Master of Tactics: Misdirections

Master of Tactics: Misdirections

Author: Dana Rating: G, I guess. Nobody gets any action. Summary: Angel's attempt to win Buffy back. Sequel to Master of Tactics: The Sacrifice of Enrique. Some tiny little notes: thanks for all your feedback, and especially the lovely Nina who encouraged me to go ahead and post this in chapters. This one's for you, for my sister Carmel, and for her late hamster Archie. To avoid confusion: these are interspersed Buffy and Angel POVs.

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Chapter 1


Jesus, am I glad that the drive is over. Nothing has ever seemed so long in my life, and I've had a long life. I panicked a few times on the road, I think. The third time I turned the car around Cordelia rolled her eyes and finally took over the wheel.

Wesley was really very thoughtful during the ride, never complaining about my schizophrenia and keeping the mood light with imitations of sitcom characters. He does a mean Nanny Fine.

But now the silence is almost as loud as the engine that was roaring a few minutes ago, and my throat is dry. I can't believe I'm this nervous. I've got to get myself together before I see Buffy.

"I made reservations at The Tulip," Cordy breaks the silence. "But if we're gonna be here a long time, we might want to look into a more permanent place to stay."

That startles a reaction out of me. My eyes widen slightly. "The Tulip? Isn't that-"

"A luxurious yet casual resort, where I can revitalize my mind and body in the calming environment of the health spa, and be as active, as relaxed or as pampered as I desire."

"That's gotta cost-"

"Renowned for its unique design, the hotel offers an undisturbed view over the lush landscaped gardens and the beach. The unforgettable high standards of service and cuisine offered in numerous restaurants, bars, and other extensive five-star facilities will ensure me memories for a lifetime."

I get out of the car and slam the door, irritated. "Did you by any chance quit while I wasn't paying attention and take a job as their spokesperson?"

"Oh, you'd notice if I quit, believe me."

"Yeah," I snort. "I'd have to start drinking good coffee again."

She slams the door even harder than I did and clicks on the automatic lock. The car alarm beeps three times. "Where are you going with this?"

"I don't see why you have to go and make me pay for an expensive hotel when there are five thousand other motels in this town." I assure you, that does not come out sounding like the whine it is.

We're walking towards the main entrance in brisk steps now, side by side. Her eyes narrow. "You're the one who made us come here on this insane mission in the first place. The least you could do is give me a relaxing place to stay, because I sense many, many headaches in my future."

She may be right.

"What brought this on, Angel? You aren't usually this cheap."

"I'm not cheap! I'm just-" I pause in midstep as I hear a faint pounding in the distance. "Did we--?"

"We forgot Wesley in the car," she finishes. We turn on our heels and I continue speaking.

"I'm just nervous, I guess."

"I promise you, yelling at me won't make you calmer. In fact it may cause the opposite."

We reach the car and Cordy unlocks it. Wesley gets out, looking more than disgruntled. "Cordelia, I'm a bit peeved with you. You," he points at me, "I'm not talking to."

I protest. "How come you're not mad at her?"

"She had to deal with you being a jerk, so she's forgiven," he says with a glare, then turns to her. "Did you tell him he was paying?"

She nods. "He's paying. A whole lot of money. On the bright side," she smirks at me, "imagine how impressed Buffy will be when we tell her how generously you treat your employees?"

Irrationally, that makes me feel better.

"Come on, guys," she links her arms through both mine and Wesley's and leads us cheerily to the hotel. "Make up. You're sharing a room."

* * *

Though I've lived here my entire life, I never get over how hot it can get in California in the middle of winter. It's February, yet I'm wearing a short-sleeved nightgown instead of my heavy winter PJs. There's been some sort of bizarre heat wave in the past couple of days.

But I enjoy waking up with the sun on my face.

Xander calls first thing in the morning. "Is Rob around?" I hear.

I consider throwing the phone out the window. It should be illegal to call this early on days when I'm allowed to sleep late. "Who?" I ask groggily.

"Rob. You know, the guy you're marrying in a few months."

A warm feeling passes through me. "Rob..." I murmur dreamily.

"Is he there? Are you moaning his name while on the phone with me?"

"Who is this?" I ask the air.

I hear a heavy sigh over the phone. "Buffy, wake up."

"Xander, it's Sunday!"

"It's actually not."

"What?" I sit up sharply and glance at my calendar.

"Got you up, didn't I?" I can practically hear his smirk.

I hang up the phone and fall back into my pillow. After thirty seconds it rings again. I pick up. "Don't mess with me on Sunday mornings, Xand."

"Point taken. Is Rob there?"

I fling an arm over to the empty space in the bed beside me. Warm, but no Rob. "No," I pout.

"Okay. Are you gonna see him today?"

"Unless he's going to Mars or something..."

"Yeah. Tell him I got everything set up, okay?"

"Whatever." I stretch lazily and curl around the light sheet I've substituted for my winter blankets. "Wait. What's set up?"

"It's a surprise."

"A surprise?"

He's smiling, I can tell. "I'm not really afraid of Rob, but he said something to Anya and I'm sure she'd circumcise me if I told you. So-" he leaves it hanging.

"Xander," I say as seductively as I can. "If you tell me I'll return those photos I took of you and Giles up in Seven Springs..." I trail off invitingly.

"Sorry, Buff, I'm impervious to your temptations. As much as I'd love explaining for the fifteen-hundredth time that it was FOR A SPELL! I'm gonna go because Anya's chopping cucumbers very eloquently. It's scaring me."

"I bet it is," I grin, and say goodbye.

Well, well. A surprise.

I wonder why...

Oh, no.

Tell me it isn't-

My eyes fly to the calendar again, and this time I groan when I catch the date. Crrrrrrap.

February thirteenth.

How could I have forgotten?

I'm the girl; I'm supposed to kick *his* ass for forgetting Valentine's Day. It just...slipped my mind. I was up late slaying all week, and it just... slipped my mind.

I am a horrible human being. A horrible, horrible human being.

I must act speedily.

I must never say 'speedily' again. I sound like Giles.

* * *

The room really is gorgeous. Thank god Cordy thought ahead to make sure we get two queen sized beds instead of one king. Wesley tends to cuddle; I don't need that with Buffy on my mind.

I actually don't need that when Buffy isn't on my mind, either.

I've decided not to tell Buffy that I'm coming. The element of surprise is always an advantage, and this is no exception: she won't have time to prepare herself. When she sees me, her face will reveal her true emotions and there'll be no avoiding the inevitable kissage, sexual attraction, etc. Her jackass of a fiance will realize what a fool he'd been to imagine she'd ever want him over me and sob his way out of her house, taking with him the Andrew Lloyd Webber CDs I'm sure he owns.

By the way, her jackass of a fiance will henceforth be referred to as The Competition.

Commy, for short.

I've devised a simple strategy. I'll wait until I see Commy leaving tonight and surprise her around dinnertime. Hopefully all the aforementioned kissage will occur and we could be back in LA before next week. Or before my credit card maxes out.

Worst case scenario-I'll improvise. I'm good at that.

I stride out of my room with an air of, I believe, confidence. A few seconds later I rush back in, splash on some cologne that was standing on the bathroom counter and whiz back out.

I'm cool.

"Wish me luck," I throw at Cordy's adjoining room as I prepare to leave.

"Not gonna," she murmurs.

I backtrack a few steps and pop my head through her open door. There's a sort of lounge. She and Wesley are lounging in it. Wesley looks up from his magazine distractedly, with an expression mixing irritation and amusement. He sniffs. "Did you--?" he starts.

"Cologne," I grunt. "Why won't you wish me luck?"

"Because I'm not going to ruin my karma by wishing another woman a failed marriage."

"That's the support I was looking for," I say, wounded.

"Do you remember any of that Shakespeare you crammed into my brain?"

"Possibly," I reply warily.

"What did Casio wish the newlywed Othello and Desdemona?"

"Let me just whip up the miniature Othello copy that I keep in my wallet-"

"'Happiness to thy sheets,' he said, Angel," she says in a self- satisfied tone, as if winning an argument. "'Happiness to thy sheets.'"

I'm silent for a moment. "Othello and Desdemona both die at the end of the play," I point out.

"That's hardly the point."

"I'd say it's a major factor." I blink. "Why did you bring this up anyway? It has nothing to do with us!"

"There are similarities!" she argues.

"There really aren't. It's a completely different situation."

"He's right," Wesley puts in. "I didn't understand the connection either."

"That's because you're both idiots." She rises from her seat with an exasperated sigh. "Try to hand out some advice..."

I ignore her. "Wish me luck, Wes." I put on my coat.

"Good luck," he murmurs and flips a page in his magazine.

Right. Here I go.

I step out the door.

* * *

It takes me about fifteen minutes to get dressed, pull my hair up haphazardly, snatch my purse and reach the door in a rush. I guarantee you this is an all time record. It's only when I reach the car that I notice my growling stomach and hurry back inside to grab a snack.

There's a note taped to the fridge.

Curious.

I smile involuntarily as I recognize Rob's considerably messy handwriting.

~Buffy,

Knowing Xander, he's probably let something slip, and now you're feeling guilty for forgetting V-day. Don't. I know how hectic the last couple weeks have been for you-remember, I was there, waking up at 4 AM. I really don't expect anything special from my overworked, by all rights exhausted fiance. Besides which, you more than did your share of observing this holiest of days last year. You deserve a break, and I'm going to treat you to a day of...

Hmm. Wouldn't wanna spoil the surprise.

Love slave, Buff.

I'll be back around evening. Love, Rob~

A feeling which I'm sure Rob would dub 'girly' bubbles up inside me, and the huge grin on my face is positively giddy. He understands. See, that's why I love him.

How many men would wake up at four AM because of their girlfriend's crummy night job, let her into bed stinky when she's too tired to shower, help with the laundry later, and offer to be her love slave afterwards?

Well, okay, the love slave bit might be more widespread, but all the rest...

I gotta get him something, just to show appreciation. Flowers, at least. Maybe bake a cake.

I'm not too good in the kitchen, though. I can deal with salads, but the intricacies of an oven are lost on me. Flowers it is.

This time I make it all the way into the car before I see the small note tacked on the steering wheel.

~I mean it, don't bother going out. It's Sunday. Rob~

Well, what do you know. It is.

Smug bastard. I mean, I could well have been on my way to Willow's or...

Yeah, I know. Sunday morning, exhausting week. It wasn't a hard guess.

I sigh and once again make my way back into the house. I wonder if I even have any cake recipes?

* * *

"Couldn't you have warned me it was sunlight?"

Cordy looks like she's suppressing a giggle. "I thought it was obvious with, you know, our room being blacked out and the clock chiming two PM."

"I'm back with bandages," Wesley declares and sits down next to me. I shrink back for a second. "Hold still," he orders.

"You could have warned me," I insist dejectedly. "You're no friends at all."

Okay. That came out sounding like an eight-year-old. They're staring at me. "Let's forget I said that."

Cordy finally lets out a laugh. "You're lucky you can't see your reflection, because that burn is just... oh my god!" She cracks up.

"What?"

"Wesley, don't you think it looks..." She's gasping in between laughs. "It looks... looks... fish shaped!"

Wesley narrows his eyes and tilts his head sideways. His eyes widen. "Dear god..."

Cordy finally calms down with a last snicker. "I think Enrique's out for revenge."

"I think you should just shut up."

There's that eight-year-old kid again.

See, what happened was that there are windows on our floor with these patterned wooden shades. Apparently they're fish patterned, though I'm having trouble deciding whether my burn really is Enrique-shaped or Cordy and Wes are just messing with me.

"Just get it wrapped up, will you?" I grumble.

Wesley smears some ointment to ease the sting and bandages the burn quickly and efficiently. I hardly know why we bother to do this-it'll probably heal by tomorrow, considering that I was only exposed for a short while.

"What are you going to do now?" Cordelia asks with amusement.

Wait till sunset, I suppose, and then set out.

"Follow my plan," I answer boldly.


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Chapter 2


So I've reverted back to my Sunnydalian habits of stalking. Sure, I stalk in LA too, but this town really brings it out in me.

After a seemingly endless wait, the sun has finally retreated below the high cliffs of Sunnydale and dissolved into the ocean. I've taken the familiar spot behind the big oak next to Buffy's garage, from where I can get a clear look at both the living room windows and the cars parking in the drive. Only one car currently in attendance.

Yes, I'm lurking. I'm sneaking. I'm lying in wait. And if I could then by god, I'd be eavesdropping too.

What can I say? I'm a vampire; it's practically in the job description.

Hell, I'm a detective. It literally *is* in the job description.

From what I've gathered, Commy isn't at home. I've circled the house and peered inside through all the windows, and there was no evidence that he's here. I'm going make my entrance just as soon as Buffy gets off the phone.

Right. That's about the lamest excuse I've come up with since the infamous "I was working on my tan."

I've been hiding behind this tree for the past half hour, during which time Buffy has made three different phone calls.

I suppose that if pressed, I might admit to being scared shitless. Because who knows what the hell's gonna happen once I walk through that door.

I glance back at my car, which is parked a few yards away, far enough so that it's not visible from inside Buffy's house. A pair of tiny frenzied red eyes meets me from behind a glass sheet in the back seat. On my way here-to stall time, I suppose-I walked into a pet shop that I happened to glimpse and bought a gray hamster for Wesley. His furry little self captured me when the shop owner remarked that his name is Henry, which really is like Enrique, you know. I figure I owe this to Wesley.

Now, surprisingly, these eyes seem to project confidence and reassurance into my mind. I say this is surprising because, well, it is a hamster we're talking about.

You're right, Henry. I'm man enough to make the move.

Correction. I am *vampire* enough to make the move.

I move. The front door of the Summers household is getting nearer and nearer.

Wow, it's really close now.

I realize I'm so close I'm staring cross-eyed at the peephole.

Gonna knock. Gonna knock now.

My hand rises slowly and makes this pathetic tapping noise. Here goes nothing.

Huh.

I... wow.

Can I say that Buffy leaping into my arms and kissing me senseless- while not unappreciated- is a bit, you know, astounding?

I never expected my strategy to work this fast. Or to be so unbelievably warm and pink and chocolate-chip tasty.

I am *da* man. Vamp. Whatever.

She kissed me!

* * *

Oh. My. God.

Oh my god. Oh, my God.

It's... It's not...

Oh my god!

This isn't my fault. No one can blame this on me in any way whatsoever.

It's... I can't say his name. Not now. Not after that kiss.

I was in the kitchen, baking cookies. Or at least trying to. I admit there might have been more batter on the floor than in the mixing bowl, but I was making an effort. For Rob.

Rob whom I cheated on.

No! It wasn't like that!

I was having trouble reading the recipe that Willow gave me. Apparently, none of my supposedly educated friends know what the hell anise powder is. Giles and Xander, knowing full well what I was baking, both suggested it's a type of Arabian fruit, which shows exactly how much time they spend in the kitchen. Also that they should never go on any game shows, as I'm fairly certain fruits don't come equipped with nationalities.

My third phone call was to Willow, who didn't know what anise powder was but offered to check if she had some at The Magic Shop. I declined politely. If there was any way she had that in the shop, it wasn't going inside my cookies.

I heard the timid knock on the door just as I was opening the fridge. I happened to glance sideways and caught sight of the sweet note Rob left me this morning. So, you see, I was filled with happy, Rob-loving fuzzy feelings and I was absolutely certain that it was him at the door.

Absolutely certain.

Otherwise, I never would have...

I closed my eyes and just went with it. It wasn't for a couple of seconds until I registered that this was neither Rob nor Rob's mouth kissing me, and another few seconds passed before I recognized with shock who the lips belonged to.

All in all, this was about seven seconds of very intense kissing. Very hot kissing. *Mind-blowing* wouldn't be an exaggeration. And I wonder how it happened that I didn't cut it off until the seventh second.

Or rather, I don't wonder at all.

So now here's me, panting, and *him*, whom I haven't laid eyes on for more than a year, with some flour on his shirt and lipstick on his bottom lip, and the note Rob wrote clutched in my hand. I squeeze it with distress and say the first thing that pops into my mind.

"What the hell do you think you're doing!"

His eyes widen and he takes a step back. "Me? You were the one who started kissing!"

"I did not!" I sputter.

I so did.

"I distinctly remember knocking on the door and the next thing I know I got a faceful of Buffy!"

"'A faceful of Buffy?'" I repeat with amazement.

"Uh..." he looks nervous. "Bad phrasing."

"You tricked me into kissing you!" I accuse.

"No, I didn't!" he objects, but he's flushing a bit. My eyes narrow. Aha!

"I thought you were Rob!"

For some reason he looks taken aback. "You thought I was... Rob?" he asks uncertainly.

"Duh, yeah," I reply, a bit uncertain as well. Why would he be surprised at this?

"Rob is..." he trails off. Something in my mind clicks.

I get it.

Angel doesn't know who Rob is!

God, I feel embarrassed. He's probably in town for business and decided to drop by for a courtesy call-something God knows I haven't had the guts to do during the few times I've been to LA this year. So he shows up innocently on my doorstep, and there I go planting one on him like I'm trying to suck out his tonsils, poor guy. This might possibly qualify as assault.

I gush out an anxious apology. "God, Angel, I'm so sorry! I never-I thought you were Rob-my fiance-I never would have kissed you otherwise."

I can't quite fathom what that look he's giving me is, which is strange because I'm used to reading him naturally. All I can excavate from the situation now is that he's shaken about something.

Boy, so am I.

And I guess that wasn't the gentlest way to break the news about Rob to him, either.

I weakly try to put him at ease, but I'm suddenly acutely aware that we haven't really talked for over a year and that I'm engaged and he's my fricking EX. "So... you're in town for...?"

"Business," he says unconvincingly, repeating my thoughts from earlier. "I can't really tell you about it, it's part of this great big prophecy..."

"Right, okay." The silence in the air is like a thousand-mile gap between us. "Are Cordelia and Wesley here?"

"Yeah, yeah." He shifts. "We're staying at The Tulip."

"Oh," I say, with an approving hum. "You're doing well if you can treat your staff to a five star hotel."

"I guess," he says, and looks at the ground shuffling one foot on the doormat. This is getting awkward.

It's stupid. I should just invite him over to meet Rob and get it over with, otherwise I'll just dread that moment and with both of them in Sunnydale it's bound to happen eventually. I shouldn't even worry about it. This isn't an issue. There's nothing between us anymore. There isn't.

"Say," I watch him lift his eyes to look at me, "would you like to come over for dinner tomorrow night? We can catch up?"

He brightens immediately. "That'd be great," he answers enthusiastically, seeming relieved.

"Good. Invite Wesley and Cordelia, and I'll tell Rob you guys are coming. Maybe I'll ask some of the others to come by as well, and we can have a sort of reunion." God, this is coming out sounding so dumb I want to smack myself. I sound like my grandmother. A reunion? I see almost all of these people every day.

Angel, however, doesn't laugh at my phrasing. In fact, he seems a bit deflated. "So, everyone'll be here, then?"

"Yeah."

"Okay," he agrees feebly. "Sounds great." What's his problem?

"Great," I repeat with more enthusiasm than I feel. Frankly, I just feel strange about this whole conversation.

"Great."

"Okay, then."

"So I'll see you tomorrow."

"Yes," he confirms, and steps backwards to depart. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight," I respond, and close the door in front of me.

Okay. I feel so incredibly weird right now, and I don't know why.

I'm just gonna go finish my cookies now.

As I walk to the kitchen I catch a glimpse of myself in the front hall mirror, and softly drop Rob's note on the counter to carefully wipe the smeared lipstick off my face.


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Chapter 3


I must look as baffled as I feel about the turnout of this whole evening, because as I step into my hotel room Wesley comments, "Oh, no, what did you do?"

I slump against the door dejectedly. "I'm not sure exactly."

"You don't remember what you did?"

"No, I..." The memory of the first seven seconds is pretty clear. My brain was sort of muddled after that. "It was kind of surreal."

"You want to clean that," he says, pointing at my shirt, and I glance down. It's powdered with flour. I can still sense the faint scent of cookie dough around me.

"Yeah, probably," I say distractedly.

She invited me for dinner...

...with three hundred thousand other people.

I can't decide whether that's a good sign or a bad sign. On one hand, she could be stressing the fact that our friendship (if it exists) is merely platonic (yeah, right). She could have just invited me over to be polite because she was embarrassed. On the other hand, she could be afraid to be alone with me. After all, that kiss...

There was dynamite.

I mean, not to be an egotist or anything, but... I am *da* vamp!

I walk over to the window and open the shades. The yellow streetlights peek through and crisscross the room in a striped pattern. I can barely see the outline of a thin banana shaped moon.

Behind me I hear the door open and shut. "I got drinks," Cordy announces. "Oh, look, Don Juan's back. How'd it go?"

"I'm still trying to decide," I confess, and turn around.

After taking one look at my face Cordy gasps and drops a can of Coke as her hand flies to her mouth. "I can't believe it! You asshole!"

"What?" I ask, alarmed.

"You actually went and did it!" she shrieks, so loudly that I flinch. "You defiled her!"

"*Defiled* her?" I repeat.

"Don't try to deny it, the evidence is smeared all over your face."

Since searching for a mirror would be pretty futile, I turn to Wesley questioningly.

"There's lipstick," he explains, surprised. "I hadn't even noticed."

"Honestly, you guys are such *guys* sometimes," Cordelia cries with exasperation. "I am really disappointed in you, Angel." She glares at me darkly.

"Nothing happened," I assure her a bit regretfully. "We only kissed."

"Only?" she shrieks. "You're such a jerk! The girl is engaged!"

"No, it wasn't like that," I try again, and sigh. "It was a misunderstanding. She thought I was... *him*."

I must really look pathetic, because the anger melts from her face and she pulls me to her comfortingly. "There, there," she murmurs, running her hands on my back, and after a moment of standing stiffly I raise my arms to hold on to her. Such an amazing kiss, and it was for someone else. I can't get her words out of my mind.

I never-

I thought you were-

I never would have kissed you otherwise-

Rob, my fiance-

-never would have kissed you otherwise-

My brain registers that Cordy is still making soothing noises, and I hug her tighter. It actually hurts the memory of what we had, the depth of it, that she couldn't even recognize me.

"Ahhh!"

Not for the first time ever, Cordy's sharp cry interrupts my thoughts. My eyes snap open and I see her staring at me with shock and indignation. "What is it?"

"Angel, I can't believe you!" she screeches, and there's really been enough of that going on today. My arms flop to my sides as she flees to the scant protection the space behind the couch offers.

I feel my brow furrow in confusion and, slightly, irritation. "What did I do now?"

Wesley glances up from his magazine and I watch his gaze settle somewhere below my belt. His eyes widen. "Dear god, you've got something in your trousers!"

I blush furiously and look down at the offending spot in my pants. Sure enough, there's an awkward bulge, though I'm fairly certain it's not attached to my body.

"It's moving!" Cordy sounds absolutely horrified.

Well, isn't this embarrassing. Just what I need to top off an already magnificent day.

I stick my hand deep in my pocket, and before she can comment I declare, "It's just Henry."

This doesn't seem to have the desired effect. "You call it Henry?" Her eyes narrow disgustedly.

"Hamster Henry," I correct, before this can get any worse. "I got him to replace Enrique, mayherestinpeace." I hold out the little bugger in proof that he is, indeed, merely a hamster that was doing a little dance in my pants. His beady eyes flutter at me with distaste.

Wesley looks touched. "Hey, there, little fellow," he whispers and reaches for him, then looks back at me. "This is remarkably considerate of you."

"Yeah, well," I flush. "I figured we could keep him in Enrique's fish tank, where he could be happiest."

"No, you didn't." Cordy's eyes are like slits. "You probably didn't want to buy a normal cage because it's more expensive."

"Thirty bucks, Cordelia! That's outrageous!"

"Fine, but from now on I'm calling you Angel McScrooge."

"You know, maybe if I didn't have to pay for this posh hotel-"

"*Posh*? Have you been listening to the Spice Girls again? Cause that is so passe-"

"Keep it down, you two! Can't you see he's trying to sleep?" Wesley hisses, and gently spreads a napkin over Henry's dozing form on the coffee table, tucking in the corners. "You act like a married couple sometimes."

I should be insulted by Cordy's righteous huff, but an idea suddenly pops into my mind. "That's it!"

Recognizing the look on my face (you know, the one I get when I'm about to say something brilliant- happens all the time), Cordy asks warily, "that's what?"

"My new tactic. We'll pretend we're married."

Her eyebrows rise to startling heights. "*Excuse* me?"

"Buffy will be so jealous that she'll forget about everything and come chase after me." I smile, pleased with myself. Oh, yes, the green-eyed monster will chase Buffy straight into my arms. I almost pity her that she'll be so easily manipulated.

"You mean," Wesley remarks, "kind of like the way you dashed to Sunnydale the moment you heard that *she* was getting married?"

I blink, while Cordelia unsuccessfully tries to stifle a snort. Finally I glare at Wesley and wittily say, "shut up."

"You're not really going to try to it though, are you?" he asks doubtfully.

"I don't- Fine, you're right," I admit gloomily. I topple backwards and land heavily on the bed, causing it to bounce a few times.

I feel the mattress dip as Cordy sits down next to me. "So, tell us what happened tonight."

"I told you," I sigh. "She thought I was Commy and kissed me. Then she-"

"'Commy'?"

"The Competition," I clarify vaguely. I don't have to look to know that she's rolling her eyes. "And then she invited me over to dinner tomorrow night."

"What!" Cordy exclaims.

"It's nothing, you guys are invited too," I... well, not exactly pout, though that's undoubtedly what Cordy would call it. This is so depressing. My first dinner date with Buffy will be spent with fifty chaperones and her fiance. I can't help but groan out loud.

Wesley makes a sympathetic sound. Cordelia just stares. "You two amaze me sometimes, you know? This is so typical."

Staring at the ceiling I tell Wesley, "I bet you don't know what she's talking about either."

"Nope," he responds without looking.

She smacks my knee. "It's not 'nothing' if she invited you over for tomorrow. It's Valentine's Day! That's gotta be, like, the biggest come on since 1996!"

"No, the biggest come on would be if she attacked me with kisses on first sight," I mutter. Wide-eyed, I realize, "wait! She did that too!"

I sit straight up in a flash, almost knocking Cordy off the bed. "This fits perfectly with my plan!"

"You don't have a plan," Wesley snorts.

"It's in the making!" I snap darkly. "I thought you were supposed to be the supportive, loyal friend, here."

"I am!" he protests.

"You don't act like it. Why didn't you remind me it was Valentine's Day?"

"I'm sorry for not being a woman!"

A cold silence fills the room as Cordelia slowly turns an icy look on him.

"Er," he squeaks, "I-I didn't m-m-mean that..."

Steering the conversation away to save him from the oncoming rant, I generously say, "let's focus on *me*, please."

Cordy fixes her steely gaze evenly on me. "Let's *not*." She rises from the bed so she can look down disapprovingly on both the male inhabitants of the room, or I suppose the three of us, including Henry. "Neither of you boys should be talking right now. I'm disappointed, gentleman. Badly disappointed. This really would never happen to a woman."

* * *

I can't believe I forgot again.

How could this have happened to me? What kind of woman am I? I should just hand in my membership card and start... I don't know, burping all day long.

Now this thing, which was going to be awkward anyway, will be even more so because it's on expense of Rob's plans, whatever they were.

Oh, Rob, you made plans... that included the words 'love slave'.

And the worst thing is, I'm gonna make him prepare dinner because I can't cook for shit.

I suppose I could cancel. But I have this feeling that if I cancel Angel's gonna go back to LA and another year will pass by before we see each other again. Besides, I really want to smooth over what happened today when... well, you know... with The Incident and all.

Guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt.

The sudden shrill ringing of the phone makes me jump, and my heart pounds as if I'd been caught doing something wrong. Which is ridiculous. All I've done is kiss my ex-boyfriend and commit my fiance to cooking him dinner on Valentine's Day.

Well, okay, I suppose some people would qualify that as wrong. But I think that if one were to take a poll, a good seventy five percent of the surveyed would agree that I was simply a victim of circumstances. Or possibly sixty percent. Half, at the very least.

I answer the phone on the third ring, and Willow's voice greets me pleasantly. "How'd the cookies turn out?"

"Not too burnt," I reply absentmindedly. "Listen, do you think getting sixty percent in your favor on a poll is satisfactory?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Like, let's say- okay, let's say your, um, your old parakeet flew back to town and you gave him some really good toys to play with, like, uh, balls of string and stuff, only now your new parakeet whom you promised to spend the rest of your life with has to cook him dinner on National Bird's Day. So I'm saying, if the poll shows that sixty percent of the public's opinion is that the whole situation isn't your fault, that's okay. Right?"

There's what I imagine to be a confused silence on the other end of the line. "Willow? You there?"

"Yeah. Uh, I lost you right around the ball of string."

"It's the toy that you gave the old para-"

"Buffy. Could you possibly have come up with a metaphor that's any more confusing?"

I take a deep breath. "Something happened today."

"Okay."

"Something unexpected."

"I'm listening."

"Something that should have little to no effect on my relationship with Rob."

"Buffy, spill."

"Angel dropped by."

I brace myself for her reaction, but all I get is an amused, "that's it?"

I frown. "Yes. Mostly. Well, no, not really. We sort of kissed." For a few brief moments I hear nothing from the receiver but the faint sounds of coughing and sputtering, and I wait patiently for Willow's response. Finally I ask, worried, "are you okay?"

"Yeah," she croaks. "I was just choking on my tomato juice. Please, continue."

"That's it," I pronounce with resignation.

"And you actually think that sixty percent of the surveyed would vote in your favor? What fantasy world are *you* living in?"

"No," I start, remembering that she doesn't know the whole story, "it was simply a misunderstanding."

"Uh-huh."

"I only kissed him because I thought he was Rob."

"I'll bet."

"Willow!"

"And you probably invited him over for dinner, too, just to be polite."

I wince slightly. "You don't think I should have done that?"

"Oh, my God!" For once, her skepticism gives way into shock. "You actually went and did something like that? On Valentine's Day?"

I try to justify myself. "I forgot."

Let me correct that. I try to justify myself very, very *lamely*.

"Buffy," she reproaches, "what were you thinking?"

"That he was Rob, I swear. I only realized it was Angel on about second five, and-"

"Second *five*?" she yelps. "You made out with Angel for *five* whole seconds?"

"Seven," I admit.

"Oh, Buffy..." Her voice hosts a tinge of anxiousness.

"Look," I cut her off before she can lecture me. "It was an honest mistake, tonight I'm going to tell Rob all about it and he'll understand because he's an incredible, sensitive, forgiving guy." I fold my arms with finality, though I know she can't see me.

"I hope so," she says worriedly.

"I know so. Rob's great, I love him, I've got nothing to worry about. Oh, and you're invited over to dinner tomorrow. Rob's cooking."

"Well, that just borders on exploiting the poor guy."

"Hey," I joke, "I'll happily cook for anyone willing to taste."

Her voice takes on a panicked pitch. "No, no, you just sit back and, you know, make sure Rob locks you out of the kitchen."

"Will do," I reply with mirth, relieved that The Incident has quietly lapsed into being a non-issue.

Just before we hang up, Willow calls out my name in a more serious tone, and gravely tells me, "I hope you know what you're doing."

Believe me, Will, I have absolutely no clue.


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`

Chapter 4


My sleeping habits sadly call for significant improvement. Because I don't need as much sleep as humans do, I used to go on days at a time without even a nap, and then finally collapse of exhaustion.

Ever since I resorted to having an office and working with people at all times of day, I've tried to keep my hours more or less regulated. I usually sleep for a few hours after sunrise and start my day indoors around noon. As long as I keep a minimum of three and a half hours of slumber I can function normally.

Tonight I should, by all standards, be exhausted. I've been awake for forty-seven hours straight. No one would blame me if I turn in right now and sleep till morning, and staying up is probably no good for me since I'm bound to overload my body sometime soon. But I'm too worked up to go to bed, and my instincts are telling me that someone is guaranteed to need my protection somewhere in Sunnydale.

That's not true. My *brain* is telling me that someone is guaranteed to need my protection somewhere in Sunnydale. My *instincts* are telling me that the Slayer will be out tonight, and screaming that I must fly to her aid!

Of course, that's ridiculous. She doesn't need my assistance, especially if I'm going to prove to her that things can still work out between us after I become human. But hey, I can't help it if I'm out for a walk and the path inadvertently leads me to Rovello Drive.

Well, yeah, I *can* help it. Damn it. I've got to get a grip on myself. I am absolutely not going to spy on Buffy!

Except that Henry's looking restless in his aquarium, bumping into the glass walls all the time, and I'm thinking the responsible thing would be to take him out for a walk.

No.

Although, if I just stay in the shadows and watch her back without her knowing, I hardly think that could count as a negative thing. In fact, I dare say, it should even be considered praise-worthy.

I slip out from the room silently, careful not to wake up Wesley, and as an afterthought grab the squirming hamster in case I need an alibi.

The streets are unnervingly silent as I make my way to the general direction of Buffy's house. Where is the music echoing from the Bronze? Where are the faint screams in the darkness? Where are the sounds of struggle and fighting, dammit? All I can hear now is my own footsteps booming on the sidewalk.

It's no wonder Buffy had time to go and find herself a husband if this is the way things have been since I left.

This ghostlike silence is really eerie.

I lift Henry so that our faces are leveled, and catch his eyes. "I'm not stalking her," I confide. "Just keeping watch. Like in the good old days," I add.

Henry looks away with disinterest.

"I mean," I continue, "You never know what can pop out in the middle of the night. All sorts of creatures. Buffaloos, for example. What'll Buffy do if she runs into one of those unaware? Took us three weeks just to find a counter-spell, back in LA. Obviously she's gonna need me around."

Henry seems to have taken an interest with my leather jacket, and is noisily chewing on the sleeve. I extricate it from his teeth carefully and give his head a warning little swap with my pinky. "If she knows I'm here, though, she'll kick my ass," I whisper conspiratorially. I spot a vegetable garden in one of the near houses, break off a stem of parsley, take a bite and absently offer it to Henry. He munches greedily. "After all, I appreciate her independence."

Suddenly I hear a snarl from behind me and I barely manage to duck as a sharp stake sails over my head. That was just too damn close. Wonderful. I can picture the closing entry of the lengthy 'Angel Chronicles' in the Watcher Diaries, as filled compassionately by Wesley: 'And the Great Vampyre, whose life and death were overtaken with loss, destruction, heartbreak and the everlasting courageous seek for redemption, died valiantly at the hands a contemptible foe because he was too focused on a conversation with his hamster.'

I don't try to hold back the low growl that escapes me, and angrily morph my face into vamp mode. God, I hope the attacker hadn't been eavesdropping on my monologue, cause that would really be embarrassing.

Um, that is, of course, overlooking the fact that the recipient of said monologue is just a tail short of being a *rat*.

Who is my attacker? Judging solely by my senses, I deduce that it's simply a vampire. And a bad dresser, at that, because really, he looks worse than Whistler did when he recruited me.

The vampire bares his teeth and sneers, "Well, if it isn't the Slayer's old boy-toy Angelus the Soulful back in town, creeping around the shadowy streets in the middle of the night. What's wrong, LA too tough on you? You feeling threatened by the old boys coming down to hunt you? Can't hide your desperation from me, boy. Come here and I'll whip your sorry little ass into-"

"For Christ's sake, shut up!" I exclaim with astonishment. This guy is so sad, I'm afraid I'll start laughing in the middle of the fight.

The vampire roars with rage, lowers his head and, honest to god, *charges*. In an impressive, fluent move I learned from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys I toss Henry about twenty feet in the air, slam a few punches into The Incredible Chatterbox's face and catch the hamster swiftly with my left hand. Amazingly, the little guy still retains his unruffled cool.

I reach behind me to pluck the stake that's imbedded in the tree, and drop down to the moaning vamp on the ground, pointing the weapon at his heart. Wow, that fight was over pathetically fast.

"You really should have left out the part about the desperation," I advise belatedly. "Redundant." The vampire braces himself as I lower the stake down, but at the last instant I halt. "Wait," I say.

His eyes are shut and he's cowering fearfully. I lean closer. "What can you tell me about Com- about the Slayer's new boyfriend?"

The vampire opens one eye nervously. "What?"

"Her new beau, Rob something. What do you know about him?"

"He's actually her fiance now," he corrects me foolishly.

I growl. "What, are you trying to be sassy? Is this you being sassy?"

He cringes. "N-n-no, no, sir, no, sir."

"Don't mess with me."

"Nossir."

"This stake's just waiting to find a home, if you know what I mean."

"Yessir."

"A warm, fleshy home."

"Yessir."

"Like your chest," I emphasize, in case he hasn't gotten my meaning yet. Then again, considering how unsuccessfully humorous this whole conversation has been, there's not much chance of that.

"Yes, sir."

Properly respectful, this guy is. That's how I should have trained Cordelia and Wesley.

Stage A of my strategy: gathering information. Know your enemy. Let's find out what incriminating details my squirming attacker can expose.

* * *

Test Case Scenario A:

ROB: Good evening, my love.

BUFFY: Hello, darling.

ROB: Did you get my note?

BUFFY: Of course, it was enchanting. But something's come up.

ROB: Don't worry about it, I booked us a flight for six PM. No world threatening disaster has ever taken you later than six PM to avert.

BUFFY: A flight?

ROB: To the Bahamas. Happy Valentines Day!

Okay, so let's just stop right there. No need to continue unraveling the fates of that particular Buffy and her Rob. I'm sure she feels flustered enough without the imagined British accent, and from the look of things it won't end well for her.

I need...

I need to...

Find a diplomatic way to notify Rob I've invited my former lover to dinner with a passionate kiss?

I slump on the couch with despair. I need a distraction, that's for sure. I grab the magazine nearest to me from the coffee table and flip to a random page. A red headline screams at me from the top of the article: "Ten Ways To Know If She's Cheating On You."

I snap the magazine shut. When did Rob buy this thing? Filth, that's what it is. I pick up another newspaper from the floor and turn to a short column at the back. "Chef Jeff's Valentine Recipes: a romantic meal for your special somebody."

This is not working.

I give it one last shot and fearfully open the tabloid I got last month that was buried between the sofa cushions (it was purchased for research purposes alone- that Men In Black underground information network thing? It really works!). The center article features a full-page photo of an old woman lying in a hospital bed with a joyful expression, under the caption: "I'm seeing Angels!"

This brings me to Test Case Scenario B:

BUFFY: So you remember I told you about Angel?

ROB: What's that strange look on your face?

BUFFY: Nonchalance.

ROB: You look constipated.

BUFFY: Rob, focus. Do you remember him?

ROB: Angel. The vampire with a soul?

BUFFY: Yeah. I-

ROB: The one you lost your virginity to and with a torn but determined conscious sent to hell?

BUFFY: That the guy, it's just that-

ROB: The one you slowly nursed back to health and swore you'd love forever?

BUFFY: Hey, I don't think-

ROB: The man who left you brokenhearted once again but whom your heart will always cling to with regret?

BUFFY: Well, when you put it that way-

ROB: Yes, I remember. What about him?

Yeah, I know. "I invited him over for dinner tomorrow" won't do the trick here, so I'm guessing this approach won't work either. How much does Rob even know of my history with Angel? The basics, certainly. Curse. Hell. Leaving. Definitely no vows of any kind.

Oh, Jesus. Not that Angel and I ever made any vows! The only person who will partake in any type of vow-exchanging ritual with me is Rob.

"Always."

See, that's where Angel and I made our mistake. How can a girl barely out of high school take such a serious oath, pledge herself that way? I didn't know anything about commitment.

One might reason that this argument could be ruled out seeing as I was the Slayer at the time, and fewer things require more commitment than that.

Okay. But, I mean, Angel left only a few weeks afterwards with understandable reasons, though to me they weren't that understandable at the time. I now accept that our break-up was unavoidable. Surely any promises regarding our attachment- emotional or otherwise-to each other that were made while we thought we'd end up together would be, at the very least, annulled?

Stop using marriage terminology!

So "Always" will always come back to haunt me. And whether the word should be "haunt" or "reassure" remains to be decided.

In any case, I love Rob now.

* * *

"Now, Rob," I assert.

"It's Allison, sir."

"I... what?"

"My name is Allison, sir," he says, trembling.

I gape, until I finally understand what he means. "I meant 'what can you tell me about Rob', you idiot."

"Oh."

"Wait," I pause, and stifle a grin. "Is your name really Allison?"

"Yes," he huffs.

"Isn't that a girl's name? Not to mention very Melrose Place?"

"My parents were exceptionally creative and liberal individuals. My brothers' names are Titus Andronicus, Betty and-"

I hold up a hand to wave him off. "Okay, shut up. So, Rob." I wait. "Well?"

"What?"

"What can you tell me about him!" I demand with exasperation. This vampire is truly a phenomenon.

"You mean about Rob?"

Yes, a rare prototype indeed: someone with less brain cells than Spike swallowing Opium on Space Mountain. Don't question my knowledge of these things; I speak from experience.

"Yes," I growl, shoving the stake at his chest. "I mean about Rob."

"Well..." the vampire stops to think for a bit, and my hand clenches the stake compulsively. He quickens. "Well, he doesn't slay with her much."

I raise my eyebrows devilishly. "Really?" I knew it! From the moment I first heard of that man I thought to myself, 'Well, Angel, here's a guy whose definitely lagging behind you in the slaying department."

Coward! I bet even Wesley could take him. With one arm tied behind his back, and banana peels strewn on the floor. See, that last detail was significant because Wesley has some sort of cosmic attraction to anything he can trip up on. Banana skins are like magnets to his feet.

Puh! Rob. Rob Schlob.

"What's his last name?" I ask maliciously. I bet it's something horribly embarrassing. Like Kloot. Or Frogman. I bet it *is* Schlob.

"Summers, sir."

A snigger dies in my throat as I stare in disgust. "No!"

"It is, sir."

In a sickened tone I ask, dreading the answer, "are they...related?"

"No, sir, they had it all safely checked out."

"But surely there's a chance-"

"Hardly. She is from the California bay-area Summers', five generations in LA, while he comes from a long line of Connecticut Summers' that immigrated from France in the early nineteenth century-"

I close my eyes and rub my temple with my stake-free hand. "Shut up, please."

"I was just trying to help," he objects with a little pout.

"Well, aren't you a fountain of useful information?" I talk back snidely, and then feel so foolish I almost smack myself.

We stare at each other in silence until he finally volunteers, "he's tall." I snort. No way Commy's taller than me.

If he's taller than me I'll kick his ass.

If he's taller than me I'll saw off his feet and *then* kick his ass.

"His eyes are brown." Obviously, because for Buffy they're only a replacement for the pair of brown eyes she really wants to see.

"His hair," the vampire continues with growing confidence, reciting the words like a Shakespearean sonnet, "is an uncommon shade of delicate, light blond, cropped short but very elegantly. He's terribly handsome, the girls are saying back at the lair. In my opinion one might even call him gorgeous. He kind of looks like Mark Wahlberg- " the last of his words scatter in the breeze with his ash.

What? Do you really think I'm going to take this crap from a vampire named Allison who's dressed like a pimp?

I grab Henry from where he's crawled under my shirt and stalk angrily back to the hotel.

Tall, my ass.

* * *

We've established (most thoroughly) that there are some things that I have to tell Rob. It really shouldn't be this hard. I'm making too much of it. To uncomplicate matters, let's break up St. Buffy's revelation into subdivisions:

  1. I kissed Angel.
  2. I invited Angel over for dinner on Valentine's Day.
  3. Rob has to cook.
  4. I kissed Angel. No, wait, I said that already.

Maybe I should just close my eyes and let it flow. As soon as he walks through the door and says-

"Did you get my note?"

I spin around and find a grinning Rob inches from my face.

"How did you do that!" I exclaim.

"Do what?"

"Sneak up on me. You're not allowed to sneak up on me."

He makes a face. "What's that smell?"

I stop and sniff, and involuntarily scrunch my nose. "I didn't even notice it."

"Smells like lickerish."

We trace the smell back to the kitchen, where my black-tinged cookies are heaped in a careful pyramid atop the counter. "Happy Valentine's Day!" I force a smile.

He looks at me, surprised. "You baked?"

"Yes. I'm a woman in my kitchen baking for my man."

He puffs his chest. "The way nature intended it to be." I smack him. He looks into my eyes, and his expression is just... heart-melting.

I don't want to tell him.

He reaches for a cookie and takes a bite. His brow furrows, and I wince. "Not good?"

"No, no, they're excellent!" He looks like he's about to throw up. "Taste like...lickerish."

He looks so miserable that I burst out laughing. "It's okay, you don't have to eat them."

"No, look," he tries, and swallows deeply. "Mmmm!"

I raise an eyebrow. "Honestly. I'm not trying to poison you."

"I would hate to think so, especially with what I've got planned for tomorrow night."

Gulp.

"Listen, about that..."

He waits. "Yeah?"

"Rob." I realize I just stated his name. "Robert. Robbie-" eeks, better stick to 'Rob'. "Rob," I start again, despite the fact that his curious expression is shifting towards impatient. In a rush I say, "something's come up and I loved your note, by the way. *Really* loved it, apparently," I add under my breath.

"I'm glad."

"But-" It's hard to continue.

"Uh-oh."

I meet his eyes. "Angel stopped by today."

"Angel? Your old boyfriend, Angel?"

This is turning into the most bizarre mix of Test Case Scenarios A and B.

"Yeah, him. And I sort of..." I'm actually cringing. I can't bring myself to finish the sentence.

"Had sex with him on the doorstep?"

My heart leaps with a thud and I stare in horror. "God, no!"

It takes me a second to realize that Rob was kidding. Sadistic bastard.

"Then whatever it is can't be that bad."

Well, you'd think, wouldn't you...

"I invited him over for dinner tomorrow." I close my eyes and wait for the blow.

Instead, Rob is quiet, and when I open one eye I see him leaning silently against the wall. "Oh," he says unhappily.

"I forgot it was Valentine's Day. Again. You knew that would happen, you said so in the note, and he's here in town with Cordelia and Wesley and I haven't seen them in ages and I invited everyone else over too so it'll almost be like an engagement shower but if I cancel I probably won't see them again-"

"Buffy, you're babbling." It's not said in the usual amused way.

"You're mad at me. You have every right. I am so sorry-"

"I'm not mad," he sighs. "Just-disappointed. I was looking forward to tomorrow night."

"I'll make it up to you," I promise. "I'll cook dinner for a month."

"Don't you dare," he warns.

"I'll do things that aren't appropriate for children under thirteen."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Make that eighteen." I flash my most seductive smile.

He bursts out laughing. "You promised that I'd cook, didn't you."

I nod sheepishly. "I'll donate my cookies, if you want."

He slips an arm around my waist. "I'll cancel the plans for tomorrow."

Sure, Rob. Ignore your fiance who's practically dying with curiosity to know what the top-secret plans were. That's sweet.

But I'm not saying anything that might qualify as any sort of complaint, since the toughest part is still ahead.

*

It's half past midnight and I still haven't told him about The Incident.

So sue me!

It's not the biggest thing in the world anyway. I mean, if Rob went and hugged a blonde woman from behind because he accidentally mistook her for being me, I wouldn't mind. I wouldn't even care not knowing. Even if she were his old flame. 'Old' being two-hundred plus years old.

No, I definitely wouldn't mind if Rob went and hugged an old woman. I'd probably even think it was chivalrous.

How about I just tell him now? It would be so simple...

Test Case Scenario C:

BUFFY: I kissed Angel today.

ROB: Ngherlff?

BUFFY: That's right, honey. Go back to sleep.

Hmm. That approach might work.

Rob tightens his arm around me in his sleep. I try to get comfortable, but the weather's taken an unexpected turn for the worst and my toes are freezing. I try to warm them by pressing them to Rob's longer legs, but he scoots away.

"My feet are cold," I mutter aloud.

His eyes remain shut. "I noticed."

"Rob," I begin, in my most wheedling tone. "Go and get me socks..."

"No," he mutters into his pillow.

"Rob..." I draw out a whine.

"I can't hear you," he says, "I'm sleeping."

"Fine," I sigh. "I'll go get them myself." I start to entangle myself from his arms but he tightens his hold around me.

"No! Don't go." The man looks like he's barely awake.

"Then what am I supposed to do?" I smile in spite of myself.

"Not be cold?" he offers hopefully. Silly man.

"I'll be back in a second." I sit up firmly and he lets me go.

On the way back from the dresser I stop to look at him. He's already fallen back asleep, and he's hugging my pillow with this little pout.

And I think about an alternate Test Case Scenario D. He doesn't have to know.

He doesn't have to know.

I slip back into bed.

*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`

Chapter 5

When I open the door to our suite I bump into Wesley. Henry flies from my hand in a furry, ungraceful arch, lands in the cushioned flower vase and rolls into his fish-tank with a muffled thump. Quite the acrobat, the little fella. Wesley's eyes are screaming murder. "What were you doing?" he interrogates, and I feel like I'm in a closed room under a spotlight. I stammer, "I...out for a walk... hamster needed the exercise... no leash..." "I don't believe you. I think you were *spying* on Buffy." "Hah! I didn't even see her." Safe ground. He's got nothing on me. But Wesley's on a roll, "I think you thought you could outsmart us and hamsternapped Henry for your evil purposes!" "That's a bit harsh, don't you think?" "Look at him, Angel. He looks a bit green." "What were you doing outside the door anyway? It was almost like you were expecting me to appear. You were standing guard, weren't you? You woke up in the middle of the night to check if I'd done something to your precious hamster." "Well, with you having killed my old pet, I think I'd almost have to!" "Wesley, I was the one who *got* you the-" "-cageless-" "-hamster in the first place!" "Angel, be serious for a minute. He's looking greenish." "I mean, I admit it, Enrique was a blunder." "What did you do to him when you were out? Could it have been the cold?" "But I think I apologized enough." "I'm starting to worry. Come take a look at him." "And you have to give me a chance to prove to you that if I'm serious enough to buy you a hamster, then, by god, I'm going to take good care of him." "Dear lord, he's going into spasm." "If there isn't trust, Wesley, then there isn't anything." When Wesley doesn't reply, it occurs to me that maybe something is wrong, and I walk over to the aquarium which he's peering into with worry. I glance down. Henry is lying on his right side making weak little noises, his tiny face undeniably green. Both front and back left legs are twitching. "Huh," I frown. "He wasn't like that when I took him out." I realize I've made a slight tactical error, as Wesley's decidedly homicidal gaze might as well be holy water. "If I were you," he spews out, "I would take a step back." "I don't really think that-" "Step back from the cage!" he yells hotly. I obey swiftly, biting back the correction that it's actually a dried up aquarium. "What could *possibly* be the reason you two won't let me sleep?" Cordelia is standing right inside our connecting door in a fluffy pink robe, arms folded. I shrug dispassionately. Cordy sighs and turns expectantly to Wesley, "What did he do?" "We're not yet certain of the extent of the damages." The wrath of Cordelia is like a big Mr. T glowering over her shoulder at me. "Did you sleep with Buffy?" I gasp. "No!" "Although he bloody well would have if he could," Wesley mutters, "right in front of Henry." "Oh, no! What did he do to Henry?" Cordy rushes over to the aquarium and frets along with Wesley. "It could be a false alarm, it could be gas, it could be of natural causes. Doesn't anyone here think it's a bit premature to automatically blame it on me?" "No," they respond in unison. Well, that was obvious. "Look at him!" Cordy exclaims. "He's the color of moldy cheese!" "Maybe it's something in the sawdust," Wesley deliberates. He lifts the convulsing hamster and puts him in Cordy's hands. "Hold him for a second." "Ew!" she squeaks, and dumps him in my hands. When the warm, limp body touches my palms I shudder and reflexively let him go. By sheer luck, Henry falls on a pillow. Cordelia and Wesley stare at me. Wesley speaks. "That's, like, the second time you've dropped him today." I decide to sit this out and let them work alone. After a while spent poking and prodding, Wesley sighs. "I just don't get it. For the very few hours I've had him I kept him on a strict diet. There are only two things in the world that hamsters aren't allowed to eat." I stop fiddling with a loose string on the couch and suddenly dread whatever Wesley's about to say. He continues with a helpless laugh. "But, I mean, I'd have to be stupid not to notice if there was any parsley lying around." I swear, it's as if Fate has staked a 'Kick Me!' sign to my back. How about I just dunk my head in holy water and save everyone the trouble. * * * How many brands of eggplants can there possibly be? I mean, this is absurd. It's absurd and it's futile. There are, like, twenty-seven different types of eggplants lined up on the shelves in front of me, and while I was under the assumption that all eggplants were supposed to be purple, apparently they're not. Some are yellow, some are green, and one brand is a very startling orange. Orange eggplants. See, that's what I have to deal with. Why, oh why, did I volunteer for this? Oh, that's right, I didn't. Or at least it was more like the Snyder Volunteering System than a genuine desire to go grocery shopping for tonight. But it's really the least I could do. Rob hardly even had to ask- I mean, as far as he's concerned tonight will probably be about me making goo-goo eyes at my ex while he serves the food. So having me cart around vegetables for an hour doesn't seem like an excessively over demanding request. Even if they're... eggplants. Gyugh. I hate eggplants. I despise them. I hate them and despise them and frankly, I fear them a bit. I seriously think you could kill someone with an eggplant, on account of their... I dunno, weight. Fat bastards. And besides, what is up with their names? They're not eggs, they're hardly plants, yet the little creepers insist that we refer to them as an eccentric hybrid of both. Well, they don't exactly insist, but you know what I mean. And now I'm faced with the freakishly orange eggplants. Freaky Orange Eggplants. Perhaps they're mutants of some kind. I lift one up and eye it distrustfully. Oh, yeah, definitely suspicious. Maybe you put them in the oven and they, like... grow legs. Or something. I drop the Freaky Orange Eggplant, or in short FOE (har har), and randomly choose a different brand, picking up a single fruit. Okay. Being the eggplant-hating-clueless-veggie-shopper that I am, you probably think I don't know how to test the ripeness of an eggplant. You're not wrong. Luckily, I have come equipped with Rob's carefully phrased note on How To Pick An Eggplant. Yay. ~Smaller, immature eggplants are best. Choose a firm, smooth-skinned eggplant that is heavy for its size; avoid those with soft or brown spots. Gently push with your thumb or forefinger. If the flesh gives slightly but then bounces back, it is ripe. If the indentation remains, it is overripe and the insides will be mushy. If there is no give, the eggplant was picked too early. Also, to make sure an eggplant isn't dry inside, knock on it with your knuckles. If you hear a hollow sound, don't buy it.~ Can you say 'geek'? I feel the eggplant with my thumb and gently tap it. Oh, *gross*. I hate Rob. I am going to divorce Rob. The eggplant is distinctly squashy (pun intended) which the note, not to mention my very healthy instincts, assure me is wrong. I pick up another instead, and judge it not without bias, I admit. I'm about to squeeze it as well when I notice the other side of Rob's note is also written on. ~Due to the occasionally spongy nature of overripe eggplants, I'll tip you a tip: the best kinds have skins that resemble Hatzil demons'. So your professional opinion could be the definitive shaping element of tonight's meal. Do us proud.~ See, that I can deal with. Once you put it in familiar terms, I can be very agreeable. Mostly. I pick up an eggplant that fits the description, hold it close to my face, and repress a shudder of disgust. What are eggplants doing on my shopping list anyway, you ask? Interesting, I've wondered that myself. And ultimately the only plausible answer I can come up with is that my loving husband-to-be has decided to concoct me an eggplant potion just because he knows I hate them. Bastard. I should buy the Freaky Orange ones just to spite him. Right. As if I would ever do that. No, no, until I get over this kiss I'll most likely be Rob's self appointed-slave. You know, just until I can look in the mirror without my reflection screaming "adulteress!". And, I've just gotta say this, I'm very upset about all these inappropriate marital expressions that have wormed their way into my vocabulary since Angel stepped back into my life. Like 'vows' and 'annulment' and 'adultery' and 'secret lover' and woah!-where did *that* one come from? Secret lover? This is all your fault, Angel. You and your hair and that incredible kiss and I did *not* just say incredible, did I? What is *wrong* with me? You are not my secret lover. Just to emphasize the point I mutter it aloud, staring absently at the eggplant: "You are *not* my secret lover." "Well, I should hope not." I spin around to catch sight of an amused figure leaning on the opposite aisle, arms folded. "Cordelia!" "Is there anything you want to share, Buff?" I rush to explain. "I wasn't talking about the vegetable." "Sure." I realize how that sounds. "Or anyone else," I clarify. "Uh-huh." "I was just... talking in general..." "I believe you, Buffy." Her grin widens as she says this so I have a feeling she's just humoring me, but I'll take what I can get. "So," I desperately attempt to change the subject, "what are you doing here?" Her brow furrows and she pales momentarily. "There's... uh... well, there's this great big prophecy, and, um-" "Yeah, Angel told me about that," I say, and elucidate. "I meant what are you doing here specifically, not in town." "Oh!" A nervous laugh gives way to relief. "Here. In the grocery store. I'm just buying some stuff. For a funeral." That silences me. "Oh," I say, trying to sound as sympathetic as I can. "I'm sorry, I had no idea." "Henry was a good enough guy. I think Wesley's talking it a bit rough, blaming Angel." I frown. "Blaming Angel?" "For poisoning him." I take a step back. Okay, now, I honestly do trust Cordelia to tell me if Angelus ever resurfaces and she really doesn't look that petrified to me, so I just have to wonder: what exactly are these people *doing* in LA? "Angel killed Henry?" "Unintentionally," she assures me, as if that explained everything. "Okay, then," I answer warily. "Should I be calling the authorities, or..." I let it hang. "The-" she starts, and then laughs. "Henry was Wesley's hamster." "Oh." "But Angel was attached to him too, I suppose. He looked sort of regretful when we proclaimed the time of death. Although that could have been regret over having bought Henry in the first place." I don't think I've even seen Cordelia talk about Angel ever since her move to LA. It hits me now that their life there... it's not just 'Angel has a life with Cordelia and Wesley', it's 'Cordelia and Wesley have a life with Angel'. They see him every day, and joke with him, and comfort him, and call him on the phone, and...well, bury pets with him, apparently. It's strange. I guess I've always pictured him as living a strictly professional life in LA and not necessarily a social one. Especially not with these people whom I know. But I've obviously moved on (if you want to comment, take it somewhere else), and it's fair that he has too. Maybe I'm a bit sad that it's one more thing between us but hey, that's just one more thing on a long list. Of things. So it hardly makes a difference. *I'm not at all offended by the fact that he wouldn't have even considered burying a pet with me. In fact, Angel, go ahead and have a life. Or unlife-these semantics are killing me! "So what groceries would one actually *need* to perform a funeral service?" "Oh, the usual. Flowers. Candles. Preservation liquid." "What?" "We're going to have him stuffed. And put on the mantle, for Angel to remember his sins by." I can't help but feel somewhat... upset, or offended for Angel. I mean, yeah, let's all go and remind Angel of his many sins, it's not like his conscience is tortured already or anything... "So, you're making eggplants tonight?" She interrupts my thoughts, pointing at the FOEs. "Actually, Rob is. Oh, you should taste some of the stuff he cooks up." "I can't wait to meet him." "If you stick around a couple more minutes you can. He's right across the street, buying some stuff at the hardware store." "You're gonna go to him?" "Nah, he'll drop by here in a few to, you know, nitpick my grocery-shopping skills and replace all my vegetables." "Ah," she nods, just as I sense someone coming up behind me and instinctively recognize him. "Hey," he says, and kisses my cheek. "Hey," I reply, and as much as I want him to expand on that kiss, it would feel too high-school in front of Cordelia. "Cordelia, this is Rob, my fiancÚ. Rob, Cordelia. She'll also be coming over tonight." "Nice to meet you," he says, clasping her hand. "You too," she says, eyes twinkling. Back off, Cordy. I take a step closer to Rob. "I've heard so much about you. Or rather, your cuisine." He chuckles and rubs my back. "I can't take credit for everything. Buffy helped with dessert." Ah, yes. The infamous lickerish mystery cookies. "I really didn't do much." "Don't underestimate yo--what are these?" Rob picks up an eggplant and inspects it. "I said Hatzil demons, Buffy, not fish scales." "Whatever." I roll my eyes as he substitutes all of my carefully chosen fruits for no doubt perfect, glossy, flawlessly spotless, Hatzil-skin-skinned specimens. "Listen, I gotta go. It was nice meeting you, Cordelia. I'll see you later?" he directs at me, and starts backing away. "Yup. Love you." I blow him a kiss. A soon as he leaves our line of vision Cordelia turns to me and squeals. "Oh my god!" "I know." This comes out rather smug. "He looks just like Mark Wahlberg!" "I know," I grin, and can't help feeling proud. Rob is, if I may say so, a good catch. Not that I like to brag or anything, but can you say HOT? "Lucky girl," she sighs wistfully. I know. I am.


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*` Chapter 6

Damn my strikingly attractive alabaster sun-sensitive skin. It's been said to capture the mystifying gleam of fatal beauty, or reflect light to create a mirage of Greek sculptures, ancient and divine. One bedazzled dame even depicted it as "the cherry on the ice-cream sundae" that is me, although I try to block that memory out. Point is, my skin has had its uses and advantages in the past. But what I wouldn't give right now to trade it in for a blotchy, spotted, discolored, sun- resistant hide. Okay, that was a little gross. And my previous musings may have mildly leaned towards the egocentric. My brain doesn't operate well when overheated is my excuse, and right now one might say it's downright boiling under the thick black Amish-like hat. And, uh, wig. The golf sweater I've daringly donned doesn't so much bother me as it itches, and I'd try to adjust the collar if it weren't for the uncomfortable leather gloves. Which would have been trendy, except they clash with the spy-coat I borrowed from Wesley because mine currently has a cottage cheese stain on it for reasons that we'll not get in to. All in all, my attire could have been worse. I mean, I could have been wearing a yellow sundress and I'm *not* so let's just all take comfort in that fact. Really, just...let's. Of course, my little outfit could have been much more flattering if only my damn skin didn't start to bubble every time it went under sun-exposure. But my latest and current mission takes place now, fresh in the morning, and what sorry vampire would be pathetic enough to walk in public with an ugly old blanket draped and wrapped around themselves? Oh, that's right. Spike. Hee hee. Loser. Said the man wearing the wig. Moving on. Fortunately, the course of my job in LA has taught me that the sun and it's effects on vampires are far more flexible than we were all taught as Irish schoolchildren and again as newly-risen fledglings. I have become quite the expert in judging when and how to dodge those burning rays, how many layers are needed as a suit of armor, what screens are thick enough to offer protection from filtering light. As it is, I am the standing proof that any obstacle can be overcome once you set your mind to it. I am the epitome of the modernized, innovative, twenty- first-century vampire. I am a grown man with fake hair on my head peeking behind a wall at Hal's Grocery Store across the street in an attempt to stalk my ex-girlfriend and my employee. There should be a court order against me. Seriously, this is getting twisted. Buffy should go to court and have a restraining order issued against me. Until she wises up, however, I will continue to execute the next step of my plan. For I am Angel, brilliant strategist, Master of Tactics, flawless executer of flawless plans, despoiler of virgins-no, wait, I don't do that anymore. Anyway, my plan is painfully simple. I have decided to go with my inspired original thought and cause Buffy to believe that my good friend Cordelia Chase and I are, if not married, romantically involved. Cordelia herself has voiced her many valid objections, which I plan to ignore. I do not intend to inform her of my plan. Now *that* will be a neat trick to pull off. The mocking sun shines much too brightly overhead, in the middle of fricking FEBRUARY, for God's sake. Did I mention how random Sunnydalian weather seems lately? I'm not used to the dazzling sunlight and I squint, pulling my hat down to provide extra shade. I can barely make out the shapes moving inside Hal's. Damn. I have to get closer. Pressing my back against the wall, I edge closer to the entrance of the side alley I've been hiding-er, concealing myself in. After looking both ways and assuring myself that no one will notice the six-foot-vampire-with-a-wig, I slip out and cross the street in a haste, ending up just around the corner from good old Hal's. I sidle up to the outskirts of the side window and peer inside. Finally I spot them, standing between the vegetable aisle and the god-knows-what-they- are-but-JayLo's-on-the-package-so-let's-buy-them aisle. Cordelia's talking animatedly while Buffy's eying some freaky looking orange eggplants, and-- What the hell? Back away from my woman, man. I'm warning you. Three steps back, or else--Hey! Hands off! Wh--I can't believe Buffy is letting him touch her like that in a public place! There are children here! And on her back, too! Good, that's it. Retract hand. Withdraw. Say buh-bye now. Cordy, you better not be drooling. If you're drooling then you so deserve me going behind your back with my plan. If you're-- Whoa, is that his car? Hot damn. You know, the people that say that buying American is out have obviously not seen this piece of work. An Electron Blue Metallic Chevrolet Corvette. All sleek, polished curves and mirrors and motor and beauty. This is a car people fall in love with and put in extra hours to be able to afford. This is a car that you picture speeding alongside a cliff in the sunset. This is a car that perfectly matches the light blue dress Buffy's wearing right now. They didn't color- coordinate, did they? This is starting to worry me. As the sports car rumbles away, I decide to make my move. You want to flaunt your little Commy boy and his precious car than that's fine by me, but you're gonna get a taste of your own medicine. I carefully peel off my right glove and whip out my mobile phone. Suddenly a passerby crosses my line of vision and I panic, cling to the wall in a desperately casual pose, and whistle innocently, trying to look as inconspicuous as a six-foot-tall-vampire-with-a-wig can be when he's bundled up in the middle of a supernatural February heat wave. That's right, buddy, just move along. Nothing to see here. Ow. Ow. Smell smoke. Pain. Please, please, please move faster. When the old man finally parts with a last mistrustful peek I swiftly smother my burning pinkie against my coat to put out the flames and then shove it in my mouth to cool off the pain. Ow. Lucky for me pinkies aren't required to dial. I bite back the pain from my stinging limb and punch three on my speed dial for Cordy's cell. I can see her pick up. Here goes. Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby present to you Manipulation 101. "Hello?" I gotta be very careful at this stage; I can't alert her to the fact that anything isn't natural. Must be subtle. "Cordy. Did I mention how great you looked this morning?" "What?" Okay, not so subtle. "I just couldn't help noticing it. Red shades flatter you." "Are you feeling all right?" "I'm hurt. You don't think it's sweet and endearing that I called you just to say I think you look good?" "*Look*?" "--k-ked. Looked. When I saw you this morning." "Okay, I guess." "Come on, admit it. You think I'm sweet." "And bordering on mental." I wait and she sighs. "Fine, you're sweet." "With feeling, Cordy. Don't make me tell you that I sat with Wesley all night and picked the orange Alpha-Bits for him this morning. Anonymously." This earns me a soft chuckle out of her. "Aw. That is sweet." Will not feel guilty about lying. Will absolutely not feel guilty about lying. "Listen, while you're at the store, could you buy some more things? You can have them simply delivered if you want--" "Don't worry about it." "Great. Well, I need some...honey. Special dessert I'm making." "Sure, honey." I try to think of anything else but my mind's a blank. "That's it." "That's it?" "That is indeed it. Aren't you glad I gave you higher expectations and now you find out you get to carry less?" "You're feeling playful today." Teasing. We need some teasing. I decide to play the macho/sensitive card. "It's the middle of the night for me, I just woke up from this dream. Which had nothing to do with, uh, happy fishies in heaven." "Oh?" She isn't facing me, but I can catch her smile. "Or a better place with huge hamster wheels and rodenty Disney rides. At all. Whatsoever. Because, you know, I would never dream about that. Seeing as I am a *man* and while I do regret recent actions that have caused the demise of certain furry and scaly organisms and am saddened by how this affected our friend, Wesley Wyndham-Price, these feelings only stretch as far as expected by courtesy and would never extend to suggesting that I dream about a happy world where mice forgive my guilty conscience." "I can tell." "Are you impressed I managed to fit all that into one sentence?" "Incredibly impressed, yes." "Did you get any of it at all?" "An occasional word." "Thought so." And I'm glad, too. I must admit that the whole ramble might not be as fabricated as you'd imagine. Which basically means no, it was not fabricated at all. I'm not getting very far in this conversation, am I. But it's not going too bad. I need to make her laugh. "So, I finally managed to reprogram the radio stations in the car by myself." You really don't have to laugh quite so strongly, Cordelia. I mean, there are things more amusing than my warped inability to program things. But having one of my radio stations permanently stuck on the CGAS local for the past three years leaves a lasting impression. CGAS, known throughout Angel Investigations as 'See Gas', stands for the Children of Gardening Alcoholics Society. Allow me to not comment. "I'm also thinking of growing my old mustache back. To impress Buffy." She laughs even harder. "You go, lover-boy." I suppress the urge to snicker. She's eating right out of my hand. "Say," I change the subject smoothly, "Do you remember the name of the princess bride from, uh, The Princess Bride? I caught a scene a while ago but missed the part where they say her name. It's not Raspberry, is it?" "Of course not, Buttercup." "Oh! That's right. Thanks," I smirk to myself. "Listen, I've still got preservation liquid to scout for, so-" "I'll hang up. Before I go, could you remind me the words to this song, it's been bugging me all day and the words have just...escaped me." "All right." "The last line goes: 'and then I go and spoil it all, by saying something stupid like...?' And then I think it's 'I love her'?" "'I love you.'" "Are you sure? Because I could swear it's 'I love her.'" "'I love you', Angel. Without a doubt." "No, it's 'I love *her*'." "No, 'I love *you*'!" Buffy is mine. "I'll take your word for it. You're the greatest, Cordy. I'll see you later." I click the power button. Oh, you know you doubted me. And I hope everyone witnessed that because that, my skeptic friends, is what we at Angel Investigations call a beautifully executed plan. I snap the cell-phone shut. Ow. Pinkie. * * * Cordelia's on the phone. "Aw, that is sweet. Don't worry about it. Sure, honey. That's it? You're feeling playful today. Oh? I can tell. Incredibly impressed, yes. An occasional word." She bursts into hearty laughter, and I can't help grin back at her. Looks like she's got herself a boyfriend. Good for her. She probably has a hard time in LA, working in a man's world and all. I don't think I've ever seen her involved stably with someone. Her high-school relationship with Xander was serious but can't exactly be considered stable, and the flirt/crush thing she had going with Wesley senior year suddenly seems vaguely incestuous. I'm glad she found herself someone; you can tell it's done her good. She's speaking in a carefree, teasing tone. I wonder if she'll be bringing him tonight? "You go, lover-boy." I wink at her slyly. Who is this man? "Of course not, buttercup." She starts to wrap up the conversation and I listen intently to her side, trying to catch a name to go with all those terms of endearment. When have I become such a nosy Aunt Myrtle? "Listen, I've still got preservation liquid to scout for, so-All right. I love you." Aw, she's cute. Saying that with a little roll of her eyes and a smile playing on her lips. I never thought the day would come when I thought Cordelia Chase was adorable. Come on, say his name. "I love you, Angel. Without a doubt." Back up. What was that? You've got to be kidding me. He-you-he- You have got to be kidding me! "No, I love *you*!" She practically yells. Whoa, intense. She hangs up and turns to me with an apologetic little smile. "Angel," she explains, "you know how he gets." I nod weakly. I simply cannot believe this. This is like... this is like finding out that the Master is sleeping with Tory Spelling. Oh, my god, what a lameass example. I must be completely shocked. How can *Angel* and, and *Cordelia*, Cordelia who as a cheerleader threatened me with pompoms, Cordelia who thought that the NKVD actually were a fashion police, Cordelia who was the first advocate to kill Angel, be... be... you know, shtupping together. God, I can't even think the word. In English. This is like a twilight zone. A twisted version of reality. I mean, beyond the fact that he's with Cordelia, there's still matter of Angel being with *anyone* else to accept. I don't know why I care so much about this. Except- Oh! I must be feeling guilty! Because of Angel and me kissing yesternight. Not only did I betray Angel, but I betrayed Cordelia as well. Of course. It's so simple. This must be the explanation for that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. "He's just silly sometimes, you know?" I realize she's still talking about Angel. Suddenly I say, "Rob's silly too!" Cordelia directs me a puzzled expression. "What?" "I'm just saying, Rob can be very silly. In fact, only last night I was thinking that. About Rob being that sometimes. Silly. He did this sock thing." "Oh. Okay." "He's great that way. He can be really funny too. He told me a joke the other day about this man and a hole and whatnot and let me tell you, I was on the floor." "He sounds like an extremely talented man." "Yes! Multi-talented. Generous. Sensitive. Passionate. And he's punctual. Not that Angel isn't punctual, that is. I mean, as far as I remember Angel was one of the most punctual vampires I've ever met, so you've got nothing to worry about." "Well, I don't normally worry about Angel being punctual, but thanks for reassuring me. Are you feeling fine?" "I feel superb. I'm happy, I'm in love, I'm a very satisfied woman, if you know what I mean. It's not like I go off randomly kissing other men. But if I were, they sure as hell wouldn't be Angel--again, not that there's anything wrong with him. He's just a little too hair gel for me. I know some people like that, I'm just not into the whole spikes thing. But he does have his pluses. Great chest. You probably know what I'm talking about." "Uh... yeah?" "So, anyway, I better get back to shopping. Gotta be ready for tonight. Did I mention Rob was cooking? Fabulous chef, that man." "So you said. Playing along, I should probably point out that Angel's quite handy with a frying pan." "That's so wonderful for you two." "Buffy, were you out in the sun this morning? Like, for a very long time? Maybe we should check your temperature." "I told you, I'm perfectly fine. You on the other hand, seem a bit odd." "'Freaked' would be the appropriate term." "Whatever you like. Anyhow, I'll get back to my FOEs." "Your foes." "Orange eggplants *are* the enemy." "Ah, yes. Your secret lovers." I stumble and choke out, "ha! Yes. Good one." She backs away from me slowly, moving towards the exit. In a placating tone she advises, "You should go home. Get some sleep before tonight. Become not insane, or whatever. Not everyone will think it's cute." "You know who's cute?" I call after her. "Rob!" The bell hanging on the door tinkles in response. So, do you think she recognized that I'm acting a bit strange? Cordelia and Angel. Angel and Cordelia. You know, this brings in a whole new level of awkwardness. I just can't wait for tonight. * * * I rush back to The Tulip to beat Cordy's arrival. When she walks through the room door she announces: "Buffy doesn't like your hair gel." "I beg your pardon?" She shrugs. "Just thought you might like to know. Where's Wesley? I got the stuff. For the stuffing." "I'm here," he states as he enters the room. He gathers her purchases which have been dropped on the table, ignoring me. Why doesn't Buffy like my hair gel? I try to inquire. "Did she say anything? Uh, I mean, you met Buffy today? Wow, what a coincidence. Did she say anything?" "She was acting totally weird. He boyfriend's hot, though." "Her fiance," Wesley points out. Evilly. I throw him a black stare and turn back to Cordy. "You met him? What's he like?" "Mark Wahlberg," she answers, with what might be interpreted as a dreamy sigh. "That's what Allison said too," I mutter. "Who's Allison?" Wesley asks absently, while pouring a mysterious blue liquid into a measuring glass. "The he-vamp I extracted information about Commy from last night, right after--" I poisoned your hamster. "...never mind." "His name was Allison? Isn't that a little girlish? Not to mention very Melrose Place." "I thought so too." Cordy pipes up. "Isn't 'Amanda' from Melrose Place?" "I wouldn't be surprised if that were his second name." The two others smile. See? It's just a matter of time till they forgive me. Wesley's dealing with--ick--the carcass, and I decide to play some atmosphere music. I go to the stereo, conveniently provided by the money- milking five star Tulip, and put in a CD from the office collection--we always make sure we've got some in the car. You know, to spare us See Gas. Perfect for the mood. Simon and Garfunkle's 'Sounds of Silence'. Sad, quiet, yet serene. Wesley's stuffing to the rhythm of the music and Cordy flashes me a little thumbs up of approval. I can be sensitive. "So," I quietly bring up the subject again, "does Buffy seem to, you know, love Commy?" She rolls her eyes at my perfectly legitimate nickname and says, "She is marrying him, you know." "Yeah, but does she, like, love him?" "Very much, it appears. The last five minutes of our conversation were practically a glorified Ode to Rob." "She didn't mention me?" "I got the impression that she was trying to be nice about you so as not to insult me. Why do you think that is?" "Uh, I dunno," I feign ignorance. Wow. If she hadn't thought I was with Cordy she would have said bad things about me? Not going according to plan. Plus, she hates my hair gel. "I saw them together. They really seem to love each other." Not helping me, Cordy. We sit in silence and watch Wesley for a while, and I let the music depress me some more. Eventually I blurt, "Othello and Desdemona die at the end of the play." Cordelia and Wesley both look up with surprise, and Cordelia rises to come sit on the armrest of my couch. "It was a stupid example, Angel," she says softly. I take awhile before I respond. "Yeah." "It doesn't have to be the same." "Yeah." She clasps my hand with her own and rubs my palm with her thumb. Dinner tonight should be quite something. But whatever happens, I know I've got my friends to back me up. However stupid they think my intentions and strategies and plans are, they'll support me, whatever the consequences. It gives me strength. And I think that might make the difference. I freeze as the song ends and the next track opens with a familiar tune. Before any of my friends can comment I sprint to the stereo and turn off the power button, lest the song reach its chorus. 'Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.' Figures. I look up sheepishly. Both of them are staring at me accusingly for what seems like the hundredth time in a single week. ...And then Wesley starts laughing. Cordy's light, teasing laughter follows. I join them.


The End


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