Title: Off Route 17
Timing: Season 6, Post Flooded
Rating: This part PG, but R overall
Warnings: Sexual situations
Summary: “Something stable, something familiar. She needs that. She needs land and not water.” Or, Buffy and Angel’s off screen encounter shortly after her resurrection.
A/N: Written for the 2008 iwry_marathon and beta’d by the wonderful eowyn_315. Many thanks to only_passenger for listening to me whine, and providing invaluable support and help with initial story planning and characterization. I couldn’t have done it without you both.
I love FITB fics and, for me, this particular moment on the show left a wealth of unanswered questions. Where did Buffy and Angel meet? What did they do? How long was she gone? Why did she describe it as “intense?” I tried to address all of those unknowns in turn, as well as foreshadow and explore how she ended up falling into her affair with Spike. Step in to see the mystery unfold.
GILES: Is he in trouble?
BUFFY: He knows that I'm ... He, he needs to see me. I have to see him.
GILES: Yes, of course. You'll leave for
GILES: I see. Well, we should get all these ... bills and things out of the way before-
BUFFY: I gotta go now.
Buffy: Skating was an escape. I felt safe.
Angel: There's a rink out past Route 17. It's closed on Tuesdays.
Now. Go now. The words run together like a three car pile up, each successive thought ramming into the next until they’re just a mound of shrapnel that she can’t see over or around. She yanks the drawers of her bureau hard when they jam on the runners; she just can’t deal with any more obstacles today. There’s that part of her that wants to scream she doesn’t deserves this, but she tamps down on it and throws the few things she’ll need on the bed behind her.
In the bathroom, she grabs a toothbrush, shoves it into the small satchel in her hand, and strides back into the bedroom to quickly dump the spare shirt, sweatpants, and underwear laid out on her bed in along with it. She lets out a huge breath, crosses her arms, and closes her eyes. It’s not like she’s going away for some long weekend. She doesn’t know what she should bring, doesn’t even know how long she’ll be gone. All she feels is the urgency goading her forward to get the hell out of this house, out of this town, out of her life, so that she can go be someone else with him just for a little while. She’s tried to be someone else before. Maybe she’s that someone else now. In this short time back, more than once she’s gotten onto the floor by her bed and lifted up the skirt, just to make sure that the real Buffy isn’t bound under there, waiting to be released.
Even her name sounds like a hollow echo, two funny syllables overlaid by the two that define her calling. When she heard the choked surprise of Buffy on the phone, she hesitated and gripped the cordless tightly, afraid that she would have to turn and hand the call off to the appropriate party. He always said her name like he was a little bewildered, overcome with the very notion of her existence. His own name bookended the exchange. Angel… I have to see you. Now. He was her idling getaway car, that secret escape hatch she hadn’t been able to find under the intense scrutiny and worry that bombarded her from all sides.
When she turns, deodorant and hairbrush in hand, Dawn is at her door, lingering at the threshold. She’s worried, brow scrunched and eyes searching, trying to understand.
“How long will you be gone?” She glances at the canvas bag, full of Buffy’s toiletries and clothing. Her attention turns to the room itself, looking for small changes, cataloguing it all just in case they disappear. When things go missing, like family, she doesn’t tend to get them back.
“I don’t know.” It hurts Buffy to say it, but it’s honest. She wants to deflect the alarm and betrayal roiling in Dawn’s stare, but it hits her anyway like an annoyed shove. She can’t be what anyone wants her to be. They want her here; she needs to be anywhere else.
Her guilt expands when Dawn’s small hand pushes a few strands of blonde hair behind her ear, tucking it in and smoothing it down. “Just…come back, okay?” she whispers. She knows her sister can feel the overwrought shudder that shakes them both when Dawn’s arms wrap around, holding her close.
She can’t manage I will, so she settles for yeah, hoping that an apology can travel through osmosis. She feels so small when Dawn steps back and retreats to the door.
“He’s been through this before, you know,” Dawn points out.
“Angel?” Buffy looks down at the bag in her hands, confused.
“Yeah. If anyone knows how to make it back, it’s him.”
She blinks, a tight knot forming in her stomach. He had been an animal, vicious and brutal. It took him weeks to return to the person she remembered and, even then, he was never exactly the same. They were never the same.
“Maybe he’ll even make you happy,” Dawn adds. Her encouraging smile isn’t enough to erase the feeling of doubt that’s posturing, showing its guns with bluster and bravado.
“Yeah. Maybe,” Buffy murmurs, far from convinced but not a little hopeful. “Stranger things.” She motions to the closet. “I should finish getting ready.”
At the casual dismissal, Dawn moves down the hall to go back and help Giles and
Through the window of the bus, she can see the roof of the rink a few blocks off. She takes her time walking the street, glancing passively into the plate glass of shop windows. A few people come in and out of stores, attending to business as the afternoon wears on, unaware of who or what she is. She’s not far from home, but the anonymity already works its magic and gives her that small bit of space to breathe and relax.
The back service entrance of the rink is locked, but it’s no obstacle as she jars it open with a swift kick. Inside it’s empty and quiet, the ice smooth and gleaming from recent maintenance. She walks to the front of the facility curiously, swinging her bag in a low arc as she makes her way to the concession area. A few stray party hats litter a long table, glitzy streamers waving from the peaks as the AC drones on. Balled up in the to-be-taken-out trash are a few pink plastic tablecloths. Cheap kazoos stick out of red soda cups. She remembers attending birthday parties like this when she was little. Joyce threw one for her seventh birthday, complete with Dorothy Hamill party favors. The decorations were considerably more tasteful than these, though.
Wandering back rink side, she settles on the creaky, cold bleachers. The ice is empty, quiet. Something about the pale, unblemished surface is familiar. She watches the light bend and arc across it, thin scars of yellow dappling the slick spots. Watching isn’t something she ever gets to do, so she plays the spectator – cheering hockey mom, proud skating coach, injured player – and looks from the sidelines, out of bounds, out of energy. Of all things, the goalie net is what shakes a keystone loose inside her. Her breath catches. The refracted light makes her think of…
She flinches suddenly, startled, when the hairs on her arm rise. Her hand clenches reflexively around a stake that isn’t there. It always does when the telltale sensation of vampire ripples over her. It’s like shaving again the grain – prickly. She wonders if he feels it, too, if he can ever forget that she’s a Slayer long enough to see the woman under the power. She’s not sure if there’s anything left to see, if
She stands when he enters the rink at its far side. Her heart takes off at a run, both panicked and eager with anticipation. Looking at each other across the distance, she thinks of the tower and the jump. All he has to do is pull her back from the howling chasm, the surging vortex that she’s been brought back to. His hockey mitt hands can catch her and keep her from careening off in the dizzying tailspin she’s in.
She projects her panic loudly enough that even Angel can sense it as he approaches. The breadth of her fear shrinks her. He’s never thought of her as small, but he thinks, gazing up at her on her perch several seats from the floor, she’s never seemed tinier. He hadn’t dared to dream, to hope that she would be returned, allowed to live. Seeing her here, breathing, moving – relief, happiness, and concern flood him. This gift – what was the price? No small boon to raise a Slayer, but here she is, and he can’t shake the nagging feeling that it’s come at a high cost.
He stops thinking when he gathers her against him, folding her within the cavern of his arms. His hands are in her hair, her arms hugging his waist. They both tremble, murmuring quiet things, declaring one another’s names on hushed gasps of relief. She breaks their embrace first, her hands a flat shield against his chest. Words stick to her mouth like paste. It’s hard to get them out. She’s not sure whether they’ll come out as a whisper or a shout.
Looking up at him, her chin tucked to his chest, her eyes swim a little, ticking off the mental checklist to see if life matches memory. Maybe he’s a little heavier. Maybe. Could be he’s got some extra worry lines around his eyes, but she can’t be sure. She lets the familiar details drool over her, a thin protective layer of stability that loosens her tongue, makes the talking easier.
“Here we are,” she murmurs tentatively, smiling a little when he leads the charge and smiles first. It’s easy to lean into him when he kisses her brow, the tip of his nose pressed to her forehead, cold and wet like a dogs. She laughs at the image, tension released, and laughs harder still when he somehow latches onto her line of thinking and subtly nuzzles her cheek, breathing light gusts of air across the shell of her ear.
“Do you come housebroken?” she asks, eyes wide. It almost feels right, the quipping and lightheartedness. Almost. She reluctantly loosens her grip on Angel’s coat and lets him take a step back, reestablishing a modicum of distance between them.
“Have you been waiting long?”
What a question. The honest answer? Yes. Yes, I’ve been waiting for you. Yes, I wanted you to stay before. Yes, and why didn’t you come sooner? All I do is wait… wait for the other shoe to drop, wait to die, wait to live. My life, the Slayer gig? One big waiting game. And I also had to wait for the bus. Thanks for asking.
“No, only a few minutes,” she says, sinking back down onto the bleachers. “I figured there’d be some traffic.”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle.” He says it casually because it’s a casual response to a casual statement, but it seems weighty to her, substantial. He can handle these things – forget about the supernatural stuff – all the normal day to day blah, like driving and traffic and phone calls. He can do that, she thinks, whereas bills and gainful employment and household repairs have completely eluded her. That confidence in living is at once comforting and aggravating. If she could wrap up her life and FedEx it to Angel for oversight, then she would, gladly.
The air is cold. She waits for words of warmth because, knowing Angel, they’re there, if not a little belated. She rubs her fingers absently, until he clears his throat. “It’s good to see you.”
She nods. “Very, very good.” She looks him over thoughtfully, at a loss for how to start a conversation like the one they’re going to have. It’s all so big, so daunting. She starts with small. Simple is a good place. “How have you been?” she asks. “Since we know how I spent my summer vacation, what did you do on yours?”
“I was in
“That’s kinda far for a summer vacation. Did you get a really good package deal with Priceline or something?”
His brow furrows. She thinks he’s uncomfortable. “I wasn’t there for vacation. I sought out a clan of Buddhist monks. I went there to find my center, to…”
“Mourn?” She ran away, too, when his death was too much to bear. Not as far as
He closes his eyes when her small hand finds his and squeezes. “I’m here now,” she whispers. The words come naturally even if the feeling behind them doesn’t. Here is relative, here is not what she feels or wants, but it’s all she has. That will have to be enough.
“How did you know? About me, I mean?” she asks, fingers plucking the fraying threads on the strap of her bag. “That I was… back.” Angel watches her gaze skitter away on the last word. Like a rock getting heaved into a pond, it disrupts her flow, makes the water choppy.
“Is that an understatement?”
She laughs, dry, sarcastic. “Yeah, you could say that.” Her hackles rise thinking about
She looks down when he covers her hand with his. “I know it can’t be easy. Whatever you’re feeling, you’re entitled to it, Buffy. Set me straight. Tell me how it really is.”
“Financially, it’s not so good. You come back from the great beyond and the first thing you have to deal with is creditors? That has got to be some huge cosmic joke.”
“They say that nothing in this world is certain but death and taxes,” Angel concedes. It makes her wonder if the world without shrimp is exempt.
“Oh, it gets better. There’s always the peanut gallery to chime in on my financial woes, too. Cue the hair-brained suggestions. I mean, who charges innocent people for saving their lives?”
“Mom did the best she could, but I’m only one person. I can’t split myself apart. Slayer Buffy, and big sis Buffy, and responsible-adult-who-pays-her-bills-on-t
She stops mid-sentence, her fists raised defensively. Why can’t she beat this back? Why can’t she just pound the crap out of existential crisis and move on? She draws in a shaky breath, eyes skimming over to Angel and the concerned look on his face.
“You can tell me,” he assures her.
Holding her fists aloft, she unlaces her fingers, palms up, almost placating. “Torn,” she whispers, uneasy with this weakness, the vulnerability. “I just don’t know how to do it all anymore.”
Angel thinks about hell, about everything they tried to take, lash and burn out of him. Total annihilation of self, they ripped the humanity from him because only a demon could survive in a world full of brutality. He can understand the disjointed displacement she’s experiencing. Understands the uphill battle, how she struggles for okay, how normalcy must seem like a distant shore to her.
Grasping her hands gently, he presses the pressure point between her thumb and index finger, working a small circle into the tissue. “I know something about that, how hard it can be to transition back, how everything seems confused and not at all how it should be. The violence inside… the fear, and pain. I know it, Buffy.”
She looks away sharply when that pinhole of pain and shame that she’s kept close, knowing that she damned him, widens and expands. Heaven and hell… they seem contrary to each other, but she listens to what he says. Maybe he does know how it is, the feeling of belonging in the wrong place. Not in the same way, of course, but in a way that counts. In a way that he can relate to.
“But I didn’t have to do it alone,” he adds. “And neither do you.”
She can’t tell him, just like she can’t tell them. If it had been hell, it would be so much easier. Place the blame on torment, and everyone gets it. If they knew what they had done, what they’d robbed her of… she couldn’t. She couldn’t do that to them. What could they possibly say or do to make it easier?
She offers a wobbly smile to Angel, squeezes his hand. “I know. They’re trying, but it’s so hard. Overwhelming, even.”
“It takes time.”
“Time… it’s a funny thing. How much of it do I really have? I could be gone tomorrow. Some demon or a freak accident…” Buffy’s eyes are distant as she thinks back to her formless paradise, wishing for that forgotten solace.
“Don’t say that!” Angel hisses, shaking her.
“It’s true, though! I don’t have a say in my time-out, my do-over. I never have. For all this Slayerific power, there’s not a whole lot I can control. Ticking time bomb me. It’s just a matter of time until I’m gone again.” She looks at him desperately, standing over him on the bleachers. She edges back to that night before graduation when he bit her. He could do it again, save her from this hell, release her with his bite. She thinks about her sacrifice, always sacrificing, blood always running. A hot flush goes through her and she clings to that feeling of desire, of something he can give her.
“No,” Angel growls, up now and towering over her, like his size alone can change her mind. “Not now, not as long as I can help it.”
She clamps her hand over her mouth, holding back the tears. The flint of hope shrivels. She wants to lose herself completely, but this isn’t the way. Angel wouldn’t… Faced with another closed door, she collapses against him, a low whine rattling in her throat like a hurt animal. He holds her up, arms tightly around her, while she composes herself, unwilling to break, unwilling to bend. This isn’t what he envisioned their meeting would be like; he can’t stand to see her like this, broken and wounded, floundering without purchase. Something stable, something familiar. She needs that. She needs land and not water.
Her trembling subsides and she’s quiet, breathing lightly against him, as he looks out over the ice. Water like land, slippery, but grounding. It seems like a fair compromise. Glancing down, he sees her looking out, too, the harsh white lights of the rink making her look paler than she is.
“Do you want to skate?” It sounds absurd coming out of his mouth, he realizes, but it’s a distraction.
She draws back, her hands pulled into her coat sleeves. “Do you?” she asks, puzzled.
“I, uh… don’t know how.” He waits for her to plaster an L on his forehead for that admission. Instead, he gets an amused smirk. He’ll take it.
“Says the dead guy whose been around for 300 years.”
“You could show me,” he suggests, tipping his head out toward the ice.
“I could…” She smiles coyly, looping her arm through one of his. “I didn’t bring skates. We’re going to have to pillage the skate rental booth up front.”
They take their time walking across the bleachers, the metal clang of their footsteps sounding loudly through the empty rink, echoing off the walls. It’s still party-hat central in the main room. She has the urge to sweep them off the table, or try to yank the tacky pink tablecloth from beneath the plastic and paper place settings like a magician.
“Looks like someone was celebrating. You think Hallmark makes get well cards for the recently resurrected? That’d go over real big in Sunnydale.”
Angel pauses at one of the tables and flicks the streamers on the peak of a hat as Buffy rounds on the rental window. “You’d be surprised how many specialty card shops and stationers they have in LA. I hear trans-dimensional greetings cards are big.”
“Hm, sounds like a niche to be filled. I could start selling them out of the Magic Box. What’s your size?” she asks, her shoulder pressed to the door of the skate rental as she jimmies the lock. It gives way with a pop after only a few seconds.
“Eleven wide,” but she’s already jogging up one aisle and down another, her fingers skimming over the size numbers like a kid thumbing through old CD jewel cases. She plucks one pair of beige skates from its cubby and tucks it under her arm, all business. Taking in the facility, unchanged since the last time he saw it, Angel decides it was the right choice to come here. It’s familiar territory; he watches her move around expertly, in control. If he knows anything about post-death experiences, you never feel like you have any control.
“Hey, tall guy!” she calls to him. “You’re on your own with your skates. They’re up there.” She points to a shelf above her head and makes grabby hands. “Can’t reach.”
“I have to skate on these?” Angel scrutinizes the thin blade on the black hockey skates she selected for him.
“You’ll be fine.”
“It’ll be like teetering around on heels.”
She huffs, the hint of laughter on her breath, eyes crinkling with the mental picture of Angel in pumps. Her genuine joy is beautiful. It’s not something he’s ever had the opportunity to see on more than fleeting instances, but he’s willing to work for it, to see her crack again and dazzle.
She steps in front of him, poking him in the chest. “And you would know how?”
“Well, I…” He fidgets and shrugs, giving no gory details away.
“Look. More surface area than a heel,” she traces the edge of the blade, “means more uniform weight distribution. Ice skating meets applied physics… Huh. Comprehension. Where’d that clickiness go when I was in college?”
He draws a stake from his inner pocket, holding it up like an exclamation point. “Fieldwork.”
Slaying led her away from most things; it took her life. It took the life she could have had, once upon a time. A wave of nausea rises unexpectedly when she thinks how she had to die twice to get where she is now. She doesn’t want to put a word to the feeling.
“Let’s get you laced up,” she mutters. He follows when she tugs him by his sleeve, guiding him to a bench. Her smile is sunny when she lifts her head, forced and wide, thinning out her lips. “Now no whining,” she warns, tugging on the laces balled in his hand. “I don’t want to hear any ‘It’s too tight. It’s too loose.’ out of you.”
“Would I complain?”
“You already did,” she points out, brows raised, teetering the skate back and forth on the table. “Now, put your foot in the boot. When I get the first part laced, flex.”
It’s not as bad as he thought it would be. Ankles turned in like a child, he skids across the ice on wobbly feet with his arms spread wide for balance.
“Hold on to the side,” she coaxes, her gloved hand leading him to the boards. They creep along like this, Buffy skating backward, arms extended in front of her, towing Angel in her wake. He gives up on trying to walk – digging the picks in with a choppy gait gets him nowhere – and he eases into gliding, shifting his weight forward and then back. She smiles, pleased with his progress, and so they go, Buffy twirling in loose pirouettes as he follows just behind her.
She’s reached some sort of quietus, each liquid movement fluid and relaxed. He hangs back to watch her drift gracefully, limbs working in unison, a well-oiled machine. Like this, she is more than a Slayer, more than a girl. The safety of the ice builds up the much needed infrastructure that she lacked before, bolstering her against the strong headwinds of living that she’s had to face in her time back. Here is her center, no need for tai chi or pilgrimage. Here is her bliss.
“Wanna try some swizzles?” she calls, skating back toward him, bringing her ankles in and then turning them out to create a snaking pattern. “It’s an exercise for beginners.”
When she reaches him, they bump lightly, and his hands engulf her waist. “What about this?” He pushes them into a slow spin, like dancing on air. Something about the weightlessness, the warmth and love in Angel’s eyes makes her remember her confession to Spike in the sunlit alley. I was finished. Complete. The immediacy of the declaration, honest and gutting, renews the anxiety coiled in her. She can see spider webs cracking the glass wall she’s surrounded herself in, the protective, safe barrier of ice melting as reality starts to rush back in with the pressure of a released vacuum. No. Not yet. Not now.
She brings their slow spin to an immediate halt, a small wave of ice shards spraying the air with the force of her blade. “Angel…” she pleads, her voice small and desperate, hands clutching the lining of his coat. “Make me forget?”
He doesn’t hesitate. They kiss and kiss until her cheeks are wet and he’s kissing them, too. The pain escapes from her like missing chinks in a dam, trickling out, coming faster and thicker as the hole widens and erodes with the force of the blockage. There will never be enough kisses to act as mortar for the breach, so he holds her closer, head above the rising tide. He lost her once to drowning, but never again.
The current forces her to her knees, and she drags him down with her, hands restlessly fisting in his coat, trying to press herself to him, crawl inside the dark breadth of the leather. She can’t scramble away fast enough from the ghosts, from the memory of solace torn to shreds by magic. It nips at her heels, an angry dog barking, corralling her into a dark room where she’s trapped with herself.
“Buffy…” He tries to hold her face still, so she’ll look at him, but she shakes him off.
“No… No!” Scooting away, her fist slams into the boards with a crunch. The plastic cracks, her hand bleeds – red dabbling the fabric of her gloves like an insistent sunrise – and then he’s there, grabbing her, holding her.
“It’s okay. You’re going to get through this.”
“What if I can’t?”
His words of conviction are slippery; there’s nowhere for her to internalize them. All the hollow rooms crowd anything else out, greedy and smug in their ability to isolate her. There’s a lifeline somewhere, but it’s far, so far.
“You will. You’re strong, so strong. I know you can do this.” He tells her these things the way she told him on that unlikely night full of snow. He waited to burn, to meet the sun one last time, but she couldn’t let him go, wouldn’t let him fail.
“I can’t go back,” she whispers. “Not yet. I just, I don’t think I could – ”
“You don’t have to,” he promises. “We can go to LA or…”
“No.” She shakes her head. “Somewhere nearby. There’s Dawn. I can’t be gone and leave her…”
“For the night, then?” he asks, slowly lifting her to her feet.
She nods, eyes wide and vacant. “Yeah. For the night.”
Continued in Part II