Fool Me

Fool Me

By Leni
Author's Notes

"I want my life to be with you."

"I don't."

.

.

.

"Is this really happening?"

Cordelia couldn't concentrate properly on her nails with all the noise in the library.

"Ouch! Okay, I didn't see that coming, Buff..."

This second layer was always the trickiest.

"Buff?"

If she didn't do it just so, she'd never shake off the feeling that her hands looked like a second-rate beauty parlor reject, and the funding for her usual weekly manicure was gone along with... well, many other things. If only Daddy----

"Alright. I have it now." Xander's voice was shaky. "My balance was off before. Try ag-- eeeek!!!"

Cordelia's hand strayed off, trembling slightly. She frowned when she saw the results, the light purple of Lilac Champagne glistening on skin instead of on nail. Sighing, she reached for a Cutex dampened Q-tip and set to undo the wrong.

"Nothing's broken!" A laugh. "I must be getting good!"

Despite herself, Cordelia smiled a little when she heard that. Buffy seemed to be using her boyfriend for some kind of personal catharsis, but as long as Xander wasn't too hurt for their date later, Cordelia wouldn't speak up. She'd tried already and it only got her dirty glares courtesy of Xander's bruised ego.

She dipped the brush back into the nail polish bottle, blew softly on her pinky. Perfect.

Now, for the hard part: painting the nails on the right hand. She was careful lifting the brush with her left hand, more careful as she lowered the tip towards her thumb....

"Aaaaaaagh!"

Cordelia jumped to her feet, alerted by the scream of real pain. "Xander?" Her legs were carrying her towards Xander even before her eyes had fixed on his fallen figure.

"Oh my gosh..." Willow was approaching from behind her.

Cordelia stopped at the edge of the practice mat, staring in disbelief between her boyfriend and Buffy. She narrowed her eyebrows at the blonde, but Buffy didn't notice her as she dutifully advanced to help Xander up. But he was already rising to his feet, pausing for a moment to rub his shoulder. "Geez." He turned towards Cordelia with a shrug, and then scratched his head. Typical clueless boy. "Clumsy to the grave, it seems."

If he laughed, Cordelia was going to scream. He did not. Instead he noticed Willow, who was now standing beside her. Something passed between them, and Cordelia watched intently trying to get an idea about it, whatever it was. Something about Buffy, and that was as far as she got.

Meanwhile Willow was nodding in understanding. "Xand..." she breathed, only a little unsure.

Willow would always be better than her at showing concern, and that was for the best since right now Cordelia was only feeling rage. "Are you crazy?" She glared at Buffy. "What ghost possessed you this week? It's supposed to be just practice!" It sounded like a screech even to her ears. Cordelia Chase never screeched. Except, maybe, when she noticed shades of sick purple and green around her boyfriend's wrist. And he was still trying to set his shoulder into a comfortable position.

She stepped forward without thinking, not caring that her heels sank uncomfortably into the mat. She was going to screech louder, she knew. She was going to forget her still wet fingernails and throw a tantrum worthy of the spoiled only child she was.

And all because Alexander Harris, most unreliable boyfriend who'd rather go to patrol than on a date, had been hurt more than their unvoiced rules usually allowed.

Or she would have done it. But said boyfriend put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm fine, Cor," he said. "It was only practice. She gives Wesley a harder time every day; don't you, Buffy?"

"She does," the Watcher agreed from his office.

Cordelia wouldn't be moved. For all his bluster, Xander was not a trained Watcher. It might be Wesley's calling to be beaten up by the Slayer every second day, but Xander's was not. Not if she had anything to say about it. "I've seen you at practice before, you dork," she hissed. She whirled towards a silent Buffy, meeting her calm green eyes with furious ones. "And how could you? He's not a vamp to dust, or can't you tell the difference anymore?"

Buffy shrugged. "He's not following the sequence correctly."

"He's not following the sequence correctly," Cordelia parroted. She shook her head in disbelief. "Has the Watcherness finally rubbed off on you? It takes Xander weeks to learn a move!" And she'd know; Xander practiced even outside the library, he'd actually tried to reel her into trying the moves together. Silly boy. "He's barely touched the quarterstaffs before. What made you think he'd do it right from one session to the next?"

Xander was protesting behind her. Cordelia reasoned that if he hadn't proposed a training session with an obviously upset Slayer (All day, Buffy's mood had fluctuated between anger and... more anger); she wouldn't have had to come in his defense and say the things he was protesting against. Therefore, it was his entire fault.

Buffy sighed, as if tired of the conversation. "Xander asked for a sparring match. If it got out of hand, I'm sorry."

Cordelia's eyebrow shot up at her tone. She'd heard more heartfelt apologies from Harmony. A 'little' out of hand? "Forget it, Buffy." She took Xander's hand. "My boyfriend isn't your personal punching bag." She squeezed until she was sure she had Xander's attention. She might be mad at Buffy, but Xander wasn't completely faultless. He could have called it off a lo-ong time ago. Say, before he almost broke his arm. "If you have issues, pick on Wesley. He needs some time away from those books anyway." Wesley muttered something in the background. Possibly about the usefulness of books against the Mayor's plans - as if they knew what those were. Cordelia didn't care; she was on a roll here. "Or better yet. Call Angel; go do whatever vampires and slayers do when they are not damaging my boyfriend. You want one to play with? Try Crawford Street."

Buffy's eyes narrowed.

"Cordy...." Willow hissed, shaking her head a little. Xander tugged on her hand, a tacit sign for her to retreat.

Cordelia held onto the urge to roll her eyes. Oh, did they have to protect little Buffy from the big bad witch? "What? Afraid Angel won't take her attitude?"

If possible, Buffy's eyes narrowed even more. Her grip on the quarterstaff tightened, and Cordelia felt Xander jump beside her as the thick wooden pole broke in two.

Okay, maybe she jumped a little too.

Willow's face went positively white.

Buffy glared at her for a tense second. Then she shrugged, dumping the broken halves onto the mat. Cordelia could hear her own heartbeat, and nobody paid attention to Wesley's complaints.

"Buffy?"

Willow was the bravest one, Cordelia quickly decided when the redhead took a step towards Buffy, reaching out for her best friend. "It's not my attitude he minds," Buffy said in a whisper. She shied away from Willow's touch. "I'm fine, Will." The worried expression on Willow's face washed in sadness at the rejection.

That brought back Cordelia's anger. "Bravo!" She raised her eyebrow in challenge. "And the Bipolar Award goes to...." Buffy whirled around towards her. Cordelia calmly loosened her hand from Xander's and crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Yes?"

She and Buffy stared off for long seconds. The blonde was bristling, yes. But Slayer or not, Cordelia wasn't about to let her win this particular match.

"Go to hell, Cordelia!"

And with that intelligent remark, Buffy stalked off and left the room.

"Oh my..." Willow murmured, looking torn between going after Buffy and letting her calm down on her own. Finally sensibility won. "This is not good," she sighed, dropping back into the nearest chair.

"Cordy, love." Xander reclaimed her hand, lifting it to his lips. "As much as I loved the whole damsel-running-to-knight's-aid routine, well.... I really appreciated it, but." He sighed, passing a hand through his hair and looking at the ceiling.

When it was obvious that he wouldn't go on, Willow groaned loudly and let her head fall back onto the backrest. "But seriously. Did you have to be such a bitch?"

Cordelia's eyes widened.

So did Willow's, even as she covered her mouth with her hands. "I mean...." She blushed.

At Cordelia's side, Xander tutted at his best friend. "Will, we've talked about calling my girlfriend names." Both girls turned to glare at him. He did his best to look innocent and coughed. "So, um. What do we do about Buffy now? Training is obviously not the way to a Slayer's peace of mind."

Cordelia's head whipped towards her boyfriend. She wanted to know if that comment meant what she thought it meant. Was he nuts? Placing himself in Buffy's hands? When she was angry? She was about to give him a piece of her mind, but Willow beat her to it.

"I told you so," the redhead reproached with a roll of her eyes. Then she sighed. "Neither is she in the mood for a Leonardo Di Caprio marathon and cookie dough fudge mint chip ice-cream."

Even Cordelia knew that was Buffy's favorite flavor. That girl would probably take a break during an Apocalypse for a bite. Cordelia still couldn't grasp the subtext in Xander and Willow's exchange, but now she felt uncomfortable at having gone off at Buffy so harshly. Refusing Titanic and ice cream? It had to be bad.

"I'll take the ice cream." Xander winked playfully.

Willow rolled her eyes again but smiled faintly all the same. "I'm afraid you have to watch Romeo and Juliet with it."

Xander pouted.

Cordelia watched them, interest warring with instinctual jealousy. There they went, off to their little world where meaning was conveyed in half phrases and pointed looks. Where she and Oz were cherished but distant acquaintances. The Willow-and-Xander world, second to the Buffy-and-Angel world only because their significant others were outside it. This significant other cleared her throat and raised her voice a notch: "Time out, guys. Just tell me which smelly herbs we need to exorcise her this time."

That got their attention.

"It is a ghost, right?" Cordelia didn't like the alternative. Despite their differences, she did respect Buffy - up to a point. A point that melted away as Willow shook her head. She took a deep breath, no point to raise her voice when Buffy was not here. "You mean she trashed Xander around on purpose? Because I'm fine with him losing at sparring all the time, but this," pulling her boyfriend's arm until the bruises around his wrist were visible, "is too much."

"Hey! I'm not that fragile!" Xander said at the same time Willow asked Wesley to bring some ice, please?

Cordelia noticed that Xander cringed as he slowly put his arm back to his side. But she got no other reaction. As if Buffy, their so called best friend, behaved like a bitch (well, Willow had started throwing the word around) on a daily basis.

"She's been touchy," Xander ventured out.

Cordelia elbowed his side. Lightly. "No way, Sherlock! I haven't seen Buffy this wound up since---" She tried to remember. "When that vamp boy kidnapped me, remember?"

"Cordy," Xander sighed.

"We were there, too," Willow reminded her.

"Whatever. Past history anyway." She ignored their twin sighs. "Point is, Miss 'Murderously Grouchy, and proud of it!', is making a comeback. Please say it's not Wilkins getting to her." Willow turned to Xander, raising her eyebrow inquisitively. Xander lifted his shoulders helplessly. Cordelia had long ago given up trying to guess the meaning of their wordless interactions. She kept on, "Seriously. I'm not waiting for her to sledgehammer his bones before she gets out of her funk."

"No funk," Xander said.

"It's not Wilkins," Willow elaborated. "I mean, it's partly his fault and I can't believe Xander hasn't told you already."

Xander lifted his shoulders again. Oh. So that's what their little show had been about. "I didn't have time!" he defended.

Willow raised a skeptical eyebrow, 'Then spend less time with the smoochies!' written all over her face, but she didn't comment.

Yeah. Because she and Oz spent the day holding hands. Cordelia tapped the floor impatiently. "Told me what?"

"Angel broke up with Buffy last night."

"In a sewer," Xander added, his voice surprisingly dark.

For the first time since she discovered that demons existed, Cordelia was left speechless. "And he's still alive?" Okay, not so speechless. But after so long she just couldn't picture Buffy without Angel, and vice versa.

"As far as we know," Xander grumbled.

Cordelia looked between her boyfriend and Willow. No, Buffy's best friends, disregarding any previous dislike of Angel, weren't happy about the situation. And Buffy definitely was not happy. "That explains a lot." But it didn't make sense.

Not long ago, Cordelia Chase had been the alpha and omega of social life at Sunnydale High. She knew all the logical reasons for a break up, and then she'd invented some. But none of those reasons had ever applied to Buffy and Angel, how could they? After surviving their first meeting, what was logic against vampire and slayer in a romance?

So she said the only thing that would make sense: "Alright. Do we know which ghost got him this time?"

Ten days.

Ten days, three hours and who knows how many minutes. Checking her watch had been the last thought in her mind as Angel told her that the last eighteen months of her life had amounted to nothing more than a 'freak show'.

No wonder she'd gone off the edge for a couple of days there.

But she was back and renewed. Yes, she was. Because no boy or vampire, not even the love of her life, deserved losing her friends over a bad break up. And who cared that she hadn't seen Angel since that night?

Not her, no sir.

He could come and go at his will. He could follow her from afar all he wanted and she wouldn't. care.

She wiped her eyes with her wrist, angry at herself for crying, angry at him for shadowing her in patrol. She was the Slayer, the top of the food chain in Sunnydale. She embodied the strongest fighter in history, humanity's last defense against evil. She was a strong, self-assertive girl with a sharp wit and... And who was she kidding?

She was such a mess.

She was mopey Buffy with a violent edge.

Her friends were still tip-toeing around her. Wesley was still tip-toeing around her when he didn't avoid her altogether. Even her mother raised her eyebrows every time Buffy's temper threatened to show.

No doubt Joyce thought that temper was Angel's influence. Hah! She wished she was still under Angel's influence, but noooo. She'd raged her way through the first days after the break up, placing blame on everything that reminded her of Angel - i.e. the whole world. And the world had showed her that it didn't care about a girl with a broken heart. School went on, Snyder kept bugging her, demons kept coming after her.... In the big scheme, she and Angel weren't even a blip in the radar.

She hated big schemes.

The only ones who'd showed a reaction were her friends. She really owed an apology to each of them, and she'd give it to them... as soon as they stopped treating her like a dangerous and barely leashed fury. She was trying; she was. She reminded herself daily that they only wanted the best for her, that they didn't want her to feel alone, and so what if she wanted some space for herself? Best friends, especially stubborn best friends like hers, always knew better.

She'd finally accepted Willow's offer for a girls' sleepover. She hadn't said anything as Xander trailed after her around the school. She hadn't even commented on Oz's raised eyebrow when she'd stayed silent during a Scooby meeting. For God's sake, she'd even nodded when Cordelia gave her oh so helpful pointers for her return to the dating pool.

As if she wanted to date someone else.

"Are you planning to go stag to the Prom?"

Buffy sighed. She could still hear Cordelia's scandalized voice. She kicked a stone moodily. Well, Cordy, no. She'd planned to pick a beautiful dress, sure to make Angel lose it at first sight. She'd planned to take her tuxedo-clad boyfriend to the party and, well, not show him off but just make sure every ex-Cordette in attendance knew that the older, gorgeous man dancing with Buffy Summers was her boyfriend.

Okay, showing him off was it. But it hadn't been a bad plan, had it? Angel had never minded going with her to public places, dancing, eating or just hanging out with her friends. If there was no slaying scheduled, he'd always been willing to take her out.

Except every date had apparently been a damn freak show in his eyes.

Good thing she wasn't the immature girl his words had implied - someone incapable of making her own decisions - or she might have acted out irrationally in the aftermath.

Oh, who was she kidding?

All her friends still moved away subtly if she so much as narrowed her eyes. Xander and Cordelia had stopped being so couply in her presence, something she might be thankful about if they hadn't done it out of pity. Willow wouldn't let her handle the explosive substances in Chemistry, which was completely nuts. Buffy wasn't about to bomb the school, even if Willow thought that she looked ready for it.

And Wesley was the worst of the lot. Why would he demand she be more serene in her fights? She Slayer, they demons. She killed, they screamed. Giles would have gotten that simple concept. She might have gotten a little out of hand with that Froufrou demon - or whatever its name was - but Buffy didn't really see the difference between beheading him and, well, beating him to death. Okay, so there was a difference. She got a nice workout with her choice, and wasn't Wesley always insisting she took time to practice new moves?

Well, as it turned out, Wesley wouldn't need to berate her about her fighting techniques again. In the last few days it was as if demons had dropped off the face of Earth. She'd only caught a few confused fledglings in three nights, and tonight not even that.

She refused to cry as she remembered what she'd have happily done ten days ago on such a calm night. His choice, his loss. Now she'd just have to look further for some evil to stop, instead of going to him and laying her head on his lap as he read to her. She mused darkly on that half-finished poetry book that lay in his living room.

They'd never finish it now.

Cracking her knuckles, she looked around to scope out a possible enemy. Not an enemy around, not even one. In that moment she knew it; her suspicions had been right all these years: the world, and especially the Hellmouth, was out to get her. Demons flocked in and interrupted some of her best dates. But all it took was her boyfriend becoming her ex and demons took their holidays.

Peachy, huh?

And to make matters worse, the only vampire who'd come close tonight was Angel himself. And she without a measly fledging to stake and drive her thoughts off her ex's presence.

She wouldn't cry.

"Just quit it, will you?" She didn't even turn around in proper acknowledgement. "You did enough to protect me ten days ago, remember?"

She would not cry.

There was a noise behind her, and Buffy released her breath. He'd walk away as she asked. At least he still respected her wishes.

She sniffled.

Or, he'd walk towards her. "Uh... Hello, Buffy."

Her head shot up, and his expression told her that, yes, she was definitely crying. She squared her shoulders and refused to wipe her tears away. If he was able to break up with her, he better be able to face her post-break-up, teary-eyed self. "I like you better when you sneak around." Her voice was strangely scratchy and she hated it.

"Yeah, well...." He shuffled uncomfortably. Good, Buffy thought uncharitably. He opened his mouth, but one look at her face had him looking away in discomfort.

Buffy took the chance to study him. He looked exactly the same, smelled the same. Would probably taste the same, too. Could vampires get thinner? Yes, she remembered that after the Cruciamentum Wesley explained about vampires starved in a controlled environment.

Angel wasn't starving in her absence, it seemed.

Meanwhile, her mother took fully-laden trays to her room and Willow stole Xander's snack bars for her. Because she looked too pale, they said. As if dreading the Mayor's plans wasn't enough to drive the color off a girl's cheeks. But not even her Watcher would agree. Just yesterday Wesley had threatened to make her take something to increase her appetite if she kept losing weight, and Jenny had agreed with a worried voice when Buffy'd complained that she was not too thin.

Yet here was Angel, as fit as ten days ago.

Buffy was swept by sudden anger. It just wasn't fair. "Dropped in for a visit? Or just looking for a way to mess me up completely?"

Angel's head turned back to her, his eyes reflecting the shock at her tone. Had she always been this vicious? he seemed to wonder.

Buffy shrugged to herself. Maybe yes, maybe not. She'd been in love. She still was. Maybe that was the problem. She'd behave a lot more calmly if she could stop caring about him.

"I... No!" He passed a hand through his hair, obviously at a loss. "Why is this so difficult?"

Buffy stared.

In the silence that followed, she decided that someone needed to address the elephant in the room before it ate them and whatever possible sliver of friendship was left alive. The options, however, didn't sound good. 'Hey Angel, when did you decide us wasn't good enough for you?' 'Hey Angel, a whole eighteen months to discover it was all a sham? Wow. Slo-ow.' Or, 'Hey Angel, do you need your jacket back?' 'Hey Angel, why can you break my heart only by standing there?'

Hello, bitter much? And way too maudlin, even for this.

"Hey, Buffy...."

She stood straighter, ready for anything. Last time she'd let him surprise her... well, it'd ended up with her in tears and her world tilted upside down. But he said nothing and, with the clarity of months spent at his side, Buffy understood he really had nothing to say. Why he'd come, she couldn't tell. Maybe to try to make his peace with her, maybe just to look at her closely (wishful thinking kept her sane these days), maybe to make sure she didn't hate him.

Which she did not. She was just mad at him for pushing her away.

But right now he still wouldn't look at her in the eye. And the expression he was wearing, Buffy knew it. It was the same he had in long Scooby meetings, when the strategizing had given way to friendly chatting. Then he'd get this same look, the one that spoke of his eagerness to leave and his inability to find a good excuse.

So, he wanted to leave?

Buffy shoved her hands into her pockets, deciding to wait him out. She hadn't asked for this meeting. If he wanted to talk, he could. If he wanted out, he could do that too. But she wasn't giving him an out. As the dumper, Angel now got to deal with the awkwardness between them. And as the dumpee, Buffy got a sick enjoyment from his plight.

Yes, she was being evil and heartless and a total bitch. Better than anyone else, she knew how uneasy Angel felt in normal social situations.

Was chatting with an ex-girlfriend a normal social situation? Maybe not.

Did she care? Definitely not.

Her inner Cordelia pushed mopey Buffy out of the way, brought out her pom-poms and smirked snidely at the helpless male in front of her.

Buffy smirked, too, thinking that another prerogative as the dumpee was to walk away and leave Angel with no one to speak to but himself. But, really, it'd been ten days since she'd last seen him. Underneath her anger, she still loved him and couldn't get enough of him.

Angel pulled himself together quickly. She noticed it in the slight straightening of his spine, as if readying for battle. The set of his jaw was obvious, too - typical argumentative Angel.

He was taking the challenge offered by her smirk and wouldn't leave the arena.

Just then, Buffy realized she'd expected him to quail and go away without a word. But Angel wasn't Xander in a snit with Cordelia. He wasn't like anybody else. He wasn't even like the Angel of two years ago who lurked in shadows and returned to them whenever life pressed him too hard.

He had changed. Their relationship had changed him. In an unexpected flash of insight, Buffy wondered how much it had changed her.

"Stop with the games, Buffy," he said in earnest, "You have to be careful. This peace, this silence isn't natural. There must be evil coming."

Buffy blinked.

Then she laughed. She had to laugh. "The more it changes," she murmured, ignoring Angel's confused face. She shrugged. "Nice to know dire warnings are still on the menu." And the worst part? It was nice, in a life-threateningly sweet kind of way. To know he still cared. To know he'd look her up even when she was acting like a spoiled child.

She wasn't surprised when he read her thoughts.

"I can't stop looking out for you," he said.

His soft admission almost brought her to tears. Again. She refused to cry in front of him twice in one night. She stomped on her sadness and... "Got any crosses to go with your warning?" ...let out the first words that came to mind.

She wanted to bite her tongue as soon as the words were out. "Wouldn't want to lose your trademark, would you?" she continued, almost meekly. She felt as if the silver cross against her skin, the one she hid under her clothes every morning, was burning her. Yes, she was pathetic and she knew it. He lowered his eyes for a quick inspection of her shoulders. With a doomed feeling, she knew that he'd recognize the thin chain peeking out.

He did.

His shoulders slumped almost apologetically. "Buffy." He looked away again.

Awkward Meeting, part two. Buffy fisted her hands nervously, glad that they were hidden in her pockets. No big deal, she reassured herself. It was no secret that she still loved him. Just as she knew that he loved her, sewers and freak shows notwithstanding.

But Angel wanted the best for her, just like her friends. And she was furious at all of them for it.

He finally settled the saddest gaze on her, and Buffy knew that he'd really try to apologize. To explain. To convince her of the wonderful life she'd lead as a single Slayer. Right. "Look, Angel," she stopped him. "I already know something's up, okay? Wesley won't stop muttering about this 'unnatural hush in the underworld' and he has everybody checking and reading and referencing."

"Something turned up?"

Buffy shrugged. "Nope." This was easier. Teammates analyzing a situation; she could do this and apparently so could he. "But there's been no demons and few vampires. It smells of Apocalypse a mile away." She started pacing, three steps to the right, and three to the left. A habit she'd picked up from him, back when three steps were as much as his tiny apartment allowed. "Or the Mayor's hands are on this."

"Would he have enough influence?"

Good question. "He's planning to take over the world," Buffy reflected. "Even the rowdiest demon would play nice for a chance to stay on his good side."

"Demons are competitive," Angel reminded her, "especially about controlling the Hellmouth. They'd rather try to take him down than allow him to come into power."

Buffy nodded. That did make sense. "Then what?" Her friends were helpless evaluating a demon's motives beyond 'Killkillkill!' Even Wesley's ideas, trained Watcher that he was, were so deep inside his little Watcherly box that Buffy sometimes was tempted to shut the lid and ignore him completely. Only Angel realized that some demons, just like some humans, had layers under layers and it was important to discover them if you wanted to save the world.

"It could be Trick all over again, but in a larger scale," he said.

"Of course it's a trick!"

Angel raised an eyebrow, not quite smiling but Buffy just knew she'd made a fool out of herself. She narrowed her eyes, wordlessly telling him to start explaining. Not a mind-reader here!

"I meant Trick, the vampire on Wilkins' payroll from a couple months ago."

Oh, that Trick. "You mean demons vying to be the Mayor's right hand?" She tried to picture it and failed. Wilkins was, for lack of a better word, picky. He'd never let all the rabble of the Hellmouth help him. No, there had to be another reason for this quiet, and she told Angel so.

"What if he killed them?" he asked.

"The demons?"

Angel nodded. "He gets rid of all possible competition. If he called in a Slayer hunting party, I don't see why he wouldn't try this."

"All the demons?" Buffy took a second to enjoy the idea of a demonless Sunnydale. Then she shook her head. "It's too much. Not in a week; it's just not possible."

Angel shrugged, finally out of ideas.

"What if he's gathering his army?" The idea froze her even as she spoke. "He could be laying low until the big day comes, whenever that is."

"Possible." Now he was the one pacing.

Buffy found it oddly comforting. Angel was still Angel, pacing with a tense look on his face and his hands behind his back. Angel would fight with her if she asked, no doubt about it. "I miss this," she blurted out.

He stopped mid-movement.

Oh well. In for a penny, in for a pound. "I miss you, Angel." There, she'd said it aloud. And she clamped on the urge to run away as soon as the words were out. Instead she stepped toward him, locking their eyes together. She didn't need words to dare him to look away again.

He didn't need words to say he missed her, too.

Then why was he still a step away? "You know, you are right." She'd break her own heart with this confession. She hoped his broke, too. "I can be happy with someone else. I mean, I can't imagine it right now and I don't particularly want to, but who cares, huh?" He opened his mouth, but she wouldn't let him speak. He'd said enough already. "Let's face it, Angel. I can be happy on my own, too. I'm not some helpless heroine in a romance novel." She smiled a little at the idea. "But it just happens that I love you. I love you more than I can handle. Loving you is wonderful and awful and worth every second of it. But you're not perfect, you're not prince charming and there's so many misunderstandings between us I'm still amazed we made it this long." He looked... resigned. Damn it, wasn't he listening? "I love you, you moron. Get that through your brain. Just because we don't fit seamlessly together, doesn't mean we weren't wonderful. I was willing to make it work, Angel. I wanted to take the pieces of us, as malfunctional as we could get, and love you forever. I just wasn't expecting you to get lazy on me." Now he was shocked. Not good enough, but better than resignation. "Weren't we worth the work?"

"It's not that."

"Than what was it?"

Stubborn silence.

"Angel?"

He shook his head. "It's not that," he repeated. "Never that. It's just," He looked at her as if he wanted to devour her. Why wasn't he? "You are worth better things, Buffy."

"Loneliness? Anger? No date for the prom?" She enumerated. "Yes, I see how those are better things."

"You know it couldn't go on," he sighed.

Buffy was surprised by that. "I do?"

"Sunlight," the word was a growl, as if the sound of it burned his insides, as if she should stop playing the fool.

"Sunlight," she repeated, more at a loss than ever. Was he playing with her?

"For goodness sake, Buffy." His tone was colorless, as if he'd spent great lengths of time musing on these same thoughts and the words he'd say were just the ones going through his head again and again, "You are scooped up in school all morning, then you come to sleep at the mansion and go out after sundown." He raised his hands and pointed at her. "Look at you, as pale as a vampire. Am I supposed to ignore that?"

"So it was the skin tone?" She knew it wasn't. She knew that Angel implied more important matters in a simple one. "Out for a nicely bronzed Californian girl already? Geez, Angel, you should have told me you had a fetish." But she wanted to attack him, bruise him in any way. For ten days she'd lashed out at the entire world, and now that she finally faced the actual guilty party, Buffy wanted to get even. Besides, if Angel wasn't addressing the real problem (Sunlight. Uh-huh. They'd covered that after James and Miss Newman.), why should she? "Or better yet, why don't I introduce you to Harmony? I'm starting to think you are made for each other."

It hurt her to say it.

It hurt him to hear it.

Buffy was glad.

"I don't want anyone else!"

It would be appropriate to accompany that declaration with a violent shake to her shoulders, letting her know how much he meant it. Maybe he should even bring her towards him, press her against his chest fiercely to show that he wanted her. There should be a kiss, definitely, an unending kiss that spoke of his commitment and his inability to send her away ever again....

Had she mentioned how wishful thinking kept her sane?

"Duly noted, Angel." She was suddenly so tired. He looked as frustrated as she felt, and with good reason. They'd spent the last hour talking in circles, as if either of them would change their minds so easily. That had usually been a blessing, Buffy thought, since their positions had coincided more often than not. Right now, though, she barely kept himself from screaming at him to see her perspective like she did with Wesley. What was the point? "And with that enlightening piece of wisdom, I declare this very awkward, very unoriginal conversation over. Thanks for the insights into whatever is keeping evil demons at home, though. I'll make sure to pass them on to Wes."

He searched her eyes. Buffy didn't know what he'd find in them. Another plea to come back? Anger at his stubbornness? Understanding despite his mistake? Buffy only knew that she hated being this deeply in love, and that she'd cry as soon as he left.

Maybe it was that what Angel read in her look. He nodded curtly, no goodbye, no requests to accept their break up. He wouldn't follow her anymore tonight, that's what she understood in a glance.

Angel walked past her without a word, and only as his footsteps faded away did Buffy step forward.

Angel ran faster as the sounds of the fight suddenly stopped. He'd picked on Oz's scream for help five blocks away and he was afraid he'd be too late. Even as a werewolf, Oz was as helpless as any teenager boy unless he transformed. No training session would help him for long if he was alone.

Soon enough he spotted the tangle of limbs that were vampire and victim in a war as old as time. He rushed to cover Oz, cursing having lost his stake in a previous fight. When the smell of blood hit him, Angel spared a worried glance past his shoulder. The boy was awake, at least. Hopefully the wound wasn't serious. Buffy would never forgive him if her friend was hurt under his watch, not that she didn't have enough ammo against him already. Their meeting two nights ago had truly shaken him. Buffy was supposed to be thriving in his absence; everybody from Wesley to the Mayor to Joyce had implied as much, that Buffy would fit into the normal world as soon as her paranormal boyfriend left the scene.

Then why did she look so haunted?

Somewhere during that last thought, his face had given into the demon's features. The vampire before him took an insecure step back, obviously unsettled by the nature of his enemy.

Angel used the pause to his advantage. A smirk escaped him, even without a stake or a sword. He tackled the vampire to the ground, caught his head between his hands and twisted.

Three seconds later, he stood up dusting his clothes. He checked around for another vampire, but the dry spell was holding out. This was only the fourth demon he'd found in a week, and the fact still niggled at him. He shook his head, willing humanity's mask back, and turned around to check on Oz.

Oz was still conscious, sitting on the sidewalk even if he supported most of his weight on his arms. Angel quickly pinpointed the source of the blood, a long gash alongside his hairline. The boy's eyes looked upwards, and Angel correctly guessed that he was trying to assess the damage. "It's not serious," he reassured.

Oz nodded. "Think Willow will go for the bald look?"

Give him power-crazy Mayors and unsettling meeting with an ex girlfriend any day. He'd never understand Buffy's friends, especially this young guitarist. "Come again?"

"He licked it." Oz grabbed his red hair. Even under the dim light, Angel noticed the darker stains on it. "Blood was fine; it was mine." The boy looked mournful. "I don't think I can handle a dead man's saliva. No offense."

"None taken," he answered automatically. Inwardly, he wondered what Oz had thought when he and Buffy kissed. "Where's the van?" After too many close brushes against death, deep puncture wounds and sprained ankles, there was an impressive first-aid kit in Oz's van. The only ones who complained were the Dingoes other players, put off because they rode in an even more cramped space now.

"In front of Caesar’s." Angel nodded and easily caught the keys Oz threw at him. Caesar’s. He actually knew the place. He'd picked up Buffy from it a couple weeks ago. It was one of Willow's favorite places and the girls had been enjoying a milkshake when he arrived. "It's that way," Oz pointed to his right.

"I know," Angel grumbled. He sighed as he set off. Why did everything come back to Buffy these days? "Take it easy," he threw over his shoulder, aware that Oz would try to get to his feet in his absence despite his pain. Buffy's friends were like that, stubborn to the end.

He retrieved the kit as quickly as possible, hurrying back to Oz. Of course, the boy was already standing by his return. Leaning fully against the wall, sure, but still standing.

Angel set to clean the wound, applying the antibiotic cream carefully after he'd wiped the remnants of blood away. All the time, he carefully ignored Oz's searching eyes.

"You took that vamp's head with your hands," the boy finally commented, a hint of surprise peeking through his usual impassive voice.

"You're welcome."

A simple flicker in those green eyes informed Angel that he'd missed the point. A mile away. He had the sneaking suspicion that Oz was tempted to laugh. Maybe even snicker.

"And you wonder why there's no demons about?" In the end, Oz allowed himself an indulgent smile. "Did you know there was a Forphrous demon in the mall district?"

Angel shook his head, unable to see the humor in that. While not particularly dangerous, Forphrous had the advantage of a heavy bulk and sharp claws.

"Buffy beat it to a pulp. Literally."

Pride was the first reaction. Worry came after a long moment. He'd seen Buffy fight, and while she was naturally able to defeat any demon in hand-to-hand combat, she usually didn't have the stomach for it. "Oh?"

"Willow is right." Whatever Willow was right about would forever remain a secret between her and her boyfriend. "Buffy's taking out demons twice her size. You just took a vampire's head. Elemental."

Elemental? Angel felt like a slow child trying to connect the dots.

Oz's voice conveyed the same thought. "You are scary," he said very slowly. "Scarier, actually. Demons are thinking twice before venturing out to the streets while you two are like this."

Angel stared at the werewolf. One, that was the longest sentence he'd heard from Oz since the last Apocalypse. Two, he must have hurt his head pretty badly. "Demons don't care about my love life," he said as he looked for something to help the disoriented boy. Acetaminophen was the strongest drug, and Oz dutifully dry-swallowed it.

"Thank you," Oz said, apparently back to his monosyllabic self.

Angel nodded and latched the kit closed. "It's okay." There was little else to say. Things were (had been?) friendly between Buffy's friends and him, but he couldn't claim real friendship with any of them. He hadn't even spoken to the teenagers for almost two weeks; if Oz hadn't been in danger tonight, Angel would have been happy to keep watching them from afar. "You shouldn't be out by yourself so late."

"Last minute change." Oz shrugged. "Xander was supposed to come with me; but he was sent to patrol instead."

Angel nodded noncommittally, secretly glad that Wesley was finally making sure Buffy didn't work alone all night. "You need help to get back to your van?" he asked even as he tucked the first-aid kit under one arm and cautiously placed the other around Oz's midsection for support.

"I need help to drive, man."

"Might as well." Angel dangled the keys in his grasp. "I've already got these."

Oz eyed him warily.

Angel sighed. "I did not teach Buffy to drive."

"You should." Angel tensed involuntarily. Oz blinked at his faux pas. "Vamp hit hard," he commented, shaking his head as if to dispel any remaining dizziness. "These days Buffy's more likely to bite your head off than to take driving lessons."

Angel kept silent.

Driving lessons? They'd tried once; and more than crazy gypsies and the Master put together, Buffy's 'skill' at the wheel had made him fear for his very unlife. Between almost hitting a fence and going into the sidewalk for the fifth time, he'd lost his patience. And he hadn't expressed his opinion in the best manner, if his girlfriend's refusal to talk to him for three days had been any clue. The next time he saw her, he'd apologized and she'd announced she was taking classes. A few times after that, they'd even laughed at the instructor's apparent terror of her. 'I didn't want to speed. The brake just wouldn't work properly! He could almost see her pout....

Angel shook the memory away. It was neither now nor here. He paused when he felt Oz falter slightly. The boy touched his head gingerly, opening his mouth in a soundless groan at the pain. "I don't think I'll go on patrol tomorrow."

"I'm sure Wesley will understand."

Oz looked at him strangely. "Wesley?"

"Buffy's Watcher? The one who sent Xander to patrol tonight?"

"Wesley!" Oz laughed this time. "We're under Willow's orders, man. And she's a hard taskmistress; she has a schedule for us and everything." He sounded pleased at the idea. "Just yesterday she decided Buffy shouldn't need to patrol alone, with you gone and all."

'I'm not gone,' Angel wanted to protest. Right before realizing that 'gone' was a synonym for 'ex'. He liked this break up idea less with every passing day. Buffy wasn't happier. Buffy's best friend sent buffers to patrol a day after their last conversation, and what were the chances that it was only a coincidence? "Willow is a good friend," he said at last.

Oz smiled.

Angel eyed that smile enviously. Boy had it bad, he thought.

The smile sobered without a warning. "I think about leaving Will every day."

Angel's brow shot up. He wasn't sure if he was more surprised at Oz confiding in him, or at the confidence itself. The hit to his head must have been bad indeed.

"I don't want to leave her. I'm not a fool." He looked heavenward. "But I am a werewolf," he whispered it, even if the streets were empty around them. "All her magic can't change me; and as useful as Wesley's books usually are, none of them say a word about controlling it. Think about it - I'm a beast three nights every month. I can't even get the movies version and change for one night only. And you think you have it bad? Try losing control of your body and becoming a threat to your girlfriend."

Angel was changing his mind by the second. Oz was fine. Oz was perfectly fine. In fact, Angel started to believe he was getting the earful none of the Scoobies had gotten to give him. Until now.

"And it's not that I think she'd mourn long for me." He chuckled. "Will's perfect. She's funny and sweet and iron-strong under all that." Angel had never thought he'd hear Oz pour his heart out. "There'd be a line of non-werewolf, non-guitarist - Willow's parents really dislike that bit - guys at her doorstep before I so much as climb back into my van. Sooner or later some lucky guy would win her heart." Oz furrowed his brow tightly, obvious displeased at the mere idea.

Angel sympathized.

"But again," and here Oz's voice perked up again. "I'm not a fool."

Angel spared the boy a glare, but he was ignored. He thought of the ridiculousness of his situation. An eighteen-year-old werewolf thought it fit to underhandedly berate a vampire a dozen times older. And he was right.

He was glad when they finally reached the van and quickly opened the passenger door. After helping Oz into the seat, he rounded the front as slowly as he dared, sure that he'd be subjected to Oz's brand of Scooby disapproval as soon as he sat at the wheel.

He wished ignoring Buffy's friends was as simple as being ignored by them.

"You got out easy, Angel."

Despite himself, he turned around. "Easy?" he snorted.

Oz raised an eyebrow. "Willow would turn me into a rat if I dared break up with her this close to the Prom." He shrugged. "Looks like it's a big deal for the girls. And in a sewer, too. Harsh."

"But you won't break up with her." Might as well go directly to the point. "Because you are not a fool."

Oz flashed him a grin, obviously please that he'd gotten the idea.

Neither spoke as Angel drove, but apparently Oz had saved his best shot for the last. He waited until the van was parked. "Any advice?" Angel handed him his keys back, raising a quizzical eyebrow when their eyes met. "Leaving Willow, from one who's on the other side of the fence. Should I do it?"

No!, was his gut response. Yes, if he hoped to sound rational. In the end he gave no answer, aware that neither option was right. Instead he left the van and went to help Oz do the same. Thankfully the boy didn't comment as they walked to his front door. In complete silence, Angel helped Oz onto his couch, gave him some extra pills and made sure he had a glass of water at hand. He also looked for the worn guitar and placed it against the couch's arm.

"Thank you," Oz said.

"No problem."

Obviously, the Scoobies had gotten a taste for perfect timing. Angel had just opened the door when Oz's voice reached him. "She'd forgive you, you know?"

There was no need to specify who she was. "For being a fool?" Angel chuckled darkly.

"No." Oz sighed. "For being a hypocrite."

Xander rubbed his shoulder surreptitiously when Buffy faced away from him. He could have listened to her and let her carry her own weapons bag - it wasn't as if her muscles would protest - but Xander was an old-fashioned guy. He opened doors, carved stakes and posed as bait when Buffy needed to flush out some demon. Super Xander, the sidekick version! - That was him.

And what did he get in thanks?

One of his best buddies looking away every two seconds - which was good for his poor shoulder, but not for his ego.

"So. Um. You and Broody Guy still on a break?"

Mission accomplished. Buffy's gaze returned to him. Xander gulped; now he wished no glares were included in the package.

Yep, he was suicidal. Why hadn't he noticed before?

Thankfully Buffy didn't do more than glare. "On a break? Watching Friends behind our backs again?"

Xander promised himself a good half an hour laughing at the idea of Angel as Ross. He shrugged. "I was bored. And you," He pointed at his friend and tutted, "are avoid-y."

Buffy pursed her lips and put her arms akimbo. "And you are nosy."

Xander sighed. "Look, I'm being a good friend here. I ask, you rant. I commiserate and hopefully I squeeze in a couple sharp words about Angel and hopefully don't get skinned in the process. My sympathy-meter is on max, Buffster. Now you come and cry on my shoulder, get with the program!"

That got him a laugh. "I'd never skin you, Xand. What's up with you channeling Willow?"

'A-void-y!' his look told her, but he still answered, "Can't I be a good girl-buddy once in a while?"

Buffy just stared.

Okay, so Willow had a Plan. That plan's goal was to make Buffy talk about her feelings and, with some luck, help her to get back to her usual self instead of - as his girlfriend had subtly called it - the RoboBuffy they'd had to deal with for the last twelve days. Willow's idea included, but was not limited to, patrolling with Buffy, having lunch with Buffy, 'uncoupling' when Buffy was close and, of course, visiting the Summers' household as much as politely acceptable. Xander thought it was a sound plan with only one minor flaw: Buffy didn't want to talk.

Since he couldn't very well tell her about The Plan, Xander chose option two. "Come on. Not one vamp has shown up tonight. I'm bored; you're bored. We might as well diss your ex while we are at it." When he noticed Buffy's amused expression deflate, Xander back-pedaled. "Or I can diss while you nod at the appropriate places. Or... or..." Way to go, dumbass. "Wanna quiz me on History?" he ended lamely.

Buffy heaved a big sigh. "Sorry, Xander. School thoughts are the last thing I need tonight." She turned her back on him and kept walking.

Xander took the chance to rub his weary shoulder again and followed after her. He shook his head at himself. Now he wished Buffy was thinking school thoughts; but from the expression she'd had before she turned around.... He knew Angel-face when he saw it, and he didn't like it.

He was supposed to cheer her up. And he'd gone and tried it by mentioning Mr. Scourge himself.

Yep, suicidal indeed.

Oh no, he needn't worry about Buffy skinning him; Willow would be glad to do it once she found out how spectacularly he'd messed up tonight.

He knew he should've stuck with Oz tonight.

It'd been two weeks since any visitors had come to the mansion. Therefore Angel was reasonably surprised when there was a knock at the door, and properly shocked when he found Buffy's best friend on the other side. "Willow." Was Buffy alright? Had something happened? He quickly brushed away those thoughts; they'd have called him if there was an emergency, not taken the time to go across town.

Then it was personal. Angel was afraid he knew what Willow's personal business was, and it wouldn't be pleasant.

Indeed, instead of her usual smile, the redhead greeted him with her most serious expression. "I want a minute with you." She didn't wait for his answer, just walked into his house without his invitation.

Angel closed his eyes, sighed deeply and went after her. Buffy couldn't have sent her, he reasoned. Just as she hadn't sent Oz into that thorny meeting three nights ago. He wondered inanely when Xander and Cordelia's turn would come. This was a serious case of Slayerette loyalty, and he was being offered a free show. Right now the most loyal of them was willingly - and quite willfully - entering the proverbial lion's den in the Slayer's defense.

Angel told himself to cut Willow some slack. Whatever the girl said would only be for Buffy's sake. He politely motioned to the couch, but Willow glanced at him stubbornly and without further ceremony proceeded to show him the true wrath of a best friend: "Buffy's miserable. And angry. And touchy. And it's all your fault." She emphatized that last part with a pointing finger, as if he really needed it.

"Willow..." he tried.

She didn't pay him any attention. "You know I failed History today?"

At a loss at the non-sequitur, Angel just shook his head.

"I did!" Her arms went akimbo at her waist. "I don't need this, Angel. It's my senior year and I've got enough problems at home with my decision to go to UC Sunnydale; I can't add bad grades as well. Dad is going to go ballistic, and Mom... goddess!" She scowled at him.

He had the feeling Willow was holding him personally responsible for that, too. "I'm... sorry?"

"You should be!" She threw her hands up in the air. "I would have had time to study the Franco-Prussian War if Buffy hadn't needed me so much. And Buffy wouldn't have needed me at all if you weren't such an egocentric, inconsiderate, sewer-loving moron!"

Now, he wasn't about to be insulted under his own roof. "Watch your words, Willow."

A murderous look answered him. "I am." She put her fingers to her temple in a rounding motion. Then she let out a long breath. "You didn't see me when Mr. Caprivy gave me my test. I had to do some meditation with Oz before coming or you'd be ash already. In fact," Willow considered, "I think he proposed it more for your benefit than mine. Did you bribe my boyfriend?"

Angel didn't deign that with an answer.

"Because I don't think I want Oz spending time with you. He might get weird ideas."

He was tiring quickly of this interview (intervention?). He knew why Willow had come to the mansion. Why not get straight to the point? "Like doing what's best for his girlfriend?"

Willow cocked an eyebrow. "Like playing the all-knowing fool."

Somewhere in the last two weeks, Angel had lost the will to fight that particular term. He'd thought he knew better, he'd thought Buffy would be better off without him.

He'd thought wrong.

"Look," Willow continued. "I know you can't be happy and enjoy it. You're all about the guilt and the angst; you've made that painfully obvious to everyone." She gave a small eyeroll. "Understandable, a century of death and yadda, yadda, yadda. Even Miss Calendar is getting sick of hearing about it. Normally I feel for you. Really. Lately? Not so much, but I'm the best friend so I got the right to hate your guts."

Angel wondered why he appreciated her raw honesty more than the meek, stilted conversations after Giles' death, when everybody else had looked at him accusingly. Maybe that honesty was why Willow stayed Buffy's best friend.

"And maybe you're right and Buffy will find that perfect other half and live happily ever after, or whatever your self-righteous delusions are telling you." She shrugged. "I mean, she does deserve something better than someone who'd dump her right when she's most worried about the Mayor and everything. Not to mention the biggest dance in high school life coming up. And dumping her in a sewer, of all things."

Would they ever get over the sewer thing? It wasn't as if he'd chosen it.

"But Buffy doesn't think so." Willow frowned at what she obviously thought was Buffy's weakness. "And if you'd stopped your 'woe is me' parade and listened for a second, you'd have seen she was right. Buffy needs a boyfriend who loves her, not a keeper who'll confine her. She definitely doesn't need a guy who's only thinking of his vision of the future, as if she didn't have her own doubts!"

"It was never about me!" he protested.

Willow tilted her head. "Wasn't it?"

Angel felt as if the words came by rote. "I wanted what's best for her."

"A normal life?" Was that sadness in her eyes?

He nodded.

"Angel, Buffy will never have a normal life. I don't have a normal life, and I'm only her witchy confidante." She took a look at his suddenly sober face and kept on, "It's not that we don't try to do the 'normal' thing. And usually we like behaving like typical girls, carefree and lighthearted. Even now, we are trying. I tell her men are evil; she agrees. She pauses at the sight of any guy in a leather jacket; I distract her. Because that's what normal best friends do." She lifted her shoulders. "And then we go save the world."

"Willow." He sat on the couch heavily. "Please tell me what you want."

The redhead glowered down at him. "Buffy and I went shopping yesterday," she said, a false cheer to her voice. "Dresses. It was supposed to be a big thing, because what's a big dance without the right dress?"

Angel supposed he was safe if he nodded.

He was wrong.

"I'm so mad at you." She even stomped her foot on the floor. "Buffy and I don't get to do the girlfriendly thing often. Carve stakes?" She raised a finger. "Check. Research demons?" Another finger went up. "Check. Practice new spells and some fighting moves? Check and check. That is not girly."

"And shopping is." Maybe speaking at this juncture was dangerous, but wasn't he supposed to be a fearless vampire?

Thankfully Willow merely nodded at the interruption. "Exactly! But thanks to a certain pig-head, thinks-he-knows-better-than-us vampire, Buffy's heart wasn't in it!"

Angel sighed. "Willow, she'll get over it." Over me, he thought. It hurt. "Nothing lasts forever."

"I know."

He was surprised.

"What?" She chuckled humorlessly. "You thought she'd pine for you forever? I told you, Angel. She can be happy with someone else; heck, given enough time Buffy will be perfectly happy by herself."

In Willow's words, Angel heard the echo of Buffy's. Just how much did those two share in their conversations? He'd never wanted to know when he'd been Buffy's boyfriend, and this was only confirmation that he'd been right. "I've heard that before."

"You have?" Her eyebrows knit together. "And there I thought it'd be a revolutionary thought for you."

Angel stared at her for a long moment. Then he sighed. Again, he'd been wrong. Lately he was discovering he'd made many assumptions about Buffy and few of them had been right. It was not a comfortable feeling.

"Whatever." She waved his comment away. "Do you know what makes me the angriest?"

"That I'm an insensitive jerk?" That was supposed to be sarcastic, but even to him it sounded more like a statement of fact.

Willow shook her head. "Close." Unexpectedly, she sat down beside him, elbows on her knees as she buried her face into her hands. Angel suddenly remembered the girl from two years ago, always unwilling to share bad news. "I'm angriest at myself," she confessed.

Two hundred forty three years, Angel mused, and he still didn't have any inkling into a female mind. "Excuse me?"

"Sad, huh?" Willow was still looking at the floor when she spoke. "I can't help Buffy. No matter how hard I try, she's always two steps ahead of me. Do you know how difficult it is to be a Slayer's friend?"

"Vampire here," he reminded her.

She managed to glare at him from the corner of her eye. "You're in love with her. It doesn't count." She let out a big sigh. "I don't get Buffy. She's the Slayer and I'm not, that's that. It used to be okay. You were there for her and I could trust you." Her eyes rolled briefly. "Silly me. Now I don't know what to do. How do you counsel a Slayer about an upcoming Apocalypse? How do you make sure she doesn't stretch herself thin? How do you not sound like a stuffy Watcher while you're at it?" Suddenly, she was glancing at him expectantly.

To him, the answer was simple: by loving her. But that wasn't what Willow was looking for. She already knew that part. "I'll never stop helping her," he vowed.

She shook her head. "Sure, leave her but follow her around every night. Are you familiar with the term 'mixed signals'?"

He nodded. Buffy had used it a lot during the time Oz was pursuing Willow but was disconcerted by her obvious attachment to Xander.

"Then stop sending them! You're not giving her a fair chance to get over you."

"Should I leave?" He'd thought about it before, but the mere thought had driven him to sleepless nights. Leave Sunnydale? He didn't see how he'd ever get far enough to stop thinking of her. But maybe Willow was right; he was a self-centered bastard (not that the redhead would ever use that word). He should think of Buffy's needs.

"Remind me why I can't hex you?" Willow wondered aloud. "Oh yes, because Buffy forbade it." She gave him a pointed stare. "Are you crazy? It's hard enough to convince her you're safe while you are in Sunnydale. You step one foot out of town and she'll have me place a permanent tracking spell on you. Do you even know how tiring those are?"

"Uh...." Note to self: don't leave town. "No?"

Willow shook her head. "Look, I'm not here to give you the third degree."

Angel cocked an eyebrow.

She had the grace to blush. "Well, I got a little sidetracked there but you totally deserved it. I got a D because of you. A D!"

He didn't even bother to defend himself.

"I realized something earlier while I was meditating, the one thing Buffy is too proud to tell you: She does need you, more than she'll ever realize. You make her better, Angel."

Angel thought of the girl he'd met years ago in a side alley. Then he remembered the sad girl in the graveyard, only four nights ago. Yes, he could see how much better she was.

And that was sarcasm.

"Wesley can teach her new fighting techniques," he said. Because her fighting techniques were the only improvement he could think of.

Willow jumped to her feet and was making her best attempt to tower over him before he'd finished the sentence. "Know what? You're right! This is the best for Buffy and I can't wait until she sees that."

At such a turnabout, Angel could only let out a frustrated, "What now?"

She was already gripping the door's handle when she answered. Perfect timing again, Angel thought crazily. "I wasn't talking about her skills, you idiot!"

He didn't flinch as the door slammed close. Not her skills? That only left... personality, temperament, Buffy's spirit and singularities. All those things that made up Buffy's essence.

He sank further into the couch and stared at the ceiling.

"Oh."

Angel felt so tempted to punch through the table. This was useless. Useless! Since they'd found out Wilkins' involvement in demonic activity, he'd researched tirelessly on his own. Regular visits to Willie's that had only resulted in confirmation of the Mayor's invulnerability. As he'd told Buffy, demons would rather have him dead than lording over them; stories about how Wilkins always came out unscathed were the latest trend at Willie's. Angel had also looked high and low for 'lost' books. Just like the Codex, there were others out of the Council's reach - and in Angel's opinion, it was better that way.

He didn't trust the Council; he could not trust an association that blindly placed their standards above a Slayer's abilities, and that'd been before Buffy's last birthday. Now he'd rather avoid them altogether, but Wesley was slowly learning to fill Giles' shoes, and who was he to deny the man a second chance?

Which was why, after finally reaching the end of his sources, Angel had phoned Wesley earlier tonight and called up a meeting. Three hours later, he was seriously considering property damage. It was too frustrating; he'd just gone through the Watcher's notes, he'd checked them against the books and compared them to his own findings.

Nothing.

How was it possible that nothing turned up?

"We must be missing something," he sighed. He propped an elbow on the table and massaged his temple. Across the table, Wesley lifted his shoulders. Angel gave the other man a long, considering glance. Wesley had been too quiet tonight. Where the young Watcher would usually point out any feasible flaw in Angel's reasoning and enthusiastically present his own conclusions, this time he'd limited himself to hand in his notebook, point Angel to a chair and work wordlessly in his own half of the library.

There had been no invitation for tea, not even out of sheer politeness. No prodding to reveal the origin of Angel's rare texts. Not one attempt to debrief him about the demons he'd slain - that, Angel reasoned, could be because there were still no demons to slay.

It was as if they'd gone back to the time where Wesley was Giles' bitterly welcomed replacement, and Angel was under the Council's suspicion for the Watcher's death. To make matters worse, now Angel didn't have a girlfriend to smooth the situation - okay, Buffy didn't have the slightest idea how to smooth any situation, but she'd been great at redirecting Wesley's focus to her and her alone. "Okay, so I put my thumb here and... my left hand like this?" "No! Miss Summers, you've been the Slayer for years, you should be able to handle a sword in your sleep." Angel still remembered how Buffy had rolled her eyes behind Wesley's back.

But they'd worked past that, and if Wesley couldn't act as efficiently as Giles had, Angel felt it was unfair to compare both men. Wesley did have his own good points; for one, he was less prone to keep secrets, which would hopefully lead him to a longer life on the Hellmouth. Secondly, being closer in age to Buffy and her friends, he'd unwittingly fell in more like a comrade than to Giles' leadership role. That had strengthened Buffy's self-reliance, since she was now the one with the last say on any move - and that, in Angel's opinion, was like things should work. Slayers were born to lead, and if he understood too well that Giles had only been trying to protect her, he was secretly glad that she'd been forced into her legitimate role by Wesley's hesitancy.

Right now, though, Wesley looked very unhesitant at ignoring him. Angel shrugged, going back to his reading, but after another half an hour it was obvious he was going nowhere. "Is there no other book?" he asked loudly.

A thick tome landed inches away from his hand.

Angel raised his head, staring incredulously at the Watcher; but the man was bent over his own book and offered no sign of acknowledgement. He could have believed that Wesley was simply too distracted by his own research to pass the book properly, if Wesley had ever been anything but proper with his precious books. "Wesley?" He raised his voice when the Watcher didn't answer. "Wesley!"

The other man sighed as he looked back at Angel. "Found anything?"

"You know I didn't." Angel tried to remember if he'd done anything to earn this. Nothing came to mind. He and Wesley weren't friends, but lately a grudging respect had developed. Last time he'd come to the library to conference with the Watcher had been an amiable experience, a polite exchange of information with no hint of this animosity. And that'd only been three weeks ago; he remembered because Buffy had come back early from patrol and he'd walked her home. Three weeks. What could have happened between then and n---? No. Angel scrutinized Wesley's expression: unfriendly and stubborn, a mirror of the expression in any Slayerette in the last seventeen days. Angel now had the sinking feeling he knew where the attitude was coming from. "Is this," he waved his hand between the two of them, "because of Buffy and me?"

Wesley held his look. "I don't understand." But the nervous movement as he reached up to tweak his earlobe gave him away.

Angel couldn't believe it. "Wesley, you never liked that Buffy and I were together," he tried to reason. "Of all people, you can't possible think I was wrong."

"I don't."

Strangely, Angel wasn't relieved.

Wesley pushed his chair backwards and stood up. He walked to his office and when he came back he had two pieces of wood in his hands. A broken quarterstaff, Angel noted. Wesley put both pieces on the table, right in front of him, and silently went back to the office. This time, he held a small book which he showed to Angel. "Do you know what this is?"

Angel easily read the front, "A Watcher's Diary."

"It's my fourth one." Wesley placed it carefully next to the quarterstaff. "The average Slayer never makes it to a third Diary. Mr. Giles left seven of them in his house, plus the one he was working on by the time of his death, it makes eight. Mr. Merrick, for obvious reasons, only wrote one. Altogether thirteen, that's impressive."

Angel nodded. Impressive, yes; Buffy was that and more. But what was the point?

"And then something like that happens." Wesley pointed to the table.

Angel followed his finger to the wooden pieces. "A quarterstaff breaks?" he asked, at a complete loss.

Wesley shook his head. "Not breaks, is broken. On a whim. A Slayer doesn't only need strength for her survival; she needs to control that strength carefully. Imagine this - a Slayer who'd give into her impulses, who'd use her skills for her own gain. Tell me how she'd be different from the very things she's supposed to fight."

"Buffy'd never---!"

"I know," Wesley interrupted him. "I don't think it'd get that far either. But it worries me that I never needed to wonder. And now I do."

Angel passed his hand through his hair. "I don't control who Buffy chooses to be. I never did."

Wesley smiled patronizingly. "But you make the choice easier. She's a girl in love, Angel; where you go, she'll follow. Or should I say, she used to follow?"

Angel glared.

"I won't lie. Indeed, I felt relieved when I heard news of the break up. I even ignored some minor transgressions, aware that teenage girls sharpen their tongues under stress. Even physical aggression was expected, considering who this girl was. But when that aggression turned inwards, making her lose her appetite - Don't worry," he added as he noticed Angel's stricken expression. "Joyce assures me she's eating at reasonable hours again. But, where was I? Oh, self-destruction. Yes, I was worried. I wondered if the embarrassment of my Slayer dating a vampire was worth that Slayer's stability."

"She'd get over it."

"Sure she would."

Angel briefly wondered why everybody made such a fuss if they all were confident in Buffy forgetting him. He heard the swish of something flying in his direction and he instinctively caught it in his hands. It was Wesley's Diary.

"I live wondering if Buffy will make it to the end of that book," the Watcher said conversationally. Then his tone sharpened. "What makes you so sure she'll survive to 'get over it'?"

Angel had thought about it for long hours after Joyce had left the mansion that morning. Once, Buffy hadn't been sure she'd survive school and now she was making plans for college; soon she'd think further ahead: a house, a job, a family. Like college, the time for all those things would come. She may die first, sure. But she may not. "I can't let her live dreading she'll die soon," he said.

Wesley sighed. "I know. I did tell you, Angel. I don't think you were wrong." He gave a pointed look at the quarterstaff. "But I'm starting to think you were a fool."

Angel laughed.

"But you won't break up with her. Because you are not a fool."

"That I'm an insensitive jerk?"

"You know, Wes?" Wesley was staring at him, obviously unsettled by his unexpected behavior. "I'm starting to think the same."

"Angel!" Buffy had almost jumped out of her skin when she noticed the body on her bed. She hastily arranged the towel around her body, tightening against her. Angel never noticed. He was sitting against the headboard and it took him a long moment to turn towards her.

"Hey, Buffy."

And then came silence. Buffy didn't know what to expect, or even how to behave. He was her ex; technically, he had no right to be in her bedroom without her permission. But on the other hand, she had no wish to send him away.

She stood in place, waiting for her cue. Just like the other night, she hadn't looked for a meeting. It was Angel who came to her, and Buffy couldn't say why he did it if he never planned to stay.

So much time passed that she finally decided to sit on the floor. Cross-legged, she leaned against the door and unwrapped the towel from around her hair. The damp tresses hit coldly against her skin. She shivered, looked for the driest end of the towel and put it as a cape around her shoulders.

"Here."

Buffy looked up at the word. Angel was holding her brush. They glanced at each other for a long time, a question and an answer in that one look.

Buffy nodded.

She stood up, minding that the loose knot between her breasts wouldn't loosen and walked towards the bed. Angel scooted further back, brush firmly in hand. Facing away from him, Buffy closed her eyes and took a deep breath before sitting beside him.

The first touch of the brush against her hair was like a benediction. The feel of his fingers separating the knots carefully, arranging the trends as he worked through them.... It made her smile.

"Do you think I'm a fool?" he asked at some indeterminate point.

She nodded, her smile widening.

"Thought so."

They listened as her mother went downstairs for a snack and then returned to bed. Angel stopped brushing her hair and started playing absentmindedly with it. "The rosebush blossomed last weekend," he commented.

When Angel found the mansion, they'd been surprised that despite its abandoned state, roses survived in the garden. They were Buffy's favorites. "Pink again?" He nudged her and pointed to her night table. An opening rosebud lay before her alarm clock. Buffy smiled. It was pink, yes, but it had some white fading into the edges of the petals. "It's beautiful."

His arms coming around her waist were no surprise. "Come see them?" he whispered.

Her answer was a whisper, too. "Will this last, Angel?"

He tightened his hug. "I don't know."

She nodded again and maneuvered until she was sitting on his lap. "Good." Her temple rested on his shoulder and she dropped a quick kiss before she finished her sentence. "I don't know either."

"Can I stay?"

She was only wearing a towel, her mother slept at the next door and the open curtain at her window was an invitation for sunlight. "Sure." Don't let it be a dream, she thought before finally falling asleep.

"It's not," Angel murmured; but she couldn't hear him anymore.

"She got laid."

Xander groaned and covered his ears. "Cordy," he whined.

"What?" His girlfriend raised an eyebrow. "It's true. Just look at her."

At the next table Willow and Buffy were also chatting in low voices, aware that Mr. Caprivy had no patience for any distractions in his class.

Xander observed his blonde friend for a long time. She looked different than from the first days after the break up, but she'd been slowly bringing herself out of it. "She's just happy."

Cordelia rolled her eyes expressively. "Sure, just happy she's banged her hunk of an on-again boyfriend."

"Do you need to make my brain bleed?" Xander cringed. "Oh god, my eyes!"

As if on cue, Buffy laughed aloud, startling everybody - or those who'd been actually paying attention - out of their assigned reading. She immediately covered her mouth with her hands, but tinny snickers could be heard through her fingers.

Xander stared. "You are a goddess, Cordelia. How did you know?"

Cordelia smiled to herself. Of course she'd known. It'd been too obvious. But she chose not to answer. Their History teacher was closing in on the table next to theirs, a deep frown firmly in place. Even if they were on their last weeks of school, Cordelia wasn't about to risk any recommendation letter for college.

Mr. Caprivy stood in front of them, arms supported on the desk as he glared down at them. In Willow's opinion, he was making an impressive display and she felt properly chastised by the serious look alone. At her side, Buffy had just lowered her hands, but she was still biting her lower lip to keep from laughing.

"I hoped better from you, Miss Rosenberg," the older man started. "Especially after your last performance on my subject. But maybe you've chosen to join the masses and 'slack off' before graduation."

Willow shook her head.

"She'd rather save the world."

Willow's head whipped around to stare at Buffy. 'What?' she mouthed, eyes wide in surprise.

Buffy shrugged.

Mr. Caprivy's anger swept over her and straight to her best friend. "Ah, Miss Summers. I was wondering what had kept you so quiet in the last weeks."

"Boyfriend problems."

His eyebrows rose. "It was supposed to be a rhetorical question, Miss Summers."

"Oh." Buffy smiled innocently. "You phrased it so skillfully I couldn't tell."

Willow wondered if their teacher would have a nervous collapse right in front of them. He was going red already. Suddenly, he looked up and around the class, catching some of the students with small smiles on their faces. "Is it so funny?" The smiles fell off immediately. "Well, well." He was addressing Buffy again. "I hope the joke will hold through detention, young lady."

Buffy just sighed happily. Under the table, Willow gave her friend's leg a small kick. Mr. Caprivy looked between them and shook his head. "Can't wait 'til graduation," he muttered as he walked back to his desk.

Once the teacher's attention was firmly elsewhere, Buffy turned to her and took her hand. "Sewer-loving? Oh Willow!"

Willow blushed. "He deserved it," she whispered.

Buffy squeezed the hand in her hold in thanks. "You're the best, Will."

"I missed you earlier."

He looked worried. Had he thought she wouldn't show up? "Poor baby." She grabbed a crease of his T-shirt and pulled him into a kiss. "I got detention."

"Buffy."

How could he sound so reproachful with a single word?

"It was Willow's fault," she defended, adding a small pout for good measure.

Angel smiled and shook his head. "Sure it was." He put his arm around her and led her onto the sofa. Buffy sat contentedly beside him, reclining her head against his arm. "I'll come to you. Always." He kept silent, but his finger against her cheek was a clear 'and so will I'. Buffy forced herself to lose the dreamy smile, wear a serious expression instead. "I don't know why you won't believe your own girlfriend," she complained. Wow. Your own girlfriend. That sounded great.

"That Willow got you in trouble?"

"Uh-huh."

"Willow. Our Willow."

"Yup. She has dark, scary facets," she assured him.

"Willow?"

"Or not." Buffy shrugged. "But she was making me laugh in class, telling me about... uh..." She wetted her lips. "...this joke."

"Must have been a good joke," Angel commented.

Buffy looked at him for a long moment. "No, it was a bad one now that I think about it."

Angel tilted his head. "Yeah?"

"Yeah."

They set into a comfortable silence.

"Wanna train?" she asked at last.

Angel shook his head. "Not yet."

Buffy passed her arm around his midsection, lying lazily against him. "Good thought."

"Soon, though."

She nodded. "We need the practice. The Mayor---" She fell silent as he put his finger against her lips.

"Not yet," he repeated.

Silence again.

"What's the color of your dress?"

It took her a moment to understand what he meant. "I really like those roses," she answered. And Willow wondered why she'd been so sad when she'd finally found that perfect dress. That perfect shade of pink.

"Good." Angel smiled and turned to the door that led into the garden. "Then it'll be easy to find a flower that goes with it."

"Can you wear another on your lapel?"

"Now you're pushing it."

She winked.

"Pushy," he teased her.

"And you love that about me."

His smile softened. "Yeah...." The kiss that followed was slow and nice, a small step in the right direction. They broke it sweetly, and Buffy shifted to lay her head against his leg. She stretched her legs along the sofa and toed off her shoes, throwing them carelessly into a corner. "This is good." She moved her elbow from under her body, instead letting her hand fall towards the floor. "Maybe we can take today off. No vamps, no demons in the streets, I doubt even Wesley would say no."

Angel caressed her hair. "Oz said we drove them off with our bad mood."

"Did we?"

"This is the Hellmouth." He shrugged. "Stranger things have happened."

Buffy considered it for a long moment. "I'm not in a bad mood anymore."

"Me neither."

Both of them sighed.

Buffy said what they were both thinking. "We should be in a bad mood more often."

Angel chuckled. "Noted."

"Just let's not break up anymore. You could steal my Barbie."

"Excuse me?"

"Long story." Buffy giggled. "Inside joke, kinda."

"The one Willow was telling you in class?"

"Nope." She reached up for a loose hug, resting her fingers against his shoulder blade. "Told you, that was a bad joke."

"Then why did you laugh?"

Thus trapped, Buffy looked around for a diversion. Luckily she found her birthday gift lying exactly where she'd last seen it. She made a grab for the small book and gave it to Angel with a pout. "Read to me?"

Angel dutifully took the poetry book. "A new one?"

She shook her head. "The one with the love she seemed to lose. It's fitting tonight."

Angel looked for the right page and placed it so that Buffy could read it. He knew it by heart already.

"How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways..."

The End

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Author's Notes:
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Part of
'Morning After & Other Fairytales' 'verse. Alternate 'The Prom'. "You are worth better things, Buffy."//"Loneliness? Anger? No date for the prom?" She enumerated. "Yes, I see how those are better things."
Disclaimer: Nope.
Thanks to semby, for being a super beta and doing it so quickly! She was literally working through it as I typed. Thank you, sweetie! Now, she still hasn't seen the last four scenes because I'm such a slow typist so... sorry in advance for any mistakes you'll find there!

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