"Are they still going at it?"
"Well... hum... in a smooching kinda way, yes..."
"Look for yourself."
Willow moved aside so that Buffy could gain access to the front window and look surreptitiously outside.
The Slayer plastered her nose to the pane.
There they were.
In the middle of the sidewalk.
"It looks like the Standard Cordelia Chase Procedure, Variation 9B. Scream, rant, insult... then jump the poor guy's bones without warning," mused Buffy.
"Well," the hacker objected, "he isn't... struggling."
Buffy's eyes narrowed.
No, no. Doyle definitely wasn't struggling.
Buffy moved away from the window, dragging Willow along with her, and they retreated towards Angel's office to return to their research.
The Slayer passed the freight elevator with a frown. "I hope Giles and Morghane haven't killed each other. He's my Watcher, and, well... I really like her."
"I'm sure they'll be okay," said Willow, opening yet another dusty old volume. "I think Giles wants to make up with her... you know. Before..."
"Yeah. I know."
Buffy threw a glance at the clock on Angel's desk and scowled.
"It's almost dawn. Where the hell are they?"
"Calm down, Buffy. They'll be here soon. Maybe they'll use the sewer system..."
Before Willow was able to complete her sentence, Oz appeared in the doorway. "Giles just called from downstairs. They're back."
The Slayer leaped out of her chair and flew down the stairs to Angel's apartment. She found them in the living room. Angel was sitting on the couch opposite Morghane, Giles hovering between them. Spike was nowhere to be found.
She approached and saw Angel's blood-drenched fingers clasped over his stomach.
Immediately, she knelt in front of him, putting a worried hand on his knee. "What happened? Where's..."
"Here you go, pet."
She lifted her gaze and found a disheveled Spike handing her a first-aid kit.
She smiled gratefully and accepted the box from his hands. "Thanks."
She looked at Angel from under her lashes. He was deathly pale - paler than he usually was. His jaw was clenched tightly against the pain. Accustomed to Angel's stoic endurance, she feared some serious damage. Cautiously, she lifted his shirt and bit back a gasp. She had seen a lot of wounds before - quite a large number of which she had sustained herself - but the sight of the gored flesh surrounding the gaping injury still twisted her stomach. It had healed somewhat, but was still bleeding steadily.
She felt a hand caress her shoulder and raised her head. Angel was smiling reassuringly down at her.
"I'm fine Buffy. I heal fast, you know that. It looks worse than it is."
Buffy nodded, not trusting her voice.
She grabbed a few bandages, some disinfectant and set everything down on the couch next to Angel. Carefully, she unbuttoned his shirt to expose his chest. Her throat was tight. In other circumstances, she might have attributed the sudden dryness in her mouth to the broad expense of muscles exposed before her gaze. As it was, all she saw was Angel's pain and his trembling shoulders.
She set out to wipe away the blood. Angel bit back a gasp.
"What... what did you learn?"
The question came from Willow and Buffy realized that all her friends had joined them downstairs, including Doyle and Cordelia. Her world had narrowed down to Angel the instant she discovered that the dark-haired vampire had been hurt.
"Not much," answered Spike. "The vampires belonged to the cadre of Nehemiah. That doesn't make any sense, because it's an ancient cadre, which means they very rarely leave the old grounds. Europe. And they have no reason to go after the Guardian."
"Anything else?" asked Giles.
"Yeah," added Angel. "There's a force behind this... Something big. Big enough to scare the entire demonic community."
"Any ideas about what kind of power we're facing?"
Angel shook his head, grunting when Buffy applied disinfectant to the stab wound.
"Sorry," she murmured, shyly lifting her eyes to meet his.
"S'okay" he reassured with one of his trademark lopsided grin.
"Here we go again," grumbled Xander behind her back. "There's blood on her hands and still they're making goo-goo eyes at each other."
"Shut up, pillock," Spike snorted, somewhere to her right.
"What? You playing matchmaker now, Blondie? Are you sure it's wise, considering your track record?"
Buffy turned away from Angel to face them. "Enough. If you two don't quit it right now, I'll tear off your balls, Xander, and feed them to Spike."
Angel chuckled when the interested parties looked at Buffy, flabbergasted. He saw Morghane hide a smile behind her hand and winked at her over the Slayer's shoulder.
Xander made a small, pathetic 'ow' sound.
Spike indulged in a few gagging noises.
"Now, children...," declared Giles, steering the conversation back on track. "We need to discover what this power might be."
"Well, we did try," said Angel.
He swallowed a groan as Buffy finished bandaging the healing cut.
"You should feed, mate," said Spike, trying to appear unconcerned. "You'll heal faster."
"Sod off, Peaches."
Buffy shook her head, helping Angel up. Since - vampires or not - Angel and Spike were still guys, this sort of exchange probably meant that they cared.
Typical male bonding.
"Spike's right, Angel. Come on, let's go to the kitchen. We'll be back in a few, guys."
"Yeah, right," mumbled Xander.
Buffy wanted to cuff him but she couldn't reach. She smiled when Spike punched him in the shoulder.
"Hey!" the teenager protested, turning to face Morghane. "I thought you said he was harmless now."
The Guardian smirked. "I didn't say he would become a cuddle bunny. I said he would have free will."
Buffy giggled as she left the living room with Angel - Giles' dry, involuntary chuckle escorting them out.
She led Angel to a chair. "Sit." Then she opened the refrigerator and took a couple of bags of blood out.
"Want me to warm it up?"
Angel nodded and Buffy rummaged around to find a bowl. She put the blood in the microwave. Finally out of things to distract herself away from the vampire sitting behind her, she turned around.
"So... you're sure you'll be okay?"
Angel smiled affectionately. "It's not the first time I get hurt, Buffy. It's barely a scratch." He looked up at her earnestly. "I didn't thank you."
"It's just a bandage..."
"No, I mean... for coming, for helping Morghane."
The Slayer shook her head. "No thanks necessary, Angel. I'm doing this for her."
Angel flinched, but he didn't try to evade Buffy's stare. "Are you still angry at me?"
Buffy opened her mouth to retort, but in the end she sighed. Raising her hand to his face, her fingers traced the handsome features that she knew better than her own.
"No, Angel. I'm not angry. Not anymore. I was, when you left. I couldn't understand, or I didn't want to. I could only see that I was alone and that it was your fault. It made no sense to me. For a while, I was too numb to react. You would have thought I had time to prepare myself, but I was in denial most of the time. So it was a real shock to see you walk away in the fog that night. And you didn't even look back."
He closed his eyes.
"No, Angel, look at me. I'm not angry. I'm not trying to hurt you. I'm just explaining. After Parker... I know you know what happened. Spike told me. Anyway, right after Parker I felt the rage surge all over again. I resented you deeply. I was trying to move on like you had asked me to do, trying to erase your image in my mind's eye. For some reason, I concluded that the only way to do that was to replace it with someone else's. It was a disaster. I gave Parker a gift that only you had ever received - and he threw it back in my face."
Angel looked like he was in pain.
"I can stop..."
He shook his head, adamant. "No. Don't."
The electronic bell of the microwave interrupted them. Buffy took the bowl out and handed it to Angel.
"That's okay." She paused. Watched Angel take a long swallow of the precious liquid. "She was right."
He arched an eyebrow in question.
"Morghane. She was right. She said that this time away would be positive for the both of us and I can see what she meant. I can learn to stand on my own and become stronger for it - which, before you analyze this statement to death, doesn't mean that I'll stop needing you. And I think I realized some time ago that Sunnydale was bad for you. Although I couldn't admit it even to myself. It felt too much like a personal failure." She worried her lower lip between her teeth. "And that was selfish, too."
"No, let me finish. I only saw what your departure did to me. You said you were leaving for me. I still don't believe your reasons were the right ones, but now I understand that this was inevitable. You were slowly dying in Sunnydale. You were burying yourself alive and I should have seen this sooner. I thought you were getting better after your return from Hell, but you weren't." She clasped his hand lightly. "You are now, though." She pointed at the bowl. "You would never have willingly fed in front of me before."
Angel considered the blood in his hands.
Buffy was right. He had become so accustomed to having Cordy and Doyle around at all hours of the day and night that he did not feel so self-conscious about the daily requirements of his vampiric nature anymore. His partners took it all so casually in stride.
"I'm... I'm learning. But..."
Buffy growled and Angel stared at her, startled.
"Angel, I love you more than my own life, but if you say you're not worthy of my love... I'll... I'll kill you. I'll hold you down as Xander tortures you to death. Get it?"
He nodded wearily. He didn't like the unearthly glow in her eyes.
She wasn't kidding.
Still, he wanted her to understand. He smiled sadly. "The curse is still here, Buffy, it will always be here. Between us. I left because I couldn't be a man for you, and it's still true."
"Yes," agreed Buffy. "The curse is still an issue, just one among many. But I believe we will find a way. I do. And I'm finally ready to wait for you to reach that same conclusion by yourself."
His eyes shining unnaturally, Angel got out of his chair with careful movements. The wound was just a twitch in his side now, but he was exhausted. He reached out a hand to Buffy's cheek, hesitant. His thumb traced the path of an imaginary tear down her face.
"How can you be so strong?"
She answered simply.
"Because you made me that way."
Shakily, he lifted his other hand to her face and drew her towards him. She complied, unresisting, and he bent to deposit a sweet, longing kiss on her mouth. She sighed in contentment when he trailed a path of little kisses down her jaw, along her throat, to the juncture between her neck and shoulder.
Then, he withdrew.
"I scarred you," he stated.
His voice was cold, devoid of feelings. His dark eyes, always so full of pain and longing in her presence, were now fathomless and unreadable.
She didn't react with awkwardness, frustration or anger as she would have in the past.
"Yeah, you marked me. So? Piercing is so passé. I might start a new trend."
He tried to step away from her, rejecting her attempt at levity, but she wouldn't let him. "Angel, you didn't have any choice in the matter, now, did you? I hit you, forced you to drink me, remember?" She slid her hand suggestively along his left hip. "I even liked it."
Angel's jaw hung open in surprise.
Buffy laughed freely. It felt good.
It was hope.
For the first time in ages, and despite the dire situation they still had to face, she felt hopeful. Angel still needed to learn to master his fear. To trust himself around her again. That he drank from her had only comforted him in his decision to leave and in his resolution to stay away. But she would show him that he was strong enough, that he was deserving and worthy, that he could finally accept some measure of peace.
That he did not have to do all the giving for her sake, yet accept nothing for himself.
Didn't being deserving stem from overcoming impossible obstacles and still striving to do good?
If Angel wasn't deserving, who was?
And she needed him in her life. Wanted him. She refused to surrender to fate and live the rest of her days alone.
"Okay. We have to go back with the others now."
As he was about to walk back into the next room, Buffy remembered another deserving friend. She closed her small hand over his forearm.
"Angel, about Morghane... I think she would like to hear that you're not angry, that you don't hate her for sending you to Sunnydale, for sending you to me."
The vampire was sincerely confused. "Buffy, I can't hate her for that. She's the reason I met you and you're the best thing that ever happened to me. I can't regret going to Sunnydale. Ever."
Buffy smiled. A heavy weight that she hadn't even known was there until that very second lifted from her chest. He had answered so simply. So sweetly. Like it was the most obvious thing in the world to him.
"I know that, Angel and I think she does too. But I also believe that she needs to hear it from you before... if she... you know." Her throat seemed to close up. "She loves you, Angel."
"I love her too."
"I know. Now let's go."