Past,Imperfect

Past, Imperfect

ONE

The sun glanced off the shiny surfaces of glass display cases, sending prisms of light dancing off the pale cream walls. Angel O'Connor, immaculate in a Ralph Lauren linen suit despite the midday heat, stood restlessly in the store window, watching the noon hour crowds rush by in a steady stream of colour. Angel's normally focused mind was distracted by the sea of people, his eyes focusing and then dismissing the redheads and brunettes, constantly searching for a certain face, a certain blend of honey and sunlit hair.

Suddenly, a presence beside him. Angel's eyes remained trained on the street outside: knowing he wouldn't see her, afraid he might miss her.

"Angel?" Cordelia said, impatiently. She regarded her fiancé's distracted face and placed an immaculately manicured hand on his forearm. "Angel," she repeated.

"Mmmm," he said, without looking down at her.

Cordelia Chase crossed her arms and made a clucking sound in the back of her throat. This was supposed to be one of the most important moments of her life. More exciting than landing her first television sitcom, better than paying cash for the BMW, more incredible than being named to People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People List. She and Angel were here at Tiffany's choosing her engagement ring.

"Angel," Cordelia said, unable to keep the growing irritation from her voice. She shot the clerk a look of emphatic exasperation and clicked a red fingernail against the sparkling glass. "I'd like to see that one, please."

"A lovely choice," the man smiled, reaching into the case to extract a beautifully cut solitaire surrounded by sapphires and set in a gorgeous platinum band. Although a little large for her slender finger, Cordelia sighed at the ring's exquisite design. Holding her hand in front of Angel's face she said to the clerk, "This is lovely. But do you have anything with a bigger rock?" The man cocked a shapely brow and smiled.

"Why yes, Miss Chase, indeed we do. If you'd just like to step over to the other display, I'd be happy to show you what we have."

Cordelia handed the ring to the clerk and he set it back on its purple velvet pedestal and locked the case. Without a word to Angel, she followed the man to another case and began her perusal of the gems.

It was only after he was sure that she was gone that Angel O'Connor snapped himself out of his self-imposed reverie. He slid his glance across the room and regarded his fiancée with a mixture of annoyance and admiration. Cordelia Chase was a woman of surprising talents: smart, funny, beautiful and single-minded. She had swept into his life completely unexpectedly and had, without hesitation, made him hers. He rubbed his large, square hand across his cheek and smiled tightly. Mere weeks ago, he'd been living a solitary life, dedicated to collecting and selling rare books, and socializing only when absolutely necessary. He'd bumped into Cordelia Chase at a fundraiser for some charity that his business-partner Wesley Wyndam-Pryce insisted he attend.

"Really, Angel," Wesley had said over drinks and dinner at their favourite restaurant. "You need to meet people. You need to get out and...."

"And what?" Angel had asked over the rim of his wineglass. "Date?"

"Well, that would be a start," Wesley had laughed, good-naturedly.

Angel shook his head and downed the last of his wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon and an extremely good year.

"Not interested," Angel had said.

"Please, "Wesley had, proceeded. "When was the last time you..."

Angel held up his hand. "You may be my business partner and you are certainly my friend, but do me a favour, Wes, and stay out of my personal life."

"Fine. Alright. But you can't go on like this forever, Angel," Wesley had said quietly. "Sooner or later...."

Angel lifted his opaque brown eyes to his dinner companion and Wesley had stopped talking without finishing his sentence.

But then, a few days later, Wes had called and begged Angel to come to the fundraiser with him. "Fred's going to be there, Angel. I need back up," Wes had pleaded and Angel hadn't the heart to put him off.

"I don't think my tux has been cleaned since 1997, Wes," Angel had laughed. "But, okay, I'll go with you. You owe me, though."

"Yes, and I'm quite certain you'll collect," Wesley had replied, cheerfully.

It had been hard to miss Cordelia Chase. Standing by the fountain in the museum's lobby, wearing a shimmering red sheath that rippled around her ankles and hugged her voluptuous curves, she'd immediately drawn Angel's eye. There was something self-possessed about her, something that exuded confidence and vulnerability simultaneously. Reticent by nature, Angel had hovered on the edge of the party, half- watching Cordelia and half-watching the clock. It was only after he'd signed a cheque for a generous donation to the charity and was making his way to the door, that she'd appeared before him, a glowing sliver of red light.

"Leaving already," she'd asked. "And without even saying good night?"

Angel's mouth quirked in a reluctant smile. They hadn't so much as said "hello." "I'm not really much of a party-doer," he'd said.

"Me either. Hate them. Want to go for coffee?"

And that was how it had begun.

***

Buffy Summers poured a second mug of tea and stepped out onto the dew-covered porch. Curling her legs beneath her, she settled into the wicker settee and regarded the front lawn with dismay. She really needed to pull the lawn mower out of the shed or hire someone to come cut the grass. She sipped the scalding liquid thoughtfully and considered the day that stretched out ahead of her. A movement down the street caught her eye: the paperboy, making slow and staggered progress up the street. Wap! The sound of the paper missing her neighbour's porch by a country mile.

"Good morning, Jason," she said, as the kid skidded to a stop in front of her path. "Do you think you could bring the paper to me instead of chucking it?"

"Are your legs broken?" he asked.

"No. My legs are not broken," Buffy replied, trying to keep the amusement out of her voice. "Are yours?"

Jason shrugged and stepped over his bike, letting it drop carelessly to the pavement. He walked up the path to Buffy's porch and climbed the stairs in two huge steps, stretching out his hand to pass her the paper.

"Thanks, Jason" she said.

"Yeah. Whatever," he mumbled, before leaping back down the steps and racing down the path to his bike.

Buffy leaned over and set her mug on the porch floor. Snapping the elastic off the paper she unrolled today's news and scanned the headlines. Depressing. Morbid. Buffy wasn't sure how much more human suffering she could stand. She discarded the front section and settled back with the Lifestyles section. There, in the bottom right hand corner, she saw the picture that made her skin grow cold. TV Star to Wed Philanthropist Book Seller was the caption underneath the colour photo of her old high school friend, Cordelia Chase, her slender hand hooked to Angel O'Connor's elbow.

Buffy couldn't tear her gaze away from the picture. Cordy had certainly done well for herself; Buffy couldn't deny that. And she didn't begrudge Cordelia her success. She'd worked hard, parlaying minimal talent into an incredible career. What Buffy resented was the man standing at Cordelia's side. Angel O'Connor. Buffy felt the inevitable tug of a few precious memories, firm fingers drawing her back into a past she'd tried desperately hard to forget. Angel, apparently, hadn't had the same difficulty.

Standing, Buffy moved towards the front door, kicking over her forgotten tea as she went. "Damn," she said, bending over to straighten the cup. "Damn," she repeated, sitting back on the wicker seat and burying her face in her hands. The tears were inevitable; the only question was how long she would indulge them.

***

Angel and Cordelia stepped out into the bright afternoon. The ring Cordelia had finally chosen would remain in the store to be sized. She was hot and cross and immensely disappointed in Angel's lack of interest in this exceedingly important milestone in her life. She wasn't sure that even an Emmy nomination would top it, but since that hadn't happened yet, she wasn't sure it was a bet she wanted to make.

"Do you want to have lunch?" Cordelia asked.

"Pardon," Angel replied, obviously distracted.

"Never mind," Cordelia snapped, feeling the thin trickle of sweat collect at the hollow of her throat and begin its downward descent. "Go look at musty old books. I've had enough today." Turning on her Eiffel-tower heels, Cordy stomped indelicately over to the taxi stand and climbed into the first available air-conditioned vehicle.

Angel barely registered her departure. His mind was as distracted as if he had come across a pristine first edition of Dante's "Inferno." He watched as the taxi containing his bride-to-be eased away from the curb and merged with the rest of the southbound traffic.

Loosening his tie and unbuttoning the top couple of buttons of his silk shirt, Angel stood silently as the people brushed by him. In a matter of weeks, he would be permanently attached to Cordelia Chase, living a life of which he had never dreamed. In his heart of hearts, he knew that if he didn't find the courage to break off this engagement, he would regret it for the rest of his life. Ultimately, Cordelia would be all right, but Angel dreaded the thought of causing her any pain. He didn't love her, but he certainly cared for her. More importantly, he knew he was better off alone, safer. He should have learned his lesson.

That their relationship had traveled so far so fast was a complete mystery to Angel. Coffee was one thing, casual sex another; but this, this impending marriage was not how he was meant to have lived his life. And Cordelia was not the woman he should even be contemplating marrying.

Turning to his left, Angel began walking with the crowd, his head filled with excuses that might help him get out of this mess he'd made. Dying relative. Life threatening illness. Didn't want children. Gay. Potential possibilities flew through his mind and Angel examined and discarded each of them. He'd made a career out of concealing the facts; sooner or later an opportunity would present itself that would allow him to extricate himself from this engagement.

***

Cordelia Chase stared at her reflection in the mirror for a long time. Flawless skin, generous smile, if perhaps a little tight at the corners, wide deer-in-the-headlights eyes. She practiced her five stock expressions: pouty, sincere, smart, sexy and innocent. Mostly, she used innocent. She could manage just the right amount of dumbstruck awe and vulnerability without ever letting her intended target see the wheels briskly turning in her head. Cordelia leaned closer to the mirror, alarmed at the beginnings of a small blemish. Without turning her gaze away, she reached across the vanity and felt for her Oxy 5. "Cripes," she muttered. "I can't afford this now!" Uncapping the small tube, she applied a fingertip's worth of medicated cream to the barely visible pimple and smiled primly. "Gottcha," she said, humourlessly.

Clicking off the bathroom light, Cordelia padded across the bedroom floor and crawled into her king-sized bed. Clapping her hands sharply once, twice, the overhead lights went off. It was dorky, she knew, but her sound automated lights made her feel privileged. For as long as she could remember Cordelia Chase had wanted to be someone important. It wasn't enough to be the most popular girl at her suburban high school. It wasn't enough that she had never once gone without a date to the prom. It wasn't enough that her friends had looked to her to set the trends and to decide who was worthy of being in their clique. All that mattered to Cordelia was the deep-rooted insecurity that only she knew lay simmering beneath the surface of her perfect skin. When her father's business had gone belly-up, Cordy no longer had the mantle of wealth to hide behind. She'd lost it all: the cars, the money, the shopping trips to Paris and New York. Still, nothing mattered more to Cordelia Chase than appearances, and so she'd done her best to hold her head up high and walk through those bitter teenage years as though her life was nothing short of perfect.

Sinking down into the luxurious Egyptian cotton sheets, Cordy frowned. Angel O'Connor had been the icing on her carefully constructed cake. She loved him, but her desire to marry him had more to do with his legendary unattainability than it did with any sincere desire she had to be Mrs. Angel O'Connor. After all, she had daily marriage proposals. True, most of the offers came from love-struck fans that could barely stutter their own names in her presence, but sometimes the offers came from legitimate suitors.

And there were days when Cordy desperately wished she could turn back the clock and undo the damage she had done to her relationship with Xander Harris. While a part of her knew that high school sweethearts rarely made it, Xander hadn't been an ordinary high school boy. He was the boy from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks; the black sheep whom had gone on to make millions in the construction business. It wasn't his money, either, that kept him pinned to Cordelia's heart. She had plenty of money of her own. No. She'd loved Xander. He had tapped into something essential in her, something she'd thought sure she'd hidden away from the prying eyes of her classmates. And when he kissed her...well, all Cordelia Chase knew was that Angel had never kissed her even remotely as well as Xander Harris had. Truth be told, Cordy doubted Angel ever would. It wasn't technique that Angel lacked. It was more a feeling that he wasn't really there; his lips were pressed against hers, but his heart was absent.

It was a small thing, perhaps, but Cordy couldn't resist indulging in the occasional doubt. They might be picking out the china, but Cordy often worried that Angel would rather be eating off it with someone else.

So, when she settled into sleep it was Xander Harris' face that she brought closer, not Angel O'Connor's.

***

Angel lounged in his armchair; sock feet propped on the matching ottoman, finger marking his place in the book of poems by Robert Moore. He glanced down at the spot where his fingertip touched the fine black print: "in the end/she will remain among the ones you knew/passing through an afternoon/disquieting sort of pretty self involved/someone else's friend...." The words struck a chord in Angel, though he wasn't sure why. He closed his eyes and there she was. He opened them and there she was. In bed with Cordelia, there she was. Angel closed the book and set it on the little table beside his chair. Already the table seemed ready to topple; it was piled so haphazardly with the efforts of Angel's attempt to distract himself.

Pushing off the chair, Angel walked through the cluttered study, peeling off his shirt as he went. His physique defied his profession; Angel O'Connor was in excellent physical condition, with broad shoulders, well-defined arms and a muscled wall of chest that sloped down to a flat stomach. Angel hardly looked like a man who spent his days in bookstores and at auctions. He was well-groomed, with thick dark hair he kept closely cropped and gelled, brown eyes that seemed at once serious and ironic, a wide, generous mouth and a pair of cheekbones the runway models of Milan would kill for. Angel had given little thought to his looks over the years. He'd been too busy studying and trying to figure out his place in the world to consider his appearance. But he knew, without question, that it was his looks that had drawn Cordelia to him that night at the charity ball; his looks and his reputation for being disinterested in the trappings of wealth and privilege. Angel had never needed a beautiful woman hanging off his arm to make him feel better about his life. He'd never needed any woman, period.

He was accustomed to being alone. He liked a solitary life. He spent his time scrounging through dusty second-hand book shops and seeking out limited editions and rare first-run copies of books. He felt like a detective. He followed clues and eventually found his quarry. Sometimes the books were for clients, sometimes he wanted them for himself. His personal library was bursting with books on botany and science and history; poetry by Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, the collected works of Shakespeare and the Bronte sisters. Books comforted him. He loved the weight of them, their tangibility, their smell of time and knowledge. He loved the pencilled notes he often found in their smeared margins, "see page 14 for another example of this," or "Bill, 555-7867." He loved the inscriptions: "To Martha, with love from Sal, June 1944." New books had a place in his life, but they did not call to him like the old ones did. Old books had their own personal histories, had traveled continents and centuries. Until he'd met her, he'd loved his books most of all.

***

There were moments when she couldn't bear to look at her reflection. She had learned how to coil her hair into a complicated braid without the aid of the mirror; could apply lipstick, a perfect smear of pale pink, without her reflection, but she couldn't meet her own eyes. She was afraid of what her gaze would reveal about her life. She'd lift her eyes and be utterly dismayed to find hollow hazel staring back. How was it possible that she had grown so old?

Buffy fastened the silver cross around her neck and risked a quick look. No. Nothing had changed. Nothing, she feared, would ever change.

She left the room and headed down the staircase, her eyes traveling over the walls and familiar landmarks that assured her that this was the house she'd grown up in, the house her mother had willed to her. Buffy was sure that Joyce hadn't expected to die so young. Buffy certainly hadn't anticipated saying goodbye to her mother so unexpectedly. It was that moment, forever painfully etched across her heart, which marked the moment when Buffy's life had changed.

In the kitchen, Buffy poured herself a glass of water and drank without stopping for air, welcoming the cool liquid as it bloomed through her parched throat, settled in her empty belly. She glanced at the wall clock. He was late. Again. Placing the empty glass on the counter, Buffy clicked on the little light over the stove so that the house wouldn't be totally dark when she returned from her evening out with William. Gathering up her little evening bag, she headed for the front door intending to sit on the porch in the waning sunlight and wait for her escort.

William Bluddy was notoriously clock-challenged, but he had many redeeming characteristics, not the least of which was the fact that he adored Buffy. The proprietor of several antiquarian bookstores, as well as the current owner of Sunnydale's one and only nightspot, The Bronze, William was handsome, smart, funny and devoted. Buffy couldn't fault William for much of anything, really. It had been no secret he'd been attracted to her from the moment they'd met. But Buffy had made it clear that, as his employee, she was not interested in pursuing a relationship with him.

The doorbell rang, followed by the sharp rapping that signaled William's impatience. Swinging open the door, Buffy remarked dryly, "It would make a whole lot more sense if you just organized your time and got here earlier so we wouldn't be late."

"Nice to see you, too, pet," William replied, leaning into the house to kiss Buffy lightly on the mouth.

Buffy shook her head and smiled. "Did they not teach you to tell time in the old country?"

"As a matter of fact," Spike said, laughing, "we were so poor that we couldn't afford clocks, although we did have a rather nice sundial in the garden. Let's go. We're going to be late."

"Late," Buffy smirked, "now, that's new."

Buffy stepped across the threshold and onto the porch. William reached in behind her and pulled the door closed. Holding out his hand, he helped Buffy down the porch steps, admiring, as always, the slim lines sketched beneath her pale lavender dress. "You look stunning, by the way," he whispered.

"Thank you, kind sir," Buffy replied, squeezing his firm hand slightly. "You look quite nice yourself." And he did. Although not particularly tall, Buffy knew that underneath his immaculate tuxedo, William Bluddy was hard and lean. He had the body of someone who took care with what he ate and exercised regularly.

The limousine was parked at the curb at the end of the walk. The driver flicked the cigarette he'd been smoking into the street and expelled the smoke out of the corner of his mouth.

"Very classy, mate," William said, pointedly, standing back to let Buffy slide into the back of the elegant car.

Moments later, they were on the freeway heading for Los Angeles.

***

"Shall we meet for drinks beforehand," Wesley asked Angel, as he packed away the contracts and other assorted papers into a slim leather briefcase.

"Wes, I was really hoping to beg off tonight," Angel replied. More than anything, he wanted to go home, pour himself a large scotch and settle in his study with a book, any book.

"Beg off? Oh, really, Angel. This is ridiculous!" Wesley said, snapping his satchel closed.

"I'm not in the mood for socializing," Angel said, quietly.

"So, don't socialize. Stand in a corner with that gorgeous fiancée of yours and plan your nuptials, but, seriously, Angel, you have to make an appearance. This is one of the biggest book-selling events on the calendar. You can't skip it because you're not in the mood."

Angel regarded the grim determination on Wesley's face. He also knew how annoyed Cordy would be if he called her now and tried to wriggle out of yet another social engagement. If there was one thing Cordelia loved, it was being in the public eye. The event didn't matter. Angel was certain that Cordy could care less about being in a stuffy convention hall with a bunch of equally stuffy booksellers. All she would care about was the stir that she would create when she floated into the room: a television princess on the arm of her storybook prince.

"Fine," Angel acquiesced. "But let's just meet at the Plaza, okay? I'm..."

"I know, not up to drinks," Wesley finished for him. "I can drink just as well in my flat before I get to the hotel."

Angel smiled. "She's got you wound into knots, hasn't she?"

Wesley shook his head. "I don't know whether I'm coming or going. But..."

"But it's good, right?"

"It's good," Wesley agreed. "Although I would have thought that I was a little old for butterflies in my stomach."

"Apparently not," Angel said.

"So, see you later tonight, then," Wes said, stepping around a table piled high with books and heading for the door.

***

Cordelia took a deep breath and paused before stepping into dimly lit ballroom at the Plaza. This wasn't the main ballroom. A booksellers' convention (even if the books being sold were extremely rare and expensive) didn't merit the biggest or most opulent room the Plaza had to offer. Still, this room was lovely: gold brocade tapestries, marble floors, chandeliers and discreet waiters proffering silver trays with red or white wine.

Cordelia swept the room, looking for Angel. She hated having to make an entrance unaccompanied, but filming had run late and she'd had no choice but to come on her own. She was tired and not even the shot of tequila she'd downed before crawling into the cab had perked her up. Still, Cordelia knew she looked good. She could already feel the appreciative eyes travel the length of her toned body, which she knew looked fabulous in its little black dress. Perhaps "little" was overstating it. Cordy had wondered if she wasn't a little too "Pamela Lee" in the slip of a dress, but the sales person had made it clear that the dress was on the politically correct side of slutty and Cordy had purchased it immediately. Now as she sailed through the room, one hand holding her wineglass aloft like a beacon, Cordy knew she had made the right decision. Certainly the dress was one fiber short of revealing, but Cordy knew that she looked good enough to eat, and if she were very lucky, perhaps Angel would agree.

***

Angel stepped back into the shadows and watched Cordelia make her grand entrance. He'd arrived not ten minutes ago and had already finished his second glass of red wine. As a waiter passed him, he grabbed a third goblet off the tray and took a hasty swallow.

"Slow down," Wesley's voice said from behind him and Angel felt the firm clap of Wesley's hand on his shoulder.

Angel nodded and turned. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce always looked dashing in a tux. Perhaps it had something to do with his proper British upbringing. Angel swore that Wesley had gone to nursery school in formal wear, he looked so comfortable. On his arm, Fred looked charmingly unaffected.

"Hello, Angel," she said, the burr of her Texan accent barely discernable.

"Fred," he acknowledged. "Don't you look fetching." She did, too, although she was a little too slender for Angel's taste.

"Thank you," she smiled.

Wesley had been pursuing Fred for weeks. She was a book scholar whom he'd met briefly at a conference and hadn't been able to put out of his mind. She was smart, no-nonsense and quirky in a way Wes found totally beguiling. As the waiter circled the group, Wes grabbed two more glasses of wine, a white and a red, and handed the white to Fred. Angel watched as Fred deliberately dragged her fingers across Wes' knuckles before curling them around the stem of the glass. It was going to be a long night.

"Oh, there you are," Cordelia's voice cut across the group's quiet conversation like ripping fabric.

"Cordy," Angel said, "I was watching for you."

"A man of many talents, then," she said haughtily, "since your back was to the door."

Angel shrugged. "Cordy, you know Wes. Have you met Fred?"

Cordelia stifled a look of annoyance and chose her 'sincere' face. "Why, no, I don't think we've had the pleasure," she said, offering Fred her hand.

"It's very nice to meet you, Miss Chase," Fred said, clearly aware of Cordelia's profession.

"Cordy, please," Cordelia corrected. It wouldn't do to play the diva with Angel's friends, especially if she had any hope of having her itch scratched tonight.

"Angel, there's a very good table with Restoration Comedies. Have you seen it?" Fred asked.

"No. No, I haven't," Angel said. "I don't normally come to these to look for books. Sometimes it's just nice to see old faces and make new contacts."

"I know. I don't normally buy anything, either. I'm not sure how I even got on the guest list," Fred said, shooting Wesley an inquisitive look.

"Speaking of old faces. Isn't that Rupert Giles over there, Angel?" Wes said, pointing across the room.

Angel narrowed his eyes and peered across the room. "Yes, I think it is. Will you excuse me? I do have business with him."

Cordelia pressed her lips together to prevent herself from saying something she would regret. God! Angel's profession bored her to tears. The only thing that prevented her from shouting out loud how incredibly dull it was to be engaged to a man of letters was the knowledge that beneath the intellect lay a man simmering with passion: powerful, hungry and in complete control. Sometimes the dichotomy between the two was incredibly sexy. Add that to the handsome package and oodles of money and he was practically perfect.

***

Rupert Giles watched Angel O'Connor stride across the ballroom. He could almost see the demons nipping at Angel's heels and he only had to lean slightly to his right to see Cordelia Chase glaring at her boyfriend's retreating back. He smiled broadly as Angel came to a stop in front of him, holding out his large hand for Rupert's firm handshake.

"I thought you were still in Venice," Angel said, loud enough for those nearest the man to hear.

"Yes, well, I was. But I kept getting lost and so when I finally managed to find the airport I just decided to fly back to LA," Rupert said, laughing. "Well, not really. I never tire of that city, but I did have things waiting for me here."

Angel nodded. "We should talk," he said, quietly.

"Oh, indeed." Giles said, moving Angel toward a dark corner.

"Things are going forward?" Rupert said.

"Yes, on schedule. I hope to be..." Angel stopped, his eyes drawn to the couple who had just entered the ballroom.

Cordelia suddenly appeared beside him, following his gaze to the ballroom entrance. "Oh my God," she said, unable to keep the dismay from her voice. "Isn't that Buffy Summers?"

It was. Floating on William Bluddy's arm, she was a vision Angel had both prayed and dreaded he would see again. Angel raised his wineglass and swallowed the remaining liquid. The liquor burned a trail down his throat and did nothing to quell the jumble of nerves that had collected like a swarm of coiled snakes in his stomach. There was a reason he hated going out. There was a reason he found comfort in his books. There she was, smiling beautifully on the arm of one of Angel's least favourite men. There she was, head tilted sideways to look at William's angular face, an expression of rapt amusement on her perfect features. There she was, the woman he loved.

For a moment, Angel was sure he would vomit. Too much wine and too little food were now married unhappily in his belly.

"Angel," Giles said, close to his ear.

Angel couldn't speak without alerting Cordy, who was regarding Buffy as if at any moment she might be called upon to defend her territory.

The room tilted crazily. The moment of truth had come, it seemed. Angel O'Connor was mere feet away from it, yet instead of walking forward, he walked away.

TWO

They didn't speak the whole way back to Angel's apartment. When the cab pulled up in front of the building, Angel paid the driver and climbed out of the back seat without a word to Cordelia.

"Miss?" the driver said, turning his face to look at her. "Are you going somewhere else?"

Cordelia hesitated. She knew perfectly well what was going on. The only decision that remained to be made was whether or not she could live in Buffy Summers' shadow.

"No," she said, gathering her wrap and handbag and sliding across the vinyl seat to the door Angel hadn't even bothered to close. She could, if she were desperate, accept the open door as a subliminal message that he wanted her to follow him up to his condo. But Cordelia was no fool. She knew it had been months since he'd laid eyes on Buffy and she knew it must have knocked him for a loop. If she were a different sort of woman she would go to Angel and tell him that they were through, that he was pretending to feel something that he, clearly, did not feel. But Cordy wasn't that kind of woman. She was practical and calculating. She didn't want a messy break-up, especially not now, just days before May sweeps.

She swung her legs out of the cab and slammed the door behind her. Moments later she was standing in front of Angel's apartment door. Not really an apartment, actually. Angel owned the entire building. The bottom floor was a labyrinth of rooms housing books, the upstairs was an elegantly decorated flat filled with antiques and exuding the personality of its owner.

Cordelia hesitated. If she knocked, the chances were good that he wouldn't answer and she'd feel foolish standing in the hall, even though there was no one to see her. She wrapped her hand around the doorknob and turned, half-expecting it to be locked. The knob turned easily and Cordelia found herself in Angel's front vestibule. Somewhere, in a back room, she could hear music. Dropping her wrap and purse on the hall table and sliding off her shoes, Cordelia moved toward the music.

She peered into the dark kitchen, the living room and down the hall to Angel's bedroom. They had never gotten around to discussing where they would live after they were married. Cordy doubted that Angel would ever give up this house; he would always want a place to call his own. Would he bring other women here, she wondered, and then dismissed the thought: Of course not. She peered into Angel's bedroom, an immaculately tidy space that barely looked lived in if it weren't for the huge mahogany four post bed and Angel's tuxedo jacket, which lay on a stiff backed chair near the window.

He was in the study. Cordy moved further down the hall and stood in the open door. She could see his shoulder, leaning sideways in the oversized armchair he favoured. His long fingers were curled around a tumbler of amber liquid, Glen Fiddich, she guessed.

"I thought you might have gone home," he said, quietly.

"I thought you might have thought that," she replied. She moved into the room, walking through the piles of books gingerly, as though touching one might set off a domino effect, toppling every pile in the room.

He'd been crying. She could see that as soon as she sat across from him on the ottoman. She swallowed the dryness in her throat and folded her hands demurely in her lap. This was not the time for one of her stock faces. Angel knew them all and hadn't been fooled by a single one.

What she wanted to do was remain dignified. She didn't want to cry or beg, although she could feel the tears burning her eyes and could already hear the pleading words form in her head. This wasn't about love. In many ways, her engagement to Angel had been like a business transaction. A single woman nearing 25 in Hollywood was not above suspicion. She didn't want to be flip-flopping in the public's eye when it came to her sexuality. Anne Heche's career would never recover, Cordelia knew this for a fact (and had it on good authority from the stylist who cut Anne's hair, that the actress was pretty well ready to go back to whatever planet she was from).

But underneath Cordelia Chase's glossy exterior beat the heart of Cordy Chase, almost prom queen; Cordy Chase, the girl whose Dad had bilked the IRS out of millions of dollars; Cordy Chase, the girl who couldn't even hold on to the guy from the wrong side of town. It would never do to let Angel O'Connor slip through her fingers. She'd play dirty if she had to.

She reached behind her and pulled down the zipper on her dress, standing to let the handful of black crepe fall to the floor with a whisper. She felt the weight of Angel's pitying stare and closed her eyes against it. She unclasped the black demi-bra, and let her breasts swing free. She was glad she'd thought to take off her shoes at the door, as she was certain her trembling legs would have toppled her from their considerable height by now.

"Cordy, please," Angel said, words propelled by air.

"Please what?" she said, reaching for his warm hand and cradling it against her breast. Her nipple puckered immediately.

"This isn't going to work," he said.

Cordelia sank to her knees in front of him, and traced the length of his penis through his pants. It seemed small and disinterested, but she hoped that given time she could remedy that.

Angel closed his hand over her wrist and yanked her up. "Stop!" he barked. He leaned over and grabbed her discarded dress and handed it to her, his eyes burning; the colour of the dark coffee he favoured first thing in the morning.

"So, what, you see her and all of a sudden everything we've built together is over?" Cordelia asked, her voice sharp-edged with hurt.

"What have we built together, Cordy?" Angel asked, taking her hands gently in his. "All I've built is a wall."

"I suppose that must make me the gate-keeper then," Cordy said, smiling thinly.

"No. I shouldn't have started this with you. I knew what the consequences would be. This isn't your fault."

Cordelia could feel her chin trembling childishly and she dropped her head.

Reaching out a finger, Angel tilted Cordelia's face up so he could meet her eyes. "I've led a very insular life, Cordelia. Look around you. Do you see family photos or anything that would indicate to you that I wanted to live in a world beyond this one? I haven't been a monk, but I've also only ever been in love with one woman," Angel said, softly.

"And I'm not her," Cordelia said, feeling the first shameful tear trickle down her cheek.

Angel shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said.

"Does she know?" Cordelia asked.

Angel slumped back in the armchair and reached for the scotch he had set on a relatively empty corner of the table beside him. He took a sip, winced, and smiled crookedly.

Cordelia wiped away her tears with her fingertips, careful to smooth away any imagined mascara (even though she always wore waterproof to guard against just such occasions) and slipped her dress over her head.

"She was never really a friend of mine in high school," Cordelia said, reaching behind her back to pull the zipper up and discovering it was much easier unzipping. She turned slightly and Angel pulled the zipper to the top. "Thanks. Like I said, we weren't friends."

"I know," Angel said.

"She was good friends with Xander Harris, my old boyfriend. Maybe I never forgave her for that," she continued. "And it wasn't like I went looking for you specifically, Angel. You were just there. Maybe it all began because of jealousy or hurt or whatever, but I do love you."

"It's not like you to be vindictive, Cordy," Angel said.

"Well, I guess I must be a better actress than I thought because it is totally like me to be vindictive," Cordelia said, smiling slightly. "But, nevertheless, I would have married you."

"I know. But I wouldn't have made you happy."

"Perhaps not. Do you think you'd have made Buffy happy?" she asked, not altogether sure she wanted to hear his answer.

"I guess I'll never know," Angel said, sadly.

They sat quietly for a few moments; Angel focused on the liquid in his glass, Cordelia contemplating a graceful getaway.

"Can we just keep the whole break-up quiet for a few days?" Cordy asked, finally.

"Certainly," Angel said. Standing, he offered his hand to Cordelia and together they walked to the front of Angel's apartment.

Cordelia slipped into her shoes and stuffed her bra into her small bag. She waited for Angel's last words and lamented that she didn't feel more horrified about being dumped.

"I am sorry," he said. "I should have been more honest with you, with myself."

"It's not always easy to be honest with others, or ourselves," Cordelia said, reaching up to stroke Angel's cheek. "There aren't too many opportunities for second chances in life, Angel. If you have one somewhere down the road, you shouldn't pass it up."

"Thank you, Cordy."

"You're welcome. Good bye, Angel," she said, removing her hand and slipping out of the door.

The silence, normally welcoming, suddenly seemed oppressive to Angel. He could have just smiled and gone on with his plans to marry Cordelia, but that option had become null and void as soon as he'd seen Buffy Summers drift into the Plaza's ballroom with William Bluddy. William Bluddy. Christ. Of all the men in the world to hook up with, why in the hell did she have to choose him? It wasn't a specific grievance that made Angel's neck tense whenever he saw the other man, just an intangible feeling that the man was up to no good.

Locking his door, Angel made his way back to his study, to his books and his scotch and his memories.

***

Buffy had claimed exhaustion when the limo had pulled up in front of her house at two a.m. She knew that William would expect to come in, but Buffy wasn't sure she'd be able to say no to him tonight. And she wasn't ready to say yes. She'd had no idea it had been his intention to take her to the bookseller's gala and she was barely able to contain her distress when she saw the placard outside of the ballroom. This was the last place she wanted to be because it was the first place she was likely to see Angel and she was sure she couldn't cope with that.

Would William have known how uncomfortable she'd feel in this room if Angel were there? Buffy would like to think that William wouldn't be so underhanded and had come merely for business reasons and brought Buffy because she was his "girlfriend," in the loosest sense of the word.

Buffy had put on her best face and smiled politely with feigned interest over books and folios. She'd sipped white wine, barely making it through a single glass, and mingled, but she didn't see Angel. It was only near the end of the night that she'd begun to settle down, comforted by the fact that Angel couldn't possibly be in the men's room for this long. William was deep in discussion with someone about a box of books discovered in an attic somewhere when Wesley Wyndam-Pryce appeared at her side.

"Buffy," he said, smiling happily.

"Wesley," she replied, equally glad to see this man she had come to know during her short time with Angel.

"What brings you to this stodgy old event?"

Buffy tilted her head to one side, indicating William who was still engrossed in the discussion of the found books.

"Ahh, I see," Wes said, conspiratorially. "Because normally on a Saturday night you'd be..."

"Watching the television and folding laundry, most likely," Buffy laughed. "I thought you were away?"

"Yes, I was, actually," Wes said. "But you can only stand so much of New York, you know."

Buffy laughed. "Yes, it must be a real drag, all those lovely shops and restaurants."

"And yourself? How have you been keeping?" Wes asked, innocently.

Buffy's eyes clouded briefly and cleared suddenly. "I'm good," she said, tipping her glass and pretending to drink. "Great. Good."

"The gallery?"

Buffy had inherited her mother's art gallery as well as her house upon her death. "Well, I have to say it's a steep learning curve for me, but, I think I'm getting the hang of it. I've had some good advice."

Wesley smiled. He'd liked Buffy Summers immediately. Angel had brought her with him to dinner and she had kept the two men amused with stories of her giddy high school and college days. Wes had been amazed at how totally relaxed Angel had seemed in the young woman's presence. He'd known Angel for several years and this was the first girlfriend he'd ever met. He knew that Angel had never lacked for female companionship, but none of them had been permanent fixtures. They'd all had a very short shelf life. Wes had been amazed that Buffy's name was still on the tip of Angel's tongue, weeks after he'd met her. Angel was clearly smitten.

Now, standing before him in a lovely lavender silk dress, which accentuated her slim but feminine figure, Wes was reminded of why Angel had been so taken. And it wasn't just her appearance. Certainly she was captivating, but there was more to it than that. Buffy Summers was smart, faithful and kind. Wesley couldn't imagine what had ever come between the pair and he couldn't ask either one.

"So..." he said.

"So..." she replied.

"So, what are we talking about, then?" William said, settling a long arm proprietarily around Buffy's slender midsection.

"New York," Buffy said, quickly. "Wesley's just gotten back."

"Great. How was it?" William asked, clearly indifferent.

"Well, William, you know. It was the Big Apple."

William smirked. He couldn't be sure, but he thought that Wes might be taking the piss out of him. He squeezed Buffy closer.

"Could you watch it with the death grip, William," Buffy whispered.

"Oh, sorry love," William said, easing the pressure only very slightly. "Look at the time, Buffy. We should be heading back home. Wesley," William held out his right hand in order to shake, "it was great to see you again. Come see us when you're next in Sunnydale."

"Yes, indeed." And that might have been the end of it, except that Wesley hadn't liked the way that William wouldn't let go of Buffy; the way he hovered over her as if she were a possession and had implied, with simple phrasing, that he and Buffy were somehow a married couple that he could visit. "Buffy," he said, causing her to turn. "Just before you go, may I have a word?"

"Sure, Wes," she said, taking a step away from William. He stood there, unwilling to go on without her. "I'll just be a second, William. I'll meet you in the lobby."

He looked dubious, but nodded once and turned towards the ballroom entrance.

"What's up, Wes?" Buffy asked.

Wesley indicated a small loveseat in a nearby alcove. "Sit with me for a moment," he said, taking the opportunity to wonder whether it was wise to proceed.

Smoothing her dress beneath her, Buffy sat down elegantly and waited for Wes to join her.

"It's not my place," Wes started and then stopped, dismayed to see immediate tears spring to Buffy's eyes. "Oh dear, Buffy, I'm sorry."

"No. I'm an idiot. You could have been about to tell me that William was the absolute wrong guy for me. That's what it is, isn't it?" she said, hopefully.

"Actually, no, it isn't. But that might well be part 'b' of what I'm about to say," Wes said.

"Then you're going to say something to me about Angel," Buffy said, unclasping her small purse and retrieving a crumpled tissue.

"Oh, here, use this," Wes said, handing her a large, freshly laundered handkerchief.

"Thanks," Buffy said, blowing indelicately. "I saw his picture in the paper. I know about his engagement to Cordelia. I appreciate you trying to tell me, though. I doubt it would have softened the blow any."

"Well, at any rate, at least you know the worst," Wes said, patting Buffy's knee absently.

She sniffed again.

"The thing is, Buffy, he was here tonight. I shouldn't be saying this, in fact it feels rather traitorous, but when you arrived, looking quite radiant on William's arm, Angel looked positively devastated. Not two seconds later, he left."

Buffy gave Wes a watery smile and said, "William's waiting for me. I should go." She stood, her dress falling like water around her, and smiled. "I'll clean this for you and the next time I see you I'll return it."

"That's not necessary, Buffy. I have dozens. It's one of those gifts nieces and nephews give a bachelor, bookish uncle. I have a great many ties, too," Wes chuckled.

"Perhaps not a bachelor for long," Buffy said, nodding towards Fred, who was standing engrossed in a book of restoration comedies.

"Maybe not. We'll see," Wes said.

"Thanks for the handkerchief, Wes. I have to go," Buffy said.

"Buffy," Wes called after her. "You should talk to him."

Barely turning her head, Buffy replied, "I can't. There are no words left."

***

Buffy closed the door on William's disappointed face and headed up the stairs to her room. She wasn't sure how much longer she could put him off. Sooner or later he'd use that headstrong determination to wear down her already depleted defenses. But for now, Buffy did her best to beg off spending any serious alone time with him.

After things with Angel had fallen apart, she'd begun dating in earnest, attaching herself to the quintessential All-American boy. She'd met Riley Finn at a college frat party in the weeks after her mother's death and Angel's desertion. She wasn't enrolled in school anymore, but her old high school friend, Xander Harris had insisted she attend. She felt like a fish hauled out of cool water: hot, flustered and open-mouthed, gaping at the young people around her who only had to worry about handing in their term papers. Her life had been pulled out from under her and she no longer seemed to know how to act frivolously. So she stood near an exit, as inconspicuously as possible, given that her escort was dancing on a table wearing a grass skirt and not much else.

Xander Harris might have seemed like an odd choice for a friend, but Buffy was grateful to have him in her life. While she had never been a fan of his high school girlfriend, Cordelia Chase, she had seen the way Cordy had managed to soften Xander's rough edges. In turn, Xander had brought out something a little more human in Cordy.

"Friend of yours?" Buffy had looked away from Xander's hula act to see Riley Finn smiling down at her.

It hadn't taken much. Buffy had been blind-sided by her mother's death, her sudden independence and Angel's disappearance. Tall, handsome, bland Riley Finn had moved bit by bit into Buffy's empty life, tugging at the corners of her world and fitting all the pieces back together again. It had been easy to pretend that he was perfectly suitable, even when Buffy knew he was anything but. Could he have been more opposite to Angel? She doubted it. But it had been long weeks before she finally had the courage to end things with him. In the end, she'd only been able to make the break because she knew that his feelings for her were much stronger than hers had been for him. She was trying to replace the irreplaceable.

Did she regret sleeping with Riley? Buffy couldn't say for sure. He had been an attentive lover: kind and considerate, patient and exact. Dull as dishwater. While it wasn't necessarily fair to compare, Buffy wasn't all that anxious to crawl into bed with mediocrity again. It made for a lousy bedfellow. Besides, she'd waited her whole life for Angel O'Connor to come along. She was quite certain she wouldn't be able to duplicate the experience with anyone else, and quite certain she didn't want to try.

William wouldn't be happy about it, though. Buffy could already see the impatient lust glowing in his azure coloured eyes. He'd shown restraint up until now, but Buffy could see his resolve faltering. Buffy knew that William Bluddy was a man used to getting what he wanted. Buffy was uncomfortable with being his newest goal.

As for Wesley's revelation that Angel had been at the convention that evening, Buffy was unsure as to what she could do with this information. They hadn't spoken in months. The thought of seeing him again made her stomach cave inwards, dragging vital organs with it.

Buffy undressed quickly and turned on the small fan resting on her dresser. The air in her room felt stagnant, unused and Buffy welcomed the relief of the cooler air manufactured by the fan. She crawled under the covers and closed her eyes, praying for sleep.

***

William Bluddy stripped and stood for a long time under the icy spray of his shower. His erection seemed a permanent fixture these days and Buffy Summers didn't seem willing to do much about it. He'd played his part: solicitous, patient, attentive. Each of these characteristics irritated him, made him cranky and difficult to be around.

He'd watched Buffy with Angel. He'd watched her with Riley. Now he had her to himself and he wasn't getting any of what he knew for certain the others had: her hot body, limp and pliant, skin molded under hard fingers, head thrown back, lips parted in a stuttering sigh. Damn.

William reached for the soap and lathered himself generously. It was going to be another long night.

***

A sharp rap on the door interrupted Angel's perusal of the Sunday Times. Setting his coffee mug on the marble counter, he headed for the door wondering who could be calling on him so early.

Wesley stood there, warm bagels in one hand, his briefcase in the other. "Good morning," he said, cheerfully.

"Morning," Angel said. "Were we supposed to meet?"

"Not happy to see me, then?" Wesley inquired with a small smile.

Angel pulled the door open wider. "No, of course, come in, come in. I just didn't expect to see you so chipper on a Sunday morning after a night on the town."

"Yes, well, Fred's an early riser," Wes explained, stepping into Angel's vestibule..

Angel stuck his head out into the hall. "Is she with you?"

"No, I dropped her at the university. She had some research to do. As I was in the neighbourhood I thought I'd bring over the latest bulletins from the office..." Wesley trailed off.

"And?"

Wesley pushed the door to Angel's flat closed. He put his briefcase on a hall chair, handed Angel the bag of warm bagels and crossed his arms disapprovingly.

"That was Buffy last night."

Angel cautioned Wesley with a curt shake of his head and went back down the hall toward the kitchen.

Wesley followed. "Well, it was, wasn't it?"

"You know damn well it was," Angel said, his tone unreadable. "Do you want coffee, Wes?"

The other man nodded. "Yes, alright, but don't think you're getting off so easy. I saw the look on your face. Worse, I saw the look on Cordelia's face. And I saw you leave. You don't owe me anything, Angel. This is none of my business and I have stayed out of it, until now. But, damn it, you are so obviously in love with that woman and I can't for the life of me figure out what is going through that thick skull of yours."

"Are you finished?" Angel said, tersely.

Wesley stopped, chastened. He blinked solemnly at his partner and accepted the mug of steaming coffee he was handed, but he said nothing.

Topping up his mug, Angel said, "Follow me."

The two men walked down to the back of the apartment and into Angel's study. There Wesley could see the remains of Angel's evening: two bottles of scotch, one empty, one almost gone, sat on the book littered table beside Angel's favourite chair. Several books lay scattered on the floor, spines cracked open to spill their contents: words tripping over each other to be read.

Angel stopped for a moment and then continued through the room to the double French doors that led to a small, private balcony. Wesley followed and joined Angel at a small seating area in an alcove created by the careful placement of potted palms. He sat in a comfortable wicker chair and waited.

Angel sipped his coffee and considered his words. He had never talked about this with anyone, but somehow he felt the need now, to say the words that might, in turn, exorcise Buffy Summers from his mind and his heart.

***

"Things fall apart, Wesley," Angel began, his eyes fixed on a small fountain on the opposite side of the terrace.

Wesley wasn't sure whether this was meant to be a one-sided conversation or not, but he took the safer route and remained silent.

"Have you been in love, Wes?" It sounded like a rhetorical question and Wesley merely nodded, thinking fondly of Fred's supple limbs. As infatuated as he was with Fred, he was certain that Angel was speaking of a more profound love than his own rather superficial experience. Of the sort of love Angel was speaking, Wesley could, unfortunately, make no claim.

"Do you believe in love at first sight?"

"Are these questions you want me to answer, Angel, or are you merely posing them hypothetically?" Wesley asked.

"They're questions I ask myself all the time. Is it possible to be walking down the street, or standing in a bookstore, mind distracted by crisp pages filled with all the words you wish you could say and be blinded by a person? Is it truly possible to love one human being, to hold that person close to you in the shelter of your heart forever and ever? I don't know."

"I don't know either, Angel. But how many of us are given the opportunity to find out, do you suppose?" Wesley asked, thinking back on his own botched relationships.

Angel shrugged wide shoulders.

"Don't you think that Cordelia would be happier married to a man who was in love with her?" Wesley asked, gently.

"I'm not marrying Cordy," Angel said, softly. "As soon as I saw Buffy last night, I knew that I could never marry Cordy. And I have to give her credit, Cordy knew, too."

"Well, that comes as little surprise to me, given the look on your face when Buffy walked into the room with William," Wes said, wryly. "You should know that I spoke to her after you left, Angel."

"You talked to her. Jesus, Wes," Angel said, miserably.

"I didn't say anything. But she saw the engagement picture in the paper. I'd say, judging from our very brief conversation, that she wasn't too happy about the news," Wes said. "Look, Angel, do you want to talk about it?"

"I'm not sure if I can, Wes. I'm not sure that there's actually much to tell. In the end, how important are the details, really?" Angel said, glumly.

"Ask Agatha Christie," Wesley said with a small smile. "She'll tell you how important the details are."

Angel considered his friend for a long moment and set his cooling coffee on the terra cotta floor beside him. "There's a lot you don't know about me," Angel began.

Wesley settled back in his chair and waited. Angel, it seemed, was ready to lay open his soul.

THREE

twelve months ago....

Angel swept into William Bluddy's bookstore "Rare Reads" and dropped his small parcel on the counter. He banged the bell on the counter and surveyed the empty room. He was tired and irritable and he wanted to go home. But William had been bothering him for these books and he had swung through Sunnydale on his way back from San Francisco.

"Can I help you?"

Angel turned to see a small, striking blonde eyeing him with keen interest.

"Looking for William. Is he around?"

"No. He's not."

"Are you expecting him back soon?" Angel asked, meeting and holding the girl's pointed gaze.

"No."

"Don't say much, do you?" Angel said.

"I'm more of a doer," the girl replied, dropping her eyes seductively.

"I just bet you are," Angel said. The girl's close scrutiny of him was a definite turn-on, but Angel didn't have time to stand here and flirt with William's hired help. "Do you suppose he's at that club of his? What's it called?"

"The Bronze," the girl purred.

"Yes."

"He may be."

"Thanks for your help...." Angel trailed off waiting for the girl to fill in her missing name.

"Darla," she supplied, smiling.

"Darla. Well, Darla, thanks."

Gathering the package, Angel made his way through the shelves and exited into the bright January afternoon.

***

The Bronze was a coffee bar-cum-dance club and one of the few interesting places in Sunnydale, unless you had a real preoccupation with cemeteries; for some reason there was an abundance of those in town.

Angel blinked twice as he entered the cool, dim former warehouse. Two or three of the sofas were taken with university students, feet propped on battered tables, lattes propped on open textbooks. Angel scanned the room, but saw no sign of William's peroxide head. He made his way through the room and settled on a stool, admiring the curved groove at the back of the petite bartender's neck. She was cleaning the espresso machine vigorously, humming to the power rock song that played on the club's stereo system.

Several minutes passed and Angel sat, quietly admiring the girl's attention to detail; the way her small unadorned hands sought out and polished the most hidden places on the fancy machine. Finally, she put down her rag and brought her forearm up, passing it across her moist forehead. "There," she muttered.

"It looks good," Angel said.

The girl spun around, startled by the voice and by the fact that there was someone actually sitting at the bar on a Tuesday afternoon in January. She took a step closer. "I'm sorry," she said. "I wasn't paying attention. Can I get you something?"

Angel took a long, slow, painful breath. He had seen beautiful women before. Perhaps he'd even seen women more beautiful than this one was, but there was no question that this woman possessed some quality, some unnamable quality, that Angel was certain was very rare.

"I'm actually looking for William," he said.

"Not here," she said, with a smile that displayed dazzling teeth.

"Oh," he said.

"But he'll be here. At some point. He always is," she continued. "If you'd like to wait, I could make you some nice clean cappuccino."

He stared at her blankly.

"You know, cause I just cleaned the machine," she paused, waiting for him to get the joke.

"Okay, a cappuccino," Angel agreed, even though he rarely drank anything but plain coffee.

The girl busied herself with the task at hand, measuring and frothing and finally placing the cinnamon-sprinkled drink in front of him.

"So, are you a friend of William's?" the girl asked, leaning against the bar.

Angel sipped his drink carefully, cautious not to let the milky foam linger on his upper lip. "No," he said, shaking his head. "It's business."

"Oh. Does he owe you money?" she asked.

Angel put his cup back in its saucer with a clatter. "No. He doesn't owe me money. Why? Does he owe you money?"

The girl laughed, tossing her ponytail. Angel watched the silky blonde trajectory slide across the girl's marvelous shoulders and felt the permanent knot in his stomach unravel a tiny bit.

"I'm Angel," he said, holding out a cup-warmed hand.

"Sure you are," the girl laughed again, placing her own smaller hand into his. He squeezed softly and tried to meet her eyes.

Angel let go of the girl's hand reluctantly and watched as she pulled her fingers through her hair. "Is your name a secret?"

"I have no secrets," she smiled. "My life is an open book. I'm Buffy."

"Buffy? That's unusual."

"If you want the full story, ask my mother. Too much daytime television, if you ask me. Although I might have gotten saddled with a name like Ridge or Thorne, if I'd been a boy. I mean, seriously, what kind of names are those?"

Angel shrugged. "I don't know. I don't watch daytime television."

"Really?" Buffy cocked an eyebrow quizzically. "I would have said you were a total slave to 'Passions.'"

The reference was lost on Angel. "Would you have dinner with me?" he asked. The question came out of nowhere and Angel was almost as surprised by it as he was by Buffy's reply.

"No," Buffy said, offering Angel an alarmingly brilliant smile to soften her response.

Angel O'Connor stood, pushing his cup and saucer across the bar to Buffy. "How much do I owe you?" he asked.

"It's on me," she said. "Well, actually, it's on William."

"Tell him I was by, would you?" Angel said, gathering his briefcase and heading toward the door.

Buffy watched his broad back and sighed. She didn't know which was more shocking: that he'd asked her out at all or that he'd given up so easily.

***

At six o'clock, Buffy stuffed her knapsack with her bottled water and her sociology textbook and made her way to The Bronze's back exit. She stifled a yawn as she pushed out through the heavy metal door. The alley was deserted and she picked her way through the stray bottles toward the lights of Main Street. She spotted him, then, leaning against the main entrance of The Bronze, eyeing his shoes and glancing up whenever anyone entered or departed through the main door.

"Still waiting for William?" she asked, as she came to stand in front of him.

A slow smile spread across his face. "Do I have to dignify that question with an answer?"

She smiled and glanced back over her shoulder. "There's a nice little pizza place around the corner."

"I thought you didn't want to have dinner," Angel replied.

"Pizza is not dinner," Buffy said with a grin. "Pizza is pizza. I often eat it for breakfast."

Angel took Buffy's knapsack off her shoulder and together they stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street to Urbano's Pizzeria.

The place was an Italian restaurant cliché: red and white checked tablecloths, empty wine bottles that served as candle holders, Dean Martin on the sound system. But the service and pizza were excellent and as Angel poured the remainder of the carafe of red wine into their glasses, he realized that he couldn't remember the last time he had felt so relaxed.

"So, is the book business lucrative?" Buffy asked.

"If you mean, do I make a lot of money, then, yes, it's lucrative," Angel said, feeling none of his normal annoyance at having been asked to divulge personal information.

"Who'd have thought there was money in books," Buffy said

"Well, of course, we're not talking about the books you get at Barnes and Noble. I look for specific books for specific customers; collectors who are interested in very rare volumes to lock away behind glass and show to all their rich intellectual friends." Angel shrugged. Personally he believed that books were meant to be read, but it hardly mattered to him what his customers chose to do with the volumes he hunted down for them. He'd fallen into his line of work purely by accident and it had been a good fit. He worked solo, came and went as he chose and made a more than sufficient living. The fact that he had developed a reputation as a bastard was a side effect he could happily live with. At almost 30, Angel was exactly where he wanted to be.

"And you? What do you hope to do after university?" Angel asked.

Buffy sat back in her chair and regarded Angel with characteristic amusement. "I haven't got a clue. See the world. Become an action hero. Get married and have a dozen kids."

Angel found himself admiring Buffy's innocent hopes for the future.

When the waiter brought the check, he was reluctant to pay it. The handwritten bill signaled the end of one of the few evenings in Angel's recent memory when he'd actually felt like himself, instead of the hard shell he'd become.

"May I walk you home?" he asked.

"Yes. That would be great," Buffy said, slipping into her woolen coat.

It was a clear, bright night. The moon hung suspended by ropes of stars and the air was as crisp and fragrant as a basket of autumn apples. The pair walked in companionable silence down the nearly empty streets of downtown Sunnydale. In front of Buffy's apartment building, Angel hesitated. He felt off balance, unsure.

Buffy smiled up at him, her eyes wide and clear. "I had a great time, Angel," she said.

He nodded. He couldn't seem to slide his eyes past her mouth, wanted more than anything to kiss her and felt like a foolish schoolboy for hesitating. Before he had time to consider his next move, the door to Buffy's building swung closed and Angel was alone.

***

Angel sat wide awake in his hotel room for hours after he'd left Buffy. The bottle of scotch he'd purchased on his walk back to the hotel sat, unopened, on the little table next to the chair where he sat, contemplating the person he'd allowed himself to become over the years. This quiet introspection was something Angel rarely indulged in. He was who he was. There was little he could do, or wanted to do, if he was totally honest with himself, to change the facts of his life.

Born to wealth. Spoiled by an indulgent mother. Schooled privately and then at Oxford. Smugly aware of his physical appearance. Possessed of above average intelligence and keen business sense. A loner. Angel ticked off the facts like he was tallying figures in a ledger. Next to the radiant Buffy Summers, however, Angel O'Connor felt inadequate.

Normally drawn to brittle, shrewd woman with an overdeveloped sense of their sexuality, the last person on earth Angel would have expected to feel hopelessly drawn to was Buffy Summers; coffee bar waitress and college student. Yet, here he was, just past two am, unable to sleep, a yearning as deep as any he'd ever felt wedged against his normally reticent heart.

Angel would have a difficult time pinpointing just where his aversion to relationships had come from. He wasn't a believer in any self-help philosophy, didn't ascribe to any of the plethora of celebrities and new-age gurus who pointed to a better way of living, eating, exercising, and loving. It was all bullshit to Angel.

Despite his privileged upbringing, Angel had been taught, at a very young age, to depend on himself. His mother had indulged him, certainly, but it had more to do with her own fantasies of motherhood than anything Angel might have needed as a young boy; those crucial early years were a blur to him. He couldn't remember a single outing with his mother, a single midnight kitchen raid for hot milk and cookies, a single day at the beach. His father was a slave to his law firm; a rigid, distant man who had had a series of affairs, which Mrs. O'Connor either condoned or ignored until he died, unexpectedly, of a heart attack.

So, maybe, if he wanted to make the leap, he could blame his parents and their pathetic excuse for a marriage for his own reluctance to get involved with anybody on a level deeper than flesh. But Angel knew it was more than that. He had chosen a profession that, by its very nature, called for single-mindedness and independence. It was foolish to even be considering embarking on a relationship with someone like Buffy Summers.

Sunnydale was meant to be a short stop, a quick in and out to check on certain things before he headed back to LA to get on with his life, but Angel suddenly felt as though his life were just about to begin.

***

By 7 am, he was waiting outside her apartment. He'd stopped for tea and donuts on the way, although he was anxious at the thought that he might have missed her the entire time he'd been waiting to pay.

The sight of her, long coat billowing in a burst of colour as she pushed open the door of her building, stopped his heart.

He stood, leaning against his rental car, a goofy lop-sided grin marring his normally silent face and waited for her to see him standing there. He was exhilarated to see her eyes reach across the street and even more gratified to see the smile she bestowed upon him as she made her way to the car.

"Good morning," she said. Angel could smell her freshly washed hair which was pulled back in a damp ponytail.

He nodded.

"Is that for me?" she said, indicating the paper cup he held in his hand.

Another nod.

She took the cup and smiled against the lip of it.

"I have an eight o'clock class," she murmured into the steam.

"I brought donuts," he said at the exact same time.

She lifted her lashes, revealing startling kaleidoscope eyes.

He couldn't help himself, standing there with those eyes on him, bearing down on him with the unknowable knowledge of all he was and wasn't. He took the cup of tea from her trembling hand and set it on the hood of the car. Angel knew he was standing on the precipice of the most important moment of his life: he couldn't let go of Buffy Summers.

"If it's too soon," he said, softly, "you just need to tell me."

She shook her head imperceptibly and held out her hand. With a little tug, she propelled them both across the street and into her building, up the stairs and into her apartment. Door shut behind them, Buffy turned and regarded Angel seriously.

"I'm quite sure I've waited long enough for you, Angel," she said.

She shrugged off her coat and hung it primly on the hook on her door. She waited for him to follow, and he slipped off his expensive leather duster and hung it intimately over hers. For a long moment they stood. She turned and slipped down the hall, looking back and beckoning him with her eyes. He hesitated, wondering at this uncharacteristic abandon, and then followed her.

Her bedroom was spare and charming: pale yellow paint, windows hung with sheer muslin attached to brass rods with little clip-on stars, a wide, plain bed covered in a patchwork quilt. Buffy stood by the window, her back to Angel when he entered the room.

He stood just inside her door, afraid to move or speak. She turned suddenly and smiled.

"I had a dream about you. Before I even knew you existed, I dreamt you."

Angel's heart lurched when he saw that Buffy was crying. She did nothing to stem the flow of her tears. She seemed rather oblivious to them, but Angel felt the urge to cross the room and wipe them away.

"You strike me as a man who needs saving, Angel."

He started toward her, crossing the room and standing in front of her, not touching, but close enough that he could. "You are a revelation to me, Buffy," he said, simply.

"Perhaps."

"I hope that I won't disappoint you," he said, resting the pads of his thumbs on her cheeks and sweeping upward, gathering her tears as he went.

"You won't disappoint me if you're honest. Can you be honest, Angel?"

He gave her a small, sad smile. "I don't know," he said, honestly.

She rested her small hands on his and drew his palms to her mouth, pressing a warm kiss into the tender place at the center of each hand. Then, lifting her eyes up to meet his, she offered him her heart.

***

Angel clawed his way out of the memory of Buffy's face looking up at him with such open acceptance and love that Angel had, for a moment, been sure he was having some sort of weird waking dream. In his whole life no one had ever looked at him like that. Usually he was eyed with wariness, suspicion, shrewd appraisal, lust. Even Cordelia, weeks after he had walked away from Buffy, had never looked at him as though he were anything but what he was: a man with neither a conscience nor a heart. Odd, the people before Buffy would have claimed some knowledge of Angel personally or professionally, either through business or a sexual encounter, but in the end, none of them knew one tenth of what Buffy knew in less than twenty-four hours.

"Angel?" Wesley said, slipping through the bubble of memory.

Angel slanted his eyes towards his friend who was leaning forward, cradling his empty coffee cup in his thatched fingers.

"I know. It doesn't make sense," Angel said, quietly.

"What doesn't make sense? That you fell in love or that you walked away from it?" Wesley asked, holding Angel's gaze with his own.

Angel closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. "Both, I guess. I never did anything in my whole life to deserve her and yet there she was like an apparition out of nowhere. She never asked for all the complications I brought to her life."

"Well, Angel, you're a complicated man," Wesley said, cajoled.

"Shit," Angel spat. "I'm not talking about that."

Wesley arched his eyebrows expectantly. Although he considered himself to be a close friend, he knew that that didn't give him any better insight into Angel's character. There was a certain amount of mystery surrounding Angel O'Connor, missing information that prevented Wes from having a clear picture of the man. It was not an understatement to call him complicated. Despite the years they had spent working together, Wesley didn't feel capable of writing Angel's obituary.

"I'm talking about what I was capable of doing," Angel said, angrily.

Wesley snorted behind a concealing hand. Angel rewarded him with another dark look.

"What? Oh, for heaven's sake, Angel, what you were capable of doing? Did you ever think you were capable of bringing Buffy great happiness? How do you know what you're capable of? You shock the hell out of me every day and I'm still here."

"It's not the same," Angel said.

"No. It's not. But it's not all that different, either." Wesley stood, stretching his long legs and leaning against the balcony, which surveyed the road and a small green space below Angel's building.

"I haven't told you the worst, Wes," Angel said, his voice a strangled whisper.

Wesley turned back to face his friend. "Well, then, let's hear it."

***

Buffy led Angel to the bed and drew him down to the intricately patterned quilt. They lay, facing each other reverently. Angel could feel his heart thudding in his chest and was startled by how loud and unnerving the sound of it was in his ears.

Buffy's eyes were wide open, multi-coloured prisms, catching and reflecting light. Tendrils of her butter-coloured hair had slipped from her ponytail and framed her face. Angel didn't know where to rest his own eyes: her poreless skin, her lovely mouth, the small mole on her neck.

"Tell me your middle name," she said.

"Liam."

"Where were you born?"

"Galway, Ireland. But I came to America very young. No accent."

"Do you have siblings?"

"A sister, Catherine."

"Ever been married?"

"No."

"Want children?"

"I hadn't thought about it until this very instant," Angel said with a smile.

Buffy lifted a finger to trace the stern line of Angel's jaw, his slanted cheek, the thick fringe of dark lashes.

"You're very beautiful," she said. "Your mother named you well."

For the first time in his life, Angel felt self-conscious of his looks. He'd considered them an asset when he was able to use them to his advantage. Otherwise, he rarely thought about his physical appearance at all. The fact that Buffy was drawing attention to the way that he looked both elated and made him uncomfortable, all at once.

A long golden moment of silence stretched between them.

"My turn," Angel said, relishing the feeling of her fingers tracing the smooth skin behind his ear and at his nape.

"Open book, remember? Ask me anything."

"Middle name?"

"Anne."

"Parents?"

"Yes, Joyce and Hank. Divorced. Somewhat amicable."

"Siblings?"

"No. These are too easy. Ask me something hard."

Angel thought for a moment.

"Ever been in love?"

"In seventh grade. And once in eleventh grade."

Angel shook his head. "I don't mean that kind of love."

"Love is love, isn't it?" Buffy said, innocently.

"Is it?"

"Well, I think yes. How do you quantify it? How do you decide, when it's over, that it wasn't what you thought it was, when you believed in it at the time?"

"I guess I hadn't thought of it like that."

"Have you ever been in love, Angel?" she asked, fingers caught in his hair, words whispering past his face.

"No," he replied.

She paused. "I think you should kiss me now."

Angel couldn't remember ever being so nervous at the thought of pressing his lips against the lips of another. He moved his head forward, watching her pupils dilate at his approach. She smelled of clear water and vanilla. Her lips were soft and unadorned. God.

He hovered over her lips, barely brushing against them with his own mouth. Kissing was something he had mostly considered as a precursor to sex. Kissing had never meant anything on its own. Yet, in that second before he pressed his lips fully against hers, Angel felt as though this kiss meant the world.

She sighed against his mouth, a sound that shook the very foundation on which he'd stood his whole life: take no prisoners, no one gets in, no one gets out. She tasted of honey and, faintly, of mint toothpaste. He cradled her face in his hands and pressed closer, aware that she was moving with him. Her lips parted beneath his, inviting his tongue and Angel moved into the warm space between her lips, his tongue tentatively seeking its mate.

He deepened the kiss, nibbling her lips, sliding across them with measured abandon. He felt her hands slide into his hair, holding his head closer and causing a rush of feeling down his spine. He felt himself grow painfully hard inside his pants: part lust, part something he couldn't define.

It seemed like an hour had passed when he finally managed to pull back from her mouth. Her eyes were waiting for him.

"God, Buffy," he whispered.

"What I said before, about the seventh and eleventh grade, I think I'm prepared to qualify my statement, now," she whispered back.

Angel smiled. "No, you're right to hold on to those memories, to cherish them. I'm a cynic at heart."

"Well, I guess I'll tackle that first," Buffy said. "No time for cynicism."

"No," Angel agreed, "I suppose not."

Buffy propped herself up on one elbow and studied Angel's face. She doubted she would ever tire of looking at it. Perhaps he wasn't classically beautiful, his mouth too wide and his brow too strong, but he was striking in a way that defied all logic. His teeth were perfect: white and even. His cheeks slanted sharply without making him look emaciated. His eyes were pure brown, the colour of dark wood. In them Buffy was sure she saw power and hunger and loneliness. She pressed a kiss to his forehead and his nose and then, to his mouth, which set them off once more.

This time there was something less meandering about the kiss. Angel felt certain, when he felt her lips on his, that there was a destination. Placing a large hand on her back he unhinged her elbow and she fell back onto the bed. Without leaving her mouth, Angel ran his fingertips along her neck, over the knobby bones at the base of her throat, down the valley created by her breasts. Her breath hitched and gasped beneath his mouth. He was almost afraid to look at her, afraid to see reproach in her eyes for having touched her too soon, but when he looked at her, her eyes were remote and opaque: he could see nothing in them but himself.

He slid his hand underneath her white t-shirt and spanned the width of her flat belly. She was trembling and, to his surprise, so was he. He slid up the slope of her ribcage and then up over the curve of her breast, the smooth satin of her bra puckered at her nipple. Dipping a finger into her bra he made contact with the pebbled peak and felt Buffy suck in a quick mouthful of air. Angel was of two minds: get her naked and beneath him as quickly as possible and slow down in an effort to ensure she was with him until the very end. Still, neither option precluded him seeing her creamy naked skin, so he sat back on his haunches, pulling Buffy up and then tugging her shirt over her head. Her bra, a tiny scrap of satin was a marvel of technology; sexy and functional and Angel almost considered leaving it on, but while his groin pulsed painfully he reached behind her back, between her butterfly shoulder blades, and deftly unhooked it, letting it slip down her shoulders and arms.

God.

"Hardly worth..." Buffy started.

"Shhh," Angel said, placing two long, thick fingers against her swollen lips. "You're beautiful."

Indeed she was. Perfect, gently rounded breasts with puckered pink nipples sat regally on her ribcage. Drawing her legs on either side of his lap, Angel tilted her back just enough so her breasts lay before him, a feast. He kissed up the underside of one, then the other. He stroked and licked but ignored her nipples, sensing that he needed to take his time, that this was important. He lay her flat on the bed and stood up, shucking his shirt and shoes, socks and pants. Leaning over her, he unsnapped her pants and slid them down her narrow hips. He heard her shoes hit the floor. Her satin panties matched the discarded bra.

He could smell her. The aroma was a heady mixture of sweet and salt and Angel had an overwhelming desire to bury his face between her legs. Instead, he started at the top: kissing eyelids and earlobes, throat and shoulder, trailing his fingers up and down her slim arm, scratching her upturned palm with his index finger, finally touching her neglected nipples with the tip of his tongue, gently abrading her with his teeth. He felt the quiver in her belly, heard her whimpers from far away, listened for her to say 'no,' and when she didn't, moved down, sweeping his hands along her ribs, brushing a palm against the coarse hair covering her pubes. He was gratified to feel her buck against his hand, encouraging his touch.

Positioning himself against her smooth thighs he paused. This act was worth savouring. Poised over her intimate centre, he slid his glance up over her belly, breasts, up-turned chin, willing her to see him as he dipped his tongue forward to taste her for the first time. Sensing him, she acknowledged his intent with cautious eyes.

"Buffy?" he said, his words drifting up to her.

She reached down to lock her fingers with his. "I'm okay, Angel."

He needed no other encouragement, might not have been able to prevent himself, anyway, from parting her feminine lips and pressing his flattened tongue against her, pausing to allow the sweet, sweet taste of her assault his already reeling senses. She lay still beneath him, yet he could feel her vibrating against his tongue. He moved up, pressing the tip of his tongue against the little nub of flesh, drawing circles around it, and finally, placing his lips on it and sucking gently. Her hips lifted off the bed and he reached under her, cupping her firm buttock in his hands, holding her firmly against his mouth as she exploded all around him.

He held her until she stilled, watched her breathing slow, saw her eyes flutter open to reveal wonder and peace. The he slid up her body, until he was poised at her opening, his sex flirting with hers. Was it too soon? He couldn't remember a time in his whole adult life when he had ever considered that question.

Her body unfolded below him. She hooked her legs over his hips, locked her ankles at the small of his back and drew him forward. Inch by precious inch, he moved and felt her open beneath him. She was so tiny, so perfect, so tight and slick, that Angel thought he might come before he was entirely inside her. She blinked up at him, concentrating so hard on his face that he was sure he might melt away under her careful scrutiny. But he held her eyes and moved forward, a sharp thrust and...

Angel watched Buffy's eyes fill with tears at the same time as he felt her body resist the intrusion. He hesitated, unsure of what he should do, unwilling to believe that she would give herself to him so totally.

"Buffy?" he said.

She shook her head. "Shhh. It's all right."

He hung back, suspended above her for a long moment, before he shifted, withdrawing and re-entering her body with precision. Slow. Slower than he would have thought humanly possible, Angel reached into the deepest, hungriest part of himself and tamped down the flame. He thought of a million ways he could touch her, a million ways he could position his body to allow him better access to her, but he couldn't leave her eyes. Nor could he stop his own release, which came barreling up his spine, resting for a moment in his testicles, before emptying into her sleek core. Still, he stay suspended above her, not even allowing himself the luxury of closing his eyes when he came. She should know. She should know. He lay his head in the curve of her shoulder and moaned, pushing past the lump in his throat, holding back scalding tears of his own.

***

Returning to Los Angeles was the hardest thing Angel O'Connor had ever done. Harder than cutting off ties with his mother. Harder than maintaining the impression that he was a hard ass. Harder than pretending to enjoy his weekly dinners with Wesley and his cronies, which he only did so that Wes would believe that he wasn't a total social misfit. Harder than keeping secrets from Buffy. Now, the thought of returning to LA, to a life he could suddenly care less about, seemed daunting.

He sat at her tiny kitchen table, drinking coffee and watching Buffy flip pancakes. Her hair, caught in a messy bun at the top of her head threatened to topple at any minute and he couldn't seem to make himself focus on the Sunday paper. The silhouette of her lithe body glimpsed through the sheer robe she wore was practically more than Angel could stand. How long since they'd been out of bed?

In the thirty-six hours since they met, Angel felt reborn. He ignored Rupert's cell messages, ignored the fact that he was meant to be traveling to New York in less than a week, ignored the nagging feeling that he was supposed to be a different person and concentrated, instead, on falling in love with Buffy Summers. Was it prudent, he wondered, to abandon the carefully erected walls he'd built around himself? He didn't seem to care. That his involvement with her might interfere with his career was a risk he was more than willing to take.

She was humming. He folded his paper and padded, shirtless, to the stove. She couldn't help but feel his arousal pressing into the small of her back.

"Hungry?" she asked, flipping a blackened pancake.

He wrinkled his nose. "Yes."

He slid his hands up the front of her robe, untying the belt and moving against the smooth, warm silk of her skin. He hadn't been able to bring himself to ask why she had never made love with anyone else. The fact of her virginity was so amazing, so precious to him that he was afraid to broach the subject.

Angel felt her loll against him, spatula hanging loosely at her side. He reached over and turned off the stove. The pancakes could wait. He could not.

***

Dearest Buffy,

It seems impossible that I have been away from you for three weeks now. Where does the time go? How do I fill my days without you? Well, you know how, obviously. But I can only visit so many antiquarian bookstores before the whole business of tracking down rare volumes seems rather pointless. You should have come. I should have insisted. I know, it seemed too early to be going away together. But I know my own heart, Buffy. I knew it the moment I lay my eyes upon you. Perhaps it seemed to you that I was moving too quickly, but it seemed to me that the whole world had slowed to a stop. Now, three whole weeks have gone by. Three weeks that would have been better spent with you, talking, uncovering bits of your past. You may even have been able to convince me to reveal a few of my own dark secrets. I am miles away, in this huge sprawling city; a city I actually once loved, but which now seems immense and foreign to me because you are not in it. See how quickly you have made the place where you are home.

Angel

Dear Angel,

It was nice to receive your letter this morning. I felt like a greedy girl who has come upon an entire box of chocolates. I found a quiet place to read it and gobbled it up in one sitting. You are too, too far away. I am lonesome without you and have ruined my calendar with black X's through all the days you have been gone. I know your work is important, but I wish it was me you were searching for and not first editions. Oh well. Soon enough you'll be home. I promise to trust your instincts about us and not let my fears stand in the way because I know you're right, Angel; I knew it the moment the jet smoke faded from the sky.

Yours,

Buffy

Dear Buffy,

I've been looking forever and, suddenly, among a pile of books outside a little shop on Charring Cross Road, there it was. Imagine! "The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins," First edition. Giles will be thrilled beyond belief when I deliver this to him upon my return to LA. Forgive me. I know that you don't share my love of books. Well, I'm putting words in your mouth now, aren't I? You've never said one way or the other whether you think what I do is exciting or incredibly dull. I wish I had a more interesting line of work: private investigator, or traffic controller or king. I doubt you'd like Hopkins, Buffy. He writes mostly of God and the natural world and I think you haven't much use for either of those. I didn't either, until I met you and realized there must, indeed, be a God, and a benevolent one at that, if you were put in my path and I was lucky enough to have discovered you.

Angel

Dear Angel,

My mother died. I know that by the time you receive this, it will be days after the fact and there will be nothing that you can do. I am sorry to spring the news on you this way. I tried to call the hotel, but they said that you had checked out. I am sending this to the American Express office in Paris, as I know that that's where your itinerary suggested you'd be next. Perhaps, though, your plans have changed. I am alright, Angel, though I must admit that I'd be better if you were here. This is one of those moments when time will have stopped for me. The day my mother died.

Buffy

Dear Angel,

I haven't heard anything from you since I sent the note about my mother. Did you not receive the news? When are you coming home?

B

Dear Angel,

I am sending this to you in LA because I know that, by now, you are back there. I'm wondering what's happened. You've not been in touch. Is everything okay?

Buffy

***

"And so it went," Angel said to Wesley. "Weeks and weeks of me traveling to Sunnydale and Buffy coming to LA. I managed to keep everything separate. Her, my life...well, she was my life."

"I'm not sure I understand, Angel," Wesley said. He was supposed to be picking up Fred in thirty minutes, but he had the feeling that he was not going to make it. He should call.

"I know. This wasn't supposed to ever happen."

"What wasn't supposed to happen?" Wesley asked.

"I'm...not a book dealer, Wes. I mean, I do that, but that's not what I do," Angel said, quietly, staring at his hands.

"Pardon me?" Wesley said, clearly confused. "Well, what have we been doing for the past four years then? I was quite certain we were selling books."

Angel met his friend's eyes. "Yes, we were." Angel hesitated. He'd known that it was possible that at some point he would have to make this revelation to Wesley. Part of the reason he had very few friends was to prevent the number of people he would have to come clean to. Cordy had been a huge mistake, but at least he'd been able to make a tidy break from her. "I work for the government, Wes. I work undercover."

Wesley couldn't help himself, he laughed out loud. "Oh, I see, you're a spy," Wesley said, mockingly.

Angel shook his head. "No. Not a spy. I'm investigating a ring of very specialized forgers. They've bilked legitimate collectors and museums out of millions of dollars. I'm very close to busting things wide open. In fact, when Buffy's mother died, I was in Paris tracking down an important lead. That was the beginning of the end for us. I mean, Christ, her mother dies and I'm on the other side of the world. I can't walk away from my work and I can't tell her about my work and so she just believes I'm this asshole who doesn't care enough about her to be with her at the time she most needed me. That's when I realized it just wasn't going to happen for us. It had nothing to do with my feelings for her, nothing. It had everything to do with who I am." Angel's words came out in a rush, carefully erected defenses torn down in a tumble of words. He looked cautiously at Wesley, waiting for his response.

Wesley shook his head in disbelief. "It's true, then?"

"It's true."

"And so, what part have I had in this little charade because, obviously, unbeknownst to me, I have played a part," Wesley said, with simmering anger.

"Yes. You've played a part. You're my cover. You were thoroughly investigated and came out spotlessly clean. So, I associated myself with you and we built a nice little business, which allowed me to come and go in the circles necessary to do my work. I am sorry that you couldn't know, Wes, but I hope you understand that what I do is potentially very dangerous. Millions of dollars are at stake."

"Damn you, Angel," Wesley said, standing and moving back towards the doors that led into Angel's apartment.

"Wait," Angel said, following.

Wesley didn't hesitate. He swung around and crashed a fist full of knuckles into Angel's face. "You bastard. You selfish bastard."

Angel didn't strike back, although his first instinct was to ram Wes against a wall and let go with all his pent up anger and sorrow and frustration. Instead, Angel stood and watched his friend pick his way through the littered den and down the hall to the door.

FOUR

"So he knows then," Rupert Giles said, tapping a pen against his polished mahogany desk.

"He knows," Angel sighed.

"Will he say anything to anybody?" Giles asked.

"I don't know," Angel said.

"Well, what do you think?"

"I don't know, Rupert. He might say something to Fred."

Rupert nodded curtly. He picked up the phone and pressed a single number. "Anya, can you get Wesley Wyndam-Pryce on the phone for me?"

Placing the receiver back in the cradle, Rupert Giles came around from behind his desk and sat in the chair opposite Angel. "I understand your motivation, Angel. I don't think the operation is in jeopardy provided we can have Wesley's assurance that he won't say anything until we attain our objective."

The phone on the desk buzzed and Rupert reached over to pick it up. "Thank you, Anya," he said, pausing. "Hello, Wesley. Very well, thanks. Look, I'm in desperate need of a favour," Rupert said, pausing to listen. "Yes, well, I can appreciate that, certainly. Right then. We'll speak later." Rupert hung the phone up and sat back in his chair.

"Well?" Angel asked.

"He said he was going out of town and would be unavailable and unreachable for several days," Giles said, cautiously.

"I could call Fred, see what's up," Angel offered.

"I'm not sure that's wise," Rupert said.

"We could have him picked up, kept out of the way until we're done," Angel suggested.

Rupert shook his head. "I'm not sure that would be prudent either, Angel." He stood and removed his wire-rimmed glasses, rubbing them gently with a large white handkerchief. "How close are you to nabbing him?" he asked.

"A week. Maybe two," Angel said.

"Well, we can't keep Wesley hidden away for that length of time. Bloody hell," Giles said, crossly.

Angel slouched forward in his chair and focused on a piece of torn paper peeking out from under the edge of Rupert's desk.

"You've been with us a long time, Angel and your work has never been anything short of exemplary. For all this to have happened, you must have a great wealth of feeling for Buffy Summers. I can't say as I blame you, but you must understand that you took a great risk in attaching yourself to her in an intimate way," Giles paused, noting the pained expression on Angel's face. "This is not a job, Angel, this is a life but it is not the life for everyone. You were handpicked for qualities that made you an above average candidate for this sort of work."

"I know all this, Giles," Angel interrupted.

"Yes, I'm sure you do. Now, let me finish. When this is over, when we have reached our objective, you will have to make a decision."

Angel waited expectantly.

"You must understand that having lived the way you've lived for the past ten years, it will not be easy to walk away from it, but you will have to chose to either commit yourself once more to a solitary life, or to walk away from this agency altogether. You can't have both."

"I know that," Angel said.

"Do you?" Giles asked, gently. "Do you want a solitary life, Angel? I think if you are honest with yourself, honest down to the very marrow, you know that you do not."

Angel smiled reluctantly. "That may be true, Rupert, but I think I already blew my opportunity for the white picket fence. I'm not sure I'd know how to live in her world, even if she let me."

"Well, I can't help you with any of that. You're a brave man, Angel. You've gotten yourself into and out of plenty of scrapes with us, I can't imagine that patching things up with Buffy would be too demanding."

Rupert's phone buzzed again. "Yes," he said, into the receiver. "Yes," he repeated and hung the phone gently on its cradle. "That was Holtz. It's time to move in."

"What about Wes?"

"We'll just have to take our chances that he's had a chance to think about what you told him and will stay quiet for the time being."

"Alright," Angel said. "I'll get to Sunnydale then."

Giles nodded. "Be careful, Angel."

"I always am," Angel said.

***

Buffy yawned sleepily and snuggled deeper beneath the thick comforter. She wasn't quite ready to let go of the blurry edges of her dream. She waited in the golden silence of her room to feel his gentle fingers peeling away her defenses, laying her open to his hungry eyes and thoughtful touch. At first, the dream had had clarity; she could smell him, the clean, freshly laundered smell of him, and she could feel him, the firm, sculpted muscles, yielding under her hand, and she could taste him, cloves and red wine. Sometimes, in those early days of dreaming, he would speak to her: "Oh, baby," he'd say, a murmur against her mouth. "Come for me, Buffy. Come on, baby. Let go, for me." And the words themselves would coax her forward, like a beckoning finger pointing the way to selfish oblivion. And, sometimes, in those dreams Buffy would feel the irrevocable tug of an orgasm and she would wake up suddenly, nightgown twisted anxiously at her waist, breasts aching from his phantom touch.

***

But it was the phone that woke her. She reached out blindly and fumbled the receiver off its cradle.

"Hello?"

"Good morning, pet," came William's cheerful voice. "You're not still in bed, are you? Perhaps you'd like a little company, then?" he added brazenly.

Buffy rubbed her eyes wearily. She wasn't sure she had the energy for William today. What time was it? Her eyes scanned the cluttered bedside table for the alarm clock. Crap. Seven-thirty already.

"William. Hi. Sorry, I overslept," Buffy said, perfectly aware that she was meant to have met William for breakfast thirty minutes ago.

"Well, I'm disappointed, of course," William said. "But I'll let you make it up to me. Let's have lunch."

Buffy sat up and pulled her knees to her chest. She thought of the day ahead of her at the gallery, of the dry cleaning she had to pick up and the paperwork sitting in a messy pile on her desk. She knew, however that William was not likely to take no for an answer. Perhaps she could get Willow to cover for her while she grabbed a quick bite. If she didn't agree to lunch, she knew that William would press for dinner and that would put her in a worse position.

Ever since her talk with Wesley at the book convention, Buffy had been unable to get Angel O'Connor out of her head. She'd spent weeks trying to obliterate the memory of him, yet here he was again. She felt like she had to start from scratch all over again. Maybe she should just allow herself to move to the next step with William. It wouldn't necessarily be all that bad to take another lover.

"Lunch, then," Buffy agreed, swinging her legs out of the bed. "Where should we meet?"

***

"So, lunch? Lunch is good. It's an ambiguous meal, I think," Willow, Buffy's friend and sometime employee said, dusting the frame of a very subdued watercolour.

Buffy laughed. Willow saw the world through very unusual glasses, figuratively speaking. "Well, yes, I suppose as meals go, lunch could be considered vague."

"He's cute, Buffy," Willow said, moving to the next painting, a loud abstract.

"Well, he's certainly easy on the eyes, Will," Buffy agreed.

"But...."

Buffy looked at her friend from across the gallery. "Nothing. No buts, I'm done with them," she said, averting her eyes from Willow's gaze and turning her attention back to the invoices she was filing.

Willow nodded, focusing on her dusting.

The morning passed.

***

Buffy settled in the booth at Urbano's Pizzeria and glanced at her watch. She'd purposely arrived fifteen minutes late knowing that William would be at least thirty minutes behind schedule. She sipped her ice water and sorted through the odds and ends in her worn leather knapsack, trying hard not to dwell on the fact that this was the very first place she and Angel had ever eaten together. It was ridiculous to reminisce about a relationship that had burnt out like a comet. She'd been foolish to think that something so passionate could sustain itself in the long run. At the first sign of trouble, Angel had been gone. What had she expected?

More. She had expected a lot more. She had expected him to make good on the promises that he had whispered to her during the still nights, words floating over her skin like careful caresses. She had expected him to help her pick up the pieces of her life after her mother had died. She had expected to have his children, grow old and fat with him, sit in matching rocking chairs and spoil their grandchildren together.

But to just disappear, to end it without a word and turn up in an announcement in a newspaper, engaged to another woman, was more than Buffy could forgive. Perhaps she'd been young. Not anymore. If Buffy had learned one thing from her relationship with Angel, it was that she shouldn't let someone else drive the car.

A wailing siren raced past the window and Buffy felt a curious knot of tension lodge in her belly. She glanced at her watch and was dismayed to discover that William was now over forty-five minutes late. Thirty minutes was usually his maximum tardiness limit. Something was wrong.

***

Rare Reads was crawling with cops when Buffy arrived. A very unhappy Darla sat in the back seat of one police car, a grim scowl on her face.

"Excuse me," Buffy said to one of the officers. "Has something happened? Is someone hurt?"

"I can't answer your questions, miss," the officer said, politely but firmly.

"Well, who can answer my questions? This place belongs to a friend of mine and I need to make sure that he's okay," Buffy said.

The officer swung his disinterested eyes to Buffy's and then glanced around the street. "See that guy over there. Go ask him, this is his operation."

Buffy moved her gaze in the direction the cop had indicated and found herself staring, across a parking lot and a dozen police cars, at Angel O'Connor.

She took a step back, felt the air leave her lungs and the astringent tang of bitter lemon flood her throat.

"Miss? Are you alright?" The police officer's voice seemed far away.

Buffy couldn't tell if she was walking toward Angel or away from him. Somehow she found herself closing in on where he was standing, talking to two another men. She couldn't hear what they were saying. Angel's face was an inscrutable mask. She watched him nod at his companions and then head for the door to Rare Reads. Buffy stepped back against a wall and let out the breath she hadn't realized she was holding.

Moments later Angel emerged followed by two plain clothed police officers dragging a belligerent William Bluddy behind them.

"You bastard!" William was yelling at Angel's stiff back. "You poncy wanker."

Then, like in a slow motion sequence from a gangster movie, William spotted Buffy and called, "Hey, pet, your boyfriend's back in town and if I find out...." His words died in his throat as Angel wheeled around; simultaneously jabbing William in the throat with a closed fist and searching the crowded street for the recipient of his thwarted threat. Buffy suddenly found herself pinned against the side of a building by Angel's impenetrable eyes.

She watched as he spoke to one of the other men and then stepped off the curb, heading for her. Her legs felt wobbly beneath her. This was not how she had imagined it would be when she saw Angel again. Her heart hammered traitorously in her chest. She braced herself against the wall and prayed for composure.

Then, he was there, standing in front of her and she opened her mouth to speak, but could find no words.

"Buffy," he said.

His voice startled her. She'd forgotten the sound of his voice, the timbre of it, the deep resonating quality that had lulled her to sleep at night. She shook her head. "Stay away from me, Angel. Just stay away."

It was only the thought that her legs might not hold her up that prevented Buffy from running down the street. She had to be content to walk quickly, not once looking back. Nevertheless, she could feel Angel's eyes follow her until she turned the corner. There, crouched near the back entrance to the gallery, Buffy rested her head on her knees and sobbed.

***

"The news said something about some big sting operation," Willow said excitedly over the phone. "Apparently William and Darla were into fencing rare antique books. I never did like Darla and, see, as it turns out, my instincts were correct."

"I'm sleepy, Will, I have to go to bed. Can you open for me in the morning?"

"Sure, Buffy. Listen, is everything alright? I mean, you don't sound..."

Buffy interrupted her friend. "I'm good. I'm just tired and shocked about William. I can't believe I am such a bad judge of character."

"You're not, Buffy. You've just met more than your share of creeps. Sleep tight."

Buffy set the cordless phone on the toilet and sank into the cushion of fragrant bubbles.

Should she have known that Angel was some sort of cop or something? Could she have known? She tried to remember their few short weeks together, tried to fit the pieces of him into some sort of coherent order, but it was impossible to think of him in any sort of official capacity. Although she'd never taken much interest in what he did for a job, he's never shown much interest in it either. Yes, he talked frequently on his cell phone, but mostly Buffy tuned him out, her body humming with residual pleasure from their lovemaking. His business trips seemed legitimate enough. Buffy knew very little about the book business. Her forays into the world of literature usually involved a quick trip into Barnes and Noble to buy the latest bestseller and little else. She just took him at face value, believing, perhaps naively, that a person was whom they said they were. Now, she felt like an idiot. Angel O'Connor obviously had a whole other life, a life to which she was not privy.

Climbing out of the cooling water, Buffy toweled off and walked into the bedroom. She slipped into worn cotton pyjama bottoms and a tanktop and unfastened her hair, letting it fall in a messy tumble to her bared shoulders. This seemed like a good time to take stock and she leaned closer to the mirror, peering at her worried expression.

Who was Buffy Anne Summers? A twenty-two year old, motherless woman with porcelain skin and wide-open eyes. The proprietor of her mother's art gallery. Sexually innocent except for a few chaste kisses and a fumbling hand batted away before it could reach its mark, her barely curved adolescent breast. Then he'd come along and looked at her with such longing that she'd been unable to resist. No, that wasn't right. She'd wanted him. Wanted him more than she'd ever imagined it possible to want anyone or anything in her whole life. Buffy frowned at her reflection.

Had he ever really loved her at all, she wondered. It was a question she didn't dare answer.

***

She fell into the abyss of sleep instantly. Perhaps the warm bath, maybe the glass of wine, possibly the sleeping pills. Still, when the knock came at her door, she was awake instantly; her heart beating furiously in her chest. She rolled over, searching for her alarm clock. Two thirteen. Who could be hammering at her door at this hour of the morning?

Without grabbing a robe, she walked through the moonlit hall, down the stairs and eased open the door. William stood glowering on the porch, his angular face illuminated by the porch light.

"Hello, Buffy," he said.

"Do you have any idea what time it is?" she asked.

Placing a hand against the door, William shoved hard and Buffy stumbled back. William stepped inside and closed the door with a menacing click.

"What are you doing here, William?" Buffy said, her voice tight with an equal measure of fear and anger.

"Buffy. Buffy," William said, inching closer and shaking his head. "You must think I am a total idiot."

Buffy backed up, her heel hitting the bottom stair, causing her to sit inelegantly. She looked up at William. "I don't think you're an idiot. Well, I think you're an idiot for coming to my house in the middle of the night," she amended.

William crouched before her. He'd never seen her look as lovely as she did at this moment: afraid, tousled, breasts clearly defined by the thin tank she wore. Maybe it would be enough to just fuck her. The thought of her prone beneath him, naked, caused a twinge of lust to course through his body.

"What are you? A cop? An informant?" William said, his eyes lingering on the swell of Buffy's breasts visible above the scooped neck of her top.

She crossed her arms in front of her, inadvertently pushing her breasts up. The ache in William's groin intensified.

Grabbing Buffy by the arm, he dragged her to the sofa in the front room and shoved her down. "You and that bastard were conspiring against me," he said, pushing the small coffee table in front of the sofa out of the way.

"William," Buffy said, warily. "I honestly don't know what you're talking about. I was as surprised as anyone else to see the cops at your store today. All I know is what I've heard on the TV."

William sneered nastily. "Right. So, you're just my girlfriend then, is that it?" he said, reaching over to trace the hollow between her collarbone.

"Right. That's all I am."

"But if you were my girlfriend, we would have fucked. We haven't fucked, Buffy. You've barely let me kiss you. So, I'm thinking, I'm nothing more to you than some quarry."

Buffy pushed herself back into the corner of the sofa and shook her head. "No, William."

William advanced, his eyes seething with malice and intent. Suddenly he was looming over her, his body wedged against hers and then suddenly, he was gone. It happened so quickly that Buffy barely had time to register the crash of something breaking and the shuffle of feet across her living room floor, before she realized that William was gone and Angel was kneeling beside her.

She blinked.

"Are you okay?"

She nodded, uncertainly.

"He should have never gotten this far, but I went to your apartment. I didn't know you'd moved," Angel said, carefully meeting Buffy's horrified eyes. "I would have killed him if he'd hurt you, Buffy."

"I have to go," Buffy said, sliding away from the concerned look on Angel's face.

"Buffy," Angel said, stopping her with one warm hand on her bare arm. "We should...we need to talk...."

Buffy looked down at Angel's hand: long, graceful fingers that were now imbued with her new knowledge that he wasn't just some book dealer. He was more than that, more dangerous.

"I can't talk to you, Angel," she whispered.

Angel removed his hand and immediately regretted the loss of contact. He stood and stepped out of her way. "I'll stay down here, Buffy, for tonight."

"Am I in danger?" she asked without looking at him.

"I don't think so, but just to be safe. You might have questions about William and what he was up to and I might be able to answer some of them, set your mind at ease."

She nodded. She felt her stomach roll over and she took a step forward before she bent double and emptied its contents on the floor.

***

Buffy awoke to the chattering of birds outside her window. Dim light spilled across the edge of her bed and in the corner, head tilted awkwardly, sat Angel, eyes alert and focused. Focused on her.

"How are you feeling?" he asked, shifting stiffly in the chair.

"I'm alright, thanks. What happened?"

"You vomited and then you fainted," Angel said simply, leaving out the details. She didn't need to know about how he'd carried her upstairs, savouring the warm weight of her small frame curled against his chest. She'd be embarrassed to know that he'd removed her damp tank and pants, soothing her face and neck with a cool cloth. He'd searched in her bureau for new clothes and then helped her into them. She'd been awake by then, but as limp as a rag doll. He'd tucked her under the covers and settled in the chair with an erection that not even thoughts of the bearded lady would diminish.

"I'm...I..." Buffy wasn't sure what she could say, what she wanted to say. "Is William in jail?"

Angel nodded tersely. He knew that Buffy had no idea of what William and Darla had been up to, still it cut him deeply that she had been associated with him socially. "The people I work for may have some questions for you at some point."

"The people you work for? Not Wes?"

Angel managed a small smile. "No. Not Wes."

"Who do you work for?" Buffy asked, settling back against the pillows of her bed and regarding Angel quietly.

He sighed. "You have no idea how sorry..."

Buffy shook her head. "I'm not interested in your apology. I just want to know what was more important than me. Than the death of my mother. Than my whole world flying apart," Buffy stopped herself with great difficulty. The dam she'd placed in her heart to prevent the flood of emotion she'd felt over Angel's betrayal felt ready to let loose and she couldn't let that happen. "Never mind. You should go."

Buffy stood and walked to the closet, yanking open the door and retrieving a faded pink sweater, its sleeves too long and its cuffs frayed. When she emerged from its neck she was startled to see Angel standing right in front of her.

"You have to believe me when I tell you that I never, ever wanted to hurt you," he said, hands biting into the flesh of her upper arms.

"It doesn't matter now," she said, wearily.

"It matters to me, Buffy," he replied, softly.

He couldn't have said what compelled him to lean forward and brush his lips against hers and she couldn't have said what made her own lips react to that touch, but suddenly they were kissing. She felt his hands capture her face and tilt her head so that his lips could work their irrefutable magic. She placed her own hands onto his thick wrists and held on, held on to the feel of his mouth pressed against hers, the incredible texture of his tongue sliding against her own, the sensation of her insides liquefying. She couldn't have protested even if she'd wanted to. Instead, when she felt Angel move back, when she felt the bed rush up to catch her slow-motion fall, the only sound from her mouth was a strangled moan.

She shut her eyes. She couldn't bear to see his eyes looking down at her with anything other than lust. If this was just about sex, Buffy felt that she might be able to get through it. She knew she could not if she saw concern, or pity or something more complicated in his expression.

She sought solace in the sensations coursing through her body: The lips that never stopped nibbling, nipping, sipping; the fingers that climbed the rivers and valleys created by her clothing, searching for exposed skin; the rustling that signaled Angel was removing his shirt, his pants, his socks.

She felt him kneel beside her and then felt the smooth slide of his palms work their way under her sweater and tank, gathering the material and sliding it upwards, then off. Her arms lay stretched above her head, fingers knotted together in pliant submission. She felt his warm breath and his cool tongue trace a pattern of adoration down her neck, across her breasts until he was practically feeding from her jutting nipples. She had no choice; it had been too long, Buffy arched mindlessly into his mouth and she felt the vibration of his groan flutter against her already sensitive flesh.

Without hesitating, she felt Angel's hand caress a path down the smooth skin of her abdomen, then disappear into the waistband of her pants. His hand rested at the edge of her thatch of pubic hair. He tilted his head up, looking for acknowledgment or resistance. Seeing neither, he moved his hand down, sliding a finger through the sleek wet flesh of her outer lips. He was rewarded with a hiss of pleasure.

"Jesus, Buffy," he said, rolling over to nestle between her tense legs. He hooked his fingers in her pants and pulled them down, releasing the sweet aroma of her arousal and the nervous quaking of her thighs. Discarding her pants on the floor at the end of the bed, Angel returned to her quivering core. He parted her glistening lips with his thumbs and bent forward, lapping demurely at her clitoris. Positioning himself for better access, he angled two long fingers into her passage, stroking deep inside her.

She moved against him without thinking, her body heedless of the warning her brain was trying to send. She knew, knew beyond reason that he was making love to her. This wasn't about lust and her body screamed its acceptance of his gift. It would be so much easier if she could just pass off their previous relationship as mutual attraction, but Buffy knew to the depths of her soul that it had been so much more than that. The way he touched her. The way he drank in the sight of her. The way her body crooned against his. The way his supple flesh and hard bone felt beneath her fingers. The way her body synchronized itself to his. And now, she could feel the agonizing pace of her heart quicken, pushing blood and nerve endings forward, careening down the path to the flesh between her legs, boomeranging back out, shooting endorphins like electrical sparks through her limbs.

With hardly a lapse in movement, Angel was inside her. He didn't move. He waited for the inevitable pulse of her orgasm to coax his own release. Locking his fingers with hers, he pulled her up so she was seated in his lap. Then, resting his hands on her narrow waist he slid her up and down his rigid shaft. The friction of her pointed nipples against his hairless chest sent them both spiraling to the edge; a well-placed finger on her clit sent her over.

Buffy rested her forehead on Angel's shoulder and let out a fractured sigh. She felt his arms wrap around her and she allowed him to pull her close. For a moment, she allowed herself to believe that all was well in her world, that Angel had never left, that no lies had been told, that things were exactly as they should be.

"I'm sorry, Buffy," he whispered. "I..."

She pulled back, meeting his worried eyes for the first time since they'd begun down this impossible path.

"Don't, Angel. Please don't. This can't be about anything more than what it is," she said, trying to shift off his lap, to lose her intimate contact with him.

He held her down, felt himself harden within her and cursed his selfish need to make her whimper beneath him again. "What is this about then?" he asked, carefully.

"I don't know. But I do know that it's changed nothing between us, Angel," she said, sadly.

Angel reached up to cup Buffy's breasts, to feel their familiar weight in his hands, to flick his thumbs over their hardened peaks and watch her eyes glaze over. "This isn't nothing," he said, bending forward to worry her aroused flesh with his blunt teeth.

He couldn't think of any way to convince her that he loved her except to worship her body. So he began again, the painstaking process of saying with his touch what she would not believe with his words.

FIVE

Three months later...

Jenny Calendar eyed Angel O'Connor suspiciously. That he had found the extremely rare book of poems by Sylvia Plath was one thing. That it was signed and dated the day before Plath had stuck her head in an oven, was something else entirely.

"Do you want it or not?" Angel asked, impatiently. He glanced at his watch and then swept blank eyes back to the woman examining the book. "It's authentic, if that's what you're wondering," he said.

"I know your reputation, Mr. O'Connor," Miss Calendar said, tightly. "I have no doubt that this is the real article."

"Well, then all that's left is to agree on my price," Angel replied.

"Yes."

Angel stood. Jenny followed the long, lean length of him up to the firm slice of his jaw. She couldn't possibly come up with the sum he was asking. She wondered, briefly, if he might drop his asking price in exchange for...something else. Jenny flushed at the thought. If the rumour mill was correct, Angel O'Connor had little need for either her body or her money, but he'd been known to take whatever he could of either simply because he could.

"Well," he said, gazing down at her through slitted eyes.

"Well," she said. "Would you like a drink?"

Angel laughed derisively. He leaned down and extracted the book from Jenny's gloved hands and placed it carefully in its protective bag. Turning back to her he said, "I would have expected you to be less predictable, Jenny. What makes you think I won't screw you both literally and figuratively?"

Jenny shook her head. She hadn't considered this possibility. She knew that Angel was a ruthless businessman: smart, cunning and determined. Underneath it all, though, she had supposed that he was decent. Now she began to rethink her position.

"Do you have the money for the book or not?" Angel asked.

"No. Not the entire amount. I thought..."

"What? You thought I would fuck you and drop the price?" Angel laughed unpleasantly.

Jenny dropped her gaze. The rumour mill had neglected to say how cruel this trade with Angel might be.

"You must want that book awfully badly to consider sleeping with the devil," Angel said.

Jenny's heart lurched as she heard the scrape of a zipper. She lifted her eyes under long lashes and was relieved to see that it was only Angel closing his soft leather satchel.

"Perhaps we'll do business again," Angel said, softly, making his way to the door.

It was only after she heard the latch click softly shut that Jenny slumped back in her chair, small beads of relieved sweat dotting her forehead. It was then that she noticed Plath's book, which Angel had left behind on her coffee table.

***

Angel unlocked the door to the small storefront on Bleekman Street. "Books" said the old fashioned sign outside. His routine remained unchanged after he returned from a business trip. His business with Jenny Calendar had been concluded satisfactorily. She'd gotten the book she wanted; he maintained his reputation for being difficult. He was quite certain Jenny wouldn't tell anyone how she'd offered him sex in exchange for the book and so his reputation for being a bastard would remain intact. She'd wanted the book, though, and it hadn't been difficult for him to leave it behind. Now that he was legitimately in the book buying and selling business, he liked to play. It passed the time. He had lots of time.

He checked his machine for messages. He flipped through the mail his assistant, Tara, stacked neatly on his desk. He propped open the door to allow fresh air to move the dust around. He made a pot of tea and then he sat, reflecting on the past few weeks.

The evidence Angel had amassed against William and Darla had sent them both to prison for several years and shut down several smaller operations across Europe. His work done, Angel had set about trying to make things right with Wesley. Angel was grateful to him for not having disclosed the truth about his profession, but Angel did understand Wes' reluctance to have anything further to do with him. Angel had been pleased, then, when he'd been invited to attend Wes and Fred's marriage ceremony. It was a small, simple affair. Wes and Fred looked blissfully happy and had given up life in the city for a more subdued existence in suburbia, where Fred was able to work on the book she was writing and Wes was able to conduct his own book finding services through the internet. Angel was certain it wouldn't be long before there were a few little Wyndam-Pryces milling around.

Over drinks, Angel had handed in his resignation to Rupert Giles. Rupert had been reluctant to accept the fact that Angel was clearly no longer interested in living on the fringes of the world. One of Rupert's many talents, however, was seeing into the very heart of the matter and even though a permanent reunion had not taken place between Buffy and Angel, Rupert knew that Angel had lost the edge necessary to live in a shadow world. He needed to live in the real world.

An unusual envelope caught Angel's eye and he slid his finger under the flap, prying it open.

Miss Cordelia Chase and Mr Xander Harris
request your presence at the occasion of their wedding
to be held on June 17th
at the Sunnydale Presbyterian Church
120 Main Street
Sunnydale, California
Ceremony at 6pm
Reception to follow at the Sunnydale Hilton

"Well, I'll be damned," Angel muttered.

***

"Will you be attending?" Wesley asked later that week, as the two met for their monthly lunch.

Angel shrugged. "Should I go?"

Wesley laughed. "I can't see any reason why not," he said, fishing the olive out of his martini glass. "You and Cordelia have stayed friendly over the months since you split up. Obviously she wants you there or she wouldn't have invited you."

"You've seen her, haven't you?"

Wes nodded. "Yes, I have, Angel. She's radiantly happy and Xander is a nice man."

"Which I wasn't."

"I didn't say that. Even eliminating the complications of your profession, Angel, you were not the right man for Cordelia." Wesley smiled. "And she was not the right woman for you."

Angel cautioned Wes with a look. Some things had changed very little. Angel was still not willing to discuss his personal life with Wes and Wes had learned not to pry. Although he had done his best to be more open with Wesley about his new life, Angel was still reluctant to share his feelings when it came to Buffy.

"I guess I'll go, then, if you and Fred don't mind a third wheel," Angel said, reaching for the check. "Now, about those books."

***

Willow smiled brightly at Buffy as she came down the stairs. Although she looked stunning in her shimmering pink dress with her blonde hair pulled back in a sleek chignon, she was pale and fragile looking; a breath of wind might carry her away.

"How do I look?" Buffy said.

Willow shook her head. "Lovely."

Buffy nodded. "Can you fasten the top for me," she turned. Willow was dismayed to see the knobby bones protruding along the curve of Buffy's back. She reached over to fasten the tiny pearl button at the top of her dress.

"Can you believe it?" Willow said. "Xander and Cordy? I just can't get over the fact that today's the day."

"Well, Xander's happy. He always kinda missed her," Buffy said, searching the room for her little purse.

"Yep.I don't know how they'll make out with the whole Cordy being a famous star and everything, though. I heard People Magazine was going to be at the wedding today," Willow said, handing Buffy the small bag she'd been looking for.

Buffy chuckled. "Well, lucky us to be included on the guest list."

"And we don't want to miss a moment of it," Willow said. "We should go."

***

Angel entered the church with moments to spare. He'd dropped Wes and Fred off earlier, saying that he had an errand to run. A quick stop at Buffy's house indicated that she wasn't home and he'd hurried back to the church, settling into the seat next to his friends just as the first strains of the Wedding March filled the church.

Cordelia was a vision in her Vera Wang cocktail dress. Her flowers, simple white roses and lilies perfumed the air as she drifted up the aisle on her father's arm. Her groom, Xander Harris, was a tall dark-haired man, obviously in love with his bride. Angel breathed a sigh of relief. Mr. Chase handed off his daughter and sat in the first row next to his wife.

The service was simple, vows were exchanged, rings were fitted on shaking fingers and Cordy was kissed soundly to raucous applause. As they made their way back down the aisle, people threw rose petals from the bags that had been left for them on their seats. There wasn't a single movie star moment to be had during the entire ceremony and Angel was immensely pleased for his ex-fiancée.

"Shall we head over to the reception, then?" Wesley said, leaning across Fred.

"Sure. Why not?" Angel said.

***

The patio of the Hilton was swirling with activity when Buffy and Willow made their entrance.

"Look, there's Oz," Buffy said, pointing across the room to a waiter carrying a tray loaded with champagne flutes.

"Oz from high school Oz?" Willow asked, peering across the crowded room to catch a glimpse of their former classmate. "Wow. I thought he was on the East Coast with a band or something."

"Well, you should go talk to him, Will," Buffy said, snatching a glass of champagne off a tray as it whipped by her.

"Oh. Oh, do you think I should? What if he doesn't remember me?"

"Oz?" Buffy laughed. "Didn't you sleep with him, Willow?"

Willow blushed, her cheeks flaming the colour of her marvelous red hair. "Shh, Buffy. It was, like, a million years ago."

Buffy smiled and nudged Willow with her purse. "Go. Talk to him. I'm good."

Willow straightened her shoulders and headed across the room, glancing back over her shoulder to give Buffy a crooked smile. It was that backward glance that allowed her to see what Buffy could not. Angel O'Connor entering the room with another couple, smiling and looking absolutely devastating in a dark suit.

She kept the smile on her face and turned back towards Oz. Sometimes, Willow thought, you just had to let fate play her hand.

***

"I'll just find the happy couple and offer my congratulations," Angel said.

"You're not going to rush off are you, Angel?" Fred asked, admonishingly.

Angel smiled. Poor Fred. She kept insisting that with a little practice, Angel would learn to enjoy social situations. "I'm just going across the room," he said, smiling indulgently.

She returned his smile and slipped her hand into Wes'.

"Look, I think I see Cordy," Wes said, pointing to a clutch of photographers.

"That's her," Angel said, moving towards the opposite side of the room. The faster he could say hello, the faster he could get the hell out of here. Perhaps he'd swing by Buffy's one more time before he headed back to LA.

He hadn't gone more than a few steps when he stopped. Just ahead of him, head tilted back to drain the last of the bubbly in her glass, was Buffy. Three more steps and he was beside her. Two heartbeats and she looked up at him, her eyes gliding across his face without acknowledgement. Two more heartbeats and her eyes were back.

"Angel?" she said.

"Hello, Buffy," he said.

"What are you..." she started and then realization dawned on her.

"She invited me," Angel said, answering her unfinished question.

She nodded, searching for another tray of champagne.

"How have you been?" he asked carefully.

Buffy whisked a glass off a traveling tray and took a sip. Buffy could feel the heat of his body through the sleeve of his jacket. She could feel his wary eyes assess her thin shoulders and arms; could feel the weight of all the words he wanted to say; could feel her knees buckle at his nearness and she cursed herself for loving him, still.

"I have to go," she said, but not to him.

"Why?"

"I just have to be somewhere else," she said softly, turning to hand him her glass.

He wrapped his fingers around hers and pulled her into the wall of his chest. Leaning down he whispered: "I don't deserve your forgiveness, Buffy, but I'm asking for it."

She pushed away from him and the glass fell to the floor, smashing between their feet.

"I have to go," she said and in a whirl of silk she was gone.

Buffy rushed out of the huge room, through the lobby and out the main doors of the hotel. The sky was dark, threatening rain and there wasn't a cab to be seen. The air was thick and cloying and Buffy considered going back inside to call a taxi, but she didn't want to see Angel again. Not again.

Slipping off her shoes, she began the walk toward home. It was almost funny when the sky opened up and the rain began. A sprinkle at first and then in earnest, drenching Buffy in seconds. She hardly noticed when the Jaguar pulled up to the curb.

"Get in!" the driver yelled as the first crack of thunder bellowed overhead.

She peered through the rain. Angel. She continued to walk and the car inched along beside her.

"Buffy! Get in the goddamn car!"

She shook her head and continued to walk.

Angel pulled closer to the curb and stopped. He jumped out of the car and quickly caught up with Buffy. Grabbing her wet arm he whirled her around and his breath caught in his throat. Her dress was nearly perfectly transparent; a diaphanous scrap of material that clearly outlined her slim frame. Unaware of the affect she was having on him, Buffy wrenched her arm free and walked away. Angel caught up in two long strides. Grabbing her hand once more he pulled her into the relative shelter between two buildings.

"Why are you following me?" she screamed over the next rumble of thunder.

"Because we have to talk. Why won't you just let me talk to you?" he screamed back.

Buffy's retort died in her throat as chain lightning pulsed through the sky, setting off the next crash. The streetlights died. The rain sliced down in stinging sheets. Then, for a moment there was a lull in the storm.

Buffy could hear Angel's rasping breath close to her ear; Angel could hear Buffy's own hitching breath. He could make out every inch of her body beneath the sodden fabric of her dress and Angel felt his crotch tighten with sudden lust.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Buffy asked.

"Like what?" he replied, though he knew exactly what she meant.

Angel shook his head, splashing more rainwater against her upturned face. Somehow, her hair had come undone and it lay in wet tendrils against her cheeks. Angel thought she had never looked more beautiful.

"This isn't the right place to be having this conversation," Angel said evenly.

"I don't want to have this conversation," Buffy replied.

"Then I'll talk, you listen."

Buffy slumped against the wall, giving Angel an even more distracting view of her shivering breasts. He closed his eyes.

"All my life I've been alone. I've never been any good at being with people, so when Giles picked me for the agency it seemed like the right choice for me. I could work and I could do it, for the most part, alone. I never counted on meeting you, Buffy. I screwed it all up, I know I did, but I wasn't prepared to balance my work with you...." He stopped and opened his eyes, surprised to discover that Buffy was watching him intently.

"You didn't even come when my mother died, Angel," Buffy said tremulously.

"I know," he said solemnly. "It's unforgivable."

"You didn't come back at all," she said.

He nodded. "I didn't. It's what I do. It's what I did do," he amended. "In the past."

"Imperfect, your past," Buffy said.

"Yes," he agreed, reaching out a hand.

She shook her head. "I'm not sure I can do this, Angel. I'm not sure I can open my heart up to you again. I don't think you have any idea what your leaving did to me. You just walked away, like I didn't matter. You didn't give me any choice, any say...."

"I'm asking you to trust me," he said, stepping forward, his fingertips brushing the wet silk of her dress where it clung to her waist. Inch by inch he drew her closer. "If you don't love me anymore, that's one thing, Buffy," Angel said. "But if you do...."

"It's not about the way I feel, Angel," Buffy said. Her words were chased from her throat by another startling crash of thunder. The rain began again, hard driving rain that prickled the skin on her arms and throat.

"What is it about then?" Angel asked, dragging his eyes away from her breasts. He wasn't sure how much more he could stand: the close proximity, her skin beaded with water, her dress accentuating every dip and hollow, her nipples, attentive beneath the wet silk of her dress.

She shook her head. Her lower lip trembled and Angel wanted nothing more than to prevent her tears, so he kissed her. Kissed her with every ounce of himself, all the longing and loneliness and misery he'd felt since the last time they had been together, the night William Bluddy had been arrested.

They'd made love over and over that night, but Buffy had refused to discuss their relationship. In the end, he'd left with out gaining any ground with her, without having tried to explain how he'd totally botched things up. He knew two things that day as he drove back to his disassembled life in LA: that he still loved Buffy and that he wanted out of the agency.

But despite phone calls and letters and impromptu drives to Sunnydale, she hadn't budged. The one thing she'd asked from him, honesty, he'd been unable to deliver. Angel feared that as strong as her feelings might be for him, she wouldn't ever allow him back in her life, for fear that he'd hurt her again.

Now, standing in the torrential rain, Angel could feel Buffy's lips slide wetly across his own. He groaned into her mouth and backed her into the brick wall. He moved his hands up to mold her wet breasts, palms coasting across her stiff nipples, fingers digging into the flesh which gleamed above the fabric of her filmy dress.

"OhGod," Buffy moaned, head resting against the brick, rain dripping down the slope of her cheek and caught in the thick fringe of her closed eyelashes.

He caught a swollen peak between his lips and drew it into his mouth, sucking greedily. Buffy reached out, grasping his shoulders for balance. Sucking one breast, he reached up and twisted the other distended nipple gently between his fingers. Buffy rewarded him with a sharp cry.

Grabbing a handful of wet dress, Angel hauled the material up Buffy's slim legs and thighs, keeping the material bunched in one hand. Reaching between her legs, Angel hooked his fingers in the material of her panties and pulled, wrenching the material free.

"Ohgodohgod," Buffy murmured incoherently.

Angel undid his fly and reached into his briefs; his cock strained in his hand. Hauling Buffy up, he sheathed himself inside her with one fluid push and then, resting her against the wall for leverage, he began a slow, punishing rhythm that drove them both quickly to the edge.

He couldn't stop himself. It felt like blackmail even to be thinking the words, but as he withdrew he whispered, "Say you don't love me, Buffy."

Her wild, startled, rain-filled eyes met his.

"Please, Angel," she whispered.

"Please what?" he asked, pushing back into her willing flesh and retreating once more.

"Please don't ask me," she managed through gritted teeth as the first ripple of her orgasm began shuddering through her aching womb.

Angel reached between their joined bodies and tweaked her clitoris and Buffy cried out. Clamping her legs tightly around his narrow hips, Buffy ground herself against him, fighting the wave of feeling, both welcoming it and pushing it away. But it was no use, Buffy felt Angel swell inside her, his hips jerking as he plumbed the depths of her femininity. Buffy felt the gritty brick wall abrading her back and the slight pain only served to send her crashing over the edge to her own shuddering orgasm.

For a long moment, they were quiet. Angel pressed his mouth to hers and she wrapped her arms around his neck as he slipped out of her.

"I'm sorry, Buffy."

"Are you, Angel?"

He nodded, once, uncertain.

"Sorry for this, I mean. For taking you this way in an alley like..." he stopped.

"I'm not," she said, reaching her hand out to touch his face. "Sorry, I mean."

"Can we at least, talk?" he asked.

"There wasn't ever going to be anyone else, Angel," Buffy said, wrestling the wet fabric of her dress down over her bottom. "You were him. You still are him. I'd be a liar if I said I didn't have misgivings about trusting you again, but I don't want to live my life without you. I don't know how."

He smiled crookedly at her, and caught her hand in his own. The rain had stopped, but far off in the distance, Buffy could hear the low, angry grumble of summer. Still, the storm seemed to have passed.

***

Dear Buffy,

These are the things that I should have said to you.

You changed my life in all the ways that count, in all the ways I could have never imagined. From the moment I lay my eyes on you I knew that my world would never be the same, but I wasn't prepared to abandon my old life for my new. I didn't know what it meant to be loved, to be in love until I met you.

You filled me up, Buffy, but it wasn't until your mother died that I realized just how much was at stake. I should have never let my job stand in the way of us, but I didn't know what it meant to be 'us.' I didn't have any experience.

You gave yourself to me so completely, Buffy. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't afraid. I was. Even knowing what I knew about you and the way that you had seeped into the very fabric of my life and made all the things that had made me who I was seem insignificant, I was afraid. But I couldn't say that to you. To do so, would be to deny who I'd been for the past 30 years. It would mean walking away from my past. I didn't trust...I didn't trust me enough to do that. And I let you down, badly. I'm ashamed of that man.

But that man, flaws and all, is the same man who loves you, Buffy.

That man is the same man who promises to spend the rest of his time on earth building a life with you.

With every breath, Buffy, with every inch of me, I will worship you until I leave this earth.

And beyond,

Angel

The End

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