Weathering the Storm

Author: trammie

DISCLAIMER: All belongs to Joss, the WB, UPN, David Greenwalt and Fox – none to me.

SUMMARY: Buffy takes up the challenge to bring her new officemate out of his shell






AUTHOR'S NOTE: This fic is complete and will be posted one chapter at a time.

DEDICATION: This fic has morphed from being written by indie, to both indie and me, then finally ended by just me. Although I've written the majority of it, part of it is undeniably indie. If it wasn't for her there would be no fic and I most certainly would never have attempted to try my hand at writing. So who else could it be dedicated to but indie? Many heartfelt thanks for love, encouragement and most of all patience from indie, Tango, Gia and Copper. And thanks to Vatrixsta for allowing me to lift a word from Bittersweet Legacy.


Chapter I

The cold had long ago ceased to register as a simple sensation. It had taken on life, blossomed into a relentless tormentor, a cruel constant companion. His entire being ached from the uncontrollable shivering, the endless contracting of his muscles in a vain attempt to generate body heat.

His hand, though not large, was curled around her much smaller one. He couldn't have released it if he tried, but he did not try. He had to hold onto her, to keep her near. Her sightless blue eyes stared up at the threatening gray sky visible through the canopy. The still orbs were no longer the piercing blue, but cloudy and dull, almost milky. The stiffness had receded from her body, leaving her limp across him. Her skin was ashen, the same pale gray as the sky. The bruise that ran the length of her face was no longer as prominent.

He curled his fingers tighter, watching her long golden tresses flutter around him in the chilling wind. He would protect her. But the sky eventually darkened and the already punishing winds became even less forgiving. Thunder rumbled in the distance again.

His teeth chattered so loudly he could hear nothing else. He tried to huddle deeper into his thin t-shirt, still damp from last night's pounding deluge. It was no use ... The storms would find them again.

Angel woke with the tortured, silent scream of an eight-year-old boy caught in his throat. Sitting bolt upright in bed, he panted harshly, dragging in deep, ragged gulps of air. He held himself stock still, trying to absorb all of his surroundings, orient himself despite the adrenaline racing through his veins. Slowly, he began to calm. He knew where he was. He knew he was safe. But still, he had trouble shaking off the clinging terror.

Uneven flashes of light illuminated his bedroom and the house shuddered with the distant, low rumble of thunder. With badly shaking hands, it took him three tries to flip on the light next to his bed. He was tangled in the covers, burrowed into them though his body was soaked with sweat. Slowly, he freed himself, throwing his feet over the edge of the bed. Leaning forward, he braced his elbows on his knees and cradled his head in his hands. "Not again," he whispered hoarsely, "not again." As if to mock him, thunder rumbled.

Raising his head, he pushed himself to his feet and walked stiffly down the hall to the bathroom. He blinked against the glare of the light. His reflection was that of a haunted man, his eyes standing out harshly against his pale skin. He ran a shaky hand over his stubble sprinkled jaw.

Reluctantly, he opened the medicine cabinet. He stared at the rows of little orangey- brown bottles. So much for man being powerless over nature. He was helpless against the storms, but he had the assistance of the pharmaceutical industry to mitigate his reaction to them. With a deep breath, he picked up the bottle on the far right. Leaning a hip against the counter, he braced himself as he read the label. He unscrewed the lid and reaching in, extracted one small pill. He held it up and looked at it.

"It's only the storms," he said to himself. "As soon as they stop, I can quit taking the meds again. I won't need them to keep the dreams away." Even as he said the words, he was filled with self-loathing. He had gotten through twenty years without needing these pills to keep the dreams at bay, twenty years where he seemed to be as normal as anyone else, twenty years where a simple thunderstorm wouldn't turn him into a nervous wreck.

"But that was before," he said wryly, his voice echoing harshly in the small space. One night changed everything. In the wake of that stormy February night, he needed enough tranquilizers to bring down a horse just so he could get through the day. He stopped being a highly trained professional and was now a pitiable company joke. His past caught up with him and overtook his life.

"Fuck!" Angel bellowed. He dropped the pill, pulling his hand back even as he curled it into a fist. With the fluidity of a trained athlete he twisted his upper body forward, punching the glass with all of his considerable strength. The glass cracked, shattering outward like ripples across a pond. He stood there, his arm still outstretched, panting hard. Several shards of glass fell, tinkling into the sink. His reflection was obliterated by the network of fissures. Slowly, Angel pulled his hand back. Looking down at his bloodied knuckles, he felt oddly more sane, more in control. Grabbing a nearby washcloth, he wrapped it around his bleeding fist and absently flicked the medicine cabinet closed. The storm wasn't going to win this time.

Taking a deep breath, he released it slowly and headed for his kitchen. Coffee would be good. It was hard to have nightmares if you didn't sleep.


"You're being funny, right? Ha, ha," Buffy said, desperately trying to elicit some sort of response from the overly serious clerk. He couldn't honestly mean that this was her office. Surely this had to be some joke they played on the newbies.

He stared back at her blankly. "This is your desk, Ms. Summers," he said dryly. "All complaints must be taken up with Dr. Walsh. Good day."

Buffy watched as the clerk walked out the door and down the institutional green hallway. She slumped back against her heavy, old, wooden desk, frowning. "He's a lot of laughs," she said to her officemate.

Once again she received no response. Crossing her arms over her chest, Buffy glared at the back of the man's head. He had short, nondescript brown hair kept in place with painful precision, as if ordered to stay there. He sat ramrod straight, his back to her and acted like she wasn't even there. Buffy guessed he would probably be on the tall side, once standing. Her glaring got her nowhere.

"So ... " she peeked out into the hallway and read the nameplate on the door, "Liam," she said. "Looks like we're going to be working pretty close together."


"What is it with this place?" Buffy muttered under her breath. "That's fine," she continued, talking to herself because no one else would, "it doesn't matter that no one seems to need the human comforts like talking or light." She glared at the tiny basement windows placed high in the walls. No light shone through them and heavy iron bars that covered them. Of course, it was still raining outside. This place had the ambience of a turn of the century sanatorium - only quieter and without all the drool.

When she agreed to take the government job, Buffy envisioned something glamorous. She imagined huddling in a trench coat under the glow of a streetlight, or crouched inside a van, listening to a wiretap, waiting for the moment to rush in and rescue the damsel in distress. Or guy in distress. Guys got distressed too, right? And in need of rescuing? She glanced once more at the back of the large, uncommunicative form across the room and sighed deeply. Not a lot of rescuing needed around here. Who knew the FBI was so freakin' boring?

With a college degree and her experience, Buffy could have gotten a job with any number of private companies, but no, she settled for cause over cash. With a sigh, she pulled her chair out and sat down at her desk. At least the job did pay reasonably well, not the six figures she would be making in the private industry, but definitely more than what the average college grad brought home. At the moment it made her feel better to put everything on Willow's head than blame herself for where she'd landed.

In spite of trying to make all this her fault, Buffy was comforted thinking about her best friend. She could see Willow's perky face surrounded by a wealth of red hair. When they had first met, after Buffy arrived new in the town and at the school, she felt an instant kinship to the brainiac. Willow was like a breath of fresh air in Buffy's life, something she sorely needed after the one she left behind. She could use a little visit from Willow right now, Buffy thought, at least she would talk to her, which is more than she could extract from the man behind her.

"Nice to meet you Liam Angelus," she said, fairly sure he wouldn't bother responding. "My name is Buffy Summers and I will be your officemate for the duration of my stay."

She waited for him to say something, but once again he remained silent. With a sigh of defeat, she pulled open her satchel and started arranging things on her desk. She shot a quick glance at Liam's desk and noticed it was achingly ordered. Everything seemed to be arranged on a grid and nothing was the tiniest bit out of place. Paper, pens, calculator. With a start, she realized he didn't have a computer. Who didn't have a computer in this day and age? She shuddered. Wonderful, her officemate was a Luddite who had taken a vow of silence. Years spent with overly intelligent males who had little or no contact with women had given Buffy an appreciation for how truly strange some men could be. Most of her male colleagues settled for treating her like the secretary while they openly ogled her chest. As far as it went, being ignored wasn't the most awful experience she'd ever had.

Buffy sighed and looked at the things she brought to decorate her workspace. She wasn't much on order. She got things done in her own way in her own time and with her own style. She pulled several picture frames out of the satchel and arranged them on her desk. Familiar faces soon stared back at her. Dawn laughing with the remnants of a food fight dripping off her face, her mother and Giles on their wedding day, her high school graduation picture with Willow.

She smiled back at Willow's jubilant face thinking, 'This is all thanks to you.' She wondered at the moment about her gratitude.

Willow had been so proud to tell Buffy about officially joining the ranks of the FBI. 'Miss Supergenius' not only finished her college credits needed for her degree, by the time she was twenty, but had been actively sought by the FBI upon her graduation. She had already been working for them for almost two years in forensics, her field of choice, when she saw a job opening she thought would be perfect for Buffy.

When she'd gotten the job in the same building as Willow, Buffy couldn't believe it.

She knew Willow had put in a good word for her, but she had thought the chances of actually getting the job where her best friend worked were slim. She would enjoy it while it lasted. She didn't plan on staying long, but it was somewhere to start.

Eventually, she pulled out her new laptop, a graduation present from Giles and Dawn and her beloved collection of pencils also from her sister. The pencils wrote in every color imaginable and most of them were topped with some sort of cartoon character. Buffy wasn't a Cartoon Network junkie like her sister, but since they were from Dawn, she loved them. Glancing over her shoulder, Buffy looked at Liam's desk. He had a neat cup of perfectly sharpened pencils. She rolled her eyes. Most days she would have been a little more forgiving, but the excitement of being shown to her dank basement quarters had made her somewhat irritable.

With her desk decorated, Buffy slumped back in her chair and studied the room. It was a good size, much larger than the tiny places she'd been shoved into in her former jobs. Still, it wasn't much on character. The walls were the same institutional green as the hallway and looked like they hadn't been painted in decades. There were tape marks and sticky tack goo stuck in what looked like the outline of an old frame or maybe a calendar. Buffy was betting that it had been hung there when smoking was still allowed in the building because the surface that had been under the frame was much brighter than the rest of the wall. Buffy shuddered. She wasn't a clean freak, but she did have her limits.

Idly, Buffy drummed her fingers on her desktop. Her meeting with Dr. Walsh was still hours away and until she met with her boss, she really didn't have anything to do. Before long, the silence was more than she could take. Turning, Buffy looked at her co-worker who was still staring intently at the papers in front of him. Apparently small talk was not in the cards on this job.

With a yawn, Buffy stood up, stretching like a cat. She needed to do something or she was going to fall asleep. As she started towards the doorway, Liam swiveled his chair absently towards the motion, having forgotten she was in the room. Suddenly, they were face to face for the first time.

Buffy's gaze glanced quickly across his pleasant facial features, drawn inexorably to the haphazard dressing on his right hand. His knuckles were bandaged, giving the unmistakable impression that he injured himself by punching something. She stared at the untidy gauze wrapping. He had dressed the wound himself, she knew that simply by looking at it. The FBI hadn't hired her for her sparkling personality. Buffy knew with bone deep certainty that he was right-handed. He bandaged the injury by himself, resulting in the cumbersome mess that encompassed his hand.

She felt, rather than saw, him start as he pulled his injured hand protectively against his chest. She immediately dropped her gaze to the floor, blushing in embarrassment. She opened her mouth and snapped it shut deciding that discretion was the better part of valor. Mutely, she turned and headed into the hallway without a backward glance.

Buffy locked the door to the ladies' room and leaned back against it, giving herself a moment to regain her composure. What had possessed her to stare at her officemate like he was some sort of circus freak? She couldn't have been much less suave if she had actually been trying. Her face still burned with shame.

But despite the shame, there was a nagging curiosity. What had happened to Liam Angelus' hand? It wasn't like her to get involved in situations like this. She didn't pry into other people's business, especially co-workers'. But there was something so vulnerable about the way he had looked, the clumsy mess of gauze and tape. It pulled at something inside of her. She had this absurd desire to get out a bottle of Bactine and a bunch of Dawn's favorite Scooby Doo band aids.

Shaking her head, Buffy walked to the sink where she ran water and splashed some on her face. Using an overly rough paper towel, she dried her face, looking at herself in the mirror. "This job might be a little more interesting than I had anticipated," she said dryly.

Minutes later, Buffy was in the break room, avoiding her office and by definition, her officemate. She had just removed the Diet Coke from the vending machine when a young man entered the room. His tie was loosened around his neck and the first few buttons of his shirt were undone. Buffy smiled. This guy looked like he had some potential.

"Hey," Buffy said.

He waggled his eyebrows at her. "Hey," he replied. "You must be new. I'm Xander, Xander Harris."

Buffy gladly took his hand, relieved that someone in the building was capable of conversing normally. "Buffy Summers," she said. "I was beginning to worry that everyone in this department must be a librarian in training."

He frowned at her. "You're in Analysis?" he asked.

"Yeah," she said, "just started today."

His eyes went wide. "Oh, you're Kendra's replacement," he said and then added, "I'm sorry."

Buffy frowned uneasily. "Why are you sorry? Is there something I need to know? Am I breaking the code of silence?"

Xander smiled and shook his head. "No code of silence, honest," he said. "There's no policy against making noise it's just that most of us tend to get lost in our work. Not quite as lost as Angelus. You're officemate is just a little ... "

"Yes?" Buffy prompted, hoping she didn't sound nervous. Of course she was nervous. She had just experienced one of the oddest exchanges of her life and was curious to find out more about her officemate.

Xander shrugged, "Angelus is ... different. Quiet. Strange. He doesn't really joke around. Okay, he doesn't really even talk most of the time. To my knowledge, he's not exactly disrespectful ... he just tends to make people really nervous. He goes through officemates faster than Spinal Tap went through drummers."

Buffy laughed and then groaned. "Wonderful," she said. "I feel so lucky. Hopefully I won't be another spontaneous combustion."

"Not to worry," Xander assured her. "We may be sick with the institutional green and the lack of daylight, but we have a very modern sprinkler system."

The comment caused them both to laugh for several moments.

Finally, Xander sighed. "My deepest sympathy," he said, "but not much can be done about who you room with. They're still looking for that 'special someone' who can make it past a month with Angelus."

Buffy sobered slightly. "He can't honestly be that bad, can he?" she asked. "I mean, he doesn't like eat people or listen to the Spice Girls or keep a really neat collection of scabs in a jar?"

Xander laughed and shook his head. "No," he said. "He's just ... one of a kind. He's a total genius, the best of the best, but he's also weirdest of the weird. Angelus sits at his desk for eight hours straight. He never talks, never gets up and walks around unless it's for more coffee. We're all a fairly social group around here, but he never comes to any of our after hours get-togethers or Christmas parties or anything."

A mischievous grin slid over Buffy's features.

"What?" Xander asked warily. "I don't even know you, but I'm sure that look isn't a good sign."

"Nothing," she said, "I just love a good challenge."

"Leave him alone, Buffy," Xander said seriously. "Angelus is a loner. He doesn't like people talking to him or messing with his stuff."

"I'm not going to do anything drastic," she assured him.


Later that night, Angel carefully pulled at the bandages, making sure they weren't tearing the newly healed flesh as he removed them. Idly, he dropped the fouled gauze into the sink. His skin was still raw and red. He fought the urge to flex his fist, knowing it might re-open the wounds.

He took a deep breath and realized he had no idea how long he had been standing at the sink. Looking up, his still shattered reflection proved no help either. It wasn't like him to get lost in his thoughts - nightmares yes - but thoughts, no. Still, he couldn't seem to stop replaying the day in his mind. He usually paid no attention at all to whoever was sitting at the desk behind him. It was almost always a different face. Male, female - it made no difference as long as they supplied the little information he asked for infrequently.

But the slip of a girl, no, he corrected himself - woman, who had silently appraised him, had caught him off guard. He had been drawn into those gray-green pools reflecting the light before she hurried away. The strange connection had been almost tangible until she ran from the room. He hadn't missed how beautiful she was in that quick glimpse. He remembered the huge eyes in such a small, expressive face, surrounded by burnished blonde hair. Blonde hair … something that usually cast a shadow over his thoughts, hadn't had that effect with her.

Angel shook his head at the empty room and absently rubbed his injured hand over his eyes. He was just tired from the storm stealing his sleep the previous night.

In the days that followed he found himself oddly aware of the new occupant sharing his space. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling.


Willow thought about Buffy as she put her things away in her desk after she returned from having lunch with her. Willow's workload had been exceptionally heavy for several days. She planned on meeting Buffy the very first day her best friend started work right there in the same building. But she hadn't been able to get away until Buffy had been there for a couple days.

Willow hadn't been able to contain herself when Buffy had called her after she got the job. She had gleefully bounced up and down when Buffy asked if she'd help her find an apartment. Two weeks hadn't been a lot of time to move and be ready for her first day on the job, but they'd managed.

Now that Buffy had started work, Willow was glad she'd been brave enough to help her get the position. Willow had heard they were looking for a replacement for a vacancy in Analysis … again. Despite the rumors about the man who worked there, Willow had gotten up the courage to see Dr. Walsh to ask her to consider Buffy for the job.

Willow had been there long enough to watch the long line of men and women leave, requesting a transfer after working with Liam Angelus. She had seen him many times, silently slipping through the hallway, trying to become part of the background, as if he didn't exist. He reminded her of a wounded animal that would start and run at any movement. He never let her near enough to get a close up look at him. She only knew the gossip she heard around the office. Until a couple years ago he'd been in the field. The details on how he ended up in Analysis were vague, undoubtedly by design. Everyone else ignored him, but Willow had a very tender heart, hating to see anyone shunned or alone. She knew Buffy well enough to know she'd find working with him a challenge. She smiled to herself, feeling more fear for Liam Angelus than for Buffy.

The thoughtful redhead had been concerned about Buffy for quite some time. She'd watched her date any number of guys, but never forming a serious attachment with any of them. Buffy had always been a ball of energy, even with everything she packed into her life. She helped raise her sister after her mother died, taking care of Dawn and Giles and the house while she continued her classes. She worked on 'Teen Beat' all through high school and college. It was something she'd heard about when she helped out at the local teen center while keeping an eye on Dawn. Buffy loved to patrol, giving the delinquents a run for their money. A small cyclone, they were never prepared when she struck.

That Buffy loved a challenge was something that had never been lost on Willow, though she wasn't sure her friend was aware of it herself. Time and time again, Willow watched Buffy take on situations that daunted everyone else. It didn't matter if it was work or people. She'd dig in until she solved the riddle to her latest puzzle and wouldn't let go until she did. Willow had known her long enough to know she was searching for something that was lacking. She didn't think there was much left in their small town that her friend hadn't already met head on. Yet, Buffy was still restless.

She thought of how energized and alive Buffy had been during the hour she had just spent with her. She looked excited about moving and starting somewhere new. Willow hoped the different environment would be what Buffy needed. In the meantime, she was ecstatic about being reunited with her best friend. She had missed her and was glad to have her back in her life.


"Good morning, Liam," Buffy said as she did every morning. It was five after nine and she was running a little late. She was betting her officemate sat down at his desk at nine a.m. sharp, just like he had every morning for the last two weeks. She took a seat at her desk and looked at the back of his head. She narrowed her eyes at him. "Angelus is an odd last name, don't you think?" she asked. "Where's it from?"

He acted like he hadn't heard her.

"It's an interesting name." With a suddenly intuitive thought, she continued, "Way more interesting than plain old Liam. I think I'll start calling you Angel. You don't mind, do you, Angel?"

No response.

"I'll take that as a yes," she said, pulling her bright pink Power Puff Girls pencil out of her desk.


Angel couldn't concentrate, something that rarely happened. He had kept himself from turning around to look at her. Pretending to work, he watched her out of the corner of his eye as she walked out the door, plastic coffee cup in hand, in the direction of the break room. After she was gone he leaned back in his chair and let out a long, harsh breath.

He had been startled when she called him Angel, although he showed no outward sign. 'How did she know that?' He calmed himself thinking the nickname really wasn't such a stretch. Liam was an old family name, passed down through generations, but his immediate family had called him Angel since he was born. Even after all these years he unconsciously thought of himself by that name. But he hadn't felt like such an 'angel' once he'd come back home as a child. Being leery of anything at that time that might cause him pain, they had quietly dropped the term of endearment. Except for Cordy, she had never called him anything else.

It astounded Angel that Buffy's voice saying his name hadn't bothered him. Had it been anyone else who tried to address him in such a manner, he would have been hard pressed to retain his composure. He actually liked the way it sounded on her lips, soft and intimate. Unwittingly, he stirred at the notion of being intimate with her. He pondered again what it was about her that his thoughts kept wandering to her too many times during the day and night. Just hearing her call him that had him thinking of her again. He sternly reminded himself she was just trying to make the most of their working arrangement and he should do the same.


Spike purposely clicked the heels of his boots over the tiled floors, hoping the small echo was irritating. He smirked as his eyes passed the dingy walls and beat up wooden doors that lined the hall. All that came to mind, surveying the view was the sarcastic line a bad guy said in an action movie, "I give you the F…B...I!" He snickered softly, agreeing with him, certain they'd killed the wrong guy off at the end of the flick. He reached his destination, a single door like any of the others except for the nameplate. Knocking, he didn't wait for a reply but turned the handle to the door, then helped himself in.

His eyes swept the room, unconcerned by the absence of its owner. Spike shrugged, knowing that he would return sooner or later. He started towards the desk, planning to make the most of his time alone. With a careless hand he opened and half closed drawers, searching for whatever he could find. Finally spying something of interest, he dropped into the swivel chair behind the desk and rotated it, throwing his booted feet on the widow sill behind. He was still in a deep study of the contents of the bland manila folder titled, 'Angelus, Liam' when the door opened behind him.

Not bothering to even turn his head Spike sneered, "Watching over your 'golden child', Father? Be careful he doesn't see you. He'll break even more."

The man made no attempt to answer as he circled behind the desk. He caught the back of the chair and pitched the occupant out in one quick movement. As Spike fell forward, trying to regain his balance, he felt the file he was holding slip out of his grasp. Catching himself before he hit the floor, he straightened out, took a few steps to the opposite chair and nonchalantly sprawled into it.

"Not even a hello for your dear son, Dad?" he threw across the desk. "Or hasn't three years been long enough?"

Holtz sat heavily in his seat, silently putting the papers away, straightening the others Spike had disturbed in his earlier search. Spike waited, snaring a pencil out of the holder in front of him, rolling it between his fingers.

"I've missed you, William." Holtz said quietly, raising his head to look straight into his son's eyes.

Breaking the pencil and hurling the pieces to the floor, he bit out, "It's not 'William', it hasn't been 'William' for a long time. The name is 'Spike'!"

Holtz closed his eyes for a moment trying to calm himself, as he heard the same voice say those words long ago. A tough little five-year-old telling his parents, "The name is Spike." The little boy had picked up the name from the villain in his favorite cartoon show. He had insisted everyone call him that and refused to answer to anything else. Regrettably, the moniker stuck.

He knew he shouldn't have baited him. He hadn't seen Spike for so long, but he was irritated that his son had taken advantage of his absence from the office. As usual, the one thing he wished to hide from his son had been the first thing William had found. There was no way of knowing how much information Spike had gotten about Angelus or, more to the point, what he would do with it.

Spike eased back in his chair, bothered that he let his father get a reaction out of him. "Just because Angel didn't like his nickname, I suppose no one else can have one," he shot back.

Ignoring the barb, Holtz asked, "Where have you been all this time? You haven't kept in touch. I didn't know you were coming."

"Oh, what's the matter? Didn't the boys at the gate warn you I was here? Tsk, tsk, not much for security, are they? Oh, wait … that's right. I'm family. Maybe you should update their log sheets, wouldn't want the wrong people to get in."

Refusing to give into his taunts, Holtz asked, "Are you going to tell me where you were?"

"Would it make any difference where as long as I wasn't here?" Spike returned.

"Would it do me any good to try to convince you it did?" Holtz asked tiredly. At the closed look on his son's face he sighed deeply. "Is there something you need? Is that why you finally showed up?"

"Do I have to need something to visit my dear old father?" Spike questioned, the contempt evident in his tone.

"No," Holtz shook his head, using his hands to push himself back from the desk, "but you never do."

"I need money, that shouldn't surprise you. Why else would I be here?" Spike said levelly.

"We've talked about this before. I've told you, let me help you find a …" Holtz started.

"A job ... and a nice girl, settle down and have kids? Like you did?" Spike interrupted. He stood up and stalked towards the door. "I don't even know why I bothered. I should know by now who matters to you." He swung the door open, turning to face his father. "The only one who ever mattered to me has been dead and gone for a long time. Do you even remember her or has Angel taken her place too?" he spat out angrily as he slammed the door behind himself.

Holtz put his head in his hands leaning over the surface of his desk. Even for Spike that had been cruel. Daniel Holtz saw the sweet, quiet face of his youngest daughter, round blue eyes that saw things beyond what others saw. The cutting words triggered sudden tears, falling silently down his face, as he remembered the picture of her that was burned in his memory forever…Dru's and Angel's.

Taking a deep breath, Holtz wiped away the tears with the back of his hand. Crying wouldn't help matters. These wounds were old and deep. Silently, he ruminated on Liam Angelus. Holtz knew the troubled young man well, having lived next door to him as Liam grew from boy to man. Angel, Holtz knew only too well, had never been comfortable around people after that short eight years since his birth. He lost whatever that connection was and never regained it. He no longer knew how to relate to others, nor did he attempt to learn.

Holtz privately believed Angel to be caught in a prison of his own making - suffering from loneliness so acute it rendered him unable to relate to humanity. That loneliness and the unapproachable demeanor it wrought had been a stumbling block all through his adolescent and adult years. It wasn't a faηade, unfortunately, but an inescapable part of his character. His own gentle nature had been stunted, a fact for which Holtz held himself responsible. Angel lost the ability to trust anyone on a personal level. Even his sister, the only one who still tried to make inroads in his life, was helpless to coax him out of his self-imposed exile. Instead of daring to believe in the goodness in humanity, Angel created an invisible wall not keeping others out, but locked out himself. Like looking in a window while starving, watching others eat their fill, with no knowledge of how to enter their door.

But for all he kept hidden inside, Angel still had a considerable impact on those around him. His manner was harsh and abrupt, not mincing words or wasting them. He spoke only when necessary, to the point, regardless of how or what he said might be taken. But it was his behavior, more than his conversation or lack of it that made people find themselves tiptoeing around him. He ignored people if they weren't important to his objective. His dark, brooding expression prohibited anyone from approaching. When they did dare, his eyes stared straight through them as if they didn't exist. The somber air quashed any attempts at lightness or humor around him.

Most of all though, it was the unavoidable feeling of suppressed power that emanated from him that caused people to steer clear. Like a sleek, dangerous cat, tensed and ready to strike, his movements were akin to a panther swiftly and gracefully stalking its prey. Holtz was one of the very few not intimidated by Liam Angelus. He knew the simmering rage always just below the surface of Angel's stony mask was directed inward. That fury though had been instrumental many times when a criminal had come face to face with him and wisely decided to back down.

His skills as an agent had been exemplary. His ability to be objective, to never personally involve himself in the task at hand had set him ahead of so many of his colleagues. Holtz had lost count of the number of times Angel had cracked a case, seemingly by instinct, that stymied men with much more experience and working knowledge than he possessed. Angel had found a career where his ability to disassociate himself from humanity proved a boon, rather than a hindrance.

If he lacked anything, it was finesse with the more social aspects that were needed on occasion in the field. Isolating himself for most of his life, he didn't understand, let alone see the necessity of polite mannerisms. He was at a distinct disadvantage when pressed into playing a part in any kind of social setting. Whenever possible those assignments were given to agents who could play the roles much more convincingly. But it was a negligible duty when compared to his other capabilities.

Just when Holtz feared that Angel had become nothing more than a cold automaton, he found himself reevaluating the young man yet again. In the course of his duties, it became apparent that Angel was an incredibly accomplished artist. He had a natural gift for drawing, often penciling a quick sketch, needing few strokes to show a clear likeness of a suspect or missing victim. His discovery of that creative sensitivity gave Holtz hope that Angel's savaged heart could yet be healed.

Liam Angelus had been promoted in a very short time due to his ruthless prowess in tracking and apprehending the subjects in any case assigned. As the head of the team, there wasn't a man in it who didn't owe him his life. He had saved quite a few outside of it as well. He might have appeared cold and uncaring, but he was known to never put anyone in jeopardy within his authority if there was an alternative. It was apparent that although his own life seemed to mean little to him, anyone else's was paramount.

Holtz frowned to himself thinking of the botched training exercise that had led to the revocation of Angel's field agent status. Losing him had been devastating to the team and the agency, not to mention what it had done to Angelus. He seemed to have folded in on himself, regressing even further into his own small lonely sphere of existence. Any gains he had made in his difficult life seemed lost, as if they'd never been. For the last two years he sat at a desk, his brilliant mind still clicking, making connections, but only in relation to his tedious, mundane tasks. He was little more than a robot, taking in facts and figures, processing them and spitting them back out as needed. The heart within, which had never shown itself very much since he was a boy, now seemed hidden from sight completely.


Chapter II

Spike burst out of the main doors of the building taking long, heated strides towards his car. He thrust his hand in his jeans' pocket digging for his keys. They slipped through his shaking fingers as he yanked them out only to have them fall to the ground. Angered even more by his lack of control, he reached down, yelling, "Fuck it!" Snatching the keys from the pavement, he swung around in one movement to kick an innocent litter can standing nearby, halfway off the sidewalk. He wrenched the car door open, then threw himself into the driver's seat. He jabbed the keys into the ignition, the car roaring to life. He needed a drink … badly!

He pulled his car over to the first bar he saw. Not the kind of dive he usually frequented, but as long as it had booze it would do. Leering at the 'Please Do Not Smoke' sign, he ordered a bottle of whiskey. He grabbed it along with the shot glass heading for the furthest, darkest corner of the smoking section he could find. He wasn't in the mood to be bothered with having his ass thrown out for not being politically correct. He just wanted to get drunk.

He twisted the cap off the bottle and took a long pull of the burning liquid, not bothering with the glass. Feeling it sear his insides straight to his belly, he slid back against the wall of the booth and swung his legs, knees up, in front of him. With the edge off, he took his time to fill the shot glass and knocked the welcome taste to the back of his throat once more. Waiting for the liquor to work its cheap magic, he shrugged back and closed his eyes.

He had been brutal with his father. He was beginning to regret it when he angrily caught himself. 'Not any more than he deserved,' he fumed. He tamped down that small part of him that was still troubled by the words he'd said and focused instead on the folder he found.

Angelus! It always came back to that fucker. Nothing had changed while Spike was gone. He hadn't really thought it would, but he hated it just the same. Spike endured a lifetime lost in that broken fuck's shadow. He shouldn't have been surprised to find his father was keeping track of everything the asshole did. He expected it really … but seeing it in black and white made him see red. He sneered at his own lame joke. He wanted Angelus to see red, blood red. He poured more whiskey into the shot glass. Fingering the smooth surface of it, he stared at its contents.

He never thought much about his sister Harmony, she had her own world. Harmony loved her friends and her clothes and herself and not much else if she wasn't the center of it. But Dru - she had enchanted him from the day she was born. Blonde and blue-eyed, just as he and Harmony, yet Dru was so very different from either of them. He tapped a cigarette out of the pack and lit it. Drawing deeply on it, he exhaled a harsh stream of smoke, then emptied the shot glass. She captured his heart from the first as he did hers.

He spent many a drunken, sleepless night wondering if she had known what was going to happen that day. It still cut to the bottom of his heart knowing that she cried for him and he wasn't there. If only he hadn't stopped to talk to one of his gang everything would have been different. He was just in time to see what was happening, but too late to prevent it. Spike's heart pounded even now at the thought of how he had run as fast as he could even though he had seemed to be moving so slowly. They disappeared around the corner and were gone. He pleaded with his father to let him help. Later he begged his father to take him along, but Holtz had yelled at him to stay home where he was. Tears filled his eyes and he blindly reached for the bottle, letting the fire course down his throat, almost choking on it.

Why hadn't he been there to save her? He would have given his life for her. But Angelus hadn't. No, he was found in one piece, hardly a scratch on him, a few bandages on his wrists. Spike's neglected cigarette burned his fingers. In a masochistic moment, he let it smolder against his flesh for several long moments before finally flicking it away. He welcomed the pain, wishing he could give that and more to the fuck who hadn't done everything he could have - should have - for his sister. Everything Spike would have done.

He took every opportunity to ensure Angelus knew exactly what he thought of him. Spike told the wimp that he would have taken care of Dru, if he had been with her. How dare Angelus return home alive while Dru's tiny, helpless body rotted in some dank casket. How dare he live when Dru could not. Spike jogged another cigarette out and stuck it between his lips. He flipped the top of his lighter open, rubbing the small wheel to ignite the flame, lifting it to the tip until it caught. He poured another finger of the amber fluid and swallowed, then chased it with a drag of smoke into his lungs.

Spike remembered watching Angelus on the rare days when Cordelia would drag him outside. He stayed close by her, his eyes never resting, hunting every corner of the yard. It made Spike's blood boil to see him. Angel could watch over his own sister, but not Dru. Spike hadn't been able to stop himself from screaming at Angelus, telling him he couldn't take care of Cordy any better. Cordy always yelled back, standing up for her brother. Angelus never defended himself, watching mutely as Cordelia raged. It made Spike hate him even more, looking at the coward, not even willing to defend himself.

His father had told him that Angel wasn't to blame, that it was his job as an agent that had placed Dru and Angel in jeopardy. Spike couldn't believe his father not only blamed himself but refused to admit whose fault it really was. His father - that was a joke. Holtz never cared about Spike. It was all about Angel - even when he fucked up for all the world to see, his father worried about him. Here he'd been gone for almost three years and Spike came back only to find Angelus was more important to his father than ever. If he wasn't then why did Holtz have a file on him thicker than his wrist? Because Angelus had another breakdown? Why was it that even when the asshole melted into yet another pile of jello he was still so important to Daniel Holtz?

One thing was clear though, Angelus was no longer an agent. He was no longer the all-powerful, all-knowing perfection Spike's father thought him to be. The only bad guys Angelus hunted down now, according to his father's file, were in books or on computer screens, not in the real world. Angelus had sunk so low, Holtz had him working right there in the same building. That was probably to keep an eye on him in case he went off again. And that thought alone gave Spike more satisfaction than he'd felt in a very long time. But it wasn't enough.

Spike had another drink and another cigarette. He kept thinking about Liam Angelus and still wanted to exact his own revenge, to make things 'even'. Spike was going to find a way. He checked his pack of cigarettes and settled back in, deep in thought, searching for a way to solve his problem.

The lone waitress made her way to Spike's booth. She had kept track of the duster- clad figure since he strode through the door. She would have been blind not to notice the piercing blue eyes and chiseled cheekbones below the sleek blonde hair. And the duster had unfurled enough to reveal a muscular chest and flat abs under his thin t- shirt. He certainly didn't look in the mood for company, but she knew the bottle had to get low sometime. He definitely was worth the trouble to get to know. She tried to time it when she figured it was almost gone.

After he ordered another bottle when she asked, she smiled seductively at him. "You sure there isn't something else you need?"

Spike looked up, not even realizing she hadn't left with the empty bottle. "No," he said caustically, "Not a thing."

Not one to give in easily, she tried once more. "Too bad. You look more interesting than the bunch from the complex who usually hang out here."

Spike looked more closely at her, suddenly interested in her subject. She was a little over five and a half feet tall, with dark eyes and dark honey blonde hair, falling long and straight down her back. "There's not much a crowd now. I imagine it gets packed on the weekend," he said, softening his reply.

"Fridays are the busiest," the girl answered quickly. She thought the speculative gleam in his eye was meant for her. She was confident of her looks and knew they appealed to men.

"I take it the people you mentioned give you even more work to do … ah …" leaving his sentence for her to fill in.

"Amy," she supplied, not missing how his eyes lingered longer and lower than they needed to as his gaze dropped below her face in search of a nametag. "And I can't complain. The tips are better."

"Amy," he said smoothly, "always liked that name. I'm Spike."

"Well, Spike, let me take this back and get you another one," Amy breathed coyly, making the invitation clear.

"No," he told her, eyeing the bottle, "I think I've changed my mind. I'm not thirsty anymore … at least not for that," he added provocatively. Giving her his most winning smile he added, "You wouldn't get in trouble if you joined me, would you?"

She turned and gave the large area a practiced sweep, focusing a little more attention on her boss behind the bar. He was sitting on his stool, raptly engrossed in the newspaper, not bothering to even look around. Amy knew he was probably checking his betting results. She and Spike were the only other occupants. "It's not like there's much going on at the moment," she finally told him and slid into the booth across from him, accepting his gestured offer.

"So are those the ones who leave you the extra tips?" he asked nonchalantly. "They must be pretty dry after a week of nose to the grind stone. But I bet you can keep up with who's who when the place fills up. You seem very … capable."

Amy never even picked up on his careful questioning, already thinking of what it would be like to be pressed closely against the body that sat opposite her. She knew he'd meant 'capable' in quite a different way. But she wanted to impress him with how well she knew her job and how she knew how to get what she wanted. She told him about the different people who gathered on Fridays, which ones drank and who lingered the longest, whom to look out for, tip-wise. It was as good a conversation as any, as long as he stayed there.


A week later, Buffy took a seat next to Willow. "He always sits there?" she asked.

Willow looked up across the lawn. It was a beautiful spring day and they were eating at a picnic table in the middle of a sea of green grass. Liam Angelus was eating by himself at a bench inside a small, dilapidated gazebo, a good distance away, near the edge of a wooded area.

"Yeah," Willow said her voice oddly sad, "that's his spot. A few of us have tried inviting him over, but he just acts like you're not there. Dr. Walsh and the other bigwigs are the only ones he ever acknowledges and sometimes he won't even speak to them."

"Sounds like a good way to get fired," Buffy said.

Willow laughed. "No way," she said. "He could show up at work naked and no one would say anything about it."

Buffy arched a speculative eyebrow at her co-worker and then stared across the lawn. Angel naked, now there was a strange idea. Given that their desks were situated on opposite sides of the room, both facing the wall, Buffy hadn't really gotten a very good look at her officemate, but what she saw wasn't hideous. He had brown eyes and hair and he was tall. He always dressed in faded, nondescript clothes. He usually lurked in the shadows or stayed on the fringe, rather than out in the open. He wasn't unattractive, from what she could see of him.

She sighed heavily. This was going to be more difficult than she had originally thought.


"Good morning, Angel," Buffy said as she sat the insulated mug of steaming hot coffee on her officemate's desk the next day. It was fresh and fragrant. Buffy wasn't a great coffee connoisseur, but when she indulged, she indulged in nothing but the best. Giles had made a special gift of the outrageously expensive coffeemaker. He was proud and a little bit in awe of Buffy's speed in matriculating so quickly and her excellent grades. It had been a long-standing joke between them of Giles preferring a good cup of English tea to Buffy's American need for coffee. The beans were fresh and at fifty-seven dollars a pound, the handpicked Blue Mountain Jamaican beans were as good as you could get. She ground them at home and used bottled water in her three-hundred-dollar coffeemaker from Williams and Sonoma.

It was a damn fine cup of coffee. Damn. Fine. As far as a first attempt at making peace, she thought it went above and beyond the normal call of duty.

He didn't touch it. Twenty minutes later, it was sitting in exactly the same position on his desk, obviously untouched.

In irritation, Buffy pushed herself up out of her chair and headed for the break room. If he didn't touch it, then he didn't touch it - but no one could say she hadn't tried. She was muttering to herself as she turned the corner into the cramped break room. Riley was standing at the sink, rinsing out his coffee mug when Buffy entered. They smiled and exchanged pleasantries. Riley was cute, but Buffy had a hard and fast rule about getting involved with her co-workers. It just wasn't a good idea. But as Riley bent over to get something out of the refrigerator, Buffy wondered if it was such a good thing to live by the rules. Riley might be a bit of a Gomer, but she couldn't deny that he had a very nice body.

She was saved from such a weighty decision by Anya's appearance. The young woman was blunt and tactless, but very amusing. Apparently she and Xander were a couple. Odd as it was, they seemed to go together well.


Angel stared down at the coffee. He was stunned. Buffy had brought him coffee. And from the aroma, not the kind you bought in a convenience store. Why? No one had ever given him something without a reason attached to it. What did she expect him to do? Besides drink it, that is. She must have made it for him. He couldn't remember anyone ever doing something like that - not just for him. She didn't seem the type to have ulterior motives. She was too sunny and open for subterfuge. Prattling on at times, she would act as though they were having a conversation. Until those few times she left the office, he wasn't aware how much he liked hearing the sound of her voice. Her absence made the office feel oddly vacant. He liked what she had done, even if he didn't know why. It made him feel … well … he liked it. He wasn't willing to examine it any more closely than that. He knew he should say something, but he still couldn't bring himself to talk to her.

He didn't know about women and how they thought. It wasn't that he was celibate, far from it. But women had always made the initial contact with him. He had never needed to seek them out. Being a healthy, virile male, he had needs and felt no remorse appeasing them. He had never taken advantage of a woman, had always tried to make any encounter mutually satisfying. But, that's where it ended. There had never been any long talks or even much idle chatter. He'd never had feelings for any of them, or even contemplated a relationship. And though a few wanted more, his cold, unemotional demeanor kept them from trying after one or two futile attempts.

After she left the room, he finally took a sip of the coffee. It was delicious, the taste even better than the smell. He sighed inwardly. He would have to thank her, it would be rude if he didn't. It didn't seem to occur to him that he'd been rude to her all along. Or that he thought about her, unlike any of her predecessors.


Buffy was still at her desk working when Angel neatly gathered his things and put them in his ever-organized briefcase. She wasn't good at spreading her work out evenly over her day. She was more prone to goof off all morning and then stay until seven finishing up a project. Angel never seemed to have that problem.

Squinting over her laptop, Buffy jumped when Angel set the mug down on her desk, neatly washed. "Thank you," he said.

Buffy was so stunned that by the time she gathered her wits enough to turn around, he was already rounding the corner. Buffy smiled and leaned back in her chair. "Maybe we are making some progress," she said to the empty room.


"Good morning, Angel," she said out of habit the next morning as she set another mug of coffee on his desk.

"Good morning, Buffy," he replied.

She stopped in the middle of opening her satchel and removing her laptop. Slowly she turned. He was facing away from her as usual, nothing out of the ordinary. But he had spoken. She knew he had.

Or maybe she was just going nuts.

Cautiously, she sat down at her desk, waiting to see if he would say something else. He didn't, but he did pick up the coffee mug and take a drink. Slowly, Buffy turned her chair around and flipped on her laptop.

Curiouser and curiouser.


It wasn't the strong, pungent aroma of the coffee that he smelled. It was the soft, sweet fragrance of vanilla. He drank the coffee, savoring it, as he pictured a pair of small, deft hands carefully preparing the ambrosial liquid. Just for him. His palette registered at some level - and he knew his coffee - this was the best he had ever tasted. Damn. Fine. Not connecting that the flavor was deliciously enhanced by his current musings of the maker. The vanilla made it all that much sweeter.

He still didn't understand why she was doing this, but he had to thank her. After all, she'd gone to all that trouble. Besides, it couldn't have hurt to tell her 'good morning' … it was only polite. They did have to share an office.


Willow made a visit to Buffy and Angel's office to ask Buffy to go to the local pub where everyone met on Friday nights. Her friend insisted that since Buffy was settled in her apartment she should join the crowd for their once a week get-together.

Angel had moved from his desk to a file cabinet in the furthest corner of the room the minute Willow entered the door. Willow saw Angelus was keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the contents of the file that he pulled out of a drawer. But she noticed that for all his concentration, he turned his head to catch Buffy's reply to the redhead's invitation. Willow cautiously covered the few steps to where he stood. She saw his eyes flit around the room as if preparing an escape. Asking softly if he'd if he'd like to join them, she jumped back slightly as Angel gave her an emphatic, implacable, "No," brusquely pushing past her. He strode across the room, through the door, and vanished down the hall, leaving both women looking after him.


Angel watched as Buffy left the office Friday, sighing as he saw her figure disappear from sight. He knew she was keeping her date with Willow to meet the others at the pub. He had no interest in seeing his non-Buffy co-workers after hours. But he felt a strange twinge of jealousy that Buffy would be there laughing and talking with them. It was one of the few times in his life he could remember wanting to spend time with someone. He didn't know what he'd say even if they did happen to end up together somehow.

He also didn't know what it was that made her keep popping up in his thoughts. But, there she would appear at the oddest moments. It wasn't like they even talked with one another, unless you counted Buffy's running conversations with her computer or the air around her as talking. Since she had started working in the office with him, when the weekends came they seemed interminably long. He found himself waiting for them to be over, happy as few people were, when Monday finally arrived.


Buffy smiled as she took a seat at the crowded table. As Xander had said, the co- workers in the group were close friends. It was apparently a payday night ritual to meet at one of the local bars and have a few rounds. Not shockingly, Liam Angelus was nowhere to be seen.

"Buffy, you know Tara," Willow said, nodding to Tara beside her.

"Tara, nice to see you again," she smiled. Buffy had met Tara when she and Willow helped Buffy move her things into her new apartment and had seen her briefly a few times since then. She was still getting used to Will's rather abrupt lifestyle change. Tara looked at her shyly and stuttered self-consciously, "Buffy, it's g-good to s-see you too." Apparently it hadn't been any easier for Tara.

In addition to Willow and Tara from Forensics, Xander, Anya and Riley were present from the Analysis department. Several field agents were also in attendance. Buffy smiled and nodded as she was introduced to Lindsey McDonald, Faith Knight and Kate Lockley.

Everyone was sprawled languidly over their chairs, watching the first drops of rain start to plop against the front windows. "Oh, look! Would you believe it? It's raining," Faith muttered mockingly. The commonplace streaks of lightening and accompanying booms of thunder soon followed her words.

Xander sighed deeply, "And that would be new, how?"

The unusual storms had initially been an oddity, a freak occurrence that had been the talk of the town. An astute weatherman on one of the national weather stations had been quick to find a pattern. He reveled in the strange almost affectionate fixation about statistics he and others of his ilk always demonstrated. With a triumphant smirk he had been the first to announce the phenomena of this particular weather system.

Exactly one hundred years before, in 1903 the area experienced an almost identical pattern of thunderstorms. They started on almost the same day and month as the previous century. The lightening and thunder from the first storms had been both mild and occasional. But they had, over time, gained in intensity and frequency. According to the national icon, the number, dates and even the manner of the storms matched its predecessor in an eerie parallel.

The storm cycle, officially called, 'The Anniversary Storms', was quickly dubbed the 'Annies'. Unlike their sister hurricanes, each progressive storm was referred to singularly as 'Annie'.

But what had been a novelty of sorts had quickly become a continuing annoyance. The intemperate weather forced people to stay indoors and contract severe cases of cabin fever. Those that wouldn't or couldn't stay in were overly tired of enduring the constant rain and damp. The dull pounding of thunder that followed the supercharged bolts of energy increasingly affected everyone's mood.

Willy flicked the dial of the TV over the bar. The face of 'Mr. Weather', as he was fondly referred to by his associates and audience, loomed into view. He was just starting his daily talk on that same miserable topic. He warned that the pattern wasn't likely to improve. In fact he smilingly intimated that it would indeed get a lot worse with no end in sight.

Everyone at the table simultaneously groaned, then laughed as Xander took his shoe off. He waved it at Willy, threatening to put said shoe in Mr. Weather's mouth if Willy wasn't quick enough to change the channel.

Riley looked at those seated, his gaze touching on Buffy speculatively and continuing to visually peruse the whole bar. "Well, guess it's a good thing Psycho has never bothered to join us or he'd probably be hiding under the table right now," he sneered as he lifted his shot glass and tossed the contents back in one motion.

A few of those around him snickered at his remark. Buffy noticed that Lindsey, Willow and Tara remained silent.

Xander threw back his shot and then shook his head as the alcohol burned its way down his throat. "Yeah," he said, "poor Buffster got stuck with him - king of the rejects. That guy is a freak with a capitol freak."

Faith clapped Buffy on the back. "My deepest sympathy, girlfriend," she said.

Buffy smiled uneasily. "He's a little different," she said, feeling an odd mix of annoyance at their remarks and loyalty to her officemate. The euphemism 'kicking a dog when he's down' came to mind.

"Different?" Riley asked incredulously. "Angelus is as strange as they come."

"You know it," Xander replied with a laugh.

Buffy frowned at their brutal barbs but knew they were rooted in truth. The storms had a profound effect on Liam Angelus. His usually quiet, introverted veneer failed to hide an agitation verging on panic whenever the dark clouds gathered. Clutching his papers, he would stalk back and forth, like a cat. She half expected to see his tail twitch. She glimpsed the tiny muscles in his jaw tighten as he clenched his teeth at the sound of a lightening bolt hitting its mark. Unbeknownst to him, she could feel the waves of anguish and fear roll off him the longer a storm lasted. He was a large, powerful man so maybe it should have scared her, but it didn't. Instead she felt an almost irresistible urge to wrap her arms around him, as she would the frightened creature he reminded her of being.

"You know him?" Buffy asked Faith, ignoring the laughter.

Faith didn't seem to hear the question, but Lindsey did. He smiled at Buffy and then leaned in closer, "Angelus used to do field work," he said, keeping his voice low.

Buffy had the impression that Lindsey did not share the others' opinion of Liam Angelus. For some reason, this made her think more highly of the attractive young man. "What happened?" she asked.

Lindsey smiled and she could almost hear the wheels turning in his head. She had the impression that he was attempting to discern whether or not she could be trusted. After a few moments he shrugged. "He got messed up pretty badly some time ago and the brass stuck him in your department," Lindsey explained. He took a sip of his beer and his mouth curved into a wry grin that didn't reach his eyes. "Angelus is a class A oddball, but he's also one of the smartest son of a bitches I've ever known. He was a damn fine field agent. It's sad to see how far he's fallen."

Buffy had thought they were just talking about the storms' effect on Angelus. Lindsey's remarks only piqued her curiosity even more about her strange, silent office companion.


Spike looked around Willy's bar thinking that even the worst establishments this side of the border beat what were considered the better cantinas in Mexico. He'd had plenty of time to compare. Too much. Not that he had cared to go there in the first place, but there hadn't been a lot of options at the time. Spike had always been good at taking care of number one, his downfall was that number two, three and four didn't have enough brains to add up to one person. The 'gang' he had been the leader of was more like a band that couldn't carry a tune. Their last brush with the law had left his dubious companions in a cell and Spike slipping out of the country before any of them had time to 'help' the police find him. Finally, after three years, he had taken the chance that it was safe enough to come back.

Lounging in his usual seat, Spike had a fine view of all who came in and out of the bar. Since he was in the smoking section he was all but invisible to the band of workers who tripped through the door shortly after five o'clock. They had all ordered something from the small grill, then washed it down with beer.

Spike had made it a habit in the few days since he'd met Amy to visit where she worked. He'd made his visits to Amy's apartment a habit as well, smirking at the thought. Didn't they say nothing like mixing business with pleasure? Not that he was getting paid, with money anyway, he thought. No, this was something far more important to him, as few things were. He had a front row seat to the people who worked with Angelus on a daily basis. There had to be someone or something useful to use against Angelus in the bunch.

He could tell which ones were field agents. He was familiar with the behavior of his father and his associates the rare times he'd seen them. He recognized it here too. A certain way of looking about them, a wariness or vigilance, not apparent in what he presumed to be common office staff. But that's what Angelus was now, he snorted as he lifted his mug of beer. A goddamn desk jockey. He took a long draught and leaned back, still smiling at the picture it created. Angelus always had his nose in a book, but even he must think what he did now was a far cry from what he used to do. Spike hoped he hated having his wings clipped and being caged in one place all day.

He studied the group before him more closely, starting with those he'd singled out as agents. A blonde and a brunette, both very easy on the eyes, and a dark-haired man who carried an air of quiet authority. One other he wasn't sure about, a large, tall country boy who was wasting no time helping the whiskey disappear. Spike raised his glass once more, draining it. That left three women and one other man. He saw the man remove his shoe, getting a scattered laugh from those around him as he waved it at the bartender. The redhead and the taller girl with dirty blonde hair who sat close her appeared to be a couple. The last was also a blonde, very small and very delicious. He smacked his lips in approval. She looked good enough to eat.

He gathered from her slight awkwardness that the vivacious little figure was new to the group. Amy hadn't mentioned her. He wasn't sure if that was because Amy hadn't seen her or chose to ignore she existed. Spike could see how it could be the latter. Amy wouldn't cotton to competition. He noticed Captain Cornbread was more than a bit interested in the young thing and could understand why he would be. Spike frowned while watching the slender girl from his safe little nook. If he wasn't using Amy and her job at the bar to scout out Angelus' playmates and if the little blonde weren't one of them, he'd be tempted to take a shot himself. He was still looking at her when Amy came back with a fresh beer, barely averting his eyes before she caught him. It wouldn't do, he thought, to bite the hand serving his purpose and his drink, not for now anyway.


"Good evening, I didn't know if I would catch you at home or not."

Buffy smiled, sinking down onto her couch as she tucked her legs under her body, the receiver held tightly in her hand. "Hi, Giles," she said gently. Even though Giles had been married to her mother and Buffy had known him for a total of ten years, she still called him Giles. Rupert just didn't sound right and neither did 'Dad', regardless of the fact that she personally considered him her father. With the pressure of a new job, apartment, and city, Buffy hadn't spoken to her stepfather as much as she would have liked. It was a great comfort to hear his voice.

Even though Buffy was already fifteen when they moved, Sunnydale had always been 'home'. Her mother and father had gone through a bitter divorce. Joyce had taken the money left by her mother, who had died a year prior to that, and moved her daughters to the small town to start over. She had invested in a small art gallery to support them.

The move had been difficult on them, but Buffy most of all. She blamed herself for her parents' divorce. But she hadn't been altogether unhappy with living somewhere else. Her parents hadn't been the only ones having problems and she was happy to leave some of hers behind.

"Buffy?" the voice with a strong British accent queried, pulling her back from her ruminations.

"I'm here," she said, "just thinking."

Giles made a sound of agreement, but didn't pry into her internal monologue. He knew that Buffy kept a lot of things to herself, not wanting to burden those she loved with turmoil.

"I had a message from Dawn the other day, but I haven't been able to catch up with her. Have you talked to her lately?" Buffy asked.

"I have," Giles replied, letting her change the subject. "She's doing well. She's fairly certain she'll make the Dean's List this semester."

"Dawn on the Dean's List?" Buffy chuckled. "That's great. Mom would have been so proud."

"Indeed, she would have," Giles noted with a hint of sadness. Joyce had died suddenly of an aneurysm four years after they were married. They had been very happy years and Giles refused to become maudlin about something he had never expected to even happen in his life. He was content to have had what he did. Even without Joyce, he still had a family. He was so thankful for his girls, even if he didn't get to see them often.

Dawn was away at college and Giles was alone in the house, except for visits from his stepdaughters. The thought troubled Buffy. He and her mother had seemed so happy together, she hated to see him by himself.

After their mother's death, Giles assumed the role of single parent without comment. He considered both girls as his own daughters. The small gallery had been successful and the sale of it made enough to pay off the house and ensure both Buffy and Dawn would be able to finish college. There was still enough left over to save for emergencies.

"How are things with you, Buffy?" he asked. "I assume Willow is helping you settle in."

"Oh yeah," Buffy assured him, "she rolled out the welcome wagon big time."

"And work?"

"Work is good. It's interesting. Still trying to get a bead on all the different personalities there, but it proves to be not boring."

"I'm glad to hear it," he said quietly.

"What about you, Giles?" she asked. "What are you up to these days?"

"Oh, you know," he said blandly, "life in Sunnydale trudges onward."

Buffy took a deep breath. "Anyone ... special?" she ventured. She hated to feel like she was disrespecting her mother's memory, but Giles deserved to be happy, not alone, nursing a broken heart.

"I … uh," he stammered before falling silent.

"Giles?" she prompted.

"Ms. Calendar and I are going to a monster truck rally on Friday," he admitted.

"Monster trucks?" she gaped.

He laughed. "And nitro burning funny cars."

Buffy laughed and slowly sobered. "I hope you two have a good time," she said, not wanting to pry too deeply.

"Thank you, Buffy," he said gratefully.


Chapter III

Buffy stared down at the little insulated cooler that held her lunch. She had never really been a sack lunch kind of girl, but springing for the car right after graduation left her in a financial lurch. It wasn't new, but it was new enough. Even a used BMW was really pricey. So sack lunches it was. Luckily for her, most of the Analysis department brought lunches as well. Their offices were in a fairly rural area. There weren't a lot of restaurants nearby.

Usually, Buffy sat at a big table on the lawn with Xander, Anya, Willow, Riley and assorted other people who worked in the building. But this day, she walked past her usual spot, as she headed for the small gazebo. The others stared at her as she strolled by, but nobody said anything.

Her eyes scanned the horizon and she was afraid it might rain. Tossing her hair over her shoulder, she figured the gazebo would be a shelter of sorts if it did. She had a passing thought about what storms did to Angel, but she was determined now that she was almost there.

In actuality, it was nowhere near as uncomfortable as she had been imagining. By this time she had nearly six weeks of practice in sharing space with Angel, hardly acknowledging each other. The only difference here was that instead of having their backs to each other, they were face to face - or would have been if Angel would have looked up from the book he was reading. He didn't. Buffy looked at the pages of the book. It was hard to tell upside down, but she was fairly certain it wasn't written in English.

Angel also checked the clouds overhead when he came outside. The sky had been overcast for the last couple of days, making the landscape bleak and drab. It hadn't rained though. But as he looked up from his book, he felt the faint electrical charge in the air that precedes a storm. He shivered at the feeling and had just thought to leave … when he saw Buffy approaching the gazebo. She was unaware of his perusal and he turned his eyes back down to the book. Knowing the storm was near made him jumpy, but he couldn't move once he saw her obvious steps in his direction.

Buffy sat down and openly scrutinized the food on the table in front of Angel. She wasn't exactly sure what it was, but it looked suspiciously like tofu. She grimaced and opened her cooler, removing a bag of potato chips and a soda.

"That stuff will kill you," he told her, without raising his head, eyes still trained on the page before him.

Buffy looked at him for several moments. He was bent over so far all she could really see was the top of his head. "Life's short," she replied, trying to keep her voice light. She had the strangest sensation that she was trying to befriend a wild animal. Okay, bad metaphor, not wild ... abused maybe, hurt, scared. One of those dogs at the pound that had been kicked so much it bites anyone who tries to come near it and has to be put down. That was Angel.

Slowly, he closed his book and lifted his head to meet her gaze. Buffy couldn't breathe. She stared at him dumbly. Angel. Her Angel. The weirdo she shared her office with day after day was ... absolutely fucking gorgeous. She swallowed audibly. What on earth ever prompted her to use a dog metaphor to describe any part of him? It was a definite case of the total package being more than the sum of the component parts. She'd seen him before. She looked at him in profile every day. She knew what color his hair and eyes were. She knew roughly how tall he was. But damn, looking at him - no that wasn't right - being looked at by him was ... bracing.

"Why are you doing this?" he asked.

She blinked several times before she realized he expected an answer. An evil little part of her was tempted not to reply simply to get revenge, but instead she said, "Doing what?"

"Talking to me," he said suspiciously. "The coffee, now this. Why?"

Buffy shrugged and then frowned. "How did you know it was me?" she asked, changing the subject.

"What do you mean?"

"Like when I sat down," she said, "or when I left the coffee on your desk. You never look up, you definitely never look at me. How did you know it was me?"

He stared at her for several heartbeats, then said the first thing that came to mind when he thought of her. "You smell like vanilla," he said quietly.

Buffy blinked at him and a look of incredulity stole over her features. "What?" she asked.

Buffy caught his movement. With anyone else, Buffy would have said it was nervousness, but with Angel she just didn't know.

"You smell like vanilla," he said more seriously, like it was a valid explanation. "I always know when you're around."

Buffy's frown deepened. "You ... smell ... people?" she asked.

He pursed his lips together momentarily. "I do not smell people," he said almost defensively. "I know people think I'm strange, but I do not go around sniffing my co-workers. Certain people have certain scents. Willow Rosenberg smells like patchouli and incense, Anya Emmerson smells like All- Purpose Cheer on Monday and money the rest of the week, Xander Harris smells like cabbage unless it rains and then he smells like fabric softener and Riley Finn smells like gym socks and Old Spice all the time. People have scents. I notice them. You, Buffy Summers, happen to smell like vanilla."

Slowly, a smile crept over Buffy's features. "And here I thought you weren't paying attention," she said.

"Just because I don't chatter does not mean that I am not paying attention," he said.

Buffy sat up straighter, narrowing her eyes at Angel. "So you think I chatter?" she asked.

"You do seem fond of talking," he replied.

Buffy sighed and relaxed her posture. She had enough experience with brainy males to know that he probably didn't even realize he had just insulted her. As far as he was concerned, he was simply stating a fact.

Angel suddenly stilled, hearing a low, deep growl of thunder, like a hunter after its prey. The too familiar feeling of desperation slithered down his spine. He lifted his head and looked through the archway, towards the trees on the edge of the grass, smelling the rain before it fell.

Buffy frowned, oblivious to the thunder or his growing turmoil, her eyes and mind focused on his hands that were still clasped over the closed book. She saw faint scars circling both of his wrists just visible past the cuffs of his shirt. The marks looked old, faded, but still raw somehow. She hated to think of him hurt by the wounds that must have made them. She didn't even think, but reached a slender finger towards one of the scars, "Angel, your wrists …"

An unexpected bolt of white-hot light illuminated the woods as the earth shook from the responding crack nearby. Dark terror flooded him, Angel's eyes skittered wildly, then fell upon the blonde head and the small hand moving towards his arm.

Buffy raised her head at the crackle of thunder and was struck by twin wells of raging, agonizing pain. Her stomach clenched with a sick feeling of dιjΰ vu.

Angel arched away from the table, wrenching his arms and hands from her. His powerful body was caught in an unseen tension, muscles corded on his neck, his eyes sparking dangerously. "Don't!" he snapped. "You don't know anything about me. And you don't want to!" Turning, he stalked away across the grass in a swift, forbidding motion as though the further the distance he gained from her the better.

She sat there, stunned, watching his rapidly retreating figure disappear from sight. She felt the wind and rain as it snaked through the tired boards of the little structure. Numbly trying to work through both Angel's scars and his violent departure, she heard his words ringing in her ears. The rain began coming down in sheets, highlighted by more flashes of lightening. Buffy didn't even notice. She made no move to leave. She looked like a water-colored still, painted behind the rain, vacantly staring at the spot of her last glimpse of Angel.


Angel made it to the building before the clouds opened and rain started pouring down in buckets. As he stumbled blindly into the office he slammed the door, pushing his back hard against it. The knuckles on his hand turned white as he gripped the handle. His broad shoulders pinned against the door, he worked to calm himself. After rapidly sucking air into his lungs he forced himself to breathe at a measured rate, feeling the erratic beat in his chest finally slow. He resisted the urge to slide down to the floor, instead thrusting a hand in his pocket, crossing to his desk.

Using a key, he opened the drawer to grab the bottle of pills. Much as he hated them, he fished one out and gulped it down with the cold coffee left from that morning.

He spent what was left of his lunchtime hunched on the floor of the office supply room. There were no windows there, but he could still hear the rain. That and the damn thunder. He rubbed his large hands over his face, then up and down his arms warding off a chill he felt more inside than out. The room was rarely used and no bigger than a closet. It was big enough to encompass brooding. He had sought it out as a sanctuary more than once. Today he really needed one, then grimaced at the thought. Drawing his knees to his chest, he threw his head back to rest against the faded green wall.

Angel was a painfully private person, not that he harbored any illusions that anyone gave a damn about him or his thoughts. His lips curled in a rueful smile, thinking of one exception - Cordy. His sister got as close as anyone could, not that she'd ever given him any choice. But even she didn't know all of what he kept hidden from everyone. He was well aware of how he was regarded by his fellow co-workers, especially since what was commonly referred to as the 'incident'.

He had always been a loner, never fitting in anywhere or with anyone, never bothering to even try. Before the said 'incident' he at least had gained respect for his work, admiration for his effectiveness. Not that he was concerned how others viewed him, but it gave him a modicum of satisfaction that what he did was of value, that he served a purpose.

His eyes swept the dusty, gray shelving units bolted against the wall in front of him. The only illumination was provided by the single, naked bulb that hung by its cord from the ceiling. Sighing deeply, he stared at the mundane stacks and boxes of supplies without really seeing them.

Since he had returned to the Bureau, Angel questioned how much of an asset he really was. But he needed the job - needed his time and mind occupied. It hadn't been easy returning to a desk job, instead of the fieldwork to which he was accustomed. Working as an agent hadn't limited him to the confines of a set time and place. Although he was highly organized and disciplined by nature, it had been an effort to adjust to the static environment of four walls and a nine to five schedule. He couldn't deny he missed the freedom his former duties had afforded him.

Dealing with the constant scrutiny of the same set of people day after day was even more difficult. It had died down now to a low murmur, but he had borne the whispered comments and subtle innuendoes he wasn't supposed to hear. He had grown used to the furtive glances or pairs of eyes suddenly turning away whenever he traversed the halls of the building. He kept such journeys short, made only out of necessity. The atmosphere of the break room had been the worst to endure, but the novelty of his frequent visits there to get coffee had, thankfully, worn off.

He wasn't very successful at trying to hide how the freak weather system affected him. When he heard the thunder, he stayed in the office even more than before. Pacing restlessly over the tiles from one end of the room to the other and drinking even more coffee, which helped him even less. There were some instances though when he had no choice but to interact with people. He was forced into either braving the break room or explaining a detailed analytical report to a bunch of people who couldn't follow his logic without a wipe board and a calculator. He could feel the wave of speculation that rippled through the ranks making him even more disquieted.

For the most part, his days finally rutted into an accepted routine. He did his work, drank coffee, ate lunch, did more work with more coffee, and went home. He existed - even less than he had before.

Then Buffy appeared and she changed everything.

Shifting his large frame on the cement floor, he tried to find a more comfortable position, still gazing blindly at the dingy walls. His fingers traced a fierce, steady path up and down the side of his leg.

Angel was furious that he'd come apart in front of Buffy and then shouted at her. 'Fucking storm!' He grabbed the closest thing on a shelf within his reach, a box of markers, and slammed them against the opposite wall. They made an unsatisfying clatter as they hit the floor.

He was sick with self-loathing for losing his temper with her. If it had been anyone else he could have dealt with it. He didn't care about anyone else, their reaction wouldn't have mattered. But Buffy wasn't just anyone. Buffy mattered. He saw the sting from his quicksilver retaliation strike her before he stamped off and left her sitting there. And it was tearing him apart that he cared - deeply. He cared what she thought and he had pushed her away. He never meant to hurt her but he did.

Buffy provoked too many emotions for him to deal with at one time. He was well aware she had no clue as to his reactions to her. He didn't know how to handle these new feelings washing through him like opposing currents.

He had been with many women in his years, yet none of them had done anymore for him than satisfy basic physical urges. They were never capable of offering any respite from the shadows of his past. Blondes specifically he avoided - they brought his past hurtling back. An icy trickle ran through him at a nightmarish apparition. Since being released from the hospital two years before, he'd stopped sleeping with women altogether, building his walls even higher.

But Buffy softly shook him. Nothing in his experience had prepared him for someone like her. He found himself passing long moments lingering in his thoughts of her. His body warmed in reflex, melting the momentary chill. For the first time - not the first time he could remember ... He always remembered. It was forgetting he could never do. For the first time - she made him forget. It took only a trace of her scent, something that was so uniquely 'Buffy', to trigger pictures in his mind. Laughing, talking, walking - it didn't matter the picture if she was in it. Visions of her didn't blot out the grim, dark images that haunted him. She obliterated them.

From their first encounter his response to her had been immediate and intense - so sudden it seemed obsessive. But how she made him feel offered such a welcome reprieve. He didn't know. It didn't feel 'wrong'. What it felt like was soothing relief. Like a soft flow of energy she gently moved through him. It was an inexplicable sensation.

He heard her earlier when she approached the gazebo, but pretended to keep reading his book. He was inordinately pleased that Buffy sought out his company, yet ill at ease being that close to her outside of their work area. The office was a kind of safety zone where they each had their own space. This was the first time they were actually face to face for more than moments - and at such a small distance apart. It wrought a devastating effect to feel her that near. She staggered his senses.

In her presence Angel caught himself mesmerized by the glint of sunlight on her hair and drawn into eyes that were ever changing in color and intensity. Hearing her voice, a soft, soothing cadence or clear ringing tone. Her motions revealed a sure, innocent yet sensual grace. She held a brightness that seemed to radiate from within, as if she had her own power source, something acutely lacking in the dark passages of his mind. Her proximity set off an unaccustomed rush of heated desire that coursed through his being. It was the only thing that had ever contended with the ever-present cold.

Not knowing how to act with Buffy, he felt stiff … awkward … and more than a little afraid. The sound of the approaching rain and rumbling thunder in the background forced him further into his protective shell. Somehow, Angel knew it wasn't pity that prompted her to choose his company. He thought it might be kindness, a desire to include him in her world. And what was his response? Sniping at her as though he mistrusted her, spoiling her simple act of camaraderie. Then he had exploded when she had shown genuine concern for him. She saw his scars. Scars much more than skin deep. They reached down to wounds that had never healed. Vivid reminders dragging him back to a past he could never seem to move beyond.

Mentally kicking himself for the hurt he had put in her eyes, Angel wished he could take back the moment. He needed a second chance to make it right. Raising his fist in frustration towards the wall next to him, he stopped. His eyes focused on the jagged cut across his knuckles. It was healed now, leaving behind yet another scar. One more sign of the isolation that held him hostage. Tighter than the ropes that had left those faded marks on his wrists, etched ever so much more deeply into his soul. Another reminder of the loss of an innocence barely acknowledged a shattered lifetime ago.

Angel turned his eyes away to visually scale the walls and ceiling, absently noting a spider busily building a web in a far corner. He exhaled a long breath. Lifting the now healed hand to his head, he dragged slightly trembling fingers through his hair. He stretched his long, cramped legs out on the cold floor with a subtly catlike grace.

He thought of Buffy's first day at work. He had been trying to pull himself together … again … from the violent storm, which had started the night before and still raged on through the morning. He had been aware of the voices, of someone coming in the room. He continued to concentrate on his work, something that usually helped distract him. Unconsciously filtering out the single voice that stayed behind, he compared the letters of the words in the documents before him. He never bothered with whomever they left at the other desk in the room, unless their work affected his own.

A slight movement in the corner of his eye had caught his attention. He turned straight into a hazel gaze, which rested on his face for only a moment before traveling to the bandages on his hand. The rest of her small blonde figure filtered into focus. He watched her study the strips of gauze. Flinching, he pulled back as though she had touched him. Her eyes widened with the realization that she was staring, then fell away as a deep rose color suddenly flushed her cheeks. Without a word she turned and walked away.

She caught him completely off guard. An echo of her presence lingered long after she left the room. He wondered for a moment if she actually had touched him. The fact that she was beautiful hadn't been lost on him, but that wasn't what startled him in the brief exchange. In that quick glance at her, he sensed her re-wrapping the bandages in her mind. He could almost feel her fingers on his hand, oddly warm and familiar, as if she knew him intimately. He had snorted, dissolving the ridiculous daydream. Maybe it was the pill he had grudgingly taken once he arrived at work, to replace the one he had thrown away in anger. He had immersed himself in his work, then put it out of his mind.

In reflection Angel realized that sensation of familiarity remained. A comforting calm that enveloped him like a warm blanket. He felt it whenever she was near. He vaguely owed it to sharing office space with her, not consciously giving it room in his thoughts. But now, he did wonder about it, which led him to contemplate what it would be like to be loved by someone like her.

That immediately stopped him as he questioned where that kind of thought had originated. He'd never thought until that very moment about love, didn't even have a concept of what it was supposed to be. He instantly rejected even the possibility of anyone being able to like, let alone feel something stronger for him. Who'd want the ruined remains of something like him?

Tracking the progress of the spider he watched it slowly move outside the circle of light. Its legs carried it back and forth, again and again, from one wall to the other as it spun its silken web.

"Love," Angel whispered. He turned the word over in his mind as if it were something tangible that could take form and be examined. He wanted Buffy. A blaze of heat sweep through him at the thought. He ached for her so badly it shamed him with its intensity. But, though it was a part of the puzzle, a big piece, it wasn't the major one. He wanted so much more of her than that. He didn't know her that well, but he wanted to know all of her. To know her inside and out with the same degree of passion that he wanted to make love to her. Love. There it was again. What did he know about 'making love'? He only knew what having sex was like, feeling flesh and pleasure, trying to fill a void. Sex had served its basic purpose, satisfied his carnal needs, but it had always been empty. Buffy filled him and she hadn't so much as laid a finger on him. Was that love? He sneered inwardly at himself. Even if there were something there, what did he have to offer her or anyone? He sighed once more in frustration, thinking how difficult everything seemed to be.

He finally stood up, brushing the dust off the back of his pants, spying the pink and yellow pens in the corner under their overturned box. He stopped long enough to gather the markers strewn across the floor, replacing them neatly in their cardboard home and back on a shelf. Shoving a hand in his pocket, he took the few steps needed to reach the door, turning the knob with his other hand. Taking one last glance at the room, he left, closing the door behind him.

Whatever his mixed feelings were for Buffy, he knew he owed her an apology. A way to express his remorse for his outburst, for pushing away the tentative gesture she had offered. He could never hope to become closer to her, as his mind and body were increasingly yearning and demanding, however undeserving. But he couldn't leave things as they were, letting her think she was at fault for simply reaching out.


When he got back to the office Angel felt more than a small amount of trepidation. He didn't know how he could face Buffy after what had happened. The papers for the project he had been working on were lined up in neat, exact rows on the top of his desk. But he didn't even pretend to look at them. He couldn't focus on anything. The stricken look on her small upturned face kept materializing in front of him. He didn't even realize he was pacing, his soft, steady tread, marking a measured rhythm. The floorboards under the tiles creaked with his constant trips to nowhere and back. With each pass he would glance at the door expectantly, but there was no Buffy to be seen.

As the time grew longer he started to get worried when she didn't appear. Grimacing, he heard the rain still beating on the tiny windows above. All he could think of was how he had deserted her in the gazebo. He'd been so engrossed in thinking about himself, it never occurred to him what she had done, left there in the pouring rain. Cursing himself under his breath, his feet continued to travel their now accustomed path.

He finally couldn't stand it any longer and moved with an unknowingly predatory stride down the hall towards the outside door. Before he reached it, the clerk who had brought Buffy to the office the day she began, caught Angel's eye.

He almost growled, blocking the man's way, "You know Buffy Summers. Where is she?!"

The startled little man stuttered, "I-I heard her talking to Willow. She said she was going home."

"How was she? Was she all right?" Angel pressed, looming threateningly as the smaller man unconsciously backed himself up against the wall.

The clerk gave him a wary look and told him, haltingly, "She looked like she was soaking wet. I guess she got caught in the rain and went home to change." Tossing one last cautionary glance at Angel, he slid by him, newly intent on his interrupted errand.

Angel hadn't thought he could feel worse until he heard that. The wave of guilt was almost overpowering. Walking back to their room with a stilted gait, he envisioned Buffy drenched and shivering before him. He fought an overwhelming urge to find her and see with his own eyes that she was all right. But he didn't have any idea where she lived and with the last memory of her, burning a hole in his mind, he knew she wouldn't be able to stand the sight of him. He couldn't sit, couldn't stand still and once again prowled the circuit he had already covered numerous times. His hands were crossed on either arm, moving up and down in time with his fluent step. He spent what was left of the day in much the same manner, finally leaving the office, but not his thoughts.

Another `Annie' had moved in during the evening. Angel was so involved in the suffering he imagined he had inflicted on Buffy, he barely noticed it. And strangely, throughout all of the day and night, not once did his agitated ruminations turn to their usual preoccupation. Not once did the image of another rain-sodden, blonde-haired girl enter his mind.


Buffy wasn't a broody person by nature. She was cheerful and happy as a rule. She loved 'living' and usually tried to do so many things in one day that it left little room for sleeping. Home early from work and soaked to the bone, she was determined to lighten her mood. After taking a shower and changing into dry clothes, she switched on her CD player with purposely upbeat music. She kept herself busy by cleaning up her soggy clothes and scrubbing out the shower. When she had straightened her apartment for the second time and caught herself cleaning dirt that didn't exist, she turned to the TV. Try as she might she couldn't push what happened away any longer and clicked the 'off' button on the remote.

She was angry at Angel for running away, leaving her there feeling as though she'd done something wrong, not once, but twice. And for doing nothing more than looking at him. But, she couldn't get the raw pain she saw in Angel's eyes out of her mind. It was so deep she felt as though she had glimpsed right into his soul. She shivered unconsciously at the torment she wasn't meant to hear in his voice. The words he threw at her kept repeating themselves over and over. What could have happened to him that was so horrible? He was right, it was none of her business. But that didn't stop a number of unpleasant ideas popping up on what had caused the scars on his wrists. She had a feeling the truth was worse than she could imagine and more than she might really want to know.

What had started out as a curious puzzle to crack, just getting Angel to open up a little, had suddenly become a lot more. It wasn't pity, although she was sure that's what he thought she felt. Still, this shouldn't be bothering her like it did. She got that same feeling of dιjΰ vu and thought of the little boy look on his face when she saw his bandages. She had felt the same way then, an urge to protect him, to help take away the hurt.

Buffy thought of him towering over her, eyes blazing, muscles tensed with heat and emotions. She had one last thought that made her feel incredibly guilty, knowing he had been hurting. That he was incredibly sexy when he was angry.

She finally gave up and went to bed. She slept, but fitfully, with more than one dream of 'Annies' … and Angels.


Chapter IV

Angel arrived at work an hour early. Since he didn't wear a watch, he used the clocks in his home and car to time himself. He snorted at himself derisively, again thinking of Buffy. In the weeks since she had been hired, their verbal exchanges consisted almost exclusively of him asking her the time. Depending on her mood she had complied in a voice indicating either her indifference to the question or her annoyance. As a rule she didn't seem to mind, but now she'd probably tell him to get his own damn watch, if she spoke to him at all. He'd never tell her the honest truth was that he didn't like looking at his wrists.

Hours before, he almost fled his house just to get out, desperate for any distraction he could find. He found himself wandering through the outlet of a local chain of twenty-four-hour superstores. He wanted to do something for Buffy even knowing she hated him now. All he had come up with was to try to find something for her, though he doubted she would want anything he had to offer. He moved dejectedly among the rows of assorted items, slowly shuffling through the wares, showing none of his usual analytical scrutiny or natural fluid grace. Afterwards, he had driven around aimlessly in the predawn hours and ended up, almost by rote, in front of the complex.


That morning, Buffy found herself using any excuse she could find not to go to work. Being employed at the Bureau for such a short time, she was pretty sure they'd frown on her missing a full day after leaving early the day before. She didn't look forward to going to her office, but she grudgingly accepted she didn't have much choice.


Angel paced - again - in front of his desk while rubbing the long, restless fingers of his large hands together. He rubbed them so hard he felt the friction from the movement and stilled the nervous motion. Buffy was late - late even for her. He knew because he'd already made two trips to the break room to look at the clock on the wall, under the pretense of getting coffee. The hands on the black and white, government issued timepiece seemed to both crawl and speed ahead. 'Coffee,' he thought, he couldn't swallow it if he tried, probably choke if he did. 'She's not coming. She's sick. It's all my fault.' He ran shaking fingers through his hair, and again stopped the anxious habit. His hands felt like two big hams. Deliberately shoving them in his pants pockets he made a conscious effort not to be conscious of them.

He had made up his mind he was going to apologize to Buffy, even knowing she wouldn't want to hear it. The small gift he had found and wrapped looked strangely out of place, sitting forlornly on his desk. He'd made a vain attempt to rehearse what he was going to say, but given up. He'd already proven he wasn't good at things like that.

By the time she finally walked through the door and to her desk he was ready to implode.

He was so close to the door she couldn't avoid seeing his face as she passed him. Contrary to her usual behavior, she didn't say good morning. She didn't say anything at all. Sitting down, she started working as if she was alone in the room.

The tension Buffy felt was worse than she imagined it would be. She wasn't sure what to do. Buffy instinctively knew that Angel was as uneasy as she was. But try as she might, she could not figure out what happened yesterday. She knew the storm made him edgy, but that wasn't all of it. She had hurt him but didn't know why it hurt. She was so confused she didn't know whether to be happy he didn't look angry anymore or mad because he had walked away.

Angel waited. Now that she was here he felt whatever courage he'd built up evaporate. Feeling as if his veins were filled with lead, he finally grabbed the package off the corner of his desk. Taking the few steps, he pushed the box across the scarred wooden surface of her desk, practically under her nose.

'He bought me something?' Buffy thought Angel's behavior yesterday had been erratic. Picturing Angel hunting through the aisles of a store to look for something for her … The small act resonated deeply within her. She didn't know Angel well, but well enough to believe that it wasn't something he normally did for someone. Maybe not for anyone. That thought alone spoke volumes about his sincerity. She felt moisture welling up around her eyes. Angel had done this for her. Staring at it, she took a few moments trying to keep the tears from forming. Reaching towards the poorly wrapped box, she held it in her hands.

"Buffy…" he managed to croak miserably, then couldn't force any more to come out of his mind or mouth. A few more seconds passed. Angel couldn't see her face or he would have seen a tiny smile.

Her vision blurred looking at his offering, thinking, 'He doesn't wrap boxes any better than hands.'

Angel was in agony. He didn't know what to do. He wondered if she would just throw the thing at him and walk out. He knew that's what he deserved.

Buffy could almost hear Angel holding his breath as he waited to see what she would do. She understood what this must have been costing him, and not the price of whatever waited in the package. Thinking he'd suffered enough she pulled the paper off the box and opened it. It revealed a cream- colored coffee mug with a big 'B' painted on its side. She felt her heart lurch painfully. It made it that much harder to hold in the tears.

"What is this for?" She turned her face up to him. She spoke without thinking, furiously trying to keep her emotions in check. She knew it was his way of asking forgiveness.

The tears standing in her eyes caused a sharp pull in his chest. This was supposed to make her feel better, not worse. Wildly looking from her face to the cup and back to her again he blurted out, "For coffee."

His answer broke the tension she felt and Buffy burst into laughter, sliding the mug to a safe place, away from the edge.

Angel was stymied. Laughing wasn't among any of the reactions he thought she'd have, in fact anger was the only one he expected. And she had looked as though she would cry. He was glad she wasn't … but he thought she knew what the mug was for.

Buffy watched the thoughts swirl around Angel's face until it screwed up in total bewilderment. She laughed even harder. She caught her breath and stood up, gently touching his arm and said, "I'm sorry, Angel."

He felt a small shock of electricity through the thin material of his shirt where her fingers rested. He looked down at his arm where they lay and without thinking, wrapped his around them. "I-I'm the one who's sorry, Buffy."

Realizing what he'd done he pulled his hand away. Curling her warm fingers through his, she stopped him. "I'm sorry I laughed, that was rude."

"No," he repeated, "I'm the one who's sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you, y-you were only trying to … and I yelled at you …"

"Angel, it's okay. I'll be honest, I was upset, but I accept your apology. You don't have to explain anything." Her fingers tingled in his hand the same as they had on his arm. He made a small movement and she slipped her hand free to pick up the mug.

He hadn't realized how much he enjoyed the contact until it was gone. Looking down at the mug, he said softly, "I hope you like it."

She lifted it to get a closer look and teased, "I do. I know you got it for coffee, Angel, but I can put anything in it I like."

His face clouded. Very slowly it cleared. Then he smiled.


A couple of days later, Angel reached for the books he had hidden in the locked drawer of his desk. His hand knocked against the bottle of medicine beside them. Staring at the small vial he clenched his jaw in firm resolve not to resort to using it. He refused to be dependent on chemicals to overcome a simple force of nature. He snorted to himself, not so simple. Deliberately sliding the drawer shut and relaxing his muscles he turned his attention to the hefty volume in his hand. He felt a slight frisson of guilt as he started scanning the pages, but his need to know outweighed the niggling warning.

After worrying so badly about her, he knew he wouldn't feel at ease until he found out where Buffy lived. Not that he ever thought he would go there, but he needed the peace of mind of knowing where she was. Just in case - one never knew if it might not be needed. Besides, it bothered him more than he cared to admit that not knowing where she was gave him a strangely unconnected feeling. One that he didn't like. His conscience prickled that he had absolutely no right, but he couldn't seem to help himself.

He had spent most of the prior evening studying the books he had purchased on computers. Angel didn't own one, nor find the need for one at work, adding yet another oddity to the rumor mill about him. Most would have probably assumed he would be proficient at using one. He was familiar with the basic rudiments of how use a computer. Everyone in the FBI's employ had to know how to use one, but he'd gotten the minimum amount of instruction needed to meet the requirements. How he'd managed to get out of using one at his desk was almost as much of a mystery to him as everyone else. He had his suspicions, but he didn't question it too closely. He appreciated the small freedom of choice he'd been allowed. There was more training his superiors had been pressuring him to take that directly involved his work. There had also been talk of adapting his theories to some kind of program; he shuddered at the thought. So far he had been able to avoid both endeavors.

It wasn't that he was a snob, he thought, then amended that. Maybe he was in a way. He'd spent more hours with books than he ever had with people. They were friends he never had, silent yet loquacious companions, offering respite in his solitary ways. He liked the tactile sensation of the bindings and pages, the musty smell of ink and paper that clung to them. Most of his evenings were spent challenged and stimulated by pondering complex equations, details in history, or scientific findings. Or before the fire in the soothing keep of lines of poetry written decades or centuries ago. Countless times he'd fallen asleep, grasping the edges of one volume or another, his finger still holding his place. The blinking blip on the stark screen of the cutting edge was cold and impersonal in comparison. There was enough of that in his life already.

Angel waited until Buffy had gone to lunch, leaving her laptop behind as usual. She took it home at night, but turned it on upon her arrival and kept it close by as needed. It was the only computer he had access to without raising anyone's suspicions, especially hers. Feeling akin to a cat burglar he slid across the room and into her chair. He kept careful track of exactly how she had left it, both its place on the desk and what was on the monitor. His naturally sure, quick movements were slowed by his deficiency with a keyboard. He clumsily pecked on the keys with his index fingers while keeping one eye on the door.

He planned on getting to his objective and procuring what he was searching for in a relatively short time. It wasn't working out that way. He could feel his temper rising with irritation. He was beginning to understand Buffy's often spirited, one-sided conversations with what she simply called, 'the Beast'. He became totally immersed in his rather novice progress. Just as he got to where he thought he wanted to be, a dark-haired head popped into view through the doorway.

"Oh, uh…A - Angelus," Xander stuttered, not expecting to see Angel in the office, much less sitting at Buffy's desk. "I, uh … was looking for the Buffster," he finished lamely.

Angel tried to keep his calm, in spite of his rather incriminating position. His barely contained growl as he snapped at Xander didn't help his rather pathetic attempt at feigned innocence. "Buffy is at lunch," he replied tersely. He hated the nickname Xander had given Buffy. He realized it was just a casual term, not meant to be derogatory, but, to him, it demeaned her somehow. Not to mention his irritation at the closeness it implied between Buffy and the ever annoying Alexander Harris.

"Ah … fine, good … I should go … to the lunch room … where there's 'lunch'," he continued to stumble. Xander felt a fine sweat break out on the back of his neck, "I'll go now, I can see you're … um … busy."

"You do that," Angel glared at him, "I'll finish helping Buffy with the problem we were working on." He couldn't seem to keep the threatening tone out of his voice. He just wanted Xander to buy his flimsy excuse and leave. And not tell Buffy. He was caught and trying to make the best of it.

"Leaving now … for the lunch," Xander threw over his shoulder as he turned out of the door. He thought it was odd that Angelus was even using a computer. But he decided in mere moments it wasn't weird enough to mention to Buffy or anyone else, remembering the dark look on Angelus' face. He didn't know him well, but the guy had always given him the wiggins. If he had a bad side, Xander wasn't in a hurry to see it.

Angel blew out a mixed breath of relief and exasperation, falling against the back of Buffy's chair. He hoped the frightened look on Xander's face meant his secret was safe. He hadn't meant to scare the boy with his gruffness, but wasn't sorry if it worked. Looking at the time in the little box at the bottom of the screen on Buffy's laptop, he tapped a few more keys. He was getting nervous and Xander's visit hadn't helped. He made one more unsuccessful attempt, then quickly replaced everything as it was. Barely seconds after he regained his own place Buffy breezed in the door.

"Angel," she began, leaning on his desk, "this might sound kind of strange …" She'd thought about this for the last day or two and she couldn't even say why it made any difference to her.

Angel knew he was busted, he didn't dare look up at her. "Strange?" he asked, trying to keep the strained sound out of his voice.

"Well, we have been working together for a while now," she said slowly. She really didn't know him that well. And this was kind of personal. But for some reason she just had to ask. She knew she wouldn't feel comfortable until she did. "I just think it would be better … " she faltered.

Now he was really nervous and couldn't have spoken even if he could think of something to say.

"But, I think we should have each other's address. You know, in case of an emergency or something. You never know what could happen," she rushed out all at once.


Angel put down his pencil and reached for the phone when it rang, knowing who was on the other end of the line. "Hello, Cordy," he said without waiting.

"You could at least check to see who it is before you start talking," his sister teased. She knew his phone probably gathered nothing but dust, certainly not an overabundance of calls.

"Well, it is Wednesday night and seven o'clock," he answered dryly.

"So, if I called during the day, say Saturday around eleven in the morning, you might let me say something first?" She couldn't resist trying to bring him out a bit, anything to lighten him up.

Reclining back in his leather chair, legs stretched out in front of him, he replied in the same manner. "No, I'd probably think it was someone selling Hollywood magazines and hang up without answering," knowing her penchant for the rags. He was in a strangely playful mood that surprised even him.

Cordelia was caught off guard, but plunged on to take advantage of the light tone in his voice. "So, if I call any time except Wednesday night, you'd just slam the phone down?" she asked. Walking out on her balcony holding the cordless phone to her ear, she thought, 'When was the last time he sounded upbeat?' She didn't have to think about it. 'Never.'

"If I did that, you'd be on my doorstep in less than an hour. And I doubt the door would stop you." He heard his sister laugh. It gave him a good feeling to think he'd managed to do that. He knew most of the time he depressed her.

"Then you'd have to put me up … and put up with me," she happily threatened. She didn't know what was causing Angel's almost singular attempt at humor. If she didn't know better she'd think he had something to drink. But she knew he never touched alcohol, except an occasional glass of wine. He had enough problems.

"Couldn't have that," he rejoined, "How would all those Hollywood producers find you?" He reached for his coffee, always ready close by.

"Well, I guess you're safe then, for now," she said with a smile in her voice. She took a deep breath and bit down nervously on her lower lip. She had waited for hours to break her news. "As a matter of fact, I've been offered a part in a movie," she proudly declared.

Cordelia was a determined starlet. She'd put everything she had into acting classes and auditions. It wasn't the money, both she and Angel, thanks to their multimillionaire father, would never have any lack. But it had been her fondest wish since she was small to be in the movies.

Her parents, however, had been reticent to bring any publicity near their home. Knowing a firm 'no' when she heard one and understanding their long- held unspoken fears, she hadn't argued. But she had practiced all through childhood, waiting until she was on her own to follow her dream.

"Cordy! That's great!" Angel exclaimed. He knew how hard she had worked towards something like this. "I've wondered why it's taken this long for them to discover you," he told her with pride sounding in his voice. He asked for more details about the audition and the part, letting her do the majority of the talking.

The conversation continued longer than their usual few minutes before they hung up. Cordy was pleased for a change after talking to her brother. Instead of her normal urge to shake him to life, for a few moments at least, he actually sounded like he had one. Angel's sister was a realist, she knew he needed massive amounts of happy for any real change to occur. But it had to start somewhere, goodness knows she'd waited for years. Tonight though she'd caught a tiny glimmer that just maybe … finally … something might be there. Whatever it was, she was all for it.

After Angel hung up the phone, he sat for a while staring absently into the fire. He heard a soft thump as something fell to the floor. Reaching down, he retrieved the sketchbook that had slipped from his lap. Buffy's eyes gazed back at him in penciled perfection. What was he doing sketching her? But even as he asked himself, he picked up where he left off, shading a tiny area to help catch the smirk she wore on the page. It was yet another of numerous drawings of her he kept safely tucked away in an ever-expanding portfolio on one of the bookshelves near his poetry.

As a child he used to draw a lot. When everything changed overnight, it filled the hours that were once spent playing with friends or joining in games in the park nearby. Angel's world became smaller, safer. It held only him. No one else was in it to be hurt or worse because of him. He drew characters from his books or strangers he saw when forced to go wherever his parents dragged him. Drawing people was easier than dealing with them.

As he grew older, he spent countless hours improving his techniques, all his energy and talents focused on his unshakable determination to become an agent. Drawing was nothing more than a tool, an instrument as everything was, to get to where he wanted to be.

Later, when everything fell apart in his carefully constructed world, he found no reason or inclination to draw anymore. One well-meaning doctor insisted it would be good therapy and provided the necessary supplies. Angel tried, more to keep everyone in the hospital away from him - just to leave him alone. But every attempt, no matter what he intended to draw, turned into scenes of dark, terrifying dreamscapes or of Drusilla's haunting, innocent visage or small, vulnerable body. He finally ripped every sheet to shreds, smashing the box that had held everything against the wall. After that he refused any and all attempts at therapy, once more shutting out everything and everyone around him.

He had never sketched for pleasure, always for a calculated objective. That's why it was so strange when he felt a strong urge to pull out his drawing implements from where he had packed them away. And all he could draw was one face and figure over and over again, every one a different pose or expression. It calmed and relaxed him, giving him an enjoyment for the simple act itself that he'd never possessed. He could draw her for hours, losing himself in marrying the art to the object of his wishes and dreams.

A crooked half-smile tugged at his lips in response to the face taking shape as he once more picked up his pencil to work, gently and ardently bringing life to the portrait. His smile deepened, the harder he concentrated. She was his, if only here, where she flowed from his fingers. His cares were forgotten in the soft scratching of the pencil meeting the paper. He was surprised when he finally rose from his chair to go to bed. It was storming out and he hadn't even noticed when it began.


"I hear you had lunch with Angelus," Lindsey said with a mercenary grin the following Friday.

Buffy shrugged uncomfortably, remembering the way 'lunch' had ended. Then she grinned inwardly. It was better now than it had been, she thought, thinking of Angel's smile. "We sat at the same table," she said. "I wouldn't really say we had lunch."

"Why do you even bother?" Riley asked, his disgust evident. "Psycho is exactly what his name implies. He's broken so bad that he's not useful to anyone. The brass should just put him out to pasture."

Buffy glanced at Riley and frowned. Xander had introduced him to her the day after she began working for the Bureau. Buffy had more than a sneaking suspicion that the meeting had been Riley's idea. At first sight Riley was a good looking, well built, athletic type, the kind of guy who normally attracted her.

After their introduction, Riley seemed to be constantly underfoot. He was in the break room when she got there, or saved a spot next to him at lunch. If she needed help with something, he was right there. He was … nice. Like a great big puppy dog nice. She liked dogs, but not as boyfriends. She'd already decided being friends was a good place to stop.

She was certain Angel had a radically different opinion of Riley. Several times, he had caught her in the hallway while Riley was making some lame excuse to talk to her. It wasn't a shock that Angel made no pretense at being politic. He would openly glare at Riley as he passed, doing nothing to mitigate the dark look. She wasn't sure what had transpired between the two, but she knew better than to ask either of them.

Buffy met Willow's gaze. Willow moved closer to tell her, "Remember I told you Liam used to be a field agent?" Buffy nodded. "No one would really talk about it, so I don't have many details. But when he was hurt, when they moved him to the desk job ... it was bad."

"How bad?" Buffy asked.

"Bad enough that they had him locked away in some nuthouse," Riley offered unsolicited, leaning in towards Buffy. She pulled back slightly and was hit by the realization that Riley Finn did smell like gym socks and Old Spice.

"Lay off," Lindsey said. "You're still sore that he had you busted down to a desk job."

A black expression crossed Riley's face, but Faith interceded, handing him a shot and making a joke. Riley played it off, but Buffy had gotten enough of a glimpse. Riley hated Angel with a rage she would not have thought him capable of feeling. She turned away, suddenly wary of her puppy dog turned Pit Bull.

"Thanks," Buffy said quietly to Lindsey.

The handsome young man smiled as he shifted his gaze back to her face. His eyes had been fixed on Faith with a quiet intensity. "No problem," he said. "I like Angelus. I mean, I think he's a little out there, but he used to be a real good guy. He taught me everything I know. It's a shame."

Sitting close enough by to hear what was said, Riley's face darkened as he asked Lindsey, "Would you really trust him covering your back?"

Lindsey looked Riley squarely in the eye and took a long moment before he replied. "I'd put my life in his hands before I'd take that chance with other agents," Lindsey stated, emphasizing the term. "At least he's never been known to ditch a partner in the middle of a training exercise." He didn't bother to mask the look of disgust that crossed his usually pleasant features.

Riley shot up, seething, "You weren't there! You don't know how things went down!"

"No, I wasn't. I was there when we found him, miles from anywhere. He may as well have been left for dead," Lindsey, replied chillingly, never taking his eyes off Riley's face.

"I had no choice, it was the only chance there was …" Riley broke off, grabbing his shot glass as if to throw it. Instead he glared down at Lindsey, "I don't have to explain my actions … again. That's history," he spat, then turned and stomped off towards the bar.

The rest of the group, stunned by the sudden outburst, sat in an uncomfortable silence.

Buffy knew the others probably had the backstory. She wished she did too - a lot was missing. In spite of it though, she found herself cheering for Lindsey, glad that he hadn't backed down. She thought it was unfair to talk about Angel when he wasn't there to defend himself. She intuitively knew, besides Riley's telling bluster, that Angel hadn't been to blame.

Eventually, normal conversation resumed around the table. She did notice, however, that Riley seemed to be drinking more than usual. That probably wasn't so odd. He obviously had some issues from his past he wished to forget. Of course, such thoughts led directly back to Angel. "What did happen?" Buffy asked, leaning in towards Lindsey.

Lindsey shook his head. "I can't give you all the details," he said, "but just know that it was horrible. Riley is an asshole, but he wasn't kidding about the nuthouse. It wasn't years, but Angelus was institutionalized for a little while. He broke big time and none of us were really sure he'd ever come out of it. He did though, came back here about two years ago. Walsh found a place for him in Analysis. He has to be sane to do that kind of specialized work, but he's not like he used to be. He's not whole. He might never be again."

Buffy nodded slowly and then gave a sideways glance to Riley. He was back to his happy frat boy routine, flirting with Faith who seemed to be humoring him. "What happened between Liam and Riley?" she asked.

Lindsey tore his gaze away from Riley and Faith and looked at Buffy, grinning. "You're bound and determined to get in the middle of this, aren't you?" he asked.

"Call me curious," she said.

"It killed the cat," he replied dryly.

"Come on, Linds," she said, sticking her lip out in a pout.

He sighed and looked to the heavens. "It must be dire," he said, "she's flirting to get information."

Buffy frowned, but Lindsey laughed. Slowly, he sobered. "The stuff that went down with Angelus," he said. "Riley fucked up. Big time. It cost him field status and a couple of people got hurt. He's lucky he wasn't brought up on charges. I guess it's easier for Riley to blame Angelus than himself."


Spike looked on from his 'peanut gallery' seat in the smoking section. He'd been coming into Willy's every Friday for the last couple of months under the pretext of visiting Amy. She had her uses, he thought, but wasn't much different than any of his other women. Eyeing the small blonde talking to dark-haired, 'Studley Doright', as he had dubbed Lindsey, Spike admitted to himself that he was attracted to her. The only thing stopping him from making a move was all the time he'd already spent hanging out in this godforsaken bar watching these boring gits.

Spike didn't see as he had much choice. He wanted to make Angelus pay for what happened to Dru. But Angelus had no life. There didn't seem to be anyone or anything Liam Angelus cared about. It gave Spike few opportunities to exact vengeance on him. So Spike was left with this group of office offal and their tag along 'James Bond' wannabes. He snickered under his breath at how dull these boys were at play. Familiarity might breed contempt and that he had for them. But it had given him invisibility. Becoming a 'regular' as he had, even though a peripheral one, none of those he was watching gave him a moment's notice. He could walk through the midst of them to order a drink at the bar or go to the Men's room without raising a flicker of interest.

But now he was tired of yet another night wasted. Spike still saw nothing he could use against Angelus. He might as well pack it in and call it a night. Grabbing his pack of cigarettes while reaching for the final swig of his beer, he glanced over when he heard raised voices. Spike sat back down, halting the glass where he held it midair before slowly dropping it to the table.

He'd heard the country boy mention 'Psycho' many times referring to Angelus. It was a moniker Spike wouldn't dispute. At least there was one person other than himself who saw the fuck for who he really was. Not that sharing an enemy endeared the great lummox to Spike. He thought Finn was a proper name for the Iowa potatohead. He probably had a brother named 'Huck'.

But now things had gotten interesting, if only for a moment. They were arguing about something that Spike knew involved Angelus. He could hear 'Studly' say something to Finn without breaking eye contact. For all of Finn's size Lindsey more than made up for it in balls, thought Spike. He watched as the larger man turned and went to the bar. Lindsey, obviously in control, relaxed in his chair, watching him leave. Spike didn't miss the dark look that the little golden girl gave Finn, or the glance of appreciation she bestowed on Lindsey. Spike couldn't tell if she was responding to what Lindsey had said or the man himself.

There wasn't much else to see, he thought as he finally finished off his beer. But the evening gave Spike hope that all of his work hadn't been for nothing. He wasn't usually much on patience and his had been wearing thinner with each passing week. Keeping an eye on the petite cutie until he could get to know her better was the only other thing holding his interest. Enough that he'd continue to wait it out if it meant getting revenge on Angelus.


He ran through the woods as fast as his legs would carry him. His lungs burned with cold fire as he sucked in the frigid morning air, lungful after lungful. "Fuck fuck fuck," he muttered under his breath as he hurdled a fallen tree trunk and narrowly avoided sliding down into a shallow creek. What the fuck had gone wrong? It was all Angelus' fault. Why couldn't he do what Riley had suggested, instead of ordering him around. It had forced Riley to prove he knew what was best. It was Angelus' fault they hadn't stayed together.

The radio clipped to his belt hissed and crackled. He stopped running, doubling over to brace his hands on his knees as he listened to the coordinates. His chest still heaving as he pulled out his compass and scrambled to ascertain which direction he needed to go.

He was off again, heading for the location as he heard a second call. This one was for paramedic assistance. He growled through clenched teeth as he put on another burst of speed. He could almost hear his career crashing down around him.

The clearing was in chaos when he got there. Three men were down. Three? Angelus had been alone. What was going on? Fighting to catch his breath, he jogged nearer. Two of the men down had been on the original search party and they looked beat to hell. One of them definitely had a broken nose, the other was having his arm splinted. Angelus sat on the ground, his back against a tree as the paramedics carefully approached him. He looked like he was in shock, his nearly black eyes staring blankly into space.

A hand clasped firmly on his shoulder and he spun around, coming face to face with Lindsey. "You prick," Lindsey spat.

He glowered, using his impressive height to tower over the man who was his superior.

"Get your ass back to base, now Finn," Lindsey barked, ignoring the blatant intimidation tactic.

"What happened-"

"Now!" Lindsey yelled. "Your ass is going to be in so much hot water you're not going to have time to worry about anything other than saving your career. Now get moving."

Slowly the dream faded away and Riley woke, staring at his living room floor which needed a serious vacuuming. With a groan, he pushed himself into a sitting position. He fought off a wave of nausea while wondering how he had gotten home last night. He didn't know. It was all a blank. He remembered doing shots with Xander around midnight and then it was all a blur.

With more than a little disgust, Riley wiped spittle from the corner of his mouth. Whenever he got stinking drunk, he always dreamt of that day. The day his career as a field agent ended. And it was all Angelus' fault. Riley always thought the guy was a little off, but who knew he was that much of a psycho? Of course, the brass didn't see it that way. Maggie Walsh had deserted him faster than a rat off a sinking ship. He ended up taking the entire blame for Angelus' little "incident". Never mind that a nutcase like him never should have been approved for field duty in the first place.

But that's what money could get you in America. And Angelus' family definitely had it in spades. Psycho was born with a silver spoon in his mouth big enough to choke a horse. That was how he had gotten through the psychological screening that was designed to keep nutjobs like him out of field positions.

Riley, in contrast, had no spoon, silver or otherwise. He worked for every single thing he ever got. He carved a life out of nothing. No one ever handed him shit. And of course he was the one who got saddled with the blame. With a growl of frustration, he pushed himself to his feet and headed for the shower.


Angel was putting groceries in his cart, automatically checking off the items on his neat, orderly list, organized according to the store's layout. He had a fleeting sensation of something familiar, but as he glanced around he saw nothing to explain it. He pushed through the aisles completely oblivious to the looks of anyone around him, keeping his cart in a precise path as he rounded a corner. He lifted down a box of cereal for the lady next to him who had tried unsuccessfully to reach it for herself. Choosing the item he needed, he walked on, not even seeing the woman or stopping long enough to hear her thank you.

Buffy couldn't resist a smile at his expense as she watched him. She saw him stop suddenly, searching around him as if looking for someone. She hid behind a shelf, not even sure why she chose not to let him see her. Maybe because it had only been a couple weeks since their encounter in the gazebo and she wasn't sure what his reaction would be to seeing her outside the office. She didn't want to make him uncomfortable, especially in front of strangers.

He reminded her of a robot, she thought as she followed at a discreet distance behind him after he resumed his shopping. He systematically pulled boxes and cans from the displays and shelves and lined them up neatly, fitting them perfectly in their allotted space in his cart. Buffy was sure without even looking that all of the food choices were healthy, able to build strong bones any number of ways. Junk food would never dare climb into the basket Liam Angelus steered through the crowd of Saturday shoppers.

Still though, she felt a surge of compassion for him, seeing him alone among the throng of people, markedly different from the rest of them. He made his way to the checkout, setting the items in neat, regimental rows. As he waited his turn, he automatically pulled back to allow the person behind him, holding but one loaf of bread, to cash out before him, again unmindful of the thanks or who was giving it.

Angel was still in the parking lot, stowing the bags in the trunk of his black convertible when Buffy left the store. His choice in cars was surprising given his usual taste for the unobtrusive and mundane. She didn't know his sister, Cordelia, bought the car for him and refused to take it back when he resisted. Buffy saw him lift his head and glance around once more, as if he was looking for someone or something. She wondered what or whom he was seeking. Just then their eyes met and she grinned in spite of herself. If she hadn't known better, she would have sworn he returned a shy smile right before he ducked his head into the car and started it, driving away while she stood there.


Angel had been restless since lunchtime, the unexpected ferocity of the storm putting his nerves on edge. He resisted the urge to pace back and forth as he usually did. For several hours he waged a silent battle against using the pills locked in his desk and he finally won. He knew Buffy was aware of the struggle. Although he was discomfited that she knew, he relished her warm smile all the same. She glanced over several times, not disguising her concern.

Finally, he got ready to leave as he did each day exactly at five o'clock. Checking the small window above, he saw the sky was still dark. He couldn't hear the thunder anymore, relieved the storm was finally moving away. But it was still raining hard. He reached for his leather jacket and briefcase, but hesitated when he saw Buffy clearing her desk. As a rule she stayed later, always seeming to have one more thing to do. He didn't want to seem rude and rush out the door. That and he didn't mind lingering in her company another few minutes. He knew it was ridiculous - after all they shared an office all day, every day. But he could never get enough of her, even if it was simply walking her to her car.

Even though he didn't speak, Buffy realized that Angel was waiting for her. He was calmer now that the storm had diminished. She was glad for him. She'd felt him endure the conflict, the tension rolling off of him in waves. She hurried with the last of her things, thinking it was unusual for him to wait. She didn't speak, not wishing to disturb the unspoken peace. They had both survived a long afternoon.

When they got to the entryway he started to open the door for her, then suddenly pulled it shut. She looked up at him in confusion. "Don't you have a coat?" he asked as he eyed the thin cotton dress she was wearing.

His look hadn't been predatory, but she blushed just the same. Pointing out the door she answered, "I left it in the car."

"You can't go out like that," he told her, and before she could stop him, he pulled off his jacket and wrapped it around her.

She started to protest, but stopped when he raised an eyebrow in warning. She was swimming in the jacket that came almost to her knees. Laughing, she looked up from the jacket to him, saying, "Thanks, I think I'm covered. I'll bring it back tomorrow."

He shook his head once as he looked down on her. "No," he said, not able to hide a crooked smile that warmed her more than the jacket ever could, "Keep it. It looks better on you."


Chapter V

Angel had thrown the repugnant memo away, but retrieved it out of the wastebasket. He grudgingly conceded that pretending it wasn't there wouldn't make it go away. Smoothing the crumpled paper and reading it once more didn't make it any better than the first time he read it. Apparently even having a desk job had its own hidden terrors. He had to stand before a large assembly and talk. When he was an agent he had forced himself to adapt to being part of a small group, even leading one. But he had no experience in dealing with something of this magnitude. He made a sound somewhere between a sigh and growl as he reread it one more time, looking for a loophole.

Each section of the Analysis department was expected to give a detailed report. His area of expertise made him the only choice to give the presentation for the section to which he was attached. For once, he cursed his solitary existence. If he weren't so isolated, someone else could possibly appear in his stead. But as things stood now, he was the only one with the requisite knowledge. Acting like a trained monkey, speaking publicly on demand, was not in his job description, he thought resentfully. Which reminded him of why he was there and it didn't improve his mood. When he had been in the field he gave reports, but only to his own team or a small number of agents. But, he wasn't an agent now, making the situation grate even more.

The report was to be presented in the auditorium. And '… making full use of audio/video equipment at your disposal,' according to the instructions. He had no idea what he was supposed to do. Why couldn't he just stay in his office and do his work in peace? Why did they have to have 'talks' about it? He did his job and he did it exceedingly well. There was no point in trying to explain it to a bunch of idiots who were incapable of grasping his logic.

Angel was so engrossed in his little well of misery he never noticed his officemate watching him with an amused half smile. Buffy knew what the memo said. She could almost see the abysmal thoughts filing through his mind. Watching him more closely, his tense profile didn't quite hide the irritation and anger stirring dangerously near the surface. She could see the silent conflict between annoyance and fear. Recognizing that heavily guarded vulnerability sobered some of her mirth. She knew it was only obvious to her and she would never betray that knowledge to him or anyone else.

She did feel badly for him, knowing how painfully inept he was socially. The idea of having a sizable audience staring at him had to be torture for him to contemplate. He unconsciously swung his chair in the only direction that offered a solution - towards her. Although, she thought studying his face as he turned, the majority of women attending the conference probably wouldn't care if he stood there and said nothing. They'd be happy just enjoying the view. She licked her suddenly dry lips and focused back on his apparent dilemma.

She planned all along on taking pity on him. But she was waiting. She received the same memo in her email and already anticipated his response. Angel, of course, hadn't known about the presentation until a clerk delivered a paper copy of the memorandum to his desk. Buffy wondered once more how he not only managed to avoid computer training, but how he circumvented the necessity of having a computer on his desk. Not that he needed one, he worked on some puzzles that came their way faster than any program ever invented.

Angel's expression was so wretched that she was ready to offer her solution, when she saw the light bulb click on in his head. She chuckled to herself. She'd worked with Angel long enough - longer than anyone else, in fact - to become familiar with his distressingly shy nature. He hated to ask anyone for anything. She knew he finally thought of another alternative. Not something he would normally do, but faced with one mind-numbing option, reaching out had to seem almost harmless in comparison.

"Buffy," Angel cleared his throat, trying to keep his voice steady, "I see you were copied in on this memo about our section …" he trailed off, hoping she would pick up on what had suddenly occurred to him.

She knew she was being wicked, but she just couldn't help herself. "Yes, I was." She continued innocently, "I'd love to help you out, Angel, but I don't 'do' theories. How exactly are you going to do the presentation? I know I'll be interested in listening to it."

Disappointed she hadn't taken the hint, he tried to sound nonchalant, "I didn't have anything in mind. But I thought perhaps you could help me do it."

She hid the smile that was tugging at her lips and tried to sound serious, "I don't know … I'm not sure I'd be of any use."

He hesitated, grabbing at straws. "You've picked up a lot in just two months. We share the work … in a way. I-I wouldn't mind the help," he finished, a desperate tone creeping in. His newfound hope was plummeting. He looked so distressed as he waited for her answer.

Her heart twisted at the abject misery on his face and she finally relented. "I could do the presentation, Angel, but I am still fairly new at this. You're the 'theory genius', I only know the computer side of it. I'm afraid I won't know everything that should be included. I'd need help getting it ready."

He brightened noticeably at her words. She hadn't been prepared for what simple relief could do to his usually somber features. Smiles on Angel delivered a devastating effect to her breathing. That he was ignorant of what his looks did to her made him all the more breathtaking. She wondered if she'd be able to handle seeing actual happiness and be left standing.

"I can help with anything you need," he said a little too quickly, so thankful she was willing to help him. "I, umm … can take care of any of the … ah … equipment you need for it." He had no idea how to use any of those things, but he'd learn. He was aware he'd still be in front of a large gathering. In all fairness, he didn't want to take advantage of Buffy. The knowledge she'd be right beside him though already made the whole dismal affair less daunting.

Buffy nodded her agreement, grinning inwardly at the poor man's relieved countenance, pretending she hadn't noticed.

They had a month to complete the report. It sounded like a lot of time at the beginning. But they already had a full workload and with the inevitable emergencies that came up, it made it difficult to set aside the hours needed to work on it. They squeezed minutes, sometimes a half-hour to an hour in, here and there. Time grew shorter, and they ended up having to spend several evenings in the empty office complex after everyone else had gone home.

Buffy prepared the topics to be presented, tapping Angel's vast store of information. She had known his tasks were out of the ordinary, but never realized just how intricate the problems were or how brilliant he was at resolving them. Angel amazed her. He was so knowledgeable that sometimes as she questioned him, she felt like he was a book and she was turning his pages. Working in tandem they fell into a smooth cadence, finding they simply enjoyed each other's company. There was an ease that belied the brevity of their relationship.

Buffy had grown so used to Angel asking her the time she answered out of habit without a second thought. Working more closely the last couple weeks, he had forgone the asking and simply held up her wrist checking her watch when necessary. The first time he did it, he was concentrating on case studies they were including in their examples. He had suddenly pulled his head up to look out the window at the late afternoon sky. Gently grasping her hand in his, he raised it to look at the small face of her timepiece, then placed it back down on the table. The action was so innocent she knew he wasn't consciously aware of doing it. She felt a catch in her heart to think he felt that at ease with her. She understood and accepted it as a simple act of trust. The slight pulse of current at the contact hadn't gone unnoticed either. He became embarrassed when he realized he'd done it the next time. But rather than let him shy away, she had taken his hand and placed her wrist in it, lifting it towards him. No words were ever spoken, but from then on the small liberty was a given.

On the quiet evenings, pouring over books and papers together, Buffy got glimpses of Angel she intuitively knew no one else had ever seen. Instead of the face he showed the world - there with only the two of them - he transformed before her eyes. He would animatedly explain the difference between one methodology and another. He wasn't 'geeky', spouting facts and figures like an automaton. He warmed to his subject, challenging her, sketching diagrams, showing comparisons. And she became fascinated with his fascination. He wasn't lecturing on a topic, but rather introducing and sharing an old friend. His eyes would shine when she understood a point he clarified. He made leaps of logic that Buffy could see were brilliant, yet he softly and sheepishly led her through his thinking. Leaning back in his chair, relaxed in his element, his demeanor showed a confidence and surety that was rare for him. Conversely, it made him seem all the more vulnerable. Normally hidden beneath a deceptively cold, undemonstrative cover, she saw the real Angel. One she knew he didn't even know existed.

Buffy wasn't the only one enjoying the time they spent together. Angel knew Buffy had a quick mind. He'd worked with her on random problems, quizzing her findings or jointly figuring a sequence. He didn't know that mind was voracious - devouring every illustration and equation he fed her. He felt like he could open a line of intellect between them and stream it directly into her brain. He'd known she was beautiful on the outside, but inside - she was dazzling in her depths. She would dance nimbly from one reference to another, following his lead, never losing step. He wished he could draw in and hold a fraction of her verve and vivacity. She was a warm zephyr, breathing life, while winding through the cold, solitary hallways of his thoughts. Angel didn't know Buffy missed those long nights with each other as much as he did when their impromptu work sessions drew to a close.


The day of the training Angel was ramrod straight with tension. Buffy was again taken with just how handsome he was, even though he was petrified. He was dressed in a black suit with a cream-colored shirt that showed his broad shoulders and large frame to mouth-watering advantage. The determined look in his dark brown eyes and the decided set in his jaw enhanced his usual air of restrained power.

The only thing that deflected Angel's monumental misgivings throughout the day, in fact probably made it possible for him to survive them, was looking at Buffy. She wore a business suit, coincidentally the same shade of cream as his shirt, which accentuated her golden hair and green eyes. The lines of the jacket and skirt defined every toned curve. He had a hard time swallowing when she first walked in the office that morning.

Unbeknownst to them, was the arresting effect of how they looked together. Later in the day, during their time in the spotlight, more than a few conference attendees were taken aback by the pair. When he bent his head close to hers, sharing whispered instructions, they looked like an opposite, yet matched set, one completing the other. They were a striking couple, his towering dark looks contrasted against her dainty luminance.

The building was filling up, people pouring through the entry door in varying groups. Eyeing them, Angel was becoming more nervous by the minute. He headed for the break room and had one more cup of coffee to fortify his resolve. When that didn't help at all he went in search of Buffy and found her in the nook in the hallway that held the water cooler. Buffy was standing nearby it with Xander, Anya and Riley, watching the clutches of people on their way to the auditorium. She was laughing at a remark Xander made and Angel went still for a moment in his steps towards her. Tossing her long blonde hair behind her, eyes sparkling a deep emerald green - she was lovely. He forgot for a few seconds that there was anyone else in the hall. Snapping out of his reverie, he came up beside her. Without thinking, he reached for her wrist and drew it up to peer at the small watch she was wearing. Without a flicker of surprise at his actions, she continued her conversation with Xander.

Riley couldn't believe what his eyes were seeing. That sick, psycho had touched Buffy and she hadn't even batted an eye. She acted as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He was stunned … and revolted. Xander was looking at him strangely and Riley realized he must have asked him a question.

"Are you ready to do your part of the report?" Xander repeated slowly.

Riley was barely aware of what he answered as he watched Angel propel Buffy through the auditorium doors, guiding her with his hand on the small of her back.


Their slot in the schedule was the last presentation before lunch. It was obvious that most of the people were not only there by command, but what little interest they showed at the beginning of the morning had dwindled appreciably. That was until Buffy lit the stage. Once the group that preceded them sat back down in the front rows, Buffy stood at the podium and Angel stayed in the background.

He watched with a growing sense of admiration at the way Buffy caught the attention of her wavering audience. Her lively figure moved gracefully from the podium to the board, then to the slides and on to the other equipment that Angel operated on cue. All the while she kept up her spirited dissertation on the specific topics the two had worked on together. Angel marveled, realizing how much she had learned from him in a very short time. But even more at the innovative ways she relayed the information, building an interested following in her every word. She spoke distinctly and with certainty, making it clear by her subtle phrasing and slight gestures, that it was her partner who was responsible for most of the content. She didn't do it in a way that put undue attention on him. Angel was so entranced with her performance he never even picked up on it.

When she finished, a number of rejuvenated spectators became participants. They asked questions, and offered their own insights, showing appreciation and a formerly lacking enthusiasm. Angel flushed when directly asked some of the questions, but Buffy deftly slid in, translating his overly technical answers into something easier for people to understand. He couldn't help but feel pride and gratitude for her. He just hoped they wouldn't be called upon to do this ever again.


After the auditorium was emptied at the end of the day, Buffy and Angel gathered their leftover props and materials. The two of them walked in step together towards their office deep in an avid conversation about the conference. Neither of them noticed the way Riley followed behind them. His muscles were tensed, a look of disgust twisting his features, as he closely watched and listened until they closed the door behind them.


A week after what Angel referred to as the 'ordeal', Buffy was still receiving requests for copies of the information they had presented. Humming to herself, thinking how well it had turned out, she made her way to the copy room. She let out an exasperated breath blowing the tendrils of hair near her face. Her light mood was broken as she saw the indicator blinking for 'low paper' on the copier. One of her pet soapboxes was people leaving equipment for someone else to take care of the problems. She was busy digging out paper to put in the machine, momentarily annoyed at said people, when she heard someone enter the room.

"Riley," Buffy greeted him as he walked towards the copier, "I'll be done in a few minutes. As soon as I clean up after whomever was here, then do a few copies."

"I don't have anything to copy, Buffy," he said as he slid his hands in his pockets. " I … uh ... just wanted to talk to you for a minute."

"Oh?" She looked up at him. Buffy was really hoping he wasn't getting ready to ask her out. Riley had this nasty mindset of coming on as though she was the helpless female just waiting for a big, strong man like him to come along. But he reminded her more of a St. Bernard with the little cask around its neck. If she needed rescuing, she could do it herself. She didn't need a Scooby Doo to come to her aid. She'd made an effort to subtly let him know she wasn't interested by trying to be where he wasn't whenever she could. If he saved her a seat, she tactfully found another, if she saw him in the hall, she turned in another direction as discreetly as she could.

"You probably won't think this is any of my business, but someone has to warn you," he said in a rush.

"Warn me? About the copier? Nope, already heard about the little light rays in them being dangerous," she said with a grin. Thankfully it wasn't for a date, but she knew it! He just had to save her from something. She had a feeling this could be nothing of the good. She closed the drawer on the machine.

"No," Riley shook his head, "not about copiers. About Angelus."

"An-Liam?" she caught herself. "I know you have problems with him, Riley." She turned her back on him to put in the papers she was copying and pushed the button to start the machine.

"That's not it," he put his hand on her shoulder to turn her around. "I mean, it's true I don't like him, but he's trouble. You don't know what he's capable of doing."

Buffy pulled Riley's hand away as she turned to face him. "I appreciate your warning, Riley, and I know Liam's had some problems in the past. I'm not worried about him hurting me."

"You should be," Riley answered raising his voice more than needed to be heard above the copier. "He's a basket case. I've seen him when he's gone off."

"Riley," her voice took on a sterner tone, "Liam has never done anything to make me afraid of him. They would hardly have put me in an office with him if he was dangerous." She turned back, taking the papers out of the copier.

"I'm only telling you for your own good," he said not willing to give up, "I don't want to see you hurt."

"And I'm telling you, Riley," Buffy finally lost her patience. Angel wasn't even there to defend himself. "I know something happened between the two of you. I'm not asking what it was. If you have something against him, that's for you to sort out. But, I'm not a little girl. I don't need someone to protect me and tell me who to watch out for. It's my concern who I spend my time with, not yours." With that she pulled the rest of her papers out of the machine and walked out, leaving him standing there alone.


Another 'Annie' had been hurling its force against the building for over an hour. Angel was tense, he wondered if Buffy had reached the doctor's office, then gotten home before the rain started. He knew he shouldn't be worried, he was the one affected by the weather, not her. But he was concerned all the same. She'd said it was just an annual checkup, but you never knew what could show up. Shaking his head at the last thought, he knew he was getting too wound up. Now he was just being stupid. He just couldn't keep her out of his mind though. He was pacing around the office from a combination of concern for her and a reaction to the gale that raged outside. He couldn't concentrate and finally gave up the effort. His usual drug of choice, caffeine, hadn't helped any either. Any excuse to leave the room which felt incredibly empty, sounded good, even a short walk down the hall.

Angel was washing his hands in the Men's room when he heard the door open and saw Riley's deplorable countenance reflected in the mirror. Angel knew he should have moved to the side to let him pass. Should have. But Angel's judgment wasn't objective when it came to dealing with the Clark Kent wannabe. Angel hated Riley. He hated the fact that the jealous little prick's prank had cost them both so dearly. He hated that Riley blamed him rather than himself for the fallout. But more than anything, he hated the way Riley was constantly hovering around Buffy. Angel knew he should leave it alone, but it aggravated him to see Riley making every attempt to be near her. The thought brought a snarl to Angel's features. He watched as Riley blanched slightly and reached for the door to leave.

"Don't worry, Finn," Angel growled in a low voice, "I'm not going to beat the shit out of you. As tempting as the thought sounds."

"I'm not afraid of you, Angelus," Riley countered, as he pulled himself up to his full height. "Maybe someone should be though. You might have some people fooled, but not me."

The bald implications hit Angel and his lips curled back into a snarl as he spun to face Riley in the cramped space. "You wouldn't be talking about anyone in particular, would you?" he asked, looking Riley straight in the eye. He knew Riley had talked to Buffy. He should have known Riley would think he was looking out for her best interests. Angel thought he knew whose interests really concerned Riley.

Riley saw how quickly Angelus discerned his actions, making him even more suspicious about the 'working' relationship between Angelus and Buffy. Riley did care about Buffy and he didn't trust the psycho in front of him at all. "I thought your co-worker had a right to know about you. She has to share an office with you, she needed to be warned to be careful."

Angel saw red. How dare this asshole take it upon himself to try and protect Buffy. Buffy was not this cornflake's concern. Angel could just imagine Riley trying to slime his way into Buffy's life on the pretext of keeping her safe from him. Safe from him? The notion was preposterous. When she was with him, Buffy couldn't be in a safer place in the world. Angel would die before he would ever harm her. But Riley was trying to make her afraid of him. Without consciously thinking about it, Angel's hand shot up and clamped around Riley's throat, hurling him against the wall next to the sink. Riley was slightly taller than he was, but Angel was angry enough that he had no trouble taking the upper hand.

"I'll never hurt her," Angel growled, "But I can't say the same for you, boy!"

Riley grabbed Angel's wrist and twisted out of his grasp. He swung at Angel with his other hand, but it was blocked before it connected. Angel grabbed the hand aimed at him. Pulling Riley forward, he jerked him around, twisting Riley's arm behind his back. Angel looked at the toilet in the stall in front of them with a gleam in his eye.

"You stay out of my office and my life," Angel hissed into Riley's ear. "You've fucked it up enough."

Riley knew even though he was physically larger, he was no match for Angelus in a rage. But Riley wasn't a coward, he wouldn't back down.

"It wasn't my doing," Riley bit out as he wrestled to get his arm free, "You were fucked up long before I ever laid eyes on you."

Angel didn't even try to rein in his anger as the words hit home. He ratcheted Riley's arm up higher, then brought his foot up against the back of Riley's knee, kicking it, forcing him to the floor. He hauled him the few steps across the floor to the stall and plunged his blonde head into the toilet.

"Finn," Angel snarled as he kicked the flush lever, "don't forget to wash after using the facilities." He didn't wait to see what Riley would do. Leaving the stall, he turned and stalked out of the room.

Riley pulled himself up, shaking the water from his head. He was livid. There were only two things that kept him from following Angelus down the hall. The picture of the two men who had tried to take Angelus down the day they found him in the woods. That and what was left of his career. But he knew it wasn't over between them.


Buffy took a seat on the edge of Angel's desk. Slowly, he looked up with those piercing mahogany eyes. "Good morning, Buffy," he said.

She smiled at him. Their rapport was much improved.

Buffy's scheming was paying off. Slowly, but surely, Angel was coming out of his shell ... at work. She still had made almost no progress on drawing him out of his shell socially. He steadfastly declined invitations to the Friday payday get-togethers and he had avoided the Fourth of July barbecue several weeks earlier.

Buffy was forced to resort to alternative measures of persuasion. "So, I'm having this party at my place next Saturday," she said as casually as possible.

He looked at her, expressionless.

"I was thinking maybe you could come," she added.

He dropped his gaze, turning his attention back to the sheet of paper in front of him. "No thank you," he said.

Buffy groaned in exasperation, slumping her shoulders as she glared at him. "Why not?" she demanded, crossing her arms over her chest.

"I don't socialize," he replied, not meeting her gaze.

"Fine," she said, all of her irritation with him clear in her voice, "but I'm putting a lot of work into this damn party and it would really mean a lot to me if you would come."


Angel was ready to kick himself. He was so deep in what Cordy sardonically termed his 'brood mode', he had forgotten it was Wednesday night and she would be calling. Wrapped up in his own world when he first spoke to her, he'd mentioned Buffy's party. He felt like reaching into the phone to snatch the words back, but it was too late. And it didn't make him feel any better that she didn't conspicuously comment on it. Cordelia was quick, hardly anything got by her. He knew she hadn't asked about it because she figured he wouldn't tell her. She was right, but that didn't mean she wouldn't tuck the information away. He wasn't sure what she'd make of it, mainly because he didn't know himself. 'For a taciturn guy,' he fumed at himself, 'I've got a big mouth.'

Returning from the kitchen, he threw a couple small logs on the kindling he had prepared. His eyes absently roamed the room. It was a large space, but was dwarfed by the neat, nearly overflowing bookcases that lined every wall. Only the windows and fireplace stopped their spread. One section held art, another languages, but the shelves offered very few novels or works of fiction. There was a corner, however, full of books of poetry that had become worn and faded, as if the ink had been absorbed in their many readings. The rest of the volumes that climbed the walls were filled with hard facts and dry statistics to untangle and solve problems. Math, history, science -- tangible texts for analysis and research.

Two overstuffed chairs and a couch with throws of warm, earthy colors tossed over them were on the far side of the room. Small muted rag rugs stepped from there across the dark wood floor to where a pair of matching leather chairs and ottomans warmed themselves by the fire. It was his favorite place to be. A large, deep-piled rug stretched itself out between the chairs and the fireplace. Small tables were scattered throughout the room, most holding more books that had escaped from the shelves. It was cozy for a man, but very much a reflection of its owner, as if trying to generate a warmth he lacked. It was his fortress. He felt safe, surrounded and hidden behind his books.

He scraped the wooden match against the fireplace bricks and carefully lit the shavings beneath the logs. Angel was always cold, even in the summer. He thought fleetingly that the office hadn't been as chilly the last few of months, then put it off to the faulty workings of an old building in disrepair. At home alone he hadn't felt any difference, the cold was still there.

Angel was well acquainted with the cold, but he needed his few creature comforts. He liked the fire, it was like a comfortable old friend who bade him draw near. He liked to read or draw by its light, one ear hearing its crackle and hiss. It wasn't unusual for him to sit in his chair staring into the flickering colors, much like someone else would watch a television. Since he met Buffy, he found more reasons than ever to gaze into the flames as if they had answers to questions he did not yet possess.

He collected his coffee from the mantle where he'd left it, then fell into the welcoming cushions. Angel thought about Buffy's invitation as he leaned back in his dark leather chair, feet propped up on the ottoman before him. He staunchly avoided gatherings of any kind. The idea of attending a party, especially with the people he worked with only reinforced his long-standing aversion. With few exceptions, he could do without seeing any of them outside work. Scowling to himself, he scanned a mental index of his co-workers. Only three people, besides Buffy, had ever made a positive impression on him. Lindsey, who now headed the team of field agents, was bright, tough, quick and dedicated, qualities Angel admired. He didn't hold it against Lindsey being promoted to his former position, he understood there was nothing personal in the decision. The only other employees to catch his discerning eye were Willow, who he knew was Buffy's best friend, and Willow's friend, Tara. He felt an odd sort of kinship, sensing a deceptively keen intellect and quiet, yet powerful strength in both young women. He smiled, thinking Buffy had good taste in friends.

But, his scowl returned at the thought of Riley Finn. He knew Finn wouldn't pass up any chance to be near Buffy. A growl formed deep in his chest. Riley, it seemed to Angel, had a very dangerous habit of continually making excuses to be in the vicinity of his small, lithesome officemate. The thought filled him with near homicidal loathing. Angel had a lot of unfinished business with Riley Finn. Adding Buffy to the mix made him want to pick the boy up by the throat and throw him as far as he could fly. The image twisted his lips into a predatory smile. Dousing the boy's head in the toilet was mild compared to some of the scenarios that temptingly paraded through Angel's musings.

He was only too familiar with Finn's constant whining. Riley blamed his demotion to a desk job on Angel, rather than himself. Angel also overheard the rumors floating around of how he, himself, had gotten past the psych tests in order to achieve his field status. He knew who started them. He didn't know if Buffy had heard them. And once again Angel found he was worried about what she might think.

He tented his elegant fingers as he watched a log shift from its place. Angel had to give Riley credit, not that he'd ever tell the asshole that. But Riley saw something that Angel had been blind to - at least when he was hired. Angel had passed the testing. He had to - not only just to get into the FBI, but also to attain his goal of becoming a field agent. Once in, he'd gone even further, purely on merit, to head the team.

He'd never wanted anything more in his life and he had devoted all his time and energy towards being in the FBI, especially in the field. He let nothing stand in the way of his resolve to get where he wanted to go. Anything else paled in comparison to where he wanted to be. He did everything asked of him and more … and he made it. Alone. He hadn't depended on anyone. He hadn't wanted to, hadn't needed to and he couldn't. He'd done his homework for fucking years and that's what had gotten him in the Bureau.

And all the cases he did; the long nights he'd spent doing surveillance, weeks spent away from home undercover, costumes bought to mask who he really was, all of it, he'd done. Clawing his way out of that black pit of pain and twisted memories, he had made it all by himself, to finally become someone doing something that was meaningful.

Angel picked up the cup of coffee on the small table next to him and sipped it slowly. The most curious thing of all was that in all those years he never delved too closely into why he wanted to be an agent so badly. A psychiatrist would have told him it was to assuage the guilt he felt over his past, he was sure. Angel wouldn't have argued the point, but there was more to it. Did he do it to keep some unknown child safe from what had happened to him? Was it a way to save himself? To make up for Dru? When he asked himself at all, the only answer that came back was that he needed it. He needed to feel that he served an integral role somewhere. It hadn't been enough after all, but it was as close as he'd ever been to contentment.

Thanks to 'Agent' Riley Finn it had all dissolved. Angel had finally achieved the single objective of his existence and it was over, compliments of a new recruit playing games … and a thunderstorm. Angel closed his hand over a stray chip of thin, dry kindling and flicked it into the embers, hearing it snap as it burst.

While in the hospital after the 'incident', after the storm broke him, the truth pelted down on him, much like the rain. Lying in bed for countless days, he let it wash over him, seeping into every pore. He had never really changed. All that time, all the days and nights, weeks … years. He'd never gotten past it. The storm and subsequent breakdown had rammed it all home with an agonizing intensity. He was still that small boy, not just from his childhood nightmares, but from the very night it had all happened. He never moved on, never conquered it. He may have pushed that lost child down so far he thought he had finally lost him. But the small boy was still there, as cold and terrified as he'd ever been. Everything he did was only a charade. He had spun a gossamer web of half-truths and blindness - and in the end caught only himself. Days, weeks after his admission to the hospital, when he was trying to marshal his thoughts into some kind of cohesiveness, he remembered the day he was given his first position, in vivid detail. After all those years of deluding himself that he had done everything alone, it finally clicked into place. Holtz.

As though his hospital window had been a movie screen, he had gazed through it, back to the day he was assigned to his post. Angel saw Holtz as he tried to slip unnoticed out a side door of the conference room. He only caught a glimpse - Holtz looked up at the same time. Both men held each other's gaze, then he was gone. So struck by Holtz's expression, Angel tried many times to interpret what he saw in the older man's eyes. They reflected a mixture of pain and sadness, something with which Angel was all too familiar. But there was more that he didn't understand - hope, pride … love. Angel couldn't understand what motivated those emotions. He couldn't even understand the reason for Holtz's presence. In spite of what had happened with both families years before, he knew his sister's best friend was still Harmony, the older man's daughter. But Angel himself had avoided Holtz and his family whenever he could ever since Dru died. Although he hadn't seen him in years, as far as Angel knew, his neighbor still worked for the FBI. So he had surmised Holtz was there as part of his job. It was just a coincidence seeing him.

The realization had made Angel sick with self-loathing. He had been so naive, so ready to believe in himself. He should have known better. All of his pride in his initiative and his accomplishments; every bit of it was sorely misplaced. His admission in the Bureau had never been based on his merits. He never overcame anything. Not at all … and he had never known, maybe never wanted to know. And though he still hadn't known why, he knew then that it was Holtz who had made sure he passed the psychological screening. Of all the people in the world it astounded him that Holtz would help him. Holtz had every reason to want him dead. As dead as his little girl. Angel had failed her and everyone else in his life. He found later he was one of the very few who knew or guessed what Holtz's real role was in the Bureau.

Now Angel was just a shell, an empty husk of something that had never been real. Something that, for a time, he had believed he was. Now what was left, sat behind a desk. He didn't question his current status, knowing it was again due to Holtz's silent, saving grace. But Angel never approached him, never once sought him out to ask him. He didn't know what he could ever say.

He wondered since the day he was lying in that bed if he had fooled anyone except himself. Had everyone else known all along what a joke he was? They must have. All those years he hadn't succeeded, he hadn't slayed his dragons. Instead he was the emperor with no clothes, suited in his own armor of denial. Wrapped in his own delusions of wholeness. All the while still the broken toy, fallen off the shelf, that couldn't be fixed.

He pushed up from the chair, walking stiffly towards the kitchen. It was late. The last thing he needed was coffee, he told himself as he poured another cup. He took it back and set it on the side table, but turned away, instead of sitting down. He moved through the room restlessly, lovingly touching the spine of a book here, pulling another one down, aimlessly fanning through its pages. He circled the room slowly, surveying without seeing. Finally, he took a couple of long, deep breaths to relieve the tension he felt in his muscles, he imbibed the scent of burning wood and old books. He let what solace he could wring from them soak into him and help calm him. Looking back at the fire and his coffee waiting for him, he let them draw him back. He eased into his chair, stretching his legs out and picked up his cup.

He forcefully turned his thoughts, searching for another path to follow. And he saw golden hair framing a small face with chameleon eyes in myriad settings. Shining in the sunlight at lunchtime with Willow, laughing. Puzzling out a cipher, biting her lower lip in fierce concentration. Sliding onto his desk in her spot with a morning smile, offering the coffee that she had made for him. Glancing towards the fire he thought he must have added another log without realizing it. He remembered the irritation in Buffy's voice earlier in the day when he refused her invitation.

Not long after his refusal, he saw Finn stop Buffy outside the ladies' room. The jackass put his hand on her arm as she passed. Angel bristled at the gesture, but was mollified when Buffy shrugged the hand away and kept walking. He didn't hear the words exchanged, but the implication was clear. Finn wanted Buffy and Buffy wasn't interested. Angel was inside the break room, they hadn't been aware he was watching. Nor did they see the rare smile that lit his face for a few seconds as he saw the distance between the two grow.

He still hated the thought of a party. But he knew he'd hurt her feelings and he'd promised himself he would never do that if he could help it. Not after last time. He sighed deeply inside himself. Just to make her happy, he would go. And keep an eye on Riley while he was there. He might know Buffy didn't care about Finn, but he also knew Riley was too arrogant and dense to get it through his head that he wasn't wanted.


Chapter VI

Buffy opened the door and went stock-still. The man never ceased to amaze her. Angel was dressed in the usual Angel attire but the subtle changes were astounding. The faded black cotton pullover had been traded for a rich burgundy silk button up shirt. The khaki Dockers had been replaced with a pair of very nicely cut black dress slacks.

She swallowed audibly, making a mental note to never confuse the lack of desire to dress nicely with the inability to do so. "Come in, Angel," Buffy said, stepping out of the doorway.

The small gathering had been fairly noisy, but when Angel entered the room, most of the conversation died. Buffy smiled nervously at the crowd. It wasn't strictly a work event. The regular Friday payday group was in attendance and in addition a couple of Buffy's neighbors, Gunn, and his girl, Fred, came.

"Everyone, this is An- Liam Angelus," Buffy quickly corrected. "Liam, this is everyone." Buffy was fairly sure that Angel wouldn't have had the social graces to make everyone's acquaintance, but she didn't even leave him the option as she dragged him into the kitchen.

Angel looked at her uneasily and shifted, toying nervously with the cuffs of his shirt. "I told you I don't socialize," he said.

Buffy shrugged. "So, everyone should try something new now and then," she snapped and then frowned at herself. "Sorry," she said sheepishly. "I'm really glad you came."

Angel smiled softly at her. "Thank you for inviting me," he said.

Buffy nearly jumped when the kitchen door swung open revealing Lindsey. He looked a little startled upon seeing Angel, but then smiled warmly. "Angelus," he said holding out his hand, "good to see you. Been a while."

Angel looked at the proffered hand for a moment and then shook it. "McDonald," he said, nodding his head.

Buffy quietly slipped away, allowing the two to speak privately. Willow ambushed Buffy and tried to be subtle as she steered her into the bedroom. Once she closed the door she turned and pounced, "Give!"

"Give?" Buffy asked, confusion covering her features.

Willow thought at first Buffy was kidding. "With Liam," she prompted. "How did you get him here?"

Buffy's face cleared and a tiny smile tugged at her lips. It gave her a jolt to see Angel at the door, but mostly because of how he looked in that shirt and those pants. It had made her wonder what he'd look like without that shirt and those pants … and what was the matter with her?

She flushed when she realized Willow was watching her, still waiting for an answer. It didn't hit Buffy, as it should have, that everyone would wonder why he was there. She was used to working with him every day, used to seeing his face, hearing his voice, they weren't. She was surprised he had come, they were shocked. "I'm not really sure," she said honestly. "He told me he wasn't coming."

Willow saw the look on Angelus' face when Buffy led him to the kitchen. There was nervousness and discomfort, but not towards Buffy. Nor had Willow missed the shy smile Angel gave Buffy that she glimpsed when Lindsey pushed open the kitchen door.

Riley hadn't seen the smile, which was probably just as well. He was still getting over the shock of seeing Liam Angelus attempting to be social. What was Buffy thinking of inviting that lunatic into her home? He shook his head as he sat on the couch, watching for Angelus to come out of the kitchen. He'd keep a close eye on him even if no one else did.

When Angel left Lindsey and returned to the living room, he found a chair in a corner, as far away from everyone as he could get. He glanced around the apartment inquisitively. In his solitary life, there were very few instances he had visited other people's homes and the times he did, he had never felt comfortable. But here, he felt curiously at ease, not with the people, but the surroundings. He could see and feel Buffy everywhere, in everything, from the warm, vibrant colors of the walls, to the soft, muted tones of the furniture it contrasted. It held that sunshiny freshness he always associated with her. Small touches like scented candles, framed pictures of friends and family that covered the tops of bookcases and shelves and stuffed animals tucked in odd corners, all bore Buffy's unique imprint. The fleeting sense of comfort, however, was lost in the more common and overwhelming feeling of awkwardness from being around so many people in such a small space.

Angel's fellow co-workers were somewhat taken aback when he showed up. He still acted as though a dark cloud lived over his head, the brooding look firmly in place. He barely gave a glance to anyone in the room except Buffy. Although he was civil to Lindsey when they met and made small talk blandly enough. Even bland for Angel was a step up, he didn't 'do' small talk. He even seemed to attempt being pleasant to Willow and Tara, though it was difficult to tell for sure if that's what it was. Better to say he actually noticed them and growled less in their company.

The party had been going on for a while before Angel arrived and quieted down noticeably when he first came through the door. Conversation had resumed after a time, but was muted compared to the rather loud, active chatter earlier. The whole idea of having a good time seemed to be lacking to Xander as he looked around, deciding this called for drastic Xander measures.

"What this party needs is a little excitement," he announced, glancing around for support, "A game maybe?"

Anya jumped up, practically jumping Xander in the process. "You mean sex games?" she asked brightly. Then hearing a few snickers in the room, she added, "Well, I mean not the kind we play. Although they are fun …"

Xander, reddening visibly at her statement, interrupted her, "Anya, remember we talked about the sex thing and keeping it between ourselves?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he flamed an even brighter shade of crimson.

One cue Anya replied, "Well of course your thing is between us! I just said not those games," she huffed.

Xander attempted to direct the conversation back to safer waters, "I was thinking of 'Spoons'," he said.

"'Spoons'?" Buffy questioned, "That's a game? An eating game?"

"All you need is a deck of cards and one less spoon than players," he explained laughing, shaking his head. "You use one set of four of a kind for each person. You know … four twos, four threes, four fours. You shuffle them and pass them all out."

"Go, on," Buffy prompted him. She'd known Xander long enough to wonder what she was getting herself into if she agreed to let everyone play his 'game'.

"Then everyone passes one card to the right," he went on, "and keeps passing until one person gets four of a kind. That's where the spoons come in."

Buffy, feeling more and more like she was going to be sorry, finally asked, "And then?"

"Then everyone goes for the spoons in the middle of the table. The one who doesn't get one, is out," he said. Everyone was looking at him and then each other. "It's kinda like musical chairs, only with cards instead of music," he offered as an example. When there was still no response, he raised his voice a little to plead, "C'mon … for the fun!"

"Xander," Buffy questioned him nervously, "why do I get the feeling my table and chairs might be in danger?"

"Buffy," he chided her laughingly, "we're all adults, right? We wouldn't break any furniture. It's just a simple game!"

"So," she grinned back, "you won't mind paying for them if they have to be replaced."

"Hear that, guys?" Xander whipped around, now nervous himself, "No breaky the wood, 'kay?"

Xander viewed Buffy in amazement when she told him she didn't own a single deck of cards. He tramped off to his car and retrieved the pack he kept handy in his glove compartment. Since there were only six chairs, even doubling up on them only allowed twelve people from the party to play. To make things more interesting, it was decided whoever sat on someone's lap would play the cards. That would leave the one in the chair to navigate with or around their partner to grab the spoon.

Angel had immediately melted further into the shadows in his corner. The last thing he wanted to do was play games with people. But, Buffy, now that she'd finally gotten him to come to the party, wasn't about to let him hide.

"Angel," she whispered to him, "please play?" When she saw him start to refuse, she said, "Everyone's pairing off. I'd rather sit with you."

Angel was still about to tell her no when he saw out of the corner of his eye that Riley Finn had a determined look on his face. He knew exactly what Finn had in mind. "All right," he acquiesced, "but only with you." He was damned if the boy would get anywhere near her. It also had no small effect on Angel when he realized Buffy had chosen him out of anyone else at the party. She promptly led him to a seat at the table. Buffy had been so intent on making sure Angel kept his promise, she had jumped into his lap before she even noticed Riley approaching them.

Angel hadn't thought about Buffy actually sitting on him until she did. The closest they'd been was working side by side. The only physical contact had been when he gave her the mug and when he checked her watch and each time he felt that small spark of energy between them. But if he thought touching her was electric, having her sit in his lap was … high voltage and almost overpowering. She fit right there, like his lap had been made with her in mind, waiting for her to fill it. His arms wrapped around her automatically, as if they knew where they belonged. He could feel another more needy and immediate response to her being so near him and tried to pull back a little, desperately hoping she wasn't aware of it. When his senses cleared enough to become conscious of the world around him again, he saw Riley standing right in front of them. All thoughts of anything except protecting Buffy fell away and a low growl escaped from his throat.

Riley stopped short when he saw Buffy hop onto Angel's lap. He was furious. "Buffy," he started in a fairly loud voice.

Hearing Angel's menacing warning and feeling him tense around her, Buffy glanced up to see Riley before them. "Riley," she said firmly, "you'd better find a partner." She gave him a forbidding look, quashing whatever remark he was about to make. She wasn't about to have Riley Finn make a scene if she could help it and she definitely didn't want him for a partner. She couldn't deny the deep rumbling she felt vibrating through Angel's chest was all that unpleasant, it was oddly comforting to have that strange assurance of safety. She hadn't even noticed his arms around her, almost as if she expected them to be there.

Faith intervened at that moment, seeing the dark look on Riley's face. She purposely avoided the matching expression that instantly appeared on Lindsey's at her words. "Riley, you want to win, you need a good partner. And that would be me," she told him cajolingly.

Riley realized he had everyone's attention. It was on the tip of his tongue to say just what he thought of Angelus, but one look at Buffy's face silenced him. Snapping his mouth shut, he sat down, letting Faith sit across his legs.

"Kate," Lindsey offered, taking a great deal of effort to stay cool and collected seeing Faith choose Riley over him, "looks like you need a lap to sit on."

When everyone was finally seated, Gunn and Fred were at the head of the table with Lindsey and Kate on one side, Willow and Tara on the other. Anya saved Xander's place on the other end, flanked by Riley and Faith, across from Buffy and Angel.

Walking towards Anya with the cards, Xander glanced at those seated at the table, feeling the tension in the room ratchet up a few notches. While Willow looked cute sitting across Tara's knees, Xander was still trying to contain his shock at seeing Buffy tucked in Angelus' arms, sitting quite calmly and comfortably on his lap. Finn glaring at Angelus across the table from him and Angelus returning the look suddenly made Xander question his own wisdom at suggesting the game. It would be interesting … if it wasn't so downright scary.

Gunn won the cut and dealt out the cards. During the first few rounds everyone was getting used to the game and their respective partners. On Tara's lap, Willow couldn't stop giggling or concentrate on the cards she held. Xander's face seemed to have turned a permanent shade of red as Anya squirmed and wiggled on top of him provocatively. Lindsey threw more than one look at Faith who kept her attention fixed firmly on the cards in her hand. Angel's usually swift, precise movements were hampered by his distraction with the petite player balancing on his knees, peering at her small handful of cards. Riley stared at the couple sitting opposite from him almost nonstop.

The group finished a practice run which ended with only Buffy and Angel at the table. Angel had recovered most of his usual prowess as the game wore on. He and Buffy appeared to have an innate synchronicity. As she closely watched the cards, Angel's hand seemed to slip out towards a spoon even as she formed the thought. It was an easy victory, one that didn't please Riley at all. Buffy, paying more attention to the game and all her guests, wasn't aware of the growing undercurrent.

The look Finn gave them both, especially Buffy, kept Angelus' focus almost entirely on the glowering hulk across from him. Lindsey wasn't at all surprised. He knew the truth of what lay between the two men. He also knew what a predator Angelus was in the field. Although he sat at a desk now, McDonald had no doubt his former superior was just as cunning and quick as always. Liam Angelus had taught Lindsey all he knew and then some, especially that he wasn't a man to be trifled with lightly. Lindsey saw Riley's temper building as the game progressed and kept a close eye on both men as they watched each other warily.

Trying to divert another player's attention became the name of the game when it came to diving for the spoons. Xander would sing out, "Look over there!" to anyone off balance enough to listen. Willow put on her 'resolve' face, but even that was unsuccessful in catching hold of a spoon. Faith tried to catch people by the eye to keep them away from the real action. Buffy would laugh, wave her arms, do anything to get anyone's attention if it took them off the spoons long enough for Angel to steal one. That worked all too well on Riley as he watched, already too late, as Angel palmed the one they both reached to claim. Buffy laughed all the harder which made Riley even angrier.

In the middle of the second round Lindsey, Gunn, Riley and Angel were left. Tara and Willow had been first to lose - again. Xander and Anya had lost next. The growing tension between Angel and Riley made itself obvious to everyone whether they were still playing or not. Every time Riley went for the spoon nearest him, it was gone before his fingers were halfway across the table and he had to scramble for another. Angel would stare back at him with a taunting, openly daring look. He was itching to sink his fist into Riley's face for even looking at Buffy.

Gunn, even with his long reach and speed, still missed the spoon he thought was within his grasp and the game was left with three pairs of opponents. Lindsey made a valiant attempt the next hand to procure a spoon, but Riley practically stripped it from his fingers. Lindsey saw Faith shoot him an apologetic look from her place on Riley's legs. Faith carefully slid a card to Buffy and braced herself for what was to come.

Buffy, finally attuned to what the rest had been aware of for most of the game, tensed as she picked up the card. As soon as she turned it up, Riley dove towards the table to retrieve the only spoon. In one blindingly fluid movement, Angel stood up, lifting Buffy up near his shoulder, securely holding her aloft in one arm as he deftly plucked the spoon with his free hand and stepped back. Riley went sailing across the surface, his arm outstretched for the spoon Angel had beat him at getting once again. Riley slid across the tabletop and off the other side to land in a pile on the floor beside them, banging his head soundly against the molding.

"Faith!" Lindsey shouted, vaulting over the table to reach her. In spite of being prepared, Riley had knocked her to the floor in his rush to outdo Angel. Lindsey carefully helped her to her feet and was rewarded with a dazzling smile from the fallen dark-haired beauty.

Before Riley could even sit up, it was Lindsey who was looking down at him with a dangerous glint in his eye, "It was a game, Riley," he spat at him, "You're damn lucky Faith wasn't hurt."

"I've been in a lot worse situations, ya know," Faith assured him, "No big, I'm five by five, Linds."

"No thanks to him," Lindsey replied, keeping his eyes on the still dazed Riley. "I think it's time he said good night to everyone."

Riley gave him a withering look until he saw the other faces circled around. He dragged himself to his feet. Tight lipped, he walked to the door in silence. He opened it, turned around, addressing only Angelus, who was still holding Buffy tightly against his shoulder. "I won't be the one who's sorry," was all he said before he slammed the door behind himself.

Angel gently settled Buffy on her feet and gave her a pained look as if to tell her it was his fault. The party ended on a subdued note with everyone quickly deciding it was time to call it a night. Lindsey helped Faith find her things and guided her out the door. The others followed quietly after them. Willow and Tara were almost the last to leave.

"Was different," was all Willow could think of to say.

"Least my table is in one piece," Buffy tried to reply lightly. "Saved Xander some money."

Willow smiled brightly at Buffy and at Angel, who was still there, standing behind Buffy. "Lucky for him," she said as Tara pulled her out the door.

"Buffy," Angel said softly, once they were alone, "I shouldn't have come. This never would have happened. I'm sorry I ruined your party."

Buffy had turned around while he was talking and looked up into his solemn eyes. "No, Angel," she stopped him. "I know there's bad blood between you and Riley, but he's the one who caused trouble, not you. You were a perfect gentleman," she told him.

Angel realized Buffy was under the impression that it was the ongoing animosity between he and Riley that had caused the tempers to flare. It suddenly dawned on him that the others had probably thought the same thing. After all, what would Buffy see in someone like him? What would anyone see in him? Angel knew he should be relieved she didn't know his true feelings, it would have made things more difficult. He tried to tell himself he should be glad that's what she thought, but it wasn't working.

"I should go," he told her.

For some reason Buffy didn't like the idea of him leaving which didn't make any sense. Angel was just a co-worker and a quirky one at that. She'd done what she set out to do, bringing him into the world a little bit more, so what was her problem? "Thanks for coming," she said absently, still wondering to herself.

"I'll … see you at work then …" he trailed off as he walked out the door.

"Work, right, see you there," she said. "Good night." Once she closed the door behind him, she found herself feeling very lonely. She shrugged it off to the emptiness of the apartment after having all those people there at once. But the loneliness lingered long after Angel left.


The following Tuesday evening Angel grabbed his duffel bag and headed for the complex's gym. He usually worked out and practiced tai chi and kickboxing by himself. In a rare, erratic moment he had signed up for the kickboxing refresher class. He told himself he needed to practice against a few real opponents but he was avoiding the truth. When Willow made one of her infrequent visits to their office he overheard Buffy tell her friend she was going to the class. Buffy had mentioned something to him one time about taking and teaching courses in martial arts. He had a hard time envisioning that tiny figure being a threat. He had a harder time not envisioning that tiny figure in most of his thoughts, day and night and not as a threat … at least not that kind.

He made use of the gym on the grounds often. It was somewhere to release the pent up energy from sitting at a desk all day and a vent for the emotional roller coaster he found himself on lately. He always felt better after working out, then calming and centering himself with tai chi. He was well versed in kickboxing, but didn't practice it often anymore, except by himself. No one ever invited him to train with them and he never thought to ask them.

Tying the drawstring on the black cotton pants, he threw the dark shirt over his shoulder and slammed the locker door shut. It was long before the class was to begin and the large room echoed its emptiness to him as he entered it. Easing off a little tension before anyone else showed up seemed like a good idea. He did some warm- ups then, donning a pair of gloves, he went several rounds with the punching bag. After working up a sweat, he moved to a more dimly lit area and lifted his arms, flowing into the soothing cadence of tai chi. He became intent on trying to clear his mind of a small bright figure. So engrossed, he failed to notice the reality of the illusion pad across the room in barefooted silence to where he stood.

Buffy had arrived early with much the same idea in mind as Angel. After changing into a pair of black stretch pants and a short black halter-top, she twisted her long, blonde curls into a knot and fastened it near the top of her head, securing it with a headband. She became aware of the fact she wasn't alone the moment she stepped in the room. Buffy knew without a glance who it was in the shadowed corner of the gym. She couldn't seem to stop her forward movement until she was in front of him. Close up, she couldn't suppress a sharp intake of breath.

Angel looked like a living statue, chiseled from a vision and softened into life. As he rotated in a slow circle of liquid grace, her eyes raked over the broad shoulders and chest, powerful arms, down the washboard abs to the slim waist and hips set upon long, muscular legs. He was the most beautiful piece of man-flesh she had ever seen. Turned away from her at one point, she was surprised to see a sizable tattoo of a bird of some kind on his back. She admired the artwork almost as much as the muscles rippling beneath it. He was clothed in a pair of pants … and beads of sweat. The muscled wall that rose before her covered with those drops of moisture sent a shot of warmth tingling through her from fingers to toes. She couldn't take her eyes off him.

He felt her before he saw her. As Angel's fluid motion brought him back in her direction, he saw those same toes painted with pink nail polish. His gaze swept up to catch hers, "Buffy," he breathed as he found her eyes. His own eyes dropped to the small pink tongue that came out to wet soft, pale pink lips.

Her eyes widened when she realized she was staring saying, "I didn't know you could do that," as if by explanation.

Feeling all the air rush out of his body when he connected that the dream before him wasn't actually a figment of his imagination, he was suddenly shy. "There's a lot of things about me you don't know," he said quietly.

"I believe that," she said, reminded again of how true that was.

'Why did I tell her that? She doesn't need to know anymore about me, much better off if she doesn't,' he thought. Trying to change the subject he asked, "Do you practice tai chi?"

"I-I do, yes," she stumbled over the words as she watched him scoop a towel off the floor and dry his arms, then his chest. 'Oh, to be a towel,' she thought wistfully, then mentally slapped herself. What had gotten into her? Adding out loud, "Not the movement you were doing though."

"I could show you … if you like," he offered hesitantly. It was a temptation he couldn't resist, ignoring the little voice in his head that told him he shouldn't. He remembered how perfectly she fit in his arms the night of the party, rather how he hadn't been able to forget. He just wanted to feel her against him one more time.

She nodded mutely, giving him a tiny smile, not quite able to hide her enthusiasm about the idea. He came up behind her and slowly slid his hands down her arms, pulling them out straight in front of them. Laying his big hands over her considerably smaller ones, he slowly raised their arms straight up. Just as slowly he swept them in a wide circle, bringing them down and back around to where they started. He kept his breathing in time with the motion as much as possible, to show her the rhythm as they moved. It was difficult though - she took his breath away. They repeated the movement several more times in silence.

Angel felt as though he'd been struck dumb. His line of vision fell over her shoulder, down to where their hands were joined and followed as they moved, her back flush against him. The current he always felt at her touch was burning into him.

Hard muscles flexing against her back made Buffy very conscious of the chest pressed against the thin layer of her cotton shirt. She felt safe in his arms, as she had a few nights ago at her party when she was tucked securely in his lap. No one else generated that kind of response in her. She had always relied on herself, never needing anyone else for protection. She was surprised at how much she liked it. The warm tingle shimmered through her once again as his hands guided the arc of her arms. It was as if she could feel him, not just outside where their skin touched, but deep inside.

He felt her … warm and soft and close … She turned after they went through the movements. He could see her shining hair, then her face lifting towards his, eyes closed. Bending his head closer, his breath caught in his throat as he stared down at her, mesmerized. The long, curling lashes, the slope of her cheek, the adorable nose … the full, pouty lips. He was panting for breath and it had nothing to do with exertion. His face kept moving down towards hers of its own volition … his eyes fastened on those pale pink lips … so close … waiting to be kissed …

Her eyelids started to flutter bringing reality hurtling back to him. He stepped back, afraid his body would betray he wanted to do more than calm and center himself. Afraid of what she must be thinking.

"I think you have the idea," he managed to say in what he thought was a normal voice. She molded against him so naturally, it felt like peeling his skin away when he separated himself from her.

For just a moment Buffy thought Angel looked like he'd been ready to kiss her. One second, she had closed her eyes, letting herself go in the sensation of their arms moving together, like it was the most natural thing in the world. The next, as if it were one smooth extension of the movement, she turned and raised her face to his. Just as she opened her eyes and saw his head descending towards hers … he was gone.

"Yeah …" she answered, slightly dazed. She was imagining things. This was Angel after all. He would never do anything like that. Shaking her head slightly to clear her delusion, she missed his guilty, yet longing glance before it disappeared beneath his expressionless mask. "Like this, right?" she asked as she mimicked the circle by herself, missing the warmth that had moved away with him.

"You catch on quickly," he noted, a hint of admiration seeping in. His heart was still racing as he tried to breathe deeply to slow it.

"Comes with practice, I guess," she told him, "Although I spend more time with kickboxing."

"So why do you need a refresher on it? You are here for the class, right?" he wondered out loud.

She laughed, "Never hurts to practice, but I'm not taking it."

"Oh," he tried to keep the disappoint from showing, "I, uh … thought that's what you came in for, was all."

Chuckling again, she explained, "That is what I'm here for, but I'm leading it, not taking it."

"Oh," he repeated, though the word sounded completely different the second time.

Smiling, she whispered conspiratorially, "Just wanted to see what I'm up against around here. Maybe you can tell me, how good are they?" She wanted to bite her tongue as she saw his face fall and grow a little dark. Of course, she thought, he wasn't a joiner, how would he know?

"I don't think I can help you with that, I just use the gym sometimes," he said quietly, looking at the floor.

"I thought you were here for the class too," she said, trying to keep it light and move away from the subject.

"I was…" his voice dropping off, he stepped back a little more. What was he doing there? What had he been thinking? He should leave before the rest of the people showed up. He found his shirt next to the towel he had dropped on the floor. He pulled it on, getting ready to go.

"Good," she said quickly, "you can help me get warmed up." She could see the look of flight in his eyes. She wasn't going to pass up on a chance to get Angel involved, especially when he'd taken the first step.

"I don't know if I can help you with that either," he told her.

"Why not?" she asked, not taking no for an answer.

"I don't want to hurt you," he said softly. She felt so small and fragile in his arms a moment ago.

Buffy's temper flared in spite of knowing he meant no insult. "I'm a little girl. I'm delicate," she said mockingly. "Yada, yada, yada. It's getting old," she added heatedly. "C'mon, Angel, just try to hurt me." Then she moved in front of him in a fighting stance.

Angel winced inwardly and thought he probably winced outwardly as well. One moment he was looking down into the most beautiful face he'd ever seen. The next moment that same face, although still incredibly beautiful, was filled with fury. He hadn't meant to make her angry. He really didn't want to hurt her, but he knew that if he backed away he'd only make things worse.

Without even daring to answer, he took up a position in front of her. His swift response appeased her anger. Buffy moved back to face him and nodded. His only thought was to be careful, to go through a simple maneuver and be gentle with her. He made the first move and suddenly found himself on his back staring up at her in amazement.

"I didn't hurt you, did I?" she smiled down at him while she held a hand out to help him up. Buffy wasn't ready for the face splitting grin she saw flash back up at her. She unconsciously fell back a step from the blinding effect, her offered hand almost dropping away. Those tingling sensations were never going to go away, she thought.

He took hold of her hand anyway even though, bounding lightly to his feet, he had no need of it … at least not to help him up. Quickly, he stood in the same starting position as before, signaling he was ready to try again. "First lesson," his grin still in place, "never underestimate your opponent."

Buffy's smile widened at his words and she faced off against him once more. There was a new alacrity to both their movements the second time around. Angel still wasn't of a mind to actually fight her, he couldn't stand the thought of harming her in any way. But he was intrigued by how quickly and easily she had subdued him. They circled each other, Buffy trying to provoke him, Angel moving out of her range. Then he made the mistake of really looking at her and once more got lost in her beauty. The way her lithe frame generated her energy and vitality, her look, so intent on her purpose, her hands and feet weaving dainty patterns. When she advanced on him he never saw it coming and found himself once more looking up into her eyes with his back flat against the mat.

They both heard the sound of hands clapping, Angel on his feet at the sound, Buffy's head snapping in the direction she heard it.

Lindsey came into view, hands still hitting lightly against each other, a look of amusement in his eyes. "She must be good," he said as he came up to where they stood, "I never managed to get you on the mat."

Angel didn't feel any embarrassment at all. "She is good," he responded admiringly.

"'She's' right here," Buffy snarked at being talked about.

"Sorry," Lindsey apologized, "it wasn't meant to leave you out at all. I can't tell you how many times and how much effort I put into trying to do what you accomplished in seconds. I can see why you're teaching the class," he finished.

"It was my idea," Buffy told him, "I wondered how I stacked up against the minions of the FBI." She didn't mention she'd asked Angel the same thing and didn't look in his direction, afraid to see that small sad look again.

"It doesn't look like you have much to worry about since you just bested the best," Lindsey smiled.

"I wouldn't really say that was a fair fight," Buffy said, shaking her head. "Angel and I were just getting warmed up." Her face reddened suddenly as she heard the words she used and the fact that she had used her own name for him.

It hadn't escaped Angel that Buffy didn't call him Liam. He was sure Lindsey had caught the nickname. Rather than making him uncomfortable, Angel took an unwarranted pleasure in her familiarity. And he didn't mind at all that the other man had heard her use it.

"It was fair," Angel interjected seeing the color rise in her cheeks. "She just reminded me of how important it is not to take your opponent for granted."

"Yeah," Lindsey agreed, "That's where I came in."

Lindsey had been surprised to come across the two together when he entered the gym. Surprised, but not really shocked. The shock had come the Friday before at Buffy's party. It hadn't been difficult that night to see the chemistry between them, no matter how low key and emotionless Angelus generally appeared. In fact, the party was one of the only times Lindsey could remember ever seeing Liam Angelus show real emotions. He'd been face to face with Angelus when the larger man scooped Buffy out of harm's way while Riley slid his way into idiocy across the table and onto the floor between them. Lindsey had been close enough to see the concern, anger and more than a hint of jealousy flash through Angelus' eyes. He purposely hadn't commented on Buffy calling her officemate, 'Angel' and wondered if it was realizing she'd used that name or the remark itself that actually made her blush.

In all the years Lindsey McDonald had worked with Liam Angelus, he'd never heard him mention the name of a woman or join in any of the locker room discussions about women in general. He didn't make it his business to know Angelus' personal life, unless it impacted directly on his work. But he doubted that if Angelus did seek female companionship, it was anything beyond the physical. The man never let anyone in behind his defenses, man or woman. The little Lindsey had seen of him since he was reassigned lead him to believe Angelus' walls had gotten even thicker and his world even smaller.

He remembered finding Angelus that morning a little more than two years ago. The look of lost anguish on Liam's face wasn't one Lindsey would ever forget. He knew something intrinsic to who Angelus was had been pierced and shattered, leaving a shell in its place. The night of Buffy's party he'd gotten a glimpse that the Angelus he knew was still there. He admired and respected the man, still did, maybe even more now than before. It was true Angelus had fallen, but a lesser man wouldn't have struggled and scratched his way back even to where he was now. He knew Angelus' family was rich but that it was what Liam did with his life that he valued as his true wealth. To have it taken away in a senseless turn of events had been tragic. Lindsey had felt the loss of Angelus' presence on the team more keenly than the rest. McDonald had learned the most important lessons of being an agent under his tutelage and he owed him his life many times over.

He hoped, for Angelus' sake, that there was something between his former leader and the small blonde fighter before him. He could easily see why anyone would like Buffy Summers. She was a bright, beautiful woman. If Lindsey wasn't so infatuated with Faith he might have been interested in Buffy for himself. But it wasn't hard to tell that Buffy was attracted to Angelus, although Lindsey got the feeling she wasn't all that aware of it herself, not yet anyway. At least not to the same degree he instinctively knew Angelus was drawn to her. They made a strangely compelling image, turning as one towards sudden sounds coming from the far side of the gym.

McDonald heard voices behind him and looked back to see the others who were now filing through the door. Turning back he told Buffy with a friendly smile, "I'd like to take my turn to see how good you are for myself. You game?" he asked.

As the rest of the group filtered in and surrounded the mats, Buffy answered, "Sure, Linds. It's a good way to start the session."

The other students gave Angel openly curious stares. A few had seen him in the gym from time to time, but never interacting with anyone else. He wasn't doing much else now, only watching Lindsey approach on the mat and meet Buffy face to face. Angel was barely aware of the others, his attention was riveted on the combatants in front of him. Trying to suppress an uneven mix of fear for Buffy's safety, growing respect for her abilities and jealousy at seeing Lindsey in close proximity to her, Angel worked to keep his expression impassive.

Sitting back as an observer, instead of a participant, Angel was struck by how deftly Buffy moved against her opponent. Lindsey wasn't quite as broad or tall as Angel, but was still a fair size larger than the lightweight girl he was fighting. She seemed to dance up, then away from him, always moving, her motions calculated, yet flowing. He saw Lindsey lunge and Buffy smoothly retreat, only to twist gracefully, bringing him down by sweeping her foot under his. Angel didn't know a smile broke over his face with a look of satisfaction at Lindsey's defeat. Not until he found himself almost clapping as Lindsey had at Angel's descent to the mat. He carefully masked his features again as he continued to watch the show before him. When Buffy brought Lindsey down a second time Angel was impressed with how skillfully she accomplished it.

Lindsey, no less awed by Buffy's expertise, exchanged places with someone else in the group as Buffy proceeded to use the encounters to instruct everyone gathered around. Angel never moved from his spot until the class was over. He was entranced by the petite blonde teacher's talents although he managed to maintain his usual unreadable faηade for the remainder of the lesson.


Angel took a long, cold shower trying unsuccessfully to ignore the thoughts of Buffy fighting her way into his heart. He was oblivious to the rest of the men leaving the locker room as he took his time getting dressed. There was no hurry to return to a house he usually regarded as a haven, but tonight offered no illusion of peace. He walked slowly out of the building, heading for the parking lot when he saw Buffy stopped outside saying good night to the last of the group.

Picking him out of the shadows, she teased, "Are you here to protect me while I walk to my car?"

Pleased at the unexpected encounter, he closed the distance between them and smiled down at her, "I think you convinced me you can take care of yourself." Angel's words belied his true feelings. Regardless of how effectively she demonstrated her combat skills, he still felt protective of his diminutive kickboxing expert. "But I don't mind if you guard me while I walk to mine."

Buffy was shocked, Angel was actually joking with her. She had been pleasantly surprised to see he was still there after everyone else was gone. Unwillingly to spoil the moment she fell in step beside him without answering. Neither hurried towards their destination.

When they finally did reach their cars, parked near each other, Buffy said with a grin, "Guess I should have thought of taking on the FBI sooner."

"Maybe they weren't ready for you before now," he teased. He felt unusually light- hearted and in no hurry to say good night.

He had surprised her yet again with his answer. "Now that they know what they're up against, I'll have to be on my guard," she responded, keeping the mood going.

Seeing no alternative, he finally opened his car door as she unlocked her own. "I think you're up to the challenge," he told her honestly.

She liked this small peek at the other Angel she only got to see in glimpses. Not in any rush to see him disappear, she suddenly offered, "There's a place around the corner from here that has pretty good coffee."

Angel looked up not able to cover the smile that slipped into place.

Emboldened by the sight, Buffy added, "Not as good as my gourmet mix, but good."

Shutting his inner ear against the warning voice whispering inside his head, he answered, still in the same playful vein, "Guess I'll have to try it, just to see how it measures up." When she smiled back he said, "I'll follow you there."

After the short trip, he got out of his car and reached hers, holding the door open for her. "And they say chivalry is dead," she teased as she stood before him. Seeing the sheepish look at her words, Buffy hurried to tell him, "I like it," trying to ease his embarrassment. "It's … nice," she ended softly.

Angel said nothing, not really sure how to respond. In fact, now that he was here, he felt tongue-tied, wondering why he had agreed to come. He knew the answer was that he couldn't refuse a chance to be with her, but now that he was he didn't have a clue what to do.

He automatically opened the entrance door for her. The gesture elicited another smile from Buffy. He silently sucked in a deep breath of courage as he guided her to a corner table. The only worker in the deserted coffee shop took their orders then disappeared once she served the steaming mugs of caffeine.

Buffy sensing Angel's nervousness was careful to keep the conversation centered on the kickboxing class, then about work in general. Discussion of anything personal in nature, she knew, would send Angel skittering back behind his walls. She was enjoying him too much to take that chance. They spent over an hour dawdling over their first cup of coffee and then the refill the lone waitress reappeared briefly to supply.

They finally said their good nights beside her car as he watched her get in and start it. "Thanks, Angel," Buffy told him sincerely, "I had a good time."

"The coffee," he told her, remembering her earlier remark, "wasn't as good as yours."

"You're just afraid I won't bring you any more," she tried to say in a light tone. She couldn't hide the faint blush his words brought to her cheeks.

He smiled as he straightened up and stepped back, "I wouldn't say it if it wasn't true. Good night," he added.

"Night, Angel," she called as she pulled away.


Chapter VII

Buffy shrugged and looked at Xander. They were standing in the middle of the hallway. Given that it was shortly after nine in the morning, they kept getting jostled around by people trying to get to their offices. "I don't know," she said in exasperation.

"Please just take a look at this algorithm," he pled. "I know your background isn't CS, but you should be able to understand it."

Buffy repressed the urge to growl. Xander was right, she probably could have followed the algorithm he was working on and helped him find the flaw, but she didn't want to. She didn't have time to be standing in the hallway going over code. She had things to do!

A thought slammed into Buffy and nearly staggered her physically.

"Buffster?" Xander said cautiously. "Buffy? Are you all right? You look a little pale."

Buffy blinked and focused on Xander. She opened her mouth to speak and then clamped it shut. She took a deep breath and blew it out through her nose. "I need to sit down," she said.

Buffy stumbled into her office and sat down heavily in her chair, her satchel clutched tightly to her chest. She stared at the dirty, institutional green walls.

Angel absently rolled his chair over to her desk and set a pile of handwritten notes on her desk leaning over them. "The numbers are well within the range," he said, staring at the papers intently, "but they ... feel a little off to me. I've been going over them since last night and I want you to take a look at them."

Buffy turned her head and stared at his profile as he hunched over his notes. She did not respond, clutching the satchel so tightly that her knuckles went white.

He finally turned his head and looked at her. She stared at him blankly. He frowned. "Buffy?" he asked, raising one eyebrow.

She shook her head, trying to dispel her stupor. She looked at the coffee mug in her hand and something clicked. She held it out to him. "Here's your coffee," she said quietly.

Angel smiled awkwardly and took the mug, proceeding to take a drink. "Thank you," he said carefully. He started to turn his attention back to the papers, but he stopped. "Are you okay?" he asked seriously.

She forced a smile onto her face. "Tip top," she said tightly. He didn't look convinced. "Just leave the papers," she said, still forcing the smile. "I'll take a look at them in a minute."

Angel's expression was wary, but he shrugged and went back to his own desk. Buffy closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. She forced herself to unpack her satchel and boot up her laptop. She noticed Angel glanced over his shoulder several times to check on her.

Buffy should have helped Xander in the hallway. There had been absolutely no reason why she couldn't spare five minutes to go over his code. She should have done it without being asked, much less begged. But even when he got insistent, she balked. She had things to do. Important, time consuming things like ...


Buffy was short with Xander because she was in a hurry to see Angel. The very idea that she wouldn't be there to hand him his coffee, to take those few moments to light on the corner of his desk when she got there, had made her cranky with Xander.

Taking a deep breath, Buffy looked at the handwritten papers on her desk. She knew the dark, flowing script as intimately as she knew her own writing, probably better, given that he never typed anything. It warmed something inside of her to see his artistically slanted lettering. When had Angel become so important to her?

Thunder rumbled in the distance and it instantly pulled Buffy from her thoughts. Without conscious effort on her part, her eyes shifted to Angel. He was staring blindly at the small window then turned to look at her and their gazes locked. She smiled warmly at him and something inside him seemed to click. He smiled a bit sheepishly and turned back to his desk. Buffy watched him for several long moments to be sure that he was okay. Though they had never discussed it, she understood now how deeply the storms affected him.

Whatever it was that had sensitized him to storms had been bad. In spite of Riley's snarky comments to Lindsey about storms, Buffy instinctively knew it went deeper than that. This wound was old and had festered much longer than Angel's association with Riley. Something inside her clamored for her to assuage that pain. Of course, Angel would never allow that. As quickly as she broke through his barriers, he fortified them once again. But Buffy had never been one to walk away from a challenge.


Later that afternoon, Buffy met her reflected gaze in the ladies' room mirror. She had to be honest with herself. She liked Angel and not in a we-share-an-office-so-let's- be-friends kind of way. Part of her wanted to protect him, but that wasn't her entire motivation. What she felt towards him might very well be protective, but it damn sure wasn't maternal. She liked him. She wanted to spend time with him - possibly naked time. She wanted to find out what those bedroom eyes of his looked like first thing in the morning. Buffy's body clenched tightly at the thought as she was assailed by mental images of tangled covers, soft moans, Angel's perfect white teeth clamped into the flesh of her neck, his powerful hips thrusting as he -

Buffy shook her head violently and pushed the thoughts away. How had she come to this? In college she was driven and dedicated to her studies, but she still managed to have a lot of fun. She dated a lot. She had always been attracted to vibrant, open men with a very good sense of humor and a healthy appetite for adventure.

And now she was standing in the basement of a government building mooning over her eccentric, distant officemate. In spite of her 'no co-worker' rule. Even though half the building called him "Psycho" behind his back.

The strangest thing about her attraction was that the prospect of being with Angel made her more nervous than she had ever been with another male. Sure, she used to get first date jitters in college. The night before her date with Nate, the one when they went skydiving, she had been a nervous wreck. Or Jackson - she went caving with him even though she was claustrophobic and she was very wound up before that date. But it was always the situations that got to Buffy, the skydiving or the caving that made it exciting, not the men. She didn't need to jump out of a plane or face one of her phobias to make Angel exciting. He took care of that simply by being himself. Buffy vowed that she wasn't going to let the past ruin this, not his past and not hers.

As a rule, Buffy didn't dwell on her past. But some things had a way of surfacing in her mind in spite of how much she told herself she was over them. One was the memory of Pike - not a boyfriend, but a very close friend, closer than anyone else then or since. He was the one she had shared everything with while they were growing up. She had always thought they would see each other through anything, but that hadn't been the case. Later in their teens, when he started having problems at home, instead of turning to her or even giving her any chance to help him, he dropped her out of his life without a word. She often wondered what she had done that was so wrong that he never confided in her, never even gave her a reason for shutting her out so completely and permanently.

Less than a year later, when her father left home without even saying goodbye, she knew it must be something wrong with her that she just wasn't able to see. After repeated attempts to include him in her life long after he moved out, she finally gave up, sadly acknowledging to herself that she had been right all along. As with Pike, whatever it was her father needed, she lacked.

Losing her mother several years later had been a devastating blow. Buffy secretly couldn't get over thinking that if she had been there her mother wouldn't have died. She felt in some way that her mom had left her too. She knew it was irrational, knew how dearly her mother loved her, but a tiny part of her couldn't let the feelings go. Although she was ashamed of herself at the thought, she had even wondered once or twice how long it would be before even Giles did the same.

Buffy was aware she tended to hide behind false smiles, to keep people away even as she laughed and joked. But for the first time, she found herself not drawing back, but reaching out. She firmly decided she wasn't going to let her past spoil anything that might lie ahead. She couldn't think that every time she got close to someone she would get hurt. Not all relationships worked out like that. And besides, she just liked Angel. It wasn't like she loved him.


The next morning when Buffy took her usual place on the edge of Angel's desk, she had to sit on her hands to keep them from visibly shaking. Angel looked up at her. "Good morning, Buffy," he said.

Buffy nodded, smiling nervously. Angel widened his gaze on her and looked her over from head to toe. "You're not ill, are you?" he asked a bit too gruffly. "You don't look …"

"Do you wanna go to a movie Friday night?" Buffy interrupted in a rush.

Angel stared at her blankly for several moments. "A-a movie?" he asked.

"Yes, a movie, as in moving pictures, surround-sound," she quipped. She knew before she asked this wasn't going to be easy.

"Buffy, I don't … I don't think I'd fit in with your friends. I'm not …" he tried to say before she interrupted him.

"You don't have to fit in with my friends," she said, "Just me."

"What kind of movie?"

Buffy sighed. Blunt. She was going to have to be blunt. She didn't want Angel to have any misconceptions about what she was suggesting since he seemed incapable of fathoming the concept that she liked him in a boy/girl sort of way. "I'm asking you out on a date, Angel. You and me. Alone. Dark theater. I don't care what kind of movie. The movie is not the point."

Surprise washed over his features and he leaned back in his chair. "You're asking me out?"


"On a date?" he clarified, still unable to embrace the concept.


Angel swallowed a lungful of air.

"What?" she demanded. "Am I not attractive enough?"

"I-it's not that," he stuttered. He couldn't seem to get one word in front of the other.

"Then what's the problem? Are you not attracted to me?"

Angel took another deep breath and let it out slowly. "You're very attractive," he said quietly. 'Beautiful,' he said to himself.

"Then go to the movie with me," she countered.

It was a damn good thing that there was a desk in the way because the idea of being alone with Buffy in a dark theatre had been enough to elicit certain physical reactions in his body. Luckily, he had enough presence of mind to not point out that fact. Fighting for composure, he looked at the papers on his desk, studiously avoiding her gaze. He knew he shouldn't … but she was pleading with him. He looked up at her and his facial features were tight. She was bracing herself for a rejection when he made a defeated sound, sighing. "Fine," he said, "I'll pick you up at seven since I already know where you live."


Buffy walked down the sidewalk, mortified. She swore to herself that the next time she would pay more attention to the summaries. "Le Banquet D'Amelia" was not what she had been expecting. What amounted to French soft-core porn was not exactly her idea of an ideal first date movie with a guy. Especially when the guy happened to be Angel. As attracted as she was to him, he had never made any comment or overture to her that was even vaguely sexual.

"Well," she said, nervously smoothing down the front of her long floral print skirt. She concentrated on the sound of her heeled sandals clicking on the pavement. She wouldn't normally have worn something so dressy to go to a movie with a co-worker, but it was Angel. She had rushed home from work and spent a great deal of time on her appearance. Her long hair, which she usually wore in a knot, was pulled away from her face, but hung loose down her back. The bright pink tanktop matched the flowers in her skirt and the black sandals were almost three inches high.

"Well," Angel echoed. He too, had dressed for the occasion. He wore a long sleeved shirt that covered his wrists, as usual, but it was a soft, thin cotton knit in a deep, sapphire blue. His pants were black and molded to his legs in a manner that made Buffy want to sit up and beg.

"That was very ... artistic," she offered.

Angel didn't seem quite so impressed. "Yeah," he said.

"It wasn't what I expected. I've never actually seen ... Well, from the title I thought it was about food," she blathered.

Angel looked at her, one eyebrow raised. "Well there was food," he noted dryly.

"Right. The scene with the ... the food," she said, blushing. Why was she so nervous? It wasn't like they were a couple of virgins on prom night. She'd had sex before. Angel was an adult and sinfully handsome. She knew that despite his general aloofness, he wasn't that innocent. She sighed. Being with a guy had never made her this uncomfortable. "So, feel like getting some hot chocolate? Or some cold shower?" she asked lightly.

Angel stopped walking and looked at her. "It's okay, Buffy," he said. "I mean, I know I don't get out much, but I have actually seen a real live naked woman before."

She cringed and smiled. "I know," she said, "it's just ... "

"Uncomfortable," he offered.

She nodded vigorously. "You could say that," she said.

He took a deep breath and cocked his head at her, frowning. "This was a bad idea," he said.

Buffy suppressed the urge to growl. Defiantly, she crossed her arms over her chest, popping out one hip as she turned to face him. Absolute, brutal honesty was the only way to deal with Angel. "Why is this a bad idea?" she demanded.

He pursed his lips together, studying her. There was no way Buffy could appreciate the volatile waters into which she was wading. He knew it would be best to spare her the agony of getting close to him. He had never brought anyone anything but misery. "I'm not ... " he started and trailed off. He looked at the ground for a moment and then met her gaze again. "I don't do this, Buffy," he said. "I don't go out. I don't date. I don't know what you're looking for, but I can almost guarantee you, I'm not your guy."

Taking a deep breath, she said, "What if I'm looking for you? What if that is the only necessary qualification?"

Slowly, the side of his mouth curled into a wary grin. Somehow she managed to give him hope in spite of himself, to make him feel like maybe he did have something to offer. He knew he should push her away, but for a while, just a little while, he wanted to know what it would be like to be the man she thought he was. "All right," he said, still a bit hesitant, then almost shyly asked, "Coffee?"

They fell into step together and Buffy expectantly held her hand out to him. He stared at her hand for a moment until his grin slowly widened as he grasped it in his own. Buffy smiled broadly, merrily swinging her free arm as they walked down the sidewalk.


Angel sat rigidly on the sofa in Buffy's living room, his hands clasped in his lap. Buffy sat next to him, equally awkward. "I'd offer you some coffee," she said, "but we sorta already did that."

"Maybe I should just go home," he said.

She turned to glare at him, twisting her body so she was facing towards him on the sofa. "Do you want to be here?" she asked.

He looked at her for a moment and shook his head. "That's not an easy question," he replied.

"Gee," she said with feigned delight, "you really do know how to sweet talk a girl, Angel."

He frowned at her. "I like being with you," he said.

"You have 'but' face," she prompted.

"But," he continued, "I don't think I'm who you're looking for. I don't go out anywhere. I like to stay home. I like to read books. I don't own a television, or go out on Friday nights, or do spontaneous things."

Buffy frowned at him. "As wonderful as your confession is, I think I already figured most of this out," she said dryly.

He looked at her incredulously. "Then why do you want me to stay?" he asked.

"Because I want you," she said baldly. "I want to spent time with you and talk to you. I want to curl up on the couch together and read. I want to spend my Friday nights arguing with you about which type of marital arts are best instead of sitting in some bar trying to keep the drunk that smells like gym socks from pawing at me."

Angel's brow creased into a frown. "Riley paws at you?" he asked, gravely serious.

Buffy's lips curved into a sly grin. "Jealous?" she asked, cocking an eyebrow.

"Yes," he admitted grudgingly.

"Good," she said smugly. "That's a wonderful place to start."

"Start what?"

"This," Buffy said and slowly inched closer to him on the sofa. Angel swallowed audibly, but he didn't move a muscle. Slowly, she pressed herself against his side. She smiled at him and the open gesture warmed his heart and soul. She leaned in close. "I want to tell you a secret," she said with a grin.

Angel couldn't help himself. His heart was racing. He started to speak and found his mouth dry. Licking his lips, he said, "Y-yes?"

She leaned in so close, he could feel her warm, moist breath puffing against his skin. "Angel," she said, "Riley does smell like gym socks, but you …" She trailed off and he could feel her lips barely brushing against the shell of his ear. "You smell like chocolate."

He laughed and turned his head to face her. He stopped laughing when he realized that her lips were bare centimeters from his own. "I don't smell like chocolate," he said hoarsely.

Buffy smiled predatorily. "You do," she said, "you smell good enough to taste.'

They stayed like that for long heartbeats, teetering on the cusp. Ever so slowly, Buffy lifted her hand and pressed her palm against his cheek. He leaned into the caress and into her, tentatively brushing his lips against hers. It was gentle at first, cautious and exploratory. They nipped and sucked at each other's lips, testing each other's reactions. Slowly, Buffy's hands came up to sift through his hair. Smiling, she pulled back from him far enough to look into his eyes. She stared into the molten depths, shivering at the raw desire she saw there.

Angel cupped her jaw and brought her close for another kiss. Buffy pressed herself more tightly against him, craning her head back as he kissed her. Her lips parted and his tongue teased gently against her own. Buffy wasn't exactly sure where her wonderfully socially inept would-be boyfriend had learned how to kiss, but she wanted to send a thank you card to whoever had taught him. Her toes curled as he kissed her more insistently, his arms wrapping around her waist and dragging her across his lap.

Buffy let out a small yelp of surprise, but as Angel attempted to pull back, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him soundly. His shock melted away and he met her nip for nip as they ate at each other's mouths. His hands found her hips and bit into the flesh, pulling her against him. Buffy broke the kiss, gasping as their pelvises sealed and she felt the full length of Angel's erection.

She panted harshly, looking at him dazedly for a second or two and then kissed him again. His fingers twined through her hair as he met her ardor with his own. Impatiently, Buffy broke away from his mouth, to kiss wetly along his neck. Angel was breathing hard, his head thrown back, eyes screwed shut as she pulled mouthfuls of his warm flesh into her mouth, nipping her way down his throat. The nimble fingers of her right hand made quick work of the buttons on his shirt and her hand slipped inside, trailing over his flesh, resting just above his heart. As her mouth moved lower, she batted his shirt away and started kissing along his chest. Impatiently, she pulled at his shirt, trying to work it down his shoulders. He helped her, pushing the offensive garment out of the way, baring more of his skin to her touch.

Her hands splayed over his muscled chest, tickling along his torso. My gods, the man was beautiful. His hands fisted in the hem of her shirt but it took Buffy a while to figure out that he was waiting for the okay. Deliberately, she wrapped her hands around his and together they pulled her shirt over her head.

As her hair fluttered down around her now bare shoulders, Angel stared at her with such an expression of affection and longing that it nearly broke her heart. His gaze trailed over her skin, across her collarbone, over the gentle swell of her breasts, which were now covered only by a satin demi-cup bra in a dusky pink nearly the same color as her lips. Buffy felt like the most precious creature in the world, adored and protected. His eyes seemed to say a million words that his lips could not form. Slowly, his eyes once again locked with hers. Leaning forward, he pressed the gentlest of kisses against her lips. "Buffy," he whispered softly.

Tears stung her eyes, but Buffy held them back. No one, in her entire life had ever looked at her with such utter reverence. She kissed him harder, twining her fingers once again through his chocolate locks. He obliged her non-verbal request and kissed her more deeply, wrapping his arms around her to hold her to his body.

Buffy broke off the kiss, panting harshly. Eyes still closed, she pressed her forehead to his. Angel followed her lead and simply held her, his hands tenderly sifting through her hair, offering her silent comfort as the surfeit of emotion raged inside her.

She took one final steadying breath and pushed herself back off his lap. Rising to her feet, she stood in front of him, the fabric of her skirt brushing against his legs. Slowly, she extended her hand to him in open invitation.

Angel stared up at her. Her eyes flitted to the open door of what he knew was her bedroom and then back to him. He swallowed audibly. The words crowded at the back of his throat. He needed to make excuses, to tell her that they didn't need to rush things. He needed to remind her that she was too good for him, that she belonged with someone steady and normal without all of his emotional baggage.

But the words wouldn't come.

Angel wanted this - wanted her with an almost unearthly hunger. And for the first time in his life, he let the selfishness take over. He could bear any burden. Time proved long ago that he could live with the crushing knowledge that Dru's death was his fault. He could go to work every day knowing that he was a mere shell of his former self. He could resign himself to the almost unendurably lonely, desolate existence he so richly deserved.

But not now. Not tonight. For this one moment, he couldn't bring himself to push Buffy away, even if it meant saving her. He wanted so badly to lose himself inside her bright, shining warmth. Just this once. He grasped her hand in his own and stood up.

Buffy smiled up at him beatifically, looking for all the world like she was the angel. Turning, she walked to her bedroom, her fingers twined through his, leading him behind her like a helpless puppy. He knew in that moment that he would follow her anywhere, even into Hell itself. The realization that she was leading him not to a fiery death, but into her most private sanctuary made his chest ache with longing.

The room was dark, but he had vague impressions of a large, welcoming bed. Even in the dim lighting he could tell the room was slightly cluttered, like her office, with all of the tangible items that Buffy needed to feel at home. His heart pounded in his chest, causing his breath to come in short, ragged bursts. He loved the fact that she needed to keep constant visual reminders of the people important in her life. He loved that some delusion on her part made her want him too.

Leaning down, he twined his fingers through her hair, tilting her face up to meet his own. She sighed as their lips met and Angel took the opportunity. His tongue snaked out to duel with hers and she raised up on tiptoe, deepening the kiss. He was mindless, lost in her sweet taste until he realized she was urging him down onto the bed next to her. He complied quite willingly, following her down and half blanketing her body with his own. One of his legs was insinuated between hers as he propped himself up on his elbows over her upper body. One of his hands gently traced the graceful line of her cheekbones, her jaw as he continued to kiss her deeply.

Buffy's fingertips skimmed over the corded muscles of his arms and shoulders. They caressed his chest, the washboard definition of his abs, committing every texture to memory. She tickled across his hip and then circled around following the indentation of his spine. As he drew one of her lips into his mouth, nursing roughly, her fingernails bit into the muscled wall of his back and a heady whine broke the silence.

He broke off the kiss, his lips working their way across her jaw and down her neck. He peppered soft kisses across her collarbone and then laved wet, open-mouthed kisses over the swell of her breasts.

"Angel," she whined breathily, her fingernails digging in deeper as she pushed herself against his sinfully decadent mouth. "Please," she said softly, moving restlessly under him.

His hands slid under her body, searching for and finding the clasp to her bra, his lips brushing against her own.

"Yes," she hissed, shifting again. Angel had unhooked her bra, but not removed it and her restless motion twisted the dusky pink satin material downward so that one of her nipples was visible.

He moaned at the sight, ducking his head to catch the pebbled flesh gently between his lips. She let out a tender wail, clasping his head to her chest with one hand as he tenderly suckled her aroused flesh. He laved the area with long sweeps of his tongue, wetly kissing and sucking. As he carefully bit down, her breath caught sharply and her leg twined around his hip in a gesture of raw, physical need.

He couldn't help himself. His hand found the ankle of the leg thrown around his hip and he slowly traced upward, feeling the silken skin of her calf, the vulnerable indentation of the back of her knee, the lush wonderland of her thigh. The material of her skirt kept him from venturing higher and his hand abandoned its quest, coming up to cup her breast as his mouth sought out hers.

Her hand covered his where it massaged her breast and as they kissed, Buffy rolled them onto their sides. Gently circling his wrist with her fingers, she guided his hand to the back of her skirt. Angel took the cue and drew the zipper slowly downward. When it was completely undone, he stopped kissing her, pulling back far enough to look at her face.

She was breathless, her eyes huge and luminous. Her hair streamed over her shoulders, her bare upper body a sensual riot. Her lips were slick and swollen, parted slightly as she panted. She was a goddess. She was his goddess. Once again, his protestations fought to break through, but he could not give them voice. He was being offered salvation in the form of this glorious fey creature and he could not turn it away. She smiled at him and pressed a gentle kiss against his lips before lying back on the bed to watch him. Her expression was a heady combination; half seductive temptress and half scared little girl. She bit down on her bottom lip nervously as she waited for him to make the next move.

He smiled and took the opportunity to kick off his shoes and socks before once again blanketing her body with his own. She giggled as he nipped playfully along her ribs before tracing a line of fire down her stomach. His tongue circled decadently around her bellybutton before giving it a long, sensuous lick. As he ventured lower, Buffy's hands found his shoulders, biting anxiously into the corded muscles, but not attempting to stop him.

Angel could feel the tension in her body, almost as if she were waiting for him to judge her. It was an absurd thought. He was the one who should be judged, not her. Buffy was perfection, absolute perfection. With his face pressed against the warm, fragrant skin of her abdomen, Angel had never possessed a truer thought in his life. Buffy was perfection.

He kissed her flesh, tasting the distinctive flavor that belonged only to Buffy. Tentatively, his fingers found the waist of her skirt and gently tugged at the material. There were no demands and he gave her every opportunity to change her mind. Without a moment's hesitation, Buffy lifted her hips and allowed him to skim the material down her legs. Her shoes had been lost some time ago and she now lay before him wearing only a pair of dusky pink panties that matched the long forgotten bra. Angel swallowed audibly.

She waited, silent and still, for him to do something. She wasn't sure what she expected, maybe a smart assed comment to break the tension or perhaps some seductive, meaningless words. She expected him to act in the same manner as her previous lovers and when he did move, her earlier expectations shamed her deeply. Angel crawled up her body with an expression of pure adoration. He stared at her mutely before lifting his fingers to touch her cheek, her jaw. His thumb brushed softly across her lips before he leaned in for the most reverent of kisses. Tears pricked Buffy's eyes. How had she ever considered that he would treat her like the former nameless, faceless men from her past?

They kissed for long, glorious moments, losing themselves in the taste and feel of each other. Their upper bodies were pressed tightly together and Buffy could feel his heart pounding in rhythm with her own. But the moment wasn't perfect. The rough texture of his slacks distracted her and she broke off the kiss abruptly.

She looked at him, once again biting down on her bottom lip, only this time the expression was mischievous. She grinned at him, her nose crinkling up in an adorable manner before she reached for his belt. Something at the back of Angel's mind screamed for him to tell her no, but when he looked at the blissful, teasing expression on her face, he could not do it. He rolled over onto his back, pillowing his head on his hands as he let her do as she wished.

Buffy smiled, rising up on her knees. In an act of sheer bravado, she straddled his hips, looking down at him. His gaze traveled over her body, making her feel hot and needy. She reached down and unbuckled his belt. As she moved to the button of his slacks, Angel took a sharp, shallow breath. Buffy's gaze shot to his face. His expression could only be described as lustful and it filled Buffy with a power she had never before known. Emboldened, she abandoned the button and scraped her fingernails lightly over the tented fabric of his pants.

Angel groaned, his eyes falling shut as she touched him through the material. He was hard, his flesh begging for her touch. Her fingers followed the rigid outline of his shape, stroking him lightly. She took mercy on him and returned to the button, freeing it before carefully drawing the zipper down.

She grabbed the hem of his boxers as well as his pants. She looked at him and he took a deep breath before covering her hands with his own and helping her remove the garments. As soon as he was free, Angel tumbled Buffy back on the bed, glorying in the feel of his nude length pressed against hers. Almost nude. Angel hooked a finger in the waistband of her panties and soon she was as bare as he was.

She giggled as they kissed and Angel swore it was the sweetest sound he had ever heard. One of his hands found her hips, his fingertips lightly skimming over her abdomen to rest on the downy curls. He stroked her lightly. She was damp already, moisture wetting her curls and she whined plaintively, nudging against his exploring fingers. He parted her gently, his fingers caressing her sensitive flesh. His thumb circled her clitoris and Buffy gasped, her hips thrusting as she buried her face against his shoulder. Angel smiled, urging her to part her legs more as his fingers lightly traced the entrance to her body.

"Angel," she wailed softly, pulling at his shoulders.

Though he thought it impossible, her quiet plea made him even harder. This beautiful goddess wanted him. She knew him better than any person on the planet and still, she wanted him. He could not deny her.

He slipped between her legs, which she parted gladly. His weight supported on his elbows, he kissed her deeply as his hips nudged against hers. She wrapped a leg around his waist, silently urging him to assuage her need. He broke off the kiss, panting raggedly.

"Not yet," he managed to gasp, reaching for his recently discarded slacks.

Buffy watched as he fumbled around the pockets frantically before finding his wallet. With a strangled groan, he fell back onto the bed next to her, "I, uh, don't have any protection," he told her in a low voice.

Reaching over him, Buffy groped through the drawer of her nightstand before setting a little foil package on his chest. He looked at her, one eyebrow cocked.

"I believe in being prepared," she said. "And … I bought them with you in mind."

"Really?" he asked.

Absolutely serious as she pressed a kiss to his lips, she said, "Really."

Angel kissed her back before taking the packet and tearing it open. With Buffy's assistance, they had the condom rolled on his rigid length quite efficiently.

Once again, she tugged at his shoulders and this time Angel did not hedge. Slipping between her legs, he positioned himself at her entrance and slowly slid inside.

They both hissed as he stretched her deliciously. When he was seated to the hilt, he stopped. He stared down at her and she met his gaze unashamed. She brought one of her hands up, to trace along his jaw.

There were so many things he wanted to say to her, so much she needed to understand. She needed to know how absolutely precious she was to him, how much he loved her. But the words would not come.

Buffy seemed to understand and she drew his head down for a kiss. Their tongues tangled wetly as he began a gentle rhythm of thrust and withdrawal. Buffy keened, breaking off the kiss as her legs wrapped tightly around his waist. Angel couldn't take it anymore. Burying his head in the pillow next to hers, he concentrated only on feeling as he thrust powerfully into her tight, hot warmth. She was so damn responsive, her internal muscles massaging him, her short fingernails biting into his back as she moaned his name. She was perfect in a way that not even his most heated fantasies could match.

One of his hands found her hip and then the place where their bodies joined. The pad of his thumb roughly rubbed her clitoris and her internal muscles clamped down on him, just as her legs did around his waist. She thrust up against him, wailing as her climax overtook her.

Angel wanted to last longer, but the sweet siren call of her pleasure was too much. He had been alone too long and Buffy was too perfect. With a roar of pure male animal satisfaction, he joined her in bliss.


Angel felt every muscle and bone as they coalesced into pleasurable perfection. A feeling wholly unfamiliar to him. He was full to the brim, in body and soul, sated and sleepy, not even capable of forming a thought. He had made love to her more than once, unable to get enough of her unforgettable essence. There was no room in his heart for anything or anyone except the small world in his embrace.

Falling fast over the edge of consciousness, he forced his eyelids open once more to gaze at the wonder he held close. Buffy was curled against him, her hair a glowing wave of gold that covered his torso, her face inches below his own. One small hand lay possessively over his heart, the other he felt the fingers of tucked warmly inside his own much larger one, holding his tightly, even as she slept. Angel had never seen a more precious sight. The corners of his mouth curved at the sound of a soft snore as she nuzzled against his skin. She fit so perfectly against him. His arm gathered her even more securely against him, she could never be too close. He tried to stay awake, just wanting this moment to keep on happening. Even as he fought, sleep finally claimed him. He carried her into his dreams with a peace he hadn't felt since he was a child.


Buffy woke to a warm muscular chest pillowing her head. She felt an arm wrapped protectively around her and her fingers held in a tight clasp by the man beside her. Rain was falling lightly against the window. She couldn't remember ever feeling so safe and sound, like being wrapped in a gentle cocoon. Lifting her head only far enough to look into the face above hers, Angel lay sound asleep with the most beatific smile she had ever seen. And on an already beatific face it made her heart skip a beat. He was beautiful. Not just his face, she thought, but all of him.

It wasn't the first time she'd slept with someone, but she wished it were. It had never been like that with anyone else. Angel had treated her as if she was a special treasure. She couldn't believe how hands that large could be so gentle and she flushed as she remembered how they caressed every inch of her. He had been so tender and loving he'd brought tears to her eyes. No one had ever made her feel so unique … as if he cherished her.

Deep inside she knew he had shared himself with her in a way he had never done with anyone before her. How could she not know he loved her? It had been in every touch, every whisper, the way he looked at her and held her. And she'd never known until he made love to her. She wondered how long he had known, if it was the same for him, just discovering it. Gazing at him dreaming, the lop-sided smile pulling at one corner of his mouth, she knew she loved him.

Without changing her position, she curled back into his chest, smiling as she felt his arm unconsciously pull her tighter against him. She drifted back to sleep still smiling.


Silent black clouds had winged their way closer, hiding the coming storm under the cover of night. Building up fury and power, it streaked through the dark air and struck without warning.

Angel felt the lightening bolt's shock wave run through him and the ground as if they were one. The cold ate his soul as viciously as it ate at his body. He tried to roll over, to huddle into a ball, but she was there as always, resting against him, trapping his arm. She was cold, so cold and he couldn't do anything to warm her. She had depended on him for so long, clung to him for protection and he had failed her so miserably. It was all his fault ... Lightening flashed through the trees and he looked down. Long tendrils of blonde hair spilled across his chest. Her hand rested in his, lifeless and gray in the pale light.

But he wasn't looking into Drucilla's dead stare. The hazel eyes that always danced and twinkled with life gazed blankly through him. Skin that was so recently flushed in passion was waxen and pale beneath his fingers. Air once hot and sweet against his face no longer puffed through the silent lips. The warm, pliant body that had molded around his and become a part of him lay cold and still in his arms.

What had he done? He had let her die!

For the second time in his life Angel stood on a precipice, teetering on the edge of sanity. He saw the dark, cold abyss yawning open, ready to swallow him whole. A searing flash of electricity lit the room like the negative of a photograph. Somehow the trees had given way to walls and a ceiling. He felt a small movement and looked down. The hand, that had lain chill and quiet, curled its fingers in his. Angel's breath caught in his throat. He stared blankly in terror at the small fingers twining more tightly through his own. By degrees, the world righted itself as he felt the soft form nestled beside his fill him with its heat.

He was lying in bed next to Buffy. There was no drenching rain or keening, brutal wind, no hard forest floor. And she wasn't dead. Thank God, she wasn't dead! He released a painful, shuddering sigh as tremors violently wracked his body. Thunder rumbled far in the distance. The storm was already losing its momentum as he desperately pushed the shards of the cruel nightmare away. He took long, even breaths, deep in his lungs, waiting for the blood racing through his veins to slow. He lay there for long moments, letting her warmth seep into his shivering frame, chasing away the cold.

Helplessly, he clapped his hands to his head, raking his fingers through his scalp as dark images and imaginings twisted and tore through his mind. What if that were to happen? What could he do to protect her? Why would it be any different than before? He choked back a silent sob. How dare he let the coldness inside him even touch her. It was a part of him as much as the scars on his wrists. He had no right dragging her down into his own frozen depths. He had been foolish to let things go so far. Never should have even gone out with her, let alone …

His gaze fell to the slumbering figure pressed against him, the sight alone inundating him with love. His lips drawn taut with terror segued to a soft smile. He dropped his hand to the cloud of spun gold, so soft and silky against his fingertips. Even filled with such a vehement hatred of himself he couldn't find a single cell in his being that regretted being one with her for those few incomparably precious, perfect hours.

He wanted so much to stay there and curl around her, to take shelter in her warmth, but he didn't dare. He couldn't remain with her. He knew that. His muscles tensed at the thought of leaving her. Staying with her any longer would end as badly as everything else in his life. He couldn't allow her life to be wasted with his for a moment more. He'd already done enough damage. Buffy was vitality and light. She had no business in his darkness.

At the thought his resolve strengthened. Carefully, he disentangled his limbs from hers and slipped from the bed. With a heavy heart, he desolately searched the darkened room for his clothes. Once dressed, he padded softly to the door. He turned, taking one last longing look as she slept peacefully, a smile curved on her lips. His heart ached at the sight, but he forced himself out of the room.

Once home, Angel kicked off his shoes at the door. Tugging his shirt off as he entered his bedroom, he tossed it on the floor. His pants and socks followed after as he stretched his long frame on the bed. He threw one arm across his eyes, but the visions refused to be put away so easily. He was drained from the past crowding in and overtaking his mind. He no longer fought it, waiting for the ghosts of long ago to finish their dismal dance. But even they couldn't keep her away.

Since the day they met her name had been pressed into his heart without him even knowing. "Buffy", he whispered to the cold darkness. To him it held the resonance of all that was warmth and light. Now, after loving her, that sound was his whole world - and he couldn't live there.

Pulling his arm back over his face even tighter, he wept.


Chapter VIII

Before she was fully awake, Buffy knew that something was wrong. The arms that had held her all night and the chest, rising and falling beneath her head, were gone. She sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and searched the room. His clothes were gone.

Her sleeping demon of desertion, instantly aroused, leapt up and gnawed at her. She tried to stay calm, thinking, 'He's just in the other room.' Jumping out of bed, she grabbed her robe from the back of the door, tying it as she walked into the living room. He was gone. Looking carefully around the room, tears stinging behind her eyes, she found no trace. No note, no sign … no Angel.

She thought it would be different. She thought he'd be there when she woke up, imagined his eyes looking down when she opened hers. But Angel wasn't there and it twisted her heart how much she cared. The pain grew no matter how hard she tried to ignore it. It wasn't the first time loving someone had hurt. But it was much deeper and hurt much more than it ever had before. She finally gave in, the heartache pushing out tears she had been trying not to cry. Sinking down onto the couch, her legs pulled up beneath her, she grabbed the pillow nearby. She buried her face in it, soaking it.

When her shoulders finally stopped shaking from her sobs, she sat up, falling back against the cushions. He'd left her. She was trying to understand how he could do that after what they'd shared. "Was I not good?" she questioned aloud. But shook her head, no, she knew that wasn't true at all. It had nothing to do with the act itself. It hadn't been a casual encounter. Remembering his caresses, his hesitant, humble worship of her during the night, she could feel his love. She had known once he touched her that she loved him. She was so sure he felt the same. She knew it had been exceptional - extraordinary - she knew it. "Then why did he leave?" she cried, throwing the pillow across the room, the tears once more spilling from her eyes, "Why does everyone leave?"

Buffy remembered being wrapped in his arms. She belonged there. She realized now it was his love that had made her feel safe … wanted. Even when he was fast asleep he'd held her tight. She wanted so badly for him to be there, holding her, just holding her, as he had. She pushed herself up off the couch and moved towards the closet by the front door. Opening it, she reached in and searched through the hangers on the rack and found what she was looking for. She wrapped herself in the leather jacket Angel had given her a few months before. He had refused to take it back though she'd offered a few times. Now she was glad she had it. He had hurt her, but she still needed some small part of him. Settling back onto the couch, she drew her legs up to her chest. She adjusted the jacket, feeling the phantom arms filling it and the scent that enveloped her. It was chocolate. She closed her eyes and let the memories wash through her.

When he kissed her she melted into liquid, he poured himself into her, blending with her. His hands everywhere she needed to feel them, touching, stroking, tracing, smoothing. She felt his skin under her fingers and the shivers that ran through him from her touch. She had been hungry for him. Her hands and lips had wandered up and down his large frame, his neck, his beautiful chest, his shoulders. His muscles had rippled and flexed as his moved around her, above her, within her. When he was buried inside her, as deep as she could pull him, it felt so right. He should be there.

She opened her eyes and looked at the window, rain still running in rivulets down the pane. Did that have something to do with it? She wondered. She wanted to believe that, thinking of what the storms did to him. It was better than the alternative. But she couldn't convince herself of it. No, she thought wearily, it wasn't any different … it was her. Buffy didn't know what it was she kept doing wrong, but everyone left.

Giving up the safety of the couch, she held the jacket around her like a shield and dragged herself to the kitchen. Her gaze fell on the refrigerator. She didn't want solid food, the idea alone almost gagged her. Without thought, she pulled the basket out on the coffeemaker, scooping in coffee from the nearby canister. Automatically filling the water reservoir, she started the machine with barely a glance. She wandered over by the window, looking out without seeing. Crossing her arms, she unconsciously shrugged closer inside the protective leather mantle.

The rain, still falling from dingy, tattered clouds, tapped harshly against the glass, breaking her reverie. Picking up a cloth near the sink, she absently cleaned the countertop. With thoughts far away, it was the sugar bowl left out of place that reminded her of the coffee. As if being played like a puppet on strings, she found a cup, filled it, spooned sugar in and stirred. She came back to herself with a start, cup in hand, feeling slightly out of synch. Attempting to shake off the dazed feeling, she wandered back to the couch, setting the mug down nearby, untouched. Buffy tried not to think or remember, just to let the numbness wrap around her like his jacket. It didn't work. Her thoughts strayed back, they wouldn't go away.

She had missed Pike terribly when she didn't see him anymore. Her father had left her feeling bruised. This hurt her far worse than anything either of them could have done.

As soon as she knew she loved Angel … he was gone. Once one tear fell, she couldn't seem to stop crying. Couldn't stop hurting. She couldn't do this again. Every time she let someone in, let someone get close, she ended up alone. What was it about her? Buffy wasn't cold, but she hugged Angel's jacket a little tighter, scrunching her legs up under it, resting her forehead on her knees.


He didn't open his eyes. He didn't want to see. Buffy wasn't there. Not in his bed. Not in his house. Not in his life. 'I want my life to be with you,' he whispered to the face etched behind his eyes. A single tear trailed down.

She'd never been in his bed or his house. But it wasn't the physical space. She was in his heart. In his soul. She was in every corner of him. Angel knew she would be everywhere he looked without her ever having set foot in his door. How was he supposed to put her out of his life when she was the very one he needed to live it?

When he did finally find the strength to raise his eyelids, the first sight was the rain beating down, splattering against the window. His heart twisted as did his lips. He hadn't even noticed the storm. The empty bark of his laughter matched the mirthless imitation of his smile. The irony hit him like an anvil. He thought by now he knew all about pain, had visited every facet of it. But what he'd felt before, still deep and wounding, had dulled over the years. And he'd learned to live with it. The storms had only exacerbated it. But this, this was so much worse. It was a different agony altogether. It cut to his soul, sheering through every vein within him. He was almost surprised when he looked away from the rain and down at himself that he wasn't bleeding.

Last night, for the first time in his life, he had felt like a normal man. For a few brief amazing hours he had found what it felt like to be alive. To feel love. Now he knew what he was missing. Staring at the hands that had held everything he hadn't even known existed, he softly cried to them, 'How am I supposed to go on, knowing what we had? What we could have had?' The fingers formed into fists. Could have, if he wasn't who he was, didn't carry what he did. If another storm hadn't reminded him with a vengeance of just what he was … or wasn't. He wondered fleetingly if knowing her a few years ago would have made a difference. No, losing his mind as he did, he was glad he had spared her that. Both of their lives would have been worse. He couldn't lay the question or burden of what he was on anyone else, especially her. He wasn't a normal man. He never had been. It had taken so little to prove he wasn't worthy of even being near Buffy.

Angel finally crawled across the bed, forcing himself to sit up. His toes touched the shirt he had pulled off and thrown on the floor the previous night. Gathering it up and pressing it to his face he could smell her scent. He heard her light, breathy voice telling him he smelled like chocolate. He slid the shirt on and buttoned it, breathing in to keep her close. He pulled on the pants lying nearby and lurched to a stand to finish drawing them up to fasten them.

He ended up in the kitchen, going through the motions of making coffee without quite knowing how he got there. He watched water pour itself into the machine and coffee fall in the little basket. His hands were making the movements but they didn't feel connected.

His gaze caught the small bottle of medicine he'd left in a corner weeks before, abandoned, no longer needing to find all his strength in its contents. There was nothing man had devised that could lessen or heal the pain he felt now.

The storm had darkened the morning sky to a dull, thick gray, shrouding the house in its mist. Angel realized after a time that he'd been staring out the windowpane, eyes tracing the rain down its cold surface. He didn't know how long he stood there, but the coffee was done brewing, the carafe full. He hadn't even smelled it, still washed in the lingering fragrance of vanilla. He turned off the machine, filling a cup from the cabinet with the steaming liquid and shuffled towards the living room. He reached the fireplace and sagged into his chair gazing at the charred remains of the last fire.

He would have stayed there as he was, like a rag doll carelessly tossed down, but the cold forced him to his feet once more. Lighting the fire after building the pile of kindling and logs, he fell back into his seat. The small effort had drained the last of his energy. For hours he laid inert, not a muscle moved even towards the coffee, cold and forgotten by his side. The fire warmed him, but his mind numbed as the time passed. It slowly shut down against the onslaught of images and thoughts that endlessly chased and taunted him. The tongues of heat that sizzled in front of him morphed into tender flames of soft skin and softer moans that soothed him. He slept, his features dropping into repose, at rest if only for a while.

When he turned his head to the chair beside his, he expelled his breath in a ragged cry. There, a familiar form was curled in a ball; long flaxen hair against skin flushed by passion, eyes he knew were green, closed in slumber above lips bruised red with love. Angel started suddenly, shaking as the dream melted. The chair sat empty as it had always been.

His long frame was stiff from lying so long in his chair. The small respite gave him no peace once he was awake. He dragged himself up and stretched, trying to get the feeling back in his limbs. He looked at the clock on the mantle and sighed, thinking of the many hours he still needed to fill. The last 'Annie' had drifted away leaving behind a trail of chill dampness, but the room seemed crowded, pushing against him. He found a pair of shoes in the closet and put them on. Grabbing his leather jacket from its hook near the door and his keys on the table below it, he left his refuge behind him.

After walking for hours, trying to blank his thoughts and failing miserably, he stopped in a diner for food. He had no taste for anything, no inclination to eat. He only choked the food down to quell the hunger his body told him was there. Never realizing how far away he had wandered, he trudged back home. He collapsed on his bed, not willing to remove his shirt, too tired to bother with the rest and let exhaustion overtake him.

The next day was no better. Angel was restless and tense. He found himself in front of the bookcases, pulling the volumes out one by one, cleaning and rearranging. Their familiar weight and texture didn't impart their usual comfort. But, he desperately needed the distraction, even if it occupied only his hands, not his mind.

He'd hurt her … again, only this was so much worse. He'd left without a word and hadn't called her since then to explain. What would he have said if he could have found the courage to even pick up the phone? Tell her he was sorry he'd made love to her? He knew he should be, but he wasn't. He hadn't been able to maintain control and for that he was sorry … for her, not himself. It was the most wondrous thing he'd ever experienced - perfect - if it hadn't resulted in wounding her. Not for the world would he give up what he shared with her.

Try as he might he couldn't stay the sweet stream of memories of her touch, her feel, the sounds she made, the taste of her on his lips. That curious fire that fused them and the way they molded together as if they were one. He couldn't stop his body responding, growing painfully hard. He dropped the books in his hands, guilt and shame washing over him. Roughly dragging his fingers through his hair, he bent his head, then laced his fingers over it. He didn't know how to get Buffy out of his mind … and he didn't really want to, regardless of how it tortured him. Angel finally forced himself back to the task at hand, despite the pathetic attempt he knew it to be.

When he reached the poetry books, he pulled out the overflowing portfolio with trembling hands. He knew it would only deepen the ache in his heart, but couldn't stop himself from studying every single drawing. He turned each page slowly, drinking in every facet of the face he loved, tracing a finger more than once down a beloved line or curve. He finally slid the album back in its place with a long agonized sigh.

He sat on the floor, surrounded by the stacks that had provided the only protection he had ever found. His own manufactured cocoon. Now he saw how fragile it had always been, but it was all he had. He knew he couldn't have the life he longed for, the one he had just put away on the shelf interwoven with the drawings. Picking up a book, he brushed the dust away with a cloth. He had to rebuild that other life again - the cold, empty one that was so much colder and emptier than it had ever been.

As he continued through the shelves, deliberately and methodically, he thought about the next day and steeled himself for what was to come. No matter how badly his heart cried against it, he was doing the right thing. She didn't know, couldn't understand and didn't deserve to be sucked into the mire that had held him his entire life.

Nothing would have ever made him ready for Buffy. He had no words from the poetry he'd memorized to give him answers. No facts and figures in his books to tell him what to do. He was at a loss. He had no concept of how she felt or why. He'd never been in any relationship and he didn't know how to deal with it. He had nothing with which to compare it. He just didn't know! All he knew was that he loved her and because he did, he had to stay away. He had to stop while he had the strength to be able to and before she was injured more. He tried not to think about how hard it would be to tell her something he still couldn't even put in words. Tried not to think of that face, those eyes piercing straight into his soul.


Buffy spent Saturday afternoon moping on the couch until she forced herself up. She washed, and dusted, and mopped - as she always did when she was upset, thinking at least that she was on the clean side of misery. At two a.m. she found herself sitting in front of her oven door, her tears mixing with the oven cleaner. No matter how busy she kept her hands, her mind never stopped reminding her how much her heart was breaking. She gave up on the stove, suddenly identifying to a frightening degree with Sylvia Plath.

Feeling a weariness beyond the physical, she fell into her bed. Whatever tears hadn't been shed seeped through as she wrapped herself in her sheets … and in Angel's scent that permeated them. In spite of all her cleaning, she hadn't had the strength to change them, thinking he was still there in some way. Besides his jacket, it was all she had and she clung to it. She could feel every gentle kiss, every tender caress he'd given her. His trembling response wherever she touched him had thrilled her. She had never felt such a feeling of joy like that. She had never felt as though someone was so much a part of her as he was when he filled her. She had surrounded him and drawn him as close as she could, as if to merge them into one. Crying softly, she finally slipped into unconsciousness, her pillow drenched with tears.


She was up very early the next morning, not willing to repeat her actions of the day before. She showered and dressed quickly, eager to put as much distance as possible between the apartment, especially the phone, and her.

She thought about going to Willow's, but didn't want to intrude on her and Tara in the early morning hours. To be honest, she didn't know if she was ready to see the two of them, knowing they would be rising from the same bed. Buffy wasn't a prude, but the concept of Willow being in a relationship with Tara was still fairly new, even if they had been living together for a while now. It was like getting used to wearing a new pair of shoes and they didn't feel all that comfortable yet. And it reminded her all too painfully of waking in her own bed … alone.

Instead, she got in her car and pointed it in the one direction she knew she could find solace, at least for a time. Two hours later she swung the car into the driveway and saw by the dashboard clock it was still very early, not even seven a.m.. Buffy opened the kitchen door with her key, trying not to make any noise. She needn't have worried. Peeking into the room, she found herself locked in Giles' surprised, but gentle gaze.

At the sound of the lock being turned he had lifted his head from the tea he was pouring. He put the cozy on the teapot and stepped around the counter. "To what do I owe this honor?" he asked, mouth curving in a welcoming smile. Closer to her by this time, he caught the dark smudges under her red-rimmed eyes. Giles had never been the demonstrative type, but at the look of abject misery on her face he couldn't help but open his arms, offering to draw her near.

Buffy didn't need any more invitation. She had spent the drive home replaying the whole night with Angel over and over again only to feel more hurt and confused by the mile. She laid her head against Giles chest, glad for his unquestioning understanding and consolation. Still, she wished for the hard muscular pillow her cheek on rested upon from what already seemed like a lifetime ago and it made her feel that much worse. Giles let her stay there for long moments then finally guided her into the living room, to the couch.

"I'm sorry, Giles," she said, her eyes tracing the pattern on the cushions. "Guess I need to work on my hellos," she apologized, finally looking at him, forcing a watery smile on her face.

Falling back in his usual stance, he cleared his throat and said, "I suppose you'll want coffee instead of a real drink."

"Coffee would be of the good right now," she answered thankfully. "And lots of sugar," the light banter strengthening her smile. Buffy let herself relax, sinking into the couch, idly scanning the room while she heard Giles puttering in the kitchen.

Giles knew Buffy well enough to know that whatever brought her home must be serious. She was the type who people usually ran to for comfort and guidance, not the other way around. It warmed his heart that she had sought him out when she needed someone. He didn't know what it was, but knew she would tell him in her own good time. If he had to guess though, he wagered it involved matters of the heart.

Joyce had told him years ago the little she knew of what happened with Buffy and her friend Pike. Giles had been a witness to the failed relationship the young girl had tried so hard to have with her father. He knew few things cut as deeply as the way the boy, then Buffy's father had abandoned her. In all the years he'd lived with her he knew she'd never become close to anyone she dated, not close enough to get hurt. He surmised if it was about a man, he must have made a great impression indeed to have that kind of effect on her.

Bringing the tray in and settling it on the table before them, he filled a cup with the aromatic, dark liquid then offered it to her. Still smiling at him, she made a show of adding spoonfuls of sugar and stirring.

"At least," he told her, returning her smile, "it's not a good cup of tea that you're ruining."

She sipped the hot beverage carefully and set it down on the tray. "I guess you're wondering what I'm doing here," she said.

"You don't need a reason to come home," Giles answered softly.

The words brought tears to her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. She picked the coffee back up and slowly sipped, holding the cup for warmth. She tried to gather her thoughts, but ended up blurting out, "I seem to do all too well in the 'love 'em and leave 'em department. Only I'm not the one leaving," she admitted woefully. "I'm sorry, Giles," she said looking at the concern on his face, "I shouldn't be bothering you. I should figure things out by myself."

"No man is an island, Buffy," he gently answered.

She gave a sad facsimile of a laugh, "That's exactly my problem," she ruefully confessed, "I think I'm in love with an island."

Giles didn't reply, waiting for her to go on.

"Oh, God, I feel like I'm the living version of a lovelorn column. But I swear, I didn't go looking for someone to fall in love with." She thought about that and slowly added, "I know he didn't." She turned to look at Giles' face, "You probably didn't expect that, did you?"

"I'm not as shocked as you seem to think I should be," he said. At her surprised look, he asked, "Why shouldn't you fall in love? And why shouldn't someone love you? You're a very beautiful, very wonderful woman."

Buffy blushed slightly, not used to Giles being that directly complimentary. Even though she'd made straight for Giles and home, like an arrow released from a bow, she hadn't envisioned sharing any of this with him. But in spite of her reaction to his remark, she found it wasn't all that difficult to have this discussion, though she knew it wouldn't be as easy with anyone else, except maybe Willow.

"I thought he loved me," she said slowly, "until he left."

When she didn't add anymore, Giles asked, "Did he say why he left?"

"No," came the almost whispered reply, "I haven't heard from him."

"Maybe there's more to it than loving you," he suggested. "Or maybe it's because he loves you."

"Yeah," she said sadly, "loving me could do that."

He gave her an admonishing look, "You think you're hard to love? I can assure you it's quite the opposite."

"I think you might be biased," she told him with the shadow of a smile.

"It might help if I knew a little bit more about him," Giles urged her.

She gave the same hollow laugh, "Me too." Seeing him still waiting for an answer, she gave him one of sorts. "I work with him. I've been working with him for months. We share an office with each other."

"You've gotten to know him then?" he prodded when she stopped and remained quiet.

Buffy looked down at her hands clasped in her lap. "I thought I knew him a little at least," she said in a small voice. "He's not Joe-here's-what-I'm-thinking, but I thought I knew. I- w-we had a date and we ended up spending the night together, but when I woke up in the morning, he was gone."

Giles didn't need or want details into either Dawn's or Buffy's sex lives, had in fact, tried to avoid the idea either of them had one. He had always felt like a father towards them, so the subject had always been uncomfortable at best. But his immediate reaction to Buffy's confession was anger at a man, any man, taking advantage of her like that and just deserting her.

"So he led you on. He asked you out, told you he loved you, stayed the night and uh … then left?" Giles got more upset with each word he spoke.

"No, Giles, he's not like that," she tried to explain, shaking her head. "Guess it would have helped to start at the beginning instead of the end, huh?"

Trying to calm down, he waited to hear what she had to say.

"Look, Giles, I appreciate you being all protective, but the truth is, Angel, never said or did anything to lead me on," she said slowly, "In fact, he hardly ever talks to anyone. He wouldn't talk to me until I didn't give him any choice. You know how persuasive I can be," she smiled at him. "He's had some … umm … problems, I dunno, something that happened way before I met him." She sighed, "And you know me, never could resist a challenge. I'm the one who's to blame if anyone is."

Giles' initial response was, "Angel?"

Buffy shook her head again, "See what I mean? That's not his real name, I call him that. It wasn't his idea." Though now that she thought about it, she realized Angel had never said a word against it ever since she told him that's what she would call him. She took a small, sad comfort in that.

"So you forced him to have sex with you?" he asked a bit acerbically. He was trying to be patient, but it did seem to be asking a lot of him.

"It wasn't like that at all," she said quickly, then more slowly, "I came to the realization that I liked him, really liked him and I asked him out, not the other way around. I had to argue with him just to get him to go. The rest just kind of happened, it wasn't something either of us planned."

"Buffy…" Giles began, but she hadn't finished.

"It wasn't just sex, Giles, we made love. And it's the first time that ever happened to me. God, I can't believe I'm telling you this. You're like my father … more of a father than the real one ever was."

Giles couldn't help but smile at her. "I've always thought of you as my daughter, both you and Dawn," he said softly. "You don't know how glad I am you're here," she told him. "Even if my face is an unbecoming shade of red right now. Don't you think," she asked him earnestly, "that I know the difference between having sex and making love?"

"I would think you do," he agreed. "I know you don't take relationships lightly. I've never known you to be seriously involved with anyone."

"And I never thought I would be," she replied. "That just kind of happened too."

"So he told you he loved you … and then left?" he questioned her, still trying to get the facts straight.

"No, he didn't say he did. I just knew, at least I thought he did. Everything is so jumbled up now." In a moment of sheer honesty that she couldn't suppress she told him, "I could feel how much he loved me and I knew I loved him. And when I woke up in the morning and he was gone, it hurt. It hurts so bad."

The tears fell at her words and Giles found himself patting her back only a bit awkwardly, whispering shushing noises in her ear. Difficult as it was, he was still trying to give this unknown man in Buffy's life the benefit of doubt rather than the unpleasant alternative. Buffy had always been a good judge of character. He hoped that for her sake it was true in this case. He also knew despite her tribulations with this unknown 'Angel', that a good deal of Buffy's issues had older roots.

"Buffy," he said softly when she sat back wiping her eyes, embarrassed by her own outburst, "I'm not an expert on these matters, but maybe all that's needed is time. I can't imagine what they might be, but perhaps, Angel, as you call him, had good reasons for not staying. And don't be so ready to blame yourself, especially when you don't have all the facts."

Even to him it didn't sound that convincing, but he knew she had to find her own way. Giles wanted to tell her not to base her feelings on a couple of no-accounts who didn't realize what a special person she was, but was afraid it would only make her more miserable than she already was. He wished that Joyce was still alive and here with them. She would have known what to say and do. All he could offer was his love. It would have to be enough for now.

"Thanks, Giles," she replied. It still hurt, terribly, but his presence softened the loneliness she had been feeling. She knew he didn't have any more answers than she did, but she loved him for trying.

She'd gotten very little sleep the night before. The trip there, the conversation and freshest round of tears had tired her out. When Giles gently pushed her shoulder back, urging her to lie down on the couch and had covered her with an afghan, she didn't resist.

She was surprised to find it was late afternoon when she finally woke up. She stayed long enough to have dinner with Giles then waved a fond goodbye to him as she pulled her car out on the street and headed back to her lonely apartment. Even driving, every time she saw a tall figure or a dark-haired head she would look more closely before catching herself. No matter what she did or where she went, Angel was there. There was no getting away.

Buffy looked at the answering machine as soon as she opened her front door. Its smug no message light silently mocked her. She dropped her keys on the table near the door and hung her jacket in the closet. Seeing Angel's jacket where she'd hung it earlier, she started to reach for it, smelling the leather and the man to whom it belonged. But, she forced herself away and slammed the door shut.

She didn't need to hold something of his. It wasn't like she was some high school girl, mooning over a guy in science class. 'I'm an adult,' she told herself. She'd been out with guys and it hadn't worked out, she'd even been stood up on occasion. It wasn't like she was a virgin, that she'd never had sex with anyone. But she hadn't loved any of them, nor had they made love to her. The tears that suddenly threatened infuriated her even more. She refused to give in to them.

He didn't love her. She had been mistaken that night. If he loved her, she couldn't fathom how he could leave and not say a word, not even call. She had stayed in the whole day and night before, afraid to miss the phone ringing. But like the answering machine today, it had stayed silent.

Now as she stood in her living room, the more she stared at the phone and the non- blinking light on the machine, the angrier she became. At least he could have called her, said something, even if it was a lie. Thinking of seeing Angel the next morning, she tried to keep up the anger, it was easier to deal with than the pain. She slept fitfully, not looking forward to going to work or dealing with Angel.


Chapter IX

Angel sat like a stone when Buffy came in the door Monday. Quickly lowering his eyes, he pretended to read the paper he held. He was silent as he listened to her putting her things away and setting up her laptop. Leaving her as he did, he had to give her some kind of apology even if she wouldn't speak to him. The ceiling he had spent most of the night staring at hadn't been kind enough to offer a single word of advice. Nor had any other words come to him from anywhere else before he arrived at work. His mouth was as parched for moisture as his mind was for what to say. He licked his dry lips, desperate for something, anything he might tell her. He finally braced himself with a courage he didn't feel. 'Sorry' was all he had to offer … and he was … from the depths of his soul. She at least deserved to hear him say it.

"Buffy," he said softly as he turned his chair towards her desk. The sound died on his lips when he saw her face. What pieces of his heart weren't already broken - shattered. It wasn't filled with the anger he knew he deserved, but with hurt which she was trying desperately to hide.

Buffy had looked at Angel's face when she walked past him. Up until that moment she had held onto her anger, ready to lash out at him as soon as they met. But he wasn't quick enough to avert his eyes before they swept down to the paper in his hand. He had that same little boy lost look and it tore her already shredded heart. If it had been anyone else, she may have wondered if it was an act, but not Angel. She could tell that if he had slept at all, it hadn't been any better than her attempts. Whatever his reasons for leaving after making love to her, his abrupt exit wounded him as deeply as it did her. She knew he wasn't aware of how he appeared because it was something he wouldn't willingly have let her see.

That flicker of a second, looking into his eyes had exposed a tempest of longing and loneliness … and love. It was the love that pierced her through. It crumbled her resolve and laid her low. If he loved her, why had he left? She had tried to convince herself over the last two days that he didn't love her. Suddenly knowing she'd been right all along wounded her more fiercely in a different way. Was it loving her that made him leave? It brought all the fears and insecurities slamming back at her.

Angel wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and kiss away the hurt until it was healed. What he'd done could have only caused her that much pain … if she loved him. The revelation almost physically ripped through him with equal amounts of joy and despair. It was unbearable. He wanted so much to be who and what she needed. He had been so selfish in losing control when he was with her. But he'd never thought she felt the same way about him. He knew she liked him, but until this moment, had never believed she could love him. He knew she did. He could see it in her eyes, even in the way she moved. Now what he'd done was intolerable … and all the more reason not to be in her life. The shattered bits of his heart felt like ground glass moving through his veins.

He was up and walking towards her before he knew he'd left his chair. The closer he came, the more stricken she looked. She rose as he stood before her. They were inches apart, staring deeply into each other's eyes. The air was charged with the tension warring between them. The absolute need to hold her and comfort her was almost overpowering. She begged silently, wanting him to hold her as she had longed for since they were together. He fought with everything within him which way to go - hold her - or hold back. She watched the battle as it raged, waiting for the victor. With every ounce of strength and discipline he had ever possessed, he finally broke their gaze and stepped back. As soon as he moved, her face twisted into a mask of misery and her tears rushed her out of the room.


Neither of them spoke a word to each other in the days that followed. When Buffy came in that first morning, she planned on asking him why he never called. Now, there was no reason for them to talk. She avoided Willow for a few days, telling her she had things to catch up on. Willow knew her too well to keep any secrets from her and Buffy didn't feel like talking to her or anyone. As hard as it was to be in the same space with Angel she endured it, finding at least his physical presence comforting. She had become used to it. She stayed in the office at lunchtime and went straight home after work.

Angel made himself scarce as much as he possibly could. He left the room for breaks, trying to give her some space. He didn't dare look her way when he was there. He couldn't stand to see her in pain especially knowing he was the cause of it. But, a small, guilty part of him was grateful she was still there in the office. He needed to feel her near, even if it was all he could have. He worried that she might ask to be transferred, as all his other officemates had done. The irony didn't escape him. The rest had never wanted to be anywhere near him, he hadn't even noticed them. Now the only one who did, the only one he had ever wanted in his entire life to be near, he had turned away.


Buffy could only keep Willow from knowing what happened for so long. She gave her the barest explanation, saying she and Angel went out on a date. She told her friend that things hadn't worked out, her eyes pleading with Willow to just let it go. The redhead knew, of course, that there was more, but also knew it would be no use trying to get Buffy to talk about it. Willow often wondered what Buffy had gone through before she and her family arrived in Sunnydale. Buffy told her about Pike and her father, but Willow guessed she left a lot out, as she was doing now.

Although Willow didn't pry or try to draw out more than her best friend was willing to share, she did insist that Buffy spend more time with her and Tara. Willow invited her to dinner several times, suggesting it was time for her to get to know Tara better. Buffy finally agreed, too tired to fight her anymore. It was as good a reason as any not to stay home and mope.

Buffy liked the quiet blonde who obviously doted on Willow. She watched them as they did the dishes after the table was cleared. Heads bent together, they teased and laughed happily with one another. The affection was clearly mutual. The face of her best friend lit up with no more than a glance from her partner. Buffy was glad for both of them, but it made her woefully aware of how lonely she was.

She had been alone for a very long time. Angel had filled that empty place, she thought, making her heart contract painfully. He made her feel wanted, needed - special - something no one else had ever done. Her feelings towards Angel had come as such a sudden shock that the idea of needing to protect her heart from him never even occurred to her. She should have, she thought wryly.

She stayed in Willow's dining room, putting things away, trying not to think about her love life or lack of one. Buffy had never been seriously involved with anyone. She had always been popular and had dated frequently, but none of the relationships had grown very deep. There had never been anyone who touched her heart as Angel did. Perhaps she had guarded against that kind of an attachment, shielding herself from caring too much. Angel had been a challenge, a puzzle, not someone she ever expected to love. That hadn't been the plan.

But she knew protecting herself against Angel wasn't the real problem. It was the other way around. She knew something in his past had devastated him and she had blindly ignored it. She was the one who tried to force him out of his shell. Thinking she knew what was best, she hadn't been able to resist drawing him out. She had only managed to make his life worse, making him retreat even more. She had hurt him and herself. Now he was gone, she was to blame and she didn't even know why. She had no right to be angry with him, yet she was. It was all twisted and wrong and she hated herself for what she had done to both of them.

Hadn't she done just as badly in her relationships with Pike and her father? Hadn't she learned she couldn't provide whatever it was they had needed? How foolish to expect anything had changed. Angel leaving without a word convinced her she was right.

Buffy thanked Willow and Tara for the dinner and company. She made her way home trying to ignore the fact that instead of the visit cheering her up, it had depressed her miserably.

After a week or so, Buffy started pulling herself together. She was wounded more deeply than she ever had been, but knew she was the cause of her own pain. She told herself she had to move on. Move on, just as she'd always done in the past. Whomever she loved would leave her, then she'd rebuild her life again with what was left. But in this instance, she had no one to blame but herself. She wondered if this time there was anything left to salvage. But she forced herself anyway.

She was determined to put everything behind her, start fresh and go from there. Forcing a smile on her face, Buffy joined the rest in the Friday night get-together. Seeing a flyer at the grocery store, she signed up for a martial arts class just for the physical release it provided. She continued on, pretending everything was all right in her world.

Although the chief drawback to her plan sat behind her every day, she persevered. They'd even begun to speak to each other again, be it haltingly and only when necessary. They were awkward around each other, never getting too close physically. It was almost more than she could bear. But, she refused to let her personal life interfere with her work, however painful it might be. Moreover, in her heart she knew she couldn't stand the thought of not at least being near him.


Buffy had promised her best friend she would meet her at Willy's for their regular Friday night gathering. She hadn't wanted to go the week before any more than she did now. But it was better than sitting home with time she didn't know how to fill.

She'd felt like a cardboard cutout at the pub, smiling and laughing, not meaning any of it. She couldn't tear her mind away from thinking of the Friday she had spent with Angel. As much as the memory tormented her, it did just as much to soothe. Remembering his voice and his touch still gave her a feeling of completion that she'd never experienced before. Being jostled by a boisterous crowd only made her more keenly aware of his soft quiet manner and his absence.

She told herself she wouldn't give in, that she'd join Willow tonight and focus on having fun. She couldn't keep hoping to be with Angel, she had to learn to let him go.

It was five o'clock and Buffy wasn't staying late, she had told Willow she'd be there right after work. She shut down her laptop, zipping it in its satchel and got her purse out of her desk drawer. She saw Angel neatly laying things in his briefcase and snapping it shut. He was waiting to let her go through the door first. She started to walk past him when she felt her foot catch on a crack in the tile floor. She had been concentrating so hard on not looking at Angel when she passed by, that it caught her off balance and she pitched forward, twisting to avoid falling.

Angel was there in an instant, his hands gently catching her close. She ended up safely couched in his arms. He sank to the floor, holding her in his lap. His face was mere inches from hers and he couldn't turn his eyes away. She was so beautiful and she felt so right in his arms. He could feel the energy crackling between them. He watched her eyes grow round and fill with tears, her mouth trembling to keep from crying.

For a moment Buffy couldn't move, she was lost in those dark, soulful eyes. They were filled with the same intense longing and love she felt herself. It was too much. "I'm sorry, Angel," she sobbed, tears spilling down from her lashes, "It was my fault."

He winced. "No, Buffy …" She had nothing to be sorry for. He would catch her forever just to hold her like this.

He was right there, so achingly close, yet so far away. She didn't want to move, but stay right where she was. She could smell that sweet, rich scent that was so Angel. His large, warm hands glided up and down her back like an old habit, like he'd calmed her in the same loving way countless times. She only wished it were true. She knew if she didn't get up now she would never be able to stay away from him. If only she was what he needed, but she wasn't. Why couldn't she ever be what anyone needed, especially Angel? Instead she had made both their lives worse.

She tore herself away from him, pushing against him to find her footing and stand upright. Looking down, unable to stop crying, she repeated, "It's all my fault. Everything that happened was because of me." With that she blindly grabbed for her purse off the floor and stumbled out the door.

Angel was so stunned he couldn't move, could only watch her figure disappear out of sight. He stayed there on the floor for long moments. He stared down at his hands. They had been filled with her only seconds ago and now they were empty ... again. He sat back on his haunches. "Her fault?" he exclaimed to the air around him. How could she ever have thought what happened was her fault? She was the only thing in the world that had ever mattered to him. She had cared about him, gone out of her way to draw him out when no one else would come near him. She loved him. All he ever did in return was hurt her and the weight of the knowledge was crushing his heart. The only thing left behind was her computer in its satchel on the floor beside him.


Willow and Tara both kept looking towards the door, waiting for Buffy. The rest of the crowd from work was already there when they arrived. Buffy was nowhere to be seen and Willow wondered if she would even show up. A half-hour went by before Willy called out, telling her she was wanted on the phone. She knew it was Buffy begging off of her promise and was already listing the arguments in her head to use on her. But once she heard Buffy's voice thick with tears she knew she couldn't force her to come.

"I'm sorry, Will. I know you're probably watching the door," Buffy sniffed.

Willow nodded as her eyes shot to the front door, although Buffy couldn't see her perform either act. "Are you okay?" Willow asked.

"I-I'm just not feeling very well. I have a headache."

"I could come over, maybe bring you something, some aspirin," her best friend offered.

"No, don't. You deserve a night out. I know you like being there. And I think I should just lie down."

"Buffy, if you need anything …"

"I'll let you know, Will," Buffy promised. "I'm sorry I made you wait so long before I called."

"That's okay, but I'll call tomorrow, just to make sure you're all right."

"'Kay, talk to you then."

Willow went back to the table, sitting down heavily next to Tara. Lost in thought she never even noticed Riley sitting nearby.

"I-is Buffy not coming?" Tara asked, already knowing the answer from the look on Willow's face.

"No," Willow said, speaking distantly, half-thinking out loud, "Something must have happened with Liam."

"Angelus?" Tara queried, "Did they have another date?" Willow had told her the week before that Buffy had gone out with Angel. Tara knew her partner had talked to Buffy afterwards. She got the impression from Willow that it had gone badly.

"No," Willow said again, coming out of her reverie. "I don't really know. Buffy didn't actually mention him. She just said she wasn't feeling well." Willow said it in a way that Tara knew meant she didn't want to discuss it any further. Willow didn't like to talk about her best friend's problems even with Tara. As close as Tara was to her, Willow was sorry she'd said anything to her about Buffy.

If Willow had turned around she would have seen Riley trying to hold down his blood pressure. But she was still worried about Buffy and didn't even know he was listening. Riley had heard the few words between the two women and was still trying to process them. Buffy went out with Psycho? Didn't she realize how dangerous he could be? Riley warned her and she wouldn't listen. He was repulsed to think she would even consider spending any time with Angelus that wasn't necessary. How did Angelus manage to get her to go out on a date? Riley knew it couldn't have been Buffy's idea.

No one else seemed to pick up on the serious threat Angelus presented. Now it sounded like something had happened between them. Riley had to make it clear to Buffy that it wasn't safe for her to be around him. And Riley couldn't wait until saw her at work. He had to tell her now. He made himself calm down so that no one would realize what he'd heard. Waiting impatiently for a few minutes that seemed more like hours, he left as quietly as he could. He didn't want Willow or Tara to know he had overheard their discussion. He knew Willow was very close to the petite blonde. He wanted to talk to Buffy and didn't want to take the chance of her friend realizing where he was going.

Spike, of course, noticed that Buffy was absent. She didn't make appearing there a weekly practice as religiously as some of the others. He watched Riley leave not long after the boy arrived. Spike thought it was odd, but he wasn't that concerned. He thought maybe Riley had given up staying since Buffy wasn't there. Or better yet, he'd given up the doe-eyed looks he'd been giving her and found someone else. At least Spike hoped so, it seemed there were already too many men interested in her. Spike had made it his business to follow the girl in question home one night to see where she lived. At some point in time he hoped to visit her there himself.

He knew he'd spent way more time on this place than he should, literally months with nothing to show for it. But during that time of watching and waiting and drinking his beer, he dwelled on all he had read about in his father's file on the infamous Liam Angelus. Spike's anger and hatred of him and the impact he'd had on Spike's life continued to grow. Angelus was not only the cause of his sister's death, but he'd taken Spike's place in Daniel Holtz' heart and still held it after all these years. There was nothing left for Spike that Angelus hadn't tainted.

Only two things kept him at Willy's every Friday night. His ever increasing desire for vengeance on Liam Angelus and his ever increasing desire for the lovely sweet thing Spike had kept his eyes on for months.


A very long time after Buffy left, Angel had remained in the office. He finally picked himself up off the floor, unconsciously stretching out the cramps in his legs as he stood up. All he could picture were the tears streaming down her face as she ran from the room. Falling heavily into his chair, he leaned his arms on his knees, his head and hands hanging down. Holding her had brought back in vivid detail the night they were together. Love had indelibly imprinted that night on his soul, from the first moment they touched until he forced himself from her bed. 'Love.' Now, he thought despairingly, he knew what it was.

Helpless, he surrendered to the memories as they washed over him. He loved her with everything in him. He'd known it the moment she raised that beautiful little hand, calming and guiding him. He'd felt it, burning with the same desire reflected in her eyes. For him. He never fathomed a feeling so idyllic could be as exquisitely real as pain.

Her lips and mouth had been so sweet, so welcoming. His fingers traced his own lips feeling hers on them once more. He remembered he had tried so hard those first few moments, just to taste, to be careful not to lose control. Just to savor, not stay. But those soft, seeking fingers and lips had burned a trail down to his neck, then his chest … and he was lost. All thoughts of restraint vanished as he fell victim to her searing touch. She sparked a blaze of want and need so strong it had burned around and within him. But still he had waited, unable to believe a creature so splendid, so perfect could want him. And then she laid her small hands on his to help him discover more of her.

He kept every touch, every sight and sound, every taste and smell that was Buffy. His whole universe. As he explored it, he safely stowed every movement and feeling in his soul. She wanted him as much as everything in him screamed for her. His mind couldn't wrap itself around the concept and he couldn't stay his hands or mouth any longer.

He worshipped every inch of her, taking long moments to soak every fiber of her into himself. He covered the softness of her skin, kissing every velvety surface in his quest to know all of her. Seeking every silken curve, every secret fold with trembling fingertips. Yet, somehow, she felt so familiar, as if he were retracing well loved paths. Her essence permeated him, he reveled in the taste and smell of her. Then he finally sheathed himself deeply inside her, slowly filling her, feeling her open and draw him ever deeper. All the while her warmth enfolded him, comforted him, enclosing him in her arms, bringing him home. The energy he always felt at her touch flowed between them. Waves of pure, indescribable bliss washed through him, moving him to a rapture he knew could never exist anywhere else. And when he had called out her name, exploding with her in incomparable ecstasy, he felt how profound that love could be.

She filled his heart and soul as much as his body, completely encompassing him. He hadn't been able to stop making love to her again and again.

Angel pulled back in his chair, rubbing a tired hand over his eyes, trying to quell the ache rising in his chest. He didn't know how long he'd been there, lost in remembrances of what he knew he could never have again. After standing up, he bent to pick up Buffy's satchel, then reached for his own case. He closed the door behind him, walking slowly out of the building to his car. He didn't even try to start it, just sat there, still in a stupor from the remembered images and from Buffy's last words.

All this time he thought she knew. He was the reason he never dared stay with her ... when that's all his heart and soul cried out for him to do. How could she even think she was to blame? She was perfect, was everything he had been dreaming of for months. She was never out of his thoughts for a second. God, he loved her! He felt his heart wrench even more.

If it weren't for him none of this would ever have happened. Now he thought of the look in her eyes and it crushed him. Even when he tried to do what was best for her, he kept hurting her. And he hadn't even known just how badly until this moment. He knew he couldn't be with her. He had nothing to give her except his love and that wasn't enough. She deserved so much more. But he couldn't let her think any of this was her doing, he had to make that clear to her. His gaze fell on her satchel. Starting the car, he put it in reverse, backing out, then turning it towards her apartment. He wasn't going to let her think a moment longer that she had ever done anything wrong.


Buffy hung up the phone from Willow. She glanced at the kitchen, but her stomach lurched at the thought of food. Collapsing on the couch she laid her head on the arm of it and closed her eyes, feeling exhausted. Taking a shower and changing seemed like such a long process, even the small act of walking as far as the bedroom. She couldn't stop the tears that she'd been holding back. Too numb from the unexpected crush of being in Angel's arms, she couldn't force herself to even search for tissues. Tugging at the corner of the scarf she was wearing, she dried them as they seeped from beneath her closed lids. She knew if she had a mirror it would show swollen, red-rimmed eyes. It made her wonder briefly … there had to be a tear limit somewhere, didn't there?

She had no idea how long she'd been curled into the cushions when she heard a knock at her door. She couldn't imagine who was there, but wasn't in the mood to see anyone. With a sigh of tired resignation she opened the door to find Riley.

"Buffy," Riley said, moving through the door without waiting for an invitation. He grabbed her by the arms looking her over closely. "Did he hurt you?"

"Did who hurt me?" she asked, pulling her arms out of his grasp and backing away from him.

"Angelus!" Riley stated flatly. He moved towards her, holding his hands up as if to calm her. "I know he hurt you. I tried to warn you but you wouldn't listen."

Buffy looked at him incredulously, still backing away while she tried to figure out what he was talking about. "Why would you think he hurt me?"

"I can see you've been crying, Buffy, you can't hide it. I just want to know what he did and I'll take care of him for you." He tried to lower his voice, trying to keep himself in check. He just wanted to comfort her and she kept moving away like he was the bad guy. 'What did Angelus do to her?'

"Take care …" she fumbled with his words. "Riley, I don't know what you think happened, but Angel would never lay a finger on me. Who have you been talking to?" She couldn't imagine where he got the idea that Angel had harmed her.

"Angel!" Riley exclaimed. "That's what he told you to call him? He's sick, Buffy. I know he's done something to you. Why won't you tell me? I'm only trying to help." All the time he'd been trying to get closer to her she had continued to move back until she felt the wall behind her. Riley was standing directly in front of her.

"Riley!" she yelled at him, putting her hands on his chest to keep him away. "I already told you. He would never hurt me. I appreciate your concern, but it's none of your business. Please leave!" With that she pushed him, trying to get herself away from the wall.

"No, Buffy!" he said, frustrated in his attempts to make her realize the danger. He hovered over her, refusing to move. "Just listen …"

They both heard the door open and crack against the wall behind them. Before Riley could turn his head, he heard a deep, voice growl menacingly, "She told you to leave her alone, boy!"

Riley was picked up by scruff of his neck, dragged across the room and tossed, like a rag doll, into the hall. His head hit the wall, leaving him stunned.

Buffy blinked her eyes as Riley landed outside her door and Angel turned, pulling her close. She could hear his heart pounding madly against her ear as his arms pressed her tightly against his chest. She instinctively leaned into his embrace.

"Did he hurt you?" Angel asked anxiously as he pulled back, his eyes wildly scanning every inch of her.

"N-no ... I'm all … Angel!" she broke off and suddenly cried his name as she saw Riley come back through the door.

Riley staggered towards Angel, raising his fist unsteadily, still dazed. Angel pivoted around, shielding Buffy behind him. Riley came at him throwing a wild punch with his right hand, which Angel easily blocked with his left as he finished turning. Buffy watched, moving to the side, as Angel's other arm pulled back and his fist shot into Riley's face. She heard the bones crack and saw blood spurt from Riley's nose as his head glanced back from the blow.

"How dare you touch her!" Angel growled at him again. More concerned with Buffy, Angel turned to her once more, gently pushing her back into the safety of the kitchen.

Riley reflexively ran his fingers over his nose as he regained his balance. His face contorting in anger, he ground out, "You're the one who shouldn't be touching her."

He came up behind Angel, pulling him back with his hands on both of his shoulders. Angel threw his weight back on his left leg, then pitched it forward as he swung his right foot around. The move forced Riley back. The momentum in Angel's body as he twisted to face him was enough to send his fist plunging deep into Riley's stomach. Riley folded and fell to the floor on his side.

Angel's glance hurried back to Buffy. She was leaning against the counter, her eyes wide with shock. He heard Riley stir. Before Riley could get up, Angel grabbed him by his collar and ejected him through the open door. As Riley tried to crawl away, Angel hauled him up, choking Riley's jacket around his throat.

"Don't even think about coming near her again. Ever!" Angel snarled as he half-dragged, half-carried the larger man down the hall. He deposited him in a heap on the lawn. Angel's muscles were tensed, ready to spring. He wanted Riley to give him a reason to hurt him. If Riley had left even one mark on Buffy he'd kill him.

"I only came here to warn her about you. You're the one who needs to stay away from her," Riley told him as he dragged himself to his feet to face him. He could see the feral look in Angel's eye. Riley knew how dangerous the man was. He watched Angel move with the grace of a big cat, ready to pounce on its prey.

"Is that how you warn someone, Finn? Force them against their will? Even when they scream, 'no' you don't stop?" Angel queried in an ominous voice as he continued around him. "Or are you still playing games?"

"Don't try to make it about me, Angelus. She was crying before I got here. I know you're the reason." Riley wasn't going to let Angelus turn things around. He knew the man before him had done something to Buffy and he meant to find out.

"I would never harm her!" Angel growled, closing the space between them.

Riley kept turning to keep Angel in his view. "What did you do to her? Why was she crying?"

"It doesn't concern you. She told you to leave." Angel bit out. He'd had enough of Finn fucking with his life. Angel didn't want him anywhere near Buffy again, ever.

"Did you lose control with her like this? Is that why she was crying?" Riley asked, his voice rising. "I didn't see any storm. Do you lose it without one now?"

Angel snapped. Riley thought he had been ready for him, but Angel leapt, knocking him down with a flying kick before he could move. Angel landed straddling Riley's chest, raining blows down on him blindly. Riley fought to keep the fists from flying at him.

"Angel!" Buffy yelled from the door. She had been so shocked she felt rooted to the kitchen floor until she heard Angel dragging Riley outside. Everything happened so fast, she was unable to react. When she ran down the hall and reached the door she heard Riley taunting Angel. She saw Angel kick Riley to the ground. Riley's face was bruised and bloodied as Angel's fists pounded him in a flurry of movement. She knew it wouldn't take much for Angel to finish what he had started. "Angel!" she yelled more loudly and ran to pull him back.

At Buffy's touch on his shoulder, Angel stopped. He pushed his hands hard onto Riley's chest to raise himself up. He stood up and backed away a few feet, never taking his eyes off his adversary. Angel stared down at him, breathing heavily, anger and hatred flashing in his eyes. Buffy stepped between them as she watched Riley shake his head and roll over to his knees, then push up from the ground.

Riley looked at her in shock as she moved away from him and back towards Angel. "You're protecting him?" he shouted.

She looked at him in disbelief, feeling the anger rolling off Angel, inches behind her. "No, Riley," she enunciated clearly, "I'm protecting you!"

"Protec …" he sputtered. "You saw what he can do and you're not afraid?"

"I told you," Angel blazed, "I'd never hurt her!" He knew Riley was no threat, but he moved forward, until Buffy was safe against his chest. He couldn't stop as he circled his arms around her waist, drawing her closer. "If you want to live," he rumbled at Riley, "get gone!"

Buffy felt the power humming through Angel's body. She turned in his arms and raised her hand to his face. Looking up at him, she said quietly, "Please, Angel. There was never any doubt. You could never harm me." He looked down at the trust shining in her eyes. After a few seconds she felt the tension ease and the fight go out of him. She twisted around as Angel kept her in his embrace. She looked at the man before them and said, "Please leave, Riley."

Riley still couldn't believe what he saw. "Buffy! You don't know about him, he …"

"Riley!" she raised her hand to a stop. "Enough! I told you, it's none of your business. I want you to leave."

Riley shook his head.

She cut him off as he opened his mouth to speak. "I won't call the police, Riley, but if you don't go, I'll report what happened to Walsh," she said quietly.

Riley stood staring at her, blood dripping down from his face. He finally made a sound of disgust, gave both of them one last look and limped dejectedly off to his car.

The two stood there as if molded into one. Neither wanted to move. Buffy let her head rest against Angel's chest, feeling his arms tighten around her. She was content to revel in the feel of him surrounding her. Nothing could ever harm her there. There was no place, no place like Angel's love. Angel was still working through the instant panic he had felt at seeing her in jeopardy. She was safe now … and she felt so perfect there, fitting as though she were a missing piece of him. 'How can I ever leave her?' He tried to swallow the lump that felt like a rock lodged in his throat.

Looking down at his hands, she finally moved, pulling them up for examination. "I need to clean these cuts," she told him. Keeping his hands in her grasp, she gave him a soft tug towards the apartment.

He didn't argue with her, but followed quietly behind. The adrenaline was still pumping through him, although his anger had melted away with her look. He saw her satchel lying on the hallway carpet near her door, where he had dropped it. Picking it up, he laid it on the table by the couch, then went back to check the lock on her door. The force he used flinging the door open hadn't damaged it.

Angel had driven to where she lived. Parking the car he had grabbed her satchel and walked into the building, to her apartment. He heard the voices before he reached her door. All he needed to hear was Buffy shouting at Riley to leave and Riley's, 'No' before he kicked in the partially opened door. He had gone mad with rage at the sight of Buffy pinned against the wall with Riley bent over her, inches away. Some part of his brain registered that she could protect herself, but the idea of her in any danger had terrified him beyond lucid thought. He'd grabbed Riley on pure instinct to keep her from harm. Angel would do anything it took to protect her. It frightened him now to realize how far he knew he would go.

Buffy shook her head as she looked from the door to him and saw him start to say something. She knew he was going to blame himself for everything. "No, Angel, don't be sorry," she said, "You didn't know what was happening. But I'm glad you came." She went into the bathroom as she spoke, returning with a first aid kit.

"What was happening?" he asked. He hadn't given it any thought until now. She didn't care for Riley, so what was he doing there? He knew she hadn't invited him.

Pushing him gently down to the couch, she opened the kit and reached for his hands. She answered as she dabbed the wounds with cotton, "He came to warn me about you. He thought you had hurt me." As Angel tried to pull his hands back at her words, she held them more firmly. "I already told you, I know you'd never do that."

Angel's knuckles had taken the worst of the punishment, or rather they'd doled it out. His left hand had just a few scrapes. The right one though had a fairly deep cut, probably from where it connected with a nose that was now broken.

The wound was a little above the scar that still showed traces of purple and blue after all this time. Buffy made a soft smiley sniffle, as she thought of the very first time that she had seen Angel and his mangled bandaging. She'd had such an overpowering urge at the sight of his handiwork to fix it for him, to make it all better. She was caring for him now as she had seen herself doing all those months ago.

She didn't know Angel was remembering exactly the same thing. He was mesmerized watching her real flesh and blood hands tending him now instead of just imagining it. She held the gauze in place as she gently laid the tape around the edges. She bent over, so intent on her task she didn't feel Angel, unable to deny himself, press a gentle kiss in her hair.

When she was done she looked at him with such love and tenderness it nearly broke him. His pulse was still racing. Being this close to her made it hard to keep his emotions in check. He loved the feel of her hands on him. He never wanted her to stop touching him.

And he didn't want to hurt her anymore, didn't want to have the conversation that was inevitable. He waited a few more minutes, trying to calm down. He didn't know how he was going to tell her not to love him when he knew he could never stop loving her. But he had to, he knew he wasn't worth it. Look how much pain he'd already brought her after only one night together. A night he would never take back, the only thing he would have left of her. He stayed quiet long moments after she finished dressing his wounds. He finally brought both her hands together and held them inside his own.

"I hurt you, Buffy," he said softly, his head bowed down over their hands. "You should have listened to him."

Buffy could tell by the tone that she didn't want to hear anything more he was going to tell her. She had felt the emotions coursing through him when he held her. She'd waited so long for him to hold her again. Startled as she was when he materialized clutching her to him, he made her feel so safe, so grounded. It felt right. When he'd burst through the door, she had been shocked at the depth of his rage. She was sure she would have been able to take care of Riley herself, but to see Angel charging to her defense had made her shiver with his fury. She knew it had all been for her. One look at the frenzied wrath written on his face had made her fear for Riley's life. In Angel's eyes, she could see the threat of death to anyone who would dare harm her and it shook her to her core to see how much he loved her. This wasn't the quiet, reserved Angel who shared her office with barely a word or gesture to anyone. But she understood instantly what a force he must have been to reckon with when he was an agent.

When he'd pulled her against him outside on the lawn, she still hadn't had time to wonder how he had suddenly appeared. Or ask what had brought him there the moment she needed him. She had just wanted to stay there … forever.

Leading him back inside after Riley was gone, she hoped Angel had come to apologize for leaving her and for staying away. When she looked in his eyes at the office she couldn't stop herself from telling him the truth. She wanted him to tell her that she was wrong, that her love was enough to overcome what had stopped him. That he wasn't keeping himself away because she couldn't help him enough, that she wasn't enough. She hoped he had come to share what it was that made him leave her that night. Just as her heart had started to beat again, she could feel it slowing down, thudding against her breast, not wanting him to go any further.

"Riley didn't know what he was talking about. He thought I had bruises." She tried to fend him off, trying but failing miserably to think of a way to keep him from continuing.

He finally looked up, dark, troubled eyes piercing into hers. "Just because the bruises don't show, doesn't mean they aren't there," he said gently. "I've hurt you ever since I met you. I've never done anything but bring others pain. I didn't … don't want to do that to you."

"No, Angel," she denied, grasping his fingers tightly. "It's only painful when you're not there. It hurts when you won't tell me what's wrong."

He shook his head slowly. "You and me being together is unfair to you. You deserve something outside my demons and darkness." He hung his head, closing his eyes to the image of her being with anyone else, but made himself finish. "You should be with someone who can be with you in the light. Someone to make love to you."

"You made love to me, Angel!" she cried, not able to stem the flood as tears suddenly washed out of her eyes. Her hands flew to his shoulders, shaking them gently. "It was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me. I never knew until then that I didn't know what making love was, not until I was with you. It's my fault you left."

Raising his head at the desperate sound in her voice, he was astonished and humbled by her guileless admission. His bandaged hand found her cheek, the pad of his thumb erasing her tears.

Her eyes were huge, round pools of salty green. "Please, Buffy," he whispered hoarsely as he drowned in them, "I never had anything as precious as you in my life." He brushed back strands of hair, silken against his fingers. "It was beautiful. I'll never be sorry for that night, except for what it's done to you now. Look at how much I'm still hurting you." Lifting his other hand to cradle her face, drying the rest of her tears as he stroked it, he held her gaze. "It's not you who's at fault. It's me. Please, never, ever think it's anything you've done."

"Don't you see, Angel," she begged him, trying to make him understand. She reached up tracing her finger down his face. "It is me. It's what I haven't done …"

"No!" he admonished her, "You're perfect!" tilting her face gently, "You're everything I could ever want. I've never known anyone or anything as wondrous as you. You're the most amazing thing to ever happen to me." He'd promised himself he wouldn't get too close again, but he couldn't bear to see her grief. He dropped his hands to pull her against his chest, wrapping his arms around her tightly. His lips brushed the top of her head. "I love you, Buffy." He sighed, resting his head lightly on hers, and just sat there, holding her. He shouldn't have told her, even though she already knew. All this would only make it harder for both of them, but he was helpless to move. After long, heartbreaking moments he tried to explain. "I'm trying to do what's right. I'm trying to think with my head, not my heart," he whispered fervently.

"But what about my heart, Angel?" she broke in and pulled away. Leaning her head back to make him look at her, "I love you," she said passionately. "Do you think I have a choice in it? Do you think I can just turn it off? I'm never going to change. I can't change."

"You have to find a way to do just that, Buffy," Angel told her, gazing down at her sadly. "This can't work with us. Loving me won't ever be something good for you. I've never been any good for anyone. There's so much about me you don't know. Whoever you think I am, I'm not and never can be. You deserve someone else so much better for you than I am capable of being. I can only drag you down. I won't let you waste yourself with me."

"I want my life to be with you," she made one last plea, trying to hold onto his arms as she felt him pull away.

He cringed, hearing the same desperation that had been in his own voice as she echoed his words. He gently caught her slender hands and held them once more in his bruised ones. He hated to say it. It sliced through him to even think it, but it was for her. It was she who was important. He had to let her go. He couldn't keep her in the half-life he led. He finally dropped her hands and moved back.

"I don't," he told her as he got to his feet. He looked down at her one last time, then walked to the door and quietly let himself out.

Buffy couldn't stop sobbing after he left. She felt like she had been so close. He had finally told her he loved her … and then walked out her door.


Chapter X

Riley entered his office as quietly as possible Monday morning, but Xander spotted him the moment he walked in.

"Wow," he exclaimed, "hate to see the other guy."

Riley didn't bother to reply, but went to his desk and sat down. He couldn't remember landing one punch on Angelus, which did nothing to improve his mood.

Xander, not picking up on Riley's tension, blathered on, "It looks like what they say about two for one is true, huh?"

"What's that?" Riley finally asked.

"That you get two black eyes for one broken nose," Xander told him. A closer look at Riley's expression rather than the bruises decorating his face and Xander caught on he might be better off not pursuing that particular subject. Xander was more than curious to know what and who had happened to Riley, but not brave enough to ask.

Riley turned back to his desk, not even bothering to answer. Grabbing a sheaf of file folders, he absently thumbed through them. Moments went by, but instead of working he was still staring at them blankly. He couldn't decide which angered him more, letting that psychotic asshole get the best of him or seeing Buffy protecting the cretin. It disgusted him to think she preferred Angelus over him … and it hurt. He really liked Buffy, liked her from the moment he saw her. But no matter how hard he tried, she'd never given him a flicker of interest and it rankled, especially to be tossed over for the likes of that maniac.

He scowled at the manila covers still clutched in his hands. Angelus had been the bane of his existence for far too long. First his career, now his girl. Finn shook his head. They'd placed a madman in a position he should never have been allowed to fill. Initially, Riley had been as shocked as everyone else when Liam Angelus lost it and ended up in a mental ward. But seeing him later, once he was released and working again, Riley wondered why someone hadn't discovered the truth about Angelus sooner. Riley figured he must have really had everyone fooled for a long time. Finn didn't deny the man was brilliant, bordering on genius - but he was nuts. Money got him in, no reason to think it wasn't how Angelus got the promotion to head his own unit too.

He remembered when he had been assigned to Angelus' section. All the taciturn leader had to do was say something and it was done, no questions asked. The veterans in the group treated Angelus like he was the head of the whole Bureau, not just their team.

It wasn't that Riley couldn't follow orders, he was well aware what would be expected of him and had always tried to be a team player. The trouble was Liam Angelus. The man was cold, merciless and unyielding. He was a hard taskmaster, making every recruit give every fraction of strength and stamina he possessed without so much as a word of encouragement for one of them. Angelus didn't solicit any of the recruits' advice or opinions for fresh, new ideas, a big mistake by Finn's way of thinking. He tried to approach his new superior several times and in every instance Angelus gave him that fathomless gaze, turning away from Riley without even speaking.

He wasn't the only one put off by his chilly, impassive manner. But the more seasoned agents assured the new men that once they were in the field they would find for themselves why the rest of the squad chose to ignore Angelus' phlegmatic behavior. They knew from experience that the tall, powerfully built senior agent had a mind that never stopped working, a mind that had kept all of his agents alive. Theirs was the only crew that could claim that particular achievement.

Riley had loved the chance to work in the infamous FBI. But the longer he was there, the more disenchanted he became with how things were done. He knew he could do as good, even better a job than Liam Angelus. Finn thought if he could show everyone how much he had to offer it would help him stand out. He knew he could excel if he was only given the chance. And he had thought the training exercise was the perfect opportunity.

The disturbing stab of guilt Riley felt angered him. What did he have to feel guilty about? He threw the files down he was holding with a loud slap, making his co-worker jump at the sound. Not even noticing Xander's reaction, he rubbed a hand across his forehead, trying to block out the day that had spelled the ruin of his career as an agent. His gesture did little good. The only thing that accomplished that feat was increasing amounts of liquid oblivion. Even that only dulled it, smoothing the sharp edged memories that over time cut deeper and deeper into his conscience. Glancing at the digital clock on his desk, he sighed despondently, there were hours to go before even that last resort was an option.


Later that morning Xander happened to be in the break room with Riley when Angelus walked in. He could feel Riley tense the moment the other man appeared. Angelus never gave either of them a glance while he took his time pouring coffee into his cup. He turned at the very last moment and shot what almost looked like a smirk in Finn's direction, then leisurely walked back out of the room. Xander heard the sound of breaking glass and looked over to see the mug Riley had been holding, lying in pieces against the wall.


"Hello, Cordy," Angel tried to keep his voice from betraying how utterly hopeless he really felt … and failed miserably. Less than a week had gone by since he had thrown Finn out of Buffy's apartment. And since Angel had forced himself out of her life - again. It was Wednesday night and he'd been dreading hearing the phone ring. Cordy always called every other week without fail. He'd managed to fend off her last call by telling her he didn't feel well that night. It hadn't been a lie, he'd never felt worse, except maybe until now. He wondered if he should just let the phone keep ringing when she called, but only for a moment. Not picking it up would bring his sister pounding on his door in record time. He certainly didn't want to see her face to face.

"Angel?" Cordy hesitated. In just two words she knew something had happened. Her heart dropped a little. He had sounded so … different … the last few months. He was decidedly different now too, but not in a good way. This wasn't even old Angel, this was worse.

"Yes?" 'Damn,' Angel cursed silently. He wasn't good at subterfuge, at least not with Cordelia, she knew him all to well.

"Is everything going okay?" she asked, knowing it was pointless getting him to really confide in her, but not having a lot of options. She didn't ask if he'd really been sick, why bother?

"I have to go away," he suddenly thought to tell her. Anything to draw her away from probing too deeply.

"Away?" she echoed. "Why?" Angel never went anywhere anymore. When he was in the field it wasn't uncommon. Who knew where he'd be from one week to the next. But he always tried to let her know if he wouldn't be there for her call so she wouldn't worry. Since he'd gotten the job in Analysis, whatever that was, he had never gone anywhere.

"They want to make a computer program about some of the work I'm involved in. I have to go to share information they need to develop it," he told her. He didn't want to go. He didn't care for computers invading what little space he had, but it was the 'being gone' part that really bothered him, which it shouldn't. It wasn't like he had anything or anyone keeping him from going, he thought ruefully.

"Well, that's a good thing, right? I mean that they need you to help them with it?" She didn't know that much about what he did, other than it was totally boring. Angel had a knack for boring. He would sit with his nose deep in dusty books for hours. A lot of his books weren't even in English, and not even interesting, like novels, let alone something with pictures. No, his reading choices would invariably have facts, figures and no fun. She was always a bit surprised he didn't like computers, they were filled with that kind of stuff.

"Yeah," he said without conviction, "so they tell me."

"So, when do you go? How long will you be gone?" Cordy questioned automatically.

"The end of this week, for two or three days, depending on how long it takes to get what they need," he answered dispiritedly.

"Just you?" she asked, pressing a bit more, knowing it wasn't the trip that had put such an ache in his voice. "Doesn't your co-worker have to be there too?" Angel had only mentioned his officemate twice in other conversations, not realizing it until too late. But just the way his voice caressed her name let Cordelia know exactly who had been behind his subtle, nevertheless amazing, transformation. As she expected, she heard a painful intake of air at her questions.

"No," he said, forcing a lightness into his voice he didn't feel and doubted he would fool her with, "No one, but me, I'm the one who has all the theories."

Taking one more direct shot Cordy said as lightly in return, "I thought you and what's her name? Buffy? Thought that's what she was there for too."

"She has another assignment," Angel answered a little too quickly, then tried to cover saying, "This isn't the only thing she has to do."

"Whatever," Cordelia wisely decided to leave it at that. She wasn't blind, deaf or dumb. She was sure that wasn't all 'Buffy' was capable of doing either. The name dropping, the lilt in his voice, the incredible slip he made accidentally spilling about Buffy's party invitation. Cordy had almost bitten her tongue off hearing that one. If Buffy was the one who had lifted him up, then only she could have caused what sounded like the painful fall he was now trying to hide. And Cordy knew without a doubt that Angel wouldn't willingly tell his own sister a word about any of it.

But she had other sources of information that she knew would get her further than trying to drag it out of him. "Sounds like one of those boring male weekend business things anyway," she told him. Cordelia was already making plans of her own.

"Look, Cordy," Angel said, unable to deal with any more explanations, "I have things I need to do, research to take with me." He could make it true, he rationalized, without admitting he was lying to her. "I'll call you when I get back and let you know how it went."

"Don't let me keep you from the world of fascinating figures," she snarked, knowing a falsehood when she heard one.

"Then we'll talk in two weeks," he finished, "Good night, Cordy." He sighed with relief as he placed the phone in its cradle. He didn't need any more questions from Cordelia, she already knew more than he probably cared to assume. He loved her dearly, but she was overly concerned about his welfare.

Cordy didn't even offer him an argument, which if Angel hadn't been so preoccupied morosely thinking of Buffy, might have caused him to wonder why. She drummed her perfectly manicured fingernails lightly on the polished wood table holding the phone as she told Angel goodbye. Curious as she had been about what was going on with Angel and with whom, she'd tried to stay out of things, she really had. But no more. Cordy hung up the phone, only to pick it back up and dial quickly. "Aunt Dee? Hi, how are you?" After listening to her reply she went on, "I'm good too. Look, is Uncle Daniel there? I really need to talk to him."


Holtz wasn't at all surprised when his wife called him to the phone, in fact, he'd been waiting for Cordelia to call. There were some things in life that were a given - his wife still worrying about him and his job after all these years, his daughter, Harmony, preening in a mirror, his son, Spike, looking for money - and Cordelia Chase checking up on her brother.

Cordy may have changed her name for her 'inevitable stardom', as she called it, but she hadn't changed how she doted over Liam Angelus one bit. As Harmony's best and still closest friend since early childhood, Cordelia knew the Holtz family and their home as well as her own. Holtz looked on Cordy as a second daughter, admiring the fire of the brash, outspoken brunette. She was also a constant reminder of the debt he felt he owed her older brother. He was very fond of Cordy in her own right, but she also gave him a close link to Angel.

The agency head knew he was using his position to manipulate a situation that had nothing to do with business. And yet, he also knew if it wasn't for that very job, he wouldn't feel a need to be involved in Angel's life at all.

Never in all the years Holtz had known him had Angelus found anyone or anything that seemed to give him any kind of happiness or contentment. Not until Angel met Buffy Summers. There weren't very many things Holtz wasn't aware of in the younger man's job or life. After Holtz had witnessed how Angel and Buffy interacted with each other in their presentation, he had made it a point to find out all he could about their relations to date.

He heard about the thunderstorm that forced Buffy to go home early one day. He knew the late hours the two officemates kept, preparing for their presentation. He also knew they met outside of working hours in the gym and at a party. Holtz had even heard about the very recent altercation with Riley Finn, the young recruit who stood on the brink of unemployment for his actions, both two years earlier and presently.

Daniel Holtz had a fairly shrewd idea of what brought the blooming relationship to a halt. Angelus. After years of watching over Angel, he was painfully aware of how low an opinion the stoic former agent had of himself. Holtz, like Cordelia, thought Angel needed a little help that her brother wasn't willing to give himself.

The elder FBI agent almost felt guilty using Cordelia. He had ordered Walsh to set up an immediate training conference for Angelus to attend. And he also told her to find an assignment that would keep Buffy Summers from accompanying her officemate. He hoped a short absence and a little interference from Angel's sister would improve the situation. Holtz knew it was only a matter of time before his phone would ring.

"Cordy," he greeted her when he took the phone from his wife, "what a pleasant surprise."


Buffy sat at her desk, forlornly holding her coffee mug with the big 'B' on it. She pouted first at the mug, then his desk, her lower lip extending even further. The space looked so big and empty without him to fill it. Buffy missed Angel and he only left that morning. Not that they were talking or even coming near one another. It tore her apart every morning to see him. But she knew it would be so much worse if he wasn't there at all. She was wrong, it was beyond worse, it topped anything she'd imagined. He said he didn't want her in his life, but she had held onto the comfort of his physical presence. Now she didn't even have that, at least for the next two or three days. She had an irrational feeling of being robbed. It was Friday. Bad enough the weekend was starting, but she was being cheated, having to endure one extra day of no Angel. And weekends weren't something she looked forward to anymore.

Walsh had insisted that Angel attend a conference to try and translate his theories to a bunch of pencil-necked geeks. Shortly after the presentation he and Buffy had done, they were informed of plans to extrapolate his theories in a computer program. Angel told her at the time that he assumed they would both be requested to assist with the development. He'd said it with a desperate tinge in his voice. She knew how uncomfortable he would be being grilled about his work. They both expected Buffy would fill the same role of translating Angel's brilliance into mortalspeak. While she supplied the computer assistance he needed, she was also the kind of mouthpiece for the duo. But Walsh had made it clear Buffy was to stay behind. Any computer work she usually performed for Angel could be handled by others attending the meeting. Walsh had something else for Buffy to do. She was assigned to work with Lindsey on a new case.

Angel hadn't had much time to get acclimated to the idea of going, with or without her. The date had been set up with amazing speed, considering the length of time anything of that nature usually took to plan. To say Buffy was upset with Angel was an understatement. But she loved him, that hadn't changed. And she was deeply concerned about him. She worried how he'd handle the forced trip away from home. She knew he was struggling with what lay between them as much as she was. She hated to see him under any more pressure. Mentally, he was strong, incredibly strong in some ways, which she was only too heartbreakingly aware. But knowing he'd reached a breaking point at least once scared her, not knowing what might trigger a second.

Buffy traced the outline of the 'B' with her finger. It was just a common everyday mug off the assembly line like any other. But to her, it embodied the essence of her life. Hard to live a full life with only a mug and a jacket for company. 'Great,' she thought, 'I'm making myself all weepy again. I'll have to drink more liquids just so I don't dehydrate myself.' She looked at her watch, which of course, had her eyes swimming in seconds, thinking of Angel gently grasping her wrist to peek at it. She was so thankful when it was finally time for lunch. She couldn't eat anything if she tried, but she hated to be in the office … alone.


Cordelia gave the guard a dazzling smile as he handed her the pass Uncle Daniel left for her at the gate. She parked her car and walked in the entrance, realizing she had forgotten to ask for directions to Angel's office. She became aware of two pairs of eyes staring at her. Both pairs belonged to men, which of course, didn't surprise her at all. A tall man with blonde hair and a shorter dark-haired man stood before her.

"Can I hold yo … I-I mean, can I help you?" the shorter of the two asked her.

Cordy laughed and replied teasingly, "Depends on which you plan on doing."

"I'm sorry," he said, flustered and trying to apologize, "I didn't mean … I mean … I'm Xander."

The larger man interrupted by smoothly stepping in front of the other saying, "I'm Riley, perhaps I can be of service, ma'am."

Cordelia couldn't help but notice the bruises on Riley's face now that he was a bit closer. "That looks like it had to hurt," she couldn't help saying. Cordelia was nothing if not brutally blunt.

Riley reddened at her words and Xander used the opportunity to try his hand one more time. "Are you looking for somewhere or someone in particular?" he asked as suavely as he could muster.

"Yes", she told him, "I'm looking for Liam Angelus, do you know him?" She wasn't ready for the look of anger and sheer hatred she saw on Riley's face, his hands flexing unconsciously upon hearing her brother's name. It wasn't hard to figure out that might be where he got the battered makeover.

Xander glanced quickly at the man by his side, then waved his hand towards the hallway to his left saying, "He isn't here, but his office is down the hall, third door on the right. Can I get you some coffee or something? Maybe leave him a message for you?" he asked, trying to ignore the tension that was palatable.

"No," Cordy answered quickly, "Thanks, but no to the coffee and I can leave a message myself. I appreciate your help, I think I can find my way from here."

"Just a friendly word of warning," Riley said in a low voice, before she could walk past them, "If I were you, I'd be glad he was gone. Trust me, he's not someone you want to get to know."

"Who I get to know," Cordy replied, her own voice firm and clear, "is entirely my decision. But, in this case, I know him very well and there are few men who can hold a candle to him." With that she turned on her heel and walked down the hall without a backward glance at either of them.


Buffy had taken her time and was late getting back to work. Walking in the room her eyes widened in shock. There was a very, very beautiful woman sitting in Angel's chair … at Angel's desk. Buffy's eyes went from open wide to narrow and green in nanoseconds. She'd never asked him, but Buffy suddenly wondered about the other women in Angel's life. His one remark on the subject came back to haunt her; "I have actually seen a real live naked woman before." Funny she could remember something like that word for word. She didn't want to think about how many 'real live naked' ones he'd seen at all, especially if they looked anything like the high-priced whore sitting in front of her. And okay, Buffy thought, she'd had relations with other men, but that wasn't the point. And there was a point in there somewhere. In all honesty, another woman, as in other than herself, had never crossed her mind. He told her he loved her and she loved him. Other people had never figured into it after that. Not until this very moment.

Buffy started, realizing she was staring at the woman with what had to be a wonderfully intelligent look. One that probably equated her IQ rating around the same total as her age.

In the meantime, Cordelia was delighted. She knew exactly what was running through the little blonde's mind. And she liked it. Well, she liked the fact that the girl was jealous. She hadn't decided if she actually liked this Buffy chick. It was definitely a mark in her favor that she reacted that quickly to the sight of an unknown woman in her brother's chair. Cordy thought a little possessiveness was a very good thing, or in this case evidently, a lot of it.

Moving towards her desk, Buffy never took her eyes off the obvious floozy. Buffy had to admit she was beautiful. Straight and tall, if she were standing, with long, flowing chestnut hair almost to her waist. Her eyes, under exquisitely arched brows, were the same deep brown and they were gazing at Buffy in amusement.

"May I help you?" Buffy asked a bit frostily and not regretting it one bit.

"You might," Cordelia answered without elaborating.

"Are you here to see An-Liam?" Buffy asked, immediately kicking herself for her usual slip with Angel's name. Just seeing the woman had unnerved Buffy more than she cared to admit. And she didn't like cat and mouse, especially when she was being cast as the rodent.

Cordelia caught the small lapse and intuitively knew the name she started to say hadn't been 'Angelus' or she wouldn't have stumbled over it. Her own eyes widened a bit. She knew her brother well and no one had called him 'Angel' in a very long time. It didn't seem likely he would have asked her to call him that. Grudgingly, Cordelia had to give her another mark, regardless of how the girl had come to use his name. As Cordelia turned to face her, something about the movement struck Buffy as intimately familiar.

"You're Angel's sister, Cordelia," she said, without even being aware that this time she did use his nickname. Now she could see the similarity between the siblings. Amazing, Buffy thought, how the gene pool could be so generous to one family.

It was Cordelia's turn to be caught off guard. She wasn't giving marks anymore. It was more like 'three strikes you're out' and the slender, golden-haired woman had bested her. She was impressed, miffed, but impressed nonetheless. If she was still grading her though, she could see why Angel had been attracted, even with his aversion to blondes. She knew the quick intellect would be as big a draw to him, if not more, than her looks. And she was already finding Buffy Summers to be one very quick little lady. 'Emphasis,' Cordelia thought, openly eyeing the petite figure before her, 'on little'. She wasn't sure yet about lady.

"Angel's not here. He's at a confer …" Buffy trailed off only just realizing she'd used the familiar name not once, but twice. And Cordelia didn't seem surprised.

"I'm not here to see, Angel," Cordelia purposely stressed. "I came here to meet you."

"Me? Why?" Buffy was dumbfounded. A feeling she was already getting all too often around Angel's sister.

"I wanted to see who he's been talking about," Cordelia replied honestly.

"He talks about me?" Buffy said in a tiny voice that immediately filled up with pain.

Cordelia saw the anguish reflected in Buffy's eyes. Her tone was an exact match to the misery Cordy had heard in Angel's voice when she called him. "Not in so many words. He never uses more than he has to," Cordy said a bit more softly.

Buffy told herself now was not the time to let go with the waterworks, especially in front of Angel's sister. But she didn't get the message to her eyes in time and a few drops sneaked past her defenses. "No, he's the original 'man of few words'," she feebly joked.

"Well, if it's any consolation, he let a few more slip out than he usually does. More than he meant to, I'm sure," Cordy told her.

"Is that why you wanted to see me? Something that he said?" Buffy sniffled, grabbing a tissue from the box that had become an essential staple on her desk. She dried her eyes, blew her nose and resolved no more crying in front of the relative of the man who had been her lover for a precious few hours.

"In a roundabout way, I suppose," was Cordy's answer. "I love my brother very much. He's very important to me. I don't want to see him get hurt," she added frankly.

Buffy felt her twenty-second resolution already wavering as she pulled the tissue box closer. "I love him too," she quietly admitted. What was the point of trying to hide it when Cordelia already knew? "I would never hurt him if I could help it." Buffy couldn't stop her lip from quivering.

Cordelia felt herself softening even more. She wasn't even sure she liked Buffy, but there was no denying how the young woman felt about Angel. Cordy thought she might be biased, but she could understand how someone could fall helplessly in love with her brother, with or without his help. One look at Buffy Summers told her the feelings the two had for each other were very mutual and very deep. And knowing her brother, it looked like he'd gotten on his white steed and ridden away to slay the dragon and left the damsel distressed.

Cordy was happy for Angel, even if he couldn't see it … yet. After all these years and all the pain she'd seen him in, she'd almost given up hope he'd ever find happiness. He'd closed himself up and off for so long she had been afraid his castle keep was impregnable. She didn't know how Buffy got in, but she had to give her credit. For Angel to finally find someone who had been able to climb into his ivy tower was amazing in itself. The part about him jumping from said tower was classic Angel. And she was damned if she was going to let him. If Buffy needed help making her highly intelligent, dumbass brother see reason, Cordy would give her all the help she needed.

"Look," Cordy said, "I don't really want to talk about Angel here and I know you have work to do. How about we meet for dinner?"

"Y-you call him Angel?" Buffy stared, shocked once more.

"I've been calling him that since I was born," Cordelia said with a knowing smile. "So, dinner?"

Buffy agreed. She was still trying to process Cordy's last remark as they made plans to meet. She watched her leave, wondering if Cordy could tell her anything that would help her with Angel. She never gave a moment's notice to what Cordy had thought of her.


Cordy didn't have any trouble following Buffy's directions to the restaurant. It was appropriately private. The booths were deep with tall dividers between each one. The lighting was fairly dim and the atmosphere subdued. Once they ordered and the waitress brought their drinks, they settled back in their seats. Cordy gave Buffy a long look.

"Buffy," Cordy started, still looking at her intently, trying to gauge how much to tell her. "I know you love Angel and I know he loves you." There was no doubt in Cordelia's mind about the latter. The pain in her brother's voice that he futilely tried to hide had assured her of that. Although Angel's pain and his attempts to mask it and deal with it alone were things she had fought against for years. Keeping her gaze locked on Buffy's she added, "But things aren't that easy with Angel."

Buffy barked out a humorless laugh. No, easy and Angel weren't even on the same plane. She waited for Cordelia to continue.

"Something happened to him a long time ago and he's never gotten over it. I don't know if he ever will," Cordy said slowly.

"I know something happened, Cordelia," Buffy prompted her softly, "I know storms have something to do with it and I saw scars on his wrists …" She looked at Cordy imploringly.

Cordy took a deep breath. She didn't want to break her brother's confidence, but she didn't want to see him alone for the rest of his life because she kept silent. This was what she had come here to do and for him, by God, she would do it. Fortifying herself with that thought, she finally shared with the woman across from her what had happened over two decades ago.

Buffy's eyes widened in shock and only moments into the story, she felt the tears stinging behind her eyes. She refused to let them fall. She forced herself to remain sitting up straight while Cordelia's words pierced her heart. She was overwhelmed by the monstrous cruelty that had befallen her poor broken Angel.

Angel's sister had just mentioned Spike's name when the waitress came to serve them their dishes and refresh their drinks. Both of them had gotten salads, neither even pretended to eat.

After the woman was gone Buffy caught Cordy's eye, "Spike?"

"Spike was Dru's older brother, he's Angel's age. He was very close to his sister. He blamed Angel for her death," Cordy told her.

"But he was only eight years old!" Buffy cried. The tears she'd held back sprang to her eyes. She looked over and saw the same thing in Cordy's.

Cordy shrugged her shoulders helplessly, "Tell them that. Neither of them has ever gotten over it," she said. "Angel crawled into his own little world, he hardly ever spoke, did everything he was told without arguing. He spent almost all of his time hiding in his books. My parents tried everything, took him to specialists, spent tons of money on therapy. It seemed to make things worse instead of better, so they finally stopped."

Buffy closed her eyes, leaning against the cushion behind her. All she could see was a lost little boy … the same one she'd glimpsed the first time she ever laid eyes on him.

"When he got older," Buffy heard Cordy go on, "he acted like he had gotten over it to some degree. He wanted to be an FBI agent. It was all he focused on. He put everything he had into getting that job and he was damn good at it. It was the best I've ever seen him. I don't think I'd call it happy, but he was proud of where he'd gotten."

"W-wasn't there ever anyone he cared about?" Buffy opened her eyes and asked haltingly. She couldn't help it, she had to know.

Cordy swirled the ice cubes in her drink, listening to them clink against the glass. "He went out with girls." She felt Buffy's eyes on her as she knew she they would be. "But there was never anything serious, not one of them lasted more than a night or two. I think even that stopped when he ended up in the hospital over two years ago. Everything stopped."

Buffy was so overwhelmed with what Cordelia was telling her she'd almost forgotten about his more recent past. "What happened to him?" she asked.

"You might want to ask one of your agent buddies about that," Cordy looked back at her. "All I know is how he looked lying in that hospital bed. It was days before he was lucid for even a few minutes." Cordy's face had a tired, worn look mixed with anger. "It broke him, took everything away." Buffy could see the tears standing in Cordy's eyes again as she looked back at a memory. She said in a voice so low Buffy had to strain to hear it, "I thought I was gonna lose him then."

Buffy handed her some tissues from the box she now carried constantly. She'd known they were going to need them. "But he did get better," she said, trying to make Cordy feel better.

"Pffft! Better!" Cordelia fumed, angrily swiping at her eyes, momentarily heedless of her makeup, "Do you know what it must have done to him not to be an agent anymore? It's all he ever wanted. The only goal he ever allowed himself. Now he's cooped up in a room all day pushing papers. But he does it. He doesn't have to work, he's never had to do anything. But he needs it. He needs to stay busy, needs to do something he thinks makes him useful. He doesn't know how to do anything else because all he ever wanted was to be an agent."

Buffy put her hand on Cordy's arm. She didn't know her at all, but she could feel Cordelia's love for Angel. It was good to know someone else had been there for him. "He's good at other things too. Angel's the only one who can do the job he has in the FBI," Buffy told her proudly, in some small way trying to comfort her. "He's still important to them." Her eyes drifted blindly on a point somewhere behind Cordelia's head. "He's important to me. If he'd stayed an agent I might never have met him," she said, thinking out loud.

Cordy watched the emotions play across Buffy's face. She could see how much Angel meant to her. Angel needed someone like her, someone who could appreciate him just as he was. She hoped Buffy was strong enough for both of them because she knew how stubborn her brother was. Buffy had broken through walls Cordy thought were so thick no one would ever find him. Even with the love he had to see in this girl staring him in the face, he still refused to let her all the way in. She knew it would take all Buffy had and more to win this fight. She thought of the shadows of guilt and pain she always saw in his eyes and she knew Buffy could be the one to finally erase them … if only he'd let her.

"One thing about Angel," Cordelia shrewdly surmised, "he doesn't need help getting hurt, he does that all by himself. I'll bet he's already convinced himself that he's not good enough to be in your life. And he's already blamed himself for you ever having met him."

Buffy nodded her head, eyes tearing up again thinking of Angel's remark about demons and darkness. His sister knew him well. "He won't listen. I know he loves me. He told me he did, but I knew even before that. But he doesn't think love is enough, at least not mine."

So Buffy had issues of her own, Cordy thought. She liked her well enough so far, but Cordy's first concern was still Angel. "If you want him, Buffy, then you're gonna have to fight for him. He's his own worst enemy. I know he loves you too, but it's up to you to convince him he's worth loving. He's been hurt … badly."

"You think I don't know that? You think I haven't tried?" Buffy asked her heatedly, her eyes flashing dark green at the brunette across from her. "Short of pounding it into him, what can I do?" she finished in desperation.

"That's just it, Buffy. Gentle isn't going to work. It's going to take beating him over the head with how much you love him to get through to him. This is Angel we're talking about and, trust me," she said thinking back over her own battles with him, "it could get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Cocking a perfectly shaped eyebrow she asked almost as a dare, "You game?"

Buffy stared back at Angel's sister, a fiercely determined look growing in her eyes. Taking the challenge, she declared, "I'm game."


Chapter XI

Angel stared at the dull, drab walls around him thinking how appropriately they fit his mood, not to mention his life at this moment. The very last place he wanted to be was stuck in a motel room too many miles away from the only thing he had ever cared about. Not that it would be much better if he and Buffy were in the same room, he thought dismally … and whose fault was that? His arms crossed dejectedly behind his head, lying against the flimsy pillows, 'Mine,' he sighed sadly, 'mine.'

He had spent the day with programmers having his brain picked and his theories inspected with a microscope. Buffy might have been worried about his uneasiness among strangers, but Angel hardly noticed them. He had hoped, in fact, that the meetings would be a distraction from his brooding thoughts, but he found there was no easy escape. At one time his mind would have been totally engrossed in number and letter sequences, or how to apply findings to unraveling impossible riddles. Now, he gave perfunctory responses, hardly able to keep his attention on the task at hand. He caught himself doodling profiles of Buffy's face on the edges of his notes and again later, tracing her figure on napkins instead of eating his lunch. He couldn't even bring himself to get rid of those tiny bits, but carefully secreted them in a pocket of his briefcase.

He had one more day to go.

He sorely missed his office … no … that wasn't true … he missed his officemate. Reservations had made been for him to stay two nights - but he wasn't. He didn't care how late they kept him the next day, he couldn't take the distance. He was going to the airport and taking the first flight home if he had to sit there all night to wait for it. He couldn't be with Buffy, but at least, he could be near her. He'd take what he could get.

He did wonder how much he would see her when he got back. Buffy had been finding a lot of reasons to be out of the office. While things were strained between them, to say the least, her absence made it feel as if all the light and air had been sucked out of the room, leaving a cold, static void. Since being assigned to help Lindsey McDonald with his case she had been spending more and more of her hours during the day with him. There had been some work at night too, supposedly to gather more information and research it immediately.

Angel didn't even try to stave off the wave of jealousy that sluiced over him. He would once he returned, but here at least, he could give rein to his true feelings. He wanted Buffy to be happy, that was why he had left her. He saw the appreciative gleam in McDonald's eye when Buffy was near. Angel would rather see her with someone like Lindsey then scum like Riley Finn. But it didn't mean he had to like it. It didn't mean he didn't feel like ripping her possible suitors limb from limb. He just had to make sure she didn't know it. He prayed for McDonald's sake that if he was interested he'd better be very careful how he treated her.

Leaving Buffy's apartment that last time had been the hardest thing Angel ever had to do. He left his heart ripped out and bleeding before he closed the door behind him. No stranger to pain, he had endured it for a lifetime. But leaving her there crying, knowing he was the cause of her heartbreak, was the worst agony he had ever known. He had told her the truth, of sorts, he desperately wanted her, needed her, loved her, but the life he had to offer wasn't something he wanted her to share. He would deny his own heart and soul before allowing her to settle for the shell of a man he was. It was better for her to move on to someone worthy of her love, before she wasted any more time on him.

Little did Angel know that his sister had already made her way to Buffy with the exact opposite thoughts in mind.

He lay awake for a while, then finally rose and found the sketchpad. Settling his large frame on the motel bed, he leaned back against the headboard. He had tried to read earlier, but couldn't keep his attention on the words for even a few sentences. Restless and feeling at odds, he had searched out a store to find a few pencils and the pad he now held. Glancing through the surprising number of pictures he'd already drawn, he shook his head. He couldn't seem to help himself, the drawing had become addicting, the only thing able to bring him any peace. In some way he felt a link to Buffy as she materialized in the charcoal lines, drawing her close if only on paper.

The picture he couldn't get out of his mind, the one he had to draw now was of her fast asleep in the chair that sat by his before the fireplace. He saw her wearing a beatific smile, blissfully dreaming in her slumber. She had never been in his house, yet she looked as though she belonged there, should be there. How many nights had he dreamt of her, curled like a kitten, warm and soft? How many times had he been surprised not to find her there when his eyes opened, almost touched her before she faded from his sight.

But now he had captured her in the only way left to him. Tangled locks cascading over her shoulders, covering her breasts, cheeks pink from the fire and his caresses, slender arms and legs snuggled deep into the cushions and eyes closed with the smile that played on her lips as she dreamt. The hair, the face, the hands … every feature he adored, brought to perfection by his hand. So small, so perfect, so loved.

Once more what he felt, what every fiber of his being craved, found its way from heart to paper. He fell into a fitful sleep, her picture on his chest, still clutching his pencil.


Buffy spent all day Saturday mentally going over everything Cordelia had told her. She ran errands, went to the gym to exercise, shopped for clothes. Even if she had tried, there was no getting Angel out of her mind. And even though she never saw him on the weekends, except that one momentous Friday night, she missed him. She called Willow late in the afternoon to see if her redheaded friend wanted to go out to a movie. But Willow apologetically told her that she and Tara were just getting ready to leave for a concert. After kicking around the apartment for another hour, Buffy decided to go to a movie by herself. Once there, she found she really didn't care about what was showing or sitting there for two hours. Spying Willy's across the street, it looked like a better alternative than just going back home.

She hadn't planned on finding anyone she knew inside and was pleasantly surprised to see Lindsey McDonald draped over a stool at the end of the bar. As she walked towards him she wondered if she should say anything after all. He was staring into his beer mug and didn't look like he was in the mood for any company. He glanced up before she could move away and called her over. Buffy thought he was insisting out of politeness. When she tried to refuse, he was adamant. He guided her to a table, bringing along a pitcher of beer and two mugs.

Buffy had been working with Lindsey for a good share of the last two weeks and found she really liked him. If she wasn't so deeply in love with Mr. 'I'm No Good For You', she thought she might not have minded getting to know Lindsey better. But she figured she would need to take a number. Lindsey McDonald was handsome, smart, sexy and understandably popular. He was easy to talk to and very down to earth. So Buffy found it odd that such a temptation to the general female population was sitting there unattached. It didn't take her long to find out they were kindred spirits.

According to him, Linds was in the same boat she was … well almost. Lindsey was in love with Faith Knight. And Faith, well, that was his problem, he wasn't sure where he stood with her. Lindsey told Buffy that all he and Faith seemed to do best together was argue. They'd had an on again, off again relationship for a while and though he tried to remain aloof, it wasn't working. Being apart made Lindsey realize just how strong his feelings were and Faith's reluctance to commit was tearing him apart.

Lindsey seemed relieved he had found someone to share his woes with, someone who could identify with him. He rambled on for some time, so deeply involved in his own love life he never noticed how quiet Buffy was, across from him. She thought he needed an outlet and knew exactly how he felt, so she sat and listened as he poured his heart out.

At length, Buffy commiserated with him, but only to a point. "At least you have some kind of relationship," she said sadly. Lindsey refilled her empty glass and then his own. She'd had a couple glasses already and knew she probably shouldn't have much more.

"And you don't?" he asked, finally realizing how much of the evening and conversation he had monopolized.

She knew Lindsey had seen her with Angel a couple of times now and thought he was probably curious. "A relationship takes more than one person," she sighed.

"I thought maybe you and Angelus …" Lindsey said, letting the end of his sentence drift off.

"Yeah, … me too," she told him, "but I …" she stopped suddenly, looking at Lindsey entreatingly. She hated to ask Lindsey, but now that she had the opportunity she couldn't let it go. "Linds, I know you aren't supposed to say anything about what happened to Angel … I, uh, mean Angelus," she said, cursing herself for never being able to not call him that. "But I really need to know."

"Buffy, you know I can't divulge privileged information," he said, unwittingly falling into his professional demeanor.

"I don't mean to make this sound dire, Lindsey, but I'm not just asking out of curiosity. Please," she begged, not meaning to get so emotional, "it's really important to me. I know he won't tell me if I ask. I love him and I think it has to do with why we aren't together."

McDonald wasn't one to pry, but he had often wondered what it was that made Angelus set himself apart. What could have caused him to isolate and insulate himself so completely from everyone? Violent as that storm had been, he was sure that what had landed the strong, stoic man in the hospital was much more deep-seated than a simple fear of the elements. Much more. He genuinely liked the taciturn ex- agent. Lindsey thought if anyone deserved a break that it was Angelus. He had thought on occasion that Liam Angelus needed someone in his life, that he seemed too painfully alone. Although he didn't think it was apparent to anyone else, McDonald was sure that his former boss was strongly attracted to Buffy. If Lindsey had any doubts left after Buffy's party, the way Angelus had watched over every move the little blonde made during the kickboxing class dispelled them. He knew Buffy was probably right. Angelus wasn't one to share and his strength of will was formidable. Whatever his reasons, Lindsey doubted Angelus would tell her.

He didn't have to see the tears suddenly glistening in her eyes to understand how intensely serious Buffy was in her request. He silently weighed what was at stake - his own well-being or someone else's. Imparting details of the maneuver that had cost Angelus and Finn their positions as agents could very well jeopardize his own just for sharing them outside the Bureau. But Lindsey knew that was nothing compared to Angelus' wrath when he found out.

"It's not that …" he started to answer her.

"Please, don't tell me no, Linds," she pleaded, the tears slipping silently down her face. "I know he'll be mad if you do," she went on as if reading Lindsey's mind. "But I swear if I tell him, I'll take the blame for it. Please?" she asked one last time.

Lindsey knew it wouldn't matter if Buffy told Angelus she forced the information out of him. Angelus would, rightly, hold him responsible for breaking his trust. Lindsey almost told her no, but he couldn't find it in himself to refuse. What if Faith wanted to know something about Lindsey himself and someone told her. He tried to be objective about it. He would be angry, but if it helped bring him and Faith together, he knew he would at least try to understand. He just hoped Angelus would.

"I'll tell you," he finally said, unable to bear the look of sheer desperation in her eyes, "but if Angelus is angry, I'm not afraid to deal with him myself. I never learned," he added with a faint smile, "how to say no to a beautiful woman."

Lindsey told Buffy everything he knew about the unfortunate episode. He had only been an eyewitness to the outcome. Still, he found it difficult to describe the scene that morning more than two years ago. He remembered arriving moments too late to help the men Angelus had batted out of his way like toy soldiers. Lindsey had felt the raw pain the large, muscular man had radiated as he flailed wildly at anyone who came near him. When they had finally managed to subdue Angelus, McDonald knew he would never forget the dark, empty eyes that stared at nothing, nothing at all.

Lindsey remained quiet after he finished telling Buffy what she wanted to know. She still had tears trailing down her cheeks that were now from knowledge rather than supposition. This time it was Buffy who lifted the pitcher and poured the beer for both of them. Neither one spoke until the glasses were empty once more. Both were silently thinking of where they wanted to be instead of where they were.

Buffy knew she'd had too much to drink but realized she didn't care. She was so wrapped up in Angel thoughts she couldn't think straight anymore. Everything that both Cordelia and Lindsey told her was swirling somewhere around in all that beer. At first she hadn't been able to stop the tears from escaping and trailing down, thinking of the terrible things Angel had silently endured over the years. But then she found herself getting increasingly angry. Now that she knew what was behind his actions, Buffy was deeply hurt. Why hadn't he told her? Didn't he think she could deal with his past? Or wasn't her love enough to help him put that past behind him? The more she drank, the angrier she became.

Neither Lindsey nor Buffy was sober enough by the end of the night to drive home. Lindsey called a cab after Buffy agreed it was a good idea that they both pick up their cars the next day. When they finally tumbled out onto the sidewalk and into the cab, they were far too inebriated to notice the dark convertible following behind them.


Not wasting a moment once his last meeting was over, Angel drove the rental car, already packed with his bags, to the airport. He had made his own reservations for the flight home, not willing to wait for the scheduled one in the morning. It was late and he was tired, knowing he wouldn't catch any sleep on the plane. He hardly slept the night before which hadn't come as any surprise. Sleep had become almost nonexistent the last couple of weeks, only coming with total exhaustion. He didn't feel any better for the little he did get. Nor had he eaten much during all that time either. The effects were leaving their marks. The loss of weight on his already slim frame and the dark circles under his eyes made him noticeably haggard and drawn.

The flight was long and tedious. He had opened the sketchbook looking for a fresh page. Instead he leafed through the drawings he had created when after waking a very short time the night before, sleep once more had refused to rescue him. He became immersed - enthralled and lost in the study of his unattainable subject. The eyes that pleaded with him, the lips he could never kiss again, the soft hands that he wanted to feel holding him - they were whispering from the pages. Cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless, soothing him as his books no longer could.

Startling him, a low voice beside Angel said, "She's beautiful." The speaker was an older woman in the adjoining seat. Grey-haired, with glasses and a kind face, she looked like someone's mother. She was studying the picture he had finished the night before, then turned her friendly gaze up to his face. She couldn't help but see the love in his expression and in the artwork he grasped tightly. "Is she your girlfriend or your wife?" She wasn't prepared for the look of abject pain and loneliness she caught before he brusquely turned away. "I'm sorry," she whispered, but dared say no more. She could almost feel the heartbreak of the dark-haired man next to her and felt badly for causing such a troubled response. They both remained silent for the rest of the trip, but she noticed his gaze never left the drawing, held like a lifeline in his trembling hands.

When he finally got off the plane and searched for his car in the airport parking lot, all he wanted to do was go home and try another attempt at sleeping. The quickest route took him through Main Street in the small hours of the morning. It was the weekend, which meant more people were still out despite the late hour. Just as he came to a stop for a red light, he caught sight of the blonde head he'd know anywhere. Lindsey McDonald and Buffy were standing outside the bar that everyone at work congregated at Friday nights. Only this was Saturday and Angel didn't think it was part of any investigation that McDonald was working on that would need Buffy's help. He could tell by the way they were both weaving and holding each other up as they fell into a cab together, that neither of them was even close to sober.

It was all Angel could do not to ram his car in front of the cab and drag Lindsey out through the window. But he kept his hands clenched on the steering wheel as he trailed behind the taxi. It was a short trip, ending in front of Buffy's apartment building. Parking the car some ways back from the cab, he forced himself to just watch, trying not to let jealous rage overtake him. They emerged from the cab with difficulty, then stumbled to the entry door. He saw Buffy drop her keys after she unlocked the door and kneel down to pick them up. Lindsey offered her an unsteady hand and they fell in a heap on the doorstep.

Angel couldn't restrain himself any longer, he slammed out of his car and stalked towards the unsuspecting pair. He was at a distance though and before he got near enough, Lindsey had already helped Buffy up. McDonald was staggering towards the waiting cab as Buffy opened the door to go inside. Lindsey didn't know he just saved his own life when he closed the door to the taxi. Angel gave a fleeting look in its direction as he reached the entry door, catching it before it closed.

His steps were silent on the carpeting. He followed behind as she jammed the key in the lock and fumbled her way in her door. As she turned to close it, he was standing in front of her. Her eyes widened as she stepped back in surprise, her lips curving in a smile of joy that split him with half elation and half anguish.

"Angel," she said in that small breathy way only she could say it.

His breath was gone, he couldn't speak, still processing the mix of emotions her smile alone had invoked.

"You've come back," she said softly, thinking he had changed his mind, that he wanted her in his life.

The anguish he felt won out as he realized why she thought he was there and he knew it showed on his face. "I saw you with McDonald, I was worried about you," he tried to explain feebly.

Confusion crowded into her eyes as he moved forward and her smile melted into a bitter line of anger. "That's why you're here?" she asked, the tone changing to match her look as she swayed a little before him.

"I just wanted to make sure you were all right," he shrugged miserably, feeling more torn by the moment.

She couldn't think straight, but she knew by his look he wasn't there to stay. She couldn't do this, she wouldn't, she wasn't up to trying to make him understand. She wanted to scream at him she was so angry, but she felt dizzy and her head hurt. "So you're what? My knight in shining armor, come to rescue me - again?" she spat out.

He cringed, knowing he deserved her anger, but was still as concerned as before. "No, I-I just saw you … the two of you in the cab and I …" he trailed off as he saw the look of anger go up one more level to furious.

"Are you stalking me? You're the one who told me you didn't want me in your life, but you can spy on mine?" she demanded, her voice rising.

"I wasn't stalking you!" he told her, trying to keep his voice low. "I happened to take that way home from the airport and saw you get in the cab," he said, realizing as he spoke he'd just made things even worse.

"So you followed us here?" she yelled.

"Buffy, please," he tried to tell her, "calm down and let me explain."

"I don't want your explanations," she seethed. "Who I'm with is none of your concern, you made that clear. She glared at him, "I'm not in your life, remember? You don't want me there," she repeated harshly. "I'm of no concern to you."

Shocked she would think that, let alone say it, he reached for her, "That's not true. You know I care what happens to you." Before he could stop them, the words were out of his mouth, "I love you."

Her face crumpled at his declaration, "You can't have it both ways, Angel," she cried, her voice falling off to a whisper, tears streaking down her face. She turned away suddenly and lurched unevenly towards the hallway, holding one hand to her mouth, the other to her stomach.

Angel kicked the door shut without thinking and caught up with her as she got to the bathroom door.

"Just leave," she managed to eke out as she crossed the room and fell in front of the toilet.

"I can't," he told her honestly as he grabbed a washcloth and turned on the faucet to soak it.

He reached for her, gently pulling her hair back, just as she wretched violently into the basin. Keeping a delicate hold on her, he waited until she was finished. After a few long moments she sank back onto the floor. Very carefully he drew her into his lap, tenderly soothing her face with the cloth.

"Angel, please …" she tried weakly to move as she spoke.

"Shhh ..." he whispered, as he continued to brush the damp cloth over her face.

Buffy had no fight left. She hadn't been sleeping or eating any better than Angel. The drinks and the shock of seeing him at her door combined with the emotions he caused were more than she could handle. She couldn't help that she felt like she was right where she should be … and she didn't have the strength to even stay conscious. She fell asleep as he held her, just as she'd dreamt of doing every night.

Angel sat there for a very long time just holding her. He smoothed the damp strands of gold from her cheek, staring down at her fallen lids. The sight of her never failed to take his breath away. She was so very lovely and now looked so vulnerable and fragile. He could see the dark smudges under her lashes and feel how light she'd become. Lighter than the last time he'd held her, he could tell. His hands couldn't stop moving over her, caressing her lightly, tracing whisper-soft love into the lines of the face he saw every moment, in dreams or in waking. How could he keep leaving her when the most important part of him stayed with her? He knew she was right, he had no right to be jealous, had no right to be where he was at this moment. He shouldn't have followed her and made her angry.

He finally rose to his feet, cradling her in his arms, her weight no more to him than a feather. Laying her gently on the bed, once he reached her bedroom, he looked in her dresser for a gown. Lifting her with great care, he removed her clothes and dressed her in the nightgown, tucking her under the covers. He wanted nothing more than to crawl in beside her and curl around her. But he didn't, he knew he would never leave if he did. Instead he let his tired body collapse on her couch. He would stay until daylight, just to make sure she was all right. He knew no sleep would come for him.


Once again Buffy fell asleep in the arms of her lover … and woke to find him gone. She had been ready for it this time or at least she thought. She didn't know if it was seeing that he had changed her and put her to bed or looking at the indentation his large frame had left on the couch. But it made the tears she didn't want to cry fall anyway. Curling into the cushions, the unique scent that was Angel's surrounded her. Every time he had been in her apartment had made her heart break a little more with each visit. What made it that much worse was he showed even more each time how much he loved her. He wouldn't stay with her, but he couldn't seem to keep himself away. She thought wryly that if he loved her any more, it would kill her.

She forced herself to shower and get dressed, in spite of the pounding headache the generous amount of beer left in its wake. Willow agreed to give her a lift to her car when Buffy phoned her and asked for the favor. She was grateful Willow had picked up easily on how out of sorts she was and not pressed her too closely about what she'd done with her night out alone. Poor Willow, Buffy thought, hadn't been in her best friend's confidence as she used to be. Oddly enough, she and Willow had spent very little time together since Buffy had started working in the same place. Both had expected to fall back into the same routine with each other as before, but that hadn't happened. She idly wondered if it was because Tara had replaced her in Willow's life or Angel had replaced Willow's in her own. Granted, she hadn't spent evenings with Angel, but seeing Willow and Tara together often reminded Buffy of how lonely she was. And, unfortunately, it was Angel's company she enjoyed the most.

She took her car back home, trying to keep Angel thoughts to a minimum. It was impossible. She could still remember, even through her alcoholic haze the evening before, how her heart had leapt at the sight of him in her doorway. Those strong arms were just where she wanted them to be … and he had left … again. The anger she'd felt the night before started welling back up. She loved him, but she was so frustrated and infuriated with him she could scream.

Buffy stormed through her apartment like a tiny tornado. She whipped around looking for a victim for her wrath. She spied the stove standing innocently before her, seeming to cower beneath her vengeful eye. She no longer thought of anyone's head in it, except Angel's. She felt like stuffing all of him inside and turning it on high. As she dug underneath the sink for the oven cleaner she went over that heart- wrenching conversation with him, the night he had thrown Riley out, for the thousandth time. Every word of it had been burned into her brain.

Donning a pair of gloves and arming herself with a scrub brush and the cleaner, she attacked the oven. As she made long vicious swipes with the brush, she punctuated them with broken sentences, thinking out loud. "You always hurt me. You left me bruised. Nothing is my fault because I'm perfect!" She poured more cleaner on, daring the stove to stop her. "I'm so precious that you have to do what's right! I'll do what's right, Angel! If you can think with your head and not your heart so can I!" Sitting back looking at the battlefield, she found she'd conquered the dirt all too easily. She moved on to the refrigerator to start a fresh fight.

Finally exhausted, she collapsed onto the couch and lay there, staring at the ceiling. All this time since their 'talk' had been a breakthrough for her. She had looked back on her relationships, something that she had always buried rather than exam too closely. It had been a sometimes painful, but honest evaluation. She had tried to be objective about Pike and her father. She finally found, to her amazement that she had done all she could. She had been there for them. She realized the fault lay with them, not her. Where were they when she needed them? They left her behind without any consideration of what it would mean to her, when all she had wanted to do was help them because she loved them. But their own needs and feelings had been more important to them than hers.

Angel leaving her was different. He didn't want to, she could see it, hear it, feel it, in every part of him. He wasn't abandoning her. She knew he would never be free of her. He thought he was letting her go to something better. She knew there would never be anyone better in her life for her than Angel, ever. She had to make him understand that she had no life if he wasn't in it. He needed to know that.

She had Angel to thank for all of her revelations. If she didn't love him so much, if he hadn't hurt her so deeply, she never would have looked as closely at herself as she did. She hadn't been able to push it down and hide it away as she always did before. She loved him too much to lose him. Her heart and soul had cried out as one when he walked out the door and she thought she would die. The pain was so intense, she couldn't ignore it, she had to deal with it.

But he'd given her insight. It wasn't just knowing that he did love her, but knowing she was important to him, so important he was trying to protect her. It had taken her a while to figure that out, that his protection of her was more than physical. More than beating up Riley or anyone else who threatened her. He would defend her against even himself if he thought it was necessary. He told her he wouldn't let her be part of his darkness, but he needed her light.

And he'd given her back her strength by letting her see his own. If he could love her so much that he would give her up to keep her safe, then she could love him enough to make him see she was only safe with him. If he didn't want to spend 'this life' with her, he'd have to work with her to make a new one. She refused to let him go, no matter how noble he was trying to be. If he could make her raise and deal with her own demons, she knew he had to exorcise his own. She understood his were deeper, more firmly rooted by the pain and time that had held him. But she knew he'd come further with her than with anyone in his life and if he didn't let her help him, he might never be free. She was more important to him than he realized and she had to make him see.

Somewhere in the last week, between her conversation with Cordelia and waking up to find Angel had watched over her, it finally dawned on her. Angel was right … and he was so very, very wrong. She had been thinking with her heart. She automatically assumed she was to blame for things not working out, even though Giles had warned her against doing exactly that. She had forgotten there were two people involved in that decision. And she realized with blinding clarity he hadn't given her that option. He had made the decision for both of them. He never gave her a chance. He had done the same thing she did, he assumed. He assumed to know what was best for her without even asking her.

Just because she understood now why he had kept himself from her, it didn't make her any less angry. It made her furious. She knew what an uphill battle lay before her because she knew how very strong and thickheaded Angel was. The stove and refrigerator weren't even a good warm-up for what lay ahead. She had to think of how to get through to him and she knew it wasn't going to be easy. That thought alone enraged her all over again.


Chapter XII

The tension in the office during the next several days was so thick it was almost tangible. Anyone having the misfortune to even drop a memo on Angel's desk couldn't avoid the pervasively palpable phantom of stress lurking like a silent member of the room.

Angel had spent what was left of his weekend from alternately chastising himself for interfering in Buffy's life and telling himself he wasn't a part of it, to wondering hopelessly what to do with the rest of his life without her. By Monday morning he had convinced himself once more that she needed someone else in her life, whatever the cost to his own heart. He told himself he wouldn't become possessive when it came to Buffy with other men. He had no right, that part of what she said had been true. He would be detached and unemotional if it killed him.

Buffy had used her time letting her anger build to a boiling point, wondering how one man could be so obviously brilliant, and yet, so incredibly dense. She was damned if he was going tell her what was best for her without her having a say in the matter. But she knew trying to jackhammer any sense into the Angel's obstinate stone wall wasn't the answer. She wasn't sure exactly what to do, but she would find a way to make him understand.

They barely looked in each other's direction. Angel forced himself not to smell the scent of vanilla that assailed his senses whenever she was near, or pay any attention to the warmth her presence radiated. Buffy kept a check on her temper, steadfastly refusing to give into the urge to march over and give Angel a swift kick whenever she saw that now familiar slump of dejection in his shoulders, signaling his lack of self- worth. Or giving in to the even stronger impulse to make him take her in his arms and love her like she knew he did.

Amazingly they made it through the entire week, thanks only to Buffy not being in the room with Angel for the majority of the time. Frequent visits to Lindsey's office or in his company where he was on assignment had kept her busy. Her work with McDonald was almost at an end. The culprit at the center of the case was within days of being detained formally. All that was left was finishing up the paperwork such an endeavor created and submitting it to their superiors for perusal.

In the short time she'd known Lindsey it wasn't hard to find that the paperwork was one aspect of being an agent that he despised. Lindsey had been a good friend to her the last couple weeks, sensing her need for unquestioned acceptance, and she felt she owed him for that. As a surprise for him, she had gathered their work together and completed as much as she could without his input, making his part of it decidedly easy. She hadn't had the chance to give him the information. She had spent the evening before putting everything in place while she was home. She could have stayed late and done the work in the office, but even when Angel wasn't there, the echo of his presence and the residue of emotions charging the air kept her away. She still wasn't sleeping well, finding herself staring into the dark for hours before falling into a fitful unconsciousness. As a result, she woke up late that Friday, racing to work, leaving everything she labored over the night before sitting on her kitchen table.

Willow had been gently prodding her to make an appearance that night at Willy's. It had been several weeks since Buffy had been there and Willow missed her presence. Plus Willow figured her best friend needed the distraction. Willow was only too aware that all was not right in Buffy's world these days. Buffy hadn't promised her friend she would show, rather she decided to say nothing and surprise her instead. She was tired and didn't want to go, but didn't want Willow worrying about her. Her plan was to stop by home, pick up the papers for Lindsey and give them to him at Willy's when she joined Willow.

Although Angel had lasted the five days of the workweek, he was on the verge of exhaustion. Most nights the bed had seemed too wide and empty. Rather than enduring the loneliness he spent his nights moodily staring into the fire from his chair. Any sleep he'd managed to wrest was tainted with ravaged dreams of reaching for Buffy only to find her gone. When he woke, he was forced to that cold reality by the harsh light of day. His recurring dream of her curled in the chair that sat next to his tore at his heart as the illusion melted with the sun.

It took all of his strength and stamina that last morning to drag himself from bed, shower and dress, then drive to the complex. Nothing could have kept him away if he only found five minutes of the day would be spent near her. As it turned out, Buffy spent the entire day sitting right there behind him. It was a bittersweet agony. The newest 'Annie' that had been brewing since morning didn't help any. He tried to lose himself in his work, but the specter of the lonely weekend stretching before him was breaking the last bit of endurance he possessed.

At five o'clock Angel had put the last of his folders in his briefcase, hoping the work he had with him would give him some respite from the long, empty hours ahead. Buffy had left the office only moments before, headed down the hall towards the break room. He wondered if she hoped he would be gone when she returned.

The storm had finally broken shortly before. He grimaced at the rain drumming against the basement window to the accompaniment of strobes of fiery light and pounding thunder. Although he no longer depended on drugs to get him through them, the frequent and increasingly more violent occurrences of foul weather still had an effect. His uneasiness towards them had been more pronounced the last couple of weeks. He had put it off to lack of sleep. Picking up his jacket along with the case, he had gotten a few feet down the hall when he heard Buffy's voice.

"I've got a surprise waiting for you," he heard her say in a low voice.

It was Lindsey's voice that answered with a teasing tone, "For me?"

Angel stopped where he was, unable to move a muscle. Some part of his brain was telling him he had promised not to get involved with her life anymore. The rest of him was already screaming to rip Lindsey's tongue out of his throat. Angel stayed frozen in place as he listened to the conversation around the corner moving away from him.

"Don't you think you deserve one?" Buffy asked in the same tone Lindsey had used.

"Depends on what you consider a surprise," Lindsey lightly jested.

"I don't think you'll be disappointed," passing the banter back to him, her laugh tinkled and drifted away in the distance.

Angel didn't hear Lindsey's reply as they passed out of his hearing. He was still rooted to the spot, a red haze of jealous fury swirling around him. He finally turned his steps back to the office, blindly making his way to his desk without even knowing where he was. He stood there, unaware of the passage of time, briefcase and jacket in hand, his large frame trembling with the sudden rage that was overtaking him.

Having watched Angel get ready to leave and expecting an empty office, Buffy almost ran into him when she entered the room. "Angel," she chirped, jumping, "I thought you were gone."

He whipped around, dropping his forgotten belongings to the floor. Looking down at her, his eyes flashed dangerously, "Yes," he bit out, "I can see you were distracted." It hurt him more than he had thought possible to think she had actually moved on and in such a short time. He knew she loved him, how could she do that?

Buffy sensed the waves of anger pulsate around him, as she felt her own rise in response. She knew the howling wind shrieking outside had nothing on the tempest unfurling before her. She instantly knew he must have heard her talking to Lindsey about the papers she had to give him. Although she had no idea what Angel thought he heard, the jealousy burning in his eyes exposed the conclusions he'd drawn. Angel loved her. His whole being was practically screaming it at her. He had to love her very much to be so very angry. But now so was she. It had been a perfectly innocent exchange with Lindsey and she was damned if she was going to explain herself to Angel. She walked determinedly towards her desk. "I was just getting my things," she said, refusing to elaborate.

"Don't let me stop you," he spat as he turned and stalked towards her. "You have better things to do, I'm sure." He couldn't stay away from her; she drew him like a magnet.

Buffy whirled around to see him towering over her. She had never felt any fear when she was near Angel, nor did she now. But she felt the pain that was emanating from him; it was laced with the jealousy and anger that were shaking his frame. Her heart cried out for him, but his blind obstinacy still stoked her own fury. "And what better things do you think those would be, Angel?"

"Don't you have somewhere to be?" he countered. "I don't want to keep you."

His choice of words made her snap. Cordelia was right. Gentle wasn't the way to go with Angel. If she had a club she would have used it on his head. She made up her mind that he wasn't leaving that room, he wasn't leaving her sight, he wasn't leaving her ever again and she was going to make him understand that once and for all.

"You're right, Angel!" Buffy spat back, hands on her hips. "You aren't keeping me, you didn't want to keep me in your life. It doesn't work with us. That's what you told me."

Her retort only accentuated the pain he felt. She was twisting his words as if the fault was hers. He grabbed her by the shoulders, "No, I-I can't give you a life, or a future or anything a girl would want."

"You say that! Why is it just your decision? What about me? I love you so much," she insisted.

"What, do you think this is simple?" Angel returned, exasperated, "You think there's an easy answer?"

"Why is it difficult? What are you so afraid of?" she looked up at him not letting him turn his eyes away.

"Because I want you so badly! I want to take comfort in you," he cried.

"Why is that so wrong?" Buffy wanted to know, the same timber rang in her question.

Angel shook his head, dropping his hands to his sides as if in defeat. "Look, I'm weak. I've never been anything else."

"You're weak. Everybody is. Everybody fails," she told him firmly as she reached back for him, locking her hands on his arms.

"You can never understand," he tried to tell her, looking into her eyes.

"Why won't you let me try?" she cried, answering him with a question.

He raised his hands to her face, his own a mere breath away, "Am I a thing worth saving? You don't know who I am, Buffy. I'm just a shell, I'm not even a man."

"So that's it, Angel?" she replied in an agonized whisper, putting her hands on his, "You don't think you're worth it? You just give up?"

"Buffy, please. For once ... let me be strong," the sound of his voice becoming ragged with emotion as he stepped away from her, tears streaking his anguished face.

"Strong is fighting! It's hard, and it's painful, and it's every day. It's what we have to do. And we can do it together." Tears of frustration sprang from her own eyes. Why couldn't he see what she was trying to tell him?

He closed his eyes, not answering, not moving.

"Then I'm not worth fighting for?" she asked in a low voice, "So what difference does it make to you if I'm with someone else?"

His eyes snapped open at the absurdity of her words. Unable to believe she could think that after his revelations, he clarified, "You're the only thing in the world worth fighting for! I'm the one who isn't worth it!"

"I think you are, Angel," she said angrily, "but if I can't convince you that you are, then I don't know what can. But do not expect me to keep waiting. You're the only one I'll ever love, but I guess that's not good enough. You're jealous of Riley or Lindsey? Get used to it, you've left me no choice."

"What are you saying?" he raged, his anger and jealousy welling up all over again at the mention of his rivals.

"What do you think I'm saying?" she snarled back, grabbing for her purse on the desk. "I'm supposed to find that happiness you think is out there for me. Why wait?" she taunted as she stalked towards the door.

He was in front of her before she could reach it. He grabbed her by the arms, pushing her back, kicking the door shut. The sound reverberated through the room. "So you're just going to go out and find one of them?" he fumed.

"What am I supposed to do?" she threw at him, "What's left? Now let me go." When he didn't release her, she played her last desperate hope. "There might be someone out there who will love me enough to care. Or maybe it's better they don't."

"I care!" he roared, "I love you!"

"Then prove it, Angel," Buffy shouted, "Don't just talk about it, show me! Because if you don't, if you dare leave me again, I swear, you'll find me under one of them!"

Angel's body shook with the possessive anger her threat evoked. She couldn't do that. He didn't believe her, especially after all she'd just told him. He knew it was an empty threat, no matter how mad she was. But that didn't stop his violent reaction to the mental image her words conjured. The last tenuous barriers crumbled at visualizing her with anyone except himself. He knew now he could never stand by and see her with another man. If it was proof she needed, he'd give it to her!

Buffy saw a stark, brilliant flash of lightening out of the corner of her eye then felt the earth shudder from the peal of thunder that followed. Angel grabbed her roughly against him, crushing her to his chest. One hand slid up the back of her neck, grasping a handful of long, blonde hair, pulling her head back. His face was once more a hairsbreadth from hers. "If that's what you want, I'll show you," he hissed against her lips, mashing his mouth over hers, forcing his tongue in with bruising force. He held her there for long moments, unable to stop, now that he finally had her in his arms again. Not breaking the kiss, Angel turned her around. Moving a few steps, he pushed her back against his desk, lifting her to balance on its edge.

He released her lips long enough to let them breath. He drew his in deeply, looking down at the simple white cotton top with tiny straps over her bare shoulders and the short dark skirt hiked high up her thighs. All those mornings he had seen her in a similar outfit perched in the exact same spot flashed provocatively through his mind. Every day he had longed to do exactly what he was doing at this moment - holding her, touching her. Her flesh felt so warm and yielding beneath his hands. He ran his fingers over the creamy velvet skin and soft inviting curves as if impelled to touch every inch of her. They roved over her shoulders, swept down her arms and back, then dug into the material covering the soft cheeks of her buttocks as he roughly dragged her hips towards him. He recaptured her lips, giving her one of the long, deep, lustful kisses he had imagined over and over again.

Angel stood close to the desk, twisting and jutting his hips forward as she slid her legs apart in blatant invitation. He groaned against her mouth at the contact as he cupped his large hands around the softly rounded globes, pulling her more tightly against him.

She could feel his erection, hard and long, straining beneath the fabric separating them, throbbing to be set free from confinement. Pulling him even closer, she ground into him, her growing wetness seeping through her panties onto his trousers.

Buffy didn't feel a shred of guilt for throwing someone else in his face if that's what it took to get through to him. Anything to bring him back to her. She had missed him so much, wanted … needed him so badly. Twining her hands more tightly around his neck, she held the kiss, bending his head even closer towards hers, her fingers clutching his thick, dark hair. She could feel the quivering tension in his arms as he lifted his hands to catch her hard against him in a fierce embrace.

He lifted his head, panting from his need. "I love you," he forced out in a ragged whisper, the words tearing themselves from his throat. "I try not to, but I can't stop."

"Me too," she cried, "I can't either." She loved him so much. At his admission and final surrender, a teardrop fell and trickled down her cheek. Angel moaned as he leaned in, gently tasting the single tear, replacing it with fiery kisses that trailed across her face and down her throat. He outlined her collarbone with his tongue, craving her sweet, vanilla skin. Fanning her desire, he stoked his own, raining hot, wet kisses on one delicate shoulder, then retracing the burning path across to the other.

Taking possession once more of her mouth, he nipped at her top lip, then bit down on the lower one. He was voracious, taking every bit of sweetness he could find, sucking her tongue in, sliding it against him own. All the while his hands wandered restlessly; grasping, teasing, tempting as his fingers followed her lush, soft lines, exploring her warm secrets. She was breathless before he broke the kiss. His eyes were dark with passion, riveting her in place.

"You're mine!" he said fiercely, finally claiming her, as she sobbed in agreement. His hand dug into her waist, still holding her by the hair with the other. He dove back into her mouth with no less force than before, drinking down her moan as he devoured her lips.

Buffy's desire for him spiraled with each brutal kiss. Between her legs, she felt her body's liquid response flow from her core in answer to his fervent declaration. She'd been longing to hear those words since that first night they made love. Nothing had been right since he left. She returned his kisses with equal ardor, nipping and sucking at his lips, dueling her tongue against his.

Suddenly ripping off the thin top she wore in one swift tearing motion, he reached behind her, fumbling with her bra, finally tossing it aside. He captured both breasts in his hands, sucking one nipple into his mouth, his tongue circling the hard tip. His fingers closed around the soft flesh, kneading it, his teeth scraping hungrily against the nipple he held captive. She gasped from the sensation, arching into him. Angel was ravenous for the taste of her, he'd dreamt about this so many empty nights. His mouth left one breast to tease the other with his teeth and tongue. Lifting his hand to the abandoned nipple, he rolled the sensitive point between his thumb and finger. Buffy pushed herself against him, begging him to take more.

The thought of another man even touching her made him furious. One hand had found its way back to her golden, shining hair, twining it in his fingers, tugging her head back to give him better access. Moving his mouth to her throat, he bit in as if marking her as his own.

"Mine!" she heard him growl again. He took mouthfuls of her skin, sucking hard, knowing her tender flesh would bear his marks. He laved the succulent white column, roughly soothing the abraded flesh.

"Yours," she breathed, feeling his hot breath on her neck as he nipped and licked at her skin. Her hands found their way to his chest, ripping buttons off his shirt to slide inside, tickling her fingers across the hard muscular surface beneath. She felt him shudder at her touch, inciting her passion even more. Grabbing the shirt, she pulled it all the way open, pushing it off his shoulders, desperate for the feel of his skin against hers. He shrugged it the rest of the way off, his muscles tensing, then rippling as her fingers curved around his back, digging into his skin. Buffy was greedy for him, her hands roamed his back, his chest, his shoulders, raking her nails over his skin.

Angel's pulse throbbed in his ears, he felt himself grow harder, feeling what little control remained slip away. Attempting to remove her skirt he snagged and tore the zipper in his haste. Exasperated, he pulled her forward far enough to tear it more, lifting her an instant to push it down, then off her legs, along with her shoes. In the heat of his passion, Buffy saw tattered pieces of her delicate lace panties fall to the floor. He leaned back far enough to rake hot, hungry eyes over her flesh. Her bedroom had been dark the night they made love. This was the first time he had feasted his eyes on her small, perfect body in the light. If possible, he hardened even more at the sight.

His face was transfixed with awe as he worshiped her with his eyes, "Buffy," he breathed heatedly, "you're so, so beautiful."

She gave him a suddenly shy smile, making her look innocently seductive, color flushing her skin a deep rose at his words. Feeling the lustful adoration burning her with its gaze, Buffy answered with a heat of her own. She unbuttoned his pants, grappling with the zipper, in a hurry to remove the offending garment. Her eagerness inflamed him and he growled, impatiently pulling her hands away and shoved both the pants and his boxers down and kicked them off with his shoes.

Reaching back down for the pants, he searched through the pockets. Feeling Buffy's gaze, he self-consciously pulled his wallet out and fished out a foil packet. After their one night together he knew it was wrong for him to be with her. He also knew there would never be anyone else in his life or his bed except her. But it hadn't stopped him from making a point the very next day of buying condoms and carrying some with him. Buffy's smirk as she helped him roll the supple cover over his hard length was worth a thousand words. He returned her look with a deliciously evil grin.

He slid his hand between her legs, fingers seeking their way through the soft, curling hair, burrowing quickly into her folds. Groaning, he slipped two of them deep inside her, feeling them instantly coated with her juices, ready for him. He caught the heady fragrance of her arousal, a scent he had smelled only one night and would never forget. It made him dizzy with desire. He rubbed his thumb against her swollen, sensitive bud making her grind against his hand, her head falling back as she arched against him once more. He withdrew his fingers and grasped her by the hips. Lowering his head, Angel lifted one hand to bring her head closer, then kissed her even more savagely. His hand dropped to her waist, pulling her to the very edge of the desk as he pressed into her entrance. He impaled her in one swift movement, thrusting himself deeply inside. Her body welcomed his return, her moist, tight channel stretching to accommodate his length and girth.

They both cried out at his invasion, reveling in being one again. So overcome at feeling him inside her once more she climaxed as he filled her to bursting, calling out his name as she peaked in his arms. He gritted his teeth to keep from following too soon after her, awash in her liquid heat, her muscles clenching and grasping him, holding him in exquisite agony.

Buffy wept at the feel of Angel buried so deeply where she needed him. She had missed him so much, relived the memories so many times. She pulled him closer, using her inner muscles to draw and hold him, wrapping her legs around his hips to lock him in place. Angel felt the soft, undulating walls pull and contract around him, his eyes shut tight, muscles cording as her hot flesh surrounded him. He needed to move, his blood racing, hands once more biting into the flesh on her hips. He pulled out, plunging back in, not stopping, continuing to thrust in and out of her. Every push back into her depths elicited a deep moan from her as he rasped his sex over sensitive nerves both in and outside of her. Angel grunted with the effort, her sounds of pleasure spurring him to go faster, deeper until he set a bruising pace, the motion oddly in sync with the rhythm of the rain pelting the small square of glass above them. He pounded into her, almost out of his mind with the ecstasy surging through every part of his body. She could never be too close, he could never delve too deeply.

Withdrawing for only a moment, he pulled her legs from his waist, putting his arms underneath them. As he drove back into her, Buffy's eyes glazed over as the heat from the friction spread through her like wildfire. Tiny beads of sweat dotted her upper lip as she laid back on the desk and wrapped her arms around his, lifting her legs higher, urging him closer still. Slamming into her, almost at the point of exploding, he reached down to where they were joined. He wanted her to come with him. His fingers twisted her slick nub rubbing it almost painfully. His touch jolted through her. She peaked once more, pleasure pulsing through her, tingling its way to every nerve ending in waves, crying out Angel's name once more. He came at the sound of his name on her lips, her hot core throbbing, clamping him like a vise. Swept away by the euphoric feeling of her all around him, pulling him deep, he pumped into her erratically, shouting her name with the last of his breath.

Almost unable to move, he loosened her legs from around his hips, gasping. Still trying to fill his lungs with air, he slid his hands under her back and pulled her up to his chest. He needed to feel her, skin to skin, heart to heart. The beat of hers answering his own. Buffy burrowed into his embrace, puffing small breaths against his sweat-slicked chest. Her small arms reached around his waist, holding onto him as tightly as he held her. He dropped kisses in her hair as she snuggled against him. She could still hear the storm outside, its force spent, winding down.

When they finally calmed, their breathing recovered and their heart rates neared to a normal pace. Angel discreetly removed and disposed of the condom. He was almost embarrassed to look at her now that the fire and passion had burned away. He'd lost total control … again. He felt like a caveman blindly coupling with his mate. But at the picture that drew in his mind, he found himself smugly smiling. As said mate lifted her head with a sated, satisfied look on her face, he couldn't erase the smile.

Buffy grinned - naked, on Angel's desk, clothes strewn on the floor, and Angel smiling down on her with a self-satisfied smirk. "Take me to your cave, Neanderthal man," she chuckled, reading his mind.

Angel laughed, a rare and precious sound to her ears. Then he stopped as the import of her words sunk all the way in. With a solemn look he gazed down at her, his fingers tucking a sweat-drenched lock of hair behind her ear. The fingers trailed slowly to her chin as he said, "I'll take you home with me," a soft glow lighting his face from within.

He stepped back, gently releasing her, to scoop up her clothes. Eyeing what was left of them, he picked up his jacket, lying by his forgotten briefcase. He handed it to her with what was almost an apology on his face. "Sorry," he said with little conviction.

After they dressed as best they could, Angel bundled her down the hall. Glad everyone had gone home for the weekend, leaving the building deserted, he hurried her into his car. He kept glancing over at her, as if to see if she was still there. Wearing a look of awed happiness he couldn't keep off his face, he drove through rain swept streets the short distance to his house. He pulled in the driveway, parked, and ran around to open her door before she could reach for the door handle. Giving him a blinding smile she let him help her, twining her fingers in the hand he held out. She held them as he led her up the path and waited while he unlocked the door and escorted her inside.

He closed the door and without even giving her a chance to look around, he captured her lips with his. Buffy stood up on tiptoe, hands automatically reaching around his neck, opening her mouth to his tender request. His arms came around her, deepening the kiss, finally breaking it, leaving her dizzy and breathless.

"Welcome home," he said softly, his eyes shining down on her. As she gazed back up to him, he basked in the love she radiated for him. She was here …with him.

Buffy couldn't take her eyes off him to even look at the room. He was still Angel, quiet and shy. But the brooding darkness seemed to have lifted from his features. An endearingly beguiling small half-smile stayed on his lips, reflected in his eyes.

Catching her hand once more in his, he tugged her down the hallway into his bedroom. She leaned against the closet doorway as he searched through the clothes hanging there. She was mesmerized, watching him constantly glance over as if to make sure she hadn't disappeared. He finally handed her a shirt and a pair of boxers from the drawer below, then recaptured her hand in his and led her into the bathroom.

Buffy wouldn't release his hand as he turned to go, but pulled him back inside, closing the door. "Stay?" she whispered almost pleadingly as she lifted her eyes to his.

The look of pure love shining out of them was almost too much for Angel. He thought his heart would burst right out of his chest that she loved him that much. "I couldn't leave you if I tried, " he told her honestly, wrapping his arms around her, his cheek resting against her hair. He held her carefully. The emotions he felt coursing through him made him afraid he would injure her with their intensity. She was so easy to love but it was still hard to believe how deeply he could see she felt it in return.

"Wash my back?" he heard her say, muffled against his chest.

"Your back, your face, your hair …" he trailed off as she reached up and pulled his head down towards hers. It was a long, sweet kiss. He was still trying to deal with the incredible feeling of euphoria she gave him.

Almost shyly she helped him take off his shirt and pants as he loosed his jacket from her shoulders. He reached into the shower, turning on the water, testing the temperature, then drew her in with him under the steamy, hot water. They could feel the passion and desire for each other not far away, but this was about discovery. They wanted to take the time to know each other, just to touch one another.

Angel found himself tracing gentle patterns on her arms and back as he had dreamed of doing so many times. He placed tender kisses on her neck and shoulders as he lathered the soap, sliding his fingers over her skin. They took turns gently massaging shampoo through one another's hair. Buffy let the soap slip through her hands lost in the feel of his muscles against her palms. They took their time, languishing in the warm mist, enjoying the feeling of oneness they shared. They finally left the stall when the water began to cool.

After he wrapped Buffy in a huge cotton towel, he insisted on drying her. She didn't argue, but smiled as she felt the large, strong hands through the towel, gently pat each inch of skin, then tousle her hair. He gave her the clothes he had found for her. While she dressed, he dried himself, padding back to the bedroom long enough to find something for himself to wear. She followed behind him still buttoning the crimson silk shirt over the black silk boxers from his closet. He turned when he heard her step, his smile widening at the picture she made in his clothes. He thought they had never been worn so beautifully.

He finally left her on her own long enough to rummage around in the kitchen to find something for them to eat while she wandered through the living room. She fingered one of his books as her gaze took in the volumes that lined the walls, surrounding the room with their staunch, solid security. She intuitively understood what the books and the room itself represented to Angel. And with that, just how singular her own presence was in the midst of it. It reminded her painfully of her conversation with Cordelia, something she knew still had to be broached and brought into the open. She unconsciously shook her head, unwilling to inflict any hurt upon him as happy as he was right now. But she knew nothing had really changed, that until they shared the scars, inside and out that they both had, they couldn't move on. In his words, it wouldn't work with them.

He called to her and she laid down the slim volume to join him in the kitchen. She was quiet as she nibbled at the salad and French bread he'd set on plates on the table. She sipped a little of the wine with a pensive look. He wondered at the sudden change in her mood, worried he'd done something to upset her, but didn't ask, waiting instead, giving her time. When they were done, he swept the few dishes into the dishwasher. As before he took her smaller hand in his, this time leading her to the fireplace. He built a small fire as she looked on, preoccupied, then he drew her down in his chair, tucking her in beside him.

He stroked the silken hair as he gently laid his cheek against her forehead. "Are you going to tell me why you're so quiet?" he asked, concern leaking into his words.

A few seconds passed. "I love you," she told him in a small voice, rubbing her cheek against the fabric of the shirt that covered his chest.

"I know that," he answered as he lifted her chin with one finger to see into her eyes. The pain and sadness there, and the worry, behind the love in her look pierced him. "I love you," he said, overwhelmed once again by how deeply she affected him. "More than anything," he added with a desperate whisper. He waited while she remained silent. His concern for her won out over his patience. "Tell me what it is, love," he pleaded softly. If she only realized how much he loved her - more than life itself. He had called her 'love' so naturally, he thought, but that was what she was, love personified. What else would he call her?

She wasn't sure how to start, not wanting to push him away, knowing he would be troubled no matter how she went about it. Gathering her courage, she finally shifted around, sitting almost face to face with him. "I-I've never loved anyone like I love you," she started.

He wasn't calmed, knowing from her tone how serious she was. He could feel her tension and eased his large hands down her back as he studied her.

"In fact, I never let myself love anyone for a long time," she said. She smiled then, "But, you didn't give me any choice." She took a long breath, knowing the next part would wound him, but she went on, "When you left - every time you left - I thought it was me."

She reached out two fingers, pressing them against his lips as he started to open his mouth in protest. Then seeing the look of self-loathing in his eyes replace the light that had been there for so short a time, she leaned in and kissed him softly.

"No, don't … Let me explain," she entreated, as she threaded her fingers through his hand. "When I was younger, I had a close friend …" Buffy told him about Pike. She told him about her parents breaking up and about her father abandoning her. She explained how her mother's death had reinforced her feelings. How she had never gotten serious with anyone since then, nor had she wanted any close relationship. "I thought when they left, that they didn't love me, that it was something I had done or not done that caused it," she ended.

"They were fools for leaving you," Angel said, not understanding how anyone couldn't love her.

She gave him a wise, sad smile, "So were you, Angel," she reminded him. When he tried to lower his eyes, she tilted his face up, "But for different reasons. They left me because they were worried about themselves and that's who came first. You left because you put me first." Her fingers traced from his chin up his jaw, then drifted back down again. "They were selfish, Angel. Something you don't know how to be. And I love you for that, even though it hurt," she finished in a low voice.

He reached his arms around her, kissing her softly, hiding his head in the crook of her neck, "I'm so sorry, love," he whispered.

"No one can hurt me as much as you," she confessed. When she felt him cringe at her words, she lifted a hand back to his face to look at her. "Because no one could ever love me as much as you," she said softly.

She nuzzled down into his embrace, still turned towards him. "If you and I didn't love each other so much, I might have been able to cover it up, push it away and not deal with it." She looked back up, "But you made me see things, painful things about myself. I wouldn't have done that if it wasn't for you."

Buffy gathered her strength for what she was about to tell him, unconsciously squeezing his fingers more tightly. "You were wrong about leaving, Angel," she said, searching his face. "You should have trusted me enough to share why you didn't stay."

She saw the dark haunted look move back in and take up residence in his eyes, his head falling forward in dejection. "Buffy …" he said, not even knowing how to continue. He had been so happy with her the last few hours, he had managed to push everything away. Now it was all rushing back around them.

"I-I already know what happened when you were a boy, Angel, and what happened two years ago," she said softly as carefully as she could. His eyes grew wide with shock. She felt him tense and raised her hand back to his face to comfort him. She thought fleetingly it was as though she was trying to calm some kind of frightened animal that had been wounded and left vulnerable.

"Who told you?" he questioned her, his voice thickening with anger, almost snarling. His business was his own, no one else's. He sat up and away, only holding her loosely. His eyes penetrating into hers.

"Cordelia came to visit me while you were away," Buffy admitted. "And I begged Lindsey to tell me what happened during the training exercise. He could lose his job for it, but he knows how much I love you, so he finally gave in. He didn't want to do it."

Angel shot up, practically dumping her on the floor in his fury. "He should lose it, he had no right, neither did Cordelia," he ranted.

Buffy refused to let his anger stand in the way. She scrambled to a stand. Putting her hands on her hips, she told him, "Cordelia loves you. She was worried about you. She cares about you, just like I do and she knew you wouldn't tell me!"

"It happened a long time ago, Buffy, it's over," he said bluntly, walking away towards the shelves of books.

She followed right behind, pulling him around to face her, "It's not over at all, Angel, it's keeping us apart," she said, angry that he was still shutting her out. "You said yourself it won't work with us and that's why. You have to let me in."

"Into what?" he countered angrily, "What's left of me? It isn't pretty, Buffy, what little there is to see. That's why I tried to stay away from you. You deserve a real man, not a broken one."

"Why won't you let me decide for myself? Why is what I do with my life only up to you, not both of us?" she challenged him. "I love you, Angel," she cried, "I can't live without you anymore. Don't you understand? You have to let me in! You're the only somewhere I have to go."

Buffy was so tired. It had been a very long day. She had been so happy with him, so overjoyed to see him smile and look free for those few hours. She loved him from the very depth of her being and she wasn't going to let him go. But she was so frustrated arguing with him, she broke down, crumpling against him, crying.

He couldn't stand the sight of the tears streaming down her face, her shoulders shaking with sobbing that he had caused yet again. He lifted her into his arms, smoothing a hand over her back, his anger dissolving in her tears. "I'm sorry, love, please don't cry. I didn't mean to be angry with you," he murmured in her ear as he gently rocked her to calm her down.

"Angel," she breathed in a ragged whisper, still desperate for him to know just how much she loved him, "all I can see is you … all I want is you."

"I know the feeling," he answered from the bottom of his heart.


Chapter XIII

Angel carried Buffy across the room, lowering her gently to the rug in front of the fireplace. Grabbing a couple of throws he tossed them on the floor, then turned to put more logs on the fire. He lay down beside her and rolled her gently towards him, tugging one of the throws over her.

He was as exhausted as Buffy. He hadn't slept, hadn't eaten right in weeks. Looking down at her he was overwhelmed with her love. Still sniffling, clutching his shirt in her small hand as if he'd leave her if she didn't hold on, his heart cracked. She was right. She had a right to know what she was dealing with, even if she left once she knew. All he could do was take the chance.

"I promise, love", he told her softly, "I'll tell you everything you want to know."

He bent his head when she moved the hand still grasping his shirt up to his face, drawing him down to her. As his lips touched hers, she opened her mouth, begging him to enter. She moaned as he searched for her tongue with his, then sucked it into his mouth. He deepened the kiss, needing to taste her, keep her close. No woman had ever made him feel the way Buffy did. One touch, one brush of those soft, sweet lips was enough to make him forget other women existed. All the nights of empty sex he'd ever known were swept away with one loving caress of her fingers against his cheek. They both felt the soft surge of energy their touch always generated in each other.

Angel didn't break the kiss until he felt her hands unbuttoning his shirt. He heard her whimper softly as he pulled away and rose from the floor. "I'll be right back, love," he promised. Making his way quickly to the bathroom, he took one of the small packages from the newly purchased box of condoms hidden in the cupboard. He gave himself but a moment to dwell on their very presence before returning to his lover.

Lying back down he caught Buffy's lips in a searing kiss, to make up for his brief absence. Without a word between them, they slowly undressed each other. His hands wandered tenderly over her, absorbing the feel of soft skin, silken under his fingers, of curves that drew his touch, tracing their lines, memorizing each rise and fall. Her fingers left fiery trails upon his arms and back. He reveled in her feather light kisses as her lips moved down his neck, then across his chest. She lifted her eyes to his and he melted from the heat of her gaze.

She loved him. He could feel it, her eyes were filled with the its intensity. He was still amazed by the absolute wonder of it. All of this was so new to him. Angel had never loved anyone or been loved in return. He was still trying to comprehend it. All of it. He let the moment, the feeling of them skin to skin and what they felt for each other wash over him, then fill him.

He'd thought of nothing but Buffy for months. One blissfully revealing night had shown him that it was love he'd been feeling for her all along. And since that night, his heart and his life had been torn in two. Wanting to be with her, but staying away had tested him beyond his limits. Tonight he realized Buffy had been right all along, there really hadn't been any choice. He couldn't live without her anymore than one could breathe without air. And he needed this - this tender, quiet lovemaking. Only with her did he feel complete, in spite of his faults and shortcomings. That she wanted and needed it as much as he, put meaning and purpose in the empty void that had been his life for so long.

Angel felt the fire building in the slow, gentle caresses they'd been sharing. His hands and lips found their way to her breasts. He left tiny bites and kisses all over, suckling and licking each nipple, taking small mouthfuls of the flesh over her ribs and stomach, tickling her with his tongue.

He could smell her arousal growing. Drawn by her scent, he slid down to her navel, then trailed his tongue down, burying his face between her legs. He needed to taste her, feel her on his tongue, be permeated with her essence. Wanting to give her as much pleasure as she gave him, he gently sucked on her sensitive bud, building her arousal, lapping up the dew that flowed from her. She pushed her hips against his mouth and whispered his name. The sound made his heart ache to hear it.

When he felt her getting closer, he pulled back to rip open the foil, rolling the covering in place. Angel shifted onto his back and tugged her up on top of him. He captured her breasts in his hands as she hovered over him, arching even closer towards his adoring fingers and mouth. Taking his time to worship her, alternating from one soft mound to the other, he reveled in her soft, whispery coos of pleasure. She let her legs fall on either side of him, rubbing herself against his length, sending fire through his veins.

Her small fingers trailed down until they wrapped around his sex, barely able to circle its girth. She stroked it gently for a few moments, then guided it into herself. Angel felt himself grow even harder as he slipped into her welcoming heat. She used his chest for leverage as she rocked him more deeply inside her. He pushed up with his hips, both finding a rhythm together. Bringing his hands up to her breasts once more, he paid special attention to her nipples, squeezing and pinching them softly. His touch brought her to the brink. He sat up, drawing his knees behind her back, then pulled her towards him, taking one hand to draw her mouth to his, sipping in her sweetness. His fingers tangled in the shimmering softness of her hair as he gently held her head in place.

Buffy tipped gently into orgasm, her muscles tightened and he felt her twist slightly, drawing him with her over the edge. Feeling her climax, he lifted her, moving her down as he drove his hips upward against hers. He felt his release as her silken walls milked him dry. He pulled her down with him as he collapsed against the rug, his arms over her. After a few long moments he rolled her back over beside him. He withdrew from her only long enough to do away with the protective skin of plastic. Returning to her open arms, he curled himself around her.

They lay quiet for a long time, listening to the crackling fire. Buffy finally prompted him gently. "Angel," she whispered softly, "I need you to tell me what happened. I need to hear it as much as you need to tell me." His face took on a stony look in spite of his promise to tell her. Even after what they'd just shared and how much he felt her love, he was afraid of what the results would be. "Please, Angel," she begged him. She wouldn't let him drop his gaze away from her, wouldn't let him turn away. She was the only reason he would ever force himself to remember that time.

She felt his body go tense around her. A great shudder racked through him and she wrapped both her arms around him to calm him. He drew her close, as close as he could, short of bringing her inside himself where he needed her warmth and life to be. He lifted his hand and stroked her hair as he buried his face in its sweet, fragrant smell. It was so soft … so warm and alive. Reaching down his other hand, he laced his long fingers through her shorter ones, rubbing his thumb on the back of her hand, feeling its softness under his touch. Warm and alive. He still hesitated, not wanting to think of the cold. The fire hissed and murmured beside them helping to ease him if only a little. She held his fingers more tightly, pleading with him silently to talk to her and he could deny her nothing, not even this.

He had never told anyone anything but the barest details. No one knew the whole story - not the doctors or the therapists, not his parents or Cordelia. He had tried to bury it as deeply as he could, but it was always there, never as far away as he tried to push it. Not bringing it out, not putting it into words made it easier. Words would make it too real again and he could never bear it. It had stayed hidden so long he wasn't even sure he could do it. He hated to give Buffy this terrifying, twisted darkness he'd spent his life trying to efface, but now he couldn't not tell her. He felt the last of his defenses fall away, as she tenderly brushed her lips over his heart, encouraging him with her love. He would only do this for her.

The cracked whisper of his voice sounded over the hitching of his breath. "I was pushing Dru in a swing," he started, "We were both watching the door for Spike and Harmony and Cordy. Dru …" He swallowed harshly and Buffy looked up into his eyes. Twin points of soft hazel light caught him and carried him on. "Dru was a pretty little girl, big blue eyes and long, long blonde hair." His fingers still unconsciously smoothed Buffy's hair lifting the soft, silken tendrils as he rubbed them between his thumb and fingers. "She was such a sweet little thing." Buffy's heart cried for his. She felt the warm skin of his chest as she laid her face back down against it. She listened to the pounding beat beneath her ear, felt his fingers tenderly twining strands of her hair around them as if they were his lifeline.

"The men came up behind us. I never even had time to yell," he told her. "The last thing I saw before they threw us in the back of a van was Spike's face as he ran towards us as fast as he could. But it was already too late."

Angel stopped once again to draw strength from the deceptively diminutive form that anchored him. Untangling his fingers from her hair he smoothed his hand up and down her back. He raised their clasped hands drawing her up to look at him. "I can feel you, you know," he said with the faintest of smiles. "I know you feel it too."

Buffy knew what he meant. Besides that inexplicable energy they felt touching one another, it ran deeper than that. Another reason it had been so difficult when she couldn't be with him, only near him. "I just know," she nodded, "that when you're around, whether I see you or not - I feel you - inside - and it throws me."

"Throws me, too," he replied simply, his eyes saying so much more.

The ghost of his smile faded away as his expression grew sad. "There was something between Spike and Dru … not at all like what you and I have," he said, looking at their fingers entwined, searching for words to explain. "They had a connection of some kind. Dru could 'see' things. She'd have dreams, visions, while she was wide- awake. But Spike was the only one she shared them with and he was the only one who could calm her down when she had them. He always watched over her, protected her. It's as if they were born for that. She had this gift or whatever it was, and he was there to take care of her. I don't know." Angel shook his head. "The look on Spike's face when the door was closing …" he stopped again for a moment. "Dru was crying and I pulled her into my lap and kept holding her." Angel laid his cheek against Buffy's head, thinking about the tiny blonde one that had been pressed against him such a long time ago. "She was crying for her brother and all she had was me."

Sometimes words weren't enough. Buffy reached up and kissed him and waited long moments until she felt him kissing her back. She felt his arms go around her drawing her close again, hiding his face in the hollow of her neck. Buffy had known this was going to be a long painful night.

After a while he laid his head back down, his arm still curved around her and began again. "They took us to this cabin somewhere in the woods and tied us up on a bed in a corner. I don't know how long we were there. It was so cold Dru would try to curl up next to me, but our hands and feet were tied, I couldn't hold her. I tried to roll as close as I could to keep her warm. She whispered things to me about what she saw."

The scene came back to him with agonizing clarity. Angel only caught a brief glimpse of the forest when they were dragged from the van. The cabin was bare, except for the dirt and a few sticks of furniture. Large chinks in the walls and roof let in drafts like scissors of ice that cut through them. The men had thrown them on a tiny cot like they were so much baggage. He could feel Dru shivering against him, feel the ropes digging into his wrists with any attempt he made to comfort her. He was thankful only that her voice was too low for their captors to catch, but he didn't want to hear the things she murmured in the dim light.

Angel shivered at the memory and Buffy reached up to softly stroke her hand against his cheek. "She kept telling me about a storm coming and that she hurt. I was so scared laying there with her," he admitted truthfully. "I was scared for both of us, there was nothing I could do. She would cry and call for Spike even in her sleep. Sometimes I wished it were him there with her, at least she would have had something she wanted." He let out a long painful sigh. "Maybe he would have been able to protect her. Maybe that's what he was meant to do."

He stared up at the ceiling for a while watching the firelight play with the shadows. Then he gently shifted Buffy until they lay side by side, face to face. She traced the side of his face with her fingers, trailing them across his broad forehead and slanted cheekbones. He saw the firelight flicker in the depths of her eyes, changing colors with the flames. He could stay there looking into those eyes forever. He wanted to spare her all this, but she wouldn't let him.

Angel felt like someone had pulled a plug somewhere and all these horrible bits and pieces of his past were leaking out like sludge. Things that weren't improved by the light of day. He hated sharing this with her. No matter how good her intentions were, he still wasn't convinced this was a good idea. He was only telling her because she insisted. What would happen once she did know everything, would she still love him? No, there was no doubt in his heart about that. He knew she would, that whatever it was he saw when he looked in the mirror she found something very different there. He didn't think he'd ever understand what she did see, but he wasn't willing to question it if it kept her by his side. He knew now he had to have her there to survive.

"It doesn't get any better," he warned her, making a half-hearted attempt to dissuade her.

"It can't get better until it's finished, Angel," she said, staunch determination fixed in her gaze. She hated seeing him hurting, but she knew if you didn't get all the dirt out of a wound it could never heal. This one had festered way too long and painful as it was, it needed to come out.

Angel sighed, already knowing what her answer would be. He kept his eyes on his hand, which had wandered down drawing patterns over her shoulder and arm. It didn't work though, he couldn't block out the images of the men crowded around the small table in front of the empty, blackened fireplace. Once in a while the tallest, heaviest one would stalk over and glare down on them. Angel had never seen eyes that cold and dead. The other men were short and fairly nondescript, one with a full beard, the other with several days of unshaven stubble on his face.

"There were three men in the cabin with us," he told Buffy, unwittingly describing what he saw in his mind's eye. "They ignored us most of the time. One of them yelled at Dru when she kept crying. I told him to leave her alone and he said he'd shut her up if she didn't stop. I hushed her by telling her stories until she fell asleep." Angel shook as he recalled the large man's raspy threat. He wondered how he had found the courage to talk back to the dark, menacing giant, feeling Dru cower against him at the sound of the man's voice.

Then he had found their salvation, small and ignoble as it was. He had been so careful, so afraid they would catch him out. "Once they untied me long enough to take me outside because I told them I had to go," Angel murmured in Buffy's ear, "I found a broken piece of a bottle. I pretended to fall down and landed on it. I hid it in my hands and when I got back to the bed I tried to cut the ropes when they weren't watching."

"One of them, the leader, left and was gone for a long time. When he came back he argued with the others. They all looked at us and swore. I know now that things weren't going the way they planned. It was all coming unraveled and they were beginning to realize what a mistake they made. They were getting desperate."

Angel's stomach knotted up in terror the same way it had when he was that small boy. He unconsciously sought shelter in Buffy's arms, pulling her closer.

The men had been angry, screaming obscenities at each other, one breaking a chair to rip off a leg as a weapon. The largest of them had stripped it from his hands waving it over the smaller man's head. Angel had felt the fear bubbling up through his chest, moving up his throat. He bit his cheek to keep from screaming himself. He rolled over so Dru was behind him, protecting her the only way he knew how.

"I was so afraid Dru would say something," he recounted in a low voice. "She still wanted Spike. She didn't understand why he didn't come and get her. She was whispering that the storm was coming and whimpering that she didn't like to hurt. But they didn't hear her," Angel said, looking towards the window as if he expected a storm to appear.

"The leader took one of the men with him and warned the man who stayed with us too keep away from the whiskey. After they left, he pulled a bottle out of one of their packs."

Angel had been so relieved he almost cried when the huge, burly man had cuffed the bearded one, barking an order to take the van and follow him. He beat his fist on the table in front of the other man, making his instructions clear about staying sober and keeping watch. The young boy had been shocked that the scraggly-faced man barely waited a full minute after the others drove away before rummaging through the bag, then pulling the stopper off a bottle filled with dark liquid and taking a long, gulping swig.

The ropes had been tightened cruelly, he and Dru had been trussed up almost unable to move. It was better after his trip outside to relieve himself. He'd managed to hide the bit of glass when they untied Dru, warning her on the way out that if she had to go she better be quick about it. Maybe one of the men still had some small trace of kindness in him since Angel found the rope on Dru's wrists was left a little slack after one of them brought her back and tossed her on the cot.

"The whole time our guard was drinking I worked on the ropes, he hardly even looked over at us. He just kept drinking and staring out the window. It started raining." Angel grimaced unconsciously and Buffy smoothed her warm hands up and down his arms, then drew him closer to her. He calmed somewhat, but his mind was still lost in the past.

"The others hadn't come back and he finally passed out while he was sitting at the table. I knew I had to hurry, I didn't know how long we had. It seemed like forever," he said, his features drawn taut reliving the memory. "I kept twisting and cutting with the glass until I finally got my ropes off, then Dru's. I crept up behind the guy and hit him over the head with his bottle. He fell out of the chair and his head hit the floor. It was nighttime when we got out. It was so cold and the rain was coming down in sheets."

Buffy reached for his arm and Angel watched as she traced the scars on his wrist. But he pulled his hand up to her face to wipe away the tears he saw starting to roll down her cheeks. Seeing her cry for him made him love her even more, if such a thing was possible. His own eyes stung with moisture as she turned towards his hand and gently kissed the scars below his palm.

Buffy could feel the tremors running through Angel's frame. She used one hand to tug one of the throws over them that he had left on the floor. Angel wound himself around her as Buffy wrapped her small arms around his large torso and snuggled him down under the cover with her. He felt the cold recede and tried to steel himself for the rest.

"A bolt of lightening hit a tree and lit everything like it was day. I saw the van they'd taken us in and another car coming up the road. I grabbed Dru's hand and we ran. The men must have seen us. I saw them and tried to run faster. They started shooting at us…"

That stark, naked bolt was as indelibly scored into his being as the cacophony of the storm, the echoing crack of the tree, split in two like a matchstick, the ground shuddering in its wake, vibrating through their feet, the chill wind tearing at their clothes and teeming rain arrowed at their faces. But even the chaotic elements didn't hold the terror of the monsters in the guise of adults, chasing them, the deadly report from their guns and the splat of a wildly aimed bullet as it hit a tree close by, rending the wood on impact, splintered pieces hitting Angel's cheek as they ran.

Buffy was unable to stop the cry from her lips. Her heart twisted even tighter that anyone could do that to two little children. Cordy had told her Dru died from a bullet wound, but Angel telling her about being hunted like animals chilled her to the bone. No wonder Angel always felt cold.

Angel turned his head, the sound of her voice pulling him back. He put his hand under her chin, bringing it up so he could see if she was all right, concern written across his face. She felt the ever present tears start flowing again. He was telling her the horrific nightmare he'd lived through … and he was worried about her just hearing it. She loved him so much. She kissed him again, long and slow, her fingers threading through the hair above his neck.

He needed the kiss, his need for her far deeper than the wounds and the scars and the unrelenting pain. Never had he found refuge from the horrifying specter of that time so long ago. Only Buffy offered safe haven for his ravaged heart and soul. When they were finally forced to breathe he sighed into her arms, laying there soaking her in, submerging himself in her loving embrace. She reached for his hand once again, knowing the worst part was still to come. She let him rest against her and waited until he was ready.

"I didn't know she was hurt until later," Angel whispered so low she could barely hear him. "We finally outran them. I thought I could get to a road or find someone to help us and I thought Dru was safe or would be."

The raw pain in Angel's voice slit through Buffy like a razor. Angel folded in against her, taking refuge once more in the curve of her neck. She cried with him as he whispered the rest to her in wrenching sobs. He couldn't stop now until it was all out, until he was done. The floodgates had finally opened and it all came crashing through.

"It was dark, except for the lightening. It was so close and bright it was blinding. Dru was terrified of the thunder. It made the ground shake. I tried to find a way out, but it was all trees and rain. We walked until Dru couldn't go any further. I thought she was just tired. I was looking so hard for a way out I never saw the blood until then. There wasn't anything I could do, no way to help her. There wasn't even a place to get out of the rain. I curled up around her, holding her as close as I could. I tried to protect her from the rain, I tried to keep her warm. She fell asleep holding onto my hand. When I woke up it was morning … and Dru …"

Angel would never forget waking with the tiny blonde girl, still curled in his arms. It was still storming, the rain pounding down on them and around them, but he knew she was dead. The drops of rain pooled below her unseeing eyes, falling in rivulets like so many tears, down the ivory pall of her cheeks and into her sodden golden tresses. He had lain there unmoving, just staring at her, the wind blowing its cold breath across him, but not as cold as she was. Everything he'd done hadn't helped her at all. He never tried to get up, didn't even remember being found in the forest, under the tall trees. He had a vague recollection of seeing Spike's father, his face filled with sorrow, swimming before his eyes. Angel had failed. He had failed her father, he had failed her brother. It was all his fault that Dru would never go home again.

Buffy held him letting all the horror, all the terror of what had happened so many years ago work its way out. His large frame trembled violently as he released the pent up emotions he had locked away for so long. She felt the tears streaming silently down her face, fall onto his hair. After a very long time he finally quieted in her arms, burying himself deeper into her warmth. The fire had died down in the grate, only one log was left burning. She reached for one more throw to cover them. They lay there without a sound. At last she heard his breathing take on the steady cadence of sleep. Curling herself around him as closely as she could, she fell asleep in his arms.


When Buffy woke it was from the warmth … not from the body that had been crushed close to hers, but from the fire. She was alone on the rug. But she wasn't alone in the room. Angel was in the chair above her, sagging into the cushions as if a giant hand had pushed him down into it. His ever faithful cup of coffee stood at attention by his side, vapors drifting lazily in a steamy salute. His eyes, fixed on the logs he must have added, were vacant … and lost. 'It's not over yet,' she sighed deeply. She saw the dark, chocolate eyes regain their focus, following the small sound she made.

"Hi," he said, his voice softening with his features as he smiled down on her.

"Hi," her voice still heavy with sleep. Not seeing her borrowed shirt, she donned the one she pulled off him the night before. Fastening the buttons, she crawled the few feet from the rug up into his lap. She snuggled into his chest as he wrapped her in the powerful arms she loved to feel around her. He rested his chin lightly on the top of her head and raised a hand to her hair, absently stroking through it. She was content to remain there, tracing her fingers over his heart, basking in his love.

"Hungry?" she heard him ask, but shook her head slightly into the wall of muscle she was relaxed against.

Reluctant to leave the shelter of his embrace, savoring the quiet closeness, she put off getting up as long as she could. "Save my place?" she finally asked when she could wait no longer. She felt him nod against her hair, then slipped off his lap.

"Always," was his single word in reply, smiling into her eyes as she stood.

After she freshened up she gave herself a long look in the mirror, trying to see if the traitor she felt like was looking back at her. She hated to do this to him. She still had to absorb the terrible things he'd told her during the night. But it wasn't done, there was more. She was afraid if it didn't all come out now it never would. He was vulnerable and she hated taking advantage of it. She knew though, that to wait even for a day, Angel would be rebuilding his walls. He had described what happened, but he hadn't told her the most important parts. He hadn't mentioned what came later or how he felt about it - then or now. She used Angel's brush on her hair, untangling the night's damage as best she could, then went back to him.

She loved the way he opened his arms as she drew near. Falling into them she folded herself back into the little niche she fit into so perfectly. He brought his hand back to her hair in the same place it had rested before she got up, gently stroking the soft, fine strands of gold as if he had never stopped. Nuzzled against his bare chest she waited for a few more moments, then finally asked, "What were you thinking of when I was sleeping?"

He stiffened, stilling his fingers where they burrowed into the burnished locks. "Nothing," he lied with a tired sigh. He knew she wasn't going to let it go. He was exhausted. The argument with her the day before - taking her on his desk, an act which gave him mixed feelings of guilty shame and undeniable male satisfaction - were wearing enough. The rest of the night spent making love, then finally telling her what she made him share, had all drained him. She couldn't make him do any more, he rebelled inwardly.

"Angel," she breathed quietly, tipping her head back to meet his gaze.

"No, Buffy," he said firmly, averting his eyes so she wouldn't see his anger. He didn't know if he was angrier with her or himself. He didn't want to go any further, delve any deeper, seek out any more demons lying below his surface. But he knew if she asked that he would. He couldn't say no to her. The times that he did had used up all the strength he had against her. And she would ask.

"This isn't just for you, Angel," she persisted quietly, "It's for both of us … together. There can't be an 'us' until you know who you are."

The arrow she shot made a direct hit, stabbing home painfully. His eyes widened at her piercing insight and he turned her and grabbed her roughly by her upper arms. "Who do you think I am, Buffy?" he asked tightly as they sat face to face, her gaze never wavering.

"You're my heart," she whispered brokenly without hesitation.

Angel felt his own heart clench hearing the sincere honesty in her voice. He crushed her to himself when he saw tears he had once again caused, falling from those beautiful eyes. He could feel the heart she said was his beating rapidly against his own. His large hands caressed her, trying to quiet her trembling, as he rained gentle kisses on her head.

"I'm sorry, love," he murmured, lifting her tearstained face, catching even more drops to be added to those she had already shed for him.

He eased back down in the chair, stretching his legs out on the ottoman, pulling her down to rest over him. They let the warmth of the fire ease in and relax them.

"That's what I was asking myself," he finally confessed, "I don't know who I am and I'm not sure I've ever known."

Buffy remained silent, only leaning in closer to him to give him strength.

"When I went back home, nothing was the same. No … I wasn't the same. It was like watching from far away. Like I was disconnected. The only things that were real were the nightmares because I knew they were true. I knew I had failed."

Buffy immediately stirred her head to look at him.

"Are you going to tell me I didn't?" Angel asked before she could say a word.

Buffy looked down as she thought about it. She wasn't a psychologist, she was a woman who loved the man before her. She knew he'd heard it all before, but never believed it. Bringing her eyes back to his, she answered, "No, Angel. Only you know the answer to that."

"I did," he sighed harshly, "A long time ago."

Buffy thought of the things that frightened her as a child. They weren't nearly on the same level as Angel's demons, but they had been just as real to her at the time. "When I was a little girl," Buffy told him, "I was afraid there were monsters in my closet. My mom used to come in every night and tell me it wasn't true. She'd walk me to the door and open it and turn the light on. She'd push all the clothes out of the way so I could see it was empty. As soon as she left I knew the monsters were back in there."

"This isn't some fairy tale, Buffy," he said more severely then he meant to sound. "The men were real, so were the bullets."

"No, it wasn't a fairy tale," she replied firmly, "And you weren't a knight in shining armor that could slay the dragons and rescue the princess either. You were eight years old, Angel. You were just a little boy."

Angel pulled his legs back and slid Buffy into the chair alone. He stood up, looking around the room, purposely avoiding her gaze. Running shaking fingers through his hair, he walked over to the bookcases, but they didn't lend him their wisdom or comfort. Buffy watched him over the top of the chair. She knew he was angry, that it was old ground he thought had been covered. Finally she couldn't stand seeing the dejected slump in his shoulders and made her way to where he leaned against the shelves. Coming up behind him, she wound her arms around his waist and waited. She felt the tension rippling through him.

After a few long moments his muscles flexed as he caught her arm and brought her gently around to face him. He knelt down before her, loosely holding his arms around her waist, looking up at her. His jaw was clenched, tightening his features and his eyes held a telltale glisten. He regarded her carefully before he spoke, as though to gauge her reaction.

"I locked my monsters in the closet. I grew up. When I was an agent, I thought I'd put it all behind me, that I'd gotten beyond it," he said softly, "And all it took was a thunderstorm and a tree to show me I hadn't gone anywhere at all. That was the fairy tale."

Buffy emitted a small cry and sank down to the floor in front of him. She carefully cupped his cheek in her hand, searching his eyes. "It wasn't the monsters you locked away, Angel," she said as if talking to a child, "it was a little boy. You know that deep down - that he's still there. I've seen him. He's afraid of those storms just like he was when it happened and he won't go away until you face him."

"I don't know how," he said, his voice thick with emotion, "I only found out he was there a couple years ago when a lightening bolt pointed him out. It showed me him and everything I never was," he finished bitterly, breaking their gaze.

"Never was?" she asked, mystified. "You think because you lost it during that storm and ended up in the hospital that none of the rest of your life was real?"

"It wasn't real, Buffy," his voice cracking with strain, "The screening to get into the FBI? I never passed it, I wasn't supposed to be there. And I never. even. knew." "I-I don't understand …" she looked up with the question in her eyes.

"Neither did I for a long time," he answered, leaning back stiffly against the bookcase. "I thought I did it all on my own. I had myself fooled so thoroughly it never occurred to me I hadn't. I didn't know until I was in the hospital that it wasn't me."

"How do you know that?" she asked.

"It doesn't matter, I know it's true. When I had that 'breakdown', the polite term for going insane, it made some things crystal clear. The breakdown alone showed I should never have been in the agency and I could never have gotten there without help," he told her heatedly.

"Angel, you were an agent for seven years, you led the team. They wouldn't trust that kind of job to someone who couldn't handle it," answering slowly as she thought about it, while taking hold of his hands.

"And they don't now, do they?" he replied caustically. He tried pulling away, but she pinned them in place on her lap.

"Even if you're right, are you saying you weren't a good agent? That you weren't an asset to the team? That it wasn't you who did all the work when you were there?" she challenged him.

"What if it was? If all it took was something as simple as a weather change to break me, I shouldn't have been," he retorted.

"And what if there hadn't been any storms? What if you had already learned what to do with that little boy? What if nothing had happened and you lived your whole life being an agent? Would it have been real because you didn't know?" she returned.

He was silent. He didn't have an answer. He didn't want to argue with her. He didn't want to think about it anymore.

"Angel, regardless of how you got in, you were good at your job or they never would have kept you, never would have promoted you. And you might never have known, if what you're telling me is true. But, you've put that little boy off all your life and you still have to deal with him," she said as she brought his hands to her lips.

He looked at her kissing them. He would never understand why she loved him.

As if she heard his thoughts, she caught his gaze, still holding his hands tightly, "I love you, Angel. I always will." Tears hung on her lashes as she whispered, "I'm sorry. I know this was hard and I know it's not over, but it will be. I know who you are and someday so will you."

He saw her through the tears standing in his own eyes and pulled her into his lap. Closing his arms around the only entity on earth that made his life worth living, he kissed her. He'd told her everything and she still loved him. Even though he thought he'd never know why, he didn't care, as long as she never stopped.


Chapter XIV

At her request, Angel dropped Buffy off at her apartment to get ready for their evening out. After he showered, he dressed hurriedly in the suit he'd picked up earlier from the cleaners. Even this short amount of time was more than he cared to spend away from her.

When he arrived to pick her up to meet Cordelia and Wesley her heart skipped one or two beats at the sight of him in his tux. He was devastating. Buffy thought, with his dark hair and velvety deep brown eyes along with his classic features that he looked like he'd stepped out of a dream. His broad shoulders seemed to want to burst out of the straining material. She'd been all in favor of helping them do just that. Leaving the apartment was a feat all by itself.

Angel, who as a rule, had no lack of discipline, found he had absolutely none when it came to Buffy. She opened the door when he knocked and he almost fell in when he saw her. She was a vision wearing a provocative, emerald green, silk cocktail dress. There wasn't a curve hidden as it clung to her like a second skin. Her hair was a fire of gold and her eyes were like glittering green jewels, matching the color of her dress. Breathtaking didn't begin to cover it, he thought. In fact he couldn't think of a word that had been made to describe how she made him feel. 'Love' was all he had, but it seemed there should be more words to capture all she was to him.

One look ignited a fire that raced through him and he pulled her into a passionate embrace. It took all his willpower to keep from picking her up and heading for her bedroom. Instead, after several heated kisses that she shared with equal fervor, he regained control of himself with a concerted effort. He calmed down enough to lead her outside and help her into the car.

He couldn't believe he had let Cordy talk him into going out, then rephrased it to 'forced', admitting to himself that she'd given him little choice in the matter. Cordelia had insisted that Angel and Buffy meet her and her boyfriend, Wesley, while he was in town. So now here Angel sat next to the most ravishing woman on earth and he had to share her with his sister and her boyfriend for an evening of dinner and dancing. Every time he took his eyes off the road to glance over at his deliciously dressed lover a certain part of his body made it clear what he'd rather be doing. 'Can't do that all the time,' he mused as he chuckled softly, tempting as the idea was.

"Care to share?" his companion asked in a soft, sultry voice as he felt a slim hand slide onto his thigh.

Angel swallowed hard, his pants growing even tighter as his glance caught her openly lustful gaze. It had been unseasonably warm for the past couple days, even for the West Coast. He felt the temperature rise, knowing it had nothing to do with the weather. "If I do, chances are we'd never make it to the restaurant," he said honestly, trying to control his breathing and watch where he was going.

It was Buffy's turn to chuckle as she listened to his swift intake of air. She couldn't believe how her shy, quiet Angel had turned into an unquenchable sex maniac overnight. Not that she was complaining, nor had she since he'd so recently become one. Releasing one more evil sounding chuckle she thought of all she'd done to help him 'overcome' his problem.

"And that would be a bad thing, how?" Buffy snickered back at him, as she caught him smiling at her wicked laugh.

He laughed then, a sound Buffy had heard more often the past few days then in all the time she'd known Angel. "You don't know Cordelia," he said.

"Not well," Buffy answered, "But I know she loves you."

That sobered him for a moment as he thought of Cordy saying those words when he had called her. Although he had laid many ghosts to rest during his weekend with Buffy, he still wasn't comfortable with the subject. To find she'd gotten the bare facts from Cordelia had prompted him to call his sister about it.

"Cordelia," he said in a tight voice when she answered the phone.

Cordy had been waiting for his call. She knew after sharing Angel's past with Buffy that it was only a matter of time before she heard from him. "Angel? Wow, did you lose your calendar? It's not even a Wednesday," she rattled on, waiting for the blast. It wasn't long in coming.

"I hear you made a visit while I was away," Angel said, ignoring her vain attempt at humor.

"Yes, I did," Cordy replied in her trademark straightforward manner. She knew he would be angry, but if he thought she'd be afraid of him - well, she wasn't.

"You had no business telling Buffy …" his voice starting to rise before she cut him off.

"And you would have, Angel?" she snapped.

"It wasn't up to you to make that decision," he growled.

"Maybe not, but I knew you wouldn't and she had a right to know. She loves you," Cordelia shot back. "And you love her, don't you?" she asked.

"That's not the point …" he managed to get out before she interrupted him again.

"That's exactly the point!" she exclaimed. "Tell me, Angel, honestly. What happened after I told her?"

"It doesn't make any difference ..." Angel started, not getting much further than before.

"Just answer the question, Angel!" she demanded, "Tell me she didn't make you talk to her about it. Tell me she doesn't love you."

She heard Angel's labored breathing, then after a few eternally long moments, he said softly and wonderingly, "She does love me."

Cordelia felt a grin smugly plant itself across her lips. She'd been hoping, praying and dying for Angel to call her and tell her exactly that for days. "Angel," she told him more softly after she'd enjoyed her moment of triumph, "I'm sorry if you're angry with me, but I love you. Yes, I interfered and met Buffy when you weren't there. I knew the first time I heard her say your name that she loved you. It wasn't fair to her, Angel, or you. I couldn't let you throw away your one chance of happiness."

Angel had tried to hold onto his anger, but he knew, in spite of her meddling, she was right. He could hear how happy Cordy was for him in her voice and he couldn't deny her that. "I suppose then," he said thinking about a certain golden- haired fighter who wouldn't give up either, "you expect me to thank you?"

Cordy laughed into the phone, tears standing in her eyes, "Yes, Angel, a thank you would be really nice."

"Thank you, Cordy," he said simply.

"You're more than welcome ... and it's about time!" she ended.

"Yes, I know Cordy loves me and she also knows I hate to get dressed up and go out," Angel finally replied as he came back to his conversation with Buffy.

"You can't blame her for wanting to see us together in person." Buffy knew how much Cordelia was looking forward to this evening. She was the one who had made the arrangements with his sister after Angel had finished talking to her. "And the fun," Buffy promised him, "will be later when we get un-dressed up."

He started getting warm all over again.

A short time later, Angel found he had forgotten just how beautiful his own sister was as he stood and watched her enter the restaurant on the arm of a tall, thin, dark-haired man. She was dressed in a crimson gown that accentuated her abundant gifts to a fault. There wasn't an eye that wasn't drawn to her as the pair made their way across the room.

"Angel, this is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Wesley, my brother, Liam Angelus," Cordelia introduced them. "And this," she said, after he shook hands with Angel, "is Buffy Summers."

Wesley nodded politely to Buffy, giving her an open, warm smile before returning his attention to Cordelia's brother. "I've heard a lot about you, Liam," Wesley greeted him, "If I may call you that."

"Have you?" Angel queried, cocking an eyebrow at his sister.

"Relax, bro, I didn't tell him that much." Cordy swatted Angel lightly. "I warned him if I did you'd have to kill him."

They all sat down and ordered drinks from the waiter. Cordelia had chosen the restaurant and, of course, it suited her with the dramatic black leather clamshell enclosure that surrounded them and their table. Cordelia and Buffy both glimmered within it, catching the eyes and breath of their respective dates. Only the finest crystal and cutlery were laid out before them. Buffy thought it was a bit rich for her tastes, but she enjoyed the privacy it afforded them. Although Angel showed a new ease when in her presence, she knew he still abhorred being in places with large groups of people. She was sure Cordelia had been of the same mind when she made the reservations.

Cordy could see that Buffy was making every effort to keep Angel from being uncomfortable, but thought amusingly, she didn't really have to work at it. Even in the company of his sister and her boyfriend, Angel couldn't tear his eyes off the dainty, green-eyed beauty nestled beside him. And Cordelia found she couldn't take her eyes off Angel. This was 'Angel', her brother. At least he looked like the man she remembered. But he was smiling and, oh God, laughing! She had a dim memory of how he did that once very long ago. The light glowing in his eyes matched the one in Buffy's. They were polite to their companions, but it seemed neither could keep their attention away from the other.

Cordelia wasn't the crying type, but she forced herself more than once not to do just that while watching her brother fawning over his beautiful golden goddess. She'd waited so long for the impossible to happen and there it finally was in front of her. Cordy still wasn't sure she even liked Buffy Summers, but she was realistic enough to concede to herself that it didn't make much difference. Angel loved Buffy and after all his years in painful self-imposed isolation he needed her, badly. Not to mention that Cordy knew what Angel was like once his mind was made up. He would never allow anyone or anything to come between he and Buffy, even his sister. She could live with that as long as Buffy never hurt him. But the look Buffy returned to Angel was just as intensely loving and adoring as his own. Neither of them could stop touching the other, sitting closely, twining their fingers together. There was no doubt the two were deeply in love. Cordy sat back and feasted her eyes on the sight. It had been a long time coming and she figured she deserved to enjoy it.

After their dinner was served Wesley cleared his throat to get Angel's attention, "I've been trying to convince your sister of the benefits of the East Coast as opposed to the West," he told him. "She seems to think her career can only flourish in the dubious shadows of Hollywood. I thought, perhaps, you could support my argument that 'real' acting is to be found in New York."

"Tell the truth, Wes," Cordelia interjected, "You prefer the East and want me in it for your convenience."

Wesley laughed dryly, "I would hardly think of you as convenient in any sense of the word," he told her.

Angel laughed, a sound that Cordelia thought she could get used to, coming from him. "He already seems to know you well, Cordy." Turning his gaze suddenly to Wesley, Angel questioned him, rather severely, "It is her best intentions you have in mind, right?"

He looked at Wesley so piercingly the other man felt as though he was being interrogated. "O-of course," Wesley stammered, surprised at the sudden change in Angel's demeanor. One moment he was smiling softly at the petite blonde tucked securely within his embrace, the next he morphed into a rather daunting inquisitor.

"Down, boy," Cordy directed her brother, placing a hand warningly on his arm. "I'll be the judge of my male friends' character, if you don't mind." Glancing back to Wesley she said, "Sorry, Wes, he's the overprotective type, should have warned you. I'd forgotten just how protective he can be. You might want to take note of that, Buffy."

Buffy chuckled as Angel reddened slightly, "Umm, think I've seen that side of him, Cordelia," she said, thinking of Riley, then Lindsey, knowing Angel was having similar thoughts. Feeling a bit sorry for poor Wesley and in an attempt to hide Angel's embarrassment, she asked, "You live in New York, Wesley?"

"Yes," Wesley answered hesitantly, now keeping one eye on Angel, "but, I'm forced to travel extensively, the West Coast in particular. I suppose I call neither place home any longer."

"What is it you do, Wes?" Angel asked with what he considered to be normal curiosity. The woman on either side of him both gave him points for trying, but Wesley's nervous reply showed Angel had a ways to go before he reached normal.

"I'm a lawyer for the talent agency where Cordelia is signed. They have a considerable number of listings on both coasts," he supplied. "Although I have had no dealings with the contracts she's presently agreed upon," Wesley added primly.

"Wes doesn't believe in mixing business with pleasure," Cordy smiled.

It was Wesley's turn to blush a little. "I was merely pointing out that we are not professionally connected. I have no ulterior motives for seeking your company."

"Just the normal motives of any red-blooded man, right?" Cordelia teased.

Wesley flushed even more deeply in response. "Cordelia …" he fumbled for an answer.

"Just kidding, Wes! Nervous much?" Cordy laughed, then caught Wesley sheepishly looking in Angel's direction. "Honest, Wesley, Angel doesn't bite. He just growls convincingly," she laughed again. "C'mon, Angel, I want to see if you remember how to dance and don't worry, I'm sure Wesley will be the pinnacle of propriety if he dances with Buffy." With that she caught her brother by the hand, looking at him commandingly.

Angel lifted his investigatory look from Wesley and tried silently begging with Cordelia not to force him to dance, but to no avail.

"I didn't teach you how to dance just to have you choke up on me now," she grinned wickedly.

"No," Angel countered, still giving her pleading looks, "but as I recall I wasn't given any choice then either."

"Hey! Can't pin that on me," she reminded him, "I did you a favor, secret agent man."

Angel shook his head with the ghost of a smile, "Even your lessons didn't keep me from sticking out like a sore thumb," he told her, "I was so bad doing surveillance at that ball, they ended up putting me in a van to watch it from a monitor." At Buffy's deeply curious look he explained, "They were desperate for dancers to mingle, but seems I only dance well with shadows."

Both Cordelia and Buffy burst out laughing at Angel's unusual stab at humor while Wesley looked on mystified. Still smiling, Cordelia dragged her brother away in spite of his protests, motioning to Wesley to follow them with Buffy.

Once on the dance floor Cordelia told her brother, "You don't have to scare my men away, Angel," she smiled, "I can do that all by myself if I need to."

"I'm sorry, Cordy," Angel sighed, "I, uh … didn't mean to …"

"Give him the third degree?" Cordy finished for him. "Yes, you did and I love you for it, but I don't want Wesley to swim away before I reel him in."

Angel's eyes had wandered helplessly to where Wesley was dancing with Buffy. He couldn't keep them from finding and settling on the center of his universe. At Cordelia's words, he tore them away from Buffy and looked down at his sister sharply, "Reel him in? That sounds serious coming from you," he said.

"I'll never know if he doesn't live through the night, will I?" she scolded him gently.

"Okay, okay," Angel relented, "I won't say another word to him," he promised as his eyes were drawn back irresistibly to the other couple. He knew Wesley had no interest in Buffy, he knew that. But, it didn't stop the possessive feeling from overtaking him anyway.

"I don't want you to ignore him, Angel," Cordy told him, "just don't eat him." Her gaze followed Angel's, "And I promise, he'll give Buffy back to you just the way he found her." Then she looked back up at him, "Angel," she said more softly, "I, umm, brought you something I thought you might like to have."

He dragged his eyes back once more to his sister with an enquiring look.

Cordelia opened the tiny purse that matched her outfit and handed Angel a small, worn looking, velvet-covered box. At the question written on his face she nodded at him to open it. Inside Angel found two very familiar rings, very old and very beautiful. They were identical except for size, one being much larger than the other, and a stone in the smaller one. The first, which was obviously a man's ring, was made of platinum with an intricate design of a heart topped by a crown and a hand holding either side. The smaller ring differed only in the heart being filled with an exquisite diamond.

"Cordy," Angel breathed, "are these …" he couldn't get the rest of the words out as he fingered the smaller ring.

She merely nodded.

Angel's great-grandfather had given the rings to his grandson on his deathbed and told him the rings belonged to whomever it was who found their true love. The tale and the rings had always fascinated Angel for some reason, even after the terrible things that happened when he was young. His father had often told him the rings were there for Angel if he ever found the love of his life.

"How did you …" Angel still couldn't finish a sentence.

"Shh …" Cordy whispered, "Mom and Dad don't know I took them, but they wouldn't care. They were always meant for you. I thought you might want to have them." She saw Angel's expression as he looked at the rings reverently.

"I-I don't deser …" was as far as he got.

"Angel!" Cordy fumed at him, "If you dare say you don't deserve some happiness, I swear I'll give the damn ring to Buffy myself!" she threatened him.

"Cordelia," he said in a desperate voice, "What do I have to offer her?"

"Yourself, Angel," Cordy answered without hesitation. "Has Buffy ever asked you for more than that?"

"But," he tried to continue.

"No, 'buts', Angel," Cordy told him, "Give the girl the choice, don't make it for her."

Angel smiled at that, "You sound just like her," he said softly, as his gaze once more found the subject of their conversation.

He tucked the box inside a deep pocket of his jacket and steered them over to Buffy and Wesley. "If you don't mind, Wesley," Angel asked as calmly as he could, "may I cut in?"

Wesley stepped away without a word, taking Cordelia's hand and dancing away.

Angel looked down at the lovely woman before him and whispered softly, "Dance with me?"

She beamed up at him fully aware of the possessive way he had moved in front of Wesley before the man barely had time to get out of his path. Her heart melted at the love that stared down at her from dark, soulful eyes and she lifted her arms, still smiling, in silent acquiescence.

Buffy was light as a feather as they moved slowly to the music, his cheek resting gently on her head. He started out with a hand around her waist, holding one hand in his, but he couldn't draw her near enough. Enveloping her with both arms, he caged her tightly against him, so close he could feel her heartbeat with his. Buffy gave no protest, surrounded by a dream and waltzing on a cloud. She thought if she could write her own fairy tale with a happily ever after, this would be hers. He made her feel like a princess and he was all the Prince Charming she could ever ask for.


On the ride home, once they'd made their good-byes to Cordy and Wesley, Angel pulled over suddenly and stopped the car. Not saying a word to Buffy, he came around to open her door. She was so startled, he was out of the car before a question could escape her lips. He stopped her both in word and motion by pressing a finger to her lips. She watched as he took off his shoes and socks. Kneeling down first to remove her shoes, he helped her out of the car.

The air was thick and warm, still caught in the unexpected heat wave of the last few days. Never making a sound, he clasped her hand and tugged her gently along. Buffy was so mystified, she kept her eyes on Angel as he led her carefully through the soft sand along a path only he knew. After a little while they came to a steep bank, Angel picked her up and carried her. Once he safely navigated his way to the bottom, he settled his precious cargo on her feet. He looked down on her as a secret smile played on his lips, then nodded his head in front of him.

Buffy drew in her breath as she followed his gaze. They were standing on a tiny secluded beach, surrounded by sand dunes. The sky, a clear midnight blue was scattered with clouds of stars. There was a full moon, round and yellow, sitting almost on the water, shining a wide track across the gently waving sea. But what caught her breath was the sand. It lay twinkling and glittering, reflecting the moonlight as if the stars had come down to earth. She couldn't help but remember the fairy tale feeling she had dancing with Angel earlier.

"It's so beautiful," she whispered as if talking out loud would break the spell.

"I'd forgotten all about it until tonight when we passed this way," he whispered back, caught in the same enchantment. "I wandered across it a long time ago when I was on an assignment, but it turned out to be a false lead. I don't think anyone even knows it's here." Reaching his arm around her shoulders, he guided her across the beach to a small alcove. "I used to come here back then, when I wanted to be alone. I never brought anyone here. I-it was my secret," he faltered.

Buffy was so taken by the scene she couldn't think of anything to say.

"So beautiful," he echoed, but when she turned to look at him, he was gazing down at her.

He pulled her back against his chest and slid his arms around her waist as they looked out over the sparkling sands and the quiet surf, bathed in moonlight. The softly shining trail ended at their feet. "I don't ever want to have anymore secrets from you - even this," he breathed. "I want to spend eternity with you." He bent by her ear. "Stay with me?" his voice cracking with the undertone of his need for her.

Feeling his love flowing into her, filling her heart and soul, she looked at the stars glimmering across the vastness. How often, she wondered, did it ever happened that two people could be as deeply in love as she knew she always would be with Angel. "Forever," she promised him softly, "that's the whole point."

Angel summoned up every bit of courage he possessed. He still believed she was entitled to more than he had to give her, but the thought of a lifetime without her in it was unbearable. He knew he was being selfish. Even if it was Buffy's decision, he wondered if there would come a day she would be sorry for it. There was still a part of him missing, undone, and he didn't know how to get it back or finish it. But he had to let her make the choice and he had to know. Now that Cordy had given him the rings, they felt like they were burning a hole in his heart.

He reached in his pocket and pulled out the small box. Turning her to face him, he handed it to her. After she opened it, he heard her breath catch as she stared at the contents. He lifted the smaller ring out and told her, "My people ... they exchanged this as a sign of devotion."

Buffy looked from the ring up to him, then back down at it as he explained, "It's a Claddagh ring. The hands represent friendship, the crown represents loyalty. The heart, well, you know ... Wear it with the heart pointing towards you, it means you belong to somebody. It was a custom in Ireland back then, if you exchanged rings and consummated the vows that it was the same as being married."

Buffy was so overwhelmed she couldn't speak, she couldn't move her eyes as Angel removed the other ring, tucking the box back in his pocket. She looked at them lying in his hand and finally reached up her own hand and closed it over them, looking up into his eyes, smiling.

"Do you want to belong to me?" she finally asked in a hushed whisper.

"Do you even have to ask?" he questioned softly.

"I already belong to you," she told him.

Angel felt the lump in his throat as she lifted her hand and held it out to him. He slipped the ring on her finger with the heart pointing towards her. Her hand trembled as she took the other ring out of his hand and slid it onto his finger in the same direction. Buffy leaned in and kissed the ring she had just placed there, then watched as Angel lifted her small hand and felt his lips against her fingers as he kissed her ring in return. Their promises needed no spoken word. She looked up at him, tears in her eyes, matching the ones in his.

"Please don't cry," he softly pleaded. The pads of his thumbs came up to catch them before they fell as he held her face, gazing at her with so much love Buffy thought she would die right there.

She laughed tremulously, smiling up at him, "But you're crying too. And these are happy tears."

Angel could count on his fingers the times he had ever cried, but this … this was one of them. It still pained him to see tears on that small, exquisite face. He wanted to make her happy, he never wanted her to cry. Thinking of how pleased she was only a short time ago suddenly inspired him. He gazed into those eyes, those beautiful, mesmerizing, hazel eyes and asked once again, "Dance with me?"

She giggled-cried, looking first at him with a smile that lit his world, then down at her toes scrunching themselves into the sand. "I … umm … lost a few inches with my shoes."

He held her arms, slipping one foot under hers, tipping her, allowing her to stand on both of his feet. She had such a look of open glee on her face that he grinned. Moving her in slow circles across the sand, arms tightly holding each other, they danced to a melody they heard in their hearts. Buffy felt like she was floating, that they could travel to the stars if they just held on and kept dancing. She kept looking at the small star twinkling on her finger knowing in some way they had already reached them.

Angel couldn't see the stars, his attention was firmly fixed on the heavenly body he had captured in his arms. He had kept her in his arms and in his bed, any and every time he'd had the chance. He had a lifetime of emptiness he was making up for and only one thing filled it … Buffy. Since they'd made up and made love after they argued, he had been insatiable. Now he would make her his … forever. Just thinking about her made his blood simmer - touching her, all reason fell away.

She felt his arousal pressed firmly against her stomach, setting off a responding flame that shot to her core. She ground against him, bringing her arms tighter around his waist. He groaned, tipping her head back and capturing her lips. Hers opened in invitation and he slid his tongue in to taste the ambrosia within. He loved her so much, this was the only way he knew how to show her. He deepened the kiss, seeking out every corner and surface, softly sliding her tongue against his. Angel couldn't bear it a moment longer, he had to feel her skin beneath his fingers and mouth. He had to show her, with everything he had, what she meant to him. Breaking the kiss, he pulled off his jacket, spreading it on the sand. He reached for her and lowered her tenderly to where it lay.

As if handling a fine, porcelain doll, he gently pulled her dress over her head. Without hesitating in his self-appointed task he gently removed her bra and panties. His heart lurched with indescribable joy as he looked at her lying there, her creamy white form glowing in the starlight. His gaze reverent as he lovingly perused it. He still couldn't believe she was really there …and really his. His heart ached with his need for her. She stirred, overcome once more by the profundity of love she saw shining in his eyes and he saw himself reflected in hers. He found himself falling, as he always did, into the misty depths of those eyes that followed him into his dreams. She answered his actions by reaching for the buttons on his shirt, undoing each one slowly until she unveiled the skin covering the taut muscles beneath. He reveled in the caress of her soft fingers and the flats of her hands as they smoothed over his chest and shoulders. He moved back and stood for a moment to take off the shirt and the rest of his clothes, sinking back down over her.

Knowing his intent, Buffy covered Angel's hand as it slid towards his jacket pocket, where he kept his wallet. She shook her head gently when he lifted inquiring eyes, "Just tonight, Angel," she whispered. "To consummate our vows there should be nothing between us."

"Buffy," he hesitated, "what if …"

Raising the same hand to his face, she simply pressed her fingers against his lips.

Angel hadn't thought he could love her anymore until that moment. It was her gift of total acceptance that she loved him just as he was, no matter what he thought of himself, no matter what their future held.

Raining tiny kisses over her forehead, her eyes, her cheeks, he found her lips once more, softly melding them with his own. Buffy felt like she was floating again, as if they were on the water, not solid ground. Her small hands roved over his back, up his neck, sinking into his thick dark hair. As they gasped for air once more, her lips ran over his arms, his shoulders and chest, anywhere she could taste him as they shifted in the sand. He raised his head for a moment, overtaken with the feel of her lips and fingers wandering over his skin, catching in his hair. "I love you so much," he whispered hoarsely, looking back into her eyes.

Buffy saw the blazing heat smoldering in his dark eyes, almost black with desire. "I love you," she echoed, and brought her mouth back to his for another soul deep kiss. He bent over her carefully, kissing a path down her jaw to the delicate skin behind her ear, then down her neck. Every time he was with her like this felt as if it was the first time. As if he was in a new land only he was allowed to explore. He never liked to hurry when he made love to her. His hands came up to palm her breasts as his thumb and finger traced tiny designs around her nipples. He was awed by the way they fit so perfectly in his hands, made for him. Buffy reached around his waist and pulled him closer. Loving the feel of her enclosing him in her arms, Angel caught one nipple, sucking it lightly, then scrapping his teeth gently across it. There was so much to feel and taste. She arched into his mouth as he drew his large hands behind her, holding her to reach the other breast to his lips. Buffy felt like she couldn't breathe, his tongue and lips were burning into her being. He stayed there worshipping her without any sense of time. Finally, after laving every inch of her breasts, he nipped the pleading peaks before he covered them with butterfly kisses one last time.

Moving down, he rediscovered the hills and valleys of her curves. He didn't think he'd ever tire of tracing their lines. Tiny grains of light glittered on her arms where they had touched the sand. Trailing long trembling fingers in soft caresses, he could feel her satin skin, raising tiny goosebumps as he brushed gently over her ribs and stomach, then her hips. His lips followed, giving devout homage to each rib, each bone, each swell and hollow. He gave her open-mouthed kisses, as she gifted him with small tastes of vanilla and the slight tang of salt. His hands roamed up, over her breasts, her shoulders, then down her back. They kept traveling a different path, trying to touch and feel every inch of her, memorizing every texture and turn. Buffy's hands were on a similar journey over his back, his hips, his buttocks, wherever she could reach. She felt his muscles ripple and cord in response to her touch. They reveled in their bond, the faint pulse that surged and hummed when they were skin to skin - as if their bodies were telling each other where to touch and how.

His lips finally found their way past her navel where he planted tender kisses, further down until he reached her nest of curls. Sitting back on his knees, he gently parted her legs with his broad hands and lifted her hips upward. Gently placing a leg over each shoulder he drew her up to his mouth. Buffy sighed as she felt his warm breath stir her arousal even more. She reached out to twine her fingers through the softness of his dark hair. She could see the moonlight glinting behind him, making his outline glow. He parted her soft, moist folds with his tongue and laved a long slow line from bottom to top and down again. She shivered beneath him. Seeking her core, he plunged his tongue in, tasting the nectar now flowing freely from his ministrations. He suckled the bud that begged for his attention, feeling it swell between his lips. Angel breathed deeply, his senses reeling in her essence, he lapped in the moisture, drowning in the taste and feel of her. He knew he could make love to her forever and still never get enough of her. He continued to drink his fill and wander his tongue and lips from deep inside her to the small bit of flesh that throbbed under his touch. Buffy was shaking with passion, she pushed her hips closer to the teasing, tantalizing feel of his mouth. Angel loved the sweet, crooning sounds she made as he searched for every delectable spot he could find to increase her pleasure. When he felt her orgasm drawing near, he suckled harder on the flash point of her desire until she came in long, quivering waves, his name escaping from her throat, in a high, warbling trill.

He released her legs, then slid up her body in seconds, sheathing himself in her molten passage, feeling her muscles contract all around him as he drove deeply into her. She was so soft, so warm, pulsing around him. Sealing his lips over hers, his tongue started moving in and out of her mouth, keeping time with his thrusts. His fingers twisted into her hair keeping her locked in his love. He thought for the thousandth time since they had become intimate, how perfect she felt against him and how perfectly she molded around him as she surrounded his throbbing sex. He couldn't imagine now how he'd lived a lifetime without her.

Buffy could taste herself as he kissed her, she sucked his tongue in, continuing the motion he had started. She pushed him back suddenly with eager hands as she craned her head, her mouth seeking his chest. Sucking a nipple in, biting down lightly, she reached her fingers to grab the other and pinch it softly. Angel shivered at her touch, feeling ecstasy shoot through him wherever she made contact. He could feel his every cell tingle. His motions became more frenzied as she roved one hand over his back and hips. Still holding onto his nipple, sucking and nipping it, she heard him groan her name. Buffy loved how he filled her. She could feel the hardness, the full length and breadth of him as he pistoned in and out.

Tremors shook his arms as he held his weight on his elbows. Leaning to one side, still catching her close, he reached up one hand, "Buffy," he puffed in a hard breath, as he pulled the shining tendrils from her face, "Look at me, love."

It took her long moments to swim up from the pleasure that was washing in and through her. She finally opened her eyes and fixed them on the deep chocolate ones staring down at her.

"Keep them open, love," he begged her as he moved deeper within her, touching off more of the heat that was burning through both of them. "I want to watch you come with me. Please," he whispered before his breath was gone.

She nodded slowly, too caught up in the intense feelings that were building by the second. Once more he circled his arms around her and pulled her to him. He rocked in and out of her, never letting his eyes leave her face. She met every movement, raising her hips in perfect synchrony with his. They met in an endless circle of flesh, moving as one, hearts joined in a racing staccato beat, souls melding and merging. He wrapped his arms more tightly around her, bringing her hips smashing against his in a sweet violence. The ripples of bliss, turned to waves of white-hot pleasure. Feeling him pulse and grow within her, her own climax racing towards her, Buffy clung to his eyes, forcing herself to keep hers open. She arched into him as delirious ecstasy filled her, her muscles clenching and grasping him, her eyes flooding with rapture and love. "Angel," she breathed, "I love you." She was lost in wave upon wave of almost unbearable release. Letting it pull her as she was swept into the vortex of its grasp. He filled her to bursting, in her, around her, a part of her, moving and melting into her. She used all of her strength and will to keep her eyes focused on the wild brown gaze that bore into her from above.

She showed him what he meant to her as she kept her eyes locked on his. He could feel every nerve ending in his body alive and attuned to every single thing around him; the satin of her skin, the grit of the sand, the blush of desire his kisses had brushed onto her face, the moonlight making her translucent beneath him, the soft sea air and the mingled musk of their union, her sweet moans of love above the lapping of the waves of the sea, the rings they had sworn each other. Every sight, sound, smell and touch kaleidoscoped and swirled around and within him as he felt her rush through his every cell. His veins were shot through with a feeling so intense it overloaded his senses until it gathered in his groin and exploded into her liquescent heat. Her eyes, deep and endless as the sunlit sea, were the last thing he saw as he fell over the precipice, rapture overtaking him as it took her. He knew there could be no bliss in heaven to compare. "Buffy," he managed to whisper breathlessly, "I love you," as he spilled deeply into her womb, lowering his arms on either side, folding himself down over her before losing consciousness.

When Angel finally opened his eyes, gray-green ones floated below him. A small face looked up with love and concern etched in every line. Smiling softly he lifted his hand to her cheek, stroking the skin, then wordlessly let his lips fall onto hers. His other hand held her near as his fingers wound through the whisper soft strands of her hair. He finally withdrew and rolled over bringing her close beside him, where he could see her face. They lay looking at the moon as it offered them a path to its door. The night shimmered with the twinkling stars in the sky and sand around them. The air still blanketed them in its velvet warmth.

Entwined in each other's arms, he stroked her hair as she traced letters of love across his chest. She reached for his hand and slid her fingers through his so their rings lay together. Deep down he knew he didn't deserve her or the love she gave him so freely and deeply. He desperately wanted to be the man she thought him to be. But she had promised him forever and he knew there was nothing without her. He'd give her everything he had, whatever it was - whomever he was - because he had every intention of holding her to her promise.


Chapter XV

Buffy and Angel simply couldn't get enough of each other. Angel hadn't been the demonstrative type since he was very small, but now, with Buffy, he couldn't not touch her every chance he got. He had unknowingly thirsted all those years for physical contact and needed to feel her, drink her in like a life-sustaining liquid. Buffy was seized by the same depth of need for him. She understood now her hesitancy in giving herself to someone else. Angel felt 'right'. No one else had ever compared to him. It was as if a part of them had always been together and now they were once more complete.

Except for their evening with Cordelia and Wesley, they spent all of their time at Angel's house. He made it clear it was now her home as much as his own. That he wanted her there, in the center of all that he was, underscored to Buffy how deeply he loved her. Yet even if he had nowhere to lay his head, home to her would now always be wherever Angel was.

Their only forays away from the house, other than work, were for food or to Buffy's apartment to pick up the clothes and essentials that she needed. The outside world, for all intents and purposes, did not exist. Where they worked, however, was a different matter altogether.

Their first week back in the office after their tumultuously revealing weekend wasn't easy. Keeping their hands and lips off each other seemed nearly an impossible feat once they arrived -together - at work. It took them a little time to adjust to being in the real world, so to speak, with other people in it. All of their discipline was needed to keep their distance from each other especially with the temptation of the two of them sharing an office alone … with a lockable door. But, except for a certain amount of inescapable, but brief caresses and impossible-to-not-have kisses, they had kept the door unlocked and their behavior almost professional most of the time. Well … most of the time. Making allowances those first difficult days to satisfy a different kind of hunger, they found their noon break much more enjoyable spent in the supply closet rather than the lunchroom.


Angel couldn't focus on the papers he had lined up neatly in front of him - the mundane task for which the battered wooden desk had been provided. The image in his mind kept shifting to the unique use they'd found for it that momentous evening over a week earlier. Buffy wasn't faring much better. She couldn't seem to make sense of anything on the computer screen before her, her thoughts and glances kept turning to the man behind her.

When they had been in their chairs for all of a half-hour, Buffy couldn't stand it any longer. She pulled something up she had been working on and wisely asked her most learned officemate if he had any insights. He was more than willing to help her with her problem.

That was how Xander found them. Angel stood behind Buffy, his hand had wandered down and lost itself in the tempting silkiness of her hair. He leaned over where she sat to drop a kiss on the shining golden mass as he peered into her laptop screen. To say Xander was in shock was an understatement. The large book he had brought with him to drop off to their office slid out of his limp hands and hit the floor with a resounding thump. Buffy practically jumped to a standing position, barely missing Angel's chin in the process. Xander didn't miss Angel's hand coming up on her shoulder. He couldn't tell if it was protectively, possessively, or both.

"Xander," Buffy managed to get out in an almost normal tone, "what brings you here?"

"Book," Xander said, unable to get more than the single word out as he scrambled for the fallen volume that had announced his presence. Angel glared at him and said nothing, which made Xander all the more nervous. "It's, uh, a reference book they were handing out, thought I'd do you a favor and bring it down," he explained.

"Thanks," Buffy told him taking the offering, "Never have too many books, right Angel?" She tried to make the soft jab to his ribs unnoticeable. If Angel hadn't been good with reflexes, he might have jumped himself. But his verbal reaction sounded more like a growl than words.

Xander didn't miss Buffy calling him Angel, not Liam or Angelus, but 'Angel' and wondered how long she'd been doing that and why. Then he saw that one finger on the hand she used to reach for the book had a ring exactly like the one Angelus was wearing on one of the fingers still curled around Buffy's shoulder. Aloud he said, "I thought if our office needed to be cluttered with more books, so did yours," for lack of anything else to say.

If someone had told him he'd walk in on Buffy and Angelus together like that, he'd have never believed them. What could Buffy possibly be thinking? Xander thought someone like Riley was more her speed and had been surprised she seemed to want nothing to do with him. But, Angelus? The guy who skulked through the hallways the few times he ventured out? The guy who hardly ever spoke and when he did, it was more of a growl, like just now? He wasn't by any stretch of the imagination normal, so what did Buffy see in him? Xander suddenly realized that Buffy had outlasted anyone else who had worked with Angelus several times over. That in itself was amazing. But those rings …rings were serious, weren't they?

"I guess my mission here is done," Xander told them and moved backward with a speed and accuracy he didn't usually possess.

"Thanks again, Xander," Buffy repeated. She could see how nervous Xander was and it occurred to her he was only the first.


Buffy insisted, and even though Angel had been more than reticent about it, after the first week they made their relationship no secret. They openly shared a table together at lunch waiting for the expected jaws to drop at the sight, which they did.

The very first person to lay eyes on them was Riley Finn, watching from the opposite side of the room. He had already known the two were an item, ever since the night Angelus had broken Riley's nose. He hadn't actually seen them together until just that morning in the parking lot of the complex. The car was in a fairly secluded spot some distance from the building, but Riley could see only too well. Angelus opened the door of his dark convertible to help Buffy out, bending down to give her a long, deep kiss as she alighted. No one else in the group that Riley usually had coffee with every morning paid any attention to what was going on outside their window. Only he saw the two lovers embrace, saw Buffy lean into Angelus and wrap her small arms around his neck. Riley had turned his head quickly before anyone followed his gaze, he wasn't about to point them out.

Now Buffy and Angelus were sitting right there in front of everyone, bold as brass. It turned Riley's stomach. Angry and repulsed as he was at the sight, he checked his temper to avoid making a scene in front of his friends and coworkers. He had only to remember what a fool Angelus had made of him at Buffy's party, flying across the table just playing a stupid game. He was relieved that, as far as he knew, no one had heard about his altercation with Angelus that ill-fated Friday night at Buffy's apartment. Riley had already lost the job he'd wanted all his life and the only girl he'd ever met that made his heart skip a beat, all because of that unbalanced misfit. He wasn't going to lose anymore to Angelus. Once again he looked away from them, knowing now was not the time.

Willow, with Tara in tow, were the only ones to approach Buffy and Angel. Buffy had talked to Willow briefly on the phone, but they hadn't seen each other in over a week. Lending support with her presence, Willow pulled Tara down next to her, seeing Buffy's grateful look. Angel gave them what could almost pass for a normal hello, he even managed to lift the corner of his lips just a little. Remaining silent, Tara let Willow take the lead. Tara slipped Angel a small knowing look and he gave her the shadow of one in return.

Willow spied the matching rings as she sat down across from them, her eyes widening, her smile spreading across her winsome face. "Are you really married?" she demanded. Then a hurt look quickly surfaced before she could hide it as the true meaning hit her. "And you never said anything?" she asked.

"According to Angel," Buffy told her soothingly, "we are in Ireland." At Willow's puzzled expression she went on, "It's a custom there that if you exchange Claddagh rings you're married, but I doubt it would hold up in a court of law here … or in a court of Giles," she said with a twinkle in her eye.

"Oh … oh!" Willow exclaimed as Buffy's words sunk in.

"Don't worry, Will," Buffy assured her, "you'll be the first to know about any plans, I promise."

Angel was obviously ill at ease being stared at by most of the lunchroom occupants. But Willow was surprised that he didn't seem uncomfortable with the conversation. As far as he was concerned the rings signified they were one, in body, heart and soul. Only if Buffy requested it, would Angel ever remove the ring from his finger while he was alive. He knew Buffy would be a part of him for all eternity, rings or not.

Deep inside, Angel was of the old school and formally announcing to the world that she was his was important to him. Only his own nagging reluctance at tying her to him because of his own shortcomings prevented him from it. Buffy knew how he felt and also knew it was something only Angel could deal with and at some point in time it would happen. She was content to wait until the time was right, as long as she had Angel beside her now … and always.

That and he had yet to meet Giles, something that had the formidable former federal agent quaking in his boots. Angel had insisted that they visit Giles without delay, he knew how important her surrogate father was to Buffy. She had already called him and made plans to visit during the week. Angel did indeed want Giles' blessing but he still felt she deserved more than he had to offer. He wondered greatly what this unknown father figure in Buffy's life would think of him.


Angel tried to keep his hands from shaking on the wheel of the car as he and Buffy neared their destination. He wasn't usually the jittery sort, but it was yet another reaction he was trying to learn to deal with in the array of new emotions being with Buffy engendered. Buffy had changed Angel and his life a little more with each passing day. He didn't think, however, that being nervous about meeting the other most important man in Buffy's life was a more positive aspect of it. Anything connected with her seemed to have a deep impact on Angel. She sensed his tension and leaned her head on his shoulder as they slowly walked from the car to the house. Just feeling her warmth helped relax him a little. She was worth any anxiety, he decided, as he glanced down at the halo of golden hair.

Giles opened the door as they mounted the steps of the porch. "Buffy," he said, giving her a perfunctory peck on the cheek as she turned it up towards him. "And this must be Angel," he continued as he looked at the tall man beside her.

Angel flushed hearing his nickname spoken by the other man. "Liam Angelus, sir," he said stiffly, offering his hand, catching the grin on Buffy's face at seeing the color in his cheeks.

"Buffy has a way of … umm … uniquely identifying everyone," Giles told him.

"So I've noticed, Giles," Angel said, producing what was supposed to be a smile.

"Please do come in," Giles invited as he stepped back and made room for them to enter. He led them into the living room, leaving them to sit on the couch while he took a nearby armchair. A tray with coffee and tea was already prepared and laid out on the table.

"No get-together is complete without Giles' tray," Buffy teased. "Sorry, Giles, Angel is a coffee drinker. No chance to turn him to the dark side."

As Giles poured coffee for Buffy and then for Angel, he hesitated, watching her spoon mounds of sugar into her cup. "You might want to leave some for Liam," he warned her.

"Nope, no fear there, he takes it like a man," she smiled.

Angel, trying to quell the nervousness that had overcome him once more, reached for the cup Giles held out to him. He wasn't used to being in this kind of setting, didn't know what was expected of him. "Thank you," he managed to mumble.

Giles saw Buffy quietly creep her hand into the one of the large man at her side. Even though Angel kept his eyes directed on his host, Giles saw him clutch hers as if it were a lifeline. His heart warmed to the stranger immediately. If Angel had been an island, as Buffy had lamented on her last visit, it seemed she had indeed found her way onto it. It was then he noticed the ring sparkling on Buffy's finger and also caught sight of its mate on the hand Angel was using to steady his coffee cup. The hands and fingers they were worn on were not lost on him.

"Buffy tells me you have a reason for your visit," Giles said candidly, still looking at the rings.

Angel eyes had followed Giles' gaze. He felt like he was starting backwards before he'd even opened his mouth. "These were my great-grandparents rings," he said trying not to stumble over his words. "I … we …" he attempted. Buffy squeezed his hand and he looked at her. He knew she was waiting to rescue him if he asked. Just her touch was enough to fortify his resolve. "We made vows to each other, but not in a church and not according to law," he finally got out, somewhat shakily.

"And you feel those vows are binding?" Giles questioned him. He couldn't say he was pleased there was no formal wedding, but there was, at least, a commitment.

"I do," glancing at Buffy once more, Angel amended, "We do." He knew he should give the man more of an explanation, but the words wouldn't come.

"Buffy," Giles asked, "would you be so kind as to fetch the sandwiches I left in the kitchen? I know you didn't have time to eat before the drive here. And, if you would, please make another pot of tea while you're there."

She knew a hint when she heard one. Looking up at Angel who became even more tense, she pressed her hand into his once more, but acquiesced silently to Giles' request. She gave Angel a look filled with love and support on her way out the door.

"Let me be blunt, Angelus," Giles told him, "I assume you are here for my blessing. Yet, it seems to be a rather belated consideration."

"I can't and wouldn't deny that," Angel said, gaining strength from Buffy's parting glance. "It wasn't something that was planned, but it doesn't make it any less significant."

"Yet you see nothing wrong with sharing your own vows without any legality?" Giles asked him.

"I will love her and be with her until the day I die if she'll have me," Angel stated firmly.

"That doesn't answer my question," Giles replied, but put up his hand to stop the younger man from responding further. "Let me be clear. As I'm sure she's informed you, I'm not Buffy's real father, nor do I have any legal standing where she's concerned. I do, however, look upon her as a daughter. That daughter came to me not very long ago in tears. Someone had hurt her deeply. He had spent the night with her and then abandoned her without a word."

Angel flinched as though he had been struck. Giles could see the misery fill Angel's eyes before he lowered them to the floor. The sag in his shoulders confirmed his lack of self-worth. "I was wrong, I shouldn't have left her. I'm not saying I deserve her," he admitted in a low tone, then looking Giles directly in the eye he continued, "But I swear I'll never hurt her again if I can help it and I'll never leave her again … unless she asks."

Giles knew the way Angel said the words that his leaving her had been for her sake, not his own. He didn't know what was in the young man's past nor did he think it was any of his business. He did know Buffy had to make her own decisions and that by accepting his ring, she had already done so.

"I have no doubt how deeply you love her and she loves you," Giles said, "But love of one's self isn't an easy thing to come by."

Buffy hadn't mentioned how shrewd her surrogate father was. Angel was glad to know she had someone like that in her life, but he had no reply. His head dipped down again. There was nothing he could say.

"I've known Buffy for a long time," Giles said quietly, "She is one of the most loving people I've ever met. She is also a good judge of character and has come by it the hard way. You might do well to look at yourself through her eyes."

Buffy chose that moment to return with a plate of sandwiches in one hand and a teapot in the other. Sensing all was not well she made her way to Angel's side. After setting down what she was carrying she reached for his hand. Angel grasped it and held on. Buffy looked at him, then at Giles.

"Your rings are beautiful, "Giles said, "I'd be interested to hear the story behind them."

Angel couldn't believe Giles had changed the subject, and so smoothly. Grateful, he found the courage to look back up at him. "My great-grandparents fell in love with each other at first sight. That same day he bought the rings and they were wed," he recounted. "Before he died, he gave them to my father and told him they were for whomever found their true love."

Buffy unclasped her hand from Angel's long enough to give Giles a better look at the antique ring on her finger. The brilliance of her smile outshone the stone in the center. "Angel told me they were married for over fifty years," she relayed to him.

"I can't help then, but give my blessing," Giles said as he admired the beautiful piece of jewelry, "when history seems to have repeated itself, at least in principle." He couldn't help adding, "I'm not against a more, uh, formal event at some future date."

Buffy gave him a sheepish grin and thanked him. Angel nodded his thank you, not even attempting to respond verbally.

They drank their respective cups of tea and coffee and made a small dent in the food. Since it was a weeknight and they had work the next day, Buffy and Angel left shortly after a few more minutes of conversation. On the drive back Angel was quiet. Buffy finally asked him what they had talked about while she was gone. "He's a very wise man," Angel said somewhat cryptically. "He suggested I try a new view," but wouldn't elaborate when she pressed him.


Buffy knew her request would be difficult for Angel, but she didn't give up. Asking him to take her to Willy's wasn't for her though, it was for him. Angel needed to be in the real world, needed to step out of the shadows he'd lived in most of his life. It may have been a small thing to others, but she knew Angel accompanying her to the Friday night get-together was a big step for him. He balked, as she knew he would when she first mentioned it, but she had a stubborn streak as wide and as long as his and she finally wore him down.

The deal they struck had Buffy grinning to herself. First, he would go, but only if she promised to spend the rest of the weekend with just him. She had been planning on doing exactly that anyway. Second, Angel insisted she go shopping with him for groceries to make sure they had everything necessary and enough to ensure no outside trips would be needed. He didn't want anything to interfere with them being alone. Buffy hadn't seen it as anything but a win-win situation. She knew Angel thought forcing her to make two concessions gave him the better bargain. But she couldn't see how both shopping and spending the next two days with him didn't make her the flat out winner.


Once inside the grocery store, Angel turned the cart towards the first aisle, only to feel Buffy pull his arm in the opposite direction. "Where are you going?" he asked, craning his head back to the spot he always began his shopping.

"I just want to see what's on sale," she told him, tugging on his arm, vaguely wondering why he was so hesitant. She looked over the newspapers mounted on the wall, too busy to notice him still looking back to his starting place. "Ah!" she exclaimed, "My favorite chips are on sale and those little hot dog thingys wrapped in dough." She smiled up at him in delight.

He frowned at her. "That's junk food, Buffy, it's not nutritious," Angel protested.

Catching her hand in his, he steered her back in the direction they had traveled, while his other hand pulled a crisp, neatly folded paper from his back pocket.

Buffy's eyes widened, both at his actions and words. She was struck silent as she watched him smooth out his paper, seeing a list of items in his careful, flowing script. He moved quickly up the aisle, with hardly a pause, as she saw him fill the cart, marking the paper with a pen. As he placed the items in a particular sequence, another check was made on the list.

It brought her back to the day she had observed him from a distance as he shopped, before she realized she was in love with him. Was she, she wondered, in love with him even then? She thought yes, but no matter, as long as they loved each other now. But even love, it seemed, didn't change a person overnight.

She stood in front of him, stopping him before he could touch one more nutritious thing. "Look at me, Angel, do I appear undernourished? Or unhealthy?" she queried in a firm voice.

It was his turn for his eyes to widen in surprise, but at the invitation, looked her over slowly from head to foot. His look turned into a leer, an expression he had never worn before he knew Buffy, but one he caught himself using frequently now that they were together. Trying to keep his mind on the groceries, he dragged his attention back to her questions. "You look very healthy," he assured her, "no sign of malnourishment anywhere."

"Then you would agree that until now, I must have been capable of deciding what I should eat, right?" she asked.

Too late, he realized where she was going with her questions. He had been so focused on his routine and choices, that he hadn't picked up on her offense to his remark. "Buffy, I didn't mean … all right I did mean those things are junk. If you want them," he tried to cajole her, "then we'll buy them. But," he couldn't resist adding, "they are full of empty calories."

Buffy's jaw dropped and her eyes flashed for a moment. "Are you saying I'm fat?" she asked in a dangerous whisper.

Angel gave her a long incredulous look, then suddenly laughed out loud. The matching look on Buffy's face made him laugh even harder. He could almost see the thoughts run across her features, flickering from surprise, to anger, to confusion, then finally to mirth as her own tinkling laugh joined his. "No, love," he said once they caught their breath, "even I know better than to talk about a woman's weight."

His reply set both of them off once more. Such a strong feeling of love overwhelmed him right there in the middle of the grocery store that Angel swooped down and caught her lips in a sweet, tender and very passionate kiss. His arms closed around her, unwilling to let the moment end.

Buffy stayed where she was, enjoying the sheer pleasure of Angel's laugh, and the never-ending thrill of his kiss. She finally looked up at him, love and desire filling her eyes, "Guess we should hurry up with the food, huh? Then get home?"

He nodded and turned quickly back to the shelves and his list, methodically reaching for the next item. He heard her laugh, then saw her pick up a bag of nachos and toss it into the cart. Before he could find a proper place for it, she threw in another, then several boxes and cans of goodies in quick succession. Scowling, his head snapped up as the items poured into the cart, until he caught the twinkle in her eye. It took him a few seconds, but then he grinned at her. Taking his list in both hands, he held it up, tearing it into tiny pieces.

The two of them sailed through the rest of the store, throwing food into the cart, in a haphazard race to the checkout that left them once more laughing and out of breath. Neither of them saw anyone but each other. They were totally unaware of the looks and stares, some smiling, some casting a longing gaze at them, as they left the store arm in arm, pushing the cart together.


If Angel had felt out of place in the lunchroom, the feeling was nothing in comparison to walking into the bar with Buffy. She could feel every muscle in his body tense as they walked through the door. Every muscle, that is, that hadn't already been strained to the limit before they arrived. He knew he was completely and totally out of his depth. If this outing had been an assignment, a charade, something he often had to do as an agent, he would have put on his mask and played his part. He had become adept over the years at doing whatever the job had entailed. But this was real and that was where the difference lay. He was with Buffy and he needed to be real for her. That life he wanted so much to share with her meant being a part of her world and she was worth the cost. At the thought he looked down at her and felt a little bit of her calm flow into him. He would do whatever he had to do for her, but never without her.

Most of the group was already there. Buffy knew she and Angel being seen as a couple was still considered an oddity at work, probably even more so here. She glanced at the inquisitive stares as they made their way to the table.

Willow and Tara, the only ones who had spoken to Buffy and Angel at work, were giving them encouraging looks. Both women knew what kind of strength Angel had to possess to even be there. Willow took in the sharp contrast of the ex-agent's powerful build and gruff manner compared to her dainty friend, standing by his side, poised and petite. Almost, she thought, like Beauty and the Beast.

Xander was trying to look nonchalant and not quite making it. Angel still gave him the jitters. Anya was oblivious to everyone except Xander. Faith and Kate looked on with more curiosity than anything else. Lindsey gave both the newcomers a genuine smile, he was happy to see them together, amazed Buffy had gotten Angel to join them. Lindsey circled his arm around Faith, pleased to feel her draw closer to him.

They took the chairs next to Willow and Tara, Buffy sitting as close to Angel as possible. Xander offered, more out of nervousness than anything else, to get the two new arrivals some drinks. Buffy thanked him, but Angel insisted in a tense voice on paying for them. Buffy tempered his response by suggesting they buy a round for everyone. Angel agreed at her nod and she felt him relax just a little as he handed Xander the money to give Willy for their order.

Lindsey asked Angel about a problem he'd run into at work. Angel knew McDonald was purposely drawing him into a conversation. He went along, knowing Lindsey was making an effort to help him fit in with the group. Buffy had set him straight on what her conversation with the lead agent had actually been about on the night Angel overheard them. He was somewhat chagrined, but Angel bore in mind Lindsey's looks of open admiration for Buffy. If Faith hadn't been in the picture, he had no doubt McDonald would have taken a deeper interest in the lithesome blonde Angel held by his side. Nor had Angel forgotten that McDonald gave Buffy information he wasn't at liberty to share. Buffy had convinced him, however, that his former work mate had Angel's best interests at heart and had been willing to accept the consequences of his actions. Angel found he couldn't object to what Lindsey McDonald had done when he'd already forgiven his sister for the same offense.

Xander passed out the drinks while a few of them discussed their plans for the weekend. Buffy colored slightly when Willow asked if she was doing anything special. Angel caught Buffy's eye and actually grinned when she mumbled to her best friend that her time was pretty much spoken for.

Lindsey was still talking to Angel when he glanced up and saw Riley walk in the door. Their conversation stopped as the last member of their circle approached the table. Lindsey saw the glare of open hatred Riley fixed on Angel and wondered what was to come. Buffy caught the same look as Lindsey. Snaking her arms around Angel's waist, she felt him wrap his arms around her reflexively. She had hoped Riley wouldn't show up. Even though she knew that eventually Angel and Riley would have to finish whatever was between them, she hadn't intended to see them deal with each other the moment they met. This was the first time she'd gotten Angel to go anywhere, she didn't want it to be the last.

It took one look to send Riley over the edge. Seeing the couple at work had been bad enough. It seemed to him since that first glance of them in the parking lot earlier in the week that anywhere Riley looked, Buffy and Angelus were nearby ... and always together. Now finding the two of them wrapped around each other and the center of attention among his friends pushed him too far. He wasn't going to play second fiddle to anyone, especially Liam Angelus.

Angel watched as Riley stared at him, then at Buffy. His dark brown eyes shot a warning glance at him, daring Riley to say or do anything, anything at all.

Riley couldn't pass up the challenge. "It's a good thing for all of us it's a clear night," he told Angel as he dropped his jacket around the back of the chair and sat down across from them.

Already wound and spoiling to give Riley what he thought he so richly deserved, Angel replied in a firm, cool tone, "It's a good thing no one here would have to depend on you if it wasn't." The boy had done a lot of damage to Angel and still refused to accept responsibility for his wrongdoing.

"You should talk," Riley snorted. You think anyone would take a chance depending on you? I'm thinking not likely after what you did," he said

Everyone around the table had gone silent at the first exchange between the two angry men. Angelus was as much an unknown factor to them now as the day he was first reassigned to their section. And while Lindsey, who had known him much longer, had caught glimpses, only Buffy knew what lay beneath the cool, austere exterior of her cryptic, brooding lover. Riley had been part of the group sitting at the table since his transfer from the field, always ready and willing to socialize with his co-workers or lend a helping hand. His usually amiable, out-going manner granted him easy acceptance into their midst. He'd become fast friends with a few of them.

There had been whispers and rumors about both men since their relocation two years earlier. The talk had recently been fanned anew by the overt hostility between the ex- agents of late and their obviously escalating enmity. Riley Finn wouldn't have been wrong to think most of those gathered had unconsciously taken his side between the two … until now.

"And what exactly was it that I did, Finn?" Angel asked, tired of the boy's constant barbs and innuendoes.

"You forget that pesky little trip to the looneybin?" Riley sneered.

With a dispassionate air, Angel waved the taunt aside. "Everyone knows what happened to me. What exactly are you talking about that I did?" he repeated slowly as if talking to a particularly dull child. "This is your chance to tell your side. I'd really like to know. And what exactly did you do?" he continued questioning him sharply.

"I was doing what I was supposed to be doing," Riley shot back.

"And what was that?" Angel countered still keeping an even voice, "Staying at your post as you were ordered?"

Riley hesitated, feeling the eyes of his friends on him, he broke out in a sweat. He looked at Angelus sitting there with Buffy curled closely against him. Angelus was calm, collected and in control, like there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. He sat there staring directly into Riley's eyes waiting for an answer.

The memories of that day filtered through Riley Finn's mind, as they always did. He had overheard part of a conversation Angelus had about the exercise with another agent and about the general location of something that had been hidden. Riley assumed their mission was retrieving whatever had been concealed. He came up with a plan to do just that. Later, when only the two of them were left at the site, he tried to convince Angelus to listen to him.

After the other man harshly barked at him to do as he had previously been ordered, Finn waited until he saw his chance and slipped away alone. He knew he couldn't sway the taciturn senior agent, but if he was successful, it would show everyone how valuable Riley was to the team. He switched off his radio, thinking he could say later that it hadn't been working right. Checking his watch, he figured roughly how long he had to get back before the others returned. Unfamiliar with the terrain, he kept wandering further off course. He wasn't able to locate what he thought had been their objective, the weather slowing his failed efforts. The trail was obliterated by the increasingly violent storm that moved into the area.

By the time he'd turned the radio back on and followed the coordinates to the clearing, it was too late. The team had found Angelus in the only clearing for miles in the deep woods. Riley saw the tree that he heard about during the inquest that followed. The tall pine had been splintered in half by lightening. Beneath its fallen limbs, they had found Liam Angelus lying huddled in a quivering mass. When they approached him he reared up like a savage berserker, sweeping away anything and anyone in his path. It had taken two teams of men to finally subdue him.

Finn blundered his way through the hearing, saying he too had gotten lost in the storm that put Angelus in the hospital.

"I got lost," Riley told him, not looking him in the eye, repeating the same lie he had used before.

"I looked for you, Finn," Angel said steadily, not taking his eyes off him, "You were my responsibility. I kept in radio contact, kept checking back at the post and kept looking for you. I had to keep making bigger, wider sweeps to try to find you."

"If you'd just listened to me, I wouldn't have had to try on my own before we failed the exercise. You wouldn't hear me out," Riley said, "I tried to tell you I could find our objective. I had a plan, but you wouldn't listen."

Angel kept his gaze leveled on the younger man. "The point of the exercise was to teach new recruits how to work as a team, how their very lives might depend on it. And how to take orders, regardless of how they felt about them. And your job was to stand by with your radio and follow those orders when they came through."

Until that moment Riley Finn had never known that. Whether it was never brought to light during the inquest or he was so worried about the fate of his career that he hadn't heard what the true objective was, he didn't know. The maneuver wasn't a treasure hunt, it was a test of competence … and he had failed. Those twinges of guilt he had never been able to wash away with whiskey were now twisting his stomach in tense knots.

"My radio wasn't working," Riley lied again. The truth was cutting in, in spite of his unwillingness to face it.

"There was nothing wrong with your radio," Lindsey suddenly interjected. "In fact it contained everything that happened." Faith nudged him softly and he looked at her, nodding. Buffy already knew, McDonald thought, now it was about time Riley's friends knew just what kind of a man he was, even if it cost Lindsey his job. Finn trying to play hero had cost Liam Angelus everything.

Riley felt cornered as both the former and present team leaders stared at him intently, "What do you mean it had everything that happened? It didn't work."

"It worked perfectly, Finn, including the monitoring chip hidden inside. It recorded everywhere you went and everything you did," Lindsey said disgustedly.

Riley felt the reality of McDonald's words slice even deeper into his gut. They had known all along what he had done. Still refusing to face it he insisted, "Then why wasn't I fired? Why wasn't I kicked out."

Lindsey shook his head, then nodded towards Angel. "Because Angelus wouldn't press charges and the recording couldn't be used as hard evidence, even within the agency." Lindsey looked up, his opinion of Riley written across his face. "You were new and young and stupid and you put everyone around you in danger. You deserved to be fired."

He still desperately tried to save himself at Angelus' expense. Riley looked back at his inquisitor, whose eyes had never left his face. "You had your chance to get even, why didn't you take it?" he bit out.

"Because you were right," Angel heard himself saying, still keeping his tone even. Answering Riley's look of confusion, he continued, "Because I shouldn't have been out there. I couldn't find fault with you when I had no business being there myself."

"Then you admit it," Riley exclaimed, "You bought your way into the agency and the team," as if proving his point.

Angel felt his anger flaring back, "No, Finn, I worked for everything I got." Not believing he was saying out loud in front of everyone what he had only shared with Buffy, he told him, "It was thanks to you I found out how I got by the screening. Until then I didn't know myself I never passed it."

"That's a lie…" Riley began.

"You know all about those, don't you, Finn?" Angel asked cutting him off. "I thought I hated you, but I don't. I pity you. You remind me of what I was like, trying to be something I never was. I lied to myself for a long time, but I never lied to anyone else."

Riley had never been a liar either, not until that day he had ignored direct orders, thinking he knew what was best. He lied about leaving his post … and that lie had begotten another and another. Riley Finn suddenly realized he hated himself and what he'd become, knowing that was the root of the guilt he'd carried the last two years. But although he hated himself, he hated Liam Angelus more. He hated that Angelus had been right and Riley hated the thought he might have been responsible for what happened to the other man because of what he did. And he hated that Liam Angelus was sitting there in front of him and all his friends, tearing Riley's life apart before his eyes, holding the woman who preferred Angelus' broken pieces to him.

"And what are you now?" Finn asked, seething with disdain. "Something the storm blew in? Don't you think she deserves better than you?" he jeered cuttingly, pointing at Buffy.

Buffy's arms tightened around Angel at the cruel words. Angel stood, leaning her back gently in her chair, then turned back to Riley. He did pity Riley, but he couldn't deny he still loathed the sight of him. Angel could take whatever Riley had to say about him, but not Buffy. That was somewhere the boy wasn't allowed to go.

"I might not be much," Angel told him, moving around the table with a fluid, catlike grace as he spoke, "but I'm not a liar. And who she wants to be with is up to her, not me and certainly not you." Stepping closer, Angel held up his claddagh ring within inches of Riley's face and told him in a still, proud tone, "But you know what, Finn? She knows everything there is to know about me and she still wants to be with me. She chose to be with me." His anger finally showing itself, Angel growled at him, "She's mine! Don't ever try to come anywhere near her or come between us again. Get your sorry ass out of my sight before I kick it through the door."

Riley was furious, rapidly losing the last shreds of reasonable thought. Everyone was looking at him as if he was the one who was nuts. And Buffy sat there looking at Angelus with a brilliant smile, holding her hand aloft to show the smaller version of the ring Angelus wore, as if to agree with all he had said. He couldn't get over that she could love someone like this lunatic, she must be just as crazy. He didn't have to listen to Liam Angelus, he wasn't ever going to give Riley an order again. Finn started to raise his hand towards him.

Angel caught Riley's hand before it even clenched into a fist. Bringing the taller man right up against him, he gripped his hand hard enough to hear small bones crunch. "Don't!" Angel said, his voice thick with warning, "You don't know how much I want you to," then thrust him away towards the door.

Angry as he was, Riley knew he was no match for the man before him. Angel had already bested him twice. The bruises on his face from their last encounter had barely healed. Riley could feel the animosity from not only Angelus, but from Lindsey and the rest of those still seated at the table. In his heart he knew what Angelus had said was true, but he wasn't about to answer to all the faces around him. Riley had no answer and he knew it. The lies he had perpetuated had found him out and the trust of his friends before him was now the price. He couldn't face any of them ever again. Without raising his eyes, he grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair. Only silence followed him as he walked through the doorway, into the darkness and out of their sight.

Buffy had jumped from her chair as the two men had closed in on each other. Angel turned around and she was there in his arms before he knew it. Her arms circled his waist in a tight embrace, her ear against his chest and the racing beat of his heart. Angel bent his head to place a kiss on the small blonde head tucked under his chin. Not trying to release himself from her hold, he steered her back to their chairs, turned around and drew her into his lap as he sat down.

Xander cleared his throat and in as normal a voice as he could find said, "I think we need some beer, it's on me." The confrontation between the two men had changed Xander's view of both of them considerably. Buffy peeked at him from under Angel's jaw gracing him with a tiny smile. Maybe, Xander thought, Buffy was a better judge of character than the little credit he had given her.

"Sorry," Buffy whispered up to Angel while Xander kept everyone entertained by playing waiter again.

He knew she felt badly, but in an odd way he was relieved. Finn had been a thorn in his side for a long time. And although he would never have imagined announcing his own failings in front of an audience, strangely, it didn't bother him. He felt lighter for it somehow.

"It was bound to happen sooner or later, Buffy," he reassured her softly.

"It wasn't how I hoped the evening would go," she said sadly. "I wanted them to get to know you."

"I think they know more now than they wanted to," he whispered wryly.

She looked up at his words, expecting to see a scowl and was surprised instead to see him smile at her. "I promise," she said, "it won't be like this the next time."

"The next time? Buffy…" he stopped as he heard a soft giggle in his ear.

"Just kidding, Angel!" she whispered back, "I'll give you a little break before the next time."

His only response was a low growl she felt rather than heard.

Lindsey looked at the two whispering to each other as his own arm tightened around Faith's shoulders. His admiration of Angelus had gone up another notch. He didn't think he was brave enough to be as bluntly honest to admit something like that as publicly as Angelus had. It hadn't been pretty, but the man had guts. No small credit, he thought, went to the lovely and loving figure wrapped securely in his former superior's arms. Lindsey mused while taking a long slow draught of beer, there was hope for Liam Angelus yet.

The group loosened up a bit after the pitcher of beer was drained and another appeared in its place, this time as Lindsey's treat. Angel said hardly a word, most of his attention fixed on the bundle of softness molded into his lap. He wore the semblance of a smile and made the effort every now and then to let his eyes rove over the faces surrounding him, but stayed his usual stoic self. Buffy snuggled comfortably against Angel's chest, but it didn't keep her from keeping up her part of the conversation as it drifted lazily around the table.

She suddenly felt Angel sit up straight and glanced up to see him staring at the front door. She followed his gaze to the platinum blonde in the leather duster who had just entered. Buffy recognized him as the guy who always sat over in the smoking section. She was pretty sure it was the waitress's boyfriend. As the man turned towards them Angel stiffened and his arms instinctively drew her tight against him.

"Spike," she heard Angel say under his breath.

"Dru's brother?" she asked, shocked. She had heard about him from both Angel and Cordelia. Buffy instantly asked herself what was Spike doing hanging out in a bar up the street from where they worked? She didn't believe in coincidence.

Angel saw the startled look cross Spike's features when he caught sight of him. He saw his gaze jump from his face down to Buffy's and back up again, a look of incredulity mixed with the surprise of finding him there. He didn't miss the obvious heat that Spike's glance held as it lingered on Buffy.

Spike recovered his wits fairly quickly and sauntered over to the table standing in front of Riley's vacated seat. "Angelus," he said, a sly smile forming on his hard lips, "fancy meeting you of all people."

"What are you doing here, Spike?" Angel asked in a tight voice, his arms pressing Buffy even more firmly against him.

Spike caught the movement and continued to openly rake his eyes over Buffy's form. "Why, I come here quite often," Spike said smoothly, "it's like a second home to me."

McDonald looked over his shoulder, behind Faith, at the man talking to Angelus. He felt the tension rising between them at each word they spoke. He had noticed the yellow-haired tough. He'd had an eye on him ever since the man had made himself a frequent visitor. Lindsey had never liked the looks of the guy, but it wasn't enough of a reason to investigate him. He'd done nothing wrong and Lindsey couldn't do a follow up on him just because he didn't know him. He was thinking now he wished he'd trusted his instincts.

"What do you want?" Angel asked evenly.

"Nothing," Spike said, "just stopping to say hello, don't let me interrupt. I can see you're … busy." His gaze once more swept over Buffy from head to foot. Without another word, he turned and headed toward the smoking section.

Buffy could feel the adrenaline racing through Angel as his arms banded around her like steel. Although Angel's confrontation with Riley earlier had been intense, the emotions snapping out of Angel's eyes as he held Spike's made it pale in comparison.

The short, but strangely intense encounter between the two men rekindled the same air everyone there had just worked so hard to dispel after Riley's departure. The roller coaster effect was more than the group could take and each of them started moving away from the table, making motions to leave.

Lindsey stood, coat in hand, talking to Buffy after Angel finally released her from his grasp. The authoritative manner Angel unconsciously reverted to was clear in his words to Lindsey as he interrupted their conversation, "His name is William 'Spike' Holtz, I want to know everything about him you can find."

Without hesitation, McDonald replied, "Done."

Angel latched a protective arm around Buffy's shoulders and steered her out the door purposely ignoring the pair of keen blue eyes he could feel burning into his back.


Chapter XVI

"When did you first notice him?" Angel asked, looking at her worriedly. They were standing inside the door, hanging up their jackets.

"I don't really remember," Buffy answered, exasperated. She walked over to the fireplace with her back to him. He'd been drilling her since they left the bar and had already asked that same question twice. "It's not like I check out the place when I go there," she snapped. A lot had gone on, first Riley, then Spike showing up. She thought the whole evening was making Angel overreact.

Coming up behind her, he slid his arms around her waist, holding her close. "I'm sorry, love," he told her, as if reading her mind. "I'm just trying to protect you," he said tensely, unable to shake off his apprehension, "I know Spike. I don't trust him."

Buffy, still vexed, broke away and turned to look at him. "I can take care of myself," she reminded him. "But what makes you think this is about me?"

"I saw the way he looked at you," he almost shouted, remembering Spike's eyes riveted on her. Running his fingers through his hair, he walked distractedly from the bookcases to where she stood near the fireplace and back again. "I haven't seen him for a few years, but I doubt he's changed. If anything he's worse."

"I wasn't around a few years ago, so it isn't about me. He still holds what happened to Dru against you. Cordelia told me that. But it was so long ago," she protested.

"And that makes a difference? It still affects me, doesn't it?" he asked in a harsh voice.

"Angel - " she said, starting towards him, but he turned away, distancing himself from her.

"You think just because a lot of time has passed it changes anything?" he said in a strained voice. "What's different? I'm older, Spike's older, but his sister never will be."

Buffy walked up behind him and laid a hand on his arm to turn him towards her. He wouldn't move, wouldn't look at her, but stood like a statue, his face towards the wall.

"You think purging my sins by bringing them into the light makes them go away, Buffy?" he asked softly, his voice filled with pain. Before she could even think of how to answer he said, "It doesn't. Nothing ever will. I let Dru die and Spike knows it as well as I do."

"Then you're both wrong even if neither of you can see it," she said to his back. "I know just telling me what happened doesn't erase it, but it's a start towards dealing with it. And after all you told me, horrible as it was, it didn't make me change my mind about you one bit." Still he didn't move or respond. She asked bluntly, "You think I'm the one who doesn't understand. Have you ever thought just once that maybe it's you who doesn't?"

Even that seemed to have no effect, Buffy could feel the walls going up around him and felt helpless. Pulling gently on his arm, she begged softly, "Please, Angel, don't keep me out."

He turned on her suddenly, looming over her, staring at her upturned face, then just as suddenly walked away. "I knew this was going to happen," he muttered half to himself as if he hadn't heard her plea.

"What?" she asked, trying to catch his arm again when he paced back towards her, "What do you think is happening?"

"That having you in my life … now it's putting you in danger," he said, looking down at her hand hooked over his arm.

"Just because Spike comes up and talks to you for a couple minutes, I'm in danger?" she asked him, trying to make him see he was blowing it out of proportion.

"Yes," he bit out, grasping both her arms, looking down at her, "that's exactly it." Angel was losing what little patience he possessed. He couldn't make her understand how serious this was. "I've told you before it wouldn't work with us," he said in frustration. "This isn't some fairytale. Not every story has a happily ever after."

She refused to get upset with the remark, "I'm not a child, Angel - I know that. But we can't live our lives in fear of what might or might not happen," she tried to reason with him.

"And I can't ignore it either. Do you think I want anything to happen to you?" his fingers were digging into her arms as he shook her, "Do you think I could stand it? That because of me you could be hurt or worse?"

"Of course not," she told him, then asked candidly, "but you think staying away from me is the answer?"

Buffy felt the sigh shudder through him as he pulled her tightly against him, leaving him trembling. He buried his face in the crook of her neck, breathing her in deeply.

"I can't stay away from you any longer. You're everything to me," was his muffled reply.

She felt relief wash through her, even knowing how troubled he was. She had been frightened he might be thinking of leaving her again and she knew she couldn't bear it.

Angel felt the tears on his shirt and drew back to look at her. "All I ever seem to do," he said sadly, "is make you cry."

"No, now they're happy tears, not to be confused with the not-so-happy ones," she feebly joked, raising her face to his. "I was afraid you were talking about leaving me," she confessed. She watched him shake his head as he pulled her even closer. "Besides," she snuffled giving him a watery smile, "hearing you say I'm everything to you kinda hit a soft spot. I'm not used to being anyone's everything."

"You only have to worry about being mine," he softly reassured her. He held her for long moments, his large hands gently running up and down her back, her head nestled beneath his chin. He finally released her long enough to lead her to his chair before the fireplace and pull her into it with him.

"Buffy," he said gently as he wrapped his arms around her, "I don't want to argue with you. But Spike is a very real danger. He was very, very close to Dru. When she was alive they were inseparable. So when she died ..." He sighed. After a few moments he went on, "He's trouble and he scares me."

"So why now? I mean, has he done something before?" she asked.

"No, love, just insults and threats," Angel admitted. "But tonight ... tonight he was different. Just the way he looked at you," he repeated, "he scares me."


They hadn't gotten to sleep until long after they arrived home. It had taken both of them, especially Angel, a long time to unwind and relax. Even making love didn't dispel the sense of uneasiness Buffy knew was plaguing him. It only made him cling to her more closely as if the tighter he held her the safer he could keep her from any harm that might befall her.

For all of his advance planning, Angel hadn't had anything specific in mind for the weekend ... but Buffy did. Late Saturday morning she woke to find two arms fastened firmly around her, her back pressed tightly and tenderly to the wall of warm flesh behind her. Angel's breath puffed softly into her hair where he was nuzzled. Slowly and carefully disentangling the limbs that held her, she crept silently out of bed. She looked down and couldn't help but smile at the angelic face reposed in slumber. Softly, she combed her fingers through the errant spikes of dark, silky hair, then traced his broad forehead. Her fingers drifted down to the high cheekbones, then touched the tip of the long straight nose. His straight dark brows were relaxed at the moment over eyes of deep chocolate brown that entranced her when open. He was an angel, she thought, a badly bruised one, which made her love him all the more. She couldn't stop herself from bending down and leaving a tender kiss on his brow.

Rummaging in the drawer Angel had set aside for her, she donned her oldest clothes, a pair of faded denim short shorts and a tiny t-shirt, which revealed a slice of skin above the shorts. She found her way to the kitchen and made coffee. After grabbing a cupful, once it was done brewing, she armed herself with dust clothes, feathers and furniture polish.

She was surprised at how undusty the bookshelves were, as if they'd been recently cleaned. She mused as she went about using the polish and cloth on the rest of the room that she could find much better things to occupy his time than books … cleaning or reading them. She had just finished when she felt a very familiar pair of arms attack from behind.

"You weren't there when I woke up," Angel growled into the nape of her neck. Then he stopped abruptly and tensed.

She knew his words had brought back the memory of the first night they made love and the morning after … how he'd left her there alone. Buffy wasn't the vengeful type and she thought Angel had suffered quite enough pain in his life. She didn't want to add any to it. She turned within his grasp and whispered, "Sorry - am I forgiven?"

"Am I?" he whispered, his head still bowed.

In answer she raised his face to hers, her mouth closed over his, her tongue plunging past the lips that parted for it. It was a long, deep kiss - one of comfort and assurance as much as love. "Does that answer your question?" she asked when she finally pulled back.

He gave a soft, shy smile to the hazel eyes that held his and smiled back at her. Dropping another kiss on the forehead of the beautiful face tilted towards his, he sighed. He didn't know how she had found him, but he'd never let her go.

When he finally raised his head and tore his eyes away from the delectable form in his arms, he glanced around the room, inhaling the scent of cleaning fluid.

"Buffy, I didn't mean for you to spend the weekend with me as a maid," he chided gently.

"Sorry," she grinned, "you get the whole deal. Maid, co-worker, love slave, all part of the total package."

"Love slave?" he cocked an eyebrow.

"Why did I think that's the only part you would hear?" she returned, laughing softly. "But, cleaning first, slaving later."

"If you're the slave that would make me the master, right?" he asked, warming to her brightening mood.

"If you think that's gonna get you out of doing what needs to be done around here, think again, big guy," she teased, "You get to be master after the work is finished. But, you are allowed to eat first."

He chuckled as he let her lead him to the kitchen. Her long, golden hair fell down her back in a cascade of curls. He watched the sliver of skin widen between the shirt and shorts as she reached in the cupboard for a mug. Keeping his mind on housework instead of Buffy was asking a lot. Admiring the round, firm bottom wiggling in front of him, above slim, tanned legs, he couldn't help but ask, "Tell me," he wanted to know, "is that your maid or love slave outfit?"

"Guess it all depends on how you look at it," she said, turning to catch his appreciative stare. She shot one back, practically drooling over the way his own cutoff denims encased his lower torso and how the sleeveless t-shirt covering his chest defined every muscle bulging beneath it. There had to be a law against looking that good in old clothes … any clothes.

It was hard to keep their eyes or minds on their tasks. Somehow they did manage to get through all the rooms and leave an appearance of clean behind them. But not without frequent pauses or all out stops, caught up much more in each other than the dust and dirt they were supposed to be fighting. Angel didn't think he'd ever look at housekeeping in the same light again.

Buffy found herself wondering more than once as she saw the light refracted off the diamond in her Claddagh ring, what it would be like being married, spending the rest of their lives like this. Angel saw the coveted looks she gave to her left hand and his heart both ached and sang at the thought of her being his wife.

The bedroom was the last to be cleaned and where Angel lost the final battle. Buffy was tucking the midnight blue satin sheets under the pillows and smoothing out the matching counterpane. It was suddenly too much - he loved to see her hair fanned out against the dark, silky material. Creeping up behind her, he spun her quickly around and slid onto the bed bringing her with him. He arranged her hair gently on the pillow and looked down into brilliant green emeralds that sparkled with love and desire.

Buffy shivered at the deep sable gaze that looked into her soul. There wasn't a part of her that didn't feel him inside her. He would always be a part of her. She wondered, not for the first time, if he hadn't always been there deep down. She reached up, opening her small arms and felt the same shiver run through him as he let her draw him down over her. How could it be, she wondered, that she could love him so much and still keep loving him more?

"Now …" he murmured, "exactly what does a love slave do?"

"Guess that would depend on her master," was her tempting reply.

"Would it mean making my wishes come true?" he asked softly. When she nodded, he shook his head and answered her confused expression, "You already have." He grinned at the brilliant smile she gave him before hungrily fastening his lips over hers. He kissed her breathless before finally pulling back to look at her again. "But I can think of a few more," he told her with that crooked half smile that made her heart beat faster.

As he started removing her shirt, she caught his hand and whispered in a sensuous voice, "Let me ... master."

He chuckled and flopped down beside her saying, "I wish you would take off your clothes, then mine."

"As you wish," she said impishly. Buffy loved his playful light-heartedness and deep down thrilled at the thought that she was the one who elicited that response in him. She made a show out of pulling the little t-shirt up slowly, raising her arms to lift it over her head. Watching the heat increase in her lover's eyes, she peeled the shorts down inch by painfully slow inch as the bulge beneath his own shorts grew. As she finally skimmed the silk panties down her legs, flicking them off her foot, she felt a large hand grasp her around the waist, pulling her down on the bed.

Angel rolled over on top of her once more, grinning happily, as she giggled, "You're making it hard to follow your commands."

"No," he replied as he slipped his hips between her thighs and pressed his arousal firmly against her curls, "You're making it hard."

She laughed out loud then, answering him with a roll of her own hips into his, making him groan. Reaching up she tugged at his shirt and he helped her pull it over his head. Then she wiggled her hand down between them. Instead of trying to unbutton his shorts, she cupped her hand around his telltale need and started stroking him.

"Buffy ..." he managed to groan as he hardened and swelled even more, straining against the rough denim fabric.

Taking pity on him she forced him back as she undid the button and unzipped his shorts. She pulled them down as he lifted his hips to speed her along. His sex springing up, finally freed of its restraint, bobbed invitingly towards her. But as she reached out to grasp it, he suddenly slid her underneath him, easily capturing both of her hands in one of his, holding them over her head. Her puckish smile melted away when she lifted her eyes to his face. She felt a rush of wetness as his gaze swept over her like a living flame of lust, burning through her, straight to her core.

"I can't wait," he whispered fervently, his control dissolving in an instant, feeling an overwhelming need to lose himself in her. "I need to be inside you ... now." Taking only a moment to sift his fingers through the downy hair and feel how ready she was for him, he waited no longer to slide his aching member into her lush, searing hot channel.

She cooed as he filled her, giving herself over to the lovely feeling of him thrusting deeper and deeper. Buffy lifted her legs around his waist, drawing him even closer, her hips moving in time with his as he kept pumping into her faster and harder.

"I love you," he whispered hoarsely without breaking their rhythm. He couldn't slow down, couldn't have stopped if his life depended on it. Angel was surrounded by her sleek, silken walls, lost in the grey-green mist of her loving gaze. He heard her soft cries of pleasure, felt her small hands as they tightened in his. Releasing her hands, he slid his under her back, drawing her closer. He felt her arms go around him, fingernails digging into his shoulders and back as she writhed against him.

"Angel," she gasped, "please."

His large hands slid down as he repositioned her hips, driving his length against her most intimate flesh until he felt her walls ripple and contract around him. He bent his head, searching for her mouth, needing to feel her lips on his. She moaned into his mouth as he kissed her deeply. His movements becoming more and more frantic, he plunged into her very depths, touching her womb, until he felt his own release as it washed through him and spilled into her.

Lying over her, his arms trembled as he tried to move off, knowing he was too heavy, but she would have none of it. She held him there, her arms holding him tight against her. After long moments just holding each other, she allowed him to shift his weight to his arms as he raised himself up on his elbows and looked down at her. "Sorry," he said in a soft, lilting tone, "I just couldn't help myself, watching my slave unwrapping herself for me."

Buffy gave him a luxurious smile and whispered silkily, "Your wish was my command."

Does this mean you're no longer under my command?" he asked with a lazy grin, catching tendrils of spun gold, wrapping them around his fingers, gently tugging them.

"I'd call this pretty much under, Angel," she chuckled, wiggling beneath him.

"Ah," he said, "then I command you to stay right where you are. There are a few other things I'd like to wish for, starting with this," and leaned down to give her another breath-stealing kiss.

A very long while later they remade the bed and took a shower together. Buffy had already made wearing one of Angel's shirts a habit, one with which he found no fault. There was something so adorable about her swimming in its depths that it tugged at his heart.

They had a late supper and when they finished, they washed and dried the dishes together and put them away. Angel reached for the box of matches on the mantle and lit the kindling under the logs he had already laid out. Falling back against the leather cushions of the chair, he stretched out in it. Buffy took the hand he held out, letting him draw her down next to him. He reflected on how lonely he had really been all those evenings alone in his chair - and how lonely he would always be without her beside him in it.

"I love it here," she told his chest as her fingers crept under the shirt covering it. Almost shyly she added, "I feel like I belong here." She felt his warm breath in her hair as he exhaled, his muscles relaxing beneath her touch.

He sighed deeply, she never ceased to amaze him. He felt exactly the same way but it made his heart swell to hear her say she did too. "Embedded deep within she lies, in true love's sweet forever ties," he quoted softly. She craned her neck up to peek at him and he smiled softly back down on her. "You do belong here," he assured her, stroking her back, letting her small hands work their magic on him as she slid them further under the fabric.

She was content to trace lazy lingering lines of love over his chest and abs. Her touch wasn't meant to arouse as much as comfort. After lying there for a long time watching the flames bend and dance Angel gently shifted her so he could look into her face.

"I never thought I'd have anyone in my life," he said, reaching up his hand, smoothing the hair back from the side of her face. "I never looked, never even thought about it." His fingers kept sliding through her hair; she could feel his love right down to the tips of them. "I never expected you … you found me somehow," he said wonderingly.

Buffy remained silent, keeping her eyes on his face, her hand still soothing a path over his skin. Angel wasn't one to start a conversation and she knew it was difficult for him, so she waited, giving him time.

"I still don't think I'm the one you deserve," he said placing his thumb over her lips before she could protest. "But I want to be. I-I don't know how, but I want to be. There are things I've never told anyone else, but you need to know. I want you to know."

"Angel, I know …" she started to tell him.

He stopped her by kissing her softly, then held her eyes with his and told her, "Buffy, I've never let anyone into my life, I've never known how. You're the only one I want in it now. I promised you I'd try and I don't want to screw it up. So, I'm trying …" he trailed off.

"'Kay," she said simply, leaning back, but still watching his face.

He settled his arms around her, trying to think of how to tell her. "What I told Riley last night was true. When he left his post I went looking for him, several times. I kept checking the radio, but only got static. He was a new recruit, it was his first training exercise. I was responsible for him." His eyes became unfocused as he recalled what happened that night. "I knew it was going to storm. You can smell it before it comes. You can feel it," he shivered.

She hugged herself against him to lend him her warmth and he unconsciously tightened his hold on her.

"The wind started to pick up, bending the tree branches, and I could hear the thunder rumbling before I saw the lightening. I knew it was coming. Then the rain began falling … hard. It was like the sky split open and it all poured down at once," he said, remembering. "The flash blinded me. Thunder cracked and shook the ground. It must have hit very near to where I was standing. The next strike hit a tree right beside me ... just like the first time. I felt the heat, smelled the wood burning and I was there all over again."

Buffy could feel the trembling he didn't seem to be aware of, his eyes turning dark with memories.

"The next thing I remember was lying on the ground looking up through the trees and she was there beside me. I could hear her whispering, but her lips didn't move. I tried to keep her warm, to keep the rain off her. Her hand was cold … so cold and her eyes they were just staring …"

"Angel," Buffy whispered to him softly.

He turned his head slightly at the sound of her voice and she could see him coming back to the present, his mind still caught in the past. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. "After that I couldn't stop dreaming about it, especially when it stormed," he said bitterly. "I took all the drugs they gave me, but she never would leave me alone. All the nightmares I had as a child that I thought were gone. They weren't."

She had no words, so she said nothing. She simply held him, her hand still trailing over his chest, her other slipping up to the nape of his neck, fingers curling in his short, dark hair.

He looked down at her, a faint smile touched his lips, his hand finding her cheek once more. "From the first day I met you, I dreamt about you," he confided softly, his thumb running over the fine bones.

Buffy was so surprised she could only keep her eyes fixed on his as he went on.

"You made the nightmares go away. I-I didn't know if I loved you. I didn't know what love was or maybe I would have realized that's what I felt for you."

She laid her head against his shoulder nuzzling her face against his throat.

He finally drew her back a little with a desperately wretched look. "The first night we made love," talking so low she could barely hear him, "I knew then that I loved you." His face darkened, "Then the storm came … and the lightening. It brought it all back. I was there on the cold ground … the tree branches creaking above. But it wasn't Dru beside me … it was you I saw lying there. Your eyes were open … You were so still and cold. It was so real. I was so afraid. Your hand was in mine, but it felt cold and hard … I was terrified I'd killed you. Then I saw your hand move … and I woke up. You were curled up in my arms and you felt so close, so warm. You were alive. You weren't dead. You were all right."

She twisted up and wrapped both arms around his neck and drew him closer.

"I-I wanted to stay there with you so badly that night. I wanted you to hold me. You're the only one who ever made the cold go away. I didn't want to leave you. But I couldn't … I didn't want to hurt you. I never meant to hurt you," Angel told her.

Buffy could hear the fear still vibrating in his voice. She kept on holding him, rocking him gently. She had never felt so alone as the morning she had found him gone. But hearing him, holding him, she felt his terror, his fear.

"Angel," she said softly after his shoulders stilled from the emotions shuddering through him. "I'm so sorry, I wish you could have told me, but I understand. I know you'd never hurt me if you could help it." In his ear, she whispered, "I love you."

"I love you," he whispered back, keeping his face pressed into her shoulder, holding her so tightly she couldn't move. They felt so right together, so safe in each other's arms.


Once more Buffy woke before Angel the next morning, slipping free of the muscular arm that held her gently against a warm, hard chest. She pulled on another shirt she had stolen from her sleeping lover and padded to the kitchen to make coffee. Steaming cup in hand, she wandered through the living room to the further side, surrounded by bookcases. Her eyes roved over the rows and rows of Angel's collection.

On the shelves in one corner, Buffy noticed the books were different from the rest. Most of the volumes were slim, almost all were obviously worn from long and frequent use. She knew these were his books of poetry. She settled on the floor to look more closely at the titles. He'd haltingly told her how much he loved poetry, as if she'd think it was strange. She confessed she didn't know much about it, but wanted to learn. He'd given her a shy nod at her unspoken acceptance of his avocation. At her soft pleading, he had promised to read to her and she thought she would surprise him by choosing a book to share later.

What looked like a very large book near the bottom of the shelves caught her eye and curiosity teased her to pull it out. It was a portfolio, the contents almost bursting out of it. She set her cup of coffee to the side, then untied the strings and the large covers fell open, revealing page after page of artwork. She gasped, her eyes wide with amazement at the face she saw in each and every image. She kept picking up one after another, spreading them before her, her heart swelling and aching all at once. Is this how he saw her? This beautiful and perfect? She saw his love for her drawn in every line, every shading, every tiny detail he had so carefully recorded. The sheer number of pages took her breath away.

Buffy felt Angel behind her, looking down at her. Her gaze moved from the drawings to his face as he kneeled down beside her. She saw a mixture of trepidation and love in his eyes. Without a word, she let the papers flutter to the floor as she wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face against his shoulder. "They're beautiful, Angel. But there are so many … When …?" she left the question hanging, finally lifting her face to his.

Angel sighed deeply then drew her so close that she could hear his heartbeat, "All those nights I couldn't sleep - when I was thinking of you." Pulling back slightly giving her a crooked half smile, "Every night without you." Lightly tracing her cheek with a single finger, as if memorizing it for one of his drawings, he whispered softly, "They were all I had." His voice betraying a disconcerting undertone, "But they're not even close to the real thing."

"I wish I looked the way you see me," she told him.

"You do," he assured her and left no doubt of his belief in a kiss fashioned to convince her. "But there's so much more to you. I want to see it all," he said, putting his forehead against hers, "inside and out. Every single thing there is to know."

"Every single thing? That could take a while, Angel," she grinned up at him.

"I'm not going anywhere," he smiled back.

He helped her gather all the sheets together in the holder, then slide it back in its place. They finally settled before the fire, entwined in each other's arms, sipping coffee and talking softly.

She told him her middle name was Anne, that her birthday was in January. Once upon a time -when she was small, she had wanted to be a famous ice skater. He shyly told her about how he taught himself to draw, about his favorite poetry. That his birthday was in September - in his favorite season - autumn. He loved the slant of the sunlight and the vivid colors, the smell of leaves burning. They found many things they both loved and had in common, listening to Billie Holiday, the color blue, steak with red wine, of being fascinated by old myths and legends.

Buffy realized she had never been with anyone else long enough for them to know those things about her … and the thought pleased her. She loved that it was something she had only shared with Angel. She knew Angel had never shared much of anything with anyone, that it was a new experience for both of them.

The phone rang breaking the soft, mellow mood they'd woven around one another. She felt Angel become instantly alert at the voice greeting him.

"McDonald," he acknowledged.

Buffy couldn't hear the conversation, but could see a frown growing, creasing Angel's forehead as he listened.

"I can be there in a half an hour," he said into the phone. When he hung up he looked down at Buffy's questioning gaze. "McDonald found someone who has some information on Spike, he's meeting him in a little while," he told her.

"Where do we have to meet him?" she asked, getting up from the chair to come stand beside him.

"We aren't meeting him," Angel said, giving her a long look, "I am." Before she could get a word out Angel stopped her by gently placing his hands on her shoulders. "Please, Buffy," he entreated her softly, "don't argue with me. I'll only worry if you come. I don't know who this guy is and I don't want him to see you."

She wasn't happy about it, but she was familiar with his look of stubborn determination. "Then you can take me back to my apartment," she told him.

His face fell at her words, "You aren't going to stay with me?" he asked sadly.

"Not if you aren't going to be here," she smiled up at him. Seeing his disappointment she explained, "I need some more clothes anyway and I would like to get some money's worth out of my rent."

"I'd rather you stayed here," he said, although he didn't look quite as forlorn as he had the moment before. "We could stop by later to get your clothes," he suggested.

"Angel," she said, laying a hand on his chest, "I just want to go there while you're gone. You can drop me off, then pick me up when you're done. I wasn't planning on staying. What difference does it make if I'm here or there?" she asked sensibly.

He still didn't like the idea, but he had no rebuttal to her logic. "I won't be gone long," he promised her. "As soon as McDonald and I are done, I'll be right there to get you."

"You worry too much," she chuckled softly. "You know that?"

Angel tried not to show how concerned he was. He knew she was probably right, but he had a bad feeling in his gut that wouldn't go away. He knew it didn't matter which place she stayed while he was gone, he just didn't like her being anywhere without him. Realistically he was aware he couldn't be with her every moment, but the thought did nothing to calm him.

On the short drive to Buffy's they heard on the radio that yet another storm was predicted for that evening. According to the weatherman, it would be worse than all the storms that had preceded it. The voice on the radio warned that people should stay off the streets if at all possible. The announcement only made Angel feel even more anxious about not staying with Buffy, intensifying his nagging feeling of unease. She could see the concern etch even deeper lines around the frown he wore. The storms didn't hold the same sway over Angel as they used to, but that didn't mean they still didn't have an effect on him.

"I want to be home with you when the storm breaks," he said, not realizing it was to soothe himself more than her, "hearing the rain on the outside while we're warm and dry on the inside."

Once they were inside her apartment, he instructed her to keep the door locked, not to let anyone in. He told her he would call her on the phone when he was done, so she would know it was him when it came time to pick her up. Buffy nodded without replying. She thought he was overreacting … again, but knew there was no point in telling him that.


Angel hadn't been wrong worrying about Spike. His instincts had been right on target. In spite of how upset Angel had been and his warnings to her, it was Buffy who didn't realize how dangerous Spike could be.

Spike had been camped out just barely in view of Angel's house for hours, make that days. He had only allowed himself to leave his self-appointed post when he had no choice, always looking at the driveway upon his return to make sure Angelus' black convertible was there. It was now Sunday afternoon. Spike desperately held onto the thought that the girl had to go home, at least for work clothes or something she needed sometime. She'd been shacked up in that house with Angelus ever since Friday night. Emphasis on 'shacked up', he thought bitterly.

Buffy had made it clear she had no interest in Riley, which was no surprise to Spike. The big cowboy had more brawn than brains, no appreciation for the finer things in a woman. Spike had wondered though if there wasn't something between her and the dark-haired senior agent, McDonald. They had spent more than one Friday night seemingly cozied up together, leaning into each other in deep conversation. He hadn't cared much about either man. Spike knew it was only a matter of time before he introduced himself to Buffy, in one way or another. But when he had walked into the bar to see her sitting in Angelus' lap, being held by him so publicly and possessively, Spike felt like someone had punched him, knocking the air right out of him.

He had been looking for a way to get even with Angelus, but he had never imagined the little blonde in the picture at all. As far as Spike knew Angelus had turned into a wuss even where women were concerned, if the small amount of information he had been able to scavenge could be believed. But there Liam Angelus sat big as life, with one of the most adorable creatures Spike could ever remember seeing, clinging to him. The sight revolted him. The price Spike wanted to exact from Angelus went up through the ceiling just seeing her touching him. The fuck didn't deserve to be alive, didn't deserve to have a life at all, especially one that included the beautiful little number Spike himself had been having wet dreams about for weeks. He realized now that his Friday night visits these intervening months had become more about watching Buffy than finding a weakness in Angelus. Only his increasing need to cause Liam Angelus the same kind of pain he felt had kept him from seeking her out ... until now.

Spike's estimation of the tempting blonde went down several points as he wondered how any woman could want to be with that poor excuse of a man. He gave her the benefit of a doubt, maybe Angelus' looks had gotten in the way of her judgement. Angelus being all dark and broody might be attractive to some women. But Spike would make sure Buffy knew what lay behind Angelus' mask to show what a miserable piece of humanity he really was.

His skin crawled at the thought of taking Buffy after she'd been with Angelus. He didn't care for the other man's scraps. But it didn't stop him from wanting her. He'd been salivating at the sight of her far too long. And what better way to get to Angelus than for him to see her having sex with someone else, especially Spike himself? What a wonderful way to torture the man he hated. Yes, that idea appealed to him through and through. He'd never known Angelus to have much to do with any woman for more than a one night stand. He could tell in a glance she was much more than that to him. If Liam Angelus loved Buffy one-tenth as much as Spike had cared for his sister Dru, Spike was determined Angelus would suffer, would be as devastated, as he had been when she died. He had let her death go unavenged far too long.

One of his brief trips away from his birds-eye view of Angelus' house had been to his own place to pick up some things he thought he might need. He had already planned where he would go and what he would do, all he had needed were a few items to help him accomplish all he had in mind.

He finally saw the two of them leave the house, snickering as he watched Angelus help her into his car. Letting them pull out into the street and nearly disappear in traffic, he started his car to follow them. He stayed back as far as he dared without losing sight of the convertible. He had expected them to go to Buffy's place, but was surprised to see Angelus come back out a few moments later and drive off. Spike checked the contents of the seat next to him quickly. Time would be on his side for only so long, he wasn't going to waste it.


As soon as Angelus was out of sight, Spike moved his car up to the walk. Hoping the towel in his pocket wasn't noticeable, he made sure he kept a normal pace and manner as he approached the entry door to Buffy's apartment building. He kept his eyes open without turning his head, but saw no one before he reached the door. He was a competent cat burglar and although he would have preferred the cover of night, he was adept at triggering the lock silently and quickly. He found his way to Buffy's door, checking the number against the name next to the doorbell outside. He tapped on the door quietly and prepared his surprise.

Buffy hadn't even had time to get to her bedroom before she heard the knock on the door. Thinking Angel must have forgotten something, she never paused, but ran to the door, threw the bolt and opened it. "Angel," she said without even seeing who was there.

Spike leaned into the doorway as she opened it, holding the towel. As soon as he saw her face he covered it with the cloth and caught hold of her before she could move. He pushed her into the room and closed the door. She struggled for a few short seconds, trying to kick him, then pull away from him, but too late, falling into his arms unconscious.

Spike patted himself on the back and silently thanked one of his recent girlfriends. She was a vet's assistant and had invited him to wait for her one night where she worked. He had taken advantage of the situation when she had gone to freshen up for her date. Seeing a small bottle of chloroform someone had neglected to put away, he helped himself to it. He hadn't known how handy it would be.

It was still daylight, but Spike didn't dare wait for night to come. He knew Angelus probably wouldn't be gone for any great length of time. He had no choice other than scooping Buffy up and taking her to his car. He had to take the chance that no one would be around to notice them leaving. He didn't even bother to look around her apartment, but lifted her into his arms and closed the door behind them. He got to the entry door and had just shifted Buffy to free up one hand when the door opened in front of him.

Staring into the face of what must be one of Buffy's neighbors, Spike used the mix of surprise and panic he knew must be on his face to answer the look of suspicion he saw on the short, bald-headed man before him. He had thought for a moment it was Angel coming back.

"My friend just fainted," he said in what he hoped sounded like a worried voice. "I'm new around here, could you tell me where the hospital is?"

The man looked closely at Buffy, even touched her cheek, but finally told Spike, "It's right down the street," he said pointing, "go two blocks and make a left, you'll see the signs for it." He brought his eyes back to Buffy's face once more and asked, "Are you sure she just fainted? What happened exactly?"

Spike pretended to be upset, "I don't know! One minute she was fine, the next she fell over on the couch. I have to get her to a doctor! If anyone comes, tell them where we are," he said, trying to sound convincing.

"Yes, of course," the older man promised, "I'll do that."

Spike carefully lowered Buffy into the back seat of his car, knowing the neighbor was watching every move he made. He waved back at him as he got into his seat, then drove off in the direction the man had indicated.


Lindsey saw Angelus' car pull up a ways down the street and strolled towards it slowly. The two met and spoke briefly before entering the bar a few doors down.

It took a few moments for their eyes to adjust to the dim interior of the rundown dive. Lindsey didn't look around, but headed towards the back corner hidden in shadows with Angelus close behind him.

"Merle," Lindsey said with a twisted smile, "I brought a friend with me, hope you don't mind."

The small man in the loud shirt seemed to shrink back into the booth as he gazed up at Angelus' formidable breadth and height. "You didn't say anything about company," he sniped with false bravado.

"Maybe we could find a quieter spot so you could get to know me better," Angel told him in a soft, dangerous tone.

"No, no," the thin, pale-looking wretch replied, "I just got my drink," as if the glass he was holding would save him.

McDonald sat down across from him while Angel made a show of folding himself down into the booth right next to Merle. Merle looked even more uncomfortable as he half-turned, glancing back and forth between the two faces staring at him.

"So, what can you tell us about your friend Spike?" Lindsey questioned him.

"Pah, he's no friend," Merle shook his head, "the guy would rob you as soon as look at you."

"Is that what he's been doing?" McDonald prodded him.

"Pretty much," Merle agreed, "when he's not busy trying to get up whatever skirt is walking by. He thinks he's hot stuff with that peroxided hair and leather duster," he said curling his lip in derision.

"What's he been up to lately?" Angel wanted to know.

"These drinks get pretty expensive, ya know," Merle muttered as he drained the glass he'd been holding so desperately. Despite a healthy fear of the rather large man beside him, Merle was determined to make them pay for their information.

Angel grabbed the glass out of Merle's hand, "Drinking isn't good for you," he warned in a low voice.


Spike knew exactly where he was going, but made sure he didn't drive too fast getting there. He wasn't about to give the police or anyone else any opportunity to spoil his plans. His father used to go to an old cabin years before with friends of his to 'rough it' and had always taken Spike along.

Camping with his father seemed like something that happened to someone else now. Maybe, he mused darkly, it was. Back then he had been close to his father, he had idolized him. He had done everything he could to make Daniel Holtz proud of him and his father was. But not now, not for a long time. Even while he tried to deny it to himself, Spike wondered why he still cared so much. Seeing that file in his father's office had brought it all back to him, but that wasn't what had bothered him the most. What finally broke him, made him hate Liam Angelus with a burning fury was that even after all the time Spike had been gone he hadn't found a file with his name on it ... only Angel's.

It was Angel's fault Dru was dead, not his father's and not Spike's. Just because he hadn't been with Dru like he was supposed to be that day, it wasn't his fault, it wasn't. His father had asked him to watch over her, but Spike had always done that, except for those few moments. And he would have been there if he hadn't stopped to talk for that one second. Would things have been different later if he hadn't told his father he wasn't there? He shook the thoughts away and concentrated on his plans.

Spike had no idea who owned the cabin or if anyone would be there, but thought at this time of year it was probably locked up for the season. He released an evil chuckle as he listened to the weather report on the radio about the heavy storm warnings. It couldn't have been more perfect than if he ordered it. Buffy stirred, mumbling Angel's name, making Spike jerk the nondescript sedan off the road. Not everything in the world revolved around Liam Angelus. Carelessly pouring more liquid on the towel he had doused her with earlier, he gave her another few whiffs of the fumes before she woke up. Looking at her lying there, he was tempted to take her right there by the side of the road. But there wasn't time, not with what he intended for her later. That and the thought of the look on Angelus' face when he found them together. He wanted everything to be perfect for the performance he had in mind for Angelus' benefit and speed right now was of the essence. Spike knew it would take Angelus one short visit before he was on his way to the rescue. He would get his pound of flesh out of Buffy Summers and with a captive audience. 'Captive' being the key word.

He made one stop at a roadside phone to leave a message. The rain started as he turned the car off the main road into the woods. It wasn't a long drive to the cabin, which he found without too much difficulty. He pried the padlock off the door of the ramshackle building. Dragging Buffy from the back of the car, roughly swinging her over his shoulder, he entered the single room dwelling. He dropped her none too gently on the small cot in the corner. He knew it would be a while before she came around. After he brought in the few items he had left in his trunk, he sat in the chair next to the small wooden table in the center of the single room cabin.

After setting everything up to his liking, Spike paced around the small area getting more irritated and frustrated by the minute. He was glad he thought to bring the whiskey along to keep him company. He'd never seen the cabin his sister had spent some of her last hours in, but he imagined it wasn't much different than the one he was in now. It had to be a cabin though, he wanted the surroundings to be just right when Angelus finally arrived. The liquid burning down his throat helped ease the ache that always settled in his heart when he thought of Dru. He took a few more swigs, longer ones, as his eyes roamed over the walls of the room and the simple cot in the corner where he had left Buffy. It wasn't Buffy he saw lying there. Instead it was a scared little girl with long blonde hair and huge blue eyes staring at him and whispering.

He rammed his fist against the rickety table and squeezed his eyes shut. This wasn't working out as he had planned. He'd wanted to set the stage for Angelus. Spike hadn't expected any of this to have an effect on him. But all he could see and hear was his little sister, she was crying for him, whispering his name. He couldn't hear all she was saying, he didn't want to hear her. He kept his eyes closed and put his fingers in his ears. When that didn't work, as the images and sounds continued to torment him, he tried to drown them in more whiskey.


The little information Angel and Lindsey could get out of Merle wasn't that helpful. It didn't matter to Angel why Spike had been gone or how long. He was only interested in what Spike was up to and where he was now. Merle hadn't known much of anything. Only that the dyed blonde stole and schmoozed his way through most everything. Spike was penny ante for the most part, a little more dangerous when he gathered a few others around him. He had somehow managed to stay out of jail, only just. His last endeavor to avoid getting caught is what had kept him away until now.

Angel was sorry he'd wasted his time on the snitch, but knew it was something he had to check out. His only thought was to get Buffy and go home. He thanked Lindsey for the work and time he'd invested before the agent left. He stayed behind to call Buffy to let her know he was on his way. When she didn't pick up by the third ring he felt the frisson of fear run down his spine. He let it ring a few more times praying she was just too busy to answer right away. But the chill feeling of foreboding that had never gone away since he first laid eyes on Spike moved up through his chest, tightening it with alarm and panic.

He got to her apartment just after dark, automatically taking in the dark windows in the failing light. He quickened his steps once he unlocked the entry door with the duplicate set of keys Buffy had given him a few days earlier. He knocked on her door, but inserted the key in the lock without waiting. He flung the door open, striding through the living room, looking in the kitchen as he passed, then throwing back both the bathroom and bedroom doors.

"Buffy!" Knowing even as he shouted her name that she was gone.


Chapter XVII

When Buffy finally came around, she was lying on a kind of bed in the corner of a dilapidated cabin. Light came from a camping lantern that stood on a scarred wooden table, in front of the remains of a small stone fireplace. The only other furniture she saw was a wooden bench near the door. She could not only hear rain falling, but saw it dripping in through the age-worn roof.

She searched her mind for where she was and how she'd gotten there. All she could remember was opening her front door and something sweet and cloying being shoved in her face then … nothing.

She pulled back, startled, when a face suddenly loomed above her and a pair of icy blue eyes stared down. "Enjoy your nap?" the blonde man asked as he bent closer. She caught the smell of whiskey before he bobbed and weaved away from her.

"Spike," Buffy said, trying to clear the cobwebs despite the dull pain in her head.

"No need for formal introductions, I see," he said. He brought his hands from behind his back to show her the ropes he held in them. "I thought I'd wait until you were awake." He really didn't know why he hadn't tied her up before now. He should have.

"Of course. You wouldn't want to take advantage of me," she spat at him sarcastically.

"I plan on doing exactly that," he informed her with a triumphant, yet oddly grim smile.

Buffy tried to stay calm and docile. All she needed was one small chance to get away from him ... and it wasn't long in coming. As an inebriated Spike bent over to slide the twisted hemp around her arms he lost his balance and pitched forward. Not wasting the opportunity, Buffy pushed him away with her feet. She tried to stand and get the upper hand over her captor, but the effects of the chloroform hadn't worn off, making her unexpectedly woozy.

Spike swore as he twisted around and barely caught her before she succeeded. Grabbing her roughly, he held her arms behind her back and pushed her facedown on the cot. He held his knee on the small of her back with painful pressure while winding the rope around her wrists.

He knew then why he had hesitated - all he could think of was Dru. The kidnappers had tied her up, that much he had known. His mother had cried the whole time she looked for a burial dress with long sleeves to cover her baby's wrists.

He tried to keep his mind off what he was doing. What was he doing? No, this wasn't the same thing, he told himself. Dru was a little girl and Angel should have protected her. All of this was his fault, it had always been Angel's fault. He was the one who had been with Dru. Spike pushed the thought from his mind for the millionth time that her own brother hadn't been there.

Buffy's head throbbed as she tried to suppress the prickle of fear his words had caused. She knew Spike was very drunk and he seemed to be having a silent monologue with himself. She forced herself to remain still while he tied her hands. She was afraid any movement on her part would only make him cinch the ropes tighter. Or make good on his threat.

Once he finished he moved back a step to look down at her. "I doubt it will take long for Angelus to find us. I'm sure Angel is tearing up the countryside looking for you right now." At her slightly confused look he added, "You talk in your sleep, darlin'. But I was surprised to hear you call him that. I thought he gave that up a long time ago." Her heart twisted at the thought of what Angel must be going through at that very moment. All she could think of was the nightmare her lover had finally revealed to her. He must be going crazy. She knew how she would feel if he were the one who disappeared. Why had she been so stupid? Why hadn't she used her head before she bounded over to the door and just opened it without thinking? Look where her thoughtlessness had gotten her. And she had thought, what seemed a lifetime ago, that she could be an agent? The reality of the situation made her think fleetingly of how dangerous that job really must be. And Angel had been one of the best. She knew he would find her, she only prayed it would be soon enough.


"You're looking for Miss Summers?" Angel heard a timid voice ask behind him as he stood with his back to the open front door.

He spun around to see a neighbor of Buffy's he had glimpsed once when they had stopped by to pick up some of Buffy's things. "Where is she?" he demanded without preamble.

"A friend of hers took her to the hospital -" the man started to tell him.

Advancing the few steps into the hall, Angel grabbed the shorter man by the shoulders, shaking him, nearly shouting, "What was wrong with her?"

"T-the man who took her said she fainted, he was carrying her out the door as I walked in," he managed to get out. Although Angel only saw the man next door once, the smaller man had seen Angel with Buffy a few times. Unbeknownst to the couple, he had witnessed the fight with Riley through his window several weeks before. He saw firsthand how dangerous the furious man in front of him could be. And that was why he had thought it very odd when the strange blonde-haired man had appeared at the entry door with the petite, young neighbor in his arms. "I never saw him before. That's why I asked him what happened to her."

Angel was beside himself, his heartbeat was so loud it thundered in his chest. "What did this 'friend' look like?" he barked at him.

"He was very blonde, not as big as you. He was wearing a black duster and black leather pants," the neighbor replied. He could feel the tension rolling off the tall man, see the frenetic expression on his face. "I-I touched her," he offered softly, "she was warm and she wasn't pale. I didn't notice until he had put her in the car and driven away that I could smell something sweet."

Angel nodded and said in a tight voice more to himself than the neighbor, "Chloroform, I can still smell it." With that he slammed Buffy's door shut, locking it. Without another word or backward glance at the other man, he stormed down the hall and out the entryway door.

The next door neighbor was more relieved than offended by the powerful man's abrupt departure. He wanted to be anywhere the angry bruiser wasn't. He thought to himself, he wouldn't want to be in the blonde man's shoes once the dark menacing force that had just blown out of the apartment building caught up with him.


Buffy twisted her wrists and felt some slack in the ropes that held them together. She couldn't just slide out of them, but they were loose. She was sure it had been unintentional on the part of her abductor. She watched Spike, who had his back to her as he sat at the table, frequently reaching for the bottle on the table. The bottle looked more empty than full; she only hoped he would pass out from the effects. All of his attention was on something in front of him that she couldn't see. Grateful for whatever was distracting him, she silently she set to work on freeing her hands from her restraints.

Spike couldn't get the pictures of Dru out of his head. Refusing to look in the direction of the bed, he kept the bottle close by, taking a sip every few moments to blur the images. Tying the ropes on the small form presently on the cot behind him had unnerved him more than he could have imagined. He tried to concentrate his thoughts on Angelus and his anticipated arrival.

His gaze remained fixed upon the object in his lap. Spike hated guns. It was the instrument used to take his sister's life. After her death he hadn't even been able to watch westerns or cop shows without feeling an aversion to the cold, lethal weapons. In spite of his tough man image and rather long criminal record, guns had never been a part of it. Now he looked at the one in front of him in morbid fascination. Just as with the cabin, it was another prop in his little show for Angelus and a necessary one, despite his loathing of it. Dru had died by a bullet and so would Angel ... just as he should have instead of her. But not before he suffered, not before Spike saw Angelus watch something he cared about taken away first.

He hefted the unfamiliar weight in his hand. He thought absently, as he took another pull from the bottle, that he should have learned more about how to use one. But they all basically worked the same, right? You just pulled that little trigger and the piece of lead shot out and hit its mark. He knew he was no match for the former FBI agent, Spike knew he would need more than his own strength to overpower him. He needed something to keep Angelus at bay while he took Buffy right in front of her lover. Yes, it had to be a gun.


Angel knew it was pointless to check out the hospital. He slammed the car door, the sound reverberating through the quiet neighborhood. There hadn't been any question that this would be his next stop. He stalked up the walkway and pounded loudly on the door while jamming his finger in the doorbell.

Daniel Holtz opened the door at once, his face showed no surprise at who he found on his doorstep. Swinging the door wide, he admitted the tall, clearly enraged visitor inside. "Spike left a message on the answering machine," Holtz said in way of a greeting. Leading Angel to the small table it sat on in the hallway, he depressed the play button.

"Angelus," Spike's voice floated up from the speaker, "I won't keep you in suspense. And I wouldn't miss you joining my little party for the world. Ask good old Dad for directions to his old hunting grounds. I hope he remembers the way. Wouldn't want you to get lost in the forest now, would we? You might want to hurry, in case I start the party without you," he ended.

"Where is he talking about?" Angel bit out tersely. He knew Spike had taken Buffy, but to hear him confirm it made Angel all the more afraid for her.

"I've called Lindsey," Holtz said in reply.

"I don't care if you call the whole fucking agency. Tell me where they are!" Angel thundered.

"This isn't about you. You're not even on the team. You can't go alone," Holtz protested.

Grabbing the front of Holtz' shirt, dragging the man's face up to his, Angel hissed, "It's about Buffy! Tell me now! If he hasn't hurt her, I might let your boy live."

Holtz knew Angel wasn't making an empty threat. More though, he could see the stark terror in the younger man's eyes. He relented, pulling his shirt out of Angel's grasp, unconsciously smoothing the wrinkles as he answered, "It can only be one place, I only went there a few times. I took him with me when he was younger." He gave Angel the directions and tried one last time to reason with him.


Buffy couldn't help but think of Angel and the scars on his wrists as she pulled and rubbed the ropes against the bed, slowly loosening them. How frightening must it have been for two small defenseless children? She kept her eyes on Spike as he muttered under his breath raising the bottle to his lips time and again. She knew Angel would find her, but not when. Finally able to slip a hand out of the loops that held her, she sat quietly, trying to plan what to do next.

She saw Spike stagger to his feet and turn towards her. The blood ran from her face when she saw what he held in his hand. Spike using a gun had never occurred to her, though she didn't know why. It should have, she thought, after all, Angel and Dru were hunted down with them, didn't all the bad guys use guns? She tore her eyes away from it and looked up at the man holding it. Buffy thought she caught what looked like a trace of ... remorse? The fleeting expression was gone once he realized she was looking at him.

"Your lover should be here in a little while," he said, emphasizing the word with a sneer as he took a few uneven steps towards her. "Don't get all hopeful he's gonna save you though," Spike warned her, "Bet he never told you he's not very good at taking care of anyone except himself."

"Angel told me what happened to him and to your sister," Buffy answered. "He told me everything."

Spike didn't believe her. He knew for a fact that the kidnapping was something Angelus never talked about, ever. William Holtz remembered his father pacing by the front window, watching the home next door. He overheard him tell his mother about the scores of doctors, psychiatrists and therapists that Angel's parents had enlisted, but to no avail. Some of those same professionals had talked to Spike at his father's request. If Angel wasn't going to talk to anyone, neither was he. Besides, he didn't need any help dealing with Dru's death, he knew who to blame.

Spike figured if Angel had told Buffy anything it was just something to make himself look good, he'd never tell her the truth.

"He told me he cut their ropes off and got them out of the cabin. They were running away, but the kidnappers were behind them, shooting at them. Angel was trying to keep her safe. He didn't know Dru was wounded until later," she said in his defense.

The firm, sure way Buffy spoke, she sounded like she really did know - that Angel had actually told her. And it was more than Spike had ever heard about exactly how his sister was shot. His father had refused to tell him or anyone else what he knew. Daniel Holtz had said talking about it wouldn't change it, that details would only make the memories worse.

"So he was a hero. Is that how it went?" he said, thinking of Dru being injured and Angel being there instead of him. His heart ached at the thought of her hurt and afraid. Having a virtual stranger tell him part of his past she hadn't even been involved in gave it a disturbing intimacy that made him feel raw and somehow revealed.

"No, Spike, he was just a very scared little boy," she said quietly.

"I would have taken care of her!" he shouted, not even hearing her reply. "If only I ..." and stopped, stuck on the scene he could never banish of the van pulling away with his sister reaching out for him, screaming his name. He let out a string of curses and started to bring his hands up as if to cover his head, but the gun in his grasp halted his movement. The gun ... Angel ... he would be there soon. Spike swung around keeping the gun pointed in her direction while disjointed thoughts continued to avalanche through his head.

Buffy knew she was taking a dangerous chance just talking to him. She didn't know Spike at all, but it was obvious he was unraveling more and more by the minute. She kept desperately hoping for some kind of opening. With a flash of intuition, she confronted the volatile man before her.

Spike saw Buffy eye the gun with trepidation, but wasn't ready for her next words. He was so lost in his own world of pain that it didn't register at first what she was saying. When it did, his head snapped up at her question.

"You want me to tell you how Dru felt when you pull the trigger, Spike?" she asked softly.

He looked at her with something resembling horror in his eyes. "Not you," he said dazedly, "Angel. It's for Angel." At the thought of actually using the loathsome thing on her or anyone, even on his lifelong enemy, the gun almost dropped from his hand.

Buffy grabbed the moment. As he glanced down towards it, she jumped up from the bed and leaped towards him, kicking the gun out of his hand before he could react. She twirled around to give him a second kick, but the space to turn in the tiny cabin was too small and she grazed her heel on the corner of the table before her foot could connect with its target.

The sudden attack jarred Spike back to where they were and why Buffy was there. She had almost succeeded in throwing him off his game. He lunged at her before she could counterattack, catching her arm in a painful grip. He was instantly back to his swaggering, arrogant self. "Oh, no, my sweet soon-to-be lover," he laughed darkly, grasping her other arm as well, "can't have you saving yourself. That's a job for your white knight."

Buffy broke his hold by suddenly sliding her hands up his chest and shoving him away. Catching her foot beneath both of his in a well-practiced sweep, she sent him crashing to the floor in front of the fireplace. She didn't see his hand as it landed in the grate and he suddenly blinded her by throwing a fistful of ash in her face.

He lurched to his feet, grabbing her arms before she could wipe the soot from her eyes. Pulling her close to his chest, he backed her up, caging her between him and the fireplace.

"He'll be here soon, we should be getting on with it," he said, giving her a lewd smile. "Or maybe you're really looking forward to it, is that it?" he taunted, moving his mouth down close to hers. Buffy could feel his hot breath against her cheek, smell the liquor he'd been drinking steadily. As his lips touched hers, she shuddered with revulsion, trying desperately to get away from him. Her spontaneous reaction to his touch infuriated him and he roughly pulled her towards him again.

Buffy pulled her head back, then suddenly thrust it forward, her forehead hitting him hard in the nose. Still half-blinded, she kicked out with her leg. Angered by the hard blow, he shoved her hard against the stones, bringing her head against the stone corner of the fireplace with an audible crack. She slid to the floor as pain exploded in her head. Spike snickered as he bent down and dragged her none too gently to her feet.

This time it was Buffy who held the element of surprise. Although dazed and fighting to retain consciousness, she had enough stubborn defiance left to defend herself. Before he realized she was still conscious, she brought her knee up into his groin as hard as she could. He gasped in pain as they fell to the floor in a tangle. She scrambled away from him, quickly seizing the gun that had landed a short ways from where they were struggling. He was still writhing in agony when she brought the heavy metal butt of the pistol down on his head. He finally lay before her, lifeless.

Bringing her hand down from the back of her own head, she saw it was covered with blood - her blood. The sight sickened her. She couldn't think clearly. She could barely stand and stagger to the door. All she knew was that she needed as much distance between herself and Spike as she could get before he regained consciousness. Using what little strength she could muster, she pulled the door open and stumbled into the black, wet night. Suddenly caught in the elements, she never even noticed the gun fall from her hand to the ground in front of the cabin. The storm was picking up momentum as she careened down the pathway from the cabin.


Daniel Holtz felt a deep heaviness seep into his limbs as he watched Angel's car disappear out of sight. He was filled with fear of what had already happened and what was to come - for his son, for Angel and for Buffy. She was, he thought sadly, an innocent pawn, much as Angel and Dru once were. Only this time was even worse because it was his own flesh and blood creating this living nightmare.

What if, he wondered yet again, he had taken Spike with him, as the young boy had begged him when he told his father Dru had been kidnapped. Would that have helped his son to grieve for his sister and be able to let her go? Would his relationship with his son have been different or changed how Spike lived his life? Would it have made Angel's life a bit more bearable, not having Spike's wrath only validate how the small boy had viewed himself after he came home? But as hardened as Agent Holtz had already become to myriad horrors he had witnessed, it hit too close to home. The tragedy that had taken his own daughter's life had affected the then younger father just as deeply as either boy. Any mention of it was more than he could deal with for many years. Too many years.

The tired man couldn't keep his thoughts from traveling back to the dreadful debacle. Thugs had kidnapped his daughter and had mistakenly taken Angel, thinking he was Holtz' son. Their misguided plan of revenge for the agent's role in their incarceration had backfired and left the three, only recently paroled, imprisoned for life or dead. Holtz could still see every detail of the drafty, ramshackle cabin hideout. He could see the bloody ropes that had held the small captives hostage as the frayed pieces were bagged for evidence. He couldn't imagine the terror those two innocent little children must have endured.

He was the first to find the boy and girl in the predawn hours after the two-day search since the children escaped. Standing alone, he looked down at the pitifully huddled bodies lying beneath the tall pine trees that offered little, if any, shelter. He thought they were both dead. Holtz knew the mental snapshot, framed by the terrible knowledge of what men are capable of, would never dim in his memory. The tiny girl stared from sightless eyes, her coloring so much like his own. He saw the wound and fought to keep the bile down in his throat. What kind of man could even point a gun at a baby? His baby.

As he turned the other face towards him he realized the boy was alive … physically. Angel was, not surprisingly, lost in a world of his own, his dark, stricken eyes huge and empty. But what broke the heart of the head agent even more was the young boy still tightly holding the hand of the smaller child beside him. His body still curved around her in protection. The blood dried on his wrists like macabre bracelets where he'd torn skin and muscles to release himself from the ropes' tight knots. Holtz could see the youngster had done all he could for the little blonde girl he clung to, who was now beyond his help. He gently lifted the dark-haired boy away from his forever silent charge, careful not to startle him. Shrugging out of his coat, he wrapped it around Angel. Holtz cradled him close trying to cover and warm the small shivering form. Holtz swore then and there if he could ever do anything within his power for Liam Angelus, it would be done.


Angel was out of the house and in his car in seconds, completely oblivious to the older man's warnings. He couldn't afford to waste precious time while Buffy was in danger. His knuckles turned white as his fingers clenched the steering wheel. Pushing his foot down harder on the accelerator, he wove in and out of traffic.

After all these lonely, empty years he had only just found the one person who had ever made a difference to him. And now his past was catching up with him once more and putting her in jeopardy because of it. The bitter irony tore into his heart like a jagged knife.

It had started raining before Angel left the Holtz house. The storm grew in intensity the further Angel drove. Although on some level the fierce tempest registered, he had no room for anything in his thoughts except Buffy. Pictures of her filled his mind; tears hanging on her lashes as she told him she loved him, gazing down on her face as it filled with the ecstasy that he gave her when they made love, laughing as they cleaned the house, smiling up at him as she curled before the fire. The overwhelming need he felt for her made his heart almost physically ache with her absence. He would never survive without her. There was no point in living if she wasn't there beside him.

The rain was an almost impenetrable curtain. Drivers pulled their cars off to the side, unable to see the road in front of them. Angel's only concession was to go slower to make sure he didn't miss the road he was looking for. The only effect the twists of lightening had on him was to illuminate his way, allowing him to speed up for those few seconds everything was visible.

Angel was so afraid for Buffy, he could feel his heart beating wildly in his chest at that thought of her life being in peril. He tried not to think of what Spike might have done - might be doing - to her, but images colored his imagination nonstop. He had all but forgotten his half promise to Holtz. His mind flew through the different ways he would torture Spike before he killed him for kidnapping Buffy. If he hurt her …

He finally reached the turnoff Holtz had described. The rain had started coming down harder, the storm swaying the trees, making it almost impossible to see on the unlit back roads. He forced himself to slow down, not daring to take the chance of missing the cabin. He crept the car forward as the trees of the deep forest surrounded him. Then, almost hidden from view, he spotted the small building beyond its overgrown driveway. He killed the engine, even though he doubted it could be heard over the wind and the steady pounding of the rain. Making his way across the short distance to the one room shack he quickly walked around it. The small enclosure had no windows. Not waiting any longer, he kicked the door in to announce his presence.

Spike was sprawled on the only chair in the cabin. Angel searched the small room quickly, but found no one else there. His gaze took in the small cot and the lengths of rope lying on it.

"You're too late, Angelus," Spike sneered at him. "You're pathetic," he went on, "can't save the girl anymore now than you could back ..."

Angel grabbed him and hurled him against the wall before Spike could finish speaking. "Where is she?" he snarled. "What have you done with her?"

"Try and find her," Spike told him not taking his eyes off the taller man before him. "She'll be a mite different than the last time you saw her," he said daringly.

Angel pulled back the hand not holding Spike. His fist hit Spike squarely in the nose with a satisfying crunch. He watched the blood spurt and run down the smaller man's face. "You don't know how good that felt," Angel warned him in a dangerously silken tone. "Tell me what you did to her and where she is." Spike only stared at him, bloody, but defiant. Angel didn't hesitate to bring his fist back up, this time letting it land of Spike's jaw. When Spike still didn't answer he struck him again in the same place. This time Spike felt teeth loosened from the blow. "If you change your mind, let me know when to stop," Angel told him in the same smooth voice.

"You have good taste, Angelus," Spike threw at him, his face already darkening with bruises. "She was a nice little piece."

Angel's roar filled the tiny cabin. He removed the hand from Spike's throat long enough to replace it with the other. His right hand, now free, sank into Spike's eye. He wanted to kill Spike, but he needed him to find Buffy. That didn't mean he wouldn't beat the peroxided blonde to a pulp until he talked, even cripple him if need be. The longer his opponent remained silent, the more blows Angel rained down on his head and body.

Spike could taste the blood pooling in his mouth, could feel it from the many wounds running down his face and neck. He was suddenly afraid of the strapping form that had him pinned to the wall. "You're one of the good guys," he said, in spite of the pain he felt in moving his mouth. "One of the white hats," he yelped as Angel's fist found his cheekbone. Angelus' heavy Claddagh ring split the skin open, the blood spurting from it freely.

"One last time," Angel hissed at him.

"All right!" Spike shouted, "I don't know where she is."

"Not good enough," the dark-haired man answered. His fist hit Spike in the stomach and Angel watched, unaffected, as the other man doubled over in pain. When the smaller man didn't immediately respond, Angel keep punching him, picking him back up when he could no longer stand.

Spike's sides and stomach were clenched in pain. "It's the goddamn truth," he managed to breath out. "She hit me over the head with a bottle and ran out of here," he finally admitted.

"How long ago?" Angel demanded. He saw the fragments of glass lying on the table and floor and could now see blood from a wound on the side of Spike's head that he didn't think he had caused.

"I don't know!" Spike yelled back, "She knocked me out cold. I don't know how long I was out."

Angel dragged Spike across the small space to the cot. He picked up the ropes and tied Spike's hands behind him swiftly and expertly, then shoved him to the floor. He bent down long enough to tie another rope between the frame of the bed and Spike's wrists.

"You better pray I find her and that she's all right," Angel told him in a chilling whisper that shivered down Spike's spine. "Or you're a dead man," he promised. Then without warning Angel's fist caught Spike in the temple and laid him out on the floor.


The rain was washing down in torrents, stinging her face like cold, harsh shards of glass. Buffy could hardly see more than a few feet before her, but she ran all the same. She tripped over tree roots and uneven ground several times, bruising her arms, legs or face with each fall. The cold started to seep into her soggy clothing, making her shiver as she pushed herself to keep moving. Her head throbbed where she had struck it against the fireplace. She dully realized she had no idea where she was, she had run aimlessly away from one danger into another. She knew Angel would look for her, but she was afraid she could be lost in these deep woods forever and never be found. The thought chilled her to the bone, as she saw Angel's face in her mind once more recounting his nightmare about her and about the horrible fate of the little girl he had tried to protect.

"No," she cried, "I can't do that to him. I can't die on him! I have to help him find me." She turned around, trying to find the way back from where she had come. She tore pieces of cloth off the hem of her skirt and tried to tie them to bushes as she trudged on through the howling storm. It reached gale force as it ripped around her. Rain came down even harder, punishing her skin, the wind twisting her wet clothing around her, beating down the last bit of strength she had left. She thought she could feel Angel - that mysteriously familiar feeling that only stirred when he was close. It had to be because she needed him so badly, she thought despairingly. But it was all she had. She tried to concentrate on feeling him, hoping against hope it really was him. One last stone in her path brought her stumbling to her knees. Try as she did to fight it, the cold, wet swirling darkness overcame her as she sank to the floor of the forest.


The storm was worse than when he arrived. He had wasted precious moments on Spike. Angel was terrified - Buffy was out there somewhere, but where? The forest went on for miles. The gale was tearing branches from trees, spinning them as if they were bits of paper. Rain thrummed down, plastering his clothes to his body. His only thought of the pouring rain and screeching wind was that it hampered him from finding her. His heart caught in his throat to think of her lost in the tangle of trees he saw all around him. He had to find her. His terror increased as he made his way forward, afraid he would pass right by her, not knowing how close she might be. He screamed her name, but the wind threw it back into his face and into his soul. He took what advantage he could of the lightening as it tore rents of light in the darkness around him. In the white-hot glare his eyes searched endlessly for her. So adamantly focused on finding his mate, he barely heard the echoing crack of the requisite thunder in its wake.

Angel was one of the best trackers the FBI ever had, but the storm confounded all his efforts. He felt like he was going in circles, not able to tell one stand of creaking, bending trees from another. There was no connotation of time, as though he'd been searching for hours. How long had she been out here? She could be badly hurt … or worse. He tried not to explore that thought any further. He was desperate to find her. In front of him, a scrap of cloth waved wildly in the wind. He caught it off the bush it was tethered on, recognizing it was from Buffy's skirt. Holding it up to his face he knew she had left it there for him. As if she had reached out an unseen hand to him, he felt her touch.

There in the middle of the vicious storm wailing and whipping around him, Angel made himself stop. He called out to Buffy with everything in him. Standing stock- still, he reached out with his senses, hoping to catch some hint of her. It wasn't his sight or his hearing, nor his sense of smell he used, but his heart and soul. He stood long, torturous moments as the rain sluiced over him, the wind screaming in his ears. Finally he felt it, just a trace, but he knew it was her. The welcome sensation of her being near was very, very faint, but it was there. He started walking, letting himself be led by the feeling.

That's how he came upon her, lying on the ground. He was reminded so much of his horrifying dream that at first he couldn't move. Her slim hands were trying to cover her arms, her legs pulled up in a fetal position to stave off the cold. She looked so small and fragile. Angel cried her name aloud as he dropped down beside her, scooping her into his arms. There was no response. She stayed ominously still. She was so cold, so pale, her hair a drenched dark golden mass framing her face, trailing down her back. Frantically, he felt for a pulse on her neck, beneath the sodden strands of hair. His numbed fingers were shaking so hard he couldn't hold them still. He couldn't feel anything. His breath hitched in his throat as he looked down on the closed eyelids of the only woman he ever loved, ever would love. Gently, tenderly, he laid her back down, spooning his large body around hers protectively, his arms drawing her close to him. His tears fell into her hair. He couldn't stop the shuddering sobs that racked through his body as he clung to her.

He placed his lips over hers and breathed his life into her, keeping his eyes on hers for any sign of movement. "I won't let you go," he told her, "I can't." He was desperate when she still didn't respond. "I need you so much, love. I didn't find you to lose you. Not like this, please, not this." Trying to keep the waves of panic from overwhelming him, he kept filling her lungs with short, measured breaths, watching in between for her chest to rise and fall on its own. "Please, love," he begged in a ragged whisper, "Please wake up. You can't leave me, not now." He rubbed her hands and arms trying to warm her. "Buffy, I felt you … inside," he whispered to the pale, still face, "that's how I found you." He lifted the small hand that held his ring and threaded his fingers through hers as he tried once more to push air between her lips. "You have to hear me," he said, "You have to find me now. Please."

Angel felt a scant frisson of energy from the hand clutched in his grasp. The tiny pulse made him dare to turn his head a few inches … and he found himself looking into twin pools of misty green. His eyes widened as he felt a slight, feeble arm reach up towards his neck. He felt that indefinable flow of energy between them growing stronger. He was flooded with such joy at seeing a faint smile on the beloved face inches from his own that he never realized he was chanting her name over and over and over. Oh, God, he hadn't lost her. She was alive. She was soft and growing warmer, lying in his arms gazing into his eyes.

"Angel?" she whispered so softly he could barely hear her.

"I'm here, love, right here," he whispered hoarsely, gently hugging her closer.

"I heard you calling me," she forced out weakly, "I felt you."

Angel could feel Buffy's heartbeat against his own. He had searched for her and he had been in time. He hadn't failed her - he had found her. They had found each other.

The wind rose at that moment, swirling the rain-soaked leaves and debris around them. Angel lifted his head, realizing he'd been oblivious to the weather except its role in keeping him from finding Buffy. He saw it for all it was. Just a storm. The raging tempest no longer held him captive. It no longer held any power over him.

He ran his large hands over her gently, looking for any wounds. She stopped him, tugging his head down to reach her lips. They opened as his slanted across them softly and tenderly. He was starving for her and needed to taste her, to touch her. His tongue slipped into the warmth of her mouth and tangled with hers. He gently hugged her to himself, as near as he could bring her. The tears that fell now were of relief and soul deep fulfillment.

"Angel," she whispered over the sound of the rain, "please don't cry, I'm all right."

He hadn't even known he was crying. He saw her brow crease in tender concern and whispered back with a soft smile, "These are happy tears, love."

At that she curled her arms more tightly around his neck, burrowing her face into the warmth of his chest. She murmured from below his chin, "You're everything to me." At her words his arms tightened their hold.

He pulled back quickly when he felt her wince, mindful the cuts and bruises that covered her. "You're hurt," he said worriedly. "Did Spike do this to you?" he asked, his voice filling with anger at the thought of what Spike had done, what he might have done to her.

"H-he tried … but … I got away," she said falteringly. "I knocked him out. I hurt my head, but I got away," she repeated. Buffy heard Angel curse bitterly. "No, Angel," she said softly, "It doesn't matter, I'm okay." But she shivered as she spoke and not from the cold.

Angel felt the small tremor run through her. He needed to get her to shelter. Disentangling himself from Buffy long enough to stand, he swept her into his arms in one swift movement. He looked around a few short moments trying to get his bearings and headed in the direction he thought the cabin should be. The storm had started to slack off by the time he finally found it. Angel carried her inside the one room shack and set her down on the bench inside the door. He looked over to see Spike was still out cold and whispered to Buffy that he'd be right back. Moments later he returned with two blankets from his car. He tried to wrap her up in both of them, but she insisted he pull one around himself.

He drew her into his lap, bringing her as close as physically possible. Very gently, Angel ran his fingers and eyes over every inch of her under the blanket. A hard knot had formed on the back of her head from hitting it against the fireplace. Other than that he was relieved to find nothing more serious than small cuts and bruises which appeared to be from her flight through the forest.

So afraid of almost losing her, he buried his face in the hollow of her neck, reveling in her living warmth. He nuzzled her damp hair, then dropped kisses on her forehead, her eyes, her cheeks. When he got to her lips, he captured them with his own, so thankful to be able to once more savor her sweetness. Angel was addicted to her, a need he would never satisfy. His hands roved over her nonstop, touching and caressing her. He kissed and soothed every small bump and aberration in his path. Tenderly fingering the marks on her wrists where she'd freed herself, Angel eyed Spike dangerously.

As if he felt the baleful gaze, Spike stirred and struggled to sit up against the wall. He looked over, shocked to see Angel on the bench with Buffy held fast in his arms.

As Angel sat there, pulling her closer to his chest, he stared at Spike. He looked around the cabin so painfully familiar, looked at the small cot and at the ropes. The last piece of the puzzle of his past finally fell into place. And it had taken Spike's deranged hatred to show him.

Spike had loved Dru. They were connected in a way no one but the two of them understood, if even they did themselves. She was integral to him, a part of him, and when she died it killed most of what was good and pure in Spike. He had let it twist him into a bitter, loveless man.

Why, Angel wondered, had he ever listened to Spike who had been just a little boy himself? Monsters in the guise of men kidnapped and shot his sister, not Angel. He wasn't the one who had taken her from her family or harmed her. He'd done everything he could to protect her, but he never had a chance. He was only eight years old. The realization was like a watershed bursting over him. All these years he hadn't been able to forgive himself for something he never had any control over.

The doctors, his parents, Cordelia had all tried to make him see it wasn't his fault. All his life Angel blamed himself for Dru's death, refusing to listen, refusing to hear that little boy locked inside. He let fear and guilt and Dru's angry little brother convince him that he was the one who was wrong, the one who failed. Buffy had told him he had to deal with that small child she glimpsed buried deep inside. That little boy had a right to be hurt and scared, but Angel let his own misplaced blame blind him and push that small voice of truth away.

Angel finally understood he wasn't a failure, he never had been. The face that had looked back at him from his mirror was never the one anyone except he and Spike chose to see, each from their own warped perspectives. He had done all he could for Dru. And later it was his work, his brains and blood and sweat that enabled him to become an agent - a good one. He had nothing to be ashamed of, everything he had worked for he had earned and he deserved.

Looking down at Buffy, his hold on her tightened. He had saved her. As a man, as someone big enough and strong enough to be able to rescue her. Not as a helpless child, desperately afraid of the monsters and the storm, trying to protect an injured little girl. There would be no new nightmare to taunt and torment him forever. All those lonely, empty, dreadful years slipped away as he hugged his reason for living closer to him.

Spike sat on the floor glaring at him.

"Why don't you fight me, Spike?" Angel asked from the bench.

"Untie these ropes and I'll be glad to oblige," he snarled.

"No," Angel told him, "I've already made it easy for you, there's only you tied up."

"What are you talking about?" Spike asked angrily. "How do you expect me to fight with these and what do you mean only me?"

"I was tied in ropes just like those and so was Dru," Angel clarified, "You told me I should have been able to save her. That you would have, if it had been you with her, instead of me. So go ahead, get out of those ropes and show me."

"That was different," Spike shouted as he wrestled with the bonds and the truth.

Angel's mouth formed a sad smile at his words, "You're right, Spike. It was very different. I was only eight years old and there were three men who tied us up. How could I have helped Dru or myself? I was just a little boy."

Spike had no quick, smart-mouth retort. He slumped against the wall. He'd become the monster, now he was the victim. He knew he couldn't break the ropes as strong as he was. The cold veracity of Angel's words cut through him like a blade. He wasn't about to admit to Angel that he'd already stumbled across that painful truth. If he did he'd have to admit it to himself.

'What a waste,' Angel thought sadly. He and Spike had both lost years of their lives. Spike filling his own heart with hatred for blaming something on Angel when he himself could have done no better. And Angel for believing him.

Angel felt a small tug at his arm and looked back down on Buffy. She had tears in her eyes and a bittersweet smile of her own.

"It's someday," was all she said.

His smile deepened as Angel answered her by giving her a kiss deeper than the smile.


Daniel Holtz and Lindsey McDonald entered the cabin expecting the worst. They were relieved to find all three occupants alive. Holtz exhaled an audible sigh at the sight, not realizing until that moment that he'd been holding his breath. Angel, still sitting on the bench inside the door, cradled Buffy gently, keeping her blanket close around her. Spike, battered and bloodied, leaned against the wall, still on the floor, his hands tied to the bed. Lindsey signaled to his waiting team to remain where they were outside.

Holtz had never seen Spike's bruised face show what he saw there, although it was not a new expression to the young man's father. Replacing its usual cocky, arrogance was a mixture of disbelief and self-loathing. He had seen a similar look gaze back at him from his own mirror. But the face he identified most with that look would have been Angel. Now, however, Holtz saw no trace of it on Liam Angelus at all. In its place was love and relief, all directed at the small bundle he held close to his chest.

Spike flinched when his father kneeled down beside him, refusing to look at him. Once more Daniel Holtz wondered how much of all this had been his own fault, but knew the time for what could have been was over. Now he would have to see what could be salvaged from the shreds of the past and of the present. Without a word, he sat down next to his son and slipped an arm around his shoulders. He waited for Spike to pull away. Instead, Spike sat perfectly still, not moving away or towards his father. Holtz could feel Spike's muscles trembling under his arm and tightened it around him. Perhaps all was not lost - perhaps.

While the team stayed behind to finish up, Holtz silently untied his son and lead him to the waiting car. Lindsey watched them leave as he opened the door on his own car for Angel to slide into with Buffy still securely in his arms.


Chapter XVIII

The doctor warned Angel and Giles that Buffy's concussion had been fairly serious and the combination of physical and emotional trauma had drained her. It would take time for her to recover and Angel promised Giles he would make sure she stayed put until she did. The only reason the doctor allowed Angel to take her home after an unusually brief observation period was her very real and visible fear of having to stay in the hospital even for one night. It was obvious that her aversion to the harsh, clinical atmosphere affected her deeply and was more harmful than good.

Angel knew the abduction had taken a greater toll on Buffy than she would admit or possibly was even aware of herself. He noticed she had been unnaturally quiet when Lindsey drove them straight from the cabin to the hospital. Instead of sleeping, as may have been expected, she laid in Angel's arms passively, staring out into the darkness beyond the side window. She refused to accept the standard counseling given to victims and was unwilling to discuss what happened in any detail.

Angel was faintly surprised at her reaction. Buffy was a fighter, a strong, resilient woman, always able to deal with whatever she faced and not one to take anything lying down. But she had been content to let him take care of her as he wished and had given no argument to his undivided attention. He knew something was very wrong, but all he could do was give her time. The doctor had told him some form of shock was a normal occurrence and Angel strongly suspected that was the case. Even after so many years, he worriedly remembered his own experience all too well and hardly let her out of his sight.


Two days after Angel brought her home Lindsey McDonald dropped by the house. Buffy listened to the low hum of voices from down the hall, then finally the sound of the front door closing. Lindsey had poked his head in when he first arrived to say hello and see how she was doing. She found herself momentarily fixed under his pensive gaze before he turned and followed his ex-team leader back to the living room.

Due to Angel's concerned diligence in making her eat and rest, Buffy's color had already slightly improved. Although it still made her head throb if she moved too quickly and she still tired very easily, her strength was gradually returning. The Bureau had requested their presence for a debriefing, but Angel refused to leave Buffy's side to go to the office or admit anyone from the team into the house until he was sure she could handle it. After everything Angel had told her that he knew about Holtz, she was sure the older man was responsible for not forcing the couple to comply with Bureau policy. And it was probably at Holtz' discretion that Lindsey McDonald had been sent as a kind of emissary. She was almost positive she knew the reason for the agent's visit and it wasn't long before she found she was right.

Angel appeared in their bedroom moments after Lindsey left, clearly disconcerted with the information he had just received. As he expected, William 'Spike" Holtz was being held for kidnapping Buffy and holding her against her will. Angel believed Spike was guilty of more, but in spite of his circumspect questions, he hadn't been able to get her to share what actually occurred. Knowing she hadn't bounced back from the experience had made him wary of forcing the issue. So what Lindsey reported to him caught him totally off guard.

He crossed the room with a measured step, reaching the bed to sit beside her. "You never mentioned a gun, Buffy," Angel said tightly, trying to conceal just how upset he was. "McDonald's team found one right outside the cabin." He waited but she said nothing. "It had to belong to Spike," he asserted. She remained silent, neither acknowledging nor denying what he said, she kept her gaze riveted on the spot where her fingers played with the edge of the blanket. "Spike had a lump on his head that corresponded with the butt of the gun," Angel added, still looking for a response.

"As I recall, he had a lot of lumps. How could you tell one from another?" she asked, finally speaking, but not looking up. Buffy remembered the bruises covering Spike's face and head, and his broken gait as he held his arms across his stomach, every step an open agony. His father nearly carried him to the waiting car. She knew after the run in with Riley just how dangerous Angel was when it involved her well being. Spike looked like he'd been brutally beaten within an inch of his life.

Angel was thrown by her unexpected reply. "He's lucky all he got were lumps, he deserved to be dead," he shot back, instantly enraged all over again at what had happened ... what could have happened.

Buffy knew he was deathly serious. She thought it was quite possible that the only reason Spike had survived was due to Angel's need for him to be alive until she was found. The obvious violence of her lover's assault on the peroxided blonde made her shiver in spite of the blanket that covered her. If Angel had known about the gun when they were at the cabin, she sincerely wondered if Spike would even be breathing right now.

Angel immediately regretted his sharp retort. He knew she'd been bottling something up inside and now he'd silenced her by lashing out. He couldn't deny that it hurt to think she hadn't told him about the gun and it frightened him because he didn't know why. It wasn't the only thing he feared, but he pushed his own qualms away ... this was about her. He couldn't count all the times she'd been there when he needed her ... now she needed him.

He searched for something to say to get her to open up and talk to him. "Spike said you hit him with a bottle," he said, recounting what McDonald had told him. "There was a broken bottle, but it wouldn't have left a lump the size of a golf ball like the one in the picture I just saw," Angel said, trying to keep his voice level. "And if, as he said, you 'kicked him in the balls', he would have been in too much pain to even notice what you used to knock him out." He saw the faint blush that crept across her cheeks, but she made no reply.

"You didn't have a gun and it didn't get there all by itself," he said in exasperation. "It had his fingerprints all over it," he continued.

"You don't have to play FBI agent with me, Angel," she said quietly. "What do you want me to tell you?"

"Tell me? Maybe why you didn't feel I was important enough to even tell me about the gun? I had to find out about it from McDonald?" No matter how hard he tried to stay objective and keep his feelings out of it, he failed miserably. "I thought we could tell each other anything," he said softly, his disappointment evident.

"I was afraid if you knew he had a gun you would kill him," she answered, sitting up with sudden animation.

"You were protecting him?" he asked, his eyes wide with astonishment. "He hurt you!" Angel exclaimed.

Buffy shook her head in frustration. "It's because I felt that you were important that I didn't tell you!" she explained. "I don't care about him! "I was afraid for you! I know what you would have done if you knew he had a gun. You would have killed him!"

"Yes," he agreed without hesitation in a dark, chilling tone, "I would have."

"And that's exactly why I didn't," she replied passionately. "You're too important to me to take the chance of losing you. And if it wasn't for me, none of this would have happened."

Suddenly it was all too much, everything that had been swirling around in her mind for the last couple days overwhelmed her and she couldn't contain it any longer. It all came pouring out in a torrent, her words running into each other, much as the tears that suddenly appeared and ran down her face. Somewhere during her broken ramblings Angel drew her into his lap without even being aware of his actions.

"I was scared, Angel ... I was so stupid, I didn't listen to you, I didn't even think about who was at the door. He was drinking, all I could smell was the whiskey when he tied me up, telling me what he was going to do ... all the time I was trying to get out of the ropes I couldn't stop thinking of you and Dru and how terrified you must have been ... then he turned around and he had a gun ..."

His arms tightened, but Angel didn't stop her, didn't even try. Consciously relaxing his hold, he caressed her, his warm hands sliding up and down her back, in smooth, soothing movements.

"I never thought about a gun ... why not a gun though, but he acted so strange with it, then he caught me ... I almost got away, but he caught me ... I didn't want him anywhere near me, Angel, and I got away ... I finally got away ... I hit him with the gun so he couldn't hurt me, so he couldn't ... so he couldn't ... I-I ran, I was so afraid and I got lost and I knew you were looking for me ... Spike said you were looking and I thought you wouldn't find me and I had to help you ... I couldn't do that, I couldn't leave you ... " she trailed off out of breath.

He thought she was done and had almost pulled back to look down at her when she went on.

"I tried to get back, but I couldn't, there were just trees and more trees and it was pouring rain, I kept falling down ... but you found me, you were so warm, I love you so much and I heard you talking to Spike ... and you saw him, you saw the little boy, you listened to him ... but then I saw Spike when they took him outside and he could barely walk, he was all bloody and his face was swollen and black and blue and I knew you'd done that, you'd done that for me and it scared me because it was my fault and you could have killed him even if he didn't want to use the gun ... it was all my fault ...

The tumbling words turned to whimpers and Angel finally shushed her, trying to calm the sobs still hiccuping between her small gasps for air.

"Shh ..." he whispered softly, covering her with his arms as if to shield her from her unseen demons. "It wasn't your fault, love. It's all right," he murmured. He rocked her gently, feeling her tears on his skin as they soaked through his shirt.

"It was -" she tried to protest.

His mouth covered hers to gently stop her from saying more. When he finally broke the kiss, he pulled her against him. He kept his cheek nestled next to hers, murmuring soft words to quiet her. In spite of his deep concern, Angel had a strangely rewarding feeling being the one giving comfort instead of receiving it.

"You need sleep, Buffy," he told her as he gently slid her off his lap and back under the covers. "We'll talk about this later, but now you need some rest." His heart twisted as she looked up at him longingly, then guiltily dropped her head as if she wasn't entitled to his company. "I'm not leaving, love," he said as he quickly stripped off his clothes down to his boxers and slipped in behind her. She was tense when he first spooned himself around her, but relaxed against him almost in spite of herself. "Now sleep," he softly commanded.


Buffy woke when she felt a warm, comforting hand gliding lightly over her hip, down her thigh, then back up. She leaned back against the pillows and looked up into an even warmer gaze from chocolate brown eyes overflowing with love and concern.

"Hi," he whispered, smiling down at her. "Sorry, didn't mean to wake you."

He saw a shadow flit across her features and her lashes fluttered down, hiding her eyes from him. Angel wasn't surprised. He was thankful that she had finally divulged the dark thoughts and feelings she had kept locked inside. No one knew better than he did just how detrimental they could be the longer they were allowed to remain. He doubted though, that the sudden release from her pent up emotions, followed by a few hours of sleep would change her opinion.

He rolled gently on top of her, pinning her in place, Buffy's thighs opened instinctively to welcome his body in its accustomed place. Keeping his weight off of her by leaning it on one elbow, his eyes were focused on the small face trying to turn away. He lifted one finger, running it tenderly down the fine bones of her cheek and jaw, then cupped his hand under her chin, forcing her to look at him. "I love you," he told her with heartfelt conviction. When she lowered her eyes, he said, "You'll never know how much."

"More than I deserve," she said in a whisper, unable to ignore how her actions had led to her capture.

He sighed, giving her an understanding look and agreed, "I know how that feels."

"It's not the same thing, Angel," she replied quickly, shaking her head. "If it wasn't for me, none of this would have happened."

He fingered her silky hair, examining his thoughts. "If it wasn't for you," he finally told her, "I wouldn't know what love is. You wouldn't be in my life and you wouldn't have been in any danger ... and none of this would have happened."

"You're not going to blame yourself for this," she exclaimed, no longer avoiding his gaze, but meeting it with a sudden fire flashing dangerously from her green eyes. "It wasn't your fault before and it isn't now." She was afraid that whatever had finally made him understand that he was never responsible for Dru's death would be lost. "It was never your fault," she reiterated.

In that single defining moment in the cabin, the reality of what had befallen him as a child had been so clear to Angel. However, years of harboring guilt, no matter how misplaced, wasn't an easy thing to dismiss. It was second nature to Angel to wear blame like an ill-fitting coat, albeit one not easily shirked and thrown away. Buffy was inadvertently showing him the necessity to do just that. She was repeating his mistake, berating herself for something she didn't cause. Both of them needed to place the culpability where it belonged.

"Not any more than it's yours ... right?" he challenged as he returned her remonstrative glare.

His simple question brought her up short, making her realize how right he was. She may not have heeded Angel's warnings and used caution when opening her apartment door. But it was Spike who was behind all that transpired, not her and not Angel. Buffy gave the dark eyes holding hers a slow nod, conceding his point.

He lowered his forehead against hers. "I love you," he said once more, with emphasis on each word.

"I love you too," she told him right before his lips descended on hers. She needed that solid reassurance, needed to feel his warmth, his body close to hers, needed to feel his love blanket her.

The kiss was slow and tender as he carefully caged her beneath him, arms on either side of her head. He had to force himself not to go further, remembering her weakened condition. Rolling back, he stretched out on his side next to her, his fingers returning to play with strands of her long blonde hair.

His loving gaze swept over her small form. Angel could sense something was still wrong. "That's not everything," he said. When she didn't respond he looked at her more intently. Surprised, he saw a wary look on her face. "Buffy?"

His gaze penetrated straight to her soul and made her wonder if she was just as transparent to him as he appeared to her. There was one more thing that kept coming back to her. Angel had said they should share everything, but this was something he wasn't going to want to hear. She took a deep breath as her eyes darted back and forth across his face. "It's about Spike. I don't think he meant ... "

"... to hurt you or worse?" He finished before she could. Angel's voice matched the instantly ominous look on his face.

She quickly raised her hand to his cheek to calm him, "No, Angel, that's not what I meant. Please ..." she asked without finishing her request. The expression he gave her was guarded, but he kept silent, waiting for her to continue. "I didn't mean he didn't plan on taking me and maybe doing more than he did," she said, looking at him. "But the gun. That was different." At his look of bewilderment she went on, "I think he was afraid of the gun, afraid to use it. It's kind of how I got away from him."

Angel was now completely in the dark. "So what? What difference does it make why as long as he didn't?

"That's just it, Angel," she tried once more, "Why didn't he?" Buffy turned slightly to hold his gaze. "The gun scared him so badly he almost dropped it." At his continued look of confusion she said, "You're not the only one with scars, Angel. Spike might have caused some of yours, but he has his own too."

Angel gave her a stony look. He didn't even try to summon any sympathy for Spike Holtz. "So why do you care?" he wanted to know. "You don't even know Spike."

"Because he needs help. Because there might be something there worth the effort," she said earnestly. "You were."

Angel's eyes flared with dark anger. He understood her intent. Some very small part of his mind could even accept that Spike might need more than a jail cell. But it didn't change the danger he presented to Buffy or the terror he had purposely created. Angel couldn't find it in him to be concerned about Spike, in fact, quite the opposite. He enunciated slowly, "He drugged you, he abducted you, he tied you up. And then he planned on raping you and - " he stopped unable to complete the sentence. With every word she felt the tension in his muscles increase. "I don't care what he thought about the goddamn gun."

Buffy wasn't easily intimidated or dissuaded. Still looking into the depths of his dark brown eyes she answered with another hint of green fire in her own, "I know better than you what he did. I was the one who was there with him. Maybe I'm wrong and it doesn't make any difference. But other people were hurt and have been for too many years. There's already been enough damage done, I refuse to make it worse," she said with a tone of determination he was all too familiar with hearing.

"Just forgive and forget?" he questioned harshly. "You think it's that easy, just let it all go?"

"No," she said honestly, "I don't think you'll ever do that, but you don't have to make it harder." She leaned into him. "Angel," she asked more softly, once more searching his face, "what purpose will holding onto any of it really serve? He has enough problems and so does his father. Hasn't all this gone on long enough?"

"He has to pay for what he did to you," Angel insisted, still not moved by what she said.

"Of course he does! There was never any question. But he's been paying all along too, Angel, and he still is," she said. "There's no need for us to add to it. You told me about his father," she reminded him. "He was there for you even if you didn't know. Couldn't you at least think of him?"

"His father is the only reason Spike isn't dead," he said coldly.

"Then do one more thing for him," she entreated him. "Just tell Holtz what I said, that's all I'm asking. It's not much, but it might make a difference to him ... to both of them." Angel had wiped all expression from his face, Buffy couldn't tell what his reaction was to her request. "This needs to be finished, done," she said. "To get on with our lives, we need to put all this behind us, not drag it out to cause more pain and misery for anyone. Please, Angel."


The doorbell echoed through the house. Opening the front door, he found Liam Angelus standing before him.

Angel lifted his chin, leveling his gaze on Daniel Holtz and said, "We need to talk."


Buffy was tired of staying in bed, but the moment she even moved a foot out of it, Angel was right there to put it back under the covers.

"Don't want those beautiful toes peeking out of there again," he warned her, kissing said toes lovingly before tucking them under the sheet and blanket.

"My toes don't need to be here anymore than the rest of me," she grumbled petulantly. "There's nothing wrong with me, Angel."

"You're still suffering from the effects of the concussion, according to the doctor," Angel reminded his willful patient. "To say nothing of bruises from head to foot," he added. "It's either here or the hospital."

Buffy shivered at the word, but gave him a mournful look. "It's been four days," Buffy pouted, sitting up, crossing her arms over her chest. "And I don't remember the doctor saying I'd have to spend the rest of my life horizontal."

Angel let his gaze linger over every inch of her. "And that would be a bad thing … how?" he smirked leeringly at her. He was happy to hear her complain, it was the first really Buffy-sounding thing he'd heard her say. He took it as a sign of her continuing recovery.

Much as he wanted to and as engagingly willing as she was, he had refrained from making love to her. He wasn't taking any chances where she was concerned. He needed to see the sparkle back in her eyes and more color return to her cheeks before he would go any further than soft, light kisses and gentle caresses. But it didn't mean he couldn't make her more comfortable, he reasoned, if he was very, very careful.

Buffy gave him a sly smile in return. He had treated her like glass ever since he brought her home. She loved him for it, but she didn't think she was quite that fragile. "I think you need to examine these bruises much more closely," she suggested, slipping back down, pushing the covers away.

He grinned at her, sitting on the edge of the bed. She was lost in one of his shirts, as usual, making him marvel once more at what she could do for a simple white shirt. Just as he started to indulge her by unbuttoning it, the doorbell rang. Angel growled at the interruption. Looking back at her with longing, he left the room to answer the door. When he opened it, he found Buffy's best friend standing before him. "Willow," he greeted her, trying to keep the growl out of his voice. He stood there for long moments just looking at her.

Angel had really been making an attempt to learn how to act in this new world in which he found himself. His normal response to finding anyone on his doorstep would have been to close the door without a word. Knowing Buffy was more than ready to continue where he'd left off with her made things even more difficult. But he knew slamming the door in the redhead's face or scaring Willow away wasn't how Buffy expected him to deal with company - no matter what they'd been about to do.

"Hello, Angel," Willow said, waiting patiently outside.

"You're here to see Buffy," he answered, stating the obvious, then finally opening the door wider and stepping back to allow her inside.

"Well, yes," Willow agreed. "And you too," she added with a smile as she took a few steps into the room.

"Oh, I uh … let me get Buffy," he said gruffly, escaping to the bedroom while he left her standing there. Moments later he came back with Buffy swathed in a blanket, curled securely in his arms. Walking past her, as though Willow wasn't even there, Angel lowered himself into his chair, still holding Buffy close to his chest.

Buffy motioned for Willow to take the chair beside them. "Sorry, Wills," she explained, "this was the only way he'd let me out of bed."

Willow didn't think Buffy looked all that unhappy about Liam's over-protectiveness. But she was rather surprised that he hadn't left Buffy in the chair and disappeared. "Are you feeling any better," she asked, worried that there might be a reason he was staying so close.

"I'm fine," Buffy answered, giving Angel an exasperated look, "He won't believe me though."

Angel remained silent, trying to blend in as part of the chair. As much as he'd rather be somewhere else, she was right. He wasn't letting her out of his sight, no matter what she told him.

Buffy had a fair idea of what he was thinking and ignored it completely. "Angel, I'd really like some coffee," she whispered to him. "And Willow might too."

So much for his watching, he thought, taking the broad hint and reluctantly sliding her into the chair as he stood up. "Would you like some coffee or tea, Willow?" he asked politely. Angel never understood the need to feed people, but he knew it was part of the ritual of visiting and acquiesced to his lover's request.

Willow hid a smirk, telling him, "Coffee is good, thank you." As soon as he was out of sight, she leaned over and whispered, "How are you really?"

"Truth? I'm still pretty sore around the head and bruises, but I'm not telling him that," Buffy admitted. She peeked in the direction he had gone then said in a low voice that couldn't be overheard, "I'm more worried about him than me. He's been so sweet taking care of me, but he's not getting enough sleep himself. I think he's still afraid something might happen."

"Like what?" Willow wanted to know.

"Nothing specific," Buffy tried to explain, "I think it's gonna take him a while to get used to good things happening. He hasn't had a lot of that."

With an eye towards the kitchen, Willow laughed softly, "Something tells me that won't be a real problem anymore. You've always been good at challenges, Buffy." She giggled with a twinkle in her eye, "He couldn't have found anyone better to help him ... umm … adjust."

"Willow!" Buffy exclaimed. She'd known her best friend for years and couldn't believe what she was insinuating. Willow had always been rather embarrassed and shy when even the word 'sex' was mentioned. It seemed life with Tara was having an effect on her partner. Buffy started to say more when she heard Angel's footsteps.

He came back holding a tray that he had painstaking arranged with mugs of coffee and some cookies he found. Buffy flashed him a smile against his unsure expression, which helped ease his awkwardness. Carefully setting the tray on the small table beside the chair, he offered coffee and a cookie to Willow. He turned back towards his chair, looking down at its small occupant. It wasn't hard to anticipate his unspoken request and Buffy reached out her arms. Lifting her and slipping beneath her in the chair in one fluid movement, he drew her against him. Angel couldn't fathom the secretive smiles he caught on both young women before they melted away. He had a hard enough time with becoming accustomed to people in general. Understanding women was something he knew he would never accomplish. He didn't realize he wasn't as alone as he thought.

Willow sighed happily to herself, perusing the couple before her. They seemed invisibly attached, tuned into their own internal wavelength to each other. She almost expected when one took in a breath of air, the other would exhale it. It was sweet how each worried more about the other.

She'd known Buffy for several years, seen her date many different men. Even though Willow had been the one who thought Buffy would be able to work with Angelus, she'd never expected them to end up together. Whatever it was Buffy had been missing and searching for, she had finally found. As strange as some might find Liam Angelus, Willow could see how uniquely the two complemented and completed each other.

As she watched Liam lovingly spoon sugar into Buffy's coffee for her, Willow thought back to when she first saw him. It wasn't that he had changed all that much since then around other people, she thought, but around Buffy. The smile that lit his face as he lowered his head towards the figure held closely beside him was something she was sure few had witnessed. She doubted he would ever gain many social graces, but mantled in Buffy's love, one would hardly notice.

Willow shook her head slightly when she realized Buffy was speaking to her. The two women talked while Angel remained quiet, absently stroking his lover's hair. He hadn't been wrong to insist Buffy needed rest. Willow could see her friend was tiring quickly. She wisely kept the visit short, telling Buffy she had a few errands to run. Willow was surprised when Angel cautiously touched her arm as he opened the door for her when she was leaving. She looked up at him and saw him nod in Buffy's direction.

"She thinks she's doing better than she really is," he said in a worried tone only Willow could hear. "I don't mean to keep her friends away."

As Willow stepped outside and out of Buffy's hearing, she reassured him, "I didn't think you did. And I don't think anyone else could take better care of her than you." Willow saw a mixture of shyness and relief wash through Angel's face and again was reminded of how stoic he usually appeared. Now she thought she saw a smile trying to find its way to his lips.

"Thank you," he said softly, "Buffy has a good friend," then quietly closed the door as she walked away.


As soon as Buffy recovered according to his watchful satisfaction, Angel insisted on making their vows to one another legal. Some small part of him would always think no one, including himself, would ever be good enough for her. But it was his way of showing Buffy he had finally overcome his demons. And he wanted, at last, to officially show the world how much she meant to him. At his request, the wedding was arranged in the shortest time allowable.

Giles looked at the small gathering of friends and family surrounding him, then at the two before him. He couldn't contain the smile that broke past his usual reserve. Never had he seen Buffy so radiant in all the years he had known her. The love shining from her eyes was reflected back in full by the tall, dark-haired man looking down at her as he placed the antique Claddagh ring on her finger. The groom extended his arm as she slipped the matching ring on his finger. As one, they lifted the rings to each other and kissed them.

One look at her lover, now husband, beaming a smile at her the size of the sun melted away any loneliness and emptiness Buffy had ever felt. She knew how much this meant to Angel, only this moment realizing it was just as important to her. They finished exchanging their vows and Angel bent down to give her a passionate kiss, regardless of their audience.

As swift and simple as it was, Giles couldn't remember a more joyful occasion. Jenny squeezed Giles' hand, nodding silently towards Tara. The young woman quietly brushed a tear from Willow's cheek as the redhead rejoined her. Willow had stepped down from her place beside the bride to watch her float down the aisle on Angel's arm.

Buffy gave Angel's best man a wink when she saw Faith making a beeline for him after the ceremony. Lindsey's eyes twinkled in return as he clasped the brunette's hand firmly in his own. A few moments later, Cordelia caught Angel unawares, pulling his head down and kissing him on the cheek with an audible smack. Recovering his wits from the unforeseen attack he found his sister already walking away, flashing the newly married couple a jubilant smile. Wes, trailing behind her, gave them a silent nod of congratulations.

In the far corner of the room Angel saw an older man move towards the exit door. With one hand on the handle, the man turned and gave Angel a look filled with pride, love … and joy. With a faint smile he silently slipped out the door and was gone.

Once Angel took Buffy in his arms to start their first dance as husband and wife the rest of the world fell away. Neither of them was fully aware of anything else for the remainder of the evening except each other.


Buffy woke several nights later, as she often had, without the familiar warm chest pressed against her back. She didn't like it, but didn't panic either. She knew where he was. As careful and guarded as Angel had been during all the time since her disappearance and subsequent return, he failed to hide from her how much of an impact her ordeal with Spike still had on him. It wasn't Angel's past that weighed on him anymore. Facing that small child from long ago and the storms had finally put them both to rest. Nor was it even a matter of who was accountable for any of it. What terrified him was just the thought of almost losing Buffy.

She was more right than she realized when she told Willow he wasn't used to good things happening. Years spent alone and isolated, weren't forgotten or undone overnight. Angel wasn't finding it easy to let go of well-worn patterns of looking at life from the dark side. He had finally found someone to share his life, someone who loved him as much as he loved her. He couldn't get over coming so close to losing everything he had so recently gained.

At night, he lay in bed unable to sleep, holding Buffy gently as she slept in his arms. She felt so small, looked so vulnerable. The depth of emotion he felt looking at her, touching her, was so overpowering it left him shaking. He had to get out of bed afraid he would wake her. He would sit, as he had tonight, before the fire, trying to distract himself with old friends who had always been there for him - his books.

She found Angel sleeping in his chair, small flames softly flickering, licking the logs on the hearth. Her lips curved into a soft smile as she read the title of the book he held, the habitual finger holding his place on the page. It was the book he had read to her the last few nights. She had never read or heard much poetry, never really understood it. But when Angel recited it to her, even if the lines sounded strange to her ears, she knew what they meant. She found she loved it when she heard Angel's velvet tones turn words into the worlds. It was the only time, except when he made love to her, that his voice held such passion … such pathos. He was so beautiful, she reflected, inside and out.

Her heart broke for him, seeing the dark circles beneath his eyes. She saw the frightened glances he thought he concealed and she woke when his arms quivered around her. She knew what worried him, having the same fears herself. Life without Angel was now unimaginable to her. But she also knew they needed to take what they had and live it a moment at a time. It was better to cherish what was there, than wonder what was to come. He needed time and he needed her. Buffy meant to be there for whatever it took. She curled up in the chair that sat next to his, unwilling to disturb what little rest he had found. Tucking a small throw around her, Buffy gazed at him for a very long time, until she drifted off to sleep herself.


Angel no longer had nightmares. Exorcised with truth and love, they lost the power to haunt him. But still his sleep wasn't restful. He had fallen into a fitful doze. Opening his eyes, he found himself staring, not at the fire banked low in the grate, but at the chair pulled up before it. He literally rubbed his eyes, then almost pinched himself to find if he was asleep or awake.

So very many times this same illusion had filled his dreams. Just as often he had thought it real and reached out only to watch it melt into nothingness. Tongues of fire from the dying embers flickered over the soft curve of a cheek, framed by long dark lashes closed in sleep. The flames shimmered on the golden curls of tousled hair that trailed down low over breasts that gently rose and fell. Creamy, velvet skin was flushed from the glowing warmth. It was such an evocative, yet comforting vision.

Quietly, swiftly, as if the image before him would suddenly dissolve, Angel slid from his seat and fell to his knees in front of the chair only scant feet from his own. So very, very gently he laid one finger on the cheek that begged for his touch and traced the outline with a feather light caress. The ethereal dream didn't fade away, but stayed, solid and vibrant under his hand. A lump formed in his throat, but it didn't quell the sob that wrenched its way out. She was real and she was there. More … she was his. His wife.

Her long lashes fluttered open at the strangled sound and he was caught in a mossy green gaze. Love and concern welled up in her luminous eyes, as she searched his face. He heard an almost inaudible sigh fall from her lips as she tenderly brought them close to cover his own. Warmth surrounded him as she pulled him gently into her embrace. He opened his mouth to the soft demand of her moist tongue. It was so sweet and soft against his as she suckled it slowly. Letting himself fall into the taste and feel, he lost himself deep in the kiss.

Angel wasn't even aware of the single tear that escaped, trailing down from the corner of his eye, until her slender finger reached up to catch it. "Angel?" That achingly endearing way she always spoke his name, asking and claiming in one breath, made his heart constrict. "Shhh ..." she soothed as his own breath hitched in response.

He burrowed his face into the hollow of her breasts, inhaling her scent in deep breaths. Her firm, gentle fingers slid up the nape of his neck and into his hair drawing his head closer to rest there. He lifted one hand to part the cloth covering her skin and felt her own hand pull the material away. He let his lips fall on the soft fullness of one breast, seeking and finding its taut peak. Drawing it into his mouth he suckled it gently, but urgently. The strong, steady beat of her heart pumped beneath his ear, intensifying the serenity and comfort he found in her … only her. Long moments passed as he nursed solace from her. Her sensitive fingers moved softly, surely over his back and shoulders, then sifted through his hair. She quieted him with calm, loving strokes, offering silent refuge for his troubled spirit.

With her gentle, prepotent touch, what Buffy had tried to make him see all along suddenly seared itself into Angel with a crystalline clarity. He had wasted all of his yesterdays despairing of a past over which he never had any control. Now he was wasting all his tomorrows doing the exact same thing. All he had was today. She was all there was, all there ever would be that he wanted, that he so desperately needed. There was no doubt in his heart that it was the same for her. They were so much a part of one another that each felt the other's joy and pain as if it were their own. His life was finally full of all that had been missing and now would never be lost. Somewhere deep within he knew he and Buffy would always be together, they were one … forever.

His fears finally assuaged in the shelter of her affection, he lifted his face to hers. "I love you, Buffy," he told her in a strained whisper, "I love you so much."

He was so beautiful to her. Tears glistened in her eyes at his declaration and he leaned in to kiss them away before they fell. She felt the peace as it flowed into him, saw it mirrored in his eyes. His whole body relaxed as the ever-present tension dwindled and at last ebbed away. He threaded his fingers through her hair as he covered her face with soft, solemn kisses, her eyes, her cheeks, her nose. Brushing his lips against hers, his tongue swept across them in tiny licks, then gently pushed, seeking its way into her mouth. Her lips parted with another sigh as he plunged his tongue deeply inside, savoring the sweetness only she possessed. She kissed him back, her tongue melding with his in a slow sensuous dance.

Angel pulled her flush against him, tightening his arms around her as their kisses deepened. He reached up with his hands, burying them in the lush fullness of her silken locks, twisting the soft tendrils around his fingers. His tenderness slowly changed to passion, comfort giving way to desire. His lips and tongue moved to take in more of her supple flesh, slowly kissing and feasting on every exquisite inch. The soft moan of pleasure from his mate heightened his own and spurred him on to give her more. He missed nothing in his quest to find every precious, luscious morsel of her. Biting softly on her earlobe, gently sucking on the sensitive skin behind it, he moved down to her throat, nibbling and nipping lightly. His hold loosened as he leaned back to soak in the sight of her. She was breathtaking in the firelight. Her skin now glowed not from the heat of the fire, but from his touch. Her lips were swollen and red from his kisses. Her long, golden tresses shone like satin.

Buffy laid her hands to his chest, splaying her fingers on its broad expanse. "I love you," she said in a soft, low breath, making him throb at the sound of her voice. Gently, she peeled his shirt down his arms until he shrugged out of it and tossed it on the floor. She smoothed her hands over the planes and contours of his chest and shoulders, in long, luxurious strokes, now meant to inflame rather than calm. Every slight movement of her fingers against his skin caused his muscles to jump in response. Her lips grazed lingeringly across his chest until they latched onto a nipple. She bit down lightly and Angel released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding in a ragged pant. She drew a line of flame with her tongue from his neck, to his abs, then down his long, lean torso. Her lips curved in a smile, feeling the tremors her touch caused rippling through him. But when she moved her hand below his waistline, he gently caught it, bringing it to his lips.

Holding her gaze he told her haltingly, "There were so many nights … I would wake up … and find you sitting right here. But when I reached for you … you were gone." Silencing her before she could speak by laying two fingers from his other hand against her lips he continued, "Tonight you're here, really here. You've tried to tell me, but this finally made me understand. Whatever is going to happen will happen. We can't know, Buffy. No one can. That's just the deal. We have to take each moment we find."

"But - " Buffy tried to reply under the gentle fingers.

But if you don't stop now," he said smiling at the hand he held captive, "I won't be able to show you what it all means to me."

She stared down at the hand holding hers, then back up, the corners of her mouth turning up in warm invitation, "Show me, Angel," she whispered.

The shirt she wore, his by rights, fell away at his touch. He moved slowly from shoulder to shoulder, showering a new rain of kisses on the tempting skin, coveting more delectable tastes of her succulent golden flesh. Angel released her enough to settle once more over her breasts, but to give rather than take. His lips caressed the plush mounds, building her desire, carefully listening to her breathing as a guide. His tongue drew patterns of love, as he licked and sucked the velvet pillows in ever- closer circles to her nipples. As she arched against him, he finally captured one rosy tip, scraping his teeth across it, then pulling it into his mouth. He felt her breath catch and he moved to claim the other, while his hand gently caressed the first, rolling the nipple between his thumb and forefinger.

The fingers of his other hand pulled the throw away and trailed a deliberately slow, blazing path down her torso, dragging sensuously over her belly. His tongue moved slowly, giving taunting flicks of attention to her breasts, drifting down in a sultry path over and around her stomach to her naval, letting it linger briefly as he shifted her lower body forward, lying her back against the cushions. As he looped his thumbs through the waistband of her panties, she lifted her hips in response, allowing him to pull the wisp of fabric down and off her slim legs. His lips followed his hands, leaving open-mouthed kisses of adoration in their wake.

Leaving a delicate tracery of lust as it continued its journey to the soft cleft hidden between her thighs, his tongue dipped in as she parted her legs to give him entry. Ever so lightly he caressed the moist, pink flesh in languid strokes, imbibing her essence, relishing it, as it flowed from her center. She cried out loud as his tongue delved deeply into her innermost sanctuary and he held her hips tightly as he lovingly ravished her. He felt the groan that shuddered through her frame as small hands circled his neck, pulling him closer. Smiling against her glistening curls, he gifted her with gentle kisses in every feminine fold. He nibbled on the rich banquet with tender bites as he swirled his tongue to catch her intoxicating honey. His lips finally settled on the nub nestled above, plump and hard from his ardent labors of love. Closing around it with tender lips, he sucked it gently into his mouth. Angel heard her gasp and felt the tight bud swell even more. He teased it with his tongue, flicking it with minute strokes, until he sensed her approaching climax.

She whimpered as Angel tore himself away, standing up only long enough to strip off the rest of his clothes, then dropped back down before her. His lips caught hers, sharing the taste of her as their tongues mingled together. Her hand found his rigid flesh and closed around it, eliciting a deep guttural moan from him. They moved as one, lifting, as she guided him inside her. She wrapped her legs tightly around his waist, his large hands pulling her hips to him until no space remained between them. He penetrated her scalding depths to the hilt.

They both gasped, reveling in the feeling of completion this most intimate expression of love unceasingly gave them. The so-familiar charge of energy generated by their touch hummed through them. Hearts and souls merged with their bodies. To Angel this would always be home, and to Buffy where she always belonged. The same loving balm she poured over him in every glance, every word and touch, sheathed Angel as absolutely as the walls that held him deep inside her. The profound love Buffy felt in his arms, saw in the glowing depths of his eyes and heard in the rich, cadence of his voice, pierced her heart as deeply as he was buried within her molten core.

He tried to go slowly, his movements angled to bestow on her every nuance of pleasure he could give her. He drank in her moans of elation, doing everything in his power to bring her higher. Her hands roved over the warm flesh of his back and shoulders, sliding into his hair, then down his neck to his chest, her touch tingling his skin. Fingernails bit into his arms as her soft, keening wail sounded in his ear. Her muscles contracted and massaged his sex as he tried to maintain a steady, rhythm. But the heat and passion he found in the stormy recesses of her eyes, caused him to lose control, streaking a bolt of lust and love like lightening from his heart to his groin. He thrust into her in ever quickening strokes, deeper and harder, until he touched the mouth of her womb.

The power of their love surged through every cell, rising higher with each caress, each tender whisper. Every nerve and muscle pulsed in a rising crescendo of rapture until they were swept over the edge, his seed spilling into her as she climaxed. They whirled together in an achingly sweet ecstasy that melted into a haven of bliss.

When he finally opened his eyes Angel found he was on the floor in front of the chair with Buffy snug in his lap. He had fallen back on the rug, bringing her with him. Silencing her mewl of protest with a gentle kiss, he withdrew from her. He slowly got to his feet, carefully holding her close, not willing to let her go even for that brief moment. Padding softly to their room, he gently laid her on the bed, crawling in beside her. She tugged the sheet and comforter up over them as he spooned in behind her, drawing her closely against his chest.

A smile crept across Buffy's face only moments later as she felt the measured puffs Angel was breathing into her hair. He was curled around her, sound asleep, his powerful body finally at ease. Nothing disturbed the deep silence, but the soft sounds of his serene slumber. It was music to her ears. There was still a long way to go, but they would go together. She snuggled into her husband's unconscious embrace and joined him in his dreams.


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