* * * * *
Angel gazed down at the small tanned fingers covering his own pale hand. "Buffy, what's wrong?" he asked, sliding his eyes upwards to look into her face.
"I just want to make sure we're clear on why you want this ring before we take the top off the convertible for good."
"Well that's pretty much of a 'duh,' Buff," Xander drawled. "The man can lie on the sand scoping out the babes in bikinis for years at a time and never get skin cancer. It's like living in a Beach Boys song."
"And if that's the reason, I'm fine with it," Buffy replied evenly, never tearing her eyes away form her beloved's. "Except for the babes in bikinis part, of course. But what I don't want is him taking it just for me, to give me something everyone else tells him I need."
"Princess, we wanted to give you a chance at an easier life," Hank explained. "Both of you."
Buffy finally looked away from Angel's puzzled face to her father's. "Do you mean easier or 'normal', Dad? Because I finally realized I've already had all the 'normal life' I can handle." She began to tick off items on her fingers. "Divorced parents; definitely of the norm these days. I was a cheerleader...until that bloodstone vengeance spell. I got a tattoo, or actually I had it forced on me, and didn't that make a dandy bulls-eye for a demon with a body art fixation?" A slight blush washed her cheeks with color. "And of course there's always my classic high school girl getting drunk at a frat party experience. Can't get more normal than that...well, except for the giant demon snake."
"Is it me, or was there something really Freudian about that last one?" Oz murmured in Willow's ear. She nodded, and motioned him to be quiet.
"And when did you get a tattoo?" Joyce demanded. "Where did you get a tattoo?"
Buffy turned back to Angel. "I know I spent a lot of time telling everybody how much I wanted to be a 'normal girl,' and I'm sorry if I ever made you feel that you didn't fit into that life. The truth was that I didn't, and I don't want to. I want you; that's all. Just the way you are."
Angel slipped his hand free of hers and held the ring up before her. "This won't change me, Buffy. It will only give us more time to do things."
"And is that why you want it?" she asked, staring intently into his eyes. "Angel, no matter what sweet, romantic things you say, I know you didn't give up the first one just because I wasn't there to share it with you. If that was the only reason, you could have taken the ring and been on the highway heading back to Sunnydale five minutes later." She reached up and caressed his cheek. "You destroyed it because you didn't feel like you earned it yet."
He couldn't lie to her. "There were a lot of reasons, but yes, that was one of them."
"And now?" she pressed. "Do you believe you've earned it yet?"
"I...I don't know," he admitted. "Maybe. Sometimes." A deep breath washed through his lungs before he continued, "And sometimes not."
Buffy's hand slipped down his throat and around the back of his neck as she stood on tiptoe and kissed him. He pulled her in close, forgetting both past and present in her arms.
"I do believe you've earned it," she said, nuzzling his neck after the kiss had ended. A moment later she reluctantly pushed herself away and sank back down to her normal height. "But what I believe isn't what matters. And what you think I need from you isn't what matters either. So I can't call you Angel of the morning; big deal." Buffy shrugged her shoulders. "I will live with you in the sunlight, or the darkness, or even under a bridge with the trolls if that's where we end up; I don't care."
"We'd have to kill the trolls," he reminded her, a slight teasing note returning to his voice. "They make lousy neighbors."
"And worse boyfriends," Anya sighed. She sensed Xander stiffen in surprise, and raised her eyebrow at him. "Did you think you were the first boyfriend I've had in eleven hundred years? Even demons get lonely on a cold winter's night...especially before central heating was invented."
Buffy brought her other hand up to Angel's cheek, holding his face fast between her palms as she looked deep into his eyes. As far as she was concerned, there was no one else in the room but they two.
"If taking this ring will make you happy, then take it. I just don't want you to take it for my sake, because I don't need what it can do for us. I just need us."
Angel thought about it for a minute. It was true that he wanted the ring for Buffy's sake, but he also felt a strange longing for it on his own behalf. He wasn't sure if he felt worthy of the forgiveness of the Powers that the other ring seemed to represent, but this one held a much smaller and more meaningful quality of mercy. It was a gift from Buffy's parents, all three of them. Whatever he had done to them, to Buffy, or to the universe at large, they were willing to grant him this much grace.
"I think...I want it for me, too," he said haltingly.
Buffy released a breath she hadn't even realized she was holding, and let her fingers trail down his chest until she could grasp his hands.
"Good," she said. "Then let me be the one to put it on you." She gazed up at him through artfully lowered lashes. "You know, as a practice run for later."
She slipped the ring onto his second finger, and then she continued to hold him by that hand as she led him into the training room. After a quick and silent exchange of glances, the rest of their family and friends crowded in the doorway behind them.
Buffy and Angel marched steadily across the training room to the far wall, where blackout cloths covered the only windows in the apartment. With her free hand Buffy reached up and gently peeled away a section of the cloth.
"Ready?" she asked him, trying to suppress the quaver in her voice.
Angel nodded, not daring to speak. What if the destruction of the necklace also damaged the spell that gave the stone its power? What if the reworking of the gold created an entirely new power in the ring, one that would not protect him from the sun's deadly rays?
Buffy drew a deep breath and opened the window wide, clutching his hand tightly as she moved it towards the light.
"Here goes," she whispered.
Angel felt the sun's heat on his skin, and instinctively he tried to pull his hand free of Buffy's grasp. She held fast, however, and he forced himself to relax. She would never do anything to hurt him; he knew this. And it seemed that the sunlight now numbered among the things that would not hurt him. He flexed his fingers in the warmth, and watched in amazement as his pale skin slid across the bone and did not dissolve. There was no burning sensation, no extraordinary heat or pain. It was just...warm.
Angel laughed abruptly, switching his gaze from his amazing, non-combustible hand to his still more amazing mate.
"It works," he breathed, thrusting his other hand into the light as further proof. "It really works."
Before Buffy could reply, he threw his arms around her and picked her up, swinging her around and around as he continued to laugh. She started laughing too, as she clung to his neck with one arm and grabbed futilely for the blackout curtains with the other hand.
The Scoobies quickly saw what she was trying to do and hurried over to help, ripping the curtains from the walls and throwing them into a corner. Soon the whole room was awash in the clear light of a spring afternoon.
Hank rested his hand on Joyce's shoulder as they watched their only daughter laughing in the arms of their future son-in-law.
"You did a good thing, Joyce," he said softly, nodding at Buffy's bright face.
Buffy's mother was quiet for a moment as she watched the present joyousness and contemplated the uncertain future. "I hope so," she said at length. "I'm still not sure they can make it work...but I guess they deserve the same chance to try that everyone else gets."
"You never know; they may just surprise you." Hank nodded at Giles, inviting the Englishman's support. "Isn't that right, Mr. Giles?"
Giles smiled enigmatically. "After four years of observing wanton demonic destructiveness on an apocalyptic scale, I have come to realize that the day nothing surprises us...is the day to be truly surprised."
"Uh...huh." Hank turned back to Joyce. "Am I supposed to understand what that means?" he whispered.
Buffy was showing off her engagement ring to Willow, Cordelia and Anya, as their assorted boyfriends made a joke of pretending to do the same with Angel's ring. The ensuing protest on the ladies' part instigated a large-scale towel-snapping fight with the blackout curtains used as weapons. The laughing insults and shouts of triumph almost drowned out Joyce's reply.
"I don't understand any of it, Hank, except that she looks happy." Happy surrounded by demons and half-demons and ex-demons and would-be demon hunters, but undeniably happy; Joyce shook her head at the conundrum. "I guess that's all the understanding this mom can hope for." She paused for a beat. "I still want to know more about that tattoo business, though."
* * * * *
Hank settled more comfortably on the sofa cushion Cordelia had graciously fluffed for him. Once she was certain he was on the 'right' side, Angel's assistant had been quite solicitous of his comfort, to the point of making him nervous.
"Are you sure we can't persuade you to stay just a little longer, sweetie?" he asked, setting down the glass of juice he had been literally forced to accept.
His daughter was beaming as she bustled around cleaning up the debris of several days' occupation, but there was no mistaking her firm headshake for assent.
"Sorry, Dad. We've been here longer than we expected anyway, and now I just want to get home." She smiled at Angel, watching him through the training room door as he packed up the weapons Buffy stocked up on with Giles' new retailer's discount. "Mostly, I want to be home when the sun rises tomorrow, and I kind of want to be alone with Angel to see it."
Alone in the garden, at sunrise; the romantic possibilities were endless. She glanced back at her father, who was watching her fondly.
"It's been a long time for him," she explained with a sheepish grin.
"It's all right, Buffy. I really do understand," Hank reassured her. "We all do."
She was enough of a daughter still to hope that he didn't, but the adult in her kept her from saying so.
"We'll go out once the sun sets, just like we planned," she said instead. "We can celebrate you being okay, and Giles' new shop, and then the LA contingent will head home." She cocked an eyebrow at her father. "Unless you're not ready to leave."
Hank laughed, sensing where her mind was heading. "No, honey; I'm not staying either. Not if you're not. Your mom and I have been getting along pretty well, all things considered, but..."
"But you can only consider for so long," she finished for him. "And then someone has to do something."
He nodded somberly. "And that something would be going home. My life is in LA, where you are, and my job, and my home." A smile brightened his solemn face. "And maybe, when I'm ready, there's somebody out there who will look at me the way you look at Angel."
She impulsively gave her father a quick hug. "I hope so, Dad."
"Me too." Hank felt a faint, unexpected heat creep across his cheeks as he continued thinking out loud. "To be honest, before I met...her...I was seeing someone. Well, sort of seeing." He laughed self-consciously, feeling the blush settle over more of his face. "We had a few dinners, and some nice talks."
Buffy quickly abandoned her packing and sat on the arm of the sofa next to her father. "Okay, spill. I want details." She held up her hand before he could speak. "Not, you know, real personal 'when she does this there, it makes me feel all tingly' sort of details that would send any self-respecting daughter howling for her therapist. Just the basic stats: name, place of employment, record of convictions, blood pressure." She shrugged. "The usual."
"Well I think you would know better than I do, actually," Hank admitted. "You introduced me to her. Or Angel did. She is his friend, after all."
It took a moment for Buffy's happiness-intoxicated brain to make the connection.
"Kate?" she whispered. "You're dating...you were dating Kate? Lockley?"
Cordelia caught the strangled question, and Hank's pleased nod of assent, as she walked by on her way to the kitchen. The humor of the situation was not lost on her. Buffy's dad was dating Angel's wannabe-ex, or ex-wannabe, who was also, in Cordelia's opinion, the Ghost Of Buffy Yet to Be. She made a token effort to hold back her snort of laughter, but the look of mingled horror and embarrassment on Buffy's face sent her over the edge.
"Gee, Buffy, I bet your new little brothers and sisters are going to be the spitting image of you." She finally controlled her laughter, with no small difficulty, and turned a blandly smiling face to Hank. "I think it's great you're dating Kate. She and Buffy have a very special relationship; they just have so much in common it's almost spooky."
Buffy grimaced at Cordelia, but a few deep breaths, and the puzzled look on her father's face, brought out her better nature. She had, after all, introduced Kate to Hank, or at least been responsible for them meeting. She had encouraged the police officer to spend time with her father, in the hopes that Kate's good opinion of Angel would rub off. If the end result of that time spent was a mutual affection...well, it was beyond wigworthy, but she would have to deal.
She only hoped her soon-to-hired therapist would find it amusing to learn that Buffy's father was dating a woman not only 15 years younger than he, but a future vision of his own daughter.
"Cordelia's right, Dad," she heard herself saying. "I think it's great too."
And Jerry Springer's audience is going to love it, she continued silently as she gave her father a final hug.
* * * * *
Buffy had very specific plans for the spring evening that heralded the beginning of her new life with Angel, and the majority of them she intended to put into action in her own home in LA. Somehow, though, the quick party to celebrate Giles' new business venture and Hank's new lease on life turned into an informal engagement party, and that created a few problems in the speedy exit department.
She wasn't sure who suggested The Bronze as the appropriate location for the celebration; it certainly wasn't her. But Angel seemed taken with the idea, perhaps because it was a place of mostly happy memories for them. He wanted so badly to make this night special for her, and Buffy knew it would take her a while to convince him that the romance of his proposal had been in no way spoiled by the setting, or their audience. As soon as she ditched said ever-present audience, she intended to start that convincing.
In the meantime, however, she resigned herself to an impromptu party, and resolved to enjoy it. Even if it required showing her parents a facet of her life previously unrevealed: the infamous teenage hangout.
* * * * *
Xander groaned as he stretched his legs out and propped them up on what passed for a coffee table. A chorus of protests followed his movements, as his large feet endangered the safety of several half-full plastic cups.
"Okay, okay," he said, carefully removing his offending appendages. "Jeeze, I was just getting comfy." He nodded to the dance floor. "From the looks of your mom and Giles out there, we're going to be here awhile."
Buffy smiled at the sight of her staid mother and reserved Watcher dancing midst throngs of hormonal teenagers. Despite the periodic, and inevitable, collisions with other couples, they seemed to be doing a credible job of keeping up with the music. It reminded for an instant of the night Giles and her mother had eaten the enchanted band candy and reverted to more "youthful" behavior.
She winced; so not a stop on the Memory Lane Railway she wanted to make.
"Yeah, they seem to be having a...good time," she cautiously agreed. "I hope my dad doesn't feel left out." She turned her head, glancing around the crowded club. "Where is he, anyway?"
"I wouldn't worry about him, Buffy." Angel looked quietly amused as he rested a gentle hand on her arm. "He seems to be having a good time talking to the bartender."
Xander craned his neck to see over the crowd, and let loose an appreciative whistle. "Hey, she's quite a looker, isn't she? Why exactly did we stop hanging out here again?"
"The old bartender," Willow said dryly. "Bob the Beast."
"Not a literal beast, you understand," Anya hastened to assure Doyle. "He was quite offensive, however." She wrinkled her nose. "He actually demanded proof of my age when I asked for a drink. As though I would lie about my age to make myself seem older."
"Well, I don't think Dad is interested in the new bartender any more than he'd be interested in Bob," Buffy said. "Okay, maybe a little bit more," she allowed after a moment, "but not much. He has other fish to fry."
Willow sat up straight in her chair, casting an anxious glance at Oz as she asked, "Do we know the name and/or species this time?"
"Easy, Will. No horned honeys for my Dad this time," Buffy quickly assured her. "He, umm, he's interested in Kate." She glanced at Angel as she repeated, "Kate Lockley."
"You're joking." Mischief sparkled in Doyle's blue eyes as he, too, looked at Angel. "And does the lady share his interest?"
Buffy shrugged, taking a sip of her drink before she answered. "Who knows? He told me they went to dinner a few times, and he seemed to feel it was going somewhere before...well, before Dru."
"Kate and Hank?" Angel asked weakly. "It's kind of hard to picture, but...well, I guess if they're happy...are you sure he said Kate?"
Xander laughed at the confusion on Angel's face. "This makes quite a kink in the family tree, doesn't it, fella?"
Cordelia snorted and shook her head. "Let me count the ways."
"Just think of it," Xander mused with great relish. "Old Hank is working his way through Angel's Little Black Book. And without an immortality net, I remind you." He raised his glass of soda high in the air. "Two thumbs up to the little guy from LA with big dreams!"
"Good thing Darla is dead," Buffy muttered under her breath as Angel started to scowl.
"Kate and I were never anything but friends," the vampire said stiffly. "And as for Dru...she was a lot of things to me, but nothing like you're thinking."
Now it was Buffy's turn to look confused. "Angel, sweetie," she began slowly, "every couple has to deal with past relationships, and when one of the couple has been around for two plus centuries...well, that's a lot of past. And I'm okay with that," she continued, resting her hand over Angel's on her arm. "I really am. So you don't need to make up pretty stories to save my feelings. I, uh, kind of knew you weren't a virgin when we met."
"Buffy, I'm not lying, or trying to spare your feelings." He shifted on the sofa so that he faced her, taking both of her hands in his own as he looked into her eyes. "Dru and I were never lovers. Ever."
It wasn't so much the incredulity on Buffy's face that prompted him to explain further; it was the derisive hoot that burst from Xander's mouth as Cordelia triumphantly exclaimed, "Told you so. Pay up!"
"I've spent all this time telling you guys how I felt like she was my child, and you think I'd sleep with her? I know my demon is vicious and sadistic, but that...that's just plain sick." He swiveled his head to address his next question to Cordelia. "And while I'm flattered that you believe me, Cordy, I'd like to know why you were so sure already."
"She's a brunette." Cordelia shrugged her slim shoulders as though the answer was beyond obvious. "You showed zero interest in me when we met, which was before you and Buffy got all star-crossed lovery, so it was obvious you have a blonde fixation."
Angel nodded slowly, respecting the consistency of her thought processes, if not their validity.
"I don't actually, but I'm glad you believe me." He glanced at the others. "Apparently to the point of staking money on it."
"It was a long time ago. I'd actually forgotten about it until Xander brought this whole thing up." She pointedly looked from Xander to Willow to Oz. "And now some people owe me five bucks for my amazing insight into your character."
Buffy had at last recovered her power of speech. "Why didn't you ever tell me she wasn't an ex?" She clenched her hands into fists within the confines of his grasp. "Did you think it didn't matter to me, or did it slip your mind like it did Cordelia's?"
"Buffy, I'm sorry," he said swiftly, focusing all his attention on his beloved. "After all that I'd done to Dru, the list of what I didn't do seemed sort of insignificant."
"This doesn't make any sense, Angel," Buffy protested. "You guys were together for decades. You mean to tell me you never even tried? And what about Spike? He must have known, so why was always so jealous of your relationship?" She shook her head stubbornly. "It just doesn't wash."
No matter how much she wanted it to.
"Spike believed what we wanted him to believe," Angel answered patiently. "It was a way to pass the time, and I admit keeping him off balance was kind of fun." He grinned at the memories; they were really the only part of being evil he didn't regret. Much. "All right, it was a lot of fun."
"So we talked a good game in front of him," he continued, returning to the present, and his beloved by his side. "You know how easy it is to get into that type of wordplay that's almost foreplay."
Buffy blushed, staring intently at Angel's hands resting over her own. "This isn't about our past," she muttered, "just yours."
"Did you ever see me kiss her?" Angel probed. "Even after I lost my soul, I mean. No, of course you didn't...because I didn't. And if you asked Spike if he ever saw us having sex instead of just talking about it...well, he'd probably tell you he did, but he'd be lying just to hurt you."
She wanted so badly to believe him. After all the times he had shielded Dru, and all the agony he had suffered over her eventual fate, Buffy needed to believe that it was Angel's innate decency, and his massive guilt complex, that drove him to such lengths. After all, he had killed Darla to save Buffy; why would one ex rate the stake and not the other? But wanting didn't always make things so, and she was almost afraid to hope.
"So it was all just some big game, and you never thought to let me in on the rules?"
She had learned the Slayer game plan early: when in doubt, go on the offensive.
Angel grimaced, both at her tone, and at his timing; this was not exactly a conversation he wanted to be having in a crowded club surrounded by their nearest and dearest.
"I didn't sleep with her," he reiterated. "Before I turned her the thought occurred to me; I admit that. But as I was breaking her down, I decided to make her into my 'child,' and that changed everything. Like I said, even my demon isn't that twisted."
"I just can't believe you never told me. Is there anything else you didn't think was important that you'd like to share with the class?"
He lifted one hand to stroke her cheek. "That's what this whole marriage idea is about. Sharing all the little details, learning new things about each other every day."
She fought against the pull of his sweet words; she had a right to her anger, even if that anger was swimming upstream against her overwhelming feeling of 'Yay!'
"Angel, this wasn't a little detail."
"In the grand scheme of things, I think it was." His palm stilled on her cheek, infusing her face with his coolness. "You said it yourself; I have a long past. And most of it was spent without you, because even your grandparents weren't blips on the radar yet during my wilder days." Angel's thumb slipped to the side and gently brushed across her lips. "But my future belongs to you. And I wouldn't have it any other way."
Buffy gazed deep into his eyes, searching for, and finding, the same unstinting honesty he always gave to her. In the past he might have evaded some issues, and shielded her from certain things, but he had never lied about his feelings for her. And she knew that when all else failed her, she could rely on that honesty.
"Me too," she relented, leaning into his caress as one more ghost slipped away into the mist.
"Uh oh, we have a PDA Alert," Xander moaned. "Someone break the mood quick."
Buffy smiled as she stood up, still holding Angel's other hand. "Why don't we just move the mood to the dance floor? I think I hear a slow song starting."
"Mmm, dancing with music. Sounds very exotic." Angel grinned back at her, allowing himself to be led out into the crowd. As soon as they reached the dance floor, however, he took charge, pulling Buffy firmly into his embrace as he guided them through the throng of people.
Cordelia watched them with an unexpectedly fond smile. "That's what I want someday," she murmured, scarcely aware she was speaking out loud.
"Don't worry, darlin'. A few more things to work out, and that could be us." Doyle slid his arm around Cordelia and gently squeezed her shoulder. "Give or take some height and hair color."
She glanced at his merry face, her own mood suddenly serious. "You will talk to him, won't you? Soon?"
Doyle shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I know I should have said something before," he began uncomfortably, "but the time wasn't right."
"And the excuse for today would be?" she asked archly. "He's okay now. And you'll be okay too, once you tell him."
"It's been sort of nice the past few days, not having to think about it," he admitted. "Made me feel like my old self."
"Well, time for the new and improved self," she said, the briskness of her tone not matching her tender gaze. "I'm tired of lying to him, to both of them." She flashed an impudent grin. "Makes me feel like my dad."
"Oh not that. Anything but that," Xander groaned. "No more father issues, please. Been there, angsted that." He rubbed his hands together as he leaned in for the kill. "Now as far as this great big 'thing' you have to tell him, Doyle; why not try it out on the rest of us." He looked to the others for support. "We're bored enough to listen, aren't we guys?"
Doyle shook his head, smiling at Xander's blatant attempt to pry. "Sorry, mate. This is between me and Angel."
* * * * *
On the dance floor, held fast in Angel's embrace, Buffy felt worlds away from any problems, big or small. When they had first arrived at The Bronze, she couldn't wait to leave. But here, now, she couldn't imagine anything more peaceful or relaxing than drifting around a worn tile floor in the middle of a crowd of strangers, lost in her lover's arms.
It wasn't until her parents and Giles interrupted them to say goodnight that she realized how late it had become, and how desperate the need to get on the road was. Sunrise was only a few short hours away, and she and Angel were almost as man hours away from their new home. This was not an acceptable state of being.
After two-and-a-half centuries of darkness, Buffy was not about to let Angel's first glimpse of the sun be from the freeway off-ramp.
* * * * *
The drive back to LA was endless.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time they arranged things: two cars, twice the room for Buffy's things and only one trip required. Now though, as he mechanically drove his overstuffed convertible for two long lonely hours, Angel wished they had taken just one car and driven however many trips it would take, if only it meant they could be together.
He scolded himself for his clinginess; he was a grown man, and then some. He had survived for centuries before he met her, and he had managed for months alone in LA while they were estranged...but that was what it had been. Survival. Managing. When he was with her, it was life, and he begrudged the loss of even a few hours of it.
He tried to keep an eye on Buffy's little Bug while they were on the highway, but she darted in and out of traffic like a firefly on a summer night. He worried about her safety, but he knew she was anxious to get home as he was.
Home. Their home. God, he loved the sound of that.
The miles of highway inevitably melted away, and they began to wend their way through darkened city streets, until they reached a quiet corner on the outskirts of the city proper.
The pale adobe bricks of their new house rose cool and aloof above the surrounding trees, dimly outlined with the aid of small lights scattered along the long curving driveway. Angel parked next to Buffy and slowly climbed out of his car, his eyes fixed on her face. He wanted to catch that first reaction as she took in their new home, knowing it was their home. It had all seemed so different before, when it was just a plan for the future. Now it was the present, now it was reality, and he was going to treasure every moment of it.
"It's wonderful," she said breathlessly, turning to smile at him. "It's really real this time, isn't it? Forever?" She held out her hand, but he wrapped his arms around her instead, resting his cheek on the top of her head as she burrowed into his chest.
"Forever," he agreed fervently, resolutely closing his mind to his old definition of the word. There would be no more shadows between them, and no more separations. They would be together on this earthly plane for as long as they were allowed, and if her time came before his, he would follow wherever she went.
"Let's go in. We're wasting all this fantastic alone time on the front lawn." The smile she turned on him was as playful as a child's, but he could see the intent of the woman underneath.
Without warning, he leaned over and swept her up into his arms. "I know it's not official yet, but I want to carry you over the threshold."
"You are such the romantic," she gloated, settling into his embrace.
His romantic gesture was somewhat tarnished by the modern day inconveniences of deadbolts and burglar alarms, but together they managed to combat technology without losing hold of one another. Angel gently set Buffy down on the stone floor in their foyer, and turned to close the heavy wooden door. A moment later he felt two warm arms slide around his waist as she molded herself to his back.
"Never, ever, ever going to move," she murmured into his back. "I finally have everything I want right here."
"I agree with the part about having everything we could want," he said softly, "but if we're never ever going to move from the hallway, can I at least be facing you? It might work better." When her arms obligingly loosened just enough to allow him to turn and face her, he continued, "You know we can probably do better than the hallway for comfort too. The furniture has been delivered, and I made up the bed before I left for Sunnydale. I had a feeling we weren't going to be spending a lot of time housekeeping the first few weeks."
"Try the first few decades." She stood on tiptoe to brush his lips with a kiss. "I have much better ways to show how much I adore you than rearranging the furniture."
He was in the process of obtaining a more detailed explanation of her housekeeping alternatives when they heard a knock on the door.
"No, no, no," she groaned, pressing her face into his shoulder. "It's our first night; I don't want to play the good little hostess." She raised her head to grin mischievously at him. "Unless you're playing the sexy mysterious stranger seeking shelter from the storm and I..."
"We have to answer the door," he said hastily, extricating himself from her embrace before it was too late. He risked a quick brush of his knuckles across her cheek to tease away her pout. "I'll get rid of them, sweetheart. Whoever it is, I will get rid of them right away."
Buffy could tell he was sincere, and she trusted his word absolutely...until she saw that their guests were Doyle and Cordelia. There were some people her beloved simply could not turn away, and right now the top two (after herself, of course) were standing on her doorstep.
"Out, get out!" she commanded futilely, pointing at the door. "We just got home and we have things to do."
"Anything we can help with?" Doyle asked hopefully. He winced when Cordelia smacked him on the arm and Buffy glared.
"I think we can handle this on our own," the Slayer snapped.
"Why don't we let Doyle and Cordy tell us why they're here, quickly," Angel stressed, "and then they can leave. I mean go home. I mean...I don't mean to sound unfriendly but..."
"But we just got home," Buffy reiterated, crossing her arms over her chest and tapping her foot. "So state the nature of your demonic emergency in twenty-five words or less, and then make with the feet moving backwards towards the door."
"And to think you weren't voted Miss Congeniality at the prom. Go figure." Cordelia would have said more, but she sensed Buffy was just a trifle tense.
"Hey, I have an even better idea," Angel said hastily. "Why don't you save whatever this is for Monday at the office? It's not life or death, is it?"
"No, it's not life or death," Doyle answered slowly, "but it's kind of about why it can't wait until Monday at the office. I, uh, won't be there."
"You came over at four a.m. to tell us you won't be at work two days from now? You mean Cordelia hasn't introduced the concept of a telephone to you?" Buffy had gone from annoyed to outraged with her usual Slayer speed.
"It's more about why I won't be there." Doyle looked everywhere but at Angel. He couldn't bear to see the concern he knew would be in those dark eyes.
"Why don't we all sit down and you can explain," Angel suggested, gently guiding Buffy toward the living room and motioning the others to follow. When they were all seated, he nodded at Doyle to continue.
"I won't be there Monday, or any day after that actually, unless it's just to say howdy," Doyle said awkwardly.
"You're quitting?" Angel couldn't mask the shock in his voice.
Doyle met his eyes at last. "It's time, Angel. You know it as well as I do; you don't need me anymore. I was sent to you for a reason, and now that reason no longer applies."
"I don't understand." Buffy glanced quickly at Angel's frozen face before she confronted Doyle. "You're leaving because of me? Because you feel like you don't have a place at the office anymore because I'm here? That is so not true, Doyle."
"I'm not being a sore loser; truly I'm not. This is the way it was meant to be," Doyle protested. "The Powers sent me to help Angel get back on the path; he stumbled just a bit when you two broke up. Now he's on his way, and you're back together, so I've done what I came to do. It's time for me to move on."
"You knew about this." Angel directed his bewildered gaze at Cordelia. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Cordelia blushed and shrugged her shoulders. "It was Doyle's secret, not mine, and he didn't even tell me the whole story until this week. I just knew he's been all weird and up with the power-brooding since he got back from Santa Marisa."
"That's what started it," Doyle agreed. "I realized a lot about myself when I was leading those Scourge away from here, and most of it wasn't too comfortable." He stood up and began to pace. "I got off easy when it comes to the demon half of myself. It didn't manifest until I was a grown man, and I can control it most of the time, so I never had to deal with the kind of fear and discrimination most demons do. The Scourge never would have come looking for me if I didn't come looking for them first."
"But that's part of what we're about," Angel protested. "We fight the darkness, and things that thrive in it, like fear and prejudice. Why are you walking away from all that?"
"I'm not; I just have my own way to fight. You and Buffy, you fight with your fists, and that works for you. I'm a teacher, Angel, even though I made myself forget that for a time. I'm not meant to fight evil full-blown and full-grown; I'm supposed to stop it from forming."
"What are you talking about?" Buffy didn't mean to snap at him, but the pain on Angel's face was tearing her apart.
Doyle ran a hand through his dark hair, trying to find the words to explain his revelation.
"When I first found out I was half-demon, I thought 'that's it; I'm evil.' Demons are evil; everyone knows that. But I'm not evil; never was, unless you talk to Sister Augustine, my first grade teacher." He grinned reminiscently. "Now she might tell you a different story, but I say I'm just a regular fella, because that's what I was taught to be. I think there are a lot of other demons out there who might be the same, if you give them half a chance. Teach them when they're young to be good joes and there might be a few less demons you two will have to kill."
He threw himself back down on the sofa next to Cordelia and waited for a rebuttal.
"Doyle, I understand what you're saying about you," Buffy began, "and obviously we know that not all demons are evil, but aren't there, umm, types of evil demons? I mean, Giles has all these books that talk about demons, and some of them are listed as evil and some are nice."
"Buffy, try to think of them as pitbulls," Cordelia said kindly.
"Hey!" Doyle and Angel yelped at the same time.
"I just mean that they have this really bad rep, but they can be perfectly nice, if you train them to be," she explained with exaggerated patience. "I think Doyle is trying to say demons are the same way."
Angel recognized the look of determination on Doyle's face; the decision was made and all that was left were the details. "So you're going to teach them what exactly?"
"Reading, writing, math; just what I'm certified to teach, and maybe a bit more. I can only teach the little ones, at least at first, but once they learn the basics they can teach themselves whatever they want. The important thing is to get them together, thinking like a community." He leaned forward, arms waving as he painted the future in the air. "Demons fight among themselves a lot because they think of themselves as separate. If they learn together as children, maybe they can work together as adults. And if they don't feel like they have to fight to survive, maybe they won't be so rough on the human beings that cross their paths either."
"That's really great, Doyle. I mean it." Angel smiled wistfully as he held out his hand to his friend. "I only wish we could offer you a little student of our own some day, but that's..."
"Not going to happen, for a lot of reasons," Buffy finished firmly. She wound her arms around Angel's and leaned her head on his shoulder, trying to let her resolve flow through to him. They already had so much more than most; why quibble about the few things they could not have?
Angel focused on the untroubled light shining steadily from his beloved's eyes. There was a deep sense of peace there, for perhaps the first time since he had met her. As much as he wanted to give Buffy the world, including the children he never could, maybe it was enough to give her the love in his heart. And if letting go of old dreams was the price for that glow in her eyes, it was one he would gladly pay.
If only he could be sure Doyle's reward would be as great.
"Doyle, I'm not trying to argue you out of this or anything, but how can you be so sure this is the right thing for you, or that now is the time? What about the visions?"
The Irishman shrugged, leaning back in his seat. "What about them?"
"Aren't they why you were sent to me in the first place?" Angel persisted. "What happens to them now?"
"Angel, I haven't had a vision since the Scourge," Doyle said gently. "After we took care of them, Buffy decided to move here and I think the Powers decided my work was done. You get enough business though word of mouth these days, and trouble has a way of looking you up. I wouldn't worry about the books."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know, I know. I just mean it's another sign that you don't need me anymore, and it's time for me to go." He offered a crooked smile. "Even Obi Wan had to leave Luke at some point."
"Umm, Doyle, bad example," Buffy pointed out with a wince. "He kind of went out on the wrong end of a lightsaber."
"And what about you?" Angel switched his focus to Cordelia. "Are you planning on seeking greener-skinned pastures too?"
She looked surprised by the question. "Me? Teach at the little portal on the prairie? Not on the likely."
Buffy grinned. "What would she teach them anyway? Make-up tips?"
"Well better me than you, Miss I-Wear-Red-Lipstick-With-Pink-Leather-Pants," Cordelia sniffed. "As though the pink leather pants weren't bad enough."
"Hey, those pants were..."
"Cordelia's job is her choice," Doyle interjected hastily. "This is something I need to do for me."
"Are you okay for finances?" Angel asked hesitantly. "I mean, where is this school going to be? Do you need help with the rent?"
Doyle chuckled as he shook his head. One minute Angel was trying to save him from himself, and the next he was offering to finance the venture. You had to admire the man's loyalty.
"I already have a place fixed up in West Hollywood. David Nabbitt came through with the cash; I think he must figure it's insurance against other people getting into trouble with demons like he did. I'll be okay."
"Though, you know, if you still want to do that little credit card deal for a bookstore," Cordelia added hastily, "we won't complain. And you know I'm worth it." She smiled with a complete, and strangely endearing, lack of humility.
"It won't be the same around the office without you," Angel said wistfully.
"Or the sewers," Buffy added, trying to lighten the mood. "Who else is going to help Cordy over the puddles?"
"I'll buy her some hip boots for her birthday," Doyle promised, crossing his heart as he winked at her. "It's not like you'll never see me, you know; we're still pals. I may even still bring you some business. But I need to strike out on my own now and so do you Angel. You have a whole new life starting with Buffy, and it's just what you've always wanted. You need to concentrate on that, and not worry about a half-demon Irishman who wandered your way."
"You did a whole lot more than that Doyle, and you know it." Angel smiled ruefully at the memories. "You saved me. I was sinking fast when I came to LA, but you made me look outside my own pain and that was a lifeline."
"And now it's time for him to start throwing them at other people. I mean demons. Well, people-like demons. Is that an offensive term?" Cordelia turned to Doyle in confusion.
Doyle grinned at her as he pulled her to her feet. "Why don't we discuss it on the way home, love. I think these two need some time alone, and so do we."
"Oh right." Cordelia nodded sagely. "We have wallpaper for the classroom to pick out." Over Doyle's shoulder, she winked at Buffy as Doyle groaned.
"What have I done?" the Irishman moaned as he led Cordelia from the house.
"Get used to that phrase!" Buffy called after him as she shut the door behind them. Turning to Angel, the smile fell from her face. "How are you holding up?"
Angel took a moment to consider the question, knowing she deserved the complete truth. "I think that I think he's right," he said slowly. "And I know I envy his certainty that he is." He grinned and shook his head. "I'm going to miss him, though."
"He was your first friend in a long time," she said as she crossed over to him. Sliding into his waiting arms, she rested her chin on his chest and stared up into his dark eyes. "He won't be the last, though; you have to know that. I bet there's a whole bunch of people out there willing to be friends with a great guy like you, if you'll just let them in."
"How about I settle on a few of unusual quality," he compromised. "You being the first and most important, of course."
"Of course," she agreed solemnly, sealing the pact with a kiss.
* * * * *
"And so, my first and finest friend, what do we do now?" Angel's left hand snaked out and turned the brass lock on the old door with a definitive snap. "We have the house to ourselves; no guests, no work, no family crises." His lips met hers once more as he murmured against them, "How ever shall we pass the time?"
Buffy returned his kiss with considerable enthusiasm before she answered, "Wedding plans!"
Angel groaned, slave to an instinct even older than he. "Isn't that what you're supposed to be talking to Willow and Cordelia about?" he asked desperately. "Or your mother maybe. It sounds much more like a mother-daughter sort of thing."
She tilted her head, staring quizzically at him. "Honey, you're not going to start turning all eighteenth century guy on me now that we're using the 'M' word, are you? Because it's kind of cute in small doses, like when you pull out a chair for me, or kill a bug or something. But I'm not exactly an old-fashioned girl."
To prove her point, her hands began a southerly journey along his back destined for regions the "nice" girls of his youth didn't even dare name.
"Point taken," he said with some difficulty, surrendering to the inevitable in more ways than one. "But do we have to talk about it...now?"
She grinned at the husky tone in his voice. "Relax, big guy; I know we have better things to do this morning. I just wanted to make sure we're on the same page of our wedding album first. How does Tahoe at Christmas sound?"
She rested her cheek against his shoulder and began to sway slightly, almost as though they were dancing. Angel groaned again, this time more in anticipation than dread, but he retained enough command of himself to consider her suggestion.
"You want snow, don't you?"
"Oh yeah," she sighed. "That was wonderful day. Miracles on the hellmouth; go figure." She stopped swaying and looked up at him very seriously. "That's when I knew that there would be a way out for us. It didn't come as quickly, or as easily as I wanted...but I knew it was meant to be."
That day lived clearly in Angel's memory too; a day began in raw despair that somehow ended in a gentle semblance of peace. He could still see the anguish in Buffy's hazel eyes as she fought for his life, until the falling flakes washed it clean, leaving wonder in its place. He remembered brushing the cold crystals from her hair, her face, her lips; savoring each chance to touch his dream made flesh, because he knew this fantasy could not survive the inevitable daylight.
He could only thank the Powers that such fleeting moments were enough to sustain her faith, at a time when he had so little else to offer.
"I didn't know; I just hoped," he confessed with a soft laugh. "Or at least what I called hoping at the time. I, uh, wasn't very good at it back then."
She pressed a tender kiss to his cool mouth, exulting in the curve of his increasingly frequent smile beneath her lips. "You've improved like a thousand percent about that; trust me. So Tahoe is okay? With the gang in tow, of course."
"Yes to both," he promised swiftly. "I will marry you wherever and whenever you choose. On the top of a mountain at dawn, or a cathedral at high noon, or...or in the middle of Super Bowl Sunday, if you that's what you want."
"Super Bowl, huh? Greater love hath no man," she commented dryly. "Though you're not much of a football fan, so maybe you're just hoping for a small turnout."
"Okay, since you doubt me, how about: I would marry you in the middle of the game in the middle of the stadium itself..."
"Ouch. Even Slayers dent, you know."
Angel took a playful nip at her lower lip. "I don't care about the where, Buffy, or the how, just that it happens." He smoothed his hands down her sides, pulling her flush against his body. "For right now, though, I was thinking of a more, umm, tangible expression of the...one-ness...that we want our marriage to mean," he continued, flashing her an impudent grin.
"Right now I want to go into the garden," she said hastily, abandoning her teasing for more important considerations. "The sun is going to be up soon, and I want to see you when you see it." Among other things, she continued to herself.
It wasn't quite the way Angel wanted to greet the new day, but he quickly realized there would be compensations.
"I warn you, love; it's going to be a dull show. Because all I want to do is watch the way the light shines on your face." Angel lightly stroked her cheek. "It's been a long time since I've seen that. Too long."
Buffy clasped her hand over his and clung tightly to him. "Come on," she whispered
Together they strolled down the cool stone hallway to the French doors that opened into the courtyard. The garden was still in darkness; the first streaks of dawn were just beginning to appear on the slate grey sky. Buffy led Angel over to a wrought iron bench, and gently pushed him down on it, sliding onto his lap once he was settled.
Angel wrapped his arms around Buffy's waist and held her close, watching the growing light gradually reveal her face to his loving eyes.
"I've waited so long for this," he murmured, marveling at the rosy glow creeping across her features.
Buffy nodded somberly, picturing the endless days spent in darkened rooms, while life moved past his shuttered windows. While he was a "practicing" vampire, it wouldn't have been so bad, but to the souled Angel, it must have been torture.
"I'll bet you have," she whispered in reply. "But now you can have all the sunshine you want, whenever you want. We can go on picnics, or to the beach, or even fight demons that are afraid of the dark. Whatever gives you a happy."
"You make me happy," he said firmly, running a fond hand down her tanned cheek. "Anyway, it's not the sun I meant. I've spent so long wanting to be human again, and suddenly, even if I'm really not, I feel more like it than I ever did. Ever," he emphasized.
She kissed the corner of his mouth. "Why the 'Helen spells water' moment now after all this time?"
"I think it's because I finally understand what I was really looking for. I spent so long wanting to be human for you; I wanted a pulse and a heartbeat and grey hairs some day, and wrinkles." He looked away for an instant. "I wanted to be the father of your children." A deep pull of air into his lungs gave him a moment's respite before he looked into her eyes again. "Those things will never happen, but I'm okay with that. Mostly. Because that's not what being a human really means. That's just being mortal."
"So what's the big revelation, then?" Buffy ran her fingers through his shock of silky dark hair, wondering what it would look like when the sun's rays began to leave their mark. Would the highlights be red or gold? She couldn't wait to see.
"Do you know the meaning of life now?" As though there was one beyond this hard-won moment.
He lifted a lock of her hair in return, and brushed it across the tip of her nose. Someday these golden strands clinging to his fingertips would be frosted with silver, and he would be there to see it. And when the silver turned to white, he would still be there to see it. Seeing it, reveling in it, and counting such pleasures among his greatest blessings.
"Not hardly...but I think that's the point. There is no one answer, because it's not about the answers; it's about the questions. And about getting the wrong answers, but still trying to get the right ones."
"Well we can do that," she said lightly. "I am so the right woman for getting wrong answers; just ask any of my old teachers."
Angel couldn't help his foolish grin; he loved her casual use of the word 'we.'
"I think the good Father Hanratty would have said almost the same thing about me," he volunteered. "Actually I think he did. Repeatedly. So I guess that means together 'we' should have no problems with this life stuff."
"You just said a mouthful," she agreed with a sharp nod of her head. "And don't you ever forget it, mister."
"Never again, love," he promised, slipping his hand beneath the warm hair at the nape of her neck.
She needed little urging to give in to the gentle pressure of his hand guiding her head down to his. Angel felt the heat of the sun slowly warming his cool flesh, but it was not half so intense as the light of Buffy's smile as her lips met his in their first kiss of this new day, in their new life.
And pulse or not, Angel was human enough to be glad no one else could see the rest of her plan to greet the dawn. There were some parts of their life he intended to keep private despite their continual audience, even if he had to dig a moat around the house to regulate the flow of traffic.
He and Buffy had both made a lot of mistakes on the path to this new life, and more than once they had done so at someone else's instigation. But despite their best efforts to avoid destiny, somehow they had stumbled into their own little happy never-ending. From this moment on, Angel wasn't planning on letting anyone else, however well intentioned, help them write this fairytale.
So tomorrow the moat. For today, at least he had remembered to lock the door.
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