PARADisclaimer:  Any characters or settings contained herein are the intellectual property of Joss Whedon and Fox.  They are being borrowed for amusement purposes only.  Any lyrics used in this story were not composed by any of the authors (trust me g).  Musical credits will be at the end of the story.

Pairing:  B/A all the way

Spoilers:  All of Season 5/Season 2, and a few nasty rumors about 6/3.  This story takes place about six months after the finales, and shortly before Buffy's 21st birthday.

Rating:  PG13

Notes:  This story is a group effort, born of too little sleep and too much time spent immersed in Buffydom while at DragonCon 2001.   As part of that, we'd like to offer a special thanks to Cate from all of us.  Not only did she endure at least 18 hours "at the Copa," it was she who fearlessly hunted down Manilow fans at the breakfast table of AmeriSuites and elicited the last few lines of the song from them, thereby banishing the song demon.  We can only hope that we haven't damaged her unborn child's musical taste in the pursuit of this story. /P

Second Verse, Same as the First

By Gem, DeeJay & PJ

Buffy carefully taped the last streamer into place on the molding and stepped back to survey her handiwork.

The Bronze was awash in a soft, dreamlike glow.  Strings of tiny pink lights swooped along the walls and arched over the doorways, some dangling in uncomfortably close proximity to the silver mylar balloons. Japanese lanterns were suspended in random spots across the ceiling over the dance floor, and the glittering confetti that liberally adorned the paper streamers reflected every particle of light available. 

"It's not exactly a party at the Ritz," she mused, "but it's not bad for 'best wishes from the hellmouth.'  Think the guests of honor will approve?"

She didn't bother turning around to see if her best friend was still behind her before she solicited her opinion; Buffy knew beyond a doubt that Willow was there.  In the months since her return from the not-so-Great Beyond, the witch had seldom been more than 10 feet from her, unless someone else was there to take over guard duty.  Willow, and Xander, and Giles and Dawn and Anya and Tara; they were always right there by Buffy's side these days, helping her, encouraging her, supporting her.

Checking up on her. 

Okay, maybe the last part wasn't exactly fair to her friends, Buffy acknowledged silently.  They meant well; they were just trying too hard to make up for lost time.  If she was honest, what really bothered her was not the constant presence of her friends, but the absence of a certain someone else.  He, unfortunately, was still trying to give her "space."

As though three months resting in a lonely grave wasn't enough quality time spent with herself.

"It looks great, Buffy.  Really."  Willow's voice was, as expected, coming from about a foot behind the Slayer's back.  "Just beautiful. Xander and Anya are going to love it."  The witch paused for a moment, considering.  "Okay, Xander will love it.  Anya...well, she'll like the gift part."

Buffy forced down her rising tide of the blues and concentrated on the job at hand, namely gathering up the unused rolls of paper.  Willow was right; tonight was for Xander and Anya, to celebrate their engagement.  Those who had a future deserved to celebrate and those who didn't...hung crepe paper streamers.

"What did you end up getting them anyway?  I know you and Tara were working hard on something, but I've been too busy to get the details."

"You have been pretty busy, haven't you?  Since you, umm, got back."  Willow smiled sympathetically as she added a few extra pieces of tape to the string of a swaying balloon.  "Dawn, school, slaying, Dawn.  Doesn't leave much Buffy-time, does it?"

So much for banishing unhappy thoughts, the Slayer mused regretfully.  But after all these years they probably felt way too at home in her head to hit the road anyway.

"For there to be Buffy-time, there has to be a Buffy to have said time," she pointed out matter-of-factly.  "You know, aside from the sister, the student, the savior of the universe."  Buffy cocked her head to the side, making an effort for Willow's sake.  "You know, I think there's the beginning of a poem there.  Too bad my English professor wouldn't understand the Slayer part."

"Most people don't."

Willow's quiet words hit harder than the witch had intended.  Buffy stared down at the brightly colored rolls of crepe clutched tightly in her hands, thinking how pretty the decorations had looked in the store.  She had been delighted with the way the streamers sparkled and threw back all the light directed at them.  Now they seemed almost sad to her, as though they only reflected the glow because they weren't allowed to keep any of it for themselves.

"No, they don't" she agreed, almost absentmindedly.  "Most people don't get a lot of my life.  Lives," she corrected herself a moment later.

Willow sighed; this had rapidly become an old, and sore, point with the witch.  "Life, Buffy.  Just one.  If you had been really and completely...well, you know..."

"Dead, Will.  The word is dead."

"Well, if you had been, my spell wouldn't have brought you back as the same person."

"Yeah, I've heard this before," Buffy said abruptly.  "The monkey foot defense."

"It was a monkey's paw, and it's true.  Well, okay, so it's not true exactly," Willow hedged.  "It is fiction after all.  But it's right.  That was why I didn't want to let Dawn, umm, you know...when your mom died and...well, that means you just couldn't have been totally, umm, lifeless, and therefore you have one life." 

Buffy considered arguing the point further; it wasn't like Willow was the one with experience on her side.  But it hardly seemed worth the effort anymore.  They just didn't understand; they couldn't.

"You're right about one thing, Willow," she conceded instead.  "Nobody comes back from the dead the same person."  Buffy turned away and began packing the leftover decorating supplies in an empty cardboard box she retrieved from the floor.

"You know I'm willing to listen, any time you want to talk about it," Willow offered, gently resting her hand on her best friend's shoulder.  "We all are, even Anya.  Not that I think she'd be much help, but..."

Buffy stiffened and slipped away from Willow's grasp.  "I know, Will, and I appreciate it.  You've all tried really hard to understand what I went through, but you just can't.  No one who hasn't done the rising from the grave deal can quite get how truly...strange it all is.  Being back, moving on, putting things behind you.  It doesn't sound all that complicated in theory; I mean, what choice do you have?  But to actually do kind of have to be there to understand."  She turned to face her friend, smiling weakly in apology.

"It's too bad Spike left town.  I guess he'd understand.  Sort of."  Willow grabbed a broom and started sweeping the dance floor, sending tiny golden flakes of confetti spinning into the air with each stroke.  "He did come back from the dead, after all.  He just came back still dead."

"No, it's better that he's gone," Buffy replied firmly.  "Having resurrection in common only gave him ideas, and he had enough of those already.  I'd rather shut the station down than send out the wrong signals anymore, even to Spike."

"You know for a little while I thought you kind of liked him."

"Spike?"  The disbelief in Buffy's voice rang through loud and clear.

"Well, not like-like," Willow backpedaled.  "Maybe 'like' is too...fuzzy...of a word."  She pondered her phrasing, and then grinned as a better term came to mind.  "How about lust?"

The Slayer instinctively started to deny yet again, but honesty compelled her delve a little deeper. 

"I don't know if 'lust' is exactly the right word either," Buffy explained slowly, sounding out her answer as she spoke.  "I guess for one or two crazy seconds I thought like you did, that we had something in common.  Then I realized it wasn't what he had in common with me that I was drawn to; it was what he had in common with...well, never mind."  She shook her head emphatically.  "I was wrong, and I'm glad I figured it out before things got even...wronger."

"It's kind of funny," Willow mused.  "I almost sort of miss him.  I mean, Spike; who'd have ever thought we'd miss him?"

"I've got an even stranger one for you," Buffy confessed.  "The Spike I almost sort of miss is the one who dedicated his afterlife to trying to kill me.  At least that version I could understand, in a nice, homicidal, 'me-Slayer-you-vampire' sense.  And I could beat him up whenever I felt like it without feeling guilty." She grinned in spite of herself. "That's what I miss." 

"But he was evil then," Willow protested.  "You can't miss evil."

"As opposed to the chip-challenged Spike ME that you miss?" Buffy asked curiously. "I know he can't help what he is...but my job description only says I have to kill vamps, not watch soaps with them."  She shook her head.  "That was never the part of 'normal' I was after."

"Maybe so," Willow said noncommittally.  She dropped her head and pretended to focus her attention on the floor. "But if you're looking for someone else to understand what you've been through, how many choices do you have?" 

A slight sideways tilt of her lowered head allowed Willow to see the Slayer's face, and the quick rush of color that swept across Buffy's cheeks.  The witch smiled in quiet satisfaction; it didn't take magick to figure out where's Buffy's thoughts had turned, or why.

"So, umm, Willow," Buffy said quickly, anxious to shift the conversation away from her life.  "You still haven't told me what you and Tara got the happy couple."

Willow paused for a moment, and then decided to let her friend off the hook.  For now, at least.

"We wrote them a spell, and Tara set it to music.  Well, Tara and Giles did.  They're putting the finishing touches on it right now."  The witch beamed with pride.  "She's really a good musician in her own right, you know, but Giles wanted to help too."

"Can't shake that groupie thing, can you?"  Buffy smiled affectionately at her best friend.  "But what kind of spell?"

"Just a little protective spell."  Willow shrugged as she tried to find the best way to describe her gift.  "Sort of a Lilith Fair version of a four-leaf clover." 

"That's so sweet.  Jeeze, all I got them was a coffeemaker.  What gave you the idea?"

The broom faltered for a moment in Willow's suddenly nerveless hands.  "I guess I've been, umm, thinking a lot.  About the future.  Everybody's future."  The witch took firm grasp of both her emotions and the broom handle, and resumed the pleasantly mindless chore of sweeping.  "I want my friends to be happy, and safe, no matter what they're doing.  Or where they're going."

"Who's going anywhere?" Buffy asked dryly.  "Xander and Anya have jobs in town, and since I've tried death on for size twice now and can't get it to fit, I don't think I'm headed out of Sunnydale anytime soon either."

"Well, there's Giles," Willow said, choosing her words carefully.  "You know he's been talking more and more about England, and Olivia.  I don't think he's going to stay here forever, Buffy."

Buffy sighed heavily as she pictured Sunnydale without the comforting presence of her surrogate father. 

"I know.  He's been dropping a lot of hints lately, but I've been trying to avoid the subject.  I just know one of these days he's going to tell me I'm ready to be on my own, and that he's needed someplace else.  But we still need him; we all need him," she finished on a plaintive note.

"And Dawn's getting older," Willow reminded her unwillingly.  "I know she's only at band camp this week, but she's going to be old enough for college before you know it, Buffy.  Who knows if she'll want to go to UC Sunnydale either?"

Buffy threw a roll of crepe paper at her friend.  Dawn's continued growth was a source of pride for the Slayer, but she would prefer not to be reminded of the eventual end of that phase of her life.

"Are you trying to tell me our little girl's growing up, Ma?"

"And then there's Tara too." The witch swallowed hard before stoically continuing, "She's graduating this year, you know.  And I'm not sure...I mean, what does Sunnydale have to offer her, once she has her degree?"  Willow abruptly stopped her broom therapy and stared at Buffy, silently begging for reassurance.

"Umm, how about my wonderful Willow, who's crazy about her?" Buffy flipped the lid closed on the full box of leftover decorations and hurried over to give her best friend a hug.  "And who she's pretty nuts about in return, if I'm any judge of love.  Wait, no; let me rephrase that."

Willow smiled bravely, trying to keep at bay the tears that never seemed very far away these days. 

"I know she loves me, but we both know that's not always the deciding factor.  One of her chemistry profs has connections with a university lab in New York.  Tara could have a great job right out of college, one she's be perfect for."  She sighed and raised her palms upward to weigh the intangible options.  "Or she could stick around the hellmouth and maybe get brainsucked by another renegade hellgod while she's waiting for me to graduate."

"I know what I'd choose," Buffy said helpfully.

"Me too."  Willow shrugged as her hands fell to her sides in defeat.  "Give my regards to Broadway."

"Willow Rosenberg, you would not," Buffy scolded.  "And I don't think Tara would either, but even if she does, it's only a year.  It's not forever."

She had to believe somebody still got happy endings, even if Slayers did not.

"I know," Willow mumbled, staring intently at the heaps of golden dust settling at her feet.  "It's just that everything is changing all of the sudden, and I feel left behind.  Xander and Anya are getting married, and Giles might move back to England, and you seem so far away since you...came back.  And now Tara.  I wish things could be like they used to be."

"The good old days," Buffy agreed with a crooked smile.  "You, me and Xander hunting demons while Giles consulted his books."

As though it had ever been that simple to be the Slayer, or her friend.

"What's Giles consulting his books about now?" called a voice from the doorway.

Witch and Slayer both made hasty efforts to hide any evidence of tears as Xander and Anya strolled across the room.

"He can't be looking up decorating tips," Xander said, casting an appreciative eye around the brightly decorated club.  "This place is already beyond done.  Done to a 'T,' you might say...though I'm not sure what the 'T' is supposed to stand for.  Maybe I mean 'dressed to the nines'...but again, blanking on the underlying symbolism.  Anyway, the place looks great.  Isn't that right, Anya?" he hinted, nudging his strangely quiet fiancée with his elbow.

Anya jumped and turned to frown at Xander.  "There is no need to resort to such obvious prompts for acceptable behavior," she said with exaggerated patience.  "If you had given me time I would have composed an appropriate phrase indicating surprise."

Buffy grinned at Willow, feeling the last hint of sadness retreat in the face of Anya's raw honesty.

"We weren't actually going for surprise, but if it works for you..." 

"What Anya meant," Xander stressed, looking sternly at the lady in question, "was that it's surprising how great the place looks."  He paused for a moment.  "I mean it's surprising how much you could do with the place, considering what you had to work with.  Not that there's anything wrong with Christmas lights and crepe paper, you understand.  It's just...just that my girlfriend stuck my foot in my mouth and my toes are starting to tickle."  He shrugged helplessly before throwing himself on one of the sofas. 

"And this is a reason to pout because?"  Buffy hurried over to join him, draping a comforting arm around his shoulders.  "You know you don't have to worry about saying the right thing to Willow and I; it's not like we expect it on the first try anyway."

"It's part of your Xanderesque charm," Willow chimed in as she sat on his other side.

Anya continued to stroll around the Bronze, examining the decorations and testing their adherence to the walls.  "Well, Xander might not like the way I said it, but I was trying to be complimentary when I said it was surprising.  It looks like there's going to be a real party here."  She glanced over at her fiancé as a frown creased her forehead.  "It is appropriate to have an engagement party at a bar, isn't it?  I've never had one before.  Or even been to one, unless you count work, and then I was too busy turning the cheating bridegroom-to-be into a possum to really appreciate the details."

"It's fine, Anya," Xander soothed her.  "It's more of a club than a bar, and besides, it's where we always have parties."  He glanced at Buffy.  "When people will let us have parties, that is."

"Oh no, not again." Buffy held up her hands and quickly got to her feet.   "Once and for all, I don't want a birthday party.  I don't even want to hear the phrase 'Buffy's birthday' this year.  Getting older may be an achievement for a Slayer, but the actual celebration is the real killer."  She shook her head.  "Never again."

Xander waggled his index finger at her.  "Keep talking like that and you won't get your birthday present tonight, young lady."

"It's not like it won't keep," Anya said absentmindedly, twisting a Japanese lantern in one direction and then letting it spin back the opposite way.

"Hey, we are not keeping it until she's ready for it," Xander protested.  "This is a one-time offer, Buffy; made under the influence of Anya's new perfume and too much leftover fruitcake.  Not necessarily in that order."

"Excuse me but my birthday, even if I was celebrating it this year...which I'm not...isn't for another two weeks.  Why the rush?"

Xander's easy smile vanished, leaving behind a much older, and sadder man.  "Maybe you finally got us to understand that time isn't the only thing people waste, Buffy."

* * * * *

"So far, so good," Buffy murmured to Giles as she surveyed the crowded club.  "Almost everyone we invited came, I haven't had to break up a single fight, and no one has set off the sprinklers in the ladies room with a cigarette."  She paused.  "Yet."

Giles cupped a hand to his ear and turned towards her in confusion.  "I'm sorry, Buffy; what did you say? it most difficult to carry on a conversation."  He frowned at the people grouped around the CD player in the corner, obviously not pleased with their selections thus far.  "Really, I can only assume the tremendous volume is designed to draw one's attention away from the lack of any other identifiable musical characteristics."

Buffy nodded sagely, having heard this speech, or ones like it, many times before.  "Yes Giles," she said loudly, "music was much more enlightened in your day; we all know that.  Poetry, vision...coded messages if you played the CD backwards..."

"Record," Giles corrected her wearily; he too recognized the repetitive nature of this discussion.  "We had records, as you know perfectly well."

Buffy felt a brief stab of pain at the memory of her mother's record collection, now carefully packed in boxes in the attic.   She could still see Joyce dancing around the kitchen to some silly David Cassidy song as they cleaned up after dinner; Dawn trying to grab the first clean serving spoon out of the drainboard to use as a microphone, while Joyce labored in vain to teach her daughters the words, that wasn't right.  

She mentally shook her head, beset by a familiar frustration. Dawn hadn't been there at all, not really, and now Joyce wasn't here either. 

Buffy alone remembered.

"Uh huh, whatever," she droned, forcing herself to focus on Giles, who was here, instead of those who were not.  "They were totally cool, I'm sure.  Now, in the 21st century category, do you think this party is a go or not?"

Giles glanced around the club.  Everywhere he looked there were young people dancing to an off-tempo, off-key song, as they drank ice-cold beer and ate various multi-syllabic preservatives disguised as food.

"It appears to be an unqualified success," he said dryly.  "Certainly Xander and Anya seem to be having a good time.  I haven't heard her insult anyone all evening.  Except of course for the bartender," he added a moment later.  "And that first waiter; the one with the protruding, umm, earring."

"They don't call it an earring when you wear it there, Giles."  Buffy smiled at her Watcher with great affection, sensing his underlying contentment, despite the guarded praise.  "But you're right; they do seem to be having a good time.  Everybody does."

Giles cocked an eyebrow at her as he regarded her shrewdly. "Does 'everybody' include you, Buffy?  You seem a little quiet tonight, or is that just in comparison to the stereo?"

"I'm okay," she protested, waving a hand at the surrounding throng of people.  "Observe me having fun socializing."

"Yes, with your Watcher," he corrected her.  "With your Watcher, watching everyone else having fun socializing."

"But I don't know any of these people." 

Heads turned at her loud comment, which fell in the lull between songs.  Buffy flushed with embarrassment and continued the conversation in a quieter tone, befitting the new, softer CD now playing. 

"They're Xander's friends from work, and the cousins he's still speaking to, and a couple of what I'm assuming are people that Anya knows.  I mean I know she knows them, I'm just not too sure about the people part."  She gazed doubtfully at a passerby she could have sworn she had seen dipping a claw into the cheese puffs earlier.  "Not that it matters about the people part, you understand...but it makes it a little tougher to strike up a casual conversation.  We Slayer gals tend to get a certain rep that makes demons sort of, umm, uneasy."

"There are humans present," he pointed out gently.  "Of both sexes, as a matter of fact.  You could discuss hemlines with that young woman over there, perhaps, or you could ask the rather tall young man leaning against the bar to dance before he accidentally knocks that lantern down with his head and sets the club on fire."

It was the Slayer's turn to raise an eyebrow.  "Hemlines, Giles? You couldn't think of a more convincing hypothetical than..."

It hit her low and fast; that tingling sensation that swept under her skin whenever he came within her radar.  It had been months since she had seen him, had felt that sensation, but she had never forgotten.  Could never forget.

Angel.  Here.  Now.

She turned slowly, not seeing the indulgent smile on Giles' face as he recognized her "Angel-face."  She didn't see Willow and Tara nudge each other and whisper in delight as she moved towards, any more than she saw Xander waving a thumbs-up gesture at Wesley.  All she saw was Angel, heading straight for her in a similar state of single-mindedness.

"Buffy," he said simply when they met on the edge of the dance floor.  It was, as always, enough to knock her heart into her ribcage.

"Angel," she replied, a trifle breathlessly.  "What are you...why are you know what this is?" she finally managed to ask.

Xander was beside her before Angel had a chance to reply.  The younger man clapped one hand on Buffy's shoulder and the other on Angel's.

"He sure does," Xander answered heartily for the vampire.  "This is your birthday surprise."  He leaned down close to her face, pressing a quick kiss on her cheek.  "Happy Birthday, Buff."

* * * * *

Buffy glanced in confusion from Angel to Xander, and then back to Angel.  "Birthday?  But this is your party.  Yours and Anya's."

"Yeah," Xander drawled, "but only because somebody wouldn't let us celebrate her birthday at the same time.  So I figured maybe you'd at least let me give you your gift tonight...even if he will keep."

"My gift?" 

She was a little embarrassed by the quaver in her voice, but the last gift anyone had told her about ended in a swan dive off of a very tall tower, and things had only gotten worse from there.  For Buffy Summers, once the original Material Girl,  'gift' was the ultimate of four-letter words.

"Xander thought it would be nice if we all made peace," Angel said quickly, sensing her unease.  "He invited Wes and Cordy and I to the party, so we could celebrate his engagement...and your birthday."

"The birthday part is pretty much just between us; I mean the old Scooby Gang. No cake, I swear."  Xander raised his hand in pledge.  "No party hats, no noisemakers...unless Wes can't hold his liquor..."

"I'll have you know..."

"And no birthday spankings," Xander continued over Wesley's indignant protest.  "That is, at least no public ones.  What happens in private...well, let's just say we're all grown-ups now, or trying to be.  So some of us are going to learn to mind our own business."

Buffy looked deep into Xander's brown eyes, searching for any hint of discomfort or regret at his actions.  He met her gaze squarely, acknowledging her suspicions with a slight quirk of his lips.

"I'm on the level, Buff; I promise.  I just thought it was time we all put the past behind us."  Xander glanced over at Angel, and smiled as he beheld the vampire's eyes firmly fixed on Buffy.  "I'm glad you guys could come.  Thanks."

Angel tore his attention away from his beloved and held out his hand to Xander.  "Thank you for inviting us," he replied formally.  "Cordelia sends her regrets."

Xander grinned as he shook Angel's hand.  "Cordelia sent a 'hell no!' you mean.  She told me so herself."

"She did want to come," Wesley said anxiously.  "She has an audition for a commercial coming up in a few days, however, and she wanted to rehearse."

"And being civil to me wouldn't have counted as acting?"

"She thought it would be awkward," Angel said, a slight hint of anger coloring his voice.  "She didn't want to spoil it for you or Anya...or for Buffy, for that matter."

Xander opened his mouth to offer a sarcastic, but in his opinion rather witty, comment on Cordelia's ideas of awkwardness.  He was stopped, however, by the look in Buffy's eyes. 

In the three months since the Slayer had returned from the grave, and the two years of emotional isolation that preceded it, Xander had grown used to her silences, and her distant looks.  He had spent many a night trying to break through those barriers, but he had know no more success than any of Buffy's other friends.

Until tonight.

Tonight she was looking at him, at Wesley, and mostly at Angel, with the hungry eyes of someone too long from the table.  Those eyes reflected emotions Xander hadn't even been sure she could still feel after all this time, and it was to see those eyes again that Xander had sent for Angel in the first place.

Time to live up to your words, or eat them, Harris, he grumbled silently.  Other than having Anya in his life forever, being an adult suddenly seemed a lot less fun.

"Okay," he sighed, "Uncle.  Cordy meant well, just like I meant well.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to find my favorite recovering demon, and leave Buffy to enjoy hers." 

Wesley cleared his throat as Xander left in search of Anya.

"Yes, well, I think perhaps I'll just find Mr. Giles...that is to say Rupert...I don't suppose I have to call him Mr. Giles anymore.  We are, after all, both grown men and former colleagues don't think he'll mind if I call him Rupert, do you?"

At first Buffy thought the question was addressed to her, but it was obviously from Angel's dark eyes that Wesley was seeking an answer.

"If he lets me call him Rupert, he'll let anyone," Angel said with a crooked smile.  "I saw him go over to talk to Willow as we came in."

Wesley nodded briskly, the confidence he could assume and then shed so rapidly now firmly back in place.  "Right.  Willow.  It will be good to see her again too...under happier circumstances."

Buffy saw the shadow cross Angel's face at Wesley's reminder, and reached out instinctively to take her beloved's hand.

"Hey," she said softly.  "I'm here."

Angel drew a deep breath and squeezed her hand tightly.

"Yeah, you are.  And so am I."  He glanced around the room, trying to recover the composure she could demolish with a single smile.  "And we're at a party, with music and dancing...and we're just standing here like a couple of idiots."  He lifted up the hand that still clutched hers.  "Would milady care to dance?"

She paused for a moment, unsmiling, as she considered his words, and all that was still unsaid.

"For now," she allowed, stepping into his cool embrace.  "But the night is still on the not-needing-dentures-and-a-cane side of the clock, so be prepared."

* * * * *

Xander watched Buffy and Angel from the far edge of the room, as he listened with half an ear to Anya's running commentary on the refreshments.

" you think the shrimp are going to go bad if they just sit out like that?  Because you know they never look bad; they just quietly rot inside and then some unsuspecting shrimp-lover who can't remember the number of hours he has been at a party, and calculate how much of that time the shrimp has been sitting out without refrigeration just pops one in his mouth and before you know it we're spending the night chauffeuring queasy party guests to the emergency room and calling our lawyers, which we don't even have, to defend against a lawsuit that could have all been avoided if we had simply thrown the shrimp out early."  She paused for a breath.  "So do you think they're okay like that?"

Xander heard the word 'shrimp,' and something about lawyers, but the majority of his attention was fixed on his best friend's smile as she danced with her ex, and on the remarkable fact that it no longer made him angry.

"You know, An," he said, draping an arm around his girlfriend's shoulders, "I have been a very good boy today.  I think I deserve a reward when we get home."  He waggled his eyebrows and leered at her.  "A really big reward."

Anya followed the direction of his eyes.  "A reward for not behaving in a pathetically jealous schoolboy fashion and attempting to keep Angel away from Buffy even though you no longer want her for yourself?"

In typical Anya fashion, she did not sound angry with him, merely curious at the quirks of human nature.

"Uh, yeah, I guess you could put it that way," Xander admitted with a pained grin.  Part of the reason he was so crazy about Anya was that she saw his baser side, and loved him in spite of it...but her love could be a little rough on his ego at times.

"You did well," she allowed.  "Now that you have brought them back together, you can all stop worrying about Buffy and get on with your lives."

Xander looked at her in surprise.  "I don't think it's going to be quite that simple, An.  Sure he's here and she's here, but I don't think they count as a 'they're here' yet."

"I didn't say they were.  What I said was that they can get on with their lives, and fix their own problems.  And we can live our life."

"Buffy is still part of that life."  Xander was getting nervous; his sweet (well, perhaps not sweet, but increasingly humane) fiancée was expressing some dangerous, and heretofore unsuspected, ideas.  "Buffy, Willow, Giles, Tara, Dawn...even Angel and Wes are still a part of our life, Anya.  They always will be."

Anya sighed; men could be so dense sometimes.  "Of course they will, but things will be different after we're married.  Trust me; I've seen what too allowing too many 'poker nights with the boys' can do to a relationship.  I hardly think that 'patrol night with the girls' will be any more constructive."


"Willow has Tara, and now Buffy has Angel again," she said, overriding his protest.  "Giles is probably going back to England, and Olivia.  You have a job, I have a...I have a job with an employer who will probably be going back to England and Olivia," she whispered in horror.  "I'll be unemployed.  Again.  And I don't even have a new seventeen-year-old body to list as an asset this time.  It's depreciated."

"Anya..." he tried again.

She held up her hand and drew a deep breath.  "You're right; we have to focus.  Maybe Giles will sell us the Magick Box.  Or maybe we'll just start having babies right away, and then I won't have time to worry about a job." 

She smiled brightly; problem solved.

"Babies?" Xander asked with a wince.  "As in more than one?"

"Presumably."  Anya looked at him in surprise.  "You always make mistakes with the first one, or so I'm told.  It can take several repetitions before you produce a child who meets all of your expectations."  She frowned.  "Or is that pottery?  I forget."

"So we're talking more than just two now," Xander continued bravely, past the rapidly growing knot in his stomach.  "Several kids, possibly in the near future.  Kids who will keep us too busy to help Buffy and the rest of the gang save the world.  Is that what I'm hearing here?"

"We can help save the world occasionally," she answered, sensing, though not fully understanding, his concern.  "We just can't make it a regular date or anything.  I'd say once a month would be the most we could commit to."

* * * * *

"They really do look well together, don't they Mr. Gi...Rupert?"  Wesley blushed as he stumbled over the words, but to his everlasting gratitude, Giles pretended not to notice.  The younger man cleared his throat and tried again, resolving to think before he spoke in the future.  "It is gratifying to see the possibility of a happy resolution at last. We weren't sure for a while if Angel would even allow himself to go on, after Buffy...well, after Willow told us what had happened with that Glory person.  He was, to say the least, quite despondent."

"It was a difficult time for all of us," Giles said sharply. 

He tried not to dwell on those months of bitter regret, especially not when he could see the outcome shining before him in all her youthful splendor, but sometimes the drag of those memories was too great.  But seeing the quick flash of bewildered hurt in Wesley's eyes, he realized he realized another side to the truth of his own words.

"It was very hard on everyone," Giles acknowledged, "but yes, I imagine more so for Angel than the rest of us.  And of course it must have been difficult for you and Cordelia to watch."

"We tried our best to raise his spirits, but in the end he had to find his own way again.  Fortunately he managed to do so before Buffy came...back...and came to see him."  Wesley shook his head, remembering those first days and nights when they watched Angel's every move, counted all the stakes in the hotel, hid all the radios and the TV in an attempt to conceal the expected time of the next sunrise.  "I can't imagine her reaction if she had seen him in his original state."

"Yes, she had quite enough to do dealing with her own resurrection; she didn't need to be responsible for anyone else's healing.  But she is...much better now, I think."  Giles watched his charge fondly, noting the relaxed lines of her body as she circled the dance floor in Angel's arms.  "Perhaps she can begin to get on with her life again."

"And this doesn't bother you, that she might still want Angel to be a part of that?"  Wesley eyed the elder Watcher curiously.  "There was a time you were even more opposed to the idea than I."

"We don't know what part Angel can play in her life," Giles said swiftly.  "The curse remains an issue, to the best of my knowledge; perhaps an insurmountable one."  He sighed, yielding to the inevitable.  "Still, to see her smile like she is now...I am willing to grant that his presence may be required in some guise or another; a friend if not a lover."

Silently, he also granted that his grant was no longer required.  Buffy was a woman now, not a child, and she would make her own decisions.  He could advise her as a friend, and worry about her as a surrogate parent, or vice versa.  Ultimately, however, he had to acknowledge that he had achieved the goal of every conscientious parent:  expendability.   It was a humbling, and ageing, experience.

"I confess I have certain reservations regarding the curse myself," Wesley murmured.  "Perhaps it would be best, during what appears to be a lull in overt demonic activity, to concentrate the efforts of both of discovering some sort of...sealant."  He glanced significantly at Giles.  "Before anything irrevocable occurs."

"I think they both know the risk," Giles protested.  "Not that I'm averse to your suggestion, but surely we don't need to concentrate the energies of roughly a dozen people in the aid of sexual freedom for two of their number?" 

"Mr. Giles...Rupert...surely you remember what it is like to be so...passionately consumed by your emotions...that worldly concerns scarcely register upon your consciousness?"

Giles spared him a withering glare before he returned his attention to the couple in question, still tightly intertwined on the dance floor. 

"I'm not quite so old as all that, Pryce," he sniffed.  "If anything, I am surprised that you would be so conversant in the subject.  Or has the Los Angeles smog had a liberating effect upon you?"

Wesley thought of Virginia, his lamentably former girlfriend; she of the fiery red curls and soothing common sense.  He had spent many tender hours in her company, and for a time he believed the strength of their connection would see them through any storm.

It was, however, a fear of how intense the storms of his life could be that had driven Virginia away, much as Buffy had once fled to the apparent safety of her former soldier companion.

"You will find I have changed a great deal, Rupert," Wesley said softly.  "I have learned who my friends are, and their true value.  It is a lesson I do not intend to forget."

Giles smiled ruefully and clapped the younger man on the back.  "Well said, Pryce...I mean Wesley.  Well said."

* * * * *

Buffy drifted along in cool, pink cloud.  She could feel nothing but the solidity of Angel's body against hers, heard nothing but the occasional rumble of his voice in her ear.  For this one small space of time, nothing existed except they two.

At least until she chanced to lift her head and realized they were surrounded by a multitude of dearly loved, and deeply interested, faces.

"Angel," Buffy murmured, tucking her head back into his shoulder.

"Mmm," was his only response.

She tried again.

"Angel.  Everybody's staring at us."

"At you," he mumbled into the curtain of her long blonde tresses.  "Can't blame them for that."

She pummeled his shoulder lightly as she laughed.  It felt so good to laugh with him again, and yet so strange.  She took a moment to bask in the wonder of the experience before she collected her thoughts.

"They're staring at both of us.  Together.  As us," she emphasized, when at last she was ready to speak.  "I feel like we're bugs under a microscope or something."  She wrinkled her nose.  "And you know I don't like bugs."

Angel roused himself with difficulty, raising his cheek from the warm pillow of her head as he tried to draw his spirit back into his body and out of the aether where it seemed to be floating.  This all seemed so unreal, literally too good to be true.  To be with Buffy again, to feel her arms wound around his neck and her hair spilling over his fingertips was more than he had ever dreamed possible just a few short months ago.  Simply seeing her face when he walked in the door had pushed his senses into overdrive, and he was having precious little success in reclaiming control.

Nor did he want to; not at this moment.

"Maybe we should leave.  Just for a little while," he added hastily, sensing her instinctive protest.  "This night is about Xander and Anya, and if they're all really staring at us..." he glanced around, "as I can see that they are doing, then it's become about us.  And that's not fair."

A smile tugged at her lips as she listened to his sweetly reasonable tone, and heard all the unspoken desires beneath it. 

"You're right," she conceded with a full-fledged grin.  "We're being selfish.  So the best thing to do is take our selfish selves out of here until we've learned our lesson."

Angel felt a warning quake from deep within his fragile soul.  This was the dangerous part; this was where he set them both up for potential heartbreak.  And yet, looking into her suddenly bright hazel eyes, he could find no regret within himself.

"Okay, who gets to break it to Xander?" he asked instead.

"Coward," she scoffed.  "I'll tell him.  I'll tell him...we're going out for a walk.  And a talk."  The grin faded from her face, replaced with a calm resolve.  "Because I think we really need to talk.  Seeing you tonight, and knowing what we're all here's made me start thinking some things.  Not just us-things, but...thing-things."

Angel twined one long finger in a strand of her silken hair.  When he was with her, he needed to touch her, and when he touched her...apocalypses happened.  But he was tired of fighting a battle he couldn't win, with loneliness his ultimate prize.  He had to learn to trust himself around her, or he was destined to live forever in the past.

"I'd like to hear about them," he said softly, brushing her cheek with the tip of the golden lock.  "If you want to tell me."

She looked away for an instant.  "I'm not sure I can," she confessed, "but I think...I think I'd like to try."

* * * * *

To Be Continued