How badly had that little scene gone? She really wanted to be the angry one, but she was back to being ridiculously tired again. She avoided Dawn's eyes, snagged a pepperoni slice, then had to avoid Tara's glance as well, as the witch suddenly shot a glance at her. I'm depressed, she thought, I'm entitled to cheat on my diet. Besides, they're eating me out of house and home. She sighed and then glanced around, hoping no one had seen that. Maybe they'd get so exhausted by cholesterol they'd fall asleep and she could....? Dawn caught her eye. "Where'd Spike go?"
All eyes were on her. "Um... he went to get some stuff." She glanced down, to find a plate in front of her with an obscene piece of pizza on it. She looked up at Tara, who looked half concerned, half amused, and Willow, who just looked confused. "My theory about men...." Tara said. Post adolescent ears perked up. "Not that it's worth much, you know."
Buffy looked around frantically, wondering if any of the girls had gotten that reference. None of them looked interested in the slightest, which was the proper approach to some boring adult saying anything about theories. "Yes?" This fulfilled her basic minimum of conversational requirement for the evening, she hoped.
Suddenly every eye in the kitchen was poised on Lorne, hovering in the doorway, and a bit flummoxed as to his status. As the guest of a guest, he was suddenly feeling rather at sea. "Want some pizza?" Buffy asked.
"Yes, I do." He looked around, scooping up the biggest slice with impressive speed, and an adept wrist flick. "So where'd Spike go?"
"Stuff," Buffy mumbled. She demolished half her slice at once and discovered that everyone was eager to avoid looking at her when her mouth was grotesquely full. "Tara?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah, right." She took another bite -- as a delaying tactic, Buffy saw -- and then chewed delicately and swallowed. "Well, see, you ever notice that -- " They all turned and looked at Lorne as the representative sample. "It's just that, well, you remember how in school, all the girls always grew up faster than the guys?"
"Tell me about it," said one little blonde creature, managing to pack a lot of bitterness in that phrase. Buffy was suddenly glad again that she'd tossed Hallie out of the house.
"Well, I just think that's true most of the time." She glanced around, deflating. "That's it. That's my theory." They all looked at Lorne. He was patting his chin with the handkerchief he'd pulled from his breast pocket, a paper towel spread over his lap. "A lot of guys." She added.
Hoo boy, Buffy thought. "You know, let me get some of those boxes out of the way." She collected the remains of previous boxes from the counter, and headed out for the garbage cans. She dumped them in, picking up the pizza box Spike had tossed away earlier so they could be alone.
"Hey, Sweetness," Lorne said from the porch. "You want a little advice?"
"On clothes?" She eyed his ensemble skeptically.
"On men." She cocked her head at that. "Men, vampires, demons, whatever." He dismissed inter-species differences the same way he'd dismiss white shoes after Labor Day. "Tara was right, I think. Hm. Maybe disinterest is the key to understanding something, because that girl did have a point. Should have known. She never paid the slightest bit of attention to this suit."
"Maybe she has cataracts or something?" Buffy pointed out helpfully.
"Always good, trying to cope." He sat down on the porch and gestured for him to join him. I should just live out here, she thought. The only thing I haven't done out here is...
"What? I'm sorry?"
"Men are always such boys." Lorne sighed.
"Sure you want to tell me this?"
"I figure you could use my perspective." He stared off into the back yard as if there was something fantastic and exotic there occupying all his attention. This was technically true; he'd never seen quite as decrepit a selection of lawn furniture as that which was arrayed before him now. "I'm not, after all, a friend of Spike's."
"Then whose friend are you?" Buffy asked skeptically.
There was a long pause.
Buffy tried to decide what that meant. The truth was, she didn't really care. So Angel got a full report about her goings on? She was starting to think that if people cared as much about her as they claimed to, they could start demonstrating it in a more concrete fashion. She thought about Angel, trying to conjure up the old feeling, but all that surfaced in her mind was the feeling of effort. They'd had one tense meeting since she came back, and she realized that the thought of him finding out about her and Spike bothered her less than thought of Xander or Giles finding out. Damned if she was going to regard it as some sort of infidelity.
"So what are you going to tell him?"
"Well, that's sort of the problem. I don't know that he won't ask, but I don't think it's his business." He found himself absurdly pleased by the firm look of approval Buffy gave him. "But if he asked?"
"I'd tell him, you have a lot to deal with. I'd tell him that, perhaps, you have too much to deal with. Too many worries, not enough money. And then I'd see what he'd say. I can't help it, Ms. Slayer, but the big buffoon is my friend. You can't help but have your friends."
"What if they stop acting like friends?" Buffy asked soberly.
"What if they don't know they're not acting like friends?" Lorne countered. "Sweetie, I can't tell you much, until you sing, but I can tell you this; I've seen a lot of heartbreak in my day--" Here, he examined his buffed nails with a certain pride, then returned to the topic at hand. "--and the only thing I've learned from it, is, that there's only one way to find out what's wrong." He leaned closer. "And that's why you have to ask."
"Great." Buffy muttered. "Wonderful."
"Oh, and your vampire?"
"He's not my--" Buffy said automatically, then caught his look and dropped her eyes.
"Then whose is he?" Lorne prodded her gently. "Of course, you may toss unstable vengeance demons out of your house on a regular basis for vampires you don't like, but I think that's a pretty good indication of something."
"And what would that be?"
"Well, here's the deal...." He said. "Why don't you sing for me and we'll find out?"
It was almost worth the trip to see the look on Buffy's face.
The worst thing, the worst thing about America was the alcohol selection. Granted, her travels as a vengeance demon exposed her to lots of different cultures, but she remained convinced that England still had had the best vintages. Nothing she'd tasted since then -- and that'd included the heart of a Republican politician -- had had quite the flavor of the things she remembered from England.
"Gimme a rum and Coke." She snapped at the bartender.
Even though she wasn't in game face. Hallie could still be pretty ferocious when she felt like it. And now she definitely felt like it. How dare that little Slayer throw her out? And how dare Spike -- what a ridiculous name! -- not die! Although, technically, he had died, since he was a vampire, obviously, but he wasn't supposed to be so... so...
No, he was supposed to have died an ignominious death, or at the very best, arisen and become someone she could safely hate with all the fervor she had. Somehow she'd always felt obscurely guilty for hating him, which of course, had made her hate him all the more. For a brief while after his demise, she'd forgotten about him, as she settled into the new job and everything, but then remorse had arisen about him, and she was appalled at the way he refused to stay dead. Just like a man.
She knocked back half her drink in one swallow, earning her raised eyebrows from the barman, who then blinked rapidly like a cornered rabbit, and whirled around so he could wipe his glasses in peace. She patted her lips delicately, and looked around. Really, the place was a dive, but what else was open in this little human town? Even demon bars had to close, though, and closing times were usually ripe pickings for vengeance. She licked her lips, trying to look approachable. She'd had awfully good luck that way, pretending to accessible, prying details out of unsuspecting men, and then visiting their exes. Of course, though there were some humans here, the clientele was mostly demon. Which meant they tended to cut out the middleman, so to speak. Why wish for vengeance when it was right at your fingertips?
She finished her drink and artfully slid the glass behind her so that she could accept if someone offered. Except no one looked like they were going to. She faced away from the bar on her stool, and licked her lips as she surveyed the room. Of course, all the demons knew what she was, but the humans didn't, and they weren't even doing the ogling thing she'd punished so many men for. She waited a few more minutes, hooking one foot over the rung of the stool, and placing the other one on the floor so her breasts jutted out more than usual. Not so much as a flicker. With a disgusted humph, she turned back to the bar.
The drink appeared with flattering speed, and she gulped this one back, too. The bartender was watching with extreme nervousness, putting another shot in front of her without being asked. "Did someone buy me that?" She asked coyly.
"No, I figure you'd need it. We're closing in ten minutes." She gave an exasperated sigh. Maybe it was Monday or something.
"Fine," She snapped. "Just fine." God, humans, what stupid little rules they always had. Unwilling to give the impression of being the last person to leave the bar, she got up and with careful steadiness, headed for the door. She managed the door, but the motion of the heavy door yanked her out with it. She paused in the door overhand for a moment, befuddled. Stupid American vodka, she thought, terrible tasting and strong.
She heard the voices just a second too late, turning in the darkness toward them, but her reflexes were just a second off. She realized that she hadn't had enough pizza to absorb the alcohol. There was a strange burst of light, green with flashes, and then she slumped to the ground.
"Cool." Warren said. "Let's get her tied up."
"Just a few words." Lorne coaxed.
"Just a phrase."
"Not a chance."
"Why not? What are you afraid of?"
Are you afraid I'm gonna...? Buffy remembered suddenly. She closed her eyes, and felt him, not the sex, but the afterward, or the before, all the moments beside sex that didn't have names. I'm afraid that the world is way more complicated that it used to be. I've never felt this way, and I'm afraid to find out what it is. I'm afraid I feel something toward this-- this-- vampire -- that is utterly wrong. I'm afraid I don't. I'm afraid I do. She looked at Lorne. "Everything," she said simply.
"So... Do you think it'll be better if you stay ignorant?"
"Well..." Buffy said briskly. "I know this much, I felt lots better just before I opened the checkbook and found out how much money I didn't have."
"Yes, but did you suspect something was wrong before then?"
He had her there. She'd dismissed the niggling feelings haunting her as being byproducts of being so recently dead. Once she'd confronted the whole debt issue, some of those feelings had cleared. Wonder if that would work with certain vampires?
"Wouldn't you rather know than not?" He asked gently.
I already know, she thought. It's not him that's wrong, it's me.
"Just a few words, sweetie. I'm not asking that you go all diva on me. This isn't 'Behind the Music.'"
"You're not going to set me on fire, are you?"
Lorne blinked at this. "I'm out of marshmallows."
"So what do you need?"
"Just sing a little, okay? Doesn't have to be loud—or long —just so long as you sing."
"And what should I sing?"
"Anything." Lorne assured her. "Absolutely anything."
Anything? Buffy wracked her brain for something, and drew a blank. She leaned back on her hands, and tried to think.
"Honey, you're not auditioning, just belt something out, okay?"
Still nothing. She was very conscious of him looking at her. She wondered if he was surreptitiously checking his watch, while she wracked her brain to find something that wasn't too out of date, too hard, or too stupid. Unfortunately, everything she came up with was at least one of those things. Be dead a few months, and you get hopelessly behind on your hit songs, she thought.
"Look, honey, would you just blurt it out? I need to get ready to leave sometime soon."
Startled, she blurted out, "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream..." And was interrupted by a sniff from the doorway. They turned, and found Dawn and several of her friends crowded into the doorway, staring down at them with identical expressions of disdain. Buffy cringed, and then resented them for making her cringe. Hey, I'm the Vampire Slayer. I just tossed a demon out of this house. So... why did the disapproving gazes of a bunch of teenagers make her feel old, out of date, and unfashionable?
"Uh, Buffy... we're going to bed, so could be quiet?"
"Sure," she answered with her best but-I'm-a-cool-older-sister-dammit!-look, then sagged with relief once they were gone.
"Tough night, huh?" Lorne asked sympathetically.
"You bet." They both stared into the foliage. "So...?"
"Well...." He surprised her then, by wrapping an arm around her shoulders, and squeezing her. "You certainly hit the ground running, didn't you?"
"Well, this is the deal, sweetie. I can see you when you sing, but sometimes it's just potential that I see. Like one of those Polaroid negatives." He shuddered for a moment. "What an appalling name for a retail product. It just sounds like something that you need to treat with prescriptions and pads. Anyway, where was I?"
"Grossing me out?"
"No, I was talking about potential." He looked at her, and she was rather disarmed to see the kindness in his eyes, despite the horns, the green skin, the neon suit, he looked at her, and for a moment, there was so much compassion being directed at her that she could feel it. She had to blink and look down. "You haven't much luck with love, have you?"
"No," She whispered. "Except for Angel."
"Really?" Lorne looked down at his hands and considered his words carefully. "Because the guy's my friend, but I have to tell you, I wouldn't be ready to put him into the plus column."
"Hear me out, sweetheart." He braced himself. "Not a good foundation for a relationship there, was there? How old were you? How old was he? Knock off two hundred years and you've still got a problem; actually, knock off two hundred years and you can maybe see the problem clearly. But that's neither here nor there. It's over, but it casts a shadow, doesn't it? Because he left. For you. "
"Yes," Buffy said.
"Or for him?" Lorne asked quietly.
"What did you want?"
"I wanted him to stay." Buffy said softly. "Are you saying...?"
"I just want you to think about it, sweetie. Maybe it might help to get another perspective. You need to let it go."
"I'll think about it. What else?"
"Well, this is the real dilemma, isn't it? You and Spike. You're afraid of that, and I can't blame you. You're a vampire slayer, but you're not exactly Miss Chatty Cathy, are you?"
"Hon, it took me five minutes to get you to sing; usually -- " He preened a bit, here -- "I have to beat them off with a stick. Nevertheless." He sighed. "What do you know about dealing with this? Nothing. There was Angel on your resume, again, a much older guy, but not a democracy there. Then there was the unilateral one-night stand guy. Sweetheart, don't look like that, I've gotten dumped a few times myself. Now I just make everybody sing before there's any nudity. It just solves so many problems, let me tell you. Anyway, where was I? Hm. Oh, yes. What a jerk." He waved away a mosquito with his hankie, and for a second, Buffy thought he was talking about the insect. "It's a shame he's not a demon, isn't it? Then you could slay him in exactly the fashion he deserved, and feel a lot better. Instead he's going to keep doing his little thing with all sorts of girls, and what can you do?" Buffy nodded. "Sometimes, you can't really slay the people that really need slaying. And this other guy, this soldier... Hm." He smiled, and then explained. "Tara's little theory. How cute. Not too far off, either. You just don't have enough experience with men to tell there's the crap that nice guys do, and there's the crap that bad guys do. And when what you think is a nice guy starts pulling a bad guy's tricks, it's really confusing, isn't it? And vice versa, too, am I right?" She nodded again, looking down at her hands.
"And now this." Lorne said. "Now, I'm not supposed to tell you stuff I read off of someone else, but I don't think telling you that the guy loves you will come as much of a surprise, will it?" Buffy shook her head again, not meeting his eyes. "Sweetie, don't look like that. How often does a person get to be loved in their life? It's not something you plan; it's not something you fill out a job application for. It has no logic at all; you can make up shopping lists for what you want in a guy, but that doesn't matter. You just don't have any choice in the matter. C'mon, sweetie, you know you're not afraid of what your friends think. Not really. If they're really your friends, that is. Of course, if they were really your friends, they should have noticed a lot of stuff before now, shouldn't they? You can't use them as an excuse much longer, sweetie, and you know it. And--" Here he answered a question Buffy hadn't even been able to form: "Do I think this would have happened if they had been better at the friendship job?" He patted her hand. "I think so; you just stepped up the pace a bit. No, sweetie, it's not them you're afraid of. It's yourself. You felt something wrong a lot sooner than Soldier Boy did; but what you're feeling now isn't a warning, sweetie. You know it and I know it. Who can really disapprove of you, anyway? Anyone else been in your shoes? Anyone else picking up your slack? No, then they don't get to judge you, either." Buffy took a deep shuddering breath at that. "Sweetheart, I don't think it was ever them that you were worried about. You're worried you're doing something wrong. Either he's right and you're wrong, or he's wrong and you're right. "
"What?" Buffy said.
"You have this idea that you can only love good people, or at least, people who aren't vampires. Simplifies things, doesn't it? Except, sweetie, you don't go about it like you're looking for a new employee. It's like roses and candles, and all that cuteness. That's just exterior."
"But, you know, what if I'm wrong?" Buffy asked softly. "I never felt like this before."
"It's just the whole vampire thing, isn't it?"
"Well, no, it's..."
"It's the whole sex thing, isn't it?" Buffy glanced away and Lorne laughed. "Sweetie, good girls have sex, haven't you noticed?"
"No, it's not that." Buffy sighed. "It's just that... it never was like this with anyone else."
"That's too bad." Lorne said. "Hm. Are you Catholic?"
"No," Buffy said dryly. "But Mom voted Republican a few times."
"Nope, not quite. Uh, sweetie, it's not that that's the problem; it's your previous boyfriends. Who knows why there's a shortage of decent guys on the Hellmouth. If you really want to see a sorry bunch, though, you have to come to LA. Now, there's a bunch of losers." Buffy gave a little smile at that. "Not that I'm naming names, you know. Professional secrets and all that. But still...."
They sat in comfortable silence for a while, Buffy looking down at her hands. "Spike told me I'd never love him."
"Less than an hour ago."
"That's why he left? Ah. Tara was right. Seeing his ex who broke his heart? Such a guy thing. Girls cry. Guys mope. Even vampire guys. It's universal. Ah." He gave a deep sigh. "Ah, L'amour."
Buffy eyed him sideways. "Oh, yes, I know, but I'm bored and I'd really like to go home now. I think I've done about all I can do here."
"There's a room full of teenagers in there who might disagree with you."
"Uh, thanks, sweetie, but... no. I don't need to read burning thoughts about, uh, some post pubescent hottie who has yet to shave or complete a thought. Can I use your phone?"
"Uh..." Uh-oh, Buffy thought. That sounded like long distance. But what could she do? "Uh, sure. How are you getting back?"
"Oh, I'll just call Angel and see if I can't badger him into wiring me some money out of petty cash." He sighed deeply. "This should be fun."
Continued in Chapter 29