Halfway between his home and mine is a rundown roadside diner that serves bad coffee and awesome omelets at all hours of the night. I'm waiting for my food to arrive when he slides into the booth across from me.
He stares at me for a moment, like he's trying to believe I'm really here. He takes my hand across the table, and I have to tell myself to respond to his touch. None of that stuff is automatic anymore.
We make stilted small talk for a few minutes. He declines the server's offers of everything but coffee, and returns his focus to me as she steps away. “How is the coffee, anyway?”
I've had all the small talk I can take. I pull my hand from his and lean back in the booth. He looks a little hurt, but I don't care. I cross my arms over my chest.
“Where were you?”
He looks confused. “In L.A. I did some traveling, but I told you that much on the phone.” I think he can tell by the look on my face that isn't the answer I want. “But that's not what you mean, is it?”
“No. I mean...” The words aren't coming to me as easily as I'd like. “I thought... you loved me.”
“I do. You know I do, Buffy. But--”
“Then where the hell were you? When I needed you most, you weren't there.”
He looks down at the coffee cup the server places in front of him. “Thanks,” he mumbles.
“Your omelet will be along in just a minute, honey,” she says to me.
I nod and try to give her a smile, but even I can tell it comes across as fake. I wait until she's a few feet from the table before speaking again. “Do you have any idea what I've been through? What Dawn has been through?”
“Well, no, not exactly.”
“I guess you wouldn't, 'cause you weren't there.”
His voice takes on that familiar pleading tone he always counts on to soften my mood. “Buffy...”
I raise my hand to stop him from continuing. “Don't even try it. Don't give me excuses. Just explain to me why you weren't there. Explain to me how someone who claimed to love me sooo much could simply choose not to be there when I most needed him to be.”
“You know I would've been, if I'd known. I'd have done everything I could--”
“I mean after, stupid!” I'm trying to keep my voice low, despite my anger. The result is a hissing whisper that sounds even more angry than shouting would. “How can you sit there, pretending you give a damn about me, when you couldn't even be bothered to visit, let alone help?”
He opens his mouth, but it takes him a minute to find words. When he speaks, it's in the direction of his coffee cup. “I just couldn't make myself go there. I couldn't make myself knock on your door, out of the blue like that, and expect to be welcomed.”
A plate of overstuffed omelet-y goodness appears in front of me, and I glance up to give the server a smile I hope looks more grateful and genuine than my last attempt. “Thanks.” I lock my focus on the omelet as I take the first bite, hoping I can forget the man across the table for a moment and just enjoy my food.
Visually disconnecting doesn't make me forget, unfortunately, but it does give me time to organize my thoughts. A few bites later, I put down my fork and wipe my lips with a paper napkin. “It would have meant even more if you went without expecting to be welcomed. If you had helped, if you had just been there -even if it was only for Dawn's sake- without anybody around who was going to give you a pat on the back for it...”
He's sputtering out excuses. They're empty, just words to ignore while I enjoy a few more bites of omelet. I don't interrupt, don't give him any sort of argument. I could lie and say I'm too polite to talk with my mouth full. Or I could stop shoveling food into my face for a minute. But eating gives me time to think.
Unwelcome help. Giving priority to Dawn's well-being. No 'atta-boys' expected or received. Not leaving. Being there.
I'm talking to the wrong person, having the wrong conversation. I shouldn't be hissing in angry whispers about absence. I should be showing gratitude for presence.
I put down my fork again. I wipe my mouth and toss the napkin onto the table. “I have to get home.”
“But we just got here.” He slides out of the booth as I do, standing to face me. “Can't we talk this out?”
“There's nothing to say. You didn't even call to check on everyone. And while you were busy not visiting, someone else was there, every night, doing what I would have thought someone who loves me would do: helping to protect what mattered most to me, no matter how difficult it would be.”
He frowns. “You're not talking about Willow and Xander, are you?”
I bend to pick up my jacket from the booth seat, just as the realization hits me. 'Someone who loves me.' Is it actually possible? I mean, it seems like it. He does fit the definition I just gave...
I shake my head and put enough cash on the table for an omelet, two coffees, and a decent tip. “I have to get home,” I repeat as I walk away. “I have to talk to Spike.”
Behind me, I hear Angel say my name in that pleading tone again, but I don't turn around.