The Doctor was by the docks. He sat, his feet dangling over the edge of the pier, his hair ruffling in the cool breeze, as he stared out into the distance. The moon's reflection drifted across the crests of the waves with a bright, silvery shine, and its light reflected off the Doctor's dark brown eyes.
Buffy stood, a little ways behind him. "It was Angel," she said.
The Doctor said nothing.
"The guy who killed your friend," said Buffy. "It was Angel, wasn't it?"
"I told you, you wouldn't have killed him," said the Doctor, quietly.
Buffy stepped forwards, then hesitated. She wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer to her next question. "So that whole… soul thing. That was you?"
The Doctor said nothing.
Buffy felt the cold night wind rush past her arms. "Was it?"
"Partially," the Doctor admitted.
"Do you even know what happened last—?"
"I saw," said the Doctor. "Kendra Young."
"You saw Kendra?"
"I saw them all."
Buffy felt an icy chill run through the air. She forgot, sometimes, that the Doctor had seen every single Slayer die. Even Kendra. And couldn't save any of them.
"It was your fault, what happened to Kendra," she said. "If you really were the one who cursed Angel—"
"It wasn't a curse."
"One moment of pure happiness and he flips out and turns evil again?" said Buffy. "That sounds like a curse to me."
"That wasn't me," said the Doctor. "I didn't know that was in there. Not until Kendra."
"How could you not have known?" Buffy demanded. "You were there!"
"I was the distraction," said the Doctor. "Angelus was going to stop us the moment we started the process. I had to lure him far enough away that he wouldn't be able to get back to the camp until the process was complete. The psionic blast across the anterior prefrontal cortex — that was Magda. I had nothing to do with that."
Buffy hesitated, then sat down beside the Doctor, her legs dangling into the inky black night. She wasn't sure what to feel. There were too many different emotions swirling around in her head, all contradicting one another.
"Why?" asked Buffy. "Why didn't you just kill him? I was going to, when he lost his soul last year. And you couldn't have known what he'd be like with a soul."
"I didn't know," said the Doctor. "But I believed."
"In… someone else. The person who stopped me from killing him."
"So you were going to kill him?" Buffy asked. "I thought you objected to killing vampires. I thought you believed it was morally wrong."
"I didn't then."
"And what changed your mind?"
"No," said the Doctor. "Another friend."
"And you trusted this other friend enough to not kill one of the most infamous, deadly vampires on this planet?" asked Buffy.
The Doctor's lips twisted into a hint of a smile. "Always."
"I wouldn't trust my friends with something like that," said Buffy, even though her mind kept screaming out examples of when she'd done exactly that. She scolded her brain, and told it to quiet down.
"She was right," said the Doctor. "There's always a better way." He looked out across the waves. "She was so much like Rose," he whispered, and his voice misted in the night air.
Buffy gave a short sigh. "I guess this all explains why you didn't give Angel that cure you came up with," she said.
"I gave it to him," said the Doctor. "He just wouldn't take it."
"We've all done things that need to be forgiven," said the Doctor. "I forgave him. He can't forgive me."
Buffy stared at the Doctor. Sometimes, it really struck home that he was an alien. "You forgave him?"
A dark, haunted, and agonizingly sad emotion sprung into the Doctor's eyes, crept across his face and hung, tense, in the air around him. "I've seen so much death since then," he said. "So much pain. So much of it my fault." He met her own eyes, and a shiver ran through the air between them. "If I don't forgive a repentant man his crimes, what chance do I have?"
Buffy wondered about the Doctor's power. He was so skinny, so scrawny. He looked human. But he wasn't. He'd blown up planets. He was enough of a force to be reckoned with that the Watchers Council was terrified of him.
And he'd still forgiven Angel.
"I guess you want me to forgive the Watchers Council," said Buffy. "I'm not ready to do that, though. They're a bunch of manipulative bastards who've ruined my life. Them and their stupid 'we're fighting a war' thing. They're not the ones fighting a war! I am!"
The Doctor gave a wry smile.
"The kind of death I face on a daily basis, no one should have to deal with that," said Buffy. "Definitely not anyone my age. I mean, it's not like I feel guilty about killing the Big Bads. They're evil and they don't have souls and I don't care if you can forgive vampires, Doctor, because I just can't do that. That's not what bothers me. It's the innocent people that I can't save. The victims. I watch them die, every day, and it's heartbreaking. The Watchers Council — they don't see any of that."
"No, they don't."
"You've seen it, though?"
The Doctor sighed. "I fought this kind of war before," said the Doctor. "Anything you've seen, I've seen as well."
Buffy paused. "Did you ever worry you were…? No, never mind. That's stupid."
"It's just… Faith — you met her, remember? She's the other Slayer. My friend. She says we're the Slayers and we should embrace our destiny. Enjoy it. She keeps trying to convince me I feel a rush from doing it."
"A bit," Buffy admitted. "But not like she does. Afterwards, she gets a power-trip or something, I think. Keeps saying this is our place and this is our right and we were born for this. But I don't know. Just, remembering all the people I couldn't save, all the evil still out there — at the end of the Slaying, I don't feel happy, like she does. I feel… yucky."
There was a look on the Doctor's face that Buffy had never seen before. It was the most honest, unguarded look she'd ever seen on him. It spoke of memories of childhood innocence, of long-forgotten suns on long-forgotten planets, of happiness lost and a harsher, colder reality gained.
"I knew someone like that," said the Doctor. "A friend. Or we were friends. When we were children." His eyes crumpled into loneliness. "Still. Gone now. All gone."
Buffy felt her heart breaking. She took the Doctor's hand in hers, feeling the gentle double pulse beneath her fingertips. "I'm here," said Buffy. "I mean, I know it's not the same, but I'm… sort of… a bit… you know."
The Doctor suddenly straightened up, a mask of cheerful good humor crashing across his face. "Quite right!" he said. "And it's your birthday, too. Can't go around talking about death on your birthday. Birthdays should be friends and family and cake and—"
"My birthdays are never like that anyways," said Buffy. She shrugged. "This is sort of typical, actually. I'm kind of a disaster magnet."
"Ah," said the Doctor. He hesitated. "I could… take you somewhere. Anywhere you wanted. All of time and space and whatnot."
"And get me back three months late?" Buffy shook her head. "Nah, I've done that before. I ran away from home, last summer. You wouldn't imagine how much trouble I got into when I came back."
The Doctor gave a cheeky grin. "Bet I got into more."
"Trouble. For running away from home."
She gave the Doctor a sidelong glance. "You ran away from home?"
"Oh, yeah," said the Doctor. "Stole a Tardis, ran away. Got caught a bit later. They actually killed me for that, you know. Forcibly regenerated, exiled to Earth."
"Why?" asked Buffy.
"Sort of have a bad habit of interfering," said the Doctor. "Saving lives, helping where I can. That sort of thing. Time Lords weren't such big fans. Had this big noninterference policy. They threw the rule book at me. Metaphorically, mind you. Rule book that big — not sure any of them would have been able to lift it. Not sure you'd be able to lift it. Lots of rules, Time Lords had. Lots and lots and lots of rules."
"Not that," said Buffy, with a small laugh. "I mean, why did you run away from home?"
"Home was boring!" said the Doctor. "All paperwork and pompous speech making and big, funny hats. Crusty old Time Lords who were so afraid of death, they never really knew what it was like to live. Stodgy, old, dusty, uptight, self-important, arrogant…." By the end of the declaration, his voice petered off into nothing.
"You miss them," said Buffy. She looked down at her feet, and sighed. "Of course you miss them. I can't even imagine the Earth… I mean, I could barely even imagine if it was just Sunnydale, you know, getting completely destroyed. And that's nothing compared to the Earth."
The Doctor's posture stiffened at this. He opened his mouth, as if to speak, but said nothing.
"At least you got rid of that enemy you were fighting, though," said Buffy. "The… Daleks, right? I mean, I can't ever get rid of all the vampires, no matter how hard I try."
"Didn't," said the Doctor. "Thought I did, but they keep coming back. That's what Daleks do. Always, always, they survive, while I lose everything."
Buffy understood that. Oh, did she understand that. Those forces of darkness that just kept coming back, even after she thought she'd defeated them.
They were silent for a few moments. Buffy stared down at the water below, listening to the waves lapping against the pier.
"Why do you keep doing it?" she asked. "I mean, I know why I keep fighting. I'm defending Sunnydale. Humanity. Friends and family. But you… your planet's gone. The Time Lords are gone. You've seen the most evil stuff in the universe, defeated it, then watched it keep coming back, over and over again. I'm surprised you haven't gone evil and decided to just… blow up the universe, or something."
"Blow up the universe?" asked the Doctor. "Aw, but the universe is brilliant! Why'd I want to blow it up?"
"Or — not blow up the universe," said Buffy. "But, I don't know. Stop. Stop saving people, stop saving planets. Stop fighting."
Buffy felt the Doctor's cool hand squeeze her own, and when she looked up, she met the Doctor's warm brown eyes.
"When you think of night, what do you think of?"
"Vampires," said Buffy. "Monsters. Patrol, mostly."
The Doctor pointed out across the ocean, at the many tiny stars twinkling in the distance. "But you see, there are a million, billion stars out there, shining out through the blackness. A million, billion suns, with a million, billion civilizations, each one more incredible and remarkable than the last." He pointed to one star, to Buffy's right. A twinkling blue one. "Round that one is a planet called Cromtarus. Massive poverty on Cromtarus, death and starvation on a scale you couldn't imagine. But there's a bloke named Fletchigul — works three jobs to be able to give his wife and kids the lives they deserve — he makes the most delicious pastries you could imagine, and hands them out to starving children on the street." He pointed to another one, this one far fainter. "Home of a planet named Yardilus 12, where a lovely young lady named Sampofardra has single-handedly brought peace and prosperity to a land once torn apart by civil war." He pointed to another. "And near that one is a planet called Halergan 3, where, despite being ruled by an evil despotic tyrant, a little girl named Leandra has decided to send a flower to every grown up in the world, so that they will feel loved and happy." He looked back at Buffy. "There are so many worlds out there, so many planets. And even in the darkest worlds, even in the darkest regions, you can still find something to fight for. It's always there, Elizabeth. That brilliant little spark, that potential. It's always there, if you look for it."
He smiled at her, a radiant smile that seemed to illuminate the air around him. "That's why I do it. That's why I keep going. Because the night is only dark if you ignore the stars."
Buffy looked out at the stars, twinkling in the veiled shadow of night. Each a spark of hope, a spark of light in the darkness. She sat there, on the edge of the pier, the Doctor's hand in hers, and watched the night sky.
Tomorrow, she'd return to patrol the streets of Sunnydale. Tomorrow, she'd go back to fight her war, to eliminate the monsters and vampires and demons and to save people's lives. Tomorrow, she'd go back to the darkness. But that was tomorrow. Here, on this one night, on her eighteenth birthday, Buffy could see the starlight.
And that was the best present of all.