Sacrifice

Sacrifice

ONE

Had he expected more? He wasn't sure; he certainly hadn't expected less. Angel standing at the foot of his bed, a look so benign on his face that Wesley had, for a moment, been sure that his friend was going to tell him that Connor had been found. But the moment that Angel had opened his mouth, Wesley had known that things were wrecked between them.

The stitches the doctors had sewn carefully across his injured throat began to itch. The placid look on Angel's face never changed as he assured Wesley that he understood why Wesley had done what he'd done. Taken his son. You bastard. You son of a bitch. You're a dead man, Pryce. You bastard.

Wesley could have depressed the button signaling the hospital staff that he was in need, but he hadn't bothered. He'd welcomed the pain and hatred in Angel's eyes, welcomed the pillow obliterating his own breath and crushing remorse.

In the end he was saved, the heart monitor, perhaps: the tell-tale crash-beat of his own fragile human heart, broken now, and in they'd stormed, pulling Angel off of him and yanking him out the door, his unveiled threats echoing down the corridor. Wesley lay in bed, drawing ragged breath through his torn throat and trying not to let the tears seep out, trying not to let Fred, who stood there, hope fading from her own eyes, see his shame.

He hadn't wanted to go home, but the doctor's "good news" was affirmed by the arrival the next day of Fred with a box of his things from the office. He could see the jutting spout of his cracked teapot, a stack of dusty volumes, his jar of fountain pens. She'd stood there, her slight shoulders drawn back, and told him that she understood what he'd done, but this time he was prepared for the other shoe to drop. Unlike Angel, though, she couldn't meet his eyes after that, and although Wesley was sure he saw utter desolation before she turned away, she would not allow him to see. Instead, back turned she told him that the prophecy had been false. It had all been for nothing.

Later, in the entrance to his apartment, he'd stood clutching all that was left in his life and wondered how he would ever prevent himself from allowing Angel his revenge.

***

He was still in the same spot, although he'd slid to the floor, and still holding his pathetic possessions, when someone knocked sharply on his door. He stayed still, hoping that whoever it was would go away. Two more short raps. Wesley slid the box off his lap and unfolded his long legs, standing with difficulty to peer through the peephole.

Cordelia stood in the hall, a look of preoccupied concentration on her face. Wesley stepped back wondering if some premonition had brought her to his door. Another knock: firm knuckles making contact with solid wood.

"Wes. Open the door." Firm words, too. Wesley considered the option of putting off this moment for another moment and then twisted the door open, revealing Cordelia, tanned and impatient.

"Geesh, Wes, were you just gonna stand there staring at me through that stupid hole all day?" she asked, brushing by him into the dark apartment. She headed straight for a table lamp and switched it on. The dim light illuminated the scattered papers strewn across the polished wood floor.

"Haven't had time to pick up, eh." she said, a statement not a question. She bent over to retrieve the spilled papers.

"What do you want, Cordelia?" he asked, his voice barely a whisper.

Cordelia sat on the couch and patted the seat beside her. "You shouldn't talk, Wesley. You should just listen. Come and sit."

Wesley shook his head, touching a tentative hand to the bandages protecting his neck. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a small notebook. He selected a pen from the jar Fred had put into the box and then, flipping open the notebook to a blank page, wrote: *"What do you want?"* in firm block letters. He walked to the sofa and directed the page toward his guest.

"Got you a gift," she said, indicating the little gift bag in her left hand. "From Mexico."

Wesley nodded and waited.

"Of course, this wasn't exactly how I expected to be handing out gifts," Cordelia said, her mouth a narrow line.

Wes held out the little pad again, indicating the same question he'd asked twice before.

"Ok, already, enough small talk. What were you thinking, Wes?" Cordelia asked with barely contained exasperation.

Wes felt his knees wobble and he sank to the edge of the couch, as far away from Cordelia as he could manage. He shouldn't have let her in. He should have ignored that slim hope that she had come with news that he had somehow been redeemed in Angel's eyes. Of course, that wasn't possible. Maybe, he'd thought, Cordelia had had a vision that would show Angel where Connor was, proved that he was safe, gave credence to Wes' decision to ignore all sense and do the unthinkable- turning his dearest friend into his mortal enemy in the process. But now Wes had to face the recrimination he saw in Cordelia's wide brown eyes. He turned to meet her gaze and waited.

"Look, Wes, I'm not here to pick a fight with you or to tell you that you screwed up. It's obvious that you screwed up. I feel badly, too. If I hadn't been so hell-bent on...well, you know...with Groo, maybe I could've helped," she shrugged. "But maybe not. Maybe things are just the way they're supposed to be."

Wesley scrawled a few words on his pad and held them out for Cordy to see. Do you really think so?

Cordelia regarded him incredulously. "Well, duh, of course not," she said with a sniff. "We were supposed to be able to trust each other, Wes. We were supposed to back each other up. What, you get some ancient prophecy all screwed around and...?"

Wes held up a hand to stop her and wrote again. I consulted the hamburger.

Cordelia shook her head uncomprehendingly. "You consulted the hamburger?" she said with disbelief.

Wesley nodded, more aware than ever of how poor his case was, how impossible it would be to ever make his friends understand why he'd done what he'd done.

Fred says the prophecy is fake.

"Yes. Sahjhan traveled through time and rewrote the thing to make it seem like Angel would kill Connor, but really it was that Connor would kill Sahjhan. All that work to save his own ugly ass," Cordelia said matter-of-factly.

So I was wrong, then.

"You were wrong, Wes. Dead wrong."

Wesley slumped back on the sofa. It wasn't just the wrong he'd done to Angel, it was all the little slights which had preceded it. Lying to his closest friends, the only true friends he'd ever had in his whole life. Smashing Lorne over the head as he made his escape. Trusting Holtz. Trusting that two-timing bitch Justine. The list seemed overwhelming and endless.

"I know Fred already told you to stay away from the hotel," Cordelia said, standing. "I came to second that, of course, but to say something else to you."

Wesley looked up at Cordelia. He noticed for the first time how tired she looked, noticed the little lines, which had bloomed around her mouth, how her eyes seemed less bright, harder.

"What else?" he managed to croak.

"You need to fix this Wes. Fred and Gunn are trying, but they don't know how to look, really look for the answers. You need to do that. You need to do whatever it takes to bring Connor back to Angel. I'll bring you whatever you need." Cordelia stood and headed toward the door, adding, "He will kill you, Wes, so you need to stay out of his way. Do what you have to do to bring him back." With a small, sad smile, Cordelia was gone, leaving Wes to the darkness.

***

He couldn't sleep and he couldn't eat, so he sat in a chair by the window and watched the slow crawl of traffic up and down his suburban street. He stared straight into oncoming headlights, feeling his eyes water behind his glasses. By three a.m. his eyes were burning, but he was no closer to figuring out how he might rectify the mess he'd made of his life, and the lives of those around him.

If Cordelia said that Angel would kill him, Wesley had no doubt that he would. Cordy was possibly the only thing that stood between Angel's justified anger and Wesley's careless lapse in judgement.

Wesley stood and went to the kitchen, retrieving a bottle of scotch he kept in the cupboard over the refrigerator. Unscrewing the cap, he poured a liberal amount in a tumbler and took a tentative swallow. He had an unreasonable fear of drinking, now; afraid that the liquid would leak out of his neck. He stood, leaning against the hard edge of the counter when it occurred to him that he had only one course of action.

***

He arrived in Sunnydale before breakfast the next day. There were no signs of life at The Magic Box and even less movement at Buffy's house, so he sat in the car for a long time before he got out and went to the front door. He'd barely knocked before the door flew open and Dawn, clutching a knapsack in one hand and a pop tart in the other, came barreling out.

"Oh, excuse me," Wesley said, stepping aside to let her continue her trajectory down the stairs. She turned to look back, shrugging once, before heading down the street.

Almost as an afterthought, she turned and called, "Sorry, Wes, didn't recognize you with the Frankenstein scar and beard! Willow's in the kitchen." She lifted her hand in an awkward salute and disappeared around the corner.

Wesley stepped into the Summers' front hall and closed the door behind him.

"Hello," he called.

"Back here," came Willow's cheery voice. She appeared at the end of the hall, smiling broadly until she saw Wesley's pale and tired face.

They met halfway and Willow reached up to hug him tentatively. "Wesley, you look horrible." She indicated his neck, the jagged scar livid against his pale throat. "I don't suppose that's from a shaving mishap, is it?" she asked.

Wesley stepped back and shook his head. "I need your help," he whispered.

"Hmmm. Things must be pretty bad if you had to come all the way to Sunnydale," Willow said, leading the way back into the kitchen. She stopped abruptly and turned around to face Wesley. "It's not, I mean, Angel's not," she raised her hands up, fingers curled into claws and finished, "grrrr, is he?"

"Actually..."

"Oh my God," Willow said.

Wesley lifted a hand, wait. "Angel's grrrr, Willow, but only at me."

"Well, that's a relief," Willow said, retrieving a mug from the cupboard and pouring Wes a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove. "Sorry, it's obviously not a relief for you."

Wes gave Willow a grim smile.

"So, is it Buffy you need, then?" Willow asked.

Wesley shook his head and pulled a piece of paper from his jacket pocket. "I wrote it all out for you," he said. "Too much to explain with this," he added, pointing to his neck.

Willow took the paper and started reading. Wesley sipped his coffee and watched her. She read quickly, hours of labour dispensed within ten short minutes. When she lifted her eyes to meet his, they were filled with tears. "Oh, Wesley," she said. "Does Buffy know any of this?"

Wesley put his mug down on the counter and shook his head. "I don't believe Angel and Buffy have spoken since..."

"Since they met after I brought her back," Willow finished, sadly.

"Yes," Wesley agreed.

"There's a lot she doesn't know, then," Willow said. "And, I'm afraid that there's a lot that Angel doesn't know, too."

Wesley raised his eyebrows expectantly and said nothing.

"I don't feel comfortable keeping this from her, Wes. She should know. She'd want to know."

"Yes, I believe she would want to know, but I wonder if it's worth the risk?"

"Is what worth what risk?" Buffy asked, as she stepped through the door into the kitchen. Her hair was scraped back from her face, wet from the shower. Wesley thought, immediately, that she looked thin and tired, but as lovely as ever.

"Hello, Buffy," he said, standing and turning to face her.

"Wesley," came the simple response, followed by a swallowed gasp and, "Wesley, what happened to your neck?"

"Shaving accident," Willow offered.

Buffy shrugged. "Must've been some honkin' razor you were usin', Wes," Buffy said, walking to the frig and retrieving the orange juice. Pouring herself a tall glass she said, "What brings you the the Hellmouth?"

Wesley and Willow exchanged a cautionary look. Buffy watched the exchange and felt the beginnings of panic churn in her stomach. She set the empty juice glass in the sink.

Willow fingered the long explanation Wes had penned and said, "Everything is okay, Buffy, really."

Buffy moved across the room and stood beside Wes. "Everything is obviously not okay, Will." She pointed to the ragged scar on Wes's throat and added, "Would you say everything is okay, Wesley?"

Wesley turned sorrowful eyes to meet hers and shook his head sadly.

"So are you going to enlighten me or do I have to make a call?"

"No. No," Willow said, thrusting the pages she was holding toward Buffy. "Read this. It's all here."

Buffy took the pages tentatively and sat on a stool next to Wes. She met each pair of expectant eyes once more before she began to read.

***

Angel stood, arms crossed tightly in front of his chest as though they might prevent his heart from spilling onto the floor, and surveyed the wreck of a room. The flames had licked up the wall, leaving charred and peeling paint in their wake. Connor's crib was soot-covered and the bumper that lined the inside, to prevent his little head from banging against the spindles of the crib, was crispy.

Angel could feel the sob caught in his throat and he willed himself to keep it down. No use crying now, he thought. Connor wasn't coming back. He was never coming back.

The pain at having lost him was worse than anything Angel could have ever imagined. For the very first time in his whole time on this earth, both alive and undead, Angel knew what it must have been like for the loved ones who had lived, the ones he hadn't killed. Imagine the pain they must have felt to come upon the ravaged, blood-drained bodies of their wives and sons, fathers and sisters.

He couldn't think about that now, and yet, he couldn't stop thinking about it. What kind of monster had he been? Well, he knew the answer to that, didn't he? The worst possible kind of monster: selfish, remorseless, cruel: a sociopath of the most devastating kind.

Losing Connor seemed almost justified. What had he ever done to deserve the unconditional love a child gives to a parent? Angel knew. You love them even when they don't deserve it. You want to please them, even when nothing you do is ever good enough.

He curled his fingers around the edge of the crib and held on. Connor hadn't even been big enough to start pulling himself to a standing position in this crib. Wasn't old enough to roll over or eat solid food or gurgle 'da.'

It wasn't fair, he thought, and then felt guilty for thinking it.

It was when he felt the hand on his back that he felt the demon shift inside him.

***

It was dusk when she reached Los Angeles. She'd convinced Wes to stay behind at her house. He needed to rest and he needed to research and he could do both of those things uninterrupted in Sunnydale. She felt sick with dread at the thought of this unplanned meeting with Angel, but she knew that there was no other choice. Parallel parking awkwardly in a small space on a side street around the corner from the Hyperion, Buffy pocketed the keys and hoisted a small carryall from the back seat. There was no way of knowing how long she might be here.

Wesley's hand-written explanation of the events that had transpired since she'd last seen Angel had made her heart ache with something she couldn't name. An enemy from the past bent on killing Angel was one thing. It was actually an easy enough thing to imagine: someone hating Angel enough to travel through time to kill him. She got that.

But a son. That was not so easily factored into what Buffy had always assumed to be an essential truth about her relationship with Angel. He was a vampire and unable to father children. This fact alone had not been the only reason he had left her all those years ago, but it was certainly part of the equation. While she might have found a way to get over never being able to do with him what her body yearned to do; create new life, the fact that he had gone on and done it with someone else was devastating. That the someone was Darla, slid another small door in her heart shut.

Nevertheless, she had had no choice but to come here. He would be miserable and would have no one to share his pain with. Buffy needed to be here for him. Like he'd been there for her when her mother died. And, more than that, perhaps there was some way to help get the baby back.

She pushed through the doors of the hotel and was met with silence. She walked to the front desk and placed her small overnight bag on top, reaching her hand across the marble counter to ring the small bell.

A handsome, well-groomed man with ink-black eyes rounded the corner, smiling cheerily.

"How can we be of service, my lady?" he inquired, politely.

"I don't think you can be of service," Buffy replied. "I really need Angel."

"Angel," the young man said, blankly. "Angel is, indeed, a champion. Like my lady, Cordelia. They are..." he stopped suddenly.

"They are...what?" Buffy asked.

"They are the epitome of kyrumption," he said, gloomily. "I am a fool for refusing to see it."

"Look," Buffy said, seconds away from total exasperation. "Where is Angel?"

"He is devastated over the loss of his boy-child. He is taking comfort with the princess."

"Princess?"

"You are not from this place, then?" the man asked.

"No. I am not from LA. What princess?" Buffy asked.

"Cordelia. She is a princess," he answered.

"Well, at least that's a step down from Queen," Buffy mumbled.

"My princess was once a Queen?" the man asked, obviously perplexed.

Buffy shook her head. "No. Not really a queen. Look, where are they?"

The man gestured to the gracefully curved staircase. "They are in his rooms, doing whatever champions do to help each other through difficult times," he said, morosely.

"Yeah, okay. Which room?"

"The burnt one, on the right," he said.

Shaking her head again, Buffy headed for the stairs. She had no trouble finding the burnt room. The fire had left a trail of soot that ran almost the entire length of the long hall. The door to Angel's room was slightly ajar and Buffy was about to knock when she heard voices. She leaned closer.*

***

Angel turned as the warmth from her fingers spread across his back: Cordelia, smiling indulgently.

He turned to face her.

"You don't have to do that now, Angel."

"I do, Cordy. I have to do it now, or I'll never do it."

"Well, let me at least help," she said, her voice soft and pleading. "You shouldn't have to do it alone, Angel."

Angel could feel his face ripple, felt his control over Angelus slip another small notch and knew that something was wrong. "Leave me, Cordelia," he said brusquely.

"I want to stay," Cordelia said, firmly.

Lost beyond control, Angel grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her hard.

***

That's what Buffy saw when she pushed open the door a little to see what Angel and Cordelia were doing. She saw Cordy's slim hand slide up Angel's black-clad arm, resting on his biceps. She saw his hand move to cover hers and then she saw his head dip. There was a long, breathless moment when Buffy heard nothing. She pushed the door open a little wider and saw Cordy wrapped in Angel's arms. They seemed oblivious to the sound of the door and her sharp intake of breath.

Buffy felt her knees give way. She felt that Wesley may have understated Cordelia's feelings for some guy named Groosalog, given the look on her face as she stared at Angel.

She took a step back and then another, bumping into the wall. This seemed to break the trance between the "so-called" champions, for at that moment Angel looked up and across the room and into her eyes.

Buffy felt her mouth open and close, felt her eyes slide past Angel's to rest on a charred baby crib, felt the welcome numbness claw up her spine.

"Buffy." Angel said, a statement, not even a flicker of regret in his eyes.

She nodded once and then fled.

***

The moment I saw her, I pushed soulboy out of the way. It was easy. He's so catatonic with the loss of his son and I know that even he feels me, just below the surface of his skin.

Kissing Cordelia whet my appetitie, but seeing the Slayer made me ravenous. She's the one who fuels my dreams of release, of darkness and blood and silence. I know the instant that I lay eyes on her that Cordelia will never tip the scales.

It is her and only her that will free me. But I can feel his soul screaming at the thought of my escape. He will fight me, I know, but he can't win. Part of him doesn't even really want to.

TWO

She fumbled with the car keys, dropping them twice before she managed to unlock the jeep's door and climb inside. She dropped the keys again before her shaking hand made contact with the ignition. Then, resting her head on the steering wheel, she began to sob.

That's how he found her and he stood in the shadows for a long while, watching, before stepping to the vehicle and rapping softly on the window. She lifted her head and peered out, half-startled by the intrusion and half-knowing that it was him.

Rolling down the window she said, "What do you want?"

He smiled. "I want what I always want, Slayer."

"Not bloody likely," she said, tightly.

"Well, I seem to be rubbing off on you whether you like it or not," Spike said, archly.

Buffy started to roll the window back up, but Spike rested two strong hands on the glass to prohibit its ascent.

"What happened?" he asked.

"Like you care?" Buffy said.

"I do. Not about him. About you."

Buffy laughed bitterly. "I'm going home. Do you want a ride?"

Spike smiled. "Only if I get to drive. Scoot over, love."

Buffy smoothed away the tears from her cheeks and climbed over the stick-shift, settling into the passenger seat. Spike opened the door and slid into the driver's seat. Putting the car into reverse, he eased out of the tight parking spot and then onto the street, heading for the freeway.

"So are you going to tell me what happened?" he asked when they were finally heading north.

"Why were you in LA, Spike?" Buffy countered.

"I'll tell, if you will," came his reply.

Buffy shook her head, sadly. "My life is not for public discussion."

"That's rich, pet," he laughed. "Besides, I'd hardly classify myself as one of your run-of-the-mill pals."

"We're not pals, Spike," Buffy said, glumly.

He risked a quick glance in her direction and was dismayed to see new tears leaking from her eyes.

"What's this, then?" he said, reaching out a finger to halt a single tear.

She swatted at his hand. "Back off, Spike. I said you could drive, not psycho-analyze me."

Spike shrugged and fixed his eyes on the road ahead.

After a few minutes, Buffy said: "Did you know?"

"Know about what?" Spike said, without looking at her.

"About Connor?"

He nodded.

Buffy cursed softly and asked, "Did everyone know but me?"

"Look, the truth of the matter is that the vampire community is pretty small. When you live underground like we do, you tend to hear things. So, yes, I knew."

"So..."

Spike interrupted. "So why didn't I tell you? Tell you what? Angel banged his sire. There was no new information there, pet."

Buffy shot him a dark and deadly look, which even in the murky light of the car, Spike could clearly see.

Ignoring her, Spike continued, "As for the freak of nature, I knew about him, too. What would you have had me tell you, Buffy? What would you have believed?"

Buffy turned away and rested her head on the cool glass of the window, watching the blur of signs and gas stations and stars slip past her. Spike was right. What would she have believed? And would believing change the outcome?

"Buffy?"

She shook her head. "I can't talk about this with you, Spike. Not you."

"Why in the hell not?" he asked, angrily. "I'm not going anywhere. I haven't gone anywhere. I'm still here."

"Yes, but why? What do you think, that I'm gonna bare my soul to you and we're going to do the nasty in the back seat?"

Spike grinned. "Well, yeah, sorta."

"Jesus, you're unbelievable. Is nothing sacred to you?"

Spike cocked his head, disarmingly, contemplating the question. Laughing, he replied, "Not much. Although certain bits of your body, baby, are holy temples to me."

Buffy thought about having Spike pull over at the next gas station so she could yank him out of the driver's seat and finish the drive home in silence. He could rot under a high, hot sun for all she cared.

"Shut. Up. Spike," she said, closing her eyes and praying for sleep.

"Whatever you say, Buffy," he answered, and although she couldn't see it, she knew he was smiling.

***

Angel stood for a long moment. He was unsure of what had just happened, yet he could feel the heat of her mouth lingering on his. He took a step back from Cordelia, away from the warmth of her embrace and moved out into the hall. Downstairs, in the lobby of the hotel, he encountered Groo.

"Where did she go?" he asked.

"The golden one?"

Angel nodded.

"She left. She seemed most unhappy."

Cordelia appeared at the top of the stairs. "Angel?"

"Princess," Groo called. "Have you made the warrior happy with your ministrations?"

Cordelia descended the stairs, regally, and drifted across the floor to Groo.

"Honey," she said, "I was not ministering to anything. I was helping Angel pack up Connor's things."

"I see," Groo said, although, clearly, he did not.

Cordelia took him by the arm and led him to the front desk where, standing on her tiptoes, she whispered something into his ear. He smiled and disappeared into the office. Cordelia walked back over to Angel.

"What was she doing here?"

"I have no idea. Bad timing though," Angel came to an abrupt stop.

"Bad timing?" Cordelia asked, confused. Then she remembered their passionate kiss upstairs, remembered the way he had possessed her mouth, left her bereft when he'd seen Buffy and pulled away.

"You weren't in contact, I know. Maybe something's wrong," Cordelia said.

Angel rubbed a hand across his jaw.

"Maybe she misconstrued what she saw, Angel. She must have thought..."

Angel turned to Cordelia and said: "She must have thought that we were what...kissing? Gee, wonder how she got that idea?"

Cordelia blushed. "Angel," she said, jerking her head toward the office where she'd directed Groo for safe-keeping, "she obviously doesn't know about my stallion in there,' she added.

"Right," Angel said. "Your stallion." He moved toward her, grabbing her wrist and wrenching her forward, slamming her pelvis against him.

"Angel. Yeeow. What is wrong with you?"

"Nothing," he said, drawing a finger from between her collarbones into the valley between her breasts.

"Let me go," Cordelia said, wrenching her wrist free and stepping back, eyes blazing. "Are you out of your mind?"

***

Angel shook his head, felt the buzzing subside, felt the demon retreat. Cordelia was standing away from him, a look of uncontrolled fury on her face. Had they been fighting? Had something happened?

He felt weary. Tired beyond belief. Why was Cordelia looking at him like that?

***

"Cordelia. Are you okay?" he asked.

"Oh, I'm hunky-dory, you big jerk," she took a step closer and hissed, "Have you gone nuts?"

"What?" he shot back.

"Look, you need to go see her, alright. You need to explain that...well, you need to do whatever it is you two do," she finished.

"What?" he felt as though he was listening to Cordelia from miles away.

Cordelia shook her head in exasperation. "Buffy. Buffy was just here. She saw...she ran out. You need to go see her," Cordelia said with her infamous candor.

"Cordelia," he said, in a voice that sent a quiver down her spine. "We're done, Buffy and I."

"Look, Angel," Cordelia started. "You need some closure or Buffy does or..." Cordelia stopped, perfectly aware that she was babbling like an idiot and uncomfortably aware of how close she and Angel had come to stepping over the friendship line and heading into dangerous, uncharted territory. And even more aware of how strangely Angel was acting.

"She may never be ready," Angel said, "But I have to go on."

He bent his head to kiss her, but Cordy took a quick step back.

"Angel," she whispered. "Groo."

"Right."

He left her standing in the middle of the lobby and went to retrieve his jacket and keys. The last place, and strangely the only place, he wanted to go was Sunnydale.

***

Spike shook Buffy gently when he pulled up in front of her house. She lifted her head and focused weary eyes on her front door, on the moths swimming around the porch light.

"Home," he said, simply. He turned off the engine and extracted the keys from the ignition, handing them to her.

She felt his fingers brush against hers, felt the electric current that flowed between them and bit down hard on the inside of her cheek. She was not going there with him again. Apparently, she wasn't going there with Angel again, either.

"Thanks," she said, opening the passenger door and sliding out of the car.

"Whatever," Spike said, exiting the car on his side.

"It doesn't change anything, you know," Buffy said, her eyes meeting Spike's across the hood of the jeep.

Spike nodded once. "I know, pet."

Buffy made her way up the path.

"Sooner or later you'll figure out that he's an asshole. Sooner or later we all do," he said.

Buffy used her key to gain entrance to the house, closing the door on the night, Spike, and his cutting words. The stairs to her bed seemed too steep, so she headed for the couch, curling beneath a worn blanket and drifting immediately to sleep.

***

Wesley found her in the hour just before dawn. He'd been unable to sleep and made his way down to watch the sunrise from the porch. Instead, he sat across from her with one of the books Willow had "borrowed" from The Magic Box and a cup of tea and watched the steady rise and fall of her chest while he sipped from his mug. He hated mugs. Tea was better, hotter in thin porcelain, but there were no teacups to be found in the Summers' cupboard, and so he'd made due.

Buffy's arrival back home only mere hours after she'd left did not bode well. Wesley could only imagine that there'd been some horrible scene and Angel had sent her packing, refusing to accept her offer of comfort or assistance. If this was the case, things looked especially grim for Wesley.

If only he'd been able to share the information he thought he'd uncovered. But, no, he'd kept his cards close to his chest and mucked things up totally.

He watched as Buffy shifted in her sleep. Part of him wanted to place his hand on her shoulder and rouse her from her rest; the other part wanted to smooth her worried brow and let her sleep on. As if she'd heard his thoughts, Buffy's troubled hazel eyes fluttered open and focused blearily on Wesley.

"Hey," she said.

"Good morning," he said, his voice a little stronger.

She stretched and sat up, pulling the blanket across her feet. "What time is it?"

"A little after five," Wes replied. "I take it that LA did not go well," he added.

Buffy pulled her hair out of its messy ponytail and massaged her scalp. "I'm not sure I had all the information, Wes," she said, quietly.

"I told you everything, Buffy. About Connor and the prophecy. Darla. Wolfram and Hart."

"Cordelia?" Buffy said.

"I told you about Cordelia's new demon-thing," Wesley insisted.

"No. Not that," Buffy said. "I mean Cordy and Angel."

"Cordy and Angel?" Wesley said, shaking his head. "Oh...Cordy and Angel."

Buffy nodded. "Uh huh."

Wesley removed his glasses and rubbed his burning eyes. "There was nothing to tell," he said, defensively.

"Well, apparently there is now," Buffy said, her voice catching painfully in her clogged throat.

"Buffy, I'm..."

"Sorry, Wes. I know. Everyone's sorry. I need to shower and change."

"Does this mean you can't help me?" Wesley asked.

"I don't know. I don't know how I can help, Wesley," she said, and then added, "I don't think Angel is in need of my help."

"I'm not asking for Angel, Buffy. I'm asking for myself. I need to make this right."

Buffy stood, the blanket falling to the floor at her feet. Bending over to retrieve it, she said, "We'll see, Wes."

***

He'd waited in her room all night, crawled in through the bedroom window, ignoring the tingling déjà vu, and settled on her bed. He knew she was somewhere in the house, could almost feel her restless breath, but made no move to search for her, was content to stay here in this room.

He was just drifting off to sleep when he heard her footsteps in the hall. Through slitted eyes he watched her enter the room and stop. Heard her sharp intake of breath. Watched her stand statue-still as though he were a mirage.

"Hello, Buffy," he said.

She said nothing, regarding him with distrust.

"Not glad to see me, then," he said, a smirk crossing his beautiful face.

"You could say that," she said.

"I thought we agreed not to see each other," Angel said, swinging his long legs off Buffy's bed and standing.

"We agreed," Buffy replied.

"So, what, last night in LA was..."

"A mistake," Buffy said.

He moved toward her, predator after prey, closing the distance in three gliding steps. She would not lift her head to meet his eyes, staring instead at the edge of a book that peeked out from under her bed.

"Wes is here, right?" Angel asked. "I should go downstairs and squash him like the bug he is."

"You'd have to go through me," Buffy said, lifting her head up and squirming under Angel's hateful scrutiny.

"I see you've chosen sides, Buffy," Angel remarked caustically.

"Apparently so have you," Buffy replied sharply.

He lifted a hand, index finger extended and made to touch the curve of her jaw, but Buffy stepped back. "Don't touch me," she said.

"So that's how it is?"

Buffy shrugged. "That's how it is, Angel."

"Funny," he said. "You say one thing....but the way you smell..." he leaned in, breathing deeply.

Buffy's shocked expression made him laugh. "Angel?"

He laughed derisively. "Gone baby, gone."

THREE

Buffy could feel, suddenly, the sensation of a million insects chasing each other across the smooth surface of her skin. She closed her eyes, hoping beyond hope that when she opened them again she would be alone or, at least, in this room with the right man.

But no, it was still him: a belligerent smirk marring his beautiful features, leaning close and watching her with focused interest.

She took a step back, away from the glare of his malevolent scrutiny.

"You can't be in here," she said. "I didn't invite you."

His laughter was chilling. "Who do you think I am, Buffy?"

Buffy reached behind her, fingers scrabbling across the cluttered surface of her bureau looking for something to ward him off.

He shook his head, wearily, and reached forward, grabbing her upper arm and yanking her close to him. She winced as his strong fingers dug into her flesh, sucked in breath when her crotch smashed against his hard thigh.

"What do you want?" she said into his chest.

"You haven't forgotten, have you?" he asked, whirling her suddenly and sending her sprawling onto the bed. She contemplated just lying there and letting him have his way. But there was too much Slayer in her to just lie down, so she rested for only a second before rolling off the other side and leaving the bed between them.

"You bastard," she said.

He smiled. "I love it when you talk dirty, Buff."

"How could you?"

"How could I what?" he replied.

"Sleep with her?" She realized too late that her question would be meaningless to Angelus. Beyond meaningless. But seeing Angel with Cordy had stung her, and even knowing he could care less about her feelings, and cared even less about Cordelia's, she'd been unable to censor the question.

She was taken aback when she saw his normally expressionless eyes register surprise.

"Who told you?" he asked, and then remembered his former friend and colleague downstairs. "Ah, Wesley." He moved around the end of the bed, effectively trapping Buffy on the other side. "It was a while ago, Buffy."

"It didn't look like a while ago to me," Buffy shot back, hating the hurt tone of her voice.

"What are you talking about?" he said, close enough now that he could practically hear her hammering heart. "Never mind," he added, snaking his arm around her waist and pulling her close. "We've talked enough." His mouth descended and captured hers in a ravishing kiss. He could feel her attempt to remain withdrawn and this only stoked his flame. He wound his fingers through her hair, and held her head still, punishing her lips with his own.

Buffy could feel the familiar tingle between her legs, her breasts ached and her head was spinning. Still, she knew she had to get away from this impostor. She twisted away from him, drawing back and smashing him across the face as hard as she could. He barely faltered.

"Stay away from me," Buffy panted.

"Or what?" Angelus said.

"Or I'll kill you. I swear to God, I'll kill you."

Angelus shrugged. "Been there. Done that," he said, taking a step back toward her.

Somewhere, distant, an alarm clock sounded and Buffy felt relief wash over her, cooling hot skin. "Well, I'd say that was the proverbial bell," she said. "I'd guess you've got about fifteen minutes to get where you're going or the sun'll be doing my job for me."

Angelus stepped back, peering through the slats of the window blind and watched the bruised sky fill with distant light. A small smile flickered across his face as he pulled the cord, and observed the blind accordion to the top.

He paused and looked back at her and Buffy felt her world tilt. Something in his eyes; something was different. When he spoke, his voice was measured.

"You should have stayed away, Buffy," he said, stepping over the window ledge. "You shouldn't have come to LA." Then, he slipped into the fading night.

***

For a long moment, Buffy stayed rooted to the spot. The air in the room fairly crackled with electricity. Buffy felt sure if she reached out her hand to touch the space Angelus had occupied, she'd be stung. She tried to gather her thoughts, but couldn't seem to hold on to any one of them.

She heard the door to Willow's room open and then water in the bathroom. Buffy reached behind her to be sure the bed was there, and then sank bonelessly to the mattress.

After a while, the shower stopped and Buffy heard Willow leave the bathroom, her door clicking shut behind her. Buffy barely had the energy to make it from the bed to the closet to gather her housecoat. She wasn't sure what was worse: the thought of seeing Cordelia and Angel kissing or the unexpected return of Angelus.

***

Angel woke up with a start. His eyes darted around the unfamiliar room, drawn to the wisp of smoke rising in a column in a murky corner.

"Sleep well, then?" came a familiar voice.

"Spike?"

Angel head a shuffle and then the platinum blonde came into view. Angel sat up and took the room in with one sweeping glance. "Where in the hell..." he said, and then recognizing his surroundings, "How in the hell..."

Spike dropped the cigarette to the mansion's floor and ground it out delicately with the toe of his boot. "I had to see this for myself," Spike said.

Angel stood and advanced toward Spike, one huge hand forcing the smaller vampire by the neck back against a wall. "Well, so it's true?" Spike managed through his strained larynx.

"If you know something, you should spill it now before..." Angel said through gritted teeth, releasing his firm hold on Spike's throat.

"If I know what? That you're back? And bad?" Spike said, rubbing his hand absently over his neck.

"I'm not bad," Angel said. "What are you talking about?"

"Why did you come to Sunnydale, Angelus?" Spike asked. "Looking for a piece of my action again, are you? Well, she won't have it. She's not the little girl you walked away from anymore."

Angel's reaction to the implication in Spike's words was swift. He plowed a clenched fist into Spike's hard abdomen and when Spike keeled over, Angel drew his knee up, hard, into Spike's tender crotch.

"Bloody hell," Spike gasped, curling protectively around his wounded privates.

"Get up, you bastard," Angel said.

Spike stood, masking his waning pain with an evil smile. "Hurts to know she's moved on, doesn't it? But then, so have you."

"Look, William," Angel said, emphasizing Spike's Christian name menacingly, "I don't know what's going on here, but if you've so much as touched a hair on Buffy's head..."

Spike shrugged antagonistically. "Bird was lonely. What did you expect, you wanker, that she was going to pine for you forever?"

Angel's fists itched to pummel Spike's smirking face to a pulp, but he stepped back. His head felt muddled. He wasn't sure how he'd come to be in Sunnydale. His last coherent memory was of beginning the heartbreaking task of dismantling Connor's crib and packing away his miniature clothes and toys. Then, he remembered looking down at Cordelia. He remembered the sadness in her eyes and the way she had touched his arm and wet cheek, the way she had leaned into him, smelling of earth and sky. Then: nothing until...Had he been in Buffy's room? Was that possible?

"You've got a ways to go before sundown, mate," Spike said, walking away from him. "Might as well make yourself comfortable."

Angel stalked to the window and peered out at the sunlight, which had filtered into the overgrown courtyard. He shook his head. When Angel turned around to ask Spike how he'd heard Angel was back in Sunnydale, the younger vampire was gone.

***

"I'm telling you, it was him," Buffy insisted to the disbelieving group she'd assembled at The Magic Box.

"But, then, that means..." Willow said.

"That he jumped somebody's bones," Xander offered.

"Darla?" Willow asked.

"I don't think so," Buffy said, looking at Wesley.

He shook his head. "No, it couldn't have been Darla. I mean, I've been with him right up until..." He stopped, ducking his head, "Right up until recently. He was Angel. There was no sign of Angelus."

"Well, it wasn't Angel in my room this morning, that's a fact," Buffy said emphatically.

"You don't think...." Wesley said.

"Yes, I do," Buffy replied.

"What? What do you think?" Willow asked, watching in dismay as Buffy's eyes filled with tears.

"Angel and Cordy," Buffy said.

"Cordy. Isn't she your ex, Xander?" Anya said, speaking for the first time.

"Way ex, An," Xander said.

She smiled with delight, oblivious to the importance of this piece of information.

"That's just so not possible," Willow said decisively.

"I saw them, Will," Buffy said, shoving her chair back from the table and moving away from her friends. "I mean not...well, together...embracing."

Willow glared at Wesley. "How could you let that happen, Wes?" she hissed under her breath.

"I...I'm not altogether sure it has happened," he whispered back.

"Well, how do you explain Angelus? Angel must've gotten a happy from somewhere."

"Is this Cordelia a loose girl?" Anya asked.

"Yes. No," Xander was at a loss to explain Cordelia to his current girlfriend.

Buffy turned to face her friends. "The odd thing was, he didn't try to kill me. Why didn't he try to kill me?"

"Well, you know that crazy Angelus," Xander said, sarcastically. "He always did like to torture his victims first. He's a fun guy."

Willow shot Xander a withering glare and he mumbled an apology.

"It's okay," Buffy said. Some small piece of crucial information was missing here and Buffy felt as though she should know what it was. "Where would he be?" she asked herself.

"Well, the only place he could be, really," Wesley offered.

"The mansion," Buffy, Willow and Xander said in unison.

"I have to go there," Buffy said.

"Not alone," Xander said.

"Alone. I have to do this alone," Buffy said. She watched the worried expression on the faces of her friends and smiled reassuringly. "Give me two hours. If I'm not back in two hours, send in the troops." Gathering her jacket and knapsack, she headed out the door.

FOUR

She came down the crumbling steps into the courtyard. The French doors that led from the terrace into the mansion's great room were flung wide open. She felt the familiar buzz along her nerve endings, which always alerted her that he was close: moth to a flame. She stepped into the room, her shoes making a hollow clacking sound as she walked deeper into the dim space.

She saw him then: arm crossed protectively over his eyes, dark shirt unbuttoned revealing smooth, white skin, dead asleep on the moldy sofa. She slid the knapsack off her shoulders and reaching a hand into a side pocket, extracted a stake. Slipping her shoes off, she moved across the room soundlessly and stood over him.

His face was mostly covered from her view, his mouth slack with sleep. Buffy had an overwhelming urge to lean down and press her lips against that mouth. The hollow space below his cheekbones looked vulnerable and she wanted to trace the curve with her fingertip. But this was always the problem, wasn't it? Her inability to act when it was necessary stemmed solely from her unwavering love for him. And not even this him.

She raised the stake over her head. She couldn't be sure if her desire to kill him came from her certainty that he was Angelus or from the suspicion that he had slept with Cordelia. Either way, she couldn't bear to look in those cold eyes again.

She brought the stake down with purpose, only to have her thin wrist trapped in his much stronger hand only a fraction of an inch from her intended target. He held her hand there and moved his arm from his shielded eyes.

"You can't kill me, Buffy. I don't know why you keep trying," he said, sitting up and twisting her arm up behind her back simultaneously. Standing, he wrenched her towards him, pressing his body insinuatingly against hers. "Gee, if I'd known you were coming, I'd have baked a cake."

"Can we stop with the yammering and get on with it," Buffy said.

"When did you start to talk so loose?" Angelus asked, pulling her arm up a little higher between her shoulder blades and watching with delight as she winced in pain. "Never mind, I have a feeling it comes from the company you're keeping."

Buffy craned her neck to see Angelus' mocking eyes. "Angel. What's happened to you?" she whispered.

He let go of her arm, and Buffy felt sweet relief rushing up through the strained muscles and tendons.

"I'm good, Buff, really," he said, cockily.

"Don't call me that," Buffy said.

"I'll stop calling you Buff, if you'll stop calling me Angel," Angelus said, stepping around her, trailing a finger up her arm as he went. Standing behind her, he gathered her hair into his hand and leaned down, pressing his mouth to the scar on her neck. "No matter what you do, Buff, this will always mean something."

"You didn't give it to me," she said.

"Whatever," he replied.

She felt his tongue travel the raised brand, the only physical reminder she had of Angel, and she felt her knees buckle. A strong arm held her steady, pressing her shoulder blades to his chest, the small of her back to his pelvis. She was both shocked and exhilarated to feel his erection. She didn't move as he slid his hand up her flat stomach, under her shirt, skimming along the steep staircase of ribs, cupping the weight of one breast before sliding up, higher, dipping a hand into her satin bra and brushing his thumb against a pebbled nipple. She couldn't help herself: she let go of a long, shuddering sigh. She felt him wedge a muscular thigh between her legs, and then felt the weight of his hand on the damp space between her own thighs; three fingers held in a boy scout salute, pressed against the control center of her desire, pulsing in time with her breath. She barely had time to wonder how she'd come so far, so fast before she felt the room dissolve in front of her eyes. Just as the first wave of pleasure washed up the length of her body, Angelus pinched her nipple, tugging with the perfect amount of pressure and sending her headlong into a breathless orgasm.

Buffy remained motionless, collapsed against the solid wall of Angelus' chest, as the last tiny ripple of sensation flooded her body. Angelus removed his hand from beneath her shirt, and for a second Buffy thought sure he would say something horrible to her. She waited. Silence behind her. She turned slowly to face him and saw a look of wonderment on his face.

"I remember your smell," he said, pressing his fingers over his lips. He raised his eyes to meet hers and she was shocked to discover Angel, not Angelus staring at her.

***

"Angel?" Buffy said.

"Oh my God," he said, moving away from her with lightning speed.

"Angel," she said, following him across the room.

He was leaning, arms propping up the weight of his body, against the massive stone fireplace. She came to stand beside him, unsure of whether she should touch him or not, but unable to prevent the contact in the end.

"Did I hurt you?" he asked the stone fireplace.

"No. No, Angel," she said.

He twisted his head around to see her and said: "Because if I hurt you...." He shook his head, unable to finish the thought. His mouth felt dry and his head felt full of disconnected thoughts. He just barely remembered Buffy's small frame trembling against his own. What had he been doing?

"Come sit with me, Angel. We need to talk."

He followed her reluctantly to the couch.

"Do you remember coming to see me this morning?" she asked.

Angel closed his eyes, willing himself to remember something that would explain why he was in Sunnydale, in the mansion, sitting next to Buffy. But all he could think about was the way her flesh had yielded to him, the sweet musk of her crotch rising up to assault his senses, the way she'd quivered against him in release. He opened his eyes and shook his head.

"No. Yes. I don't know, Buffy," Angel mumbled, clearly confounded.

Buffy tried another avenue of questioning. "Do you remember me in LA?" she asked.

"You were in LA?" he asked.

She nodded. "I was." She was more confused by the second.

"I remember that I was going to start to put...." Angel stopped suddenly. Did Buffy even know about Connor?

"Connor's things away," she finished, answering his question for him.

"You know?"

"Yes," she said, simply.

"I'm sorry. It's not...I didn't intend..." Angel stood up and began pacing.

"It doesn't matter, Angel," Buffy said, soothingly.

"Yes. It does matter. It matters to me," he said. "I wouldn't ever hurt you on purpose, Buffy."

Buffy shook her had ineffectually.

"Don't deny that it hurt, Buffy. I know you," Angel said, stopping to watch her valiant attempt to shield her feelings from his intense gaze.

"It isn't so much that you had a son that hurts, Angel. It's that you didn't tell me," Buffy explained.

"I understand. I do. It's just that we agreed that we would walk away."

"I know. I guess it's just harder than I'd imagined it would be," Buffy said.

Angel sighed. No matter how hard he tried something always seemed to conspire against his best efforts to protect Buffy from him. "Who told you?" Angel asked.

"Wesley."

"Damn him," Angel spat out. "I should have..."

Buffy interrupted before he could finish the thought. "No, Angel, don't. He came to us for help. He thought we could help get Connor back. He wants to fix this."

"It can't be fixed," Angel said, angrily.

Resting a hand on Angel's arm, Buffy said, "Maybe not. But you have to let him try."

Angel sat heavily on the bench in front of the fireplace. Buffy sat beside him, close but not touching.

"It seems to me we have a more pressing problem right now, anyway," she said.

"What? Apocalypse. Minions of hell ransacking downtown Sunnydale?"

Buffy smiled at Angel's attempt at levity. "No. Not exactly."

Angel waited for Buffy to offer more information.

Buffy said, "You don't exactly seem yourself."

"I lost my son, Buffy," Angel said, defensively.

"No, that's not what I'm talking about. You said yourself you don't remember me in LA," Buffy said.

Angel shook his head. "No, there are definite lapses."

"Well, guess who comes out to play when you aren't here?"

"That's not possible," Angel said, firmly.

"I wish I could agree," Buffy said. "But I saw him. You were him just a few minutes ago."

For a moment, Angel wasn't sure he'd heard properly. He considered the past few months of his life. Connor's birth hadn't released him and other than Buffy, Angel couldn't think of a happier time. But if what she was saying was true it struck Angel as odd that she was still alive to say it. Wouldn't Angelus simply kill her: slowly and painfully as was his wont.

Angel stood and went quickly into the other room, bending to pick up Buffy's abandoned stake. "Here. Do it quickly," he said, handing the weapon to her.

She took the stake from his hand and stuffed it into the back pocket of her jeans. "No, Angel, I won't. There's something going on here and we need to figure it out. I am not staking you."

"What if...." Angel started, and then stopped, following Buffy's eyes to the chains and manacles still bolted into the wall of the great room.

"Just until we figure it out, Angel," she said in a rush, hating the look of defeat she saw in his sorrowful eyes.

He nodded once, curtly, and walked to the wall. She followed him and quickly snapped the manacles around his wrists. "OK?" she asked.

"OK," he replied.

"Do you need something? Food?"

"Answers, Buffy. I need answers."

Nodding, Buffy headed for the door, glancing back only once to see Angel slouched against the rough stone wall, bound wrists crossed desolately in his lap.

FIVE

Wesley felt his bladder might explode from the amount of tea he'd consumed that long first day. His hands ached for something to do and he couldn't seem to stop himself from pouring progressively stronger, cooler cups of the liquid. He was British to the very core: have a problem, brew a cuppa.

He sat alone at the round table in The Magic Box oblivious to the tinkling bell over the front door announcing the steady arrival and departure of paying customers and window shoppers.

A growing stack of books to his left attested to his dedication to the task of finding two things: all about Connor's ultimate destination after slipping through the portal and how Angelus had come to exist simultaneously with Angel. He was getting nowhere with either.

His wound itched. He rubbed the stitches along his neck, careful not to dig too hard. Closing the book in front of him and relegating it to the stack, he reached for a new one and suddenly had a thought. Pushing the chair back from the table, he went to the counter where Anya was happily counting money from the till.

"May I use the phone?" he asked.

"Sure," Anya said, still counting. "Go into the office there."

"Thank you," Wesley said.

"Hey, Wesley, it isn't long distance, is it?" Anya said to the closing door. She shook her head and resumed her task.

Wesley dialed the numbers carefully; praying that Cordy would answer the phone.

***

"...so, he was Angelus when you got there and Angel when you left?" Willow said, pouring wine into a glass and handing it to Tara.

Buffy nodded, scooping up a spoonful of the chili Willow had made. "Yes."

"But when he was Angelus, he didn't try to hurt you?"

Buffy swallowed, and flushed at the memory of his hand on her breast, lips at her throat, coaxing her with skilled fingers to her release. "No, he didn't hurt me. Then, all of a sudden, Angelus was gone and Angel was there."

Tara took a sip of her wine and regarded Buffy with cautious eyes.

Buffy pushed her bowl away. "I'm sorry, Will. I can't eat. I mean, I left him chained to the wall."

Willow reached over and patted her friend's hand. "It's okay, Buffy."

Buffy smiled grimly.

They heard the front door snap shut and Willow called, "Back here."

Wesley appeared at the entrance to the kitchen and breathed deeply. "Is that chili I smell?" he asked with a grin.

"Sure is," Willow said. "Made it myself."

"Lovely," Wes said, helping himself to a bowl from the cupboard and ladling some of the thick soup into it. "Ah, wine, too. May I?" he asked.

"Be my guest," Tara said.

"You seem awfully cheerful, Wes," Buffy said. "Did you find something useful?"

"As it turns out, no," Wes said, carrying his bowl and wineglass to the counter and settling on a stool. "I didn't find anything in any of the texts, but something did occur to me as I was wading through all that information," he paused to take a mouthful of chili, welcoming the return of his appetite. "We've been visited by Angelus before without...well, you know."

Buffy nodded, "Without me."

"Yes. There was this actress and she wanted to stay young and beautiful and thought Angel might be more willing to assist her if she pumped him full of drugs," Wes shook his head at the memory. "Of course, the drugs simulated bliss and voila, Angelus." Wes paused, took another mouthful of chili and swallowed. "This is delicious, by the way." He took another mouthful and added, "Eventually the drugs wore off and Angel returned, but for a time it was a little dicey."

"Great. Good. Are you saying that someone drugged Angel?" Buffy asked.

"No," Wesley said. "Not exactly."

"Well, then I don't understand," Buffy said.

"It just reminded me that perhaps there were other ways for Angel to lose control of his demon."

"Other ways?" Willow asked.

Wes brought the wineglass up to his nose and sniffed, "Oh, cabernet," he said, happily. "I called Cordelia, Buffy," he said, looking her straight in the eye.

"And?" Buffy asked, cringing inwardly at what information Wes might reveal about Cordy's relationship with Angel.

"And, nothing," Wesley said, cheerfully. "Nothing happened. She said you pushed open the door and saw them hugging, but there was nothing else and certainly no..." He left out the information Cordy had given to him, but sworn him to secrecy: The kiss and the strange, hard look in Angel's eyes.

Buffy felt the air leave her lungs in a relieved rush. "OK, so..."

"Yes, well, it's still a puzzle, but at least we've ruled certain things out."

"Did you tell Cordy what was going on?"

"I told her as much as I had to. She did say that she thought Angel was acting peculiar when he left to come here and she did say that he was sending out some very strange vibes, but she just chalked it up to him being distraught."

"These aren't answers," Buffy said exasperatedly. "These are just more questions."

"No, I don't think so, B-B-Buffy," Tara said, calmly. "Even with a soul, Angel is still a vampire, right?"

Buffy nodded.

"And so he lives with the demon everyday. His soul keeps the demon at bay, but that doesn't mean the d-d-demon's not there. That drug he took proves that Angelus is always there, just under the surface," Tara looked at Wes for confirmation. Wesley nodded in agreement.

"I think perhaps Tara is on to something, Buffy," he said.

"Have there been any other instances where you've seen Angelus, Wes?" Tara asked.

"No. Not really," he said, shaking his head. "Wait a minute, though, he did go off the deep end a while back. He wasn't Angelus, exactly, but he did lock Darla and Drusilla in a room full of lawyers and let them have their way."

Buffy's eyes reflected her dismay at the thought that the man she loved could have done such a thing.

"It was grim, certainly, but there were extenuating circumstances," Wes said in a vain attempt to soften the visual he was sure was playing in Buffy's mind. "He'd been tormented to the brink of insanity by...well, it hardly matters now."

"Wouldn't you say this is an extenuating circumstance, Wes?" Willow asked, refilling wineglasses. "I mean, Angel lost his son."

Wesley removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes thoughtfully. "Perhaps that's it," he said, almost to himself.

"So, what, grief brings Angelus out, too?" Buffy said.

"Perhaps this was just more than he could bear," Wesley said, sadly, all too aware of the part he had played in this unfolding drama. "You should have seen him, Buffy. That little boy was everything to him." Reaching for his wineglass, Wesley drained the remaining liquid in one swallow.

"So, what happens now?" Willow asked, breaking the silence with the question they were all pondering.

"Yes, well, that I do not know," Wesley said with a sigh.

"Okay. Let's think this through," Buffy said. "Angel is still with us, at least part of the time, which means that he hasn't lost total control of the demon."

"With you so far," Willow said.

"He came here for a reason. He could have stayed in LA," Buffy added, slowly working through the puzzle in her mind. "Why did he come here?"

"Because you're all he thinks about," Willow said, softly.

"No, it's more than that. Angel and I decided that we were done. We had to be done because we couldn't be together."

"So Angel wouldn't have c-c-come here..." Tara said.

"...but Angelus might," Willow said, finishing her girlfriend's thought.

"Well, it was definitely Angelus propped on my bed this morning and it was definitely him at the mansion, at least at first," Buffy confirmed.

"Why would Angelus come here?" Wes wondered out loud.

Buffy wondered the same thing herself and she felt a burgeoning frustration that she couldn't figure out what Angelus was up to.

"Maybe I should go back to the mansion and see if Angelus will make another appearance," she suggested.

"Do you think that's wise, Buffy?" Wes asked.

"Do you have a better suggestion?" Buffy replied.

"No, I'm afraid not," Wes said.

"Well, then, that's that," Buffy said, hopping down from the stool. "Don't worry," she said, taking note of the groups' worried faces. "He's all chained up."

***

And, indeed he was. Buffy found him, an angry glare marring his features, wrists raw from his efforts to slip from the restraints. Buffy got close enough to drop a blood bag within reach and then stepped briskly back from his hateful stare.

"I don't know how you got these on me," he said, rattling the chains as he morphed into game face and plunged razor-sharp fangs into the plastic bag of blood. He sucked greedily until he drew air and then tossed the bag aside. "But we'll see how you like it soon enough," he finished, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth.

"I don't think bondage is my thing, really," Buffy quipped.

"Really? You should give it a try. It has a certain appeal," Angelus said with a deadly smirk.

"Why did you come here, Angelus?" Buffy asked.

He laughed. "Twenty questions, Buff? Is that what we're playing now?"

"Not twenty. How about one?" she answered.

He folded his shackled arms across his chest and allowed his face to return to its human form. "Not interested in playing," he said, pausing before adding, "unless there's a prize."

"What sort of prize?" Buffy asked suspiciously.

"You. I want you."

"You're certifiable, do you know that?"

"Come on, Buff. You've been shagging Spike. What difference would it make?" Angel said, enjoying the shocked look on her face as he deposited the knowledge that he knew about her and Spike. "Don't look so surprised. He was only too willing to throw it in Angel's face. Besides, I could smell him all over you."

Without understanding her need to explain, Buffy said: "It's over between Spike and me."

Ignoring the jealousy that was curdling under his skin, Angelus asked: "Do you want to play or not?"

"So, tell me how this is good for me. You answer my questions and, what, I take the information to my grave."

Angelus snorted. "I don't want to kill you, Buff. I want to fuck you."

Buffy flinched at his pointed words.

"You don't even have to unchain me. Ask me anything you want, but when we're done, you'll come over here. Deal?"

Buffy stood considering Angelus' offer and then silently admonished herself for considering it. Had her experience with Spike contributed to this sense of debauchery or was it something more? Did it stem from having been brought back from the grave or had she given up even before then? She didn't know. All she knew was that the man chained to the wall, the man who looked like Angel and talked like Angel, but wasn't Angel, was promising to put his hands on her.

"Alright," she agreed.

A look of smug satisfaction crossed Angelus' face. "What do you want to know?"

"First," Buffy said, "how will I know if you're telling me the truth?"

"You'll just have to trust me," he said.

"I don't trust you," she said, quietly.

"That's probably wise," he said, smiling.

Buffy sat across from Angelus, out of reach. For a moment she considered what she could ask him that he might consider answering truthfully. The only place she could think to start was at the beginning and so she asked again, "Why did you come here?"

"I came for you," was the quick reply.

"Do you remember me in LA?"

"Yes," he said.

"You'll have to do better than that," she griped.

"Yes, I remember you in LA. I was in that room with Cordelia. She might have done in a pinch, actually. But, despite her so called powers, she doesn't have that certain Slayer something, now does she? I looked up and you were standing there and it suddenly occurred to me that you were better suited to help me with my problem," Angelus halted and smiled enigmatically.

"Problem?"

"Let's move it along, shall we," Angelus said.

Buffy shook her head. She needed to think. He was telling her more than he'd intended and yet she couldn't quite grasp the veiled meaning of his words. She thought back to the conversation she'd had with the others about the previous times Angel had loosened his hold on the demon: drugs and choice had been the cause of those lapses. Buffy had never really considered how difficult a task it would be to keep that part of him buried. It suddenly occurred to her that Angel had, for whatever reason, merely let go and while his normal stranglehold on Angelus was loosened, the demon was taking full advantage. Of course he wanted her, Angelus knew exactly what would happen if they made love; he'd be free again.

"I don't have anything else," Buffy said, rising from the floor.

"Come here," Angelus said, seductively.

"You know what? I don't think so," Buffy said, backing towards the couch.

Even in the dim light, she could see the venom in his eyes at her betrayal and then it was gone.

"Can I just say..."

"I know," Buffy interrupted, "I don't play fair."

"Actually, I was gonna say...psyche." In one swift motion, Angelus was on his feet, the shackles lying uselessly on the floor.

A moment of pure terror raced through Buffy. Before she even had time to react, Angelus was upon her and they tumbled to the floor.

***

I could smell her: fear, desire, defeat. The smell was intoxicating. She reared up against me and I felt like I wanted to stretch the moment forever. The second when I would bare her body to me: smooth, golden skin, sharp hips and collarbones beckoning my fingers. My mind flipped through scenarios: tender kisses, cruel abrasions, reckless disregard for virgin skin and secret places. I wanted it all. And then, at the moment when I emptied myself into her and brought her to the edge of a little death, I knew that it would be my fangs sunk deep in thigh, breast, neck that would tip the delicate balance and I would be free.

SIX

Buffy didn't move. The weight of him on her was suffocating and terrifying and part of her felt the urge to cast him off. Another part, lesser but potent, wanted to draw him closer, to peel away the clothes between them and press her aching body against his silken skin.

She sighed, a long, low expulsion of air that shuddered through her and, in turn, rippled through him. He caught her close, buried his nose against her neck and breathed in the warm, sweet smell of her. Did anyone smell as good as the Slayer, he wondered?

"Aren't you going to fight, Buff?" Angelus murmured against her ear. " It's so much better if you fight." He rolled off her just enough that he was able to flip her over onto her back.

She looked up at him, her eyes filled with loathing and longing, and said: "I won't fight you, Angelus."

He slid his hand up under her shirt, spanning the width of her ribs, fingertips digging into the soft flesh. He spider-walked his fingers further up into the valley between her breasts, touching two fingers to the hollow of her throat, the rapid thrumming of her pulse jumping under his touch.

"Where should I start?" he said, almost to himself. Removing his hand from beneath the shirt, he unfastened the buttons from bottom to top with excruciating care. She lay there, breath trapped, and watched his hands slide the buttons free. One. Two. Three. At the top, she covered his hands with her own as they paused at the final button.

"Please," she whispered.

"Too slow?" he asked with a wicked grin.

Buffy felt the first tear slide down her face. He leaned forward to lick it up just as it was about to disappear into her hair. " Don't waste tears on him, " he said.

She moved his hands away and undid the last button on her shirt, spreading open the fabric to reveal her satin-covered breasts. "I'm not crying for him," Buffy said. "I'm crying for me." She reached up a hand and slid it around his neck, drawing him down. "Go ahead. I won't fight."

***

At first, I thought I was having a dream. I have them sometimes. Dreams of her in vivid Technicolor. Dreams where we are all alone in a place where nothing can harm us. Dreams where we fall together, a tangle of arms and legs and mouths: sweet rush of blood.

Everything is exactly as I remember it: pale throat and breasts, soft, pink nipples, flat belly, the curve of her waist and rear. Her posture is accepting, pliant. She is not intimidated by my size. The fact that she is not afraid of me, that I can plainly see the desire in her eyes, is the single most thrilling feeling I have experienced since I regained my soul.

I watch her. I watch her watch me. In my dream it is possible to make this moment last. It is possible to be a vampire in love with a slayer. It is possible to love her as I should; without fear of all that might go wrong. It is possible to make love to her, draw her into me, feel her warmth wrap itself around my cool flesh and, by turn, make me warm. It is possible to walk into the day with her and sleep with her by my side at night. It is all possible.

I look down at her, spread beneath me in willing supplication and I smooth my fingers over her cheek and down the slope of her chin and neck, touch the flesh of her breast that's not covered by her bra. God, I love her. I love her so much. How is it possible that I love her so much? I can't answer the question. There is no answer. I only know that if I don't kiss her this very instant I might not make it through the next second.

So, I do. I bend and kiss her. I feel the weight of her hand on my neck urging me closer. I feel her mouth slide open, her tongue slip into my mouth, pressing against my tongue and sending my senses into overdrive.

I gather her against me as if I would wear her skin. My fingers curl into her hair: I can almost feel each strand as it passes over my skin. Then, I can't wait. I want to see all of her. My eyes search the room. I stand and pull her up with me, effortlessly. I don't hesitate, swinging her into my arms; disarmed, for a moment, by how weightless she is. I head purposefully to the couch. I set her down and she shrugs off her blouse, reaches up behind her back to unclasp her bra and bares herself to me, looking me straight in the eye.

Do I say anything? Do I tell her she's exquisite? Or do I merely fall to my knees in front of her and press my lips to one breast, the other? I watch in amazement as her flesh becomes a flushed patchwork of goosebumps, her nipples beckoning.

I can feel my erection: I recognize the false sense of life it gives me. She reaches out a small hand and presses it firmly against my crotch. She smiles when she feels a little jerk, my cock straining closer. Then she stands, pulling off her pants and underwear; continues to stand with her beautiful triangle of hair so close to my face I have no choice but to reach forward with my tongue. She holds onto my shoulders, steadying herself as I drag my tongue up her slit to her clitoris. The sweet, sweet taste of her. I rest my tongue on the little clutch of nerves: I can feel her quivering and I never want to stop making love to her. Loving her.

I settle back on my ankles and she casts her dreamy eyes downward.

"Angelus?" she says.

***

Buffy saw the shadow cross his eyes and, for a moment, she couldn't understand why he'd stopped. She crossed her arms in front of her breasts, but it didn't help. She still felt exposed.

He stood up and moved across the room, grabbing a dust cover off an armchair and returning to wrap it around her shoulders. " No, Buffy. Not Angelus."

Shame flooded her face. "Oh," she said. And then, "OhmyGod."

"I think we know what he came for, at least," Angel said, moving across the room, away from her heat.

"Exactly what I almost gave him," Buffy said, glumly.

"What were you doing, Buffy?" Angel asked. "What were you thinking?"

"I...nothing, I..." Buffy pulled the sheet tighter and stared past Angel's shoulder. He watched the colour drain from her cheeks, leaving her pale and lovely.

Angel rubbed his eyes. "It doesn't matter. I could feel him, Buffy. He wants you...no, needs you...to release him."

Buffy gulped. " I know."

Angel shook his head. "Damn him."

She stood and moved toward him. "This isn't your fault, Angel."

He shook his head, sadly. "That's where you're wrong, Buffy. This is my fault." When he swung his eyes to hers, Buffy could see he was near tears.

"Please don't cry, Angel," she said.

"He would have killed you, Buffy."

"But he didn't. You stopped him. It was you, right?"

Buffy watched in dismay as Angel lost the battle to keep his emotions in check. She wanted to hold him, but was afraid that her very nearness might be enough to coax Angelus out of hiding and she was feeling far too fragile to go another round with him.

"A spell, maybe?" she suggested.

Angel laughed: a short, joyless bark. "This isn't about binding my soul, Buffy. This is about me wanting to let go of it. Making a choice."

"How can I help you?" she asked, sincerely.

Angel turned to face the stone fireplace. Buffy watched him set his shoulders, recognized the posture which signaled he could not be bargained with. "By staying away from me," he said to the mantle.

"Look, Angel. That doesn't make any sense. You came here...."

"He came here, Buffy," Angel interrupted harshly. "I would never have come."

Buffy bit back a cry of dismay. "Because of Cordelia?" she whispered.

Angel swung his head back to look at her incredulously. "What?"

"You wouldn't have come here because of Cordy. You and Cordy?"

He turned and advanced toward her, stopping inches away and tipping her chin up with his hooked index finger. "No, not because of Cordy. I wouldn't have come here because of you. It's...easier if I stay away. Not better, but easier."

Buffy nodded. "I understand," she said.

Angel wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. "How did this get so messed up?"

Buffy pressed closer, comforted by the stillness of his chest.

"You're in very real danger, though," he said against her hair. "I don't know if I can protect you."

"I don't know if I want your protection," she said, wearily. "Maybe it would be easier..."

Angel held her tighter. "Don't. Don't even think that. If he were purely evil, you'd stake him in a second. The problem is that I seem to have enough of a hold on him, even subconsciously, that he hasn't hurt you yet."

"I just," Buffy stopped, considering her words carefully. "I'm just so tired, Angel."

"We can't give up," Angel said firmly. He stepped back, letting go of Buffy and she pulled the sheet tighter around her quaking body. "Can you tell the difference? Do you know when it's me and when it's him?"

Buffy shook her head. "It's harder now. You seem to slip in and out. When it's Angelus, I feel the power and rage. When it's you...there's just...."

Angel placed a finger gently against her lips and said, "Shhh." He looked around the room and saw the shackles lying uselessly on the floor. "Well, that didn't work," he said.

Gathering her emotions, Buffy replied, "I think we just underestimated him."

"We always do. Look, Wesley's in town, right?"

Buffy nodded.

"I need him. He needs to come here."

"No. I don't think that's wise."

"You said he wanted to help. He came here to help me. Well, he can," Angel said. "Shackle me again. I think it'll be safe long enough to get Wes and come back here. Double shackle me. I'll work at keeping him down."

He walked over to where the handcuffs were bolted into the stone wall. He picked the chains up off the floor and gave them a good hard tug. He snapped the manacles around his wrists and said, "Go. Run."

She hesitated only long enough to gather her discarded clothes, pulling them on quickly and then moving to Angel to check that the handcuffs were secure (although she wondered whether this was worth it considering what had happened last time) before running out of the mansion.

***

Angel slumped against the wall. He could still taste Buffy on his lips. He felt bitter remorse claw up his throat as he remembered the lie he told Buffy. She'd been right about Cordelia. He'd never intended on coming back to Sunnydale and Cordelia did have something to do with it. It was a sorry fact in his life, but he was lonely. He wouldn't admit it, least of all to Buffy, but there it was. Cards on the table.

He couldn't lie to himself. He didn't love Cordy. His feelings had as much to do with anguish over the loss of his son as they did about anything. More than that, even, Angel doubted he 'd ever really recovered from the look on Willow's face the day they'd found her waiting for them in the Hyperion's lobby. That look, the genuine devastation he'd seen in Willow's eyes was a moment Angel would carry with him to his grave, if he was ever fortunate enough to make it there one day. He'd known before she'd ever opened her mouth that his heart had been stolen from him.

Afterwards, after his return from the cloister, he could feel his heart shrink day by day. He could sense the worry he was causing his friends, although they were too well trained to meddle in his personal business. They had advice to offer and while none of it made any sense to him, there was a great yawning hole in his gut that he wanted desperately to fill. Cordelia filled it. A square peg in a round hole, but at least she took up space.

The irony of Angelus' re-emergence does not escape Angel. It takes his demon to remind him that there is only one woman for them. Angel knew that Angelus would have ground Cordy into the wall and sucked every last bit of life from her pale neck without breaking a sweat. But Buffy's unexpected arrival had put an end to those plans. Angelus knew what Angel knew. The only difference was that Angelus wasn't going to let Angel's offensive soul stop him from having her.

***

"Don't you normally do the tying up, mate?" came Spike's voice from the door. Night was coming; the shadows were long, inky shapes spilling across the granite floors.

Angel shifted uncomfortably. Buffy would be back soon. Until then he couldn't let Spike know that Angelus had left the building, so to speak. The younger vampire wouldn't miss an opportunity shove a stake through his heart.

The angular vampire strolled closer. "Got the best of you, did she?"

"Not exactly," Angel sneered.

Spike laughed. "Really? Well, what do you call this, then?" he said rattling the heavy chains.

"Foreplay," Angel said, smoothly.

Spike glowered. "She'll kill you, you know," he said.

"Really? Then why hasn't she killed you?" Angel asked.

"I'm on her side," Spike said. He tapped a finger against his temple. "Got this bloody chip in my head." He reached into the pocket of his duster and pulled out a stake. Drawing back he aimed and Angel watched as the wooden weapon moved toward him in what seemed like slow motion.

Without warning, Spike howled and grabbed his head, the stake clattering to the floor. "You're not Angelus, you wanker."

Buffy's voice startled them both. "Spike! What in the hell do you think you're doing?"

Rubbing his head, Spike tossed a defensive look at Buffy. "I thought I was protecting you."

Standing behind Buffy, Wesley whispered. "What's going on, Buffy."

"Long story short. Spike is neutered."

"Not neutered, just...temporarily broken," he said, hotly.

"Whatever. I can't believe you were going to stake him," Buffy said, moving forward to retrieve the stake and shoving it into coat pocket.

"Can I talk to you?" Spike said under his breath.

"Talk," she replied.

Spike glanced at Wesley and then at Angel, who was regarding them with rapt attention. "In private," he hissed. Grabbing her by the upper arm he pulled her around the corner. "What in the hell is going on here?"

"I don't have time for explanations, Spike. In fact, I don't think I even owe you one."

Sudden realization crossed Spike's face. "I can't believe you'd still choose him over me," he said, fiercely.

"It's not a choice, Spike. It's just...."

"Save it," Spike said, throwing up his hands. "We're done here."

"I'm sorry..." Buffy started.

"Don't, Slayer. You said it before, I just didn't believe you."

Buffy nodded and repeated, "I'm sorry,"

Spike shrugged, cocking his head to the side. "I won't go gracefully, you know?"

Buffy smiled. "I know, Spike."

He turned on his heel, black coat swinging in a dramatic arc behind him and swept out into the sunset. Buffy remained, partly to allow Wes and Angel a chance to talk and partly to allow herself the chance to mourn the loss of a ally and the birth of an enemy.

SEVEN

The two men regarded each other with a mixture of suppressed anger and wary indecision. Who would speak first? What would be those first words be?

Wesley pulled up a chair and sat, running his fingers over the stubble, which had grown in surprisingly quickly across his square jaw. He watched Angel study his shackled wrists and thought, briefly, that he was glad that Angel was chained to the wall. Wesley still didn't believe that he was safe from the man he'd once considered to be his closest friend. Not that he blamed the other man. After all, he had made a grave error in judgement, a mistake he'd never be able to rectify.

How to start? How to make his mouth form the words he desperately wanted to say, but had no way of saying? He cleared his throat.

"Buffy has filled you in?" Angel's voice, low and careful, surprised Wes and he blinked behind grimy glasses.

"Well, yes, as a matter of fact, she has told me a bit about your predicament," Wesley said, meeting Angel's eyes.

"You have any thoughts?" Angel asked.

Wesley smiled wryly. "I should think you know the answer to that question, Angel."

Angel shifted as far as his restraints would allow. He said nothing, choosing to wait to see if Wesley would offer his thoughts without prompting.

Wesley cleared his throat once more, eyes drawn again to Angel's folded hands. Angel's hands: possessed of great gentleness and tenderness, equally strong and necessarily cruel. Wes had watched Angel's hands stroke Connor's smooth cheeks, cup his tiny feet, render a demon helpless, spill blood. Now they lay uselessly in his lap, fingers curled around each other. He felt the beginnings of immutable sadness lodge in his throat.

"I believe it has, at least in part, something to do with your grief, Angel," Wesley said, with difficulty

Angel nodded once. "He wants out," Angel said and then, narrowing his eyes, he said. "Part of me wants to let him out."

"I understand," Wesley said.

"I'm not sure that you do," Angel replied, stoically.

"Perhaps not as much as you think I should," Wesley acquiesced. "But not as little, either."

"It's neither here nor there at this point. My hold on him has always been something I've worked at with a certain degree of success. Having a soul doesn't hold him in place. I do that."

"I'm sure it hasn't been easy for you," Wesley said, the words sounding hollow even to him.

"Ironically, it was a lot easier when I had less of a life. I could have done the unconscionable lots of times even after my soul was restored to me. Until Buffy. She anchored him and unleashed him. She has the power to do both." Angel stopped and slid his eyes past Wesley. "So, I think saying it hasn't been easy for me is an understatement, Wes."

Wesley lowered his head. This was going to be far more difficult than he had imagined. Facing Angel was bad enough. Seeing the hurt and betrayed look in the vampire's eyes, painful, indeed. But worst of all was how defeated Angel sounded.

"What do you need?" Wes asked, without looking up. "Because you know I would do anything."

"Strangely enough, Wes, I believe that you would."

"It was never my intention to..."

Wesley heard the chains rattle and he looked up to see that Angel was holding up a hand as if to ward off Wes' worthless words. Angel shook his head. "Don't," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "Your intentions, noble as they might have seemed to you, have taken my son away from me. Don't tell me how sorry you are. I don't give a damn how sorry you are."

Wesley nodded and lowered his eyes once more to his fidgeting fingers. "I suppose my ugly death might make you feel a little better?" he asked, rhetorically.

Angel snorted. "An eye for an eye, you mean?"

Wes remained silent.

"No, Wes. I don't want you to die. Not today," Angel said.

"Well, today you need my help. Tomorrow you may not," Wesley said, graciously.

"True," Angel replied. "But let's worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. Can you help me?"

Wesley shrugged and stood. "I suppose there must be a way, a spell or something to prevent Angelus from seeking release. Perhaps it wasn't wise to come to Sunnydale, given Buffy's incredible potential to cause you harm. Well, you know what I mean."

"Not my choice," Angel said, abruptly. "I wouldn't have come."

"For this reason?"

"For lots of reasons," Angel answered without elaboration.

Wesley ran his fingers across the scar on his neck. It was scabbing over and itchy. He had to ask and under different circumstances he might not have given the question a second thought, but things were different now. "Because of Cordy?" he ventured, watching closely for Angel's reaction.

Angel's eyes closed briefly as if he were afraid his eyes might reveal something other than the words that left his mouth. "No. I wouldn't have come because of Buffy. We ended it. I wouldn't have done this to her, insinuated myself back into her life like this."

Wesley nodded in understanding, brushing his fingertips once more against the healing wound on his neck.

"Did it hurt?" Angel asked unexpectedly.

"Pardon?" Wesley replied and then realized to what Angel was referring. "Oh. This? No. Not really."

"It should have," Angel said simply.

Wesley gave the vampire a small, sad smile and said: "I'll see what I can do about your problem." He turned and left the room, Angel's words echoing in his ears. It did hurt. It hurt beyond the split flesh, beyond the severed cartilage and nicked bone. Wes felt this wound to the very pit of his being.

***

Buffy was waiting on the stone steps in the courtyard. She stood as he approached and Wesley could see the fear and impatience in her eyes.

"I'm not sure I have anything to tell you, Buffy," Wesley said, wearily.

She sank back down to the steps. "Is he okay?"

Wesley joined her on the stairs and plucked at a stem of English buttercup growing nearby. "Define 'okay'?" he asked.

"Angelus or Angel?" she clarified.

"Angel when I left."

Buffy's shoulders sagged with relief. "But Angelus...."

"Could return at any moment," Wesley finished Buffy's thought. "His hold over the demon is tenuous, it's true."

"We have to do something, Wes," Buffy said and Wes heard the note of desperation in her voice. He couldn't ever remember seeing this strange combination of sorrow and defeat in the Slayer before. It seemed to him, the look had settled in her eyes well before Angelus' arrival in Sunnydale.

"I agree. I'm just not exactly sure what it is we can do."

"You're book guy. You've spent all this time with him. You know him. What's going on?"

Wesley patted Buffy's knee absently, noted the way she recoiled from his touch and folded his hands under his chin.

"We should go, Buffy," Wesley said and stood, offering his hand to her.

"I can't go."

Wesley considered this. "Could you kill him if you had to?"

Buffy's eyes filled with tears.

"Come on. The sun will be up soon. He's not going anywhere."

***

A long hot shower did little to change the grimness of the situation. Wesley stood for a long time under the blazing stream of water and worried the problem over and over.

Angel had held on to the demon for almost a century without even knowing that Buffy existed. He'd done so merely because he'd felt the need to suffer for his past sins. It hadn't been a happy or worthwhile existence, but if one were to believe in fate (which Wesley did, now and then) one might believe that everything in Angel's life had led him to the moment when he saw Buffy skip down the steps of her Los Angeles high school.

Nothing could have prepared Angel for falling in love. At 242 years of age, he'd lived a long time, but had had no experience with the intricacies of the human heart. They'd all been skeptical, no one more than Wes, who himself had had little experience with love, and certainly none that could match what he'd seen between slayer and vampire.

There was something in that, Wesley thought, as he emerged from the steamy bathroom into the hall. If Angel had been able to hold Angelus in place with no incentive, what might it take to let him go? That was the crux of the matter, Wesley decided as he dressed in black slacks and a soft gray pullover. He brushed a hand through his wet hair and regarded himself in the mirror.

What would it take to let go, indeed?

***

"I know that I am asking you to divulge very personal information, Buffy, and I wouldn't normally if it weren't extremely important."

Buffy paced back in forth in front of the fireplace. She'd not shared a single word about her last meeting with Angel with anyone. She'd held the precious memories of that meeting close to her heart, a reminder of all she was and all that might have been. Wes regarded her beseechingly.

"I can imagine that it's very personal, Buffy. I hate to ask. But I think it's important."

"Yes, Wes. You've already said several times how important you think it is," Buffy sighed. "I just...it's just...." She didn't know how to explain to him how sad she felt about having to discuss one of the few private times she'd ever shared with Angel.

"Let me just say this, Buffy," he waited until she stopped pacing and looked at him. "I believe that Angel's loosened hold on Angelus is related to his grief over losing his son. But I also believe that there's more to it than that. Much more. I promise that what you say to me will be held in the strictest of confidence. I won't even let Angel know you've told me." He stopped, afraid that he would cross some imaginary line.

Buffy sat in an armchair, drawing her knees up to her chin and wrapping her arms around her legs. "This stays private, Wes or I swear I'll kill you myself."

***

Never in her life had she been more afraid. Not when she'd met the master. Not when she'd found her mother lifeless on the couch, arms outstretched as if she were playing a part in a bad soap opera. Not when Giles had told her he was leaving so she could get on with the business of growing up. Not when she had kissed her baby sister goodbye and sailed headlong into the nothingness. This was worse.

She might never have had the courage to call him herself. Wouldn't have had the words to tell him where she'd been and how she'd clawed up through the dirt and worms and decay to reach solid ground and sweet air again. But Willow had taken the decision from her, made the call herself and sent her rushing, without ever considering the consequences, out the door.

Then, the wait, because she'd arrived before him. Hadn't known that wasn't true until after, when he'd told her he'd been there forever. And then, even after she'd arrived, he'd waited some more, watching her stand in the grove of trees, arms dangling uselessly at her sides, eyes careening from grass to sky.

She could barely stand the sight of him when he materialized through the dusk: an apparition so beautiful she could hardly keep her knees locked under her.

Oh my God, she'd said to herself, although she knew he could hear the words. Knew that he could hear them before they were even out of her mouth because he had said the same words: a salutation to a God he no longer even believed in.

Oh my God.

What else was there to say? And if there were words, how could she get them past her heart, which was lodged painfully in her throat. So she held out her hand instead and watched his long fingers reach out and slip between each of hers until his palm rested against hers and their eyes, like their hands, locked.

Oh my God.

Buffy?

Angel?

Then: his arms around her, pulling her into his chest, which suddenly seemed massive and immovable. But even pressed up against him wasn't close enough. She'd been in heaven and even that didn't compare to this. She ran her hands up the front of his shirt and felt his firm flesh and then a moment of total panic when she realized how much she wanted to feel him naked above her, beneath her, in her.

He stepped back, drawing her further into the grove of trees. She saw a folded blanket next to a tree and he bent over, flipping the blanket open. She watched it flutter to the ground, a square mat of soft cotton.

Sit, he said.

And she sat, but it wasn't enough. How could she do this?

She wasn't strong anymore.

Where do we go from here? she wanted to ask.

So she stood. She pulled her smocked shirt off, closing her eyes against his. She unsnapped her pants and hooked her fingers into the waistband and slipped them down over her hips, stood before him in pale pink satin bra and panties. Reached up to unclasp the bra and felt rather than saw his gentle, cool hand stop hers.

No, he said. Let me.

She waited, her breath a trapped animal in her lungs, until she felt the bra swing free and then she exhaled as he slipped it off her shoulders and the cool night air rushed up to pucker her nipples. She felt his hands slide down, slip into her panties and glide down the slope of her buttocks, taking her underwear with them. He stayed on his knees in front of her.

Oh my God.

Buffy felt the first tremor rocket through her: an unstoppable train. He had barely touched her and already she was coming. She risked a glance at him and saw, to her amazement, that he was crying.

Angel?

Buffy?

I just need to feel you beside me. I need to know that you're here. That I'm here, she said.

He nodded and moved a hand up to wipe away his tears.

He unbuttoned his shirt and she slipped small, hot hands into the shoulders to aid its descent down his arms. She knelt and slid the button of his pants free and when he stood, she reached up and pulled his pants and boxers down to a crumpled puddle at his feet. His erection was a thing of masculine beauty.

She cried out when her skin made contact with his: cool and smooth, like pressing herself against a marble statue.

I don't know how to do this, she whispered.

Let me do it, then, he said. She thought it was odd: a dead man, breathing life back into her, but she also knew that only he could do it. She may have crawled out of the grave, but she hadn't felt alive until this very moment.

He pulled her effortlessly from her kneeling position and laid her gracefully on the blanket beneath him. He smoothed her skin with his hands, avoiding breasts and thighs and crotch with meticulous care. She was shuddering with want by the time he kissed her and that was enough to send her crashing over the precipice of her second orgasm. No one knew how to kiss like he did. She wondered why she'd ever bothered to kiss anyone else.

He kept kissing her, his tongue reaching to the most remote and, thus, sensitive parts of her mouth. And beneath those kisses, her body gave up its last defense: fear of what might come, gone.

I can't be around you because all I can think about is how much I want to kiss you.

The words hammered into her head and she pushed them away, just as his hand traveled the length of her throat and settled protectively over her right breast.

One of us has to walk away here.

But it couldn't be her. She didn't have the strength. Her nipples tightened in response to his tender tweaking. She let out a long, strangled hiss as his fingers moved downwards, abandoning her breast and heading for her crotch.

Oh my God.

I want my life to be with you.

She felt her heart slam against her ribs, felt her desire for him leaking from between her legs, his forefinger resting just above her clitoris. If he moved even the tiniest bit, she was sure she'd come again...

I'm not going to say goodbye. I'm just gonna go.

She wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face against the cool flesh of his neck. He smelled of grass and night and she opened her mouth and bit into him, feeling his skin rebuff her blunt effort. He rippled around her and she reached down, closing her fingers around his thick shaft and drawing her hand up. Once. Twice. Again.

It's never going to be enough, she said into his neck.

He sucked in air, habit rather than necessity.

It's never going to be enough, she said again, barely getting the words out before the tears began, clogging her throat with their intensity.

He rolled over on top of her, positioning himself between her legs, holding himself up on his elbows, his hands cupping either side of her face.

I love you, he said.

How can you?

How can I not.

He moved forward and she felt him slide into her.

She shifted her body beneath his, felt him adjust to the new position and then stillness enveloped them.

She knew he could feel the perfection of the moment because she could feel it, too. There would never be another moment like this one: shining, true, wordless. He reached between them, placed his skilled fingers on her most sensitive spot and stroked; tiny, precise movements and she could feel the slow ache building again. Still, he didn't move. And when she came, her inner muscles pulsing around his silent cock, she swore she could hear his heart break.

They lay for a long time afterwards, hand in hand, watching the stars.

I don't know how to be in this world without you, she said.

He rubbed his thumb in the sensitive curve of flesh between her thumb and index finger. She turned to look at him and was momentarily blinded by the utter beauty of his face. He turned to meet her eyes.

I can't come to Sunnydale, he said.

I know.

And you can't come to LA.

I know.

I can't lose you again. I can live with this, Buffy. A separation at least assumes the possibility of a reunion.

Does it? She asked.

He turned his face up to the stars. Make a wish, he said, pointing to a star rushing across the sky.

She gulped back a sob and squeezed his hand tighter.

Make a wish, he said again. Before it goes.

She closed her eyes, feeling the tears squeeze past her tightly shut eyelids and wished...

***

Buffy stopped, her heart constricted with pain and memory and longing.

"So you never actually...what I mean to say is, Angel never actually..." Wes couldn't force the embarrassingly personal words past his tied-tongue.

"No. He didn't. He showed amazing self-restraint but, in the end, we decided to walk away rather than torment ourselves with what could never be," she said in a broken voice.

Wesley nodded. "But, nonetheless, it would seem that your connection to Angel is far from broken."

"He's done okay."

"And you?" Wesley asked, gently.

"Me. I've been screwing Spike."

"Oh, dear," Wesley said, clearly ill at ease with this personal revelation.

"Not any more. It's over and not important," she said, resting her forehead on her knees, shielding her eyes from Wesley's concerned gaze. "So has my confession given you any ideas?"

"Yes, actually, it has."

Buffy raised her head in surprise, arching an eyebrow in expectation.

"But I need you to be patient for a bit longer. There's something I need to check out before we proceed."

Buffy nodded. She could wait. She had time and not much else.

EIGHT

Buffy lay on her bed fingering the silver cross Angel had given her what seemed like a million years ago. She rarely took it out. Rarely even thought about it, favoring, instead, a much smaller cross her mother had given her a couple of Christmases before she died.

She remembered that night in the alley as vividly as if it had happened yesterday: His less than surreptitious approach and the way he'd grinned up at her when she'd laid him flat on his back. Her sudden self-conscious awareness of her own quickening heartbeat and the rush of a million points of light behind her eyes. She remembered something she'd once told her mother in grade school about a boy she had a crush on: It's like when I see him, my eyes go heart-shaped and turn red. Buffy blushed at the memory. Did she love him then, as he lay supine beneath her? Buffy sincerely could not remember a time when she did not love him.

Waiting for Wes to deliver some solution to this quandary was worse than a double shift at the Double Meat Palace. The juxtapostion of the two very diverse elements of her life almost made Buffy laugh. On the one hand she was a twenty-something woman working a dead-end job in an effort to hold together her family. On the other hand, she was a Slayer working desperately to avert yet another potential disaster. She felt assaulted from all fronts.

A light knock at her bedroom door sobered her immediately.

"Come in," she said.

The door swung inward, revealing Wesley.

"May I?" he asked, although he was already half inside the room.

"If you're bringing good news, by all means," Buffy said, sitting up on the bed to make room for her former Watcher.

"Yes, well, news I have, although I'm not sure how good it'll be," Wesley said, sitting on the edge of the bed and then immediately standing. He moved to the window and looked out at the mottled sky.

"Don't keep me in suspense, Wes," Buffy said, rubbing her thumbs along the contours of the cross over and over.

Wesley cleared his throat importantly. "What would make Angel happiest?"

Buffy shook her head, not sure she understood the question.

"You don't know?" Wes asked incredulously.

"I might have known once, Wes, but I don't anymore," Buffy said morosely.

Wesley pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and smiled at Buffy. "Nothing's changed, Buffy. Surely the appearance of Angelus here in Sunnydale proves that. Angel might have decided to stay away, to move on, as it were, but Angelus has only one thing on his mind. You."

"But it isn't love that brought him here," Buffy said.

"No. But for Angelus the feeling is equally as powerful. Demons don't feel love the way humans do. They can't. They have no souls," Wesley said.

Buffy blushed as she remembered Spike's protestations of love; remembered with equal clarity beating him to a pulp outside of the police station and telling him she could never love him, for precisely that reason.

"Your point?"

Wesley began a slow walk from window to bureau and back again. "Angelus hasn't hurt you because he feels he needs you and because Angel won't let him. I'm presuming he's tried to..." Wesley stopped, embarrassed.

"Yes, he's made attempts," Buffy confirmed. "But that seems to be when Angel surfaces and Angelus disappears."

"He's lost everything, you know," Wesley said, sadly, pausing at the foot of Buffy's bed.

"I know," she replied. "Maybe we just need to get Connor back."

"I don't know if that's possible.

Buffy shrugged helplessly.

"Angel needs something in the world he can hold on to, something to believe in. He's letting go of Angelus because he doesn't have that anymore. I took something away from him that I had no right to take." Buffy was startled to realize that Wes was crying.

"Wes, I don't know...I don't now how to help."

"Let him believe in you, Buffy."

Buffy stiffened on the bed. "I don't think I understand what you're asking."

"Let him believe in you. Let him take comfort in you. Let him love you," Wesley said. "He has nothing else."

"I can't, Wes," Buffy said, dismayed. "You know I can't. Besides, that's exactly what Angelus wants."

"Not totally true. Angelus wants Angel to want it. He figures by making," Wesley paused to clear his throat, " love to you, he will be freed."

"Well, duh," Buffy said, sliding off the bed and standing near the window next to Wes.

"Ironically, Angelus doesn't understand that, in this case, the one thing that could free him is the very thing that will anchor Angel's soul. It will set things right again."

"I don't get it?" Buffy said.

"No, I suppose it doesn't make any sense given what the two of you have been through." Wesley settled his eyes on Buffy and smiled. "Despite your separation and even though it must seem that you and Angel will never be together, Angel has never given up hope." He paused. "Before now, that is," he amended.

"But Cordy?" Buffy said, praying that Wes would offer some explanation for what she'd seen transpire between the two in Los Angeles.

He nodded slightly. "But Spike?" He rested a hand on Buffy's shoulder and squeezed. "Do you love Spike?"

"No, of course not. He was just...there. He seemed to understand the place I was when no one else did and..." Buffy stopped and gave Wes a withering stare.

"You don't have to justify your actions to me, Buffy. I'd be the last person on earth to think ill of you under the circumstances." Wes took a breath and continued, " The first time that you and Angel made love, the circumstances were dire. Everything that came after that made you believe that should you make love again, Angelus would be freed and horrible things would happen. But as we've all learned since, you are not the only catalyst with the power to free the demon. Angel has much more control than that, should he choose to exercise it."

"But then why are we apart?" Buffy asked.

"Well, the risk exists because it's difficult to maintain control while in the throes...of, well.... The risk will always exist until Angel becomes human," Wesley said, sadly. "He slept with Darla and got nothing more than a bad case of the guilts."

"And Connor," Buffy added. "Don't forget Connor."

"Indeed," Wesley agreed sadly. "I believe that should you and Angel take steps towards each other, you'd find a temporary reconciliation quite safe."

"How do you figure that?" Buffy asked. And why would I even want that, she thought to herself. She took a moment to consider her encounters with Angelus since he'd turned up in Sunnydale. On every single occasion, Angel had seemed to drift towards her at the very second when things might have turned hopelessly bad: Angelus' cruelty turned tender. She dared herself to ask the question she'd been afraid to ask herself for so long: Did Angel still love her? Did he love her so much that he was able to keep Angelus from the one thing he wanted more than anything, the loss of Angel's soul.

"Do you trust me, Buffy," Wesley asked, interrupting her thoughts.

Buffy considered her answer carefully. Asked this same question a few years back and the answer would have been a resounding, "Not on your life." But since then, Wesley had proven to be a worthy ally and a loyal friend. And Buffy knew beyond all doubt, that Wes would do anything to fix this rift between he and Angel.

She placed a hand on his forearm and said, "Yes, Wes, I do trust you."

"Thank you. That means a great deal to me," Wes said. "Angel is far too sad to lose his soul, but I think you might offer him some sort of hope. A promise that things will improve."

Buffy smiled. "I still don't get how you think a conjugal visit is going to be safe," she said.

"I called in a favour. That's all I'm prepared to say," Wesley said, staring out into the night. "You should go to him."

"And then?"

"Then the rest will be up to you," Wesley said.

Buffy nodded and scooping her jacket off the hook in her closet, she left the room. She didn't hear Wesley murmur, "Good-bye, Buffy."

***

The mansion was eerily dark when she arrived. She peered into the still, black room and tried to discern whether Angel was still chained to the wall. She could see nor hear nothing.

"Oh shit," she breathed.

"Actually, you couldn't be more welcome," Angelus' voice came from the gloom behind her.

She whirled around and saw him, leaning indolently against the wall, thumbs hooked nonchalantly in his black leather pants, his shirt unbuttoned revealing his smooth, sculpted chest.

She considered for a moment running, but she couldn't escape the look in Angelus' eyes. Hooded, they reeked of malevolence and lust. Buffy stepped closer, perfectly aware of what would happen if Wes was wrong.

She drew back her shoulders and took another step closer to the monster housed in her beloved's body.

He pushed off from the wall and stood, waiting for her to take the next step. Forward? Back? He was equally prepared for either.

Buffy lifted her chin a notch higher, advanced another step.

"Come on, lover, don't make me wait," he said, his voice a low rumble. Before the words were out of his mouth, Anglus stepped forward, grasping Buffy's wrist tightly and swinging her around. She crashed into the wall, and her head snapped back, banging against it with a painful thunk.

Then he was against her, insinuating his hard body against her soft flesh, his arms braced on either side of her. "You can't fight destiny," he murmured against her ear.

"Perhaps not," she whispered back. "But I can fight you." She drew her knee up sharply, burying it into the vulnerable spot between his legs.

"Jesus!" Angelus yelped. He dropped his arms to clutch his crotch and Buffy took the opportunity to run.

She hadn't gone more than two steps when she felt Angelus' hand grab her hair and tug her back sharply. "I knew you liked to play, Buff, I just didn't realize you liked to play rough." He pulled her by the hair to the couch and flung her down. He was instantly on top of her, his leather clad leg wedged between her own, his mouth pressing down on hers.

"I'll play," she mumbled against his mouth. "Just play nice."

He growled, low in his throat and seared his lips to hers.

Then it didn't matter. Angel. Angelus. She drank his mouth and tongue and teeth down like he was water and she was parched. Her hands kneaded his shoulders and arms and ran through his hair, tugging and pulling without mercy. She shifted beneath him, allowing her short skirt to ride up her behind, exposing her lacey panties to the thick leather. She couldn't have said who was leading and who was following only that they weren't getting to the destination nearly quickly enough.

She felt his hands fumble momentarily before finding a place to hook his fingers and wrench the fabric of her blouse free. She felt another tear as her skirt let loose its seams.

She only hoped that Angel would return before things got out of hand.

***

I could feel her beneath me. Could feel the ripeness of her flesh, the smell of her arousal, the way her lips followed mine. I could feel my cock swelling painfully against my leather pants. Her hands were in my hair, handfuls scrunched in her tiny fists. I reached up and pulled them out, pinned them over her head with one hand while I felt for the silk scarf I'd scrounged from the bedroom earlier. She was barely aware as I tied her wrists together and looped the ends of the scarf around the leg of the table, effectively immobilizing her. Oh, the sight of her breasts heaving under the lace of her bra was enough to make me come. The position of her arms pulled those perfect mounds up a little higher, creating a deep valley that I ran a finger through while I watched her wiggling. I watched her eyes open, trying to focus on me. I bent forward, placed my lips over her bra, sucking in her cloth-covered nipple. I felt her tremble and arch into my mouth. I wanted to bite into her: a soft, downy peach, but I held back. The hotter and wetter she was the sweeter my victory. The sweeter her blood. I kissed down the slope of her breast, down the staircase of ribs, over the flat stomach and stopped, blowing short, contrived breaths across her crotch. She moaned audibly and my cock lurched, straining against its prison. I nudged against her with my chin. I pulled at her panties with my teeth and she lifted up her narrow hips, affording me the means to pull them down enough to expose her triangular patch of hair. I knew that if I touched a finger to her, it would come away glistening. She was ready. I could tell by the way she jerked against my breath, the way her breasts rose and fell and her eyelashes fluttered in anticipation. I crawled off her and stood. I caught her eyes and fingered the button fly on my pants. Undoing just one button eased the throbbing and I undid the rest seeking further relief. My cock jumped out through the opening. No need for briefs today. I saw her eyes slip from mine, to my erection and I saw those same eyes widen in amazement. I could, if I wanted to, tear her in two, take pleasure in her pain, rejoice at her cries and moans and shudder to my own release in her bloody passage. But I knew that she would hold back something essential, even as she submitted and so I had no choice but to let Angel flicker in my eyes, calming her with a gentle look and then a touch.

***

Wesley stood at the crest of the hill and waited. It was a calm night, a night for strong magicks and he hoped that he hadn't been a fool to make the bargain with the Toraz demon. He glanced absently at his wristwatch and noted that the demon was already several minutes late.

"Hell and damnation," Wesley cursed softly, twisting his neck around to look back at the mansion. When he faced forward, the Toraz demon was standing right in front of him. He might have fallen from the heavens, his arrival had been so swift and silent.

"I thought you were going to let me down," Wesley said.

"And miss this opportunity?" The Toraz demon laughed mirthlessly.

"Yes, well, one never knows when one makes a deal with a demon," Wesley commented dryly.

The demon shrugged, his eyes glowing a ghastly green at the slight. "My word is good," he said.

"That remains to be seen," Wesley replied.

"If you are so skeptical, why make the bargain, especially when the personal cost is so high?" the demon asked.

"I have my reasons," Wesley said, flatly, clearly unwilling to divulge them to the Toraz.

"Humans," the Toraz demon said, disdainfully. "Humans always risk too much for too little." He stepped back, away from Wesley.

Wesley shook his head. "It's a small price to pay if it balances things."

"And how will this vampire with a soul feel about your sacrifice?" the Toraz asked.

"I doubt he shall ever know," Wesley said. "Do it."

The Toraz reached forward and placed an elegant hand on Wesley's forehead. He chanted something in a dialect Wesley thought he recognized, but then didn't.

The Toraz demon traveled through the corridors of Wes' mind, searching for secrets and knowledge, looking for things to take and disconnect. Ahh, that was interesting: Wes harboured an affection for someone called Fred. His brain fairly glowed with unrequited feelings for her. The Toraz demon lapped it up, feeling the combination of sexual and intellectual attraction course through his veins. What's this: petty jealousy? For someone called Gunn. That had a delightful flavor. And Lilah. The demon thought she seemed familiar, a dark and uneasy soul, filled with venom and bile. That's where the Toraz would send Wesley. To Lilah. His good, clean soul besmirched by an association with this soulless creature. The demon chuckled gleefully. What would cause Wes more agony than that? A trip to the dark side.

The Toraz licked his lips lasciviously and pulled his hand back. Wesley slumped to the ground. Stepping over him, the Toraz almost considered reneging on his promise to protect the two inside the mansion. But what was a demon if not honorable? Closing his eyes, he blanketed the mansion with goodwill, saving Wesley's darkest secrets for himself. Then, the night sucked him into her blackness.

Hello my friend
We meet again
It's been a while
Where should we begin?
Feels like forever
Within my heart
Are memories
Of perfect love that
You gave to me
Oh, I remember
When you are with me
I'm free, I'm careless
I believe
Above all the others
We'll fly
This brings tears
To my eyes
My sacrifice


From "My Sacrifice" by Creed

NINE

Angel felt his head clear suddenly and noticed in that same instant, Buffy laying, arms tied to the side table, half naked.

"Angel?" she whispered.

He gulped and nodded, moving quickly to untie her. She brought her arms slowly to her sides and shook the blood back into them. Angel reached down to shove his still-hard penis into his pants, but Buffy stopped him.

"No, Angel. Don't. I want to," she said, quietly.

"We can't, Buffy," he replied. "You know we can't."

She shook her head and held out her hand. He hesitated before sitting beside her on the couch.

"I'm so sorry," he whispered, barely able to look at her.

She lifted a hand up and caressed his cheek, turning his head just enough so she could see into his eyes. As always, she was astounded by how startlingly beautiful they were, despite being troubled and opaque.

"Don't be sorry, Angel. Don't ever be sorry," Buffy said.

"I don't know what happened. I was willing to let it all go and then I just didn't."

"It's okay," she said.

"No. It's not okay, Buffy. We can't."

"Actually, tonight, that's not true," Buffy smiled.

"I don't understand," Angel said.

"Tonight, if we want to...if you want to...it would be okay," Buffy explained haltingly. "If you want to," she added again.

Angel leaned back, away from Buffy's hot hand. "I don't get it," he said.

Buffy sat up, reaching for her shirt. "You don't get it? Or you don't want it? Which is it?" she asked, her temper flaring.

Angel stood, buttoning his pants and moving away from Buffy as though she might burn him. "I don't understand how us making love would be a good thing," he said, almost to himself and then, realizing how the words must have sounded, he joined Buffy on the couch and added, "I mean because of Angelus."

"I think we've seen that Angelus is perfectly capable of making himself known without any help from me," Buffy said, caustically.

"Yes, so it would seem," Angel agreed.

"So, maybe the problem isn't Angelus, maybe the problem is you," Buffy said.

"Look. This is just...complicated," Angel said in an effort to placate Buffy.

"Complicated. That's rich," Buffy said, her throat burning with disbelief. "I guess I was wrong. We were wrong. We thought..." she stopped, unable to continue.

"We? Who are you talking about?"

"Me. Wes." Buffy said.

"Oh, so Wes says it's okay for us to make love and it's suddenly okay?" Angel said, hotly.

"He cares about you, Angel. How can you doubt that?"

"You wouldn't understand, Buffy," Angel said.

Buffy leaned back on the couch and watched the steely set of Angel's jaw, the way a muscle jumped erratically in the hollow of his cheek. Was this the man she'd fallen in love with? He didn't seem the same, somehow. He seemed distant, vacant, full of self-pity. The Angel she knew would tell her what was wrong. The Angel she knew would fight. The Angel she knew would never kiss Cordelia Chase.

"Do you love me, Angel?" she asked, softly.

He twisted his head around to look at her. "What?" he asked.

"Do you love me? It's not supposed to be a stumper," Buffy said, trying to alleviate the sudden dread she felt with her trademark wit.

"It's not as simple as it used to be, Buffy," Angel said.

"When was it ever simple, Angel? Tell me. I'd like to know what was simple about any of it." Buffy stood and started pacing the large room, fastening the two remaining buttons on her torn blouse. "When was this easy? Gee, when I found out you were a vampire? When I gave you my virginity and turned you into some psycho killer? When I ran a sword through you and sent you to hell?" Buffy could feel the tears scalding her eyes, but she couldn't stop. "When, Angel, was it ever easy? How about all those times we wanted to make love, but knew what the consequences would be. Or how about when you decided to break up with me just before prom? And what about when you left?" Unable to continue, Buffy sank into an armchair and sobbed.

There was silence except for the pitiful sound of Buffy crying. After a moment, she lifted her tear-stained face and said: "And what about me trying to move on? And never, ever being able to get it right without you."

Angel shook his head, hopelessly. "But nothing has changed, Buffy."

"Everything has changed, Angel. You had a son. My mother died. I died. Nothing is the same." Buffy stood and went to stand in front of him. "Maybe not even your feelings for me," she said. "Maybe that's what was going on with you and Cordelia. Maybe that's what all this is about. Angelus wants me, but you don't."

"Shhh," Angel said, walking over to her and placing his fingertip against her quavering mouth. "Nobody wants you more than me."

Buffy regarded Angel with wary eyes.

"What did Wesley do, Buffy?" Angel asked, cautiously.

"He didn't say. He thought that maybe Angelus trying to usurp you was, at least, partly to do with you wanting him to. He thought, maybe, you just needed to believe in something again. I guess he took a risk thinking I was the something you might want to believe in," Buffy explained.

"You think I don't lie in bed and think about you, Buffy? You think I wouldn't change things if I could? How in the hell is us being able to make love now supposed to change tomorrow?" Angel said, bitterly.

"Maybe, just for once, we could forget about tomorrow, Angel," Buffy said. "Maybe we could just be two people, now, who love one another and take this protection Wes arranged for us as a gift."

"Maybe," Angel said. "Except tomorrow will come, Buffy."

"It always does," Buffy agreed. "But can't we, just for tonight, pretend that when it does, it'll just mean a new day for us to love one another."

"You always think everything is simple, Buffy, even when it's not," Angel said, sadly.

"I just don't want this to be my life anymore, Angel. Can this just not be my life?"

Angel considered her words carefully; barely able to look in her eyes without feeling as though his dead heart might break. He thought about Angelus's overwhelming desire to have Buffy and he thought about his own incredible will to prevent that from happening. Did he love her? Still. Always. Forever.

Angel bent and swept Buffy into his arms and headed for the grand staircase that led to the mansion's upper rooms, including his old bedroom. Once he crossed the threshold, he set Buffy lightly on her feet and then went to the bed, removing the dust cover that protected the heavy velvet quilt that covered the bed. He returned to where Buffy stood and gathered her once more in his arms, crossed the room in three long strides and lay her gently on the bed. Swiftly, he removed his shirt and pants and then helped her shed her scant clothing. Naked, they regarded each other solemnly.

"For the longest time," Angel said, stretching out beside Buffy, close to, but not touching her, "everything I did was about trying to earn my redemption, so that one day I could come to Sunnydale and take you back. I had this incredible scenario all worked out. I'd arrive on the sunniest day possible, with a huge bouquet of daisies or delphinium and I'd ring the doorbell and when you answered, I'd just kiss you. Then we'd get married and have two kids and a dog...." Angel smiled.

"What happened?" Buffy asked.

"Nothing. Except that there just seemed to be more evil out there then I had the will to fight. And nothing I did seemed to make any difference. You started to seem further and further away. And then, you died."

"But I came back," Buffy said, solemnly.

Angel rolled onto his side and traced the silhouette of her face with his finger. "Yes, you did. Then we met...."

"...and decided that we couldn't see each other any more. I know," Buffy interrupted. "Things didn't go so well for me after that."

"For me either, as it turns out," Angel said.

Buffy turned to face Angel so that they were lying face to face. "Maybe we're misreading the signs, then. Trying to do what we think we should, but doing it all wrong."

"How do you figure that?"

"Well. You left and I think that wasn't totally a bad thing. I mean, Giles left and sometimes I think him leaving helped me. Besides, I've forgiven him. But maybe we haven't been paying attention. Maybe we are better together, Angel. Maybe we're just meant to be together."

He leaned in and captured her willing mouth with his own. He could taste the salt of her tears and her desire and her fear and it was ambrosial. He deepened the kiss, pressing his tongue into the hot recess of her mouth, feeling the flush of warmth in his crotch when she moved her tongue to meet his. He eased her onto her back and hovered over her, huge hands trapping her face. His mind skidded over the words of the Morah demon: "Together you are strong, apart you are dead." How could he have forgotten that one essential truth?

He left her mouth and kissed up her face: tilted nose, closed eyelids, smooth brow and then moved to her neck, placing a tender kiss on the scar he'd inflicted that night long ago. He felt her sharp intake of breath as he pressed soft lips there and knew she remembered, too.

"I love you, Buffy," he murmured, close to her ear. "Never doubt that."

"And I love you, Angel," she responded, her words floating over them. "No more talk, okay?"

She heard his warm chuckle against her collarbone. "Okay."

She felt his cool fingers float above the surface of her hot flesh and she felt her breath quicken at the lack of actual contact. He skimmed over her breasts and ribs, skirted along the flat plane of her stomach, tickled the hair covering her most private place, descended down the muscle of her upper leg until he could reach no further. Then, he lay his hand flat on her leg and moved back up. Relief flooded her body at his touch.

"I remember this," he said, grazing his fingers along her feminine lips, the wild scent of her trailing along behind the contact. "I remember just how you feel, here," he said, dipping between her folds to settle on her humming clitoris. "And here," he placed his cool mouth over her nipple, startling her to a hard point. He moaned, and the effect of the sound reverberating against her sensitive peak made Buffy draw in a quick breath.

He moved to the neglected nipple and suckled, teasing the abandoned breast with incredibly skilled fingers, tweaking and tugging with precision. And, then, when she could stand no more, when her hips were twitching mindlessly, he drew his chin down her middle, and stopped, mouth poised at her very centre.

She met his eyes with her own. Hooking his arms beneath her legs he hitched her forward, angling her body up so he could better devour the moist flesh. Cupping her bottom in his hands, he bent forward and licked her. Buffy could have wept at the contact. She grabbed a handful of velour blanket and bit her lip, hard.

She could barely stand the intensity of feeling washing over her, but she also wanted the moment to last much longer than it was going to if he kept at this much longer. Just when she was going to tell him to stop, he drew her clit into his mouth, biting down lightly with blunt teeth and she shattered around him. He held his mouth tightly to her as she bucked against him, flailing mindlessly as her orgasm sped through her, from her core to the tips of her outstretched fingers.

She barely felt him lower her shaking legs, barely felt him move up the bed, but knew, instantly, when he was poised at her entrance.

"Buffy," he said, reeling her back with his voice. "Are you sure?"

She nodded.

No hesitation: Angel pushed into her, a slow, agonizing, movement: grateful flesh meeting welcoming flesh. For a time, neither moved and both remembered their meeting upon Buffy's return from the ether. Angel, alone, remembered the day that never was. Both knew they were exactly where they should be.

Withdrawing, Angel moved with deliberation, plumbing the depths of Buffy's willing flesh. Buffy drew her legs back, encouraging greater penetration and gasped when she felt Angel press against her womb. Without breaking contact he hauled Buffy off the bed and changed position, so that he was sitting on the edge of the bed and she was sitting astride him. Balancing herself by resting her hands on his wide shoulders she slid up and down his rigid shaft. Angel used his free hands to knead her tender breasts and then, as his own orgasm approached, to settle in her nest of curls, rubbing her sensitive nub expertly.

One second. That's all it was. One perfect second. The instant Angel felt her inner muscles tighten around him, he released the tenuous hold he had on his own orgasm. Buffy threw her head back, a joyous cry followed by his name issuing from her lips. He placed his hands on her gently rounded hips and held her still, pulsing endlessly inside her warmth, muttering incoherently into her hair.

Angel lay back on the bed, pulling Buffy down with him. Still joined, Buffy already lamented the coming loss of him, the inevitable retreat of his body from hers. She lay with her ear pressed to his strong, silent chest and breathed in the peculiarly distinct smell of him: musky and masculine.

"Buffy?" Angel asked, solemnly.

"What?" came her quiet reply.

"What if none of it happens? All the things we plan for and hope for and dream about. What if none of it ever happens?"

Buffy considered his question carefully. "I don't think you can count on anything in life, Angel. Not really."

"You'd think I'd know that, wouldn't you? But I just kept hoping even when it was obvious..." he stopped, wrapping his arms even more tightly around her.

Buffy gave a little sigh as Angel's skin, only moments ago heated with borrowed warmth, began to cool. She burrowed deeper into his chest, rubbing his biceps absently.

"Not to sound cliché, Angel, but, it seems to me that hope is all we have. Sometimes it's not much comfort, but then something happens and you start to believe again."

She felt him place a tender kiss on the crown of her head. He reached across the bed, grabbing the thick cover and pulled it across them, enveloping them in velvety comfort.

It was only after they slept that their bodies parted company; that his lifeless seed leaked from her body. Their hands, however, remained twined together, adjusting effortlessly to their shifting bodies and never once losing contact.

***

I knew immediately that something was wrong. Certainly I was willing to let soul boy take the lead when it came to getting into the Slayer's pants. But after I relinquished my control, I felt something else, as well. Some magick loosed on the mansion, which prevented me from returning to the party. I could feel his damn soul, anchored not only to him, but to her as well. Temporary or permanent, I had no way of knowing. I only knew I was that night's bitch. I could feel rage coursing through me, but not even that roused them. They slept like the innocent. They slept like those who dream of bliss.

***

Angel woke first and watched her for a long time. The moonlight was bright and for a moment he indulged in the old dream. He allowed himself to believe that it was the sun, not the moonlight, spilling across their pillow. Any second now her eyelashes would flutter sleepily and her brow would crease in annoyance that he'd forgotten, once again, to close the drapes. Then, she'd remember how he loved that warmth and light early in the day and she'd smile, stretching against his body, which was warm and hard and ready for her. Always ready for her.

They'd make love. Sometimes quietly, a slow pace that would send them both down a maze of erotic twists and turns, but would ultimately lead them to mutual satisfaction. Sometimes, he'd simply adjust himself and thrust, piston-like, into her heat eliciting a husky cry from deep in her throat. But always, swimming in the puddle of light, he'd make love to her.

Buffy woke up to find him staring at her. She reached up to brush her fingertips across his mouth and smiled.

"I've been thinking," he said, after a while.

She waited.

"I've been thinking about the first time I saw you. I've been thinking about the feeling I had when you came down the stairs with your friends that day. The day you were called." Angel smoothed a strand of hair from the corner of her eye and continued. "You couldn't have known then about the sacrifices you'd have to make, and yet each time you had to make one, you did."

"Angel, I..."

He shook his head. "Please. Let me finish. You would have made sacrifices for me, too. Things you would have given up to be with me and now, Buffy, I think I was wrong not to let you. I thought I was doing the right thing when I walked away from you. It seemed like such a grand gesture at the time, Buffy. Now it just seems hollow."

"You're forgiven," Buffy said, softly.

"Thank you." Angel kissed her mouth, a chaste kiss and then continued, "A vampire with a soul and a slayer. It just didn't seem possible to me even when I knew I loved you...." Angel shook his head. "Maybe it was Connor that opened my eyes in the end. He wasn't supposed to be possible, either. Yet, there he was."

"We'll get him back, Angel," Buffy said, firmly.

He bestowed upon her a smile worthy of his name. "I hope." Pulling her closer, he said: "Go back to sleep, Buffy, it's late."

She snuggled closer, one small hand curled around his neck, sifting through the soft hair at his nape and sighing, she drifted off. He remained awake, watching the stars and feeling the deep, peaceful cadence of her breath beneath the palm of his hand, where it rested just over her heart.

The End

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