Buffy spends the first anniversary on the beach with Xander. He talks about Anya, although he hesitates between each remembrance and won't look at her. He wears his would-be wedding ring on a chain around his neck and she can see it flash when he turns to hurl stones into the water.
"The worst part," he says, too quiet for Xander, "is all the possibilities being erased. I mean, even after the Runaway Groom debacle, it still felt like there was a chance that we could get back together, you know? But now I know that none of those stupid scenarios I pictured are going to happen, and it feels a million times worse." He chances a look out of the corner of his eye. Buffy pretends not to see. "Do you feel that? I mean with-"
"What kind of cookie do you think I am?" Buffy blurts, because she knows what he is going to ask and she can't stand answering, or even thinking about it.
Xander laughs so hard at her sudden question after the solemn afternoon that he falls into the sand. She plunks down next to him and joins him in laughter, but his question has snuck into her brain and won't leave.
It's been twelve months to the day since Xander saw Anya. It's been nearly the same amount of time since she last saw Angel. She hopes to anyone who's listening that it's not for the same reason.
The second anniversary is spent with Willow baking, and Buffy watching and sneaking tastes. Will's kitchen has these great funky bar stools that are the perfect height and placement for whipping out a hand to snag a fingerful of dough. She has one stuck in her mouth as Willow tells her that she's getting back together with Oz.
"Good for you," she says, licking around her knuckle to snag whatever is in the creases. Salmonella or not, raw cookie dough is the best.
"Honestly?" Willow says. She pops the cookie sheet into the oven and peers up at Buffy from under her renewed thick curtain of hair. "This isn't a cover for the "Dead Lovers Deserve Respect Too" speech that you'll spring on me when I least expect it?"
Buffy shamelessly pulls the emptied bowl towards her and reminds Willow that she is a rather poor liar and excuse maker, and that there is no such speech. She rolls a clump of dough between her fingers as Willow reminds her that if this is the case, there are three guys in this very building who would happily take her out when- and wherever she chose.
"It's not about respecting the dead, Will. I'm not determined to become, like, the scary cat lady abandoned by love and found nibbled upon by her beloved kittens, story at eleven. I just need to figure out who I am, and once I do, I can figure out whether or not there will be any plus-one status going on."
Willow's eyes are wide. "But Buffy," she says, her tone that same logical, innocent one that she had when Buffy first met her. It makes her wonder for the millionth time what Willow would be doing if she hadn't been dragged into Buffy's less-than-normal life. "Buffy, people rarely figure out who they are all at once and have that definition statically for the rest of their life. And sometimes," she indicates the bowl in Buffy's hands, "the unfinished mixture is still good, or maybe even better."
Buffy's stomach turns over and she pushes the bowl away, even though there's a blob with a large chocolate chip poised to fall off the edge. It slips from the movement and lands on Willow's counter. Buffy doesn't care. She excuses herself to go lie down, saying that her head hurts. But really it's her heart that hurts as she realizes for the first time that Angel might have died thinking that she could somehow outgrow him.
She can hear every minute of the third anniversary tick by as she sits with Giles in his library. It is comforting to see Giles in his natural element, but at the same time disconcerting that she is so out of hers.
She'd asked Willow and Dawn what to do to butter Giles up for an awkward conversation. "Some kind of literary dessert," she had said, and the two of them had taken one look at each other and told her, "Madeleines." (Xander's suggestion of butter cookies, or even a stick of butter, went unheeded.)
She knows that the tin of madeleines and a random volume of Proust was the right choice as she watches him dip one in his tea as he absently turns a page. He takes a bite and she puts down her own book, drops her pretense of a casual visit, says, "Did you ever consider a relationship with my mother?"
To his credit, Giles just barely chokes on the biscuit, although that equally might be from how soggy he seems to like them. "Wh-Where did this come from?" he asks, and that illicit magic training must have been very close to magician training, because a handkerchief suddenly appears in his hand. She looks fondly at him as he begins rubbing it over his glasses.
She waves her hand through the air. "Let us hereby declare this conversation PG. I just mean…was Jenny it for you?"
"Well," Giles pauses, slipping his glasses back onto his face and looking at her with that kind, penetrating gaze. "I know that Jenny was very special to me. And I believe that Joyce was a tremendous person who raised two wonderful daughters, and given the time and appropriate circumstances, feelings might have developed between us. However," he continues shrewdly, "I had no desire to become engaged with your mother by default, simply because she happened to be the immediately available, age-appropriate choice."
"So clearly my mom wasn't your One." Buffy balancing her chin atop her stacked fists. "Was it Jenny? Do you even believe in the One, or is it just a product of Jerry Maguire and The Matrix?"
Giles chuckles briefly. He looks at her childish posture fondly before responding. "I do not think that Jenny was the one person in the world with whom I can be happy, but I mourn every day for the opportunities that we lost." He gazes at her thoughtfully and takes her hand. "I must assume that you are looking for answers regarding yourself and Angel. If you are here for my opinion, I do not believe that he is the only person with whom you can be happy. However, I do feel there was a depth of love between the two of you that I regret not being able to appreciate at the time."
Buffy wants to fold in on herself or run away, but she forces herself to sit. A chasm of grief reopens within her, as it does every year on this day. She forces back the actual tears, but her voice sounds small and sad and aching anyway. "I don't think I was able to appreciate it either."
Buffy spends the beginning of the fourth anniversary tossing on the floor of Dawn's dorm room. Her sister invited her for touring after her finals were over, but because it is half past three as Dawn cracks open the door upon her return from the "finals are over" party she left for seven hours ago, Buffy suspects sight-seeing will be put off until the hangover wears off.
Surprisingly, however, Dawn's voice is clear as she says dazedly from her bed, "I am in love."
"Don't sleep with him," Buffy responds immediately, trying to figure out how exactly the floor seems to have grown lumps. Perhaps there is something wrong with the carpet?
Even in the dark, the eye-roll is obvious. "Thanks, Captain Abstinence. I'm not one-night-standing my way through college. But seriously, this guy is amazing. We spent literally five hours talking. His name is Eric and he's a poli sci major and he took a year off to backpack through South America."
"Dawn," Buffy sighs, her own eye-roll not insignificant, "You have done magic and killed vampires. You are actually a glowing energy being. You have cleaned Xander's apartment without gagging. South America should not impress you."
Dawn huffs, tossing her shoes into the corner. She tugs off her skirt and top and slips a big t-shirt over her head before lying back and resting on her crossed hands. "I hate you this time of year. If you were a cartoon character, you would be Grouchy, the grumpy cloud that rains on everybody's parade."
"That's a made-up cartoon character."
"Yes, and yet you do not protest that the core grouchy point is accurate." Dawn rolls over to look at Buffy. "Look, I get that it's been four years and you're still sad, but learning to grow and change and be the full you, and all that great self-help stuff. But do you think that you could do it with a guy? Because you really need one."
"Yes, I was figuring myself out and I did. So I can now tell you as the world's leading expert on Buffy Summers that I am fine without one. If someone perfect comes along, I'll be on board as soon as I meet him, but for now, continue attempting to adjust to me guyless." Dawn returns to her back and closes her eyes. It is clearly time for sleep. "Well now I'm worried because Eric seems perfect and I really don't want you to be on board him when you realize that."
It's a coincidence, really, that she finds out about Angel two days before the fifth anniversary. Or maybe it's fate, but either way, half a decade after she last saw Angel, she is racing down a hospital corridor to see him again.
"I'm looking for Angel," she gasps to the nurse at the desk, recognizing instantly that this is not enough information. Luckily, though, the nurse immediately produces his room number, although her thick Welsh accent makes it difficult to understand. "I didn't realize he was expecting…"
There's more to her sentence, but Buffy is already gone, realizing as she looks for the room that in her haste to get here, she doesn't seem to have informed anyone that she was coming. But it doesn't matter because she's taking a breath and shifting the package in her arms and pushing open Angel's door and hoping belatedly that he doesn't have a roommate. He is dozing vaguely when she comes in, book resting on his chin and neck and chest, but he stirs when he hears the door. He opens his eyes and then his mouth but Buffy beats him to it.
"It was a stupid metaphor. I mean, the sentiment wasn't stupid, because I really did need to grow up and figure myself out and see the world and meet people. (And I did all that, so be prepared for a slideshow marathon because Dawn got me a fantastic camera and made me use it a lot.) But I made it sound like I would experience everything and suddenly be a person who wasn't in love with you. But I need you to know that there will never be a version of me who does not love you. I will always be happiest when I'm with you, and five years or ten years or two hundred and forty-three years will not change that." She thrusts the package at him, having never felt more like Anya in her life. "Here, I brought cookies."
"I hope there's some for me," a voice says, his Welsh accent less pronounced.
Buffy spins and sees a young doctor standing in the doorway. Angel says, "Come in. How long have you been skulking?" Buffy raises an eyebrow to say Do you really want to go there? The doctor sees it and chuckles. "Oh, thankfully I got here in time for the whole show. I truly don't know who's the luckier man today, Angel."
Angel sits up and gazes over at Buffy. "I do."
"Can we stop with the mush and get to the explaining?" Buffy says, torn between the sweetness and her own impatience. She ends up rolling her eyes and sitting down beside him. She places the cookies on his lap and then winces, not sure what exactly is broken in him, because although it's been years, the person who called her (this same doctor?) told her that he still has a lot of injuries that they're trying to work through. He seems fine, though, so she relaxes a little.
"Actually," the doctor says, unfurling a stethoscope, "I have to give Angel a check-over. Still, feel free to explain. With mush, if you think it's necessary."
Buffy's eyes shift between the two men until Angel says, "Buffy Summers, this is my doctor, Gareth Powell. Gareth, try to make a good impression." Buffy sees Gareth grin before moving to check the range of motion in Angel's ankle, and realizes with a shock that Angel has made a friend.
Nevertheless, she demands, "Explanation, now" and Angel launches into a quick recap of everything that happened between seeing her in Sunnydale and the time he fell off the radar. When he finishes, Gareth is checking some grafts on his arm and Buffy is still on the edge of her seat. "The five years?" she says impatiently.
"Well, there was the coma," Angel says apologetically.
"And the period of amnesia," Gareth adds. "And then we had to do a tonsillectomy and he couldn't speak for a while." He shakes his head. "I've never seen tonsils so big."
"Yeah, removal wasn't popular when I lived," Angel responds casually.
"You mean where you lived," Buffy covers quickly. "Rural, very rural, barely a telephone-" Angel laughs and the sound skims over her skin.
"It's okay, Buffy, Gareth knows."
"The supernatural isn't so unexpected here," Gareth tells her, looking up from writing on Angel's chart. "Home of Merlin and all. Many people visit the hedgewitch if they need an herbal remedy, or have a Wiccan nanan or aunty."
"Okay," Buffy nods, going along with this situation as she has learned it is best to do. "So if you know about his…past, fill me in on the now."
"Well," Gareth says, "Angel is a very damaged, perfectly normal human man."
"Speaking of which," Angel takes the container of cookies from his lap and opens it, selecting one off the top and passing it to Gareth, "I hear that every man could do with something home-baked."
As Angel bites into his oatmeal craisin-chocolate chip, Buffy finds herself choking up. He smiles and laughs and seems so unburdened that she nearly doesn't recognize him. She wants to talk to him more, to stay in the chair beside his bed or get a room in the nearby village with its unpronounceable Welsh name. He has crumbs next to his mouth and she wants to kiss them off. Instead she says, "Can you guess the secret ingredient?" She meant it to be light-hearted, but it ends up tearful from the amazement of a truly living Angel in front of her.
Gareth looks awkward for the first time, despite the bizarre circumstances of the past hour. "Actually, Angel's sense of taste was eliminated following the tonsillectomy. He can't really taste anything, secret or not."
"Don't tell Xander," Buffy tells Angel, biting into her own cookie. "He lost an eye and you'll never hear the end of 'Who Has the Manlier War Wound.'"
"It's okay," Angel says, looking absurdly happy. "I can tell what the secret ingredient is anyway." And, leaning forward, he does what Buffy resisted a minute ago. His mouth touches hers, lightly, long past the crumb-removal threshold before then he relaxes back. He sighs and the simple breath nearly overwhelms her. "God, I love cookies," he tells her, and moves to kiss her again, not for crumbs or near-death experiences, but just because he can.