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The Road Home

by Gem

Disclaimer: I wish the characters were mine, but theyíre not. I have every intention of returning them to Joss when I get a life.
Spoilers: Everything up to "The Initiative."
Rating: PG13 I guess (it's pretty mild)


Part One

Cordelia smiled to herself as she popped the tape into the miniature tape player and hit "PLAY." She glanced quickly at her watch, beginning the countdown as a familiar voice filled the shadowy office.

"Hi Cordy, itís me," the voice began.

"Five."

"I donít know why..."

"Four."

"you wanted to keep..."

"Three."

"in touch this way, but..."

"Buffy?" Angel said as he burst into the room, shooting lightning glances all around the room for her.

Cordelia looked up from her watch and smiled even more. "Youíre early. I guess youíre even worse off than I thought." She hit the "STOP" button and prepared for the storm.

"Whereís Buffy?" he asked urgently. "And what are you talking about?"

"Oops, sorry," she replied, not looking one bit sorry. "No Buffy, just Memorex." She pointed to the tape player. "I thought you might like to hear the tape she sent me, so I brought it in to work with me."

If Cordelia thought her smile projected innocence, her acting career was destined to be over before it began, Angel reflected sourly as he threw himself in a chair.

"You thought I might like to hear it," he repeated slowly, wanting to clarify his grounds for justifiable homicide.

Cordelia decided to take pity on him at that point, big sad husk of a vampire that he was. "Listen, youíre in one of your Brooding Guy moods again, and theyíre getting worse. And more frequent. Any time you see a little blonde, or martial arts, or even my bra strap, for peteís sake, it brings you back to her. Now I happen to know the one thing that picks you up from one of these episodes is calling Buffyís house and just listening to her answer." She held up a hand to forestall his instinctive expression of outrage. "Donít ask how I know, just know that Mrs. Summers is about one call away from changing the number because sheís afraid sheís being stalked."

"I never meant to scare her," Angel said uncomfortably. He stood up and began to pace, carefully steering a path to avoid the sunlight filtering in through the partially covered windows. "I just needed..."

"To hear her voice," Cordelia finished for him. "Look, I understand. Thatís why I called Buffy and asked her to start taping letters and send them to me. She doesnít know Iím working for you I asked Oz not to tell her. She just thinks Iím lonely, and I know sheís lonely, because contrary to the myth about being able to tell best friends everything, she canít talk to Willow about you."

Angel stopped pacing long enough to glance at Cordelia. "Why not?"

"Willow is still pretty mad at you for dumping Buffy. And she thinks this is Buffyís chance to move on. You know, date guys with a pulse."

"It is," he replied softly, resuming his restless prowl of the office.

Cordelia noticed sunlight wasnít the only thing he was avoiding he was carefully staying away from her desk and the temptation of the tape player. "Please," she said in exasperation. "If she had any interest in anyone else, any real interest, she would have pursued it one of the many times she dumped you. She wouldnít have waited until you made her feel like three-day-old cat food to put herself on the market."

Angel winced at her summary of the end of his relationship with Buffy. "Sheís dating again," he said defensively. "Spike said so. She even..." His mind closed down at this point, unwilling to bear the images Spikeís words created. Not his Buffy. Now truly not his Buffy, if Spike was to be believed.

Cordelia made an inarticulate expression of disgust. "Spike," she said dismissively. "You canít trust him. I mean, the man was trying to torture you. Short of telling you he killed her, which you wouldnít have believed, how else was he going to get to you?"

Angel hated himself for the surge of joy her words gave him. "So you donít think..."

Uh oh, Cordelia thought, went a little too far with that one. She spoke quickly, to save Angel the embarrassment of articulating a very private pain she couldnít fix. "I think she still loves you," she said carefully. "And I think if she makes a few mistakes in her loneliness, you shouldnít take that to mean she loves you any less."

Angelís face fell as her words sunk in. Spike had been telling the truth, and she was still lonely to boot. He hadnít thought it possible to hate anyone so much, but if he had a stake handy heíd gladly put in his own chest to even the score for the pain he caused his beloved.

Cordelia sighed and picked up the tape recorder. She held it out to Angel with a small smile. "Take this and play it. Listen to her voice, and get answers to all the questions you wonít let yourself ask her. She talks about her classes, and dorm life, and the parties on campus...all the stuff you wanted her to experience."

Angel stared at Cordeliaís outstretched hand, wondering if his penance allowed him the joy of hearing Buffyís voice again, outside of his dreams. He was trying so hard to make amends, and make himself worthy of the love she had given him. It hurt almost more than he could bear, knowing heíd never hold her again, or touch her, or feel her touch him. But he wouldnít let his sins hurt her anymore the suffering was to be his alone. And part of that suffering was letting her go, as much as he was able.

Cordelia grabbed his hand and placed the tape player in it. "Angel, itís not a sin. I know you were trying to be all noble, giving her up for her own good, but nobody asked you to."

"Youíre wrong," he replied softly, closing his fist around the recorder.

Cordelia was confused she thought she had the full story. "But Buffy said...the Mayor...you mean someone asked you to leave her?"

"Cordelia," Angel began, but he was halted by Cordeliaís astonishingly quick solution of the puzzle. Really, he thought, they had underestimated her brain for far too long.

"Her mom, thatís who it was. Iím right. arenít I?" she asked with a triumphant smile, which faded when she saw the pain in his dark eyes. "That must have really hurt." She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder in sympathy.

"Why I left doesnít matter now. I did, and sheís moving on and itís not fair of me to cling to her like this." Angel hoped his voice sounded calm, because his heart and soul were screaming from the pain as he tried to give the tape player back to Cordelia.

"My God, you are the most stubborn vampire I have ever met," she exclaimed. She waved away his hands, then crossed her arms. "After all the trouble I had convincing Buffy I missed hearing from her, and that I had to hear her voice, of all things, you are going to listen to that tape, mister. I donít do these random acts of kindness things as a rule, so when I do, I want it appreciated. Now go." She pointed to his private office. "Listen to her voice, wallow in misery for awhile, and emerge the better vampire for it. I mean man."

He still wasnít moving.

"I said go. A half-hour of happiness wonít kill you, at least not this kind of happiness. It wonít wreck your penance gig, either, because Iím sure youíll torture yourself that much more for having been at peace a little while. And by the time youíve worn yourself out with the mea culpas, the next tape will have arrived."

She pushed a semi-unwilling Angel towards his office. He looked over his shoulder as she prodded him. "The next tape?"

"Well duh. Like Iím going to say ĎOh Buffy, please send me a letter on tape, but just once.í Sheís going to be sending them every week or two, so you better get out the old hair shirt. I am going to cheer you up or kill you trying."

****

Angel gently laid the tape player down on his desk and stared at it for a moment. He jumped and spun around when the door opened behind him, only to see Cordelia pop her head in.

"Doyle is taking me to lunch. A long lunch, so youíll have the office to yourself for a while. And Iíve put the machine on and turned down the phone, so you wonít be bothered by anyone else either. Enjoy!"

Cordelia pulled back from the doorway and closed the door behind her, leaving Angel alone in the dimly lit office with the tape, and his memories.

He settled himself in his big leather chair and pushed "PLAY," then spun his chair to face the window. If he was going to do this, he was going to pretend she was really in the room with him, not just a little tape player and a 99-cent tape.

With a click, the tape began.

"Hi Cordy, itís me. I donít know why you wanted to keep in touch this way, but I suppose this is one less thing I have to type, so it canít be all bad. Of course I find it hard to believe you miss the sound of my voice that much, but you always seem to surprise me."

Angel smiled at the wry tone in her voice, the one that mixed affection with exasperation. He closed his eyes to picture her sitting cross-legged on her bed, talking to him. The sunlight was caressing her blonde locks, the way he wished he could, and Mr. Gordo, her stuffed pig, was comfortingly close at hand.

"So, you wanted to know how college is. Gee, where to begin. Umm, my first roommate was a demon, a literal one, but her father came to bring her back to hell, so Willow and I are roomies now."

Angelís eyes snapped open and he glanced at the tape in alarm. Buffyís voice continued calmly, however, so he forced his eyes shut again

"Classes are okay. Well, theyíre sort of okay. I mean theyíre a little hard, and thereís an awful lot of reading involved, which is kind of hard to fit in between stakings, but you remember how that is. Same old same old. I can deal."

There was a pause, and Angel was afraid this was going to be a very brief reunion with his beloved. Then Buffy continued in a much more serious tone.

"Okay, Cordy, Iím going to be straight with you. Iím not sure why I mean itís not like we were such great friends back in high school. But we were friends, and the one thing I learned about you is that you have no appreciation for gilding the lily. Thereís no point in lying to you anyway, because you donít need to hear that everything is okay, like my mom, or Willow, or Giles."

Angel covered his eyes with his hand as he heard Buffy sigh deeply. She sounded so lost and alone to him this wasnít the way it was supposed to be.

"College sucks. My great experiment with a normal life sucks. My classes are hard, and my professors donít seem to like me much. Nothing new there, I guess. Willow is a terrific roommate, and Iím grateful the demon Mariah Carey fan is gone, but thatís been about the high point. My mom has turned my old room into a stockroom for her gallery, so obviously sheís not exactly crippled by the Empty Nest Syndrome. Neither is Giles, actually. Every time I go to him for help, the first thing he says is ĎBuffy, Iím not your Watcher anymore. Youíre an adult now.í He does help eventually, but itís not the same. Nothing is the same."

Angel tried to swallow the lump in his throat as he heard the tears behind Buffyís voice.

"Most of all...God, most of all I miss him. I canít believe how hard it is to get from one day to the next without seeing him. Knowing Iíll never see him again, probably. Youíd think this summer would have been practice, but somehow summers arenít real. Theyíre limbo, and now limbo is over and Iím faced with daily life without him. I canít even talk to Willow about it, because sheís so set on me starting a brand new Ďnormal life,í whatever that is. She wants me to go to parties, and out on dates, and I try, but Iím so wretched at it."

There was another long pause, then Buffy began the part of the monologue Angel had been dreading.

"I actually only went out on one date, but it was such a disaster...Well, I thought it was okay at first, to be honest. It wasnít until the next morning that I realized what an incredible idiot Iíd been. Wait, no, to be really honest, it still took a few days for the light to dawn. You see, I decided to pretend to be Faith for a night and just live for the moment. I know, great role model, but it was the only way I thought I could get through it without screaming, and I really needed to take that first step. Except the guy was a jerk, and he didnít call the next day, which, come to think of it, is usually what happened to Faith too. I kept thinking heíd call, though, so I guess I was a jerk too, or at least incredibly stupid. I just couldnít believe it didnít mean anything to him, though I donít know why since all it meant to me was..."

Angel sat up and uncovered his eyes again, as though staring at the tape player would force her to continue.

"A milestone, I guess," she said at last. "Shallow to the core, thatís me. I just wanted to sleep with someone so I could say, ĎLook, Iím moving on. Iím having sex with other guys.í Arenít I so mature?"

He winced at the self-loathing in her voice. He wanted so badly to take her in his arms right now and make all that pain go away, but it was there because of him. He tried so hard to do the right thing for a change, and he ended up hurting her even more. Nice going Angel, he reflected bitterly, you screwed up in reverse. Typical.

"But at least Willow is happy now, and so is my mom. Of course Mom doesnít know all the sordid details, and Willow is ready to team up with Anya to put a whammy on Parker, but theyíre still happy that Iím moving on. The thing is, Iím not. Oh, I try. Iím out there every day, talking to guys, going to parties, having fun. You know, normal life stuff. But every night I go back to my room and write in my diary the thousand things Iíd tell Angel if he were here. Some of them arenít very nice, I admit. Mostly I tell him I miss him, and I love him, and if Iíd known he would eventually make me take the normal life over him, I never would have bitched about wanting one." Her voice became very soft and wistful. "I wish heíd let himself believe all I ever really wanted was him."

There was a tremulous sigh on the tape, as Angel struggled against the tears forming in the corners of his eyes.

"Iím sorry, Cordy. This probably is not what you were looking for in the way of communication, but I guess I needed someone to talk to besides a diary. Feel free to tell me to keep my venting to myself, if you even feel like replying to this self-pity fest. Somehow or other, I will get through this I always do. Bye."

There were a few minutes of whirring as the tape spun itself to the end, time enough for Angel to reach into his desk drawer to pull out a picture frame. It was a curved double Lucite frame, with two very different pictures of Buffy in it. On the left, a studio portrait, very formal, but with a slightly wry, "my mom made me do this" expression. On the right was his favorite picture, which he now gently caressed. It was a candid Willow had taken of her last spring, and while the photography had its flaws, the subject was perfect in his eyes. Willow had taken it from a slight distance, over his shoulder, as he was approaching Buffy, so her eyes had the look which shut out the rest of the world except they two. Her smile was the one meant for him alone, and her arms were outstretched to pull her to him. For a few minutes, Angel could look at that picture and tune out the rest of his miserable existence as he communed with his memories.

Until the tape player clicked off and he was snapped back to the real world, all alone with nothing but his memories.

"Oh God, baby, I miss you so much," he whispered to the darkness enveloping him

****

Cordelia hummed softly, and off-key, as she placed the latest missive from U.C. Sunnydale on Angelís desk. Over two months and Buffy was still pouring out her heart on tape for Angelís benefit. Everything was going perfectly. She turned around to leave the empty office...and ran straight into Doyle.

"That the latest?" he asked sharply, jerking his head towards the desk. He made no move to get out of Cordeliaís way, much to her annoyance.

"Why yes it is," she purred, knowing that would annoy him. "Jealous because no one sends you any mail?"

"No one sends him any either," he pointed out. "She thinks sheís talking to you."

Cordelia sniffed and slid past him in the narrow doorway, certain she was giving him an undeserved cheap thrill by doing so. "All that matters is sheís talking about him. I donít think he really notices she uses my name at all."

"And heís still not noticing much after he hears the tape either. Your romantic meddling is going to get him killed one of these days." Doyle perched on the edge of Cordeliaís desk as she began to sort the other mail.

"Heís already dead," Cordelia said airily, holding an envelope up to the light to see if a check or a bill was enclosed. When Doyle did not respond, she gave up her pretense of unconcern and prepared for a long delayed talk.

"Look Doyle, youíve only known Angel a few months. Now I donít think anyone really knows him but Buffy, but Iím certainly more of an expert than you, and I know this is helping."

"How? Heís depressed until a tape arrives, then heís distracted by what she says, and doesnít say, then heís back to depressed again because itís going to be another week till the next one. How is he better off than before? We should be trying to get him to move on, not cling to a past he canít get back or a future he canít have."

"Who says?" Cordelia flashed. She stood up, hands on hips and ready for battle. "Where does it say he doesnít get a happy ending? He did a millennium in hell for things he did in a hundred and forty years. I think his debt to society is paid. And Buffy didnít do anything at all why should she suffer?"

"She shouldnít suffer, she should move on," Doyle explained patiently, as though to a small and exceedingly slow child. "And itís written in his curse, thatís where. No happiness, remember?"

"Then according to you heís doing great, so there!"

"Cordelia..." Doyle sighed, but he was not allowed to go any further.

"Besides, some of us arenít too sure about that happiness clause. Oz remembers that curse word for word, heís funny that way, and heís checking it out with some of Michaelís witch friends, to see if Jennyís curse has the clause. If it does, heíll have them find a way to get rid of it. You see, Iím not as dumb as you think I am. I have a plan."

Doyle stood up and began to pace the small outer office. "And just what plan is that, darliní? Find a cure that doesnít exist for a problem that never should have existed?"

Cordelia came around from behind the desk and grabbed Doyle by the collar of his leather jacket, forcing him to look her in the eye. "Iím going to make him crazy with those tapes, until he has to confront her. Once theyíre together again, whether itís talking or shouting, eventually they will realize they canít live without each other. Hopefully, by then, Oz and his friends will have found a way around the loophole. If not we just tell them itís in the works, and they have to be patient." She released her stranglehold on Doyle and turned away. "Not exactly what they excel at, patience I mean, but they will if it means they get to be together."

"Youíre pinning your hopes on a dream, girl," he said softly to her back. "A couple of them, actually. One, that he will let himself near her. Two, that she still really wants him, and not just a romantic memory. Three, that your friends can find a cure. Four, that..."

Cordelia whirled around to smite his calm, rational assessment with sheer force of will a will forged by almost two decades of getting everything sheíd ever wanted just because she wanted it.

"Hey, I come from Sunnydale, remember? Land of vampires and werewolves and witches who make the cheerleading squad by switching bodies with their really uncoordinated daughters. If the past few years have taught me anything, itís that there is no such thing as impossible. The minute you say, ĎNo, that can never happen,í youíre knee-deep in monster guts kissing your Ferragamos good-bye."

"I appreciate your faith, Cordelia, but I think your talents might be better spent helping them both move on to their new lives. The past exists only in re-runs, you might say."

"You never saw them together," she said stubbornly, once more sitting behind her desk, staring at the pile of bills.

"Why does this matter so much to you?" Doyle decided it was time to go to the heart of his confusion. In the time heíd known Cordelia, she had proved to be more sensitive than she liked people to think, but this seemed unusually selfless. There had to be an underlying motive somewhere. He leaned over her desk, trying to peer into her downturned face.

She raised her head at last, and he was struck by the faintest sheen of tears in her brown eyes

"There arenít a whole lot of things, or people, I believe in," she said slowly. "My parents raised me to believe in the power of money, which worked great while we had it. When the IRS said Ďthe endí to that little fairytale, I had to look around for something new to believe in. Eventually I realized it had been right in front of me for quite a while." She stood up once more and turned to stare out the window. "When you look at Angel, you see him as a separate entity from Buffy, but I see each of them as part of a greater whole. They seem to have no hope of a future, theyíre natural enemies, and for about four months they tried to kill each other on a daily basis. And yet, theyíre still willing to die for each other." She looked over her shoulder at Doyle. "And I mean really die, like put your money where the monster is, not just pretty words in a greeting card. So I believe in them. I also believe no one is given that much bad karma to deal with unless thereís something, or someone, waiting on the other side. Last of all, I believe that fate sometimes needs a little push, and so do those two."

Before Doyle could compose a suitable reply, a heavy step was heard outside the door. A moment later, Angel hurried in, trying to appear relaxed, despite his mis-buttoned shirt and rumpled hair.

"Did the mail come yet?"

***

The tapes continued with regularity, causing Angel both joy and concern. He found himself mentally replaying certain passages whiles he was working, or eating, or simply existing. He hungered for news of her life, as well as the sound of her voice, but he was worried about the way she was dealing with his absence. Sometimes she sounded fine, but other times...

"I get so tired of being the fifth wheel, you know? Willow has Oz, and now Xander has Anya, and even Giles seems to be dating again, or at least getting some, if you know what I mean. I feel like I should just grab the next guy who says hello to me and say ĎHey, take me, Iím yours.í Anything to get back into the game again...School is getting better, at least grade-wise. Of course my social life is non-existent, and the vamps just never seem to give up, but at least I got a B in Psych....Riley Finn asked me out today. Oh, I donít think I told you about him. Heís the TA, I mean teaching assistant, in my Psych class. Heís nice, and kind of cute, and seems demon -free, so Iím thinking of saying yes...Riley and I had our first date last night. He was really sweet, and unlike Parker, he wasnít expecting it to end at his room. I may have been too quick to judge this Ďnormal lifeí thing. On the other hand, I had to lie to him when I needed to chase after a few vamps. Before you know it, it will be Scott and the whole Ďyouíre distractedí routine again...Riley and I have been seeing a lot of each other, and I really think he likes me. I like him too, though itís not the same as ...well, you know. I just hate lying to him. How am I ever supposed to have a normal relationship if I canít share the biggest secret of my life? Riley has started asking questions. I knew it was just a matter of time. So now what do I do? I could trust him, and maybe get him killed. Or I could keep on lying, have him hate me, and still maybe get him killed. Or I could just walk away. It worked for Angel."

Leaving Buffy had left Angelís heart in shreds, and the only protection he had was the very high wall he had built around it. Some women had tried to breach that wall since heíd come to LA, mostly his friend Kate. None of them could even come close, but a few words from Buffy could tear huge chunks out of it in no time at all. He lived for those tapes from her, but when he heard the pain and anger in her voice when she spoke of him, he felt a physical pain in his frozen heart. And now that she was getting closer to this Riley guy, it made that much harder to listen to her. He wanted her to have a normal life, but now that she was...dammit, he wanted it to be with him! She was the only woman in the world for him, so why was he so replaceable for her?

***

Cordelia hurried into Angelís apartment one morning without bothering to knock, catching him in just a towel and a frown. She didnít seem to notice either, so intent was she on the mission at hand. She was carrying the tape player from the office in one hand and a tape in the other, both of which she placed on the nightstand next to Buffyís picture before she addressed Angel.

"You need to listen to this. Now," she said tersely.

Angel wanted to say something about her entrance, but he was having a hard time speaking around the fear that was clutching at his throat.

"Whatís wrong? Is she okay?" he asked urgently, as he hurried to put the tape in the player and turn it on.

Cordelia sighed, feeling even worse for Angel when she heard the panic in his voice. She knew how much he still loved Buffy, and she hated to be the one to bring him this new pain, after all he had suffered.

"Sheís okay physically, but sheís about to do something incredibly dumb. Again. Just listen." Cordelia turned to go, then quickly reversed her course when a thought struck her. Her hand snaked out to hit the "STOP" button just as Buffyís voice began.

"What the..." Angel exclaimed, glaring at Cordelia.

"Umm, Angel, before you listen to this tape, you need to know something. I havenít exactly been, well, honest, with the tapes. Iíve been listening to them first, before I gave them to you." She backed up slightly, waiting for him to growl, or snarl, or maybe grow fangs.

"I figured that out already, Cordy, " he replied impatiently. "Itís not a big deal they are addressed to you, after all."

"Yeah, but...I havenít given all of them to you. I never changed any of them," she hastened to add, when she saw the anger growing in his eyes. "Everything youíve heard her say is real, and unedited, but one of the tapes...I just thought it would hurt too much. I wanted to protect you."

"What did you hold back?" He tried to speak calmly, pretending it was to shield her from his wrath instead of himself from pain. He sat down on the bed, and reached for Buffyís picture, unconsciously using it as a touchstone to center himself.

"She slept with Riley. I mean, she is sleeping with him." Cordelia said it in a rush, as though a quick blow would hurt less.

Angel couldnít look at Cordelia. He couldnít see anything right now except an image in his mindís eye, of a rainy night two years in the past. A night when anything seemed possible, even for someone as unworthy as himself, because his angel loved him. Loved past tense.

"Angel.."

"Heís her boyfriend," he said at last, in a barely audible voice. "Itís only natural." The words almost choked him, but somehow he pushed them out into the air, for all the world to see what a good sport he was. And what an incredible liar.

"Angel, you have to listen to this tape," she replied urgently. "Why sheís sleeping with him doesnít matter. The real problem is she wants to tell him the truth. About her, I mean."

Angel looked at her blankly. "Truth?"

Cordelia almost growled herself in impatience with his density. "Yeah, truth. What she does at night. Why she sleeps with a sharp wooden stick under her pillow and has a bigger cross collection than the Pope. You know, the slayer thing?"

Angel tried to focus on what Cordelia perceived as a problem, but he couldnít move past her earlier revelation. "But if sheís...with him...she...he should know..."

"Men!" Cordelia spat out. "So she slept with him. Big deal. Thatís not where the intimacy is for her. I mean, she may have tried to pretend it was with that Parker guy, but the truth is, the truth is where itís at for her. When she tells Riley about her real life, sheís giving up on you, Angel. And you canít let that happen."

"But I knew the truth about her from the beginning, from the moment she did." Angel was lost in this sea of feminine logic. "That didnít mean...it was still a long time before we..." Again the memories came crashing back, threatening to pull him under.

"Hello! Thatís my whole point. She felt a connection with you from the beginning. Sex took a back seat, so to speak, because you were already in synch. There was no rush. But with every other guy sheís trying to do it in reverse. Whoa, that didnít come out right." Cordelia drew a deep breath and tried to marshall her thoughts.

"What Iím trying to say is sheís starting with the sex now and trying to work up to the connection, because she knows sheís not going to be able to duplicate what she had with you. What she could still have if youíd get off your ass and go home to talk to her."

"Itís too late, Cordelia," he sighed. He finally noticed heíd been caressing Buffyís picture and drew his hand back to his lap. "I left and sheís moving on. And Doyle is right, I have to stop living in the past with these tapes." He pushed the eject button and removed the tape from the player

"So youíre giving up," Cordelia said flatly. She crossed her arms and tapped her foot, glaring at his dejected form on the bed. "Youíre going to let her live her life, her short life, with some loser who got her on the rebound, while you sit in a towel and feel guilty for stuff you couldnít help. Thatís pathetic."

Angel knew she was trying to stir him up, but the pain spreading through his chest didnít leave any room for anger. He didnít bother to meet her eyes, because he knew it would only enrage her more to see the defeat in his own. He could only stare at the tape he clutched in both hands, waiting for...just waiting.

Cordelia crouched down so she could look Angel in the eye. "You canít stop living in the past because you gave up your future. And you gave up hers too, without asking her what she really wanted. If you want to feel guilty about something bad youíve done, Angel, feel guilty about that. You couldnít help what Angelus did, but you are the one who left her, not him. God, he was going to end the world because she wouldnít have him. He might have been a homicidal maniac, but at least he cared."

Angelís head snapped up at that comment. Cordelia had finally touched a raw nerve. "Donít you ever say that! What I did as Angelus...I left her because I love her, not to hurt her. But he, I mean I...donít ever say that!"

"Got you there, didnít I?" Cordeliaís smile was more in pity than in triumph. She had come to regard Angel as her one true friend, and it pained her to wound him like this, but it had to be done. Of course, giving him a little more personal space at this juncture might not be a bad idea either, she thought, as she backed a few steps away from the tortured vampire.

"I canít go back, Cordy," he said, pain and guilt once more submerging anger. "Iím the one who left and told her to have a normal life. How can I go to her now that she is and ask her to stop? And what can I offer her in return?"

"What the hell is normal on a hellmouth anyway? Who are you to say that a slayer and a vampire together isnít normal for a mystical convergence? Who died and made you Miss Manners?"

Angel was surprised at her anger, and her passion. He didnít understand why it meant so much to her if he and Buffy got back together, but it seemed to be her only concern these days. She was almost as obsessed as he was.

"Cordelia, I donít...why are you...what do you want me to do?" he capitulated at last in the face of her unrelenting determination.

"Listen to the tape, and then do the first thing that comes to your mind. Donít brood about it donít worry about whatís right or if itís fair. Just follow your instincts."

"And if my instinct is to stay here and burn this tape, will you finally leave me alone?" His voice was weary as he stared at the tape in his hands.

Cordelia gently took it from him and placed it in the tape player, closing it with a soft click. "If your instinct is to stay here with the ashes of that tape, alone is all youíll ever be." She turned on her heel and made a speedy retreat, before Angel could get mad again, or worse yet, change his mind.

***

An hour later, Angel was in his car, speeding towards Sunnydale in the gathering dusk. In his pocket was a little silver claddagh ring, once given and received with so much love it pulled him from the depths of hell. Its rightful owner had abandoned it, along with their hopes for the future, but tonight he would try to restore both and pull himself yet again out of hell.

******

The U.C. Sunnydale campus was still quite active when Angel parked his car in one of the student lots. Somehow heíd expected the students to be studying after dinner, but it had been a long time since his own college days. A very long time.

As he walked around the campus, he realized he had no idea where Buffy lived. Cordelia had always handed him the tapes after she listened to them, so he rarely saw, and never studied, the packages. He thought of stopping a student to ask about her, but it was a big campus and he didnít think even Buffy could become known by the whole student body in just a few months. After all, sheíd only mentioned burning down one building so far.

If Giles had been working on campus, Angel would have tried the library, but since he wasnít... Angel couldnít see his girl spending much quality time in a place with that many books. Now if he could find some place with music, like the campus pub, he mused, he might have a better chance.

Directions to the pub were easily obtained, but he didnít see Buffy anywhere in the swarm of bodies. Or anyone else he knew, for that matter. At this point, he would almost have welcomed Xanderís insults, if he could drag Buffyís whereabouts out of the boy.

He was on the point of abandoning the campus in favor of her high school haunts when he sensed her presence nearby. He scanned the shadowy grounds for the small blonde form that haunted his dreams, and at last he saw her on a distant path. He started towards her, then froze when he realized she was not alone. There was a tall young man with her, dirty blonde head bent towards hers as they walked arm in arm through the darkness.

Angel could only stare in shock at the evidence of his lost dream. Her laughter, the laughter he could so seldom give her, floated through the night, and scattered the shredded remains of his heart. She was with him, with Riley, Angel knew it. And she was happy. She had exactly what he always wished for her, and he should be grateful his sacrifice was not in vain, but he couldnít get past the fact that Riley made her laugh.

"Hey, are you okay?"

A voice finally penetrated his consciousness, as he came back to his body and found a girl holding his arm. She sounded friendly, and a little worried, but he wasnít sure if the concern was for him or for what he might be doing.

"Are you okay?" she repeated. "Do you need some help, or are you just lost?"

He couldnít help the bitter laugh if she only

knew."Lost," he said at last. "Definitely lost." With one last agonized look at his love, he melted into the night.

*****

Strolling through the gathering darkness with Rileyís arm securely wrapped around her own, Buffy couldnít shake the feeling she was being watched. It was a feeling she was used to, after all these years of slaying, but it wasnít the "heads up, vamps at twelve oíclock" sensation she normally experienced. This particular set of eyes she felt she knew much better than that, but it couldnít be him. He was in LA, and even if he were here, he wouldnít be lurking in the bushes.

Just to be on the safe side, she began to scan the campus for him. She took particular care to look for crowds of girls, knowing how Angel tended to attract female attention whether he wanted it or not. She didnít see any such gatherings, however, and there were no tall dark figures waiting ahead of them. She had the sensation of his eyes on her back, but she couldnít check out the impression without alerting Riley. In the end, she decided it was probably her imagination.

With a mental shake of her head, she returned her attention to Riley and the joke he was telling. It wasnít very funny, but she could tell he was trying to please her, so she laughed anyway. Unfortunately, this only encouraged him to tell another joke. Not for the first time, Buffy reflected on the extreme weirdness of their relationship, where she felt comfortable enough to sleep with this guy, but not enough to tell him his jokes were lousy.

He was still in mid-joke when her feeling of being watched disappeared. She was curiously let down, but tried not to let her date know. It would only lead to questions she didnít want to answer and parts of herself she was still unsure of sharing. Telling him she was the slayer was one thing explaining Angel was entirely different story

*****

Angel wandered the campus for hours, not really seeing anything but his beloved with another man. Eventually he realized the crowds of students had dwindled down to a very few, and most of them were also heading home. Dawn was only a few hours away, and he had no idea what to do. With no place else to go, he returned to the mansion on Crawford Street.

It felt strange to him to be there again, after so many months. He had only returned to pack his bags after leaving Buffy at the hospital on graduation day, and he had done his best to get out of there fast. He wanted to be anywhere else in the world by the time the sun came up that day. As it turned out, the eclipse had allowed him to abandon shelter and help Buffy and the others to defeat the mayor. When the fight was over, he took the bags heíd left at the library, and walked away.

Today he drifted through those same cold stone rooms, now dusty with disuse. He avoided looking at the fireplace, in front of which theyíd shared so many meals before he "fed" that final time. His old bedroom brought back memories of the morning heíd woken up to find her sleeping in his arms, worn out from a late night slaying. Fortunately the sun prevented him from entering the courtyard, where sheíd told him she wasnít coming back after Spikeís earlier visit to Sunnydale, but everything in the Great Hall reminded him of her. He saw her everywhere training, eating, studying, napping, dancing. Even when he closed his eyes against the visions, he could still smell the faintest traces of her vanilla perfume.

He was caught, in a trap of his own devising. Surrounded by memories of the love he had given up, with no way out that didnít involve flames. Until dusk, he would have to endure the thousand ghosts of Buffy-past who danced around him, all bright hair and boundless energy.

With a low moan, he sank down to the raised hearth and huddled there, waiting for sunset to release him from the prison he once thought of as home. Not Crawford Street. Buffy.

******

Buffy was in the middle of a familiar dream. She walked through a graveyard at night, but not searching for vampires. Angel was there, waiting for her, in "their place." When she saw him, she wanted to berate him for leaving her alone, but the only words that she could say were "I miss you." Then he held out his arms, the arms that were her only safe haven in the world, and suddenly the past didnít matter anymore. As he cradled her to him and whispered apologies and endearments in her ear, she felt whole again, and free. The future was something to be excited about, not dread, and nothing else in the world existed except the two of them and the love they shared.

"Iíll never leave you again, I promise," he whispered as he slipped her claddagh ring back on her left ring finger.

A sudden burst of the Goo Goo Dolls on the radio dragged her from his arms as the waking world claimed her. She sat up groggily, rubbing her eyes and trying to push away the warm, safe feeling his embrace had given her. He left her and she was way over him, she told herself firmly. It didnít matter what Cordy counseled about giving him time to make amends he had made his decision, and hers right along with it.

"Bad dream?" Willow asked sympathetically from the other bed when she noticed Buffyís frown.

"Not exactly," Buffy replied slowly. "Just something I thought was over." She climbed out of bed and grabbed her towel and toiletries bag from the dresser, preparing to wait in line for the shower. Before she could make herself leave the room, though, a sudden impulse made her turn back to Willow.

"Will, I had the weirdest feeling last night when Riley walked me home."

Willow had been settling back down to catch a few more winks, since her first class wasnít for another two hours. Buffyís words made her pop back up like a jack-in-the-box.

"Weird how? End of the world weird, or just run of the mill weird?" Willow tried to keep her voice calm, but Buffyís "weird" feelings usually presaged disaster of some kind. It wasnít always apocalyptic...but sometimes it was.

Buffy sighed, unconsciously caressing her towel as she spoke. "Not end of the world weird, just...I felt like someone was watching me."

"Someone usually is," Willow pointed out helpfully. "Vampires, demons, frat boys...take your pick. Youíre kind of far from invisible around here, even before you pulled five people from a burning building. Thank you again for that, by the way."

Buffy waved away Willowís thanks, intent on recapturing her feeling from the previous night. "It wasnít that type of sensation. It felt like..." she paused, not wanting to commit herself. She was a romantic fool, she told herself, still hopelessly hung up on a guy who dumped her months ago, when she had a perfectly nice boyfriend who didnít have any demonic tendencies or crippling guilt trips.

"It felt like..." Willow prompted gently.

"It felt like Angel was around," she finally burst out, not daring to look at Willow for a few moments. When at last she did, she couldnít stand the pity on her best friendís face.

"Heís not here, Buffy," Willow said patiently. "Heís in LA. But even if he was, what does it matter? You have Riley now." Willow drew her legs up to wrap her arms around them, preparing for a long chat.

Buffy dropped her shower gear on her bed and sat on the foot of Willowís bed. "I know all that. Donít you think Iíve been telling myself that since I felt him? But it really seemed like...I know when heís around, I always have. I canít explain it."

"When he first left, you kept seeing him all over, remember? Even when we got to school, you thought you saw him in the Bronze, and in the pub, and at the..."

"I know," Buffy said impatiently, getting up to pace. "I know I said I thought I saw him all those times and I was wrong. But this wasnít seeing, Willow I didnít say I saw him. I felt him."

"Then I repeat, what does it matter? Youíre with Riley now Angel canít hurt you anymore."

Buffy stopped pacing and grabbed her shower gear. Talking to Willow wasnít going to help her any she had a blind spot where Angel was concerned, not to mention Riley.

"No, Will, Riley is the one who canít hurt me. Angel is the only one who ever could."

****

Dusk finally arrived, releasing Angel from his physical prison, if not his mental one. He told himself he was going straight back to LA do not pass go, do not collect
200.00. Instead, he found himself on the Sunnydale campus again, searching for the other half of his heart.

He found her at the pub this time, dancing with her new boyfriend. Angel stood in the shadows watching her, as he had done so many times before. Every time she touched Riley, or smiled at him, Angel felt it like a blow to his chest. He wanted desperately to leave and end this torture, but seeing her, even like this, was like water to his parched and barren soul. He couldnít make himself walk away.

Buffy felt his eyes on her again, but with the shifting crowds of people, she was unable to get a fix on him. She was sure he was lurking somewhere close, just like he used to do when they were little more than strangers. She wanted to call out to him, or maybe yell at the other people to stop creating so much confusion so she could find him. Instead, she continued to dance, waiting for him to be pulled from the shadows by the jealousy she knew he must be feeling.

Finally, Angel had his fill of watching his woman adoring and caressing another man. With the faintest hint of a growl, he started towards the dance floor, intent on ending her charade once and for all. She belonged to him, only to him, and no two-bit college boy...college boy. The kind she was supposed to be dating, instead of a centuries-old vampire with her own blood on his hands. One hundred years of remorse stopped Angel in his tracks, then propelled him out the door before he undid the one completely selfless act he ever committed.

Buffy lost her focus when she felt him leave. She knew Riley was talking to her, and she knew she was responding, but for the life of her she couldnít say what they were talking about. Mechanically, she accompanied him to his apartment, but when he leaned over her on the sofa and began to kiss her, she came back to her body with a vengeance.

"What are you doing?" She jumped up and backed away from this relative stranger who was being so familiar with her body.

Riley was confused make that dumbfounded. He and Buffy had never even had a fight, least of all tonight, and from the way sheíd been behaving on the dance floor...As far as he knew, God was in his heaven and all was right with the world. Apparently heíd skipped a page.

"Buffy, whatís wrong? Are you sick or something?" He stood up and reached out to her, intending only to comfort. He was the one more in need of comfort when she continued to back up towards the door.

Buffy grabbed her coat and backpack from the chair, looking everywhere but in Rileyís eyes. "Iím fine, I just donít want to...I needed to tell you something, but I canít...I have to go."

She bolted before Riley could even say good night.

******

Somehow Buffy got through the next day she wasnít sure how. She managed classes, a visit with Giles, even a chat with her mother, without revealing her inner turmoil. Willow was too preoccupied herself by a fight with Oz to worry about Buffy, so only Riley felt the effects of Angelís presence. He did his best to redeem himself for whatever he had done or not done, but he didnít make much headway since she still refused to talk to him, or even look at him, in class.

It was almost a relief when night fell and she could seek sanctuary in the graveyard. She prowled between the headstones, restlessly tapping her stake on the palm of her hand. Suddenly she stiffened as she felt him again, behind her. She didnít bother to turn around when she spoke.

"All right, Angel, time to show yourself. I know youíre out there Iíve known it for days."

She heard a rustling behind her, then the voice that threatened to melt her frozen heart.

"About time you noticed me. I thought you were slipping."

He was a few feet behind her, standing very still. It took all of her strength not to run into his arms when at last she turned and saw the weariness and pain on his face. His was not a beauty that would ever fade, but the past few months had clearly left their mark on him. He was so close, and all she wanted to do was hold him tightly and smooth away the lines of sorrow. Instead, she clenched her hands into fists to keep from reaching out to him.

"I told you once that stalking was not a big turn on for girls. Actually, I think I told you twice. Why are we renewing bad habits?"

He winced at the cold edge to her voice, not realizing the enormous effort it was costing her to preserve it.

"Youíre in danger," he began. "I wanted to warn..."

"I donít believe it!" she shouted. "After all this time with no word, and after all that we went through together, youíre reverting to Cryptic Guy?" She threw her stake on the ground and closed the distance between them, until she could pound her fist on his chest. "You are so not doing this to me. Not again."

Her hand rested briefly on his chest after she hit him, and he tried to take it in his own, but she pulled away. "Oh no, you are not doing that either," she warned. "No hand-holding and pretty speeches are going to make this right. You chose to leave, but you donít get to say when and why you come back. Thatís my call. And I say no Cryptic Guy."

"Iím worried about you," he said urgently. "Youíre about to make a big mistake. Something that could be very dangerous."

She couldnít hold back her harsh burst of laughter. "More dangerous than giving my heart to a vampire? Do tell." She backed further away and sat on the edge of a tombstone. Arms crossed and foot tapping, she nodded to him to continue.

"Iím not kidding," he said impatiently. "I know youíre about to tell that Riley guy about being the Slayer, and I think you should know..."

Buffy stood up abruptly, her anger momentarily abandoned in favor of confusion. "Wait a mo. What do you know about Riley? How do you know about Riley?"

Angel pulled an audiocassette from the pocket of his duster. "Cordelia let me hear your tapes. She works for me now. Actually, she asked you to make the tapes so I could hear them. And when you started talking about this Finn character, I had her run him down and..."

"Youíve been listening to the tapes I made for Cordelia," she repeated slowly, over his attempts to warn her. "Private tapes, filled with very personal thoughts, and you listened to them without ever letting me know...whereís my stake?" She began searching the ground for the one ally that never failed or betrayed her.

Angel grabbed her arm and jerked her upright so he could look her in the eye. "Buffy, Iím sorry you feel Iíve violated your privacy, but thatís really not the point right now. Finn isnít telling you everything, and I think you should know that before you expose yourself to...I mean, before you bare your...I mean..." Angel ground to a halt, too miserably lost in his metaphors and the painful images they produced to continue.

"You know about that too, donít you?" she said softly, looking away from him. "Well duh, if youíve been listening to those tapes, you would know. About Riley, and about...Parker." She slid free of Angelís grasp and walked back to the nearest tombstone, leaning on it for support. "You must think Iím pretty pathetic."

Angel wanted to take her in his arms and make all the pain in her voice go away, but her problems could no longer be solved by a simple embrace. The tangle they had made of their lives was too big and complex for that.

"No, I think they are fools." He took a step toward her, but dared go no further until she regained her equilibrium. She wouldnít take kindly to him crowding her right now. "Not as big of a fool as me, of course, but right up there."

She drew a deep breath and tried to pull herself together. She wiped the tears from the corners of her eyes before she turned to face him, but she knew he had seen the gesture. She also knew heíd let her pretend he hadnít.

"No one is as big of a fool as you, Iíll give you that one. But Parker is a major jerk, and so was I. Riley is okay, though. I donít know what big secret you think youíve found out, and by the way, I donít appreciate..."

"Heís involved in some sort of para-military group," Angel interrupted. "Itís all very hush-hush, and I think itís government-funded. I donít know if he already knows who you are and is setting something up or if heíll just use the knowledge to his advantage when you tell him..."

Buffyís humiliation was swept away in a great tide of anger. "I canít believe you! Isnít it possible that he might just happen to be a GI Joe and happen to also like me? Did that ever cross your conspiracy-ridden little mind, Mulder?"

"I think itís barely possible you manage to walk across campus without every guy following you home," Angel said honestly. "But that doesnít change the fact that heís been hiding this from you. There has to be a reason."

"Yeah, there does. But that is my business, not yours. So why donít you do what you do best and leave?" She finally spotted her stake on the ground and reached down to pick it up. "Me, I have some work to do before my date."

Angel didnít move. "You can push me away all you want, Buffy, but it wonít change how I feel. Iím worried about you. I think this guy is up to something."

She tossed her hair out of her eyes and looked coolly at him. "Iím pushing you away? Thatís a laugh. Youíre the expert on distance, pal."

"I left to give you a better life," he protested.

She raised her hand to prevent the continuance of a familiar refrain. "Second verse, same as the first. Iíve heard this routine before, Angel, and I donít buy it anymore now than I did then. You left because you were scared. Scared of me, of us, of the future. It had nothing to do with protecting me or giving me anything. You wanted a way out."

"And what about you?" he shot back. "Every time things got a little tough, you bailed on me. When you got scared, you were supposed to come to me, not run in the other direction. How many times did you leave me before I finally said good bye, Buffy?"

"Great, so we both failed Relationship 101. Guess itís a good thing you walked." She started to walk away, but he grabbed her arm as she passed and held fast.

"I left because I love you," he said harshly through the tears in his throat. "Yeah, I was scared, but I was willing to face those fears until...someone...convinced me there was no reason you should have to be afraid too."

She used to wonder what she would do or say if Angel touched her again. Would the anger or the love take precedence? Tonight, with his hand on her arm, all she could feel was pain.

"You took the advice of a demon, Angel! He wanted to divide us, and boy did it work. Now let me go on with the life you left me. And I hope you saved those tapes, because I wonít be making any more."

Angel wanted to tell her it was her mother who tipped the scales, but he couldnít hurt her like that. It was obvious she wanted nothing to do with him, and he couldnít take her mother away too. He dropped her arm and started to leave.

"Why arenít you wearing the ring?"

The question stopped him dead in his tracks. Did she know what was in his pocket, and what heíd foolishly believed he could do with it?

"What ring?" he asked warily, his back still to her and his hand poised over his duster pocket.

"The Gem of Amara. I sent it to you why arenít you wearing it?"

Angelís hand fell to his side as his hopes came crashing down as well. "I destroyed it," he said steadily as he turned to face her. "I told you once I didnít want immortality. I meant it."

"But I sent it to protect you," she protested, unthinkingly closing the distance between them, at least physically. "I want you to be safe, and I want you to have the sunlight. Youíre always talking about how you canít walk in the daylight, so I gave you the chance, and you destroyed it!"

"I found other things I needed more."

"Like what? Night-blooming orchids or a 24-hour bagel shop? I gave that to you to help you. How could you throw it back in my face like that?"

"You didnít give it to me you sent it to me," he returned bitterly. "If it meant so damn much to you that I keep it, why didnít you bring it yourself?"

Buffy was stunned by the raw pain in his voice. Angel was always so calm and cool even when she lost her temper and beat on him, he kept himself, and her, together.

"I couldnít," she admitted softly, looking him straight in the eye. "I knew if I saw you, Iíd do something stupid like beg you to come home, and I donít want to do that."

It didnít come out the right way she knew it the minute her words touched air. She wanted him to know how deeply he wounded her, but she couldnít bear the look in his eyes when she returned the favor. She wanted to take back everything sheíd said for the last 10 minutes, but she didnít know how. Before she could even begin, he once again settled things for both of them.

"Donít worry, I wonít put you to the test anymore." With a characteristic flap of his duster, he was gone.

Leaving behind one very heartsick, but increasingly angry, Slayer. And an angry slayer is a slayer with a purpose.

"Oh no, lover, you donít get to just walk off into the sunset twice in my lifetime. I need closure and Iím going to get it. With or without a stake."

*****

Cordelia was worried. Make that very worried. Angel had returned from his journey home three days ago, alone, and she had yet to see him. She knew he was back sheíd seen his car in the garage again, and she periodically heard noises from the apartment below the office, but he had made no effort to see her or Doyle. In fact, he seemed to be avoiding humanity in general. Not exactly the signs of a man in a successful relationship.

She tried to express her concern to Doyle, but he seemed to view this as an opportunity for "I told you soís" by the bagful."

She dumped him again, if she even saw him," Doyle insisted that third morning alone in the office with Cordelia. "He was trying to make a life on his own, and you had to stick that pretty little nose of yours in to fix it. When it wasnít even broken!"

"Was too!" she responded petulantly, sticking out her tongue at him as he paced in front of the lift that went to Angelís apartment. "He needs her, and she needs him theyíre both just too stubborn to admit they screwed up. I just wish I knew what exactly happened. I mean, did she give him the boot? Did he lose his temper seeing her all kissy-face with the neo-Nazi frat boy? What gives?"

"It doesnít matter," Doyle replied with as much patience as he could muster. "We need to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, not perform an autopsy."

"Was that an attempt at a funny, considering the man actually is dead?"

"No, I was trying to use terms youíd be familiar with, darliní." Doyle wanted to bite his tongue for insulting the woman he worshipped, but it looked like Cordelia might cut it out first.

"You know, I used to get the impression you liked me, but if thatís your attempt at flattering me..." She advanced menacingly on him, forcing him to back up into her desk.

"Cordy, please..."

She stopped suddenly, her quick ears catching the sound of the lift doors opening below. She turned to face the lift, waiting for her erstwhile employer/friend to make a long-delayed appearance. When he did, she wished he would go back and do it over.

He looked haggard, and even paler than usual. His normally impeccable clothing was rumpled, and his hair was tousled far beyond fashionable limits. There was an overall air of hopelessness about him, as if simply existing was more strain than he could bear, but he saw no way out of it

"Angel..." she said slowly, "you look like hell." She flushed slightly when she realized her gaffe. "Sorry, wrong person to try that analogy on."

"Sheís right, though. You do look a sight, man," Doyle chimed in. "Weíve been worried about you."

"Iím okay," Angel replied listlessly, wandering aimlessly around the office. Cordelia and Doyle watched in silence for a few minutes, but when Angel accidentally meandered into a patch of sunlight, and didnít realize he was smoldering, they came to the rescue.

"God, man, youíre on fire!" Doyle yelled, grabbing Angelís arm to haul the bigger man into the shade. Cordelia tossed the remains of her Evian bottle onto the other arm to douse the tiny flame.

Angel pulled himself loose from Doyleís grasp, staggering slightly as he back-pedaled. "Iím fine. Thanks for the assist I didnít see that patch of light."

"Youíre about as far from fine as Sunnydale is from the Riviera," Cordelia said scathingly. "Youíre a mess, and I want to know why. Well, actually I can guess why, but I need details if Iím going to fix..."

"Donít fix!" Angel yelled, her words finally penetrating his protective shell. "Donít help, donít even sympathize. Just leave me in peace!"

"In pieces is more like it," she said to his back as he pulled the lift doors open. "She dumped you again, or you wouldnít be hiding out like a wounded animal. Tell us what happened. Believe it or not, we care."

He didnít turn to face her he couldnít. "I saw her, I warned her about the Finn guy and she didnít care. End of story."

"Not the end if youíre retreating to the bat cave. She told you off, didnít she?" Cordelia shrewdly guessed. "You walked off without a word after breaking up with her because her mommy told you to, and now she let you have it with both guns. Well, not literally this time, but she gave it to you good."

"Is that it, Angel?" Doyle glanced from Angel to Cordelia, then back again. "Look, Iím sorry, but youíre no worse off today than you were a week ago. She hasnít been a part of your life for months, so why should her telling you off throw you into such a tailspin? Just count it as her last shot of the war. Bandage your wounds and move on."

"Sheís not a part of my life," Angel said quietly. "She is my life, and I used to be hers, but now itís over. Really over." He stepped into the lift and pulled the doors closed to descend into his own personal version of hell; an eternity of life without Buffy

*******

Cordelia was awakened by a loud banging on her door. Since she began to share "living" quarters with a ghost, periodic bumps in the night rarely disturbed her, but this was very noisy. And somewhat familiar.

She opened the door to find a small blonde waif on her doorstop, which would have been a little more touching if the waif hadnít been glaring at her. And armed.

"Buffy," she said, with all the warmth fear could induce. "Come in and have a seat. Feel free to leave the crossbow outside." She stepped back from the door, ushering her old friend, and unfortunately her old friendís arsenal, inside.

Buffy glanced sourly at the prettily furnished mission-style apartment as she laid her crossbow and weapons bag by the door. "Nice place. Angel must pay you well."

Cordelia nervously pushed her hair off her face. "He told you about that, huh? Yeah, well, the pay isnít too bad, and a lot of itís at night, obviously, so I have my days free to go to auditions and..."

"Cordy, enough," Buffy said abruptly, to halt the incessant rambling. "All I want to know is why you lied to me. You set me up, you betrayed my confidence and I really would like an explanation. Now." She settled herself on the sofa with crossed arms and an expectant expression.

Cordelia began to pace. Not only was she in a delicate stage of the peace negotiations which required careful handiwork, she also wanted to present a moving target.

"I really think youíre blowing my part of this all out of proportion," she began. "So okay, I was the one who asked you to send the tapes, and I was the one who forced Angel to listen to the first one, and maybe, just maybe, I told him to follow his gut instinct when he heard that last tape. But if he hadnít left you, none of this would have been necessary. For that matter, if you had simply gone after him when he left the high school, or what used to be the high school, this also wouldnít have been necessary. So really, when you get right down to it, this was basically all yours and Angelís faults." She smiled happily and turned to face Buffy, certain her logic would have won over her old friend.

Buffy did not appear to be greatly moved by her explanation, if it could be called that. She stood up slowly and began to advance on Cordelia, who tried to retreat as casually as possible.

"So itís all my fault that Angel overheard information about my personal life and went digging around in my boyfriendís past. Is that your best answer, Cor?"

"You mean Joe Commandoís past." Cordelia had backed up as far as she could go, both physically and mentally. It was now time for attack. "Do you know the crowd he hangs with? I was doing you a favor looking up that stuff for Angel. Boy, you sure know how to pick them."

"Leave Riley out of this," Buffy warned. "This is about you and me and Angel."

"And it should just be about you and Angel, but youíre both so pig-headed I had to get in the middle. You two belong together why canít you just admit that and get on with your life together so the rest of us can get on with our own lives? God, itís like everyone and everything revolves around you two and the rest of us are just background noise and filler." Cordelia slid past the momentarily stunned Buffy and escaped to the center of the room. "What took you so long to find me anyway? Angelís been back for three days."

"You only gave me a post office box to mail things to: I needed a real address. That required tracking down the Cordettes, and then persuading them it would be in their own best interests to help me. Boy, I guess saving someone from being devoured by a giant demon snake only rates a Christmas card these days. Come to think of it, Aura didnít even do that much."

"So, here you are. Why are you here? Shouldnít you be looking for Angel? Cause I can tell you right where he is. Well, will be come dawn, at least."

"I need to be really clear on why you did what you did," Buffy replied evenly. "I donít want any Ďhelpfulí misunderstandings in the future."

"Youíre scared, arenít you?" This time it was Cordelia who approached Buffy, searching her eyes for the truth. "He knows everything youíve been feeling for the past few months, and you know nothing about how he still feels, and that scares you to death."

Buffy pulled herself free of Cordeliaís hypnotic gaze, turning so only her words would reveal her emotions. "Iím not scared, I just donít know where he is."

"Bull." Cordelia circled round her like a terrier treeing a cat. "Youíve already been to Giles you wouldnít disappear again with telling him first. Giles didnít know about me, but he knows where Angel is heís known all along. And you knew Angel would have told him, in case you needed help. No, the great and fearless Buffy needed to scope out the terrain first because sheís terrified Angel might not still want her. Maybe he really did just come out of friendly concern. You think?"

"Just quit it, Cordelia! This isnít getting us anywhere." Buffy whirled around to escape Cordelia, accidentally knocking a lamp off the desk. She grabbed for the lamp, scorching her hand on the suddenly exposed bulb in the process. She was almost grateful for the pain as she stuck her hand in her mouth it excused the tears forming in the corners of her eyes.

Cordelia rested a gentle hand on Buffyís shoulder, suddenly ashamed of herself for mocking her friendís pain. "Buffy, Iím sorry. I really am. I saw how miserable he was, and Oz said pretty much the same thing about you, so I thought that maybe I could help. After all, whoíd ever suspect me of caring enough about anyone else to play Cupid?" She and Buffy both smiled at the truth of her words.

"He was really miserable, huh?" Buffy murmured, glancing shyly at Cordelia.

"Total Brooding Guy," Cordy assured her, steering her over to the sofa for a long, comfy session of girl-talk.

******

After several hours of Angel-update, Buffy finally fell asleep on Cordeliaís sofa. Cordelia, unfortunately, had to be up for work not long after Buffy crashed. A gracious hostess, she left detailed directions to the office on the end table, bagels on the kitchen counter, and hid every last one of Buffyís stakes and crossbow bolts before she went to earn her daily French bread.

Cordelia was just backing out of her parking place when she saw Buffy running out of the door, map in hand. She rolled down her window as she struggled to put the car in Park. "What gives?"

"Cordy, the map is great, but I donít have a car. I hitched here." Buffy didnít bother to ask Cordeliaís permission, she simply climbed in the passengerís side and fastened the seatbelt.

"Oh. Sorry."

"You are going to the office now, right?" Buffy had waited too long for this confrontation, the one where he couldnít leave until she was done. She didnít want to waste a moment of daylight today.

"Yeah, after I get some coffee. So, you hitchhiked. Isnít that...dangerous for others?"

Buffy settled herself more comfortably in the seat and checked her wallet for money for coffee. "I figured Iíd combine business with, well I suppose I canít say pleasure, but with not business."

"Itís called a personal life, remember?"

Buffy grinned ruefully. "Been too long since I really had one, I guess. Anyway, youíd be surprised how many vamps trawl the highways for hitchers. Itís kind of a combination of drive-thru and drive-by for them. So, I thumbed a few rides, but no vamps. I did scare the hell out of a flasher, though, when I showed him my crossbow. Thatís why I had it out when you answered the door, by the way."

Cordelia actually found this conversation strangely comforting it reminded her of simpler times when Buffy was on the front lines and all she had to do was carve stakes. They were nearing the office, however, and she had a few things to tell Buffy before she saw Angel again.

"Buffy," she interrupted, "there were a few subjects we didnít get to last night, and we need to get to them fast. Like now."

"Such as?" Buffy drawled, waiting for the other shoe, or rack of shoes, to drop.

"Women. He hasnít been dating I donít want you to think that. But he has a friend, a cop, named Kate, and sheís kind of been chasing him. So if she calls while youíre there, ignore her."

Buffy had expected that bit of information women always chased Angel. Cordelia herself had pursued him until she realized he was "cardiologically-challenged." It was helpful to know the enemyís name though.

"Go on," she said steadily

"Nothing more to say about her. There is something else, though." Cordelia pulled the car into Angelís garage and turned it off. She undid her seatbelt and moved on the seat to face Buffy. "We need to talk about the curse."

******

Angel was giving to the punching bag for all he was worth, which didnít feel like much at the moment. No matter how hard he tried to block it out, all he could see was the look on Buffyís face when he left her in the cemetery. Anger, pain, frustration all the little gifts he was so adept at giving were sketched in the lines of her face that night. If only he could punish himself half as much as he was punishing this bag...if only it would help.

He had just landed a punch designed to send the bad bag to its final reward when he heard a voice on the stairs.

"Is that bag you or me?"

He stiffened, then reached out to still the wildly swinging bag. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." He dared to risk a quick look at her, then instantly regretted it. She was so beautiful, even when she obviously needed a good nightís sleep.

"You left without letting me finish what I was saying. Again." She slowly walked down the staircase and across the room to stand next to him. "Itís starting to annoy me."

"There really didnít to be seem much left to say." He slid away from her to grab a shirt from the dresser. To her disappointment, he then proceeded to put it on and button it.

"I think thereís a lot left to say." She began to wander around his apartment, surreptitiously looking for momentos from their time together. "I had a little talk with Cordy in the car she even gave up her morning cappuccino to fill me in on some things I missed. Like my mom being the one to scare you off."

"She didnít scare me off, Buffy. She just pointed out some things I hadnít wanted to face. And she was right. Thereís so much the world has to offer you, and most of it I canít be a part of." He stood in the center of the room, head bowed with the weight of his inadequacies.

"As Cordelia would say, bull."

His head popped up. She sounded so matter-of-fact, not at all like the angry young woman heíd faced just three days ago. This woman knew exactly what she wanted to say, and she obviously intended to get in every word this time.

"You heard me," she insisted. "Bull. I said it before and Iíll say it again: You were scared. And so was I thatís why I let you walk away."

"And now you have a new life, and a new boyfriend. Why did you come here?"

"Because the new life Iíve built is a fake, and so is the new romance. I was scared before: I admit that. I was scared of how much I love you and need you." She sat gracefully on the arm of the sofa, inspection tour completed. "Iím eighteen years old. Iím not supposed to be this much in love, at least not for real. When you left, as much as it tore me up inside, a part of me thought maybe you were right. Maybe we were just supposed to be a short-time romance the kind you read about in your diary twenty years later and canít believe you were ever that young. But I was wrong, and I realized that as soon as I saw you the other night."

"All you wanted to do the other night was stake me," he said ruefully, taking a few steps closer to her.

She caught her breath, feeling a familiar warmth sweep over her at his proximity. He was beautiful to her, inside and out all taut muscle and classically sculpted bone structure surrounding a gentle and loving spirit. "No, all I wanted to do was take you in my arms and make the pain in your eyes go away," she confessed softly. "As much as you hurt me, and we wonít even be going there it hurt so much, when I saw you all I wanted to do was take care of you. And you came to Sunnydale, knowing how mad I would be, because you wanted to take care of me. Face it, lover, weíre stuck with each other. And on each other."

"Buffy, nothingís changed," he said hopelessly. He stood a few feet away from her, not daring to get any closer to her scent or her warmth. "Iím still a vampire, youíre still the Slayer. All the old arguments are still valid. Weíre stuck with them too."

Buffy nodded and began to tick off all the old familiar phrases on her fingers. "Letís see, argument number one: You canít give me children. Well, my love, Cordelia made a good point to me this morning on that score: whoís to say I could have had them anyway? Somehow I doubt when they were drawing up the Slayer blueprints they said, Ď Hey, fertility, thereís something sheíll need.í

"Buffy, you donít know..." he protested.

"And neither do you. I donít come with guarantees, you know. Umm, next I believe was sunlight. Sunlight I tried to give to you, but you refused it when you destroyed the ring. Why did you do that?"

This time she had posed the question with a gentle exasperation far removed from the anger of the other night. She deserved the true answer, not the one he gave to Doyle about staying in touch with the victims of the night.

"What good would sunlight do me without you? Why else would I want to be in it except to see the light in your hair and the shadows making patterns on your face?"

"If I had brought the ring myself, would you have kept it?" she asked after a brief pause, during which she tried to clear the lump from her throat.

"I donít know," he replied honestly. "Maybe I would have seen it as a sign you still wanted...that you still needed...I donít know."

"Okay, so now we move on to point three. Growing old, right? Not something Iím likely to do, especially without adequate back up. Point four...point four is the frustration issue." She sighed, knowing this would be the hardest part for him to discuss.

"Buffy, you canít pretend it doesnít matter anymore. Youíve had...youíve been with other men. Sex is obviously a consideration to you now."

She slowly approached him, as she would a skittish animal. She finally stood in front of him, close enough to touch him if she dared. Which she didnít, yet.

"Thatís exactly what it was, Angel. Sex, nothing more. What we had was making love, and that always mattered. It just didnít matter as much as being together." She saw he was about to protest, and dared to lay a gentle hand on his lips to forestall him. "But that isnít a problem anymore anyway, thanks to Oz and Anya. They translated your curse again, well, completely for the first time, actually, and discovered something. The curse Jenny found doesnít have a happiness clause. Youíre free to do whatever you want, with whoever you want." She stepped away from him and turned her back to him, for fear she was not the one he wanted after all.

A gentle hand came down on her arm and forced her to turn back to face him. "What do you mean Ďwhoever?í Who else?"

"What about this Kate person Cordy told me about?" She looked up at him with some of her old flirtatious manner shining through. God, how he had missed that! No other woman could so entrance him with that certain blend of innocence and feminine wiles.

"Kate is a friend, nothing more," he assured her. "She doesnít even know about me. You know, the..."

"Vampire thing," she finished for him. "And Riley doesnít know about the Slayer thing, though I was going to tell him before you showed up."

"I know thatís why I came. I was worried about how he might use the knowledge. And I was jealous." He slid his arms around her waist, daring her to slip so far away from him again.

She had to smile at his admission, because she knew what it cost him to say. Angel tried so hard to be a modern man, but it was still difficult for him to overcome the emotional reserve heíd been raised to believe was proper.

"I never gave him my heart, Angel. Whatever else I shared with him, or thought about sharing, I could never give him that. Itís been yours since the night we met." She caressed his face, relearning all the planes and angles. Suddenly a thought occurred to her. "Angel, did you hear me before? Really hear? Your curse isnít much of a curse anymore. You donít seem excited or anything."

"I think Iím in shock, actually," he said with a puzzled look. "Youíre here, and youíre in my arms and you seem to be forgiving me. I donít think my mind can process a curse-free curse on top of all that."

"Does this mean youíre not up for..." she murmured, glancing suggestively at the bed in the corner.

"Interesting choice of words, love," he said with a smile, before his mouth closed over hers.

****

Several hours later they lay blissfully intertwined, temporarily sated but unable to let go of each other yet. Angel periodically ran his fingers through Buffyís tangled blonde tresses, while she stroked a possessive hand across his broad chest.

"I have never been so happy in my life," she said at last, dropping a gentle kiss on his chest. "This has been everything Iíve dreamed of since I met you. I donít want this night to ever end." She smiled as she gazed down at her hand, which once again wore his ring.

"How do you think I feel? Iíve waited almost two and a half centuries for this night," he teased. He pulled her even closer to him, breathing in the scent of her hair and her skin and her...essence. All that which made her Buffy, and thus infinitely precious in his eyes.

"Itís not going to ever end, right?" she asked anxiously, tilting her head to gaze into his deep dark eyes. "Weíre going to make it work this time. Weíll commute, and I can switch schools or you can move the business. Whatever. No curses this time, or interfering loved ones or guilt or fear or...the past, or..."

He silenced her with a gentle kiss, which kept her occupied for several minutes. Finally, though, at least one of them needed air.

"You didnít answer my question," she said, a trifle breathlessly.

He caressed her cheek and looked deep into her eyes, promising his devotion with more than words. "Nothing will keep us apart this time. We have a lot of things to work out, but weíll do it together. I swear, Buffy."

She pillowed her head on his chest once again, reveling in the cool silky feel of his skin on her cheek. "I couldnít stand to lose you again, Angel. Itís been so hard to try and build a life without you, and then to realize it was all a fake...I worked so hard to convince everyone else I was fine, I almost fooled myself. For a little while, at least. But I donít think I could ever be that gullible again."

He smiled tenderly at her and lightly kissed the top of her head. While he gently stroked her back with one hand, he ran the other down her face to the column of her throat. She all but purred at the sensation, until she noticed his hand stopped just above her collarbone. Suddenly he stiffened, and she could almost feel his mind pulling away from her even as his arms did.

"Angel, no," she said firmly, wrapping her arms around him to keep him from retreating. She sprawled across his chest to hold him down and risked releasing her grip with one hand to apply it to his face, forcing him to look her in the eye.

"No guilt, remember? Jeeze, we said it not ten minutes ago. The past is the past itís over and done with. We canít change it."

"You had a necklace on before," he whispered. "I didnít see the scar."

The pain in his eyes tore at her heart. He suffered so much for things he didnít do, or couldnít have helped doing, and nothing she said could ever truly erase those memories. She acknowledged now that her earlier mandate for a fresh start was wishful thinking. There would always be dark memories between them.

"There are much deeper scars we canít see," she replied softly. "I canít see the scar I gave you when I stabbed you with Acathlaís sword, but I know there was one. And I know those centuries in hell left scars, but they only show in your eyes."

"You did what you had to do," he insisted, as he always had. "But when I bit you..." He pulled his head free of her loving force, unable to look at the evidence of his guilt any longer.

"You did what was necessary too." She didnít want to have this discussion, not in the middle of their perfect night. But maybe this was just the first step to future perfect nights, and if that was the case she wasnít going to give up now.

"I..."

"Was dying," she finished for him. "There was no other way to save you, and I couldnít let you go. You would have taken me with you, you know. And what about all the people youíve helped here in LA? What would have happened to them if you had died that night?"

He couldnít think of a reply. He was awash in shame and guilt, compounded by the sneaking suspicion that she was right. There had been no other way, but he still hated himself for drinking her blood. He would always hate himself for that, and he would always know heíd had no choice, and he didnít know how to reconcile those two feelings.

"Angel. My love. My destiny. I would give anything to be able to erase that memory from your mind, or go back in time and break Faithís neck before she ever put you in that situation. But I canít."

He risked looking in her eyes again, and saw the same helplessness he felt overwhelming him. Even as he watched, however, a growing determination began to shine from within her. He gazed in rapt attention as her fighting spirit reasserted itself.

"We have to move on, Angel," she continued. "Together, this time, but we have to move on. We wonít pretend the past never existed youíre right about that. We made some big mistakes, we took some really stupid chances and we caused each other unbelievable pain. But thatís not the end of the story."

In the end, he joined her, as he was always destined to do. Two halves of the same whole, united in life and death and whatever came after that. No matter that sometimes they seemed to be subject to the whims of some torturous puppeteer, jerked this way and that for his own private amusement. They had been created for each other, and this was the truth to be held above all else.

"No, itís not," he agreed, smiling ruefully at his very beautiful, very stubborn, mate. "Weíve barely begun."

The End

It took me a while to write this (sad to say), so it would be nice to know it's being read. It would be really nice to know it's being appreciated, but I'll settle for read. Feedback please!

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