There are things Angel likes about his job, but the “little get-togethers” Provost Wilkins hosts for the faculty are not among them.
“—and that’s when I realized that it was light mayonnaise. Isn’t that just the darndest thing?” Wilkins finishes another one of his endless anecdotes, each more boring than the next. If he were part of the sociology or psychology departments, Angel might think he was doing a social experiment about how much inane small talk people could put up with. Or maybe it’s just him: everyone else in the little group, genuinely or not, manages to laugh along with the punchline, leaving Angel’s reluctant one-note chuckle to sound late and lonely.
He looks at the clock and finds with relief that he’s been here an hour; that’s a perfectly respectable amount of time to withstand—enjoy at the Wilkins’s.
Just as he’s about to make his excuses, the provost waggles a finger at him and says, “I see you eyeing that clock, Angel. Don’t slip out just yet. I want to talk with you.”
The others in the group filter politely away, moving to other conversations or taking the lucky chance to escape the party altogether. Angel takes a sip of his drink to fortify himself for the conversation, then remembers that he’s drinking water - he didn’t want to have to wonder if he was too drunk to leave.
It’s not that just that Angel hates social situations, though he does. It’s not just that the provost’s perpetual smile and chummy attitude creep him out, although they do. But the part that Angel hates more than anything is that the conversations always come back around to…
“A wife, Angel. Have you given any more thought to what I said?”
He makes it sound as if it was only the one time, as if he hasn’t been dropping hints since Angel started at Sunnydale College that the only way to get tenure was to buy into the Wilkins idea of ‘traditional values’ and get married. It’s certainly illegal, but if Angel sued and lost, he’d be in the same position, but now with an irritated Wilkins (he can’t imagine the provost getting actually angry), and if he won, he’d have to start all over to win himself into some new administrator's good graces. And not everyone is as willing to overlook his past as Richard Wilkins has proven to be.
“I’ve been thinking about it,” Angel says neutrally, hoping that will be enough to placate his boss. Apparently not tonight.
“It’s important when you’re building your career that you have a partner behind you, to encourage you, to help with networking, make sure things are taken care of when you don’t have the time. Heck, I don’t know what I would have done when I was getting started if I didn’t already have Edna May in my life.” He waves across the room to his wife, who is setting a new tray of brownies on the buffet. She blushes under her cropped cloud of graying hair and waves back, her smile tender.
“I can see the appeal,” Angel tells him, and Wilkins claps him on the shoulder.
“Of course you can! You’re a smart man, and I think you can go far here. You just need someone at home to give you the right push.”
When Angel had come to the university, he’d thought that, considering what he’d already been through, he was tougher than most of his colleagues. He’d thought he could easily withstand the pressure of being an associate, grit his teeth and push through until he was granted tenure, a much lesser task than the life he had left behind. But before he had just been moving through the days, and at Sunnydale, he had to put up with the constant cycle of hope and crashing despair, and still teach his students, sit his committees, present at conferences. He just wants to rest, to prove that he’s made good with his life, that he can settle down now.
And so, not knowing exactly what will come of it, hoping that it will at least buy him some time without nagging, Angel tells his boss abruptly, “I met someone. Over the summer. A woman. And it’s getting serious.”
Provost Wilkins’s face lights up. “That’s tremendous, Angel. That’s just first rate. I can’t wait to get a chance to meet her.”
“Oh,” Angel says, gripping his water glass tightly even though he knows Edna May probably buffs them for fingerprints every night. “Believe me, I can’t wait either.”
Angel’s neighbors are out on the front porch when he gets home. He lives far enough from the university that he doesn’t see a lot of students or fellow faculty members around, but close enough that his commute barely counts as such. He’s lived in the same place since he started, a three level blue house divided into apartments. The building is narrow but extensive in the back, and although his apartment is on the top floor and has the most frequent problems with heating and plumbing, he loves the place.
“Hey, Angel,” Willow says, smiling up at him as he climbs their front steps. Willow owns the house and lives on the first floor. In the lit picture window over her shoulder, he can see her living room, full of plants and books. She grew up in Sunnydale and moved back to town to work at the university, but left when it became clear that Wilkins’s considered it generous that his tenure rules extended toward female professors at all when they shouldn’t have been in such a consuming job in the first place, and certainly only counted heterosexual marriages.
“I wasn’t even looking to get married,” she told Angel once, “but a person like to have options, ya know?” Now she does something with computers that he still doesn’t understand no matter how many times she’d explained it, and continues to flirt with the edges of academia. Angel envies her a little, but there are things he likes about working at Sunnydale, accomplishments it represents that make him stay. And besides, it’s not as if art historians have other great job hunting prospects.
Buffy, who lives on the second floor, comfortable and colorful and crammed with knick-knacks the few times he’s seen it, just smiles at him. Angel smiles back quickly, then turns away to unlock the door. He knows that Buffy finds him confusing and maybe even unpleasant because of the abrupt way he behaves around her, but the other option is for him to give in to his instinct and become giddy and obsessive instead; he figures standoffish is probably the better choice. It’s a shame, too, because if Angel could ignore his overwhelming attraction to her, he thinks they could be good friends: Buffy inherited an art gallery from her mother that has a lot of potential despite its obvious financial troubles, she has a sister now studying at Sunnydale who Angel actually likes a lot, she’s incredibly kind and funny, and smart, even if she’s self-deprecating about that…
Angel turns around with his key still in the lock. “Buffy,” he says, wincing internally because of the breathless, surprised way it comes out, like always. “Do you think you’d have time for coffee tomorrow morning? There’s something I’d like to talk to you about.”
She trades a glance with Willow, and Angel can see the years of friendship there. Apparently it works out in his favor. “Um, sure,” she says. “Is eight okay with you? At the Espresso Pump?”
Angel’s first class isn’t until eleven, and he gets up early anyway. “Perfect. First mocha frappuccino is on me.” And then he slips inside and up the staircase, wondering when exactly he picked up on her coffee order, and how exactly he’s going to convince her to pretend to be his girlfriend.
Buffy gets to the coffee shop early the next morning, hoping to be able to get things in place and maybe stop freaking just so much. Angel’s always been polite with her but a little quiet, and it’s never seemed like he wants to get close. He probably picked up on her obsesso-girl vibe from the beginning, but really, she hasn’t drooled near him in years, at least not that he seemed to notice. He’s helped her with some home repairs in the past, and they once shared an eyeroll while helping Will move in a couch that didn’t really fit through her doorway, but “Angel’s friend” is definitely not on her resume. An early morning coffee invite is certainly off the beaten Buffy/Angel path, and she was up later last night than she wants to admit trying to guess why he might have called her here today.
Her calm preparation plan is shot almost immediately: he’s already in a booth, looking deliciously contemplative.
Buffy takes a deep breath and joins him. He stands as soon as he spots her.
“Let me go get drinks,” he says. “I got here too early. Didn’t want them to get cold.”
She tries to turn him down and get her own drink, but he insists, and somehow the two of them end up awkwardly beside each other in line. She’s kinda glad about that - Angel looks adorably overwhelmed by the menu, and just orders black coffee for himself, so Buffy gets the definite feeling that ordering a mocha would have been painful for him - but he does pay, and she lets him without paying it back because he did get her out here with a seven heading up the time and he seems like he’s going to ask a favor, so he probably does owe her.
“So,” Angel says formally, clearly uncomfortable. “You’re probably wondering why I asked you here.”
“You’re a big procrastinator on your ‘get to know the neighbors’ coffee meet-ups?” Buffy guesses cheerfully. She considers it a win that she avoided the word date and the certain twenty minutes of awkward conversational fumbling that would have ensued.
Angel laughs a little. He looks so serious all the time that she always feels like Olympic Buffy when she can get some happiness from him.
But his serious face comes back pretty quick, and it looks like he’s upped the serious. “Not exactly,” he says, looking down at his mug. And then he starts to tell a story that sounds like the dirty sequel to one Willow told a couple of years ago.
“Wow.” Buffy takes a sip of her drink. “You know, I bet you’re not the only one who wants to tell Wilkins that there’s a reason you don’t need a permission slip from your boss to get married. You could probably get a group together and tell him that the only marriage that’s any of his business is the one he’s actually in. You could be totally Braveheart, with you as, you know, Braveheart Guy.”
“William Wallace?” He looks a little amused, but she nods.
“I don’t think the paint or the hair fits into the university dress code, but why not?”
Angel leans forward a little bit, probably because you never know who might be listening in Sunnydale. This close she can see that his button down is actually a very dark shade of green, so dark she almost wonders why he didn’t just buy black. She can glimpse a hint of white undershirt beneath the collar, and smell his soapy, manly, showery smell from earlier in the morning. His blazer hangs on the back of his chair, so he probably has class later, but maybe there could be enough time... Hey, look at all this nice public around us, Buffy thinks to herself, knowing that no one else would notice anything weird about what Angel had done, and trying hard to maintain an appropriate expression.
“Wilkins is popular with the trustees. He’s raised a lot of money for the school, and if there have been scandals, they haven’t been revealed to the public. It would be hard to get him out, and they’ll paint anyone standing against him as a disgruntled associate: someone who’s not good enough for tenure in the first place and is getting impatient waiting. There are so many people looking for good academic jobs that they’d probably rather get rid of anyone who stands against the policy then just change it.”
“Get rid of?” Buffy asks, alarmed. She’d heard that the academic world was cutthroat, but she’d assumed a little less literally. Angel corrects hastily, “Fire,” and Buffy relaxes.
“I know getting fired probably isn’t on your career To Do, but maybe it would be better. I mean, if Sunnydale is this bad?” She says it mostly in the direction of her cup because she doesn’t want him to realize that she considers the idea of him moving out of the house, leaving the town (leaving her), to be some full-on suckage.
“Sunnydale’s been good to me,” he says with a weird sort of seriousness that Buffy realizes means he doesn't want to talk specifics. She’ll press Willow later (they’ve always been closer) but if it’s a real secret it’ll be hard to get Will to fess. Then he looks up at her and says in a softer voice, “I’ve gotten pretty attached to some things here.”
“That’s nice.” Buffy leans back quickly, taking her mug with her, struggling for businesslike. It’s not his fault that he has a naturally bedroom voice, and bedroom eyes, and a bedroom body… He probably meant it in a regular, normal Angel, nice person kind of way and she shouldn’t imagine things that aren’t there.
Right, her imagination says guiltily, shutting down a fantasy about Angel jetting her off to a remote Caribbean island and declaring his undying love for her.
“Anyway,” Angel says carefully, “I think I might have made a mistake the other night, and told the provost that I had a girlfriend. A serious girlfriend.”
“You have a girlfriend?” Buffy asks, her voice rising over his last few words as she tries to remember extra footsteps going up Angel’s stairs at night or an uncommon number of late evenings out recently, but he shakes his head.
“No, and that’s the problem. If I don’t show signs of starting down that road soon, I’m going to be pushed out, and I really want to stay.”
He says it with such earnestness that Buffy smiles, and then her brain jigsaws it all together and her smile disappears. “So you’re looking for someone to pretend to be your girlfriend,” she says flatly.
Angel adds earnestly, “I’d pay you,” and then immediately winces. At least he has the instincts for that.
Buffy looks down, examining her purposefully picked polka-dotted blouse, pulling the short sleeves away from herself so she can see them more closely. “Did I accidentally wear my ‘I’m a hooker, ask me about the great rates’ shirt? I keep thinking about donating it, but that just feels mean to the homeless.”
“I know it’s strange, and maybe even wrong. But I just need someone to pretend with me,” Angel says quietly, looking down at his hands. “Just for a little while.”
What Buffy thinks of as she looks at him isn’t how grossed out she should feel, or how quickly she’d have said yes if he’d asked her out for real. She barely even thinks how damn badly she needs money in her bank account to cover just some little things like her rent and food, not to mention Dawn’s tuition payments.
What she thinks of instead is the first anniversary of her mom’s death, with Dawn burying herself in exams and Willow out of town, when Buffy had found herself curled up on the couch crying and watching her mom’s favorite movies. She had registered Angel’s footsteps in the back of her mind, because she always did, moving down from his place to her landing, a quick knock before he moved swiftly back upstairs. When she’d opened a door, she’d found a container of what turned out to be incredibly delicious chicken soup and a pint of ice cream sitting there waiting for her. She’d cried more eating through it, and then left the Tupperware by his door and never mentioned it again.
“A modest payment,” she says, embarrassed into quiet. “But not stingy. And help at the gallery, at least once a week until it’s over.”
“Okay.” Angel looks off-balance, like he hadn’t thought of the next step. “Okay. I’ll let you know the next time I get an invite to the provost’s. And we should probably let him see us together spontaneously at some point, on campus or around town.”
Buffy picks up her purse from the bench seat beside her, aiming for cheerful. “Right. Our big Sunnydale debut. I guess you don’t have to go to LA for those anymore. Update the Chamber of Commerce website.” She slides herself out and picks up her mug, coffee remains swirling scummy around the bottom. “Text me, I guess. Or note under my door - that’s always a classic.”
“I could probably find a carrier pigeon,” Angel suggests, and she actually laughs before downgrading to a polite smile. Their first real private conversation, and she’s agreed to pretend to date him for his job. She needs to go home and think things through before she allows him to earn laughs from her.
Of the few people they tell, no one is impressed by Angel’s plan.
“I’d actually call it more of a desperate and poorly thought out attempt to both secure your job and speak to the woman you’ve been pining after for the past four years, wouldn’t you?” Wesley asks, looking his most politely and judgmentally British over his morning tea. They can’t talk much because they’re meeting at the departmental mailboxes in the quaint brownstone that the history and art history departments have to share (although Sunnydale bills itself as a liberal arts school, they’re notoriously tightfisted for anything that isn’t either STEM-related or for the business students). Angel takes advantage of the emptiness of the public space to remind Wes that he doesn’t have anything to worry about because he and his wife, Fred, a genius in the physics department who the engineers keep trying to lure over, have already solved things for themselves, leaving poor saps like Angel to make their own way in the world.
“Well, it’s not like I could have married you to solve the problem!” Wes calls after Angel as he takes his mail and turns to go upstairs to his office. Knowing that Wes is more than a little right about the wisdom of this decision makes it all the more enjoyable to hear him apologize to several of their confused colleagues below just arriving to start their mornings.
Willow is equally dubious, although her natural excitement breaks through anyway.
“I think a best friend in a movie would say something like, ‘Careful he doesn’t break your heart’ or maybe ‘You’d better hope the sex is good before it all goes bad,’” she says that night, feet curled up against herself on one of Buffy’s kitchen chairs.
Buffy jerks her head up from the papers in front of herself. “We jumped to sex? When did we make a sex jump? There’s going to be no sex jump. No jumping. No sex. It’s just a normal business interaction between neighbors.”
Willow makes a knowing face. Buffy’s familiar with it. “And now I would probably say that I’ve seen how you look at him, which I have, just like I’ve seen him look at you. But I think I’ll stay out of it. I like Angel, and I kinda want to see how this turns out.” She stops talking to focus on digging a large chunk of cookie dough out of her pint of ice cream. Once she’s conquered Ben and Jerry, she savors it meditatively and adds, “We should probably be having this conversation in a boutique or something. Flipping through clothes, girl talking…”
“Your treat,” Buffy says, slightly grumpy despite herself. No matter how many ways she tries to fiddle with the numbers for the gallery’s budget, they just don’t add up to “yes, Buffy, your mother’s legacy is being kept in excellent condition, and you’ll actually be able to afford a vacation this year, and maybe also some new boots!” She’s closer to a permanent, unemployment kind of vacation. She’s not exactly sure what she wants him to do, but she’s going to have to get Angel in there soon. She bets he’d probably be good eye candy to draw a few customers in off the street...
Willow watches her focus on the papers and unconsciously tip her head every time there’s a noise from upstairs. Well, at least it’ll be interesting to watch? she thinks with tentative hope, and decides she needs more cookie dough.
They have a break of a few weeks where everything goes back to normal (slightly awkward, more avoidance than usual, hope there are no staircase run-ins, but...normal). Then the provost decides to take advantage of the October long weekend to throw what he terms “a little soiree.”
“That’s a word crime, right?” Buffy says as they walk over to the Wilkins house. “Just saying stuff like that, it’s wrong.” Her face crinkles up adorably, although she sounds as if she’s truly asking him.
Angel ignores that part; if he gets into what Wilkins is wrong about, Buffy will probably realize that changing her mind is the best option. “The whole faculty usually comes, so we shouldn’t be cornered for too long. We can leave as soon as we’re done talking to him.” Buffy doesn’t reply, so Angel tries, “Edna May usually makes good food.”
“Good food is good.” Buffy shakes her head a little. “Duh, I guess. It’s in the name.”
He curls his hands in his pockets. They’re not angry fists, but he’s glad she can’t see his discomfort. “Are you okay?”
“Just nervous.” She stares ahead, seeming overly focused and careful for such a simple and understandable sentiment.
His shoulders bend in, the serious, disbelieving equivalent of a laugh. He spent the afternoon wondering how quickly his colleagues would look at him, look at Buffy and call bullshit on the whole thing. He works with smart people, and they can work out how unlikely it is that Buffy, who could have anyone, would choose him.
“I really appreciate this,” he tells her quietly instead, and she sighs, nodding, and looks slightly more relaxed.
“We can pull this off,” she says to the both of them, then quickly reverts to mild nervousness. “Should I know more of your colleagues? A girlfriend probably would know more.”
Angel shakes his head. “There’s no one famous, and my friends won’t expect you to have gotten a quiz on them.”
They reach the house. Angel stops walking and takes a breath. As they get closer, they’re joined on the path by other faculty members. Angel nods to the ones he recognizes but doesn’t stop to chat. Buffy’s looking even tenser as they pause in front of the gate and then begin walking up toward the house, a classic white two-story. The provost hires the same father-son company to come touch up the blue paint on the shutters every spring.
“Okay,” Buffy says, clearly psyching herself up to go inside. “Okay.” Angel smiles a little at the determined tilt of her chin. He opens the gate and they walk up the path. Just before he knocks on the door, Buffy takes his hand. He knows it’s probably meant to look natural, to establish them as a couple. Instead he’s gawping like it’s a prize he’s won and doesn’t look up at Edna May until she clears her throat and says, “Angel. Lovely to see you.”
“You too,” he says, slightly abruptly but still thankful for the automatic nature of polite conversation.
“I’d love to have a chat with you, so don’t leave before we have a few minutes to catch up.” Edna May asks as usual, her eyes with their typical slightly too-high intensity. Angel’s glad when she turns her gaze away from him and softens, asking, “Now, who’s this?”
“This is Buffy. My girlfriend.”
Buffy squeezes his hand, but outwardly shines a smile across the threshold. “Nice to meet you. Angel was just saying that your cooking will be the highlight of the evening.”
“Well, how sweet of you to say.” Edna May smiles and steps to usher them in. Angel keeps hold of Buffy’s hand as they enter the Wilkins house. They’re in it now.
Twenty minutes later they’ve sampled finger foods and small-talked with what seems like a thousand of Angel’s colleagues, but haven’t yet been cornered by the provost himself.
“If he doesn’t come over in a minute, we’ll find him,” Angel promises, although voluntarily going to see Wilkins feels nerve-wrackingly reckless. But he senses that Buffy’s getting a little worn out from holding the cheerleader smile on her face and having the same irritating, intrusive questions posed to them.
“But how am I going to get party conversation bingo if we don’t keep mingling?” Buffy asks quietly, and the humor that remains in her voice despite the awkward stress of the evening reminds Angel of just why she’d seemed like the only one he’d want to join him in this absurd scheme.
Smiling, he starts to respond, but is interrupted by the approach (finally, terrifyingly) of the provost. He’s in a smoking jacket tonight, what Angel imagine is his idea of a display of casually luxurious comfort. By the way Buffy is eyeing it, Angel suspects she has a different notion.
“Angel,” Wilkins says jovially. “And, according to word among the staff, Buffy.” She holds out her hand and they shake before the provost takes out a small bottle of hand sanitizer.
“Germs,” Angel mouths, wishing he had thought to mention it to Buffy earlier. “Well,” Wilkins says with a seemingly oblivious grin. “I’ve been waiting quite a long time to meet a lady friend of Angel’s.”
“I can believe that,” Buffy says, and Wilkins actually drops his aura of relentless good nature to evaluate whether or not she’s calling him old, or if it’s a rote response to the idea of Angel’s perpetual avoidance of relationships.
Seeming to decide on the latter (or at least choose to let it go; Angel wonders how many more times she’ll be able to subtly insult him tonight) the provost hitches his smiles back up, and asks, “So, how did you kids meet?”
By this point, their cover story is practiced enough (and true enough to life) that even Angel has a moment where it feels real. They trade off running through the narrative they’ve been repeating all night - two neighbors who got close and eventually wanted to try something more - the whole thing feeling like a dance. Buffy has traditional quips that she inserts, and Angel adds his more subtle responses.
“Well that’s just great!” The provost’s smile doesn’t even look forced anymore. “How exciting when a friendship can turn into a partnership. And it does move things along more smoothly. More quickly.” He claps his hands together while Angel tries to keep from reacting. He’s hoped that evidence of just a relationship will be enough to advance him, that Buffy can return to her normal life with minimal impact, but if Wilkins is pushing for marriage during even the first meeting… Talking about the situation with Buffy is becoming more urgent, and like an even less pleasant prospect.
Wilkins continues, all jovial condescension, “Now, Buffy, I know that getting into the faculty circus can seem daunting, so if you have any questions, you can always ask me. Or, if you’re thinking of throwing a party, ask Edna May! She knows just how to do it, as you can see.”
“I do have one question,” Buffy says sweetly, her face cheerfully innocent. “Did you model for the Repressive Misogynist Ken doll, or is it just a coincidence?” Edna May brushes near them with a tray, making Buffy look over delightedly to add, “Oh, brownies!”
“A pretty spirited girl you’ve got there, Angel,” Wilkins says, even his unfailing politeness strained as they watch Buffy go to sort through the refreshments. It seems like he wants to launch into an insinuating lecture the various definitions of ‘spirited,’ but Angel, still staring longer than he should, trying not to grin because apparently subtlety wasn’t on Buffy’s agenda at all, interrupts.
“I’m just glad I found her,” he says, ignoring entirely the look he earns from the provost, and walks over to join Buffy.
“So what happens when you win?”
Buffy waves a hand. “You get money and makeup, but that’s not the important part.”
“What’s the important part?”
“Bragging rights and cattiness.” She finishes her last spoonful of ice cream, grinning at how clearly baffled he is by the entire idea of Drag Race. He gives cute baffle. Well, cute everything, but that’s not the point. “I’ll have you over to watch this weekend. If you’re not doing anything.”
“Sure.” He sticks some ice cream into his mouth, probably to avoid sounding so dubious, although he’s pretty good-natured about it. For someone with so many books you could weight-lift with, Angel can be surprisingly nice about things like this.
She reminds him anyway, “You owe me for spending yesterday watching scones bake, which I’m pretty sure is the British version of watching paint dry.”
“Hey, that was a tense technical final,” Angel protests, waving his spoon around a bit. A student watches him, looking sort of startled, like Angel probably doesn’t do that kind of thing in lecture (their loss) but only Buffy seems to notice.
Patting his arm, she says, “I’m sure they got plenty of baking bragging rights. And it’s a nice show.” Even nicer: Angel is such a Great British Bakeoff nerd that he makes snacks for viewing. He probably wouldn’t win the competition, but Buffy won’t complain about sweets. And he actually gave her leftovers to put out at the gallery in the morning.
“I’m sure I’ll also have fun...dragging?” Angel ventures, tossing his ice cream cup into the trash as they near the building where his office is.
“Maybe wait until you’ve seen an episode before going all Webster on it,” Buffy advises, but she’s smiling the kind of big, crinkly smile that makes her embarrassed by its squintiness. Angel doesn’t seem to mind. He smiles back, but it turns nervous and then stoic at the edges as he realizes where they are.
Buffy gets it, too. Spending personal time together to get more comfortable made sense; they wanted to be convincingly authentic, and passing each other getting the mail wasn’t going to cut it. They’d also planned on being seen in public, preferably by the provost although anyone willing to gossip would do. Their walk around campus during lunch hour was always meant to end with a kiss on the cheek before Angel had to get back to work. It’s just actually getting it done that suddenly seems tricky.
“Thanks for coming to meet me,” Angel says. His hands twitch toward his pockets, but he sounds sincere.
“Well, you said the magic word.” Buffy holds up her empty ice cream cup. “I always come running for cookie dough fudge mint chip.”
Angel teases, “I think you’ll have run across the Pacific by the time you’re done saying the name,” and he sounds awkward, but it makes her smile anyway, and in that moment he leans toward her. The kiss is quick, more like a peck or a polite brush than anything else, but a shiver trembles through her limbs. So, not like the family reunion, I guess, she thinks.
“You okay?” Angel asks quietly against her cheek, still leaning toward her. He smells even better up close, which seems like an unfair, opposite of person type of thing.
“Just trying to figure out which season I should show you first,” she says, playing it off, finding a smile for anyone who might be watching. Angel’s too good at this game.
“Maybe something with glitter and quipping.”
She laughs, relaxing a bit. “I think I can take care of that.” Her grin turns a bit evil. “But you’re in charge of baking, and if it’s not thematically appropriate I’m going to be pretty upset.”
He groans. “I’ll do my best, but you might have to settle for just sprinkles.”
“Good enough,” she tells him, and turns to head back to work.
Halfway there, she realizes she’s still absently carrying her empty ice cream cup. “Hoo boy,” she whispers to herself, and goes to find a trash can.
Buffy is out for the evening with Dawn, so Angel decides that he’ll use the first night they haven’t spent together in a week to actually get some work done. Or that’s the theory.
He gets out a beer and, reluctantly, the pile of papers on the Baroque period for his basic survey course. He’s taught it every year since he came to Sunnydale, and he doesn’t see it stopping as long as he isn’t tenured. The class is part of the Art History major and minor, though most of the students are using it to fulfil a general requirement, experimenting to see if Art History might be they something they like, or just looking for an easy pass. But it’s not the lack of passion or even basic interest that makes grading them an interminable slog; at least the students in his upper level classes seem to be able to come up with coherent sentences, maybe even a consistently coherent essay. He keeps stopping himself from texting the most egregious examples to Buffy.
The knock on the door feels like salvation. He practically shoves the papers away as he goes to answer it.
Willow’s there, her usual smile dimmed by several degrees, but still sunny. Angel runs through what she could be here to talk about - he’s paid his rent, Willow’s grandmother owned the house before passing it on so they can’t be having some sort of emergency foreclosure issue, and she doesn’t look nearly sad enough to be here to tell him that Buffy and Dawn were in a terrible accident on the way back from dinner or their movie - but in the end just steps aside and gestures her in.
“Is everything alright?” he asks, moving toward the fridge for the orange-pineapple juice he keeps for her while she boosts herself onto one of the bar stools at his counter.
She waves him off. “On a one to ten scale?”
“If that help—” but she interrupts.
“What are you doing with Buffy?”
Angel finds her suddenly difficult to look at. He knows that Willow knows, but talking about it directly is embarrassing, especially with her. Angel doesn’t make friends easily, but Willow’s good humor and intelligence, her easy acceptance of him and his quiet, has made her someone he wouldn’t want to lose. The pained furrow between her eyebrows makes him think that by dragging her best friend into his mess, it might be a possibility.
“I needed a favor,” he says, amazed at how weak it sounds. As if there weren't other, better ways to handle this. As if there were anyone to blame for the particular situation but himself. If he hadn’t lied to the provost in the first place...
“I know working at Sunnydale makes things hard,” Willow says, squiggling a little on the rotating top of her stool. “Two nights ago I had a nightmare that I opened my mailbox and a hundred tenure rejections piled out, and I haven’t even been on campus in years. But I’m worried about what all of this is going to do to Buffy.”
“Even if someone found out, I would take the blame,” Angel says. “But Buffy isn’t connected to the school. I’ve been looking over the gallery’s records, and I haven’t even found a painting they sold for a lobby on campus. What we’re doing isn’t illegal, Willow, and this isn’t a company town. The school’s here, but Buffy would be able to have a reputation separate from this if it all came out.” He says it all sensibly, as if Willow couldn’t have thought this through herself, as if it isn’t all just excuses atop excuses.
“Well, I like that you’ve thought about it at least.” Willow gives him a quick waver of a smile. “The sexism of you taking the blame aside, like Buffy doesn’t have an adult brain to make her own decisions, I’m glad you’re making sure to cover all of those bases. But that’s not what I’m worried about.”
Angel leans on the counter, fingers tapping together despite himself as he waits for her to pick through the way she wants to say this. Finally she starts, “You know that I’ve known Buffy forever. Since she moved from LA. So I’ve seen the whole thing. Everything with school and her mom and leaving school. The whole boyfriend range, from good to bad to ugly. I know her better than basically anyone. And I’m worried that she’s going to get hurt.” She sees Angel’s mouth open and talks faster to cut him off. “I don’t think you’ll do it on purpose. I don’t even think it’ll be you, really. I just think that she’s going to get too invested in this and it’s going to make everything a big, bad mess.” Willow catches his wrist, forcing his eyes onto hers. “We love having you live here. You’re Angel. You’re the only one who can fix anything, and you’re funny even though you don’t think so, and you never make fun of us when we need to have a dance night, and you cook. I don’t want this to all get ruined. I don’t want to lose Buffy, but I want you to stay too.”
Angel levers himself up. He steps back. He thinks about promising that he’ll just leave quietly if something goes bad, but Willow would probably just treat him to a glare and another rant, mostly about how he doesn’t listen. Quietly, he tells her, “Like you said. Buffy has an adult brain. She knows that she can stop anytime if she wants to.”
Willow observes him sadly, the downturned corners of her mouth and crinkled up forehead nearly painful on her typically cheerful face. “That’s the thing,” she says, equally quietly, her arms crossed and tucked up against her chest. “I don’t think Buffy will want to stop. At least until it’s too late.”
She sees herself out, and Angel wishes the door closing behind her didn’t sound quite so final.
Buffy remembers a time when calculators were just the thing that her classmates (mostly the boys) would use to spell out dirty words with numbers. Now she’s in a nemesis relationship with one.
“Maybe if I turn it upside down,” she mutters to herself, banging numbers in as if the force will make a difference. When she hits the equals sign and nothing has magically changed, she groans and lets her head fall onto the papers scattered across her desk.
She’d actually liked the desk when she’d started here. The first time she’d come in to get the measure of the place after the funeral, she’d run her fingers across the surface and even through the overwhelming haze of grief had felt just a bit grown up, the kind of on-top-of-it businesswoman who could say to a colleague, “Why don’t you come back to my office?” and actually have an office to go back to. Now she wants the real adult to take over so Buffy can go back to coloring or talking to stuffed animals on the floor as everything is smoothly fixed above her head.
She can tell the footsteps beside her are Angel’s but she doesn’t lift her head. The desktop is solid in just the way she needs right now.
Angel puts a palm on her shoulder and says, “I think you might just be making the headache worse,” in such a nonchalant voice, as if walking in to see her like this is absolutely the smallest deal. She smiles despite herself, feeling the papers against her mouth as her lips shift upward.
She hears the clink of a mug being set down nearby, and the scrape of Angel pulling over a chair. His patience will always outlast hers, but she doesn’t test him. After just another minute, she picks her head up, presses her palms against her eyes, and looks over at him. He looks back, taking a sip from his own mug (probably tea, the actually tea flavored kind, not even mint, and he never takes it with sugar) before gesturing toward the one he brought for her.
She smiles again seeing that he somehow knew to raid her secret stash in the staff kitchen to make cocoa. She tries not to let any of the other employees see her drinking it because she knows it’s not exactly a grownup boss kind of beverage, but she definitely needs it right now.
The chocolate is rich and warm and just right, like he knew to add extra powder, but she has to look away from him, staring into the foamy top of the mug as she realizes he went out to get her mini marshmallows too.
Finally she clears her throat and says, “Thanks.”
He shrugs. “You looked like you needed it. What’s the problem today?”
“Mom always hosted at least a couple of shows a year. Local artists, up and comers, that kind of thing.” Buffy gestures to the framed advertisements from past shows she has hanging on her wall. “The money they brought in was pretty important to the care and keeping of...everything. I think I’ve tried to get in touch with every artist in town so far. Half of them said no, and the other half have either gone Amish or they just aren’t calling me back, and I haven’t seen any bonnets around recently, so it’s pretty obvious which it is. They don’t trust me the way they trusted my mom, and I’m just proving them right by not being able to handle it. Without at least the publicity that a show brings in, I don’t know how much longer I can keep this place running.”
“Well, I can help with getting some artists,” Angel says, and she remembers all over again how much she appreciates the way he can listen to her Niagara Fallsing words all over him and actually pick up the important parts.
“Of course. The art department is pretty solidly linked to art history. I can talk to the professors over there, see if they or any of their students would want to do a showing. And I know some people who’ve moved to LA, but they might be willing to come back for the right opportunity.”
Buffy laughs a little, her disbelief turning to self-mocking. “This is the right opportunity? A dinky little gallery owned by an amateur?”
“Or somewhere exclusive, where they can get personal attention.” At her impressed eyebrows (or maybe it’s more like taken aback, but hey, he’s surprising!) he says, “I can spin things. I was a Mad Man in a former life.”
“I’m not sure you aren’t in this one. And how do you even know about Mad Men?”
Dryly, he says, “It takes about ten years, but sometimes I do pick up on popular culture.” Then, off her now disbelieving look, he adds, “And I might have taught a class on pop art and mid-century mass media last spring semester.”
“There we go,” she laughs. “Anyway, thank you. That’s really nice of you.”
“No more than what you’re doing for me,” he says with a shrug, and her laugh dies completely and immediately. She doesn’t want to be reminded to the...ruse? lie? trick? that they’re living out. She doesn’t want him to be helping her only so the quid stays pro quo. She looks down at her cocoa, pretending that she’s just finishing it up before it gets cold. Like he’ll be able to tell the difference between a better when it’s hot sip, and an I don’t really want to look at you right now one.
“Did you always want to run the gallery?” Angel asks after a quiet, sipping moment.
“No.” The word is a little abrupt by itself, but her tone is luckily nice enough, no hint that she might be letting herself get carried away, letting her feelings get hurt in a way that he shouldn’t have to worry about. It’s business between them. Well, he’s nice, too, and they’re friends and neighbors, but just...business friends. “I was doing the whole college find yourself thing when my mom got sick, and I started helping her here, and ended up learning the ropes. Then the gallery was here and I was here, and I thought my mom would want to keep it in the family.” She looks out into the empty quiet of the main area and turns to set her mug down onto the desk, her mouth attempting something like a smile. “But maybe she would have wanted it to go to her secret other daughter who could actually use the ropes Tarzan style instead of the one who just gets rope burn and falls out of the trees.”
When Angel’s hand covers hers, it’s something of a surprise. Their touching is still polite and careful, Angel’s especially so. She has to fight to stay normal about it. His palm and fingers feel so warm and real against hers that she can feel the goodness of it traveling up her arm and filling her chest. Their eyes find each other, too, and that’s even worse. Buffy takes a deep breath, hoping it doesn’t sound as raspy in real life as she thinks it does.
“You’re doing a great job,” Angel says, his voice quiet as usual, but confident too, not just head patting little Buffy. “I bet your mom wasn’t born knowing how to do this either.”
“She double majored,” Buffy says, the family history coming easily even through her soft voice. “Art history and business.” Her words waver a little, but she says truthfully, “She would have liked you.”
“I think I would have liked her. I like her daughter.” Angel doesn’t often look at her so directly, and usually not for so long; it’s intense in a way that it wouldn’t be with most people. “You’ve kept this place afloat since your mom died with barely any official training or support, Buffy. You’ve taken care of Dawn, and built yourself a life. And I think she would be proud of that whether or not you decide to keep the gallery.”
She wants to wrap her fingers around his, keep his hand tucked against her, his voice careful and honest and encouraging in her ear, always. She wants to kiss him, to tell him that she’s not sure that this was ever truly pretend for her, that he’s become so very important to her. Instead she summons from the cheerleader base of herself a peppy smile and says, “I think my mom at least would have wanted someone in the family to be the one to screw it all up. And besides, we can’t have everyone confused with a new business name. Then no one would know that Taco The Town is on the next block and around the corner.”
His smile comes slow but genuine, although she thinks that he knows exactly what she’s deflecting. “And that’s what’s really important.” He holds out a hand this time, pulling her to her feet. “Now that you mention it, I think a taco break is in order anyway.”
“I guess I could be convinced to leave behind big business for a bit if you want to take advantage of my landmark skills.”
He holds the door for her on the way out, the mugs he plucked from the desk clinking together in his hand as he goes to leave them in the sink before they go. Somehow over the water and the porcelain she thinks she hears him murmur to himself, “I wish that was all I was taking advantage of,” but she doesn’t know how to respond, so she begins to tell him about the party Dawn’s roommates threw without letting her know.
Things are so tangled between them that it’s easier to pretend she hasn’t heard anything at all.
The increase in the time Buffy spends working isn’t entirely Angel’s fault, but he’s not exactly blameless either. It’s possible he overreached when he offered to contact some artists for her. The show ballooned up to twelve artists, then was split into two shows of six artists each, then, once Angel reminded Buffy that she was offering a two-way service and didn’t need to accept every wannabe Picasso who sent artwork her way, winnowed down to four presenting in the spring and four again at the end of summer. That still meant a lot of work for Buffy, and some work for Angel too.
“Are you sure you don’t want to own this place instead?” Buffy asks over late night Chinese as they go through the latest paintings their LA artist has sent over. She has a good eye for color and an instinct for what will be popular, and she’s excellent at the interior design aspect - she always knew better than Angel in which area of the gallery they should hang something, what will need a spotlight and what should have chairs in front of it - but sometimes she needs confirmation of her instincts, and for someone to fill in the technical terminology that she lacks.
Angel holds back a yawn, playing with a fortune cookie but not opening it. “I’m still hoping that tenure isn’t a lost cause.”
“Oh,” Buffy says, digging her chopsticks around her takeout container, although he can’t quite tell exactly what she’s hoping to uncover. “Right.”
They’ve continued attending gatherings at the Wilkins house (although Angel actually thought Buffy was going to spontaneously combust the time they arrived and it turned out to be a poetry evening). Buffy, strangely, seems to enjoy Edna May’s company; apparently before she met the provost, she assistant managed a bookshop, and she and Buffy talk problem customers and the woes of a small business. Edna May always puts a hand on Angel’s shoulder and mentions that they really must speak sometime soon, but luckily Buffy’s enough of a distraction that he can avoid it.
The two of them spend time together around campus. Angel answers colleagues questions about his weekend plans with, “Buffy and I are…” and gets invitations for the two of them. Even without details, Buffy knows that Angel doesn’t have family, and instead there are pictures on social media of him watching in worried awe as Buffy wrangled a Thanksgiving turkey, of him in pajamas and a robe, cup of coffee in hand as he sat under the tree and watched Dawn and Buffy and Willow and their friend Xander tear into presents.
But the success of their plan has been a double edged sword: the more they convince Wilkins that things are perfect between them, the more he seems to wonder why they aren’t moving things along. According to the provost’s calculus, if you aren’t high school sweethearts waiting for graduation, there’s no holdup to wedding bells once you suspect it’s the right person. In his eyes, four months is quite enough for courtship, and he seems ready to do away with subtlety about his opinion; the last time Angel saw him, the provost recommended a “fine jeweler” in Sunnydale (“Engagement, wedding rings, the whole bit. Even a good gift to get you out of the doghouse with the wife if you need it, eh, Angel?”) and he didn’t seem to be joking or mentioning it at random.
Angel doesn’t know how to bring up with Buffy that barring some dramatic shift, she might be in for more than she should ever have to agree to, or the whole arrangement will have been pointless. So he strings them all along, hoping for a miracle to save him from having to face his own mistakes.
He looks down. The fortune cookie is cracked in his hands: “You will receive good news soon.”
Let’s hope so, he thinks, and pulls another artist’s folder toward himself, wishing that the joy of the work and Buffy’s company could make him forget everything else.
When Buffy finds herself stuck late at work the night of her birthday, she realizes somewhere in the back of her busy mind that her teenaged self would never have understood this. But then again, her teenaged self never had to cross her fingers that the tuition payment for the month would clear, or determine whether two assistants were really absolutely necessary or if they could possibly get by with just the one if they scheduled things right, so maybe teenaged Buffy isn’t an expert.
Something Buffy has in common with all of her past selves, though? Falling asleep instead of taking care of the work. This time she doesn’t realize it’s happened until there’s a soft knock against the glass of her office door and her head jerks up from the desk with a sheet of paper still attached to one cheek.
Angel walks over and removes it gently. “You still up for dinner?” They’re supposed to go somewhere to meet Dawn and Will and the others.
“I am extremely up,” Buffy confirms, trying to hide her yawn and back-cracking stretch. Nothing’s going to keep her from dinner with Angel. “Just try to be upper than me.”
“I won’t challenge you on that,” Angel says with one of the little smiles he sometimes gives her that make her feel like it all might be real. “But why don’t I drive anyway?”
She falls asleep in the car, which is definitely understandable - Angel’s a very smooth driver, keeps the car toasty and plays soft music, and her desk nap got interrupted - but won’t exactly have her medaling as Sunnydale’s Most Awake. When she opens her eyes, Angel’s parked in the dingy back parking lot of a building she doesn’t recognize.
“Is the menu tonight heavy on the murder? Because I thought I told you that I had an allergy.” She examines the scenery as they walk over to the entrance Angel’s pointed out. If Sunnydale ever wants to do a tour of historic weeds or the best pavement cracks, this is definitely the place.
Angel doesn’t say anything, just reaches for the door, which she could see as suspicious, but she trusts Angel, silence, dark clothes, weird lies, and all. She walks beneath his arm and through the doorway.
The best part isn’t the feeling of surrounding love, seeing all of her friends waiting and clapping for her, or the fact that they’ve planned her surprise party at the ice skating rink. It’s that after that first gasp of a moment, she turns around and sees Angel smiling, a little sideways grin watching her happiness. When he sees her looking, the smile fades, and then reforms as something softer, like no one else is even here.
But they are, and Dawn, delighted that they have the rink all to themselves, drags her over to get skates and pick music and somehow Angel manages to lose himself.
I didn’t think that could happen when you were tall, Buffy thinks, a little put out (it is her birthday), but then “Time of My Life” starts playing and she just can’t resist going out onto the ice.
She doesn’t see him again until post-food arrival. While everyone dives into pizza and chats along the side, Buffy remains on the ice, turning quiet circles to herself. She’d forgotten how much she loves this; even the offhand mention to Angel about her Dorothy Hamill phase weeks ago hadn’t quite reminded her how much she’d actually missed it all, the glide, the triumphant grace of a mastered jump or spin.
Angel, however, clearly isn’t up to that level. He edges gingerly onto the ice with both hands still on the wall, and she can’t blame him.
She skates over to him, coming to a gentle stop to his side. “Keep your chin up,” she advises. “Helps with happiness, and stops you from crashing into things.”
“Thanks,” he says, more nervous and distracted than grateful, and there’s a part of her that likes seeing him nervous for reasons other than their ongoing deception. Just normal Angel nervous, clearly unsure how to keep his balance on ground made of ice.
“Here,” she says, extending her hands, but he shakes his head.
“I’ll pull you down.”
“Or I’ll hold you up.” She pushes her hands forward again, palms up. “Come on. I’ll be good enough for both of us.”
When he takes her hands, he barely seems to rest on her, and it makes her grip him more tightly. “If you get nervous, bend your knees to start slowing down,” she tells him, pulling him farther onto the ice, moving in slow, careful circles with him. His face stays concentrated, crushed into anxious focus, for what seems like forever to her, but finally he begins to smile, the smoothness of their movement, the twinkling, graceful calm of it, overtaking him. He’s never going to be an amazing skater, but she can see him starting to understand it.
And then he falls, collapsing onto the ice and pulling her down on top of him.
“Maybe you were right this once,” she says, helping him to his feet.
He shakes his head. “You were right for longer.”
She guides him off the ice and finds him a chair, then goes to get him something warm to drink (maybe he wants black tea steeped dark with no sugar, but he’s getting cocoa and he’s going to like it). Dawn joins her by the refreshments.
“The two of you have to stop being cute,” she says. “What if I want to take an art history class? All I’ll be able to see during lecture is the two of you making gooey eyes at each other.”
Buffy bumps her with a hip. “Find another professor to teach you. That old lady with the mole. I don’t think you’ll have a problem taking her class.”
Dawn huffs and laughs. She leans close to Buffy. “He planned all of this, you know. It might be making my college experience weird, but I like him and I’m so glad you’re happy.” And then she skips off to tease Angel about his fall, and Buffy is left holding a cup of rapidly cooling hot chocolate, overcome by the realization that it’s not only her life that she’s placed on shaking ground.
Angel knows that Buffy can tell that something is wrong, but he lies to her when she asks. He apologizes and makes an excuse for his lateness on such an important night, distracting both of them by throwing himself into helping with the final bits of preparation for the gallery show, finally arrived.
He watches her throughout the evening, partly so he can avoid her scrutiny and their inevitable conversation for as long as possible, and partly because he likes watching her. She’s gained some confidence, but more than that, she’s learned to play to her own strengths. All night, she charms people with her wit and her smile, opening carefully her memories of her mother when someone deserves it, using quiet quips to keep up the spirits of the nervous artist who doesn’t sell a work until two hours into the show.
It seems rude and conspicuous to skip the champagne afterward with Buffy and the people she wants to stay: Dawn, Willow, and the gallery staff, obviously, Xander and his odd girlfriend Anya, and an older man named Giles who Angel’s had several good conversations with despite not entirely understanding how Buffy knows him (was he really her high school librarian?). When Buffy slips off her heels and puts her feet in his lap and he automatically starts rubbing them, he tells himself that he has a part to play, for a little longer at least.
It’s all a countdown, though, really.
And when Buffy sends everyone home, though Angel distracts himself by plucking wine glasses that the caterers didn’t find from the rims of potted plants and noting how many paintings found new homes tonight, he knows the countdown is up.
“Buffy,” he says, quiet and a bit hoarse, as if even his lungs and throat don’t want to do this. But she looks up from the tablet where she’s calculating the impact of the evening. Her fancy hairstyle has unraveled and she’s still in stockingfeet, her shoes abandoned by the chairs where they were celebrating. She looks luminous. He swallows.
“We have to stop.”
She sets down the tablet, blinking at him. “What?”
“We need to break up.” He wishes he had put down the glasses in his hands before he started speaking. His fingers wish for the illusory security of pockets. “Or whatever people who are fake dating do.”
“What are you talking about?” She gives a little laugh, confused, and yet somehow not surprised. She comes over to him, takes the glasses from his hands and places them on the table they had been using as a bar.
He thinks she wants to free his hands, to make him more open to her. He folds his arms against his chest instead. “I had a meeting with the provost today.” He swallows. “He’s happy that things are going well for us. He’d love to give me tenure. But we’d have to be married first, and I’m not going to do that to you.”
She’s so familiar to him now. He can see the disbelief and stubbornness come across her face in turn, can predict before it happens the way she’ll turn away from him, restless, a rejection of his words, and collect a group of business cards left for her.
“We can fake a wedding,” she says, and the practical desperation in her voice makes him close his eyes and step backward. “Once you get tenure, you’re a lifetime member of the club. No takebacks from the provost. I’ll plan something nice, you get to be Professor Angel forever, and it all works out.”
“You’d lie to your sister? To your friends?” He shakes his head. “I’m not going to do that to you,” he repeats. “Not for me. Not for this.”
“Then stand up to him!” She flings a hand out. The business cards she’d had clenched there go flying, scattering across the tabletop and fluttering to the floor. “Tell him that he’s the provost, not the king, and you get to live your life without him bossing you around. Fight him, Angel. I don’t understand why you won’t.”
Angel’s throat aches. “I can’t get a job anywhere else.”
“What are you talking about?! People recognized you here tonight, Angel. Art people recognized you, and they were impressed. I don’t think there are professor trading cards, but you must have a rep with someone. You could get another job if you tried.”
Angel starts to pace without even realizing it, as if he wants to leave behind the sickness forming inside of him. “They don’t know about my past.”
“What are you talking about?” She tries to step toward him, but he moves away, keeps moving away. “What about your past?”
“I was in prison. I was in prison, Buffy!” He doesn’t mean to shout it, and it leaves him raw inside, as if the words were something hideously physical clawing their way out of him.
Faintly, she says, “What?”
“For two years.” He can’t look at her. He’s paced over toward the wall, right by a beautiful work called To the Other Side, a tumultuous seascape between solid strips of land. It was one of the first paintings to earn a Sold sticker tonight. When you look closely, you realize that some of the waves are boats, but you can’t quite tell which ones. Buffy had said people would want to look at it for a while, and she was right. He sits in the chair they’d placed there. He leans against his knees and puts his face in his hands.
He can hear Buffy bringing over her own chair, but the closeness of her voice, the warm pressure of her hand on his knee, still surprises him. “What happened?”
After a time: “I was eighteen,” he says. “My father and I— We never had a good relationship, but it got worse as I got older. He wanted me to take over the family store. I wanted to study art history. Even then. I’d spent my childhood using my allowance for museum admission, and I wanted to be a part of that. He told me he wouldn’t pay for college if I was going to waste my time and his money.” He swallows. His voice, flat until now, grows husky despite himself. “After a while, it was the only thing that we ever talked about. It was a fight with him all the time.” He stops talking for a minute and Buffy stays, sitting, listening, doesn’t try to insert a smart remark or prompt him to go on, and he knows that he loves her. He breathes raggedly for a moment, then continues.
“We went out to dinner. Dad was drinking a lot, getting angrier, louder. I had a flask with me. I made it a game, how much I could sneak without anyone noticing, just to distract myself from him. By the time we were done, my father was obviously too far gone to drive. My mother handed me the keys.”
He has never, he realizes, told anyone this story. Perhaps that’s why the memories hit him as hard as they do. For so long, they just played behind his eyes at night, or ticked into action when he smelled whiskey, heard screeching brakes. Now he’s bringing it all to life again, and even as he opens his eyes and recognizes the smooth white walls of Buffy’s gallery, the bright lights illuminating the mess left behind by tonight’s joy, he is back on that dark road, his window rolled down and the drizzle spraying on his face.
“Dad was awake enough to keep yelling at me even as I drove. It was late. Raining a little. Our house was outside of town. There usually weren’t cars there. The crash happened so fast that it felt like I blinked and woke up in the ambulance.
“It wasn’t that the DA just wanted to make an example out of me. He really hated me. He looked across the courtroom with so much disgust and talked about how I had knowingly gotten behind the wheel, a teenager who shouldn’t have been drinking in the first place, and killed my mother and my father and my baby sister and the other nice man who’d just been trying to get home on that dark road.”
In the silence, he can hear Buffy’s breathing, and he wonders whether he will see this moment as he falls asleep for years to come, if his brain is already encoding the details of heartbreak. But the only thing to do is finish it. “There are people in prison who don’t deserve to be there. There are people who will tell you that they’re innocent, that they’ve been framed, that someone has it in for them. I spent every minute there knowing that I’d earned my time with what I’d done.
“And then one day, the warden called me. There had been another car accident at home. The same cop who’d been there that night drew the accident diagram, and he mislabeled the cars, switched them so it seemed like the wrong driver was at fault. The defense attorney on that case had gone through other accident diagrams and then looked at images and testimony and found that this happened pretty often. Including with me.”
“So you were innocent.”
And perhaps this is why he hoped never to have to tell her this story. Because he’d known that Buffy would see the good in him, and he’d have to scrape himself raw convincing her that she was wrong.
“Maybe I didn’t cause the crash that night,” he says slowly. It feels as if he is crossing ice again, stepping with care to find places that support his weight, ignoring Buffy’s hands this time. “But I could have. Even if we’d gotten home safely, I endangered my family and everyone on the road just by getting in the car. I thought about it for years. What a stupid risk it was, how things might have been different if I’d had a clear head, better reflexes. I carry the weight of the mistakes I made every day. I carry the weight of living when everyone else didn’t. And when I got out of prison, I decided that I needed to show that I could be worth that. I wanted to show that I could live the life I wanted and make it a good life.”
“You wanted to show your dad.”
He nods toward the floor, the shame of that truth overwhelming the deeply beating joy of being so simply understood.
“Then you’re going to be disappointed.” His head comes up, and he sees her firm jaw matching her flat voice. “It’s been years, Angel. You need to get a therapist or buy a bridge building kit. You need to somehow realize that it wasn’t your fault, and you don’t have to prove anything.”
Angel almost laughs at how easy she makes it sound, but the heavy blockage in his chest won’t allow it. “Even if I did—” He has to stop. Just the idea is hard to think about. His guilt and his grief have stayed beside him more faithfully than any person in his life. “Even if I did decide I wasn’t to blame, it wouldn’t change anything. I don’t know how Wilkins found out, but he did, and if I leave Sunnydale, he’ll tell any other school that I try to go to. Those people who were impressed with me tonight wouldn’t be if they found out what I’d done.”
“What happened to you,” she corrects. The certainty she already has in the narrative of his innocence makes him ache. “And you can find someone who will overlook that.”
“Overlook the baggage and bad publicity when there are plenty of qualified people who would bring neither?” He shakes his head. “It’s too hard.”
“Then fight Wilkins! We don’t need to search for the skeletons - he has the closet wide open and he’s basically bragging about them. Find someone to tell, and get him out before he can say anything about you.” He opens his mouth to reply and she shoves her chair back, standing before he can say anything. “And don’t say it’s too hard! It can’t be harder than what you’ve already done, what you do to yourself every day. You can help yourself if you’d just try something other than the sit around sad method. I know you’re not a coward, Angel.”
He chooses his words so carefully. He wants simplicity. He knows how they will land, and he wants to make sure she understands. “I guess you were wrong.”
How well he knows her now. Her face breaks then returns stronger, fire-lit eyes and careful, kintsugi voice. “I guess I was.” She moves back over to the table and picks up her tablet again, and now she’s the one looking away from him. Her quiet, shoeless feet don’t seem relaxed and comfortable anymore. She looks like the kind of person who could walk barefoot over broken glass if necessary.
He hauls himself up to cement feet and exhausted legs and walks out. He’d been right about how things would go, but there is no victory in his accuracy, only a world of settled, standard pain.
Buffy thinks she’s pretending pretty well about the whole thing, breezily spreading the word about her breakup with Angel, seeding it all with appropriate sentiments about the two of them being busy and remaining friends.
“No house awkwardness,” she promises Willow, who looks at her dubiously and, because she’s a good friend, doesn’t mention that they’ve been sitting in Buffy’s living room in the evenings instead of their usual spot on the front porch, even as the weather warms.
But apparently she should give up any acting dreams, because Dawn comes to see her at work one afternoon, and in between recounting her latest roommate drama and talking about the summer internship she’s set up, she says, “And I went by Angel’s office this week and yelled at him.”
“You what?” The headache Buffy’s been ignoring begins stabbing at the forefront of her brain. She can picture Angel’s office with all its books and his big, neat desk and the carefully chosen art on the walls, the lack of personal photographs and leaky, old-fashioned windows. Angel standing stoic while Dawn railed at him, pained at the idea that his colleagues might be listening, taking it because he would feel he deserved it. “You did what?!”
“I had to.” Dawn fiddles with paperclips in the dish on Buffy’s desk, a leftover from their mom that Buffy’s never let go of even though she doesn’t do a lot of paperclip stuff. “You’ve been sad since whatever happened happened, and I thought he should know that.”
Buffy imagines what it would be like if they’d just had a real, normal relationship. So much would have been the same, she thinks, but without the feeling that her growing love for him was a problem to be hidden. She wouldn’t have the confusing riot of feelings inside, knowing that Angel ending their agreement was the best thing to do even as it tore her inside, knowing that he’s wrong for not standing up to Wilkins even though that would have meant he would have been able to break up with her after all, the ruse no longer required. If it had just been a normal breakup, she would be allowed to grieve more, or better. She’d eat ice cream from the pint with Will. She’d laugh through tears as her friends offered to beat him up, instead of insisting he did nothing wrong, no, really, it was all mutual, they just finished their time together.
So just for a moment, she lets herself have that. She squeezes Dawn’s hand across the desk.
Dawn shrugs. “Just sister stuff. I yell at boys who deserve it. You’re supportive of me skipping the last two weeks of my internship to roadtrip up to Washington with Janice.”
Buffy swats at her. “Don’t push it.”
Part of what changes his mind is Dawn. But more than that: he finally has a little talk with Edna May Wilkins.
He’s never seen her anywhere but her house or official school events, so running into her at a coffee shop just outside of town is both unexpected and otherworldly, in a strangely mundane way.
“Angel,” she says, touching his arm as always. “I’d love to speak with you, if you have a minute.” And for once, he has no more excuses. He sits down at a table with her.
Later, he’ll realize how much she must have hated her husband to carry around the material she did in her purse on the off-chance she might be able to use it. In the moment, he is just overwhelmed by the breadth of what she’s collected, the care she must have put in.
“I trust you’ll know what to do with it,” Edna May tells him, sipping her tea as she clasps her purse shut again. He doesn’t want to tell her that he barely trusts himself.
He rolls a stirrer straw between two fingers until it appears that she’s finished and prepared to leave. Then he finally asks: “Why me?”
She doesn’t even take a moment to consider. “Most of the professors remain under his thumb because academic jobs are scarce and they feel lucky to have one. You’re there because of blackmail.” She stands, purse over her shoulder, empty cup deposited in the bin. “You’re the only person I can think of who might hate him as much as I do.”
Angel hadn’t realized until that moment that it’s true: the provost is more than an annoyance, more than a troublesome boss. He is standing in the way of Angel’s life. He takes up space in Angel’s brain, guides his decisions in ways that he shouldn’t be able to. “So you’re counting on me to be selfish?”
“No. I’m counting on you to do the right thing for everyone, even if it might happen to include you.” Edna May gives him a look, wry and wise, before she heads out the door. It’s the kind of no-nonsense look he could imagine his mother giving him if she were here. He can’t believe he thought the sum total of this person was a hostess smile and a good brownie recipe.
The night before he presents to the Board of Trustees, he hears Buffy walking around downstairs. He imagines her in her fuzzy slippers, wonders if she’s on the phone with her sister or watching a movie or washing dishes. Just a month ago, he would have gone down to see himself, would have let himself be soothed by her chatter and her smile and the times she’d brush a hand against him or slap his shoulder when he revealed yet another piece of pop culture knowledge that had escaped him.
He looks back down at his notes instead, hoping that something will penetrate the cloud filling his brain.
And perhaps something manages to.
Buffy hears about the provost leaving from Dawn. They’re browsing for internship clothing (hey, it takes two to decipher what exactly counts as business casual) when Dawn’s phone vibrates. She pulls it out of her bag and glances at it distractedly, still contemplating a blouse with cat faces around the cuff buttons.
“Huh,” she says. “Guess the provost is retiring. That’s good. I only met him once, but he gave me the creeps.” She turns the blouse around and holds it up against herself. “Maybe people won’t notice the cats? I’ll get to be professional, and have cute wrists.”
Buffy is too distracted to say anything as Dawn buys the blouse, and overspends their budget by $40 besides. Her brain drifts during meetings, and she moves evenings with Will back out to the porch, looking up every time headlights turn down the street.
But Angel, apparently freed now of everything that had been holding him back, doesn’t come looking for her.
Which she supposes answers her question.
It’s just not the answer she wanted.
Buffy is talking to a customer when he walks into the gallery. She looks golden in the late summer sun, end of the day tiredness just barely touching her eyes as she points something out to the patron. Her gestures are so knowing now, her smiles sure.
She taps information into her tablet and then nods to the customer, shaking the woman’s hand. It makes him smile, watching her success.
It’s only when the pair of them turn around as Buffy goes to show the woman out that she notices him. Her manners stay pinned together until the door has opened and shut again, leaving them alone. She stalks over to the reception desk, shuffling papers around. He watches his feet for a moment before forcing himself to move closer, to look at her. He deserves this. He just doesn’t know how long she’s going to make him wait. Then:
“What are you doing here, Angel?”
Angel won’t pretend he hasn’t practiced this a dozen times. He knows what he’s going to say. His words still come out grated and awkward. He has to clear his throat to get the entire sentence out. “I’d like an application, if you have one.”
Buffy stops moving the papers around. “What are you talking about?”
“I need a job. I’d like to work here, if that was possible. If you needed the help.”
“I always need the help. It just depends if I can afford the help,” she says, seeming dazed, then shakes herself. “Angel, why do you need a job? The provost is gone.” He starts to answer, but she cuts him off. “He’s kickstarting his retirement plans with some revenge, just like you thought. Angel, I’m sorry.”
“No,” he tells her. “I quit, Buffy. I left the university, and I’m not going to try for another academic job.”
She reaches across the desk to feel his forehead. “If this is a prank, blink once. If you’re being held hostage, blink twice. If aliens have taken over your body, blink—”
He laughs, taking a gentle hold on her wrist. “Buffy. I wanted to.” He rests her arm back on the desktop, both of his hands covering hers. Seriousness settles over both of them. They are very close to each other. “What you said that night, about trying to impress my father even though it’s impossible...You were right about a lot of things, but I kept thinking about that. My father is dead. He can’t be proud of me, and he can’t scorn me, no matter what I do. I don’t have to keep following one path just because I want to prove something to him.” He takes a deep breath. “I like art history, but I stuck with the idea of being a professor because I thought that would be the great accomplishment of my life, and I thought any change would be admitting a mistake. But you made me realize that I wasn’t happy there, and it wasn’t only about Wilkins.” He gestures around the space. “My favorite thing that I’ve done with my degree lately is working with you here. So if you have an open position, I’d like to apply for it.”
“I was just about to start advertising, actually,” Buffy says slowly.
“Did someone leave?”
“No. It’s a new position. A manager position.”
“I joined LinkedIn for it, so yeah, really.” For all the lightness of her tone, she looks serious. She begins to play with her necklace. “When I was yelling at you that night, I realized something too. You were trying to impress your dad, and it was impossible. And it was impossible for me to impress my mom by keeping this place running even when she’s gone. Even if she was looking down on this whole mess, I don’t think she would be impressed if I just shut myself in here just because I thought it’s what she would want. So I’m going back to school. I want to figure out what I want to do for myself. Maybe I won’t find it there, but it’s a good start.”
“I’m happy for you, Buffy.”
“Thanks. I’m happy for me, too.”
He blows out a silent laugh. “I’d like to apply, if you’d be okay with me working here. If you’d trust me with it.”
“Trusting you wasn’t the problem,” she tells him quietly, turning to get a form from the file cabinet. He holds it carefully when she hands it to him, looking it over rather than folding it and tucking it away. Finally, he nods.
“Thank you,” and he turns to go.
“What exactly happened with the provost?”
He shrugs. “Edna May had records of his less than professional conduct. He’s been doing it for years. She’s been watching for all that time. I just talked to the trustees about what she’d given me.”
“Just talked to them?”
“Well, there might have been a Powerpoint.”
She nods, a little grin crinkling her eyes. “I’m happy for you, Angel.”
“I’m just glad that people can teach at Sunnydale now and only have to worry about the degrading writing abilities of our students.” Thoughtfully, he adds, “I saw him before he left. Wilkins. He told me that I’d eventually realize that partnership is important, and I’d regret forcing him out, even if I didn’t approve of his methods.”
“Well, I know my pick for Sunnydale Egomaniac of the Year,” Buffy says, rolling her eyes. “Strong contender for Best Supervillain Speech, too.”
“Maybe. But he wasn’t entirely wrong,” Angel says slowly. He puts the application onto the raised part of the desk so it will be harder to see when his hands tremble. “Without the position he put me in, I never would have asked you out, however unconventional it was. No matter how many times I thought about doing it for real.”
For a minute, she doesn’t seem to breathe. “What would we have done if you’d asked me out for real?”
He finds himself coming over to her side of the desk, ignoring the big front windows and the busy, daylit street of pedestrians outside. “Probably a lot of the same things,” he admits. “But I would have kissed you more.”
“Yes.” His hands feel absolutely natural on her hips, although it’s the first time he’s placed them there. “And what would you have said if I had asked you out for real? Without a gimmick, or a problem that needed solving.”
“I think I have enough problems to solve on my own,” she says. “So I probably would have said yes.”
He has her face cupped in her hands nearly as soon as she has the word out. Kissing her is just as he’d imagined: the sweetness of it, delight in his mind and calm rightness in his chest, the finally, finally, finally in it all.
“Maybe we can make a new agreement,” Buffy suggests, once they’ve pulled away, and started again, and pulled away again.
Angel grins at her. The lightness, the lack of burden is strange. He’ll get used to it. “What did you have in mind?”
“So, how did you two get together?”
Angel might be nearing his anniversary as manager, might have overseen the Summers Gallery’s continued success, but he still feels better dealing with artists when Buffy is by his side. No matter what her major is this week (Leadership Studies was the latest one, if he remembers correctly) she’s always better at smalltalk and getting people comfortable, and she nearly always makes it for openings and events. He feels lucky to have her every time anyway.
He looks down at her, dressed in a fluttery pink summer dress, his arm around her shoulders. Her engagement ring glints on her finger where her hand is twined with his.
“We were neighbors, and we started talking,” Buffy tells the artist and her wife. “Not a lot of story to the story.”
The small smile on her lips is visible only to Angel.