"Don't you just love comfort food?" Willow piped up, nursing her hot cocoa swimming with marshmallows - snuggled in Oz' arms.
Buffy nodded with a small grin. She did indeed love Oreos dipped in Chocolate Fudge Mint Chips and chocolate coated with peanut butter.
She just wished she didn't need comforting quite so often.
Giles deposited a fresh cup of steaming Earl Grey in front of her.
The Slayer giggled. "Guys, I really appreciate all this. But I'm not sick." Her tone softened. "It's been over a week, you know. I wasn't even injured. It's all good."
Xander dropped on the sofa next to Buffy, his goofy smile sweetened by his very real concern for her. He clasped her hand in his - glad that Anya wasn't there to misinterpret the gesture.
"We know that, Buff." He snatched an Oreo out of her hand. She growled. He laughed. "But it's nice, dontcha think?"
Buffy laughed too. And stuffed a chocolate sauce-covered marshmallow in her mouth.
Xander was right. It felt nice. If nothing else, their adventure in L.A. had tightened the ranks of the Scooby Gang. Before that, they had been drifting away, slowly but surely. Willow and herself had been busy getting used to their new college life, Giles had been struggling with his unemployed status and Xander had mourned the loss of his classmates, trying to find a place for himself in the girls' life. Trapped on the fringe.
They had forgotten to nurture the precious gift of their friendship - taking it for granted. Fighting against Lisandra and the First to save Morghane's life, then Spike's, Angel's and Buffy's as well, had reintroduced them all to this most cardinal companion of strength: unity.
Buffy stirred, catlike, her gaze sweeping lazily across the room and its occupants. She reveled in the easiness of kinship and in the warm glow of companionship, as much as she did in the crunchy peanut butter melting on her tongue. Wounds which had been allowed to fester for far too long had been addressed in L.A., and their friendship was stronger for it.
Angel had taught this to her, a long time ago. There always came a time when a relationship was tested, when friends drifted apart, carried away by the treacherous currents of familiarity, routine, predictability, resentment, and indifference. If companions weathered this test, their love would emerge, healthy and pure.
After the destruction of Sunnydale high school, they had faced the specter of change and projected their fears onto the future - like so many self-fulfilling prophecies. Buffy understood that now. The Slayer wished she could thank Morghane for presenting them with the opportunity of this rediscovery, but she knew what the Guardian would say. That all power came from within, spilling forth from the tender wellspring cradled inside the soul. That Buffy and her friends had fought their own battle and made their own chance. They had embraced the delicate rhythm of growth, and had nothing else to thank for it but their own wisdom and strength.
They had made their own family. And with few exceptions, blood had nothing to do with it.
Chagrined at her silent pun, Buffy's gaze trailed to the slouched form of Spike in a corner of the living room.
The sight of the blonde vampire triggered thoughts of Angel.
It had only been a little over a week, but already he had wrote to her twice. Buffy liked this exchange of letters better than daily phone calls. Calling him would have negated the whole purpose of them staying apart and his letters comforted her, gave her something of him to hold.
When she had opened the first envelope, she had expected sharp pain. Instead, there had been nothing but suffusing warmth and a dulled nostalgia. She still felt his absence, deeply, but the hurt had lessened. She had known - really known - Angel's love, had sheltered it at the core of her, so that she carried a piece of him everywhere she went. The bitterness, the hardness she had dragged behind herself since graduation like frozen stones, had melted inside his arms.
She was beginning to see.
Someday, they would come together. And there would be no more need. Just belonging.
In the meantime, she had her friends. And, funnily enough, she had Spike. A few weeks ago, the idea that she could ever find some soothing quality to the blonde vampire's presence would have been laughable. Not so now. Spike was yet another token of Angel's.
They spent a lot of their time bickering like children, much to Giles' dismay, and Spike had to be coaxed and cajoled into helping out with the demon hunting. Bound or not, he was still first and foremost a self-serving vamp. Yet more often than not, he would agree to accompany her on patrol.
Buffy was a link to his Sire, just as he was her tie to Angel. The one who knew him almost as well as she did. The one who understood.
Sometimes, Spike would get that sullen, far away expression on his face, and the Slayer would know that he was either missing his Sire, or worrying about Morghane.
She worried too.
That night, she had left Angel's apartment a little before dawn, oddly lethargic, almost detached, too exhausted to think. She had walked to the motel, sneaked inside the room she shared with Willow, dropped down on the bed fully clothed and proceeded to make up for about a week worth of lost sleep.
She had awakened at dusk, her Slayer sense hitching - heralding nightfall. She'd stumbled inside Giles' room. They had been waiting for her there, wondering why she wasn't with Angel.
She had explained, to the best of her ability at the time, what had passed on between herself and the souled vampire.
They kept silent, probably waiting for her to break down in tears. She remained dry-eyed, and explained some more. This was just temporary. She refused to discuss ifs and maybes.
Willow had felt the need to put Angel down - calling his decision selfish and irrational. To Buffy's unending surprise, the Slayer didn't even have the time to open her mouth, correct her friend and explain that, this time around, bad-mouthing was uncalled for. Xander was the one to set Willow straight, asking her with a few terse words to lay off Angel.
Which was when Spike had come knocking on their door.
Buffy had been unable to decipher his expression. The vampire's face was, for lack of a more eloquent descriptive, empty. He explained that Morghane had spent half the day with Angel, then left. Alone. Spike had remained at his Sire's side until Doyle and Cordelia had showed up at the office. Confident that Angel wouldn't be on his own, he had come to tell the Slayer and her friends that the Guardian had skipped town.
Spike refused to explain what had passed between himself and Morghane. Or what he had talked about with Angel. Bluntly, he announced his intention to go back to and settle in Sunnydale.
His stare dared anyone to argue.
Buffy had simply taken his hand and led the stony vampire to Oz' van. The De Soto was parked next to it.
Spike had been living in the mansion ever since then. Buffy had gotten used to his shadow following her wherever she went on those nights he refused to patrol with her. Or on those nights she didn't ask. And the Slayer had taken to stopping by the mansion in the middle of the day. If he was sleeping, she would sit by the bed and watch him, or pick up one of the many books Angel had left behind and read. If he was awake, he would make tea for her, grab a beer for himself, and they would sit side by side - or she would sit and he would pace like a caged tiger.
On occasions, they would talk. Spike would tell her stories of his tribulations with Angelus in nineteenth century Europe, leaving out the goriest episodes. More often than not, she would laugh. Spike had a way of recounting these things. Once in a while, Dru's name would come up, but they tacitly agreed to steer clear of the topic. Dru still meant something to the blonde vampire, and, try as she might, Buffy couldn't find it in herself to empathize.
They never talked about that night. The night Spike had made love to Angel. The night Buffy had watched. It was, much like the rest of what they had endured at Lisandra's hands, forbidden territory. But it was the memory of that day which bound them together, defined the connection between them.
Not quite friendship, yet more than companionship.
She jumped. "What?"
"Willow's been trying to catch your attention for a whole minute," said Giles, his brow furrowed.
Buffy shook her head. She didn't want to worry any them. "Sorry. Just thinking." She shrugged. "You were saying, Wills?"
The young witch bent forward, handing her something. "I picked up the mail this morning."
Buffy recognized what Willow held between her fingers.
Buffy's face lit up and her body uncoiled gracefully from the couch. She accepted the envelope with a wide smile.
The handwriting was elegant and old-fashioned. But it wasn't Angel's.
Her eyes found Spike, and she shook her head imperceptibly. The vampire relaxed marginally.
Curious, Buffy opened the missive with care, breaking the seal. She had never received a sealed envelope before. Her gaze was drawn to the ornate signature at the bottom of the last page.
Her eyes widened.
"It's from Morghane."
"I recognized the seal," said Oz. "It's the Guardian mark Morghane has on her shoulder. It was posted from Dublin."
Silence blanketed the room. Buffy knew Spike had tensed without having to raise her head. She skimmed the contents of the letter then got up. She covered the few feet that separated her from the blonde vampire. Without a word, she sat on the floor, her back to him, settling between his knees.
She felt him bend over her shoulder to read alongside her. His thighs brushed against her upper arms. She began to read.
No conventional greetings.
'Warriorship has, understandably, often been mistaken for the way of war. Warriorship, however, is the path of freedom. The true warrior has achieved freedom from his self-limitations, from the bonds of social conditioning and the barriers of fear.
'The warrior thrives within, and beyond. Blossoming within, the warrior knows the core of himself - intimately familiar with each of his strengths and weaknesses. The warrior does not shrink from negativity. He embraces it. Transcends it. He sees hidden possibilities behind every obstacle. Prospering beyond, the warrior opens himself fearlessly to the world. Fearlessness invites compassion and denies anger. The warrior balances the exigency of his calling - the violence - and his utmost respect for life. His soul is strong. The soul abhors self-denial and rejoices in unity. Warriorship cultivates the integration of our conflicting selves, of our divided impulses. The warrior is a perfect sensual presence in the world, attuned to his finest instincts, in harmony with his true feelings, at home within his body, in tune with his surroundings. He is, ironically, at peace with himself, never surrendering his humanity for the sake of strength, but sublimating what makes us such unique creatures in this universe.
'There is Magick in Warriorship, and Warriorship in Magick.
'The Slayer is the ultimate warrior. A born fighter. She does not know uncertainty. The soul of the Slayer is strong. It has to be to shelter and master this well of wild power. Yet the Slayer is still human. Privy to the doubts and fears which have crippled humanity since the dawn of time. More, the Slayer is a woman. This should never be overlooked, for there is a reason behind all things. The Slayer is both warrior and woman. Both harbinger of death for her enemies and defender of life - protector and care-taker - to her friends. Slaying is not an exalted state, removed from all human considerations. A Slayer should love life. It is, unfortunately, the most neglected of all lessons.
I blame the Council for this state of affair. Then again, I blame the Council for pretty much everything under the sun. But this is a discussion for another time.
'Slaying is a Calling. It belongs to each Slayer to be loyal to that Calling - until Slaying becomes an act of pure will and an expression of the true self.
'There is a prophecy.
'Yes, I can hear you know, Buffy. Yet another damn prophecy.
'Giles will not know of it. It is not contained in the Pergamon Codex, but will be revealed to you in time. The Beaynid prophecy is, unsurprisingly, obscure and enigmatic at best. It is also long and very complex.
'A section of it tells of the Slayer which will champion humanity during the end of days.
'This Slayer will be impervious to the cutting blade, unaffected by roaring fire. She will bend, but she will not break. She will move flawlessly, and the universe will mold itself to welcome her slightest gesture. She will know the force of the true will. She will choose her own power and make her own path.
'I have seen you, Buffy. You do not cut yourself off from your allies out of stubborn pride, fear of intimacy or a misplaced belief in your own self-sufficiency. You see what needs to be done, and you take action. You do not forget those you have sworn to protect. You never mistake the fight for your true objective. I have met so many Slayers who were blinded by the immediateness of the confrontation and lost sight of the big picture.
'Not you, though. Never you.
'The Beaynid prophecy further tells of a warrior who will escort the Slayer in battle, commanding to armies in her name, governing the forces of light in her service. He will be confident, companion, friend, spiritual guide, helper, partner and lover. Their union will know no bounds. Together, they will stand undefeated, transformed by the sacred experience of their affection and the knowledge of their ancient alliance. They will shelter each other and close the circle, I quote, "sealing the old covenant of Four, now Three. And none will be divided by fear ever again, neither outside nor within."
'Cryptic, I know. I don't understand it all myself.
'But you know where I'm going with this.
'My bond with Angel is stronger now. I can see his love for you so clearly. Angel loves you so much it blinds me to look.
'I know I have no business being proud of you. It is not my place. We barely know each other, although I would be honored to call myself your friend. Yet, in some ways, we have known each other forever. Our souls rested side by side in the eternity before Creation. Yours, Angel's and mine. I am proud of the woman you have become, and of the woman you will become.
'Angel will come back to you. But you know that already. You feel it.
'Angel will come to terms with the duality of his self. We all conceal a multitude of selves inside of us. Woman. Warrior. Mage. Sometimes the boundaries blur, or one swallows the other. It just happens that two of Angel's conflicting selves are more distinguishable than most. It is hard enough to come into the embrace of your soul without a demon barring the way and shadowing your every thought. Most humans fail. But Angel will succeed.
'Maybe succeed is not the appropriate word here. We're not talking about war, but about love. An unshakable certitude that you cannot hope to love anyone without bounds until you know, accept and love yourself unconditionally.
'Angel understands this. I know you do now.
'He would have left you eventually. He would have kept on leaving you, had he not made that choice. In the end, you made the wise decision. Both of you.
'There is a need for people who are inspiring forces in your life. After 1700 years, I have finally found what I was looking for. Now I have to come to terms with answers to questions I was not prepared to ask. But... no matter. This is of no concern to you.
'If you are wondering, after I left L.A. I caught up with Wesley and accompanied him to London. Let's just say that the big Spring clean up came early for the Watcher Council this year. Some drastic reorganization is in progress. Wesley will be in touch with Giles soon and explain. I couldn't stay in England, I needed some space. I didn't want to repeat past mistakes. If you ask William, he will explain. I hope you two are getting along. In fact, I'm sure you are.
'It's a shame you can't see the smirk on my face right about now.
'Someday, I will come back and thank you, all of you, for saving my life. But not right away. If there is some major emergency, and you need to contact me, get in touch with Wesley. I'll leave him with the means to find out my whereabouts.
'You are mó dachaidh, now. My home. My family. If you will have me.
'Go dtí an t'am bhímíd in aghaidh arís, beidh tú i mó phaidreacha is mó chroí.
'Until we meet again, you are in my prayers and in my heart.