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"For fuckssake, Angel, phone's not gonna sodding bite you."

Angel almost jumped out of his skin. He'd been so busy wrestling with his conscience that he hadn't heard Spike come up behind him. Turning, he glared at him, almost nose to nose.

"Will you not do that?"

"Idiot," he added, when Spike only smirked at him.

The smirk became a pout, then an expression of injured innocence. "Was only tryin' to help and this is the thanks I get," Spike said, in an aggrieved tone. "Teach me to play the Good Samaritan."

"Yeah, right." Angel took a step closer the better to look down on him. "Well, I don't need your help. Go away, Spike. Leave me alone."

Spike just looked at him with a 'yeah, like that's going to happen' expression on his face. A minute went by, during which Angel resisted the urge to stand on tiptoe to add a bit more menace to his attempt to look...well, menacing.

What was the point, he asked himself? Spike had never been easily intimidated - not even back when he'd been a milksop little fool of a fledgling vampire, mooning after Drusilla.

"Honestly, Liam," Spike said, at last, "I'd love to toddle off, really I would. Got better things to do than hang around here all day. Can't though. Not till you've done the right thing and phoned Buffy."

Angel bristled. "I will, okay? I don't have to do it right this second."

And definitely not because you tell me to.

Spike bristled back at him. "Yeah, you do. Gotta seize the moment, mate, or next thing you know it'll've slipped through your fingers."

"A day's not gonna -" Angel began, but Spike interrupted him.

" -make any difference? It sodding well might. She could get run over by a bus, you could get dusted by a rogue splinter. Then you'd be sorry. If it was her that got killed, I mean. If it was you, you'd be dead o'course." He didn't say, "and good riddance" out loud but Angel felt like he heard him say it anyway.

"Think you're being a tad over-dramatic," Angel protested, but Spike interrupted him again.

"Or, as is more likely, one of you could get yourself killed in the line of duty. Same thing. Either way, carpe diem, time waits for no man - all that bollocks. Get phoning."

The glaring match resumed, but Angel felt his resistance crumbling.

"All right, all right," he said, at last, and picking up his cellphone, he prodded it gingerly to life.

It was the latest model, as befitted the CEO of a big- and no longer in the slightest bit evil - law firm and Angel hadn't worked out what all the buttons were for just yet. Not that he wanted Spike to know that. Or that his hands were shaking and he felt slightly nauseous.

There followed a surreal thirty seconds of staring at the damn thing, during which he failed to make any sense of it, even though Angel was sure he'd just used it the day before. Had someone swapped it for a different model?

Angel gazed at the phone, feeling helpless, and far worse than that, feeling stupid. When he looked up, it was to find Spike still staring at him, but this time with his head canted to one side and his scarred eyebrow raised sardonically.

"What?" Angel growled. "Also, why are you still here? This is a private conversation, you know."

Spike just gave him a Look - one of those looks with capital letters.

"Right," Spike said. "An' I'll go, soon as it actually starts."

Angel managed not to punch Spike in the face. Somehow.

Instead, he sneered at him.

"Isn't there some errand you should be running for Illyria, Spike, or did she give you the day off?"

But Spike only glanced down at the black t-shirt he was wearing, on which the words Property of Illyria were stencilled in big, blue italics, and smirked again.

"How d'you know I'm not followin' her orders right now?"

He laughed. "Should see your face, mate. It's a picture. Actually, Illyria's bein' Fred at the moment, in memory of poor old Percy, which, before you say anything - an' I can see you're creeped out by it, join the sodding club -is her way of showin' respect, all right? So until she snaps her fingers, you've got my undivided attention."

Oh joy! Angel thought, repressing a full-body shudder. Illyria was as Illyria did.

Aloud, he said, "What's in it for you, Spike? I just don't get it."

Spike rolled his eyes. "An' if that's your attitude, you never will."

He leaned back against the wall, fished his cigarettes out of his duster pocket and lit up. When he looked at Angel again, his eyes were sombre.

"What's in it for me is that Buffy gets to be happy, all right? That's all I care about."

Angel narrowed his eyes, and not just because he hated Spike smoking in his office. "And you, of all people, think she'll be happy with me?"

Spike exhaled more smoke. After a moment, he said, "Yeah, I do." His gaze wandered away across the room. "Much though I might wish otherwise, Buffy loves you. Always has, always will." He gestured at the cellphone in Angel's hand. "Girl left a message saying she wants to talk. Have at it, mate. Stop makin' excuses."

Angel realised he was gaping at Spike like a beached fish. He shut his mouth with a snap and swallowed hard. "Thanks," he said, after a moment, and because he didn't know what else to say.

Spike only rolled his eyes again. "What're you thankin' me for, you twat? Not like I was ever in the running, is it? 'Sides, I'm only standin' here to make sure you don't chicken out. Again."

Angel blinked. "What do you mean, chicken out? I would nev-"

But Spike had begun to count on his fingers. "One: Gem of Amarra. Two: the lost day when you were human, that you were stupid enough to tell me about when we were drunk that time. That's twice you've ruined everything for the both of you. You're not getting away with it a third time."

Angel's indignant reply, about how he'd only been trying to keep Buffy safe, and how much of an asshole Spike was to use this knowledge that he should never have had in the first place to back up his argument, died on his lips in face of the weird things Spike's face was doing.

If Angel didn't know better, he'd have thought Spike was looking at him almost...kindly?

He rubbed his eyes. It had to be a trick of the light.

"I understand why you keep sabotagin' yourself, I 'spose," Spike was saying "You think you're not worthy. Just so happens, I agree with you. But you gotta understand, mate, it isn't about you. It's about her. Whether you deserve happiness or not's neither here or there. She does."

He dropped his cigarette butt on Angel's brand new wood block floor and trod it out in a shower of sparks, ignoring his indignant protests. "So phone her."

Angel's hand was shaking again as he looked up the number in his contacts list and pressed call (and weird how the phone made perfect sense this time). There was a tense moment while it seemed to ring and ring. Then her voice.

"Hello? Angel, is that you?"

Angel swallowed the panic in his throat that was threatening to choke him. "Yes," he managed. "It's me. Hey, Buffy."

As he spoke, he heard the quiet click of a door closing. Spike had gone.

*

"Angel?"

It was only when Buffy said his name for the third time, with more than a hint of irritation in her voice, that Angel jerked out of his funk.

"Yes, yes, I'm here. Er...how are you?"

"I'm fine," she said, though she didn't sound fine. "More to the point, how are you?"

"I'm good," Angel said, automatically ( because that's what people said, right?). "I...er..." he stuttered to a halt again.

"Better than good, I'd have thought?" Buffy was saying, though her voice had a tendency to turn to white noise in Angel's ears, which was weird. It had never done that before.

"Er...I guess?" he ventured, wincing at his uncertain tone.

There was a long silence, during which Angel once again struggled, and failed, to make sentences. Why was this so hard?

Then Buffy said, "This is just nuts. Do you have something to say to me, Angel? Yes, or no?"

Before he could reply, she went on, "Okay, I really thought Spike was exaggerating when he warned me about this. Are you gonna tell me the curse is broken or not?"

Spike had warned her? She already knew?

Indignation helped Angel find his voice at last. "Don't listen to anything he says, Buffy. There's nothing wrong with me. It'sjustthatthecurseisbrokenbutI'mstillavampireandyoudeservebetterpleaseforgivemebutIstillthinkyoudeservebetterandIknowIshouldhavecalledyouearlierandI'macoward. Sorry!"

Yet another silence, shorter this time. "Okay," she said, at the end of it. "Maybe it's just crappy signal, but the only word I got out of that was 'sorry.' Can you repeat what you just said?"

Angel banged his forehead against the wall. Once, twice. Stop being a jerk, you...you jerk, he told himself.

"I said, I'm sorry I didn't call you sooner," he choked out."The minute I found out the curse was broken, I mean. I was a coward, Buffy. I don't...I can't..."

"Yeah," she said. "You really were."

The disappointment in her voice was worse than in Angel's gloomiest imaginings.

"I'm sorry," he groaned. "I'm so sorry."

"Yeah, you already said that. Honestly, Angel, I don't know why I love you sometimes. You're such a lunkhead."

Despite himself, Angel's dead heart made a valiant attempt to leap in his chest. Love? She still loved him?

He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder, in case Spike was standing there with an I-told-you-so expression on his face.

"You love me?" he said. "I mean, I love you, but I thought maybe you didn't any more...I mean, I would've understood if you..."

"...had gotten tired of all the melodrama and moved on?" she finished for him.

There was another silence. "Er...yeah. Something like that."

"I can't say it's not been tempting at times," Buffy sighed. "Actually, it's looking tempting right about now. Care to change that by, say, explaining why you didn't call me right away - but this time break it down into actual sentences, okay?"

Angel rested his forehead against the wall, staring down at the white dusting of crumbled plaster on his shoes.

"I want to," he said. "But it all sounds so dumb. You're gonna hate me, Buffy. I know you are. Can't we just meet up and talk about it in person?"

"Well, see, I'm kind of busy here," she said," trying to build a Slayer army and all. Also, on the other side of the Atlantic. I'm not a little girl any more, Angel. I have things to do. Important things. I'd need a damn good reason to drop everything to come see you."

Angel's heart plummeted into his boots. "I understand."

"No you don't!" Suddenly, she was shouting. "You have no idea how long I've waited for this. For you to call and tell me the curse is broken and we can finally be together. But when it happens, do you call? No. Instead, I have to hear it second hand - and even then only because Spike - Spike, of all people - takes it upon himself to play matchmaker."

"I...he..."

Angel was beginning to wonder if he would ever be able to form a coherent sentence again. Not that it would currently matter, since Buffy wasn't letting him get a word in edgewise.

"I could understand, you know?" she was saying. "If Cordy was still alive, or if your kid was still going through stuff, or if you were still working for Evil Incorporated. But Cordy's gone, Connor's doing great, Spike says, and the Wolf, Ram and Hart are banished from this dimension for good. So it can't be any of that."

Her angry tone grew sad suddenly - almost resigned.

"I could even understand it if you just didn't feel that way about me anymore. People change. Even vampires. Look at Spike. But it's not that, is it, Angel?"

"Is it?" she said again, sounding uncertain suddenly. "Because if it is, you need to tell me."

"No!" Angel said, hastily. "It's not that at all. It's not you -"

"If you're about to say, it's not you, it's me," she cut in, "just...don't, Angel, okay?"

"But it is," Angel stuttered. "It is me. Okay, so the curse is gone, but I'm still a vampire. I still drink blood. I still can't go out in the sun without bursting into flames. I'm not...I can't be what you want or need. So I just thought, maybe it's better if I stay away. Leave you in peace. Let you live your life."

"Like you have been doing, you mean?" she shot back. "All these years, when you know full well I've been miserable? How about instead of doing what you think is best for me, you try asking me what I think is best for me and doing that instead? Or is it that you can't deal with me now I'm a grownup, huh, is that it?"

Angel realised he was rocking to-and-fro, clutching the cellphone to his ear with one hand and a handful of his hair with the other. He made a conscious effort to stop himself.

"I...I..." he stuttered. "It's not that, really it's - "

But she interrupted him again. "No, maybe you're right. We're better off apart since we can't seem to talk these days without arguing - hey!"

There was a yelp, then a kind of whooshing sound, then silence.

Angel held the cellphone away from his ear, shook it, put it to his ear again. "Buffy? Are you there?"

But it was pretty clear she wasn't. What the hell had just happened?

"Buffy!" Angel shouted, into the void. Panic gripped him. Had some demon attacked her? He had to get to her! He had to -

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a tornado appeared in the room. Papers flew off Angel's desk in all directions, spiralling up into the whirling roil of black air, split by bolts of indigo coloured lightning. The furniture began to shake. A moment later, Angel's desk was scraping across the floor in a slow graceless circle, its legs leaving deep gouges in the long-suffering parquet. Angel flung himself behind the couch just in time, as his collection of ancient weapons detached themselves from the walls and began to fly in all directions.

Then, just as the necro-tempered glass in the windows started to bulge outwards under the force of the wind, it began to subside. The desk came to a juddering halt as the tornado shrank down, down, to reveal the slim form of Illyria at its heart, a struggling Buffy flung over her shoulder.

"Take this." Illyria slung Buffy down unceremoniously onto the couch Angel was hiding behind. "My pet tells me that you and this female mortal are 'doing his head in' and the only way to heal his affliction is to bring her to you and let you 'slug it out' in person."

Illyria tilted her head to one side and treated Angel to her best indigo-eyed death glare.

"I do not understand any of these terms," she pronounced, crossly, "least of all why you wish to fling molluscs at each other, but you will desist from interfering with my property on pain of an eternity of suffering the like of which you cannot conceive. I will not warn you again."

With a final, threatening glare, she flung open the door, stalked stiff-backed from the room and slammed it behind her.

*

There was stunned silence in her wake, broken only by the sound of scattered papers floating back to earth. Then, Buffy said,

"So that's Illyria, huh?"

"Yes, that's her." Angel was eyeing the wall just above his head, where an ancient throwing axe had just missed giving him a new centre parting."She's kind of...well, she still thinks she's God-King of the universe."

"But she's not, right?" Buffy said, sounding almost rattled. "Not any more, I mean?"

"Oh no. No, of course not," Angel agreed, with more certainty than he felt. "At least, I don't think so."

"And she's Spike's girlfriend now?" Buffy went on, in an incredulous tone. "What is with him and crazy brunettes?"

Angel flinched. "Whatever you do, Buffy, don't let her hear you say that."

"Which part?" Buffy asked. "The girlfriend part, or the crazy part?"

Angel grimaced. "To be on the safe side, both."

They stared at each other for a moment, as if noticing each other for the first time

A last, Angel said,

"I like your hair." He winced at how lame it sounded, but Buffy looked pleased.

"Really? I wasn't sure about it at first. I've never had such short hair before."

"No," Angel assured her. " You look great. It suits you."

"Thank you." After a moment, she added," I think it's safe to come out now."

"What?" Angel blinked at her, then realised he was still huddled behind the couch. "Oh, right."

He stood up, walked around the couch and sat down on the other end of it from her, very aware of Buffy's eyes on him.

"You look pretty good too," Buffy said.

"Thanks." Angel hunched his shoulders, embarrassed by the compliment. "I've been working out a lot."

"I can tell." Buffy had been gazing at him appreciatively. Then she frowned. "You're still an asshole, though, and a dummy, and...and...a complete jerk."

Angel hung his head. "I know. I'm sorry, Buffy."

"I'm really mad at you," she insisted, "so don't think just because your pet hell-god dragged me here against my will I'm gonna fall into your arms just like that."

Angel winced again, not least at her oh-so-wildly inaccurate description of Illyria. "I wouldn't think that, Buffy, I swear. Not ever. Especially not now. I've been so stupid. You have every right to be angry with me."

There was yet another of those awkward silences, though this one seemed even more awkward somehow. Then, Buffy said, "Oh, for heaven's sake."

A moment later, her legs were astride Angel's, her hard little hands framing his face, and her tongue rammed down his throat. Angel gasped in surprise. His arms flailed in shock, but after a moment, they came to rest across the small of Buffy's back. Soon, they were holding her closer, almost cradling her against him (he'd forgotten just how tiny she was) while he returned her kiss, the sound of her heartbeat pounding in his ears.

When finally she let him go, he gazed up at her, almost awestruck. "Buffy...?"

"Yeah?" She was gazing back at him out of green eyes gone smoky with lust, but then she frowned again. "I'm still mad at you, just so you know."

"I can tell."

Her eyes narrowed and Angel held up his hands in surrender.

"No really, I mean it. Like I said, I don't blame you. I'm mad at me too. It's just...it's just..."

"It's just what?" she squeezed his legs together harder between hers, which was...actually quite distracting.

Angel took a deep breath, trying to keep himself under control. "It's just that what I said is true, or kinda anyway. Okay, so the curse is gone, and the Kalderash elders say it won't be coming back. They also say they realise now that it was a pretty dumb curse in the first place."

"Got that right," Buffy muttered under her breath.

"But they still expect me to atone," Angel went on, "and I'm still a vampire - an immortal dead thing that drinks blood. I just...I just felt it was still unfair - wrong, even - to foist myself on you and get in the way of you finding a nice, normal guy who can make you happy."

He shrugged apologetically. "I'm an asshole - a dummy - a jerk. I'm every name you wanna call me. But I swear, Buffy, I never meant to hurt you. I..."

He licked his lips, because even to him it sounded lame. "I meant well."

She'd been gazing into his eyes while he was speaking, her expression running a gamut of emotions, some of which Angel couldn't put a name to, though he was pretty sure exasperation was in there somewhere.

"Yeah," she agreed, when he'd finished. "That's what Spike said."

Angel frowned. Spike's name was coming up way too much in this conversation for his liking.

"Oh, he did, did he? What else has he been saying?"

Just for a moment, fear gripped Angel that Spike had told Buffy about the Oracles' missing day. But surely even Spike wasn't a big enough a-hole to do that?

"Relax," Buffy said. "Spike's on your side, Angel. Really." She frowned. "Okay, maybe that's not quite true. More like, he's on my side. But that kind of makes him on your side too. Anyway, he said you were a 'right 'nana.'"

Angel blinked. "He called me a banana?"

"No, silly." Buffy shifted in his lap, making the distraction even harder to ignore. "A 'nana. He said it was a term of endearment but that I wasn't to tell you so."

"But you just did."

"Sure." She shifted again, and Angel saw stars this time. "I couldn't let him have all the fun at your expense, now could I?"

"No," Angel managed to gasp out. "I guess not."

Buffy bent her head and kissed him again. "So we're good now?"

"I..." Angel forced himself to put her gently back. "There's still the vampire thing. And what about Mr Normal?"

Buffy shrugged. "I've tried normal. If you ask me, it's overrated."

"Kids, then," Angel pleaded. "Don't you want children, Buffy? That's something I can never give you."

This time, Buffy rolled her eyes. "Says the vampire with the teenage son. You've made one, Angel. We can make another, when and if we're ready for it."

She made to kiss him again, but Angel still held her back. "I think Connor was a one-time deal."

"You don't know that. Stop making excuses."

"I'm not," Angel insisted. "I just want you to understand what you're getting into, that's all."

"Like I haven't understood since I was sixteen years old. I'm here, aren't I?" She frowned again. "I mean, I was dragged here against my will, sure, but if this wasn't what I wanted, I'd be out that door and half way back to England by now, insane god-king or no."

"Really?" Angel gazed into her eyes, searching for the tiniest smidgen of doubt. He didn't find it.

"Really," she said, and this time when she kissed him, he kissed her back.

Before long, he couldn't even remember what they'd been arguing about.

Part of him did take on board the muffled cheering outside the door, abruptly cut off by an imperious, "To me, my pet," but after that, nothing.

Except perfect happiness.