The stack of invitations disappeared in a whoosh! of magic that sparkled and shimmered and smelled weirdly like barbecue sauce. Buffy blinked.
“That’s it?” she asked dubiously.
“That’s it,” Willow confirmed smugly. “I told you it would be a piece of cake.” She wrinkled up her nose. “If, you know, cake smelled like a luau.”
Buffy sighed and sat heavily on the edge of the bed. “I just can’t help but think that this is a…”
“Don’t say it!” Willow admonished, getting to her feet and dusting her spell-dust mixture off her hands.
“I wasn’t going to jinx us.” Buffy grumbled.
“No, you were going to say something just a hair shy of an actual jinx, probably involving the words ‘bad’ and ‘idea,’ and then leave it to me to finish the jinx up by being morally obliged as your friend to deny the badness. We’re twenty-three now. I think it’s time we learn from our past mistakes.”
Buffy dropped the subject.
“Anyhow, I think with those tweaks from Althenea, I managed to get everyone who was there on graduation day.” She pulled a sour face. “Even the ones we’re hoping won’t come.”
“I feel you, Willow, but if we’re going to make this an official reunion, we can’t pick and choose just the people we like. We have to invite everybody.” Buffy sighed inwardly, thinking of the hours she’d spent stuffing envelopes. At least they hadn’t had to address them all; Willow had assured her that the magic-mail-merge-whatever would take care of all the names and stuff.
“I did,” Willow said grudgingly. “Even Harmony.”
“Good.” Buffy narrowed her eyes. “So why do you look guilty?”
Willow flushed. “I invited everybody. Everybody who was there at graduation fighting on our side.”
“Ev… Oh.” Buffy looked up at the ceiling. “You could have left him out. He wasn’t a student.”
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. The spell counts on broad strokes for its reach, so leaving him out would have been basically impossible. Anyhow, I just thought… Buffy, you haven’t been happy. Not for a long time.”
“What are you talking about? I was the original party girl in Rome, living it up every night.”
Willow raised her eyebrows silently.
“Okay, fine. I was miserable,” Buffy sighed. “Why did I ever promise that I was going to move out of the state of denial? It was so cozy there. Like Rhode Island.”
“I thought maybe it might be Angel-missage…?” Willow’s voice was uncertain.
“No.” Buffy had been thinking about this ever since their ragtag bus of refugees had sought shelter from the Los Angeles crowd the previous year. “It’s not… That’s not a thing anymore.”
When Angel had visited her in Sunnydale, back when there was a Sunnydale, she’d thought it might still be a thing; she’d kissed him (which they hadn’t done for years) and they’d talked (which truthfully they’d never done before, not in that mature actually-communicating way) and she’d sent him away with a parting message of vague hope, but then….
Then she’d chosen her champion.
When they’d rolled into Los Angeles, battered and bleeding, of course she’d gone to Angel to check in, and of course he’d helped them get patched up, and of course they’d worked together through the muddled chaos of getting everybody settled into rooms in his hotel base and getting pizzas delivered, and then when it had finally been just the two of them, they’d stood, and looked at each other, and had nothing to say.
Buffy had finally said a thing, because she had to.
“It burned him up.”
“Oh.” He hadn’t asked who or what.
“Did you know?”
“No! Of course not. I…” Angel had looked awkward then. “He burned?”
“Yeah.” And somehow that had been that. They’d exchanged more words over the course of their brief stay – business talk, the mission, the care of the refugees, even a bit about the weather – but it wasn’t really talking.
When they’d left L.A. a few days later, she hadn’t kissed him goodbye.
Willow was still looking at her sympathetically; Buffy barely managed not to roll her eyes. “Angel’s not part of my life anymore. But I guess he can come if he wants. We can use all the help we can get.”
“True enough. But I am sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed….” Willow’s eyes drifted to the window, the still-bedraggled Puerto Rican scenery outside. “Think we’ll get any takers?”
“I know we will,” Buffy said stoutly. “I know we’ve all scattered to the four winds, but the Class of ’99… We’re solid, underneath where it matters. I bet almost everyone who comes will stay the whole week. After all, who doesn’t want to be a hero?”
Heroism could bugger off; Spike was bloody well done with the whole thing.
At night, he could pretend for a time. Go out, wander the streets, perhaps do a good bloody deed or two before winding up at one of the bars that stayed open as late as he wanted. It wasn’t until the sun was threatening to rise and he had to turn his steps towards the only home he had now that he had to face the truth.
He was the only one left.
Bloody Angel and his bloody heroics.
They’d won, he thought -- certainly the City of Angels hadn’t wound up overrun by demons, though that might have been interesting -- but as the battle had worn on, they’d dropped one by one, like they were figurines in a ruddy Agatha Christie play.
Wesley had been gone before the battle even truly began, and Lorne; one dead, the other simply broken and gone. He’d told Angel he would leave, the gentle singer, and Spike hoped he’d done it. Some souls weren’t meant to bear some burdens.
Gunn had at least shown up for the final showdown, reeking of blood and rot as only a gut wound could. He’d not even had the opportunity for the wound to fester; the first wave had cut him down, though not until he’d given a good accounting of himself.
Fred… Well, Fred was long gone before any of it. Blue was another matter entirely; she’d launched herself into the battle, muttering something wrathful, not giving Spike a second look.
Angel and Spike had fought on, side by side -- like the comrades Spike had believed them to be when he’d first become a vampire, before Angelus had taught him his place. Or tried to, at least; it seemed that the entire century-plus of their connection had been a cycle of Angel teaching and Spike refusing to be taught, until now, at the end of all things, they were somehow at last equal. Full circle, finally brothers in arms, back to back against the world.
So of course, Angel had fallen.
Spike wished he hadn’t seen it, that he could pretend he’d been looking the other way, but he had just turned to Angel to make some remark at his expense when he saw it, a huge steel glaive cutting through the air and then through Angel’s neck, like butter, and as the dust of his grandsire washed into Spike’s wide-open mouth, ashes on his tongue, the demon wielding the glaive had barreled right into him with a snapping of bones, and Spike had tumbled down, down, distantly feeling his body hitting the pavement as his mind kept tumbling down into darkness, the shrieks of battle fading into nothingness.
“You are broken.”
Spike had opened his eyes to see Illyria gazing down at him, her Fred-not-Fred eyes wide and unblinking as a snake’s. He could barely look at her; the sun had come out and while he was deep in a shaded alley, dark as night, the street behind her was too bright for him to bear.
He’d looked at her anyhow and tried to answer, but something was wrong with his lungs; all he could manage was a wheeze that turned into a cough that was almost but not quite a laugh.
Blue didn’t blink. “I have no use for a broken pet.”
That sounded like the story of his whole bloody life, used and broken and tossed in the bin like so much rubbish; he’d laugh-coughed again, and finally managed to hack out a sentence.
“Did we win?”
She’d closed her eyes then, negligently, as if she were checking some internal file. “The Wolf and the Ram have been annihilated. The Hart has fled, but the wounds I inflicted shall take a millennium to heal, the upstart fool.” Her eyes opened, wide and satisfied. “Their armies have scattered like dust. I claim victory.”
That made Spike wince, the memory of dust, still on his lips, like a kiss goodbye. Didn’t feel much like winning, the pain.
“I grow weary of this world,” Illyria had said, her voice oddly petulant. “I like not the feel of it now. There is a void.”
At first, Spike thought the god meant him, the black hole of emptiness that was yawning inside him, but no, empathy wasn’t in Blue’s nature -- it had to be her own loss she spoke of. Another bubble of pained mirth stabbed his lungs at the irony of a bloody vampire judging any other being’s empathy levels, but even before his soul, he-
He’d been jolted from his vague musings when Illyria had hauled him up by the lapels of his battered duster -- new, it had been, a paltry consolation prize for losing her all over again, but now it had its own collection of scars and bruises to match Spike’s own -- her empty snake-eyes staring right into his, and fuck it hurt, he’d been able to ignore the broken bones as long as he was lying still but dangling set all the snapped bits rubbing against each other and he nearly passed out again from the pain, but then Illyria’s head cocked to one side, predatory, and his survival instinct set the blackness aside for later.
“Too broken,” Illyria said dispassionately, and dropped him. Another rib snapped. “You may not accompany me.”
Never asked to, Spike would have retorted, if he weren’t gasping helplessly from reawakened agony.
By the time he’d recovered his voice, the blue god was gone.
Spike had managed somehow to drag himself to a dark corner behind a dumpster, where even at noon he would be safe from the sun. He’d huddled there miserably throughout the day, slipping between red dreams and excruciating wakefulness; by the time the sun had mercifully set, his bones had knitted well enough that he could stand.
Once he’d stood, though, he had to go somewhere, and after an agonizing eternity of indecision, he’d ended up stumbling down the block until he’d reached the one place of Angel’s he’d never actually been, not in any real sense.
The Hyperion Hotel.
It didn’t feel like home, but that itself felt oddly right. He didn’t want home, not a place he belonged. He needed a place where he was out of place, where the constant reminders of the belonging he had lost would be muted. At the Hyperion, he was a stranger, though it still smelled faintly of Angel and his bloody Angelettes. Angel’s scent was stronger, as if he’d been there recently. The power was on.
There was blood in the freezer, though the fridge was empty.
When Spike took his first sip of the defrosted blood, he’d laughed, and cursed, and finally wept, because it was bloody otter, that exotic flavour tainted by bitter freezer burn and microwave aftertaste, of course bloody Angel would have bloody otter in his emergency stash, and that had sent Spike hunting for Angel’s other emergency stash, the posh whiskey down in the cellar storage, and he’d not come out from that for a good week.
Now… He’d settled into it, the being alone; he’d gone back to his basement apartment at one point, but it had felt cold and empty and wrong -- he thought he understood Drusilla’s obsession with ashes, now -- and in the end he’d just gathered up the few things he still had a use for and tied them up in a bundle to haul back to the comfortingly-not-his hotel, where he’d found a room that suited him on the second floor. It had a crack on the ceiling in an intriguing shape -- sometimes it looked like Angel, sometimes like Dru, sometimes like Paraguay (of which he had many fond memories).
It never looked like her. That was somehow comforting as well.
Over the months of his stay he’d grown familiar with the features of the place, the strata of the dust on the things he didn’t use, the tracks left in the dust by the things he did use, and so he noticed immediately when something was different.
One morning, he had mail.
He returned from another night of patrol-drinking-not-thinking to find them neatly fanned out across the hotels’ dusty counter, three identical white envelopes, the heavy kind that always bore important news. Weddings and funerals. The dust itself was completely undisturbed on both counter and floor, as if they’d appeared out of nowhere.
“Because they did bloody appear out of nowhere, you git,” Spike told himself disgustedly. (The first few weeks he’d just thought his thoughts to himself as usual, but after a while he’d started talking back to the telly, and then talking back to himself, and now he had progressed to having full conversations with good old Spike. At least he was guaranteed an intelligent debate.)
“Magic, then. Not to be trusted,” he cautioned himself. Still, the envelopes didn’t give off any particular aura of doom. He approached them trepidatiously.
Closer, he could see that they were almost completely blank -- no return address, no stamps, no bloody bar codes from the bloody newfangled sorting machine -- each with a name written precisely in the center in vaguely-familiar loopy handwriting that glowed a faint blue. One read Ms. Cordelia Chase. Another, Mr. Wesley Wyndam-Price.
The third said simply Angel.
Spike’s hand was already halfway to picking up granddad’s dead letter when the significance of the three names struck him. Cordelia. Wesley. Angel. They had one thing in common, one thing nobody else from Angel Investigations shared. Sunnydale.
Fuck. He wasn’t opening that envelope -- that hand-addressed, magic-delivered, formal-announcement-type envelope -- without some fortification.
A tumbler of Angel’s priciest whiskey later, he paced back and forth in front of the three ominous envelopes.
“Do it,” he said encouragingly. “Nothing it could be but bad news, yeah? Go sack of hammers wondering. Just do it. Like ripping off a bloody bandage.”
And finally he did, the sound of tearing paper echoing softly off the dust. Spike shook the card out into his hand as gingerly as if it were a cobra.
His first impression was black and he felt instantly sick, searching wildly for the name of the deceased, but then the number 1999 popped out at him and he staggered to the nearest chair in confused relief, waving away the cloud of dust that poofed up from the upholstery when he fell into it.
“Got to hire a bloody maid service,” he muttered absently, reading the card from the beginning. Then he read it again, brow furrowing. And then he read it again, aloud, because for some reason the reality of the card was defying his expectations.
"The Sunnydale High School Class of 1999 Five Year Reunion will be held on Saturday, October 9, 2004, at the La Conquistadora Resort in Puerto Rico. Dinner begins at 6:00 pm."
He heaved a deep breath and let it out on a sigh. Funny, he'd thought he was numb all the way through, but turns out there was a little feeling left, just there under his spleen, a little coal of sensation that had gone cold and then hot, leaving behind a faint tinge of nausea.
"Bloody modern etiquette standards," he grumbled in disgusted relief as he read further. "Supposed to save the posh stationery for the grander events. Endings and beginnings."
Five years ago, the Sunnydale High School Class of 1999 took up arms to save Sunnydale from the mayor. Together, we saved the world.
There went his spleen again; should have that bugger removed. Or do it himself. He had enough broken bottles around to handle the deed.
"Together, we saved the world," he repeated, injecting as much irony into the words as he could. As if that could protect him from what was to come.
Today, we are asking you to lend us that same strength and determination to help the people of Puerto Rico. On September 15th, Hurricane Jeanne swept across this tiny island, devastating crops and destroying homes and livelihoods. We now invite you not only to celebrate the past five years with us, but also to take up shovels and hammers, hoes and rakes, and aid in the recovery from this deadly natural disaster.
"Hence bloody Puerto Rico," Spike commented. Who was we? It had to be her, the way this was going, but... no bloody guarantee. Sodding Xander might be carrying the torch, last survivor there as Spike was here. Still... it sounded like her.
It was her. It had to be.
We know this will not be possible for all of you, but if you are able to commit to staying in Puerto Rico for at least one week following the reunion to assist with reconstruction, your airfare and accommodations will be provided free of charge. Please present this card at any major airline counter at any international airport to arrange transportation and provide the hotel with offer code “Razorbacks5” when making your reservation. Subject to verification.
"Got some bloody funding at last," he muttered. "No more flipping burgers for you. Good girl."
All members of the Class of 1999 are welcome, alive, dead, or undead. However, please be aware that the following activities are prohibited for the duration of your stay in Puerto Rico: Curses, hexes, multi-level marketing, necromancy, murder, the distribution of printed or recorded materials of any kind, reanimation of the dead, insurance sales, non-consensual torture, feeding any animals on hotel grounds (including birds), and the consumption of human blood.
Spike could only applaud this list, though he felt it had missed a few key points. Still, insurance salesmen were a blight on any social gathering.
If you have special dietary needs or other necessary accommodations, please describe your need in the “comments” box of the online RSVP form.
We’ll see you in a few weeks!
"Not much time you give us," Spike groused. "How's a fellow supposed to get a decent tuxedo in less than a month." He paused. "Not that I'm invited." Where'd he been in May of 1999? Brazil? Not saving the world, that was for bloody sure. That had come later.
The wording of the invitation was as good as proof -- had a thing for inspirational speeches, she did -- but he lifted the invitation to his nose and tested the scent, just to be sure. There was the magic, sweet and tangy, and the earthy herby scent than meant Willow, but… yes, there, just the tiniest hint of her, under it all. Buffy.
The wave of yearning that welled up inside Spike was entirely expected; he’d braced himself against it, and it still threatened to wash him away. That was his girl, all right, still saving the world one piece at a time, and dancing every moment she could. She probably already had a dress picked out for dancing with her immortal honey, something saucy. Maybe red.
God, he wished he could see it. Her.
He poured himself another tumbler of booze -- not a finger, a whole fist worth -- and tossed the card in the bin.
When he’d finished his drink a few minutes, or perhaps hours, later, he retrieved the card and held it under his nose again, eyes drifting across the empty, dusty lobby of the hotel.
Would she wear red? Or maybe white? She looked glorious in blue as well. That blue denim jacket…. She was always glorious, his girl. Even covered in mud.
God, he hoped she’d wear red.
Buffy was covered in mud.
It was good mud, she supposed. Virtuous, even. It had taken hours of shoveling, trundling wheelbarrows, and general heavy lifting, but she and her small crew of slayers had managed to clear another residence of the bulk of the mud dumped on it by the hurricane. Tomorrow the light-duty cleanup crew would move in and start the finer work, getting the residence scrubbed down and dried out and ready for the residents to return. Another family safe.
Still, she kind of hated mud. This shirt had been red, once.
Back at the Jeep they were using for transport, Vi looked just as tired and bedraggled as Buffy felt.
“Do we have to move the whole mountain?” she said, shoving her once-colorful beanie back from her forehead. Buffy was so taking her whole crew shopping on the Watcher’s Council’s dime once this gig was done; everything they had brought to Puerto Rico was now just varying shades of dirty.
“Just the part that fell off,” Buffy laughed back wearily. “So, you know. Seventy-five percent.”
Vi settled in beside Buffy, glaring at her dirty hands. “Is this even going to come off by Saturday?” she fretted.
“You’ll have all day to clean up,” Buffy promised as they jolted along the road -- it was navigable but needed some serious pothole work. “Local government’s scheduled some heavy equipment for Saturday; even if we wanted to get muddy, we’d just be in the way.” Her eyes drifted across the empty fields and paddocks as they passed them; the livestock that had dotted the fields when they’d arrived in Puerto Rico, before all the destruction, had since been moved to safer pastures, which was of course best for them but made the farms seem even more abandoned than they were. Like they were driving through a huge ghost town.
“And it’s okay that we come?” Vi said nervously. “We didn’t graduate from Sunnydale. I don’t think Irina even finished high school at all.”
“Of course it is!” Buffy took up Vi’s dirty hand in her own, rubbing reassuringly at the dirt. “Look, you know the whole reason we’re even doing this is so that we can get more helpers out here, and give the local economy a boost. The more people we have at this shindig, the more money the local businesses have coming in for their own personal recovery. The Watcher’s Council has a lot of money.” She felt her smile grow a little forced at the memory of just how much they’d turned out to have, none of which had apparently been earmarked for the support of the girl actually doing their dirty work -- but that was neither here nor there. None of her slayers were ever going to work minimum wage again. “So when we use our expense account to support the locals, paying for the catering and the rooms, getting dresses from the local boutiques… we’re doing good work. And you’re helping to rebuild, and have been for weeks, when all you thought you were signing up for was a two-week research gig in the Caribbean. You didn’t know it was going to be Mudapalooza. Ergo, you get to come to our one party night. It’s like you and the other slayers are my plus-ones. Plus-eights. You know what I mean.”
Vi quirked a grin at that. “Oh, I see how it is. Just because you couldn’t get someone to come dance with you…”
You think we’re dancing?
That’s all we’ve ever done.
“It’s not like it’s Homecoming,” Buffy said lightly. “It’s not about couples or romance, it’s just about… you know, hanging out. With old friends. Reunifying.”
“Which is why we have a DJ?”
Buffy shrugged. “I had to give Andrew something to do. Cutting together the perfect 1999 dance mix has kept him out of my hair.”
“Right.” They both fell silent, looking out at the darkening landscape.
“Anyhow,” Buffy said at last. “We’ve been working our tails off for almost a month now. Don’t we deserve one night off?”
Behind them, its lair buried under a few tons of mud, el chupacabras disagreed. Fortunately for Buffy, it did have those tons of mud to contend with, keeping it from laying down a fierce counter-argument.
Unfortunately for Buffy, Tomas was bringing out his backhoe in the morning.