Buffy was dreaming. Not a freaky existential crisis or prophetic slayer dream or a tortured nightmare. It was just one of those dreams that she had occasionally, like her mind was giving her a little break. A trip down memory lane so she could enjoy those simple pleasures she didn’t allow herself anymore, the kind of dream she rarely remembered in the morning, but she just knew she woke up feeling refreshed. So, she was more than a little annoyed when her nice, safe, peaceful dreaming sleep was shattered by the shrill ring of her phone. She jerked awake suddenly and looked around the room frantically, confused. When the phone rang again, she snatched at it hastily, forgetting for a moment that she was the only one in the apartment and there was no-one who would be woken by the sound. She cleared her throat slightly and tried to rub the sleep from her eyes, squinting down at the unfamiliar number showing up on her screen.
She shot up in bed, suddenly alert.
She switched her lamp on and glared balefully at the clock next to her bed.
“It’s three in the morning!” she hissed. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Angel replied unconvincingly. “I just thought that you might still be awake and—”
“Angel, where are you?” Buffy interrupted him impatiently.
“Outside?” she said incredulously, even as she glanced at her window instinctively, half-expecting to see him perched there, just like old times. “Outside where?”
“Can you come down?”
“Angel, I don’t understand—”
“I can come up if you prefer.”
Buffy paused, thinking. She didn’t know if she was ready to have Angel in her apartment, not today of all days. She got out of bed and looked out her window, trying and failing to spot him in the shadows.
“Buffy, if this is a bad time—”
“No, it’s okay. I guess I can get a quick patrol in anyway,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
She hung up the phone without saying goodbye and headed for her closet, looking for something she could throw on quickly and face the cold in. Still a California girl at her core, Buffy struggled in the European winter. She slipped out of her warm PJs regretfully and into a pair of jeans and her best thick sweater, trying not to think about how she was trying to armour herself against more than just the cold. Hearing Angel’s voice had shaken her in a way that few things could, and she was feeling apprehensive about what could have brought him to her home in the middle of the night. She combed through her hair quickly, fluffing it up as she looked at her reflection in the mirror and deciding against tying it back, acknowledging the small hint of vanity with a rueful smile. She wanted Angel to think she looked nice, but not like she’d made any spectacular effort. She slipped her phone into her pocket and hurried to the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth. She hesitated a moment before lightly spraying her favourite perfume against her wrists and neck, trying to convince herself that it was entirely for her own benefit. It had nothing to do with Angel. It’s not like she really cared what he thought of her or anything. It was just nice to smell nice.
Feeling slightly more awake now, she went back to her bedroom to grab her coat, her keys and her lucky stake before throwing a quick look around the room to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything. Satisfied, she slipped into her boots and switched off the lights on her way to the front door. It was only as she made her way down the stairs to the building’s main entrance that she let herself think about what she was doing. She was going to meet Angel. For no other reason than that he asked to see her. She had barely questioned him turning up and had only hesitated for the briefest of moments before agreeing to see him.
She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and tried to regain her composure. She could feel those old familiar butterflies in her stomach that always stirred when she was about to see Angel. A part of her loved the way he made her feel oddly giddy, like she was 16 and in love for the first time all over again. Another, much larger part of her, resented it. She thought that she’d moved past this feeling. Even though she knew she hadn’t truly moved past her feelings for him, she thought that she had left that blissful naivete behind. She’d convinced herself that he couldn’t affect her that way anymore.
She took a deep breath and then stepped out into the night, pulling her coat tighter against the cold as she looked around, trying to find him.
“Buffy,” he said, materialising from the shadows and smiling cautiously at her. “Hey.”
“Hey, yourself,” she said, smiling broadly back at him. “What brings you here?”
“I was in the neighbourhood.”
“Yeah? Why didn’t you come by earlier? There’s barely any night left now.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d want to see me.”
“I wouldn’t want to see you?” she said suspiciously. “Or you were scared of seeing me?”
“Something like that.”
“Uh huh. Wanna join me in a quick patrol?”
Angel nodded and gestured for her to lead the way. Buffy started to walk towards the centre of the city, knowing that there might be some vamps trying to catch the stragglers heading home for the night. Easy pickings when people were too drunk or tired to notice the danger around them. Angel fell into step easily beside her as they walked in silence for a few minutes.
“Are you going to tell me why you’re really here?” she said quietly, not looking at him. “And don’t tell me you were in the neighbourhood. You don’t even live in this country, let alone this city.”
“I wanted to see you,” Angel replied after a moment. “Wish you a happy birthday.”
Buffy laughed bitterly and quickened her pace a little, feigning interest in some shadows that could potentially be suspicious. When she had firmly established that that were in fact no vampires lurking in those bushes, she turned back to the path and strode off again.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard, Angel, but I don’t celebrate my birthday anymore.”
“I heard,” he said, matching her pace easily. “But it’s a big deal, Buffy.”
“I’ll celebrate being 30 next week,” she said dismissively. “Age is more a state of mind, anyway, why be so rigid in celebrating it? Why stick to just one day?”
“Just don’t, okay? I’m happy to see you, Angel, but I don’t want to do this right now.”
“Okay,” he agreed, “let’s talk about something else.”
They walked in silence for a while longer before Angel spoke again.
“Do you like living here?”
“It’s okay,” she replied with a shrug. “There’s not a whole lot of demon activity, just enough to keep me in shape. There’s one other slayer in town and we train together sometimes.”
“Are you working?”
“Studying, sometimes I work in the library here.”
“The library?” he said, clearly surprised and she smirked at him knowingly.
“Yeah, I could hardly believe it myself, but the hours suit me while I’m studying, and I can practice my Italian.”
“So soltanto un po' di italiano.”
Buffy laughed delightedly and said, “You probably speak more than I do!”
Angel smiled at her and shook his head slightly.
“But it’s nice, working in the library, I mean. It feels almost like home in a weird way. Simpler times, you know?”
“I’m not sure they were all that much simpler, Buffy.”
“Maybe they just feel that way now,” she conceded quietly. “It was all so long ago.” She paused in thought for a moment and then looked at him questioningly. “I guess not for you, though, huh?”
“A lot has changed for me,” he replied quietly, glancing down at her quickly before returning his eyes to the road ahead. “So, in terms of years, it’s not so long ago. But as for everything else?”
“Yeah,” Buffy breathed. “Everything else.”
She glanced sideways at him, trying to discern what he was really thinking. She’d gotten pretty good at it all those years ago, but she didn’t trust those abilities now. He was practically a stranger to her these days.
Determinedly turning her mind from this depressing train of thought, she gestured at a bakery not far down the street which was amazingly still open.
“Wanna get a coffee?”
He nodded silently and Buffy once again wondered what had really prompted this visit. She sighed and quickened her pace, knowing he would fall in step beside her. Whatever his deal was, the sooner she had some caffeine, the better she’d be able to handle what the night had in store for her.
After they had ordered their drinks and selected a suitably isolated table in the mostly deserted bakery, Buffy was at a loss. She didn’t know what to say or do. She tested out a few topics of conversation in her head but none of them seemed right, so eventually she just asked him about his work and their mutual acquaintances. After a few minutes of slightly stilted conversation, she decided to cut to the chase.
“Are you going to be in town for long?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Oh? And what will you be basing the decision on?”
“Me?” she said incredulously. “Why me?”
“I wanted to see how you were doing, whether you were seeing anyone—”
“Testing the waters to see if I’d turned into any baked goods, perhaps?” she said, fighting a smile at the memory of her cookie speech. “I still can’t believe I said that.”
Angel shrugged and said, “It wasn’t your best.”
“Maybe I was just trying to drop some hints about you eating me,” she said before she could stop herself.
Angel raised his eyebrows and she groaned, burying her face in her hands.
“I guess it would depend what kind of eating we were talking about.”
“Stop it, you’re making it worse!” she cried dramatically.
“I’m just saying, if all you wanted was for me to—”
“Angel!” she gasped, shocked.
“Relax,” he said soothingly. “I’m only teasing.”
“Hmm,” she said, fixing her gaze on his mouth. “Teasing, huh?”
“I can do that, too,” he said, the double meaning abundantly clear despite his carefully blank expression. “Just say the word.”
“Wouldn’t want to risk it,” she joked feebly. “That old perfect happiness problem really does have a habit of biting me in the ass on my birthday.”
He eyed her speculatively for a moment while she took a large gulp of her coffee just so that she could have something to do. Anything that would stop the embarrassing flow of words that she seemingly had no control over.
“I don’t know,” he mused. “I think we’re both long past the point where perfect happiness is even an option.”
Buffy nearly choked on her coffee, so surprised at his blunt honesty. She’d had the same thought herself, of course, but to have it confirmed by him was a new kind of miserable. Or, more likely, an old kind of miserable. One she hadn’t indulged in for quite some time.
“Oh,” she said quietly. “I guess not.”
She stared intently into her coffee cup, trying to work out how this had gone so wrong so quickly.
“Buffy,” Angel said, slowly tipping her face upwards so he could look her in the eye, all humour gone, “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I truly don’t believe I am capable of that kind of happiness anymore—”
“Yeah, I get it, Angel,” she sniffed. “You don’t need to explain.”
“Clearly I do need to explain because you’re crying and I didn’t ever want to be the cause of your tears again, especially not on your birthday.”
She forced a laugh as he handed her a napkin, dabbing at her eyes self-consciously.
“Crying on my birthday is practically a tradition at this point. May as well get it over with for the day.”
“What I meant was that I think with everything that has happened to us, both of us, over the years, I don’t think either of us could achieve that level of true, perfect happiness again.”
“Was that supposed to make me feel better?” she said dryly.
“But the closest I could come,” he said insistently, “the nearest I could get to that kind of happiness, is always with you. That hasn’t changed, even if everything else has.”
“So, you’re saying—”
“I’m saying that I love you, Buffy.”
“You still love me?” she whispered.
He offered her a gentle smile and cupped her cheek with his hand.
Her breath hitched in her throat and she offered him a watery smile, placing her hand over his on the table.
“I love you, too, Angel,” she said sincerely.
“Still?” he teased.
They smiled at each other in silence and Buffy tried hard to memorise every detail of his appearance right at that moment, wanting to be able to hold this memory in her mind. She watched him carefully for any signs of rejection as she slowly moved closer. Seeing nothing to discourage her, she closed the last bit of distance to press her lips against his. Their kiss was soft and slow, lacking the urgency of the last few they had shared. Buffy smiled when Angel ran his fingers through her hair and congratulated herself on leaving it down. She responded by fisting his shirt in her hands and was just considering climbing right into his lap when there was a very pointed ahem from the man behind the counter. She pulled back from the kiss and leaned her forehead against his, breathing heavily.
“I guess I forgot where we were for a second,” she said sheepishly, glancing at the man quickly before averting her eyes again. “I won’t be able to come back here for a while.” She looked back at Angel and smiled broadly at him. “Totally worth it.”
He smiled and pressed another quick kiss to her lips before pulling back and looking out at the street, a pensive look on his face.
“It’ll be light soon,” he said quietly. “I need to get inside somewhere for the day.”
“You can come back to my place, if you want?”
He didn’t say anything, just looked at her, an expression she couldn’t quite decipher on his face.
“It’ll just be us,” she rushed to reassure him. “I live alone so there won’t be anyone else there, just you and me, unless you want me to invite someone else over, of course.” Buffy knew she was babbling in that special nervous way she had worked so hard to eliminate over the years. “Or you can just sleep, if that’s what you want. I could go out and get you some blood during the day, you know, I haven’t had to do that in a while but I’m sure there’s some place I could find some vamp take-out—”
“Buffy,” he said, smiling.
“You know, I don’t think we’ve ever spent a whole day together, have we?” Angel looked away abruptly and Buffy was confused. “Oh, I’m sorry, am I totally spacing about it?” she said with a laugh, attempting to lighten the suddenly dim mood. “Did I forget? You can tell me, Angel.”
“Of course! I guess it really has been a long time for me to be able to forget a whole day spent with you!”
He looked at her seriously and the smile dropped from her face.
“No, we haven’t spent a whole day together,” he said after another moment of charged silence. “I guess we never had time.”
“But it would be nice to, wouldn’t it?”
Buffy hated the plaintive note in her voice, but she couldn’t for the life of her make herself sound indifferent. That was her problem, she was never indifferent to Angel.
“Yeah,” he said quietly, “it would be.”
“Come on then,” she said, injecting some cheer into her voice again. “You wouldn’t leave a girl to walk home alone, would you?”
“Definitely not,” he said seriously but with a small smile on his face.
Angel paid their bill and then held the door open for her, studiously ignoring the disapproving look on the man’s face as he did. Once they were outside again, Buffy took his hand in hers. They didn’t speak as they made their way back to her apartment building, but Buffy spent the time trying to rally her arguments, just in case.
When they arrived at her door, she let go of his hand and leaned casually against the wall, sizing him up.
“So, would you like to come up?” Buffy asked, aiming for nonchalant but failing spectacularly. She knew that Angel would be able to hear her pounding heart no matter how cool she tried to play it, but a girl had to have her pride.
“The sun will be up soon.”
“If I come up now, I’ll be there until sunset.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” Angel asked quietly, drawing a lock of hair away from her face gently. His fingers lingered on her cheek and she closed her eyes in pleasure.
“Yeah,” Buffy whispered, unlocking the door behind her and stepping over the threshold. “That’s exactly what I want.”