Buffy folded up Nick's most recent letter with a fond smile. Once upon a time, she'd believed that she'd never connect with a normal guy again; after the disaster that was Riley, it had seemed like the only non-evil, non-immortal man who ever spent much time with her was Xander, and there was far too much water under that bridge for them to ever reach the level of easy comfort she'd been craving.
She'd thought that maybe Angel, after Spike… but she'd lost him the previous year for good, when he had deliberately (idiot that he was) melted down the LA underground without letting her know what he was up to. Or even telling her that Spike wasn't of the dusty anymore, either, however temporary that had turned out to be. What was with it with her exes and their misplaced desire to protect her by keeping away from her?
Buffy hadn't been thinking about her romantic failures, though, when she'd picked up the phone that first time to dial Nick Stokes' number. She'd seen the report about his friends finding him buried alive on the news, and instantly thought how awful it must have been for him. She still had nightmares about her own experience waking up in a coffin underground, and she'd been trapped there pretty briefly-- awake, at least-- by comparison. She'd wished more than once (in the silence of her own mind, where 'justice' demons couldn't hear her) that there'd been someone human around who could have understood what she'd been going through-- and she'd wondered if Nick might be feeling the same way.
She hadn't really been expecting him to call back, though. He had family, friends, co-workers-- people who loved him-- to lean on, and she'd wondered if maybe it would be easier for him to reconnect on his own. If maybe her own failures that year had been just that, failures unique to her. But he had called. They'd stuttered through an awkward conversation, during the course of which Buffy had given out her contact information, and several days later the first envelope had arrived with his return address on it.
She'd never had a long-term penpal before. She'd never really had time for it, back when it had been the fashionable thing in high school. She'd never much been into the long-distance dating scene, either; Angel had broken up with her before he left town, Riley had done the same, and when Spike had left for Africa their quasi-relationship had already crashed and burned. She'd never even tried the online dating scene; it just seemed-- weird-- to flirt long-distance with a guy she'd never met. What if he was a demon? Or lying? Or-- just not her type?
Something about Nick, though, had kept Buffy writing and checking the caller ID every time her cell phone rang. He was just so earnest, and open, and-- gentlemanly, was the only word for it-- that she couldn't help but respond. Strong, without being macho. Caring, without expectation of response. Sometimes she wondered if Riley might have turned out like him, if he'd ever grown out of his young, tough-guy self-centeredness; she'd seen the potential in him. Of course, Riley wasn't much older than she was, so the comparison wasn't exactly fair-- Nick was more like nine years her senior, and had more time and life-experience under his belt.
The age gap didn't seem to matter, though, when they spoke-- and it wasn't like she hadn't gone for much older men before. He listened to her complaints about trying to be the mom for a sister only five years her junior while putting them both through college; she listened when he called, shaken, after a grueling case in which he'd barely managed to find a kidnapped little girl in time to save her. What year they'd each been born in hadn't been a factor in such weighty matters as work, family, and the general unfairness that life threw at them.
Slowly, but surely, Buffy had found herself falling in love with him through the mail. Her brief relationship with the Immortal had fallen apart under the weight of it, when she'd compared the way she felt every time she received another phone call or letter from Nick with the way she felt when her Italian boyfriend arrived to pick her up for their dates. She was far too old to keep dating a guy just because he was already involved in the supernatural and did wondrous things to her body; there were other Slayers now, and if she wanted to go into semi-retirement with someone who could make her feel good about herself, then she could.
Provided, of course, that Nick believed her when she told him about her night job. And provided that they actually struck sparks in person. She wasn't going to say anything until those two hurdles were out of the way; she wanted to at least keep his friendship, even if the romance angle didn't work out. But every time they'd tried to arrange a time and place to meet, some crisis or other had come up at his job, or at hers--
Including yesterday. Fortunately, Buffy had built a few days' leeway into her plans this time, and the latest CSI disaster had only delayed Nick for twenty-four hours. He'd reassured her that the mess with his car being stolen with a bunch of evidence in it wouldn't get him in trouble, but she'd heard the worry in his voice; she'd been afraid she'd have to fly out again without ever getting to see him. Luckily, he'd been able to call her that evening, as promised, and set up a new time to meet.
Which was now. Or, almost now: Buffy checked her watch as she returned the letter she'd been rereading to the stack she'd brought, tied with a scarlet ribbon, in the bottom of her suitcase. She knew it was romance-novelly of her to collect them that way, but there was such an old-fashioned charm to their whole relationship, it made her feel girly and love-struck in a way she'd thought she'd left behind when Angel lost his soul. She only hoped that Nick felt the same way.
Twenty minutes to go. Buffy sighed impatiently, then glanced at her reflection in the mirror again. She'd gone through several changes of clothing in the last few hours, trying to pick the perfect outfit for their dinner-and-dancing date, from an "innocent" demure look complete with modest, concealing dress and barely-there makeup to an almost-Goth, dark, clinging look Faith would have been proud of. Finally, she'd given up and settled on something more comfortably her: brown leather pants, snug but not too tight, paired with a white blouse of daring neckline, high-heeled boots, and hair down loose and wavy over her shoulders. It wasn't like he hadn't seen pictures of her before-- but some nervous, quivery thing in the pit of her stomach made her want to look her best for him, now. Well, tough, she told herself: either he'd like her the way she was, or he wouldn't, and that would be that.
Dawn found the whole situation hilarious, of course. Over the last year she'd made a point of asking Buffy how her "boyfriend" was doing every time a new letter arrived, and even stole the phone once or twice when he'd called to make smart remarks at him; she called it her little-sisterly duty. Fortunately, Nick had five sisters of his own and seemed to take Dawn's good-natured hassling in stride. To be safe, though, Buffy had made sure to provide Dawn with fifty dollars of spending cash tonight and sent her down to their hotel's casino-- under the watchful eye of one of Lorne's contacts-- to "learn about the value of money". Buffy doubted she'd learn anything of the sort, but at least she'd be safely out of the way.
Impatiently, Buffy checked her watch again: ten minutes left. She reapplied her lipstick, sniffed gingerly at an armpit to make sure her nerves hadn't conquered her deodorant, then slipped her hotel key into a pocket and headed resolutely out of the room. Nick was supposed to meet her in the lobby, and she wanted to be there before him, so she could see him coming before he saw her. Just in case.
It looked like she hadn't been the only one with that idea, though. Buffy spotted him, waiting, as she came down the main stairs into the lobby; her pulse raced as her gaze met his, and a nervous tremor made her hand shake on the stair rail. He was holding a single yellow rose tipped with red-- the kind that meant friendship and "falling in love"-- and his wide, white smile was even more brilliant in person than it had been in pictures.
He was here. She was here.
Forget caution, she thought, smiling back at him: she was never, ever letting this one go.