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In the Silent Depth

by Gem

Disclaimer: Guess what? The characters are still not mine. They belong, lock, stock and crossbow, to Joss Whedon, the WB, Fox, and a whole bunch of other suits. The lyrics and title are from a song called "Veering From the Wave" (and CD of the same name), by Jennifer Kimball. Because of the way this story is being posted, I'm afraid the lyrics appear randomly.
Rating: PG13.
Spoilers: Up to "The Initiative," then projects forward a few months in my own universe (a much nicer place than Joss' these days). As a result, Doyle lives!
Author's Note: Third in "The Road Home" series. I hope I don't offend any of the ardent Kate-haters with this one. I don't like her, but it's not like she's Riley or anything.


You and I, well we fell in deep
As a plumb line's true in the ocean of my sleep
-JK-

* * * * *

Cordelia sang softly, and off-key, as she puttered around the offices of Angel Investigations. She shifted piles of mail from one desk to another, ran a haphazard dustcloth over the weaponry hanging on the wall and generally accomplished nothing. There was no need to pretend productivity on this quiet Friday morning. Barring any situations of the world-ending nature, her boss wouldn't be in work mode until at least Monday. Indeed, if it weren't for the occasional odd noise emanating from the apartment below, she wouldn't even know he was still alive. Well, technically he wasn't, but that didn't seem to slow him down any.

A particularly loud thump from downstairs made her grin and glance at the notation she made last weekend on her week-at-a-glance calendar: 'New bed frame? Sales?' It wasn't easy being a Girl Friday these days, she reflected.

The next item on the Girl Friday to-do list involved coffee, but Cordelia hadn't found any in the office during her ramble. Normally this wasn't a cause for concern. Angel didn't seem to care much for her coffee anyway, and Doyle always polluted it with Jameson's. There was, however, another party to be considered now, and Buffy liked her morning java.

Cordelia surveyed the offending empty coffeemaker with disdain.

"Well, when Buffy visits she is just going to have to deal with the way I run things, or fix it herself. It's not like she needs it or anything. It's just coffee, for pete's sake." Cordelia nodded her head to reaffirm her position and turned away, secure in the knowledge that Slayers do not need coffee to function. Caffeine- addicted night person-type Slayers with superhuman strength and boyfriends with fangs do not need.

"Okay, one cappuccino coming up." She grabbed her purse and jacket and slipped out the door, forgetting as usual to lock it behind her.

* * * *

Kate Lockley tucked her hands in her coat pockets as she bent her head down to avoid the wind. She trudged along the sidewalk, silently arguing with herself over the wisdom of her decision. She hadn't seen Angel in weeks, for reasons she had yet to explain to him. Now she was seeking him out, unannounced and possibly unwelcome. If he turned her away, she didn't know how she would deal with it. But if he didn't turn her away, she'd still have to deal with him.

She was so preoccupied with her internal struggle she nearly walked past Angel's building. Kate paused in the doorway to take a deep breath and marshal her courage, before pushing open the door.

Down the street, Cordelia made her emergency caffeine run unnoticed.

* * * * *

Buffy stretched, yawned, then stretched again as she drifted to consciousness. The realization that she was alone in the big bed put a quick end to her lazy awakening, but a thump from the corner of the room reassured her she had not been abandoned.

"What are you doing?" She propped herself up on one elbow as she watched her lover easily moving a large mahogany dresser from one side of the bedroom door to the other.

"I saw a dresser the other night that almost matches this one, but it's a little smaller. I thought it would work for your stuff." Angel glanced down at the dresser for a moment, then met her hazel eyes with a slightly embarrassed look on his face. "You know, for weekends, and your summer vacation and when, I mean if, you move...well, times like that."

"That is so sweet," she purred, drawing back the covers and patting the empty space next to her. He hastily abandoned the dresser and joined her in bed. As he pulled her into his arms, she continued to whisper in his ear. "But I get the bigger one."

He drew back slightly to look at her, but saw nothing in her expression to suggest she was teasing. As her hand slid down his back, he resigned himself to the first of many compromises. Further digital ramblings convinced him compromise could actually be a good thing, if properly recompensed. He gently guided her down onto the bed to claim his reward.

The ringing of the telephone put an end to any subsequent negotiations. Buffy tried to keep Angel's attention focused on her, but he insisted on grabbing the phone instead. She rolled away from him, her annoyance only partially feigned.

"You didn't have to get me that car for my birthday," she grumbled as she pulled the sheets up under her chin. "An extra answering machine for your apartment would have been a better present."

Angel motioned her to be quiet as he tried to focus on the caller on the other end. When he was finally allowed to say more than hello, Buffy understood his anxiety.

"Yes, Joyce, Buffy is.yes, she is here. Yes, I know you thought. I'm sorry you didn't.and I'm sorry you feel that way. If we could just. okay, let me put Buffy on."

Angel handed Buffy the phone, his eyes not quite meeting hers. She took the phone with one hand, but held fast to his arm with the other. "Mom," she said into the phone, "hang on a sec." She pressed the phone against the blanket draped over her leg and spoke softly to Angel.

"Why don't you go get the water warmed up and I'll meet you in the shower? I won't be long."

She wanted to apologize to him for the things she knew her mother must have said, and she wanted to shield him from the things Joyce Summers would say in the future, but neither one was truly possible. Joyce was responsible for her own behavior, and all Buffy could do was reassure Angel that she loved him no matter what her mother said or thought.

He smiled fleetingly at her and brought her hand from his arm to his lips for a lingering kiss, before he went into the bathroom and closed the door.

Buffy returned her attention to the phone. "Yeah, Mom, I'm here.Yes, there here. At Angel's place.Because we're back together, that's why. I did so tell you.No, I don't need to hear your opinion, I've heard it all before. He's too old, he's too experienced, he's a vampire, yadda yadda yadda. I don't care." Buffy shook her head in frustration and held the phone away from her ear for a few minutes as her mother droned on and on about the future and grandchildren and vitamin D deficiency.

"Can you say 'skin cancer,' Mom?" she finally hissed in annoyance. "Look, we have been over all this before, like a million times. You and I have talked about it, Angel and I have talked about it, Giles and I, Willow and I, hell, even Cordelia and I have talked about it. Bottom line: I want my future to be with Angel, and you're just going to have to deal." She thrust the phone away from her ear and clicked it off before she could get sucked in to any further discussion of her choices.

She was sliding out of the bed with the intention of joining Angel for a little romantic interlude in the shower when a sudden click at the top of the stairs diverted her attention. Buffy quickly glanced around the room for a handy weapon, settling at last for a battle-axe hanging on the wall. She slipped one of Angel's silk shirts on to cover herself before she crept out into the living room.

* * * * *

Kate heard the sound of the shower as she opened the door at the top of the stairs. She paused for a moment, unsure of her timing. Unfortunately, time was something she didn't have in great quantities, so she marched onward. Down the steps, one by one, and around the corner, to be confronted at the foot by a small blonde teenage girl. A teenage girl who was wearing nothing but a man's shirt, with a large axe for an accessory.

"Who the hell are you?" they said in unison. The resulting lack of response was also mutual.

Buffy recovered first. "Who are you and why did you barge in without knocking?" She rhythmically tapped the battle-axe against her palm in an unmistakable threat.

"I'm Kate. A friend of Angel's." Kate closed her eyes briefly to regain control of her emotions and her voice. "Who are you?"

"I'm Buffy. Angel's wife."

"His what?" Kate wasn't sure whether shock or outrage put the squeak in her voice; they were running about neck and neck through her veins right now.

"His wife." Buffy held up her left hand, displaying her claddagh ring to eliminate any misunderstanding. She was a little embarrassed to be misrepresenting herself, but this woman's casual attitude towards Angel's home annoyed her, and she was in no mood for further attacks this morning. Angel was hers and she was his, in fact if not in law.

"He never said he had.he never told me.how old are you?" Kate unthinkingly closed the gap between them to peer into Buffy's unlined eyes and far too youthful face.

"Nineteen." She smiled sweetly. "And you?"

There was no response; not that Buffy expected one. She contemplated her big toe for a moment before looking at Kate again. "So, he never mentioned me? At all?"

"That he had a wife? No, I'd remember that." Kate walked past Buffy into the living room, trying to go back over every conversation she'd ever had with Angel, trying to remember any mention of a woman, or rather a girl, from his past.

"We've been separated. You're sure he never said my name?" Buffy beat down the little voice that reminded her she hadn't told Riley about Angel until the day she dumped him, and concentrated on what Angel's silence could mean. If he hadn't told Kate about he and Buffy, was it only because of his natural reticence, or something more significant?

"No, he never.he doesn't talk about his past a lot." Kate reflected on this comment for a moment, then rephrased it. "Make that at all, unless I drag it out of him. There's a lot he doesn't even know I." A sudden horrifying thought struck Kate. "Oh God, do you know.about him? I mean really know about him?"

Buffy was instantly suspicious. Angel told her he never revealed his demon to Kate, so she would have no way of knowing Angel's biggest secret. There was, however, a lot of other secrets left to choose from.

"Know what about him?" Buffy carefully replied. She carried the axe over to the coffee table and laid it down, then curled up on the futon. She waved Kate to take a seat on the chair on the other side of the table

Kate sat down and tried to arrange her words properly. "When did you meet him? I mean, how long have you known him?"

"We met about three years ago." Buffy winced when she realized she'd already disclosed her age. Way to make Angel sound like a perv, she reflected bitterly. All I have to do is mention the car with the blacked-out windows and the lollipop and she'll have him hauled in as a child molester before his hair dries. Mom will probably be the star witness for the prosecution.

"Do you know.how much older he is?" Kate asked discreetly. "I know he looks around 27 or 28, but do you know his.actual age?"

Buffy reached a swift decision. Kate's tap dancing notwithstanding, she obviously knew more than Angel believed she did. It was now up to Buffy to discover how far that knowledge went.

"I do, and I think you have a pretty good idea too," Buffy said evenly. "You know what he is, don't you? He didn't tell you, I know that, but somehow you found out on your own."

Buffy silently watched as Kate stood up and began to prowl around the room. The way she moved, the way she looked, even the way she spoke all seemed vaguely familiar to Buffy, but she couldn't fathom the reason. She shook off the feeling to examine at a later time and concentrated on Kate's words.

"Funny thing about bars," Kate mused as she looked over scattered pieces of Angel's art collection. "Of course, you're not old enough to know yet," she glanced pointedly at Buffy, "but an awful lot of them have a mirror behind the bar itself. Gives lonely people the illusion they're not really alone. Gives cops a way to check out their back at all times." She paused in her restless wandering and gazed somberly at Buffy. "After a while though, some cops notice that the good looking guy sitting next to them, the one they thought of as a friend, doesn't seem to be in the picture. Some cops might brush this off as too much booze and too little sleep, but others investigate. They find out that certain creatures they always thought of as bad news bedtime stories are real. Creatures like vampires."

"Don't call him a creature," Buffy snapped. "He may not be breathing, but he was human once, and he still has a human soul. Don't you ever call him a creature." The traitorous little voice in her head was now whispering that she had used the same word on more than one occasion, but there really was no comparison. In her heart, she had never seen him as anything but a man.

"So you do know." Kate sat down on the chair again, unsure of whether she should be relieved or not. She dreaded telling the child the truth, but to find out she knew and didn't care was almost worse.

"I've known for years. Since not long after we met, actually. It doesn't matter to me." Buffy could feel her nerves begin to settle. This woman wasn't much of a threat after all. Her interest in Angel was obviously contingent upon his ability to breathe, and at least she hadn't tried to stake him or stuff his mouth with garlic when she discovered he was lacking in lung functionality.

Kate was stunned. This kid was worse off than she thought. She actually seemed proud of hiding her head in the sand.

"How can you say that? He's a vampire. He drinks blood, human blood. He's killed people. Maybe you don't know what that means, but."

"I'm a vampire slayer." Buffy' voice cut like a sharpened steel through Kate's words. "I don't want to go through the whole long, boring story, but it's my job to hunt vampires and kill them, along with any other fun-loving demons out there trying to end civilization. I know evil and I know Angel, better than you ever could. Don't you dare judge him, or me."

"This is insane," Kate murmured as she rose to her feet again. "I cannot believe I am having this conversation." She walked out to the kitchen and pulled a glass down from the rack to pour a glass of water.

"Why are you here?" Buffy had lost all patience with this bottle blonde interloper who made herself so at home in Angel's home. Her home.

"Buffy! The water's getting cold! Are you ever." Angel's voice died away as he padded damply into the living room, clad in only a towel, to discover they had company. "Umm, Kate, hi. I see you've met Buffy."

"Yeah, sweetie, we've met. The hard way." Buffy sighed as she sank back on the futon. Good-bye peaceful morning, you were nice while you lasted, she thought wistfully.

"The hard way?" Angel winced when he saw the battle-axe on the coffee table.

Buffy caught the direction his eyes, and thoughts, were heading. "No, not that hard." She pointed to Kate. "See, no blood, no bruises. I just meant in kind of an awkward situation." She waved at her shirt, which was actually his shirt, to clarify matters.

Angel took a firmer hold of the towel resting on his hips and choked out a quick laugh. "This really is pretty awkward, isn't it? I wanted you two to meet, but not quite like this." He glanced down at his bare legs. "And I kind of thought I'd be wearing pants at the time."

Buffy's keen eyes couldn't help but see the way the water droplets jealously clung to Angel's pale skin, and she could tell Kate was enjoying an eyeful too. She pointed to the bathroom.

"Go. Change. Kate and I still have some girl-talk to do before we make with the tea party." She smiled angelically at Kate, sending a chill down the detective's spine.

Angel wasn't fooled by her saccharine-sweet smile either. "Are you sure? Maybe we should take turns entertaining our guest." Willow had once accused him of jealousy, but he had nothing on Buffy in that department. Buffy, Kate and an axe were just not a good combination.

"We will take turns, but you're dripping on the carpet," she pointed out.

Her logic could not be denied. Angel vanished to make the quickest change of clothes of his life, or afterlife for that matter.

When she was certain Angel was safely in the bathroom with the door closed, Buffy swiftly returned her attention to her guest. "Angel doesn't know you know about him, and he's going to be very embarrassed when he finds out you do. I want to tell him. Alone. So whatever you need to talk to him about better not have anything to do with his dental plan."

"I'm afraid it does." Kate sighed as she walked back from the kitchen. "I need his help on a case of mine, and I think it's.well, it involves." She couldn't bring herself to utter the word.

"Demons?" Buffy suggested gently. She felt a sudden wave of pity for Kate, who was so obviously out of her element. Then she remembered Kate was trying to bring Angel in on this, and her sympathy vanished like smoke.

"I think so. I've tried all the rational explanations, and none of them fit. Knowing what I do now about Angel, I thought he might be able to fill in some of the gaps." It wasn't the whole truth, but it was as much as Kate was willing to share with Buffy, or herself.

"Then I guess it's your lucky day, since I'm visiting for the week and I can lend a hand." Unspoken was the corollary; she could also ensure Kate's hands stayed off of Angel.

"Oh, I don't want to involve.you're just a kid," Kate protested. She shook her head firmly. "No way. I shouldn't even be involving Angel, but."

"But you will, so that means you're involving me too. We're a package deal."

"And what happens to the team come Monday morning?" Kate tried to tell herself this was a professional question, but she didn't buy it any more than Buffy appeared to be.

"It's spring break, if that's what you're really asking, which I don't think it is." The chin came up with the attitude.

Kate was silent, waiting for the remainder of the explanation she knew was coming.

"I told you, we were separated but we're not anymore. It's just that I've started college in the meantime, so we're doing the commuter- marriage routine till summer." Buffy met Kate's blue eyes squarely. "Not that it's actually any of your business."

Angel came back in the room before Kate could probe any further. He sat down beside Buffy and squeezed her hand, before nodding slightly towards the bathroom. She glanced anxiously at Kate before disappearing into the other room, but Kate soon realized Buffy was taking no chances. She left the bathroom door ajar and kept up a loud running commentary on the state of Angel's apartment, office, and LA in general throughout her shower. Kate couldn't have confided in Angel if she'd tried, which she didn't bother to do.

When Buffy emerged from the bathroom, still somewhat damp around the edges, she joined Angel on the futon. Her store of bright chatter was exhausted for the moment, leading to an unusual moment of silence. Her companions, who had been hammered into speechlessness by her unrelenting monologue, were slow to recover. It was almost a relief when the awkward quiet was broken by the arrival of Cordelia and Doyle.

Cordelia clattered noisily down the stairs in her clogs, yelling out a warning as she descended.

"Okay, you better be decent down here for a change! I actually went out to buy you cappuccino, Buffy, and Doyle.and Kate," she added in confusion as she rounded the foot of the staircase. "Kate's here. Look, Doyle, Kate's here. With Angel. And Buffy." She skidded to a halt on the slick wooden floor, nearly losing her balance when an equally surprised Doyle walked into her without noticing. They both made a grab for the cardboard crate that cradled the steaming paper cups, narrowly avoiding disaster.

Angel leapt to his feet and relieved them of both the coffee and the bag of doughnuts Doyle was carrying. "Okay, now that we all know who we are, why don't we find out why we're here. Kate, you go first."

Buffy grabbed her cappuccino and a jelly doughnut and settled back down beside Angel. She glanced narrowly at Kate, silently warning her to watch her words. "Yes, Kate, tell us all about why you came here without calling so early in the morning."

Cordelia darted over to the coffee table before Kate could frame her first word. "Umm, why don't I just move this," Cordelia said as she lifted the battle-axe off of the table. "You know, before somebody pokes an eye out or something." She smiled innocently at Buffy. "Strictly by accident, of course."

"That's our Cordy, always the safety expert," Doyle chimed in nervously. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, trying to gauge the amount of trouble Kate's unexpected appearance was going to cause for his friend. Judging by the stormy expression on Buffy's face, Angel might well be spending more than a little time on the futon this weekend.

"I've been working on a case," Kate began.

"Kate's a cop, Buffy." Cordelia smiled brightly at Kate as she brushed past her on the way back from the weapons cabinet. "Well, I told you that already. She's kind of like our very own Commissioner Gordon, or do I mean Barbara Gordon? No, that can't be right because she was Bat Woman or Cat Girl or something superpowers- ish." She would have continued, but a sharp glance from Angel surprisingly penetrated her usual tact shields and she subsided into temporary silence.

Kate looked down at her nervously twisting hands, at the coffee table, anywhere but at Angel. "Yes, well, that's why I know you handle.unusual problems. I seem to have stumbled into one myself this time, and it's serious." She looked up at Angel at last, unwillingly warmed by the concern in his dark eyes. "I need help, and I need it fast."

"What's wrong?" he asked softly, leaning forward to invite her confidences. The portion of his mind always attuned to his beloved, noticed Buffy stiffen when he moved, but he trusted her to understand. Eventually.

"One of my informants was killed the other night, and he wasn't the first one. I always knew there was something a little odd about him, and about the others, but you just don't immediately think of.it's not rational. I'm a cop, and a cop's daughter. I deal in fact, and logic, and this is just not logical." She seemed to have argued herself out of her dilemma and started to rise from her chair.

Buffy desperately wanted Kate to go with those thoughts, to go period. She wanted to get back to her perfect morning, spoiled first by her mother's call, and then by this interloper. But she had a sacred duty to fight evil, even if it was brought to her attention by her lover's wannabe-girlfriend.

"Demons make as much sense as humans, and more than leprechauns," Buffy offered grudgingly. She didn't dare look at Angel, but she could feel his start of surprise and the shock of the others.

"Demons?" Angel choked out. He glanced quickly at Kate, but she seemed relieved rather than surprised.

"I think so," Kate agreed softly. "At least part demon. I don't actually meet all of them face to face, and even if I did, I don't know how to.to tell if they're full-blooded or not, but Kai said.he said that's why they were after him. Because he wasn't pure demon."

Angel wasn't ready to deal with Kate's acceptance of demons, or Buffy's knowledge of her problem, so he pushed those concerns to the side for the moment. "Someone killed him because he was only part- demon?"

"Demons killed him," Kate corrected him. "He said they were after him because they were pure and he wasn't." She was becoming more at ease the more she talked. Once her words were airborne, and the world continued to spin on its axis anyway, she started to believe she would come out of this with almost all of her marbles intact.

"I don't get it," Cordelia said. "Nazi demons? Who would have thought the multi-layer forehead crowd would be so snobby?" She glanced quickly at Angel and realized her words might be considered un-PC by some of her audience. "I'm sorry, Angel, I didn't mean. oww!" Her apology was cut short by Doyle's hand sharply gripping her shoulder.

"If I'm thinking of the right demons, and I know I am, they're called the Scourge," Doyle said grimly. "And they're nothing to joke about."

Angel glanced sharply at him. "You've run into them before?"

"Not me. Some.friends of mine," Doyle replied evasively, with a quick nod of his head in Cordelia's direction. "They're right mean bastards, and there's always more to replace the ones that fall in battle. It would take an army to stop them once they get going."

"And they prey on half-breeds?" Buffy shot a quick look at Angel sitting beside her. "What exactly do they consider."

"Aye, them too." Doyle knew where her priorities lay and answered her before she could finish the question. "And them that loves 'em as well, so beware." He suddenly remembered Kate's presence at the council of war. "I mean, we all should be careful."

"Sounds like we should just lay low on this one," Cordelia said reasonably. "I mean, we're talking demons killing demons. With one or two notable exceptions, I'm not seeing this as a bad." She flipped her dark hair over her shoulder and waited for the rest of the group to acknowledge the logic of her argument.

"If they're preying on half-breeds, that means families. Children." Angel stood up and began to pace. "We have to get involved." He turned to Kate. "Do you know what kind of demon your informant was? What any of them were?"

She shook her head regretfully. "Sorry, I didn't even know Kai wasn't human until he stumbled into the police station dripping blood." She closed her eyes for a moment at the memory. "I thought the expression `blue blooded' sounded pretty classy until now."

"Oh, blue blood is nothing." Cordelia dismissed Kate's trauma with a flick of her wrist. "You should see the ones made of worms. Now that takes some getting used to. And once there was this one who had a gigantic."

"Cordelia, please." Angel looked over at Buffy, who was being unusually quiet. "Buffy, what are you thinking?"

She started at the sound of his voice, but rejoined the conversation amicably enough. Only Angel could hear the tightness in her tone that signaled her carefully restrained anger.

"I'm thinking Giles should have warned me about these guys. If they go after hybrids and half-breeds, it involves me." More importantly to her, it was a potential threat to Angel. Her Watcher had some slacking off to explain.

"He may not have known. These fellows don't exactly look for publicity." Doyle looked anxiously around the room, searching for the portable phone. "I really should call Harrie. If the Scourge is scouting around for new targets she could be in danger. I mean, because she spends so much time studying demons," he hastily backpedaled in deference to Cordelia.

"His ex is a demon anthropologist. She almost married a demon, but she broke it off when he tried to eat Doyle's brain." Cordelia offhandedly dropped these latest tidbits on Kate, gleefully anticipating the reaction of self-assured Detective Lockley.

"Do you people secretly headhunt for the circus or something? Don't you know anyone normal?" Kate scrambled to her feet, intent on escaping this loony bin before she too began to speak casually of brain buffets. She was stopped in her flight by Angel's hand on her arm.

"Kate, please wait. I know this must all come as a shock to you, but we can help if you just give us a chance." Angel glanced around the room, mentally divvying up tasks before he spoke. "Okay, Cordelia, why don't you take Kate upstairs and get the details about her informants. Show her the etchings we have and try to figure out if The Scourge is after a particular group right now or just hunting at random."

"Gotcha." Cordelia got to her feet, all business now. "Come on, Kate. I'll give you a guided tour of the boogedy books."

"Doyle, can you hit the street and see if anyone knows where their base camp is? I want to find them before they find us."

"I'm on it. After I call Harrie."

"Oh, and get a couple of pounds of coffee while you're out," Cordelia called out as Doyle headed to the lift. "There must be a grocery store somewhere near the Death Star. Even demons need munchies."

"Buffy." Angel turned to face his other half, unsure of how she would react to him taking charge of the hunt. "Do you want weapons check or research? I'm more familiar with the arsenal but I'm easy either way."

"You better not be, mister." Buffy grinned at him. "I'll take weapons. I need to get to know what we have so I'll know what to put on the shopping list for future adventures." She planted a swift kiss on his lips before vanishing into the bedroom where she knew Angel kept his best weapons.

Kate lingered near the lift, gesturing for Cordelia to precede her to the office upstairs. Cordelia sighed, but acquiesced after a slight reassuring nod from Angel. When the lift door could be heard opening on the upper level, Kate turned back to Angel, who had settled down on the futon with his new laptop.

She didn't know how to begin to ask him what she needed to know, but he didn't give her much time to formulate a plan. Without looking up from the computer screen, he said quietly, "I'm glad you felt you could come to me with this, Kate. I was starting to think I'd done something to offend you."

"I know I haven't been around much lately," she replied. She took a few steps away from the lift, but still kept her distance from Angel.

"Or at all," he corrected her. He looked up at last, trying to catch her evasive eyes. "You didn't answer me. Did I offend you in some way?"

"That girl. Is she really your wife?" Kate regretted the question the moment it popped out of her mouth, but it was too late to withdraw it. She could only stand miserably alone in the center of the room and wait for an answer.

"She is in every way that matters." He regarded her silently for a moment, confused by the smile that came and went like lightning across her face. "Does she have something to do with why you've been avoiding me?"

"That sounds like a no. Is she even old enough to be here, or should I be hauling you in for corrupting the morals of a minor?"

Kate had no wish to examine the feeling of relief that swept over her when she realized Angel wasn't actually married. That could wait for later, when she was alone and away from the confusion wrought by his presence.

It was his turn to smile as he answered. "She's over 18, and I told you she is my wife, according to the traditions I was raised in." He raised his hand to display the claddagh ring that was a mate to Buffy's. "The state of California may disagree for the moment, but we'll take care of that when the time is right."

"And exactly how old are those traditions, Angel? Are we talking centuries, or do you have some good stories to tell about the big Y1K crisis too?"

She couldn't believe she asked him his age. She didn't want to know, didn't want to admit she knew what he was because then he would confirm it and all would be lost. She would never be able to look at him the same way again. Or if she could, she would never see herself in the same light.

After hearing Kate acknowledge the existence of demons, Angel realized he shouldn't have been shocked that she knew his secret. Still, it took away his metaphorical breath to see the suspicion in her usually friendly blue eyes.

"You know, don't you?"

She forced herself to break contact with that pained dark gaze. Staring intently at a scuffmark on the floor, she nodded her head.

"And that's why you've been avoiding me."

It wasn't a question, just a statement of fact.

"Does that surprise you?" she flared, raising her head to glare at him. "You think you know someone and then you find out he's not even a someone but a something. That would be hard for most people to deal with."

He flinched at the anger and disgust in her voice. Over the past few months he had come to think of Kate as a friend, but he'd always known much of that relationship depended on his "passing" as human. He just hadn't realized it was the entire foundation.

"It's not an easy subject to bring up casually," he replied quietly. He laid the laptop on the futon and stood up, but made no move to approach Kate. "What was I supposed to say? `Hey Kate, how was your New Year's? Mine? Oh, well, you've seen one turn-of-the-century you've seen them all.' Would that have been the best way?"

"You could have trusted me." She was struggling to conceal her sense of betrayal, but she wasn't sure why she bothered. She used to think she had good instincts about people, and she had trusted Angel from the start, even when she knew she shouldn't. It had become apparent to her that the feeling was not mutual.

"You mean I should have known you'd react so well?" he shot back. "Sorry about that, I was actually afraid you might wig out on me. What was I thinking?"

Kate was saved the necessity of a reply by Buffy's emergence from the bedroom.

"Angel, I think we need more of these little ninja star thingies, if you know of a good." Buffy paused, realizing when she looked up from the weapon in her hand that she and Angel were not alone. "Kate, aren't you supposed to be looking through America's least wanted or something?"

"I was just going." Kate turned on her heel and fled after a last anguished glance at Angel.

"She knows," Angel said quietly as he watched the door at the top of the stairs close after Kate. He only had a moment to regret the loss of his friend, however, before his mind was recalled to more important matters. "What did your mom say about you being here?"

"That bitch!"

"Buffy!" Angel was shocked. He and Buffy had discussed her mother's role in his departure from Sunnydale last summer, but he thought she had dealt with her outrage over Joyce's interference. Obviously he was mistaken.

"Look, I know you're angry about her interfering, but that's no reason to."

Buffy shifted her furious gaze from the staircase to Angel. She couldn't believe he would actually take Kate's side after the way she wounded him.

"You bet your overdeveloped canine teeth I'm angry. I told her not to tell you. I told her to let me, and then as soon as my back is turned.and you defend her?"

"Okay, now I'm confused." Angel ran a hand through his dark hair as he tried to trace his way back to the missing thread in the conversation. "Are we still discussing what your mother said last summer, or this morning? Because I admit I was wrong not to tell her to back off then, but this morning."

"Angel, no, I'm not talking about Mom." Buffy's wrath faded as she realized Angel's concern was for her rough morning instead of his own. She laid her hands gently on his chest and looked deep into his eyes. "Kate promised me she would let me tell you she knew about you. I didn't want you to hear it from her; you've been hammered on enough for one day. And then she went and told you anyway!"

He traced the lines of worry down from her forehead along her cheek to her lips. He was touched, as always, by the ferocity with which she protected him. Body and soul were as one to her, their fates weighing equally in her tender and capable hands.

"Sweetheart, it's okay. I admit it was kind of a shock, but you really don't have to protect me like that. I'm a big boy, remember?" He smiled softly at her before he leaned down to steal a kiss.

"And I'm a big girl," she reminded him when, all too soon, the kiss ended. "My mom may have a right to her own opinions, but they are completely wrong and I don't have to listen to them."

"That bad?" he asked sympathetically, sliding his arms around her waist to pull her closer.

Buffy debated for a moment about the relief in sharing the whole long ugly conversation with her mate, but in the end she decided it would just be selfish. It wasn't like he didn't already know Joyce's opinion of him.

"Can we just go back to bed and start the day over?" she pleaded as she pressed her cheek against his chest. "No mothers, no ex- girlfriends, no demons. Just you and me and those silk sheets." She held him fast within her arms, determined to salvage the morning through sheer force if necessary.

He smiled against her hair as he rested his head on hers. "She's not my ex-girlfriend, Buffy. She was just a friend, and I'm not sure she's even that now."

He dropped a light kiss on the part of her blonde hair and breathed in her scent, abandoning his regrets in favor of the simple joy of this embrace. Somehow his problems with Kate could not compete with the wonders of the life he now saw before him, embodied in this woman he held in his arms.

Buffy titled back her head to gaze up at him. "I wish we could write off Mom as easily, but since we can't.it doesn't matter, Angel. I can't make her go away, but whatever she says or does can't touch us now. We're free."

* * * * *

As the lovers whiled away the day discussing battle plans and bedroom sets, Joyce Summers laid out her own campaign strategy. After a lengthy internal struggle, she sought aid and comfort from the least reliable of allies.

She dialed the number quickly, before she talked herself out of it, and she wasn't sure if she was glad or disappointed when she got a human rather than the machine. So much depended on this conversation; it might have been better if it was one-sided.

"Hank, it's Joyce. We need to have a long talk about your daughter."

When the storms roll in and they make me lose my place.
Slow and black I watch them creep across your face.
-JK-

* * * * *

"This is a nightmare," Kate sighed, pushing away a dusty tome chock full of demons, monsters and things that go bump in the night. "I never knew there were so many different kinds of…things out there, just walking around."

She wearily ran her hand through her short blonde hair and tried to remember exactly how many cups of Cordelia's coffee she had drained so far. Obviously not enough to kill her, she reflected, but she had to be close to the saturation point by now.

"Welcome to my world," Cordelia responded with a slightly malicious grin. "Demons by the bagful, and most of them looking to take a piece out of Angel or Buffy. And, of course, anyone else who happens to be around them. It's lucky for you that Angel hasn't needed any police help lately."

Cordelia had understood from the very beginning why Angel felt drawn to Detective Lockley, even if he didn't. Understanding it and approving of it were two different things, though. And now that Buffy was back to reclaim her errant boyfriend, Angel certainly didn't need any slightly aged Buffy-clones hanging around. It was time to take the overly confident cop down a peg or two.

Kate grimaced, but chose to ignore Cordelia's barb. She was a grown-up, above fighting with children. She would not sink to schoolyard squabbles.

More importantly, after only an hour with Cordelia, she'd realized she'd never win.

"All I know is we've been at this for a day and a half and we're still nowhere." Kate stood up and stretched, trying to avoid any movements that would turn her head towards the closed door which barred access to Angel's apartment below. "We've looked through these awful books over and over, you've sketched all of my informants we couldn't find pictures of, and what has it gotten us? Nothing, that's what."

"You're just not looking at this from a professional demon-hunter's perspective," Cordelia replied, her good humor undiminished. "Now we know your guys, the ones you've seen anyway, are all different types of demons. And the ones we could identify are both good and bad. That means the demons that are after them aren't trying to save the world or anything. They're just evil."

Kate looked at her closely; she wouldn't put it past Cordelia to make this stuff up just to yank her chain. The dark-haired girl seemed perfectly sincere, however, and she actually looked rather pleased with her deductions.

"So you're saying there are good demons and bad demons, and we should be happy that my informants were some of each." Oh yeah, now it all makes perfect sense, she thought wryly.

"Well, it's better than thinking we're fighting the good guys. Believe me, you do not want to get in the way of someone who's trying to save the world. Quick trip to hell in a handbasket, or sometimes in a really ugly statue; just ask Angel."

"But demons are bad," Kate insisted. "That's why they're called demons." Cordelia seemed to be deliberately ignoring her point.

"Actually there's probably some Latin reason why demons are called demons, but you'd have to ask Angel about that too. Anyway, they aren't all bad. Buffy told me you know about Angel. He's a good demon."

Cordelia didn't add that she was a little miffed to have missed Kate's initial reaction to the news. No need to give Kate any points in this game of one-upsmanship.

"So you know too. And you can still come in here every day and just act like everything is normal?" Kate just didn't understand these people.

"Everything is normal." It was Cordelia's turn to be confused. "Angel's been a vamp since I met him. As long as he doesn't lose his soul again and become Mr. Scourge of Europe, what do I care what he has for dinner?"

"Scourge? He was one of them?"

"Please. Like they'd have him." Cordelia's patience was being sorely tested, but she persevered. "Vampires aren't pure demon, don't you know that? No, he was his own little plague o' death for about a century and a half. But now he's good, so we like him."

And end of backstory, as far as Cordelia was concerned.

"But he's killed people, a lot of people. And he's not human. You mean to tell me that means nothing to you?" Kate was trying to think of all the arguments she had used on herself these past few weeks, but they seemed to be having as little effect on Cordelia as on herself.

"So he's not human." Cordelia shrugged as she got to her feet to investigate the snack situation in the mini refrigerator. "He used to be, and from what he's said he's a lot nicer now than he was when he had a pulse. Besides, he already went to hell for a few hundred years, so I think he's probably in the time served category when it comes to penance. The past is totally in the past." Unfortunately, she noted, so was all the ice cream thanks to Doyle.

"And is that Buffy's excuse too?"

Cordelia glanced shrewdly over her shoulder at Kate. "What are you really asking me, Kate? Why Buffy loves him, or why you do?"

"That's out of line," Kate answered stiffly. She turned her back on Cordelia and pretended to study an old book on top of one of the filing cabinets. "I never had any interest in Angel other than as a friend, and now that I know what I know about him..." She whipped around to face Cordelia as the rest of the younger woman's words were processed. "What did you say about hell?"

"You're still jonesing for him." Cordelia abandoned her search for a snack and perched on the corner of her desk. "You've been hot for him since that first night you met him in the singles bar, and knowing his Bloody Mary's used to be the real deal hasn't changed how you feel a bit. Well, except now you think you're some sort of necrophilistine or something because you want a dead guy."

"Necrophiliac, and you don't know what you're talking about. I feel nothing for Angel but..."

"Blind lust," Cordelia interrupted with a grin. "To tell you the truth, I have both been there and done that myself, a long, long time ago. And if I couldn't get his attention away from Buffy, you certainly won't be able to."

"I just want to take care of this…demon problem I seem to have developed and then get on with my life. Alone." Kate only hoped her resolve could remain as firm as her voice.

Cordelia tried very hard to smother the compassion she could feel stirring within her heart. She had never liked Kate, and she wanted to revel in her downfall, but there was no mistaking the hunger in the other woman's eyes when she looked at Angel, or the catch in her voice when she said his name. The detective truly cared about Angel, even if she would rather be bitten than admit it.

Too bad it wasn't going to do her any good.

"Kate," Cordelia began with a sigh, and little idea where to go from there.

"Is Doyle coming back any time this century with those hamburgers?" Kate moved restlessly around the room, trying to escape Cordelia's penetrating gaze.

"It's got to be tough to find a good-looking straight man at your age, Kate, but I really hope you're not interested in Angel." She tried to lay a sympathetic hand on Kate's shoulder as she offered her tidbits of Angel-wisdom, but the cop dodged her. Undaunted, Cordelia continued, "That tattoo on his back might as well be Buffy's brand. He's been off the market since the moment he first laid eyes on her."

"Cordelia…"

"I agree the relationship makes no sense." Cordelia shrugged her slim shoulders at the vagaries of love. "But you are so not going to be able to affect it. We're talking nothing on heaven or earth here. Not wind or rain or sleet or dead of night or, wait, we don't actually get sleet in LA, but the dead of night part fits. There is a dead of night part, right?"

"Cordelia, I get the point," Kate snapped, whirling around to face the younger woman.

Kate's protest was interrupted by a knock on the outer office door. Cordelia motioned her to stop talking before she cautiously approached the door.

* * * * *

Buffy surveyed the assorted weaponry spread out on the tables and chairs with some dissatisfaction. It was an elegant collection, but a little on the archaic side for her taste. Almost nothing was even spring-loaded, except the wrist-stakes and crossbows, and most of it could easily have come from the walls of Angel's childhood home in Ireland. It served as an uncomfortable reminder of a gap they could bridge, but never erase.

"Honey, we really need to get you a subscription to 'Guns and Ammo' or something. You and Giles are so alike when it comes to this stuff it scares me."

Angel came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her, holding her firmly against his body. He nuzzled her hair for a moment, then whispered in her ear, "That better be the only way I remind you of Giles."

She grinned and rested her head against his chest as his lips slid down from behind her ear to the column of her throat. There were times when she was decidedly grateful for the difference in age and experience. She certainly reaped the benefits of his hard-won patience and expertise.

"Mmm, trust me, that's it," she murmured, swaying slightly in his embrace.

Neither of them heard the door open at the top of the stairs, but Cordelia's loud hello was an undeniable reminder of the real world beyond their little hideaway.

"Okay, time to uncouple," she called out in warning as she clattered down the stairs. "We've got some unexpected company, or at least Buffy does." Cordelia waved her hand up the staircase at the man slowly following her, as Buffy and Angel turned slightly to greet their latest interruption.

"Daddy," Buffy said flatly when he came into view.

Angel glanced from the blond man walking down the stairs to that man's daughter resting securely in his arms. He started to release her, slightly embarrassed to be caught spooning, but Buffy held him fast.

"Angel, this is my father, Hank Summers. Daddy, this is Angel. My fiancé."

With those few words, Buffy's past and future finally melded.

* * * * *

"I tell you, Doyle, the tension down there was so thick you couldn't have cut it with Angel's broadsword," Cordelia reported from the safety of the outer office, after she left Hank Summers to the tender mercies of his daughter the Slayer. "I got out of there before you could say 'stake me,' but I really wish I could hear what was going on. Darn thick floorboards." She stamped one fashionably high heel to no avail. "Where's all that shoddy modern craftsmanship you hear so much about when you really need it?"

"Sorry the building is too well-made to suit you, darlin'. We'll have to speak to the landlord." Doyle glanced affectionately at Cordelia as she filed her nails in a blatant attempt at casual. "I'm surprised you left, though. I'd have thought you'd want to be right in the middle of things. Helpin' like."

She grinned at him and tossed the nail file onto the desk. "I wanted to. I even offered, but Angel said 'go,' in the deep dark voice. You know, the one that says 'I used to kill people for fun and profit.' So I went. Fast."

"So Buffy's da shows up without a warning." Doyle looked speculatively at the door to the stairs, then slid a sidelong glance at Kate, who was sitting on the couch flipping through a book of spells. "Wonder what brought him front and center after all this time. I got the feeling he and Buffy aren't close."

Kate looked up quickly from her book and shook her head, denying any responsibility. "Hey, I didn't even know the man's name until a few minutes ago. I had nothing to do with bringing him here. What would I have said, anyway? 'I'm sorry, Mr. Summers, but I think you should know your daughter is dating the undead?' How would I know he isn't one too? Or a warlock or a werewolf or something?"

"That's Oz," Cordelia said, paying only token attention to Kate's tirade. "No, my money is on another interested party. Trust me, this has all the earmarks of mommy-Joycest."

"You think?" Doyle wasn't sure if that was good or bad for his pal Angel.

"Oh yeah," she replied slowly, reaching for the nail buffer she kept in her top desk drawer. "Joyce is making one last stand, and old Hank is the cannon."

"And Angel has a great bloody bulls-eye painted on his chest," Doyle finished grimly.

* * * * *

At the moment, cannons, or at least guns, weren't far from Hank Summers' mind. Once his initial shock at Buffy's announcement had passed, he had begun to look around Angel's apartment to get a sense of the man's character. What he saw terrified him. He had never before seen such a large collection of openly displayed weaponry outside of a movie screen.

Angel and Buffy both saw Hank's stunned expression as he took stock of his surroundings and it didn't take a genius to divine the cause. Without a word, they each grabbed blankets and towels to toss over the assorted axes, swords, knives and bows strewn about the room.

Unfortunately, it wasn't quite quickly enough to forestall parental anxiety.

"What the hell...all of this..." Hank sputtered as he waved his hand to include the contents of the apartment at large. "Are you some kind of arms dealer or something?" He looked around frantically for the only missing piece of the picture. "Guns. Where are the guns? I don't see...oh thank god at least I don't see guns."

"Daddy, chill," Buffy said firmly. She bundled a half dozen swords of varying sizes into a red blanket and placing it on the floor to clear off some room on the couch. "Angel is a collector, not a dealer. All these things are out because he…"

"Has a show coming up," Angel swiftly took up the lifeline she had cast him. "I show them, and I buy them, but I don't sell them. I don't sell them," he repeated desperately as he attempted to stuff several crossbows under a Tibetan meditation mat.

"There, all cleaned up." Buffy felt as if her face would split if her smile were forced any further across her face. "Do you want to sit down and tell us why you're here, Daddy?" She moved across the room to take Angel's hand in hers, as she waved to the couch with her free hand.

"It is a little unexpected," Angel added mildly. "Not that I haven't been wanting to meet you," he hastened to reassure their guest, "but I thought…that is we thought…" He stumbled miserably to a halt and looked to Buffy for help.

"We thought you'd call first." Buffy's mood suddenly switched from embarrassment to severe annoyance when she realized this was the second unanticipated, and frankly unwelcome, visitor this weekend. There was only so much good hostessing in her, and Kate's continued presence was pretty much exhausting it.

Hank flushed slightly. The sneak attack had not been his idea.

"Well, princess, I wanted to surprise you," he said weakly. He shifted slightly on the leather cushion, trying to find a comfortable place to rest his prickling conscience.

"And you did. Was that the only reason?"

Angel squeezed her hand in warning, but Buffy was not in the mood for the soft-sell approach today. The clock was ticking away precious hours of her time with Angel, and she had no patience with empty ritualistic pleasantries.

"Your mother called me last night." Hank flung caution to the winds and met his daughter's wrath head on. "She was very upset that you two are back together, and she thought I should know exactly what you're doing with your life."

Angel could now see that Buffy's devastating directness, as well as her coloring, was a gift from both parents. If temper was also part of the deal, he was really going to regret picking this morning to do a weapons check.

"So Mom decided it was time you wore more than just the absentee-dad jacket, and you figured what the heck, it's Saturday. You'll only miss a half-day at the office."

Buffy made no more attempts to hide her anger at her on-again/off-again father. For all her capacity to forgive, she had little to spare for the parent who alternately played with, and discarded, her as carelessly as Drusilla did Miss Edith.

"Now wait just a minute, young lady. I may not have been able to be with you as much as I'd like since your mother insisted on moving you out of LA, but I am still your father. Maybe I haven't talked to you as much as I should either, but your mother keeps me up-to-date on the big things in your life, and apparently this is one of them." Hank drew a deep breath and tried to calm down. Anger would only alienate his daughter, and cement her attachment to this man.

Buffy's anger suddenly vanished, leaving behind only an icy calm. She nudged Angel to sit down on the only other free chair in the living room, then perched on the arm. His hand was still tightly clasped within her own.

"That's right, this is a big thing," she replied evenly. "Angel is the biggest thing in my life. We are in love, we are getting married, eventually, and we're going to live our life as we see fit. Does that fill in any gaps Mom's story might have left out?"

"Honey, your mother and I are just concerned that you are rushing into things. You're only 18; you need to experience life before you make a commitment like this. And this man," he looked at Angel for confirmation, "Angel, right? You are a good deal older than Buffy, which also concerns us. Did you ever think that in my absence Buffy might be looking for a...well, frankly a..."

"Father figure," Angel offered quietly. "Is that the phrase you're searching for, Mr. Summers?" He didn't look at Buffy as he spoke, but he could feel the fury beginning to hum through her body again. He gently ran his free hand up and down her arm, trying to soothe away some of her tension before she exploded.

"Honestly, yes. After meeting you, I can understand some of Joyce's reservations about this situation. You're in a far from stable line of work, you're several years older, and apparently you've maintained a relationship with my daughter since she was only sixteen years old. That's enough to give any father nightmares."

"He is not a father figure," Buffy snarled at last through gritted teeth. "I have one of those, and I don't mean you. I'm not looking for someone to tell me what to do. I want a partner, and I found one. And for the record, I'm 19, Dad, not 18. My birthday was in January, remember? Oh that's right, you didn't."

"I sent you a gift, Buffy. I couldn't be there, but I didn't forget."

Hank's voice was small, in keeping with the way he felt at the moment. He was furious with Joyce for throwing him into this situation with so little warning about what he would be facing. From the way she described the situation, he had thought he would be dealing with his little girl helpless in the thrall of a middle-aged pedophiliac biker. Instead he was cast as Nardo in the LA revival of "West Side Story," trying to keep Maria from her Tony. And why didn't Joyce tell him they were already engaged, for God's sake?

Angel wanted to smooth things over before they got any worse, but he wasn't sure if it might not already be too late to salvage this parent/child relationship. Still, there was nothing to do but try.

"Mr. Summers, we understand that you're concerned, and so is Mrs. Summers. But what Buffy and I have is something quite special." Angel did glance up at Buffy this time, his smile igniting her own. "It's not something most people understand, but it's very strong and very real. I've waited to share my life with Buffy for longer than you can imagine. Now that we're together I'm going to do everything I can to make her happy."

"You already do," she murmured, tracing the outline of his claddagh ring with her finger.

"This all sounds very romantic, Angel, and obviously that's part of the appeal for my daughter. But if you look at it from my perspective..."

Hank's perspective was delayed by the sudden clamor of footsteps on the stairs.

"Angel, Buffy, we need you quick. Doyle just had a vision…" Cordelia faltered when she reached the bottom of the stairs and suddenly remembered their company wasn't part of the club. "A vision problem," she hastily amended. "He just, umm, blacked out, and he said he saw all these weird and scary things while his vision was really, really bad. I really think we need to look into this."

Fortunately, Cordelia's attempts at subterfuge only confused Hank, rather than alarming him. He was, however, surprised by the speed with which his daughter and his prospective son-in-law responded to the crisis.

"Where?" Angel asked tersely as he began unwrapping the swords that Buffy left on the floor.

"Well, he's upstairs," Cordelia began carefully, "but I think he wants you to go to that old brick warehouse by Pier 8. There's, umm, an herbalist next door and she has this really great eye cream or gel or something that he thinks…"

"How many?" Buffy broke in, more concerned with being properly armed than protecting her father's innocence. She tossed a duffel bag to Angel for the swords and began retrieving the crossbows from under the meditation mat to pack in another bag.

"Lots," Cordelia replied flatly. "He needs lots and lots, but he said there's always more where they, I mean it, comes from. Trust me, there will be plenty to go around."

"Why are you packing weapons to get eye medication?" Hank asked suspiciously.

"Trade." Angel didn't look up from his packing. Even after all his centuries of practice, his human soul squirmed with discomfort when he lied to someone's face. Especially when the face bore the same hazel eyes as Buffy did.

"Trade? Okay, sure." Hank stood up and began edging towards the door, trying to figure out a way to extract his daughter from this pandemonium without her calling the police. He was certain the police would be involved eventually, but he didn't want Buffy to be there when they came looking for illegal weapons and drugs.

"Herbalists don't sell their medications, at least this one doesn't. She takes stuff in trade and then sells it herself. Earns her better karma." Buffy didn't share Angel's compunction against lying to her father. After all the broken promises, she figured she owed him a few lies in return.

"And you're going with Angel to get this medicine? Shouldn't you just bring your friend to a doctor?" Like normal, law-abiding people do, he wanted to add, but he restrained himself.

"Dad, Doyle won't go to a doctor. So I'm going with Angel…because he's a lousy bargainer. He always overpays because he's so generous. Major guilt." She looked sternly at her lover, then remembered they were not alone to continue that particular discussion. "Umm, rich parents. Now can we chat about this later?" Buffy zipped up the duffel bag and grabbed her backpack. Angel was also finished packing, leaving them both gazing expectantly at their unwelcome visitor.

Hank looked from one set face to the other. While the war might yet be won, this battle was clearly over. Unless, of course, he felt like putting his daughter over his shoulder and forcibly extracting her against her own wishes as well as those of her rather large and heavily armed boyfriend.

Right, Hank. Battle over.

"Well, I can see you want me to go so you can take care of your friend. This conversation isn't finished, though." Hank looked sternly at his little girl, hoping against hope he was doing the right thing by leaving her here with this man. "If you two are really serious about getting married, I need to know more about you, young man. I think we should have lunch tomorrow, all three of us."

Buffy and Angel shared a quick, worried glance.

"Make it dinner on Monday and you've got a deal," Buffy replied for them both. "We…work through lunch."

"All right, dinner it is. Seven o'clock at Le Petit Choud on Vale Street." He started backing up the stairs as he spoke, still keeping a watchful eye on his daughter and her fiancé.

"Fine, great. We'll be there." Buffy waved briefly. "Bye Dad."

Hank could still hear them talking as he followed Cordelia though the doorway at the top of the staircase.

"Sure, make me sound like the financial clueless wonder," Angel was grumbling as he slung his duffel bag over one shoulder and hefted a sword with the free hand. "I've been handling my own money since long before I met you, Buffy. Really long before."

"Angel, how much did you pay for that sword?"

There was a sudden guilty silence from the apartment below.

* * * * *

The warehouse Doyle had seen in his vision appeared to be abandoned. A streetlight gleamed feebly from across the poorly paved alley, and not even the stray dogs bothered to search for scraps of food in this dark and lonely place.

Buffy and Angel approached the building cautiously, motioning the others to stay back until it was safe. Doyle and Cordelia were prepared to follow instructions, but Kate was used to being the one in charge. She slid out of the car and caught up to Buffy and Angel before Doyle could even protest.

"Don't you just love a rookie?" Cordelia placed her hands on her hips and glared at the detective who was forcing her to battle demons while wearing a wrap-around skirt. Doyle tugged at her hand, reminding her they needed to catch up with their erstwhile companions. If Kate was going to get into the fray, someone needed to keep an eye on her, and apparently Cordelia and Doyle were elected.

"Kate, you know she only means..." Doyle began only to be silenced by a glare from Buffy.

"Quiet," she hissed, motioning to the open window Angel was creeping towards.

Silence reigned as Buffy and Kate joined Angel at the window. It was a high window, and Buffy felt a stab of jealousy when the taller Kate easily peered in over her shoulder. Then Angel's cool hand came to rest on her back and she suddenly felt the world resume its proper proportions.

"Oh my god," Kate breathed. "This can't...I can't be seeing this." The detective stumbled back from the window, her face so pale it looked blue in the faded glow of the streetlight. Her mind was fighting to deny what she thought she'd already accepted: demons were real, and they were in that building.

"What's going on? What did you see?" Buffy forgot her jealousy when her slayer instincts took over. She leaned into the crumbling stone window ledge, trying to see as much as possible without giving away her presence. What she saw stunned her as much as it had shocked Kate, though she doubted it was for the same reason.

"Angel, tell me I'm not seeing what I think I'm seeing. Tell me this is just a chorus number in the demon version of 'Cabaret' and they're up to Dress Rehearsal." She looked to her lover to reassure her, but his somber gaze held no promise of a happy ending.

"What?"' Cordelia whispered impatiently. "Let me see." She pushed past Kate, who was leaning up against the side of the building trying to catch her breath.

"Wow, they are Nazis." Cordelia turned to Doyle and gestured for him to come take a look. "I was kidding before, but they really have the 'seig heil' look down pat." She turned back to the window to verify her first impression. "Of course, in the movies the Nazis don't look like they've been the victims of bad plastic surgeons, but those costumes are a dead giveaway."

"They're not costumes, Cordelia," Doyle replied heavily after he had looked for himself. Those uniforms represented danger to a part of himself he'd been running from for years. In the end, he was right back where he started.

Angel shot another quick glance in the window, trying to store up as many impressions as possible for use in the coming battle. While part of his mind was cataloging the number of warriors and their displayed weaponry, another part of him was reliving memories of events these children only knew about from history books. The tight-fitting grey uniforms and tall black boots, the precision of the warriors' formation, and above all, the fanatical glow he saw on every misshapen face gave him a deeper chill than his own blood cells.

"We have to get out of here." Doyle had seen enough for one night, and one lifetime. "They'll be coming any minute and..."

Even as he spoke, the warehouse doors began to swing open and the Scourge poured forth onto the street.

"Get back!" Angel grabbed Cordelia and yanked her back against the wall as Buffy shoved Doyle around the side of the building to become one with the shadowy corner. No one spoke, or even breathed more than necessary until the stampede of boots faded into the distance.

One by one they stepped away from the building and into the street. Buffy threw back her head and drew in great gulps of air, hoping to cleanse herself of the miasma of evil she sensed in this deceptively quiet place. When she finally felt some measure of peace, she turned to Angel.

"I never thought there would be so many. I think we have a little problem here." Worry clouded her features. "We don't know all of their weaknesses yet, or actually any of them, besides ego. How are we supposed to take out that many when we don't know what make them bleed?"

"It is your blood that counts, human," growled a voice from shadows.

In the moment it took Buffy and Angel to assume fighting stances, they were surrounded. The last squad had doubled back to investigate a noise and lucked into a street fight, much to their grim enjoyment. They wanted to savor the moment, to bask in the smell of human fear, which meant a lot of circling.

"We have to get the others out," Angel said in a low voice as he glanced from one tightly drawn mask to another. "They're not up to this fight."

"I'm with you there, honey. We'll have enough to do to protect ourselves." Buffy froze as another thought struck her. She quickly slid over to stand flush against Angel's side, the better to whisper in his ear. "Angel, whatever you do, no 'grrr face,' promise me. They can't know." She whipped around to face one of the Scourge, sensing he was about to spring.

The Scourge fought fiercely, but they were surprised by the strength of their opponents. Having judged them to be mere human beings, the warriors took too much time to adjust their opinions, which gave Buffy and Angel the advantage. The Scourge began to fall under the combined forces of the Slayer and her mate, clearing an escape route to the car. Cordelia took the opportunity to run back for more weapons, while Doyle and Kate stayed to fight.

Buffy was unwillingly impressed by the policewoman's moderate skill in martial arts, but she would have been happier to have all the "civilians" in the car. She turned to push Doyle towards safety, with an eye to sending Kate along as escort, when a sudden blow to her back sent her barreling into Angel. They both tumbled to the ground, Angel trying to break Buffy's fall. Despite his best efforts it was a hard landing, and for a moment they both saw stars.

The warrior who shoved them to the pavement moved rapidly towards them, his heavy nightstick raised to deal a crushing blow. He suddenly arched his back and grunted as a bullet from Kate's gun slammed into his torso. Turning slowly, he prepared to stalk a new prey.

Kate aimed her gun carefully and let off another shot at his chest as the demon approached her. He stepped back a pace from the force of entry, but he didn't stop coming. She lined up her weapon once again, taking deep breaths and focusing on the target rather than the creature as a whole.

"Aim for the stomach, Kate!" Doyle called from behind her as he fought with another of the demons. Cordelia hit the creature squarely on the head with a car jack, dazing it enough to allow Doyle one good thrust to the abdomen with one of Angel's knives. The creature fell lifelessly to the ground. "The heart's not where you think it is. They're not human, you know." Another demon landed a blow that knocked him off his feet and ended his tutorial for the moment.

"Not human. Not human." The words screamed through Kate's skull, whipping around in circles of increasing velocity until she couldn't think or speak or even breathe. What she was facing, what was going to kill her, was not human.

Buffy suddenly realized what was going on. It had been a long time since she fought her first demon, but she knew what happened when denial met reality in a dark alley.

"Oh swell," she mumbled as she painfully got to her feet. "Time to rescue the damsel in distress."

"Buffy, wait!" Angel tried to stop her, but he couldn't hold onto her from his vantage point on the ground. By the time he stood up, she was running towards the demon, and into the path of Kate's gun.

"Kate, don't shoot!" Angel cried out as he launched himself after Buffy.

The shot seemed to echo forever.

You said, understand, we are blacker than sun-
but golden in the shadows, even coming undone.
-JK-

* * * * *

"Easy does it now. Just take it slow and we'll be fine." Doyle carefully wove a path through Angel's weapon-strewn living room, sighing in relief when at last they reached the bedroom.

"Careful," Buffy cautioned. "I said be careful!" She glared at Doyle as he stepped away from Angel a moment too soon and the larger man landed heavily on the bed, taking Buffy with him.

"Angel, are you okay? Did I land on anything ouchy?" She slid back a little so her weight was not resting on his body and began unbuttoning his bloodstained shirt. He groaned softly when she helped him sit up to ease it off, but she wasn't sure if the pain came from the wound itself, or the fact she had to peel the shirt off of it.

"I'm fine, give or take a bullet or two." His lips twisted in a half-smile as he edged back on the bed to lean against the headboard. He raised his hand to stroke Buffy's hair, but when he noticed his arm tremble he swiftly dropped it to his side.

"Just one. I counted." Cordelia carried a tray laden with a bowl of water, towels and a variety of gleaming medical instruments in from the kitchen. She laid them one by one on the nightstand, arranging them with the same ease of long practice as she held the determinedly cheerful smile on her face.

"One was enough," Buffy said shortly. She resolutely kept her face turned away from Kate, who stood hesitantly in the doorway. Kate stood, while Angel lay bleeding; in Buffy's book this was not an acceptable turn of Fate's wheel.

"Buffy, it was an accident." Angel's dark eyes begged her to keep both her temper and her perspective. For the moment he conveniently pushed aside how he would feel if their roles were reversed.

"That's why she's still breathing," Buffy replied with a tight smile. "Now, everybody out. It's time to play doctor." She frowned as she checked the supplies at her disposal. "There's no alcohol, chuggable or otherwise, and I don't see anything to numb the wound itself. What's going to kill the pain?"

Cordelia quickly glanced at Doyle, motioning him to speak for both of them. When he didn't respond quickly enough she growled and spoke for herself.

"Angel likes to do the big he-man no painkiller thing when he's shot. Men." She ventured a step closer to the bed. "Umm, Buffy, we've probably done more care and feeding of a wounded vamp than you have lately, so you might want us to do some of this. We kind of have a system." Cordelia's bright smile weakened in the face of the Slayer's cold stare. She could only hope she'd made her point without risking life and limb.

"And now I'm part of the system and the system includes painkillers." Buffy's tone left no room for discussion.

"Works for me. Everything's a bit brighter with a drop of Jameson's."

Doyle avoided Cordelia's eyes and pretended this had never been a question of rank. He knew how much Cordelia wanted Buffy back in Angel's life, for both their sakes. But it was only this week, in the teeth of Buffy's 24/7 presence, that it was beginning to dawn on the former May Queen this was a permanent situation. Like it or not, she would be forced to relinquish her spot as token woman in Angel's life. He only hoped the transition could be less bloody than this evening's activities.

"I don't need any..." Angel started to say.

"Yes, you do." Buffy interrupted him. "And even if you don't, you do so I won't feel so bad about poking into your heart with Disco Mr. Pointy." She waggled the silvery probe at him and forced herself to smile, despite the queasiness of her stomach.

"I'm just going to wait in the living room." Kate started to back out of the bedroom, then changed her mind and approached the bed. "Angel, I'm so sorry I hit you. I don't know what happened. I just froze when that...that thing came at me, and then when I woke up all I knew was I had to pull the trigger. If you hadn't knocked Buffy out of the way..." Kate shivered as she left the remainder of her sentence hanging in the air.

Angel studied Buffy as his inner eye finally played out what might have happened in that dark alley. Every time she went on patrol, every time she helped him with his work, she faced death; he knew that in his head. He would have gone mad from the knowledge if he didn't have such implicit faith in her strength and skill. But to know that it might not be a demon, that one bullet from one gun in the hands of one overwrought human could take away the light of his life frightened him more deeply than he could have imagined.

His dark thoughts were banished by the gentle touch of her hand on his shoulder, drawing him back to the present, and towards the brighter future he was determined to give her. He smiled at his love, still safe by his side on this night at least.

"It was an accident," he repeated firmly. "And I'm always going to be there to get in the way of them where Buffy is concerned."

"It's kind of a hobby," Cordelia explained, returning with the requested rubbing alcohol and a bottle of cognac, as well as another bowl.

"Unfortunately, getting between Buffy and just about anything can be hazardous to your health," the subject of the discussion added dryly. "Now can we please get this bullet out of you before the wound starts to close up around it and gets infected?" She handed Angel the cognac bottle and began to clean the wound.

"Buffy, it can't get infected." Angel shifted slightly on the bed to give her better access to his chest, after he took a substantial swig of the cognac. "And even if it did, it's not like it can kill me." He hissed in pain as she sliced a larger hole in his chest to allow her to probe for the bullet. She might not kill him, but that didn't mean it was going to be fun either, even with the help of alcohol.

"Man's got a point. You can't kill him with a stick." Cordelia cocked her head to the side while she reconsidered this statement. "Wait, no, my bad. A stick is about the only thing you can kill him with."

"Sunlight," offered Doyle, wiping the blood from Angel's chest as Buffy searched for the bullet. "Fire too."

"Holy water," Cordelia suggested. "It ruins his precious leather couch too, so be careful when you pack your slayer bag, Buffy. Some people are so materialistic." Her affectionate smile turned to a wince as Buffy hit a visibly painful area and Angel flinched.

Kate slipped out of the room as the list grew. She wanted to stay and help, she wanted to feel a part of this little group who squabbled amongst themselves but faced the enemy as a unified force. As badly as she wanted to belong, though, she knew she didn't, and there was no point in outstaying her dubious welcome.

Buffy alone noticed Kate's departure, but she considered not tap dancing with joy to be kindness enough. If Kate hadn't left her car in Angel's garage, she wouldn't have let the detective accompany them back to the apartment at all.

"Poison," the Slayer grimly contributed to the trivia contest. Memories of the last night she kept vigil by Angel's bedside threatened to swamp her as she searched for the latest implement to put a hole in her beloved's chest.

"Ooh, ooh, I know," Cordelia crowed. "Beheading. That works, right? I'm sure it does because I remember this one time Buffy had a cymbal and..."

"Can we not count the ways I can die right this minute," Angel pleaded from his sick bed. "It's kind of discouraging." He smiled weakly at his well meaning, but tact-challenged, loved ones.

"Amen," echoed the surgeon when, at last, she succeeded in grabbing the bullet with the forceps. She dropped it in the little ceramic bowl Cordelia proffered and wiped her forehead with her arm before she started bandaging Angel. "Okay, let me get this cleaned up and then with a little tape and some gauze, you'll be good as new. This time," she finished darkly.

Angel concentrated fiercely on controlling the quiver in his arm so he could reach up to caress her cheek. "I'll be fine tomorrow, Buffy. It was just a bullet. I think we've established they can't kill me."

"That doesn't mean I enjoy spending my spring break digging around your heart for scrap metal. The only thing that's supposed to be in there is me." She smoothed the last piece of tape onto his chest and sat down beside him, taking one of his hands in her own.

Doyle tugged on Cordelia's arm, trying to move her towards the door. She twitched her sleeve out of his grasp and glared at him.

"I want to make sure Angel is all right, okay? Jeeze, what's your damage?"

"I think he has everything he needs." Doyle nodded to Buffy, who was rubbing the back of Angel's hand against her cheek while he smiled up at her.

"But we always keep an eye on him when he's hurt," Cordelia protested, to no avail.

"We're here if they need us, Cordelia. They know that." Doyle spoke softly, trying not to disturb the lovers. He draped his arm around Cordelia's shoulders and guided her out of the room, Buffy and Angel none the wiser to the exchange.

"Baby, it's happened before and it will happen again," Angel said softly as his friends departed. "You know that. I'll take bullets for you; you'll fight the daytime demons for me. Neither one of us is invincible, so we each have to go with our strengths and use them to protect the other." He held her eyes with his own as he slid down on the bed and motioned for her to join him.

"Oh sure, be reasonable," Buffy grumbled, gently twining her body around his. She knew he was right, but that didn't make it any easier to watch the man she loved bleed on her behalf, to see him suffer pain in her name. There were some parts of being a Slayer she would never get used to, not in a million years.

Angel smothered a yawn with his hand; the combination of blood loss and the cognac was taking its toll. He struggled to keep his eyes open, but the steady beat of Buffy's heart against his chest was dragging him down a long black velvet slide to oblivion and he didn't have the strength to fight anymore.

Buffy nestled her head in his shoulder and tried to relax. The feel of his cool skin beneath her cheek was soothing, and the fast returning strength of his embrace reassuring, but she still couldn't shake her unease.

"I know you're right," she murmured at last. "I just can't stand to see you like this. When I saw you fall in the street, and I knew it was because of me, it was déjà vu all over again. I mean, I know it wasn't exactly the same situation, but then we get home and you've got this wound in your chest and you're trying to pretend it doesn't hurt and that you're not secretly shaking, and don't think I didn't see that just because I didn't say that I saw..." She paused for a breath. "Thank God Cordy and Doyle started listing all the things that can kill you, because I really needed the reminder that this wasn't one of them. For a little while...I was back there, that night at the mansion when I thought I'd lose you forever. I don't ever want to go back to that night again."

Angel was silent. Buffy waited for a reassuring word, or a gentle caress, but there was nothing. At last she dared to look up to meet his eyes, somehow knowing what she would see there.

She smiled softly at the sight of his dark lashes brushing his marbled cheekbones, and pressed a tender kiss to the hollow of his throat as he lay sleeping. Even from the depths of slumber, his arms instinctively tightened around her in response.

"I love you," she whispered. "And nothing is going to take you away again, I swear."

* * * * *

Buffy carefully closed the doors to Angel's bedroom after one last peek inside. She turned to face her company with a sigh and the brightest fake smile she could muster.

"Kate, I didn't want to throw this out in case you had to account for it or something." She held the bowl containing the bullet as far away from her body as possible, but the detective didn't seem to be there to relieve her of it. "Cordy, where's Kate?"

"Hmm?" Cordelia looked up from the fashion magazine Buffy had brought with her from Sunnydale. "Kate? Oh, she went home awhile ago. Said to call her if anything else came up tonight, otherwise she'll be back in the a.m. Ditto for Doyle. Say, do you know if these slides are still in?" She glanced from the magazine to the bloodstained boots on Buffy's feet and sighed. "Look who I'm asking."

"She bailed, after that lame-o apology she gave him?" Buffy was relieved she didn't have to play nice any longer, but she still couldn't believe her ears. "Honestly, can you give me one good reason I shouldn't kill her? Aside from the whole 'she's Angel's friend and she's human' argument, because that's not stacking up too well against the bullet that was in his chest that's now in this bowl." She slammed the offending bowl down on the coffee table and flung herself onto the futon.

Cordelia put down her magazine and leaned forward in her chair. "Umm, how about she was actually aiming for the monster that was trying to kill you and Angel and she just happens to be a suck shot?"

Buffy pursed her lips and glared, not deigning to reply.

"Okay, how about 'learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.' Will that do it for you?" She sat back and gripped the arms of her chair, bracing for the explosion.

"Excuse me? What's the gospel according to Whitney Houston got to do with this?" Buffy wasn't angry yet, she was too busy being confused.

"Wake up and smell the carbon paper, Buffy. She's you in ten years." Cordelia leaned forward again, peering critically into Buffy's face. "Five if you don't use that moisturizer I sent you for Christmas."

Buffy rose and began to pace. "You've finally gone over the edge, Cordelia. Too much time in la-la land, I guess. What on earth makes you think Kate is anything like me?"

"Oh, let me count the ways." Cordelia couldn't help the smile on her face. In her own way, Buffy was just as oblivious as Angel. "Leaving aside the whole hair issue, since shades can vary from one dye lot to the next..."

"I'm a natural blonde!"

"Yeah, me too." Cordelia waved aside Buffy's open-mouthed outrage and continued. "Now, as I was saying, aside from that we also have the fighting for truth and justice gig. Well, maybe you're not exactly fighting for truth, except in an 'X-Files' kind of way, but you both sure fight a lot, and there's a whole bunch of kicking involved too. Then we have the father issues. I think this weekend has pretty much established yours, and Kate's not exactly going to nominate Papa Lockley for any Father of the Year awards either. Umm, she's not really good at following orders, though she's a whiz at giving them, and she fell for Angel the minute she saw him, and now that she knows he's a vamp she's still panting at his heels. Any of this ringing a bell, Buff?"

Buffy's jaw had gradually reconnected with the rest of her face during Cordelia's speech. When at last her character dissection was complete, she threw up her hands in defeat.

"Uncle. I give. We're twins born to different mothers. In different decades." She resumed her seat on the futon, drawing her knees up under her chin in preparation for a good pout.

Cordelia abandoned her chair to sit next to her friend. She draped her arm around Buffy's slender shoulders and attempted a conciliatory pat.

"So maybe I was exaggerating a little. About the carbon thing," she added hastily, "not the moisturizer. The point is she was enough like you to make Angel feel a little less lonely when he first came to LA. He needed you, and he couldn't have you, so he went for a designer knock-off. Not that he had the slightest clue that's what he was doing, of course."

"He had you and Doyle," Buffy pointed out a little resentfully. "And it was his choice to be alone." His choice to walk away into the night without a word, without giving her the chance to make sure he was really okay, without being able to reassure him he did the right thing when he drank her blood.

Cordelia's attempts at Willow-type sympathy came to a swift halt. She withdrew her arm and fixed Buffy with a steely gaze. Obviously the situation called for the kind of 'tact-lite' common sense only Cordelia Chase could supply.

"What's with the wallow? Has the phrase 'get over it' lost all meaning in the new millenium? Live in the now, Buffy. He's here, you're here and Kate went home alone."

"This time."

"And every other time. You're the one who was checking out the other entrees on the menu. He was at full brood setting from the minute he left Sunnydale. But I fixed things, and now you're both very happy and I haven't heard so much as a thank you from you in weeks, young lady." Her stern tone was only partially in jest.

"Thank you," Buffy snapped. She realized in an instant that her tone was somewhat less than gracious. "I really do mean it, Cordelia. It's just hard seeing part of his life that didn't have me in it. We should have been together all this time."

"But you weren't, so he needed someone to, well, distract him. Someone who wasn't a part of the past or his destiny, all of which was tied up with you. Even though Angel and I are like best friends now, back then...you see, Doyle is kind of on loan from the PTBs, and I think Angel saw me as a legacy from you. I just don't think it dawned on him Kate would ever get attached." She shook her head over the general cluelessness of men and vampires.

"He hasn't seen himself in a mirror in a long time," Buffy agreed. She stood up abruptly, overtaken by a sudden need to reassure herself of his well-being. "I should probably go check on him."

Cordelia stood up as well, holding on to Buffy's arm to keep her in place. "I'll go. You should relax, have a cup of coffee. Decaf."

Buffy shook off her hand. "Cordelia, I don't need any coffee, just a little vacation from my vacation. I'll be right back." She glanced briefly at the ceramic bowl with its grisly contents resting innocently on the coffee table. "So that's why she's here? As a me, but not quite me?"

She wasn't sure which was the greater testament to the strength of their bond; that she had tried to replace him with someone totally different or that Angel went looking for a vision of Buffy-future. In the end, she supposed, all that mattered was their spectacular failures.

Cordelia bit her lip as she nodded her head. She'd never felt threatened by Kate, but the Slayer's return was giving Cordelia the same out of place feeling she saw in Buffy's eyes. The only difference was that everyone knew Kate would never go the distance, whereas Buffy was in Angel's life for keeps. Cordelia could either be gracious and work out a new place for herself in the grand scheme of things, or she could go out fighting and lose her best friend.

Or she could do a little of both, with the inimitable Chase style.

"It's as plain as the nose on your face, which, by the way, looks better on her face...hey! Put that down!"

The crash woke Angel, but hearing no further sounds of disturbance, he left guard duty in Buffy's capable hands and went back to sleep.

* * * * *

Angel drew the car to a smooth stop at the curb and climbed out, but Buffy remained huddled on the leather seat. It wasn't until Angel opened her door and extended his hand to help her out that she abandoned her retreat. Her eyes moved nervously between Angel's convertible and the large glass doors ahead of them, trying to gauge the distance in flight time. Her faltering steps mirrored the hesitation in her voice as she moved further away from the surety of a quick getaway.

"Angel, I really think this was a bad idea."

He looked down at the small hand tugging on his arm, then up at her pale face. Her lips almost seemed to be trembling, and there was a tiny bead of sweat on her forehead. He reached out to press a cool hand to her brow, suddenly concerned for her health.

"Baby, are you feeling all right? I know you didn't sleep well last night, and you haven't looked too good all day. You look beautiful," he hastily amended, "but you don't look like you feel so hot."

She considered lying, which would result in a speedy retreat to the safety of the apartment, but she couldn't bear the worry in his dark eyes. She smiled faintly and shook her head.

"I'm okay, physically. But I really think we should have postponed this. Like, say, fifty or sixty years."

Now that he was certain nerves were responsible for her color, or lack thereof, there was no further reason not to face their fate. He dragged her resisting form a few more steps, until she got a good purchase on the pavement with her heels and dug in. He stopped pulling and summoned all of the patience he learned after spending 244 years dealing with humans.

"Buffy, we don't have a choice. And if anyone should be trying to get out of this it's me."

"Exactly!" She was so relieved he understood at last. "You were shot Saturday night. All we have to do is tell him you were shot..."

"When I took you down to an abandoned warehouse to trade weapons for drugs," he finished for her, staring in amazement at his hopeful lover. "Do you really want to use that as an excuse to get out of dinner with your father?"

"Do you think it will work?" She prayed he would be reasonable about this. Her father had never approved of her live, same-age boyfriends; somehow she didn't think he was going to be an easier sell when it came to her undead bicentennial-and-a-half man. Irate parents were a complication she didn't have the time or patience to deal with at the moment.

"No," he said firmly. "Believe me, I'm dreading this too, but we're going to get it over with. We're not going to tell your dad the supernatural stuff yet; we'll just have a nice, normal dinner with him, like every other couple. We'll talk about your classes and my business, and how they make two very good reasons why we shouldn't get married. He'll hate the fact that I know nothing about sports and could care less about politics. We'll fight over the check, and make phony promises about going golfing sometime, just the guys. Then you and I can relax and go kill the nasty demons."

He was saddened to realize he viewed that as the fun portion of the evening.

Buffy took a few tentative steps towards the restaurant door, then turned to Angel again as another thought struck her.

"Angel, you're not mad at me, are you?"

"What is it, Buffy? Why would I be mad?" He reached out to pull her tightly against him, swallowing a yelp when she accidentally hit a still-tender rib.

"Because I told my dad we were engaged," she replied in a small voice. "It's something we sort of talk about and sort of don't, and then I threw it right out there on the living room floor like we had a church booked and a caterer picked out." She watched her fingers in rapt fascination as they traced patterns on his chest; it was too hard to look in his eyes right now.

"Well," he said slowly, hoping to tease her out of her strange mood, "it was kind of a demotion from 'husband,' which is what you told Kate, but I guess I can forgive you." The corner of his mouth quirked upward in a sly smile as he peeped down at her face for a reaction.

"She told you!" Without thinking, she slapped her hand on his chest, fortunately missing his sore rib this time. "It wasn't enough she told you she knew you were a vampire when I specifically told her to let me do it. Oh no, she had to blab every word we said, like some sort of big...blabbing thing."

"Buffy, it's all right. You were only telling the truth." Angel suppressed the impulse to laugh when he saw how truly embarrassed Buffy was. "I was kind of flattered, actually," he confessed.

"I guess I just felt a little...threatened, you know, with her walking in like that. Like she'd done it a million times before. I wanted her to know she wasn't supposed to anymore...but maybe I overstated my case a little."

"I've felt that way more time than I can count when it comes to Xander," Angel confessed, lightly stroking her flaxen hair. "And you were actually telling the truth, more or less; that's what I told her." He lifted up her left hand with his own, bringing it to his lips for the barest trace of a kiss. "These rings have bound us together as much as any piece of paper. They called me back from hell itself. And even if they didn't tie us together, we've always known in our hearts that we are one."

She looked deep into his eyes, marveling at how much light could pour from their dark depths. In the glow of his steadfast devotion, her earlier insecurities seemed unbelievably foolish.

If only all her inner demons could be banished so easily.

"Okay, so we're square about Dad. Can we go home now?" She pushed herself away from his arms and tugged at his hand, trying to pull him back to the convertible before it was too late.

"Buffy, what is wrong? You won't tell me about your bad dreams last night, and now you're acting like you're, I don't know, scared almost. What's your deal?"

Part of him was becoming exasperated by her swift changes of subject and reluctance to deal with reality, but the other part of him was deeply concerned. She was hiding things from him, and that usually meant there was an apocalypse of one type or another in the forecast.

"It's complicated," she mumbled, suddenly intent on the wonders of her left foot.

A gentle hand slid along her jaw and under her chin, tipping her face up to the light.

"If I wanted simple, I would have dated Harmony."

"I just...I just want him to like you," she said, evading his eyes. "Kate's dad likes you, Cordelia told me so."

"I'm not sleeping with his daughter," Angel replied dryly.

She spun away from him and stared at the awning covering the entrance to the restaurant. "This whole week is turning into such a mess! I wanted to spend some time alone with you, some real time, not just a weekend. And then my mom sics my dad on us, and your would-be honey drags you into her case and shoots you as a thank you. Now we have to juggle family dinners with fascist demons. How am I supposed to concentrate on winning over my dad to our side when all I can see is you lying in the street with..." she couldn't make the rest of the words get past the sob tearing at her throat.

He was in front of her in an instant, his arms sliding around her to hold her fast as he guided her head down to his shoulder. "Shhh, Buffy, I'm fine now. And we'll figure it out. I promise."

She wanted to believe he could make everything all right. She wanted to believe their love would somehow wipe out all the bad luck that seemed to follow her and used him as target practice. But in her mind's eye she kept seeing Angel on the night before graduation as he was literally dying for her love, Angel being shot by Darla while he tried to protect her, Angel in the alley with Kate's bullet in his chest. As hard as she tried to focus on the future, she couldn't escape the visions of all the ways she had led him to near-destruction in the past, and the memories were killing her. For all her belief in their strength as a team, there were some battles she needed to fight on her own.

"There's nothing to figure out." She drew a deep breath and removed herself from the security of his embrace. "We hunt demons, I have parents, we have pasts that come back and bite us on the butt. We'll deal. We always do."

Angel looked at her strangely, puzzled by her sudden shift from tears to stoicism. "Buffy, I think we need to talk..."

"I think we all need to talk. That's what this dinner is all about." Hank Summers was suddenly at Angel's elbow, wearing the same fake smile as his only daughter's.

* * * * *

Dinner with Hank progressed much as Angel had predicted, but Buffy found herself strangely comforted by that fact. There was almost a mundane air to the floundering conversation between her father and boyfriend. They had little in common besides Buffy, they had very different opinions on most subjects and they were almost humorously territorial when it came to pulling out her chair and opening doors for her.

It was almost as though Buffy had inadvertently stumbled into the "normal" life she had been searching so hard for all these demon-filled years. A few months with Riley had made her finally realize she didn't want to live there, but it wasn't a bad place to visit. As long as Angel was by her side, that is.

The only dangerous portion of the evening came when her father ventured into the typical parental domain of family history. The past was always a raw area for Angel, and once Buffy had learned the truth she tried to shield him from it when she could. Tonight there seemed to be no escape.

"So, Angel," Hank said with a forced smile. "Angel. That's Hispanic, right? Or is it short for Angelo?" He didn't much care, really, but at this point he was struggling to find a subject that didn't require preferences or opinions.

Angel ducked his head for a moment, then met Hank's eyes straight on. He would not let the past drag him down on this night of all nights. The name he now used had been taken in jest, then later retained as penance. Now, at last, he was beginning to see it as a promise to those that he had wronged, and in that there was no shame.

"It's a nickname, actually. I've just had it for so long it's become my name."

"Oh, that's interesting," Hank lied. "So what is your real name?" Please let this be a long and involved story, he pleaded with whatever gods might be listening. Please let this get us through dessert.

"Liam."

"Liam..." Hank prodded, unwilling to abandon this line of inquiry until it was as exhausted as he.

"Mannion," Angel finished quietly. "I was born Liam Mannion, but I only use the name for legal purposes these days."

"How did you get Angel from Liam?" Hank was genuinely curious now, but his daughter had no intention of allowing his curiosity to be satisfied at the expense of Angel's peace of mind.

"Angel is from Ireland, Daddy," she swiftly interjected. She squeezed Angel's hand under the table and continued to speak very quickly to keep her father from jumping in with any more painful questions. "Well, you probably guessed that from his name, his real name I mean, which he doesn't use much, but he already said that, didn't he? Liam means 'strong protector, did you know that, Daddy? I looked it up one time and..."

Unfortunately, she had to pause for breath sometime, and Hank took advantage of it. "It seems like kind of a strange leap Liam to Angel. I just wondered how you came up with it."

"My sister..." Angel began, only to be interrupted by a shrill and insistent noise.

"Beeper," Buffy announced triumphantly as she plucked it from Angel's belt. "Sorry, Dad, but we need to..." her cheerful voice faltered into silence as she read the LCD display. "Oh, very funny, Cordy." She held up the beeper for Angel to read. "Has she been taking Xander lessons?"

Angel read the display silently, but he couldn't help the twitch of his lips when he met Buffy's eyes. "She can't exactly go into details with the service, you know," he offered apologetically.

"But 'Bat signal'?" she hissed. "Doesn't that raise a few..."

"Is there a problem?" Hank broke in, looking from his daughter to her fiancé for some clue. They seemed to have forgotten his presence, and not for the first time that evening. Whenever they spoke to each other, he suddenly felt as though he and the rest of the world ceased to exist. Then, as swiftly as it occurred, the invisible shield seemed to drop and they reconnected with time and space.

Buffy dropped her napkin on the table and slipped her purse over her shoulder as Angel pulled her chair out for her.

"I'm sorry, Dad, but we have to go. There was just a break in the case Angel is working on and we need to follow up on it."

She was surprised at the regret she could feel twisting inside of her when she realized the night was over. She was grateful to her father for being the source of this brief interlude of normal people problems, and she was almost sorry to see it end. It was nice to know, after all this time, that he could give her something besides sweeping, and ultimately unfulfilled, promises.

"Buffy's psychology studies are a big help to me, otherwise I wouldn't take her away too," Angel explained as he rifled through his wallet for cash. "Here, dinner is on me," he said as he laid several large bills on the table.

"But I insist...I invited you..." Hank stammered.

"No, we insist," Buffy answered firmly, "and we so don't have time to argue. Maybe you can pay next time, okay?"

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished them back. The evening hadn't been such a wild success she was dying to spend more of her precious Angel-related time repeating the experience. There was no mistaking the glow in her father's eyes, though; she knew she would be held to her word.

"I'd like that. We still have a lot to catch up on."

"You have no idea."

* * * * *

"So, how did the big dinner with dad go? Did you tell him how you guys really met, or are you saving that for Father's Day?"

Cordelia asked the questions before they even finished coming down the stairs, but she could tell by their grim expressions that she wasn't going to get an answer out of Buffy or Angel any time soon.

"What gives?" Angel tossed his duster on the back of the couch along with Buffy's coat. He moved restlessly from the couch to the stairs, waiting for details so he could form a plan of action.

"Yeah, why the sudden summons?" Buffy patted the seat next to her on the futon, but Angel wasn't ready to settle down yet. She shared an understanding glance with Cordelia, then walked over to Angel and dragged him to a chair. "Sit, oh caged lion. You're making my neck hurt just watching you."

"Another of Kate's informants was nailed, right after he finished talking to her," Doyle said, as Angel grudgingly took a seat. "And I do mean nailed. No interest in her, just him. From the sound of it, he was part Bathor."

Angel and Buffy shared a quick, worried glance.

"The Bathor are fighters. They won't let him go unavenged, but they don't stand a chance against the Scourge." Angel began to drum his fingers on the wooden arm of his chair. "We have to get ahead of them somehow and head them off."

"So we're going to beat them up so the Scourge won't get the chance to," Cordelia postulated slowly. "Hey, do I have a great job or what?" She turned her smile up to full wattage as she mentally reviewed her reasons for picking LA as an escape from the dangers of the hellmouth.

"You're not a part of this," Buffy said swiftly. "We're talking gang wars on an 'Apocalypse Now' scale. Doyle can come, but you and Kate are out of this as of now."

"Wait one minute! I am not taking orders from a civilian, and a child at that." Kate rose to her full height to tower over her teenage rival. "These are my informants who are being killed, in my city. This doesn't concern you at all."

Buffy didn't bother to stand up; she learned early in her career that all the good posture in the world wouldn't give her a commanding presence. A loud voice wouldn't do the trick either. It was all in the attitude.

"This has always been my job, this will always be my job." Her voice was like ice. "And even if it wasn't, these creeps could come after Angel next because of what he is, and if you think that doesn't concern me you just haven't been paying attention." She leaned forward, her eyes steady, her body perfectly poised to spring. The temperature in the room seemed to drop at least ten degrees. "Now sit down and be quiet while we figure out a plan that will get our collective asses out of this mess alive."

Kate had taken her seat more gracefully on past occasions, but never quite so fast.

* * * * *

"Oh joy, more dark alleys," Buffy groused as they pulled up behind a dimly lit storage shack in the warehouse district. "How did I ever manage to miss all these lovely tourist spots when I lived in LA?"

"You weren't hanging with the right crowd." Angel scanned the dark street with his preternaturally sharp night vision, but he saw no signs of life. He nodded to his companions, prompting them to leave the relative safety of the car for the suspiciously quiet street.

"Aye, always trust an Irishman to know how to show a lady a good time," Doyle said with a flourish as he held out his arm for Buffy.

"Okay me boyos, one thing before we go in." Buffy rested a small, firm hand on each of their arms. "There will be no letting the demon out to play, either of you. Promise me."

Doyle glanced quickly at Angel before he cleared his throat and answered for both of them. "We may not have a choice, Buffy. We're both stronger in demon form."

"And you're more vulnerable," she insisted. She looked beseechingly from one man to the other, letting her gaze come to rest on her beloved. "If they know what you are, you become targets, not just obstacles. Angel, promise me. Please."

Angel regarded her somberly for a moment before leaning over to kiss her forehead. "I'll try, Buffy. That's the best I can do." His eyes told her he wanted to give her everything she ever asked for, but he wouldn't make a promise he couldn't keep.

"Ditto for me," Doyle offered, his hand raised in pledge.

Buffy glared at Angel for a moment, then abruptly turned away to face the shack. "Fine, but when you end up on the sharp end of a billy club, don't expect me to whip out the Dustbuster and clean up after you."

"Buffy..."

"Hush! They're coming!"

Buffy forgot her anger in the face of the coming battle. She watched as demon after demon filed out of the small shack, reminding her of clowns climbing out of a Volkswagen. The Bathor were not remotely clown-like, with their ridged heads and long scaly tails, but they were about to become a source of amusement for the Scourge if something wasn't done quickly.

Angel and Doyle ranged beside her, providing a united front. Buffy glanced at Angel, signaling he should be the spokesperson. He cleared his throat and prepared to say something he knew would be utterly useless. Suddenly they heard footsteps behind them, made by a large number of boot-clad feet coming ever closer.

"Oh this is just ducky," Buffy breathed. "Anyone for a game of monkey in the middle?"

There's something between us I won't let it go.
Less than nothing, more than the universe can hold.
-JK-

* * * * *

Cordelia was ready to snap. She had been watching Kate pace back and forth along the same strip of carpet for at least twenty minutes, until Cordelia was certain every last bit of extra carpet fuzz was released into the air and headed directly for her sinuses. She held a tissue up to her nose yet again and blew, peering grimly over the white edge at Kate.

"Either you sit down or I will use Angel's handcuffs and chain you down, and don't think I don't know how," she warned the detective. "Enough with the mini-marathon! We're stuck here and stuck with each other, so we might as well make the best of it."

Kate's sour glance was not promising, but at least she stopped pacing.

"So what do you suggest we do to make the best of it?"

"Well..." Cordelia frantically tried to come up with something to do that didn't involve too much interaction on her part. "I know, you could tell me about how the other cops reacted to the blue blood on the floor at the police station. I bet that was pretty funny." She tossed her tissue in the garbage and summoned her best 'my, how fascinating!' face, honed from months of dull dates.

"They thought it was drug related," Kate replied flatly. "How can you just sit here? I'm going crazy not doing anything." Pacing back and forth in a contained area did not count as doing anything, at least not in her book. She needed to be a part of the action, a part of the fight. She had helped Angel before, and he'd helped her. Just because this Buffy girl had arrived on the scene, she was suddenly considered useless.

Cordelia shrugged. "Once a Scooby, always a Scooby. We fight when we can actually help; otherwise we research, or carve stakes." She paused reflectively. "And we have a lot of strange love affairs with people we normally wouldn't even be seen with. That's life on a hellmouth for you."

"Well I'm not a Scooby, whatever that is. I need to do something."

"You need to stop annoying me, Cagney." Cordelia glared at her. "Buffy said to stay here, and Angel agreed. If they thought you could help, they would have let you come along." She grabbed a magazine off the coffee table and made a great show of opening it to demonstrate the level of her indifference to Kate's feelings.

"They brought Doyle. I know Angel is strong because he's a vampire, and Buffy is this slayer you all keep talking about, but why Doyle?" Why not me, she wanted to whine.

The magazine rattled in front of Cordelia's face, then slowly lowered until it rested on her lap. "Well, he knows where the Bathor hide. Besides, Doyle is...Doyle is special," she answered hesitantly. "He's a lot stronger than he looks, especially when his back is to the wall."

* * * * *

Even as Cordelia spoke, Doyle was trying to find that wall to put his back to, in order to keep said back from getting a knife through it. The Bathor were advancing steadily from the left while the Scourge moved in from the right. In the center of the alley, Buffy, Angel and Doyle all frantically looked for a way out past both sides.

"Stand aside, humans," called one of the Bathor. "Our quarrel is not with you. We have spilt blood to revenge."

"You really don't want to be messing with these guys. If 'twas me, I'd be heading to the nearest pub to start concocting some tall tales to tell the little woman when I got home. Much easier on the body and soul, if you know what I mean." Doyle took a few steps towards the nearest Bathor before Angel grabbed his coattail and yanked him back. "What are you doing? I might have gotten through," he protested.

Angel glanced over his shoulder at the rows of grey uniforms in the distance. "It's too late for talk. We have to get them out by force." He figured the odds at about three-to-one in the Bathor's favor, and that wasn't even taking into consideration what the Scourge might do to them while they were 'protecting' the Bathor. This wasn't exactly what he had planned for this particular week, but there was no turning back now, even if they had a place to turn.

"Angel's right. We need to start driving them back. Push them back far enough and we have an escape route ourselves." Buffy scanned the assembled Bathor, searching for a likely weak link to give them a place to start.

"Yeah, and we have to turn our backs to the Scourge to do it," Doyle pointed out. "I say we fight alongside the Bathor and hope to hell we get out of it alive."

"The Bathor are warriors. They won't fight beside anyone not of their blood," Angel explained. "They'd sooner fight against us and lose to the Scourge than fight with us and live." He glanced at Buffy. "We can't fight the Scourge, at least not with what we have on hand. Remember that."

"Well if the Bathor are as much snobs as the Scourge, why the hell are we bothering anyway? I'm thinking Cordelia was right about all this." Doyle was disgusted by the narrow-mindedness of his fellow demons, and he didn't care who knew it.

"Fellas, can we save the philosophy for later? I'll buy the cappuccino, Cordy can play the bongos. Right now we have to save some bad guys from the badder guys." Buffy gripped her favorite crossbow and nodded to Angel. Without further words, they began a concerted effort to force the Bathor to retreat.

* * * * *

"That's it! I'm not hanging around here doing nothing one minute longer." Kate stood up and hurled her soda can at the recycling bin, missing it by nearly a foot.

Cordelia glanced pointedly at the can lying on the Oriental rug. "Oh yeah, with that kind of aim I can't imagine why they didn't drag you out to the car with them." She looked down at the magazine in her lap as she muttered, "by your long dark roots."

"They need back up," Kate insisted. "There are three of them fighting two different gangs of demons. I don't care how strong they are…gangs." She stared at Cordelia in amazement. "They're fighting gangs."

"I see that smile, Kate, and I know what you're thinking but don't even go there." Cordelia hastily abandoned her magazine and lunged for Kate, who was pulling out her cell phone.

Kate pivoted on her heel and neatly avoided Cordelia, as the vampire's Girl Friday stumbled into the filing cabinet. By the time Cordelia regained her footing and made another grab for the phone, Kate had finished dialing the three digits she relied upon to restore order to her universe. Cordelia sank back in her chair and glared at Kate as she massaged the ankle she had just twisted trying to wrestle for the phone.

"Buffy is so not going to like this," Cordelia pronounced darkly. "When she finds out…I wouldn't be you for all the Versace in the world."

* * * * *

It was a losing battle. The Bathor were fighting valiantly, but their courage was no match for the sheer number of the Scourge. One by one they fell, and the Scourge were poised to win the day.

Doyle was trying to slip willing Bathor along the outskirts of the fight into the security of the dark warehouses, while Buffy and Angel tried to force the less-than-willing out of the range of fire. After Buffy dragged one more ungrateful Bathor into a warehouse, she paused to look for her companions. She was amazed at the carnage that surrounded them. Suddenly this was all too sickeningly familiar. The sound of the weapons striking each other, the bodies of demons littering the ground, the darkness and Angel venturing right into the thick of the fight. He was hurt, he was still hurt, her panicked mind cried out, and yet he tried to draw all the danger to himself to protect her. She opened her mouth to call him back, just as he caught the eye of a Scourge whose prey had suddenly expired. The Scourge raised his staff to swat this annoying presence out of his way.

"Angel, look out!"

Buffy's shout made Angel turn to face his attacker just in time. He caught the staff on its downward path and struggled for dominance of it. His promise to Buffy rang in his head, but as the staff was slowly forced further down towards his skull he made a choice and released the demon within him.

"Vampire." The word dripped with disgust as it slid from the Scourge's mouth, and into the ever-vigilant ears of a nearby vampire slayer.

Angel was able to push the demon away with his sudden burst of unholy strength, allowing Buffy to slide a knife into the Scourge's stomach before the demon could recover. The demon fell, narrowly missing Doyle. Buffy looked from one man to the other in despair, realizing they were well and truly finished now. Doyle was also in demon form.

"Buffy, I'm..." Angel began, only to be drowned out by the wail of sirens. He looked from one end of the body-strewn street to the other, searching for the source of the noise. "Where the hell…"

"It's police," Doyle said in amazement. "Someone called the police." He saw the Scourge and the Bathor melt into the shadows and began to laugh.

"Someone?" Buffy didn't sound nearly as amused.

* * * * *

"You called the police! How could you be so stupid?"

Buffy paced and raged, much as she had done since the moment the officer caught up with them two alleys away from the battle zone. She had attempted at least minimal control at the police station, until Kate showed up to try and undo her handiwork. Then the lava began to flow.

"I'm a cop. I hear about a gang war going down, I call 911. It's what anyone with half a brain would do." Kate refused to see getting them out alive as a bad thing, regardless of her methods. She had helped, where Buffy could not, and that was where all this emotion was coming from: pure jealousy.

"Not a demon gang war," Buffy said bitingly. "Then the intelligent thing, the thing any normal person would do, is to hide your head and let those of us lucky enough to have a sacred duty handle it." She threw herself on the sofa beside Angel in clear demonstration of those who fit that description.

"I saved your ass. Admit it. I even got you out of the police station before they could file charges."

"Which we wouldn't have faced if you had been able to keep your nose out of it. And now the Scourge are scattered and we don't know where they are or what they're doing. Nice work."

"Buffy, Kate, enough." Angel had taken about all he was going to take. He squeezed Buffy's hand as he gazed sternly at Kate. "You shouldn't have gotten the police involved. If the Scourge had stayed to fight instead of making a run for it, those cops would have gone down in a heartbeat." He turned back to Buffy, softening his tone slightly. "But we got out alive, and that's what counts in the end. Now we need to figure out our next move before the Scourge decide for us."

"Our next move is to get the heck out of Dodge," Cordelia said in amazement. "Goody-bye LA, hello hellmouth sweet hellmouth." So much for her perfect, if slightly haunted, apartment and all her aspirations of fame, but it beat being chased by a pack of fanatical demons. Better the devil you know.

Doyle shifted anxiously on his perch on stairs. "You'd really do that? Just pack up and leave?"

"Well duh. Like I'm really dying to stick around here dying. I just wish..."

"That's not the answer," Buffy interrupted. "We need to get rid of them. If we run they'll only chase us." More specifically, she reminded herself, they would chase Angel.

"We can't take them on." Doyle couldn't believe his ears. "You saw what happened tonight with the Bathor. As many of them as there were and still they were being slaughtered."

"I saw everything that happened tonight," Buffy snapped. "I saw the Scourge watching Angel after he got into game face, and I know what that means."

She had known what it meant when her friends ganged up on a weakened Angel after his return from hell. She had known what it meant when Giles hunted for Angel at the factory in the wake of Jenny Calender's death. She had known what it meant when the commandos strapped Angel to a table in their lab. She had always known what it meant when someone looked at Angel and only saw the demon within him. It meant death, his and hers.

"Buffy, I'm sorry. It was the only way." Angel brought his other hand over to keep hers captive.

She dropped her eyes for a moment before she looked at him. "I know, honey, but the damage was done anyway. They know about you, and that makes you a great big non-reflective target. We have to get them away from here and make sure they don't come back."

"Away? You don't want to kill them?" Cordelia was puzzled. This was not the Buffy she knew and feared, the one who defended her mate from all enemies foreign and domestic.

Buffy gazed around the room at each of them, trying to make them understand the seriousness of the situation. "We can't kill them, not enough of them anyway. But if we could kill enough of them, they would feel hunted for a change and it might confuse them enough to let us slip through the cracks. So we need help."

"Who?" Angel was suddenly deeply suspicious.

"The commandos." She said it so quickly she wasn't sure she got all the syllables out, but the stunned look on Angel's face said he understood regardless.

"You want to ask your ex-boyfriend, who tried to give me a lobotomy, if he'll steer some bad guys away from me? Why am I not loving this plan?" Actually, loathing, despising and abhorring came closer to the mark, but he was trying to be nice.

"No, I wasn't thinking of asking Riley; he's not speaking to me." She paused for a moment, then amended her sentence. "He's kind of not speaking to anyone yet. I don't think that wire's coming out of his jaw for at least another week."

"You broke his jaw? You never told me, you sly devil." Cordelia leaned forward with a huge grin splitting her face. Suddenly all her troubles seemed to melt away in the face of some good gossip.

"I wasn't trying to break it," Buffy answered defensively. "I was trying to get to Angel and Riley was on the floor and...well, okay, so he was on the floor because I knocked him out with an IV stand and then he just kind of slid because you know how slippery corduroy pants are, and honestly, my foot slipped and then..."

"Wait, wait, back up." Cordelia held up her hand. "Wide wale?"

Buffy nodded.

"Oh, Buffy, how could you?" Her eyes were wide with dismay. "Wide wale corduroy? Why didn't you just sleep with Giles, for pete's sake?"

"You're not helping." Angel's glare would have quieted Cordelia even if she didn't know he had canine teeth the Big Bad Wolf would envy.

"The point is," Buffy continued through gritted teeth, "there are a lot of commandos on campus, a lot more than us. And even if they suck in combat, they have weapons, really big blow-things-up type of weapons. The Scourge don't need to be defeated by brains, this just takes muscle."

"Good thing," Angel muttered.

It was Buffy's turn to administer the soothing hand patting as she warmed to her subject. "We need to get the Scourge interested in the commandos, or in Sunnydale, or...oh, no, wait, we really don't want to bring a gang war to Sunnydale, do we?" She looked to her compatriots for a dissenting opinion. It really was the simplest solution, if it just didn't seem so much like shoving her problems on Giles' shoulders.

"Why not? They can play leapfrog over the hellmouth. I just want to know who to root for."

"No, we can't send them to Sunnydale," Angel said slowly, not bothering to answer Cordelia. "But, much as I hate to admit it, you may be right about letting the commandos do the dirty work. I can't think of two groups that deserve each other more."

"Exactly!" Buffy beamed. "The Scourge are a bunch of fascist demons, and the commandos are heavy into the human supremacy deal, so let them fight it out. Last mutant standing wins...until we kill it."

"But if not in Sunnydale, then where? Do they have a homeland we could send them to, or maybe a fatherland? Or are we talking father planet?" Cordelia was ready for any contingency.

"How about if the commandos to come to LA and save us the delivery charges on the Scourge?"

"No!" Buffy looked alarmed at Doyle's suggestion. "I don't want the commandos anywhere near Angel, not after the last time. The whole point of this is to keep trouble away from us, not send it a bus ticket and a map."

"And there's also your blue butt to consider," Cordelia mused. She looked sharply at the stunned Brakken. "I'm assuming you did play show and tell with the porcupine face when you were fighting tonight."

"Cordelia, I don't know what..." he stammered, looking to Angel and Buffy for help but not finding it fast enough to suit him.

Cordelia impatiently waved her hands to shush him as she walked over to Angel's big rolltop desk. "Oh please, like I couldn't figure out your big secret if wonder cop could figure out Angel's. I may not have realized it when I hit you during the bachelor party, but it didn't take too long afterwards to add things up. One minute a blue demon is there and you're not, then you switch. You dump a perfectly good job...okay, you were a teacher, but it's still better than being a bum. Anyway, you ditch it and your wife, who then becomes a demon anthropologist, not exactly a typical career move for the recently divorced." She reached into the top desk drawer where Angel kept his checkbook and pulled out a small sheaf of yellow sticks. "And then there's these."

"What the hell are those?" Kate had at last recovered the power of speech, but she was back to the wonderful world of denial. Whatever those things were in Cordelia's hand, they were not discarded demon parts. They absolutely were not.

"They're his spikes, or quills, or whatever you want to call them. I came into work on more than one occasion to find out someone had been shedding, and it wasn't Angel." She glanced thoughtfully down at the quills resting in her palm. "Of course, given their yellow straw-like appearance, they could be from Buffy's hair."

"Hey!"

"But they started to appear before she came," Cordelia continued serenely over Buffy's outraged exclamation. "Now did you show these off to the goose-stepping gorgons or didn't you?"

"I...I did," Doyle admitted. "Why didn't you tell me you knew?"

Cordelia rolled her eyes as she joined Doyle on the futon. "I was waiting for you to tell me. I saw how much harder it made things for Buffy and Angel because he didn't tell her before she found out. Like he needed one more thing to feel guilty about. Instead of sharing a secret he got caught in a lie by proving that a man's blood can actually flow in more than one direction during...heated moments." She smiled encouragingly at Angel, blissfully unaware of his embarrassment. "Actually, that's pretty impressive when you consider his blood hasn't technically flowed since before George Washington got caught in Cherry Tree-gate."

"So you're not mad, or disgusted or anything?" Doyle asked, anxious to get back to the present, and possibly the future. He abandoned his post on the stairs to sidle ever closer to Cordelia, until he was close enough to touch her, if he dared. "I mean, some girls might not like the idea of dat...I mean, working with a demon. A good demon, a peaceful one," he added hastily, "but still a demon."

She tipped her head and studied him for a long time, the longest minutes of Doyle's life. "Actually, I think it makes you more interesting," she pronounced at last.

Kate had seen enough. The world as she knew it just a few short weeks ago lay in tatters at her feet. She no longer knew what, or who, to believe. All she knew for sure was that the man she had come to count on more than she could say, the man she had finally decided to accept despite all his mind-blowing differences, was too busy watching the blonde girl next to him to notice that Kate was falling apart.

"This is great. I'm really happy for both of you, for all of you. Can I go now?" Kate hastily got to her feet and started for the lift, only to be stopped in her tracks by the sharp crack of Buffy's voice.

"Perfect. Stir things up, shoot Angel, put him in permanent danger and then go back to your safe, normal life. Nice meeting you, Kate. Come again soon."

Kate turned around slowly. Buffy had abandoned her place by Angel's side to stand in the center of the room, arms crossed and scowl at the ready. The storm inside of the Slayer had been building for days, and the venting she had allowed herself this night was only whetting her appetite for battle.

"I came to you for help, and you can't help me, so I'm going," Kate said evenly. "I'm sorry about Angel; I've said that more than once. I'm also sorry if I put you all in danger. That was never my intention. I was trying to help my informants stay alive."

"You were trying to worm your way deeper into Angel's life." Buffy tilted her head upwards and batted her eyelashes at an imaginary companion as she cooed, "Oh, Angel, you have to help me. Only you can understand." With an almost audible snap she shifted her focus once more upon Kate, pinning her to the floor with her hazel-eyed fury. "When that didn't pan out you shot him."

"Buffy, we don't need to go into this now," Angel said softly. He came to stand beside his lover, but when he put his hand lightly on her arm she shook it off. Still he persisted. "Sweetheart, we can't change the past, and even if we could we don't have time. We need to find a place where the Jets and the Sharks can rumble without taking out the whole town."

"Yeah, we need to clean up the mess she helped to create," Buffy shot back bitterly.

"I didn't make these demons the way they are." Kate was stunned by the accusation. "The world is sinking into a pit all on its own."

"Of course. It's never your fault. You never have to take any of the responsibility for the damage you cause, because Buffy is always here to pick up the pieces. Faith never has to..."

"Faith? Who's Faith?"

Buffy paled when she heard Kate's innocent question. Her jaw dropped as she struggled for the words to explain, but no sound came out. A beloved voice called to her from a great distance, but she couldn't respond.

"Buffy, sweetheart."

She looked away, unable to bear the compassion in the dark eyes of the one who knew her best.

"I'm sorry," she finally managed to whisper, then she clamped her hand over her mouth to keep from screaming. She ran for the stairs, too blinded by quick, hot tears to see the hands reaching out for her. The last thing Buffy heard, above the pounding of her feet on the risers, was Cordelia's quiet explanation.

"Faith is the last woman who hit on Angel in front of Buffy. She's been in a coma for over nine months now."

* * * *

"Buffy! Buffy, wait!"

She wanted to run, as far and as fast as she could go, but the man who called after her deserved a woman who could stand and face her mistakes. She stopped just shy of the outer office door and waited dully for the coming storm.

"Buffy, love, please tell me what's been going on." Angel gently turned her around to face him as he whispered his desperate plea. He cupped her cheek in his hand and brushed the tears away with his thumb as he gazed lovingly into her eyes, and the soul that lay beneath.

She tried to pull away, almost undone by the tenderness of his expression, but he brought his other hand up to hold her head fast. "You have been going through something major the past few days, but you've shut me out. I need you to share it with me, Buffy. I respect your privacy, but whatever this is, it's tearing you apart to keep it inside."

She shook her head free of his grasp and stepped back until the door forced her to stop. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I know I've been a little crazy, but it just...piled up until I couldn't breathe."

"What piled up?" He tried very hard to keep the frustration from coming out in his voice. She seemed so fragile suddenly, as though one harsh word or look could shatter her. "I've seen the sudden vacations from reality, and I've heard the nightmares. You have to talk to me."

"I couldn't," she whispered. "That was the whole problem. You were so sick, you were dying, and I never, never thought I would have to see that. And I needed to talk to you about it, about how scared I was, but you were gone."

"Buffy, the bullet wound wasn't that..." Suddenly the light dawned. "Last spring," he said flatly. "This is about the poison arrow last spring."

She nodded tearfully as she reached her shaking hand out to trace the lines of his face. He caught her hand in his and brought it to his lips for a long kiss.

"I left before we could talk," he continued in the same dead tone. "You needed to talk about it but I was so wound up in my own pain and shame I never thought how hard it was on you. If anything, I thought it was one more reason to run as fast as I could. I was your weakness, and you were mine." He rubbed the back of her hand along his cheek, breathing in the scent of her perfume.

"In my head I knew you were okay. I knew I saved you." Her broken whisper was too soft to be heard by anyone but a vampire. "But I needed to feel it in my heart, and there wasn't time. There's never enough time for us."

"There is now, sweetheart. I promise, we have all the time in the world now." Angel folded her into his arms, silently cursing himself for waiting so long to acknowledge her pain. "I should have known that's what this was about. You got so shook up after the shooting, and you kept dropping hints but I was too dense to see them."

"I was jealous of her," Buffy admitted, tilting her head back to look up at him. "I didn't realize at first I was thinking of her like Faith, but it was there in the back of my head the whole time. I know you connected with Faith on some level that I couldn't understand, and it almost seemed that way with Kate too. The two of them remind me of parts of your past I can't really share, and that makes me a little crazy sometimes."

"And then when Kate shot me, it really brought Faith back," Angel said slowly.

Buffy nodded miserably. "I kept reliving that awful night, over and over. Everyone else has nightmares about that night because of the Mayor, and all the vamps, but me...it's always you and that hole in your chest and knowing you were going to die. I worked so hard to block it out. Even after we got back together I still pushed it away, because I knew how guilty you felt about drinking my blood that night. I thought I had it under control, right up to the moment in the alley when you twisted around and fell into my arms. Just like that night."

He touched his forehead to hers and closed his eyes, trying to think of the words that would ease her pain. "Buffy, I only wish I'd known how upset you still were. We deal so differently with pain. When I get upset I shut myself away and brood from every angle, until I've hit myself over the head with every inch of the problem. You pack all the bad stuff in the smallest bag you can find and jam it in the back of deep dark closet, hoping never to see it again." He opened his eyes and tugged just a little more at her heartstrings with his old melancholy half-smile. "I think we need to find some middle ground, with no doors to close and no closet space." He kissed her once, and then once more. "But as far as the feeling left out part goes, I want you to remember something. There is nothing in my past that you are not a part of because it all brought me to this moment, here, with you."

She drew a shaky breath as she ran her fingers over his lips, tracing his faint smile. "I feel the same way. But I'm still scared. How are we supposed to fight together if I freak every time you get hurt?"

"We talk about it. We admit our fears instead of protecting each other from them. One by one we will get through each and every day, together. It actually sounds pretty good to me." He smiled as he pictured those endless hours spent in the company of his beloved, sharing all the little details that together made a life.

"I never thought you could die before me. It's crazy, but even after all the times you've been hurt, even after I sent you to Hell, until that night I never imagined you could die." She tried to suppress the choking fear building in the back of her throat. "I know slayers don't last long, but vampires are supposed to be immortal. I count on that."

"No one is truly immortal, Buffy. Everything and everyone ends. When we fight together, side by side, I take comfort in knowing that if anything happens it will happen to me first, or very soon after. But during the day you might face a thousand different demons...and all I can do is sit and wait for you to come home."

"Oh great, so you worry all day and I have nightmares all night." She threw up her hands. "This is not the future we talked about, Angel. I don't want to be so scared of losing you that I can't function." She started to pace, but Angel grabbed her arm as she went past and held on tight.

"You didn't let the fear interfere with getting the job done tonight, did you? That demon would have snapped my head off if you hadn't warned me. But you did warn me, and then we killed him. Together."

He couldn't bear to see her looking so sad and lost. She, who was always so fierce in battle, looked like a frightened child adrift in tumultuous seas. He needed her to see that she was not alone, never alone.

"I feel the fear too, you know. If it makes you feel any better, I don't think I will ever completely get over the night the Master drowned you. Every time I see you, that image of you face down in that water is still there in the back of my head, reminding me that you're mortal and that one day I will lose you."

Even as he spoke, he was flooded with memories of the night she died. He had been so scared to live without her then; how could he face losing her now, with all that bound them together? Because he had no choice, he reminded himself. And this moment was about her, so he needed to focus.

"All we can do is to keep it from happening this night, and let the future take care of itself."

She wanted promises of 'happily ever after' and eternal futures, but as she looked into his dark eyes, she knew she would not hear the lies she longed for from his lips. All he would, and could, promise her was a love that would outlast death. Somehow she was going to have to make that be enough to keep her fears at bay.

"So no matter how much I dress up, when you look at me you see runny make-up and pond scum in my hair?" A slight smile was edging its way through the tear streaks on her face.

"But a kick dress," he assured her. "Besides, when you look at me you always see blood and a hole in my chest."

She drew a deep breath and leaned forward. Slipping a teasing hand under the hem of his shirt to caress his cool skin, she brought her lips within centimeters of his. "No honey, I always picture you barechested. It's only when I'm worried that there's a bloody hole in it."

"Well then, that's okay," he whispered as he pulled her up those last few precious degrees.

She gratefully slid into his healing embrace, surrendering to the feeling of security she always had in his arms. Neither of them could control the future that lay before them, but she could feel how hard he would fight for it and for them. Once upon a Christmas morning, she had given him the courage to fight for that life, and now she must match his determination, no matter how hard her fears tried to drag her down and away from him.

Angel was beginning to forget they were in a not-so-private office, lost as he was in feel of his lover in his arms. He slowly steered her towards the sofa, moving faster when Buffy realized his intent and began to tug on him. Her legs unexpectedly bumped the cushions and she lost her balance, dragging Angel down on top of her.

"And we have lift off!" Cordelia called excitedly as she darted into the office, followed by Doyle and Kate. She skidded to a halt as she suddenly saw the two figures entwined on the sofa. "Whoa, we really do have lift off. Don't you two have a bedroom or something?"

Buffy reluctantly slid out from under Angel, who moved to the other end of the sofa with a scowl that did not bode well for Cordelia in her annual evaluation.

"We have a room," he growled. "There's just a continual party going on outside of it."

Buffy stood up and smoothed her clothing, still carefully avoiding eye contact with Kate. "So what's the news from Houston, commander?"

"Actually, it would be Santa Marisa, not Houston."

"What would be Santa Marisa?" Angel tugged at Buffy's hand, urging her to sit next to him. "Or is that a 'who' question?"

"Santa Marisa is a tiny little town about an hour outside of Sunnydale. It also happens to be where the commandos, who are actually called the Initiative, by the way, are headed," Cordelia replied triumphantly. "While you two were up here angsting, I made a quick call to the little house on the hellmouth and talked to Giles. It seems Spike started doing reconnaissance, for money of course, and found out a few things we can use. One of them is that the Initiative has a new training camp in Santa Marisa where they spend every spare second these days." She grinned mischievously at Buffy, who perched on the arm of the sofa next to Angel. "Apparently the men with the medals on their chests were not too pleased when they heard their best and brightest were taken out by a freshman girl."

"Who's not even on the field hockey team," Doyle reminded them.

"They hurt my boyfriend," Buffy replied indignantly. "Nobody gets to do that and live, at least not without scar tissue." Her levity suddenly vanished as she realized the further implications of her words. She glanced over at Angel, who squeezed her hand and nodded. With a sigh, Buffy stood up and approached Kate.

"Umm, before we go any further with the game plan, I need to say something to Kate. And I'm not very good at saying this sort of stuff, so you better just let me get it out in one shot before I lose my nerve."

"You don't have to say anything, Buffy. I think we all made our positions clear the past few days." Kate was suddenly very tired. The past few days had been draining, physically and emotionally, and all she wanted to do was hide under her covers until the world straightened itself out.

"Please, let me apologize. Not for everything," she hastily added, "but for tonight at least. Well, part of tonight. I still think you should have let Angel and Doyle and I handle the Scourge, because you could have gotten a lot of cops killed if the Scourge had been in the mood to play with humans."

She wanted to say more, but the subdued sound of Angel clearing his throat reminded her this was supposed to be an apology. "But you were trying to help," she sighed, "and not just Angel. I'm sorry I implied that you were using them to get to him." Buffy glanced back at Angel for a moment to gather her strength, the resolutely faced her nemesis again. "I get a little jealous sometimes. I try not to," she continued over Cordelia's snort, "but I can't always help it. And you did just barge into the apartment like you owned it. Which, by the way, everyone else does too, but will no longer do upon pain of...pain. I want that understood."

Kate glanced at Angel, watching him watch Buffy. His heart was in his eyes, and she had the feeling he wasn't even aware there was anyone else in the room. Every time she had seen him the past few days, he was either watching Buffy or talking about her. And he was smiling when he did it, dammit! Angel, who rarely smiled, and then only sadly, lit up like the Las Vegas strip when this girl so much as walked in the room.

He loved this pushy little blonde teenager, and she made him happy; it was that simple, and that immutable. And whatever her faults, which Kate assumed were legion, this child seemed to love him just as fiercely.

"I...can understand the jealousy," Kate slowly responded. "And I'm sorry for barging in that first morning. I should have called, or knocked or something."

"We're not going to be friends," Buffy warned her. "No bonding over shoe-shopping, no lunch at the mall, no polishing of the nails." She leaned in very close to Kate and dropped her voice to a whisper only Angel could overhear. "And if you ever lay a hand, or any other body part, on my boyfriend again you and Faith are going to be roomies for a very long time to come." Buffy stepped back a pace and resumed speaking in a normal tone, the slightest trace of a smile her only register of the fear she saw dart through Kate's eyes. "I'm talking a mutual non-aggression pact, nothing more. Just so we're clear."

Kate gulped and raised her hand in pledge. "I'm good with that. You people are way too much for me to handle on a regular basis." She indulged in a tiny inward sigh as she mentally bade farewell to the plans she hadn't even admitted to herself she'd been forming. "I just want a normal life. No monsters, no demons, no vampires. No offense."

Buffy couldn't help laughing. Maybe Cordelia was right. Maybe Kate was Buffy in ten years, or rather the Buffy who would have been if she had never met, and been loved by, Angel. If so, poor Kate.

"Normal life? Gee, that sounds pretty yawnworthy. No offense."

"Now that no one is offended, can we get back to business?" Angel pleaded. He knew he probably should have said something to Buffy when he heard her threaten Kate, but he found it difficult to chastise for something he himself would have done in her place. Suppressing a grin at his mate's tiger-like qualities, he brought his mind back to the problem at hand. "How do we get the Scourge to Santa Marisa?"

"Me," said Doyle.

* * * * *

They went at it from every angle, but in the end Doyle's idea was the best. He, and a select few demon friends and relations, could lure the Scourge to Santa Marisa, then swiftly depart after Giles made the Initiative aware of the hostile demon presence. The plan hinged on the bad guys falling for the "poor little helpless demon who wandered into the wrong part of town" routine from the Brakken. Given the inflated egos they were dealing with, however, no one really doubted the Scourge would believe they were the hunters and not the prey.

"Just remember, Doyle. If you don't come back, I won't let Dennis give you a moment's peace in the afterlife," Cordelia threatened him. She tried to hide the quaver in her voice, but a Brakken's hearing was almost as good as a vampire's.

"Tell your see-through roomie not to fret, darlin'. I have no intention of coming all the way from Ireland on a sacred quest just to die in a little town north of nowhere." He decided this was the perfect moment to make his move, and slipped his arm around her.

Cordelia smacked his hand lightly as it draped over her shoulder, but she did not shrug it off. "You so did not come on a sacred quest, unless that's what you call escaping the law by the skin of your teeth."

"And what could be more so?" Doyle pretended indignation until he saw the speculative gleam in Kate's eye. "She was kidding, kidding. No law, no skin of my teeth."

"I want to go too," Angel said suddenly. "You're going to need all the help you can get if you get caught."

Buffy wanted to scream. All this time talking about how scared she still was for him, and knowing full well the danger represented to him by the Scourge, yet he still wanted to throw himself into the fight. She wanted to shake him, or strangle him, or take him in her arms and never let go.

Fortunately, as Buffy was debating her best option for dealing with Angel, Cordelia decided to make her opinion known.

"Are you trying to get him killed?" She planted her hands on her desk and leaned across it to glare at Angel. "How much help are you going to be traveling in the trunk of the car? Or do you honestly think those precious sewers of yours run all over the state?"

"Cordelia's right," Buffy said, eagerly, not pausing to recognize the humor in this phrase coming from her mouth. "You are anything but a day person, and they can't afford to travel only at night." She rested her hand on his arm as she tried to let him down gently. "I'm not just saying this because I'm scared for you, which I am like crazy; I admit that. But honestly, you'd only slow them down."

"Besides, I think this is something I need to do on my own." There was a strangely serious expression on Doyle's usually merry face. "I don't know why, but I get the feeling this is one enemy I'm supposed to handle, not you."

Angel looked from one friend to the other, trying to sense any support for his plan. Even Kate seemed doubtful. When at last he realized he was defeated, he sighed and gave in gracefully.

"Okay, you're all right. If we really want this to work, I can't be on the front lines this time." He looked sharply at Doyle. "But be careful. Don't take any unnecessary chances. Especially if you're getting 'feelings' about these creatures."

"Who, me?" Doyle laughed as he patted his chest. "This hide has always been my favorite possession. I've no plans to let the Scourge use it for a picnic blanket any time soon."

"Hey, question." Cordelia gazed somberly at Buffy. "Is this okay, what we're talking about? With your Slayer code, I mean, or whatever you call it. We are talking about sending demons after humans, after all. Is that sort of thing okay with the universe, or are we asking for a take-out order of bad karma?"

Buffy locked eyes with Angel, knowing the same thoughts had crossed both their minds already. She suddenly longed for the days when being a Slayer just meant hanging out in the cemetery all night picking off vamps as they rose. The hours may have wreaked havoc with her grades, but life certainly was a lot simpler back then.

Unfortunately, those days were long gone. Buffy sighed heavily and answered for both of them. "Fighting demons is supposed to be what the commandos, sorry, the Initiative, are all about. They know what they're getting into, more or less. And as for them being human...well, that doesn't mean they're the good guys. Maybe this isn't quite fair to them...but it's the only answer I can come up with."

"Speaking as someone they'd love to get on an examining table, I'm not wasting any tears on that lot," Doyle said emphatically. "They're no different than the Scourge."

"Minus six layers of mismatched facial skin and an outdated uniform, of course."

"Now that we know how to tell them apart," Buffy said with a sharp glance at Cordelia, "we need to get cracking. We still need to track down the Scourge, and meanwhile it's already Tuesday and the commandos have to be back in school on Monday. Can you start calling your friends now so you can start the sting today?" Buffy rose from the sofa to fetch the phone when she heard a loud pounding on the door.

"First we need to stop that racket," Cordelia said. "Not that any of the other tenants are likely to be in at this hour of the morning, but we wouldn't want anyone to call the police again, now would we?"

"I'll get it," Buffy sighed, opening the door to behold a purple-faced Hank Summers in mid-hammer. "Dad! What are you doing here at," she glanced at her watch, "seven a.m.?"

"I am here to take you home. Immediately." Hank stalked into the office, glaring at one and all. "I got a call this morning from an old friend of mine who happens to be with the LAPD. He noticed my daughter's name on a police blotter in regard to a gang war and thought I might be interested."

The sudden guilty silence, punctuated by rapid glances darting from one person to the next, told Hank all he needed to know.

"It's true, isn't it? He," Hank pointed to Angel, "got you involved in a gang fight, of all things. I should have known he was dangerous from the weapons, let alone all your mother told me. But I gave you the benefit of the doubt, I trusted your judgement, and he almost got you killed. Well, no more. You're going to pack your bags and I will drive you back to Sunnydale for a long talk with your mother and I about making appropriate choices."

"Excuse me? You think have you should have some say in how I run my life? Since when have you actually been a part of my life, Dad? I'm thinking junior high, but I could be giving you a little too much credit." She tried to keep her tone light and wittily sarcastic, but the bitterness crept through despite her best efforts.

"Buffy, why don't you…" Angel gently took her by the elbow and pointed her towards the stairs leading down to the apartment. "I think you two need some privacy," he said softly.

She smiled fleetingly at him and squeezed the hand that held her arm. Taking a deep breath, she prepared for a battle that had been a long time in the making.

"Dad, downstairs." She gestured to the stairs. "If you want to have talk, we're doing it now. But trust me, it won't take long." She didn't bother to see if he followed her as she descended into the apartment. Regardless of his decision, she'd already chosen her course.

Hank followed her slowly, taking the time for one last glare at the man he held responsible for this chaos. Kate watched for a reaction from Angel, but he met Hank's eyes impassively, giving nothing away with his expression. When he turned to watch Buffy, however, the glow in his eyes spoke volumes. As the door to the apartment clicked shut, Kate broke the silence.

"I get it, okay?"

Angel looked at her in confusion, though Cordelia could have told him what was going on. Kate's hangdog expression said it all.

"I said I get it," Kate reiterated. "I mean, I don't get it, the whole attraction between you, but I get that it's there, and it's real. I'm sorry if I've made things more difficult the past few days." She nervously twisted a strand of her blonde hair in her fingers, waiting for the inevitable recriminations.

Angel smiled at Kate, the first real smile he'd ever directed her way. It would have taken her breath away, if she had been able to convince herself it was really about her. As it was, somehow she knew it existed only because Buffy's presence had freed it.

"Difficult? Kate, Buffy and I have literally been to hell and back. This is nothing."

"To hell with hell, man," Doyle exclaimed. "This is the angry father of the teenage girl you've been sleeping with. This is serious." He would have elaborated, but a warning glance from Cordelia hinted he might have might then have to explain where and when he acquired his expertise in the subject.

"Doyle's right, but I think I can help," Kate said confidently. After a moment her smile wavered, and she continued in a more subdued tone, "If you'll let me, that is."

* * * * *

In the apartment below Angel Investigations, relations, and relatives, were not nearly so amicable. Buffy awaited her father's presence in the living room with ill-disguised impatience. She had way too many things going on this week to spend time convincing her father to deal with the inevitable, but it appeared to be the only way to get rid of him.

"Buffy, we really should be doing this with your mother," Hank said when he joined her. "I know she has some definite opinions on the subject of your boyfriend, and I think you need to start listening."

"I've heard Mom's opinions, and so has Angel, unfortunately. You need to hear my opinions for a change."

Hank moved a few steps closer to his only daughter, and tried not to wince when she instinctively backed up and crossed her arms defensively over her chest.

"Princess, you're so young. You've only dated a few boys and suddenly you know this is the guy for you? Your mother and I have both been through the good and the bad of love when we weren't much older than you. We just want to protect you."

"But you don't need to protect me from him," she insisted. "He's a good man, Dad. He's gentle and thoughtful, and he listens to me, all of which you'd realize if you gave him half a chance. But whether you do or not, nothing you or Mom says is going to change the way I feel. I love him."

"Why are you suddenly so hostile towards me?" Her father's tone abruptly switched from pleading to accusatory. "Is this what he's done to you? You never used to be this way."

Buffy couldn't suppress a slightly hysterical laugh. "You're telling me what I was like? How old is the memory this is based on, Dad? Seems to me that you haven't actually been around to know what I was like in a couple of years. If you don't know me anymore, that's your problem."

"Your mother and I divorced, Buffy. It happens all the time. But I didn't divorce you. I am still your father and I love you." He was struck by the coolness in her tone. He could have dealt with tears or anger, but the distant, almost adult, tenor of her voice cut him to the quick. When had she grown so old?

"Then where have you been for the past four years? A weekend here, a summer there, that's not a relationship, Dad. If you wanted one of those, you should have tried a little harder."

His anger faded as swiftly as it had flared. Looking at the woman who used to be his little girl, he realized how much she had changed out of his sight. Had it really been so long since he had seen her, or had this all happened overnight?

"I did try, sweetie. But you needed to reach out to me, too. You're a young woman, now. I didn't want to crowd you."

Buffy couldn't believe her ears. He was trying to blame the failure of their relationship on her. After all the cancelled visits and missed phone calls, he was trying to say she gave up on him.

"God, Dad, I was sixteen when we moved, not even, actually. I was the kid; you were the adult. You had the car and the long distance carrier; I had the curfew. Reaching out was your job."

He looked deep into her hazel eyes, the eyes she inherited from him. He could no longer see the little girl he used to let stand on his shoes when he taught her to walk, and to dance. His charming and slightly flighty daughter had been replaced with a stranger with a life in which he had no place.

Therefore, he realized it was up to him to create a place.

"Buffy, I didn't realize how fast time slipped away from me. Suddenly I look at you and you're almost grown up. But I think I acted as though you were an adult before you were ready for me to. I believe my not wanting to butt into your life has led you here, and this is not a safe place to be."

She had a sudden flash of memory, unwillingly freed from the recesses of her mind. She was four years old, and her father had just bought her a brand-new pair of figure skates while they were vacationing in Lake Tahoe. Her mother thought she was too young to use them, she would fall, but her father insisted that with her unusually good coordination, she was ready. So Hank laced up the boots, over Joyce's nervous twittering, and set her down on the ice.

She remembered the cold air on her cheeks, and the feel of the world slipping away under her feet, but mostly she remembered her father's face as he smiled encouragingly at her. He skated backward in front of her, holding her hands until she got her bearings, but as soon as she was steady, he drew away. And then he came back to pick her up and set her on her feet again two minutes later, after she fell.

"Dad, we're never going to have what we had when I was little." Her tone was a little gentler now, in tribute to the memory of the father he had once been. "There is no safe place to be anymore and you can't protect me from the monsters when they come to get me. Maybe Angel can't either, but I know he'd die trying. If that isn't enough for you…then good-bye."

She felt a part of herself wrench loose when she delivered her ultimatum. The man standing before her represented all that she used to be and have. A lot of it wasn't good, but there were pieces of her childhood she would always carry happily within her heart, and he had been a part of them. To give him up meant leaving the old Buffy truly behind her. A voice inside of her tried to say she wasn't ready, but she remembered the man waiting for her upstairs, and she knew she could face whatever the future held, if he was by her side.

And the man in front of her was the one who taught her to pick herself up after every fall and start over.

"You can't mean that."

"I do," she replied somberly. "He's the best part of my life and I won't lose him again, especially not because of parents who think they have the inside track on what's right for everybody else." She took a step closer to Hank, needing to connect with him, to make him understand this much at least. "He left me once, did Mom tell you that? He thought I deserved better than him. You see, Angel's dad spent most of his life telling Angel he was a loser, and then Mom put the candy coating on top when she told him he wasn't good enough for me and never could be. So he walked. And I let him." She sighed heavily. "I let him because I thought that's what happened in relationships. You love someone, you trust him, and then he disappears from your life without a word. And you die inside, but you never ever tell him how bad it hurts because then you know for sure that he won't come back. Guess who taught me that one, Dad?"

"I never meant to..."

She closed her eyes momentarily and shook her head to shut out his protest. "I know, I know." Facing him once again, she smiled briefly. "After all this time I do actually know, but that doesn't change what happened between you and I, or Angel and I. He and I were lucky, though. A friend made us realize how incredibly stupid we were being, so we decided to try again. I can cut you the same slack, just as long as you can deal with Angel being a part of the package. Otherwise, we have nothing left to talk about."

"So that's it? Him or me?" Hank's voice was bleak.

"You're the one making a federal case out of my love life. I'm just setting the ground rules. I'm willing to try, but if you want us to have anything in the future you're going to have to make nice with Angel." She shrugged her shoulders, suddenly at peace with her decision.

He looked at her for a long moment, trying to sense any weakness in her resolve. Instead he saw a stubborn streak as wide as her mother's. Whether he thought her decisions right or wrong, she would always follow her heart's lead.

"Then I guess I need to start getting to know both of you."

"I might able to help on that score."

Buffy and Hank were both startled to hear Kate's voice from the top of the stairs. The policewoman raised her hands, feeling as though she was entering a hostage situation like the ones from her patrolman days. In this case, she wasn't quite sure whom she was rescuing.

"I know, I know, I was supposed to knock, but Angel said it was okay. Actually he said it was okay after Cordelia told Doyle to drill a hole in the floor so everyone could stop wondering what was going on down here." Kate stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked pleadingly at Buffy. "I offered to come down because I think I can help. And I promise not to use my gun this time."

* * * * *

EPILOGUE

The days slipped away, one by one. Bulletins from Santa Marisa were encouraging, but they all knew no one would sleep well until Doyle returned safely. Duty and demons still called though, even on vacation, and Cordelia required more attention than usual during her sparring partner's absence. There weren't enough hours in day or night to do all that needed to be done, yet somehow the lovers managed to steal a moment here and a moment there to talk, to love, to just be. The week was not all they could have hoped for, but it was an educational first step in building the life they would share from this time forth. Then, all too soon, it was almost at an end.

It was a gloomy, rainy Sunday morning in sunny Southern California. Car alarms were blaring, the neighbors were screaming, and the swallows had obviously decided to bypass not only Capistrano but the entire state as well this spring. Buffy peered out the bedroom window as she hung up the phone and began humming softly in delight. The tuneless little tune carried her across the living room and into the kitchen to join Angel and Cordelia at the table.

"You're sure in a good mood," Cordelia observed. "What gives?"

"Santa at Christmas?" Buffy teased. "What, I'm not allowed to be in a good mood?" She reached for a piece of toast and a knife, narrowly missing Cordelia's eye as she smothered an enormous yawn with the hand that clutched the knife.

Angel grinned as Cordelia threw herself back in her chair to prevent further possible injuries. "Umm, you're not really a morning person, Buffy," he said tactfully, gently taking the knife from her hand and turning it right side up before she dipped it in the butter.

"Ha! That's the pot calling the kettle a late sleeper," Cordelia jeered. "You're both sunrise-challenged, and you're on the verge of the big farewell scene again, so that should make you doubly drippy. And yet you hum. Color me suspicious." She tapped her finger on her chin and tried to appear coolly amused. "Was that Doyle on the phone? Did he say something funny?"

Buffy's grin faded as she took in Cordelia's thinly disguised anxiety. "Sorry, Cordy, that wasn't Doyle. But I'm sure he'll call soon, or maybe just drop by. Everyone else does."

"Doyle's fine, Cordelia." Angel laid his hand briefly on her shoulder as he poured her coffee. "He called last night to say he was on his way, and the Scourge and the Initiative were too busy fighting each other to notice a bunch of Brakken."

"Did he sound okay?" Cordelia was not yet reassured. "He was all wiggy just before he left, with all the talk about feelings and things he was meant to do alone. Is he back to his usual annoying self yet?"

Angel grimaced; Doyle had still sounded slightly strange, but he had no wish to worry Cordelia until he knew more of what was going on with his friend. "We really didn't talk for that long, but I'm sure he's fine. Just give him a little while to catch up on his sleep and he'll be in the office harassing you the same as usual."

"And then you can annoy him right back," Buffy promised around a mouthful of toast. "You're gifted that way."

"And then you two can pretend you're retreating down here because you don't want to listen to us when all you really want to do is..."

"I think we've taken this projection as far as we need to," Angel firmly interrupted. "So we know it wasn't Doyle. Who was on the phone?" He poured himself a glass of juice and took a sip.

"It was Kate," Buffy breezily informed them, her good humor fully restored by the stunned look that passed between Angel and Cordelia. She helped herself to a congratulatory swig of Angel's orange juice to celebrate shocking her normally unflappable boyfriend.

"Kate?" Angel croaked, after Cordelia put an end to his choking fit with a few well-placed blows to his back. "Since when are you so buddy-buddy with Kate?"

"Make you nervous, lover?" Buffy purred, running a teasing hand up and down his arm. "Afraid of a little girl-talk?"

"More like a great big cat fight," Cordelia answered for him as she resumed her seat. "Are you setting her up for something, or did you suddenly declare amnesty on women who go after your boyfriend? Because I know of a few takers on that deal, if it's on the table. Not me, of course," she added quickly.

Buffy grinned as she abandoned her chair to sit on Angel's lap. "We're not all 'braid my hair' or anything, so don't worry. She just wanted to let me know everything is cool with my dad. She's been doing her own version of making amends by talking to him. She's told him what she can about the cases Angel has helped her on, and really tried to make him understand what a good person Angel is. From her, he believes it. Guardian of the people and all."

"Now aren't you glad I didn't let you kill her?"

"So your dad is okay with us?" Angel asked slowly, not paying any attention to Cordelia's hopefully rhetorical question. He looked deep into Buffy's eyes, searching for any sign of doubt or evasiveness.

She sighed, but met his gaze squarely. "He still thinks I'm too young to be so serious about a relationship, and he's kind of nervous about the type of people you associate with..."

"And just what's wrong with us?" Cordelia asked indignantly.

"Not you," Buffy answered impatiently. "I mean the gangs and the psychos and the mobsters."

"Oh, the clients."

"Anyway, he's still a little wigged by what you do for a living, but at least he knows it's legal. Well, it's not exactly, but Kate didn't mention the tiny little detail about the lack of license." She began ticking off complaints on her fingers. "He also doesn't like the weapon collection, and this not to say he likes me being a partner in the family business either," she smiled teasingly at her lover, "but that's still better than where we were a week ago."

"It's more than I expected, actually." Angel breathed a sigh of relief. One parent hating him was enough; two made it a little too "Romeo and Juliet" for his taste. Two and a half centuries had not improved his liking for Shakespeare's view that destiny was inevitably tragic.

"Kate told him he would feel a lot better if he got to know you. And now he'll get the chance when I move to LA this summer," she finished in a heroic attempt to sound casual.

Angel looked sharply at her. They had discussed eventual relocation several times, but in general terms. They had both carefully avoided the subject of who would be the one moving.

"Are you sure, Buffy? Or is this a test run and we'll see what happens? We have the apartment in Sunnydale now, so we can live there." He resolutely kept his tone neutral so he wouldn't influence her. Regardless of what was most convenient for him, the bottom line was that he wanted to be with her, wherever she felt at home.

Buffy wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder. "I'm very sure, and it's not just a dry run. I'm going to call the registrar's office at UCLA first thing Monday morning and see what paperwork I need to transfer for fall semester. Then I'm going to get my transcripts from Sunnydale and start the ball officially rolling forward." She raised her head and smiled as she kissed away the worry line from between his brows. "I want my life to be here, with you. The hellmouth always gives at least two hours warning before it opens, and the daily demon grind hasn't been all that grindy lately. I think Sunnydale can survive without me."

"I can't," he confessed with a rueful smile, "but I don't want you rearranging your life because you think I won't rearrange mine. I can live anywhere, Buffy, as long as we're together."

"Good, because we're living here." She looked around the apartment, taking in the gloomy dark wood, the multiple entrances to be guarded, and the lack of closet space. "Well, not necessarily here as in right here."

"Hey, I think you've got a better shot at getting Hank to like you than Joyce, especially since he doesn't know about the liquid diet yet," Cordelia pointed out reasonably. "And it's not like the hellmouth is anyone's idea of a fun place to live. No one who isn't evil or crazy, that is. I say you take the girl up on this before she changes her mind."

"Mom, of course, will have a coronary, but maybe there's some hope for my dad and I now." Buffy looked away momentarily, then she turned to face Angel again. "I think I really scared him when I told him if he made me choose he would lose. He's not promising to turn into Mike Brady overnight, but I think we're past 'Runaway Dad: An After School Special' now."

"I'm glad," Angel said softly. He dropped a gentle kiss on her forehead before he rested his own against it. "Of course I'd feel even better if the parent who actually knew how to kill me was the one who tolerated me."

"One thing at a time, love. We've been through the wringer the past few days. Give me a chance to catch my breath and then I'll take on my mother." By force if necessary, she added silently.

"We," he corrected her firmly. "We are in this together, so we will take her on."

"But not quite yet," Buffy begged. "Right now I'm kind of looking forward to something simple like demon uprisings, or maybe an apocalypse. I've had all the normal relationship issues I can handle for one vacation."

"No, not yet," he agreed, "but soon. It's time to face the last of the monsters so we can get on with our life."

This time it would be his own inner demons he would have to conquer, the ones constructed piece by piece from every careless criticism dropped from his father's mouth. The ones Joyce cemented on the day she came to see him at the mansion. They would be no easier to face than Buffy's fears, but he would not, could not, let them prevail.

"Sweetie," she responded in a dangerously soft voice, "that is my mother you're talking about." She watched him squirm for a moment, knowing he'd be bright red if he could only blush. Finally, she took pity on him. She patted his hand gently as she kissed him. "Only I get to call Momzilla a monster."

"Can I at least watch?" he begged, only half in jest.

"If you're a good boy," she promised with a teasing smile. She leaned in very close and ran her finger lightly over his lips as he chuckled. "And I know you're very good," she murmured.

Angel's arms tightened around her as he tilted his head to steal a kiss. He looked deep into Buffy's eyes as their lips met and...

"Stop!" Cordelia commanded, raising her hand to shield her eyes.

Buffy and Angel turned their heads as one to stare in confusion at their distraught friend.

"This is a kitchen," she explained, gesturing around the room. "And this is a table." She dropped her hand to pat the object in question. "People eat at it. Now if we're getting a new roommate we're going to have to establish some ground rules, and rule number one is no smoochies at the table."

"Cordelia, I think..." Angel began.

"No, you listen," she firmly overrode him. "I eat off this table, and the last thing I want is to be wondering what you two were doing on it before I got here, so we'll just say a big no to the PDAs in the kitchen in general. Major eww." She majestically rose to her feet and ascended the stairs, head held high.

Buffy stared after her with a thoughtful expression on her face. "Now what is it about Cordy's rules that makes me want to break them?" She glanced mischievously at her mate, who smiled wickedly in return.

"I love it when you're rebellious," Angel all but purred as he lifted her onto the table. He leaned over her, pushing dishes out of the way as he started to gently recline her on the hard wooden surface. Buffy propped herself up with one hand on the table and laid the other firmly on his chest to restrain him. He looked at her quizzically.

"Lock the door first, silly," she murmured.

* * * * *

You and I, we were meant to be.
Love and madness may run us out to sea
So we'll leave them here
beating East on a tangent
veering from the wave to the fury.
-JK-

-THE END-(for now)

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