"It's not like I was trying to break its neck!" Angel protested, glaring sullenly at them all gathered around his desk.
"It just... what... fell into your chokehold?" Gunn asked skeptically.
"What was it doing in my office?" he argued. "With a very large sword!"
"The sword was a ceremonial gift for you, since the Brunaltus of Los Angeles consider you the new head of the Wolfram and Hart clan," Eve told him in that oh so sweet voice of hers, and it made Angel grit his teeth in annoyance. Little girl voices were okay, even endearing, on some women -- Angel thought of Willow with a fond smile.
Wesley's frustrated voice cut into his thoughts. "This isn't a laughing matter, Angel! It's happening far too often."
"Wes, a demon jumps out at me, I fight it -- it's a survival skill."
"He wasn't jumping, Angelcakes. He was bowing."
Angel sighed. "All right. I screwed up. Again -- "
"Perhaps it might be helpful to remember that the demons in this building are usually here for a reason," Wes said quietly.
"All right! Okay," Angel said, nearly on his last nerve. "I'll try to remember. But I've been fighting for a long time -- "
Spike snorted, and Angel rolled his eyes; he'd been wondering when the other vampire was going to weigh in. "'A long time,' he says," Spike scoffed. "250 years old -- useless for a century, evil for a century and a half -- and less than a decade is a long time."
Angel was about to retort when a familiar tingle shivered its way up his spine. Hiding his smug smile, he ignored Spike and tapped a button on his phone. "Harmony, when Buffy gets here, send her in, please."
There were various gasps and murmurs from his friends, and Spike muttered, "He's finally lost the plot."
"Buffy? Wh... okay." Harmony's voice sounded confused and slightly apprehensive, and Angel closed the connection before she could ask anything else.
"Angel, what's going on?" Fred asked him. He glanced around, and they were all staring at him, concerned -- except for Spike, who looked disgusted as usual, and Eve, who looked intrigued.
"Buffy's in Europe, Angel," Wes reminded him. As if he needed reminding of her whereabouts.
"Well, I was until yesterday morning," came her bright voice from the doorway. They all gasped again and whirled around, and she continued. "Or was it the night before? I swear, flying halfway across the world is like time travel, and why is Harmony sitting at a desk out there?"
"Slayer!" Spike exclaimed.
Buffy took in his appearance with a smile. She'd been made aware of his return, though they hadn't talked. She glanced from Spike to Angel and back to Spike, and no one missed it. "Spike," she said eventually. "It's good... I'm glad... You're back. Good," she finished, and everyone ignored Angel as he scowled and crossed his arms over his chest.
Spike shrugged exaggeratedly. "Yeah, well, I was done with this mostly mortal coil. Guess it wasn't quite done with me."
Angel snorted and stood, drawing Buffy's attention back to him. "Buffy."
"Angel." There was a pause, and then she said again, "Harmony?"
He grimaced. "She's my secretary." He sighed when she started laughing.
"Guess you forgot to mention that, huh?"
"Uh, yeah." He grew serious, concerned. She looked tired. "Is there something wrong?"
She grinned. "You mean because we never see each other unless there is? No, nothing's wrong. The coven Giles is working with felt there might be some new Slayers in this area, so I came with a team to try and find them. We found them last night -- they're being prepped for England by the rest of the team. Trust me, it's way less organized than it sounds," she added with another grin.
After another silent moment, he nodded. "Oh. Well, good."
"So you just decided to drop in?" Wes broke in, and Buffy turned to look at him. She peered hard for a moment and then she jumped.
"Wesley?" When he flushed, she laughed. "Wow. Angel wasn't kidding. You have changed. Wow. And actually, part of the reason I came is you. I've got some books for you. From Giles."
"Oh, have you? Wonderful!"
"We should probably talk about them later," she said warily as her gaze slid over the unfamiliar faces in the office. Angel noticed that though it moved slowly over Lorne, her attention lingered longest on Eve. He narrowed his eyes and filed that fact away for future reference. Then, he started as if pinched.
"God, I'm sorry. Buffy, this is Charles Gunn -- Gunn, Winifred Burkle -- Fred, Lorne, and this is Eve. Buffy Summers. The Slayer," he added, and Spike snorted.
"A Slayer," she corrected him with a grin. She nodded politely at Fred and somewhat warily at Lorne, and then she smiled at Gunn, taking in his smart suit. "I've heard a lot about you all, but I think some of it was wrong."
Gunn smiled charmingly. "Been some changes."
"Gunn is our resident legal expert now," Eve chimed in.
Buffy turned slowly to her. "And you must be the one who tells Angel and his crew what hoops to jump through," she said, smiling sweetly.
"Buffy," Angel began, stepping forward in case he was needed to separate them, but Eve only smiled just as sweetly in return.
"I only show them the hoops," she answered. "Whether or not they choose to jump is completely up to them."
Buffy raised an eyebrow but said nothing. The silence grew and turned tense until Gunn cleared his throat.
"Well, not that this hasn't been great, but I got a court date," he said, straightening his suit jacket. "It was nice to meet you."
"Oh, that reminds me," Buffy said, snapping her fingers. "Giles asked me to ask about a lawyer for Faith -- y'know, everyone's favorite escaped felon."
Eve opened her mouth to speak, her face set in the expression Angel had come to know meant 'diplomatic refusal', and Angel froze her with a glare. He turned to Buffy and said, "Of course. Just let Gunn know what you need."
Gunn nodded and then glanced at his watch. "No problem. I really gotta go, but I'll catch up with you this afternoon?"
She nodded, and he took his leave of the group and hurried out of Angel's office.
Eve departed as well -- indifferently as usual, but not before admonishing Angel to remember what they'd discussed. When the others made noises of agreement, Buffy glanced curiously at Angel, but when he just shook his head -- almost imperceptibly -- she shrugged.
"A leash is what he needs," Spike muttered.
"Oh, maybe a chip?" Angel asked, a sly smirk on his face.
Spike bristled. "Not chipped now, and it wouldn't matter anyway. Could still kick your arse," he growled. "Did, in fact, as I recall."
Angel took one small step forward. "Up for a rematch, Willy?" he asked, his voice deceptively soft.
Spike snorted and shrugged. "Don't wanna scrap in your office, do you? Might get blood on that shiny desk of yours."
"Wouldn't be the first time."
"Ooookay, why don't we quit before one of you says something you'll regret, like 'This building isn't big enough for the both of us.'"
"It isn't," they simultaneously spat out, and then they glared at each other. Buffy laughed disbelievingly.
"They're always like this," Fred whispered, and when Angel glared at her, she crossed her arms defensively over her chest. "I should get back to the lab," she said. She smiled at Buffy again, threw a worried glance at Angel, and then left them to their squabble.
Angel and Spike continued to glare at each other even after her departure, and Buffy rolled her eyes. "C'mon, Wes, let me show you those books." She turned back to Angel. "Can we talk afterwards? If you've got time, I mean."
He looked surprised. "Sure." He gestured at his desk, strewn with papers, briefs, and case files. "I'll be here."
Buffy nodded and motioned for Wes to lead the way. Spike snapped out of his glower and followed them. Angel sighed when he heard the other vampire's remarks as they left the office.
"Hey, Buffy, Watcher Jr. here found this prophecy a while back..."
Lorne cleared his throat and Angel jumped and turned to him.
"Everything all right in that fetchingly gelled noggin of yours, Sugar Lips?"
Angel debated glaring at him for the nickname, but he decided it wasn't worth the effort, and he sighed again instead. "I'm fine, Lorne."
"It's... a little hard. I wasn't expecting to see her so soon."
Lorne grinned. "Well, if there's one thing I've heard over and over about that little bundle of energy and violence, it's that unexpected and unpredictable are words that fit her better than that gorgeous little top she's wearing."
Angel raised an eyebrow and Lorne laughed. The vampire's expression grew somber again, and Lorne shook his head. "Well, I'd love to stay and watch you brood, but I've got a lunch date or three. Angel," he began, and there was a warning tone in his voice. Angel cut him off, assuming that he was about to be lectured yet again over the demon he'd accidentally killed earlier.
"I'll be careful, Lorne."
Lorne glanced pointedly in the direction Buffy had gone, and his gesture was not lost on Angel. "You do that, cupcake," he said as sternly as was possible for him, patting the vampire on the shoulder as he headed for the door.
Angel blew out the breath he was holding and slumped down into his chair. He eyed the cluttered surface of his desk in dismay, closing his eyes and resting his head in his hands for a moment. He was so damn tired. He opened his eyes and reached for the nearest stack of files, resigned to the task, trying desperately not to think of the small blond ray of sunshine he could feel in the office down the hall. He scowled at the light streaming through the necrotempered windows.
"No comparison," he muttered, picking up his pen.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
An hour later, he was struggling through a memo that was half mystical crap and half legal jargon. With a groan, he lifted one hand to his temple, trying to dislodge the ache that had set up permanent residence there. There was a knock on his office door.
"Yeah," he called, not opening his eyes.
"Bad time?" Buffy asked softly, hovering in the doorway. His head jerked up, and he mustered a smile for her. To his immense relief, it appeared she'd somehow kept Spike from following her back to his office.
"No, of course not," he said, standing and motioning for her to come in. He gestured to the chair in front of his desk and she sat. He hid his grin -- the chair dwarfed her tiny form. She wriggled, trying to get comfortable, and then she sighed, got up, and came around the desk.
She pushed him back down into his chair, cleared a small space for herself, and hopped up onto his desk. He swiveled a little, and she pretended not to notice he'd used the movement to push the chair back, slightly increasing the distance between them. She was staring at him, a tiny smile on her face, and he shifted uncomfortably.
"What?" he asked finally.
"You. Sitting here in the sunlight like it's no big deal."
"Oh." His lips quirked up in a fleeting smile. "It's... nice. I'm trying not to get too used to it, but it's unavoidable in this building. Don't want to get desensitized to the danger, you know?"
She laughed. "Yeah, 'cause walking out the front door at noon -- bad. Right?" she added after a moment, and there was a serious question in her voice. He studied her face, and he thought he could detect concern, but he had no idea why.
"Right," he answered. There was a moment of awkward silence, and then he asked, "So Wes got the books?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Giles and a couple of the Watchers who survived the First went through the remains of the old Council building. They found a couple books Giles thinks might be referring to Wolfram and Hart, so he asked me to bring them to you guys."
Angel sat up straighter. "Really?"
"Uh huh... I didn't read any of it, but Giles said it's... extremely vague but possibly crucial." She mimicked her watcher, and Angel smiled. She looked pleased for a moment, and then she laughed. "Wes is in there now, magnifying glass out, nose to the page, cold cup of tea on his desk... You can take them out of the tweed, drop them in jeans, shove contacts at them -- even take away their razor, but it doesn't change the essential Watcherness, does it?"
She expected him to laugh, and she was confused when his face clouded briefly before he smiled. It was a tense smile.
All he said was, "No. It doesn't."
There was another silence, even more strained this time. Angel finally broke it by saying, "So. You wanted to talk to me about something?"
She stared at him for a moment, and then she nodded. "Yeah. I wanted to see if you were all right."
Angel was surprised into silence momentarily. "All right?" he repeated. She chewed at her bottom lip, and a bolt of desire ripped through Angel, throwing him even more off kilter. He shifted again in his chair and did his best to focus on her eyes. It didn't help.
"Yeah. All right. You might be able to fool them all -- although I saw the way they all glanced at you, and I don't think they're that fooled -- but you can't fool me, Angel. You look like hell." She winced, realizing he would probably appreciate that remark even less than most people.
"Thanks," he said wryly, trying to mask his hurt.
Buffy laughed embarrassedly. "Boy, some bedside manner you got there, Summers. You do look good, Angel -- really good," she added, looking surprised at herself. He didn't bother to hide his smirk. "But you look exhausted."
Angel looked away. "I am tired. But I'm fine. Thanks for asking." He looked back at her and smiled, and though it was a weak smile, it was genuine.
She sighed, realizing direct inquiry was going to get her nowhere. "What was that all about when I first got here?"
He blinked, confused by the sudden subject change. "Huh?"
"When I got here. They were all crowded around you. It looked like an interrogation. I expected them to be shining bright lights in your eyes."
"Oh. That." He sighed, unconsciously reaching a hand up to rub the back of his neck. "I killed a sword-wielding demon in my office earlier."
Her brow furrowed, and Angel had to clench his fists to keep from pulling her off his desk and into his arms to kiss the frown away. "But... that's good... isn't it?"
His eyes flicked back to hers. "He was a client," he said flatly.
"Oh." She winced. "Oops."
"Yeah. Oops. And he was the 24th client, potential client, employee, or job applicant I've killed since we took over. Granted, I meant to kill several of them, but still..."
She said nothing, simply watching him sympathetically, and he groaned. "What the hell am I doing, Buffy? They all try their best to convince me we're doing good here, and sometimes it actually looks like we are, but for the most part, we're just spinning in circles, barely treading water. No matter how many evil clients I accidentally take out, or how many vampires I can sneak away at night to stake, there's always three dozen more just around the corner, or in the next office."
Buffy ached for him -- he seemed so lost and frustrated -- and yet, inwardly, she was pleased that he was opening up to her. It was what she'd hoped for, and what she knew his friends hoped for, judging by the pleading glances Wes had silently aimed at her. She just wasn't sure what to say. It was his job to be the strong, stoic, reassuring one.
"Angel, from what you've told me over the phone, and a little of what Wes said when I was in his office, you guys are really helping people."
He grunted. "Helping people. In Sunnydale, I was helping people. Last year, I was helping people. A few months ago, I was helping people. Here, I'm signing things and placating clients -- who, did I mention, are evil -- and making sure my department heads don't go over budget."
"So why are you doing it?"
His brow furrowed. "Because... because I made a deal, and now I've got to live with that. Because fighting evil from the inside out seemed like a good idea at the time, only I didn't bother to think that that means we're surrounded by it and it's doing its best to make sure we never surface again."
Buffy nodded, chewing at her lip as she thought. She noticed his heated gaze and abruptly stopped. He quickly looked away. "What about... what about shanshu?"
Angel glanced back at her from the corner of his eye. "Spike told you about his prophecy, hmm?"
"He mentioned it, yeah. But Wes also made sure that I knew that there isn't any name in it. And it's funny how this is the first time I'm hearing about it."
Angel sighed. "What does it matter, Buffy? Prophecies are a bunch of bullshit. Something some babbling idiot made up centuries ago because he was bored. Redemption... it's a nice dream. It isn't possible, and even if it were, there's no way to earn it here in this cesspool that's sucking the life -- or whatever -- out of me."
"You don't really believe that," she said, alarmed. He smiled, but it was a tired, defeated smile.
"That's about all I do believe."
"So you're just giving up?"
"I'm still here, aren't I? I just... have no idea why anymore. I feel like I'm just... going through the motions."
Buffy jumped at the all-too-familiar phrase. What had started out as simply an attempt to get him to talk had turned into what was basically an effort to save his soul, and she was in no way prepared for that. He'd lost his purpose, a horrifying prospect that was always just on the horizon for him. She remembered clearly what that was like, remembered the depths to which it had driven her, and she was terrified for him.
"Angel... I..." She floundered, and desperate, she latched onto the first thing she thought of. "What about... I mean... someday..."
Her mouth snapped shut with a click. She definitely didn't need to bring up the tragedy that was their relationship when he was already bordering on despair. To her surprise, he smiled and lifted a hand to her cheek, the first touch he'd allowed himself. She unconsciously leaned into his cool caress.
"Buffy... I... I will always love you, and nothing in this dimension or any other can change that. And the thought that maybe... someday..." He shrugged. "But it's gotten to the point where the carrots are dangled so far ahead of me that I can't ignore the sticks that beat the crap out of me with every step I take."
She looked confused for a moment, and then she took his hand from her cheek and held it between both of hers. "But Angel... why haven't you given up then? I don't mean that you should," she said hastily. "But there has to be some reason while you're still going on."
Angel had a flash of memory of a night that seemed so long ago now. He'd come home bloody and exhausted from a night of fighting and had dragged himself into the shower. Afterwards, he'd picked Connor up from his crib and held his son close to his body, feeling his heartbeat and the warmth of his skin, and the baby had snuggled into his still-shower-warm chest and gurgled happily.
He dropped his head, but not before Buffy had seen the shimmer of tears in the chocolate depths of his eyes. "Yeah," he said hoarsely. "There's a reason. It's just so damned hard for me to remember it most of the time." He scrubbed at his eyes with his hands. "God, Buffy, I'm so tired."
He'd said that several times, and she'd thought it had been his mood, but now she wondered...
"Angel," she said softly, "When's the last time you slept? I mean, really slept. I know you don't need much sleep, but you do need some."
He raised his head. "I've been in my office every day and out killing demons every night, and they all know that, and not one of them has asked me that. I mean..." He waved his hands aimlessly. "'Are you all right, Angel?' is a pretty standard question around here, but sometimes I get the feeling they aren't even listening for the answer -- like just asking makes them feel better. I know they've all got their own issues... Fred wants to get closer to Knox, and Wes is miserable about Fred, and Gunn tries to pretend he's not worried about what they did to him, and... I don't even know what my point was anymore."
Buffy wondered how his friends could not possibly see just how shattered he was, but she also instinctively knew that he was making much less of an effort to keep his guard up when it was just the two of them. She hopped off the desk. "Come on. You need sleep."
"Buffy -- "
"No. This is ridiculous, Angel. No wonder you're not able to focus. I know sleep won't fix everything, but it might make things seem a little less hopeless."
Angel sighed. "You'd think I would have learned after Lorne's big Mr. Hyde experience, but -- " He saw her confused look. "Never mind."
They glared stubbornly at each other for a moment, and then he sighed and stood. Before he knew what was happening, she had her arms wrapped around him, her head resting on his chest. He was stunned, and the electricity that rippled through them made them both shiver, but she made no effort to move. He wrapped his arms around her and rested his head on hers, unconsciously rubbing his cheek in her hair.
There was nothing overtly sexual about the embrace, but their bodies inevitably responded to each other, and when it became too obvious to ignore, she pulled away, looking into his eyes.
Only with Angel could something as simple as a hug make me breathless, she thought, and she asked, "Ready for bed? I mean... uh... sleep?"
His eyes were wide, the pupils dilated. "What..."
"You needed a hug, Angel. And to tell you the truth, I think I did too."
He blinked rapidly several times, and it only reinforced how tired he was; his emotional control was rarely this shaky. "Thank you," he murmured.
"Let's get you tucked in."
"What? I'm not -- " He swallowed harshly. "I'm not a child, Buffy."
"I didn't say you were, but Angel, you need to get some sleep."
"I can't just go off and hide in bed. I have things that need to get done."
"A nap, Angel. You can take a nap. The world won't end if you do."
He wanted to argue, and he knew that he should, but he couldn't find it in himself to do so. He nodded. "I guess I have time for a nap." When she made no move to leave, he said, "You don't need to stay. I can put myself to bed."
She grinned. "I just wanna see your apartment. Spike sounded damn jealous of it."
Angel chuckled. "Good. At least something's going right. Come on." He led her to the elevator, and they rode silently up to his penthouse. He gave her a quick tour, and she oohed and aahed appropriately, though privately she thought it seemed way too modern for Angel's tastes.
"And, uh, back there's the bedroom," he said, and suddenly things were awkward.
"Oh. I bet it's... nice. Why don't you go get some sleep, and I'll... I'll just let myself out."
"I don't need a babysitter, Buffy."
"And how do I know you're not going to wait 'til I'm gone and sneak back downstairs to brood in your office?"
"I wasn't brooding! I was working!"
"If anyone can do both, it's you. Go to bed."
He sighed. "Thank you, Buffy. I... talking to you... it... helped."
She smiled, crossing her arms over her chest to keep from touching him. "You're welcome."
He headed towards the bedroom, glancing back at her a couple of times, and -- lost in thought -- she watched the door he'd gone through long after he disappeared through it. Then, she wandered aimlessly through the apartment, stopping at his bookshelves as a familiar book caught her eye.
"Why does he have a Sunnydale High yearbook?" she muttered, pulling it off the shelf. One quick glance at the inside cover answered her question. It was Cordelia's. Suddenly feeling nosy, she rapidly closed it, prepared to put it back on the shelf, but it shifted slightly, and the edge of a piece of paper came peeking out. She opened the book and was stunned to see it was a picture of herself, clearly taken sometime during her high school years.
Completely confused as to why Cordelia would have a picture of her, she glanced at the page it was marking, and then she realized what it meant.
Buffy hadn't looked much at her yearbook, and she knew she wasn't in it very often, but somehow one of the yearbook staff had managed to snap a photo of the Class Protector and her mysterious older boyfriend dancing at Prom. The first time she'd seen it in stark black and white, nearly hidden in a corner of the section on Prom, she'd tossed the book away from her, across the room. Even now, just looking at the photo invoked so many feelings in her. It was -- like many moments in her relationship with Angel -- simultaneously cherished and hated.
"Angel," she sighed, her heart aching for both of them.
She carefully tucked the picture back into the yearbook -- she had no idea where he'd gotten a picture of her, and she wasn't about to ask him -- and placed the book back on the shelf.
Against her better judgment, she tiptoed down the hallway and poked her head into his bedroom. He was curled on his side in his bed, fast asleep. He was still, and peaceful, his shoulders pale and flawless like marble where they peeked over the edge of the blanket that covered him. She watched him for a moment, mesmerized by how beautiful he was, and she tried desperately to keep her tears at bay. She was so worried about him that she couldn't think straight.
She was furious that his friends couldn't see just how much he'd slipped, how hopeless he was feeling. Some part of her knew that an element of her anger came from how clueless her own friends had been when she'd been hopeless and lost, but she also knew that she would do anything to keep Angel from feeling the way she'd felt for so long.
With one last look at Angel, she turned and headed back towards the main part of the building, prepared to beat some sense into his friends, if that was what it took.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The vampire jumped and nearly dropped the papers she was sorting. She huffed in anger and turned to face the woman striding towards her.
"What do you want?"
Buffy's eyes narrowed. "Last time I checked, I was a Slayer, and Slayers stake vampires. It's not like Angel would miss you. Maybe he'd get a good secretary, even."
"Hey! I do a good job, and anyway, how would you know, you boyfriend stealing freak!"
Astonished, Buffy only blinked. "What?"
Harmony made a sound of dismissal. "What do you want?"
"I need you to cancel everything Angel's got for the rest of the day. And probably tomorrow morning too, though I really don't think he'll sleep that long."
"What? You are insane. No way."
"Har -- "
"No. You are not going to get me in trouble with Angel just because you've got some idiot plan. I may have to listen to him and his friends who actually work here, but nothing says I've got to listen to you!"
"Is there a problem?"
Relieved, Buffy turned to Wesley. "Wes. Good. I need to talk to everyone. And can you please tell Girl Friday here to cancel the rest of Angel's day? And maybe tomorrow morning?"
"Look. You asked me to do something about him. So I did," she said bluntly, and Harmony gasped. Spike, who had wandered up behind Wesley, laughed.
Wes' eyes widened. "I most certainly did not. What did you do?"
"Maybe not in words, but you were asking. And I didn't do anything. Except get him to go to sleep."
"Well, bugger," Spike muttered.
"Oh. Well, Harmony, maybe it's best if you redistribute everything you can for today and tomorrow morning, and whatever you can't redistribute, reschedule."
"He'll stake me, Wesley."
"Oh no! What a tragedy that would be!"
Wes threw a quick glare at Buffy and then smiled reassuringly at Harmony. "If he's angry, just tell him I asked you to do so."
Harmony rolled her eyes. "Whatever," she bit out, heading for her desk.
"I need to talk to you. And everyone else."
Looking concerned, he gestured her into his office. She paced anxiously while he made several murmured phone calls. Spike, who had followed them in, dropped into a chair by the window, his gaze never leaving the Slayer's tense form.
Wes finally turned from the phone. "Fred is on her way down from the lab. I'm afraid Gunn and Lorne are still out -- "
"Well, you can tell them what I tell you."
"Yes, of course. How is Angel?"
"Yes, so you said -- "
Before he could say anymore, Fred stepped into the office and eased the door shut behind her, or at least, she tried to close it. A slim hand caught it and held it open, and Buffy scowled when Eve followed Fred into the office with a self-satisfied smile on her face.
"Did you call her?" the Slayer hissed at Wes.
He frowned. "No, actually."
"Thank you, but we don't need you. This is family business," Buffy told her with a smile that came nowhere near her eyes.
"On the contrary, sweetie, Angel is very much my business," Eve replied, and Buffy clenched her fists to keep from knocking that smug expression off her face. "It's entirely in my interests to make sure our CEO is in tip top shape."
"Well, you're doing a crappy job," Buffy snapped, and the other woman's smile vanished as if it had never been there. "When is the last time he slept?" she asked, directing her question at Wes and Fred.
Their eyes widened as they glanced at each other and then back at her, their faces wearing nearly identical looks of chagrin that might have amused her if she weren't so angry and worried.
"Angel's not sleeping?" Fred asked softly, and Wes cleared his throat nervously.
"No. He's not. I got him to go to bed -- "
"He's sleeping?" Eve sounded surprised. "It's the middle of the day!"
"He's a vampire. It's way past his bedtime."
"He's also in charge of this firm -- he can't just take a nap whenever he feels like it. We're trying to run -- "
"No. You're trying to run this place, and I personally don't give a damn. I'm more concerned with the fact that Angel hasn't slept in days, maybe weeks."
"Oh dear. It's never a good thing when his sleeping patterns drastically change."
Spike snorted. "You mean because last time it happened he went bloody mad and let Darla and Dru have a bunch of this firm's finest for tea before he tried to turn them both into crispy fried dust?" After a pause, he added, "Oh yeah, and let's not forget him banging his sire into the wall to try and off himself!"
Buffy flinched at the last part, and Wes sighed in exasperation. "Yes, Spike, thank you," he said wearily, and then his brow furrowed. "And how do you know that?"
The vampire just smirked.
"Angel's a big boy," Eve said, her voice dripping with innuendo. "He can take care of himself."
Buffy saw red. "Listen," she bit out, and then she stopped and took a deep breath. "Why am I even talking to you?" she said angrily, turning her back completely on Eve as she focused on the others. Wes' eyes widened at the deliberate and blatant slight, and Spike smiled proudly. Buffy just glared at him in reply, before patiently returning to the point she was trying to make. She leveled her stare at Wes and Fred. "I know you guys all have your own things going on -- "
"It's a little bit more complicated than just 'having their own things going on,'" came an irritated but still sugary voice from behind her.
"You know, whatever these Senior Partners have planned for you guys might be a hell of a lot easier when their brand new CEO ends up dead, especially if they can blame it on his own carelessness," Buffy said, never breaking eye contact with Angel's friends as she completely ignored the interruption. Eve tsked, but she knew her point had hit home when Wes frowned and Fred gasped. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Spike roll his eyes. "And from what I've seen," she added, "Angel doesn't seem all that upset about that maybe happening."
"You don't think..." Fred was horrified.
"Not on purpose, no. But he's not sleeping -- " She took a breath, realizing that if she was right about Eve and not just reacting irrationally and kind of jealously, she was basically giving Eve -- and through her, the Senior Partners -- a progress report. But Angel's friends needed to hear what she was telling them, or Angel was going to die. "Gimme a sec, guys."
She turned around. "Okay. Out." When the other woman simply smiled condescendingly at her, Buffy physically turned her around and pushed her to the door. "I need to talk to Angel's friends, and until he tells me otherwise, you're not one of them. Bye." She closed the door in Eve's astonished face.
"Bravo, pet!" Spike snickered, applauding enthusiastically. The other two were watching her in awe. As Buffy came back to the desk, Fred's face began to show a hesitant grin.
"Wow. That was great. She's really kind of annoying sometimes, you know?"
"No wonder Angel's going crazy if he has to deal with her every day," Buffy said irritably.
"Crazy?" Fred's eyes widened again.
"He's not sleeping and it doesn't look like he's feeding often enough either, and fighting like he does without proper rest and nutrition -- and, God, when did I turn into Giles?" She stopped for a moment to gather her thoughts. "I don't think Angel is gonna try to hurt himself -- or anyone else -- but it would only take one second of him not paying attention."
"I had no idea it had progressed so far."
"Well it has."
"We just thought he was kinda upset about Spike coming back -- I mean really coming back -- not that it's a bad thing, Spike!"
"This is Angel we're talking about. If it's bad enough for you to notice that he's broodier than usual, it's bad." She bit her lip, wondering if she should bring up the next point. She'd definitely decided not to earlier, when Eve was in the room, but maybe she could now. "Do you guys ever, you know, hug him?"
"Hug him?" Wes was more than a little confused.
"Yeah, you know. Quick hug. Arms around him, little squeeze..."
Spike groaned and shoved himself up out of his chair. "God. I think I'll go make sure Little Miss Mata Hari isn't listenin' at the keyhole. Anything's better than watching you lot mope about my nancyboy grandsire not gettin' his daily allowance of hugs." He slammed the door behind him.
Fred gazed at the closed door for a minute before turning back to Buffy. "Uh... well... no, I guess not. I mean, Cordy -- she used to, sometimes, but Angel's not exactly Mr. Touchy Feely."
"I'm not saying you need a group hug every night before bedtime. Just, you know, a pat on the back every once in a while, a hug here or there, maybe touch his shoulder. Angel may pretend like it's not true, but he needs human contact just as much as the rest of us."
When they nodded, she gave them a little smile. "Just keep an eye on him. He's your friend and he's in a bad place." She glanced at the door Spike had gone through. "Sometimes that makes you do things you're sure you'd never do." Then her grin turned wicked. "Just don't let Eve touch him."
Wes and Fred exchanged a glance, and Buffy's smile vanished. "What."
"N-nothing!" Fred stammered.
"Perhaps Angel should be the one to tell you..."
It felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. Buffy sat down hard in the nearest chair. No. Oh my God, no, she thought. I just... I just kicked Angel's girlfriend out of the room. I knew I hated her for a reason!
"Wesley!" Fred hissed. "Buffy, it's not like that. There was this spell... or, it wasn't really a spell, or maybe that is how they did it. I dunno; Lorne never said. Anyway, on Halloween, strange things were happening. Wes and I were acting drunk without drinking anything, and Spike was actually acting happy, and then Gunn was peeing all over the place, and um, Angel and Eve, well, they were... I mean, in his office..."
"They were having sex?!" Buffy exclaimed. When neither one would look at her, she jumped up. "Angel was having sex? With Eve?!"
The door opened, and Lorne came in, followed by Spike, who was grinning from ear to ear.
"Well, there goes any chance of quashing that fun little rumor," Lorne sighed. "And it was just starting to die down. Listen, sweetie, I can explain. Uh... Angelcakes getting friendly with our little liaison is my fault."
She raised an eyebrow. "You made Angel have sex with Eve."
"Well, ah, yeah, actually." Lorne laughed nervously "It's a funny story, really. You're just gonna laugh those cute little shoes right off. You see, I've been so incredibly busy sorting our slightly evil employees from the must-kill-now ones that I just never had time to catch so much as a catnap. I was getting Samsonites under my eyes, can you imagine?"
Buffy crossed her arms over her chest, and he felt his smile slide off. "So I had one of our lab boys -- just a sweetheart, and the biggest blue eyes -- but that's really another story, isn't it? Anyway, he did this quick little thing where they removed my sleep. Worked like a charm, except, heh, after a while everything that tumbled through these gorgeous lips of mine started happening. And then there was this big Lornebeast that was killing the party guests -- but managing not to ruin that outfit or the party, he really was me, I guess. Well, it was all a big mess. But it's fixed now!"
"So you said Angel and Eve should have sex."
"Oh, well, it was said with more than a splash of sarcasm, honey."
"Sounds kinda like a will-it-so spell. We've had experience with that, haven't we, Slayer?"
"Shut up, Spike. So you're telling me, that knowing how dangerous it is for Angel to... be happy, you suggested he have sex with Eve? My God! That's like making a wish around a vengeance demon!"
"It was mystically induced, animalistic sex, Buffy -- very unlikely to activate the loophole."
She whirled on Wes, and her eyes were blazing. "Unlikely?"
"In the long run, it was good for him, Puddin' -- he needed the stress relief."
"That kind of stress relief for Angel means Angelus! It means months of pain, and torture, and death!" Her voice broke, and she turned away from them all, hugging herself. "How could you be so stupid?"
"Buffy, nothing happened."
"But it might have, Wesley! We might have lost him because of one stupid suggestion!"
"Angel always says it's not a sex curse, anyway, it's a happiness curse. He says true happiness is almost impossible to come by in his life," Fred said softly, watching Buffy worriedly.
Buffy blinked back tears at the reminder of the one perfect night they'd had. Then her face hardened and she looked from Wes to Spike and back to Wes. "When you were telling me about the shanshu thingy, you said that you have a set of books that has almost every prophecy, curse, and spell on record, and it translates them automatically. Have you even looked at Angel's curse?"
Wes stared at her, his eyes wide. "N-no," he said eventually, realization dawning in his voice.
"The original? A translation? A binding spell! Some other cure! Anything?!"
"I'm afraid we haven't..."
"My God! And you're supposed to be his friends! What, it wasn't in your budget? Well, maybe you can look at it this way, then: it's a way to keep your CEO from going evil and killing all of you! That's sound business reasoning, isn't it?"
"Now, that's not fair, cookie, we didn't -- "
"Don't call me that!" she snapped. Lorne looked stunned, and his mouth clicked shut.
"Angel never asked..." Fred said sadly.
"Of course he didn't! Angel never asks for anything for himself!"
"The poof can read, same as any of us."
"Don't you see? He doesn't care! Not right now -- he can't bring himself to care about anything right now! Not to mention, you know he thinks he doesn't deserve it, so he's not going to go looking for it! But if you could do this for him, give him some hint of a reason to keep fighting, it just might keep him from lying down to die!"
Buffy stopped and took a deep breath. "A gift. From his friends, the people he loves. That would mean more to him than killing a thousand demons."
"Sounds like someone has a vested interest in the matter," Eve said from the doorway.
"In seeing Angel happy? Yeah, I do. He deserves it. Anything else is up to him. Anyway, I'm done. This place makes my skin crawl."
She turned to leave the office without waiting for a response, and she curbed the impulse to deliberately shoulder Eve out of her way. She knew without looking that Spike was following her.
Her purposeful stride faltered as soon as she left Wes' office for the bustle of Wolfram and Hart's main floor. Her anger slowly began to fade as she stood and watched the people flit and scurry back and forth, and she was momentarily at a loss for what she should do next. Angel was asleep, his friends had been warned of his mental state -- and lectured about their responsibilities toward him, and she had a flight back to England in less than eight hours. She guessed she should go and see if she could help the team get the new Slayers ready to go, but she couldn't bring herself to leave this building, where the familiar tingle she felt reinforced her knowledge that Angel was here, and he was safe.
Spike lounged against the wall beside her while she mused, and they stood in silence until she smelled the familiar odor of burning tobacco. She sighed and began walking, and he fell in step beside her.
"I'm almost sure you're not supposed to smoke in here."
He gave her a sidelong glance. "Think I give a toss?" he asked, his lips clamped around the cig. She said nothing further, and after a moment, he growled softly in annoyance. "Y'know, if I was in the mood to watch brooding, I'd go watch the poof."
"I'm worried about him, Spike. I don't know what to do for him, and it's not like his friends seem to be much help."
"Oh Christ, and now we're going to chat about him as well."
She stopped and glared at him. "I didn't ask for company."
He sighed and looked away. His gaze was still averted when he said, "He's slipping, pet. In a big way."
"The others don't have a bleedin' clue how far gone he is."
"They do now. God, I can't believe them!" she said angrily. Spike just shrugged at her.
They walked along silently for a while, and then he said, "You're not leaving, are you? If they find something. You'll stay."
"Who says they'll even look?"
"'Course they will. You shamed 'em into it, if nothing else."
Buffy laughed hollowly. "Sometimes I wonder if our friends -- his and mine -- enjoy seeing us miserable because it's the one thing they can count on never to change in their lives."
"Not all of us like seeing you miserable," he said quietly, and she didn't meet his eyes. He sighed. "You didn't answer my question."
She echoed his sigh. "I don't know, Spike. I don't know if they'll find anything, I don't know if it'll work, and I don't know what he'll want if it does."
"There's only one thing the bugger's ever wanted."
"Spike -- "
"What, you're going to try and deny it? You might have told me you love me -- dammit, I'm talking," he said when she tried to interrupt, " -- but you didn't mean it even half as much as when you told him someday you'd come back to him."
Her eyes widened. "You -- "
"Yeah. I was there. I'm not stupid, Buffy -- "
"You think this is easy for me? I don't know what to do, Spike! Things are so confusing, with both of you -- demons and souls and dying and coming back, and I just get so confused! I don't know what I feel for you -- "
"But you love him."
She didn't say anything, and he demanded, "Well?"
"Yes. I love Angel. I always have, and I always will."
"Then it doesn't matter, does it? He's won."
"It's not a damn contest!"
"Why don't you just go check on him and leave me the hell alone?" he said angrily. "Make sure he's tucked in all tight and toasty!"
He kept walking, and she blew her breath out in frustration. Then, shaking her head, she headed for Angel's office.
Harmony stopped her before she slipped through the door into the empty office. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Get out of my way."
"I'm just going to go check on Angel; it's not like I'm planning to read his super secret, classified, For Evil Lawyers' Eyes Only files."
"I thought you didn't want him to be disturbed."
"I'm an expert at sneaking up on vamps without them knowing. Keep annoying me, and you'll find out just how good I am at it."
"Stop threatening me. It's creating a hostile workplace environment."
Buffy laughed incredulously. "There is nothing I could do that would make this workplace a more hostile environment. Now get out of my way."
The Slayer brushed past the vampire and made her way toward Angel's private elevator, wondering if she actually was overstepping her boundaries. It was one thing when Angel had invited her in and showed her around, but now she was sneaking in. Would he be angry?
"Guess I'll just have to make sure he doesn't find out," she murmured.
Again, she tiptoed to his bedroom and poked her head around the door. He had shifted, and he was sprawled on his back now, open and unguarded, taking up most of the large bed. The blanket had tangled around him, baring his chest and most of his powerful legs to her hungry gaze.
It really was almost hypnotic, watching him sleep. He was so still. There were no breath sounds, no motion in his chest, no ambient warmth from his body, nothing she was used to from the many times she'd watched Dawn sleep.
Every once in a while, there would be a tiny muscle twitch, or the barest flicker of motion around his eyes or his lips, and that was more mesmerizing than anything. She would have had no problem watching him for hours and waiting for the next hint that he was still there, she realized.
Buffy suddenly longed to kiss him, to press her lips to his cool skin, to feel the tingle that shot through her every time the merest touch passed between them.
Lips, cheek, or forehead? She chewed her bottom lip, debating with herself. His lips called to her, full and soft, so unlike the thin line they'd been pressed into earlier. She longed to catch them with her own, to feel their soft coolness against hers, but she knew that that was more likely to wake him than anything.
His brow was smooth and unfurrowed, and her gaze was drawn to the tiny scar that had always fascinated her. She'd wondered what had caused it; it was a souvenir of his mortal life, one gained over two and a half centuries previous, one he could no longer see. She had loved to kiss it, and she knew he had had no idea why. She had never asked him about it.
Buffy thought of the shanshu prophecy and tried to imagine his pale cheeks rosy, flushed with exertion or emotion, and she found that she couldn't. She couldn't picture him warm and breathing, but she wanted more than anything to be able to see it.
She was amazed when she realized she was standing beside his bed, staring down at him. She'd unconsciously drawn closer to him as she thought about him. She wanted to crawl into his bed, curl herself around him, and hold him in her arms until all of his pain melted away.
"Not possible," she whispered, almost inaudibly. But, God, how I wish I could try.
Very slowly, she leaned and brushed her lips as lightly as she could across his cheek. There was a tiny sighing sound, and she froze. Full of trepidation, she lifted her gaze to his eyes, expecting to find them open, boring into her own. But they were closed; he still slept. The corner of his mouth was drawn up in a small half-smile, and she felt her lips responding in kind.
Stealthily, she retreated to the doorway, and then she turned back for one last glance at him.
"Be -- " she whispered, and then she sighed. She couldn't even wish for him to be happy. "Be well, Angel," she finished sadly as she turned and crept from the room.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Several hours later, Buffy found herself standing in line at a ticket counter at LAX so she could check in for her flight. She was surrounded by four skittish new Slayers and a half dozen Watchers, most of the latter nearly as new on the job as their charges.
Not that she could blame the Slayers for being nervous. She remembered being called, how confusing and insane it had all seemed. She couldn't imagine someone telling her that she had to leave her home and family on top of it all.
Her thoughts drifted to Kendra, and she smiled sadly. Her bittersweet reminiscence was cut short by the shrill sound of her cell phone. It was an unfamiliar number and she frowned as she accepted the call.
"Buffy! Where are you?" Wes' tone was relieved and anxious at the same time, and Buffy straightened, her own anxiety creeping up on her.
"The ticket counter. What's up?"
"Thank God. I was hoping to reach you before you checked in. We've found something."
"For Angel?" Her exclamation was much louder than she'd intended it to be, and several other travelers shot annoyed glances at her.
"Yes. It's, um, rather a simple ritual, really -- "
"Simple. There's a simple spell to bind Angel's soul, and it's taken you this long to find it?" she snapped, and then she realized her voice was still much louder than it probably should be, especially given the subject matter. The annoyed glances had become confused and curious, and she could clearly read the expression on one man's face. It said, 'Dear God, I hope this nutjob isn't getting on the same plane I am.'
"Well, yes, but without the resources of Wolfram and Hart, we never would have known where to look. And we have already admitted we were remiss in not having checked since we arrived here. The point is, we've found it now, and it consists of -- "
"Look, Wes, you can tell me all about it when I get there. I'm on my way now; I'll get a taxi or something -- "
"We can send a car if that would be simpler."
"I'm perfectly capable of getting there on my own, Wes. I'm a big girl."
"Yes, of course, I didn't mean -- "
"I'll be there as soon as I can." Hanging up, she slung her bag over her shoulder, turning to make her way out of the line. She was stopped by a hand on her arm, which belonged to the most experienced Watcher there, who was younger than Wesley had been when he'd first come to Sunnydale.
"Something came up. Tell Giles I'll give him a call and I'll catch a flight later this week, as soon as I can. I'm sure you and the rest of your team have everything here under control," she said with a smile. The expression on her face was firm, and the other Slayers were goggling at her. She figured outright defiance and snarkiness towards the Watchers was probably not the example she should be setting for them.
"Are you certain that's wise?" he asked, and his uncertainty was crystal clear. She merely stared at him. There might have been hundreds of Slayers now, but she was still the senior Slayer, and as such, her orders and decisions were rarely questioned under Giles' new regime. Well, except by whichever Slayers they had discovered most recently, who always felt they had something to prove.
"It's necessary. I'll call Giles and explain the situation once I have the chance," she said decisively, pulling away from his semi-restraining arm and making her way toward the front of the terminal.
The cab ride back to the Wolfram and Hart building was quiet as Buffy mulled over what Wes had told her. Would it work? Was it possible that Angel might be able to have some joy in his life? Something he needed badly -- there was something going on that he wasn't telling her about. She was sure about it, and she desperately hoped that they could give him this and it would remove at least some of the burdens she could feel crushing him.
A tiny, frightened voice in her head wondered what he would do when his soul was bound. What she would do. She remembered the night before the First had been defeated, the night Angel had shown up unexpectedly in Sunnydale.
Things had been strained and familiar, awkward and wonderful. And the vague promises of "someday" she had made had seemed so far away. Could it be tonight? Was she ready for it to happen tonight? Was he?
The cab pulled up in front of the gleaming building that was Angel's current home, and her pensiveness faded into a smile. She thought of all the dank and dingy places she'd seen Angel in -- even the mansion had been dark and dusty. Her smile wavered and disappeared into a frown. It was in this glitzy, perfect building that his soul seemed the dimmest she'd ever seen it.
With a sigh, she got out of the taxi, absentmindedly paying the driver. Making her way through the nearly deserted building, she headed for Wes' office.
It was chaos. Fred was mixing something in a beaker, snapping directions at Lorne and a guy in a lab coat. Wes was skimming through several books and scrolls at a time, while simultaneously shooting pointed glares at Fred's assistant. Gunn had Wes' office phone in one hand and his cell in the other. Spike was leaning against the wall, rolling his eyes at all of them despite repeated orders for him to help. To Buffy's immense relief, Eve was nowhere to be seen.
"What's going on?"
Wes glanced up briefly, and then returned his gaze to the biggest, most tattered scroll. "We've located a spell. It's a ritual actually, performed by the ancient Sumerians on the eve of -- "
"Will it make his soul permanent?"
"Yes -- "
"Is it dangerous to him?"
"No, not as such -- "
"Then you can explain it to him. I don't care how it works, as long as it works. What's with all the rushing?"
"The ritual must follow a rather delicate timetable. It must be completed before midnight on the first or second night of a new moon."
"Midnight's in half an hour."
"Precisely. And tonight is the second night of the new moon."
"What happens if it's not done by then?"
Wes rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Well, nothing happens; we would simply have to wait until the next new moon."
"Oh. Well that wouldn't necessarily be completely tragic, but who knows what could happen in a month? The sooner, the better around here, especially in the mood he's in now."
"Yes, well, we now have twenty four minutes to wake Angel and explain the situation to him."
"Do we have to?"
All activity stopped as everyone turned to look at her. "What?" Fred asked breathlessly.
"Do we have to wake him up? Does he need to be awake -- can't we just do the ritual and then when he wakes up say, 'Hey, by the way'?" They all looked intrigued but hesitant, and she said, "If it's not dangerous to Angel -- or anyone else -- let's just do it. He's exhausted, Wes. You know he'll be a pain in the ass to wake up, and then we'll have to explain everything three times, and then he'll argue past the time limit, and we'll have to wait until next month. We're running out of time. Is there some reason he needs to be awake for it?"
Wes blinked once or twice and then said, "Actually, no. Given the background of the ritual, it might work better on him if he's unaware."
Buffy nodded, and then her gaze caught the beaker of viscous red liquid Fred held. "What is that?"
The other woman grimaced. "You really don't want to know."
Spike snorted. "You aren't really planning to do magic on the wanker's soul without telling him?"
Wes looked uneasy. "Buffy, perhaps Spike -- oh Lord, I can't believe I'm saying this -- perhaps Spike is right."
She looked him in the eye. "Wes, if it works, Angel won't care that we didn't tell him."
"And if it doesn't?"
She looked away, biting her lip while she thought. Finally she looked back at him. "If it doesn't, well, we'll keep looking."
"And if this whole thing does go kerplunk -- which spells have the tendency to do around us -- who's going to explain to our fearless leader what we were up to, Slayerkins?"
"I'll tell -- what did you just call me?" When Lorne simply looked at her expectantly, she said, "I'll tell Angel. If it doesn't work, I'll tell him what we were trying to do. The rest of you just do whatever you need to do to make this work. Okay?"
"Perhaps we should explain it to Angel when he awakens, and then wait until next month to perform the spell."
"What if he gets so happy thinking about it that it lets Angelus out? What if something else -- " Fred snuck a peek at Buffy but kept speaking, " -- makes him happy in the meantime? Maybe she's right, Wes."
Wes glanced at them all and sighed. "Yes, fine. Let's go, quickly."
"What do we need?" Buffy said immediately, but the relief was plain in her voice.
Wes grabbed the scroll and a small book, nodding at the candles and a jar on the table. "If you would carry the candles and the salt, and Fred has the X'fxan paste -- "
He just glared at Buffy. "Let's go, shall we?"
The others followed the three of them out of the room, and Fred asked her assistant to please take everything else back to the lab. Buffy tried to hide her grin when she heard Wes mutter "Thank God," under his breath, and she vaguely remembered Angel hinting at some sort of triangle between Fred, Wes, and somebody named Knox.
When they were in the elevator, Wes explained the process of the ritual, and Buffy did her best to listen but found herself tuning out whenever he got into the esoteric meaning behind it all. Basically, what she got from it was that it shouldn't take very long, and she needed to keep out of the protective circle of sea salt they were going to pour around Angel.
"Hey, do we really think Angel's gonna sleep through this? Man wakes up if someone coughs three floors away," Gunn pointed out with a raised eyebrow.
They all looked at him, and then at Buffy, wide-eyed. "He hasn't slept in God knows how long," she said pointedly. "And if he does, we'll explain during the mojo, if we have time. Otherwise we'll tell him afterwards."
They crept into Angel's rooms -- except for Spike, who was making no effort to move stealthily, even when Buffy glared at him. Lost in a dream, Angel moaned and stirred as they entered the bedroom, but he didn't wake up. Wes positioned and lit the candles before finding the correct page in the book of incantations, and Fred dug her fingers into the beaker she held, wrinkling her nose as she did so.
"How are we supposed to do a salt circle around him if he's asleep?" Buffy whispered. Angel jumped and half-sat up, still mostly asleep. Buffy froze but she noticed that his friends all quickly jumped back, and despite her anxiety, she couldn't hide her grin. Angel had a tendency to wake up mean.
"Wha's goin' on?" he asked groggily.
"Well, that solves that," Gunn said, reaching across the bed and grabbing the jar of salt from Buffy. He began to pour the salt in a narrow circle on the bed around Angel.
"Hey, the sheets!" the dazed vampire protested weakly, but Gunn ignored him and kept pouring. When he got to the foot of the bed, he handed the jar to Buffy, who began to pour the other half. Before she finished the circle -- sealing the magic -- Fred leaned forward, her fingertips coated with the blood red substance they had concocted in Wes' office. Angel frowned as she drew several lines and sigils on his chest and face before backing away hastily, leaving Buffy to quickly seal the circle.
"Guys?" Angel said, with the barest beginnings of fear in his voice.
"It's okay, Angel, I promise. We'll explain in a minute," Buffy told him, but he didn't look reassured.
Wesley began the incantation, his speech gaining speed, gradually flowing together into one fast, continuous stream.
"Is that Latin?" He looked confused, and now Buffy could see the fear creeping into his eyes. He stared wildly at them all, his eyes growing wider by the second. He reached for her and his hand rebounded violently off the circle's boundary with a loud crack and a flash of white light. "Buffy, why -- "
She flinched as he sucked in a breath and then doubled over, groaning. "Wesley, what -- "
Fred put a hand on her arm, keeping her quiet, though her own eyes were wide and nervous. Angel's groans turned to cries of agony, and then he threw his head back. A violet mist formed in the air and swirled around his gasping form. The fear in his eyes was overwhelming now.
"Shh, Angel, it's okay, everything will be okay! I promise you!" Buffy curled her hands into her fists, feeling her nails bite through the skin of her palms. She was desperate to go and soothe away his fear, but she remembered at the last minute Wes' warnings about not breaking the circle while the spell was being cast.
His cries grew into screams, and she watched helplessly as the pain in his eyes changed into betrayal and hopelessness, and then they began to glow golden, the way they had when he'd regained his soul during their fight at the mansion, right before she'd sent him to hell.
With a final shout, Wesley finished the chant. There was a sharp snap and the purple mist vanished as the sigils and symbols slowly sank into Angel's flesh and disappeared. The tang of magic in the air faded, leaving Angel slumped on the bed, shaking.
"Now?" she said frantically, and Wes nodded, exhausted. She threw herself onto the bed and gathered his trembling form into her arms. "Angel, talk to me. Are you okay?"
"What..." His voice was shaky, and he wearily raised his head to gaze at her, his eyes full of confusion and leftover pain. "The pain... It just stopped, and I'm still here. I don't understand... What..."
"It was a soul binding spell, Angel."
"You didn't tell me it would hurt him!" Buffy hissed angrily as she rubbed his shoulders. The trembling slowly began to ease.
"Soul magic always hurts, pet."
"You knew?" she asked Spike accusingly, before whirling on Wes. "Did you know?"
"Ah... well, I had -- "
"What is going on?" Angel's voice was tired, but still commanding, and he struggled to break free of Buffy's embrace so that he could sit up. She held on tighter as she looked down at him.
"Did I stutter?" she said affectionately. "It was a soul binding spell."
"Did it work?" Fred asked anxiously.
"Guess we'll have to wait until he tests it," Gunn said with a wicked smile. Spike groaned and stomped off, swearing as he went.
"It worked," Angel said quietly.
"You can tell?" Buffy studied his face. His eyes were still a little unfocused, and he winced -- barely, but she saw it.
"Yeah. I can tell. It feels different, and he's... not happy."
"Not happy?" Buffy asked with a raised eyebrow. "Why do I think that's a heavily edited version of events?"
"You did magic on my soul?" he asked, looking around at his friends. "Without telling me?"
"Yes, and your soul is now bound."
"Why didn't you wake me up and tell me?"
"No time. Your soul is bound, though," she repeated.
"Something could have gone wrong!"
"But it didn't, and hey, did I mention, your soul is bound." She grabbed his chin in her hand, forcing him to look into her eyes. His mounting anger fled, and he sagged against her. Slowly, his lips crept upwards in a tiny smile.
"It is, isn't it?"
"Just want to make sure you're focusing on the important info, here," she murmured, running a hand through his hair.
"Hmm," he replied, tilting his head slightly to catch her lips with his. She sighed happily as she kissed him back. The kiss was awkward, and it was only when he began shifting slightly to improve the angle that there was the sound of a cleared throat nearby. He slowly broke the kiss before glancing around at his friends.
"Thank you," he said, and his voice was hoarse with emotion. "I... I don't know how you came up with -- " he stopped when he noticed them all simultaneously glance at Buffy. "Did you hurt them?" he asked suspiciously. Indignant, she smacked him on the arm. He winced and said, "Did you yell then?"
"A little. And it was necessary!"
"She's absolutely right, Angel. It was necessary. Forgive us for not looking into the matter of your curse sooner."
"How can I be angry at you guys? You guys just gave me my soul!" He grinned, and then she saw a flicker of fear in his eyes as the smile faded.
He took a deep, centering breath. "I... it's nothing. I'm just... it's hard not to be scared of being happy," he murmured. Buffy felt a stab of pain at his words, and she knew it would take him some time before general happiness came without fear. She hugged him as tightly as she could, given the awkward position.
"It shouldn't have taken us this long; it really was wrong of us, Angel," Fred said softly. "We're really sorry."
"Yes, and for quite a simple spell, really. All it took was -- " Wes' explanation stopped abruptly when he realized that Angel was fighting to keep his attention from drifting to the small blonde who held him tightly. "Yes, well. Perhaps we can discuss the details in the morning. I'm sure you and Buffy -- "
"Hey, English," Gunn called as he headed toward the doorway. Lorne hastily wrapped an arm around Fred's shoulder and followed him. "You talk too much. Let's go."
"Yeah, in the morning," Angel said distractedly. Then he snapped out of it. "Thanks, guys, really, I mean it."
"You can thank us tomorrow, sugar cookie." Lorne closed the door behind them, leaving Buffy and Angel alone in the flickering light from the candles Wes had used for the spell.
"Cookies," Buffy said, amused. "Now there's an interesting subject."
Angel disentangled himself from her arms and sat up, making sure the blanket covered his waist. "Yeah... interesting. Are we? I mean, are you... coo -- bake -- ah... are you?"
She chuckled at his discomfort, and then her mirth faded. "I don't know, Angel. When I talked about... about being cookies, things were way crazy. Hell, I didn't even know if I'd be alive the next day. Not that I ever know that, but it was different, you know?"
After a moment to process, he nodded.
"I don't know if I'll ever be completely baked, Angel. All I know is, if I wait until I think I am, I think it'll be too late. I don't like who I am when I'm not around you, Angel."
He started to protest, and she shook her head and put her fingers over his mouth.
"Let me finish, okay?" she asked him, and when he nodded, she clasped her hands in her lap and then looked down at her intertwined fingers. "I was so worried about you today, Angel. I still am -- I don't think this made everything better," she added, and she sighed when his face clouded. "Yeah. Still issues," she confirmed. "But I haven't been that worried about anything -- not even the First and the big battle in Sunnydale -- not since before... before Glory. Don't get me wrong; I was worried about the First, but it was background worry. It was like... I knew I should be worried, so I was, but it was like watching it from outside myself. Inside this little shell, I was numb."
She looked back, and there were tears glittering in her eyes. "I don't want to be numb. And I don't want you to be either, Angel. And I think you're getting there. I don't want you to be like me. It sucks, Angel."
"Oh, Buffy." He gathered her into his arms, rocking her. His voice was rough, and he blinked away the tears her plaintive words had brought him.
"After I... came back, all I did in Sunnydale was focus on whatever battle was next, and lately, with Giles and Willow and the other Slayers, I've had time to look at my life, and I don't like it. There's nothing... it's empty. I'm empty."
"You're not empty, Buffy. You're beautiful, and strong, and smart, and loving, and kind. And you've got friends, your sister, Giles... me. We all... we all love you."
"You're almost empty too," she whispered. "I can feel it. I can tell... you're struggling so hard, Angel, and no one else can see it. Just like no one else can see how hard it is for me. Maybe we can struggle together? Maybe it's what we both need."
He held her tightly to his chest, and she could feel his skin begin to slowly warm with the contact. She nuzzled into the cool, pale skin, resting her head against his neck.
"There is nothing I want more," he whispered back. She raised her head, and even through her tears, she was smiling.
"And now you can have it."
The smile that spread across his face was like sunrise. "I can," he whispered, lowering his lips to hers.
This kiss was hungry. Buffy shifted so that she was reclining on the bed. Angel's cool body covered hers, and the blanket was tangled between them. He nibbled on her lower lip and she hummed with pleasure and parted her lips to let him in, sliding one hand up the cool skin of his back to tangle in his sleep-rumpled hair.
His tongue speared into her mouth, tangling with hers, relearning the taste and the feel of her. Buffy moaned into the kiss as his cool hands glided over her skin and he ardently ground his body against hers. The kiss went on and on as a growl rumbled from Angel's chest, and Buffy felt herself growing lightheaded. She tore herself away from him, breathing deeply.
Angel continued his caresses, sliding kisses over her face, fluttering them over her cheeks and eyelids. "God, Buffy, you're so beautiful," he whispered. "So perfect... always so perfect. I love you... I missed you so much, beloved..."
She murmured his name, kissing him again, but she pulled away before the kiss deepened.
"Buffy?" he asked, his voice roughened with desire and tinged with confusion.
She grunted, wriggling until he shifted off of her. "Okay... making out in a bed full of salt -- not so much fun," she complained.
He lifted her onto his lap, turning her slightly so that he could see her back. Her skin was red where her shirt had slid up and the salt had irritated her. He frowned as he smoothed the clinging grains away, his fingers lingering over the softness of her back.
"I can't believe you guys poured salt in my bed," he grumbled.
"On the plus side, your -- "
"Soul is bound," he said with her, smiling. "Yeah. Come on, beloved," he said as he set her back on the bed beside him, carefully away from the thick line of salt. He climbed out of bed and extended a hand to help her up. "Let me change the sheets." The blanket fell away, and she felt her breath catch as he was completely bared to her gaze.
Buffy flew at him, wrapping her arms and legs around him. With a grunt of surprise that became a lusty growl, he returned her fervent kisses. She maneuvered him toward the wall, enjoying the primal sounds that came from him as she laved the sensitive skin of his neck with her tongue. Without warning, she bit down, laughing as the rumble in his chest deepened and he bucked against her.
"Change the sheets later, Angel," she murmured as she attacked his mouth again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
She drowsed atop him, loving the sensation as his voice reverberated through his body beneath her. Sated and blissful, she couldn't rouse herself enough to reply.
"Hmm," she said languidly after several more moments of silence.
"This floor is a little uncomfortable."
"I'm perfectly comfortable."
There was a growl of annoyance in reply, and she giggled and eventually rolled herself off of him. She yelped when her bare skin hit the floor, pushing herself up on her hands to avoid the cold wood. Angel laughed, ignoring her glare.
"Told you," he said, and Buffy thought, If he didn't look so damn sexy with that smug grin, I'd make him pay for that.
Angel stood, grabbing the pants that lay on the armchair by his bed and shrugging them on. He tossed her the shirt, which she slipped over her head, luxuriating in his scent and the feeling of the silk against her skin. Snatching up a chenille throw that was draped over the same chair, he wrapped her in it before sweeping her up into his arms. She glanced around as they moved through his rooms toward the living room.
"Angel, where are we going?"
Satisfied, she snuggled back into his chest, enjoying the ride. Angel settled them on the couch, arranging her on his lap as he covered them both with the blanket. They rested in sleepy silence for a while, and then she felt him sit up straighter.
"How long was I asleep?"
Crap. She shrugged. "I don't know, a few hours?" She buried her head in his chest and mumbled, "Maybe twelve."
"You needed -- "
"I had a meeting at three! And a telecon at 4:30!"
"Oh, Harmony cancelled everything."
"I asked her to. Angel, you were exhausted. Half a dozen people got into your bedroom tonight -- including a Slayer -- and you didn't wake up until I said something! And even then you were out of it until the spell kicked in! Don't tell me you didn't need it!" she argued, craning her neck back to glare at him.
His anger subsided and he slumped back into the cushions. "You're right, I did need it. But Buffy -- "
"I won't do it again, I promise."
She felt him go still. "Again. Does... does that mean you're staying?" he asked neutrally.
"Do you want me to stay?"
"Do you want to stay?"
She sighed, biting back her growl of frustration. "Well, when Wes called me about the spell he found, I was at the airport, getting ready to board a plane back to England. Giles and Willow and the coven could still use my help with the new Council and the new Slayers, Angel. But I'd stay if I had a good reason."
There was no response from him, and she tried to curb her mounting anger. "What I mean is, if someone wanted me to stay, if they asked me to stay, I would."
She shifted in his arms, trying to see his face. His face was taut, his jaw muscle working as he battled with himself. Aggravated, she snapped, "Angel!"
"I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do," he said quietly. Nearly screaming in exasperation, she jumped up from his lap, her hands balled into fists.
"What I want is for you to tell me that you love me! That you need me! That you want me to stay, Angel! That's what I want!"
He caught her hand and pulled her back into his lap, hugging her tightly despite the stiffness with which she was holding herself. "God, Buffy, that's all I want -- it's all I've ever wanted! But I'm still a vampire! And you -- I don't want -- "
"And I'm still a Slayer. But I'm not eighteen anymore, Angel, and the things I've gone through in the past few years -- no one should ever have to go through them, no matter how old they are. I'm not a child, and if I decide this is what I want, then I know what I'm talking about! But -- "
"Stay with me," he whispered into her hair, and she fell silent. "Please, Buffy, stay with me. Don't go, beloved. I need you."
A tear slid down her cheek, despite her efforts to blink them all away. "'Kay," she whispered, and he trembled in relief as he held her tightly against his body. After a moment, she cleared her throat and chuckled. "You guys could probably use an active Slayer on the payroll anyway."
His peaceful, relieved bearing vanished, and the pensive expression that stole over his face was one with which she was way too familiar. She sighed loudly, trying to keep the mood light.
"Don't tell me -- I'm gonna be working under the table."
Not even a hint of a smile. "Buffy..."
"What is it, Angel?"
His gaze roamed around the tastefully -- and expensively -- decorated room. "This place... it's awful, Buffy. I don't want you around it at all, much less all day and all night. I can't -- I don't breathe, and I feel suffocated here."
She cupped his cheek in her hand, and he unconsciously closed his eyes and nuzzled into the warmth of her palm. "Angel... okay, I have to admit, this place does wig me, big time. Everything sets off my spidey sense here -- but nothing so much as that... that... Eve," she spat. "You have got to get rid of her, Angel; something majorly of the bad is up with her," she warned, leaning back against him. She felt him smile against her hair, and she was annoyed.
"Oh?" he murmured. "And that's your professional, Slayerly opinion, is it?"
She popped back up to glare at him. "Yes. Why? Did you think finding out you had sex with her in your office on Halloween might make me jealous?"
His jaw dropped. "Buffy... I..."
"Yeah, yeah, mystically caused sex, not your fault, blah, blah -- that's why she's still alive. But the next time some spell makes everyone horny, I better be the one you have bent over the desk, Angel."
"It was behind the couch," he muttered.
"You are so not helping yourself, mister!"
"It meant nothing, Buffy. Empty sex that neither of us wanted -- "
"Don't know about her," Buffy grumbled, and he chuckled.
"You are everything," Angel whispered, and she relaxed back into his arms.
"And don't you forget it. Now, where was I before I thought of that... slapper?" she mused, and she heard Angel laugh. When she looked at him, she saw his eyebrow was raised. "Yeah, I've been in England too long. Anyway..."
"Do we have to talk?" he murmured, kissing his way down her neck.
"Ohhh," she moaned, rolling her head to one side, shivering at the growl that rumbled through his chest as she bared her neck to him. "Oh, God, Angel... not that I don't love that... and God, do I love that... but you're stalling. Angel, this is serious. You scared the hell out of me earlier."
He stopped what he was doing, and she could feel him closing himself off.
"No, Angel, don't do that. Please, talk to me."
"There's nothing to talk about."
Buffy found herself struggling not to cry, and she was annoyed. The last thing she wanted was for her tears to make him feel even worse. "I don't know how to help you," she told him sadly. "You always know what to say to help me, and I don't know what to say."
He sighed. "Buffy, there's nothing you can say to help me."
"Why? Because you can't be helped? Because redemption isn't possible? Angel, that's bullshit!"
He looked angry and she shook her head impatiently at him.
"Don't you see? You're already redeemed! You say that no matter how many lives you save, you can never make up for the ones you took. It doesn't work that way! Nothing the demon -- who can never cause trouble again, remember -- did can ever take away from all the people you've helped!"
She was angry now, and she jumped up and began to pace. "And if you don't believe that, look at your family!" She whirled around and stared at him, and the sadness in his eyes tore at her heart. "Angel, I know you're all having some problems right now, but they are still your family. Cordelia, Wes, Gunn, Fred, Lorne, me -- we all love you, Angel. And I don't know about them, but I don't even want to think of how empty my life would have been if I had never known you."
Angel said nothing, but she could tell he was listening. At least he hadn't walled himself up so much that she wasn't getting through at all. She sighed. "Angel, you told me once that we can never win, no matter how hard we fight, but that we have to fight anyway because there are things worth fighting for. Families, and innocent people who can't and don't know how to fight for themselves."
"I'm not fighting, Buffy! I'm... pushing paper around!"
"It might not be the kind of fighting you're used to, but it is fighting, Angel. It's just a new style." She smiled. "And if I know anyone who's used to adapting to new fighting styles, it's you, Mr. I've-Mastered-More-Martial-Arts-Than-Most-People-Have-Heard-Of."
His lips quirked upwards in the tiniest flicker of a smile, and Buffy had never been so relieved to see it.
"We can fight together," she told him, and then she closed her eyes as a memory washed over her. Strong is fighting! It's hard, and it's painful, and it's every day. It's what we have to do. And we can do it together! She took a deep breath and opened her eyes, to see the shine of recollection in his eyes as well. She smiled shakily. "You can teach me how to push paper around, and then at night, we'll go out and show the baddies of this town that we haven't forgotten how to do more than that."
"I think..." He looked down, tearing his gaze from hers. "I think I can live with that," he murmured. "As long... as long as you're with me." She breathed a sigh of relief that was nearly a sob as she returned to the couch and curled back up in his arms.
"Don't give up, Angel. You can't give up."
"I know, beloved. I won't now. I was just so... disconnected. So lost..."
"Oh, baby, I know. I was too, and things get so hard. But I'm here now. I won't let you get lost again, okay?" He kissed the top of her head, and though she could tell he was more relaxed and less crushed by the burdens on his soul, there was still something he was holding back. "That's not all, is it?" she asked quietly.
Angel tensed beneath her. "What do you mean?" he asked evasively.
"Angel, I know you haven't told me everything. I know you, and something is bothering you. Something more than just feeling disconnected, and that scares me."
He said nothing, and she snuggled into his chest and tried to gather her thoughts. "Angel... I... I remember heaven. I remember what it was like, and how it made me feel. I didn't look at my reflection very much when I first came back, because I hated it, and I knew that if I looked at myself I would see what I lost."
Buffy turned in his arms and looked deep into his eyes, into the shadows that lingered there -- shadows that were deeper and murkier than she'd ever seen, even during those first months after he'd returned from hell, when he'd been in the depths of self-loathing and despair.
"My reflection looked a lot like your eyes do now. You've lost heaven, Angel. I can see it."
He looked away, unable to hold her gaze. "No," he whispered.
"Then you've lost something that's pretty damn close."
Angel looked back at her, and she saw that his eyes were bright with unshed tears. "Please... I can't... not tonight, Buffy. With everything... it's just too much."
"Angel -- "
To her astonishment, he disentangled himself from her, jumping up and stalking to the window, where he wrapped his arms tightly around himself. Slowly, she got up and made her way across the room to him. She slid her arms around him, holding him tightly, and she pressed a gentle kiss to the gryphon on his back before resting her cheek against his cool skin. He was rigid, and his body shook with tiny tremors of suppressed emotion, but his arms slowly moved to cover hers and hold her close to him.
"Angel, I love you. There is nothing you can say that would make me turn against you. So if you're worried about what I'm going to do about whatever you tell me, don't be. I love you, and whatever it is, we'll deal with it. If you don't want to talk about it, I won't push you. I just want you to be happy, and I'll always be here for you to talk to. So whenever you're ready, you come to me, and we'll talk."
There was no reply, and she was disappointed, but she knew shaking him and demanding he tell her what was wrong -- which was what she really wanted to do -- wouldn't help.
She was about to pull away to go change the sheets on his bed when he quietly said, "It's a really long story."
Buffy hugged him tightly. "It's not like I got another date, Angel. We've got time."
She giggled briefly when her statement drew a jealous growl from him. He turned and took her hand in his, brushing a kiss along her fingers before leading her back to the couch. He sat again, enfolding her in his arms and wrapping the blanket around them both.
She shifted slightly so that she could see his face, and she watched his eyes as he apparently thought up and discarded several ways to begin his story. Finally he smiled weakly.
"I think this was easier the first time."
Her confusion must have shown on her face because he sighed. "Okay. You know how the monks created Dawn and put her into our memories?" When she nodded, he continued. "Well... this is sorta the same... only backwards..."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Angel sighed and shifted in his sleep, drawing her closer to him. He was wrapped around her possessively, and she smiled and snuggled into him, gaining strength and security from the way he held her. She was exhausted, but her mind was whirling with everything Angel had told her. She mulled over it all as she watched the sky growing lighter through the tiny gaps in the blinds they'd closed right before climbing into bed.
It had hurt to learn that Angel had had a child with another woman, and it had hurt even more to learn that the other woman had been Darla. But she had no problems believing his story -- she was the one with a dimensional key for a sister, after all, and it did explain Angel's sudden decision to take Wolfram and Hart's offer.
She brushed a kiss over his skin as she remembered the gratitude in his eyes when he'd realized she didn't think he was insane for what he was telling her. She'd reminded him that she'd told him whatever it was, they would deal. And they would; she knew they would.
They'd talked for a little while longer and he'd promised to sketch Connor for her and show her everything the firm had on the boy. Soon, both of them had begun to nod off. Making the bed had been done in therapeutic silence, although she'd giggled when she'd seen his choice of bed linen...
"Black satin sheets, Angel?" she asked, arching an eyebrow.
"Is that a problem?"
"I've seen that commercial... we're gonna go sliding off and land on our heads."
Angel laughed. "I'll protect you, love, don't worry." He pulled her into his arms with a growl of desire. "Of course, that means I might have to pin you down. Just to keep you safe, you understand..."
Buffy smiled. Things weren't perfect, and deep down, she knew they never would be, but right now, it was easy to ignore that. She snuggled closer to Angel, and though she meant to watch him as he slept, contentment overwhelmed her, and she drifted into peaceful sleep.