Buffy hummed "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid to herself as she wandered through the crowded market square. She came shopping in the open-air mall all the time during the day, but on those rare nights when Angel joined her, there was a special magic about it, as if wonderful possibilities hung like promises in the air.
She wasn't sure where, exactly, or when she had lost him in the crowd, but she wasn't really concerned about it. They had a standing agreement to meet at the car in the Municipal Garage at midnight, if they were unable to find one another before then.
A tinkling ring sang from the pocket of her dress. Plus, there was always the cell phone he had given her. Buffy smiled broadly as she pulled it out and held it to her ear.
"Angel Investigations, may I help you?" she answered, although she already knew full well who the caller was.
"May I speak to Miss Buffy Summers, please?" Angel asked with teasing formality.
"I'm sorry, who?" Buffy responded, stifling a giggle.
"Ravishing blonde beauty... great with pointed sticks," he said. "Kicks impressive amounts of demon ass?"
"Oh, sure, you've got her, buddy," she chirped.
"I love you," he said. Buffy's heart fluttered in her chest.
"I love you, too," she replied, "Ooh!" She jogged to a nearby table that was covered with elegant handmade marionettes.
Angel knew that sound. "Don't buy anything big, Ionuin*," he warned, "There's no closet space left as it is, and you haven't even moved in yet."
"Yet?" Buffy mocked. They had been arguing for a while over whether she should live with him or in the dorms when she transferred to UCLA in the fall.
"Where are you?" he asked.
Buffy let his change of subject go. She couldn't possibly hear one more time how they should be together "properly" (i.e. married) before they shared a home full time. There was nothing worse, in her estimation, than an 18th century Irish Catholic vampire.
"Um..." she looked around her, "By the marionettes. Before the coffee cart. After the tie dyes."
Angel sighed. "What street, Buffy?"
"Mmm, I don't know. Wait, where are you? You're better at giving directions."
He chuckled. "I'm over by the smithy, near the pier."
"Smithy? Angel, what the hell is a 'smithy'?" she asked. Buffy knew which direction he meant, so she started to walk toward the bay.
"A blacksmith. You know, swords? Armor? Weapons?" he listed the items he examined as he moved back toward the main market.
"Office supplies. Got it," she said, "But don't buy anything big... closet space..." she mocked.
Angel grinned. "Are you hungry?" he asked, sniffing the many and varied aromas that rose into the air around him.
"Only if you're buying or cooking," she answered as she came around the corner of the last block that separated them.
"I can't imagine who else would," Angel teased.
"Hey! You said you liked my very special combination spicy fried eggs/French toast... OUCH!"
"Buffy? Are you okay?"
She shook her head and started to yell at the person who had just slammed right into her. The arm carrying the cell dropped to her side, and her mouth fell open right along with it.
"Buffy. Hey," Oz greeted her, as if they had met just yesterday. There was no mistaking him, despite his heavier build, longer hair, and the thick growth of shocking red beard on his chin. He looked like Grizzly Adams, but he was still fully Oz.
Buffy gaped at him in stunned silence.
"Buffy? Buffy! Are you okay? What's going on?!" Angel's voice called frantically from the phone that hung forgotten at her side.
Oz looked down at her limp hand.
"I think it's for you," he informed her.
Buffy was the only talker at the table, and she couldn't think of a single thing to say that didn't require a whole lot of cursing, and possibly an assortment of medieval torture devices. So she sat, showing keen interest in the menu, her latte, or almost anything else but Oz.
Oz watched Buffy and Angel with the same sort of neutral interest he showed to everything else around him, all the time.
Angel just sat. He really didn't know why Oz had left Sunnydale -- only that he and Willow had split up, causing the Witch to go completely out of her tree and bungle a simple spell so beautifully that she had almost single-handedly brought he and Buffy back together again.
So he was sort-of torn on his opinion of Oz & Willow's break-up. Buffy, however, was nowhere near torn. She was obviously very angry. He decided, as the person least invested in the situation, to bail the others out.
"So, Oz. How've you been?" he asked.
"Good," Oz answered, nodding, "You?"
"Fine," Angel replied.
Maybe he wasn't the best candidate to stimulate conversation.
Buffy glared at the redhead. "I think better questions might be: Where have you been, what have you been doing, and why haven't you contacted Willow even once?" she snapped.
Angel looked at her. "But those aren't really your questions to ask, are they, Buffy?" he warned.
She turned her glare on him. Angel raised his hands to signal surrender and leaned back in his chair, leaving Buffy to return to her grilling of Oz once again.
"No, that's fair," the werewolf replied, still unruffled. After all, it wasn't the first time he had faced the wrath of Buffy the Best Friend Protector. "The Sierras, soul-searching, and because I couldn't," he answered succinctly.
Angel was impressed with the economy of his response. Buffy, clearly, was not.
"Oh, that's nice... that's great," she spat, signaling without any mistake that she didn't think the situation was anywhere close to great, "The mountains. That explains everything..."
"I'm not sure what you want me to tell you," Oz said with a shrug.
Buffy was so angry, so full of the desire for righteous vengeance in Willow's name, she positively shook. "I want you to explain yourself!!!" she hissed.
Oz held her angry gaze, still perfectly unruffled. "I won't do that," he told her, "Not to you."
She flinched, and Angel fought the urge to duck what was bound to be a fiery outburst. But Buffy seemed to relax a little instead, and her scowl of rage turned into something more akin to a semi-sympathetic frown.
Oz thought her change in expression was a definite step up, and indicated a significant improvement in his overall chances of survival.
"You've been living in the mountains," Angel recapped, hoping to rein the tension in a little.
Oz nodded and turned his attention back to the vampire. "There's a colony there."
"Really. Fascinating," Angel said. He remembered coming face-to-face with Oz's wolf once, in the back alley behind the Bronze. The enormous beast and Angel's alter ego had almost come to blows over Angelus' latest kill. But even arrogant as he was, the demon knew better than to take on a creature as wild as a werewolf.
Angel had a deep respect for Oz. He felt he understood him better than the rest of Buffy's group, including Willow. He knew what it felt like to be The Other -- to have a powerful creature living inside you, a monster fully out of your control. He understood the things that could drive a man to leave everything he loved behind. But most of all, Angel could relate to Oz's unshakable devotion to a single unique, precious woman.
"A colony. Of werewolves," Buffy repeated incredulously.
Oz nodded. "Actually, not just werewolves. All kinds of shapeshifters. It's kind of strange..."
"Do you have some kind of compound out there?" Angel asked, leaning forward, his interest piqued.
"Yes and no. There are about 50 of us -- everybody kind of has their own thing. It's pretty cool, actually. Some of the guys up there have been studying lycanthropy and other curses for close to thirty years. They've built a sort of small town..."
Buffy had a sudden visual of fifty bloodthirsty creatures locked up in a cement bunker the size of a school gymnasium for three nights of every month. The word "carnage" didn't begin to describe it.
"And what have they found? Anything interesting?" Angel tried not to think about the fact that Oz had mentioned "other curses" in his description of their work. His own curse, and why his soul still remained intact after so much happy intimacy with Buffy, remained at the forefront of his concern of late.
"Interestingly enough, yes," he told him, "I'm learning to control the change."
"Is that possible?" Angel asked, completely surprised at the notion.
"It is. Some of the people in the colony don't really need to be restrained or isolated anymore at all. They choose to stay on and help. But, it takes a long time to learn. Much like a twelve-string."
"What about a cure?" Angel added.
Oz shrugged. "That's the ultimate goal, but..." he turned and looked at Buffy once more, "How's Willow?" he asked suddenly, his tone not changing with the subject.
Buffy's head was spinning from the whole scene. But not far beneath her confusion, she still felt her anger over what Oz had done to her best friend, so she reached into that, using it to clear her head before she answered him.
"That's not for me to tell you," Buffy said, "Maybe you should ask her."
Something definitely flashed across Oz's face that time. Almost an actual expression.
//Good. I hope it hurts.//
In a moment, it was gone. "You're right. I should. And I will," he agreed evenly, "But not yet."
Buffy abruptly got up. "I have to go to the restroom," she snarled, and stomped away. Oz watched her go, then looked at Angel.
"So, you guys are..."
"Yeah," Angel replied.
"Good. Good for you," Oz told him sincerely.
The two men were quiet for a moment.
"I know you understand," Oz said.
Angel held his gaze, "I do," he replied, "Too well."
"How do you get beyond it? The doubt, the fear?" he asked. "How do you get past the things you did?"
Angel felt bad for Oz. The pain of that sort of confusion was hard for anyone to bear. "I didn't, for a long time," he replied, "But she's worth the effort. They both are."
Oz nodded. "They are."
The bed in their hotel room was easily large enough for five people, and Buffy used its gargantuan size to her full advantage. She scooted as far away from Angel's side of the bed as she could get, her back to where he would soon lay. She heard the shower stop, and the curtain slide open. Then, the sound of him brushing his teeth carefully -- such normal, everyday sounds. When Angel spit the toothpaste into the sink and started gargling, Buffy felt such a rush of joy and gratitude, she had to remind herself that she was still mad at him for letting Oz off so easily.
"Are you still not talking to me?" he asked when he was finished.
"No," Buffy said, not turning over.
"No you're not talking to me, or no you are talking to me?" he teased.
She rolled over and looked at him. He stood, naked and wet in the doorway, the bathroom light casting him in a broad silhouette. She gulped.
"No, I'm not talking to you," she replied, trying to keep her voice steady, "In fact, you might as well just sleep in the tub."
Angel walked over to her side of the bed and gazed down at her. "Buffy, you need to ease up on Oz a little. He made a tough decision -- what he thought was best for everyone. Sometimes the hardest choice to make is the one you have to make. You should know that."
She hated it when he was right, and especially when he used her own experiences to prove her wrong.
"Your little speech would be a lot more convincing if your Johnson wasn't in my face," she said lightly, giving it a little push with her finger.
"If you do something like that again," he warned her, smiling, "I'm going to be forced to make you forget you're mad at me."
Without a word, Buffy reached out and grabbed him, stroking him gently until he was erect.
"You mean, something like that?" she purred.
He closed his eyes. "Exactly like that."
Buffy leaned forward and kissed the tip of his penis, then ran her tongue languidly over the ridge of his bulging head.
"How about that?" she asked.
"That's also effective," he groaned.
She sat up and smiled before sinking her mouth fully over him. Tracing her tongue along his silky underskin, she drew him out again, forcing a gasp of unneeded air from his chest, then sealed her lips tight and sucked him hard, pushing him deep into her throat. Angel groaned and tangled his fingers in her hair.
Buffy took to her task with the ferocity of a demon-hunt, stroking and licking him slowly, alternating hard sucking with flicks of her tongue, until his knees began to buckle.
"Jesus, Buffy..." he gasped, as she cupped one hand under his swollen sac. She stroked the sensitive skin beneath with feather-light fingertip brushes, using the muscles of her cheeks to encourage the blood that rushed through him to the head. She followed the hot wetness of her mouth with a strong, even stroke of her hand, sending involuntary shudders through the length of his body.
To Angel, this sensation was nothing less than amazing. Buffy knew each intimate inch of his body so well, it took no effort at all to control him. She knew exactly what it took to make him whimper, make him cry, and send him screaming to the edge of bliss, where reality was nothing but soothing, heart-wrenching pleasure. Pure sensation.
Like right now... she had her full lips wrapped tight around his head, and she sucked with fierce, calculated, hungry strokes, flicking her tongue over the top of him as she did. He grunted and pulled her closer.
Buffy could feel him beginning to twitch and pulse furiously in her mouth, and she took him to the hilt until he brushed against her tonsils.
"Uh... uhhnh..." he groaned as he felt her throat muscles tighten around him. Buffy increased the pace and the pressure, tasting his velvety coolness, and wondering for the hundredth time how something so cool and soft could be so painfully hard.
She drew him out of her mouth a final time, and Angel reached down to stop her, guiding her head away.
"Uhhh... Buffy, stop. I'm going to..."
She interrupted his objection by slamming him into the back of her throat. He hollered senselessly as she took him in, swallowing every drop of his seed as he came.
Angel looked down at her, fighting to catch his breath and not completely fall over. Buffy grinned innocently up at him, licking her lips. He laughed and collapsed beside her on the bed, laying flat on his back with his arms folded behind his head, his long legs draped over the edge.
Buffy climbed on top of him, straddling his aching lower body, and tickling his sensitive member with the silk of her underwear. Her grin turned to a good-natured leer.
"I thought you were mad at me?" he reminded her breathlessly.
"I am," she replied, sensuously undulating her hips.
"It shows," he moaned softly, "Maybe I should make you angry more often."
She shifted her hips in the opposite direction and said nothing.
"Give a guy a chance to recover, can't you?" he chuckled.
Buffy ran her hands over his bare chest, and tried her level best not to drool all over him. "You're a vampire. You can handle it," she purred, and leaned down to kiss him fiercely.
Feeling himself stir against her once again, Angel smiled and pulled away. "I suppose maybe I can," he said, and flipped her over.
The dorm was dark when Angel dropped Buffy off on Sunday night. They walked hand-in-hand, close together, her head resting against his arm as they made their way down the sidewalk to the front door.
The leaving was always the hardest part. Buffy could never help but feel that the moment she let go of Angel's hand, he would disappear and she would never see him again. Or she would forget, and it would be like none of this had ever happened... again.
Of course, the nice thing about that fear was that she knew it wasn't true. She would probably talk to him tomorrow, and every day, until they were reunited in a week or so.
They stopped at the door, and Buffy turned to look up at him. Angel smiled a little, also sad at yet another parting, but happy for the same reason as she -- the certain knowledge that this time wasn't forever. He gently caressed her soft cheek, and gazed down at her silently.
"Do you want to come up?" Buffy asked, stepping closer to him.
The shelter of his arms closed around her, and they sat on the nearby bench. He sighed. "I would love to. But I have to get back."
Buffy leaned over and slowly kissed him, taking her time to experience the cool thrill of his mouth on hers. After a breathless moment, she pulled away.
"Are you sure?" she whispered.
Angel shook his head, then kissed her again. The contact was longer, this time, and got hotter, making his body stir. After a few seconds, he met her eyes once more.
"I can't," he half-chuckled, half-moaned, and held her at arm's length, "And don't you have homework? I didn't see you crack a book all weekend."
Buffy pouted. He leaned down and kissed the proffered lower lip, then gave her a knowing look.
"Yes, I do," she admitted sadly, "But can't you come up for just a little bit?"
"You know as well as I do that there is no 'little bit'. I'll be stuck upstairs for days," he teased, "And besides, won't Willow be home?"
Willow. Buffy had forgotten all about Willow and Oz, stupefied as she was by Angel's kisses.
"Oh, god. What am I going to say to her?"
Angel became serious. "Do you think you should say anything?"
Buffy felt panic clutching at her chest -- Oz had made her swear she wouldn't tell Willow she'd seen him. But how could she lie to her best friend? It just wouldn't be right when Willow had done so much for her and Angel.
"I don't know... I mean... doesn't she have a right to know?" Buffy asked.
Angel practically turned to a puddle of mush at her sweet, pleading look. She wanted him to tell her what to do, to affirm that whatever she decided was the right thing. But he respected Buffy's search for self-reliance too much, and no matter how badly he wanted to do the simple thing -- lie to her and make the pain go away -- he couldn't do it.
"Doesn't Oz have a right to his feelings? His privacy?" he asked softly, "You did promise him."
Buffy sagged in the silk shirt she wore that she had filched out of Angel's laundry. Breathing in his cool scent from the luxurious material made her feel...
She leaned into the real thing, and sighed.
//Like this. Safe. Happy. Right.//
"I know... you're right. But... she's been so down since he left. Like she's only Half-Willow," Buffy said, snuggling up against his neck, "I would have given anything to know you were safe when I thought you were... gone."
Hell again. It seemed to Angel that that long-ago chapter of their lives occupied more of their time together now than it ever had. Since they had talked about it that stormy night at the mansion, it had stood like a barely acknowledged tension, right at the edge of their minds. It had even overshadowed The Day That Wasn't.
The first time they'd made love, the months Angelus had roamed free, and the nightmare's inevitable ending -- these were topics still unresolved for both of them.
The sheer luck that his curse had not once again been reversed when he and Buffy made love was something they didn't dare to tempt by questioning. They didn't wonder aloud why the curse had held -- why his soul remained intact, despite their intense and frequent intimacy. They only thanked the Powers that it did.
So here the topic was again.
"Would you, Buffy? Really? Think about that. Would you honestly have wanted to know what was happening to me in Hell?"
Buffy slowly looked up at his face, at the shadow of painful memory that hung over his eyes.
"No," she said softly, "No, I don't think I would have."
Angel dispelled the cloud over himself with a smile -- his Buffy smile -- and kissed her affectionately on the forehead.
"Oz and Willow are going through their own Hell. It will end in its right time," he reassured her.
Buffy nodded. "Maybe... I just... I hate to see Willow hurting this way. And... I owe her."
There was no mistaking her implication -- it was Willow's misery that had brought Buffy and Angel together again. But he owed the Witch twice over: once for Buffy, and once for his soul, without which, he couldn't love her. To force a confrontation on Oz and Willow before they were ready would do far more damage than they suffered apart.
"I think you should do what you feel is right," he said neutrally.
Buffy whacked him in the arm and got up. "You're no help at all," she complained.
Angel jumped up, grabbed her arm, and pulled her back to him, kissing her fiercely until her legs turned to jelly. Then he pulled back and looked at her intensely.
"Even when it hurts to be apart," he said, "Being together again more than makes up for it."
Buffy struggled to catch her breath. How incredibly much she wanted him! How much she had always wanted him...
"Are you talking about us or Willow and Oz?" she asked breathlessly.
Angel only smiled.
"It does," she agreed finally, returning his smile.
"Go to bed. I'll talk to you soon," he said.
Buffy hugged him.
"I love you," she told him, as she backed through the dormitory's front door.
"Goodnight, Ionuin... I love you, too."
"I'll be thinking about you," she said, and disappeared into the elevator.
"I always think of you," he murmured to the night.
*Ionuin is the Gaelic word for "Beloved"