disclaimer in previous part
Buffy awoke to the sound of her door opening and the smell of pancakes. She groaned and sat up, preparing to chase Angel from her room—being half-awake, she didn’t consider the fact that Angel couldn’t serve her food right now without getting cooked himself—only to find Tara shyly poking her head in the door. She lay back on the bed with a sigh.
“Oh, good,” Tara said, entering the room. “You’re awake.” She carried a breakfast tray across the room and set it across Buffy’s blanketed lap. It was stacked high with steaming pancakes, and it was set with butter, maple syrup, and orange juice.
“Dawn told me that you like blueberry,” Tara said anxiously. “She wasn’t pulling my leg, was she?”
Buffy smiled weakly. “There was no leg-pulling,” she assured. Then she sat up and, trying to hide her reluctance, set to work on the breakfast. It was as delicious as it smelled, but it set red-alert sirens to screaming on her internal Carb and Calorie Counters. She almost winced at the thought of how much extra exercise she would have to do that night to work off this much food, but she managed to contain herself.
“You didn’t have to do this, you know,” she said. “I can take care of myself.” If she’d been speaking to anyone else—especially if it really had been Angel—this would have been a brusque dismissal. But this was Tara. Buffy always found the bigger girl’s presence to be soothing somehow. There was a reason that Tara was the only one of her friends that she’d trusted enough to tell about Spike.
That didn’t mean that she meant what she said any less.
“Oh, I know,” Tara said as she sat down on the bed. “I just wanted to talk to you about something.”
Buffy sighed and put down her utensils. First lecture of the day, coming up. Leave it to Tara to come up with as gentle a method of trapping her as putting breakfast across her legs.
“Willow and I are going to start paying rent,” Tara said.
Buffy blinked. That had come from left field. “Uh…”
“When we moved in, after you died, we were trying to help—taking care of Dawnie and everything. But even then, we depended on your mother’s insurance to pay the bills. And when that ran out, they just didn’t get paid. You remember what it was like when you got back.”
Buffy nodded, still too surprised to speak.
“Then when you did get back, you took over taking care of Dawnie, and we just…stayed. We lived in your house, we ate your food, but we didn’t contribute anything—not to the household, anyway. We helped with the Scooby Stuff, but we could have done that living anywhere.” She bowed her head and sighed. “We were freeloaders.”
Distressed to see Tara this way, Buffy leaned forward over the tray and patted her shoulder as best she could. “No, you weren’t. Don’t talk like that. You don’t have to do this.”
Tara smiled at her and patted her hand. “Yes we were, and yes we do. My father didn’t teach me many good things, but one of them was to always do your share. We’ll see if we can get jobs at the Magic Box, or the school library or something.” She paused, something occurring to her. “Maybe Willow could even set up a freelance computer-repair business. All she’d need is some advertising…” She drifted away for a moment, then shook her head and returned to the present. “But don’t worry, I won’t talk like that again.”
Buffy leaned back in her pillows, still stunned. “I don’t know what to…thank you. Yes. That’s what to say. Thank you.”
“We see how much pressure you’re under,” Tara said. “We should have helped lift it long ago.”
“Thank you,” Buffy said again, surprisingly deep gratitude finally working its way through her astonishment.
“You’re welcome,” Tara smiled. Then, after a moment’s pause, she waved a finger at the pancakes. “You should eat those before they get cold.”
“Right,” Buffy said, sitting up.
“You know,” she said as she resumed eating. “I was worried when you said we need to talk. Usually, nothing good comes after someone says that.”
“People don’t warn you if they want to talk about something happy,” Tara said. After a moment’s pause, she added: “Were you worried I wanted to talk about last night?”
Buffy stiffened. “Yes,” she answered. She braced herself. She’d been stupid to bring it up.
“Well, we’re worried about you, of course,” Tara said. “I’m hoping that taking some of the financial stress off you will help you get some of your appetite back.”
Buffy sullenly put another piece of pancake in her mouth. It had all been a ploy. And she’d been so grateful a moment ago.
“…But it occurs to me that we could all be wrong,” Tara continued. “After all, there's times when we’ve missed real problems. We aren’t always quick on the pick-up.”
“That’s true,” Buffy agreed, scowling.
“So how would you like some second opinions?” Tara asked.
Buffy stared at her quizzically. “Huh?”
“I know a spell that will let you hear what people are thinking—but only when they’re thinking about you. That way, you can go out and find out if anyone agrees with us, or if we’re just overreacting again.”
Buffy’s expression had gone from quizzical to wary. “Willow told you about my bad experience with this, right?”
“It’ll only last twenty-four hours,” Tara assured her. “And you’ll only hear thoughts about you. And only if the person is close to you—like in the same room close. If it’ll make you feel better, I can even give you the antidote to carry with you in case it gets to be too much.”
Buffy sighed again and rolled her eyes. “All right. If it’ll make you all feel better…spell me.”
Tara reached out and touched a hand to Buffy’s face. “Buffy, here’s the key to free you:” She chanted. “See yourself as others see you.”
She took her hand away.
Buffy blinked. “That’s it?” She asked.
After all these years dealing with magic, you’d think she’d learn it’s not all flashes and bangs from a David Copperfield show.
Tara’s voice was exasperated. And it hadn’t come from her lips.
“I guess so,” Buffy said. “And you would think that, wouldn’t you?”
Oh, no! I can’t be having hostile thoughts! This is supposed to help!
“That’s the problem with thoughts,” Buffy said sardonically. “The more you don’t want them to do something, the more they do it.”
She’s right. I have to distract myself with something. That’s it! I’ll think about…
Tara’s thoughts faded from Buffy’s mind, and a big smile spread across her face. A smile that Buffy was all-too-familiar with, but that she was always surprised to see on Tara’s gentle face.
“You’re having naughty thoughts about Willow, aren’t you?”
“Well, you’re going to have to go now,” Buffy said, handing Tara the tray and its half-eaten contents, then swinging her legs out of bed and setting her feet on the floor. “I have to change for work, and I don’t want to have to listen to any naughty thoughts about me.”
Not much risk of that anymore.
Then an image hit Buffy of herself: emaciated, hollow-eyed, and pale. Thoroughly unhealthy-looking, and thus unsexy. Someone who needed taking care of more than anything else.
An image of herself as she’d been a few years ago. Her cheeks and breasts fuller, her hair and skin more lustrous.
Wide-eyed and wide-mouthed with shock, Buffy stared across the room at Tara, who just looked back at her sadly and went out the door.
Tara closed the door behind her, then leaned against it with a weary sigh. “This isn’t going to be easy,” she said to Giles, who’d been waiting outside the door the whole time, dressed in a bathrobe and carrying a towel so he’d have an excuse for his presence if Buffy came out.
“It never is,” he replied.
As she sighed, nodded, and started for the kitchen, his curiosity overcame him and he caught her by the shoulder.
“You know,” he said. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that particular incantation before.”
“That’s because I cribbed it from Mercedes Lackey,” Tara said. “All it did was activate a powder I baked into the pancakes. She and Willow—and even you—have some things to learn about kitchen witchcraft. Not every spell has to go off with a flash.”
“I suppose not,” Giles agreed. “And if she hadn’t given her permission?”
Tara shrugged. “Then I saved a little flour.”
She resumed her walk toward the kitchen and Giles, left with nothing else to do, went into the bathroom.
Buffy sighed and leaned against the warming bin behind Double Meat Palace’s front counter. Hearing what people thought about her wasn’t as overwhelming as being able to hear everything that people thought, but it was a bit depressing. It’s not like she was surprised that people didn’t think about the people serving them their burgers at all—or that when they did, they thought of them as high-school drop-outs or some other form of loser—but it was no fun to get that confirmed. There were even a couple times she’d had to bite back retorts when she’d realized that the person cursing her out wasn’t doing so out loud.
There she is.
Ah. A familiar “voice”. Xander had made a habit of stopping by every day to pick up his morning coffee—more for the visit than the java, which Buffy knew full well was putrid—and it “sounded” like he was here.
Sure enough, Xander came through the door a moment later, accompanied by Anya. From the hungry way Anya kept looking at him, Buffy had no question why she couldn’t hear Anya’s thoughts—and she was glad of it, too.
“Morning, Buff,” Xander greeted as he arrived at the counter.
“How’re you doing?”
The funny thing was that Xander probably thought he sounded casual. Buffy shrugged. “Okay,” she said.
“You sure?” Xander asked, still trying to sound bluff, hearty, and above all, casual. “I heard you were sick last night.”
I hope it’s not that flu again. She’s looking a bit peaked, and kinda skinny. Maybe she hasn’t been able to keep food down. Maybe she shouldn’t be preparing food—but she can’t afford to skip work. Man, I wish that construction thing had worked out. If only those assholes—
That was when Xander started thinking about the construction workers who had lied about her to save their own machismo, and she couldn’t hear him anymore, except in bursts:
--and then she could have a real salary, and sick days, and health insurance—
She forced herself to ignore it and respond to the spoken question: “I was. But that was last night. I’m okay now.”
She’s not sick, she’s underfed.
Ah. Now she could hear Anya.
Look at her. Back in the old village, even Olaf wouldn’t have looked at her twice. She looks like a starved chicken.
“Buffy?” Xander said, trying to distract the Slayer from staring at his wife in seemingly unprovoked shock and aggravation. “Something wrong?”
Xander and Anya had gone their way, Xander vowing to have words with Tara about not warning him about the spell (not that he’d talked to her that morning, but still), and Anya completely unapologetic for her thoughts. Buffy was just coming down from a good fume when another set of thoughts intruded on hers.
“Excuse me, miss?”
It wasn’t often that Buffy had to look down, but the woman now standing at the counter looked like she had been her height to begin with, and had withered with age. She looked like somebody’s sweet old great-grandmother.
“Yes, ma’am?” Buffy said, doing her best to shake out of her reverie and step up to the counter.
“Could I please have a Palace Bacon and Egg Muffin?” the old lady asked.
Herself, leaving for the night. Worn jeans and a stained work shirt. Taking off her ridiculous hat—and why do they have to humiliate the poor things so with those hats—and running her hand wearily through her stringy hair.
“Certainly,” Buffy forced herself to say. “Would you like anything to drink with that?”
“An orange juice, please.”
Returning to a run-down apartment on the bad side of town, that she can barely afford despite the cheapness of real estate in Sunnydale. A barely-furnished hovel where a baby waits for her.
“Is that for here or to go?”
“To go, please.”
A baby she dropped out of high school to have, despite the fact that her boyfriend abandoned her and went into the Navy. A baby she can barely support. Going to charity clinics and praying that neither of them needs anything that doesn’t come over the counter. Riding the edge of welfare, but too proud to go on it. Eating only the bare minimum to stay alive, so that her baby can have enough.
“That’ll be $4.82, please,” Buffy said, handing the old woman her meal and ringing up the cash register.
The old woman pressed a twenty-dollar bill into Buffy’s hand and hurried away before she could get her register drawer open. Buffy was left clutching the bill and fighting back tears.
One of Buffy’s more useless co-workers called in—apparently, his sixth grandmother had died—and she ended up working a twelve-hour shift. She didn’t punch out until 9:30 (a half-hour beyond the twelve), and didn’t arrive home until ten. Even so, she didn’t do more than stop in to shower and change.
She couldn’t stay in the house with Tara’s spell in operation. The mix of guilt and worry from Giles, Tara, and Willow constantly buzzing and chirping at her was bad enough. But the resentment and fear coming from Dawn was like nails on a chalkboard played through a heavy-metal amp.
Besides, the whole point of this was to get second opinions, right? The ones she’d gotten so far didn’t count. Of course she looked awful in her Double Meat Palace uniform. She knew where to go to get the results she was looking for.
She dressed in her best and headed for the Bronze.
Buffy leaned against the bar, nursing her drink (more calories…going to have to take patrol at a run). This spell was bad for the ego. She hadn’t “heard” a thing since she’d entered the Bronze an hour before. Nothing more than Dammit, get out of my way anyway.
This wasn’t working. One of her friends, or maybe Angel, could show up at any moment, and their thoughts would distract her so much that it would ruin everything. She needed to start gathering information, and she needed to start five minutes ago.
What she needed was some attention.
Almost as if God—or the DJ—was reading her mind, a truly dance-worthy song came on at that very moment. With a grin, Buffy tossed back her drink, slammed it down on the bar, got out on the floor, and started to move.
Even before she’d been the Slayer, Buffy had always loved to dance, to switch off her mind and exist on the backbrain level of stepping feet and pounding beat and swinging head and swaying hips. Since she’d been Chosen, it had taken on a whole other dimension as she gloried in her body’s preternatural power and grace.
And she would be lying—at least to herself—if she didn’t admit that she enjoyed people’s reactions to her as well. And now she would get those reactions straight from the source.
God, somebody force-feed that scrawny bitch until she breaks size O.
Buffy’s serene smile turned into a nasty grin for a second. Jealousy she could deal with.
Dude, she is so hot.
Her grin broadened and lost its nasty edge. She’d been right. Here was the proof. She wasn’t hurting herself, she was improving herself, and her friends and family would have to acknowledge that. After all, they were the ones who—
Dude, are you stoned? She’s fucking bony, man. The thickest part of her leg is her knee.
Buffy realized that she was overhearing a conversation, relayed second-hand from the conversants’ minds.
True. That is kinda gross.
Buffy missed a step, lost the beat for a moment. That brought more attention, another voice:
What a shame. That girl could be hot if someone would just give her a sammich.
She stumbled. More attention:
Somebody buy the poor girl a meal. Does she actually think that’s attractive?
That one hurt. But stopping in the middle of the dance floor with a wounded look on her face only made matters worse.
A teenage boy desperately concealing his own homosexuality from himself, imagining her first as a boy, then herself—see ma I’m not gay I’m not I’m not I’m not—and the difference was so slight
A pedophiliac bouncer imagining her as a little girl with pigtails and a party dress, licking a lollipop like she was about to start blowing it. Again, so little change for her to fit the fantasy
Now she was reeling about the floor, and everyone was paying attention to her.
Herself, a strung-out junkie with a needle in her arm, giving $20 blowjobs in alleys, not eating for days because she spent all her money on smack and was too high to notice her hunger anyway.
“It’s not like that,” she whispered, tears starting in her eyes.
Herself clawing and cutting at her arms, torturing herself.
“Don’t look at me like that,” She sobbed.
Herself, a jut-ribbed, hollow-eyed, sunken-cheeked parody of a girl who might once have been pretty.
“Don’t look at me!” She screamed, covering her face.
An overwhelming, undifferentiated flood of pity and concern and annoyance and disgust, even from those—so few, so few!—who still found her attractive
Either coked out or just a psycho bitch. What a waste.
She dove through the crowd and out the door.
Buffy stumbled out into the alley outside the Bronze, digging in her pocket for the packet of powder Tara had given her.
“Okay!” She sobbed, as if Tara was there to hear her pleas. “I get it! You’ve made your point!” She pulled out the packet and dropped to her knees as she pulled it open. “Now make it stop,” she whispered. “I can’t take anymore.”
Herself, from behind her in the alley. Limned in red. Her pulse pounding, throbbing. Perfume doesn’t cover the smell of girlflesh and blood beneath. Crumpled and broken, easy prey. Too small, perhaps—need a second course later, but…
Buffy’s back stiffened, and she raised her head. “You so don’t want to try this right now,” she warned as she heard the vampire’s approaching steps.
“Funny,” he said. “And I was so sure that I did.”
Buffy whirled to her feet and spun a kick at him all in one lightning-fast motion, and she could “hear” that she’d caught him completely off-guard. The battle would be over almost immediately.
Or it would have been, if she hadn’t been struck by a wave of dizziness in mid-kick. She missed, and as her foot touched unsteadily back down, she remembered that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
Remembered. Had she really been avoiding food so long that she could work at a fast-food place all day and still forget to eat? Not that she wanted to eat Double Meat Palace’s fauxburgers, but the smells should at least have reminded her that she was hungry.
“Nice dance moves,” the vampire growled, putting up his guard. “Too bad this is a fight and not a ballet studio.”
Jab to her face.
Buffy ducked and responded with a jab of her own.
He still thought of her as just a
Scrawny, flat-as-a-board bitch
--just another girl, perhaps one who had taken a self-defense seminar or two, so he was caught off-guard again when she hit him square in the nose.
His nose should have been broken and he should have been knocked down and dazed. Instead, he staggered back a step and paused, glaring at her warily while he wiped a slight trickle of blood away.
Buffy simply stood, watching him, her guard up, also trying to regroup.
“Should have taken the chance to run away, bitch,” he snarled before he charged again.
This vampire was dressed like a fifties-era greaser—black leather jacket, white t-shirt, jeans, boots, chains, greasy Elvis hairdo, the works—and that’s how he fought. Instead of using the combat skills that all vamps seemed to know fresh out of the grave, he just kept swinging punches at her. And she kept dodging, alerted a split-second ahead of time by Tara’s spell. She tried to retaliate, but her blows had no power. Sure, she could “hear” that they hurt more than he thought they should—
Swinging her tiny mouse paws on those twig arms
--but that wasn’t nearly enough.
Worse, she was getting tired. Slow. She already knew that she couldn’t win. Fear, an unfamiliar, helpless fear that she hadn’t felt since her cruciamentum, welled up within her and she wanted nothing more than to break and run. But she couldn’t. If he didn’t just chase her down, he would still be out here waiting when the next person came out of the Bronze alone.
Then it happened. She saw a punch coming, but couldn’t make her body move fast enough to get out of the way. A left hook detonated against the side of her head and lit up her vision with stars, sending her staggering against the wall.
Then he was on her. He planted his hands on either side of her and—looking for all the world (if anyone was looking) like a boyfriend leaning in to give his reluctant girlfriend a kiss—he went for the kill.
She slammed the heel of her hand into his chin, shutting his mouth with a painful clack. He staggered back a step, screamed “Bitch!” and backhanded her so hard that her head bounced off the wall.
Dazed, she still tried to struggle as he closed with her again. Usually, her strength and skill would compensate for his advantage of size many times over, but she was weak, so weak…
Herself, an angel with broken wings. Glorious but broken. Love and pity.
I’m here if you need me.
“I do,” she whispered. “I do, I need you, please help—“
“That’s right,” the vampire gloated, grabbing her by the chin and bending her head aside for better access to her neck. “Pray.”
“I think that’s about enough, fledgling.”
The vampire snarled and let Buffy go, whirling toward the voice. Too weak and unnerved to do anything else, she slid down the wall until she was sitting on the ground.
“Who are you calling—“ A massive shape loomed out of the alley’s darkness, and the vampire stopped short. “Angelus…” He whispered in awe.
“Good, you’re paying attention,” Angel said. “Now piss off. This one’s mine.”
The vampire cringed, clearly conflicted. The predator in him demanded that he defend his meal, but the human intellect knew that he was severely outmatched by the legendary Angelus. “But sir,” he began cautiously. “There’s not much to her. Very skinny. You know how these modern girls are—forget about Marilyn, they want to look like Twiggy. She’s hardly fit to be an appetizer. Surely you can find better inside.”
“You didn’t pay too much attention to that neck you were about to bite,” Angel purred—like a panther contemplating a meal—as he advanced. “Or you would have noticed my brand.”
The greaser-vamp looked dumbstruck.
“That’s my mate you were about to snack on, fledgling.”
“But…” The vampire stammered. “But…but I thought she was Spike’s bitch! And since he’s left town, I didn’t think…anymore…”
Angel loomed over him by now.
“Please,” the greaser-vamp begged. “I didn’t know!”
Then there was a stake in his chest, and he was collapsing into dust.
“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Angel said. Then the cold arrogance of Angelus dropped from his face and he was Angel again and he was hurrying over to Buffy but he was just a looming shadowy shape and for the second time in as many days, Buffy fainted.
At least she wasn’t out nearly as long this time. She awoke no more than a minute or two later to Angel gently slapping at the unwounded side of her face.
“Buffy? Buffy, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” she groaned, waving his slapping hand away. “You can stop that now.”
“Are you okay?” He asked anxiously.
“Except for the Anvil Chorus playing in my head, I’m great.”
He decided to be more specific. “Can you walk? We need to get you home.”
She nodded. “I think so. Help me up.”
He did so, wrapping an arm around her to hold her up as they started to walk. The gesture reminded her of something, and she stiffened.
“What is it?” He asked, concerned.
“Your ‘brand’?” She asked, looking straight ahead.
It was his turn to stiffen, but when she looked up to read his reaction he just met her gaze steadily and asked. “Spike?”
She blushed and looked away.
He looked ahead again and started to walk. “We have a lot to talk about,” he said.
“I guess we do.”
The entire Scooby Gang was waiting in the house on Revello when Angel and Buffy arrived. The could have been planning another intervention, or they could have been simply been clustering out of worry and desire to be close—so they could help, if needed.
Buffy never found out, because as soon as she walked through the door, whatever thoughts might have been in their heads were washed away by concern about her battered appearance. Anger quickly joined Dawn’s concern, and she stopped hearing Xander’s thoughts as soon as he spotted Angel. Some things never changed.
“My God,” Giles exclaimed, leaping up from his armchair. “Are you all right?”
“Yes and no,” Buffy said as she left Angel’s side and crossed to a chair. She sat down slowly and carefully—she felt very delicate right now. “I mean…the yes is this.” She patted her wounded cheek and fought down her wince. “This is barely in the injury category for me. But the no…” She sighed and looked down at her wringing hands. “…is just no. I’m not okay. I have a problem.”
Dawn’s anger thawed a little. “It’s good to hear you actually say it for once,” she said.
Buffy smiled up at her weakly. “Last night, I lost to a fledgling, and tonight I got beaten up by an artifact of the fifties with pointy teeth. As warning signs go, those are pretty hard to ignore.”
The others started to talk, but Buffy raised a hand. “Please,” she said. “Just let me say this, and then I have to crash.”
They fell silent.
“It’s going to be hard for me to change. Food isn’t my friend anymore. I’m afraid of it—afraid it’ll make me fat. You can tell me all you want that it won’t happen, or that it doesn’t matter, and I’ll try to listen, but it’s going to be a long time before I believe you. And even longer before I can actually enjoy food again.”
She paused and took a deep breath, then plunged on. “But none of that matters, because I need to change. If I don’t, I’m going to die—it’s just a question of whether I’ll kill myself before some demon gets me. So I have to do it—it’s just going to be really hard. So I’m…I’m going to need your help.”
Silence. Buffy looked around at all of them, waiting for a reaction.
Giles started to clap.
After a moment of surprise, the rest of the Scoobies joined in. Anya looked like she didn’t quite understand why she was joining in, but she did anyway. Dawn, on the other hand, clapped frantically.
Buffy was stunned. Whatever she’d been expecting—another mass condemnation, perhaps?—it hadn’t been this. All she could do was look around and grin in stunned, joyous relief.
After a moment or two, the applause died down. Buffy spoke up quickly in the ensuing silence, before anyone else could. “Okay. I said it. Can I go crash now?”
“Perhaps you should have a snack first,” Giles ‘suggested’.
Buffy didn’t mistake it for an actual suggestion. “Could Angel bring it up to me? I’m exhausted and—“
There was a flash of ‘Am-I-In-Trouble?’ worry from Angel. The other six people in the room had the exact same image at the exact same time.
Buffy pulled the pouch of antidote out of her pocket. “Ugh, guys, is that all you can think about? Xander, Anya, don’t answer that…” She tossed the powder in her face and inhaled deeply. The images in her mind blinked out. “…but Giles, I’m surprised at you.”
Buffy was already in her pajamas and in bed when Angel arrived with a plate of fruit and a glass of milk. She took the food with a quiet “thank you” and began eating as he sat down on the bed beside her.
“I guess you know,” she said, pausing to pop a grape into her mouth. “What I want to talk about.”
Angel nodded. “Who goes first?” He asked.
“Why don’t you?” She offered, picking up an apple. “After I finish eating, I’m going to be sleepy. I won’t fall asleep in the middle of my rant, but I might in yours, and I don’t want to be rude.”
Angel looked at her dubiously. “So we’re trying for sanity and calm?” He asked.
“Hopeless as it is. Go on.” She bit into her apple and looked at him expectantly.
He opened his mouth to speak, but she interrupted before he could: “Wait, wait! There’s something else I want to ask, first.”
“I know who Fifties guy meant when he said ‘Marilyn’,” She said. “But who is ‘Twiggy’?”
“She was a model in the…seventies, I think.” Angel explained. “The template for Kate Moss, if that gives you an idea. She lived up to her name with a vengeance.”
“Oh.” Buffy seemed satisfied, but Angel wasn’t.
“Marilyn, on the other hand, wore a size sixteen dress. Which one is still an American sex symbol and which one did you need me to tell you who she was?”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “Okay, point taken.”
“I haven’t gotten to the point yet.”
“What is the point then?”
How to begin? “Buffy, I’m over 250 years old…”
“…and when I was alive, a plump woman was a beautiful woman. It was a sign of good health and prosperity if a woman could eat as much as she wanted. Oh, there was still such a thing as ‘too fat’, but no one like you could ever mistake herself for it.” Buffy gave a faint smile at that. He smiled back, then continued. “Since then, I’ve seen a lot of fashions come and go, many of which I pray to forget and some of which were even harder on women than today’s: there were times when Darla hated wearing a corset, and she didn’t even have to breathe.”
Buffy lost her smile at the mention of Darla. Seeing it, Angel hurried on: “And in all those years of changing fashions and standards of beauty, I’ve realized one thing.”
Buffy knew a cue when she heard it. “And what’s that?” She asked obligingly.
“That a woman looks her best when she looks healthy and comfortable. Not when she’s suffering or worrying about those five extra pounds or that bit of cellulite.”
Buffy looked at him skeptically. “It’d be nice to believe that, but you’re biased. Like you said, things were different back when everyone was wearing powdered wigs and hoop skirts. I know what the models and the movie stars look like now.”
Angel didn’t bother to correct her fashionistic era-mixing. Instead he just shrugged. “Ask around—you’ll be surprised how many men agree with me. It’s not like many of us look like models or movie stars. It’s better to have a few extra pounds or a bit of cellulite than fret about them all the time or kill yourself trying to escape them. Not that it’s an issue for you anyway.”
“If you say so,” she said, still skeptical. “But I seem to remember somebody saying last night that I looked scary.”
“Buffy, I think you’re beautiful no matter what you look like. Remember that time you were infected with the aspect of those mind-reading demons when I said that I’d l…think you were beautiful even if you were covered with slime? I just want you to be healthy. Last night, I was scared for you, not of you.”
“Okay,” she said, picking her apple back up off the plate. “I won’t argue anymore. It’s not an issue for me. But we do have some issues, and I think we’ve ducked them long enough.”
Angel sighed. “Right. Time for the pain?”
Buffy nodded. “Time for the pain.”
It was always hard to think of a good way to start a conversation like this. After a few moments, he gave up trying to find one. “Okay, uh…I guess I’ll just ask: what’s the story with Spike?”
“I spent most of this past year in a horrible, mutually-abusive nightmare of a relationship with him,” she said, taking another bite of her apple.
Angel had been bracing for something like that since he’d heard the Fifties Fledgling call Buffy “Spike’s bitch”, but it still rocked him back on his heels. “Mutually…?” Was all he could manage.
“I made with the hitting—well, most of the hitting—and name-calling and denying the relationship was real. He made with the mind games and sexual degradation and trying to separate me from my friends.”
Angel was dumbfounded, which was probably the result she was trying for by being so blunt.
After a moment, he regained his wits enough to ask “Why? You must have remembered how he treated Drusilla, but she was a demon, too—it was natural between them. Why would you do that to yourself?”
Buffy picked up an orange and began to peel it, focusing her eyes on that instead of him. “I was pretty messed up when I came back—“
“Been there,” he said.
“And someday we’ll talk about which is worse: staying in Hell or getting dragged out of Heaven—“ She said testily. Angel winced in sympathy. “But the point is, I didn’t think I could tell Giles or Dawn or anyone. I didn’t think they could handle it. But I could talk to Spike. So before too long, it felt like…” She paused, pulling out a section of orange, clearly searching for the right words.
“Like you needed him,” Angel supplied.
Buffy nodded. “Right. Like I needed him. For the longest time, I didn’t think I had anyone else to talk to.”
“But you were wrong?”
“Yes and no. Xander and Anya didn’t know what to do about it. Willow was right in the middle of her magic bender at the time, so she tried a forgetfulness spell on me. Giles took it as one more sign that he had to leave me for my own good—“ Angel winced. “—and Dawn took it as I’d rather be dead than be with her. So I was right that I couldn’t talk to them.”
“But Tara?” Angel guessed, noticing the name that had been left out.
Buffy nodded again. “Tara. But she couldn’t help me with the other part of it. For the longest time, I still felt dead inside, and Spike helped me to feel something. Even if that ‘something’ was ‘horrible’.”
Angel took a deep breath. He didn’t need it. His heart wasn’t racing. No adrenaline was flooding his bloodstream. His cells weren’t screaming out for oxygen in preparation for fight-or-flight. But some habits die hard, and if he’d been human, all of those things would have been happening. His guts were a roiling cauldron of emotions, most of them ugly. One of them was primitive, bestial, territorial jealousy. Another was a somewhat nobler outrage at what Spike had done. Either way, he wanted to hunt Spike down and use some of his own damn railroad spikes to stake him to the west side of a building, so he could watch the sun coming for him all day. There was some disappointment with Buffy, and much more disappointment with the Scooby Gang. There was shame at that disappointment (at least with Buffy), and there was even a flare of the old rage he had felt toward the Powers when he first heard about Buffy’s death: I gave up a chance at a human life with her for this?
There were a few that weren’t quite so ugly. Concern for her now, worry about what all of this horrific string of experiences had done to her, followed by conviction that this was the trigger, if not the source, of her current problems. There was even a touch of pride that she’d come out the other side. But underlying it all was the ugliest thing of all: recognition. He remembered Darla and knew that he’d been in the same place.
“Well, I’m, uh…God, Buffy, I’m…”
“Not taking it well.”
“I’m trying to,” He said, his voice frayed. “It’s just a lot to take in, and you may have noticed that I’m not the quickest on my feet.”
“I have noticed that.”
“It’s just…” Angel spent a few more moments searching for the words. Finally, he began to speak, very carefully and deliberately. “I’m glad you came through it…well, not okay, but you made it through, and now you have a chance to move past it. It could have been much worse.”
Buffy scowled up at him. “You don’t have to be fake with me, Angel. I get enough of that here.”
“I know you want to be angry.”
Angel studied her face for a long moment, and saw the defenses up behind her eyes. It broke his heart to see. Had those defenses been erected against him? Or had she been hurt so badly and so often that they were permanent?
“I don’t have a right to be,” Angel answered at last. “Not with you, anyway. I want to kill Spike for playing his games with you when he knew you were psychologically vulnerable, and I’ll admit that I’m jealous as hell of anyone who has a relationship with you. But I don’t have a right to be angry with you when I’ve been there myself, and I’ve done worse for less reason.”
Buffy relaxed. Just a little. “And that brings us around to my turn, doesn’t it?” She said.
“Now you get to tell me what you meant by your ‘brand’.”
Angel sighed. “Right. Well, first let me explain something: you know that vampires heal very quickly, right?”
Buffy nodded. “Yeah. Makes my job a lot harder than it has to be.”
“Well, there’s more to it than that: our bodies are absolutely static. Except for when we start getting really old and the demon starts to show through, we do not change. Whatever damage we take, we always—eventually—go back to the way we were. ”
Buffy looked puzzled. “But…” She raised a hand to her eyebrow. “Spike’s scar, from the Slayer in the Boxer Rebellion…”
“Right,” Angel agreed, pointing at her and nodding to acknowledge the point. “If we want to keep a scar for some reason, we have to cauterize the wound. Spike took a red hot silver spoon to that cut so he’d always have that war wound to brag about—proof that he’d actually killed a Slayer.” He shook his head in disgust. “Puppy. None of the Slayers I killed ever left a mark on…”
He noticed her wide-eyed stare and rapidly changed the subject. “And Claw! Remember Claw? He stuck his stump in a fire after he cut his hand off, so it wouldn’t just grow back. He wanted to make a true sacrifice for failing the Master.”
“Okay,” She said with exaggerated patience. “I’m still waiting to see what all of these brands have to do with mine.”
“I’m getting there. I just needed to tell you that so you could understand this.”
She rolled her eyes and settled back into her pillows, popping another grape into her mouth as she did so.
“Vampires bite each other all the time,” Angel explained. “Sometimes it’s a violence thing, but sometimes it’s a sex thing—and sometimes it’s both.”
Buffy nodded thoughtfully. “I can see that.”
Angel didn’t want to ask. Instead, he continued: “Of course, the bite marks fade just like any other injury. Unless…”
“Unless…” Buffy prompted.
“Every so often a vampire decides to…well, submit themselves completely to another vampire. Show that that other vampire owns them. When they want to do that, they cauterize a bite mark from that other vampire so that it scars.”
“I think I see where this is going.”
Angel was pretty sure she did. But he pushed on. “If it’s a human that’s been branded—well, how often do you think a vampire bites someone deep enough to leave a scar, but doesn’t kill them?”
Buffy shook her head. “Vamps not generally big with the catch and release.”
“Right. The only reason to do that—and it’d have to be a compelling reason, believe me—is to mark your territory. To say—“
“This one’s mine,” Buffy whispered, touching the scar on her neck.
Angel had nearly lost himself in the lecture, nearly forgotten why he was giving it. Her words reminded him, and he deflated. “Yeah,” he admitted. “Yeah. That’s what it says.”
“So I belong to you?”
“It doesn’t have to mean that,” Angel said quickly, knowing how such a thing would probably sound to a woman of the twenty-first century. “Sometimes, a couple will wear each other’s brands. It’s the sign of True Mating.”
“Oh.” There was an old, deep pain in Buffy’s eyes and voice. Angel mentally smacked himself in the head as he realized that he’d said the worst possible thing. His guess about how such a thing would sound to Buffy had been utterly, horribly wrong.
“Buffy, I didn’t—“
She held up her hand. “Please. I don’t think I can stand to hear any more explanations.”
Angel flared a little at that. “Hey, I think I took the Spike thing a little better than this.”
“I know, and maybe I’m being unfair, but I can’t take this anymore. You come here, you stay just long enough to save my life—and yes, I know that you saved my life from more than those vampires this time—and then you’re gone again. And every time it breaks my heart again. Please…when you leave this time, no matter what Cordy sees or says I need…please don’t come back. I just…can’t…take it…anymore.” The last words were all but sobbed.
She turned away, probably so he couldn’t see the tears starting to run down her face. He felt his own heart breaking, and he knew that she wanted him to leave now, but that wasn’t an option.
“I can’t do that, Buffy,” he said. “If the Powers send Cordelia a vision, then it’s crucially important for some reason. I can’t just ignore it.”
“Well, you’re going to have to start,” she snapped. “Nothing has worked out for me since you left—and now I find out that I’ve been fooling myself all along that it could. That I’ve belonged to you since you—since I branded myself on you. It hurt enough to have you leave me again and again before. I don’t think I could survive being reminded of this every time I see you again.”
She started to look away again, but Angel stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Buffy,” he said. “Look at me.”
She looked away stubbornly.
Grudgingly, she turned her head back around, to see him unbuttoning his shirt.
“What are you—“
“Look,” he said, pulling his shirt open. He pointed to a narrow vertical scar in the center of his chest. “That sword was enchanted, Buffy. You’ve branded me, too. And I knew what it meant all along. Believe me, I want to be with you at least as much as you want to be with me. But you know why we can’t.”
Stunned, Buffy reached out and tentatively touched the sword-scar. Then she took her hand away and sat silently for a moment. When she looked up at him again, there was a shrewd, determined look on her face. “Angel, I want you to go to my dresser—that one over there—and open the third drawer.”
Angel looked down at her quizzically. “Why?”
“Just do it. You’ll see.”
He obeyed. When he pulled the drawer open, he frowned in confusion. “Okay, what am I looking for in your underwear drawer?”
“It’s the one drawer I can be sure Dawn won’t steal from. Dig to the bottom.”
He did so. At the bottom, he found something that was part hard plastic and part soft rubber. Puzzled, he pulled it out. His eyes widened. “Um…was this what you wanted me to find?”
He knew what a dildo was, of course. Darla had enjoyed putting on teasing little shows. This one was a bit different than he remembered, though. Instead of leather, it was covered with something that felt amazingly like the real thing. And for some reason, there was what looked like a little rabbit perched on top of it. And hadn’t he heard that they vibrated nowadays? There was an on-switch…
The rabbit’s ears started twitching. Suddenly, he figured out why it was there.
“Check back down where it was. There’s more.”
He did as she said, and pulled out a plastic bottle with the words “Personal Lubricant” on it.
“I’d be glad to loan that to you, but you should be able to find some yourself. There’s two or three different brands in any drug store.”
“Buffy, what is all this?”
“Think of it as life support until Willow and Tara find a cure.”
“What if there is no cure?” Angel pressed.
“Why don’t we worry about that after we actually try to find one?” She retorted.
“I know what I want to do, Angel, so stop trying to talk me out of it. You have to decide now: stay or go?”
Angel sighed and returned the toys to the drawer. “I gave you up so you could have a normal life. This—what’s happened since then—wasn’t what I had in mind.” He paused. She waited silently for his answer. “I couldn’t stay, exactly, not in Sunnydale. I have responsibilities in LA…”
“That’s what phones are for. Haven’t you ever heard of a long-distance relationship?”
“I have, but I think they’ve changed a bit since my time. Why don’t you tell me what they’re like now?”
It was late when Angel finally came back down the stairs. Xander and Anya had gone home while Willow, Tara, and Dawn had all long since retired. Buffy was safe in bed; the rest could be worked out on the morrow. Giles, however, was still sitting up in the living room, a single lamp on by his chair, a book sitting in his lap and a cup of tea cooling in his hands.
Angel entered the dimly-lit room, chose a chair, and sat, waiting silently for Giles to speak.
Giles sipped his tea, and for once, Angel suspected that it wasn’t simply habit—especially in light of the trace of brandy that he could smell. Apparently Giles’s nerves needed steadying. No great surprise.
“So what did you talk about?” Giles asked at last.
“Spike,” Angel answered. “The last year in general. A long distance relationship.” He watched Giles’s reaction carefully and tried to prepare himself for anything up to and including a stake-wielding attempt to drive him from the house.
Giles sipped his tea. “She wants to pursue one with you?”
“And you’ve agreed to?”
Angel braced himself. He’d had to deal with irate fathers when he was alive, though rarely in such a calm, sober setting as this.
Angel blinked, momentarily dumbfounded. “I’m, uh…glad you feel that way, Giles.”
Giles took another sip. “Buffy works very hard trying to live up to everyone’s expectations of her,” He said. “Even…” His eyes lowered to his cup for a moment. “…if those expectations are unreasonably high.” He took a breath, then raised his eyes back to Angel. “She refuses to come to us with her problems. Partly because she wants to protect us, and partly because she’s afraid of our reaction. You saw how she was tonight.”
“It doesn’t help matters much that her last few boyfriends have been users and manipulators. Except for Riley. He was just one more person with expectations she couldn’t meet.”
Angel growled involuntarily. It was bad enough to give up his mate, even for what he thought to be her own good. To discover that the one he’d given her up to didn’t appreciate the gift made him want to kill.
Giles smiled bleakly. “I’m glad that you feel that way,” he said. “Because she needs the one who always loved her unconditionally. The one that she knows she can talk to about anything. She needs you.”
Angel nodded. He didn’t know quite how to feel about this speech. Part of him felt gratitude that he was being welcomed, even if it was only for Buffy’s sake. Part of him felt regret that it was only for Buffy’s sake, and hoped that it could someday be otherwise. Yet another part was angry at those who had crushed Buffy with their demands, and rejected her when she failed to meet them. In the end, a nod was the only reply he could make.
“Besides,” Giles added. “Would it have stopped you if I had disapproved?”
“No,” Angel answered immediately. “But it’s always better to get the family’s blessing than to elope.”
Giles nodded. “Well said.”
Angel rose to his feet, but something occurred to him before he could turn to leave. “Giles?”
Giles looked up at him. “Yes?”
“Buffy told me all about this year.”
Now it was Giles’s turn to brace himself. “Yes?” He prompted, clearly expecting an accusation.
“I think that you should talk to the Council,” Angel said.
It was Giles’s turn to look surprised. “About what?” He asked.
“About arranging some sort of salary or stipend for Buffy,” Angel said.
Giles looked doubtful. “There’ll be resistance to that,” he said. “Talk of sacred duty and all…”
“Which she’ll do much more effectively if she doesn’t have to work all day at a fast-food joint and worry about how she’s going to feed herself and her sister while still paying the bills for this house,” Angel said.
“All true, but—“
“And who knows? If they don’t start paying her what she’s worth, she may get a better offer.”
Now Giles looked confused. “Better offer?”
“Can you imagine the clients it would bring in if I had a Slayer available for bodyguarding assignments?”
Giles’s vicious grin matched Angel’s. “It would be a shame if we were to be outbid. Perhaps we should offer some benefits package in addition to a salary.”
“Sounds like a plan to me.”
Tara was generally the first person out of bed in the morning in the house on Revello. Not that she got out of bed all that early anymore. A few years of college living and Scooby emergencies had all but washed away a youth on the farm. Nonetheless she was the first one in the kitchen that morning, and the first one to open the refrigerator.
“My God,” she gasped. “What’s all this?”
“It’s breakfast,” a voice said from the shadows in the doorway. “If you’ll pull the shades, I’ll come in and help you make it.”
Tara gasped and jumped a little, turning first toward the looming figure in the doorway, then back to the fridge. “Angel?” she asked.
“Did you buy all this?” The refrigerator was packed with more food than Tara had ever seen in it. Real food, anyway, as opposed to fast-food leftovers. There was milk, juice, six kinds of fruit, nine kinds of vegetable, and while only beef, chicken, and pork were represented for meats, there were at least four different cuts of each.
“I can go overboard sometimes.”
“But it was in a good way this time,” She hastened to assure him.
Sharp white teeth gleamed in the shadows. “It’s nice of you to say so,” he said. “Why don’t you pull those shades, and I’ll show you what I can do with it?”
She did so, and he came out of the shadows with a casual “Thanks” and began to bustle about the kitchen. It was strange to think of such a big, fierce-looking man “bustling”, but that was the only word for it.
She stepped back out of his way and watched him nervously as he took out utensils and cookware and food seemingly at random and started to do good-smelling things to them while singing what sounded like Irish drinking songs tunelessly to himself. Part of her nervousness came from wondering if she was supposed to be doing anything, but only a small part. This was the legendary Angel. She’d heard so many stories about him. Some good (from Willow), some bad (mostly from Xander), and some terrifying. Now she was in his presence and she didn’t know what to expect. The last few days, focused as they were on Buffy and other crises, hadn’t given her much chance to get to know him.
There was one thing she was worried about. He was so old, and—being Irish from the Old Country instead of a fifth-generation American mutt like herself—almost certainly Catholic. Would he be angry at her for Leading Willow Astray, as her own father had been toward Jenny Lieberman? That would be sad. He seemed like a good friend to have, and there were some things she just didn’t want to hear again.
“I’m glad you were the first one down here,” he said as he poured some pancake mix into a bowl.
Her nervousness increased. “Y-you a-are?”
He cracked an egg into the bowl.
“I’ve heard a lot about you over the past couple days, and I wanted a chance to talk to you.”
It seemed her nervousness had been justified. “Y-y-yes?”
He poured some milk into the bowl.
“I wanted to thank you for taking such good care of Buffy. And Willow, for that matter.”
“Oh.” Tara blushed, both at his gratitude and her own thoughts. “I was just being a friend.”
“Don’t be modest,” Angel said, stirring the mixture. “It can’t have been easy.”
“There were times it wasn’t,” Tara admitted. “But she’s not heavy. She’s my Willow.”
“I understand,” Angel grinned as he turned to the stove with his bowl mix.
There were a few moments of semi-comfortable silence as he started the pancakes and set some eggs to frying. Tara pondered the presence—unique in her experience—of a man who seemed to enjoy cooking. Her father had considered it women’s work, and so had assigned it to her mother, then her. Xander and Anya seemed to live on frozen food and take out. Giles had probably done the same in his day, and had only taken up cooking to avoid malnutrition.
She was still considering this when Angel broke the silence again.
“You know, I’m always making breakfast. What I wouldn’t give for a chance to make some good Irish stew.”
“Stew?” Tara asked excitedly. “I haven’t had real stew since…for years!”
Angel grinned at her. “Maybe I’ll stay for supper. I can’t leave before sundown anyway.” Then he set a platter stacked high with pancakes on the table.
“You know,” Tara said. “Usually, both of our girls would just nibble at something like this to be polite, then make some excuse and wander away.”
Angel grinned that sharp-toothed grin at her again. “But not this time, right?”
Tara met his grin with one of her own.
“Didn’t think so.” Then he turned and bellowed up the stairs:
“Come and get it!”
Angel’s bellow brought Buffy awake and upright in her bed. She’d probably been half-awake already, what with that smell. That smell…the smell of food. The kind of food—the bacon, the eggs, the pancakes and toast—was incidental. It was food. And for the first time in too long, that smell was welcome. For the first time in far too long, she felt hungry.
As she got out of bed, she realized just how weak she’d been for how long—all the while she’d blamed it on burnout, or lack of sleep, or any one of a hundred miserable things that had happened to her since she’d been pulled out of Heaven. And none of those things had helped. But there had been one problem that she hadn’t even thought of—that she hadn’t even seen as a problem.
Now her strength was coming back, and she knew why.
She pulled on her slippers and hurried down the hall to join her family at breakfast.