free web hosting | website hosting | Web Hosting | Free Website Submission | shopping cart | php hosting

Anam Cara

by Gem

Disclaimer: Characters? Nope, not mine. They, and the town of Sunnydale, are creations of Joss Whedon. I'd tell you who owns them, but I have no desire to fight my way through the tangle of parent corporations to figure it out definitively. Suffice it to say; it's not me, which is good, because I'm not making a dime off of them.
Rating: We'll say the usual PG13
Spoilers: Splits off from Buffyverse at "The Initiative" (Yup, a long, long time ago). This is my version of Season 4 - the way it should have been.
Author's Note: Fourth and final part of "The Road Home" series. Literally interpreted, the title is Gaelic for "soul friend." On a deeper level, it is said to be an ancient, seldom traveled path to the meaning of what it is to be human.

"Okay, let's check your bag one last time. Ten pounds of boring books no one but you and Giles will ever read?"

"Check." The response was milder than it should have been after the last half-hour of this type of questioning, but Angel knew that deep down she meant well.

"Uncharged cell phone so you can ignore my calls while pretending you actually meant to answer it if it rang?"

Make that really deep down.

"It's charged, and even turned on." He pulled the phone from his duffel bag with a sigh, and waved it at her as proof before returning it to one of the outer pockets.

"Industrial strength styling gel for that long windy drive?" Cordelia crossed her arms and leaned against the doorjamb, grinning when Angel's free hand automatically rose to check his carefully spiked locks.

"People in glass salons shouldn't throw stones." He forced his hand back down and resumed packing. It had been a long time since he'd had a little sister, but he still remembered how the game was played. Never let them see you sweat.

"Seriously out of season, yet always in style, leather coat?"

That one hit struck a nerve.

"No cracks about the coat, Cordelia. Where I go, it goes."

"Swords, axes and assorted hunting knives?"

Angel stopped tossing books into the duffel bag and stared blankly at her. "Cordy, I'll only be there a few hours. I'll drop off the books, swing by Buffy's mother's house so Buffy can toss whatever didn't fit in her car into mine and then we'll be off. The most violence I have to worry about is road kill, and I think the convertible is weapon enough for that."

"Yeah, uh huh, sure." To say she was skeptical would be putting it mildly. "Ever heard of a little club called the Initiative? They were short on brains, but long on weapons, and rumor has it they don't like the fanged and furrowed brow crowd, even those with souls. Vampires with souls, that is; I'm not sure the frat boy commandos ever had souls themselves."

"There aren't that many of them left," Angel replied quietly. "Most of the ones who survived the battle with the Scourge went home. Willy's sources say the lab has been dismantled. They're not a danger to me or anyone else anymore."

"As long as there's one left who knows about you, you're in danger," she snapped. "And we both know who the biggest big mouth of all is. He couldn't fight; remember? He was sidelined when Buffy played Slayer Soccer on his face."

"Classes are over for the year. He went home to Iowa, and I don't think he's coming back."

"Good," Cordelia said sharply. "Two points for the guys in the white hats, or in this case, the black coats. But aren't you forgetting someone else, Angel? Blonde lady, not big on vampires, old enough to be your girlfriend's mother." Cordelia raised her hand to her cheek in mock astonishment. "Wait, no, she is your girlfriend's mother. Do you honestly think Joyce will let you drive off with Buffy without at least one good knockdown drag-out fight?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh, so the weapons are really supposed to be for her? Gee, that should help our relationship a lot."

Cordelia shrugged. "They couldn't hurt."

"I don't know that Joyce will even be there," he admitted, returning to his packing. "Buffy arranged this for a night when there's an opening scheduled at the gallery. She hasn't spoken to her mother in months, and she didn't think this would be a good time to start."

"Whoa." Cordelia sank down on the bed, genuinely stunned. She looked up at Angel with deep concern. "I knew she was mad at her mom for sending her dad in as the cavalry a few months ago, but she really stopped talking to her? As in totally?"

Angel nodded miserably.

"At first she was too angry, and she was afraid she'd say something she might regret later. Then, the longer she put it off and the more time passed, the harder it became for her to make the first move."

The last book to sail into his duffel bag flew with a trifle more force than was necessary, or advisable. He snatched the ancient volume from the mouth of the bag and cradled it gently in his big hands.

"I can't help but feel it's my fault," he confided.

"Of course you do." Cordelia's smile was wry, but affectionate. "You think everything is your fault. I mean, you're getting better about the brood thing, but you still take the cake for taking the rap."

Force of habit silenced the voice in his head that said she could be right, and let his overactive conscience take the lead. "This time I'm right. Buffy isn't fighting with her mother so much as she's fighting for me. She's defending me, and she shouldn't have to."

"Well, hello Mr. Center-of-the-Universe." Cordelia stood up and put her hands on her hips, trying to imitate what little she remembered of Willow's mother. Her own mother certainly would be of no help as a role model. "Did you ever think Buffy might be fighting with her mom because her mom wants her to stay a kid and Buffy's acting like too much of an adult for her? It's been know to happen between mothers and daughters, you know. Or didn't they have parental issues in the dark ages when you were growing up?"

Angel cast her a dark look. "Oh there were issues all right. A regular horn of plenty of them."

Cordelia's words triggered a wash of memories in Angel, however, lending credence to her argument. Parents were parents, no matter the century, and it didn't take a vampire to stir things up between the generations.

"Well, since you drained your family like a six-pack on a Saturday night, I kind of thought the issues were on their side." She shrugged; the past, especially someone else's past, held little interest for her. "But hey, that means you should know this isn't so abnormal. Okay, so the vampire and slayer part is a little on the ab side, but not the mommy from hell."

"I need to make my peace with Joyce," he insisted, clinging to that much responsibility at least. "I want a clean slate when Buffy comes back here. New school, new house, new life." He glanced around the apartment, now nearly empty of furnishings, save the bed and one small wardrobe/weapons closet. "It's funny; I never thought I'd miss this place, but somehow I already do."

Cordelia ran her hand across the door of the wardrobe. "Yeah, all this lack of light and cheer really grows on you after a while. I feel so bad you're giving it all up to live in that converted Spanish mission, with tons of indirect light, and a rose garden and a hot tub." She grimaced at him. "You poor thing."

"Let's just be grateful it's on the edge of the sewers, so I can still get to work in the afternoon." He was smiling again as he zipped up his duffel bag. "It is a great place, you're right. A little bigger than we wanted, but I need to know I won't be keeping Buffy from things like sunlight and flowers."

"She never struck me as the gardening type," Cordelia said doubtfully, "but you know her better than I do. And I know she can't wait to move in. Of course, it could have something to do with the company," she teased.

"It's been a very long two months since we first started planning this," he agreed. "Actually a year since we were together on a daily basis." He cocked his head and started to think back. "No, now that I think about it..."

"Enough, Romeo!" Cordelia held up her hand to silence him. "Go! Get your woman and bring her back to your beautiful new home and permanently retire the dark and scary look." She paused for a moment, considering the future. "Unless we're working," she clarified.

"Speaking of work," Angel said slowly, "have you seen Doyle lately? I wanted to go over a few things with him in case something breaks tonight."

In truth, Angel's caseload had been light the past week, and the only thing in danger of breaking during his absence was his Waterford crystal vase over Doyle's head if Cordelia got mad. It sounded like a reasonable excuse, though, and he was too worried about his friend to waste a lot of time composing a better one.

Cordelia blushed and turned away to face the window. "Well yeah, I've seen him. I mean we do work in the same office, and it's not that big. If two people are in there at the same time you pretty much can't help but see each other."

"And if one of them hasn't been coming into the office much lately, would those two people still not be able to help seeing each other?"

Cordelia whirled around to face him, prepared for to defend herself. But in his eyes she saw only gentle affection, and her guard fell as swiftly as it had been raised.

"Maybe not," she admitted softly.

"I don't want to pry. I just want to know if he's okay. He's been...different, ever since he came back from Santa Marisa." Angel's dark eyes searched Cordelia's face for some sign to guide him. "He said he didn't run into the Scourge at all there, but he acts like a man who's been in battle."

"I know. He won't talk about what happened, though. I ask, but he says everything is fine and that it's all going according to plan, whatever that means." She looked at Angel with troubled eyes. "Sometimes, when he says that, I get a really bad feeling. Like something big is about to change, and there's nothing even a vampire or a vampire slayer can do to stop it."

"When I come back I'll make him sit down until he talks to me," Angel promised. "I've been told I can be very persuasive, even without the chainsaw."

"What happened to 'I don't want to pry'?"

"That was when I thought you'd tell me what it was." He finished settling the last book in his bag and zipped it, but he couldn't bring himself to pick it up. A frown crossed his face as he played with the strap. "I don't want to lose him, Cordelia. He feels like he's slipping away or something. We've all come too far together to lose each other now."

"Angel," Cordelia sighed, "just go. Get Buffy and bring her home. Let me deal with Doyle right now."

His restless fingers quieted as he took a firm grip on the strap, but still he wavered about leaving. "Promise me you'll call if you need me."

"In the next five hours?" She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Sure, no problem."

"Don't say it like it's never happened before," he warned her, finally lifting his bag over his shoulder. "We may not have a hellmouth in LA, but I think the one in Sunnydale commutes."

* * * * *

Part 2

The two-hour drive to Sunnydale gave Angel plenty of time to consider Doyle's recent strange behavior, and his thoughts gave him no cause for joy.

Distant was the best way to describe his friend's behavior since his return from Santa Marisa, Angel decided. Distant, and quiet, and evasive. Even when Doyle was physically present, which wasn't often these days, he seemed to be distracted. If someone called him on hisinattentiveness, the Irishman would make a visible effort to connect with his companions. But the man who once told Angel to reach out to humanity seemed to prefer the company of his own thoughts above any other these days.

Cordelia summed it up best, if rather embarrassingly for Angel, when she said it was almost like Doyle had come down with a mutant strain of "Buffy-Face."

The vampire brooded on Doyle's problems, whatever they might be, with his characteristic intensity until he realized he had reached the freeway exit for Sunnydale. Deep though his concern for his friend ran, it could not compete with the thought that each succeeding mile was bringing him that much closer to his beloved. By the time he turned on to Revello Drive he was as impatient for the journey's end as a schoolboy waiting for the bell to ring. This street, this town, was foreign to him in many ways, but at the moment one of these houses sheltered the only real home he had ever known.

The headlights of his car picked out an old-fashioned car in the driveway, next to Buffy's crookedly parked VW Bug. If he had been at work the sight of the strange vehicle would have aroused his curiosity, and even suspicion, but tonight he was allowed scarcely enough time to even register its presence. As soon as he pulled up in front of the house, Buffy was out the front door, down the porch steps and across the lawn to meet him.

"Out, out!" she demanded, tugging impatiently at his arm as he tried to open the door of the convertible. He laughed and slid out of the car as quickly as possible, not even getting the time to close the door before she was in his arms.

"Two weeks," she growled, pulling his head down for a kiss.

"Too long," he murmured in agreement, before their lips met and all rational thought fled.

Angel could feel his tension dissolve at the feel of her small, strong hands on the nape of his neck, her lips so warm and soft against his own. This was where he belonged, where she belonged, intertwined in body and soul. Together they stood strong against all those who sought to take this hard-won happiness from them for whatever reason.

Eventually they had to break the kiss, in deference to both Buffy's air supply and Joyce's neighbors. Angel lifted his head, but he did not release his beloved, who seemed all too comfortable encircled by his arms.

"I missed you," Buffy said unnecessarily.

"I gathered that." He laughed again and shook his head. "You're just lucky I don't need to breathe, because you certainly would have taken it all away with that hello. Not that I'm objecting," he added hastily, "but what was up with that?"

She smiled coyly at him as she reached up to brush a trace of lip gloss off his lower lip. The light from the newly risen moon reflected the silver of her claddagh ring, sending a sharp, wordless stab of joy into Angel's heart.

"Can't a girl just be happy to see her boyfriend after two long lonely weeks without him?"

"Buffy, you weren't that happy to see me after six months apart."

She shrugged slightly and stepped out of his embrace, automatically setting off Angel's warning flags.

"Hey, the last two weeks have been tough on me too," he assured her. "I completely forgot to drop Giles' books off because I was so anxious to see you. But to borrow a phrase, you have Something Face. So what's up?" He planted his feet wide and crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned back against the car door. There was only one person on this planet as stubborn as Buffy, and right now he was waiting for an answer.

She ducked her head and stared intently at a button on his shirt. A moment later she could feel his long cool fingers sliding along her jawbone, gently compelling her to face him.

"Mom's home," she said grudgingly. "She knew I was planning on moving the rest of my stuff out, but I hadn't told her what day. Then somehow she found out and she stayed."

Angel felt a quiver of unease travel through his body and come to rest in his heart. He knew how close mother and daughter had always been, and he hated to be the cause of their rift.

He would also hate it if Joyce caused problems between he and Buffy. Actually he would more than hate it. Not permit, that was closer. And yet he still had to be civil to and about the woman who would cheerfully dance on his grave, if only he would stay in it this time.

"Well that explains the strange car in the driveway." He stalled for time, trying to find an upside to the sudden wrench thrown into his plans. " maybe this is a good thing," he said half-heartedly. "You needed to settle things anyway, and I really haven't liked the idea that I'm stealing you away in the dead of night."

Buffy grinned unwillingly. "Remind you a little too much of your teenage years, lover?"

It seemed so crazy to think of him as a teenager. He was Angel; he was as old in body as he would ever be, and so much younger in spirit than when she first met him, but to picture him as a reckless teenager...Buffy couldn't wrap her mind around that one, try as she might.

"Not quite," he answered dryly. "I wasn't the eloping kind. And living together was a little different in those days."

"Ooh, I'm sensing some backstory here," she teased. "Are there any little secrets I need to hear about before we paint our names on the mailbox?"

"Enough about my past; let's talk about our future, and what part your mother is trying to play in it."

Discussions of his long-ago youth always made Angel uncomfortable. He had reached the point where he could begin to separate Angelus' actions from his own, but there was no one to blame for young Liam Mannion's behavior, except the man he had become.

Buffy's good humor vanished when confronted with reality. She sat on the hood of the convertible as Angel leaned against the closed door. Her feet swung back and forth, gently banging against the tire as she stared at up the starlit sky.

"She said all the usual stuff about how we shouldn't live together, or see each other, and I think at one point there was even some mention of moving to separate planets...but I'm not positive about that one. Anyway, same old, same old, so I tuned it out. But then she...she got mad, really mad at us." Buffy turned her hazel-eyed gaze to capture her lover's eyes. "I told her Dad was being a good sport about the whole living together thing, which I really didn't expect because you know how fathers are supposed to be with their daughters, not that our relationship is typical, or maybe it is, I don't know."

"Buffy, you're stalling." He said it patiently, but she could hear the steel within.

"I know, it's just...she said it was because he didn't know. That it wasn't fair to make her be the bad guy because he's a good sport without knowing all the facts. All the...unusual aspects of our relationship." She tore her eyes away from his, not willing to see the pain she inflicted, even in this half-light.

"You mean the vampire aspect," he said calmly. He had known this day would come, had known it was inevitable. He had hoped, however, to put it off just a little while longer. He had certain plans for the next few days that he didn't want ruined by familial angst.

"Yeah, that would be the big aspect." She sighed gustily. "Of course, there's also the slayer thing; can't forget that. We can't really explain your diet and why it doesn't wig me out unless we explain my extracurricular activities."

"And we're going to do this when?" Please, not yet, he begged silently. Just a few more days, then we'll come back to earth and face the firing squad.

"Tomorrow," Buffy replied flatly. "She called Dad, but he couldn't make it tonight, so he's coming tomorrow."

Angel ran his hand through his dark hair, trying to see a way to salvage the next few crucial days. "Yeah, he had a conference in Salinas today," he said absently. "He won't be back until late."

Buffy stared at him in astonishment. "And when did you become my dad's personal secretary? Should I be jealous?"

"He's been stopping in a lot lately." Angel shrugged; he couldn't understand her confusion. To him it seemed only natural that her father should check him out carefully, and Angel would have respected him less if he hadn't.

"When I was there, sure," Buffy said slowly, "but even when I'm in Sunnydale? Are you two bonding or something? That's so sweet." A smile of relief washed over her face. Angel and her dad were becoming friends.

Or they were until her mother set out to spoil it.

"I thought...that is you two seem to be..." Angel stammered, "you look like you're trying to make a go of it, so I thought I should make an effort too. And I guess your dad feels the same way because he's been coming to the office a lot. He even helped me move some stuff over to the new house." Angel shook his head and grinned ruefully. "Of course he didn't understand why I wanted to wait until dark to drive over there. Though I guess if we tell him the truth he will."

"This is going to wreck everything, isn't it? He'll freak, just like Mom wants, and he'll hurt your feelings and...God, I could just strangle Mom for doing this!"

Angel caught her upraised fist and pulled her hand over to his mouth for a gentle kiss.

"It's okay, Buffy. I'm a big boy, and I can take it. As long as I have you, I can take anything."

"You will always have me, Angel. Believe that."

She slid off of the hood and slipped into Angel's waiting arms. As she closed her eyes and laid her head on his chest, she whispered a silent prayer to the ever-elusive Powers That Be. They had fought so long and so hard for the right to be together, all in the name of love. Surely the Powers would not let them be destroyed in the same name.

* * * * *

Joyce watched the lovers from behind the shelter of the curtain drawn across the front window. She had known who pulled up in front of the house without even asking; Buffy had flown out of the door in mid-sentence. And now her daughter, her only child, her future, was in that man's arms, for all the world to see. Almost as though Angel was a normal man, a normal boyfriend, and as though theirs could ever be a normal relationship.

Joyce wasn't blind; she could see the physical basis for the attraction, even in the dim light of the streetlamp. Angel was a good-looking...former man, and of course her daughter was beautiful, so she could see why he was interested in Buffy. For the moment they also shared common goals, but who knew how long that would last? Angel's philanthropic attitude was only as durable as his curse, and Joyce had her doubts about the strength of both. One day her darling, na´ve daughter might wake up to find herself in bed with the ultimate evil once again. For all they knew, that curse was a veritable minefield of unexploded clauses that might destroy both Angel and Buffy.

Even if Joyce conceded the possibility that his curse might remain intact, the fact that it would remain for time immemorial was a major argument against Angel. He was immortal; he would always remain as youthful and attractive in appearance as he was now. Her daughter, meanwhile, would hopefully live long enough to show her age. She would mature from a radiant young girl into a beautiful woman, but eventually that too would mellow into "striking" or maybe "attractive," at best. Would that be enough for Angel, or would he seek younger and more comely companionship? At what point did men stop trying to regain their lost youth through reflected glory?

It wasn't as though these were even the worst of their problems, Joyce fretted as she peered through the window. The most serious obstacle to their relationship should be obvious to even a man as clueless as her ex-husband.

Angel was dead.

Not dead tired, or dead to rights, or even dead drunk. He was just plain dead. A walking, talking, non-breathing symbol of all that was wrong with Buffy's life, and no amount of looks or charm could make up for that.

Joyce stepped away from the window and began to pace the length of the room, trying to fan the flames of her righteous indignation with a little creative reinterpretation of history. LA vampires and burning gymnasiums be damned; to her mind it was obvious all this slayer business was tied to this town, and that man. If they had stayed away from Sunnydale, he and Buffy would never have met and she would have abandoned this "sacred duty" idea long ago.

Instead, Buffy was planning on devoting her life to him and to stopping the evil his kind perpetuated. She would gamble with her life night after night, until one night she lost it all, and all because of some grandiose ideals he encouraged her to believe. She would never escape the darkness now because she chose to let it into her heart and her bed.

Well, not if Joyce Summers had anything to say about it. There was more than one way to skin a cat, or a vampire.

She moved back to the window and pulled the curtain aside once again, this time not bothering to hide herself behind it. Let him know she was watching him, and let him be afraid, she thought with a grimace. He had already done more damage to her daughter than Joyce ever should have permitted, but now the gloves were off.

* * * * *

Part 3

"She's watching us," Angel murmured into his beloved's hair. "Maybe we should go in."

He could feel the chill of Joyce's gaze even out in the driveway. In his soulless days he might have attributed his heightened awareness to superior vampire senses. These days he recognized it more prosaically as man's instinctive wariness around his mother-in-law.

"You and your bionic eye," Buffy grumbled against his shirt. "Anyone else wouldn't have been able to see her in the dark." Reluctantly she pulled her head up from the hollow of his shoulder that she claimed as her own.

He dropped a swift kiss on her lips, resolutely closing his eyes to shut out the vision of a baleful Joyce scowling at him from the darkened living room.

"Sorry sweetheart, I am what I am. Now can we go in and get the hellos over with so we can get back to the apartment and continue this reunion in private?" he begged. "We are staying at the apartment, right; not here?"

She grinned at him, more than a little amused by the trepidation in his voice. "Yes, honey, we're going back to our own home tonight. Somehow I don't think Mom is ready for you and I to be sharing a room under her roof, and I am not about to have you this close and then let you slip away again. Not even for one night."

Buffy slid her hand around to the back of Angel's neck and urged him to lean down for another lingering kiss. She could almost physically feel the weight of her mother's disapproving eyes upon her, but she really didn't care anymore. This was right and Buffy knew it. And if Joyce didn't want to admit it, that was going to be her own undoing.

* * * * *

"Keep it together, Joyce. Just stay clam and focused." Joyce repeated her mantra over and over as she watched Buffy and Angel head towards the porch. "You can do this; you have to do this."

She forced a smile when she heard the doorknob turning, though the smile was cold enough to cause snow flurries in several small Caribbean villages. With measured steps, she left the sanctuary of the living room to greet her daughter and her daughter's less-than-welcome companion.

"And Cordy didn't know what was wrong with him either?" Buffy was asking as Joyce stepped into the hallway.

"No, she swore she doesn't have a...hello, Mrs. Summers." Angel's voice was grave as he broke off his conversation with Buffy and nodded his head at Joyce. "You're looking well. How have you been?"

Joyce felt her resolve slip away. He was too calm, too self-assured; he thought he'd already won. She wouldn't let him win; she would not abandon her daughter to that kind of future.

"I'm fine. Fit as a fiddle. And you? Still dead as a...well, you know."

"Mom, I thought we already had that little talk about human beings and how you're supposed to be acting like one." Buffy clutched Angel's hand with a grip strong enough to fracture normal bones. "If you can't even pretend to be civil, maybe we should just leave right now and forget the whole thing."

"And I suppose you think that would let you off the hook for telling your dad about Angel; is that the idea?" Joyce shook her head. "Not this time, Buffy. I will tell him, with or without you. He deserves to know who, or rather what, his only daughter is sleeping with."

Joyce regretted the words the instant they left her mouth, but it was too late. Sarcasm was Buffy's favorite weapon, but Joyce knew that using it against her would only antagonize her. Somehow she had to get control of herself, despite a raging tide of feral mother-love.

"Okay, now you're starting to give wicked step-mothers a good name," Buffy snapped. She tried to ignore the stab of pain at the sight of her mother's set face. She had known this wasn't going to work, so why did it hurt so much to be proven right?

"I've been really patient today, Mom, and I've let you use a whole lot of not so very nice words I didn't even think you knew. But before you start showing off for company, I think we'd better leave." She turned swiftly on one heel, but encountered unexpected resistance in the form of an unmoving Angel. "Angel, come on, let's go home." She tugged at his hand, but he continued to regard her steadily.

"We're going to do this, Buffy. I'm not sure this is the right time, but we've been avoiding it for long enough." A little voice whispered in his head of important plans to be kept, but he forced himself to concentrate on the moment. He would manage both; somehow he would have to.

"I'm surprised," Joyce admitted grudgingly. "I would have thought this was the last thing you'd be willing to face. Surely one of the perks to being a vampire is not having to 'do' dinner with a young girl's parents."

"There was no need to deal with Buffy's father before," Angel replied quietly. "He wasn't a part of her life. Now he is, or at least he's trying, so I guess he needs to be let into the club." He glanced down at Buffy's hand, still firmly ensconced in his own. "Even if that changes a few relationships."

"I'm sure it will."

Joyce's smile was serene at last. She could see the future now, once she prevailed and Angel was on his way back to his own life, minus her darling daughter. And she would prevail, because she must, for Buffy's sake.

Buffy knew what that smile meant. "That's not the relationship that's going to change, Mom," she warned her mother grimly.

* * * * *

"I just need to make one phone call before we turn in," Angel explained over his shoulder as he unlocked the door to their condo. "I need to let Cordy and Doyle know that we'll be here for a few days."

"I'm sorry about all this," Buffy said, running her hand up and down his back. "I talked and I talked to her today, but, well, you heard her. It's like cutting a diamond with a...a banana peel."

Angel pushed the door open and turned around to pull Buffy inside with him. She followed slowly, her mind still caught up with her mother's blind streak.

"She won't even try to see my point," she complained, leaning back against the closed door. "I love you, you love me, and we're happy together. Why is that so hard for her to accept? Isn't me living happily ever after supposed to mean she did her job right?"

"Maybe she's afraid me being in your life means 'ever after' isn't a very long time," he suggested. He pulled her into his arms, trying to warm her with his soul if not his body. "You see enough danger as the Slayer; you probably don't need to be hanging out with demons in your downtime."

"I need you," she answered simply.

Need; few things were so simple, and yet so complex.

He needed to call the office; he needed to explain a few things to his friends. But as he looked down at the young blonde woman resting in his arms, he knew nothing was more important that the need he felt to comfort her, and take comfort in her.

"I really should call the office," he protested half-heartedly, "but I guess..." his voice died away as her lips slid down his throat to his chest, her hands following close behind.

"Phone later," she whispered, holding him prisoner with the light warmth of her body wrapped around his. He was the only part of her life she was absolutely certain of, and she was not going to let anyone or anything get in the way of that.

It only took an instant for him to decide. "Much later," he agreed, slowly backing them up towards the bedroom.

* * * * *

"Cordelia, I'm sorry I'm calling so late, I really am sorry," he whispered into the phone.

Angel glanced over his shoulder to assure himself that Buffy was still sleeping beside him. He knew he should have made this call from the living room, but he couldn't bear to leave her so soon.

"We're going to be here for another day or two," he continued, "and I need you to do something for's important, that's why it can't wait until morning. I'm expecting a package and I need...yes, I'm calling about a package at two in the morning. I said I was sorry."

Buffy stirred restlessly in her sleep, warning Angel that his voice was getting a little too loud. He hastily lowered it before he awakened her.

"It will be sent to the office and I need you to let me know right away when it, I won't tell you what's in it...yes, we're friends, but I'm still not going, I wouldn't tell Doyle either. Please, just keep an eye out for it. It's small, but very, very, it's not a puppy."

He held the phone away from his ear for a moment and stared at it, in lieu of staring at Cordelia.

"Who would send me a...never mind. I promise, it's nothing living...or formerly, it won't blow up either...very funny, Cor. No, I'm not kicking myself for leaving the hair gel behind...Good night, Cordy."

Angel carefully clicked the phone off and placed it on the nightstand. Buffy was still sound asleep as he slid beneath the covers and gathered her in his arms. He sighed deeply as her heart beat a soothing rhythm against his chest. He had done all he could for the moment; now he could rest. The future would have to take care of itself.

* * * * *

Cordelia thoughtfully, and repetitively, tapped her chin with the antenna on the cordless phone, until Phantom Dennis could stand it no longer and took the device away from her. As the phone drifted across the living room, she shifted positions, pulling her long legs up on the sofa and draping her arms around them. She rested her chin on her knees and gazed somberly at Doyle on the other end of the couch.

"He needs to know, Doyle," Cordelia said firmly. "I can't believe you waited this long to tell either of us."

They had been talking for hours before Angel called, and she still was not satisfied. Doyle offered countless reasons for his silence, and some of them even made sense. That didn't change the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

"I had to work things out for myself first, darlin. How could I tell you when I didn't know?" It had been a long road, and the worst was yet to come, but they were so close to done, at long last. He hadn't felt so free in months.

"But you do now, so when are you going to tell him?" she pressed. "At least before, when he asked if I knew what was wrong I could say 'no.' Now it would be lying, and I don't like to lie to Angel." She paused for a moment. "He always knows I'm lying anyway, so what good does it do?"

"I only need a few more days, Cordy," he begged. "Angel is tied up in Sunnydale; he just said so. Give me those days, and then I'll tell him everything, I swear."

She wanted to say no. She had never liked keeping secrets, even from people she didn't like; it required too much planning for every single sentence. But lying to Angel felt particularly wrong. He was family, hers as well as Doyle's, and families shouldn't have secrets. They knew the worst about each other; why couldn't Angel handle this?

"Please, I'm begging you." Doyle slid off the sofa and down onto one knee in front of Cordelia. "Cordy, be my sweet girl and do as I ask just this once. Let me tell him, when I'm ready."

"You promise you'll tell him the minute they get back? The very minute?" she insisted, clutching his shoulders and shaking him slightly.

"Cross my heart and hope to..."

He couldn't complete the vow through the hand Cordelia clapped over his mouth.

"Don't ever say that," she snapped. "You never know who might be listening."

A chair tumbled over in the kitchen.

"I didn't mean you, Dennis," she sighed.

* * * * *

She listened to the heartbeats.

The streets of Sunnydale were dark and hushed. Even the homeless had settled into shelters and doorways for the night, leaving the city in the grasp of the creatures of the night. Leaving the city for those who could hear the heartbeats, and the quick breaths that drove them to continue.

So many hearts, she mused, all forcing rivers of blood through narrow channels, each ready to overflow the banks at the slightest instigation. In the fullness of time, she would tend to them all, one by one, and drop by delicious drop.

But for now she only listened.

She wandered through the darkness alone and unafraid. Time slipped away from her, the hours until dawn quickly melting away whilst she drifted in a blissful haze. The Slayer was here, and so was he; she could sense them in the prickling under her skin. They were happy, so happy in their ignorance.

The world lay at their feet and nothing stood in their way; at least nothing important. It was a time for healing and celebration. Soon the others would come, and the party could begin.

She just loved parties.

* * * * *

Part 4

"Tell me again why we're doing this in a restaurant," Angel grumbled, pulling dark sweater over his head. As his head came through the hole, he continued his diatribe. "I mean, do we really want your father trying to stake me with a chair leg while half of Sunnydale is trying to eat?" Suddenly another horrifying thought struck him. "It's not an Italian place, is it? You know I have certain issues with...just tell me it's not Italian."

"Easy, big fella; I already told Dad you're allergic to garlic." Buffy turned from the mirror on the vanity table, forsaking her make-up rituals to reassure him. "And would you relax about the restaurant thing; it's no big deal. I thought it would be easier if we got Mom out in a public place to start the evening off calmly. Dad can see how unfair she is to you, and that will help when we get him back to Mom's house and break the news. I want him firmly on our side before he hears anything that might, umm, make him a little nervous."

"Like hearing his daughter's boyfriend is a two-hundred-year-old bloodsucking demon?" He was trying to keep his voice light, but he could tell from Buffy's wince that it was a losing battle.

"Yup, that would be a big part of it." She turned back to the mirror and continued to speak as she applied her eyeliner. "Of course I don't think he's going to be doing handsprings when he finds out all the little sidebars of my life story either, and when he hears that Mom knew and didn't tell him..."

Buffy twirled the pencil between her fingers as she contemplated the ensuing scene. It wasn't hard to imagine; similar dramas had been played out almost every night of the last few years of her parents' marriage.

"Let's just make sure we're back at the house by then; we so don't want to be in public for that rehashing of the 'she's my daughter too' argument. It's an oldie but a goodie from the divorced parents' songbook." She picked up her blush brush, and then put it down with a sigh; suddenly it hardly seemed worth the effort. All the colors in the Crayola 64-pack wouldn't make her visible once that portion of the evening started.

Angel was overcome with a wave of guilt. He'd been obsessed with his own visions of the night before him, and somehow lost sight of Buffy's concerns about the same. She was not only fighting for her life with him, but also her own independence from her parents. It was a fight he remembered all too clearly from his own youth, but he was determined her struggles would end on a more positive note.

Of course as long as Buffy didn't gut her parents, he reflected with grim amusement, it couldn't help but be at least slightly more positive.

"Sweetheart, I'm sorry." He swiftly crossed the room and rested his hands on her bare shoulders, gently massaging the knots he could feel beneath her skin. "I guess I'm a little wired now that it's time, but I know this isn't easy for you either. We'll get through it somehow, though, and I guarantee it will be in one piece."

Buffy leaned back into his hands, relishing the feel of his long cool fingers smoothing the tension from her muscles. Closing her eyes to concentrate on the sensations, she tipped her head back and offered her lips in an invitation he was only too happy to accept.

The upside-down kiss ended quickly, but Angel was not yet finished with his ministrations. His hands still coaxed the worries of the day from her neck, and then began moving down to offer similar comfort to her back. He nuzzled her hair with his cheek as Buffy arched her spine and twisted her head to capture his lips once more.

The ringing of the phone put an end to Angel's new career as a massage therapist in short order.

"Did I tell you we're not having one of these at the new house?" he grumbled as he reached for the cordless phone on the dresser. "No phone, no fax, no doorbell, nothing. When we close that door, we're on a desert island."

Buffy smiled as she slid her hand down his free arm. "Sounds great to me. When do we set sail?"

"As soon as the Inquisition is over," he promised, clicking the phone on. "Hello," he snapped into the mouthpiece, not really caring whom he might offend. "No, I don't want my carpets cleaned...yes, eventually, but not right this minute...I don't care if it's a free home trial...if you call again, you are going to become one of the stains on my rug. Good night!" He slammed the phone down on the dresser.

"Angel," Buffy said slowly, "have you been drinking Cordelia's espresso again?" She raised an eyebrow at him.

"What? No! Please." Suddenly the reason for her question became apparent. "I'm sorry; I don't mean to come unglued. But it's been like this all day. If it's not Giles on the phone about a translation, then it's Willow coming over to share a new spell, or Xander dropping in to...what was his excuse again?"

"Pizza. He thought Willow said she was going to bring one with her."

"Oh, right. Well, that one may actually have been legit, but the others..."

Buffy stood up quickly and wound her arms around him. "Funny, isn't it? We're so close to getting Cordy and Doyle trained to knock before they barge in, and then we come back here and it's time to send the rest of the gang to Obedience School."

"I'll pay for the choke chains."

She pretended not to hear his offer. "I didn't think it would get so out of hand when I called Will, but I guess it's finally dawned on them that this is it. I'm gone. To us it's exciting but they, well, they're feeling a little abandoned."

"And I'm the one who's kidnapping you," he concurred glumly.

"Let's call it a co-kidnapping," she compromised. "I'm a willing conspirator. More than willing. Enthusiastic even. But we can't expect them to feel the same way."

"No, I suppose not. I know if they tried to take you away from me...the imagery is a little...but hey, we probably shouldn't be going there right now." He smiled guiltily at her. "Maybe that's why I'm so edgy tonight. I know exactly how your mother feels about me being in your life, and now she's trying to get your father on her side. I don't want you to feel pulled between us all, but every day we're together makes me greedy for more. I couldn't stand..."

She didn't let him complete the thought; to her mind it wasn't worth giving air to. She swiftly rose to her toes and sealed her mouth to his, effectively diverting his attention.

"We want happy thoughts," she said a few minutes later, " only happy thoughts. You, me, our new house, lots of demons to kill...okay, well, that might not qualify as a bona fide happy thought in some universes, but it'll get me through summer reruns." She grinned at him, grateful to see a smile chase across his pale face before he leaned over to kiss her one last time.

"You're a nut, you know that, don't you?"

"And aren't you the lucky one for it," she agreed, reaching for her lipstick and a tissue to do a little damage control. That accomplished, she grabbed the shawl Angel had thoughtfully draped across the back of her chair and flashed him a relatively bright smile. "Okay, I'm as gorgeous as I'm going to get with butterflies doing the Macarena in my stomach. How about you?"

Angel slipped on his suit jacket, checking his pocket for keys and a wallet. Finding neither, he glanced wildly about the room until his eyes lit upon the objects, resting on the nightstand just inches from his left hand. He grinned sheepishly as he scooped them up.

"I'm doing great. Just great."

* * * * *

Angel's nerves improved only slightly on the drive to the restaurant. Watching Buffy as she played with the radio station and rummaged through the glove compartment for a breath mint made the world and his place in it start to shift back into perspective. But all too soon they were pulling up to the curb and it was time to face the lions. When he opened Buffy's door and offered her a hand, he didn't let it go.

"This is the easy part, right?" he muttered as they walked into the restaurant. "Dinner, a few drinks," he looked sharply at Buffy, "for us, not you."

She made a face at him as they passed the coatroom.

"A little meaningless small talk," he continued, "and then we're outta here." He sighed heavily and forced himself to let go of her hand. "And then the real fun begins."

They paused in the doorway of the dining room, searching for Hank or Joyce Summers.

"Oh, wait, there's Mom," Buffy waved half-heartedly towards a table by the fire. "No sign of Dad, though."

The light from a wall sconce reflected off of her hand as she waved, reminding Angel of another potential pitfall. "Buffy," he asked warily,"does your father know that we're not actually..." he glanced down at her left hand, fingers bare except for a small silver claddagh ring, "yet?"

Buffy flushed; Angel wasn't sure if it was due to embarrassment at her deception, or his own use of the word 'yet.' He was hoping it was the latter.

"Well," she said, dragging the word out to impossible lengths in her hesitation, "you've actually seen more of him than I have lately. What have you told him?"

Part of him wanted to tease her a bit, since she was the one who announced to her father that they were engaged, not to mention telling Kate that they were already married. But he remembered the catch in his throat when he heard Buffy call him her fiancÚ, and when he heard Kate call Buffy his wife. On the surface she had lied, but there was truth at the essence, and that truth deserved a return in kind.

"I've told him...that I love you very much."

Buffy slipped her arm under his jacket and around his waist, nestling in to the line of his body. "So do we make a run for it while we still can, or just pull out the guns and fire first?"

"Very funny." Angel cocked a half-smile as he draped his arm around her shoulders, holding his love fast within his embrace.

"He thinks I'm kidding," she murmured to the air as they began to cross the room.

* * * * *

Joyce could feel every muscle in her body tense when she spotted her daughter and Angel standing in the doorway of the dining room. Even from this distance she could see that he had his arm around Buffy in an unmistakable gesture of solidarity. More than that: of possession. He was shouting to the world that her little girl belonged to him, as though she was a prize. No doubt to a vampire she was, but it was a gesture designed to set any loving mother's teeth on edge.

She focused on her objective: strength in numbers. When Hank learned the truth about his daughter's companion, he would be every bit as outraged as Joyce. No more of this "but he's not a bad guy, Joyce" and "he really seems to love her, Joyce" and, of course, her very favorite: "but she seems so happy, Joyce."

No more.

A smile, she needed a smile. Joyce panicked for a moment; she couldn't smile. What did she have to smile about? Her daughter was in love with the undead. An undead. Whatever. She had nothing whatsoever to smile about, and yet she must. She needed to project optimism and control, so that Angel would know he was facing an unstoppable force. She had managed to persuade him once to leave her daughter, using smiles and soft words. Tonight the words would not be as soft, but she must seem every bit as confident of herself. He had to know that she knew that...well, he had to know that she was right and he was wrong and he better leave before she found Buffy's secret stash of stakes and turned him into a just-add-water vampire.

It frightened her how easily that thought brought the smile that had previously eluded her.

Go to Part 5