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The Mature Plan

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“OK, I’d better…”

Buffy was going to leave. She was going to head back to Sunnydale and all he would have was one kiss in the sunlight and the lingering taste of her lip gloss on his mouth. It was a new flavor for him — there were so many he’d been missing out on, his senses sharpened only for blood, for the hunt, for decades. Centuries. All of him felt raw and sensitive, every nerve ending tingling and new. He couldn’t hear Buffy’s heart thumping anymore, he couldn’t smell how her body reacted to whatever she was feeling, but still her nearness was almost overwhelming. He was literally a corpse come back to life — even the smallest touch was indescribable.

And he craved it. His body was screaming to reach out, to pull her close, to kiss her again, to soothe his skin against hers.

Instead, he said, “Right. Remove the temptation.”

Something about those words stopped her, spun her back toward him. Her face seemed carefully composed, but her eyes were still pleading with him. “So, we’ll talk soon?” she asked hopefully.

Her hand came down on top of his where it rested on the stovetop and it was as if she had turned on the burner. Heat rushed through him — an electric desire jolting him from head to toe. He had to tear his eyes away from hers to stare at the spot where their hands met, wondering at the fact that they weren’t actually in flames.

There was no stopping it now. The last bit of his self-control burned away and he started to lift her hand, his thumb rubbing over the softness of her sweater—

A crash above startled him, stopped him. Buffy pulled her hand away in shock.

They were both breathing heavy, stunned. It took a moment for Angel to realize that something must’ve happened to Doyle or Cordelia. They could be under attack. He raced for the elevator. Buffy’s instincts kicked in and she rushed to grab a weapon.

“What happened?” Angel said as they burst into the office. But it was already clear. Doyle was on the floor next to the couch, his hand clamped against the side of his head, and Cordelia was perched next to him, helping him sit up. “A vision?”

Angel bent to help Doyle back onto the couch. “We got trouble,” Doyle said.

††† 

The wind whipped through Buffy’s hair as Angel drove his sleek black convertible through the fading sunlight toward the saline plant in Redondo. Apparently the mutant ninja demon thingie whose blood had turned Angel human was starring in a sequel. And if she had anything to say about it, he was going to be a box-office bomb.

She couldn’t really wrap her mind around everything that had happened that day. It was wiggy enough to be driving to a slay date, let alone having her ex-vampire ex-boyfriend behind the wheel. Though Angel wasn’t feeling so ex in the boyfriend department at the moment. They’d shared the absolute best kiss of her life under a clear blue sky today, and she was pretty sure those smoochies would have gotten a sequel of their own if Angel’s Irish friend hadn’t interrupted at bad time o’clock.

Not his fault, though. The vision gig didn’t seem like a whole lotta fun. For Doyle, it meant mondo pain, and for Angel, it meant jumping to figure out the meaning of a bunch of vague secondhand imagery. She’d stick to patrolling in one of Sunnydale’s dozen cemeteries when she needed to kill something, thank you very much.

But she was glad to be along for the ride. Angel had made some absolutely dumbass arguments about how he needed to prove that he could handle things without risking her life, but she had rolled her eyes and grabbed a sword anyway. It was annoying that even after almost 250 years, he still had a fragile male ego. Some things never changed.

"Okay. This is not good," Doyle piped up from the backseat. “It doesn't just come back — it comes back bigger and stronger.”

Buffy turned her head to look back at him. He was paging through the Book of Seltzer or whatever Angel had called it.

“Sequels don’t usually live up to the marketing hype,” she said sagely. “Just tell me how to kill him.”

"Uh, 'It regenerates until the dark future it envisions is upon us,’” he read. Angel parked the car and they climbed out. “Oh,” Doyle continued as they walked toward the plant, “'to kill the beast one must bring darkness to 1,000 eyes'."

“Funny, I only saw two,” Angel cracked. Buffy looked over at him with a smile.

“Maybe he has like 500 pairs of glasses,” she added.

“Very funny, both of you,” Doyle said. “But keep up the glib. It makes me feel like we have a chance.”

Suddenly, Buffy’s nose filled with the rotting stench of corpses. But she was distracted from her own reaction by Angel, who was gagging and stumbling. She and Doyle instantly moved to support him.

“Take it easy, mate,” Doyle said.

“The blood,” Angel choked out, coughing. Of all the weird things so far that day, Angel freaking out over blood had to be near the top of the list. It was disorienting. He was really, truly no longer a vampire.

“It’s never an easy sight,” Doyle said. “It’s part of being human now.”

“I’m going to kill that thing,” Angel responded.

But before Buffy could open her mouth to correct him, the mohair demon roared and jumped down from above, practically onto their heads. Well, this was no time for a discussion. She’d just have to demonstrate.

††† 

When Angel opened his eyes, he was in bed in his basement apartment. His head was killing him, and his entire body hurt. This was definitely not normal. Also, he was breathing. He didn’t have the freshest of breath, either. His mouth felt fuzzy and...warm.

Then he remembered. He was human. Holy mother of…

He had to go back to Oracles, to find out what was going to happen to Buffy. He knew now that his pain was from the fight with the Mohra demon. It had attacked, he’d gotten injured and it had come close to hurting Buffy when Angel realized that “1,000 eyes” was referring to the jewel in the demon’s forehead.

Buffy had killed the Mohra. The last thing Angel remembered was her cradling him in her arms as the world went dark around him.

He panicked for a moment, wondering what had happened to her, but when he turned his head, he saw her sitting in his chair under the lamp. She had what looked like his copy of Aurelius’ writings in her lap. Her elbow was resting on the open page and her chin was propped on her elbow. She was asleep.

He started to sit up and she startled awake.

“Angel. Are you OK?” she said immediately.

He pulled the covers back. “A little worse for wear, but I’ll live,” he said. Live. He was alive.

She nodded, then made a funny face and rubbed her neck. “I think that was the most uncomfortable sleeping position ever. Orange Julius here isn’t exactly the most riveting of authors.”

He couldn’t help but smile. He’d missed her so much.

“What were you looking for?” he asked, sitting on the side of the bed. He felt anxiety bubble up in his stomach. Part of him wished he could have gotten away to go back to the Oracles’ portal under the post office without waking Buffy. She had been fairly dismissive of his concerns about her welfare now that he was flesh and blood again. She probably wasn’t going to think much of consulting a delphic Magic Eight Ball. But he would do anything to keep her safe, even if it meant giving her up again.

Buffy breathed out a little laugh, sounding embarrassed. “Well, I was thinking about how Doyle got that vision while we were in the kitchen yesterday…”

Almost kissing, she didn’t have to say.

“And I guess I was a little, um, annoyed at the timing.”

Angel grinned at her, and she smiled back, the look in her eyes lighting little fires across his skin. She glanced down at her lap for a beat before raising her gaze back to him.

“And then I got to thinking. The Oracles told you that you were free, right? That you were released from your...whatchamacallit—”

“Released from my fealty,” Angel supplied.

“Right.” Her brow crinkled up adorably. “So why did Doyle get that vision? And why did you immediately jump to follow it?”

Angel breathed out thoughtfully. “So what you’re saying is, either I’m not really released from my connection to the Powers That Be, or the vision was meant for someone else?”

“What I’m saying is, I don’t think you can trust the Oracles,” Buffy said firmly. “I don’t think they’re giving you the full picture here.”

Was it possible the Oracles had lied to him? Their whole schtick was riddles and double-talk. Even if they hadn’t actually lied, their words could hold some kind of hidden meaning he didn’t understand.

“Don’t you think it’s kind of weird?” Buffy continued. “That your friend would get a vision of me and you’d come to Sunnydale and then the moment I follow you back here, that mohair demon crashes in like the Kool-Aid Man to turn you human?”

“Mohra demon,” he corrected automatically, his face going blank. He shook his head. “When you put it like that…”

“Maybe this whole thing is a setup?” Buffy said uncertainly.

“So my humanity might still wear off? Maybe it is a spell?”

Buffy bit her lip and looked away. Angel felt his own stomach sink.

“So we’re back where we started,” Buffy said. “The mature plan?”

††† 

Buffy watched as Angel pulled on a clean shirt, trying to ignore the way his muscles rippled. They had made it through an entire school year in Sunnydale without being able to sleep together. And until yesterday, she thought it would be impossible for them to ever even have a real relationship again.

So she should be happy that there was hope at all now, right? They’d wait to see if Angel’s humanity stuck and then...well, it seemed like he still loved her. He’d talked about how much it hurt to be apart. If he stayed human, none of his concerns about children or sunlight or making love applied. They could start over again, just two mortal beings in love.

But what if his humanity didn’t stick? What if they had one chance to be together, even if briefly, and they missed it?

The questions all started to swim together in her head. She was so tired. She had barely slept — just a few minutes in the chair before Angel woke up. She’d been so worried about his injuries and so eager to look for more information. But the book she was still holding her lap didn’t have any answers. She snapped it closed and sighed.

“Doyle said yesterday that we were both on a need-to-know basis,” Angel said slowly. “I think it’s time for me to know.”

They found Doyle in the office upstairs, snoozing on the couch despite the brightness of the sunlight streaming through the windows. Buffy didn’t blame him. For all her superstrength, getting a woozy Angel into the car and then into his bed had been awkward and exhausting. Doyle probably just didn’t have the energy to make it home.

She hung back a little as Angel moved toward the couch to wake him, feeling suddenly intrusive. In just a few months, Angel had built this whole life she wasn’t a part of — a business that helped people, coworkers who were maybe friends. Were Doyle and Cordelia going to be his Xander and Willow? Where exactly did she fit in?

But then Angel crossed in front of the window without flinching, without any smoke curling from his skin, and she completely forgot her fears. She thought she’d never get tired of looking at him in the light. All the things they could do now, all the things she could show him, all the hope for the future bubbled up in her again.

The only thing that stopped her from smiling was the lingering thought that it was all too good to be true.

Doyle and Angel were talking now, in low, urgent voices. She moved closer.

“What can I say? There are things that you’re supposed to find out on your own,” Doyle was saying.

“At what cost? All I want is to figure things out without anyone else getting hurt.”

They both looked tense and uncomfortable. Doyle ran his hand through his hair, took a deep breath—

And then Cordelia breezed into the office, wearing a crisp pleated skirt and dark tank top, sunglasses perched on her ponytailed head. Buffy looked down at the black pants and sweater she was still wearing from yesterday. The same clothes she had not-slept in and worn to battle a demon in a salt plant. Ugh.

Cordelia flounced over to the front desk and put her bag down.

“Cordelia?” Angel said, perplexed. “It’s Saturday.”

“Ha,” she said. “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to get me to go home so you three can sell all the stuff I organized last night and split the proceeds yourself. Well, you’re not pulling the wool over my eyes that easily.”

Buffy looked around and noticed the pink sticky notes dotting weapons and books and various items in the office. There was even one stuck to the clock. It was 9 a.m. on the dot, she noticed. When she’d walked into this office just 24 hours ago, everything had been so different.

“We’re not selling anything,” Angel said, and Buffy could hear the slight tremor of temper in his voice. “We’re not changing anything. We have no idea if I’m going to wake up tomorrow and be a blood-sucking monster again, so maybe just cool it with the yard sale, OK?”

His voice had risen above its normal level by the time he finished, the cracks in his usually stoic facade groaning open. Buffy gave Cordelia credit for having the decency to blush a little.

“OK, boss,” she squeaked and gave him a sheepish, million-dollar smile.

Angel turned and aimed a scowl in Doyle’s direction. “You were saying?”

“Well, I wasn’t, actually…” When Angel’s glower only deepened, Doyle rubbed his forehead and sighed. “There’s a prophecy — supposedly in the Scrolls of Aberjian, though they’ve been lost. The only sources left are secondhand. But it tells of a vampire with a soul who fulfills his destiny and becomes human.”

“Me?” Angel said, taken aback.

“I don’t know anyone else fitting that particular description, do you?”

“What’s his destiny?” Buffy asked. “What does it say Angel has to do?”

“The prophecy, what we know of it anyway, talks about surviving apocalyptic battles, plagues and fiends,” Doyle said.

The wheels in Buffy’s head were spinning. “So...the Sisterhood of whatever they were — y’know, the cult that was trying to open the Hellmouth? — and the Mayor’s Ascension...those were pretty apocalyptic battles. There were freaky plagues when the Master tried to rise. And I think you’ve defeated any number of fiends at this point.”

“But this isn’t a reward, Buffy,” Angel said, his face going stony again. “The Oracles were clear on that point. Getting the Mohra demon’s blood on me was just random chance.”

“Well, random chance has suspicious timing.”

“What are you suggesting?” Doyle asked.

“OK, this might sound crazy,” Buffy said, sighing, “but when I turned 18, there was a...test. My Watcher drugged me and took away my slayerness. It was some really screwed-up head game to see if I was worthy. Maybe these Powers are playing the same kind of game.”

Angel’s brow creased. “So you think they turned me human to test me?”

“They did seem to want Buffy here for it,” Doyle added. “I’ve never gotten a vision about someone in another city before. Maybe they were making sure you would have what you wanted most right in front of you.” Angel looked at him sharply. “I don’t think it’s a secret, man,” Doyle chuckled.

Buffy smiled, feeling a blush rise in her cheeks.

“And then it’s like Buffy said, they sent Doyle another vision anyway, to see what I would do,” Angel said.

“You tried to go without me,” Buffy said.

“So I failed. You killed the Mohra. I proved myself unworthy.”

“No.” Buffy gave him a stern look. “You just didn’t get caught up in their games.”

Angel looked down at his feet, seeming conflicted.

“When I woke up this morning, I thought about...going back to them,” he said. “The Oracles. I wanted to find out what would happen to you, Buffy. I thought maybe....”

“Maybe what?” Buffy prodded softly, her stomach feeling icy. She was already sure she didn’t want the answer.

“I thought maybe there would be a way to keep you safe. If I gave this up.” Angel looked up and caught her eyes for just a moment, then turned away.

Shock and anger shot white-hot through Buffy’s chest, and unwanted tears sprang into her eyes. He was going to do what?

“Let me get this straight,” she said, expecting her voice to crack and waver, but hearing it calm and deadly in her ears. “I saved you plenty of times when you were a vampire. But now it’s unacceptable to you? Would you really rather be a superhero than...” Be with me. At that she finally choked, unable to finish, not in front of Doyle and Cordelia. She was halfway across the room when Cordelia spoke up.

“Wait a minute,” she said, turning to Angel. “So there’s a prophecy that you’re going to become human if you meet the terms and conditions. And there’s a case to be made that you’ve done that. And these Powers That Be assholes knew about this prophecy — hell, even Doyle knew about this prophecy — but you didn’t, Angel. Why didn’t they want you to know?”

“They didn’t want him to trust it,” Buffy said, all of it coming together with a snap in her mind. “They wanted him to think it was just a mistake. So maybe he’d correct it.”

“So it wasn’t a test,” Doyle said. He looked at Angel. “Did the Oracles actually say that you turning human was a mistake?”

“They never give a straight answer,” Angel said, but he looked chagrined. “They said…’If it happened, it was meant to be.’”

His words sunk into Buffy’s heart like arrows. Meant to be apparently didn’t matter to him.

“If you’d asked the Powers to take it back, they would have kept a warrior for their side,” Doyle said. “They’d still have both of us dancing on their strings.”

“And you almost did it,” Buffy whispered. She couldn’t stay in the office a moment longer. Her feet carried her away, through the door, out into the street, until the loud noises of traffic matched the rushing of the blood in her ears.

††† 

Angel paced the room agitatedly after Buffy swept out of it, wanting to go after her but first forgetting that he could, and then second, not knowing what to say. He really wanted to hit something and he wasn’t concealing it at all well. He tried to avoid the looks on Doyle and Cordelia’s faces. He might only be human now, but he could still be intimidating.

The room was closing in around him. He couldn’t let Buffy leave like this. With a growl of frustration, he finally followed out into the sunlight.

She hadn’t gotten far. Her blonde hair and white sweater were unmissable in the early winter light. She stopped when he called her name, but she didn’t turn. He felt another flash of anger surge through him. Why couldn’t she understand that it was only because he loved her so much that he would even consider...what he had considered?

She had shown him what it meant to love another person more than yourself, what it meant to have a mission in life beyond the basics of survival. She was everything to him.

He walked around her on the sidewalk, looking down into her tearful face. It tugged at his heart, and he felt his frustration ebb.

“I’m sorry that it all came out like that,” he said. “I don’t even know what I really would have done.”

“I do,” Buffy said coldly. “You’re good at giving this — us — up.”

Ouch.

“Don’t you think you’re being a little hypocritical here?” he couldn’t help asking.

She made an indignant noise.

“I seem to remember you struggling pretty hard when you lost your powers,” he continued. “You have to remember what it’s like. The fear of not being able to protect the people you love. Of not knowing what your mission is anymore.”

Buffy shook her head. “You’re right. I hated feeling powerless. But it’s not the same. You being human...you might not be able to help people in the same way. But it also means that there’s no chance of losing your soul. There’s no chance of you going on a murder bender and undoing all the good you’ve done again.”

She was right, but it stung. “That’s just it. How can I deserve this? With all the bad I’ve done in the world? All the pain I’ve caused?”

“As I remember it, you spent a century in hell. I think the gods are fairly into that form of punishment.” She huffed. “Who’s to say it’s even a reward? I hate to break it to you, but being human royally sucks most of the time. It means pain and suffering and death.”

“How can it not be a reward, if it means I have the chance to be with you?”

“How could you even think about giving it up, if it meant we had the chance to be together?”

“I would do anything to save your life, Buffy,” he said quietly.

“I know that. And they know that. But there are never any guarantees,” Buffy answered. “I don’t want you to save my life, Angel. All I’ve ever wanted was for you to live it with me. For however long we get.”

She held his eyes for a long moment. “When you’re ready to live, give me a call.”

And then she was leaving and he couldn’t find the words to stop her.

††† 

The last thing Buffy wanted was to go back into Angel Investigations. But her bag was inside, and she had a final message for Vision Guy.

“If you get so much as an ice cream headache, I want to hear about it,” she said on her way out, clutching her stuff and trying not to show how upset she was. Both Doyle and Cordelia had avoided her gaze when she came in, and she’d made a beeline for Angel’s apartment. But now they both stared at her like she had just confessed to kicking puppies in her spare time.

“Cordelia, you have my number,” she continued. “Just…don’t let him kill himself to prove a point, OK?”

“As if we could stop him,” Cordelia said huffily.

“We’ll try,” Doyle said, more kindly. He looked like he wanted to say more, but Buffy couldn’t spend another second in this office.

“Yeah,” she said. “OK.”

The ride back to Sunnydale was going to be a long one. She thought briefly about going to see her dad, but decided against it.

She didn’t even know if he was actually in town.

††† 

Angel wasn’t proud of this.

But after Buffy left, he went straight to the Oracles, stopping only to get one of his antiques out of storage. They’d demanded a gift last time, he remembered.

“Why are you here, lower being?” the male Oracle asked once he’d offered them the vase.

“My friend, the seer—he told me that there was a prophecy that a vampire with a soul would become human. Is this—is this the fulfillment of that prophecy?”

“Were you a vampire with a soul? Are you now human? Why do you trouble us with such questions?”

“Is that a yes?”

“All prophecies come to pass, but no prophecy passes away,” the female Oracle answered. “The book cannot be closed with so many pages left to be written.”

This was getting him nowhere. The question that had haunted him in his bed this morning rushed up in his head. “The Mohra demon said that others were coming, soldiers of darkness. Was he telling the truth?”

“As far as such things can be told,” the male Oracle said.

"What happens to the slayer when these soldiers come?"

"What happens to all mortal beings. Albeit sooner in her case."

Ice surrounded Angel’s heart. “She'll die?” he choked out. “Then I'm here to beg for her life.”

At this, the Oracles turned away from him. “It is not our place to grant life or death."

Buffy would hate him for this, but at least maybe she’d be alive. "And I ask you to take mine back.” That stopped the Oracles in their tracks. “Look, I can't protect her or anyone this way, not as a man."

"What is done cannot be undone,” the male Oracle said huffily.

“Even we have our limits,” the female Oracle said, more kindly.

“So I’m just supposed to watch Buffy die?” Angel asked, stricken.

“She is human, like you are now. From the moment you first set eyes on the slayer, you have been watching her die,” the female Oracle said. “What has changed?”

And then he was surrounded by cold stone, alone.

††† 

Willow supplied the cookie dough fudge mint chip. Buffy supplied the tears.

††† 

Food definitely tasted much better as a human, Angel thought, but sadly, whiskey tasted terrible. He felt like a child wrinkling his nose at his first sip. But he choked it down anyway. His palate would adjust. And in the meantime, the warmth it spread through his veins helped him feel less frozen by the pain.

In a little over 24 hours, he had lost his mission, his purpose, and Buffy.

You haven’t lost her, a small part of his mind said rebelliously. You just have to find your way back to her.

But he couldn’t exactly go to Buffy and tell her that he’d tried to give her up for real and it didn’t work, so here’s your consolation prize, could he? What did he have to offer her now? What was he even worth?

He was several glasses in before he realized he had been in this exact same place before. He could go back to the gutter, suffer for decades over a fate he could neither understand nor change. Or he could let Buffy inspire him again to become someone.

A person.

††† 

It was hard, staying away. Every day, Buffy picked up the phone to call. And every day, she put it back down.

He had left her before. And he’d keep leaving her, at least until something changed.

Something had to change.

††† 

Angel started with that pesky mortal coordination. His body was still in good shape, but he moved more slowly, he wasn’t as strong, he got breathless too easily. He needed to relearn how to handle a sword now that he could feel its weight. His muscles still held their memory, but he had relied so much on the brute force that was gone now.

He spent long hours training. He even joined a gym. He walked there every morning in the bright sunlight, listening to the people around him, laughing and chatting and just having lives.

The sweat helped. The burning reps cleared his head of other thoughts.

He kept paying Doyle and Cordelia somehow. Not every case they had taken required vampiric services, and there was still a bit of work trickling their way, even though Doyle hadn’t gotten any more visions so far. The two of them even started hanging out for some of Angel’s evening training sessions, learning how to punch and kick and handle weapons, now that the boss was human, like them.

It was just barely a life, just the skeleton of a life, but it was a start.

††† 

Cordelia called, eventually. Buffy tried to ask her a million questions, but she couldn’t get a single one out. Her voice was gone. All of Sunnydale was mute. Did Cordelia know that somehow?

“Buffy, if you’re there….I think he’s going to be OK,” Cordelia whispered before hanging up.

††† 

The day that Angel ran into Melissa Burns at the gym was the day that his skeleton of a life started building some muscle.

“I’m sorry,” she said, as he toweled off next to one of the weight machines. “I just remembered that I told you that I hoped I never saw you again. That was pretty rude of me.”

“Understandable, given the context,” he answered with a smile. It had only been about six weeks or so since he’d buried Melissa’s creepy stalker in the subway. In pieces.

“Well, I’m actually very happy to see you in a non-work capacity,” she said, then blushed. “I mean…”

“I know what you meant,” Angel answered. “And I have an apology to make, too. I think Cordelia killed your plant.”

Melissa laughed. “Did she water it with the leftover coffee?”

“Something like that.” Angel laughed a little, too. It felt good to remember actually helping someone, even if he couldn’t do it anymore.

Melissa’s forehead crinkled and she tilted her head as she looked at him. “There’s something different about you,” she said.

Angel looked at the ground, flustered. He was saved from having to come up with answer by Melissa noticing the time.

“Oh, I have to go. I’m taking a self-defense class. After everything with Ronald...I feel like I have my mojo back or something. And I want to know how to use it.” She bit her lip and took a deep breath. “Would you....Do you want to come with me?”

“Me?”

“I know you know how to defend yourself, obviously. But you could tell me if this class is any good. I’ve been kind of wondering if I’m getting my money’s worth. And I’m allowed to bring a guest.” She shook her head. “Sorry, I just realized you probably have plans and I’m asking a lot and—”

“No,” Angel cut her off. “I’d like that, actually.”

He would be helping. Even if it was in the smallest way possible.

It wasn’t long into the class before he realized that Melissa’s instincts had been right. The self-defense instructor seemed both inexperienced and overconfident in his own abilities. And all he seemed to be teaching were eye gouges.

“You could do way better than that,” Angel told Melissa after the class had ended.

“Have you ever thought about teaching?” she asked, opening a bottle of water.

“Um, actually, I have been giving Doyle and Cordelia a few pointers in the evenings sometimes.”

“Can I come?”

††† 

Given how Riley the psych-TA-slash-commando-guy was reacting to her being the slayer, Buffy was starting to think she’d maybe been a little hard on Angel. She’d always been stronger than him, and he’d never been threatened by that, even if his protectiveness had been on overdrive lately.

She missed him. But she’d left the ball in his court and if she showed up with another ball, well, that would be too many balls. Or maybe not, but she was bad enough at sports metaphors that she wasn’t going to risk it.

Riley was probably good at sports metaphors. Good at sports, period. He was probably good at a lot of normal guy things, but he was no Angel. And he was helping her see that Angel’s reaction really was more about fear of being a liability to her than a fear of her strength.

It was still so frustrating, though. Angel had left her after graduation so she could have a relationship with a guy like Riley. What did he think? That that guy would never be someone she’d have to protect? She drew strength from the “normal” people around her, not weakness. The more love she had in her life, the more reason she had to keep fighting.

But she knew Angel’s real problem was bigger than that, bigger than them. I don't know what my purpose is, he’d said.

He needed a mission. He was back in the same place he’d been a year ago when he tried to meet the dawn, not knowing where he fit.

She could only hope that he’d figure it out before the sun came up.

††† 

Angel was halfway out of the office when the phone rang. He turned back to answer it.

The phone was ringing a lot now, as word got around about his self-defense lessons. Melissa had told the rest of her class that they were being ripped off, and they told others, until Angel had more requests than he knew what to do with. Even Kate Lockley had offered to send referrals his way.

He started looking into certification, thinking he could start offering formal classes in the new year. Cordelia excitedly sensed the prospect of a steadier income stream, and these days, anything that made Cordelia happy made Doyle happy.

Angel found himself impressed at their potential to help him with the classes as well. Doyle seemed to have an unlimited amount of patience in an instructional setting, which Angel thought was surprising until Cordelia reminded him Doyle had been an elementary school teacher. For her part, Cordelia’s many years of cheerleading made her quick to learn and used to breaking things down into simple steps.

Angel noted down the name and number of the potential client on the phone, then decided to grab a scarf. It was cooler than expected, even for a night in late December, and the chill could find its way into his bones now.

The night still called to him, always. He supposed he had just gotten so used to it over the years that never going out into the darkened streets would be impossible. He tried to keep to populated areas, to streetlights, to not specifically go looking for trouble.

Of course, eventually trouble found him. He heard a woman screaming a few blocks away and began running toward her, fumbling for the just-in-case stake he had tucked in his pocket.

Before he was actually close enough to help, he started yelling instructions, and miraculously the woman listened, possibly without even thinking about it. By the time he was in arm’s reach, her attacker was clutching his bloody nose and backing away.

Angel tossed his stake down and punched the totally-not-a-vampire attacker for good measure. He collapsed to the ground.

“Thank you,” the woman said. She had red hair and a shallow wound on her forehead — but now there was nothing tempting about the blood. “He came out of nowhere and I froze up and then I heard you and…”

Angel pulled off his coat and put it around her shoulders. “You did great,” he said. A few others had gathered and he noticed gratefully that someone was already on the phone with the cops.

“It’s going to be OK,” he said, and he realized it really would.

His mission had never just been about protecting people, it had always been about helping them, in whatever way he could. Even Buffy. He had only ever seen one person bring Buffy Summers back from the dead, and it had been a normal human guy, just like he was now. Someone with no special powers except caring a whole hell of a lot.

There was no snow this Christmas, and fighting was still hard and painful and every day. But now he knew that he and Buffy could do it together.

††† 

Were Christmases always going to suck now? It was bad enough that Buffy’s birthday always seemed to get ruined. And Halloween was a nightmare, and this year, even Thanksgiving had been mostly a disaster. Couldn’t Buffy just enjoy a holiday for once?

No one had tried to kill her in her dreams this Christmas, and she hadn’t had to face the literal source of all evil or anything, but Angel’s continued absence had seriously dented her holiday spirit. Even the Snoopy dance couldn’t cheer her up. Not that Xander had given up trying.

This was ridiculous. She wasn’t going to abandon her mother on Christmas Eve again, but as soon as she could tomorrow, she was going to call Angel up and tell him that this was stupid and she loved him and didn’t he know they were wasting precious, precious time?

She heard someone clomp onto the porch. Oh, god, if Xander was going to do that damn dance again…

But when she pulled open the front door, it was definitely not Xander standing in front of her. Her mouth dropped open in surprise.

"I'm ready, Buffy, if you'll still have me,” Angel said in a rush. “I’m ready...to have a life now. And I want my life to be with you."