Chapter Two - Winter Again

 

Morning came as silently as night had, creeping quietly along the jagged horizon and slipping its sickeningly bright tentacles of colorful light around the monumental structures of stone and concrete growing from the ancient cement garden. The rhythmic hum of the twilight traffic buzzed throughout the household, rattling windows in their frames and rocking the remaining cocoa in its ceramic mug. Honking emanated from the streets encompassing Hornwaggler Apartments and rap music burst forth from several small cars beneath it.

“Good morning, Brooklyn! The time is exactly 7:00 on this glorious—”

Anne’s hand slammed violently down on the Snooze button of her simple alarm clock, and the blaring voice of Brooklyn’s most widely hated and totally obnoxious DJ was abruptly cut from the air. The howling of the radio newsman clouded the slayer’s mind, the infamous phrase “Good morning” resounding prominently against her skull walls. She felt her brain practically swimming in an ocean of just those two simple words, an ocean where it was drowning. At that point in her hectic day, Anne usually found that hackneyed expression to be quite the oxymoron. Every morning she spent in New York, she found to be as rotten as the eggs in her refrigerator. What was wrong with everyone here, aside from the obvious? People, the slayer decided, should really quit saying that. It’s not like anyone really believes it?

With a sigh and a soft thud, Anne swung her feet over the side of her bed and threw on her white cotton robe. Barefoot, she shuffled sleepily into the kitchen to the bright copper kettle waiting almost anxiously on the burner.

Moving just like a robot, the slayer stiffly pulled the coffee can down from the cabinet shelf and placed it on the rough kitchen counter. After tinkering around with the necessaries to make a cup of coffee, she tapped her foot impatiently on the linoleum as she waited for the water to boil.

Sometime during the night winter had stopped its bombardment on the city and the snowflakes had ceased to fall. Anne squinted through the grimy glass window and peered out at the morning Sunnyside sprawling before her. Tiny ants, black and writhing, scuttled hurriedly up and down the sidewalks on their ways to work. Beating mercilessly down upon them was the glorious, orange-red sun that to Anne reminded her of Oz’s hair color. It smiled happily—or evilly, however one chose to view it—at the minute servants of repetition scurrying under its glare. Everyone down below surely thought of it as a wonderful sight, meaning the end of all his or her problems, but not Anne. No, when Anne looked at the fiery grin pasted on the creature’s solar face, she saw it for what it was: a specious one. Looking at the concealing smile, the slayer felt it in her bones; this was going to be a day comparable to the one when she’d had when she first arrived in New York City.

The familiar whistle of the kettle drew Anne away from the window and to the stove with its siren call. More carefully than last night, she removed it and poured the steaming liquid into her mug without spilling one drop.

Feeling quite satisfied with herself, Anne lightly tapped the can as she tried to pour the powder into her cup. However, some puddles of water from the night before’s fiasco were still hiding deceptively on the floor, anticipating the moment Anne would step on them (or at least that was how it seemed). Of course, a naked foot slides easily through water, as the slayer soon found out. Right as she was shaking the coffee sprinkles out of the can and into the mug, she went flying through the air, and arch of brown ashes sailing above the twisted airborne form. The sickening smack of a body on the ground thundered throughout the apartment and into the one underneath hers. The streams of gay morning sunshine filtered through the smoggy atmosphere of Brooklyn and lit the claustrophobic kitchen with their merry light. One beam shone down upon the grossly tangled body like a spotlight, illuminating just it. A few stray grains of coffee intermingled with the motes of dust, slipped between the rays of sun like water through a sieve and rained down upon Anne’s exhausted, mangled form.

“Curses,” Anne grunted sourly at the sun and the water as she hefted herself to her feet, “no morning coffee.” She wasn’t sure how she was going to make it through the rest of the day without anything to perk her up or, for that matter, even open her sleep-sealed eyes. With a tortured moan followed up by an even more painful groan, Anne grabbed the counter, heaving herself into the air with the little slayer strength she had left in her.

Shuffling like a helpless septuagenarian, Anne reentered her only-clean-because-it-has-nothing-to-dirty-it bedroom, changed out of her bedclothes and into her work uniform before leaving her house to go to the Palace of Versailles. Hurriedly, the blonde combed her hair and applied her makeup as she got dressed. No time anymore. Never any time.

Casting one last sidelong glance at the kitchen, she decided it best to clean up the mess later, when she had the free time (like she ever did). Now, Anne had to get to work before she was late and Caroline, Michelle, Susan and Diana—her bosses-had her head on one of their many real silver platters. Michelle would probably take to doing it herself—stupid, arrogant bitch.

The snapping tails of her long, woolen jacket trailed behind her as she escaped the all-too-tiny cubbyhole for the much-too-big world. The instant she left the apartment behind, Anne felt as though a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders; this was the way she always felt when she left. Why, she was never quite sure, but she hypothesized it was because her place was so small and dreary, and it limited her world to a living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. Like back in her slayer days, Anne had always needed an area to roam. Apartment 44 would never be able to give her that. Nowhere but Sunnydale ever would because nowhere else was home.

Down the stairs and out the doors of the indigent establishment, Anne traveled as quickly as possible, in a great rush to get to work on time for once. Anne knew that if she didn’t punch in at 8:30 today, there was quite a good chance that she wouldn’t be seeing the inside of the Palace for a very long time.

The steady click-clack of her ebony, heeled shoes on the pavement melded perfectly into the symphony of buzzing traffic, chattering prostitutes and crinkling shopping bags bursting with at the seems with merchandise. However, the rhythmic sounds were soon replaced by the revolting squish of chewed gum being crushed underfoot. Anne frowned disgustedly as she lifted her foot, which remained attached to the sidewalk by an umbilical cord of blue chewing gum. “Great,” she uttered sardonically as she gingerly severed the string of gum with her fingertip. “I knew this was going to be one of those rotten days that have no end.”

While she was hobbling helplessly along, attempting to shake the rest of the blue goo off of the sole of her pumps, Anne heard another abhorrent thunk as well as felt it. Then, all she heard was the sound crunching paper in the air.

“Noo!” a mature male voice cried out as the storm of snow-white papers she had heard rained down upon Anne and the mystery man.

Oh no… Anne thought with a mental sigh, what trouble have I caused now, and upon whom did I shower my bad luck? She craned her head enough to see the figure of a man stretched out on the sidewalk, with his arms reaching desperately for the papers flapping aimlessly by in the wind. A terrified look filled his frightening eyes, staining the dark brown irises with the gray of fear.

When all of the papers had landed, the dressed-to-impress gentleman inched along the ground, hurrying frantically to collect all of them before they were ruined by water or snow, but at the same time, he tried his very hardest not to soil his nicely pressed suit. His strong hands snatched the at the white sheets like a cobra, with just as much venom in their tips, Anne was sure, as the snake.

“I’m so sorry, sir! Here, let me help you. “Anne extended a hand toward him, but he smacked it away as vehemently as he could manage without losing track of the task ahead of him.

“No thanks, lady. You’ve done enough already.” She heard the poison clearly evident in his voice and winced visibly at the sound of the word thanks.

“Hey, I was just trying to help,” Anne innocently informed him as she peeled a few papers from the sticky sidewalk.

“You’ve done so much helping for today I’ll have enough of it to share with my friends. Save it for some other unknowing schmuck.”

“You don’t have to be so rude.”

“I wouldn’t have to be if you’da watched where you were going in the first place.”

“Okay, fine. You wanna play the blame game? Well here goes nothing. Maybe you should have watched out for me, so you could have moved out of the way in time! It’s not all my fault, mister!” she cried, slamming a paper into his open briefcase.

“Don’t get haughty with me, lady. You’re gonna make me late for my interview now. Does that give you a happy?”

Anne looked at him quizzically before responding, on the verge of something important. “Well, you are gonna make me late for my job!”

Out of the corner of his eyes, the supercilious man noticed the last escaped paper teetering dangerously above a puddle of gross smelling and looking street sludge. The wind laughed hysterically above them as it screamed through the alleys and peaks of tall buildings. A sudden realization of what was going to happen appeared on the man’s face and his eyes opened as wide as they could. “Grab that paper! Hurry!”

“Why should I?” Anne asked vindictively.

“Lady, hurry, before it falls in! It’s very important!”

“All right, all right!” the slayer said, exasperated. When she reached for the paper, a sudden breeze fluttered through the chill air and sent the thing sailing into the blackened pool of water and slime. The man let out a pitiful whine as the face of the paper landed on the surface of the not-so-limpid puddle. “Oh please tell me that’s not for—”

“Michael Sanderson and Associates?”

Another whimper. “Why? Why God have you cursed me so?”

“Want this back, uh, Hogan Vlinters?” Anne asked facetiously as she handed the dripping wet form to the crying man.

“Thanks,” Hogan said sarcastically, a touch of annoyance evident in his tear-permeated voice. He grabbed the resume roughly from Anne’s hands and straightened his crooked back. It was at that point Anne realized just how hulking yet urbane the man looked.

Hogan wasn’t much taller than she was; however, he was very muscular, though the excellently tailored suit did well to conceal much of the roughness of the actual muscles. His hands were huge and callused, most likely from continuously working out. His hair was a rich, chestnut brown with an inner shine to it as was his immaculately trimmed goatee, and they both matched his sable eyes perfectly. Specks of salt from the roadway dotted Hogan’s dark, navy blue suit like a million-minute stars, but they detracted little away from the overall look. Although his handsome face projected an angry countenance then, underneath the stony appearance, Anne saw a man plagued by demons, both emotional and real ones—like the kind she used to fight when she was Buffy Summers.

Stuffing his papers into a manila folder then into a briefcase, Hogan left, sulking all the while and never bothering to say goodbye.

“Cute, but a jerk,” Anne thought inwardly. She straightened her short black skirt and adjusted her heavy winter jacket on her shoulders, resuming her speedwalk to the restaurant; the only change was the fact that she nearly doubled her speed.

Past the row house, over the dozens of crosswalks, through the countless groups of people, Anne made her slow but steady way to the Palace of Versailles. Actually, she was cruising as fast as her legs could carry her, but it seemed to take and eternity to make it through the Brooklyn rush hour of pedestrians.

Towering over the fantastically clean-swept sidewalk was an amazing three-story work of modern architecture. The entire place was constructed of huge, spotless windows with an intricate criss-cross pattern between the plates of glass. There were two floors evident within the building: the lower level serving as a normal restaurant and the upper level servicing luncheons and banquets. Tables galore speckled the dining halls and fluttering amongst them were dozens of waiters and waitresses gearing up for the lunchtime rush, even at 8:30 in the morning. A fancy, black cloth overhang graced the entranceway, and above that glowed a brilliant white sign that proclaimed the restaurant’s name to all, like a court herald. To top the whole sundae off, a row of topiary creations trimmed in the shape of two lions and four perfectly conical bushes, lined the carpeted walkway to the crystal doors. The air to the place was that of sophistication and arrogance.

Upon entering the Palace, Anne mingled with her fellow coworkers for but a moment—blending into the swarming black-and-white mass of people who all looked identical to her—before going to punch in… late… again.

Through the kitchen doors and to the back hallway that led to a hidden alleyway went Anne Winters at lightning speed. On her way back she ran into her arch nemesis Michelle Greyborne, one of the four main owners of the Palace and also the one the slayer hated most. God, sometimes she wished Michelle would just turn into a damn vampire so she would have an excuse to stake her! “Late again I see, Ms. Winters,” Michelle oozed almost merrily.

“Mrs. Greyborne, I’m so sorry. It’s just that I’ve been having one of the worst days of my life. This morning when I—”

“Oh, save it for somebody who gives a flying hoot what happened to a piece of miserable dirt like you! You’re late; that’s all I care about. I’m sure my sisters would love for me to regal them on how Ms. Anne Winters was late for work for about the sixth time this week, don’t you?”

“You snake!” Anne thought angrily. Continuing aloud: “Well, no, but-”

“No, they wouldn’t, but I think I’m going to go ahead and tell them anyway.”

Anne sighed heavily. “You are?”

“Yes, I am. Once they hear what I have to say about you, I’m confident we won’t have to put up with the likes of you too much longer.”

“I think you made it perfectly clear how you feel about me, Mrs. Greyborne.”

“Thank Heaven above! I thought I’d have to hit you over the head with a frying pan before you would figure it out. Now, get to work, and do a good job for once. It may be your last day here, and if it is, you’d better make sure that we here at the Palace of Versailles have something decent to tell your next employer, whoever the poor fool may be.”

“Thanks for the harangue, Michelle,” Anne replied thickly as she stormed out of the kitchen and back into the dining hall, leaving an irate boss in her disastrous wake.

To burn off the rage steadily building within her, the slayer slammed each salt and pepper shaker set violently down on the tables she was ordered to set. The crystal clattered symphonically along with the tinkle of silverware being laid out and the romantic chime of glass chalices stuffed with a black napkins. The smattering of dozens of different kitchen noises rose high above the city orchestra outside the transparent walls. The music was almost coherent to Anne as she listened carefully.

After a few long hours had inched their way past, the Palace of Versailles opened for business. Their usual lunch time rush ended as quickly as it had arrived, and what was even worse was their usual lunch time crowd had shown up. This really irked the blonde because she hated redundancy. And naturally, in such a boring crowd of snobbish men and women there was no opportunity for excitement. Several meetings had taken place in the meeting hall up the stairs, but it hardly made any difference to Anne because she was working the tables on the lower level.

What was worst of all though was that generally her customers were polite, debonair and aristocratic in nature – not to mention, they were normally excellent tippers. However, on this hell day to beat all hell days, it had to start out as nightmare, and as it progressed, Anne found herself getting lost further in the fabric of the elaborate dream. The tips were poor, the customers rude, and to top it all off – the cherry on it all – one of her customers just had to be, had to be, Mr. Hogan Vlinters.

“Could this day get any worse?” The moment the maxim had escaped Anne’s rose red lips, she knew she had just jinxed herself for the entire rest of the day.

The waitress prayed hopefully that the man wouldn’t remember whom she was or how they’d come to meet; naturally, her prayers went unanswered. Luckily, when she sauntered guiltily over to his table, Hogan was busy studying his menu and he didn’t even bother to look up at his waitress. Anne cleared her dry throat. “Ah, good evening, sir. How are you doing today?” she asked nervously.

“Lousy, just lousy. Thanks for asking though. I think I’m ready to…” He paused briefly. “Wait a minute. I recognize that voice; you’re the lady that ran into me this morning, the one who ruined my life!” Hogan’s chocolate eyes darted from his menu to the beautiful blonde woman standing above him. She fidgeted under his gaze, unknowingly doodling scribbles on her pad of paper.

“I think you have me confused with someone else, sir. Until now I’ve never seen you before in my life,” Anne suggested, desperately trying to convince him that it wasn’t her (although it had been). “Maybe I simply resemble her; there are a lot of blonde women in New York.” Boy, did she know that too well. Every other woman was Buffy Anne Summers.

“No, no. Don’t try and fool me; I can’t be fooled that easily.” He looked her straight in the face as he spoke, trying to make her believe him, but Anne detected a trace of uncertainty in his voice and a backdrop of sadness in his eyes. “You are her.”

The waitress sighed heavily as she gave up her façade, knowing that Hogan was already sure she was the one who supposedly had ruined his life. “Look, sir,” barely biting the word out, “I didn’t do it on purpose, as I have said many times already. I even tried to help you, so don’t say that I didn’t. You are the one who ruined your own life, buddy!”

“Michael Sanderson was the last place in this entire goddam city that had the room to hire me, and I knew that full well. They told me to dress cleanly and be prepared to present a perfect resume and have a positive attitude. Thanks to your efforts, I had none of those when I went in. I never would do anything to jeopardize my chances there. The only reason I lost that job was because of a careless woman who wasn’t watching where she was going, like she should have doing!”

“Like I said, I-”

“Since you decided to make my life hell, I think I’ll return the favor.”

“Oh no. What are you-”

Before she could do a thing, he had started. “Miss! May I please have a glass of water? Oh, and where are my breadsticks? Everyone else has breadsticks but me, why? Are you playing favorites? Is it because you don’t like me? If it is I’m reporting you to the manager. You can’t simply discriminate because you don’t like someone!” Anne just stood there staring incredulously at the raving man, who was going on and on about the stupid breadsticks not being on his table already. “And where’s my water? I’ve been waiting five minutes for that water and still you refuse to bring it! Why isn’t it here either?” He paused to take a breath, and when Anne didn’t move at all, he cried, “And what about my breadsticks?!”

“All right! I’m getting them! I’m getting them! Hold on!”

“Are you allowed to talk to all of your patrons this way? I don’t think so! Keep this attitude up and you won’t be receiving any tip from me!” He harrumphed loudly, then smacked Anne square on the ass the moment she turned away from him.

Outraged, she cried out, surprising everyone around her. Embarrassed and mad as hell, Anne stormed away absolutely furious at the obnoxious man. She prayed he wouldn’t keep this up all night, but knowing what Hogan was like already and drawing on the memories of men from her past, she had a feeling he was going to be just as tenacious as Giles or Xander or Angel had been. Five minutes with Hogan and already she wanted to lock him in room with Michelle Greyborne and throw away the key. In the kitchen, the slayer picked up a basket of breadsticks and his damned glass of ice water.

Back at the table, Hogan frowned at her when she returned without wearing a smile on her cherubic face. Violently, Anne threw the oblong straw basket on the table and angrily placed the crystal cup of water before him. “Happy?” she hissed.

“Not really. What ever happened to the traditional service with a smile? Anyway, there’s no lemon in my water and I’m sure I asked for it in there. Maybe you should write that down. By the time you get to the crate of lemon slices, you might forget it.”

Anne was literally fuming. Taking the glass of water off of the table, she grudgingly apologized for the mistake even though they both knew he never ordered it with a slice of lemon in the first place; it was just to annoy her. And it had worked, too.

It went just like that the rest of the night; Anne ran back and forth between Hogan and the kitchen without stop, except for her other customers, for whom she felt terribly sorry. There was always something wrong with Hogan’s food, or he didn’t have enough to drink, or there wasn’t enough sugar for his coffee or lemon for his water. Anne’s other customers were hardly receiving any service because of him, and, fortunately for her, they knew it, so they couldn’t rightly blame her. Every five minutes it was “Miss! Miss! I need…” and Hogan would prattle off what he wanted like a parrot would. From not enough croutons in his salad to not enough gravy for his mashed potatoes, anything was game.

Eventually Mr. Vlinters finished his dinner and paid his check dutifully. However, when it came to the matter of leaving a tip, Hogan placed a single penny on the tablecloth, face up, knowing full well that the simple fact that the tip was there but no good would really get her.

Eight o’clock rolled around very slowly, but when it did finally arrive, the shock and wonderment that her horrible day was almost concluded knocked Anne for a loop.

Happily, she skipped back into the kitchen she had come to know so well this evening and wished goodnights to the chefs and other waiters and waitresses, her excitement to leave building in her all the while.

When she’d reached the ver y back of the restaurant, Anne encountered four statues, each figure’s granite eyes fixed on her quivering form. The figures all had long, golden hair that fell to their middle backs, and all but the one in the center of their semi-circle had azure blue eyes; the one in the middle had emerald green, and she was also the one to speak. “We’ve heard some, well, let’s just say less than appealing things about you, Miss Winters, this evening, some less than appealing things indeed. Needless to say, none of us were very pleased to hear them.”

“From Miss Michelle, I presume?”

The green-eyed beauty nodded, but waved a finger as if to add something else. “Not only from my sister Michelle, dear, but also from a very irate customer of yours. No, I take that back, a thoroughly dissatisfied customer.”

“Hogan!” Anne gritted furiously.

“No, not from any Hogan, from a Roger. He complained that, and I quote, ‘the service was poor; my needs were hardly met; the waitress’s manners were horrendous, and she was as crass as woman I’ve ever met,’” Anne’s manager informed her as she read what was on a comment card in her fragile hand. “Now, what do you have to say about this, Miss Winters?”

“I… I…” Anne stuttered, so choked with rage and embarrassment.

The blonde from the far right stepped forward, the Devil’s smile playing wickedly across her face. “I told you we should have fired her months ago, Caroline. We would have been saved the humiliation.”

“Quiet, Michelle.

“You do know what this means, don’t you, Miss Winters?” Afraid that she did, Anne nodded yes. “I’ll make this as short as I can; I’m not going to bother to sugar-coat a bitter pill. You’re fired, Anne. As of tomorrow you are no longer to come to work at the Palace of Versailles. Tomorrow morning you are to return your uniform and nametag along with anything else of the Palace’s that you have in your possession. Understand? Sometime next week we will contact you, and you can come and pick up your last check.”

“Yes, Miss Caroline.”

“Goodnight then,” Caroline said as she turned her green gaze away from Anne and brushed passed the former waitress with her three sisters in tow. Michelle was last out, and before she left, she turned around and sneered viciously at her; she got her wish.

Silent tears dripped from her eyes as she donned her coat and slipped out the back door into the hidden alley behind the Palace. The air outside had grown ice cold in the last few hours since the sun had ducked under the horizon, and it instantly froze Anne to the core. Snow had once again begun to fall, crisp, wintry flakes dusting her blonde mass of hair and her slumped shoulders.

Suddenly it felt as if the breath had been knocked out of her and the sky above her began to fall, white pieces of plaster raining down on her. The world around her started to crumble before Anne’s very eyes. Foundations cracked and streets buckled and the heavens overturned, and the whole time Anne stood in the alley waiting for the death had been prophesized since she left Sunnydale.

Someone masked by a veil of shadows coughed quietly, so quietly that had Anne not had her slayer wits still about her she might have never heard. Instantly, the old slayer urges and instincts returned after quite a period of dormancy, and so, following them, she spread her legs and readied her fist to deliver a punch to whomever was disturbing her.

“Relax, it’s me.”

The voice did nothing to sooth her frazzled nerves, for she recognized it all too well. When the man stepped out of the shadows, Buffy pulled her fist back, and when he moved into striking range, she whopped him square in the nose. The silhouette fell over backwards, clutching his face in pain and howling. “What’d you do that for?”

Buffy relaxed and became Anne again though her tone was similar to that of the nearly unflappable slayer when she dealt with vampires or demons. Only difference was, this wasn’t a vampire or a demon, it was worse. “You succeeded. You ruined my life.”

“I what?”

“Your name isn’t even Hogan.”

“Of course it isn’t,” he informed, “it’s Roger.”

“I knew it!” Anne cried, punching Roger again when he tried to get back up. “Caroline – that bitch – told me some guy named Roger thought I was the worst waitress he’d ever had, so they fired me!”

“Damn, lady, you’ve got a punch like a pro boxer.” Over in the corner there was a series of moans and groans followed by a few harsh sneezes. “Where’d you learn to hit like that?”

“I can’t believe it! You don’t even care that you’ve completely destroyed my life, jeopardized my entire future!”

“Why should I? You ruined mine.” Roger spoke coldly, his voice barren of all feeling – no compassion, apathy, nothing. Anne wondered what could make a man so empty of emotion, so empty.

“Oh, like that was intentional. What you did to me was such a reprehensible act I don’t have the right words that could describe the maliciousness of it properly. Perhaps if I hit you again I could show just how very mean it was.”

“No! I got the point the first two times. Look, the reason I came,” he started softly as he rose from the ground and out of the darkness, “was because I wanted to apologize for my behavior.”

Searching wildly through the mask upon his face for his luscious brown eyes, Anne bellowed, “You’re sorry? You’re sorry! Roger, you are simply unbelievable! Un-freaking-believable! You ruined my life, mangled it and threw it away uncaringly as if it were a piece of garbage. Well, my life my have been in the toilet, but you damn well didn’t need to flush it!” The slayer laughed bitterly into the biting cold as if challenging it. “What am I going to do for money? Where will I live when its time to collect the rent money and I have none? Just how am I going to get by? Tell me, cos I really would like to know!”

Roger stepped from the shadows finally, and when he did, Anne noticed his nose was leaking a steady stream of blood down onto his upper lip. An intense case of déjà vu filled her, and Buffy couldn’t help but think she’d seen this all before. His full, soft lips parted as he spoke quietly, his words almost being carried off by the wind that ripped viciously through the alleyway. “I won’t beg you for your forgiveness, but I will ask you for it. I’m not lying to you when I say I never meant for it to go this far. All I wanted was for you to get a scolding or maybe even a suspension from work, not fired. Perhaps if I talked to-”

“Just save it.”

Silence occurred between the pair as the night settled in further. They stood together, hushed and still, each contemplating the other. Anne had never seen a more attractive man, other than Angel, but she also had never met a more egotistical man, other than Angelus. She saw in Roger a strong coupling of them both, and it frightened her. This man was more Angel/Angelus than either Angel or Angelus had been. They had made it quite clear that they were two different people with the same face. Roger, on the other hand, was an inseparable mix of both.

When nothing had been said after a long time, Roger turned to her and said, “I know that this is unorthodox, but I’m going to introduce myself properly. I’m Roger.” He extended a hand, and when she didn’t take it, he quickly shoved back into his coat pocket.

“You’re getting me off track. I’m supposed to be moping about losing my crappy job, and you’re supposed to bitching me out because I ruined your terrific future. Then we’re supposed to start blaming each other for all of our problems and feeling sorry for ourselves.”

The suave young man joined Anne’s side while she leaned up against the back brick wall of the Palace and stared across the alley at the looming sandstone wall of the building next door. “We are a gloomy pair, aren’t we?”

Anne nodded silently, her gaze never lifting from a crumpled beer can across from her. Suddenly she felt amazingly parched, as if she hadn’t had a drink in days. “I know this is unorthodox,” she said, mimicking his voice, “but are you thirsty?”

“Mouth couldn’t be drier.”

“Come on. I know a good place where we can get something to drink.”

Roger and Anne turned and walked out of the blackened passageway, the only sound being the scrape of their shoes on the pavement. “By the way,” she said, spinning around to face the man behind her, “my name’s Anne.”

Through the winding streets of Brooklyn and between fabulous skyscrapers that literally touched the heavens they went, in search of the bar about which Anne had spoken. Closer and closer the path led them to Anne’s apartment. But as soon as the couple arrived at the intersection of Ganesh Way and another nondescript, not-found-on-any-map-but-the-most-detailed-one kind of street, Anne turned sharply left and ushered Roger deeper into the little sector of Sunnyside.

At the heart of the community, she stopped abruptly betwixt an old pornography store and an extraordinarily sleazy strip club (even for here) simply called Eden. Directly between the two buildings and built into a solid, brown brick wall was a metal door of sorts painted a steel gray, although most of the paint had chipped away with the age and the weather, revealing the gooey black coat of stain underneath it. Printed in thick, red letters across the door were the words “Skippy’s Bar”, and beneath them was a corpulent, cherry arrow pointing upwards.

Without uttering a single word to her companion, Anne opened the door that hid a stone stairwell, and she climbed the first few steps with Roger lagging behind her. Anne quickly reached the top, eager to see Skippy and get a cold drink that might be paregoric for her badly frayed nerves.

At the top loomed another gray door with the original oil black color peeping through the thinning coat of paint, the sickeningly slick layer of black writhing suggestively under the glow of the halogen bulb dangling from a single wire in the ceiling. Even with the mass of ebony pulsating hatefully at her, Anne jerked open the door without a single moment of hesitation. It swung open to reveal a world totally different than the one outside the structure.

Inside stretched an extensive counter along the back wall, which was lined with hundreds of different types of alcohol and fountain drinks. They all shined hopefully under the dim fluorescent lights, the liquid inside swishing around and attempting to entice them to have a drink. A few rickety oak tables surrounded by four pine chairs each dotted the scuffed wooden floor, empty glasses, crushed beer cans and pretzel bits dotting the tabletops. Ashtrays overflowing with ashes and cigarette butts spewed their vile contents upon the counters and the floor as well. The smoke of the long burnt out cigarettes still lingered in the atmosphere of the stuffy bar, ghosts of a haunting past in the twisting, demonic light. Several regular, intoxicated patrons sat drunkenly on the barstools, chatting loudly through thick tongues pasted with alcohol to the roofs of their mouths.

Behind the bar stood a stout man dressed in all denim, with the exception of his red and black shirt under his jean jacket. His round beer belly protruded over the waistline of his jeans, and his fleshy hands peeped out from under his jacket sleeves just barely, reminding Anne of ten pink worms. A salt-and-pepper beard grew from the man’s face and inched down his chunky neck. Under his orange and brown hunting hat was a mat of black, long hair that was pulled loosely back into a ponytail, which rested on his broad shoulders. However, even through the shadow cast by the brim of his hat, the man’s kind eyes sparkled in the dark, and the optimistic smile that he perpetually wore curled up his chubby face.

As Anne walked over to the counter and took a seat, the man’s grin grew even wider – stretching from ear to ear – and his merry, Santa Claus-like eyes flamed up with happiness. “Annie!” the man bellowed with joy, throwing his arms out to her.

“Hey ya, Skippy,” she said excitedly as she reached over the bar and embraced the large, round man. “How’s life treating you?” In the midst of the welcoming hug, Anne forgot briefly the tragedy that had befallen her. She was so glad to see him.

Skippy’s voice was as robust as he was, and it had a rich, happy tone to it, like he was very satisfied with the life he led. “Oh, justa fine, doll, justa fine. Da business is doinga swell’s can be spected. How’re ya doing yarself? How’s dat Palace of Versails, or whatever it’s called?”

“Look Skip, could ya fix us a coupla drinks, the stronger, the better. We’ve had a rough day.”

“Dis guy here’s awith ya?” Skippy asked, a bit perplexed, and Anne figured that was due to the fact that she’d never made a single friend in New York City aside from him. Anne nodded affirmatively while Skippy mixed and served the drinks without bothering to ask Roger if her had a preference.

When the bartender presented the drinks before them, they greedily picked up their shot glasses, clinked them, and then downed the extra strong vodka shots mixed with cranberry juice they were served in the blink of an eye. For a moment they coughed on the bitter taste, but quickly recovered and asked for something even stronger. So while Skippy mixed their drinks, he engaged in a bit of chitchat with the would-be bodybuilder and his Annie. “Well, Annie, ain’t ya gonna introduce me to yar friend?”

Quickly Anne licked her lips, savoring the last spare drops of the foul liquid that remained clinging to them. “Sorry about that. This is Roger Vlinters.”

“Uh, Anne-” Roger tried to interject hurriedly.

“Roger, this is Skippy Birbaum, my former manager and one of the sexiest men alive.” She shot a silver smile at the bartender. “Oh, Skip, did I forget to mention that this is the man who ruined my life?”

“Yes, ya did.”

“Yup, that’s me," Roger chimed in, “but I have to say in my defense that she ruined my life first. Did I mention that?”

“Na, ya didn’t.” Skippy watched Anne carefully as the former slayer’s eyes darted around the pub from stoical face to stoical face, observing the dark clouds of drunkenness in their pupils. “What happened to ya today, Annie?”

“As of 8:00 this evening, I no longer hold a position at the Palace of Versailles.”

“Wha?”

“I was fired, Skip.”

In his most concerned voice, he asked, “Ba why?”

He followed Anne’s finger, which was pointing to her right, to the man on the barstool next to her. When his eyes had fallen upon Roger’s glum figure, Skippy heard him speak. “You’re looking at the reason why.” Skippy gave him a puzzled look as Roger traced the rim of his glass with his finger. “Ask her.”

With his eyes back on the blonde, the corpulent man started to ask her a question, but she cut him off even before he could form a syllable. “Just make the drinks. When I’m drunk enough, I’ll tell you the whole sordid tale.”

Two beers, a Hawaiian and a Screwdriver later…

Anne was so stinking drunk she was barely able to walk. She had trouble focusing on one thing and all her limbs tingled as the alcohol made its way through her veins. On the other hand, Roger had only indulged in two beers and the original shot of vodka. The alcohol had yet to bother him, considering he was huge and able to handle more of the poison.

The slayer wavered on her barstool for a moment, gathering her bearings as best she could, and then she proceeded to tell the other two a story from her youth. “Okay, so a coupla years back, I met this guy – if you wanta call ‘im that – and we ‘it it off real nice. I mean, I was practically fallin’ all over da guy.” Anne emphasized certain words in her tale with exaggerated movements such as has never before been seen and huge facial expressions that varied dramatically with the word meanings. “Well, there were problems, big problems, sudg as all relationsips ‘ave. One of the biggest – though not the biggest – was, well, ‘e was older.”

“An older man, huh? How much older?” Skip queried.

The slayer scratched her chin thoughtfully for a few seconds before answering. “Round 200, 250 years, I tink.” Skippy laughed hardily at the obviously intoxicated girl while Roger just sat quietly on his stool, staring intently at her. “Waz so funny? Is’re someone beind me?” Anne asked confusedly. Her head craned this way and that as she looked to see if there was anyone behind her.

“Na, love, na. Na one there; ya just said sompthin’ funny.”

“I did?” Skippy nodded. “Oh.

“Anyway, this guy was from Ireland or England or one of them foreign countries, buy ‘e didn’t ‘ave no accent. Yeah, we ‘ad some good times togeter, some very good times.” Her alcohol-choked voice grew tender and weepy as Anne spoke of her lost love. “Almost all good up until I killed ‘im. That did put a bit of a damper on our relationsip.

“All right, Annie,” Skippy interrupted, “that’s enough outta ya. Na more drinks for ya tonight.”

Tears formed in her clear eyes. “I wanna go ‘ome.”

“Tell ya what. I’ll call ya a cab, baby doll-”

“No!” Anne yelped, disturbing her fellow boozers in the cigarette smoke-filled bar. “Not to my apartment, to my ‘ome.”

“You mean in the Bronx?”

“I’m not from the Bronx, Skip.”

“Ya told me that’s where ya were born.”

A harsh laugh, almost a cackle, was issued from her constricted throat as Anne replied, “Well, I lied. I’m not from anywhere near there. I’m from California.”

“That would be why ya got na accent.”

Roger sat silent, staring at Buffy. Her eyes closed, then reopened as she looked right back at him. He was awoken from his trance only when he heard Skippy call out his name. “Yes?”

“Do ya mind takin’ Annie home for me?”

“To California?” he asked incredulously.

“Na, na, to her apartment over on Ganesh Way.”

The man shook his head no. “Just give me the directions and I’ll take her… on one condition.”

“Sure, wha?”

“You tell me how you met her.”

“Oh sure. That’s a fair deal. Annie came to me for a job ‘bout two years ago, when I owned a little diner where that Palace place is now. She needed money real bad cause she’d got no place to live, ‘cept for the YMCA. Seemed like she was runnin’ away from sompthin, and she needed to get her mind off it and onto sompthin else. So, I gave her a waitressin’ job, and we became real close. Although Annie’s like a daughter to me, she never told me what it was she ran away from zactly, but it musta been real scary cause no matter how hard I try, she never tells me.

“Satisfied?”

“Quite. Thanks for the info, Skippy. I’ll take her home now.” Roger reached for Anne’s trembling hand and grabbed it in his own. She felt a jolt in her fingertips as her skin pressed against his. Their eyes met and it was a strange connection that she had never before experienced. It wasn’t passion, romance or love, but it definitely was something special. Then it was all broken the minute her old friend opened his mouth.

“Oh, Roger, before ya go, I have a question for ya, too. What is it ya’re runnin’ away from?” Skippy wondered, his bushy eyebrow raised up under his hat.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I think ya do. Go on, take my Annie home before she does sompthin stupider than just getting’ herself stinkin’ drunk.”

Roger did as he was told and put an arm around the blonde, lifting her to her unsteady feet. He gingerly led her out the door and down to the streets, which remained still and empty within the iron grip of the winter battering down on the city.

As he walked the girl home, all Roger heard was the wind squeaking through the stony rectangles, shrieking, “What is it that you are running from?”