Chapter Seven - In the Aftermath

Central Park, or so it seemed, lay covered in a blanket of fresh snow. Off in the distance Anne could see the jagged peaks of New York’s tallest skyscrapers. As she scanned the terrain, Buffy turned around and saw the flat tops of the buildings and warehouses in Sunnydale. “What’s going on here?” she wondered aloud, her voice booming as though she were in the Alps. There was no sound, just deadness. In fact, there was such a dearth of any noise that it hurt her ears just to be immersed in total silence. “Where am I?”

To Anne’s left, New York; to Buffy’s right, Sunnydale; straight-ahead, Roger. “Oh, thank God,” she murmured as she raced to his embrace, “something normal.” His arms adjusted to fit perfectly around her waist as he whispered something unintelligible in her ear. Anne willingly stepped into the hug, burying her face into his rough-hewn shoulder. “I’m so glad you’re here… wherever here is.” Roger only replied by pulling her closer and reaching up to stroke her soft hair. She softened under his gentle touch, nuzzling his thick neck with her hot cheek.

Without warning, Roger pushed her away lightly, and to her complete surprise, he was no longer Anne’s Roger, but Buffy’s Xander! The impish smile was the same, as were the coffee-colored eyes, but Xander was much smaller and he was missing the goatee, not to mention, his eyes possessed a vibrancy that Roger’s lacked. However, the look of love was present in both men’s eyes.

“What’s going on?” Anne implored in a tremulous voice, not her own.

“I love you, Buffy,” Xander confessed almost painfully real for any dream.

“Oh, Xander!” Buffy dove for him, wanting to hug her long-lost friend tightly to her, but the moment her fingers touched the fabric of his shirt, he dissolved in watery mass of pigments. His whole body grew larger suddenly and more muscular, then it started to take on the form of her familiar friend Roger. “I love you, Anne,” he said, his voice more mature than Xander’s but filled with the same pain of wanting a love that he could never attain. When she reached for Roger, again he changed to become her darling slayerette.

Anne was starting to panic; this was all too weird, even for the slayer. Sunnydale and New York as one? Xander and Roger the same?

The fairy tale moon broke the skyline, arms of silver grasping at the night and dividing the heavens into wedges. With its rise, chaos awoke from its dreadful daytime slumber, and its horrific reign was thrust upon the land. As the earth around the pair began to shake, a finger of wan light from the orb descended upon the scene, illuminating all under its ghostly tip. Every shadow mysteriously vanished to whence it came. No secrets could be held back under the revealing glow of the silver-haired celestial woman.

Roger became almost transparent, a ghoulish shell with a surprise inside him—Xander. While the moon climbed the sky at a fantastic rate, a shadow was cast at Anne’s feet. Although it was Roger standing before her, it was Xander’s shadow cast on the ground by some ancient magic spell. Her eyes lifted from the earth beneath her and to the man before her. “Who are you?” Anne bleated, throwing a punch at the chest of the Roger-shell.

Then, totally synchronized, they responded. “I love you.” Their voices danced in the air and melded together in a gleeful realization. They were the same voice, one only slightly more twisted with experience. “Xander?”

“I love you, Buffy.” Xander finally emerged from Roger’s body. He reached for her hand, but the second they touched, the ground beneath them shifted. From the sidelines, New York City came rushing along the horizon, as did Sunnydale. The two cities collided in the empty lot behind Xander and exploded with a fiery fury. Debris flew everywhere, chunks of metal and bits of building littering every imaginable space. Buffy yelled something even she could not hear to Xander, but the words were lost in the noise. Still, she managed to retain a great meaning in them, something that made her feel whole again.

Xander was no where in sight.

And there Buffy stood—alone and amongst the rubble—until the wickedly grinning moon had set over the hills of white snow and red fire.

@~~`~~~

She woke up panting, sweating, terrified. Within the darkness she could still hear the last word she said. Xander. The walls were sponges in this place and they retained all that they heard. Anne could see the carnage around her—the broken buildings, shattered glass, and twisted metal. Her soul quivered at the very thought that Sunnydale had been destroyed. She could care less if New York had been.

As she let the cold overtake her body, Anne tried to sort out the meaning of the dream. Every time she had ever dreamt, it meant something, and this time was surely no different, no matter how far she ran away from her slayer past. The past could never be escaped. Never.

Could Roger be Xander? Surely not. They were just too different. Xander was jovial and outgoing. Roger was moody and uncommunicative; sometimes he barely spoke one word. Xander was fun and funny. Roger could be both of these, but he was too busy keeping his hurt feelings bottled in. Xander was, well, Xander, and Roger was, well, Roger. Besides, Roger was all muscle, and as for Xander… about the only thing he could lift was a box of doughnuts. Lastly, Xander lived in California, and according to Roger, he had only “been there.” Night and day, day and night.

Oh sure, these were all reasons why Roger couldn’t be Xander, but almost all of them could be disproved; however, Anne refused to let herself do that. There was no way she wanted Xander to be Roger. Granted, it would’ve been great to be united with her best friend again—especially after all these years—but the very thought that she might have had sex with him was, well, a little bit frightening. Xander was too good a friend and he knew too much about Buffy for her to want to sleep with him. Still, that hadn’t stopped her from going to bed with Angel, but this was different… totally. Right?

God! Trying to sort through her own life was like trying to separate sand mixed with dirt.

Anne rubbed her watery eyes and looked at her clock. Only 2 a.m. The day had barely begun and already it was a nightmare. Just like three days ago, the slayer could tell it was going to be another hell day. But at least the last time had had some pleasant side effects for a while…

Knowing that she wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep this morning, Anne flicked on her television and skimmed her select (selected by the city, that is) few channels. Settling on the classic movie The Bad Seed, she squirmed in her bad until she was relatively comfortable and let her mind wander into the captivating plot of a child murderess.

The hours slipped by slowly. The room glowed of white and black from the flickering screen, reflecting off of Anne’s face as she mindlessly stared ahead of her. From the movie to infomercials including the Juiceman and Revitalift, no TV show was safe. Anything that was on was fair game. All she wanted was to preoccupy herself enough so she couldn’t recall the gruesome details of her dream—at least she didn’t want to think about it now.

At a little after quarter after six the sun came up, lighting her room with a red aura as its hungry rays tried to force their way through the crumbling curtains. Blood filled the place, coating everything in sight, including Anne. She gasped the split second she realized the crimson color had overtaken her bedroom. Believing she might still be in the grips of the macabre nightmare, she frantically scrambled out of bed, pinching her arm painfully the whole time. It was a childish reaction, and although no one was there to witness it, Anne remained embarrassed because of her immaturity. For Christsakes, she was 21 now and she was still wigging about a little nightmare. “Nothing to be afraid of,” she soothed aloud. “It’s just the sun, not blood. Anyway, Buffy’s seen way worse—she’s seen the real stuff. Relax.” God, how she wanted to, but Anne simply couldn’t. Her string was wound to the breaking point, and the deceiving look of the scarlet morn was enough to tug it further, almost breaking it.

It was at that point she that heard the newscaster’s sorrowful voice blaring needlessly loudly from the television screen. His dour face reflected practiced sympathy and sorrow. “Funeral services were held yesterday for Kevin McCarthy, the 19-year-old boy struck by a rogue Wonder Bread truck. It seemed the tragedy that befell the youth brought sadness to the hearts of everyone in Manhattan, for practically half of the city turned out for his showing. Driver of the truck, Casey Laughlin, is being held at the county prison to await his trial. On a lighter note—”

Though Anne tried to listen to the rest of the broadcast, her mind wandered to Roger for about the billionth time in a day. Was he watching this newscast, too? She hoped not because, if it hurt Roger as much as the last time when he heard the McCarthy tearjerker, Anne surely didn’t want him to subject himself to that intense pain anymore.

And although these thoughts filled her mind to almost its maximum, the slayer couldn’t help but ask herself if he were thinking about her. No, probably not. Roger probably had moved on to someone better already, someone who loved him in return like he wanted. Why would he spend all this time moping about a whiny, old bitty like her when as easy as 1, 2, 3 he could surely find some prettier, smarter and richer woman than she! With his good looks, money and talents, a guy like Roger Winters would have no problem attracting the women, providing his personality didn’t scare them away.

Anne unexpectedly grinned. She had just realized that she was most likely the only woman out there who could stand to be around that man 24-7 and be happy about it. If that were true, maybe she did love Roger the way he wanted her to at least a little. But he would never believe that, not even enough to wait and see if it could be true—not after the things she’d said at his apartment.

The slayer sighed, shaking the thoughts from her head. Later on today when she had to return his keys, Anne would confront him about it. As for right now, she was starved. She hadn’t eaten since noon yesterday, and even then, it was a meager hot dog… with the works, naturally.

In the kitchen, the light of dawn filled the room. Despite the plainness of it, the kitchen looked fresh and new in the sunny, no longer sanguine glow. Anne almost liked the place for a minute, but when the reality set in, any warm thoughts of it instantly faded. This was Apartment 44—her apartment—and it was merely an accidental hole-in-the-wall Mr. Hornwaggler tried to pass off as a livable place.

Squinting from the pure, brilliant sunshine, Anne struggled to make her way to the refrigerator in the blinding light. She opened the fridge door to look inside only to discover that it was almost empty, except for a jar of expired mayonnaise, a few eggs, some orange juice and a half carton of 2% milk. At least there was something from which she could make a breakfast, and she always had her meager reserve of cereal hiding in her cupboards.

After her light, but filling breakfast of generic brand Cocoa Puffs and OJ, the slayer dressed and left the deteriorating house in search of someplace to go where she could wait and gather her thoughts and plan what she was going to say to Roger.

Down the stairs. Down, down. The descent into madness as well as Hell had begun. Nothing but a pit of darkness to engulf her the moment she slipped and fell into its ebony arms. Suddenly the trip up the steps ceased to be of any importance. Only down meant anything to her now.

Third floor.

Yesterday had been the day to end all days. It had started off fantastic. To her utter delight, Anne had awoken with pleasant tingles tickling her insides. For the first time in years she had let all her inhibitions go flying out the window—Roger’s bedroom window. For one morning she had let herself live again, let herself feel again and let herself have fun again. Only to ruin it later.

As the day progressed, Anne had bought the card and poured her heart out—as much as she was willing to let out—into its paper boundaries. Anne thought that just because she cared that was going to be enough for both of them. But enough is never enough. She thought she didn’t need love to make things with Roger work. She thought that so long as they had fun together, they could be together.

Naturally, Anne had been wrong.

Anne had learned the hard way—yet again—that relationships don’t always pan our to be the way she wanted them to be. Apparently, Roger had found that out, too.

Second floor.

Tuesday had been the magic day. The only day in Anne’s book where everything went right. That had been the day of the amazing shopping extravaganza on which she had gone, where Anne had bought the silver dress that now hung lifelessly in her bedroom closet. Certainly shopping on Fifth Avenue had been an experience that changed her view of life for the better.

Then came the twilight/moonlight dinner in Central Park. Roger had literally appeared from the shadows dressed like the Prince Charming of her sweet dreams. The slayer could still recall how handsome he looked, could still taste his chocolate eyes. She, herself, felt like a princess in her gown. Everything was perfect down to the minutest details.

What she most clearly remembered was the conversation. Anne had never in HER life let someone know so much about her past, her present, her thoughts on the future. She had let Roger know things only Buffy’s closet friends would know, stuff maybe even some of them didn’t. And as for Roger, as far as Anne could tell, he had done the same. The slayer had never thought it possible to share such things with anyone but the Sunnydale Scooby Gang; however, she’d been wrong again. In Roger, she had found a confidant and a good listener and someone who cared. That night had just brought out the best in both of them.

First floor.

Monday, three days ago—the day that everything had gone wrong—was the lone day that had changed her life permanently, almost as much as being the slayer had. That had been the worst day of her lifetime, yet conversely, the best. Roger Winters (at that time, Hogan Vlinters) had entered her existence with a bump and a shower of papers. They hadn’t exactly started out on the right foot; in fact, they hadn’t even been on any feet what they met. The pair had exchanged a few harsh words, then went their own ways, thinking—or rather hoping—that they would never meet again.

So, naturally, as was the twisted way of Fate, they saw each other again! Miracle of miracles, lo and behold, there was Roger, sitting down at one of her tables, under the guise of Hogan Vlinters. He had driven her crazy all evening, forcing her to run around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Finally, by the end of her workday, Anne was exhausted and weary and ready to go home… for good.

Fired. Unemployed. Out of a job. All because of one Roger Winters. Oh god help her (or rather him) if she ever laid eyes on him again, she had thought. The slayer had a feeling she would go ballistic if Roger even walked past her on the other side of the road.

And then in the alley, he had mysteriously reappeared in her life, just like Angel used to do—out of the darkness. It had felt so good to punch that arrogant face… twice.

And soon everything had changed. Somewhere along their adventure they had crossed the line from being enemies to friends to, then later on, lovers. How it had all come about was a mystery to Anne, but it had, and she was glad it had.

In the lobby at last, she tried her best to clear her mind of all thought before she set out on her journey with an unknown destination. Anne had already done enough thinking, and she was sure there would be plenty of time for that later. Now she needed help to figure out this nightmare of hers…

After wandering the Sunnyside streets aimlessly for almost an hour, Anne gave up on finding a quiet place to go and instead found herself directly in front of Skippy’s bar. She ambled up the stairs and opened the other bar door.

Inside she found the place to be completely empty other than two loyal drunkards and a familiar bartender. “Hey, doll eyes!” Eric cried from behind the counter covered with bottles of every conceivable alcohol.

Doll eyes. Eric had called Anne that since the day they met at Skippy’s Diner. He claimed it was because she had green eyes that were identical to his sister’s childhood Madame Alexander doll.

“Hey yourself!” Anne yelled back, slipping behind the bar for a brief embrace. “I didn’t know you worked with Skippy?”

“Just started a measly month ago. Got my fancy schmancy bartender’s degree, and could probably get hired anywhere with it, but I’ve got a loyalty to the old man. Besides, couldn’t think of anyone else I’d rather work under.”

“I see you haven’t stopped kissing Skippy’s ass even now.”

“Hey, what can I say? I don’t deny it. So anyway, when are we meeting for our wild, uncensored, unadulterated night of passion and sex?”

“I also see you haven’t reached puberty even now,” Anne sighed, slapping him playfully across the face and smiling in spite of herself. “Where’s Skip? He awake yet?”

Eric shot her a surprised look. “For as well as you know the man, doll eyes, you still don’t know that he’s up almost 24 hours a day?”

“One can never be sure with him. Better to be safe than sorry, I always say.”

“Yeah, and I always say, Roses are red, Violets are blue, what day next week will be good for you?”

“Eric,” Anne yawned in exhaustion, “when will you get it through that watermelon-sized head of yours that I will never sleep with you?”

He looked dejectedly at her, his eyes crying. “A man can have his dreams, can’t he?”

“Not when they concern me. Now, where’s Skip?”

“In his place,” Eric informed, pointing her toward a door well concealed within the brown paneled walls. “So you really won’t sleep with me?”

“Nope, sorry, bud. I’m just not that kinda girl.”

As Anne walked up to Skippy’s door she heard Eric talking to the small crowd. “You hear that, fellas? Doll eyes is shootin’ me down!” There was a slight murmur as the men acknowledged him; they only cared that he existed when they were looking for a refill.

“I’m not the first, I’m sure.”

“No lady has ever said no to the E-man.”

“That’s because you paid her a fortune to say yes,” she joked, opening her friend’s door. From the side of the barroom, Eric’s head shot up with an idea. “How’s a 100 bucks sound?”

Anne opened the door, stepped inside and then turned and said, “Bye, Eric!”

“200? 250? Doll eyes—” And she shut the door behind her before he could be allowed to continue.

@~~`~~~

Skippy’s apartment never failed to shock her. It was clean and orderly; nothing was ever out of place. Magazines were stacked and filed with all other magazines, and CDs were categorized then placed alphabetically within each genre of music, i.e., classical, rock, blues, etc. The floor was vacuumed and the windows were wiped streak-free. It always seemed funny to Anne that Skippy could keep such an immaculate house yet be the sloppiest dresser.

“Skippy?” Anne called, hoping she wouldn’t wake him if he were asleep.

From the back room she heard a groggy voice ask, “Zat ya, Annie?” Oh no, she had awoken him. Now she felt particularly bad because Skip was an insomniac—first class—and if he’d finally fallen asleep and she had woken him back up, Anne would feel shitty about it the rest of the day.

“I’m sorry, Skip. I woke you up, didn’t I? I’ll go and—”

“Na, na. Ya didn’t get me up. I’ve been up since yesterday morning, just haven’t had my cup of coffee yet.” A stout, white-robed man emerged from the hallway, shuffling sleepily on the carpeted floor. “Waz wrong? Ya wouldn’t be here if there ain’t somephin’ wrong.”

“Nothing, I—” But Anne saw him give her the patented “Ya’re Lying” look, and she cracked like an egg. The slayer ran to him, flinging herself into his arms. “Oh, everything, Skippy. My whole life is falling apart! I thought I was safe here in New York from this hurt and confusion!”

“What are you talkin bout, Annie?” the bartender queried, rubbing her back in consolation.

“Please, don’t call me that. I’m so sick of that name.”

“Wat’d ya wanta be called?”

“My real name…” She stopped. Could she speak it? Did she dare even? “Buffy.”

“Buffy? Buffy? Wat kinda name is zat? And just who are ya and wat’d ya do with my Annie?”

She pulled reluctantly from his warm grasp and seated herself on the couch. Tears trickled down her cheeks and glistened on her lips in the lamplight. Suddenly everything poured out of her, whether Skippy wanted to hear it or not. “My name is Buffy Anne Summers. I’m from a little town outside of Los Angeles called Sunnydale. I’m not from the Bronx at all. I’m what they call a vampire slayer.”

“’Scuse me?” Skippy shouted unnecessarily loudly, doing a double take as well. “A wat? Now, Annie, I mean, whoever you are, there is no such thing as a vampire. Ya’ve gone loony on me. Did this Roger character do this to you?”

“Yes and no.” When she realized her train of thought was being derailed, she immediately shook her head and jumped back on track. “Skippy! Listen to me! You’re the only one I can trust here in New York! I’ve got to ask you to believe the crazy things I’m about to tell you. My sanity’s hanging by a thread—”

“I can tell,” he muttered under his breath.

“—and I just have to tell someone before that thread breaks. Can you be the one to listen?”

He paused to muse over it, but he finally nodded tentatively, relatively curious to know the girl he thought he knew. “Kay, go ahead with yar story. I’ll listen.”

“Thank you,” she whispered gratefully, taking his hand and touching it affectionately to her cheek. “Thank you.

“I’m the person known to the supernatural community as a vampire slayer, a woman chosen every generation to fight all evil and preserve life and the Earth.”

“Why does ‘is sound like somephin’ out of a horror film?”

Buffy ignored him and continued with her tale. “With the help of my watcher, I was trained to fight vampires mainly, but also demons and mythical creatures and so forth.”

“Waz a watcher?”

Oops. She had forgot that Skippy had no clue about any of the upcoming terminology. She would have to do a lot of elaborating. “He or she is someone appointed by the Council—a group of people who monitor the supernatural world and set the guidelines for slayers and watchers—and watches over the slayer, obviously, while providing guidance and reassurance, as well as information.

“Anyway, I’ve done battle with the worst monsters your mind can conjure, but I’ve defeated all of them. It’s in my job description to hate all vampires and to destroy all of that nature that step across my path. However, the same Fate that cast me as the slayer was the Fate that made me love what I am supposed to abhor.”

“Come again?”

Buffy smiled pleasantly, feeling more and more at ease with each passing second despite the topic of conversation. It was all coming out, without the tiptoeing around everything. This was the unedited version of her life. “He was a vampire with a soul. His name was Angel. I fell in love with him at first glance, and he fell in love with me, too. Everyone warned me not to pursue a relationship with Angel, but it wasn’t a force I could control. One night we consummated our love—”

“Ya mean ya knocked boots?” he asked innocently.

“Yeah, Skip, that’s true. I was aiming for a more sophisticated phrasing, but that’s essentially what happened. Anyway, long story short, he lost his soul and became evil, and he killed some of my friends.”

“M’God, Annie! Wat happened then?”

“Angelus tried to destroy the world via the power of an ancient demon, so I had to destroy him. Ran a sword through his heart and sent him to Hell, real Hell.”

“Ya killed him?” She nodded. “So he’s the old man ya were talkin’ bout. Ya really killed him?”

“Yeah,” she mumbled solemnly. “He’s the one reason why I’m here.”

“How long ago was ‘is?”

“Five years.”

“Oh Annie, why didn’t ya ever tell me?” Skippy questioned with hurt in his eyes. She wanted to cry at the sad sight.

“I couldn’t tell anyone. Just thinking about him pained me more than I ever thought possible. I didn’t want to find out how it felt to talk about him. I told Roger about Angel, but I never used his name nor did I go into quite so much detail as I just have. For some reason I didn’t want Roger to know about me. There’s something about him that makes me want to keep the details of my secrets to myself. And that’s why I really came to talk to you. I need someone with whom I can talk about Roger.”

“Talk away… Buffy.”

Buffy poured her heart out about this man. She informed Skippy of every little thing that went on between them, then moved on to the big stuff, such as Tuesday night. “My Annie did that?” he gaped, with a father’s shock at his daughter’s brazenness. “But she would never even would glance my Eric’s way when he asked her out.”

“Got news for ya, Skip: Eric’s a womanizer. Anne was wise to avoid him.”

They exchanged brief smiles of comfort before Buffy continued with her tale. An hour ticked by like an eon. She was starting to grow hoarse from all her talking, but she had never felt better in her life. Now the slayer had someone she could trust; now she had someone whom she could talk to; now she had someone who knew the real her—Buffy Anne Summers. She informed him about her emerging feelings for Xander and the dilemma she had placed herself in with their startling arrival.

Then it came time to tell him about her dream from last night. Buffy was scared to recount the events to anyone, including herself, but she knew that if she ever wanted to figure this nightmare out, she had to do it now while she had the chance.

By the time the slayer had finished her dream, Skippy’s face had passed through five different phases: intrigued, mystified, scared, shocked, and, finally, confused. “So ya think this Roger fella is yar Xander?”

“I don’t know; that’s why I came to you. I was hoping that talking with you might help me make sense out of it all.”

Skippy scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Well, let’s compare and contrast. How’re the two ’like?”

Good idea. This would be very beneficial. “Roger and Xander both are from California, I guess. They both had bad luck in love. Roger’s story fits the same time period as mine, and he is Xander’s age. Their family backgrounds are almost identical, except that Roger’s dad is dead.”

“Anythin’ else?”

“Just that they both loved me for a time, or so I thought.” She bit back the tears in her eyes. Why did everything have to be so hared for her? The slayer felt a hand on her shoulder and she looked up at its owner.

“They still love ya, Annie… I’m sorry… Buffy. Trust me.” Buffy nodded even though she remained unsure of that fact. “Les move on to the differences.”

“Okay… First of all, Roger’s a house compared to Xander. And he’s a lot meaner, too. Oh sure, Xander had a few moments in time where he could be cruel, but he was nothing compared to Rog. And his eyes are so sad and longing. Xander’s eyes were always vibrant and full of life and love.”

“Things can change a person dramatically,” Skippy observed wisely, nodding purposefully at her.

“Still… I’ve never seen so much pain in anyone but myself. And Roger’s wealthy. The Xander I knew rarely had a quarter to buy a gumball with.

“So, Roger can’t be him. There’s no way. It’s just too much change for only a five year period. Besides, Xander would have recognized me for sure. He knew me so well.”

“I have to inform ya of this, deary, but ya’ve changed quite a good bit yarself, I’m sure. For one thing, yar’nt killing vampires no more, and both physically and mentally ya’ve matured. And as for him being changed too much in five years, haven’t ya seen folks in yar line of business that have changed more in five seconds then Xander ever could in his life?”

“I suppose that’s true, but everything in my mind says that’s completely illogical and unbelievable.”

Skippy squinted at Buffy, his forehead crinkling into a thousand tight wrinkles. “Since when is yar mind always right? Wat’s yar heart tellin’ ya? That’s the only one aside from Roger that knows the truth.”

Buffy paused to look deep within herself for the answer. Skippy was right; only her heart held the truth. Suddenly, her eyes snapped open with shock. “My Roger is my Xander!” Silence descended for a few minutes as she grasped frailly at the realization. Roger had been Xander all along. She had fallen in love with not Roger Winters, but her old friend Xander, whom Buffy never thought she could love like that. She had slept with not this millionaire with all the right moves, but the broke teenager with hardly a clue about what he wanted from a relationship. Oh, the delicious irony of it all—a whole plate full of it.

“Go get him, Buffy Summers. Go tell yar Xander that ya love him, and no matter wat ya mighta said before, ya will always love him.”

The most genuine grin Buffy had ever conjured appeared on her beautifully confused face. “When’d you get so smart about this stuff?”

He replied devilishly, “Just one of the many facets of Skippy Vollteller that ya don’t know a thing bout.”

“What a delightfully mysterious quote. Maybe I’ll have to take the time to uncover all your secrets.”

“Maybe ya should. It’s give us a chance to get reacquainted—or perhaps I should say introduced… Buffy Summers.” She hugged him fiercely, as if she didn’t want to ever let the man go.

“I’m so glad I came to see you, Skippy. Thank you forever for this.”

“Yeah, yeah. Save it for later. Go get that man of yars. He’s waitin’.”

Buffy nodded in agreement and hugged him once again before getting up and waltzing to the door. She looked back at the robed Santa Claus watching her from his couch. For sure the slayer would never forget what he did for her, for Anne, mostly. Skippy had given her renewed hope in a situation totally out of control. Now she was going to reclaim the love she had lost when she left Sunnydale post Angel—all thanks to Skip Vollteller. “Bye,” she whispered gently, closing the door behind her.

“Go get that man of yars,” her mind echoed. “He’s waitin’.”

“Here I come, Xander, my love…”