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well tell her that I miss our little talks

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Buffy doesn’t make a deal of it the first few weeks: she and Angel might do the talking thing now, but life gets busy and it’s not like she has ANGEL TIME written in pen on the kitchen calendar. (Note to self: start organizing things on the kitchen calendar. Note to self: get a kitchen calendar.) Sure, when they do talk she takes the phone up to her room and locks the door, and Dawn always complains that it’s not fair for Buffy to tie up the line the whole night, what if they have an emergency (“Talking with Janice doesn’t count as an emergency,” Buffy reminds her). But after a while, it doesn’t seem like regular demon trouble taking up his time; instead it starts to make her think of those weeks when Angel went silent because he was fighting the torture of being dragged deeper and deeper by Darla, of the way he had admitted quietly afterward that her reaching out sometimes felt like the only thing that had dragged him back from making some horrible, permanent mistake.

Telling herself to relax works for about one night, but then she leaves a group of vampires bloody and moaning before she stakes them, and still almost finds herself beaten by one that got away from her. Angel out of contact is too much on top of everything with Willow, on top of Giles far away, and the lingering, clawed thoughts of Spike, wherever he is. When she gets home, she calls his cell phone before she even takes a shower, just to set her mind at ease. He doesn’t pick up, no matter how many times she tries. Finally she digs out the main number for Angel Investigations.

A woman answers. From the twang, she guesses it must be Fred, who she’s heard about from Angel though never actually spoken to, but her greeting piles over itself, irritated and edgy, lacking the bright energy Angel always described. She perks up a little when Buffy introduces herself, but nosedives again when Buffy asks for Angel. There's basically cartoony whistling sound, like her optimism is Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff.

“I was hoping you would say that you'd heard from him,” Fred says quietly.

“It kinda sounds like I'm hanging even more in the dark even more than you are,” Buffy says, trying for breezy and casual. She twists the phone cord around her finger.

Fred explains as much as she knows. When Dawn gets back from her sleepover the next morning, Buffy gives her the option of staying with Xander or repacking her bag.

“I'm coming,” Dawn tells her as soon as she understands. “I love Angel.”

She means it in the simplest way, filled with memories of watching Titanic and Casablanca with contemporary behind the scenes commentary, or advice awkwardly given but sincerely meant. Buffy thinks with worn sadness of all the time she spent being unable to say the words aloud without judgment.

“Then let's go find him.”

They don’t take the time to get road trip supplies, and it quickly becomes clear that it was a mistake. Within an hour Dawn has fallen into a grumpy, put-upon silence, leaving Buffy to think about what she should have brought: drinks, good CDs, snack mixes of choice, both trail and Chex. Instead she has half a warmish old water bottle, whatever she can find on the radio, and, midafternoon, drive-through coffee and a half dozen doughnuts.

Dawn perks up when they get to LA; it’s been a couple years since she was there, and she stares avidly at the shops and buildings, and basically co-manages the tour that Fred offers once they get to the hotel. After the fifth architectural detail or funny story she tells at they pass something new, Buffy elbows her and hopes that Fred doesn’t notice. Just because Dawn stayed here for a few weeks when they needed somewhere to keep her safe as they discovered how to beat Glory, doesn’t make her the expert.

Dawn gives a look that says, Or does it? like she can tell what Buffy’s thinking. All Buffy can do is glare. Fred seems subdued, a slump in her shoulders despite the clear effort she’s investing into pep, and it feels mean to stick her with a sister fight just now.

Buffy doesn’t need to see the way Fred’s face falls or notice how Dawn’s gotten quiet to know they’re approaching Angel’s room. When she steps inside, it takes her a moment to notice that the other two have let her go in alone.

She walks around carefully, as if someone might be sleeping. It feels somehow simultaneously creepy, crime-sceney, and comforting. She recognizes one of the blankets she used to sleep under in Sunnydale, and maybe she hasn’t read them, but a lot of the books are familiar; she would run her fingers along their burnished spines and think how smart Angel was, how much time he had had to learn things. The disorder around the room - a towel on the floor, a handful of loose change on the bureau - feels new to her, as if she’s seeing full-on some private Angel that she’s only ever glimpsed before. But she can’t even get excited about getting that insight the way that she once would have. The way everything seems frozen in the moment Angel left it weeks ago depresses her: the bed disheveled, a newspaper folded off-center on a side table, a layer of dust everywhere.

Everyone’s downstairs when Buffy finishes in Angel’s room. She nods at Wesley, knowing that neither of them are in the mood for old Watcher jokes. He looks older, worn-out, and he stands away from the others. Gunn is easy to recognize, standing there with his arms crossed, considering her. Fred moves closer to him.

That just leaves the odd girl out, a redhead sitting casually on the awkward-looking round centerpiece chair. From her conversations with Angel, Buffy guesses that this is Justine.

She remembers the way Angel had described her over the phone, catching her up on everything that had been happening in his life. It seemed to Buffy that Justine was some kind of Faith/Gunn hybrid, checking all the troubled teen and broken family boxes that made Angel want to help her. It helped, too, that they kept finding her staking vamps every time they went hunting. She seemed to fit right in.

The rockiest part, Angel had told Buffy, was when he’d been forced to kill an old vampire hunter named Daniel Holtz. His presence in twenty-first century LA was inexplicable, but his continued attacks on Angel and his team had meant that any explanation he might have been willing to give was cut short. Justine had been there, and Angel paused short of describing her reaction to watching him kill a human being. Buffy could imagine it. Not imaginary: the scrubbing sound in the background on Angel’s end of the phone.

“Are you cleaning?” she’d asked.

The scrubbing stopped, then restarted, subdued, like he was trying to hide from her while telling himself that he didn’t need to hide anything. “....It’s possible.”

“You know,” Buffy said, flipping to her back on her bed, “I actually did learn some psych back in my college days.”

“You’re just on leave,” Angel said, his automatic response whenever she mentioned UC Sunnydale as part of the Buffy rearview mirror collection. He kept offering money and study help, anything he thought would convince her back into student life. Maybe he felt bad for her, that she’d had to leave because she couldn’t deal with being student-Buffy and daughter-Buffy and guardian-Buffy and mourning-Buffy all at one, maybe he was jealous that he never got the chance to be a college student and she was wasting her opportunity, but he didn’t push about it. It was like he just wanted to remind her that the option was still there if she wanted it.

She hugged a pillow against her chest. She’d sign him up for a couple of community college mailing lists; maybe sitting in the back of some dense philosophy class would remind him why college wasn’t for everyone, or at least distract him.

Her luck: he’d get all nerdy enthusi-Angel and just double down on the college fun talk.

She really missed him.

“Anyway,” she recalled herself. “I’m thinking maybe going all in on the spick and span could have something to do with you turning the dial up to Angel on the Broodometer.”

He laughed a little, an honest sound. “Maybe it has to do with the fact that I’m cleaning up Terrebactor slime when I haven’t even seen one in six months.”


More scrubby sounds, vigorous at first, then turning to meditative. His voice lowered. “Or maybe I’m trying to forget the look on her face.”

“You probably don’t need me to say it,” Buffy said, though he almost always did, “but you shouldn’t feel guilty about defending yourself from someone dangerous. You’re allowed to think that you’re worth more than him, even if he was the one with the pulse.”

She’d become used to his long silences on the phone. She waited through it in a way she wouldn’t have for anyone else’s. Finally he said, “You know, maybe the psychology department at UC Sunnydale wasn’t all bad.”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” she said with a little smile, and changed the topic.

Justine looks calm as Buffy observes her, none of the strain Buffy sees on the faces of the others. There’s a tiny uptick to the corners of her mouth that Buffy doesn’t like.

“So what’s been the gameplan so far in this round of Where In the World Are Cordy and Angel?” Buffy asks.

“We’ve been working really hard at it,” Justine says, voice carefully earnest, face deliberately blank. Wesley flinches, and Gunn gives her a quick, sharp glance, like a reflex he doesn’t even register.

“It’s hard between trying to stay on top of regular cases, you know, but we’ve been looking for witnesses,” Fred starts. Buffy listens and continues to watch Justine out of the corner of her eye.

Later, Buffy corners Wes in the cavernous kitchen. Something’s obviously going on with him. Strangely, although her relationship with him ended pretty much in the negative column several years ago, she feels like it’s somehow grown based on her conversations with Angel; she trusts him more than the others, and he’s the only one who seems to see something wrong with Justine.

“What do you think happened?” she asks, voice low. Wesley speaks with a vague sense of urgency, but a more overwhelming tiredness, a worn feeling to his words as if he’s telling her out of courtesy rather than because he expects to be believed.

“When Angel invited Justine to begin living here and working with us, I supported him. I helped her settle in, and put aside whatever misgivings I had over a clearly very troubled young person joining us.”

Buffy leans against the counter, crossing her arms with a laugh. “You really were top of your class in Watcher school, huh? Got a real handle on dealing with teenaged girls with issues.”

Instead of looking peevish as he might once have over such a remark, Wes leans against the opposite counter, tilting his head a bit to either side. Point Buffy. “Even when I found a prophecy that spoke of Angel being betrayed, and that betrayal having catastrophic consequences, I tried to convince myself that I was being judgemental. But the more I considered the prophecy and Justine’s coincidental appearance, the minimal details she’d provided about her background, the more certain I became that she was infiltrating the group purposefully. I tried to convince Justine to leave, and confronted Angel about her. He didn’t take either particularly well,” he finishes dryly.

“You mean that you guys talked it out over some tea and then shook hands and agreed to disagree, right?”

“He hit me actually.” Wes turns his face into the light, and Buffy can see the shadow of a lingering bruise. “He was quite taken with Justine. I think he identified with her a bit too much, and saw her rehabilitation, providing her with a family and support structure, as part of his redemption. He assumed that I was upset that he was investing so much into her and letting the business fall by the wayside, and perhaps I was.” His jaw sets, despite the small flinch he gives, as if it’s somehow still tender. “But I’m not wrong. Justine knows more than she’s saying.”

Of all the allies to find… “What has she said when you’ve asked her?”

“In front of the others, she plays distraught, although not very well. When I’ve confronted her about it alone, she’s more malevolent, hinting that I’m right, but never saying anything actionable. Fred and Gunn know my suspicions, but they seem to see taking care of her as their duty to Angel. I’ve managed to stay around to keep an eye on her, but things have gotten rather tense.”

“I was wondering why I couldn’t get a knife through the air back there,” Buffy agrees. “So we need to figure out a way to get her to talk.”

Wesley spreads his hands. “I’m open to ideas.”

Buffy looks around the kitchen for a minute. “I think,” she says slowly, “that I might have one of those.”

That night, Buffy makes cocoa with little marshmallows. “I think we all need something cozy,” she said, pouring mugs for everyone.

She’s going to have to send Wesley to acting school. Even just watching him attempting subtly fake sips is painful. Luckily no one else seems to notice.

Buffy hefts Justine up once the group is passed out and quiet. “Lead the way,” she tells Wes, and weighs down her note for Dawn on the front counter. She’ll see it once they all wake up.

Justine laughs when she stirs to find herself tied to a chair in Wes’s apartment. For once, Buffy almost wishes Faith were here to do this. She’d slap Justine without even thinking about it, take control of the situation expertly. Buffy is a bit out of her depth, and Wesley has set his face against looking squeamish.

“Where’s Angel?” Buffy asks, and Justine laughs again, or maybe still. Buffy takes a crowbar off the kitchen table and holds her eye as she bends it in half. “Don’t play with me,” she says.

“How do I know that’s even real?” Justine asks immediately, which is good. She’s not laughing anymore, and is at least a bit freaked. Buffy taps the metal against her leg. Or maybe tap is a bad way of describing it; there will probably be a bruise. Justine hisses before she can stop herself.

“Where’s Angel?” Buffy asks again.

“He talks about you, you know.” Justine says it in a casual way that reminds Buffy of the best high school bullies she’s known, the ones whose compliment on your shoes will bother you all day for reasons you can’t entirely figure out. “Well, talked about you. He let me look through his books. Boring as shit, but he liked when I’d flip around them.” Buffy doesn’t disagree with the assessment of Angel’s reading taste - she’s teased him about it herself more than once - but hearing it with this mocking, this total lack of care, makes her teeth clench. “He had a picture of you in one of them. Just fell right out, and he was so happy to talk about you. I barely even had to play up the starry eyes.” She bats her lashes, and Wesley hisses from behind Buffy’s shoulder.

After a moment, he says, “I’m glad, at least, that we’ve done away with the pretense.” It’s fairly clear that he’s putting effort into sounding stoic, but Buffy appreciates the attempt anyway.

Justine shrugs as much as she can. “What’s the point of pretending? You knew all along, but good luck proving anything, and even more luck actually finding anything.”

Buffy steps forward a little. She crouches in front of Justine, feeling the ease of her own balance. “Angel took you in,” she says softly. “He believes in second chances, and third chances, and maybe too many chances. He thinks that he’s made mistakes so he owes it to people to help them with theirs. But I’m different.” Buffy can feel Wesley watching her, but she holds eye contact with the woman in front of her. “I think there’s a certain number of chances and then you’ve run out. And thinking about how you stabbed Angel in the back, it feels like your counter is way past zero. So now you’re going to tell me how to find him.”

Justine considers her. She leans forward a bit. “You can’t tell someone what you don’t know,” she says, teasing, soft. She’s giving off just enough of a crazy Dru vibe to be an unpleasant reminder.

“You’ve already admitted that you had a hand in Angel’s disappearance,” Wesley points out, but it seems to Buffy foolish to try to reason with her. Buffy takes a gag and lifts it. She was hoping that they wouldn’t have to move on to the next step on the plan, because she doesn’t have much of a next step. Or really any.

Justine starts humming lightly. Definite Dru vibes, which Buffy can do without.

“Where’s Cordelia?” she tries once more.

“That was just a lucky coincidence,” Justine says, a smile curling her mouth. “Something on my side, I guess.”

Buffy glances at Wesley, who makes a shrug with his eyebrows. Buffy’s not sure whether she’s telling the whole truth either, but she’s inclined to think she is. Or she really is just crazy, and torture won’t get the truth either way.

They put the gag in, though it still allows Justine to hum to herself, and close themselves in the bedroom. Buffy glances around long enough to see that the place looks normal, but somehow being inside it still feels icky (Wesley sleeps here. Wesley sleeps here), like when she’d been forced to use her grandma’s private bathroom as a child.

“What do we do now?”

Wes adjusts his glasses, and for a fierce moment, Buffy wishes Giles was here. But he’s not, it’s just her and Wesley and three probably furious people waking up at the Hyperion and Angel and Cordy still missing and Justine humming outside the door.

“What’s she humming?” she asks, because it sounds familiar.

Wesley listens. “It’s an older song,” he says after a moment. “Beyond the—”

“Sea,” Buffy finishes, catching in a sharp, collapsing breath. She remembers now her parents dancing through the living room to that song. “She’s teasing us.”

Wesley looks grim. “If she truly sank him down into the ocean… Buffy, the Pacific is the largest ocean on earth, and the deepest. Even with a grid search, even if we convince Justine to hint at where she might have dropped him in, it could take years to find him. I’m not even sure what we would be looking for. If she was smart, and we seem to have evidence that she is, she’ll have used a container without metal that could be detected. Angel himself emits no magical trace, and I imagine a signpost at the spot would be too much to hope for.”

Buffy finds herself sitting on the edge of his bed. Something in the back of her mind starts to obsess about how weird that is, but she can’t focus on that right now. Wesley’s said something that’s running through her brain, trying to catch. It takes a minute, but she looks up at Wesley with renewed fire in her eyes.

“Angel hasn’t gotten super into blood transfusions since Sunnydale, has he?”

It takes several hours for Wes to do the research and collect the necessary materials. They do as much as they can in front of Justine. Buffy wants her to watch her careful, terrible plan fall apart.

Finally, they’re ready to start. Buffy and Wes sit cross-legged facing each other, an enormous map of California and the adjacent ocean open flat between the two of them. He does most of the work, the chanting and the herbs, checking the book between steps. Buffy is used to this kind of thing from WIllow, though she can tell that Wes isn’t as natural at it; she can’t actually understand, but there’s a sense that he speaks magic with a little accent. He points to Buffy when it’s her turn, and she nicks her finger with the silver knife they got on sale at the closest magic store, letting the blood fall into the bowl that Wes has been adding to. Her blood, the blood that had healed Angel, that is hopefully still sheltered somewhere in his body. A few more words, and Buffy can tell from the shift in energy in the room that it’s done. Wes begins to stare at the map intently, the feeling of magic seeming to brighten his eyes and ripple along his hair like static. Justine lets out a low, startled sound, the legs of her chair scraping awkwardly against the floor.

A little light flashes on the map, like calling to like. The spot looks pretty generically watery, but Buffy gasps in a breath as Wes frantically shuffles through the other maps they’ve gotten, searching for a more detailed one of that area. They have to do the spell three times over on successively more precise maps before Wes is satisfied that they’ll be able to find the spot if they sail out.

Getting Justine, tied, gagged, and still conscious, into the car is tricky, but they manage it. If they left her alone, neither of them is certain she’d be there when they got back.

Wes finds a boat. It’s after dark, no one at the dock to watch them load a struggling Justine on to round out the crew. The engine is louder than Buffy had expected, but no one comes to check as Wes steers them out onto the open ocean. After some trial and error, they find that Buffy is a poor navigator, and even less reliable at the wheel of the boat. She stays close enough to be able to help if necessary, but mostly she looks out on the water.

Last summer she’d been too wound up from everything that had happened with Mom and Dawn and Glory, and everything they’d avoided happening, to enjoy much. She had thought she’d get to spend this summer as normally as anyone could with a mystical sister, a best friend and his demon ex, and another, long-distance best friend recouping from an attempt to destroy the world. But she can’t find any regret inside that she’d disrupted her own plans to find Angel. It certainly wasn’t normal, but it wasn’t a choice, either. Angel needed help and she came. It was done.

The water, as she looks out, is so deep, endlessly, unknowably deep. She swallows, trying to stop thinking about Angel all the way down there.

“How close are we?” she asks.

Wesley says tersely, “Very,” and then nearly immediately, “Here!” As he finishes, a little ping sounds: the signal for detected metal.

“Apparently not that smart,” Buffy says, glancing at Justine, and then she’s pulling on the diving gear they’d bought.

Buffy likes the beach for showing off a cute swimsuit or having a picnic with friends. She doesn’t swim often, and certainly not this deep. The thought of it, the dangerous weight of the water, doesn’t even occur to her as she dives, cutting downward as quickly as she can, though the pace seems impossibly slow.

When she finds the box and brushes the light across, Angel stirs. He looks like anyone just waking up from a nap. He looks more dead than she’s ever seen him. Her body’s instincts are the only thing that keep her from crying away her air and her vision into the ocean.

Wesley knows what to do when they bring Angel up to the surface. He has blood ready as soon as they’ve gotten Angel out, pig first, then cow. Buffy lifts his head and helps him drink, and Angel drains the containers in grave silence. His eyes don’t open. His body seems deathly light in her arms, his face bleached rather than his usual pale.

“Repeat the part you said about brain damage,” Buffy asks carefully, her stare fixed on Angel’s face as he still does not stir.

But Wes shakes his head as if refusing to even entertain the thought. It looks, Buffy thinks, a little frantic, but instead of alarming her, she’s bolstered by it. Usually she’s the only one with faith in Angel when things seem lost. Wesley takes off his jacket so roughly that he yanks the sleeves inside out, and goes to unbutton his shirt cuff. “He needs something fresher, stronger.”

“Then I’ll do it.”


“You’re the driver and the man with the map,” Buffy reminds him. “Justine can take over my extremely essential job of staring out at the water.”

After a pause, he indicates for her to go ahead. She’s already wearing a tank top, like she’d planned for easy access. She knows that Wes would have just used his wrist, knows that he’s watching with uncomfortable closeness. She leans over Angel anyway, offering her throat.

Angel’s bite feels like a kiss.

Well, she thinks, giddily, he’s had a long time to practice.

Even weak and insensate like this, his hands know how to hold her, cradling her head despite the awkward angle. For a moment she can’t think at all, then all her worries blend together - that even her blood won’t be enough, that Angel won’t stop in time, that Wes won’t be able to stop him, that Wes will stop him too soon - and then it’s over.

Angel still looks awful, but a living kind of awful, and Buffy will take it without question. Wesley clears his throat and hands her a Band-aid, even though the bite is already healing over once more, then heads for the stairs.

“I’ll get us back to land,” he says.

Buffy finds a towel to act as a pretend pillow; they hadn’t exactly picked up a luxury cruiser for their big rescue mission, and the table Angel’s resting on is hard wood. Angel keeps mouthing words, eyes looking elsewhere from her as she sits next to him. She hates that the only time she sees him so out of control is when he’s practically curled up on Death’s welcome mat.

“Just once I want to see you drunk,” she tells him, pretending away a sniffle. She holds his hand in hers. “Or catch you dancing to bad old music on the radio.”

“Come over while I’m in the kitchen,” he croaks quietly. “Although I think we’ll have a difference of opinion about what’s bad old music.”

She sobs out a laugh; she thought that only happened in movies.

“Next time,” she tells him, “let’s just do a regular trip. You call me, ask me to come visit, you try to convince me to go to some museum with night hours, I have you make it up to me by cooking me breakfast. The whole getting kidnapped and dropped into the ocean thing? I’m over it.”

“Yeah. I am too.” Angel tries to lever himself up. He winces. His arms and shoulders tremble. Buffy helps him sit up. Seeing Angel so vulnerable feels both lucky and heavy. It reminds her of the times she’s seen him like this before, the pain of that, even as he’d tried to prevent her from ever having to take care of him.

“Is it just you and Wes?” he asks quietly.

“Justine is here too.” Buffy keeps her voice calm. Angel just nods. “Gunn and Fred have been looking for you, but maybe you’ve been a little too successful in your pro Justine campaign. They’ve got buttons and t-shirts and everything.” When he still doesn’t speak, she says softly, “They were doing it because they love you.”

Angel shakes his head. He tries to stand, but is still too weak. When Buffy goes to support him, she finds she’s taking almost all of his weight. She’s glad that she gave him her blood. She can’t imagine what condition he’d be in without the Unleaded Slayer Plus.

Wes glances up at them as they they get up to the deck. He seems torn between wanting to go over and hug Angel, and gratitude that driving the boat gives him an excuse to stay away.

“I’m sorry,” Angel says when they get over to him. “I made a mistake, not listening to you.”

Wesley shakes his head. “Considering the cause, I respect you more for your dedication.”

“And I’ll try not to punch you again.”

“I certainly won’t argue with you. I’m not particularly eager to relive the experience.”

Buffy waits for them to hug, but nothing happens. She rolls her eyes, and helps Angel over to where Justine is sitting, knees up against her chest, back against the deck railing.

Angel manages to crouch in front of her, sliding the gag out of her mouth. For a moment Buffy thinks she’s going to spit at him, but then Angel says, “Don’t,” with gritted iron in his voice and she just glares instead. It almost reminds Buffy of Dawn, the eye daggers of unfairness, a haughty teenaged type of being misunderstood. Except hopefully her sister hasn’t dropped anyone into the ocean to starve into insanity.

“So,” says Angel. “How long had you been working with Holtz?”

“Does it matter?”

“I’m just trying to get a handle on the whole picture,” Angel tells her, “and since the other option is starting with your decision that I needed to get closer to nature, I’d answer this question instead.” His voice has hardened, become aggressive instead of purposefully calm, and there’s something shaking underneath, too. The waves press against and away as they cut back toward the shore, and Buffy thinks about all kinds of prisons, all kinds of tortures.

“He first found me about a year ago,” Justine finally admits. “But I didn’t hear about the plan for a few months.”

“When he was sure you would be faithful.”

Justine snorts. “Yeah.” Her eyes look down toward her hand, but it’s as if her mind doesn’t take in the image. “It wasn’t too hard to convince me - I’d known for years that we needed to take care of your kind.”

There’s so much viciousness in her tone that Buffy shifts forward, but before she can even say anything, Angel meets her eyes and she lets him continue.

“Was water always the plan, or did you decide to get creative?”

For the first time, Justine looks away. “There were different ideas, depending on where we could get you to go.” She looks back at Angel. “Holtz told me that when I spent time with you I might start to doubt, I might start to forget, but that in the end, you would show me that you were still a monster, and he was right. After all your talk of guilt, of being reformed, you just killed him. You snapped his neck and I knew that you needed to lie suffering at the bottom of the ocean.”

Buffy flinches. Angel doesn’t. He looks at Justine closely and says in a soft voice, “I’ve made mistakes. At different times and in different ways, some that I wish that I could take back more than you can imagine. But deciding my punishment was not your job. You’re not judge and jury, Justine. You’re not God, and neither was Holtz. And I don’t know if there’s enough left in you to change, but I hope that one day you’ll realize what you did and the different choices you can make. And I think then you’ll understand a little more what it’s like to be me.” He rests his hands on her shoulders and there’s no sign that it’s even a bit about keeping his balance. His eyes square with hers. “But until then, if I see you around again, I’ll snap your neck, too, and I’ll decide what my penance will have to be.”

The boat bumps against the dock, and Buffy steps forward to help Angel stand.

“You’re going to let her free?” she asks, as Wes goes to tie them back up.

Angel shakes his head. “I’m letting her go,” he says, heavy and sad and not changing his mind. “But she’ll have to get herself free.”

Dawn is pissed, as predicted. “It’s not like I was Team Justine or anything,” she protests. “I could have at least come to help.”

Angel rests a hand on her shoulder. “It was a favor for me, Dawn. I wouldn’t have wanted you to see me like that,” and Dawn, familiar with the beady scrutiny of high school, nods with knowing sympathy.

Fred and Gunn look overwhelmed at the whole thing. Fred hugs Angel right away and then seems to retreat smaller and smaller, sitting on the round center bench with knees against her chest and her cheek resting on top. Angel looks at the two of them and tells them to take a week’s vacation.

“You held everything down for the past few weeks,” he says. “I think it’s my turn.”

Fred gives one last polite protest, but Gunn grabs her hand. “I’m ready to find a motel and just sleep. Doesn’t even need a pool or cable TV.”

“They deserve the time away,” Buffy tells Angel as he helps her pack the car once evening has fallen.

“I know,” says Angel. “They deserved it before, and they deserve it more now, especially seeing what’s ahead.”

“Next stop, Cordelia?” Buffy slams the trunk closed.

“I’m not even sure where to start.” Angel shakes his head.

“Well, let me know if I can help.” Buffy takes his hand, folding his fingers with hers. She wonders if since they talk more, since they sometimes actually achieve something close to friendship on a regular basis, it should feel casual and normal. It doesn’t. It feels like Angel’s hand always has, butterflies and strength. “I don’t know how much I can do - definitely can't pull the same trick; Cordy and I had a mostly bloodless relationship except for the catfights -but I’m always here for venting.”

When he puts his arms around her, he does it with such consideration that for a minute she has to close her eyes against furious tears. Because she doesn’t want him to have to think through a simple hug with a strategy and a pro-con list, because she wants him with her, wants to be able to hug him all the time. But they can’t have that, not for now at least, and instead she will think about how she can feel his caring in the way he gives out the affection he is able to while protecting her from himself. She will pretend that is enough.

“Thank you for coming,” he says quietly into her hair. “I know you have your own things to worry about, and you didn’t have to, but I can’t imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t.”

Buffy can imagine, and she shudders and shuts the thought down. “I think weekly calls are important from now on,” she says into his shoulder, her words muffled in his soft sweater. “Apparently a couple centuries weren’t enough for you to learn how to take care of yourself, so I’m going to have to check on you.”

He bends his head and rests his forehead against the crown of her head. She can tell he’s smiling. “I’d like that,” he tells her, soft voice rumbling through her. “Tell me when, and I’ll be there.”

Buffy buys a calendar with inspirational cat pictures and sends it to LA with BUFFY TIME - 8PM written in pen on every Tuesday of the next year.

Angel calls at 7:59. Buffy answers on the first ring.