, and against a tan, flat nipple made the rest of his body go so rigid, she could feel the tense, powerful muscles of his tall, resplendent form quiver in need for her. And, when she shattered around him, screaming his name for all the world to hear, she could feel him give her a tiny piece of himself, a piece that she would keep for the rest of her life, protecting it, sheltering it, adoring its memory. It wouldn't matter how much physical distance separated them in the future, a part of Liam would always belong with her, and he'd never be alone again.

For the rest of the night, Buffy dozed contentedly in her lover's arms, feeling safer than she had since the first shovel of dirt was tossed onto her mother's cold, plain casket. Unlike with everybody else in her life, with the man from the bar, she was able to just be herself. She didn't have to constantly remember her sorrow, she didn't have to always be aware that she was no longer the child and, instead, was the caregiver, and she didn't have to constantly try to say and do the right thing. Despite the fact that she only slept a few hours, she woke up feeling more rested and more content than she had in months.

Slipping out of Liam's arms, Buffy tiptoed around the room as she got dressed. Sliding on her sandals, she turned around briefly to consider the man still in bed beside her. Without doubting her instincts, she reached for the small pad of paper on the bedside table and picked up a pen, intent upon leaving the man who was no longer a stranger to her a note. She kept it simple, though not distant, telling him that she hoped to sometime in the future meet him again in a bar when it was closing time. She told him that, if she ever got to Ireland someday, she'd stop and have a finger of whiskey, toasting him and the fire he had brought into her life one forgettable yet entirely memorable evening. And she told him to make his place in the world, to make his companionship, to stop waiting for it to find him. But the one thing she didn't do was sign her name.

Before leaving the rather nondescript, cheap hotel room, Buffy paused one last time in the open doorway, glancing back over her shoulder at the slumbering form of the man who, in his own slight way, had forever altered the woman she was. The early, gray light of dawn filtered through the partially closed blinds, illuminating his sheet clad countenance in striped awareness and familiarity, and, for that all too brief moment, time finally, for Buffy, stood still.

* ^ *

On a whim the morning he woke up to find the woman from the bar missing from his bed and a note left on the table beside him instead, Angel had bought the small, friendly pub, immediately renaming it after his childhood nickname. It wasn't the establishment which had finally made him feel as if he belonged somewhere but the stranger he had met inside of it, but, still, if nothing else, she had taught him that he could capture that same essence of companionship without her as long as he tried, as long as he was willing to talk to others and really listen to what they had to say.

If he were entirely honest with himself, Angel would have been forced to admit that he also bought the bar because he hoped that, after her first visit, the lady in question would suddenly feel the need to feel the fire of hard liquor coursing through her veins once more, but a day went by, and then a week, and, eventually, his time started blending and shifting again, no longer making sense or containing any meaning. Still, though, he tried to follow her sage if not challenging advice and attempted to make his bar a home, a place where he belonged. It didn't seem to work as well, though, without her.

However, it helped – talking to people. He made some more acquaintances. There was the widow who came in once a week at exactly seven P.M. with her pet poodle. She would buy a single bottle of beer and have him pour a quarter of it into the dish for Wilbur, her dog named after her late husband. While the canine would happily drink his fill of the malt beverage, she would daintily peel the label from her otherwise untouched, sweating bottle. For one hour, she would tell him tales from her youth – of the hops at school, the drag races she had attended to cheer on her high school sweetheart, and of her job as a waitress at the town's long closed roller derby restaurant. Instead of payment, she would bake him a pie – sometimes cherry, sometimes peach, sometimes banana cream but never apple, for that was her deceased husband's favorite, and he would share a piece with her before she went back home for another week.

Then there was this couple from the local college. They never came in together, but he knew that they dated one another anyway. Rather, they would only come in alone, seeking a place to unwind, to complain about their loved one, to request his unfounded yet ultimately trusted relationship advice. She drank screwdrivers, because she said her boyfriend was a tool, and he shelled peanuts despite being allergic to the snack simply because his girlfriend hated it when men tossed shells onto the floor. Angel was convinced they'd end up married with a dozen kids before everything was said and done.

And then there was the writer who hated computers, who found the constant clickety-click-clack of a typewriter distracting, and who refused to use paper because it was cruel to trees. He claimed that he penned all his stories in his mind, that someday he'd record them on a tape recorder and sell only audio books. In the meantime, he would sit at the bar every afternoon and make up a story for every customer who walked in the doors. Sometimes his tales were sad, sometimes they were heroic, but, inevitably, they always somehow featured a motorcycle, Mexico, and monopoly money. He left every night in time to watch Jeopardy, never failing to challenge Angel to a duel of knowledge as he passed through the bar's perpetually open doors.

"If you would have told me to call you Angel, I would have stopped by again weeks ago." Glancing up from the glass he was polishing, he grinned at the sight before him. Monday nights were his busiest of the week, but, on that particular evening, Angel knew that he was going to bleed money… and not even care. "You know, I pass by this place almost every day to and from my way to work. I noticed the name changed the day after I met you, but I never connected the dots. Were you trying to keep me from finding you again?"

"No, that would be you… seeing as how you refused to tell me your name." Leaning his elbows against the bar top, he lowered his face so that their noses were just inches away from each other. "Angel's just my nickname, but that's what everyone has called me since I was a kid."

The woman he had met in that very same bar months before shrugged her shoulders. "It fits you."

For the moment, he ignored her comment. "With you, though, I wanted to be Liam. With you, I wanted to be different than with everybody else." Although she didn't say anything, the spark of pleasure that caught in her captivating green eyes told him that she appreciated his response. "So, the question becomes when are you going to return the favor?"

"My friends call me Buffy," the bewitching blonde stated.

"And do I fall into that category?"

He didn't want to, but he didn't allow his feelings to shine through his words. Rather, he wanted her to want him to think of her differently than everybody else in her life, too. He wanted to be that one special person who truly saw her and not just the persona she presented to the rest of the world. He wanted her to match Liam, not Angel.

Finally, she replied, her expression guarded under the thick, heavy fringe of her sumptuous lashes. "No, you should call me Elizabeth."

Satisfied and pleased with himself, he took a step away from the bar, tossing his rag underneath the counter, and flipped the switch behind the bar which would turn off all the lights except for those emitted from the various neon beer signs around the room and the jukebox in the corner. "Last call," he announced much to the dismay and bewilderment of his clientele.

Luckily, no one took him up on the offer, probably too perturbed to stay any longer, and he allowed everyone to leave without paying for their tabs. When the last shuffling customer carried himself across the threshold of the bar's doorstep, Angel rounded the corner of the bar to approach the lone remaining woman. Taking her hand, he graciously helped her rise from her stool, leading her away from the counter and back towards the tiny, scuffed dancing area.

"Who knew that closing time was nine o'clock on a Monday night," Elizabeth remarked cheekily. "I thought this place stayed open until three."

"Late night drinking's for lonely people," he told her, sweeping her into his arms as they started dancing to the silence of the empty bar, the seldom played jukebox quiet. "And, suddenly, I'm not so lonely anymore."