by Cat D.

Disclaimer: The characters of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and 'Angel' are the property of Twentieth Century Fox, and the creations of Joss Whedon et al. They ain't mine.
Rating: There's nothing worse than the show here.
Spoilers: Up to the end of 'Buffy' season four, and 'Angel' season one.
Summary: Buffy and Angel's path cross again in the future.
Notes: Consider this as following Buffy canon 'til the end of 'Wild at Heart' and 'Sanctuary'. After that much is the same as the real deal, with some small (?) changes. Angel never came to Sunnydale in 'The Yoko Factor' to apologise, Wolfram & Hart never resurrected Darla, and the Oracles weren't killed. Pretend that Angel's office and apartment weren't blown up either. For the purpose of this story, I have decided that Buffy's birthday is January 19 (the original air date of both 'Surprise' and 'Helpless'). I have some serious issues with Buffy to work through, so there will be considerable angst involved.
Feedback: Yes please.
Thanks to Starla, Kate, Kim, Shirl, Kathy, Emma and Monica.

January 7, 2006

Buffy trailed behind the waiter as he wove his way through the busy restaurant. Reaching a small table for two that looked out onto the street, she smiled her thanks as he held the chair out for her. Declining to order until her companion arrived, the waiter hurried off to fetch the glass of water she settled on to sip while waiting.

The early afternoon sun fell across the table, where Buffy rested one elbow propping up her chin. All manner of people hurried past the window - couriers, students, business men and women, mothers with prams and toddlers, elderly couples - all were intent on their own business, their own life. As she followed their movements Buffy felt strangely detached from it all, from this buzzing normality of everyday life.

Ever since she'd been called and come to know the darker side of the world Buffy had felt somewhat removed from those around her. Her awareness of the literal demons that stalked the streets, and her duty to stop them were huge obstacles between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the "normal" Buffy Summers who had once been blithely ignorant of such forms of evil. But still, through her close friends and her mostly positive attitude to her role, Buffy had felt herself still part of the everyday world. Part of the buzzing normality, part of the endlessly revolving wheel of existence.

Birth, life, decay, death. Perhaps she was more aware of this cycle than anyone, confronted with it each night, facing her own mortality in each battle, seeing friends and enemies rise and fall around her. Replaced by other enemies and allies who in turn would fall. And so on and on and on. Through it all in she revelled in her calling, despite the despair and pain that accompanied it. Being the Chosen One, the one girl in all the world ... even though she would roll her eyes as Giles reeled off the standard lines about her existence, Buffy could not help the thrill that touched her at this oft-repeated summary of her ... 'occupation', for want of a better word. She had a purpose, a responsibility, was special. What she had tried to abandon on her arrival in Sunnydale actually gave her a strong sense of self, and duty. And, no matter how clichéd it sounded, a reason for living. For though for the most part she took pride in being the Slayer, Buffy needed a reason to live.

In some twisted way, being the slayer was both her reason for living, and the reason she needed a reason to live. In some small part of her, Buffy longed for the normal life. Longed never to know of the vampires and witches and ghosts and werewolves and countless demons and monsters. Longed to remain in ignorance, and plan out a lifetime with someone. Plan tomorrows, holidays, parties, children, anniversaries. But her mind told her she couldn't, not when her finite existence would end much sooner than most. And so Buffy punched and fought and kicked and slayed, for she had no choice. No choice but to commit to it. No choice but to love it. No choice but to push her foolish dreams away and lock her wish for normality up inside. The normal that she had once longed for, that her mother blindly demanded for her, that others had demanded of her ...

And now for the final blow came the ultimate irony. Now Buffy had the chance to be normal. Or, much closer to it anyway. Now she had the chance to be a part of the bustle outside the window ... but she couldn't get excited about it. For some reason this opportunity no longer held the gleam that it once did. The sense of relief that she thought would accompany it. And she couldn't figure out why.

With a sigh Buffy turned away from the window, and turned to watch the other patrons. As her eyes flicked unseeing over the nearby tables, Buffy wondered why she was there. She didn't want to be there, didn't want to meet him and be reminded of those feelings that were long ago resolved. But she owed it to him, and here she was. Buffy's gaze wandered idly over the diners in the back of the restaurant, sitting in plush gloomy booths far away from the sunny window. Three men in navy suits, all discussing the contents of a manila folder with the utmost gravity, their conversation punctuated by occasional fork-waving and vehement head shaking. Two young women whispering conspiratorially, no doubt sharing the latest gossip. And in the farthest booth a beautiful brunette laughed at her male companion's conversation. For a moment Buffy's concentration lingered on the woman, envious of her happiness (and her gorgeous blue shirt) before she turned her attention to the male ... and stopped breathing.


And her heart stopped beating.


And started again, now pounding faster than ever before.


Buffy's lungs started functioning again as some part of her brain was concerned about the lack of oxygen. The rest of her brain however had shut down, unable to comprehend what her eyes told her to be true. He was here, after all this time, after all these years. What was it, five, six years? Too many. Buffy drank in the sight - as always he was dressed in black, a fitted jumper emphasising his broad figure. Pale skin, dark brown hair styled casually, and deep brown eyes ...

...that now met her hazel.

"When he is around, it's like the lights dim everywhere else". Those words from long ago were all that Buffy was conscious of, besides the eyes that were locked on hers.

"Angel". No sound came out as Buffy lips formed the word, before curving upwards in a soft smile. He was here, he was really here after all this time. God his eyes - Buffy was mesmerised, gazing into the familiar face, unable to look away, unwilling to look away. So many repressed feelings filled her in a rush that her skin tingled with the force of them. Scenes from the past flashed across her mind - nothing specific, just an endless procession of Angel's face gazing at her own. Then, his expression had been filled with so much love, passion, and pain. And now? Buffy recovered her wits enough to look, really look at Angel to try and gauge his reaction. To try to see whether he still...

"Buffy!" The spell was broken. A male voice sounded beside her, bringing Buffy out of her trance. Suddenly the chattering and clinking and laughing in the restaurant hit her, forcing her painfully back to awareness of the surroundings. "I'm sorry I'm late, I hope you haven't been waiting long." Buffy looked up at the tall man that paused beside the table, and struggled for a moment to remember exactly who she was, where she was, and who he was.

"Riley. No, not long at all" Buffy answered distractedly, frowning slightly as he bent to kiss her on the cheek. As he moved to sit in the chair opposite her, Buffy's eyes shot back to study the dim booth that Angel was sitting in. She felt strangely guilty, as if she had been caught cheating on her husband with another man. That was silly - she and Angel weren't a couple, and hadn't been for a very long time. But still.

Buffy was put out to see that Angel seemed not to have noticed Riley. In fact, he seemed not at all concerned by her presence mere tables away. His attention was firmly directed at the lovely woman sitting across from him, and he reached across the table taking her hand in his. A sharp pain went through Buffy's heart as she watched him raise the brunette's hand to his mouth, where he pressed a gentle kiss to the back of it.

"So, have you ordered yet? Buffy?" Riley's question brought Buffy back to attention once more, and she tried desperately to concentrate on him, as he called the waiter across. Ordering the first thing on the menu, once again Buffy's eyes wandered while Riley took his time deciding what to eat. Shocked to see the booth now empty, she frantically scanned the room for Angel. He couldn't disappear again, not again ... there he was. Angel was at the back of the restaurant hovering near a dim hallway that led to the kitchen and bathrooms. Buffy's breath caught for a moment as she took in his magnificent figure - tall and broad, he carried himself so well. His obvious impatience as he glanced at his watch launched Buffy into action.

Excusing herself from the table, Buffy left Riley discussing dishes with the waiter as she hurried towards Angel. Her speed slowed and resolve faltered the closer she got to her target, coming to a halt a few metres away. Maybe she shouldn't, maybe she should just go ... no. Buffy straightened her back, lifted her chin and took a deep breath. Covering the remaining distance she stopped in front of him, then spoke to get his attention.

"Angel". Turning his gaze on her, Angel's face broke into a pleasant smile.

"Buffy, how are you?"

"I'm good, a little hungry, but good. And you, how are you?" Something about his manner made Buffy feel uneasy.

"Never been better" Angel replied in a casual way, tucking his hands in his trouser pockets.

"I'm kind of surprised to see you here".

"Well, this is LA, I do live here." Buffy flinched a little at Angel's patronizing tone.

"Yeah, I know. It's just, you know, daytime and..." Buffy dropped her volume for a moment "vampires... well they don't really mix well." As Angel looked back at her in amusement, Buffy continued, nervousness compelling her to keep talking.

"But I guess you are sitting in the back here, with no direct light, and it's pretty gloomy and all. And I guess you came up through the sewers or something?" Buffy made her last statement a question, nodding her head down the shadowy hallway, where she assumed there was access to the tunnels running under the city.

"Or something". Buffy looked at Angel, studying his face. Something was off, he was being polite, even friendly, but there was an air about him that made Buffy uncomfortable. She had often imagined them meeting again - had foreseen pain, expected anger, secretly hoped for love. But never had she pictured him as he was now ... indifferent.

"So." Buffy was desperate to talk, there were so many things she wanted to say and to ask, but for the life of her she couldn't form a question in her mind.

"So..." she repeated, now suddenly unable to look at him, her eyes fixed on the carpet.

"Angel darling, I'm ready to go now". Buffy's head shot up, as she saw Angel's brunette companion appear from the hallway. Slipping her handbag over one shoulder, her other hand snaked through the crook of Angel's arm as she looked at Buffy inquiringly.

"Great" Angel replied, and the open smile he directed at the woman tightened like a band around Buffy's heart.

"Well, aren't you going to introduce us?" she continued, gesturing to Buffy.

"Oh, of course." It seemed as if Angel had completely forgot Buffy was standing there.

"Anna, this is Buffy Summers. Buffy, this is Anna Marcham."

"And where do you to know each other from?" Anna asked.

"Buffy used to go to the same school as Cordelia".

"Ahh" Anna nodded. "Well it's nice to meet you Buffy."

"You too" was the only reply Buffy could muster.

"Well we have to be going, it was good to see you again Buffy."

Buffy stood in astonishment as Angel casually dismissed her, turning briefly to Anna before moving away. Her astonishment grew however when he didn't head down the dark hallway as she expected him to. Buffy could only turn on the spot, and watch in disbelief as Angel strolled past her into the lobby of the restaurant. Pausing to hold the door open for Anna, he followed her out into the street.

What ... but ... alive! How can he ... he should be dust ... human? How? Buffy's wind was a whirl with a million thoughts all battling for her attention. But conscious thought stopped in a second as Angel appeared though the large window in the front of the restaurant, walking along the pavement.

There he was in the light. Buffy marveled at the picture he presented as the sun glanced off his handsome face. She slowly smiled taking in this vision, one that had haunted her dreams for years. When she first met Angel she had often dreamed of him as human, thousand of times, in so many different ways. Later however, the dreams had taken a particular form, always telling the same story, set in the same location.

But once again Buffy's heart failed her, as Angel turned to plant a long kiss on Anna's receptive mouth.

"Did you find the bathrooms OK? Riley looked up at Buffy as she sat down opposite him. For a moment his words didn't register - she gazed out the window in a trance, as if hypnotized. Angel and Anna had disappeared from her view, but her eyes remained locked on the spot where they had been standing. "Buffy?" Riley reached across the table to touch her arm. "Buffy!"

"What? Oh yes, fine." Buffy seemed to come to her senses, as she shifted slightly in her seat, turning away from the streetscape.

"Are you feeling OK Buffy? You seem a little ... I don't know ... distracted or something"

"No, I'm fine" Buffy replied. "I just ... I thought I saw someone I know."

"And did you?" Riley prompted, when Buffy offered no further information.

"No ... I don't think I knew him at all."

"Oh". Riley dismissed the subject and took a sip of the drink the waiter had brought him. Buffy sat still, her calm exterior belying the emotions surging through her. Happiness at seeing Angel again, confusion as to his attitude towards her, rage at that tall brunette bitch Anna, astonishment at seeing him in the sunlight, and dreadful pain and jealousy when she saw him kiss another woman; all of these battled beneath the surface. "I want to thank you for meeting me - I know that we haven't really talked for a while, years in fact. We didn't really keep in contact after I left Sunnydale did we?" Riley laughed awkwardly.

"No I guess not." After the dramatic final battle with Adam, Riley had left for Washington for a debriefing on the Initiative's actions. Following a brief return to Sunnydale, he had departed to Iowa for the summer. The months spent apart, plus a renewed commitment to her slaying, confirmed for Buffy what she had secretly come to suspect. While Riley was good and sweet and solid, and she did care for him - she just didn't love him. It was only a few days into her sophomore year when she finally broke up with him. They had continued to run into each other on campus, with the usual awkward conversations, before Riley left at the end of the first semester. "So what have you been up to? When you left town, you didn't know where you were headed."

"Well, I went home for a while, did a little thinking about life and my purpose in it. Eventually I re-enlisted, and now I work in military intelligence, in the department specialising in the supernatural. Sort of like the X-Files, but without the little green men." Riley chuckled. "The occasional big green demon though". Buffy offered a small smile in reply, still having trouble focusing on Riley's words. "Anyway, it's about business that I contacted you. There's some big trouble on its way, and I was hoping you could help."

"Well, after all the help you gave me in the past, it's the least I can do. Plus, you know, there's the whole sacred duty thing as well." Privately Buffy knew that her motivations were less than sacred. She now looked on this as a way of distracting her from Angel, and all the difficult emotions he raised. "So what's the sitch?"

"There's a new demon making himself known in the higher circles. We've never come across anything like him before. He is amazingly strong - more powerful than anything we've gone up against. From what rumours we've heard, lesser demons are afraid of him - he's got them running scared. The problem is we can't identify him. He looks human, and hasn't made any moves that give us a clue to the human identity he uses. All we have is a name - Scelus."

"So what's the problem with this Scelus guy? What's he done to get you so worried?" Buffy smiled politely at the waiter as he approached the table with their meals. Riley was silent as the dishes were placed in front of them, but as the waiter walked away he continued.

"It's not what he's done, it's what he plans to do. The word is that he has some pretty big plans, not the least of which is to assassinate the President."

"The President?" Buffy squeaked, Riley now commanding her full attention.

"Yes" Riley replied, making hushing gestures with his hands while looking furtively at the nearby diners, "the President. Everybody knows that the government is unstable at the moment, what with the Vice President suffering from yet another sex scandal, and the increased terrorist activity directed at us. It's the President's powerful personality that's holding things together. Scelus is hoping that everything will fall apart if he dies, and in the following confusion he can wreak havoc - rapidly destabilise the stock markets and economy - and with America's dominant role in international affairs, this is likely to have a ripple effect though out the rest of the world. Apparently he revels in anarchy, and he intends to produce as much as possible."

"And you want me, to help you, to save the President?" Buffy asked incredulously.

"I know it sounds like a bad James Bond movie, but it's a very real threat. We've had the President under incredibly tight security recently, but there's a big event soon that he can't miss. With all the scandal surrounding the oval office, they need a big PR stunt to bring the approval ratings back up, so he's attending a fundraising ball. It's a gathering of the party faithful, all the powerful people who contribute big money to his campaigns. He needs to keep them happy, so they'll continue to support him. And this is where Scelus is going to make his move."

"And how do you expect me to stop him exactly, when all the might of the military and the Secret Service haven't been able to get a photo of the guy?"

"Well, that's where I was hoping your supernatural slayer senses would come in. You go to this ball posing as a guest and mingle with the crowd. I was hoping that you would be able to sense him or something, get a lock on the target. Then we can move in and take him down."

"You're pinning all your hopes on me?" Buffy was concerned. "I mean, I can tell when there is a vampire around, but it doesn't always work with demons. Remember, I'm a vampire slayer, not exactly a demon specialist."

"Well, you've stopped the apocalypse before, and from what I remember could handle the demons pretty well too. Besides, you're the best." Riley threw Buffy a charming smile. She responded by stabbing at her salad with a fork before chomping on a piece of tomato, her face expressing the uncertain state of her mind. After a pregnant pause, Riley glanced across the table and spoke, his tone of voice soft and uncertain.

"You know, I missed you." Buffy looked up from the piece of lettuce she had been working onto her fork, and studied Riley's face. Smiling slightly at him for a moment, she brought the lettuce to her mouth, chewing intently as her gaze slipped out the window to focus on a now empty spot on the pavement.

January 9

Buffy paused in front of the steps, looking up at the imposing archway. The chilly evening air caused a shiver to run up her spine - or was it nerves as to what awaited her inside that provoked the physical reaction? Buffy certainly was nervous - it had taken her two days to clear her mind and work up the courage to come here. And now that she had made it, well ... maybe another couple of days thinking wouldn't be such a bad idea.

'No!' Buffy mentally chastised herself. 'Come on Buffy, you can do this - you're the Slayer! The Chosen One! It's not like there's a huge ugly demon inside, waiting to tear you limb from limb. There's no powerful sorcerer bent upon doing evil, or a megalomaniac vampire thinking he can succeed where everyone else has bitten the dust. Nope, there's just an apparently ex-vampire. Nothing you can't handle. One man - is he a man? Who knows - he's just your ex-lover who secretly you've never stopped loving and who you hoped had never stopped loving you but now it appears he has ...'

Buffy frowned at the direction her internal pep talk had taken. She'd never actually admitted to herself that she was still in love with Angel - to do so would have been too painful, knowing that he would never be hers again. But now confronting the truth left some part of her strangely at peace, secure in that knowledge. The rest of her however was turned upside down by it - and by the detached treatment that Angel had afforded her in the restaurant.

Why had he acted so ... Buffy couldn't explain it. There was only one person who could. And so she strode forward up the steps, into the lobby, and through the doorway into the darkened office. Slowly making her way past the unoccupied desk into the adjacent room, Buffy remembered the last time she was here - the pain, jealousy and all-consuming anger. She could not fault Angel for being angry with her after the way she behaved - if only he was angry! That at least she could understand. Opening the door to the stairwell, Buffy headed down to the apartment below, the rubber-soled boots she had recently bought at forty percent off muting her footfalls.

Moving off the last step into the living room, Buffy looked around herself and was surprised at how familiar it all felt. She had only spent a brief time there, but somehow it felt longer. Slowly wandering around the spacious apartment, she saw that the furniture and decorations were exactly as they were detailed in her dreams - dreams of Angel being human. Were they prophetic Slayer dreams? Buffy wasn't sure - they didn't have the same feel as her usually doom-laden visions. But then they felt too real to be classed as everyday REM-driven dreams.

Buffy's head whipped around at the sound of movement, and she watched as Angel came into view. He emerged from what she instinctively knew was his bedroom, and it was a moment before he seemed to notice her presence. His head rose, and his eyes locked onto her face. For a moment Buffy thought she saw a flicker of emotion in their brown depths, before Angel stopped in his tracks.

"Buffy. I didn't expect to see you here." Angel's tone was polite as he walked past her to retrieve some cuff links that were lying on a side table.

"Well, why would you? It's not everyday you wander into your living room to find someone standing there is it?" Buffy's mind was running at a mile a minute, reflected in her nervous chatter. "I hope you don't ... it's alright, isn't it? Me being here?"

"Sure" Angel said, sitting down on the couch, indicating Buffy should also take a seat. "Is there some business you need help with? A book for Giles maybe, or a hand killing a particularly nasty demon? It's been so long since I've seen you, I've lost track of what's happening on the Hellmouth." Frowning slightly at an almost imperceptible edge in Angel's voice, Buffy shook her head.

"No, no, there's no big evil brewing. At least not in Sunnydale anyway. No it's just, well after we ran into each other the other day, I thought maybe we should ... you know ... talk." Buffy hoped that Angel would raise the issue of his apparent humanity of his own accord, but his continuing casual behavior had her frustrated.

"Talk? What would we have to talk about?" Angel was focused on attaching the cuff links to his white shirt, so Buffy could not see if the expression in his eyes matched the sudden hardening in his voice.

"Don't you have something to tell me?" At Angel's blank look, Buffy sighed and continued. "Well, the fact that I saw you in the sunlight yesterday - you're surprised that I want to talk about how you suddenly seem to be human?"

"Oh that." Angel got off the couch, and headed into the kitchen.

"Yes, that." Buffy followed him and watched as he opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of orange juice. Silently she stood as he poured himself a glass, nodding her head in assent as on an afterthought Angel offered her a drink. Sitting across from him at the table, Buffy sipped at the sweet liquid before prompting him again. "Do you mind telling me how it happened?"

"Well, it's no big deal really. Not long after the business with Faith ..." Buffy flinched at the memory "... we came across a scroll, and when Wesley translated it we discovered it prophesied me becoming human once more. It said there were a few things I'd have to endure first - the coming darkness, apocalyptic battles, a few plagues and fiends. We thought that these were all things I'd have to face in the future, but it turns out that the prophecy was already in action - had been for a couple of years in fact."

"So this prophecy was underway while you were still in Sunnydale?" Angel's glance fixed on Buffy briefly before returning to peruse his glass of juice.

"Apparently so. The fights with the Master and the Mayor - both of these were apocalyptic in the sense that they were prepared to bring hell to earth. And apart from the literal plagues I've seen in my two hundred plus years, there were also a couple of figurative ones I helped defeat. There was a demon army, 'The Scourge', which was bothering the half-demon population with its hatred of anything less than pure, and a large law firm plagued the city with its support and promotion of evil."

"And the coming darkness? What was that?" Angel drained his glass and stood, turning his back on the kitchen and returning to the living room.

"That was Hell". Buffy sat still for a moment, as the pain of her memories of Angelus and the aftermath of his attempt to raise Acathla consumed her. That Pyrrhic victory had cost her more than anything else before or after ever had. It had cost her the one person, the one relationship that had ever felt truly right to her. Rising slowly from her seat, she once again followed Angel to the next room, where he was busy returning piles of old books to their rightful place on his shelves.

"How did it happen eventually, your humanity I mean?"

"It was sort of an anti-climax. I had just killed a fairly ordinary vampire, one of those countless fiends the scroll mentioned, and the next thing I knew I was standing in front of the Oracles".

"The Oracles?" The name set a bell ringing in the back of Buffy's mind, but she couldn't quite place it. Angel paused in his tidying, Buffy noting that the muscles in his back tensed beneath their cotton covering. Resuming his actions, Angel continued to order his shelves with his back to Buffy.

"The Oracles - they're channels to the Powers That Be. They said I'd earned my redemption, and a moment later I was breathing." There was silence after Angel's explanation, as Buffy looked at him in wonder, noting that yes, he was actually breathing! A living, breathing human being!

"So what do you do now? I saw the sign above the office still says 'Angel Investigations'. Are you just a regular detective now?"

"Not exactly - Cordelia still kept getting visions, so I kept fighting. After I almost died in a fight with a few fioral demons, I went back to the Oracles and pointed out the problem with the situation. So they restored the demon strengths to me - powerful hearing and night vision, rapid healing, general strength and so on. So I've been doing the same thing I've always done".

"Battle evil". Buffy concluded.

"I guess you could say that ..." Angel turned around to find Buffy standing right in front of him, an expression of wonder in her eyes. "You're alive." A smile spread across her face, as if she was learning this for the first time. "Human" she continued, almost in a trance. Angel was motionless as Buffy reached a tentative hand up, and placed it above his heart.

'Thump, thump. Thump, thump. Thump, thump.' The beating of his heart reverberated through Buffy's hand, and seemed to echo throughout her whole body. Pressing her hand gently against his warm (warm!) chest, a tear came to Buffy's eye. Looking up into Angel's face, Buffy gave her emotions free reign.

"Angel, you're alive!" she breathed, her voice displaying the joy that suffused her being. Stepping closer to him, so that their bodies were almost touching, Buffy was aware of nothing but Angel, and the heat that radiated off him. His now almost black eyes were locked on hers, seemingly unable to look away, and there was an emotion in them that Buffy struggled to read. Her hand continued to caress the smooth muscle beneath his shirt, and her breathing became slightly ragged as she fell his heart-rate quicken. "Angel" Buffy repeated, tilting her head and stretching up onto her toes, unconsciously reaching upwards for a kiss. As Angel's lips moved almost imperceptibly downwards, Buffy heard herself ask "and the curse?"

Angel instantly flinched away from her touch, and brushed past her to stand in the middle of the room. Running his hand though his hair, he took a deep breath before picking up a jacket that lay across the back of a chair. Shrugging it onto his shoulders, he replied in a voice devoid of feeling.

"There is no curse". Buffy felt like she was about to explode. Angel was human, and there was no curse. No curse! Only in her wildest fantasies had she been able to imagine this moment, and the happiness she would feel. But her imagination fell far short of reality, for 'happy' was a poor description of the way she was feeling. 'Joyous', 'amazed', 'exultant', 'blissful', 'ecstatic' - even combined these words couldn't begin to explain the level of emotion that threatened to pour out of her body at any moment.

Yet Angel's cold behavior sobered Buffy up quickly. Why hadn't he told her? What reason could he have had for keeping this momentous news from her? Sure they had parted on a bad note, but still Buffy thought he cared for her enough to at least send a note, even if he didn't immediately rushed back to Sunnydale to claim her as his, as she wished he had. Why didn't he tell her?

"Why didn't you tell me?" Angel lifted his shirt collar over the jacket, and straightened his clothes. "I don't understand why you would keep this a secret? I know that you were mad at me, and deservedly so, but why?" Angel pivoted suddenly and stared at her. Anger and bitterness were evident in his rigid posture, and the coldness in his eyes made Buffy wrap her arms around herself defensively. She had wanted some sort of reaction from him, anything but the painful casualness he had treated her with up 'til now. But she wasn't prepared for the hatred that surged towards her.

The click of heels on the steps intruded into the hostile scene, and both Buffy and Angel looked up to see Anna descend into the apartment. Taking in her immaculate, glamorous attire, Buffy realised with a start that Angel was dressed up for a formal occasion. As he turned to Anna he visibly relaxed, and in the blink of an eye a smile replaced the angry mask on his features.

"Anna darling, you look magnificent." Buffy's eyes narrowed as his hands rested on Anna's upper arms, and he placed a lingering kiss on her cheek.

"Thank you, as do you Angel." Anna's tone switched from appreciative to condescending. "It's nice to see you again ... Buddy, was it?"


"Right." Anna seemed oblivious to the dislike underlying Buffy's voice. "Angel, are you ready? You must excuse us Buffy, we've dinner reservations and opera tickets, and we can't be late".

Gathering his wallet from a table, Angel offered Anna his arm. "You can show yourself out, can't you Buffy?" he tossed over his shoulder, as he escorted Anna up the stairs and out of sight.

Empty. Motionless. Ten minutes later Buffy was still standing in the same position as when Angel left. Her arms were still crossed over her body as when Angel had looked at her with intense hatred. Her eyes were still filled with pain as when Angel linked arms with Anna. Her insides were still twisted as when Angel had turned his back on her and walked out without a backwards glance. So many emotions had been brought forth that now she felt ... empty. There was nothing inside of her, she was just a shell. A numb, achingly tired shell.

With a sigh Buffy roused herself from her mindless state, and slowly started up the stairs out of the apartment. Everything suddenly seemed to be so dark and cold, she could not stay a moment longer. As she emerged from the stairwell, a sound in the outer office put her on alert. Stealthily moving to the doorway, Buffy peeked around the corner to see who, or what, was rustling about.

"Cordelia!" Buffy relaxed and stepped into the room. Her former classmate was sitting at her desk, twirling a strand of long brown hair in one hand, the other tapping a frustrated beat on a pile of papers. "I didn't expect you to be here."

"Buffy" Cordelia offered in reply, her expression a mixture of surprise and annoyance. "I work odd hours, but that's really none of your business. What are you doing here? Did Angel finally cave in and tell you he was human, and you're going to get all mushy now? Or did you come to rub his face in your latest boy toy, and leave him in a state of complete wretchedness for months on end? Personally I hope it's the latter, because Angel's wise to you now, and instead of taking your crap he'll kick your ass."

After a slight pause, Buffy forced a smile. "It's nice to see you too Cordy. I uh ... I just happened to be in town, and I ran into Angel the other day. And given that he was in the sunlight at the time, well, I had a few questions."

"And do you think you have any right to the answers? After what you did?"

"Look Cordy, I know that I said some bad things the last time I was here, and obviously you do too, even though you weren't there when I said them ..."

"Wesley told me" Cordelia interjected. "After Angel locked himself away for a week and wouldn't talk to anyone, Wesley explained to me why our boss looked like the love of his unlife had ripped his heart out with her bare hands and jumped up and down on it in front of him. It turned out that, well, the love of his unlife had ripped his heart out with her bare hands and jumped up and down on it in front of him! Then he went into brooding guilt mode, and was going to run back to Sunnydale to apologise. Luckily I was able to talk him out of it, telling him that if anyone had something to be sorry about it was the callous bitch whose name happens to be Buffy." Cordelia ended her angry rant with a blatantly fake smile directed at the slayer.

Buffy had no reply to Cordelia's accusations, because they were true. Shamefully remembering the twisted pleasure she had taken in seeing pain in Angel's eyes, she stood silently as Cordelia returned her attention to her paperwork, obviously dismissing her presence as unimportant. Pacing slowly across the room, Buffy wondered how she could make this right, not just with Angel, but also with Cordelia, who obviously cared for him very much. Opening her mouth to try and explain her actions, Buffy's eye was caught on Cordelia's hand.

"Congratulations." As Cordelia looked up at her with a blank expression, Buffy continued. "On your engagement."

"Oh" Cordelia replied, softening somewhat as she glanced at the small diamond on her left hand. "Thanks."

"So who's the lucky guy?"

"Wesley." At Buffy's look of astonishment Cordelia frowned. "You needn't look so shocked. Wesley's a great guy - he's sweet and thoughtful and loyal. I know we didn't work out the first time, but after fighting icky demons and evil lawyers together we grew close ... and he loves me, and I love him."

"No Cordy, I think it's great. I'm really happy for the two of you. Where is he now?"

"He's in England ... he's packing up the things he still had over there and shipping them back here."

"Ah." Buffy nodded and resumed her pacing as Cordelia continued to scribble on the piece of paper in front of her. A clock ticked loudly in the silence, and Buffy paused. "Cordelia?"

"Hmm?" she mumbled, not looking away from her paperwork.

"Why didn't ... why didn't Angel tell me he was human?" Cordelia sighed, and the annoyance and anger seemed to seep out of her as her shoulders slumped and her pencil dropped to the desk.

"Buffy, I don't know. All I know is that Angel showed up at my apartment one morning, and there he was, all human and everything. The first thing that he said to me, after I stopped babbling senselessly and almost suffocating him in an 'oh my God I can't believe you're human' hug, was 'Don't tell Buffy'." Cordelia stood up from her chair and made her way around the desk to stand in front of the slayer.

"He was very definite on that point. He didn't want you or anyone else in Sunnydale to know. He made me and Wesley swear it, several times in fact. I think he even dragged a 'scout's honour' out of us. I was so happy at the time to see him breathing and not turning to dust that I didn't question him. And later, I was so happy that he'd moved on that I wouldn't have told you even if he'd begged me to. Which he didn't by the way. Actually I don't remember him ever mentioning your name again" Cordelia concluded matter of factly. Choking slightly at the end of the explanation, Buffy swallowed strongly to moisten her suddenly dry throat.

"Mov ..." she swallowed again. "Moved on? You mean ... with Anna?"

"Anna? No" Cordelia waved her hand in a gesture of denial. "No Anna's only the latest."

"The latest?" asked Buffy with mild disbelief.

"Oh yeah, Angel's gone out with tons of women. There was Rachel, and Jane, and Renee, and Michelle ... I can't even remember half of them. But one thing I did notice, in all the gorgeous women who walked in and out of that door with red, brown and black hair, there wasn't one blonde. I guess you turned him off them for good."

Cordelia turned back to sorting through her desk, while Buffy silently tried to digest this information. Angel was human, he was alive, he hadn't told her about this, he'd specifically asked Cordelia and Wesley to make sure she didn't know - and since then he's been dating a succession of beautiful women, so many that Cordelia couldn't even remember their names. Buffy hadn't thought she could feel any worse when she watched Angel kiss Anna, but to know that the brunette was only one in a long line of women that Angel had preferred to her - Buffy's stomach twisted in knots as hurt and jealousy raged within her.

Suddenly Cordelia moaned and clutched at her head, her eyes rolling back and her face contorting in pain.

"What ... Cordelia are you OK? Cordelia?" Receiving no response but grunts and moans of anguish, Buffy could do nothing but ease her down into the visitor's chair, where her violent twitching stopped some moments later. Barely opening her eyes, Cordelia leaned forward to reach a bottle sitting on the desk, from which she extracted a number of pills that quickly disappeared down her throat. "Cordelia what was that?" Buffy asked, as some water soon followed the pills path.

"I get visions OK?" was the angry response. "When Doyle died he passed them onto me. I thought it was just an amazing goodbye kiss, but it turns out that the sneaky demon gave me his visions from the Powers That Be. When I die and see him again, boy am I gonna kill him!"


"You know - people in trouble, demons to kill. I get the visions, and then Angel goes and does his thing, with some help from me and Wesley."

"So what did you see?"

"A couple of big ugly things beating up a small ugly thing."


"In some alley off Johnston St, near the laundromat."

"And you're OK?"

"I'll be fine when the ten jackhammers stop pounding into my skull."

"Right. Well, Johnston St, I'll go and check it out." Buffy strode out of the office as Cordelia waved her hand dismissively and moved to sit back behind her desk again.

'Pizza place ... hairdresser ... shoes - ooh nice slides ... laundromat.' Buffy slowly moved into the dark alley next to the shop, her eyes quickly adjusting to the gloom away from the streetlights. Rounding some empty wooden crates and half-full rubbish bins, she saw some shadowy figures up ahead, muffled groans and sounds of fighting accompanying their movements.

"Aw come on guys, why didn't you tell me you were having a party?" One small figure was dropped to the ground, and two large shapes turned to face her as Buffy made her presence known. As they stepped towards her their features became more discernable, and Buffy heaved a dramatic sigh. "Great, so it's Jabba's ugly henchmen this time. How come you demons are never pretty?"

The burly creatures stepped towards her, their eyes glowing red in what Buffy took as a sign of anger. Assuming a battle-ready stance, she urged them towards her with a confident hand gesture. Immediately she recognized the error of her cockiness as one drew a gleaming curved sword, and they both lunged at her. Leaping nimbly Buffy dodged out of their path, a forceful kick sideways knocking the metal weapon out of the demon's hand to fall clattering to the ground. Her jump however placed her beside an industrial-sized metal bin, and her opponents used the opportunity to close in, blocking her means of escape.

Kicking high in front of her, Buffy managed to send one of the demons stumbling, several punches to its face and abdomen propelling it backwards. She then turned to face its companion, and the first twinge of fear ran through her body as a hard right to the side of her head caused her to see stars for a moment. Fiercely punching in return, Buffy was frustrated to see the demon easily blocking her blows, its bulk belying its speed. Another strong punch sent her reeling backwards to collide with the first demon, which had managed to stand up and collect itself.

Suddenly finding herself in its strong grip, Buffy moved and twisted frantically, but was unable to dislodge the arm that was pinned against her throat. The second demon stepped forward, and as the first held her down, it rained blows on her body, Buffy's vision clouding over as she continued to struggle futilely. Her hands tearing at the arm around her neck as her lungs screamed for air, Buffy's eyelids fluttered shut, hiding the panic within.

They flew open a moment later as the blows suddenly stopped, and Buffy was greeted with the sight of Angel laying into the second demon. Watching as he twisted and turned, punched and parried, leapt and ducked, a surge of adrenalin ran through Buffy's body giving her the strength to throw the demon off her back. Defending herself against its kicks and punches, she danced on her toes back out of its reach, looking for its weakness.

"Duck!" Buffy responded instinctively to Angel's command, and looking up from her crouch she saw a blade whistle over her head, its smooth motion then removing the demon's. Leaning one hand on the ground, Buffy took a moment to rise, her head still spinning from the fight. Slowly rotating an aching shoulder and rubbing her sore neck, she turned on the spot to see Angel tossing the sword down beside the body of the other, obviously dead, creature. Gazing at him for a moment, she then moved to the figure lying out of range of the action.

Kneeling beside the small demon of undetermined origin, Buffy observed that it was close to death. Its chest heaved in obvious distress, and a creamy white liquid oozed from several gaping wounds. As Angel came to crouch on the other side of the body, its eyes flickered open, and it raised its head slightly.

"It's OK" Buffy said. "We're here to help you. Who were those guys?" Gasping for breath, the demon tilted its head to look at her.

"Scelus ... they were minions of Scelus." With surprise clear on her face, Buffy looked over at Angel.

"That's the guy that Riley's after!" At the mention of Riley's name something flickered in Angel's eyes, before he turned his attention back to the demon, pressing his hand to one of the wounds in an attempt to staunch the flow of ooze.

"Why does he want you dead?" he asked.

"Because" the thing coughed, "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I stumbled across his human name, and he's afraid of being found out."

"So who is he?" Buffy prompted eagerly.

"John Ma ..." Some more of the white ooze dribbled out of the demon's mouth, and Buffy jumped to her feet in frustration as it died before it could give Scelus' full name. The sudden movement sent her head spinning, and through her half-lidded eyes she saw Angel spring towards her as the world went black.

A mechanical whirring roused Buffy's mind from its blank state, and a small jolt made her instantly aware of the surrounding warmth. Her face was rubbing against smooth cotton, pressed against the muscle lying beneath. One strong arm was curled under and around her lower thighs, and another was wrapped around her back, cradling her in gentle, supportive embrace. Buffy didn't need to open her eyes to know who was carrying her. While the dramatic change in body temperature was startling, and the rapid heartbeat under her ear was unexpected, the body and its scent was unquestionably Angel.

Another jolt and the whirring stopped. Buffy was shifted slightly, leaned more into Angel's body, held only by one arm and supported by one thigh when the other arm disappeared briefly. The sound of grating metal was followed by the return of the arm to cradling her body, and Buffy felt Angel step forward.

As he continued to walk, Buffy feigned continued unconsciousness, not wanting to leave the encircling warmth. After a brief journey she was slowly lowered to a soft bed, her head coming to rest on a pillow. Her eyes still closed, her breathing deliberately slow and even, Buffy's ears strained to detect any sound, trying to discover where Angel was and what he was doing now. For several long moments she heard nothing, no rustling or footsteps or speech. About to open her eyes in frustration, Buffy felt the mattress tip slightly under her as someone sat next to her on the bed.

A heavy sigh reached Buffy's ears ... and then ... fingertips caressed her cheek, before lifting an errant strand of hair away from her face. As Angel's fingers continued to lightly skim the golden strands, her skin prickled to attention, anticipating his long-denied touch. Unable to control herself any longer, Buffy's eyes shot open to capture Angel's startled brown gaze. His hand froze momentarily, before snapping back to his side. His eyes however ... his eyes didn't move.

Buffy eased herself up into sitting position, careful not to break the connection. As her head became level with Angel's, she frowned slightly to see his eyes become troubled, confused. Lifting the corners of her mouth, Buffy smiled softly to try and ease his concern. Unfortunately the action had the opposite effect, as Angel jumped to his feet and paced away from the bed.

Buffy's hesitant smile became sad as she watched Angel turn his back on her, and disappear from the room. Shaking her suddenly throbbing head, the smile dropped altogether from Buffy's face - why had she thought he would react any differently? Despite the recent fight, and Angel carrying her back to his apartment, she was foolish to think that his attitude had changed, that he would be any less hostile, and less receptive than he had been an hour earlier. She couldn't do this to herself, couldn't allow her hopes to rise and then be dashed to pieces moments later. If strictly professional was the way Angel wanted to play it, then that's what Buffy would be. Professional.

"So, do you know anything about Scelus?" she called, hoping her voice would carry to where Angel had wandered. Silence was the only response, and Buffy continued, attempting to draw Angel into conversation. "When we met in the restaurant the other day, that's what I was doing there. Riley asked me to meet him, he wanted my help to find this guy - he's a threat to national security or something. If only that demon hadn't died before he spilled Scelus' whole human name - there must be hundreds of guys called John whose name starts with Ma ... there'll be John Marshalls, John Martins, probably a few John Marsdens as well. And then you've got Matthews and MacNamara and Mackenzie ..." she trailed off as a strange feeling of déjà vu washed over her. It was almost as if she'd been here before, sitting on Angel's bed calling out to him in another room ... Angel re-entered the bedroom, breaking Buffy's train of thought as she followed his movements, trying to reestablish eye contact. He sat down once more on the bed, but his attention was focused on the items he placed on the blankets next to them.

"It's not just 'Scelus', it's 'a scelus'. Like 'a vampire' or 'a werewolf'. Scelus is the name of the type of demon - it's just that they're so rare everyone gets it confused." As Angel spoke he lifted a damp cloth to Buffy's forehead, and began to clean a wound there.

"They're sort of like vampires, human/demon hybrids. But the first demon who made them - by mixing his blood with a human - he was a different sort of demon to the one that made the vampires. More powerful, more evil if that's possible. They don't mix with others of their kind, and their numbers are small because they are so thirsty for power they can't stand any competition. They only change a human when they feel death approaching, simply so the evil will continue." Angel glanced briefly into Buffy's eyes before applying a dressing to the deep cut. There was a long pause before he continued. "Riley should be worried."

Angel's hand finished its task and began moving away from her, but Buffy captured it in her own. Holding it with one hand in her lap, Buffy used her other hand to gently caress his palm. She watched as Angel stared at their joined hands, his body still and tense.

"Angel". "Angel" Buffy softly repeated as he at first refused to look at her. Almost hesitantly his head rose, and once again their eyes locked. All of Buffy's plans for strict professionalism had flown out the window when his hand touched her forehead, and a burning desire to touch him re-ignited once more. Her thoughts were scattered and incomplete as she eased herself closer to Angel.

'If I just move a little closer ... slowly ... closer so our legs are touching ... if he will just stay still as I lift one hand and place it on his cheek ... if his eyes will just flicker again at my touch as I feel his smooth skin under my fingers ...if I release his hand and it stays warm on my thigh, as my other hand creeps up his arm ... God his strong arm ... and then it passes up his shoulder to tangle in his silky hair ... if he just stays still as I raise myself so I'm kneeling, so I can look at him directly in the eye ... if I just move my other hand from his cheek and gently ... without lifting it from his skin ... move it down his neck to the collar of his shirt ... as I ... slowly ... inch forward 'til we are so close I can feel his ragged breaths fanning my mouth ... we're so close that all it will take is the slightest move before our lips can ...'

Angel sprang away from Buffy and off the bed as the sound of the elevator being summoned to the next floor broke the spell her actions were weaving around them. Her heart thumping almost painfully in her chest, Buffy sank back to the bed. He had been so close ... she had been so close to ... her pained eyes fixed on Angel as he stood in the doorway of the bedroom, his back to her as he watched the elevator descend once more.

"Angel darling!" Buffy almost cried as she looked beyond his taut figure to see Anna step into the apartment. "After Cordelia's call you rushed out of the restaurant so quickly it was as if the devil was after you! What happened?"

"It was business" Angel replied shortly, as Anna approached and stepped close to hug him. Looking over his shoulder, her eyes widened as she caught sight of Buffy sitting on the bed, silently taking in the scene.

"Business?" Anna asked, a wealth of meaning in her voice and eyes as she pulled away and nodded towards the bed. Turning to look at its occupant, Angel continued in an unconcerned tone.

"Yes, there was some business to take care of, and Buffy helped out - she's in the same line of work. She was knocked unconscious, so I brought her back here."

"That tiny little thing is a private detective, and gets in fights with mysterious criminals?" Anna's voice conveyed her disbelief at Angel's explanation, and she raked her eyes over Buffy with obvious disdain. "And if she was hurt, why did you bring her here, why didn't you take her to the hospital?"

Buffy suddenly felt very small. Glancing down at her dirty, worse for the wear clothing, she imagined with embarrassment what this beautiful glamorous woman must be thinking of her. Normally the opinion of someone like her wouldn't matter, but as Buffy glanced up into Angel's inscrutable expression, she was sure he must be making the same comparison, no doubt with an even less flattering outcome. Ignoring the aches in her limbs and the pounding in her head, Buffy rose from the bed.

"Look why don't I leave the two of you alone, you obviously have a romantic evening planned. It was just a small bump on the head, and I'm fine now, so why don't I just ... go." Without looking at Angel, Buffy walked past the couple and through the living room, up the stairs and away from the pain.

January 11

"Where exactly are we going anyway?" Buffy looked across at Riley in the driver's seat. The car they were in was a standard military fleet vehicle, dull and nondescript, not drawing any unwanted attention as it wove through the streets of a poorer suburb of LA.

"A snitch called in with a tip on Scelus' location, but he didn't want to talk over the phone - he's probably hoping he can get more money out of us in person. So he gave us an address to meet him at, and from the looks of this neighbourhood he could probably do with the extra cash."

Buffy nodded and looked back out the passenger side window. She wasn't really taking note of the rundown buildings they were passing; her mind was on other things. Two days ... two days and still no word from Angel. After her hasty exit from Angel's apartment, Buffy had scribbled out a note on Cordelia's unoccupied desk, leaving her details if they needed to contact her ... with any information about the scelus demon of course. And that was the only reason why she'd lingered over the note; it wasn't as if she'd hoped Angel would come chasing after her, leaving Anna to feel as alone and wretched as she felt. Nope. Not at all.

Two days ... and no call to say "Hey, how's your head?" - after all, she was knocked unconscious. No call to say, "What do you know, I've found that scelus demon you were after". No call to say "I know I've been really mean to you, but we almost kissed the other day and now I really want to kiss you again". Buffy snorted derisively to herself at that last thought. When had Angel ever been forthcoming with his feelings? It was foolish of her to think that he had changed ... well, except for the whole human thing.

Riley braked slowly and parked the car outside an old apartment block. As she stood on the pavement and looked up at the building, Buffy felt a tingle run through her body. Shaking her head, she followed Riley into the foyer, silently remonstrating with herself to stop thinking about Angel.

Passing the old elevator that stood uselessly a metre above the ground, they headed up the staircase. Reaching the third floor, Riley took the lead as they made their way down the hallway. Eyes flicked from side to side as they checked the numbers on the doors they passed ... eleven ... twelve, with the two barely hanging on by a nail ... and thirteen.

The door of the apartment was slightly ajar, causing both Buffy and Riley to frown. This was not the sort of neighborhood where you had anything less than three different locks on your door, let alone leaving it open for anyone to walk right in.

As Buffy stepped forward, Riley's arm shot out to block her way, while his other hand disappeared into his jacket to emerge with a heavy black pistol tightly in its grasp. Shaking her head in amused disbelief, Buffy pushed Riley's ineffectual arm aside and quietly eased the door wide open, her slayer senses on full alert. There was something familiar ... something ... Buffy moved quickly along the short hallway in the flat, Riley barrelling into her back when she stopped abruptly.

Looking over her shoulder Riley could see a figure lying on the floor, and a man crouched beside it with his back turned to them as he contemplated the body.

"He hasn't been dead long, whoever did it must have left shortly before I arrived." Angel stood and turned to face the newcomers as he finished speaking. Riley moved out from behind Buffy, raising his arm in the process to point the gun at the other man.

"Just put your hands in the air, and step away from the body."

"Riley Finn." Angel observed the military agent with a hooded expression, as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his three-quarter leather jacket.

"Do I know you?" Riley asked, his brow creasing in frustration at Angel's refusal to obey him.

"Riley, just put the gun down." Buffy rolled her eyes at his trigger-happy behaviour. "It's ok, this is Angel."

"Angel". Riley's expression was anything but welcoming, as he ignored Buffy's instruction. Here was the ... thing ... that Buffy had once admitted she'd dated, and despite her protests, who he believed she had dumped him for. "Way I heard it you're all peaceable now. What changed?"

"Quite a bit actually." Angel replied coolly.

"Now what possibly could've happened that would make you lose your soul?" Riley's eyes moved to Buffy, jealousy apparent on his face.

"Put that gun down". Angel took a step forward to enforce his order, but halted as Riley lifted the weapon to point it directly at Angel's head.

"I'm thinking no".

"Riley!" Buffy was suddenly worried about the escalating tension in the room. Angel might still have the demon's strength, but there was no way that he would survive a gunshot to the head, and with the way that Riley was acting, that event was entirely within the realm of possibility. Moving quickly, she reached out and forced Riley's arm downwards, wrenching the gun from his sweaty grip.

"I told you, it's ok. Angel hasn't lost his soul. He's human now. He won't hurt anybody." Reaching behind herself, and tucking the weapon into the waistband of her pants, Buffy continued to Angel. "Tell him."

"Might hurt you." Angel was now visibly tense, as he moved forward to menace Riley with his body.

"Ok, that's enough!" Buffy shot angry glances at the two men. "Riley, Angel's a good guy, he won't hurt you." She punctuated her words with a chastising glance at Angel. "In fact, he can help us a lot. When we ran into some minions of the scelus demon the other day, we found out that ..."

"When you what?" Riley's interjected furiously. "You told him about Scelus?" The word 'him' was accompanied by a disgusted expression, and angry toss of the head towards the offending man.

"Well, yes" Buffy replied somewhat confused. "You know that Angel knows a lot about the demon world, having ... you know ... been one. Of anyone, he would be the most helpful person in trying to find ..."

"That information is classified! This is none of his business. Just stay out of it!" Riley yelled the last line at Angel, his face turning red with the force of his emotion.

"Don't push me boy, this is my business" Angel ground out. "The Powers have sent Cordelia two visions, one that led me to the minions, and one that led me here. And I'm not going anywhere."

"Fine then, we're leaving." Riley took hold of Buffy's arm, trying to lead her towards the exit. Shaking loose of his grip, Buffy stood her ground, as Riley silently commanded her with his eyes to leave. Seeing that she was not going to go with him, Riley threw a frustrated glance in Angel's direction, before hustling an annoyed Buffy into a corner away from the vampire.

"I don't want you talking about this with him".

"You're being ridiculous Riley. And I'm not one of your soldier boys here ok? I don't take orders from you."

Riley took in Buffy's defiant pose and angry expression, and tried to placate her, changing the subject. "Ok, ok. Look about the ball, it's next week on Thursday."

"Thursday?" Riley didn't notice the odd note in Buffy's voice, as he ploughed on.

"Yes. Now, I've arranged for one of my men to pose as your date. I'd do it myself, but I have to keep a close eye on security. This way you'll have backup if you run into Scelus in the crowd."

"I don't need backup from some soldier who'll be absolutely useless against a powerful demon. He'll just get in the way."

"What ball?" Angel had not bothered making a pretence of not listening, and the mention of the scelus caused him to interrupt.

"Some fancy big event the President is attending. Riley thinks that's where the demon is going to strike" Buffy answered. Obviously angry at her for revealing more information to Angel, Riley ignored the interruption.

"Look, I really think you should go with someone. You'll blend in with the crowd much better as part of a couple."

"I'll go." Riley turned at Angel's words, cold anger evident on his features.

"No you won't."

"If this scelus demon is going to be there, then so am I. You can't stop me." Riley looked very much as if he was about to deny that, but Buffy stopped his expected outburst.

"Ok, we have a plan. You said so yourself Riley, you wanted me to have backup - who better to provide it than Angel? He's still a lot stronger than other humans, he can handle himself. And this way, we'll blend in with the crowd, as a couple." While the serious slayer part of Buffy's mind was occupied in developing strategies to overcome the demon, a small part was thrilling at the idea of going out with Angel, even if it was for appearances only.

Riley shook his head in frustration. One look at Buffy's stubborn expression however made him accept the situation. Casting a hate-filled glance in Angel's direction, he moved towards the door of the apartment.

"I'll call someone to come and clean this place up". Looking back towards Buffy, he was surprised to see she hadn't moved. "Are you coming?" She shook her head in response, her gaze darting to Angel who stood impassively watching their discussion. Following the direction of her eyes, Riley paused briefly, before turning on his heel and disappearing without a word.

"Angel wait!" He had started to follow Riley's lead and head for the door, when Buffy's hand on his arm stopped him. Pushing her hand away, he turned to face her, his face not displaying any emotion. Stopping Angel had been purely instinctive on Buffy's part, and she wasn't sure what she wanted to say exactly, except that she had to somehow make things right between them.

"So, about the ball, how are we going to work this?"

"I'll be in touch." Angel turned again to leave, but Buffy stopped him again.

"Angel, look. We're going to have to work together here, to stop this guy. From what you've said, he's one of the worst things we've faced, so we have to work as a team." Angel said nothing, so Buffy continued. "Why are you so mad at me?" He turned away and began to pace around the room. "I don't understand. I know we parted badly, I said some things that ... but still after all these years I don't know why you're so angry, why you didn't tell me you're human." Buffy watched as Angel's movements became increasingly agitated.

"Is it Riley?" Angel snorted with derision at her question, and hope flared in Buffy that this was the source of his behaviour, jealousy. Jealousy that could easily be appeased. "Because you don't need to be jealous of him. We're not a couple, we haven't been for a long time."

Angel laughed - a hollow, terrible laugh. "Riley. Riley Finn. If only he was the problem."

"Well, what is it Angel? I don't understand. We finally have the chance to be together, to be together the way we've always wanted, and you don't tell me! You don't think Riley's the problem, so what is it? What is keeping you away from me?" Buffy was close to tears. All the pain and loneliness that she had felt over the past seven years was exploding within her, surging as she struggled to find the reason for its existence. "Why?" At this word, barely audible as Buffy struggled for control, Angel snapped.

"Because I saw you!" he yelled, his voice anguished.

"Saw me? Angel, I don't understand ..."

"I saw you, I saw you with him!"

"With him? With who? Angel, I told you that Riley and I broke up, we're not going out anymore."

"Not Riley!"

"Well who, Angel I don't understa.."

"I saw you with him! I saw you with Spike!"

'Oh God'.

All that Buffy's mind could process was those two words 'Oh God'. Over and over and over, 'Oh God, oh God, oh God'. She wrapped her arms around herself, and her eyes fell shamefully away from Angel to gaze unseeingly at the threadbare carpet.

The silence stretched out between them. After his explosive revelation, Angel had turned his back on her. He now stood at the other end of the small living space, his forehead and one hand resting against the wall, while the other hand hung by his side clenching and unclenching. And clenching again.

'Oh God, oh God, oh God.' Everything about Angel's behaviour suddenly became hopelessly and painfully clear. No wonder he hadn't told her he was human. No wonder he was so angry. No wonder he couldn't bear to look at her. He had seen ... oh God. Tears threatened to spill down Buffy's cheeks, but she frantically blinked them away.

Slowly lifting her head, Buffy looked over to where Angel was standing, and her face crumpled in further distress when she saw the tension and pain in his posture. 'Oh Angel'. She was suddenly aware of the depths of emotion that he was drawing on. It wasn't jealousy - oh God if only it was jealousy - but it was so much worse, and she had caused it. She had done this to him.

Angel's position called to Buffy's mind their confrontation in the police station six years ago. Her cruel words; she had deliberately thrown her relationship with Riley in his face, lied deliberately to hurt him, wanted him feel the pain that she had felt at his defence of Faith.

Night after night that scene had replayed in her mind, each time causing her to blush shamefully at the memory. What she had shared with Riley was new, that part was true. But it wasn't better. It wasn't more trusting, and it wasn't more loving. It wasn't more truthful, or more passionate than her relationship with Angel. But being the callous bitch that she was - all she wanted in that moment was to cause him pain, to make him feel one tenth of what she felt when she saw Faith in his arms, where she and only she belonged.

For five minutes after Buffy left the police station she had revelled in his anguish and obvious distress, before the pain suddenly struck deep inside. She didn't need to wait five minutes now to feel that pain.

"Angel." The name came out as a croak, so Buffy tried again. "Angel. Oh God Angel I'm so sorry ..."

"Don't!" he whipped around to glare at her, his face a mask of anger. "Don't you dare apologise! Don't you dare apologise to me! You don't have the right!"

"Angel, I'm sorry, it didn't mean anything, I swear!"

"You swear. Oh well then, case closed, you swear, I believe you! You swear." Angel resumed his pacing, before stilling and looking at Buffy. His voice became disturbingly calm and quiet. "Why should I take your word? Huh? Why should I take your word Buffy?" She could do nothing but look at him pleadingly in reply. "Why should I take the word of a selfish, immature little girl whose only thought is for herself?" Angel's voice was calm no longer. "'Always', you said, 'always'! You'd be mine, always! And like a fool I believed you. Tell me Buffy, why should I believe you now, when everything else you've said has been a lie?"

"Don't you dare turn that on me! You were the one who left, Angel. You were the one who turned his back, so don't blame me for doing what you told me to do, for trying to move one!"

"I left you so you could have a normal life, with a normal human being. And though it killed me inside that someone else got to see you smile, someone else shared in your life, listened to your stories and your laughter ..." Angel's voice dropped as his eyes displayed his anguish "... someone else got to kiss you, to feel your soft cheek beneath their fingers, run their hand through your golden hair, someone else got to feel your softness pressed against them, feel your warmth surrounding them completely " he broke off as once again he moved like the proverbially caged tiger "though I felt truly, utterly dead inside, every single day away from you, that's what I wanted for you."

Throughout Angel's speech, Buffy felt what little control she had left threaten to flee. She had always thought that Angel was strong, that his age and experience made it easier for him to walk away and bear it. That because he had found the will to leave, he hadn't felt as deep a love for her as she felt for him. How wrong she had been. Through the anguish of his bittersweet words about laughter and caresses, she could still see his love for her shining strong and pure, if a little battered around the edges. She just had to make things right.

"Angel, it's not what you think, Spike and I, we didn't do anything."

"You didn't do anything?

"No we didn't, Angel ..."

"You didn't do anything" he continued, ignoring her. "Well then, I must not have killed that demon that night. I must not have killed the demon, and then suddenly found myself gasping for breath with blood thundering in my ears. I didn't then go to the Oracles, who didn't tell me that I had earned my redemption. I didn't then immediately jump in my car, and speed recklessly to Sunnydale. I didn't rush from cemetery to cemetery, thinking that yes it was 2am, but you were likely to still be patrolling. I must not have been filled with the anticipation of seeing you, of telling you that we could finally be together, that all the pain and horror had been worth it because now we could have what we'd dreamed of. I was not picturing your sparkling eyes and dreaming of your soft touch. I wasn't out of my new found breath as I hurried to find you so I could kiss you 'til we were both senseless. I wasn't longing to hold you in my arms and make love to you over and over and over."

Buffy was now crying uncontrollably at Angel's words. This was exactly what she had always dreamed of, it had been within her grasp, that magical reunion, but she had ruined it.

"I wasn't dying to tell you how much I loved you. How incredible it felt to be able to tell you that without any guilt or restraint, to love you completely and unconditionally as you deserved. No" Angel laughed softly, a terrible sound " ... no that didn't happen. Because if all that had happened, I would have seen you through the trees, and slowed in my headlong rush, suddenly fraught with nerves. I would have heard voices as I walked closer, and seen you sitting on a headstone, talking with Spike. It would have seemed strange that the two of you were there together, but having heard about his chip, I would have thought it reasonable for Spike to be looking for a little demon action to release his energy. I would have been about to make my presence known when he suddenly stepped towards you, and kissed you. I would have looked on in disbelief, disbelief turning to shock as I realised that you weren't pushing him away, that you were actually returning his kiss. I would have felt my heart break, and wished that I was still a vampire so I could wait for the morning sun and die quickly and easily in its light, which only an instant earlier I had miraculously been looking forward to."

Angel looked directly into Buffy's wet eyes, his own glinting with unshed tears. "No, nothing happened." He turned away, and then sat down in the one chair in the room. Resting his elbows on his thighs, he bowed his head, running his hands through the spiky mass of dark hair. Buffy looked at him sitting there and her heart ached. She longed to go and comfort him, but knew that her touch would only anger him more.

"Angel, nothing happened. It was just a kiss, I didn't sleep with him! You've got to believe me!" His response was somewhat muffled, as he still had his head bent towards the floor.

"Like I said Buffy, why should I believe you now?"

"Because I'm telling you the truth Angel. I'm not lying, and it wasn't a lie before. I meant it, I am your girl, always." Her answer didn't satisfy him. Angel couldn't keep still, and he stood once more.

"Don't you get it? This is ... you understand don't you, why I'm so upset?"

"Angel, there's nothing for you to be upset about! Spike, he was the same as Riley, just a diversion, it meant nothing. Nothing happened."

"It's not the same as Riley!" The sudden violence in Angel's voice made Buffy flinch. "It's not the same! Riley was human, just like the other guy you slept with! Yes, I know about him too. And as much as I hate it, it was what I told you to do, to move on with a human. But Spike, Spike is a vampire! How could you be with a vampire Buffy?"

"Well I hate to point it out Angel, but I seem to recall that you were a little afraid of sunlight and stakes while we were dating."

"That's different. I had a soul! I hated that there was a demon inside of me, the only reason I let myself get close to you was because of my soul. But Spike is a demon. A de-mon. There is no conscience to curb his violence, no guilt to stop him killing, no heart to make him feel true love."

"Spike hasn't killed anybody in years."

"Because of the chip. It is the only thing stopping him, no soul. Do you really think that if he didn't have the chip he would be helping you, that he wouldn't try to kill you? He is not good by choice, it's only by circumstance. He would drain you in an instant if that chip was removed. And he would smile." Buffy could say nothing, as she saw the truth of his words.

"So it makes me wonder. Maybe that was really what you liked about me, huh? Was that it Buffy, you liked the demon?"

"No! Angel, I didn't!"

"Here I was thinking it was the demon that was keeping us apart, but now it seems he was the only thing keeping us together! Or maybe it was the dead body, did that turn you on, did you like that?" Buffy stepped back in disgust.

"Angel, you know that wasn't it!"

"How do I know that Buffy? Maybe I should just leave, so that you and this guy here can have a good time!" Angel was shouting as he gestured to the body on the floor.

"No! How can you say that, Angel it's not true!"

"Well, it must be the demon then! I struggled and struggled to control him, I left so that he couldn't hurt you again, couldn't be free and kill you and your friends. But I seem to be wrong! It was Angelus you loved, not me!"

Angel stormed out of the apartment, and Buffy could only watch him through her tears, as she murmured his name incoherently to the empty room.

January 19

Buffy's fingers played with the dark blue silk that lay across her thighs. Gathering the material into small folds, they then smoothed it out, repeating the action several times. Becoming aware of the mindless fidgeting, she clasped her hands firmly together, before stealing a glance at the man seated beside her.

Angel's profile was unreadable. He gazed forward, his eyes never straying in her direction. The interior of the car was dim - streetlights flashed in at intervals illuminating the smooth planes of his face and emphasising his handsome features. Buffy sighed and looked away. He had not acknowledged her presence beyond a brief glance when she entered the limo. He had remained in this same position ever since, seated as far away from her as the expansive leather upholstery would allow.

It had been over a week since the explosive scene in the dead man's apartment. Over a week and no communication between them, save a brief phone call from Cordelia telling her what time she would be picked up. Angel had not spoken to her, and Buffy ... she sighed again as she gazed out the car window. She had been too afraid.

So many years, so many battles and demons and horrors, but Angel's anger and condemnation were things that she could not face. For ten years now she had been the Slayer. The one girl in all the world, a Chosen One, one born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires. Well, one of two girls. On earning her parole Faith had proved her intent to reform. She was now somewhere in Texas battling that state's demons, and no doubt getting in a few bar fights along the way.

Ten years ... and now what? A few months ago Buffy had been approached by two gentlemen from the Watchers' Council. Surprised and suspicious, she and Giles had listened while the men congratulated Buffy on her long tenure as the slayer. She had served ten years, and could now stand down. This was an unprecedented event; no slayer in recorded history had ever survived this long. Now she was being retired, as the unique circumstances would see another girl called, one who would shoulder the burden of responsibility. Her strength and skill would remain, for nothing could take them away permanently. She would still be able to fight, but it was no longer her sacred duty, and how she lived her life was her decision. The Watchers had left a shell-shocked Buffy sitting on Giles' couch, as they murmured their gratitude for her years of service and offered the Council's regret for its handling of "certain situations".

What now? Since graduating from college, slaying was all that Buffy had focused on. As she watched her friends move on around her and build fulfilling lives, she had buried deep all hopes of a normal one for herself. No regular profession appealed to her, and what full time job would fit in with her unusual hobby of fighting the undead? So Buffy found herself teaching self-defence classes at the local Y part time, supporting herself while she dusted and staked and beheaded the ever-present demon population.

Now the day had arrived. Her birthday. Now she would be free, free to live the life she had dreamed of for the past ten years. Free to live the life of sunshine and no fear, of laughter and love with a tall, dark haired, heartbreakingly handsome man. It was almost as if a miracle had taken place and somehow disposed of the obstacles in their path - her duty and his demon. But her own stupidity had created another, a far worse one that wasn't based on uncontrollable outside forces, but on her own actions. Now she could have the life she had always wanted with Angel - and he couldn't bear to look at her, let alone share a life with her.

The car slowed, and as the driver spoke to a security guard Buffy looked out in detachment at an imposing gateway. The car moved forward again, and the elegantly lit grounds of an extensive estate passed her eyes as they proceeded towards the mansion where the ball was being held. Reaching their destination, the car came to a halt, and the driver and Angel quickly exited the vehicle.

Glancing down to where her hands were once more fidgeting in her lap, Buffy took a deep breath, remaining seated in the car for a little while longer. She had a feeling ... it wasn't the result of a dream or one of Giles' prophecies, but something deep within her told Buffy that tonight would be a turning point. Tonight everything would change, for good or for ill, and she could never go back.

The door next to her opened, breaking her out of her reverie, and Buffy unthinkingly took the proffered hand, gracefully easing herself out of the vehicle. As she stood upright Buffy found herself gazing into Angel's deep brown eyes, her hand clasped in his warm one. 'Oh damn' she thought to herself, as her heart flipped within her chest. Would she ever be able to look at this man without experiencing heart palpitations? Would she ever not want to? But what did it matter what she wanted ... he didn't want her, and he had made it perfectly clear.

Angel was here on business, strictly a professional. When he turned to lead Buffy up the marble stairs to the striking doorway and his arm wrapped around her, his hand curving around her side, that's what she repeated to herself over and over. 'Professional. That's what he is, a professional, acting professionally. Just going about his business. Nothing personal here. Just pretending to be a couple. Professionally. Ok breathe Buffy.'

"Liam and Anne Donnelly" Angel murmured to the security detail at the door, who searched through their extensive lists of guests and checked against their flash cards of most wanted criminals. Buffy found her heart to be involved in even more athletic gymnastics at Angel's words. Husband and wife. If only ... if only she could hear those words and they were true. If only the possessive spark that appeared in Angel's eyes as he caught the barely concealed leer in a security guard's eyes as he ran a hand-held metal detector up and down her body was not just good acting on his part.

Buffy adopted an unconcerned air as Angel took her arm, escorting her into the foyer. At least she hoped she appeared unconcerned, for she felt anything but. Her skin prickled to attention, her blood was pounding, her limbs felt slightly shaky ... damn the man for causing her to react this way! But she couldn't help but feel satisfied at the slight gasp he made behind her as she turned away from him for a moment, removing her wrap and handing it to the attendant. Her dress was very low-backed, and Angel was suddenly presented with an expanse of smooth, golden flesh. When she turned back, however, his expression gave nothing away, in fact he looked remarkably calm. Buffy was forced to wonder if it was merely wishful thinking on her part that Angel would appreciate the sight of her in this dress that she had spent hours searching for.

They moved through the small crowd in the foyer, Angel's warm hand searing the skin on her lower back as he gently guided her towards the ballroom. Pausing in the doorway, they surveyed the glittering mass of people, chattering and laughing over glasses of expensive champagne. A man walking past talking into a two-way radio suddenly reminded Buffy why they were here. To find and kill a bad guy. Good - something to focus on, to distract her overworked hormones. Shaking her head slightly and straightening her shoulders, she murmured under her breath as she stepped into the room.

"Happy birthday Buffy."

As a waiter slipped past, expertly negotiating the bustling crowd with his loaded tray intact, Angel's hand snaked out and snagged two glasses of champagne. Taking a long sip, he gazed at the people in front of them as he held the second glass out to the side in Buffy's direction. Smiling bitterly at his oh-so-gracious gesture, Buffy clutched at the narrow crystal stem, and followed Angel's lead. As she sipped at the tart liquid, her eyes ran over the magnificent house they were in. It could have been straight from one of those old movies, like 'Gone With the Wind' - with glamorous people filling an impossibly luxurious house. Ball gowns and tuxes were scattered around the ground floor, or tripped elegantly up the two grand staircases that hugged opposite walls. Small tête-à-têtes were in evidence along the balcony on the second level, seduction and gossip and deal-making thick in the air.

Buffy did notice one discrepancy with those classic movies - fashion. There were certainly no bustles or boned corsets in evidence tonight - just an abundance of expensive designer one-offs, complemented by shimmering diamonds and the most stylish of accessories. Looking down at her own dress Buffy couldn't help but feel inadequate. She had spent ages pawing through racks of clothes, hoping to find something that would make Angel sit up and more than take notice. The blue silk had a clean line, the front providing a look of demure elegance, falling simply from the high round neck to gently flare around her ankles. However the low-cut back of the sleeveless number gave the garment a sexy edge, revealing a sizeable amount of skin to an interested observer.

Slipping it on earlier in the evening Buffy had smiled at her reflection in the mirror, a spark of confidence igniting inside her. Glancing at the other women present however quickly dampened that spark, as she realised that the price tag, which to her had seemed such an extravagant sum, was a mere pittance to the other guests in their fancy attire. The spark was firmly doused as Buffy watched Angel's eyes follow a tall slender woman, her strapless tight dress seemingly defying gravity as she strutted by. A sudden rush of jealousy compelled her to speak.

"Anna must very understanding, letting you go out like this."

"Hmm?" Angel turned towards her, looking as if he had forgotten she was standing right next to him.

"Anna, your girlfriend? She must be very understanding letting you go out with another woman to a fancy party like this, even if, you know, you're just pretending."

"No, she's not."

"Not what, not understanding?" Angel turned away again to watch the crowd.

"She's not my girlfriend." Buffy stood for a moment in shock, her mouth hanging half open. She clamped it shut again as excitement coursed through her.

"What happened?" she managed to ask. "You certainly seemed very couple-y the few times I've seen you two together.

"She dumped me." Buffy's jaw practically hit the floor.

"I ... I'm sorry." There was some sincerity to Buffy's words, hidden behind - far behind - the exultation.

"Don't be. We'd only known each other for three weeks." 'And the shock's keep on coming.'

"So, why did she break up with you?" Angel's eyes flicked over Buffy before returning to the colourful mass of bodies.

"She caught me with another woman, and I wouldn't deny that I had feelings for this other woman, so she dumped me." Buffy had thought she was shocked when she found out someone had been stupid enough to let Angel get away (or rather, a stupid someone other than herself). But to discover that Angel had changed so much that he would cheat on a girlfriend that he had only been seeing for a few weeks (and from the way he had touched her, Buffy jealously presumed that they were a very intimate three weeks), well now she felt the need to redefine the word shock. Perhaps gob-smacked would be a more accurate description of the way she was feeling.

Taking a swig of champagne, she stood beside Angel, both of them staring straight ahead out into the sea of guests, silently working through their glasses. 'Angel's not dating Anna anymore! But she dumped him because he was unfaithful ... but Angel's single now! And human ... but he has feelings for this other 'other' woman ... wow he looks great in that suit, god he's sexy.' Draining her glass, Buffy tried to calm herself - thoughts were whirling through her mind, none staying in focus for more than a moment. Staring blindly at the glass, she twirled it idly with her fingers, her mind far from the mission that brought her to this ball.

"I'm going to the bar." Angel took the empty glass from her startled hand, and left Buffy gazing after him as he made his way towards the other end of the room. Even amongst this gathering of the 'elite', which had far more than its fair share of good looks, intelligence and influence, Angel still stood out from the crowd. Not in a flashy 'hey hey look at me' kind of way, but there was a certain quiet charisma attached to him. And though human now, he still carried himself as he had when Buffy knew him in Sunnydale - with a feline grace that was both attractive and deadly. Losing herself in dreamy contemplation of the ex-vampire, Buffy didn't hear her name when it was first said.

"Buffy! Hello, earth to Buffy!"

"Wha .. oh, hi Riley."

"Hey. You look lovely this evening Buffy." Riley was dressed in a simple, standard issue suit and tie. An earpiece was evident on close inspection, and the bulge at his waist beneath the unbuttoned suit jacket suggested the presence of a weapon or radio. Blushing lightly at his compliment, Buffy couldn't help but feel her aching heart warm just a little. Even though the words were coming from the wrong man, it was still nice to be appreciated.

"Thank you Riley. You too, look very ... nice."

"Hmm, not too 'Secret Agent Guy'?" he replied, looking down at his ensemble.

"No, not at all. But I'm sure that if you came with exploding mission tapes, terrorists sold separately, well you'd be a hit with the kids!" Laughing gently at Buffy's joke, Riley took one of her hands in his.

"Dance with me?"

"Riley, I don't kno..."

"Come on, it's just a dance. And besides, I'm undercover here; you've got to help me blend in so I can catch the bad guy. Your country needs you!"

Smiling weakly, Buffy began to shake her head in denial when something across the room caught her eye. Angel had found the bar, and the champagne, which he was now sharing with the woman he had been admiring earlier - the one with the gravity defying dress. Watching the woman's open flirtation made Buffy's jaw clench. Watching her trail her hand seductively up Angel's arm made Buffy turn back to Riley with an unusually bright smile.

"I think I may have a space free on my dance card," she answered, boldly leading Riley onto the dance floor, where a host of other couples were already swaying to the music. Turning so that her back was to the bar, and it's unpleasant sight, Buffy struggled to keep her composure intact as Riley pulled her towards him, one hand resting on her waist. 'Ok, gotta forget about Angel. Gotta forget about Angel and that bitch at the bar. Gotta forget that he's supposed to be here with me, when in actual fact he's off with some slut, leaving me here with Riley. Who is very sweet. And kind, and good. And is looking at me in the way he used to when we were going out ...'

"So Riley. Any sign of the big bad yet?"

"Hmm? Oh, well we've had word that he's on the premises, but as for his identity, he could be you for all I know. But I've got men both inside and out, patrolling the perimeter, undercover as waiters and guests, heavy security at the gates and on the doors - so we will catch him. Have you come across anyone suspicious?"

"Me? No, no one yet." Buffy blushed uneasily as she calculated how little thought she had actually devoted to the problem. Angel had held her attention the entire time she had been here, instead of the demon, which was the whole reason they had come.

"Have I ever told you how cute you are when you blush?" Startled, Buffy looked up into Riley's face, to find him staring at her intently.

"I do recall you saying something along those lines before".

"Well it's true. You're so beautiful Buffy." Feeling awkward with the new direction of the conversation, Buffy shifted under his gaze. While being with Riley was comfortable, and safe, and familiar, it didn't have that certain something - at least for Buffy it didn't - that she needed to make the relationship long term. Which was why they'd broken up in the first place. She'd wanted something more than solid contentment - she'd wanted passionate love and joyous happiness - the kind she'd known with Angel. That she wanted with Angel. That she couldn't have with Angel. Damn Angel.

"I miss you, you know." Buffy still made no reply, focusing her attention on Riley's tie rather than his earnest face. Maybe she should just go with it, maybe it was finally time to give up her foolish dreams. Riley was here, and he wanted her, and he would be good to her. Maybe it was time for her to grow up, and accept that you can't always get what you want - you just have to take what you're given, and be satisfied.

"These last few years apart - I've never forgotten you Buffy, how amazing and special you are. And it's something I'll never forget." 'Never forget, never forget, never forget". The two words reverberated through Buffy's mind, as she struggled to remember where she had heard them before. Something to do with Angel and sunlight and ...

"Do you mind if I cut in?" Buffy looked up to see Angel standing at Riley's shoulder. Turning to face the newcomer, Riley's face tightened with anger and dislike.

"Well, actually I d..."

"Good" Angel continued, smoothly extracting a silent Buffy from Riley's embrace and drawing her into his own. "Because we wouldn't want anyone to be suspicious. Wouldn't want anyone to know why my 'wife' is dancing with a security guard when she should be dancing with her 'husband'." And with that pointed comment, Angel moved away from the simmering agent, pulling Buffy with him. She glanced apologetically back at Riley, before turning angry eyes to her new dance partner.

"Do you mind? I was actually having a very pleasant conversation with a very good friend, before you rudely interrupted."

"We've got to keep up appearances."

"Oh, right. This from the 'husband' who left his 'wife' to fend for herself, while he went to pick up another woman at the bar. Besides, keeping up appearances for whom? We haven't seen anyone here that we know."

"We might not know them, but like it or not we both have a reputation in the demon community, and they might know us."

"Well, maybe we should split up - it will make us more recognisable if we are here together." Angel said nothing in reply, but simply drew Buffy closer to him as the music slowed its tempo. Suddenly aware of their proximity, all the fight - and air - left Buffy's body as her senses kicked into overdrive. Angel held one of her hands clasped in his large one, the two of them braced on his chest directly above his heart. Her other hand had slipped down from its place on Angel's shoulder, and her forearm was now pressed against his warm torso, wedged between their two bodies. As they moved gently to the slow music, their bodies rubbed against one another, creating a delicious, swirling heat.

Taking a deep breath, Buffy observed that if she tilted her head just so ... it would be resting comfortably, perfectly, against Angel's firm chest. And if she closed her eyes like so ... she could cut off the outside world, and simply be surrounded by Angel's heady scent, and the warmth of his arms. He would be able to rest his cheek against her hair ... like that ... and his warm breath would send shivers running down her spine. And as they moved together everything was right with the world, everything was in harmony; there was nothing that could go wro...

The loud strains of 'Hail to the Chief' shook Buffy out of her warm haven, drawing her attention to the man striding into the room. Surrounded by several men in dark suits, he smiled broadly and waved grandly as he stepped up onto a raised platform at one end of the room. Angel dropped Buffy's hand as she pivoted to watch the spectacle, but she was pleased when she noted that his other arm had not dropped from her waist, in fact it had drawn tighter, now holding her close so her back was flush with Angel's chest.

Unable to concentrate on the carefully manufactured speech, Buffy's gaze trailed idly across the room, lingering on a tall woman, a swift waiter, the curve of an elaborate banister, a large man. As she shivering involuntarily, Angel ducked his head until his mouth was level with Buffy's ear.

"What is it?" he whispered.

"Nothing" Buffy murmured, shaking her head slightly. "It's just something about that guy gives me the creeps."

"Which guy?"

"That one up there on the second floor. See him? To the right of that woman in that horrible pink dress. He's bald, big and bald ... see him?" Angel swore under his breath in reply.

"What, Angel?" Buffy turned to him anxiously, able to feel his body tensing.

"I should have known," he whispered. "John Maligo - that's what that demon was trying to tell us. The scelus' human persona is John Maligo. He was one of Wolfram and Hart's more prominent clients before they were disbanded. I always had my suspicions about him, but there was never anything definite."

"So that's the guy." Buffy stared up at the man, whose gaze was trained firmly on the President as he gave his rousing address. A chill ran through her again, as her Slayer senses picked up the negative vibes emanating from his direction.

Dropping his arm from her waist, Angel took Buffy's hand and wove slowly through the crowd towards the foot of the staircase. Pausing on the bottom step, they looked around briefly at the other guests - but all eyes were on the speaker; their movements did not seem to have attracted any unwanted attention.

Turning to look at Angel, Buffy found his eyes locked on her face, the expression in their brown depths unreadable. Still for a moment, they turned simultaneously towards the carpeted stairs, and began to climb.

Clutching Angel's hand tightly in hers, Buffy slowly took each step as they rose to the second level of the magnificent house. Her heart was pounding madly - in some part due to the heat seeping through Angel's fingers - but largely due to the fear that had blossomed in her belly. Since arriving, just about all of Buffy's senses and thoughts had been focused on a certain tall, dark and handsome fellow, not aware of other beings or concerns. Now though, as they approached the demon, she shivered involuntarily - the cold it projected putting all her Slayer senses on high alert.

Reaching the top of the stairs, Buffy and Angel paused once more, their hands falling to their respective sides as they became all business. Glancing briefly at each other, they nodded their heads almost imperceptibly, knowing without verbal communication just what to do. Starting forward again, the two warriors moved behind the clumps of people who were gathered at the railing, leaning over to watch the spectacle below. Scanning the small groups, Buffy and Angel both located the demon immediately, altering their course to move in its direction.

Standing tall amongst the other guests, there was something unsettling about the 'man', even to those without supernatural know-how - as evidenced by the unoccupied space around him. Heavily built, bald, and with a penchant for gold jewellery, he looked like he'd just walked straight off the set of a mafia movie. Going by the stereotype, he'd be called 'Johnny' or 'Mikey', and would act as a heavy for one of the local crime bosses. His brawn and bravado would see him survive half the film, but his thick wits ensured he would fall prey to a surprise ambush by a rival mob.

While he obviously possessed all the muscle of the stereotype, the eyes that John Maligo turned on Buffy and Angel as they approached did not ring true. Instead of dim comprehension, they shone with cold, clever evil, enhanced slightly with some angry violence.

The combatants locked eyes and stood still as a roar of applause broke around them. The President had concluded his speech, and now the party-goers left their viewing stations, heading for the bar or dance floor and mingling with new faces. As the crowd swirled around them, Buffy and Angel stared hard at the demon, their bodies tense and racing with adrenaline. The scelus leant back against the railing, crossing its arms and adopting a casual air. As it watched the stern couple watching it, one corner of its mouth lifted in amusement. The smirk soon transformed into an appreciative leer as its gaze lingered on Buffy's body.

Choking with revulsion and disgust as she practically felt the demon's eyes on her flesh as if it were touching her, Buffy was startled by a low, angry snarl beside her. Almost as threateningly impressive as his undead days, Angel's face twisted in hate, his muscles bunching and his fists clenching. There would be no more watching and waiting.

Sensing the pair's strengthened resolve, the scelus straightened and slowly began to walk away, keeping an eye on its would-be attackers over one shoulder. Buffy and Angel could do nothing but follow - they certainly couldn't make a scene by jumping on and attempting to kill a demon in the middle of the function, and there was a strong possibility that an innocent onlooker could be injured. So they followed, content to wait until they reached a more private place to get down to the dirty business of fighting.

The demon wove its way through the guests, sidestepping waiters and guests as it kept tantalisingly out of reach from its pursuers. Trying to maintain visual contact with the surprisingly agile demon, Angel and Buffy's efforts were frustrated when a laughing mob strayed across their path. The few precious seconds it took to negotiate this obstacle was all it took for the scelus to disappear from view, and once again Angel growled in frustration as they scrambled to follow. Finally free of the hindering guests the pair gave chase, ducking down a corridor that the demon had vanished into moments earlier. Holding onto the hem of her long skirt, Buffy managed to keep abreast of Angel with his long strides, in spite of the high heels that she was now regretting wearing. As they raced down the hallway, slowing only to stick their heads into empty rooms and check for their prey, Riley appeared behind them.

"What's happening?" Angel spared no time or words on the agent, and continued his search of the long corridor.

"We found your demon" Buffy replied, before hurrying to catch up to the ex-demon. Something in a room at the end of the hall caught his eye and he quickly entered, with Buffy and Riley appearing moments later. Finding themselves in a very luxurious sitting room, Angel motioned to the other two to be quiet as he crept towards a set of imposing French doors, which were standing open to reveal a small balcony beyond. A light breeze was playing with the filmy curtains in the doorway, and Angel stretched out a hand, slowly pulling one back as he slipped outside. Apparently satisfied that the coast was clear, he turned back to the room when a large shadow appeared beside him, wrapping its arms around his neck. Grappling with his attacker, Angel lost his footing on the balcony's smooth tiles, and before Buffy could even move he had fallen over the railing, taking the demon with him.

"No! Angel!" Uttering a heart-wrenching cry, Buffy raced to the edge of the balcony and only spent a moment surveying the scene before flipping over the railing to the ground below. Hitting the smooth grass of the immaculately tended estate, Buffy dimly registered Riley's voice somewhere above her, as he yelled into his radio. The sound faded, as he presumably moved back into the house, looking for a safer way to travel the several metres to the ground.

Leaping to her feet, Buffy was distracted by a ripping sound. Looking down, she saw a huge tear in her dress, caused by one of her heels. Wasting no time, she ripped off the bottom part of the dress in seconds, and then seized the wicked looking knife that now could clearly be seen strapped to the inside of her leg.

Armed and ready, Buffy's eyes filled with horror as she saw the scelus metres away, standing over a motionless Angel. Springing into action she raced towards it, leaping to tackle it and send it tumbling away from the body on the ground. Jumping straight up again, Buffy launched a series of bruising kicks in the demon's direction, the scelus easily avoiding her blows. It laughed as she lunged at it with the knife, before sending Buffy flying with one sweep of its arm, the knife falling out of her grasp. Reeling from the immense power behind the punch, she was relieved to see Riley and a security detail race around the corner of the house.

"Get Angel! Check on Angel!" she yelled in their direction, before returning her attention to the demon. Riley directed two of his men to tend to the injured man, while the rest of the outfit flanked Buffy. Whipping guns out of holsters, they raised their weapons and opened fire.

Lights flashed, and gunshots rang out, and yet the demon still stood, laughing heartily at their attempts to stop him. Buffy and Riley's team stared as the creature began to transform in front of them. Not just donning a demonic visage like its vampiric brethren (though it had one of those too), the whole body of the scelus seemed to change, what skin that was visible toughening into a thick green hide.

Two of the agents ran forward, attempting hand-to-hand combat with the demon. However it easily disposed of them, slamming them head first into the ground where they lay still. As the other members of the security team stepped forward to fight, Buffy screamed at them to stop, but to no avail. Yelling to Riley to pull his team out, she leapt into the fray, distracting the demon from its task of snapping a man's neck. On Riley's orders the agents backed out of the firing line, dragging their wounded with them before disappearing in search of medical attention and back up.

Buffy now had the demon's full attention again, and she circled it like a boxer, seeking its weak points. It was broad and muscly, yet despite its bulk it was very quick on its feet, easily avoiding the punches that Buffy darted in its direction. As she traded blows with the beast, Buffy caught sight of Riley creeping up behind it, attempting to attack it from behind. She knew that he would be no match for the scelus, especially without any effective weapons.

"Riley, watch out ..." her warning came too late, as the demon pivoted and delivered a punishing blow to the former commando. He fell to the ground unconscious like his teammates, and the scelus turned back to face the Slayer.

"All alone at last."

"Just the way I like it" Buffy replied, before attacking with renewed vigour. Punch, duck, twist, kick, punch again, slap - she was getting tired. Buffy was pulling out all the stops, but nothing seemed to affect the demon. Her most powerful blows seemed to bounce off it, while she was quickly become bruised and bloody. Gathering her strength she leapt in the air, hoping to deliver a powerful kick to its head. However it anticipated her move, and twisting to the side it used her own momentum against her and tossing her at a nearby tree trunk.

Slamming into the tree and then the ground, it took some moments for Buffy to open her eyes, her head spinning from the force of the impact. Rubbing her forehead she opened her eyes, and focused just in time to see the scelus standing over her, his fist descending for the final blow. Shaken and disoriented, Buffy could do nothing but squeeze her eyes tight and wait for the end - which came in the form of a large warm body falling across her. Shocked back into her sense, Buffy's eyes snapped wide open, to see Angel sprawled above her, his face tight with pain as the demon's blows rained on his back.

"No!" Suddenly finding her tired body brimming with energy, Buffy rolled Angel away from the demon's attack, before leaping to her feet once more.

"Nobody gets away with hitting Angel!" As the scelus stalked towards her, Buffy scanned the ground searching for her knife that she had lost earlier. Despairing to see that the demon stood between her and the weapon, Buffy held her ground as her foe approached, waiting until the last moment when it swung at her, before dropping to the ground and rolling past it to her knife. As it turned to follow her, momentarily off guard, Buffy lunged upwards, driving the knife into the demon's heart with all the force she could muster. For a few moments it just stood still and smiled at her, and Buffy was afraid, not having any more weapons to attack it with. But then it toppled to the ground, its form holding briefly before collapsing in on itself, leaving nothing but the knife to mark the spot.

Closing her eyes momentarily, Buffy sighed in relief. Her shoulders sagged and she suddenly felt very very tired. Bending down, she spent a few moments surveying what was left of her opponent, before gathering her knife and rising to her feet.

"Buffy!" Spinning around, Buffy saw Riley stand tall and walk towards her, his only blemish a bruise from the blow that had rendered him unconscious. Coming to stand in front of her, he looked down into her face, his handsome, kind features expressing concern.

"Buffy." Turning again she saw that Angel had also risen, and stood watching her from a few metres away. His clothing was rumpled and dirty, his cheek displaying a nasty gash that he received in the fall. No longer filled with swagger and pride, Angel looked beaten, his posture slumped and his eyes sad and pleading.

Standing silently, Buffy felt a strange feeling wash through her. She sensed that this was a momentous occasion; this was one of those events that changed the course of your whole life. She'd had that feeling the day she was Called, a strange discomfort, knowing that something big was going to happen, but not knowing what it was. When she'd stood in front of Acathla, and seen the open vortex over Angel's shoulder, she'd faced a moment like this one now. A moment where a choice had to be made. A choice that there would be no going back from, no changing. Now the choice was not between her love and the world - it was just about her love. About two men. Riley and Angel. About comfort and passion, and safety and pain, and contentment and ecstasy.

Buffy turned to Riley.

"Riley." Buffy looked up into the former commando's face as it broke into a wide, warm smile.

"Buffy", he said in reply, his voice expressing relief and happiness as he clasped his hands on her upper arms.

"Riley, I ..." the sound of movement behind her caught Buffy's attention. She turned slightly to see Angel walking away, his shoulders hanging in defeat. The scene called to mind her graduation, and the heartbreak she had felt seeing Angel disappear into the smoky night. Well, she wasn't going to let him disappear again.

"Riley, you're such a good man, you deserve real happiness - but I can't give that to you. I'm sorry."

"What?" Riley's voice took on a desperate note. "But Buffy you can! These last few years after we broke up, I've regretted letting you go every day. I know we can make it work! I love you Buffy, you can make me happy." Buffy smiled sadly, her expression affectionate but firm.

"But you can't make me happy. I'm sorry Riley, there's only one person who can, and I can't let him get away again. Goodbye Riley." And with a quick kiss to his cheek, Buffy turned and ran, leaving Riley staring after her.

"Angel!" The former vampire had already covered a lot of ground when Buffy began to chase after him. He didn't turn around or acknowledge her call, he just kept walking, disappearing from view around the corner of the house.

"Angel!" Buffy raced after him, ignoring the agents who rushed past in the opposite direction. Rounding the corner - her heart pounding and her muscles twitching with nerves - Buffy spotted Angel making his way towards the exit, heading past the countless limos parked beside the elegant gravel drive. Putting on a burst of speed, she caught up to him, grabbing his arm and spinning him around to look at her.

"Angel" she panted, gazing into his face. As she stood in front of him, heart pounding and lungs heaving, Buffy searched her mind for a way to express the countless things she needed to say. Angel stared back at her with sad, stoic eyes.

"Buffy, he's a good man ..." The slayer shook her head, even as he continued to speak. "... I'm sure that the two of you will be very happy." Buffy continued to shake her head, still unable to find her voice as Angel's eyes fell away from hers and he sighed.

"I'll always remember you Buffy, but I think that it's time to say goodby ..." Before he could finish that fatal word Angel was silenced by a pair of warm lips. Buffy clutched at Angel's head as she kissed him ferociously, partly to keep him close and partly for support - for the moment she kissed him her knees buckled, as the sheer joy of being close to him again rushed through her. Angel's arms slid around her, pulling Buffy tight against his body as the kiss deepened and tears slid down her cheeks.

Reeling, Buffy was forced to pull away so that she could breathe and try to regain her senses that were currently turned to overload. She was stunned to see Angel's deep eyes welling with tears, and as he opened his mouth to speak, she hushed him by placing her hand over his lips.

"No, don't say that. Don't ever say that. I won't let you say that. It's not over between us, it will never be over. Angel, I love you." Angel shook Buffy's hand away and tried to speak. "No, just let me finish, I've waited a long time to say this. I need to tell you this." Buffy stared up at Angel, her eyes shining brightly with emotion.

"I love you so much, I never stopped. When you left everything fell apart, and I didn't know anything anymore. I made some stupid, really stupid mistakes, and I didn't know who I was. Then Riley came along." Angel stiffened and turned his face away. Buffy reached a hand up to cup his cheek, gently turning him back to look at her.

"Just listen ... Riley came along, and he was nice ... but that was all. Just nice. I didn't really feel anything for him, but seeing you at Thanksgiving, even if it was just for five minutes ..." both Buffy and Angel swallowed convulsively, but for different reasons " ... it just hurt so much, reminding me of what I couldn't have! So then I threw myself into the life that you wanted for me, that normal life. Ok, Riley wasn't exactly your average Joe, but he was a close as I could get with the slayage and all, so I went out with him. And I liked him. And I loved him ..." Angel's face creased with pain ".. but never the way I loved, the way I still and always will love you. Riley is good and sweet, and he made me feel loved when I really needed it. He was comfortable and safe and could give me that normal life that you insisted I have ..." Angel interrupted.

"Buffy you deserve to have a normal life without any pain ..."

"Angel, I tried normal on for size, and it didn't fit. And anyway, - I deserve 'normal'? Why should I settle for normal? Why should I put up with normal, and average, and routine, and standard when I could have extraordinary, unique and amazing? And that's what you are Angel, all those wonderful things, and you make me feel special. I want the fire and the passion that you make me feel, just by being near. I want you Angel!" To emphasize her speech Buffy clung to Angel, kissing him desperately as she tried to show him in deed as well as in word. But there was still more she needed to say, and she broke away from Angel's intoxicating mouth before she got to distracted.

"And Angel, I know I was a complete bitch to you over the whole Faith thing. You've got no idea how much I regret the lies I told that day, about not knowing you, not trusting you. And I know that you have every right to hate me, I know that there's someone else ..." Angel's brow was furrowed as he took in Buffy's plea.

"Someone else?"

"You know, the other woman that Anna caught you with, the one you said you had feelings for - but Angel, if you will just give me a chance I'll make you forget about her, I'll make you fall in love with me again."

"Buffy." Angel raised his hands, and gently trailed his fingers over her wet cheeks. "You can't make me forget about her, and I can't fall back in love with you ..."

"Angel," Buffy sobbed broken-heartedly.

"... because I never stopped loving you." Angel sighed, as Buffy's speech had forced him to lower barriers and admit feelings that he had denied for so long. "You were the other woman. After Anna saw us together in my apartment - after you were hurt battling the demons - she could tell that I cared about you. And I couldn't deny it. I tried, I denied it for so many years, but seeing you again ... I love you Buffy."

Buffy began to cry even harder, as joy surged through her at those words. Her eyes fell shut with relief, and her mouth lifted in a smile before it was captured by Angel's. As their lips and tongues feverishly embraced, their arms did the same. Buffy had one hand entwined in Angel's hair, holding his head close to hers as the other danced over his well-muscled back. Angel's arms clasped them firmly together, his hands setting afire the skin of her bare back.

As they continued to press against one another, desperate for as much contact as possible, Buffy became aware of Angel's body stirring at their closeness. Pulling their mouths apart only far enough to breathe, Angel rested his forehead against Buffy's, both smiling widely as they panted, unable to contain their delight.

"Maybe we should ..." After another passionate, mind-blowing kiss, Buffy finished Angel's sentence.

"Go?" After observing the sexy grin that passed over Angel's face, she could do nothing but submit willingly as he kissed her again, ravaging her mouth with his tongue. Angel then wrapped his arm around Buffy's waist and led her back towards the house where their limo waited. Their sides pressed close, Buffy pouted and only reluctantly let her grip on Angel go as he hurried to find the driver. He returned a short time later, the driver in tow and Buffy's wrap clutched in his hand. As they walked towards the car, Buffy was pleased as Angel gently placed the material around her shoulders.

"Thank you" she offered, with a warm smile. "I didn't think you'd even noticed what I was wearing." Angel handed her into the vehicle, sliding in after her.

"How could I not notice? You look beautiful Buffy," Angel replied as gently trailing a finger along the neckline of the garment. At his feathery touch Buffy shivered, suddenly having a little difficulty breathing. "When you got into the car tonight it was all I could do to keep from touching you. And when you took the wrap off ..." Angel shook his head "... it's a good thing I have almost a century of experience in the field of self control." Buffy's battered heart swelled at these words, and her confidence soared.

"Well what about that other woman, in the barely-there dress you were staring at. Don't deny it," she teased, "I saw you at the bar, she was all over you, the little hussy."

"I don't remember her." At Buffy's scoff, Angel continued. "When I was at the bar, all I was thinking about that you were dancing with Riley, his arms were around you instead of mine." As if to prove his point, Angel draped one arm around her shoulder, drawing her firmly against him. Smiling in satisfaction Buffy gazed into his eyes, unable to believe that after so many years of pain and heartache they were finally together again. Moonlight and streetlamps intermittently illuminated the interior of the car, Angel's skin gleaming palely in the light. Running her fingers along his jaw line, Buffy frowned slightly.

"How long have you been human?"

"Two and a half years." Buffy winced at the thought of all that time wasted, but pressed on.

"You've been alive for over two years - Angel why are you still so pale? After so long I thought you'd be dying to tempt skin cancer and do a little sun baking. Clasping her hand in his, Angel replied in a soft voice.

"Because the sun meant nothing to me if it wasn't shining down on you." Tears again welled in Buffy's eyes as her heart swelled almost painfully in her chest. Overcome, she buried her head against Angel's shoulder and sobbed, crying even harder as Angel maneuvered her into his lap, hugging her close. They sat that way for a long time, holding each other as years of pain and anguish were cathartically released, and soothed by the embrace of the other. Buffy's heaving shoulders quieted, and her fingers played with the buttons of Angel's shirt as she collected herself. Lifting her head once more she found Angel's eyes trained on hers, the intensity of his gaze making her tingle.

Already close together, Buffy eased even closer, bringing her lips up to press against Angel's in an achingly slow, incredibly soft kiss. Her hands roamed over his chest, delighting in the warmth beneath her palms. One of Angel's hands was involved in similar motions on her own back, while the other entangled itself in her golden hair. The kiss deepened, and they both became lost in the feel of each other, occupying themselves in a passionate embrace for the rest of the ride back to Angel's apartment. As they neared their destination Buffy pulled away, knowing that the air between them had not been completely cleared. And she needed that, she needed to know that there would be nothing to come between them ever again.

As the car turned the last corner and slowly covered the last few metres, Buffy took a deep breath and hoped that they could make it through the coming conversation, emerging together on the other side. They had to.

"Angel ... about Spike ..." At those words Angel's gaze hardened, and he pushed Buffy from his lap. Seeing the car had pulled up, he leapt from the vehicle and stormed into the building, leaving a stunned Buffy behind him. She had expected him to react badly, but after what they had just shared she had hoped ... obviously the pain ran deeper than she thought. Clambering from the limo Buffy chased after him, calling his name as she ran. Closing the door to the offices behind her, she paused for a moment and prayed that Angel would listen to what she had to say.

Having shed his jacket Angel was pacing the floor like a caged tiger, and as she walked down the steps he stalked into the kitchen. Coming up behind him Buffy watched as he took a glass down from the shelves and filled it at the sink. Drinking it all in one quick go he slammed the glass back down, before bracing himself against the sink. As she stared at Angel sadly, Buffy could only despise herself as she saw the pain that she had inflicted expressed in his taut muscles and defensive stance.

"What I said in the dead guy's apartment was true Angel, nothing happened with Spike."

"You can't deny it Buffy," he said, still not turning, his tone anguished. "I saw you with him."

"Angel what you saw were some of the stupidest few seconds of my life, but that's all it was, a few seconds." She moved closer, slowly, wanting to offer physical comfort and reassurance, but scared to get too close in case he bolted.

"After Riley, there wasn't anyone else. I went on a couple of dates, but nothing ever happened. Nobody touched me, nobody touched my body or my heart. And while I didn't want to be with anybody, I guess I was lonely. The gang were all doing their own thing and ... I don't know" Buffy shrugged and went to stand next to Angel, leaning back against the sink. "Spike had started patrolling with me every now and then - I guess kicking some vamp ass was better than kicking no ass at all. And he can be so bloody annoying, but he's Spike you know? You can't help but like him sometimes. But still, I felt nothing for him, at least not in that way. After Riley I completely shut myself off from that. Spike caught me totally off guard when he kissed me." Angel made to move away, but Buffy gently placed a restraining hand on his arm, and he allowed her to turn him to face her.

"For the first couple of seconds I was in shock, and then, well yes I did start to kiss him back. But Angel ..." Buffy once again had to hold him to his position. "Look at me Angel." When he didn't obey, she asked again, and he reluctantly lifted his brown eyes to her hazel. "Angel, I only responded for a moment. You mustn't have hung around long because you would have seen me push him away. So hard in fact that he ended up with a big bruise despite the super duper healing. And it never happened again. It was never about Spike or the demon ... you know I hated Angelus, not so much for what he did to me, but for the pain and guilt he put you through." Buffy trailed her hand along Angel's cheek, her gaze dropping to his mouth as she softly continued.

"The only reason I kissed him back was because I thought it was you." Angel started with surprise, but Buffy persisted. "I know it sounds stupid. I mean, I knew in my heart, in my soul that it was Spike, but for a moment my mind was fooled - because his lips were so cold." She slowly traced the outline of his mouth with a fingertip, and Angel stood completely motionless under her caress.

"You were the only one who had ever kissed me that way, with icy lips that could make me feel so hot ... not that Spike made me feel that way, but I guess I wanted to believe, if only for a moment. Angel, nothing happened I swear ..."

"I believe you."

"And I know I have to win back your trust, but ... what? You what?"

"I believe you Buffy." Disbelieving, Buffy gazed up at him, but could see nothing but love shining back at her as Angel lowered his head to kiss her. Still for a moment, she then returned the kiss whole-heartedly, sliding her hand up Angel's back and pressing herself to him. Buffy marveled at Angel's warmth as she lost herself in his embrace. His rapid heartbeat reverberated through her body which was in such close contact to his, and his hot breath teased her sensitive skin as he began to trail kisses along her jaw-line.

"So, human, huh?" Buffy breathed, hardly daring to believe what was so obvious, now that she was so close to happiness. "That's working well for you?"

"It is now." Buffy's mind was fuzzy as Angel's mouth moved its attentions to her neck.

"What you still haven't ... mmm ... discovered pizza, or gone to the ... ooh ... gone to the beach, or found out how much easy it is to do your hair when you have a reflection?" Angel pulled back, his mood instantly somber.

"Humanity was everything I'd dreamed of, but ... you weren't there to share it with."

"And the curse?" Buffy was slightly embarrassed bringing up such a long taboo topic. "I mean, obviously its not there because of Anna ... I mean that you and she ... well, it's totally ok that you would ... because after so long without I'm sure that ..."

"The curse is gone" Angel gently interrupted. "But nothing happened with Anna." Buffy couldn't help the smile that spread across her face.

"Nothing happened?" In reply Angel kissed her, silencing her briefly.

"And all the others?" At Angel's confused look, Buffy was forced to continue. "Cordelia told me about the parade of women through this place, and that's totally fine. You were human again, and I'm sure that you were looking for companionship and ..."

"Buffy, I haven't made love to anyone since you. Even if the curse was still there, it wouldn't matter. True happiness ... I couldn't reach that if I didn't have you." Buffy smiled, her heart swelling once more.

"And now you do. Always." At her pledge Angel enveloped Buffy in his embrace, burying his head in the crook of her neck, overcome by emotion. After standing that way for some time Angel pulled back once more to look at Buffy, smiling that half smile that made her knees wobble every time.

"And you have me. I guess that is if you want me ... an ex-vampire given to brooding and sitting in dark corners - it's not much of a match for a slayer."

"Oh, I don't know, I'd say it's pretty much a perfect match for an ex-slayer who has a thing for brooding ex-vampires." Angel was startled.


"Yeah, retired if you can believe it. Apparently if a slayer was ever to reach her twenty-fifth birthday, another girl would be called. I can still fight if I want, but I don't have to. It's never happened before - you'd think I'd get a plaque or a gold watch or something, but nothing."

"Never happened until today. Happy Birthday Buffy."

"You remember?"

"How could I forget?" Both were silent as memories of her seventeenth birthday flashed through their minds.

"So what are you going to do now?" Angel distracted Buffy from her pleasant and painful memories. Though absolutely sure of what she wanted, Buffy was still a little unsure about Angel's thoughts.

"Well, it's up to you."

"Well, maybe you could change careers, become a professional lawn bowler or work for the tax office. Or you could take up a hobby like ... stamp collecting ..." Angel suddenly abandoned his playful mood "... or you could marry me as soon as humanly possible, become a partner in the business as well as my life, have a bundle of children and life in perfect happiness forever."

"Hmm, lawn bowls - is there a course I can take in that?" At Angel's impatient growl Buffy laughed, and answered him the best way she knew how - with a deep kiss affirming their love and commitment. Arching into his warm body, Buffy clutched at Angel's shoulders as his kiss practically made her swoon. Holding her tight in return, one hand fixed to the small of her back, Angel ran the other hand through her hair - his actions both tender and passionate. Pressing themselves as close together as they could, the embrace soon overloaded both their senses as they became hopelessly aroused.

"Maybe ... mmm ... we can ... yesss ... start a new tradition here ..." Buffy murmured between kisses. Reluctantly abandoning his task of caressing her neck with his hand and teasing it with his lips, Angel looked at Buffy quizzically.

"Well, after all the demons galore of my birthdays for the past eight or so years, maybe now we should find something else for me to remember my birthdays by." Buffy pressed her lower body firmly against Angel's arousal, gazing at him from under her lashes.

"Wouldn't we be just renewing the tradition?" Angel replied, referring to the night of Angelus' return.

"How about we start a new one along the same lines ... just without the gut-wrenching postscript." Glancing at a clock on a nearby table, Angel smiled. Lifting Buffy up so that her feet dangled above the floor, he began to wend his way towards the bedroom.

"Well, we've only got about seven minutes left to start this tradition, so we better get moving."