HAPPILY EVER AFTER PART I--HAPPY BIRTHDAY

"What's it been?   Over a decade?  It still smarts like it was four minutes ago."

                                                                                       --"Flinch," Alanis Morissette

            She sensed him before she saw him, and she turned, and there he was, walking out into the light, bathed in the light, smiling and beautiful, covered with light.

            Then they were inside, and he touched her hand, and she was in his arms, his mouth on hers.  Her legs around his waist as he laid her down on the kitchen table.

            All around her, on top of her, inside her.

            "I'll never forget, I'll never forget, I'll never forget . . ."

#

            "So where the heck is Giles?"   Buffy looked at her watch, then frowned across the table at Willow.   "He's late."

            "Not really," said Willow.   "You said one-ish, not one on the dot."

            "Hey, I can't sit around all day waiting for him.   I've got things to do, demons to see, vampires to slay."   She sank back in her chair, sighing, wondering why she was so irritated.

            "He'll be here."  Willow took a corn chip out of the basket in the middle of the table.   "Are you okay?"
            "I'm fine."   She puffed out a breath.  "I'm just . . .tired."

            "Not sleeping?"

            "Sleeping.  Dreaming.   A lot."

            "Oh, dreams!  Fun ones?"

            "A little too fun."

            Willow perked up a little more.   "Sexy dreams?"

            "Yes.  About . . ."  She stopped, then mouthed the name, thinking it might not be so difficult to say if she didn't vocalize.   "Angel."

            "Sexy dreams about Angel?"

            "That's what I said, Will.   But . . . it's not just dreams.  It's like those dreams I get that come true.   Except those are usually scary and these are just . . ."

            "Sexy?"

            "Very."

            "What do you think it means?"

            "What do you think what means?"

            Buffy jumped at the sound of Giles' voice behind her.   "Do you mind not sneaking up?  I get enough of that on the job."

            "Sorry."  Giles sat between the two women.  "Am I late?  I didn't intend to be."

            "No," said Willow.  "It's still one-ish."

            "Well, then, happy birthday, Buffy."

            "Thank you."  She made a face.  "Except I'm wondering if it's tempting fate, doing this a day early.   I mean, you know how my birthdays always suck.   Aren't we just automatically cursing this day by making it my fake birthday?  And if my birthdays always suck, shouldn't my thirtieth birthday bode something practically apocalyptic?"

            "Last year wasn't so bad," Willow put in.

            "True."  She smiled.   "I met Brad."

            "That's a good thing, right?"

            "So far."

            Giles studied her face.   "Is there something wrong?  Or have you just become overly cynical in your old age?"

            "I am not old, Giles.  And I'll never be as old as you."  She shrugged.  "But yeah, maybe I've gotten a little cynical.  I mean, who wouldn't, doing what I've been doing for the last fourteen years?   And now I've got Brad, and he's Mr. Normal Guy, finally, and now I just want to be Mrs. Normal Gal, and settle down and shell out some babies and not have to worry about killing demons."   She blinked, surprised to find herself near tears.   "Is there some way I can do that, Giles?   Haven't I been at this long enough?"

            "I'm afraid I'm a bit out of my depth here, Buffy.   I honestly don't know if there's a way for a Slayer to retire gracefully."

            "Death the only way out, huh?"   Buffy poked the salsa in the dish with a chip.   "I'm just tired.  Tired of all of it."

            Giles nodded soberly.  "I was doing some research this week and I discovered that you are the first Slayer to attain the ripe old age of thirty."   Buffy gave him a cold look.  "You know what I mean.  Every other Slayer has died much younger.  So perhaps there is some way to bow out, due to the length of your duty."

            "I hope so.  Because getting tired, and getting cynical, and getting older, do you know what it's going to get me?  It's going to get me dead."

            The others looked at her in silence for a moment, Giles sober, Willow with her eyes wide and worried.  

            "Maybe the dreams mean something," Willow said after a moment.

            "What dreams?" asked Giles.   "Have you been having dreams, Buffy?"

            Buffy nodded.  "Yes.  I don't think they mean anything, though.  I think it's just one of those, 'What might have been,' things."

            Giles' interest was piqued by now.   "What are they about?"

            "Angel."

            "Ah.  I see."   He paused.  "Do you want to talk about it?"

            "No, and neither do you, because, as I'm sure you've already figured out, they involve naked monkey-sex.   So let's get this birthday thing over, get Willow on the plane to Hawaii, and then we'll see what horrible catastrophe befalls tomorrow."

#

            The catastrophe didn't wait until the next day.   When Buffy came home, four hours later, feeling more cheerful, as well as stuffed with Mexican food and margaritas, there was a note on the table.

            "Buffy--I've been thinking about this for a long time, and I don't think I can take it anymore.  I've taken some of my stuff out of the house, and I'll be back for the rest later.  Sorry--I know my timing sucks.  Take care, Brad."

#

            Per Buffy's request, Willow called as soon as she arrived at her hotel.  Once she was certain Willow was all right, Buffy told her about Brad's birthday gift.

            "I mean, can you believe it, Will?   I came home yesterday and he was just . . .gone.   He left a note telling me he'd be back for his stuff."   Buffy slumped over the table, pushing a hand through her hair, not sure yet if she was going to cry.

            "Burn it," said Willow, her voice a bit tinny over the phone.  "Burn it all."

            "Burn what?"

            "His stuff.  Put it in a pile on the lawn and burn it."

            Buffy couldn't hold back a smile.   "Jeez, Will.  Vindictive much?"

            "It's the only way to deal with men who treat you poorly.   Well, that or kick them square in the balls."

            Buffy laughed.  "Thanks, Will.  You've put things in perspective.  Maybe I'll try the latter option.  I really don't want to accidentally burn down my house."

            "Yeah, that's a good point.   Listen, Buffy, do you want me to come home?   Because I will, if you need somebody."

            "No, I'm fine."  She took a long, sighing breath, and realized she actually was fairly fine.   "You enjoy Hawaii.  You deserve a vacation once in a while."

            "Okay, if you're sure.   So what are you going to do?"

            "I'm gonna go out and stake a couple vamps.   Pretend they're Brad."

            "Be careful, Buff."

            She had every intention of being careful.   She grabbed a bag of stakes and headed out to the graveyard.

            "Can't take it anymore," she muttered, finding a comfortable seat on top of a headstone.  "Can't take what?  The devoted girlfriend?   The nice house?  The reasonably decent sex?"  Still, she couldn't figure out why she wasn't sadder.  Brad had been a good, stable influence.  Normal and pleasant, and he worked at night, which had been a plus.   So why hadn't it worked?  Why didn't it ever work?  Not with Riley, not with Benjamin, or Andrew, and now Brad.   Her brief interlude with Spike she tried from time to time to scour out of her brain, and Angel . . . well, that was still better not talked about.

            "I might as well just face it."   She leaned her chin on a fist, a fist with a stake in it, at the ready.  "I'm never going to settle down and have kids.  I'm just going to spend every damn night in this damn graveyard killing damn vampires."

            "You got that right.  Except for the last part."

            Buffy swung around at the voice.   It was a lispy voice, the voice of a vamp with a mouth full of fangs.   She brought her fist around as she turned, sinking the stake into the vampire's chest.  He stared at her a moment in shock, then dusted.

            "You know, leave off the taunting and you might have lived through that encounter," she told the bit of drifty ash it left behind.

            "There's still a chance you won't."

            Buffy rolled her eyes.   "Again with the taunting."  She turned around the other way.  The vamp had had friends.  More than one.  Six vamps stood in front of her.  "Oh, happy frickin' birthday," she said, and got to work.

            The first three went down easy, even coming at her all at once.  She hadn't lost her reflexes, and she proved that every night.  But something else was wrong tonight.  She couldn't stop thinking, This is all there is, all there will ever be.   I have nothing else in my life to look forward to.

            Maybe working out her emotional trauma in the graveyard hadn't been such a good idea, after all.

            One of the remaining three vamps clubbed her across the face.  She staggered back, then dragged herself forward again and put a stake through him.   "That hurt, you son of a bitch!"   The last two vamps closed on her and she swung at the first, kicking and punching for all she was worth.  She could feel the adrenaline pumping through her system, heightening her awareness.  Too much.   She was losing control.  Emotionally, physically.  Through force of will, she dragged her control back.

            Too late.  One of the vamps had her, pinning her arms behind her back.   The other came at her.  She shoved her feet up, using the vamp behind her as leverage, and kicked the other in the chest, shoving him back.  But the other still had her pinned, and she flinched as teeth clamped on her neck.

            And suddenly he was gone, dusting in a sharp whoosh.   She lunged forward, toward the last one, but he had turned and was running pell-mell across the graveyard.  Away from whatever had staked his friend.   Instead of catching him, she hit the ground.   Buffy gathered herself, trusting that whoever had helped her was a good guy and wouldn't kill her while she was on the ground shaking.  

            "Are you okay?"

            She froze.  And then, carefully, she looked up.  "Angel?"

            He bent, holding a hand down to help her up.   She took it.

            "Are you okay?" he said again.

            "Yeah, I am now."  On her feet now, she let go of his hand.  She didn't want to.  "Thanks for the save."

            "Did he bite you?"

            She rubbed her neck.  "A little."  There was blood on her fingers.  "It'll be fine.   I think he only got a couple of teeth in."   She peered up at him.  "Why are you here?"

            "Just came to wish you a happy birthday.   I know thirty can be a little traumatic."

            She gave him a cold look.   "You, buster, are in no position to rib me about my age."

            "I know."  He paused, his eyes fixated on her, dark and melty.   Chocolate eyes, she thought suddenly.   Sweet and brown.  "You look . . ."  He trailed off.

            "Yeah, I know.  I look older."  So maybe she was being a little over sensitive.  "It happens.  Not to you, but--"

            "You look beautiful."

            She blinked at him.  After all these years of scouring him out of her heart, he could still walk into her favorite cemetery and have her wrapped around his finger in a matter of sentences.  She couldn't say she liked it very much.  It wasn't fair.  

            "I don't see any large, wrapped packages," she said darkly.   "Don't tell me you came all this way and didn't bring presents."

            "Actually, I did."  He studied her again.  There was something odd in his eyes, something evaluating.  "Could we go grab some coffee?"

            "Ten years I don't hear from you and now you want to grab some coffee?"

            "Yeah."

            She shrugged, trying to ignore the fist squeezing her heart.  "Sure.   And if you tell me there's an apocalypse on the way, it'll be just like old times."

            "Buffy--"

            "I'm sorry.  You saved my life and I'm being a bitch.  It's just . . . I had a really bad day."

            "Then you need cake."

            She smiled.  "I have cake.  At home.   Ice cream cake."

            "Then what are we waiting for?"

#

            He paused in her doorway, as if expecting to be thrown back.  But she didn't need to invite him in anymore--he had a standing, all-access pass.  

            "Everything looks pretty much the same," he commented, looking around.  He took off his coat and she hung it on the coat tree.  She looked at the coat, then back at him.

            "Yeah, it kinda does."

            "I mean the house."

            "I mean your face, and your fancy leather coat."

            "It's not the same coat."

            "Damn close."  She let her gaze sweep the house.  She never really paid that much attention to it.   "I haven't changed much of it, I guess.   Except the bedrooms, because--"  She broke off.  There were things down that path best left unsaid.

            He left it alone and followed her into the kitchen.   "Don't feel obligated to eat cake with me if you don't want to," she said.

            "What good is misery if you can't share it?   I'll take a piece."

            "And coffee?"

            "Decaf if you've got it."

            "That's right.  I forgot.  You don't like the manly stuff."

            "Keeps me up all day."

            She started the coffee and pulled the ice cream cake out of the freezer.  It was chocolate and peanut butter, with vanilla ice cream.

            Why didn't you ever tell me about chocolate and peanut butter?

            "Huh?"  She spun around, to see Angel sitting at the table, hands clasped in front of him, waiting for his cake.  "Angel, did you say something?"

            "No."

            "Weird.  I could have sworn you said--  You know what, never mind.  I'm really tired of the weird."  She hacked at the cake, managing to carve out a couple of generous slices.

            "You said you had a bad day?"

            Joining him at the table, she set a plate of cake in front of him.  "Yeah.   Pretty bad."

            "Your birthdays always suck, don't they?"

            She laughed bitterly.  "Yes, and as I recall, that tradition started with you."

            He slanted her a look. "If you don't want me here, I'll leave."

            "No, it's not that.  It's just . . ."  She stopped, looked at him.  Suddenly she realized it didn't hurt nearly as badly as it had the last time she'd seen him.   What did that mean?  Did it mean anything at all?  "You know what?  We're both grownups."   She picked up Brad's letter and tossed it in Angel's direction.   "I got dumped today."

            He read the letter and she watched his face, judging his reaction.  "Cold," he finally said.   "How long have you known this guy?"

            "We met--get this--we met last year at my birthday party.  He just moved in six weeks ago.   And now this."

            "He's a prick."

            Surprised, she laughed.   "You got that right.  Hey, you wouldn't consider hunting him down and biting him for me, would you?"

            He grinned.  "Would if I could."

            "Yeah, probably not a good idea."   She took a big bite of cake.  "So, where are these presents?"

            "Oh, I left them in my coat."   He went back to the entryway and came back with two small packages, which he laid in front of her as he sat back down.   "Don't open them until tomorrow."

            "Fair enough."  She picked them up and turned them.  "They're kind of small."

            "Good things can come in small packages."

            "Okay, Mr. Corny-pants."

            His smile faded to something warmer.   She remembered that look, the melty chocolate look that turned her to butter.  It still did.   Suddenly she realized she hadn't felt this way in a long time.   A very long time.

            She was thinking very seriously about kissing him when the front door opened.  The mood fell completely apart.

            "Who is it?" Angel sounded worried.

            "Who do you think?  It's gotta be Brad coming back for his stuff."

            "Want me to take care of him?"

            "No, I'll do it."  But she smiled at him, taking in his big, dark form there at her table.   Her protector, if she wanted him to be.   Then she shook her head.  She really couldn't go down that path again.   Too much pain there, what with the no touchy touchy.   "But thanks."

            "I'll just eat my cake, then."

            "You do that."

            She waylaid Brad halfway up the stairs.   "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

            He turned.  He actually looked skittish, a little afraid of her.   "I came back to get my stuff."

            "Get the hell out of my house."

            "But . . . my stuff."

            "I'll mail it to you.  That is, if I don't decide to burn it."   He just stood there staring.  What had she been thinking, falling in love with him?   "Leave, Brad.  You could have at least had the brains to come back after a couple of days, when I'd had time to cool off."

            Finally, slowly, he came back down the stairs.   There was, she decided, a certain regret in his hazel eyes.   "I'm sorry, Buffy."

            "Yeah, and you couldn't say that to my face, so you left me a note and then decided to try to sneak back into the house when you thought I'd be gone."

            "You usually are gone this time of night."

            "Not tonight.  Now go."

            "All right, okay, whatever."   He headed for the door, then stopped, staring at the coat rack.   "Whose coat is that?"

            "Is that your business?"

            Brad grabbed Angel's coat, shoving it into Buffy's face.   "Whose coat is this?"

            "That would be mine."

            Angel came around the corner from the kitchen, arms crossed over his chest.  Brad stared at him.

            "Who the hell are you?"

            "He's an old friend," said Buffy.  

            Brad stared at Angel, then back at Buffy.   "I don't know what the hell's going on here--"

            "She asked you to leave."   Angel's voice brooked no argument.   Nor did the set of his shoulders.         
            "Just come back in a couple of days, Brad," Buffy said gently.  "You can get your stuff then."

            Brad threw Angel's coat at the coat rack and stalked out.   Angel watched tight-lipped as the coat hit the floor.  

            "You know, I don't like people mistreating my coat."

            And Buffy burst into tears.

            She'd known it was coming, but she hadn't expected it to fly out of her so fast and hard.  She couldn't stop it and, embarrassed, she pushed past Angel, heading for the stairs.  But he caught her arm and swung her back toward him, against him, holding her.

            "It's okay, Buffy.  It's okay."

            And it was okay, or at least it was familiar, standing there crying her heart out into his shirt.   He stroked her hair and shushed her, kissed the top of her head.   Finally, pretty much cried out, she took a step back.

            "I'm sorry.  It's just been too much."

            "It's okay.  It really is."  He cupped her cheek in his hand and the contact made her quiver.   "Do you want to talk?"

            "I don't know.  Let's go eat some more cake and see what happens."

#

            "I'm just so tired of it all.   Did you know I'm the first Slayer to make it to thirty?   They all die.  Hideous, horrible deaths, I'm sure.  And if I keep this up, that's pretty much all I have to look forward to.   But is there a retirement plan?  No, of course not.  The only way to get out is to die."  She took another bite of her third slab of cake.  "And then Brad just walks out on me for no reason . . .   Do you know I have not had one successful, normal relationship in my entire life?  Not one."

            She paused, but Angel said nothing.   He just sat, listening and frowning, giving no indication as to what he might be thinking.

            "My life sucks," she finished.   "It just plain sucks and there's not a damn thing I can do about it."  She slumped in her chair.  

            "Do you feel better?"

            "I do, kind of."  She pushed the cake away.  "Except I think I'm going to puke."

            "You ate a lot of cake."

            "I did."  He was looking at her now, and his frown lessened, his eyes going soft.   She wanted to reach out to him again, let him hold her.   But that way lay madness.  "Do you know why I haven't been able to make it work with a guy ever in my life?" she said suddenly, not sure why her mouth had decided to go down this path.  Her brain was sending off danger signals left and right.

            "Why?"

            She leaned over the table, staring right into his face, belligerent.  "They were all lacking something.  Some certain quality I look for in a man and could never find.  An essential Angelness that just wasn't there."

            He said nothing.  His hand slid across the table, his fingers brushing hers.   "It's getting late."

            "Yes, it is.  I need to get some sleep.  Maybe everything will be better in the morning."

            "Maybe it will."  He stood.  "Walk me to the door?"

            "Afraid something's gonna jump out of the closet and rip you to shreds?"

            "Hey, it's Sunnydale.  Stranger things have happened."

            She smiled and came with him to the front door, handed him his coat.  He shrugged it on and took a card out of an inside pocket.  "This is my number at the hotel.  I'll be here a few days."

            "Great.  Maybe we can get together again, reminisce, all that."

            "That would be good."  He took her shoulders in his hands, looking into her eyes.   "I'm going to ask you a question tomorrow.   Hopefully your presents will help you come up with an answer."

            Okay, this was different.   "Always with the cryptic, huh?  What is it, you show up every few years with pop quizzes now instead of dire warnings?"

            He smiled.  "Something like that."  Bending, he kissed her forehead.  She closed her eyes, amazed at how she still responded to him, even after all this time trying to forget him.  "I'll talk to you tomorrow."

            "Okay."

            She closed the door behind him and headed upstairs to bed.

#

            She lay in his arms, warm, listening to his heartbeat.   His heartbeat.  "Angel?   This is the first time I ever really felt this way."

            "What way?"

            "Just like I've always wanted to.   Like a normal girl, falling asleep in the arms of her normal boyfriend.   It's perfect."

            His lips brushed her hair as she drifted off to sleep.

            I'll never forget.  I'll never forget.  I'll never forget .

#

            Buffy sat up straight in bed.   "Oh, my God."

            She was awake, as awake as she could possibly be.   Remembering. 

            It hadn't registered at the time, but suddenly the image was crystal clear in her head.  When he'd said goodnight, he'd been standing in front of the door.   And in the narrow pane of glass next to it, she had seen his reflection.

            She could feel her heart beating hard in her throat.   Surely she had been mistaken.  Surely this couldn't be real.  But it seemed so right suddenly.  Like it had happened before.

            The dreams.  The dreams had to mean something.  They were too vivid to be anything but portents.   And now Angel had been in her house, casting a reflection . . . How had she missed it?

            Throwing back her covers, she headed downstairs.   Angel's two small gifts still sat on the kitchen table.   The clock read four a.m.

            "Hey, it's tomorrow," she said.   "Happy birthday to me."  She tore open the larger of the two packages, her hands trembling.   She should call him, she thought.   Right now.  Confront him with the evidence.  But she needed to know what the question was.  Even though she already knew.

            Inside was a small, spiral-bound notebook.   On the first page, in Angel's slightly spidery, eighteenth century handwriting, it said, "Pop quiz tomorrow.   One question only.  Turn page for crib notes."

            The next page was titled, "Reasons to say no."   Her heard skipped and pattered as she read his list.   "1. I'm still two hundred and twenty-four years older than you are.   2.  I'm still a broody son of a bitch.  Never quite got over that one.  3. I have little or no ability in the field of financial planning. 4. Still not sure if I can have children. 5.  Still an awful lot of shit in my past that could come up and bite us both in the ass."   Buffy bit her lip, closed her eyes, and collected herself before turning to the next page.

"Reasons to say yes.  1. I am a natty dresser. 2. Curse is gone.  Sex no longer an issue.  3. I can see myself in the mirror now and it appears that I'm passably attractive. 4. See number two.  Can't stress that enough. 5. I still love you. 6. I still love you. 7. I still love you.   8. I still love you. 9. I still love you. 10.   See number two."

By the time she got to the end, she could barely see through the tears.   She picked up the second box.  She had a feeling she knew what was inside, and she was right--a claddagh ring, exactly like the one he'd given her on her seventeenth birthday.

            She laughed, a funny little half-choked laugh that had tears in it.  This was shaping up to be the most bizarre birthday she'd ever had.

            For an hour, she sat reading the lists over and over.   She knew damn well what the question was going to be.   Finally she picked up the phone and called him at the hotel.

            "I opened my presents," she said.

            He hesitated.  She could read nothing, or everything, into the moment of silence.   "And?"

            "Meet me for breakfast at six-thirty.   Out in front of the hotel.  In the sunlight."

            "I'll see you then."

            She put on jeans and a sweater, then sat on the couch in front of the TV and actually drifted off.   She had no idea how she managed it.   Maybe she was just tired.  Weirdly, she woke to the sound of her own voice.

            "It's a good thing I didn't fantasize about you turning human only about ten zillion times, because today would have been a real letdown."

            God, where was this stuff coming from?   It was so vivid, it was like she was living something rather than dreaming it.  Or remembering.   Fleetingly, she wondered if Angel might know anything about it.   But why would he know?  It was her dream, after all.

            Setting the thought aside for later, she blinked herself the rest of the way awake and looked at the clock.   Six-twenty.  She was going to be late.

            She drove too fast to the hotel.   Stopping across the street, she looked, scanning for him.

            He was there.  In front of the hotel, on the sidewalk.  In the sun.  Bathed in sunlight, covered in it. She threw herself out of the car and ran to him.   But, a few feet away, she suddenly stopped.   She wondered why.  She'd had every intention of flinging herself into his arms.

He held out his hand.  "C'mere."

            She took a step closer and touched her fingertips to his.   He gently took her hand and brought it to him, setting her palm against his shirt, under his coat, just above the steady beating of his heart.

            She stared at her hand.   She felt like her world had just turned upside down, and it had already done that once, when Brad had walked out.   Did that mean she was rightside up again?

            Slowly, she looked up into Angel's face.   He was smiling a soft, tilted smile, and suddenly she was consumed with the memory of every time he'd ever kissed her, every time he'd touched her.  "This is--"   She stopped.  She honestly didn't know what to say.

            "I know it's sudden," he said gently.   "I don't expect an answer right away."

            "You still haven't asked the question."

            "I think you know what it is."

            She nodded.  She still hadn't moved her hand, she realized, and now she shifted it a little, feeling his heartbeat and the familiar contours of his chest.   "Listen, I . . . I gave up on impulsive decisions a long time ago, so . . ."

            "I know.  It's okay." 

            He started to back up, but her hand fisted in his shirt, stopping him.  He looked down at her expectantly.  She pushed up on her toes and kissed him.

            It had been so long since she had tasted his mouth, and now it was different.  Warmer, with a pulse beating in his tongue as she pressed his lips open.   A sound rose in her throat, a sort of desperate mewling, and she broke away before it could make itself completely heard.

            "Are you all right?" he asked.

            She nodded, blinking back tears.   "Should we go eat breakfast?  Like normal, shiny, happy people?"

            "Yes.  I think we should."

#

            He ate scrambled eggs and toast.   Buffy wasn't sure why she found this so fascinating, but it was.   It occurred to her she'd never really seen him eat much of anything.   They'd had coffee together on several occasions, and maybe he'd picked at a pastry, and she'd seen him scarf down blood from time to time when he thought she wasn't looking, but regular food, no.  

            He noticed her watching.   "It's good.  I can't even explain how good it is."

            "You should try pancakes."

            "That was yesterday."  The waitress stopped to refill their coffee cups and he gestured to her.  "Could I get another serving of eggs, please?"

            "God, you eat like a horse," said Buffy.

            "I'm having a little trouble with it.   I can't figure out what to eat, when, how much.   It's weird."

            She shrugged.  "Eat what sounds good, start when you're hungry, stop when you're full.   And kill at least nine vampires a night to work off the excess calories."

            His smile gratified her, but it faded quickly.   Buffy wondered what he was thinking.   He had on his something face.  The one that could make you wonder fleetingly if he was thinking about killing somebody, but which actually just meant he was being broody.

            "Something's bothering you," she said.

            He nodded, starting into his second plate of eggs.   After a couple of bites, he laid the fork down.   "I feel like maybe I'm pressuring you."

            "You're eating eggs.  No pressure there."

            "I mean just showing up like this.   It seemed like a good idea at the time."

            "It was a terrible idea, and you know it.   What if I'd been all happily shacked up with some young hottie and you came barging in with your little lists and your Irish ring?   You would have wasted a perfectly good stretch of immortality."

            "I didn't do this for you."

            For some reason, this took her aback.   "I . . . I guess I wasn't thinking that you did.   I mean, why would you?"

            "Because I love you, I always have, and the one thing I've regretted most in my life is that we couldn't be together.   Well, besides the whole murdering lots of people thing."

            "But that's not why you did it?"

            "No, because that would have been stupid.   Because I could have shown up here and found you all happily shacked up with some young hottie and then I would have wasted a perfectly good stretch of immortality."

            She laughed a little, shaking her head.   He was different.  Not enough, though, to disrupt the undefinable essence of Angelness that had haunted her since the day she'd met him.  "Then why?"

            He folded his hands together on the table in front of him, leaning toward her.  "My entire life every major event has been done to me.   I didn't choose to become a vampire.   I didn't choose to be cursed with a soul.   I was maneuvered by outside forces into teaming up with you--which was a good thing, don't get me wrong--and then again when I started working in LA.  Also a good thing, but still not entirely my own choice.  This--this was my own choice.  I just wanted some milestone in my life that was mine.  After damn near two hundred and fifty years I didn't think that was too much to ask."

            "How did it happen?"

            "This doctor in Dublin.   He approached me with a theory he had about restoring mortality to vampires.  Of course, he wasn't having much luck finding test subjects.  Most vampires are happy with what they are.   But he'd heard about me, so he looked me up."

            "And you said yes."

            Angel nodded.

            "And it worked."

            "As you see."

            Buffy took a long breath.   "I don't know if I would have had the courage."   He just shrugged.  She just looked at him for a long time, at all the familiar lines and angles of his face. Finally she said, "But you're lucky you had a choice at all."

#

            She left him without an answer.   She simply didn't know what her answer should be.   Her heart had already made up its mind, but her head was busily constructing a counterargument. 

            She strolled the sidewalks, her head spinning a little, trying to construct logical patterns of thought.   It proved impossible.  She kept thinking about the single time she and Angel had made love.   She hadn't even been entirely sure how it was supposed to go, and he had made it like music.  If he could touch her like that now . . . she couldn't even think about it.   It made her melt inside, made it hard to walk.   Finally she stopped, feeling the sun on her face, feeling the possibilities that swarmed around her.  Just feeling.

            When she started walking again, it took her a few minutes to realize where she was going.  Ending up at Giles' door almost surprised her. 

            He was home, in the middle of some kind of research project, with books strewn everywhere.

            "Any progress on my question?" she asked.

            "I'm sorry, Buffy.  I did what I could.  I even contacted the Council.  They don't care to talk to me, but they did.  They had no answers."

            Buffy nodded.  "You'd think whatever powers chose me would have the courtesy to make arrangements for something like this."  She couldn't help the bitterness, but at the same time, it helped her make up her mind.   But she couldn't tell Giles.  He might try to talk her out of it.  How could she not tell him, though?  "You know," she said after a moment, "Spike told me once I had a death wish.   He said all Slayers do.  They just want to know what it's like, and one day they give in and find out.  But you know what?   I've been there, done that, and it wasn't so bad.   In fact, it was a really nice place to be."

            "Buffy--"

            "I'm sorry, Giles.  Like I said, I'm just tired of it all.  But I guess a Slayer can't retire, just like a vampire can't go back to being an ordinary human being."  She smiled at him a little.  "Thanks for trying."

            Leaving the house, she had the strangest feeling she would never see him again.

#

            Brad was at the house when she got home, packing up his things.  She didn't even bother to go upstairs to see him, just went to the kitchen and poured herself a Diet Coke.

            He came down a few minutes later, looking meek and apologetic, but she beat him to the punch.

            "I'm sorry about last night.   I was pretty sore."  She smiled a little at him, surprised at the peacefulness that had settled over her now that she knew what she was going to do.

            "I'm sorry about everything," he said.   "I thought we could make it work."

            "I thought we could, too."   She frowned.  "Why didn't it?"

            "There was something about you.   I always got the feeling you wished I was somebody else."   He shifted a little on his feet.   "And now I know who."  He reached out, tapped a finger lightly against her cheek.   "Good luck with him."

            He walked out to his car, leaving her staring after him.

#

            She knew what she was going to do, knew how she would answer Angel's unasked question, but first she had to go shopping.   It didn't take her long to find what she wanted at the mall.   When she had it, carefully tucked into her purse, she went to the hotel, marched straight up to his room, and knocked on the door.

            He answered the door without asking who was there.   He was wearing a tank top and black pants and had a book in one hand, his finger holding his place.  She should have guessed.  He'd never been much for gadding about town having any kind of fun.

            "Hi," he said.  "Come on in."

            She did, crossing the room to drop cross-legged on the bed.  "I have your answer," she said.

            He came to stand in front of her, laying his book on the nightstand as he regarded her silently.  She looked up at him with a smile.   "Close your eyes."

            He quirked an eyebrow at her.   "No offense, but last time you told me to do that you ran a sword through me."

"Do you hold a grudge, or what?  Just do it."

Smiling a little, he did.  She took the claddagh ring out of her purse and slid it onto the second finger of his right hand, heart down.  He opened his eyes and looked at the ring a moment, blinking.

            "You're sure?" he said finally, still not looking at her.

            "I'm sure.  We can work out all the details later.  But right now, all I really have to say to you is yes."

            Finally, he let his eyes meet hers.   "I love you," he said, his voice barely more than a breath.

            She reached up to him and he went to his knees in front of her, burying his head between her breasts.   She clutched him to her, kissing his hair.   His body jerked in her embrace.  "Shh, Angel, no, don't."

            "It's real," he said, his voice thick.   "It's real, and I don't have to give it back.   Not this time."

            She wasn't sure what he was talking about, but it didn't matter.  The only thing that really mattered was the heat of his body against her, the smell of his hair against her lips.  "Come up here," she said.   "I want to feel your pulse."

            He pushed himself up, against her, pushed her back into the bed, his mouth finding hers.  She could taste the tears on his lips as he kissed her as he always had; with careful attention turning quickly to passion.   With one difference--this time they didn't have to stop.

            She stripped his shirt off him, looking for his pulse.   She found it in his throat, pressing her fingers against it while he kissed her hard and unbuttoned her shirt.   She found it in the pit of his arm as he shifted above her.   His weight on her made her feel vulnerable, at the mercy of his body but at the same time protected by it.

            Memories flooded her.  Years of darkness and growing bitterness fell away and she was a seventeen-year-old virgin again as he undressed her, his big hands easy on her body, his lips touching her face, her shoulders.  It was as if no man had ever touched her, as he entered her, filled her; and paused there, his dark eyes holding hers.   The emotion she saw there was almost too much for her to absorb.   It was as if she looked directly into his soul.

            "I love you," he said, his voice lower even than a whisper.

            "I love you," she answered, lost in his eyes.

            He made it like music again, the rhythm just as she remembered it, and it was as if the last thirteen years of her life had never happened.   The deadness, the weariness, faded.   She could feel again.  All the betrayals, the abandonments, disappeared in the face of this, the one love that had never left her heart.

            He knew exactly where and how to touch her, as if they'd made love a hundred times.  And as he brought her to the edge of ecstasy, as she brought him and they toppled off together, she felt for the first time in years that she could, in fact, go on.

"At that particular time love challenged me to leave

At that particular moment I knew staying with you meant deserting me

That particular month was harder than you'll believe but I still left

At that particular time."

                                    --Alanis Morissette--That Particular Time

            "I went to the Oracles.   I asked them to turn me back."

            She felt like someone had stabbed her through the heart.   "What?  Why?"

            "Because more than ever I know how much I love you."

            She could barely bring herself to look at him.   How could he do this to her?   To them?  "No.   No, you didn't."

            "And if I stayed mortal one of us would wind up dead.   Maybe both of us."

            God, this hurt.  Just a dream Buffy, remember.  Just a dream.

"How can we be together if the cost is your life, or the lives of others? . . . I wasn't sure if I could do it if I woke up with you one more morning."

            Just a dream.  Only a dream.  None of this pain is real.

            "How am I supposed to go on with my life knowing what we had?  What we could have had?"

            "You won't.  No one will know but me."

            "Everything we did…"

            "It never happened."

            "It did.  It did.   I know it did!"  Not real, this pain.  Only a dream, this ripping out of your heart.  Let it go, let it pass through and not touch you . . .  She could feel the heat of his body as she set her hand against his chest.  "I felt your heart beat."

            Tears streamed hot down her face.   She could barely breathe.  She felt like she was dying.  "It's not enough time . . ."

            I'll never forget.  I'll never forget.  I'll never forget…

#

            Buffy jolted awake.  The tears lay in a heavy, unstoppable knot below her throat and they came out suddenly, in a wail of inconsolable grief.  

            "Angel!  Angel, God . . ." 

            He was gone.  She was certain of it.  Maybe he had never really been there at all, it had all just been a dream.

            "Buffy . . ."  He leaned toward her in the darkness and held her, cradling her against his chest.  "Buffy, it's all right.   I'm here."

            She couldn't talk through the tears.   He shifted away from her and a light flared suddenly as he turned on the bedside lamp.  "Are you okay?"

            All she could do was hold him and wait for the grief to subside.  It was more than just the dream, she knew.  It was seeing him become Angelus, it was watching him die, watching him leave her on graduation day, it was losing her mother, it was dying and being ripped from Heaven, figuring out how to live again.  It was the last fourteen years of loss and death, of endings and betrayal and a life that had begun to lose any semblance of joy or purpose.

            He held her close, shushing her, stroking her hair, letting her cry herself out.  Finally she pushed back from him a little, folded her hands on his chest, just above his heartbeat, just to reassure herself it was still there.   "Did I," she began, "a long time ago, did I one time lick ice cream off your chest?"

            His breath stopped for a moment.   She stared at her hands, unable to look into his face.   Finally he said, quietly, "You remember."

            "I remember all of it."

            "How?"

            "Just a few days ago.  I started having dreams."  She gathered the courage to look at him.  He was still there, and he was still the same.   "I knew.  Somehow I knew you were coming to me.  And that you had changed."

            He nodded.  "I should have known you would know.  You were always a little freaky like that."

            She laughed.  It felt good.  Then the happiness faded in a sudden thought.  "What if the dreams mean . . . mean it'll happen again?   That you'll leave me again?"

            Shaking his head, he cupped her face in his hand.   "No.  Not this time."

            "How can we be sure?"

            "Because what I did--there's no turning back.   It was medicine, not magic.  Or at least most of it was."  He drew her in to him again, cradling her head against his chest.   "I think the dreams mean just the opposite.   That what happened then won't happen now.   That now I can give you what I had to take away."

            "You remembered.  All this time, you remembered."

            "I did."

            "How did you live with it?"

            "I got broody and short-tempered.   Nobody really noticed."

            She laughed again, but this time it sounded more like a sob.  "I don't want to lose you again.  Not after this."

            "You won't."

#

            They made love again, Buffy still overwhelmed with the pure joy of it, then ordered room service for breakfast.   They ate pancakes and eggs without bothering to get out of bed, or to get dressed, for that matter.

            "This is really nice," Buffy said, "having sex with you and not having to kill you later."

            "Yeah, I'm kinda into that, too."   He helped himself to a piece of bacon off her plate; he'd already finished his own.  "But the best part is, I don't have to worry about being happy.   I can just--feel it."

            "It's good?"

            "God, you have no idea."

            "So maybe we can work on that broody son of a bitch thing you mentioned?"

            "I'll give it a shot."   He reached for more of her bacon and she slapped his hand.

            "You're going to get fat if you keep that up."

            He shrugged.  "I'll work out."

            "Yeah, you might want to.   That doctor of yours might want to check your cholesterol, too."

            "Okay, I'll quit.  I think I might be full, anyway."

            "Still working out all the body signals?"

            "Yeah.  I think I might have to pee, too."

            She laughed.  "Well, why don't you go take care of that?"

            He rolled out of bed, still naked, and headed for the bathroom.  She just watched, enjoying the view, the movement of muscles under his skin, the slight rippling down the black tattoo on his back as he shoved a hand through his hair.

            When he came back, she had cleared the remains of breakfast from the bed, and he slid back into the bed next to her, wrapping her in his arms.  "Miss me?"

            "Terribly."  She settled back into his embrace, feeling his warm breath against her ear.   "Do you want to have a family?"

            He hesitated.  "I told you, I'm not sure--"

            "I know.  But if you can."  She rolled over to look at him.  "And if you can't, then maybe we could adopt or something.  But do you want kids?"

            "Yes.  Very much."

            "Good."  She slid a hand down his arm.  "You know, give it a couple of weeks and we might just find out if you can.   Or if you did."

            His eyes widened.  "Damn.  I didn't even think about that."

            "I did."

            "You did?"

            She nodded.  "I decided I didn't care."

            He regarded her soberly.   "We need to decide what we're going to do."

            "I know."

            "Did you want to talk to Giles?"

            "No.  I don't want to talk to anybody.  I just want to go."

            "Go where?"

            "Take me to Dublin.  To your doctor.  He made you alive--I'm sure he can make me dead.  Just for a bit.  Just enough to take me out of the game."

            "Buffy--"

            "Don't argue with me.  I talked to Giles and he doesn't know of any way for a Slayer to retire gracefully.  The only way to go is to die."  She hesitated, swallowing the fear she didn't want to admit to.  "So I'll do that."

            "Wouldn't it be easier just to . . . leave?"

            "There has to be a Slayer.   Especially here.  Faith's around doing her world tour slayage thing, but there really needs to be somebody here."

            He closed a hand around her arm. "Buffy, I have to put a condition on this."

            "What?"

            "Give it a little time. If something did happen here, if you're . . . pregnant, then this has to be a no-go."

            "And I didn't even think about that."   She took a quick breath, let it out.   "Okay.  We'll give it enough time to be sure.  Then we'll go from there."  She leaned half out of the bed, found her purse on the floor and dug out the strip of condoms she'd brought and had decided not to use.  "And from now on . . ."  She waved them at Angel.

            The corner of his mouth tilted up.   "You want more?"

            "Oh, God, do I ever."

#

            "You're sure this is how you want to do this?"

            Buffy fastened the last latch on her suitcase.   "Yes."

            "You don't want to tell anybody?   Not Giles, not Willow, not your sister?"

            "I just want to go.  I don't want to give anybody the chance to talk me out of it."

            "You could at least leave a note."

            She gave him a dark look.   "Did you leave a note when you went to Dublin?   Did you tell anybody you were coming here?"

            "No, actually, I didn't."

            "All right then.  Let's go."  She hefted her suitcase.   "Giles'll figure it out, if he can put two and four together and come up with five."

            "So you left him a ridiculously obscure hint."

            "Something like that."

            He didn't argue with her anymore, much to her relief.   She drove them to the airport.

            They bought tickets when they got there, for a flight to Ireland that turned out not to have too many layovers, then almost missed the plane when Angel got distracted in the concourse by giant cinnamon rolls.

            "Those smell really good," he said, veering toward the counter.  "Five seconds.   I'll get you one, too."

            So they were the last two people on the plane, and the only ones who came on board with giant cinnamon rolls.

            Buffy had never been to Ireland, and she seemed destined not to see very much of it, at least not right away.   Even the prospect of touring Dublin didn't have the appeal for Buffy of just staying in the hotel, preferably under Angel.   Or on top of him--she wasn't picky about that sort of thing.   But by the second day, the lure of non-room service food and sunlight was too much for Angel to ignore, so she let him show her the city.

            "Of course, it's a lot different than when I lived here," he said as they strolled along the sidewalks, eating fried fish and chips.   Buffy found herself wondering if there were any vampires around--after this greasy food, she was going to need a workout.

            "This isn't where you were Changed, is it?"

            "No, I was in Galway then.   We'll go there sometime.  Ooo, a pastry shop."

            So, of course, they stopped for pastries.

            After a week of sex and food and sunlight and--at Buffy's insistence--some jogging, they went to see Angel's doctor.

            He ran a private practice in a good part of town, and none of the patients in his waiting room appeared to be erstwhile vampires.   He had an upper-class English accent, and greeted them with a smile.

            "I see you're still doing well," he said to Angel, ushering them into an examining room.  "This must be Ms. Summers."

            "Buffy," she said, holding out her hand.   "Nice to meet you."

            "Dr. Martin."  He shook her hand warmly.  "I assume you'd like me to kill you?"

            "Oh, nice," said Buffy, looking at Angel.   "You briefed him."  She tried to ignore the tremor of fear rising under her heart.

            Angel bumped against her.   "First we need to do that test we talked about."

            She grinned at him.  "He's a doctor.  We don't have to be shy."  She turned to the doctor.   "He means a pregnancy test.  I assume I need to pee on something?"

            She wasn't pregnant.  She wasn't sure what she thought about that.   On the one hand, it meant they could go ahead with the original plan.  On the other hand, it meant they could go on with the original plan.  She wondered if that was why she'd conveniently forgotten the condoms that first night.  If she'd gotten pregnant then, she wouldn't have to face this now.

            She looked up at the doctor.   He took her hand.  "It's all right."

            "Yeah, let's hope so."

            Angel took her hand as she lay down on the table.   Concern creased his forehead and she squeezed his fingers tight.  

            "Angel?" she said.

            He brushed his hand over her forehead.   "Yes?"

            "If I . . . if I don't come back, don't try to get me.   Just let me go."

            "Buffy . . ."

            "Promise me.  If I go, know that I'm happy there.  Almost as happy as I've been this past week."   She squeezed his hand tight.  "Can you do that for me?  Can you let me go, if you have to?"

            "Let's hope I don't have to."

            But she couldn't let him off that easily.   This was too important.  "Promise me, Angel."

            He nodded.  "I promise."

            She didn't want to know what the doctor did to her, so she closed her eyes tight and clung to Angel's hand.   As darkness descended on her, she thought, I've come back from death twice.  How could I possibly expect to come back again?

#          

            She came back.  There had been nothing on the other side this time, only darkness, perhaps a barely remembered dream.  It was as if she hadn't been meant to go any farther than that.

            She opened her eyes to see Angel's dark ones peering down at her in concern.  "Buffy?"

            "Angel."  His hand still clutched hers and she pulled at it, sitting up.   The doctor stood on the other side of the table.

            "How do you feel?" he asked.

            "Good.  Good, I think."

            "Just stay put.  Take all the time you need.  No need to rush anything."

            Buffy nodded.  She felt a little woozy.  Dazed.   But Angel was there, still real, his warm hand still holding hers.   She shifted toward him and he caught her in his arms, holding her close, against his chest, against the soft beating of his heart.

END.