after.midnight // v.naked TITLE: On Life and Second Chances
AUTHOR: Tamara
EMAIL: tamara@bitchenvy.com
RATING: PG
DISTRIBUTION: My page. Want it? Mail me.
FEEDBACK: Like chocolate, I crave it.
SPOILERS: None, really. Just know that Riley left. This is pretty much a way into the future fic, the future as envisioned by me. Ten years have passed, at least.
SUMMARY: Buffy thinks about what used to be as she tries to make things right.
DISCLAIMER: Buffy, Angel, and the company they keep belong to Joss Whedon and the company he keeps. However, Angelica, darling that she is, belongs to me.

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"You gave up. It may have taken me a while, but I finally realized that I can't do that, I won't, because my life means nothing if I don't fight."

I can clearly recall the night Angel said those words to me, the night when I knew without a doubt that I had lost him. We were knee deep in a crisis with no idea what we were fighting against, no idea how to stop what was coming. And then Angel and his team swept into town, with their scrolls and their books and all the answers we'd been lacking. We never really had a chance to ask how they knew what they knew, and to this day, Giles has only given us the simplest explanation; Angel had access to sources we didn't. All we knew for sure was that we had a fight on our hands. It wasn't the big one, the one Giles has spent whatever spare time he has researching and preparing for, but it was a crucial one for the forces of good, a battle that we had to win.

Angel and his crew handled the complicated stuff, rituals only they knew the details of, things Cordelia and Wesley insisted that Angel deal with personally. They operated so efficiently, fought so amazingly well, that, for days afterwards, Willow mentioned Angel, in that childish "Oh, my God, he's amazing" sort of way, more times than she'd uttered his name in years. Giles, in not so many words, practically offered to open a vein for him should he ever need it. Even Xander showed signs of definite Angel worship. For a week straight he was the most popular person ever, and I wondered why the hell they couldn't have shown this much affection towards him when he was actually living there, saving their lives on an almost daily basis.

In just five years, Angel had managed to bring out qualities in Wesley and Cordelia that I wasn't sure had even existed. He helped Faith completely turn her life around, so much so that her acceptance of her past, the inner peace she had found, and her determination to be a better person was visible with one look in her eyes. He'd inspired fierce loyalty and affection in all of them, including Kate, who had once hated him. And he'd formed a strange attatchment to a singing green demon with no name, an endless wardrobe of brightly colored suit jackets, an uncanny ability to see everything you buried deep down inside, and absolutely no qualms about telling you exactly what you didn't want to hear, but needed to know. They were a family, their support and love for Angel a palpable entity, and their genuine caring for each other a force that could not be denied.

I remembered when the Scooby Gang was like that, and all the obvious affection between Angel and his friends just made me think about how the years had changed us and how far we had drifted apart. Angel was just so happy, happier than I'd ever seen him, even when he was with me, and I couldn't handle it. He'd left me without a backward glance, he turned his back on me and our love and he found something so much better. He found peace and people who loved him unconditionally, people who accepted him and stood by him no matter what. All I had found was loneliness and heartache, and the knowledge that whatever I did, however many people I saved, I was going to spend the rest of my life alone. And for a moment, I hated him, hated him for what he'd done to me, hated what he'd found, hated the fact that everything he had gained had come at the expense of my happiness.

I dragged him outside, took him up to the hill, and I told him exactly that. He didn't say a word the whole time, he just looked at me, and with every word I spoke, I could see everything he had ever felt for me just fade away until his gaze was as empty as my heart. I never knew you could look into someone's eyes and see their love for you trickle into nothing, but that is exactly what happened, and I will never forget that look as long as I live. After I was done, he looked into my eyes, and he said the words that would haunt me for years to come.

"Life is all about change, Buffy. People die, they grow and they move away, and lovers do the same. People leave their loved ones behind, sometimes it's better that way, sometimes it's just the way life is. You're not the only one who's lost, Buffy, and there's nothing you've lost that a thousand other people before you haven't, nothing that I haven't lost. But instead of giving up and feeling sorry for themselves, they fight. They may not find what they had before, sometimes that's impossible, but they do find something and they make the most of it because not everyone gets a second chance. And that's the difference between you and me, Buffy. You felt sorry for yourself and you gave up. It may have taken me a while, but I finally realized that I can't do that, I won't, because my life means nothing if I don't fight."

He turned away then and he walk away, leaving me standing there all alone. When he left an hour later, I was still sitting up on that hill, his words echoing in my head.

Angel's words have always had a profound affect on me, his wisdom seeing me through many a crisis, his comfort giving me strength when I thought I had none left. His words affected me no less this time, but it did take a while for the truth to seep through all the layers of pain and denial I'd been living behind. It wasn't until three years later that I finally admitted that he was right and I had given up. I had convinced myself that I was a victim, refusing to take responsibility for my actions.

Angel didn't abandon me, if anyone did any abandoning in our relationship it was probably me. He was always there when I needed him, calming my fears and wiping away my tears, but when he needed me most, I was off pretending that my pain was the only pain that mattered. In the end, I may have saved his life, but I'd done a pretty good job of damaging his heart. He couldn't give me what I thought I wanted, and I wasn't prepared to give him what he knew he needed. Staying only did more harm than good and, for him, leaving was the only alternative. I spent the summer hating him for leaving me, convincing myself that he never loved me the way I loved him. I poisoned all the good that had ever been between us, focusing on nothing but the negative, until I was convinced that the bad was all there was. When summer was over, I tried so hard to be the normal girl that I'd always wanted to be that I lost every bit of who I really was.

I never loved Riley, I can admit that now. We were together for a year and a half and I never told him my hopes and dreams, never shared with him my deepest, darkest fears. I never let him close enough to see what was inside. He never knew the real me because I spent the whole time I was with him pretending to be someone I wasn't. I will never agree that what he did was right, because it wasn't, and I can understand why he felt the way he did, but I know now that his leaving was the best thing for me. I could never have given him what he wanted, and after plenty of soul searching, I know that I could never have been what he wanted me to be.

I am not normal. I'm not cut out for quiet walks on sunlit beaches or picnics in the park, they're just not important to me anymore. I'm Buffy Summers, the Vampire Slayer. I can dust a vamp at a hundred paces, I can load a crossbow with my eyes closed, and kicking demon ass and shopping are my favorite pastimes. I'm a supernatural freak who happens to be better at the job than any other Slayer before me, but hopefully not better than Slayers yet to come. I love who I am, and I love what I do, and if I have to do it until the day that I die, that's okay because at least I can say that I lived, really lived, that I experienced all that life has to offer, good, bad, happy and sad. Protecting the Hellmouth, saving the world, and making sure my family is safe are the things that make me happy, and the only thing that would make it better was if I had Angel by my side.

I haven't talked to him since that night all those years ago, but I know he's doing well because Giles makes it a point to ask Wesley about him whenever he calls looking for information about demons, or sharing some news of the same. I know that he was the best man at Wesley and Cordelia's wedding, that he walked Cordelia down the aisle. I know that he doted on Cordelia when she was pregnant, that he was the first one in the delivery room when she went into labor. I know that he cried when they named the baby Angelica, that she is more precious to him than anything in this world, and, if he is able, he will protect her as long as she walks this earth. I know that he and Faith spent five years together, that he loved her and her death affected him greatly. I know that he's never loved anyone else, that he refuses to even try, convinced that loving two such special women in one lifetime is much more than he ever deserved. There's so much that I know, all second hand information because, while I've learned many things about myself over the years, gained an incredible amount of inner strength, I've never worked up enough courage to go to him.

Until today, that is.

He's lying there on the couch, a raven haired bundle of endless energy and curiosity in his arms, a smile of such perfect contentment on his face that it makes my eyes tear up. The baby smiles as he reads to her, her attention riveted on him, fascinated by the sound of his voice as he regales the antics of Dormouse and the Mad Hatter at the wackiest of tea parties, and pretty soon I am, too, remembering a time when he would do the same for me. Shakespeare never sounded as good as it did from Angel's lips.

I'm so busy watching the baby watch him, her love and adoration clear, that I never noticed that he'd stopped reading until he said my name.

I look up at him, my smile faltering just a bit, unsure of of the reception I'll receive. He looks exactly the same as he did all those years ago, and I can't stop the tears from falling. I've missed him so much and now that I'm here and he's here, I have absolutely no idea what to do, no idea what to say other than I'm sorry and that just doesn't seem to be enough. He takes the decision out of my hands, turning his attention back to the baby in his arms. "Angelica, that is Buffy," he says, getting up from his seat and stepping closer to me. For a while he just stands there, his gaze unreadable as he looks into my eyes. And then, after a moment, he smiles at me, his gaze warm and welcoming. "I think you'll be seeing a lot more of her."

Angelica says something, by the amused look in Angel's eyes, it was probably a command, and he takes me by the hand, and leads me over to the couch. Sitting down, he tugs me down beside him, pulls me close, and as if no time has passed at all, he picks up his book and starts reading again.

This time, Angelica is paying more attention to me and less to Angel, and I take her into my arms, smiling when she offers no protest. "You know, you're Godfather is one very special person," I tell her, making a silent vow to never let her forget how lucky she is to have him.

Angelica falls asleep fifteen minutes later, and after putting her down, Angel comes back and wraps me in his arms, his lips lightly brushing mine. "Welcome back," he says softly, his eyes full of nothing but love.

There are tears in my eyes and I brush them away, smiling up at him, happier than I've been in a long time. "It's good to be back," I tell him, hugging him close. Nothing has been this good in a long time.

Things between us have never been simple, and I know they never will be. But I know that this time we can make it work. Angel told me once that not everybody gets a second chance. I've gotten mine and I'm going to make damn sure I make the most of it.