Just for a moment, Angel was struck with a feeling that he had seen the girl somewhere before. He stopped in the street, shifting his carrier bag from one hand to the other, and stared at her retreating form as it went down the street. What was it about her that touched a familiar chord in him, he wondered, as she disappeared around the corner.
A few more blocks and he would be at the hotel. He and his colleagues were just a few weeks away from the grand re-opening of the Hyperion. The stately old circa 1930's hotel had been in a bad state of disrepair when Angel had come upon it while looking for something to occupy his time. Being rich was one thing, being idle something completely different. Angel bought dilapidated hotels, mansions, and vintage properties, refurbished and then sold them.
A few more long strides and Angel was standing in front of the hotel's entrance. For some reason he couldn't explain, Angel had grown attached to this hotel. He didn't understand why this place should be more meaningful than any of the other buildings he had restored over the past ten years, but he'd felt at home here as soon as he'd entered the crumbling façade, stood in the once-grand lobby.
With a last, quick glance down the street, Angel entered.
Cordelia Chase had just enough time to assess her make-up in the mirror before her boss crossed the lobby and made his way behind the desk to where she was sitting choosing fabrics for the hotel's window treatments. Although she'd been in his employ for the past seven years, it mattered what he thought of her. Well, actually it was more than that. She was in love with him and although he had never spoken of it, Cordelia knew that he knew how she felt. Angel had never taken advantage of her feelings, nor ever once given her even the slightest hope that they might some day be anything more than professional colleagues.
She watched him as he moved through the sawhorses and power tools that littered the lobby. Watched as he stopped to speak to one or two construction workers. Watched as he stopped to point to the beautifully restored plaster work over the archway that led to the dining room. He was all grace, like a dancer; okay, maybe too big for a dancer, but graceful anyway. Cordelia ducked her head back to the fabric swatches, feeling the beginnings of a prickly blush crawl up her neck.
"Hey, Cordy," Angel said, as he swept into the makeshift office. "How's it going?"
"Great," Cordy said, arching a well-groomed eyebrow.
"Wes get back yet?"
Angel put his carrier bag down and picked up the stack of phone messages from the little basket on the corner of his desk. Rifling through them, he quickly organized them into little piles of "must call back immediately," "not vital, later," "social," and "who-in-the-heck-is-this."
"Who in the hell is Spike Williamson?" Angel asked Cordelia.
"Oh, yeah, that's the guy who's going to do the ceramic work in the bathrooms in the lobby. He comes highly recommended."
"Mmmm," Angel sighed under his breath.
"And Charles Gunn, who's he?"
"Dunno," Cordelia said, shaking her head.
The final pink slip of paper seemed to vibrate in Angel's hand. Buffy Summers . Buffy Summers. Why did that name sound so familiar?
"Buffy Summers ring a bell?" he asked his assistant.
"Nope, can't say that it does. But, you know, she's called several times...like five times. I didn't bother to put all the messages there, it seemed redundant. But you should call her, she seemed anxious."
Angel shrugged and stuffed the paper in the pocket of his leather pants.
"I got lunch," he said, pointing to the carrier bag. "Sandwiches and salad and I think there's some goopy dip thing in there, too."
"Great, thanks, Angel," Cordy said, turning away from him, and bending back over the sample books. "I'm hoping to get the fabric ordered today and that'll be one less thing to worry about. When is Mr. Giles going to be back in town?"
"I'm not sure, actually. Wes has, pretty much, been doing the communication thing with him so I was hoping he'd be around to give me the lowdown on when we could expect Rupert to be back in the country. I guess we'll know soon enough."
Angel took the pink paper out of his pocket and sat in a quiet corner of the hotel with his cell phone. He felt incredibly unnerved by the name on the paper. Somehow, though, he felt connected to the name and for Angel that was a very weird sensation.
A solitary man by nature, Angel had let very few people into his life. He knew he could pursue a relationship with Cordelia if he wanted to; truth was, he wasn't interested. Very few women interested him, although he'd had lots of opportunities. He knew he had the attributes that were attractive in a man: intelligence, wealth, looks. Angel wasn't sure why exactly, but he just had no desire.
But there was something about this name. Buffy Summers. He dialed the number.
Buffy Summers stepped out of the shower to the insistent ringing of her phone. She was inclined to let the machine pick it up; nothing worse than standing naked and wet, talking on the phone. But there was something about this call, she could feel it in her bones.
Grabbing an extra towel for her hair, Buffy reached for the phone on, what she was sure was, the last ring. "Hello," she said breathlessly.
"I'm looking for Buffy Summers," the voice on the other end said, and Buffy's heart stopped. She'd know that voice anywhere.
"This is Buffy."
"I don't think we know each other, but you called me and left me a message."
"Angel?" Buffy whispered.
Angel closed his eyes against the sound of the longing in her voice as she whispered his name. Who was this woman? And what did she want with him?
Angel said nothing. He wasn't sure he would have a voice to speak, even if he could think of something to say.
"Angel?" the woman called Buffy breathed into the phone.
Swallowing against the dryness in his throat, Angel said, "Do I know you?"
"It's the strangest thing," Buffy said, softly. "You don't actually know me. But, yes, you do."
"I'm sorry, but you're not making any sense. Look, I don't know what your game is...but I'm not playing," Angel said, hesitating only for a second before pressing the end button on his cell.
Wesley Wyndam-Price set his briefcase down on the overflowing desk and reached for the ringing phone.
"Yes," he said crisply into the receiver.
A female voice, quivering with tears, said, "May I speak with Angel, please?"
"I'm sorry, he's not here at the moment. I mean, I just walked in and while he may be around, he's not right here at the moment."
"Can you give me your address, please?" the woman asked tremulously.
Wes rattled off the address, said a polite goodbye and hung up just as Angel walked into the office.
"Oh, damn," Wesley muttered, "you just missed a call. Some teary woman."
"Don't want to talk to her," Angel said.
"Oh, well, then you probably don't want to hear that she asked for the address."
A soft expletive issued from Angel's tightly compressed lips. Wesley shrugged ineffectually and pulled a sheaf of official looking documents from his battered briefcase. "These are the last of the contracts. Giles has signed them all. Closing's in a fortnight."
Angel reached for the papers and scanned them quickly. "Everything's in order, then?"
"Oh, yes. He's very pleased, Angel. Very pleased, indeed." Wesley said, and Angel half smiled at the smugness in his voice. Wesley Wyndam-Price had been a real asset to his business. He was a man who noticed every detail and had a steel-trap mind when it came to remembering them. Sometimes Angel found him a little too tightly wound, but everyone had a cross to bear.
"So, who's the girl?"
Angel grimaced. He hated anyone asking him personal questions, but he knew that Wesley wasn't merely being nosey. He actually cared about his boss and would drop anything to help Angel out.
Angel took a breath. "Strange as it may seem, I don't know who she is," he paused. "And stranger still, somehow I do."
Wesley shook his head, clearly lost. "I don't get it."
"Join the club." Angel grabbed a pen and began to sign the documents Wesley had given him. They were just a few short days from walking away from this project, and handing the keys over to the new owner, Rupert Giles. Angel felt the need for a break and assumed that Cordelia and Wesley wouldn't say no to some paid R and R either. Still, he knew that despite feeling tired to the very core, he wouldn't rest. Instead, he'd send his co-workers off to some exotic resort and then begin his quest for the next mammoth project to fill his life with something meaningful to do.
"Pardon?" Wesley said.
Standing at the entrance of the hotel, just inside the huge double glass doors was the girl that Angel had seen on the street. Angel watched her double-check a piece of paper that she held in her hand, smooth a strand of incredible honey-coloured hair back into the loose knot at the back of her head, and fidget indecisively before taking a step down the shallow stairs that led into the lobby. And the whole time he watched her, Angel forgot to breathe.
Angel heard the voice from behind the corner where he stood like some thirteen-year-old acne riddled school boy, spying on the object of his deepest affection.
"May I help you?" Cordelia said, briskly.
"Hi. Yes, I was wondering if Angel might be here."
Ever efficient and extremely suspicious, Cordelia said, "Do you have an appointment, Miss...."
"Summers. Buffy Summers. I was speaking to Angel earlier today, actually."
Smooth, Angel thought, very smooth. They hadn't exchanged more than a few words and yet she'd made it seem like they had planned to meet. Angel felt a lick of curiousity creep up his spine. Running a hand through his hair, he stepped out from behind the wall, papers in hand, eyes on papers.
"Oh, Angel," Cordy said.
"Mmmm," Angel replied, without looking up from his faked interest in the document he was holding.
"This is Buffy Summers. She's here to see you."
No choice now. Angel had to release his eyes from the paper and look up at this woman with whom he'd had the brief, but oddly unsettling, phone call earlier.
He felt his heart constrict with indefinable longing. Oh My God. Oh My God. OhMyGod.
She was striking. Not beautiful, not stunning, but striking. Dressed in a plain skirt and white blouse with a silver cross at her throat, she was quite easily the most striking woman Angel had ever seen. He dragged his eyes up her body, in what seemed to him like slow motion, and caught her eyes with his own. Luminous. That was the word that came immediately to mind when he locked gazes with her. And more: forgiving, unwavering, sad.
"Miss Summers," he said in a voice that was barely above a whisper, a voice that snapped Cordelia's head to attention.
"Angel," came the whispered response. "May we talk?"
Angel opened the little half door that allowed Buffy to move from the lobby into the office. As she passed, the smells of summer, vanilla, and lavender wafted up to Angel and he felt a gasp rising in his throat. He swallowed hard.
"Let's go back here," he said, motioning to a small private room they sometimes used for meetings.
Buffy nodded. Cordelia shot Angel a look that could only be described as jealous curiousity. Angel cautioned Cordy with a look of his own and, with a hand placed at the small of her back, propelled Buffy towards the back room.
Closing the door, Angel turned to face her and waited.
Buffy's heart raced in her chest. Up close Angel was devastatingly handsome. Her eyes sped around the room, looking for something other than his chiseled cheeks, strong jaw and serious eyes to rest on. She shook her head. She had something to tell him and she couldn't be distracted by his looks. Not now. Not when she'd come so far.
"Look," she started, and faltered almost immediately to a stop. She scanned the room for a chair and spotted a straight back wooden thing that looked more like an instrument of torture than a comfortable place to sit. It would be better than crumpling to the floor, though, and she made her way toward it.
Seated, looking up at him, he seemed impossibly tall. The look on his face was difficult to read. Suspicion? Anger? Curiousity? Buffy couldn't be sure and she was afraid to look at him for too long, the tears were threatening behind her eyes as it was. She just needed to find a way to make the words leave her throat. And she needed to make sure that she chose the right words because she was fairly certain that she had just one chance to make him believe her.
The woman seemed nervous and now, sitting in that ridiculous chair, uncomfortable. As much as he'd like to ease her mind, Angel wasn't even remotely sure how he might accomplish that. Despite his reticence, Angel was fairly good with people. He usually knew just what to say to make them do exactly what he needed them to do: trust him, give him the job, spill their guts. But this one, this Buffy, was a puzzle. He couldn't figure her out. Nor could he stop staring at her.
He pulled up a matching straight back chair and sat opposite her, a few feet away. Not too close because the smell of her was intoxicating.
"I feel that there's something you want to tell me. Is there?" he said, quietly.
She lifted her eyes from her folded hands and nodded. "Need to tell you," Buffy clarified.
"I'm sorry that whatever it is, is so difficult. I'm trying to be patient, but I've got to tell you, I'm a bit under the wire here and don't have a lot of time for..."
She nodded again, clearing her throat.
"I'm sorry. I guess I didn't plan on this being so difficult. Usually I'm not so...so tight-lipped. Talking has never really been a problem for me. I should have had a plan B, you know, like a letter I wrote that would have it all laid out for you and I could just give you and walk away. But," she shrugged, "no plan B."
"And no walking away, either. When I tell you what I have to tell you, I won't be able to walk away. And if you believe me, Angel, neither will you."
The smile left Angel's face. Something about her words rang true. Like he had known them before they'd ever left her lips. A sudden sense that he'd had this conversation before ripped through him: physical déjà vu.
"Okay," he said.
"Okay," she repeated and then paused. "Okay. Have you ever been to a place called Sunnydale?"
Angel gave the question a few seconds consideration and then shook his head, no.
"It's a little burg a couple hours north of here. It's where I grew up, partly at least. It's a hell hole, little dump of a town with very few redeeming qualities," Buffy paused to smile at Angel. "Anyway. At the very end of high school, my graduation, our school blew up. No one can really remember why or even what happened. It's like we all got amnesia. I only remember two things. I set the explosive. And you were there."
"That's not possible, though. I've never been to Sunnydale. I couldn't even find it on a map."
"Bear with me, okay," Buffy said, softly.
"Before the explosion, before school ended I have very vague memories. I mean, I couldn't tell you if I passed or failed or the names of any of my teachers or if I dated anyone or played any sports or had any friends. It's like my mind is all fuzzy. Just beyond that fuzziness is a key to, well, a key to who I am and I've been looking for it for a long time. See, before it didn't really matter. I can't tell you exactly when that changed, but I think it has something to do with you."
"I'm sorry. I don't understand."
Buffy frowned. She wasn't doing a very good job of making him understand. In fact, if she had to give herself a grade for this rendition of her life she was afraid it would fall on the serious "F" side. Now that she had started, it became clear to her how important this was, how important he was.
"I'm not doing a very good job. Look. Have you ever looked at property on Crawford Street? I know you said you've never been to Sunnydale but..."
Angel stood up suddenly. "Crawford Street?" he said. "Wait a minute..." A knock at the door interrupted Angel's thought, and he moved to the door and yanked it open fiercely. "What?" A murmured voice on the other side and Angel's passionate, "Not now," before he came to sit opposite Buffy again. "I remember. A mansion. I looked at a big mansion on Crawford Street a while ago. I bought it. I didn't buy it?" Angel looked at Buffy for confirmation.
"I'm not sure if you bought it or not. I think you did, but I'm not 100% sure. See, it's all very complicated," Buffy said.
"So it would seem."
"You know that feeling that you've been somewhere before? Or, when you meet someone and you get this feeling that you know them, even though you've never met? For the past couple of years my life has been one moment after another of moments like that. I'm always just one step away from figuring it out, but I never quite get there. Then, all of a sudden, I started having these really weird dreams. Weird for a couple of reasons; tactile, like I was actually there and weird because sometimes I wasn't even asleep. I was awake," Buffy paused. "These dreams, or whatever they were, seemed to be in chapters. They weren't the same thing over and over the way some dreams are. They were logical. Say, like one dream would finish at a certain point and the next one would take off exactly where the last left off. It was creepy at first, but then I got sorta sucked into the story like it was a really good book only I was the main character."
"What were the dreams about?" Angel asked. "Can you remember?"
"Yes, I can remember. Every detail. I had some sort of supernatural power: strength and speed and stamina. I spent a lot of time with an English guy in a library. There were a few other people, too. And I spent a lot of time in graveyards."
"Graveyards?" Angel asked.
"I know," Buffy shook her head dismally. "The more I tell you the weirder it sounds." Buffy stood and walked to the room's only window, which looked down on a small courtyard. "I was a warrior. I fought demons." She hesitated, "I was a vampire slayer."
Now Angel did laugh. "A vampire slayer. You have got to be kidding me. I don't know what this is all about but, surely, you don't take me for a gullible fool." Angel was suddenly beside her at the window, his wide mouth pulled into a scowl.
Buffy tore her gaze away from the climbing roses that stretched across a sunny brick wall below her and forced herself to meet his angry gaze.
"Here are some things I know: You came from Ireland. You have no living family. You dated someone named Darla for a long time and the relationship ended badly. You've never used a last name. You are intensely private...."
Angel put up a hand to stop her. "Any private investigator worth his retainer could have gotten half that information off the goddamn Internet."
"True," Buffy conceded. " But then there's this...." Buffy reached up to the collar of her blouse and pulled it back to reveal a scar on her throat. Angel took a step forward and then, a step back. His mouth felt stuffed full of cotton and he knew two things with sudden certainty: this girl was telling the truth and he was responsible for the scar.
At home, later that afternoon, Buffy felt as though she'd been run over by a Mack truck. After she'd shown Angel the scar, his already pale face had looked positively ashen. He'd begged off hearing any more of her story, citing business, and promised that they could meet for a late dinner that evening.
Buffy craved sleep. Pulling back the comforter she crawled into her bed wearily. That was one pain-in-the-ass thing about this 'other life' she seemed to be living, her sleep patterns were all messed up.
For the few moments before sleep claimed her, Buffy thought about the disconcerting look on Angel's face when she'd shown him the scar on her neck. Buffy hadn't had very much experience with men, but she was quite sure that the look on Angel's face had been possessive.
Angel stood under the hot spray of the shower for a long time. Something was puzzling him and he hated to be stumped by anything. There was no longer any doubt in his mind that Buffy Summers was telling him the truth. It had been the scar that had cinched it for him. The very second Angel saw it he'd had an almost physical reaction to it. For an instant he was sure he could taste the coppery sweetness of blood in his mouth. He'd recognized the taste immediately and that begged the question: how in the hell did he know what blood tasted like?
Angel had chosen a quiet family-run Italian restaurant to meet Buffy. He arrived early and settled at a secluded table near the empty fireplace. Not even a desire to create ambience would have convinced Luigi, the restaurant's owner, to light a fire in this heat. The waiter offered Angel a cocktail, but he ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigio instead. The first cooling sip was a balm to Angel's rattled nerves.
Ten minutes later, the waiter arrived at the table with Buffy in tow. She looked radiant. Her hair hung loosely on bare shoulders. She wore no make-up save pale lipstick and mascara. Her halter-top revealed toned arms and midriff. Her Capri pants accentuated muscular thighs and a perfect bottom. Angel felt blind-sided. Suddenly the crotch of his pants felt too small. His palms itched.
"Thanks for agreeing to this, Angel," Buffy said quietly as she sat.
Angel nodded and gestured to the bottle of wine. "Would you like a glass?"
As Angel poured her wine, Buffy set her bag down beside her and glanced around the room. "Nice place," she said, before looking back at Angel, accepting the proffered wine and gratefully taking a sip.
"The food's excellent," Angel offered.
That brought an end to the small talk and left the two in an uncomfortable silence. Buffy smiled gratefully at the waiter when he arrived with a small chalkboard, which served as the menu. As he described each item in glorious detail, Buffy felt her stomach rumble.
After taking their orders and refilling their wineglasses, the waiter left Buffy and Angel to stare at each other across the table.
"The scar. How did you...it was me, wasn't it?"
Buffy felt her eyes well with tears.
"Buffy," he said, placing a large warm hand over hers. "I believe you. I believe that we have a connection, and it's not just that I have obviously harmed you in some way."
"I don't think it was anything like that, actually," Buffy said, touching her oversized linen napkin to her eye to prevent the tears from escaping.
"Jesus," Angel said, squeezing her hand. "What is going on?"
Buffy shrugged helplessly. "I think that I made you...bite me...that you needed to bite me and I made you do it."
"Needed to bite you? What in the hell for?"
"Angel, what do you remember about your past?" Buffy said.
"What do you mean? I remember..." Angel stopped. Suddenly and inexplicably he remembered nothing.
"What you're feeling right now, Angel, I know how that feels. At first it was just little things, little jolts of recognition: places and people that suddenly seemed to fit or not fit at all in my life. Then, as these dreams started to get more...graphic...my 'normal' life seemed to fall by the wayside, made less and less sense to me." Buffy stopped, and Angel gave her an encouraging nod. "I suddenly wasn't whom I'd been my whole life, this LA girl with friends and, well, a normal life. I was this other person who had the weight of the world on her shoulders. But it wasn't bad, not really. I had good friends, solid friends. And I had you."
"Me?" Angel whispered.
Buffy nodded. "At first, you weren't around very much and then you were around all the time, watching my back, listening to me and making me feel safe. Totally and completely safe. Somehow, I knew you existed. That sounds all hocus pocus-y, I know. But you were, like, the most important person in the world to me and I knew that I had to find you. Oddly, it wasn't that hard to track you down. I had your name and there aren't that many 'Angels' around. When I heard your voice I knew. Actually, I saw you on the street earlier today and I knew. I just knew.
"So did I," Angel agreed. "I saw you today, too. In a funny way I knew...something. But why haven't I had these dreams. Why don't I have these memories?"
"I can't answer your questions, Angel," Buffy said, softly. "But I think I know someone who can."
The first course arrived, just as Angel was about to press Buffy for more information, and the smell was so tantalizing that, after refilling both their wineglasses, they dove into the food on their plates.
A few moments later, Angel leaned across his plate and said, "You said that you might know someone who could help us sort this out."
"Yes, I do. I mean, I don't know him personally, but he comes highly recommended. He's a seer. A mystic of some sort."
Angel grunted out a laugh. "I don't believe in that crap."
It was Buffy's turn to laugh. "Really? But you believe me?"
Angel smiled. "I guess you're right. So, what do we do?"
"We go to see him and he does some mogo thing and hopefully sorts this all out."
"Okay," Angel said.
The waiter cleared away their empty plates and arrived with their entrees. As they ate and finished their wine, Buffy tried to explain to Angel what the past few months of her life had been like. The more she spoke, the more at ease Angel felt. Or perhaps, he thought to himself, that's just the wine talking. Buffy's cheeks were flushed. Angel was, again, struck by her natural beauty.
After coffee, Angel offered to walk Buffy back to her hotel and it was just before she went into the building for the night, that she dropped one more bombshell.
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
"At this point, I can't see any reason why not," Angel said with a small smile.
"Do you have a tattoo?"
Angel sighed. "As a matter of fact, I do."
It was Buffy's turn to offer a small smile. "Like a griffin, but not."
"Simply put, yes."
The memory washed over her almost immediately: Angel's blood seeping through the white t-shirt. Her offer to patch him up. His broad, flawless back. The rush of heat to her face and crotch to see him standing there, shirtless, in the kitchen. The tattoo, an intricate pattern of lines and swirls. Her fingertips tingling with the need to trace it. The thought of him lying prone, while someone with a needle spoiled his skin with ink was almost more than she could bear...
"Buffy?" Angel's voice brought her back to the busy LA street.
"See you tomorrow, then," she said.
"Tomorrow," Angel said and turned to leave.
"Angel." Buffy's soft voice carried back down the steps, and stopped him in his tracks. He turned his head around to look at her, but said nothing.
"I think it'll be okay. In the end."
Angel nodded and headed back the way he'd come.
Cordelia Chase felt the need for something much stronger than coffee when she arrived at the Hyperion the next morning. Wesley was already there, poring over the documents that Angel had signed the previous day. A stickler for detail, he always triple-checked everything to be sure that every 'I' was dotted and every 'T' crossed. "Anal retentive," Cordelia thought as she sniffed the coffee in the pot.
"It's fresh, if that's what you're wondering," Wesley said, without looking up.
"Great," Cordelia said, pouring herself a cup. "Do anything interesting last night?"
"Same old. What about Angel?"
Wesley stopped and looked up from the desk. He was well aware of Cordelia's feelings for their employer and he was also aware that Angel felt nothing, but fondness, for Cordelia. He wished that he could say something to make her get off this train to nowhere, but he knew it would be fruitless. A truthful answer to her question might, however, make her trip a little shorter.
"He had a dinner date, I believe."
"Date?" Cordelia managed to squeak out. "Angel went on a date?"
"Yes, I believe he did. With that woman who stopped by to see him yesterday afternoon. Remember?"
Cordelia nodded. How could she forget? The woman had been a glowing ball of light, floating towards Angel and causing a reaction in him that Cordelia had never seen.
"What are you up to today?" Wesley asked, gently.
"I'm...oh, I...paperwork mostly..."Cordelia said, turning away so Wesley wouldn't see the tears in her eyes.
But Wesley knew she was crying. He always did.
Angel stood in front of the mirror for a long time. Somehow the face staring back at him seemed like a stranger's, someone he recognized but didn't know intimately. He tried to recall details of his life, tried to reconcile himself to the fact that life as, he knew it, was about to change, but he wasn't sure where to start.
He shaved carefully, gelled his hair, slipped into a clean black linen shirt and sat on his bed, waiting.
Buffy was pulling her hair into a ponytail when the phone rang.
"You're Buffy Summers." The voice was full of an unusual mixture authority and laughter.
"Yes, I am."
"Well, this is Lorne. I'm the guy you most definitely want to see and, honey, I am so looking forward to meeting you and Angel."
Buffy laughed in spite of herself. "Okay. Where are you?"
Lorne gave directions, they agreed on a time and Buffy hung up the phone. One quick phone call later and she was out the door.
They met on the street. In the bright sunshine, Buffy looked to Angel like a cool drink of water: clean, unadorned, utterly refreshing.
"This is it, then. The secrets to our past unlocked?" Angel said, stepping aside so that Buffy could descend the stairs to the small door below street level.
Buffy paused in front of the door and looked back at Angel. "Are you scared?" she asked.
"No. And yes. Since we talked last night I've been trying to remember things about my life, things that I'm sure I knew yesterday. I can't seem to recall a single detail about who I am. Weird."
Buffy smiled sympathetically. "I suspect it's going to get even weirder," she said. She turned back to the door and knocked.
Lorne was the oddest-looking man Angel had ever seen. Tall, flamboyant, with reddish hair and sparkling blue eyes, he practically oozed intelligence and wit from his skin, which Angel thought had an oddly green glow.
"Sit. Sit," Lorne said enthusiastically. "Can I get you something? Coffee? Bloody Mary?"
"Thanks, no." Buffy said. Angel merely shook his head.
"Just want to get started. I know. The two of you must be in a state. Okay. This is how this works. I'm not a fortuneteller. I am not a magician or crackpot or really even a seer. I read the energy around a person, their auras. I can see things about people. There's a lot I already know about you," he said, leveling his gaze at Buffy. "You're out there with your feelings, heart on your sleeve, that kinda thing." He shifted his blue eyes to Angel. "You, babycakes, I'm less clear on. But that won't matter."
"What do you mean, it won't matter?" Buffy asked, before Angel had a chance to open his mouth.
"I know some things. You two are connected. Psychically. Emotionally. Your souls are...well, bound together."
"Bound together?" Angel said, feeling the same sense of disbelief rising in him as he had the previous day.
"Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves," Lorne said. "If you wouldn't mind sitting facing each other, close but not touching, that would be very helpful.
Buffy scooted her chair around to face Angel and gave him, what she hoped was, a reassuring smile.
"You don't really need to do anything, "Lorne said. "Just sit quietly and think about whatever."
In the quiet hush that fell in the room, Lorne cleared his throat and began.
Hours, minutes, seconds: he had no way of knowing how long he'd been totally out of himself. Totally. And he was shocked to discover that, when he was once again aware of sitting in the chair opposite Buffy, he was crying.
"Here," Lorne said, handing him a handkerchief, "use this."
Angel took the white cloth and wiped the tears from his face. Buffy was watching him carefully. For once, though, her eyes were veiled, revealing nothing.
"That was..." Angel started, when he found his voice.
"Intense, I know," Lorne said. "I probably should have warned you, but sometimes when I do it blocks my path. People get all tense and it makes things more difficult." He handed Angel a snifter of amber liquid. "Jameson's. That's your drink, right?"
Angel reached out a shaking hand and took the glass. Tipping it to his lips, he swallowed the whiskey in one, burning gulp.
"When you're ready, why don't you tell us what you saw, sweetcheeks," Lorne said, encouragingly.
Angel shook his head. "I don't even know where to start." He looked at Buffy and his throat constricted. "I don't even know where to start," he repeated, softly.
"Okay, why don't I start, then," Lorne said, rhetorically.
"The lives that you two are living right now, right this moment, are borrowed. The concept is not that unusual, really. Everyone has experienced déjà vu. You're walking down a street in a strange town and suddenly you get that arm-hair tickle thing that tells you that you've been on this street, in this town before." Lorne inclined his head toward Angel's empty glass, silently asking if he wanted more, needed more. Angel shook his head, no.
"For most people, déjà vu is a queer little thing that happens once or twice in a lifetime. But for others it can be far more disconcerting. What Buffy has been experiencing these last few months has been a bit like that, only the déjà vu moments of her life have been taking over, making it impossible to sleep properly or even, at times, tell the difference between fact and fiction. Is that a fair assessment, Buffy?" Lorne didn't wait for an answer. " For you, Angel, the moment you met Buffy, changed everything. You've lost all your memories pretty much, haven't you, doll?"
"I know that I haven't really cleared anything up for you, have I? "Lorne said with a smile. "Patience." He motioned to a door at the back of the room. "Walk with me, please."
Angel got up unsteadily and offered his hand to Buffy. With a little tug, he pulled her to her feet. He'd needed the contact; needed to feel the warmth of her hand.
Lorne was standing by the door, waiting. "Shake a leg, you two," he said as he disappeared into the room beyond the door.
The room was dim and cool. In the middle of the floor, on a little platform, was a bed covered in crisp white sheets. The walls were dove-coloured, bare. A small table on the left hand side of the bed held a simple lamp, an empty glass and a picture frame, with the store's own "happy couple" picture still inside.
Lorne laughed, surveying the room through his guests' eyes. "No, this is not the sex portion of the reading. But I will ask you to lay next to each other, shoes off, if you don't mind."
Buffy took a second to glance at Angel, unsure of whether he was willing to go along with Lorne's odd request. He nodded imperceptibly. Sitting on opposite sides of the bed, they each bent over to remove their shoes, and then, almost simultaneously, swung their legs up onto the bed.
"Right then. Close your eyes. Sleep if you'd like, if you can manage. Buffy, I want you to think about the last thing you remember about this alternate life you've been leading and Angel, I want you to remember the last thing you thought of before you came out of your trance in the other room."
The bed was comfortable, the sheets good Egyptian cotton, the room smelled of lilacs. Buffy felt the heat of Angel's substantial biceps and forearm next to her own arm. He smelled clean. Buffy closed her eyes and drifted towards the last memory she had of her other life and that was...
...a battle against a huge reptilian thing with a mouth full of jagged teeth. All around her, classmates were wielding crossbows and fire-throwers and baseball bats. She felt, strangely, calm and focused. Behind her she could sense another, equally important battle raging, and beyond that, Angel.
When the time was right, Buffy threw the monster the verbal bait and he, still in possession of human feelings, went for it. She'd led him into the trap: thousands of pounds of explosives timed to blow him to kingdom come as soon as she'd thrown herself out the window.
Later, a curious scroll in her hand, Buffy had waited for Angel. Through the dusty smoke she'd felt him, as palpable as a hand on her arm, and she turned to find him looking at her across the parking lot. Buffy felt her breath stop, felt her stomach flip over once, twice, felt him reaching out to her with such love that she felt almost glad. He belonged to her...
...she belonged to him. That's what Angel knew, standing a dozen yards (too damn far) away from her that night. He willed himself to step closer; had an almost painful desire to wind her hair through his fingers, pull her close and sink his tongue into her mouth: a quest, a brand. The expression on her face broke his heart. He swore he could feel tiny splinters making their jagged way through his veins, sure he was dying from the inside out. But, no matter, he did what he had to do...he walked away...
Angel and Buffy stirred at the same time. Lorne was sitting across the room in an armchair, martini glass poised precariously on its plump chenille arm. "Oh, good, you're awake," he said, taking a final swallow of the drink.
"I'm afraid that I'm not going to be of much use to you. I mean, there are some things I can tell you to set you on the right path but the journey is yours and yours alone. Well, not literally, I guess, since you'll be together."
"Lorne, you're being cryptic," Buffy admonished. "I like to think of it as having 'flair.' I have flair." Lorne said, with a chuckle, moving to join Buffy and Angel on the bed. "Scooch over, doll," he said to Angel.
"You are not whom you seem to be," he said, looking first at Buffy and then at Angel. "You had a life before this one which was...pre-empted, for lack of a better word. Something happened to separate you, but that separation has thrown the universe out of whack."
Buffy held up her hand. "Wait a minute, Lorne. Are you trying to tell me that I am a vampire slayer? I mean, that's my life?"
"Sweetie, you know the answer to that question."
"What about me, am I some sort of a vampire slayer, too?" Angel asked.
"My dear, you are most definitely not." Lorne said.
Angel shot him an expectant look and Lorne shrugged.
"You are a vampire."
There was a split second when Angel wasn't sure whether he should laugh, cry or punch Lorne square in the face.
"What in the hell are you talking about?"
"Angel, think about it. If I can be some sort of vampire slayer, well, there must be vampires to slay, right?" Buffy said, quickly.
"Okay, sure, but think about what you just said, Buffy. If you're the slayer and I'm a vampire doesn't that make us, like, mortal enemies?"
Lorne chose this moment to interject with a sharp laugh. "You two are so not mortal enemies. Unfortunately, that's the problem. Look, there's one more thing I can show you and then I'm going to escort you out. Lay back down," he said. "Go on, it won't hurt," he encouraged.
With another tense glance at each other, Buffy and Angel made themselves comfortable on the bed and...
...Buffy shivers. Her hair is wet, her clothes cling to her like a second skin and a cut across her back stings. She knows that Angel is behind her, can feel his gentle fingers lingering along the scrape. It's nothing. Just a scratch. It's already healing.
Buffy feels her body fold in on itself and her desire to put up a brave front, crumble. She feels Angel's arms circle her, pull her into him, hold her tightly and her teeth begin chattering uncontrollably.
You almost went away today. So did you. But you're right, we can't really know. Buffy, I love you. I try to stop but I can't. Me too. I love you too. Maybe we shouldn't. Just kiss me.
And then bliss. His strong arms slide around her and pull her close; skin melting into skin, until it is impossible to know where she ends and he begins. An impossibly long heartbeat before she lays naked beneath him, exposed and completely sure of his mouth on hers, her hands in his hair, his hands sliding down the length of her body, skimming over turgid nipples, taut belly, quivering core. Then him naked: endless chest, strong, sinewy arms, rigid cock. Buffy can't believe she's here, beside him, naked. Can't believe it's taken so little to make her feel as though she might explode. Knows from endless hours of kissing in graveyards, her bedroom, this very apartment, this very morning, how ready she is; can feel her crotch's yearning. She can hear herself whimper and can hear Angel murmur, wait love, wait, in her ear and even that feels like foreplay to her.
He leaves not an inch of her untouched. The pads of his fingertips soothe and press and dip. Buffy feels herself rise up, willing him closer. Please, God, closer. The feel of him is almost unbearable. Buffy's own hands clutch and smooth the long lines of his back, his straining arms.
Are you sure?
Buffy has never been more sure of anything in her life. Her eyes find his and she is amazed to discover that they are as wet as her own. Please don't cry. Reverent. Worshipful. With one fluid motion Buffy and Angel create a temple of their love. Eyes and bodies locked, Angel begins to move. Buffy moves with him. Equals. Partners. Lovers at last.
The waves of pleasure blind Buffy. The orgasm begins at the tips of her toes and radiates up through the soles of her feet, along her calves and thighs, the muscles of her vagina clenching and releasing helplessly. Her breasts ache; sweat mists her forehead and upper lip. Even her scalp tingles. It is endless. Buffy moans deliriously. Angel.
In his whole long dead life, Angel has never felt this way. Never. Beneath him is the object of his desire, the shining princess in the castle keep, a gift from the heavens. He closes his eyes and lets his fingers trace her body, its grooves and hidden secrets, smooth flesh and sharp bone. He can't remember the last time he made love to a woman. He can't remember the last time someone believed in him. He waits for her to catch up. Suspended above her, he watches her eyelashes flutter, watches the little hollow space at her collar bone dance with each sobbing breath she manages to grab, listens to her whisper his name incoherently. He knows, then, that he is no monster to her and she is...
His. The instant he joins his body with hers, taking the precious gift of her virginity, Angel remembers what it is to feel human. Buffy makes him feel human. Whatever is to come after this moment can come. Fitted inside her, he knows where he belongs. He cradles her close, closer still: feels the steady drumming of her heart against his chest and sobs her name.
Angel bolted upright in the bed. He clutched at the sheets, felt fire tearing through his chest, searched the room for discarded clothes. Out of the corner of his eye he saw ...Lorne. Angel shook his head.
Buffy stirred beside him. "Angel?"
"I'm here, Buffy. Right here," Angel said, resting his hand on hers.
He watched a tear sneak out from behind her closed eye and wondered, for a moment, how it would taste.
"Open your eyes, Buffy," Angel said, quietly.
Buffy shook her head. " I don't want to. I can't leave...you."
Angel looked over to Lorne who was seated, with a fresh martini, in the armchair.
"Could you see all that?" Angel asked.
"Well, yeah. But I've seen it before," Lorne said, quietly.
Angel bent down, close to Buffy's ear and whispered, " Buffy, you need to come back. Back to me, here, in this world."
With great reluctance, Buffy opened her eyes and drank in the sight of Angel looming over her.
"Do you understand?" she whispered.
"No. Do you?" he replied.
"I do, though," Lorne said. " What you just shared was a very real moment from your very real past...."
"Which ended very badly," Angel interrupted.
"True. Much unhappiness ensued. But there is a willingness on the part of certain parties to rectify the situation."
"Certain parties?" Angel asked.
"You don't think you're in this alone, do you?" Lorne asked, with a cocked eyebrow.
"Apparently not," Angel grimaced. " But I don't like the idea that someone...something...has the power to interfere with my life, to screw with it like this."
"Look, dollface, most people go through life blind. You know, they eat, sleep, use the bathroom, boink their partners, work at dumb jobs, whatever. They never really experience anything beyond the one dimension they're living in. You weren't meant to live that kind of life." Lorne stopped and looked pointedly at Angel. His gaze shifted to Buffy. "And you, you're the Slayer. Honey, that's destiny. There's no escaping destiny." He shrugged and sat on the edge of the bed.
"But, okay, then why are we living these so-called one dimensional lives?"
"Something happened which threw the whole works out of orbit. Stuff happens, of course, and most times the big guys don't interfere. Free will and all that jazz." Lorne said, with a smile. "But in this instance they felt they couldn't let things go."
"What?" Buffy said looking at Lorne and then Angel. "What happened?"
"Thus endeth my part in this little drama," Lorne said, standing. "You'll have to go now."
"Wait a minute," Buffy said, plaintively.
Lorne shook his head. "It was a great honour to meet you both," he said guiding them to the door. "I wish you well."
Suddenly, Buffy and Angel found themselves standing in the street, a glorious full moon smiling benevolently upon them.
"Intense," Angel said, as they started the walk down the street.
"That's an understatement," Buffy replied.
"I guess you're right," Angel said. "What next?"
Buffy stopped and put out a hand to stop Angel. "I feel...I'm sorry." Her eyes stayed resolutely focused on the corner of his sleeve.
"No, what? Tell me."
"I feel as though I have loved you my whole life. In this pretend life. In my dream life. In the next life," Buffy pulled her gaze from Angel's shirt to his strong jaw, further up, to his eyes. "I don't think I could make these feelings go away even if I wanted to, but I'm afraid. I don't know who I am, really. And even though we've only just met, I feel connected to you. I..."
Buffy stopped again.
"Buffy. You came looking for me. You must have been fairly certain you'd find me. You must've known of, or at least understood, the possibility that this could all go horribly wrong. Maybe I'd be married, or in a serious relationship. Or gay." Angel stopped long enough to allow Buffy to see the twinkle in his eyes. "I am none of those things. But I'm not a vampire either. I had eggs for breakfast, not blood. I love the beach and the sun and food with lots of garlic." He brought a long-fingered hand up to the crucifix resting in the hollow of Buffy's throat and touched it gently. "See, no burning. I can't deny the connection. I had the same...dream, hallucination, whatever you want to call it, back at Lorne's. Down to the very last earth-shattering detail."
Buffy smiled wanly. Taking a step back she said, "Angel. I'm really tired. I think I'll just head back to my hotel."
"I can walk you if you like?"
"No, you know I think I'll just hail a cab," Buffy said, glancing up the street and raising her hand. In short order, a taxi pulled up to the curb and without another word, Buffy was safely inside and speeding away.
The answering machine was blinking when Angel arrived home. He'd decided to walk despite the distance. His body had felt over-caffeinated, all loose wires and jangling nerves and he'd thought the long walk through the city might help. Not quite. He arrived home, with more questions than answers, covered in a layer of city air that you could scrape off with a knife.
He debated: messages or shower? What if Buffy had called, he thought, reaching for the play button on the antiquated machine. He really should just get call answer. That way, he'd have to actually pick up the phone to listen for the short beeps that alerted you to the fact that you had waiting messages. Angel was hopelessly old-fashioned about some things.
Beep. "Hi, Angel, this is Wesley. Sorry not to reach you. Umm. Look Rupert flew into town unexpectedly this afternoon while you were out. Not to worry. He's quite pleased. Umm. I was hoping you could join us for dinner. Nothing so dull as two English blokes trading stories of the mother country, but then, we'll make do. See you tomorrow.
Beep. It's Cordelia. Pick up the phone, Angel. Damn. Look. Look, oh never mind. I'm coming over there.
Beep. Angel. Hi. It's me. I'm sorry that I just left like that. This has been a really difficult day for me. I feel trapped between two worlds. My old world and my borrowed world, as Lorne would call it. Maybe I should have tried to learn more before dragging you into this whole mess. In my dream, Angel, I have the clearest memory of you walking away from me, walking out of my life. And, truthfully, it was devastating. I feel out of time, out of my element. I feel that there's something not right, but I can't figure out what it is. Crazy, huh? But, you, you feel right to me.... I'm sorry. I'm taking up all the space on your machine, it's just easier to talk to you when I can't see you, can't see you looking at me... through me... into me. I'm sorry, Angel.
The message ended. Angel pressed rewind and listened to it again. And again. And a fourth time, until his doorbell rang and he was forced to press stop.
He pulled open the door into the hall and revealed Cordelia looking half-drunk and half-crazy.
Buffy wished she could reach through cyberspace or whatever space it was that contained her awful, naked message to Angel. Once she'd heard his machine kick in, she totally forgot the real reason she'd called him and started blabbering endlessly about herself and her feelings. Now, curled up on the chaise in her hotel room, an untouched room service dinner on a tray on the ottoman in front of her, Buffy reflected on the true purpose of her call. For someone who claimed not to be a vampire, Angel had certainly known an awful lot about them.
"Cordelia," Angel said, wedging himself between the half open door and the doorframe as if to prevent her admittance.
"Angel. Glad you're home," Cordelia slurred, confirming Angel's suspicion that she'd been drinking.
"Were you out with some friends, Cordelia?" Angel asked.
Cordelia snorted. "Yeah. Like I have so many of those. No wait, I have no friends. Because I gave all that up, didn't I, to follow you all over the place while you made it your mission to fix up every falling down building in North America."
Angel stepped back. He could see where this was going and while he didn't necessarily want to have this conversation in the first place, if Cordelia was going to insist, he definitely didn't want to have it in the hall. "Come inside, Cordelia."
Wobbling on her stacked heels, and hiking the hem of her skimpy skirt down, Cordelia teetered past Angel into his apartment.
Closing the door softly, Angel followed her. "Can I make you a cup of coffee? Tea?" Angel asked solicitously.
"Yeah, that'll make everything just dandy, Angel."
"Okay, what's up?" Angel asked, sitting on the leather sofa.
Cordelia sat gracelessly beside him and placed an unsteady hand on Angel's crotch. "Nothing. Yet."
Angel stood up and moved across the room. "Look, Cordelia. I am not going there with you, certainly not tonight and most certainly not in the state that you're in," Angel said, not unkindly.
"I don't get it, Angel. I mean, are you a monk or gay or what?"
Angel sighed. The last thing he needed after the day he'd just had was to have this conversation with Cordelia. He admired her skills as an assistant. He valued her contributions to his business. In a vague way, he supposed, he was aware of her considerable feminine charms. But Angel was not interested in her: not sexually, romantically, nor even as a companion to spend dull weekend evenings with. He liked things the way they were between them, friendly and professional and distant.
"Cordelia. I consider you a tremendous asset and I would hate to lose you. But I am not going down this road with you. If I've done anything to make you think that it was ever a possibility, I am truly sorry. It was not my intention to mislead you."
A gulping sob escaped Cordelia's mouth. "It's her, isn't it?"
"Who?" Angel asked, with no small measure of exasperation.
"That girl. The blonde one who was at the hotel yesterday. It's her, right?"
Angel shook his head. "I don't even know her, Cordelia," he said, gently.
Cordelia smiled sadly as she got to her feet. "Yes, you do." She walked unsteadily to the door and, hand on the knob, back to her boss, she whispered. "I'm sorry, Angel." Then she was gone.
That night Angel had a dream.
Billy Idol and an emotionally flawed brunette whispering cruelly in his ear.
A mansion on a hill with quiet cool rooms.
A lovely girl in a pale pink gown dancing, dancing with him.
Fluttering curtains, and a stuffed pig
A man slumped in a chair, bloody and broken: defiant, nevertheless.
Tenderness and love and regret, longing.
Power and rage and hate shuddering through his body always just below the surface.
No air to give her and she's dead.
Do you love me? Do you?
For a hundred years I offered an ugly death to everyone I met and I did it with a song in my heart.
...it means you belong to someone.
Angel woke with a start. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness in his room, as he made silent contact with the bureau, the chair, the window and the twinkling city lights beyond, the remnants of the dream washed over him; chilling him and soothing him at once.
Rolling over, he reached for the alarm clock. 4:17 am. Convinced he would not find sleep again, Angel crawled out of the bed and headed for the shower.
Buffy sat curled up in the armchair, a blanket wrapped around her legs. She hadn't eaten and she hadn't slept, but she craved neither food nor sleep. Her body was thrumming with life, the residual energy from earlier that day.
He hadn't said so, but Buffy knew that Angel was confused by the discoveries they'd made that day and the mysteries they had yet to solve. She knew how it must feel to suddenly find out you weren't who you thought you were. Buffy imagined it must be a bit like having amnesia, little pieces of your life coming back to you in no particular order.
There was a part of her that longed to be satisfied with this one-dimensional life she'd been living. There was nothing wrong with it. She was a college student with a handful of friends, a decent GPA, a mother who loved her. There wasn't anything wrong with her life. She'd been dating a TA named Riley, a decent guy who really seemed to care for her. But scratch below the surface of any of this and there wasn't much substance.
Lorne had said that he wasn't able to help them anymore. He'd also said that there was someone else- or something else- ready to rectify the situation as it stood. Buffy wondered how she and Angel were supposed to find this other person.
Drawing her knees up to her chest, and resting her chin on the ledge she'd created, Buffy thought back to the incredibly real dream she'd had that afternoon. It suddenly occurred to her that she couldn't remember whether she and Riley had ever consummated their relationship. The nerve endings along her spine snapped to attention: She was quite certain that Angel was the only man to have ever touched her so intimately. Buffy closed her eyes, reached out to the memory of the memory and hugged it close.
Angel arrived at the Hyperion with the first of the workers. It was not quite seven o'clock and he was already dreading the long day ahead of him. He wondered how Cordelia would deal with last night's events. He wondered how he'd deal with Cordelia.
The lobby was dazzling in the early morning light that flooded in through the bank of windows along the east wall of the hotel. Angel stopped to admire the work they'd managed to accomplish over these past few months. Actually, Angel was amazed at just how much had been completed in his short absence yesterday.
Recognizing the voice, Angel turned with a smile. "Rupert," he said, extending his hand.
Rupert Giles took the offered hand and shook it firmly. "It's lovely, Angel. Really. Better than I could have hoped."
"Thank you, Rupert. But I didn't do it all by myself, you know," Angel said.
"Modesty doesn't become you," Rupert said, taking off his wire-rimmed glasses and polishing them with an oversized handkerchief. "I'm sorry that I came unannounced. I had a sudden desire for sunshine. British springs are so damp and miserable."
"Have you been upstairs?" Angel asked.
"Yes, actually. I was here fairly early. Had the whole place to myself. Well, me and my assistant," Giles smiled.
"Oh. Didn't know you had one," Angel said.
"Yes, I suddenly felt the need for one. She's around here somewhere, peeking into closets and making copious notes."
"Coffee?" Angel asked.
"Tea, if you could manage," Rupert said.
"No problem. Come on back." Angel led the way behind the front desk and into the office. At a small sink, he filled the kettle and plugged it in. He readied Wesley's teapot and checked the insides of a couple of mugs he found. Just as the water started to boil there was a knock on the wall beside the open door.
"Giles. Are you in there?"
"Yes. Come on in," Rupert replied.
Into the room stepped Rupert's assistant. "This is..."
"Willow," Angel said.
"Willow," Giles said simultaneously.
Willow stood still, the dust floating by her face, her expressive green eyes locked onto Angel's, the hissing kettle the only sound in the room. A beat and then:
"You know each other?" Rupert asked.
"No," Angel said. "Yes."
"Yes," Willow said.
"Splendid," Rupert said, moving toward the screeching kettle, unplugging it and pouring its contents into the teapot. "Tea, Willow?" he asked, reaching for another mug.
"That'd be great, Giles," she replied, pulling a chair up to a small table. Placing a fingertip across her lips, she cautioned Angel with her eyes.
There was something Angel should know. He felt it, like a name he couldn't quite recall, but was waiting to be said, on the very tip of his tongue. He waited for the jolt of recognition, the shimmer of light behind a closed door, knowledge.
Giles set the steaming mugs down on the table.
"There's milk in the frig if you need it, " Angel said, without taking his eyes from Willow's face.
"Great. Sugar, too, if you have it," Willow said sweetly.
"I'll wean you from sugar in your tea yet, Willow," Rupert griped.
Giles took milk from the frig, and searched the cupboard for the sugar and returned with them to the table. A cell phone went off and all three checked to see whose it was.
"Me," Rupert said. He pressed a button on the cell and said, "Yes." Willow and Angel watched while he listened and then, covering the mouthpiece, he whispered, "Sorry, I have to take this," and left the room.
"Do you know me?" Angel asked, immediately.
"Yes," Willow smiled, sympathetically.
"How do you know me?" Angel asked, hating the needy sound of his voice.
"Angel, you'll have to trust that, while now is not the time to spill everything I know..." she paused to incline her head toward the door, " I do know you."
"Are you here to help me?" Angel whispered.
"I'll do what I can. Have you seen her?"
Willow laughed and it was a joyful sound. "Of course, Buffy. Who else?"
Angel nodded his head.
"How is it that you know me? I mean up until a couple days ago I thought that I knew me...only to discover that I have this whole other life...that I'm a vampire in this other life..." Angel said the word vampire as if it were distasteful.
Willow rested a mug-warmed hand on Angle's forearm and squeezed. "The world is complicated, Angel, that's true. But you can't fight destiny. You can't argue with fate. You did that and it changed everything. What you have to do now is change it back."
"I don't understand," Angel said.
Withdrawing her hand and glancing up at the door Willow said, "You will. I promise."
Cordelia awoke with a blinding headache and a belly full of remorse. The digital alarm assured her that she was late, but she made no move to get up from the bed.
"I am an idiot," she thought. "A complete freakin' idiot."
Not normally an impulsive person, the fourth margarita had convinced her that Angel would take one look at her soulful brown eyes and want her immediately. How whacked was that? Cordelia groaned. She was pretty sure she'd put her hand on his crotch. Was that sexual harassment? Could he fire her for that?
"I could call in sick," she thought. "I could call Wes on his cell and tell him I'm sick."
Dumb plan because she couldn't stay sick forever. Sooner or later she'd have to face Angel. And sooner than that, she'd have to face herself.
Buffy sipped the hot coffee and watched the streets below her come to life. She loved Los Angeles. She loved feeling anonymous. Why was it that she loved the idea that she could walk out into the crowded streets and disappear?
The ringing phone startled her and she reached for it quickly.
"Buffy," Angel said, his voice like velvet.
"Can we get together?" Angel asked. "There's someone I think you should meet."
"Okay, when?" Buffy asked.
"How about ten o'clock?" Angel said, indicating where Buffy should meet him.
"Are you going to give me a hint?" Buffy asked.
"No, I don't think I will." Angel said.
By ten o'clock the day was positively steamy. Every breath that Buffy sucked into her lungs felt full of moisture. Despite her choice of attire: mini-skirt, tank, sandals, Buffy felt over-dressed. As she watched Angel approach, flanked by a red-haired girl, she wondered how he managed to look so cool in his long-sleeved black shirt and long black pants.
Face to face with the girl, Buffy recognized her immediately and wasn't sure how to react. For the Slayer, Willow Rosenberg was an important person: confidante, best friend, ally. In this life she was a mirage. Willow, however, gave Buffy no opportunity to over-analyze: she hugged her close.
"Weird, eh?" Willow said.
"Again with the understatement," Buffy smiled, cautiously.
Angel motioned to a grassy spot beneath a large elm and the trio moved to its shade.
"How do you fit into all of this?" Angel asked, impatiently.
Willow smiled. "It's actually not important how I fit into all this, not really. I'm a very small piece of the equation." She paused, and then continued. "You made a choice, Angel. It wasn't the right one. It upset the balance of things. See, in this life you're just some business guy who uses money to refurbish buildings. You live alone, you eat alone, you have sex alone..." Willow stopped and had the grace to blush. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Angel said.
"In the other life you're a warrior. You fight for the benefit of all mankind and, in some ways, for your own personal salvation. You balance good and evil. Angel, you fight with Buffy and because of Buffy."
Buffy looked up from the grass she'd been picking at and said, "And me?"
"You're the Slayer, Buffy. The one girl in all the world chosen to fight vampires and demons. In this life, you're just a girl."
"But what's wrong with being just a girl? What if I don't want to be a vampire slayer?" Buffy argued.
"You can't fight destiny. In the end, you just can't. And that's the deal with you two: Your souls are bound together for all eternity. This, all this, is like an illusion. It's not fake, really, but it's not flesh and blood either."
"Are you trying to say that none of this is real?" Angel asked, incredulously.
"The world operates on many different levels, Angel," Willow said, solicitously. "Not everything is as it seems."
Buffy nodded. "I get that now, sort of. But I don't get how it's supposed to change."
"It's complicated, I know. A few of the players are still missing, but then everything will fall into place. Trust me," Willow said.
The air was full of smoke. Angel could smell blood all around him, blood and death and acrid smoke. His muscles were sore from the battle; he was not yet fully healed from Faith's poisoned arrow, although he suspected that he was in better shape than Buffy. She was a constant source of amazement to him, a constant source of joy.
Angel moved through the firefighters and emergency medical technicians and injured students and frantic parents. His eyes burned. Where was she? Little fingers of panic crawled up the column of his spine, one vertebrae at a time. He was about to scream her name when he saw her.
Just standing. Just waiting. And, for a moment, Angel wondered how he could give her up.
He searched for her eyes through the haze and confusion and for a second, time stretched...a long, silken strand binding each to the other.
Words formed in his head, but he could give them no voice. He didn't move. A breeze carried the ash-filled night across her beautiful face and he took a step back.
Beyond Buffy's shoulder he could see Willow. From this distance her eyes looked as black as the night, but she was smiling at him. And he knew. Knew it all.
Without hesitating he moved toward Buffy, watched her eyes fill with wary surprise, watched the tears course down her face, trails of silver in the soot.
Close but not touching, he whispered, "What if I didn't walk away? What if I had the courage to stay?
"Have you?" Buffy whispered, hooking her little finger to his.
"I do," he said simply.
Angel woke up. He felt disoriented, exhausted. These dreams seemed more real each time he had one. He was normally a man who slept like the dead and it was disconcerting to be visited nightly by the ghosts of this other life. He sat up, the covers falling from his naked chest, and rubbed his hand across tired eyes.
In the dark room he wondered: is this what I did, walk away? Fought the good fight and then just walked away? What kind of a man was I? A harsh gasp escaped his mouth: He wasn't actually a man at all. Was that the problem?
Why did it seem that each clue made the puzzle seem more unsolvable? The dream at Lorne's had given him a sense of what his "other" life had been all about. Now this dream seemed to indicate a way in which he might fix things, but Angel had to admit that the guides sent to them by whomever was pulling the marionette strings had been cryptic, at best. Angel had always considered himself to be a simple, direct man and a man very much in charge of his own direction in life. Letting very few people in made it easier to come and go as he chose. Now, suddenly, there was a woman.
The dreams certainly seemed to indicate that, in this other life, she was important; no, beyond that, essential. But he had, indeed, walked away. Angel was pretty sure why he'd chosen to leave Buffy and Sunnydale behind, but he wasn't sure how that decision led to this life. And he wasn't sure, exactly, what he was supposed to do about it.
Dozing in the armchair, in front of the window overlooking the city, Buffy felt muddled when someone knocked sharply. She stood stiffly and stretched as she padded over to the door. Pulling it open, she was both surprised and not to find Angel standing there.
"Sorry, it's late," he started, drinking in the sight of her in pink satin drawstring pants and a tank. "I wasn't thinking of the time. I can come back."
Buffy reached out and took his hand, drawing him into the dark hotel room.
"It's okay. I wasn't sleeping, just resting. Sometimes I feel like I can go for days with hardly any sleep at all and then have to sleep for a week."
Angel nodded absently and surveyed the hotel room. "I just...I had some questions and I...well, it would appear that you're the only one who has any answers that don't sound like Morse code."
"I'm not sure how true that is," Buffy said, reaching under a shade to turn on a lamp.
"Leave it," Angel said, " if you don't mind?"
Nodding her head, Buffy returned to her armchair and curled her legs up underneath her. Angel sat on the ottoman.
"Where to start?" Angel said, softly.
Buffy watched him intently, but didn't say a word. Being near to him now, after their shared trance at Lorne's, was sensory overload. It didn't matter where she looked: collar, sleeve, shoe, what Buffy saw was the naked skin beneath.
"How did you know how to find Lorne?" Angel said. "Let's start there."
"There's this store in Sunnydale called The Magic Box. When I started having these dreams I was a little freaked and I went in there to see if I could find a book on hallucinating or past lives or reincarnation, you know, something to help me. The girl who owns the place, Anya, was really anxious to help me buy as many books as I needed, and when she saw the types of books I was after, she said she knew a great psychic in LA if I was interested. I took his name. When I was pretty sure I had found you, I contacted him."
"What about Willow? You didn't seem especially surprised when you saw her today," Angel asked.
"She's a bit trickier. She was in my dreams. My best friend in my dreams. She seems to have made the transition from that life to this life quite nicely, hasn't she?"
Angel nodded. "Does it make you wonder whether other people we're connected to have any part in this whole drama?"
"Sure. But I'm so weirded out I sometimes think the guy at the Doublemeat Palace knows me just a little better than he should."
Angel laughed. "That sounds right."
"What, that I should know the Doublemeat Palace guy?"
"No, the way you said that, the way you made a joke. It sounds familiar."
"Oh," Buffy smiled. "Actually, I'm way funny in that world. I make with the joking all the time. In this world, I feel as though I'm on prozac. What about you?"
"Me, no. I'm not typically funny in this life."
"You aren't in the other life, either," Buffy said, with a gentle smile.
"Tell me," Angel said. "Tell me about...well, me."
Buffy shook her head. "I don't know if I can do that, Angel."
"It's asking a lot, I know, but when I look in the mirror I don't know who's looking back at me, business guy Angel or vampire Angel."
"Gee, I'd be nervous if those were my choices, too," Buffy quipped.
"Again with the funny," Angel said, his mouth curving into a beautiful smile.
"That," Buffy said, her laughter dying.
"That smile. I remember that. You smiled so rarely. And usually, when you did, it was only for me and I can't explain to you what it was like...to stand in that smile. You have no idea what it was like to be the one..." Buffy's voice broke and she glanced out the window in an attempt to hide sudden tears.
"What one?" Angel asked gently.
Buffy turned shining eyes back to Angel and whispered, "The one you loved."
They talked until the sun spilled over the edge of the horizon, its beautiful pink glow painting the city inch by inch. Buffy could barely keep her eyes open, her eyelids felt like sandpaper rubbing mercilessly against vulnerable eyes. But, despite her exhaustion, she felt happy. Maybe this Angel wasn't a champion, but he was a good man. What prevented them from just staying here, in this life?
"I should go," Angel said, as he watched Buffy's lovely eyes fight to stay open.
"Don't..." Buffy murmured. "Stay."
Angel slid his muscular arms under Buffy's slight form and carried her effortlessly to the bed. She burrowed into his chest, sighed deeply, and snuggled closer.
"Just until I fall asleep, Angel," she said softly.
"Okay," Angel replied, pulling the sheet up to her waist.
In seconds her breath was deep, even, peaceful. A part of him wanted to lie beside her, trace the curves of shoulder and hip and thigh with his fingertips, to run his fingers through her golden hair, to awaken her with a kiss, to watch her pull herself up out of sleep like a flower: petals unfolding and reaching toward him like he was a sun.
And another part of him, a smaller part admittedly, wanted to stand, just like this, and watch her.
Placing a gentle kiss on her forehead, Angel slipped out of the room.
After quick shower and cup of coffee, Angel made his way to the Hyperion. It felt as though he hadn't been there for days, had neglected his duties and the people who worked for him. Guilt, then, was responsible for the two large boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts he set down on the front desk.
"Cordelia? Wesley?" Angel called as he went behind the front desk and into the office.
Cordelia was on the phone and she looked up with an expression that could only be described as horrified.
Angel smiled. No point in making her feel any worse than he knew she already did. If the mere fact that she had come on to him didn't make her feel terrible, the booze certainly would have done the trick.
As Angel was glancing through a pile of phone messages, Wesley entered the office with his arms full of boxes and a mouth full of donut.
"Good morning, Wesley," Angel laughed.
"Good morning," Wesley mumbled around the chocolate glazed confection. Setting the boxes down on his desk, he removed the remains of the donut. "Good morning," he repeated.
"So, where are we?" Angel asked.
"Actually, we're in pretty good shape. The cleaners have already completed the top floor and should start their descent today. Spike will complete his work today."
"Spike?" Angel asked.
"The guy who's doing the ceramics in the lobby bathrooms. It's beautiful work. The man is absolutely poetic with tiles," Wesley smiled. He loved details and anyone who paid attention to them.
Cordelia hung up the phone and came to stand next to Wesley. "Who brought donuts?" she inquired.
"That was me," Angel admitted.
"You? You brought donuts?" Cordelia asked incredulously, some of the good-natured sarcasm she was famous for, evident in her voice. "Since when do you bring donuts?"
Angel shrugged. "Since I realized that I under-value the people I work with," he said.
"Any jelly-filled left?" Cordelia asked.
"The construction workers were doing some serious damage out there when I came through," Wesley said, as Cordelia headed toward the front desk, "so I grabbed you one."
Cordelia turned back with a Grand Canyon smile. "Thanks, Wes. And, thank you, Angel," she said, hoping her words conveyed much more than a cursory acknowledgement of the pastry.
"It's okay," Angel said, making direct eye contact with Cordelia. "Now, what's on the agenda for today?"
It was nearly noon when Buffy opened her eyes. She felt utterly rested and peaceful. Stretching like a cat in the pool of sunshine that skidded across her bed, Buffy reached for the phone.
Dialing the number she had already committed to memory, she waited patiently while it rang at the other end.
"Hyperion Hotel," a feminine voice said, cheerfully.
"May I speak with Angel, please. If he's there."
Less cheerful, but not quite rude, the voice said: "One moment, please." Buffy heard rustling as a hand was placed over the mouthpiece and a muffled, "Angel." More shuffling and then his voice.
"Good morning. Are you busy?"
Angel watched Cordelia duck her head back to the paperwork she'd been sorting through. "No, not busy," he replied, inordinately glad to hear her voice.
"I know that I've really messed up your deadlines, and everything, but I think we should arrange to see Willow again."
"You're probably right. I actually might be seeing her this afternoon when she comes by with Rupert."
Buffy swallowed. "Pardon me?"
"Rupert. Willow works with the man who is buying the Hyperion when it's all finished, Rupert Giles."
Buffy was silent.
"Buffy, are you okay?"
"Angel, what time are you expecting them?" Buffy asked.
"Around three, I think. Why?"
"Do you mind if I come over there, be there when they arrive?"
"No, of course not, come on over. Do you mind telling me what's going on?" Angel asked.
"Do you mind if I wait? I just want to be sure," Buffy said.
"Okay. Well, then, I'll see you around three."
Buffy hung up the phone and felt nervous excitement prickling her skin. Could it be true that the dream world and this world were colliding, she wondered. Could this Rupert Giles be her Rupert Giles?
Buffy entered the lobby of the Hyperion just before three. A hundred butterflies fluttered through her stomach and she quickly scanned the room looking for Angel. Spotting him did nothing to calm the butterflies, in fact, if it were possible, they were joined by a hundred more.
Standing by the front desk, the sunshine glancing off his steep cheek, his head tilted back in laughter, Angel was a vision. In her dreams, he was always a creature of the moonlight; a beautiful shadow hidden by the night. Whatever was to happen, Buffy wasn't sure she could ask him to give this up: his moment in the sun, to join her in the other life, a life led in darkness. She stood, palms tingling, and waited for him to see her.
Seconds later he acknowledged her arrival with a smile and moved to join her.
"Hi, Buffy," he said, grazing his finger across the back of her hand.
"Hi," she replied, aware of the finger and aware of the electricity making its way up the backs of her legs, through her crotch and into her stomach, setting the butterflies into motion once more.
"Rupert and Willow haven't arrived yet. Can I give you a little tour?"
"Sure, I'd like that," Buffy said.
He took her through the wide archway that led to the dining room: a splendid space with huge windows overlooking the courtyard that was a riot of spring colours. He walked her though the industrial kitchen, with its state-of-the-art stainless steel appliances, still covered in a thin layer of plaster dust. He took her up, via the service elevator, to the top floor, clean and sparkling, waiting for the beds and bureaus to arrive. They descended the wide marble steps back into the lobby and Angel said, "I just want to check out the bathrooms. Apparently something poetic is happening in there. Come on." He pushed the door of the men's bathroom open and Buffy followed him inside.
A bleached blonde head was bent over a selection of Italian ceramic tiles.
"Hi, "Angel said, "you must be Spike."
The man uncurled himself and stood. "I am, mate," he said, turning. "And you must be...Angel." The name left his mouth in a smirk.
Angel nodded uncomfortably. "This is...."
"Buffy. I know," the blonde man said, appraising Buffy lasciviously.
Just then, the door opened and Willow's red head poked through. "Oh, great, you've met. Come on then."
Angel and Buffy exchanged glances. Spike cocked his head and eyebrow simultaneously and moved past them.
"Come on you two. This is going to be entertaining." Spike pulled open the bathroom door and went out into the lobby.
"Do you know him?" Buffy asked Angel.
"I don't know. On some level I recognize him. Maybe I've used him before for some work or something," Angel shrugged. "Could this possibly get any more complicated?"
"How?" Buffy laughed. "But remember when we were talking and we wondered whether people from my dream world would actually turn up in this one? Well, I guess what with Willow and now, potentially, Spike we have the answer to that question."
Angel pulled open the bathroom door and stepped back to let Buffy out. The lobby was suspiciously empty of workers, but Willow was standing in the middle of the room facing away from them, talking to Spike. Cordelia and Wesley worried in the corner, whispering back and forth. And across the lobby, settled in a chair covered in protective plastic, reading a folded up newspaper, was Rupert Giles.
"Oh my God," Buffy whispered.
"What? What's wrong?" Angel asked.
Buffy inclined her head toward Giles. "Is that him? Is that your Rupert Giles?"
Angel nodded his confirmation and watched in dismay as Buffy's eyes filled with tears.
"Well, he's mine, too. My Watcher."
Willow clapped her hands sharply and then motioned for her to join them. "We're just waiting for one other person..."
A strange voice interrupted, "Did someone order a pizza?"
"And here he is," Willow finished, consulting her wristwatch. "Right on time."
Paper plates and napkins littered the floor of the Hyperion's lobby.
"I'm stuffed," Spike said, reaching for the package of smokes he kept tucked under the short sleeve of his t-shirt. "Can't remember a pizza ever tasting so good."
"Oh, I'm sorry, there's no smoking in the hotel," Wesley said.
"It's okay," Rupert said. "Let him smoke." He'd barely touched his pizza, barely taken his eyes off Buffy as she'd nibbled at the crust of her one and only slice.
The newest member of the group had wolfed down four pieces of the pie and then, spotting the Krispy Kreme box on the front desk, moved surreptitiously toward it.
"I think we should get started," Willow said.
"Started with what?" the new guy said, his mouth dusted with powdered sugar. "I'm just waiting for my money."
"Xander, shut up and sit down, would you?" Willow said sternly.
"Doing that right now," Xander mumbled.
"Willow, what is going on here?" Giles said, looking strangely uncomfortable with Willow's position of authority.
"I'm sorry, Rupert. You'll just need to be patient while I explain what's going on," Willow said. "I know it must be disconcerting for some of you to be here without fully understanding why. Buffy and Angel have a better sense of what's going on. Spike, well, you're more of a liability than anything, but I had no choice..."
Spike winked lewdly, making Buffy's skin crawl.
"Giles, I know that this is difficult for you. I mean you thought I was this great assistant and everything..."
Rubbing his glasses absently, Giles said, "Not so great actually," and then he smiled, to soften the comment.
"Actually, what I am great at, as it turns out, is witchcraft," Willow said, with no small amount of pride evident in her voice.
"What about me?" Cordelia whined. "How did I get mixed up in all of this?"
"It's just the hand you were dealt, Cordelia" Willow said, sympathetically.
"Were you going to get somewhere, Willow?" Giles asked.
Willow's face fell. "Yes. I just...well, liked being the boss, for once..."
From her pocket, Willow withdrew a small crystal and a suede pouch. Placing them on the floor in front of her she said: "A little ways back Angel made a decision that changed the course of all our lives. You wouldn't think that possible, would you, but as Ray Bradbury wrote in A Sound of Thunder it really takes very little. Angel is important to the future. I know this because I had a dream. I saw what happens to all of us," she made eye contact with each person in the room, "and I decided to intervene."
"What do you mean...all of us?" Xander said. "I deliver pizza. I don't know what you people do, but I just deliver pizza."
Willow smiled at Xander as if he was a small child. "Yes, in this life that's what you do, but this isn't really your life."
Xander shook his head in confusion. "I don't get it?"
Willow smiled. "I conjured up this world, sort of a parallel dimension. It wasn't meant to last forever, eventually it would all fall away. The magick is only strong if we're together. Things had all fallen apart and I needed to fix them."
"I'm still not sure I understand, Willow," Buffy said.
"You said you couldn't breathe, remember?" Willow said.
"I remember," Buffy said, meeting Angel's eyes.
"I wanted you to want to find him," Willow said, softly. "I wasn't sure that you would do it on your own, so I did a little spell," she made her thumb and index finger illustrate the size of the spell, "to push you along. All I did, really, is create this little world where you'd go looking for Angel."
"I did want to find you," Buffy said, her eyes never leaving Angel's face.
"So, this is all fake then?" Spike asked. "Bloody hell, no wonder my back aches."
"So I never...?" Cordelia said.
Willow smiled, "Yes, Cordy, I'm afraid you did."
"Crap," Cordelia said under her breath.
"We're all here because we play a part in the Slayer's life, some of us to a greater extent than others. After you left, Angel, I did a spell."
"Wait a minute, you did a spell and made me human?" Angel asked.
"No. That I don't get. A side-effect maybe."
"And all this," Angel waved his hand. "A side-effect?"
Willow shrugged. "I got you together, didn't I?" she said, plaintively. "Clearly, I am more powerful than I thought. My spell just sort of created these alternate lives for all of us. I don't know why you're not a vampire."
Giles cleared his throat and said, "At this point I feel I should interject," He drifted closer to the group seated on the floor. "Are you sure it's wise to meddle in the affairs of the universe, Willow?"
"I'm not meddling, really, more like fiddling," she looked down at the crystal and pouch and picked them up. Handing them to Angel she said, "You'll need these to set things right, Angel. But I suppose you'll want to think about it...I mean, now that there's something to think about."
"Think about what?" Buffy asked.
Taking the objects from Willow, Angel nodded. The fact that he was human and that Willow had had nothing to do with that, was making him nervous. Something wasn't right about any of this and yet he felt like the decision had been taken from him. If he decided to stay here, Angel had the sinking feeling that Buffy would not be staying with him.
"Can I just get my money and get back to work, please?" Xander said.
"Oh, for God's sake!" Cordelia said, reaching for her purse and yanking two twenties from her wallet. "Here!"
Xander reached for the money and rolled his eyes, "Gee, thanks. Can I go, oh great witchie-poo?" he asked Willow.
"You're free to do as you wish," Willow said, breezily.
"Later, then," said Xander as he walked through the lobby and out into the late afternoon sunshine.
"Come with me back to my place?" Angel asked Buffy.
Nodding, Buffy stood and followed Angel out the door.
Willow glanced around at the remaining players in her drama and smiled.
Buffy wasn't surprised that, as soon as he'd shut the door behind him, Angel pulled her against his chest.
"I'm sorry, Buffy," he whispered into her hair. "I am so sorry for leaving."
"Don't be, Angel. You did what you had to do and, in my heart, I forgave you."
"I'm not sure I've forgiven myself, though," he said, dropping a kiss onto her honeyed hair.
Snaking her hands between them and using his hard chest as leverage to tilt her body back so she could see him, Buffy said, "You have more important things to think about, right now, Angel."
"More important than this?" Angel said, moving his face nearer.
Buffy's heart began to race. She wasn't sure she could stand this much intimacy without spontaneously combusting like a Spinal Tap drummer.
"Angel," she said. "I..."
"Listen to me, just for a minute, before you try to talk me out of doing anything," Angel said, taking Buffy's hand and leading her to the couch.
Seated across from him, her hand still held protectively in his much larger one, Buffy was struck with a thought. I would have loved you anyway. Even if I weren't the Slayer and you weren't a vampire, I would still love you. Drifting back to the sound of Angel's voice, Buffy was acutely aware of the heat of him, of his thumb pressing lazy circles on the back of her hand, of the longing in his hooded eyes.
"Kiss me," she said.
Angel smiled, a small smile that tugged at one corner of his wide mouth just a little; a smile that was almost a smirk and so familiar Buffy almost cried. Without letting go of her hand, Angel leaned forward and pressed his mouth firmly against hers: a chaste kiss, a promise.
Buffy could do nothing to prevent the tears, now. She felt them slide down her cheeks, into their joined mouths, felt Angel's tongue slip from his own mouth discreetly, to lap at them delicately, felt his fingers on her face trying to stem the flow, felt his body shudder with recognition as she pressed her own aching body closer.
"Buffy," he moaned into her mouth.
"Please, Angel," Buffy said against his mouth. "Don't try to talk me out of this."
Small, nimble fingers worked their way up the front of Angel's silk shirt, releasing buttons as they went. Slipping her hands inside the material, Buffy marveled at the heat where she half expected to find cool, hard flesh. She took a breath and bent forward to place a wet kiss at the hollow of Angel's throat.
Sliding the shirt over muscular shoulders and arms, Buffy felt panic well up inside her. How would Angel ever be able to choose if they went any further? She banished the thought. How can I not touch him? Her hands reached for the snap on his pants and it was there that Angel's hand stilled her own.
He tilted her head up, kissed her tenderly and shook his head. "Not here, Buffy. I am not going to make love to you on a couch, like some teenager."
"I don't care, Angel."
In the bedroom, naked, they were solemn. They stood, illuminated by the twilight, fingers touching fingers, eyes searching for proof. Not a word was spoken. In silence, Angel lay her down. In silence, he adored her. He had the chance to make up to her all his past shortcomings: that he hadn't been man enough, hadn't been strong enough, hadn't loved her enough to overcome.
So now, as she lay vulnerable to his fingers and lips and tongue, as he pushed his own need away, as he worshipped her, pulling her along a path to release and salvation, setting her down gently and then pulling her along again, Angel had only one thought: I can't go back to the darkness.
Blinded by tears, Buffy cried out, not when Angel entered her, but when she could no longer feel him inside.
He watched her for endless minutes, after she had finally fallen asleep. He could barely bring himself to leave the warmth of their shared bed, but he had to leave, while he had the strength. If he dared to touch her; place his palm across her supple back, or cup her rounded breast, or run a finger along her love-swollen labia he would not be able to go. He lay on his side, breathing in the air she exhaled as though his life depended on it.
"Buffy," he whispered to her sleeping form. "I think I once told you that in 243 years you were the only person I'd ever loved. It's true. It's you. Just you."
Kissing each eyelid, Angel rose quietly from the bed, grabbed pants and shirt from the floor, and left the room.
The crystal and pouch were in his jacket pocket and Angel retrieved them and went into his study. Switching on a little light over his desk, he opened the pouch and reached his fingers inside. Powder of some sort and a piece of paper. He unfolded the paper and read:
"Pour a counter clockwise circle with the powder and sit inside of the circle holding the crystal in your right hand. Patience is a virtue."
Pushing his reading chair out of the way and lamenting, for just a second, about the powder sinking into the deep pile of his Oriental rug, Angel followed Willow's instructions.
Folding his long legs into a classic yoga meditation pose and holding the crystal in his right hand, Angel waited.
He must have fallen asleep; that's what he thought when he opened his eyes only to discover that he was sitting in a circle of salt in his den. He felt stiff all over, his hand a cramped claw around the crystal.
"I must have done something wrong," Angel said to himself, unfolding his numb legs and pushing himself off the floor. "How could I do something wrong? The instructions weren't exactly rocket science."
Angel left the den and made his way back to the bedroom. Stifling a yawn, he pushed open the door for a look at Buffy to discover:
No Buffy. No evidence of Buffy. A bed made so snugly a quarter bounced on the spread would have easily hit the ceiling. No smell of Buffy. No. Buffy.
It occurred to her, as she made yet another heartless pass through the cemetery, that this was getting old. While most teens couldn't wait to grow up, move on, Buffy felt as though her high school years had flashed before her eyes: a train wreck.
She had nothing to hold on to and the one person she thought she could count on was gone. Left her. But Buffy couldn't think about that, not now, not when she needed to concentrate on the silent night.
She hadn't been sleeping well. She'd been having such weird dreams. Detailed dreams, where she was just a normal girl and he was a normal guy and they walked together in the sunshine. And last night...Buffy blushed just thinking about the way he'd split her open like fruit, sucking the very last bit of nectar from her until she'd screamed for him to stop. And, God, he hadn't stopped.
But it had only been a dream and Buffy had awoken feeling even sadder than before. Before the sewer talk and before the prom and before he had told her that when it was over, he wasn't even going to say goodbye. And now he was gone and there was only one thing Buffy knew for sure: that old 'time heals all' thing was crap.
Angel called the Hilton and asked for Buffy's room.
"I'm sorry, sir," a sterile voice informed him, " there's no Buffy Summers registered at this hotel."
Angel swallowed his panic. 'You mean she's checked out."
"No, there has never been a Buffy Summers staying here."
Angel called Wesley. "Where's Rupert Giles staying?"
"Angel are you aware of the time," Wesley said, sleepily.
"Wes, this is important, where is he?"
"Angel, he's not even due in LA for another week. Are you alright?"
"No. No, I don't think I am," Angel said, placing the receiver softly in its cradle.
Grabbing a jacket and his keys, Angel flew out the door.
"I'm coming already," Cordelia said, making her way from her bedroom to her front door and yanking it open after checking the view through the peephole. "Angel," she said. "What are you doing here? It's three o'clock in the morning."
"Cordelia, I need to ask you something. I'm not trying to embarrass you, but I need you to tell me the truth."
Cordelia clutched her robe tighter and nodded, "Okay. Shoot."
"Did you come by my place a couple nights ago, drunk?"
"I thought you said you weren't going to embarrass me. I thought we'd put that little...miscalculation behind us," Cordelia said with a frown.
"So, you did come by? You were drunk?"
"Well, yes. But only a teensy bit drunk and only a teensy bit...okay, way out of line," Cordelia said. "I don't understand why we have to talk about this now, at three o'clock in the morning, when I'm all sleep-ugly."
"Did I tell you why I wasn't interested in pursuing a relationship with you?" Angel asked.
"No, as a matter of fact, I told you."
"You told me? How's that?" Angel said.
"You know, I ...touched you...inappropriately, my hand slipped..." Cordelia started. "Then I knew. I had like this premonition or something...of this girl, this blonde girl...and I knew," Cordelia hung her head and whispered, "I knew you weren't available, not to me."
"Okay," Angel said. "I'm sorry to put you on the spot. And I'm sorry if I hurt you."
Cordelia shook her head, "I'm alright, Angel. I should be apologizing to you."
Angel reached out and took Cordelia's hand and gave it a quick squeeze. "I am sorry."
Cordelia smiled. "Don't be, Angel, things aren't meant to be different. Things are what they are."
On the street, Angel consulted his wristwatch and decided that he didn't have any time to spare. Climbing back into his sleek Tercel, he headed north.
"Alright, already. Holy Mary Mother of Merciful..." and the door opened to reveal, Lorne.
"Okay, something really freaky is going on," Angel said, pushing his way past Lorne and into the room beyond.
"Yes, indeedy," Lorne said. "You woke me up. There's nothing more freaky than that."
"Do you know what's going on?" Angel said, stepping menacingly into Lorne's personal space.
"Dollface, I see all...well, not all, but most. What did you think...poof, it would all just magically right itself?"
Angel shrugged, "Well, yeah, sort of, I guess."
Moving to a small bar and uncorking a bottle of scotch, Lorne said, " Oh, if only life were that simple."
"But my life was that simple, Lorne. This life. Not that life."
"Ahh, well, there's the rub," Lorne said with a small smile. "In this one instance, you can't have your cake and eat it, too."
"But I was going to go back. I was going to set things right. I had the crystal and the powder for the circle...and I did the circle and nothing happened."
Lorne shook his head, "Pffft. That magic wasn't gonna get you anywhere. And besides, that's not quite all you did is it, lover?"
"What are you talking about?" Angel said. "You can't mean that there was a no sex clause in this life, too."
Lorne shrugged and swallowed his scotch. "I don't make the rules."
"Well, who in the hell does?"
"That would be me," said a voice from the dark hall.
"Angel, I'd like you to meet Fred, an emissary for the Oracles."
She was a small, wisp of a thing: a twig Angel felt he could snap in two with his bare hands. Her long brown hair was twisted haphazardly into one long plait down her back. She stood, regarding him with extreme interest, occasionally pushing her glasses back up her nose with a skinny index finger.
"You're an emissary? For the," he looked back at Lorne.
"The Oracles," Lorne whispered.
"The Oracles," repeated Angel to Fred.
She shrugged delicately. "It's a temporary position, really."
"Shall we sit?" Lorne suggested.
Fred nodded and moved to one of several chairs grouped around a low, glass table piled with magazines.
"I'm sure you have questions," Fred said, before Angel had even settled into his own chair. "And I'm sure I can provide you with answers."
"You're not the first person that has made that particular promise," Angel said, tightly.
Fred rolled her eyes and pushed at her glasses again. "We did have some unexpected interference."
Angel shot a look at Lorne.
"Oh, not me, dollface," Lorne said, swirling his scotch and smiling broadly.
"Willow?" Angel asked
"Yes. Her intentions were good. She apparently decided to conjure her own alternate reality, but it undermined what we were trying to accomplish. Wiccas, they're all razzle dazzle, no substance."
"So are you saying all this has been a dream?" Angel said, incredulously.
"No, not exactly," Fred replied.
"But some of it?" Angel asked.
"Some of it, yes," Fred conceded.
"Who in the hell am I?" Angel said, with no small measure of exasperation evident in his voice.
"You're Angel, of course," Fred replied, as though that fact should have been the most obvious thing of all.
"Which Angel? Vampire Angel or...human Angel," he asked with a hint of desperation.
"Oh," Fred said. "Oh." She looked over at Lorne and he smiled encouragingly.
"Nothing like getting to the big questions first, I suppose," Fred said. "Like I told you, this is a temporary thing for me...I'm supposed to be somewhere else, really, and so are you."
Angel stood up and then, immediately, sat back down. "Can't any of you people talk in English?"
Lorne reached over to pat Angel's knee. "Honestly, Fred, could you put the man out his misery?"
"Oh, yes, sorry. It was silly of me to hedge," Fred said, sliding her glasses up her nose once more.
Angel slumped miserably in his chair and waited.
"You asked if you were human. The short answer is no," Fred said without preamble. "You are, in fact, a vampire."
"That doesn't make any sense," Angel said. "Why do this? Why make me human?"
Fred regarded him sympathetically, "It's what you wanted most in the world...so it's what we made for you. From the moment you thought you saw Buffy on the street, coming here to see Lorne, dinner, all of it...a waking dream. You see, Angel, you left Buffy and no one thought you would. You weren't meant to. We diverted you from the path you chose and we gave you the path you dream about most often...a life, a human life with Buffy."
"All this because I left Sunnydale? I left to protect Buffy. I wanted her to have a normal life, " Angel protested.
"Yes, but, you see, your life will get very complicated."
"More complicated than this?" Angel scoffed.
"Considerably more complicated," Fred assured him. "And not just for you, but for Buffy, too."
"Is this a dream?"
"I'm not comfortable describing this as a 'dream,' actually. But there's really no other word. It's more like existing on two different planes of reality; they run parallel to each other but they never touch."
"Why can't I stay here?"
"Because that's not your destiny. And would you really want to leave Buffy forever?"
"Of course not," Angel whispered. "But you put me here without any knowledge of her. What was the point of that?"
"It was a manipulation, of sorts."
"What were you manipulating?"
"You, of course. But that's where Willow entered things, going all happy with the spells and the potions, giving Buffy these incredible dreams about you. At that point we took a step back."
"I tried to go back tonight. Willow gave me a crystal and some powder and I was going to go back," Angel said defensively. "But I'm not sure I understand what difference it will make. Nothing's changed. I mean, I left so Buffy could have a normal life."
"No. You left Sunnydale because you couldn't..." Fred hesitated.
"What Fred wants to say, but is too polite, is that you left because you couldn't make love to her,"
"That's not true," Angel argued.
"It is true. After the first time, you were worried about your soul, and rightfully so. But you should have trusted in Buffy's feelings for you, which were pure, and didn't come with any strings attached."
Angel shook his head. "Buffy is okay, right?"
"For now. Yes. But now you need to make a choice, Angel. If you stay here, you risk losing a great deal. If you go back, the road isn't likely to be any easier. You have faced many impediments on your journey. What made you think that Buffy was ever an obstacle you could walk away from?"
Angel awoke with a start. The room was eerily gray and unfamiliar. His head felt fuzzy, his tongue felt swollen. He needed a drink and he pulled himself out of bed and wandered toward the door.
Something wasn't right. This wasn't his apartment. He rubbed his eyes, pinched the flesh of his palm and still; something was wrong. Stubbing his toe on the corner of a chair he hadn't noticed in the gloom, Angel swore and then yanked open the refrigerator door. Hanging in a neat row were six bags of blood.
In the pool of light thrown by the frig, Angel paused. Tentatively, he reached out a finger and poked one of the little bags. It swayed heavily and Angel could smell the blood beneath the plastic.
Angel sank to his knees and sobbed.
Hours later, Angel moaned himself awake. He hadn't moved from his spot in front of the refrigerator and his body felt cramped. He was hungry, hungrier than he could ever remember being and he reached for a bag of blood, tore it open and drank deeply.
Pulling himself off the floor, he walked back into the bedroom and sat heavily on the bed. The past couple of days filtered through his mind like a movie replaying in slow motion. He didn't pretend to understand the machinations contrived by the powers or Willow, but he did understand the result. The powerful illusion that the powers had constructed had fallen apart like a spider's web caught in a hailstorm. Already the filaments of his other life were receding into the distant past.
Angel went to the closet and took down a battered box. Despite the fact that Angel loved fine things, was a creature of comforts, he'd rarely kept personal mementos. How could he store decade after decade of his life? He had, however, kept these few things: a leather bound volume of sketches he'd done, one photograph of Buffy from the night of the prom and the claddagh rings; his, and hers. He'd found hers on the floor of the mansion when he'd returned from hell. He slipped his on his finger and hers into his pocket. Then he waited.
At dusk he did the only thing he knew to do. He climbed into his beat up car and headed for Sunnydale. He didn't spend the drive home trying to unravel the gnarly web the powers had caught him in: part dream, part sub-conscious yearning. He knew only that he had done nothing honourable here. He wasn't sure how returning to her was going to make anything any better, but he was sure that staying away was no longer the right thing, either.
He had no idea where he would find Buffy. He had no idea which day or week or month it was, or how long he'd been gone. It felt as though a century had passed since he'd last seen her, standing in the steaming rubble that had been Sunnydale High School. Would the Powers have interfered so much that he would find himself standing across the parking lot with the courage to walk toward her instead of away from her? Would he have the opportunity to quell the fear and sadness and heartbreak before it made its way to her eyes? Angel knew one thing for certain: he didn't deserve that kind of second chance.
Fred, Willow, Lorne; none of them had said anything to indicate what was to become of them. Worse, in this "dream" state, he had made love to Buffy, again. And he would have made love to her again. And again, had he known that she would be stolen away from him.
He pounded the steering wheel and gritted his teeth. His eyes glowed amber in the rear view mirror. Los Angeles behind him. Buffy in front. Miles and miles to go.
The Bronze was a bust. Buffy always let Xander and Willow convince her that 'this time' would be fun, but it never was. Never. Her eyes were constantly drawn to the shadows even though she no longer had the familiar feeling that he was lurking there. She missed that feeling.
"You should come dance with us," Willow said, energetically. "You should be in dance mode."
"I should be in patrol mode," Buffy said.
"Oh, we could go with. If you want," Willow said.
"Nah, it's okay. It's been quiet," Buffy said, with a forced smile.
"Well, I'd better go rescue Xander before he steps on any more toes. You know there's always a risk that Anya will have a relapse and reek vengeance on him," Willow laughed.
"See you later then," Buffy said, sliding down from her stool and heading for the exit.
Fresh air hit her face and she sucked it in gratefully. She had no intentions of patrolling, not tonight. Tonight she wanted a bath, Mr Gordo and her bed, in exactly that order. She walked briskly to her house. She was met with silence; her mother was away on business.
She stopped in the bathroom long enough to plug the tub and start the water, adding a capful of lavender bubble bath. Retrieving her pyjamas from the hook on the door in her bedroom, she paused only long enough to give her face a cursory glance in the mirror on the front of the closet door.
"Brutal," she said, shaking her head.
The bathroom was steamy and fragrant and Buffy undressed and crawled, with a sigh, into the hot water. Why did it seem like a tub full of bubbles could solve anything, she wondered. Closing her eyes, she drifted.
Images of Angel crowded behind her eyes almost every time she closed them. Things he'd said. Things he'd done. The way he touched her like she was something precious that might break, even though he knew she was stronger than him. His voice: velvet.
Buffy never tried to push the thoughts away. She never tried to stop the tremors that rolled through her body; tiny, rippling waves on an empty shore. She never tried to pretend, even for a moment, that he wasn't the most important person in her life. Even though he was no longer in her life.
Instead, she let herself be carried away by the memory of...the way he smelled of clean skin. The way he looked at her, through her, as intimate as any touch. The way he touched her, with intent. The way he held her, his strong arms full of steely tenderness. The way she knew that he loved her, even when he couldn't say the words. Even though he couldn't stay.
That was always the point in the fantasy when Buffy would feel the wild panic rise up into her throat like gorge. Gone. Then, the cooling water in the tub was no comfort anymore and Buffy would have to get up, wrap herself in her towel and move to the safety and comfort of her bed and her stuffed pig.
The school was gone. Angel slowed the car and let the impact of the razed lot wash over him. It must be strange for those left behind to have the constant reminder of chaos always around the corner from them. Accelerating, Angel headed for Revello Drive.
The Summers' house was dark, except for a dim light burning in the upstairs bathroom window. Angel parked the car and got out. He felt calm, sure, terrified.
Walking around to the back of the house, Angel climbed the trellis on the side of the house and edged himself over the window ledge. He knew in an instant that, while she wasn't in the room, she was close. He sat in a chair in a shadowy corner and waited.
A fluffy white towel wrapped around her, her hair pinned on top of her head, the weariness in her face, blurred, Angel was quite sure that she was the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen. He felt her hackles rise, her sixth sense kicking in, as soon as she entered the room. She reached immediately for the light switch.
"Leave it," he whispered and thought to himself, 'I may as well get used to it again.'
"Yes," he said, simply.
"What's wrong?" Buffy asked, taking a small step toward him.
Her question broke his heart. "Everything is wrong, Buffy." he said, rising to his feet and closing the distance between them in two long strides.
She shook her head and stepped back. "You're not here. This is a dream. You're not here."
"No, not a dream," Angel assured her, reaching out to place his hand flat against the curve of her cheek, holding it there while it drew in the heat of her skin, flushed from the bath.
Placing her hand on top of his, she raised her eyes and met Angel's. "It is a dream. It doesn't matter that you can touch me," her voice cracked. "You touch me all the time in my dreams."
"I have those dreams, too," Angel said. "I dream of you. I dream about how it feels to hold you, how you fit perfectly under my chin. I dream about your mouth and how kissing you is like slaking an incredible thirst. I dream about..." Angel stopped.
"What?" Buffy whispered, still convinced he wasn't there.
Angel dropped his hand and knelt before her, his head pressed into the flat of her belly. "I dream about making love to you." Angel tugged on the towel and it fell, a puddle at her feet. His arms snaked around her and he held her close, the stubble of his chin rasping gently against her. He didn't know why it was so important to feel her warm, naked flesh; didn't know why he felt it necessary to torture himself with what he knew he couldn't have. It had simply seemed the most natural thing in the world and he'd done it: instinct.
He felt the first tear hit his head. Then another. "Please, Buffy. Please don't cry."
She wound her hands through his thick hair, and whispered, "Stop. I can't do this anymore. It's too much."
"I am here, Buffy. Here in Sunnydale, here in this room," Angel said.
He stood and led Buffy to the bed, wrapping her dressing gown around her shaking shoulders. "Look at me," Angel said. "I need you to look at me."
Buffy opened her eyes and fixed them on Angel's chin. He took a finger and gently tilted her head up until her eyes met his own.
"You know, they say that the eyes are the window to the soul. I've never really appreciated the gift that my soul is until this moment."
Buffy sniffed. "Why are you here, Angel, if you really are here. And if you really aren't, go away. I'm tired."
Angel smiled. "I drove all the way from LA. I guess I was hoping for a better reception."
"I don't blame you for being mad. It's been a while."
"It's been a week. Seven days. One hundred and sixty-eight hours," Buffy said, dismally.
"Gee, when the Powers play with time, they don't mess around."
"What are you talking about?" Buffy asked.
"You were in my dreams. I saw you in LA. We had dinner. We went to see a funny guy who read our auras..."
Buffy's eyes widened, drawing Angel into their depths until he felt as though he was drowning.
"We'd never met, you didn't know me...Willow was there..." she said
"And Spike and Wesley and Xander..."
"Delivered us a pizza." Buffy finished. "I had those dreams, Angel. I was in those dreams. We..."
"Yes, love, we did."
"I thought I was going crazy."
"Turns out, it is even more complicated than that. The Powers set about to make things right between us and, Willow, independently, set out to do the same...so we were sort of having a dream within a dream...bizarre."
"What do you mean, set things right?" Buffy asked.
"Do you believe in fate, Buffy?"
"Of course," Buffy said.
Angel nodded and stood. "Of course you do. But if I believed in fate then I would have to believe that it was my destiny to become a vampire, my destiny to torture and kill innocent people."
"And then your destiny to make it right, to make restitution."
"Yes, "Angel agreed. "And then fated that I would meet you."
Buffy nodded. "Yes."
"And then, what, fated that I couldn't have you?"
"But Angel, you do have me. Every single moment, in all the ways that count, I belong to you. Even without this," Buffy pulled the collar of her dressing gown away to reveal the scar on her neck. "I would still belong to you."
"I know that. I knew it when I walked away from you. But you understand why I did, right? You understand what I wanted for you, what I couldn't give you? I thought it wasn't enough, Buffy."
"It was for me," Buffy said, softly.
Angel nodded, contritely, "It should have been for me, too. But I thought I knew more, knew what was best for you and I made the decision alone, without consulting you. I was a fool for not seeing what was right under my nose."
"So, why couldn't we have just stayed in the other world?" Buffy asked.
"It was an illusion. Fake. I guess I might have been able to stay, but not with you and I...couldn't stay, especially not after..." Angel stopped, his mind suddenly filled with images of tangled limbs, soft lips, golden hair, moans.
"I don't get it, then." Buffy said, interrupting his thoughts. "Nothing's changed. We still can't be together that way. You're still a vampire and I'm still the Slayer," Buffy said, bitterly.
"You're wrong, Buffy. Everything has changed."
"Your soul is bound?"
"No. That hasn't changed," Angel said, sadly. "In the dreams we did something we could never do before... and I don't mean just the sex...we walked in the sun. All I ever wanted was to be with you in the light, Buffy. The emissary for the Oracles told me that they created a world that gave me what I wanted most, to be human and to be with you. How will I ever get that chance if I walk away from you now?"
Buffy felt fresh tears flood her eyes.
Angel sat next to her and pulled her close. "You are my salvation, Buffy. You are my destiny." He pulled the Claddagh ring from his pocket. "Remember this?" He slipped it onto her finger.
Buffy nodded, tears coming in earnest now, her fingers tracing the Claddagh's hands, heart and crown.
"You belong to me and I belong to you," Angel said.
"Always." Buffy whispered. "But I don't understand how it will be any different this time, how, knowing what you know, you could give it all up."
"I gave up nothing, Buffy. Nothing compared to what I'd be losing if I lost you. We'll fight together, until the end."
He kissed her then, his lips lingering, smoothing their way over hers. And when he broke the kiss, he stayed close and murmured against her lips, "I love you. In this life. In the next."
Angel lay down on the bed, and pulled Buffy into the safety of his arms. He could feel her warmth, her breath against his neck, her heart thumping next to his own chest and he closed his eyes. No longer lost, Angel was home.
Beside him, Buffy watched the smooth column of Angel's throat, felt his cool body leeching the warmth from her own and whispered, "I love you, too."
In LA, Fred and Lorne clinked martini glasses and smiled.
"Well, for your first kick at the can you did okay, Fred," Lorne said.
"Why, thank you, kind sir," Fred smiled. "I feel sorta bad for them, though. You know, all that angst. All that..."
"Lust?" Lorne laughed. "Imagine how great it'll be when Angel finally gets his shanshu...oh, the walls are gonna come tumblin'down."
"He'll get it then, his reward, his humanity?" Fred asked.
"Honey, it's written in the stars."
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