//I greet you from the other side//
//Of sorrow and despair//
//With a love so vast and shattered//
//It will reach you everywhere//
It was a testiment to Willow's stubborness that Buffy's nineteenth birthday party had even been held at all. Even Joyce had hesitantly admitted that it might have been a better idea to hold a very quiet acknowledgement, and everyone right down to Oz had attempted to discourage Willow. Unfortunately, she had refused to be dissuaded. She was convinced that the best way to reach Buffy was to hold a large celebration of friends and family, to show Buffy just how many people cared about her. How much they all needed her.
Buffy's recent distance had unnerved them all. She spent as much time with them as usual - more so, because Xander's suggestion to fight her distance was to spend more time together. She visited Giles and her mother with the same consistant regularity, and spent an equal amount of her time either with her studies or on patrol. When the group went anywhere, Buffy would smile and laugh as much as ever, and she slew evil with the same flair, but they could sense the distance. Even Spike was unnerved.
It wasn't like her distance after the Master bit her, or her distance during the time that Angelus stalked her, or even her distance after her return from her summer exile after she sent Angel to Hell. All attempted to describe it, and Giles came the closest when he said, "It's as though she had taken four steps away from you, when in reality she was standing right beside you."
Windows or doorways seemed to hold a sudden fascination for her. Unless a conversation or activity was directed completely at her, her gaze would slowly slide over to a window or door and just stay there until she was directly spoken to. Her distance was accompanied by a strange lasitude, as though the life that surrounded her held only mild interest. If asked any question about her distraction, her only answer would be a languid smile and a vague shrug.
Willow threw everything that she had into the planning of the party, dragging everyone else along with her. She nagged Giles and Joyce to rent a large dining hall for the occation, she cajoled Oz to set up the sound system, and she browbeat Anya into the task of tracking down every Sunnydale High Alumni that Buffy had ever helped, with Riley going through the ranks of the co-eds for similar victims.
Almost seventy-five people were on the final guestlist when Xander volunteered for the one task that Willow had hesitated to assign. Driving to LA one morning, he returned that evening with Cordelia and Angel. Both spoke to Buffy, and neither Angel's gentle love nor Cordelia's lack of tact made a dent in her strange manner, with the only result being that the two were left with the same elusive fear as the others.
//And I sing this for the captain//
//Whose ship has not been built//
//For the mother in confusion//
//Her cradle still unfilled//
During the party, the fears slowly eased. Some intangible tension slipped from Buffy's slender shoulders, and though her gaze occationally lingered on the door, her friends were relieved to feel as though she was finally responding. As the hours slipped by, so did their apprehension.
Later, they would curse themselves for their foolishness.
As the evening drew to a close, all of the group found dance partners and swayed to a sweet, slow song. Watching Angel hold Buffy in his arms, as delicately as though she were made of spun glass, some even dared to hope that love might be renewed. But these were hopes founded on sand.
The stranger entered silently, slipping in through the heavy door and easing it slowly closed again. His steps were soft and easily covered by the low murmer of voices, and he made no move to stand out of the faceless crowd. But Buffy knew the moment he entered, and her gaze sought him out. Angel was holding her close, and felt a sudden thrill of tension slide through her pliant body. Looking down, he saw her green eyes attain that distance that he had found himself both hating and fearing with an intensity that frightened him.
With an angry shriek, the sound system halted, cutting short the gentle whispers of a happy ending. Seventy-seven eyes found themselves drawn to the center of the dance floor, and seventy-seven hearts suddenly contracted with the cold premonition that something would be played out here that they would care not to see.
The stranger stepped towards Buffy at the same moment that she slid out of Angel's embrace. Blue eyes that were as clear as a winter afternoon focused only on the tiny Slayer, seemed to devour the gleam of her golden hair, the delicate flush of her cheeks, the whisper of life in the vein at her throat. And at the same time, luminous green eyes brushed gently over the stranger, taking in the lean grace in his step, the slope of his nose, the shadow of his dark hair against the collar of his starched white shirt.
Extending a hand to her with courtly grace, the stranger gave her a crooked grin.
"The last dance is mine, Miss Summers," he whispered in a voice that nevertheless seemed to echo around the suddenly still room. "As I always promised it would be."
"I was beginning to wonder if you were planning on standing me up." she teased gently as she slid her hand into his. The distraction had left her, and in a shining moment every person in the room recognized the brilliance of spirit that had made Buffy Summers such a distinct person. Her friends reached forward suddenly, knowing on a deep level that she would be lost to them forever, but a single look from her was enough to halt them. Then her gaze slid back to the stranger, whose strange smile remained as he answered her earlier statement.
"I've waited for this dance for quite some time, Miss Summers. I would hardly give it up now." The sound system gave a creak that was startling as a gunshot, and then a song began to play. Adjusting his hold on Buffy's hand, the stranger slipped his free arm around her waist, and the two danced in silence to seventy-seven witnesses.
//Through the days of shame that are coming//
//Through the nights of wild distress//
//Tho' your promise count for nothing//
//You must keep it nonetheless//
"Three years isn't such a long time for someone like you." she said after several minutes.
"Perhaps not," he chuckled, "but are you quite sure that you're ready? You aren't going to regret your decision?" A whispering weight filled the room, a strange promise.
"I'm quite sure." she said calmly, and the pressure eased. The dance drew to a close, and the music gently softened and ended. Buffy lifted a hand in a parting farewell to the small cluster of friends who had stayed as close as they dared, then both she and the stranger faded away, a misty dream evaporating at the coming of dawn.
Many hours later, when the guests had all gone home and only the Slayerettes remained, a short man in an obnoxiously loud jacket entered the empty hall. Angel recognized the demon, and as soon as the others realized the significance of his appearence, he was shot questions, demanded of explanations.
'What happened?' they asked, 'How can we save her?'
'She went by her own choice,' the demon said. 'She was meant to die in the cave of the Master. The three years since then have been borrowed time. Tonight was her choice. She wanted to rest.'
Silence fell. The tears of sorrow began. But as he was leaving, he was asked, 'Who was the man; why had he come to take her away?'
'Even Death was charmed by her.' he answered.
//For the heart with no companion//
//For the soul without a king//
//For the prima ballerina//
//Who cannot dance to anything//