Chicago - late June 2005
Buffy stood near the exit watching the people dance. She had danced plenty that evening, but was not ready to go home. Colum had gone to get his car and she and his friend Jenny were waiting in uncomfortable silence for him to drive up to the curb. They had been fine inside the club and on the packed dance floor, but now Buffy had no idea what to say to this person she had just met a few hours ago.
It was times like this Buffy wondered how she could ever pull off being normal. She had no idea what typical twenty-something year old women talked about. Her life had been all about apocalypses, slayers, vampires, demons, watchers, witches, and werewolves. Once upon a time, she could have gossiped and primped with the best of them. But that was so long ago Buffy sometimes thought it was made up to make it seem like she had not had the weight of the world on her shoulders for so long. She was glad the music at Excalibur was too loud to make conversation it left her off the hook until they got outside and into Colum's car.
It was Colum's idea to come out tonight, Buffy had been content to stay in and just be. His friend was in town for the Fourth of July and he seemed really pumped about Buffy meeting her. He had been so good to her the past few months that she could not say no.
Colum had asked questions about Buffy and her past at first, but stopped when it was clear her life before Chicago was not an open book. What could she tell him? There was little she could say without building lie on top of lie that would one day just unravel. If she had learned anything over the years it was that lies always caught up with the liar.
She had spent some time in Europe at Giles' suggestion after their defeat of the First. And the destruction of Sunnydale, California that came with that final battle. She had mixed emotions about the last part. She had met up with The Immortal while in Rome, but she found out that someone had put him up to hooking up with her. She was beyond game playing and he always seemed to treat her as one of several unless it suited him to treat her special.
The law firm Angel worked for had put The Immortal up to seeking her out as soon as they heard she was in Rome. It had never been because he wanted her beyond adding a Slayer to his notches. Unfortunately, she realized this too late and had not escaped the relationship without her ego battered and bruised. The relationship had not lasted very long, longer than Parker but not much longer.
She had learned much after the fact that Angel could have used her help. No one had told her he had been in Rome. She had returned to the States over a year ago determined to make her way to LA. She needed to know if he had survived along with Wesley and his other friends. She had gotten sidetracked along the way and had spent the past ten months in Chicago somehow.
She had a job teaching ice-skating through the park district. Most of her students were children, most girls, but there was the occasional adult or a boy who wanted to learn to skate for hockey. She did not make a lot of money, but for the first time in her life Buffy was responsible for no one but Buffy. With a bunch of other slayers out there she was off the hook for a while anyway. It was nice being in a city where no one knew her and where evil did not pop up at inopportune times.
She had met Colum during the winter session classes. His nephew, Jesse, was one of Buffy's students, one of the most adorable ones she had. He brought him to class every week. One thing led to another and soon he was giving Buffy a ride home. It helped that he was a very attractive man who was good with children.
"There he is," Buffy said, pointing in the direction of Colum's Grand Prix. It was a nice car, but not real flashy. Colum worked as an investment broker and from the things she saw and he said she gathered he was a successful one. He did not flaunt it, but it was obvious he was doing well for a twenty-nine year old man.
She and Jenny walked towards the car. "I can sit in back if you want," Buffy offered as Colum got out and walked to the passenger side of the car.
"No, that's fine," Jenny said.
"Okay," Buffy said.
"Hey, Babe," Colum said as he opened both passenger side doors. He leaned over and gave her a kiss, making Buffy stiffen a little.
She was not big on public displays of affection or the term of endearment thing. She never called Colum by anything but his name. Whether or not he noticed she had no idea. It made her especially uncomfortable tonight because she could not shake the feeling that she was not alone. She shook her head slightly realizing she was starting to be as paranoid as Fox Mulder.
"Hi," she said with a fake smile.
Like Angel and Riley, Colum was much taller than Buffy. Like Spike, Colum had chiseled good looks and loyalty going for him. It was hard not to compare him to anyone else, but she was no longer living in the past. Or at least she thought she was not. She pulled away from Colum and glanced up and down the street. She felt someone watching her, knowing the feeling well. And for the first time in a long time she was on alert.
No one in Chicago knew who or what she was, it was not possible. She shrugged off the feeling, dismissing it as paranoia. It was hard to believe she had gone over six months dating Colum without the whole thing blowing up in her face. That was all it was, insecurity that something would go wrong sooner rather than later.
"Ready to get something to eat?"
"Sure," Buffy said, unable to completely shake the feeling.
"Sounds good to me, too," Jenny said.
Coming out of the Denny's Buffy once again felt as though she was being watched. It was annoying and beginning to get creepy to the point that she wondered if she was going crazy. Maybe over a year of trying to pretend she was no longer the Slayer was catching up to her. Maybe knowing that she very possibly let Angel down and by doing so contributed to his death was making her incredibly paranoid. She was tempted to ask whoever it was to show himself, but she was not alone so she did not.
"Is there something wrong, hon?" Colum said, his arm at her waist tightening ever so slightly when she stopped in the parking lot.
"No, I'm fine. Sorry, I just thought I heard something."
"We're fine, Buffy, this isn't a bad neighborhood."
He drew her closer and kissed her on the cheek, just shy of her ear. "I'm going to drop Jenny off at her hotel first, okay?"
"Sure, that's fine." She and Colum had yet to have sex, though he had spent the night at her apartment a few times. As much as she vowed to put the past behind her and move on she had yet to stop equating sex with sadness or bad things coming to pass. Colum was surprisingly understanding about it, taking her for her word that she had not had good experiences and just needed some time.
They arrived at her apartment, which was actually located just outside of Chicago in Des Plaines. It was a rather ugly studio apartment, but it was in a perfect location above a coffee shop just down the street from the train stop. So every morning she could grab a big cup of java and be on her way to work. The thing she liked most about the place was that it had come furnished so she did not need to invest any money in things like a bed, table and chairs, couch or anything like that. When she came to Chicago she barely had two nickels to rub together, so furnished was of the good. Gradually, she had added a TV, microwave, toaster oven and a stereo but for the most part it looked no more personal than it had when she moved in.
The light on her answering machine was blinking in a demanding fashion and she punched the PLAY button while Colum sat on the couch and grabbed the remote control. She walked through the curtain that separated her sleeping area from the living area to change into sweats and a tank top since she was in for the night. She smiled as Giles' voice came over the speaker.
"Buffy, it's Giles. Would you give me a call when you get a chance? It's nothing urgent but it is of some import."
"Who's that?" Colum asked her through the curtain.
Buffy closed her eyes and cursed her stupidity. She knew better than to play her messages back in front of anyone, but Colum would most likely spend the night tonight since it was after two o'clock in the morning. Her friends knew not to leave anything incriminating on her machine, but there was the chance someone would forget and say the wrong thing.
"A friend of mine from California."
"Do you need to call him back?" Buffy glanced at her clock. It would be about eight o'clock in England. She could call him back, but decided she was too tired to deal with anything that had to do with the things that go bump in the night. Giles would not call her so late, the message had been left at eleven fifty-nine, if it was every day conversation.
"Nah, I'll wait until morning. I haven't talked to him in a while so we'd likely talk for a while and I'm too tired to do that tonight," she said as she washed her face before brushing her teeth and returning to the living area. "Are you going to spend the night?"
"I thought you'd never ask," he said with a smile. He had one of the most heart stopping smiles Buffy had ever seen. His green eyes reminded her of the ocean, not quite completely green. He was Irish he had told her, not that with a name like Colum McGuire it was difficult to figure that out, and he looked it. He wore his sandy blonde hair short and had a body to die for. He had played hockey growing up, which was why he was the one responsible for getting his nephew Jesse into skating so early.
"You know you don't have to wait for an invitation."
"Well, I know tonight wasn't what you had in mind. I'm sorry."
"Hey, no problem," she said as she sat next to him on the couch, curling one leg underneath her. "Jenny seems real nice and it would seem if we're going to be spending so much time together that I should meet your friends."
"But you don't have any for me to meet." He was probing. It was something he did every once in a while, gave a little push to see if she was going to start talking. She imagined he was hoping that this time she would be willing to open up to him about life before Chicago.
"I don't have any in Chicago, no. My friends are scattered all over right now, so there isn't anyone for you to meet."
"Will I meet them if they come here?"
"Of course, Colum, why would you think that?"
He shrugged. "I'm sorry, Babe, I shouldn't doubt you. I just feel like I don't know you. This man calls for you tonight and I have no idea who he is. Obviously someone important or he wouldn't have called close to midnight."
She stood from the couch and walked to the window overlooking Northwest Highway. Even at this time of night there were a good number of cars on the street. She had forgotten how busy the city could be after she had moved from LA. She rested her forehead against the windowpane and sighed deeply. Was she being unfair to him? Was she unintentionally doing what she had done with Riley? Would she end up driving him away by keeping secrets and keeping him at bay?
"Colum," she said as she turned to face him. She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned her back against the window. "I'm sorry if I don't talk about myself before I met you and if that bothers you, but I'm just not like that. There's just not that much to talk about."
He stood and walked toward her, taking her into his arms. She felt comfortable here, safe and cared for. She breathed in the scent of him, Tide detergent, Bounce fabric softener and a cologne that she did not know the name of. For all the times he had spent at her apartment Buffy had yet to spend the night at his condominium. Since he drove her home after their dates he stayed here.
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to push. I just find it hard to believe."
"You're not, you've been so good, Colum." Too good, she realized. How long would this ideal man put up with kissing her and sleeping together without their relationship evolving to the next level? She did not want to lose him, he was good for her.
She reached up and kissed him, her hands cupping his face to bring him lower so she could kiss him fully like she wanted to. She was done putting this off, done worrying that the world would end or that he would leave her tomorrow morning. She had not rushed into anything and was not acting rashly. She wanted this, wanted him, wanted a normal life. They had kissed and petted just shy of all out sex before now, but he seemed to be able to tell the difference in her kiss tonight. She would love to be able to blame alcohol, but she had not had an ounce tonight.
"You smell so good," she whispered as she kissed his neck, inhaling his scent. Her hands reached under his shirt, felt his abdomen and chest muscles flex as she caressed him. She had forgotten how exciting this game could be, especially when the man she was touching felt as good as this one did.
"So do you," he whispered in return before kissing her again. His hands roamed along her body through her tank top, evidently careful not to move too fast. It just endeared him to her all the more; most guys would be all over her about now unable to get her clothes off fast enough.
She had no idea how long they had been standing there kissing, touching, and exploring one another but the blare of her telephone from the bedroom startled her, ruining the moment.
"Who the hell is calling you at three in the morning?" Colum was obviously annoyed and Buffy was too. He had spent the night with her enough not to think it was another guy. At least she hoped that was not what he was thinking.
"I have no idea, maybe it's Giles even though he said it was nothing urgent."
"Do you want me to get it? In case it's a wrong number, I mean."
Buffy scoffed at that, forgetting for a moment that he did not know that she was more than capable of defending herself. Her mind drifted briefly to the feeling she had gotten over the past week or so and particularly tonight of being watched. Was she imagining it or was something going on? Maybe she should have returned Giles' call tonight after all. Had he been calling to warn her about some big bad in town?
"No, I got it," she said with a deep sigh. She walked to her room, pushing the divider curtain aside. She took a minute to collect herself, checking her appearance in the mirror just off to the side of her bed before answering the phone.
She took a deep breath and picked up the phone and punched the TALK button just before the machine picked up. "Hello," she said, not bothering to pretend as though she had been sleeping. "Hello?" she said again when there was no response. "Giles?" She removed the phone from her ear and took a deep breath, annoyed beyond all reason now. "I'm hanging up now," she said without bringing the phone completely against her mouth again and disconnected. If it was a wrong number, chances were they would not call back. If it had been Giles or Willow or someone and they had lost their connection they would call back.
"Who was it?" Colum asked from the entryway.
She sat on the bed after she returned the phone to its carriage. She was not completely able to meet his gaze because the mood she had been in moments ago was gone. She no longer wanted Colum to spend the night let alone to have sex with him. If she did not know better she would think that whoever had called had known full well what they were interrupting. "I don't know. A wrong number I guess." She stood and walked toward him. "I'm sorry, Colum, but I think I want to be alone tonight."
"What?" he asked, obviously and understandably confused. She would be, too, if the situation were reversed.
"I just," she sighed softly. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him lightly. "I just need to be alone. I'm sorry."
"You know, Buffy, I'm trying to be understanding and not push you, but it's getting a little old."
"I know, Colum, I do. I wasn't trying to be a tease, I just," she sighed again. "My life is complicated and I've tried to explain to you before my relationships have gone a little crazy when I throw sex into the mix."
"So what was that out there?"
"I want to, really, I do. Please don't push me. You've been more than nice, more than patient but I'm just not ready."
He backed away, holding his hands up with a shake of his head. "Please don't accuse me of pushing, Buffy."
Buffy could almost feel him retreating from her life and she cursed under her breath. She cursed her inability to move on even though she truly wanted to. Would she ever be able to? Would she ever be ready for a real relationship? She had hoped she was when she returned from Rome. Her time with The Immortal had taught her what she did not want and had taught her what she did not deserve.
"I'll call you in the morning," he said as he walked to her front door.
He was not even going to give her the opportunity to kiss him good night. She closed her eyes and thumped her head against her door once she had closed it behind him. "What am I going to do?" she asked quietly. It was the tragedy that followed her relationships that was the most difficult to get over. Other than Scott Hope, Buffy did not have a proven track record for a relationship ending well. She and Angel fought more than they did anything since he had left Sunnydale.
Oh sure, he had come offering to help in their battle against the First but she did not want to have to worry about him. She sent him away with the lame excuse of wanting him in LA as a line of defense in case they failed. It was not entirely a lie, but the truth was she could not bear to see him die.
And then what happened? She had to watch Spike not just die but burn into oblivion before her eyes. It was earth shattering to realize that Angel had wanted to wear that amulet. It was supposed to have been Angel that burned into nothing. She could not decide how she felt about the fact it had been Spike and not Angel. That thought, that indecision, was what led her to Europe and a year's sabbatical. She still had no idea how she felt about it.
She had not asked Giles about Angel. She realized when she found out about the Slayer in LA that Andrew and the others had gone to rescue from Angel's clutches that Giles was back to mistrusting the vampire. Buffy had offered Giles and Andrew a few choice words after that mission had been carried out. She was to be advised of all slayers found regardless of their state of mind and regardless of how they were handling their newfound strength and ability.
Realizing she was not going to be able to sleep for a while yet, she slipped a stake into her purse on the off chance she would need it and left her apartment. There was a small diner less than a mile from her apartment that was open all night. She was not really hungry, but decided a piece of pie or something might not be so bad. There was nothing a good sugar buzz could not fix and the waitress who usually worked the night shift was nice.