The Xander Zone, Part 7

Buffy, Xander and Angel all have a few things to figure out.

Author’s Notes: This is pretty much AU, though it does take off from canon.

Rota is in Spain.

Rating: Adult.

Disclaimer: Own nothing. All belongs to Joss, ME, Fox, et.al.

Pairing: Initially B/Other, ultimately B/A.

Distribution: My site, EverySixSeconds; sites currently with permission to host my fics; all others please ask.

Originally posted: 2.19.2005

Sunnydale…

“Xander’s still gone?” Tara asked from her seat at the counter in the kitchen. Across from her, Buffy finished cleaning up the morning breakfast dishes. It was quiet in the house now both Dawn and Willow having left almost half an hour ago to hit the mall.

“Yeah,” Buffy replied, lifting the now whistling kettle off the stove and pouring the hot water into the ceramic teapot. “It’s been almost a month now. When I talked to him yesterday he said that with any luck, he should be back in a few days.”

“That’s good.” Tara said softly, smiling slightly and nibbling on a piece of toast. “It’s hard being apart, isn’t it?”

“It is…” Buffy said after a moment, taking a seat next to Tara and refilling both tea cups. “I mean, I worry about him when he’s gone. What he does… it is dangerous. And I miss having him around.”

“But…” Tara prompted, glancing at Buffy over the rim of her cup.

Buffy’s gaze drifted to the tea leaves in her cup, as though an answer to her emotional well being might lie somewhere in the confused pattern.  If only things had turned out differently… Differently how?  More… normal?  No, not normal. Immediately she dismissed the word, though she had used it several times in the past in an attempt to define what she was seeking. Even then it hadn’t been what she had meant exactly, but she had lacked a better description. The simple truth was that she wanted something that was quite far from normal… and that was the conundrum.

“X is… he’s great.  And what we have… is great. Really, really great,” Buffy explained slowly, thinking it through for herself as much as trying to find an answer for the blonde wicca.  She could choose now to be completely honest instead of simply providing an answer to placate Tara, something she wouldn’t dream of doing with Willow, Xander Harris, or even Dawn. “It’s comfortable, and nice and wonderful in so many ways. Many ways,” she amended with a suggestive lift of her eyebrows and a smile.  “And he treats me as a partner, an equal.”

“But it’s not exactly mad, passionate love,” Tara suggested, watching Buffy for any nuance in her expression

“I think that it is love,” Buffy said thoughtfully, “Not the mad, passionate kind of love but I don’t want it to be.”

“Why not?  Love is wonderful,” the wicca said with some surprise.

“Love is… messy, and ugly, and painful. And that kind of love… the mad, passionate, wildly crazy, sometimes painful kind of love… maybe that’s something that you only feel once in your life,”  Buffy spoke reflexively, seriously beginning to question the possibility of ever feeling that same depth of emotion ever again. “Or maybe… maybe it’s me… maybe… after, you know, coming back… maybe I just can’t feel that kind of love anymore.  But what I have with X… it is love.”

“I don’t think it’s that you can’t,” Tara said thoughtfully after a moment. “I think maybe it’s that you still do. Just maybe not for… Xander. Maybe for… someone else.”

“Angel, you mean.” There was disparagement in Buffy’s voice. “The man that didn’t want to be with me even after I begged him.”

“Oh, Buffy…” Tara murmured sympathetically, reaching out to touch Buffy on the arm.

“I haven’t exactly told anyone about that…” Buffy said on a quiet exhalation of breath, her gaze once more focused on the tea leaves in her cup.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really,” Buffy grimaced, unwilling to drudge up the painful memories. “Let’s just say that when Angel and I met up after I came back, it didn’t go so well.”  Picking up her cup, she took a sip of tea. Her eyes met Tara’s. “Angel made his choice. And now I have to make mine.”

“Yours? You mean… has X… are you… has he…” Tara stammered, startled by the implication of Buffy’s statement.

“No, nothing like that,” Buffy quickly said, a small smile curving her lips. “We haven’t really even talked about the future beyond now and what we might do next.”

“But you’re thinking about it? The future, I mean.”

“I think so, yeah,” Buffy admitted with a shrug. Since Angel’s surprise visit a month ago she’d actually thought about it quite a lot, yet she hadn’t reached any sort of conclusion. She loved Xander… but she wasn’t sure she dared imagine a future with anyone. Maybe Slayers were simply destined to live short lives, alone. Anything else was just… expecting too much. Pushing away the maudlin thoughts, she asked, “Don’t you?”

“Think of the future? I do… I guess it’s easy to imagine my future with Willow. There was never anyone else, really. At least, no one that has ever affected me the same way,” Tara finished with a whimsical smile.

“Willow is lucky. You’re both lucky,” Buffy said affectionately. “And that’s the way it should be. Now, what do say the two of us catch a movie this afternoon?  I could use some fun of the non-slaying type before patrol tonight.”


Whether it was the demon slime that covered his shoes and a good part of his calves, or the reminders of his past that the demon had flung at him with a derogatory sneer, by the time Angel drove his sword through the creature’s gut, he was thoroughly discomposed and agitated.

He had just exited the dark alley and started up 7th Street on his way back to the Hyperion when he saw a green Jeep Cherokee cross the nearby intersection.  Stopping abruptly, he dropped back into the shadows and watched the vehicle intently. The tension in his body eased slightly as the two unfamiliar women got out of the car and went into the restaurant across the street. Returning his gaze to the parked car, his thoughts drifted back to another time, several months ago…

The secluded cove was just over an hour’s drive outside of Los Angeles, almost a halfway point to Sunnydale. It was windy and threatening to rain as he drove, the headlights of the GTX slicing through dark. When he crested the small hill near the beach, he saw a green Jeep Cherokee parked alongside the road and a sense of relief washed over him so strong that he almost felt light-headed. He eased his car off the road and parked, his searching gaze already turned south toward the trees that sheltered the beach.

Even with his keen preternatural eyesight, he didn’t see her initially as he made his way along the narrow path, stepping carefully through the gnarled brush as he worked his way down the small dune. At the bottom he paused, seeing her for the first time in almost a year and a half.

“Angel?” She questioned in a breathy voice, rising from where she had been sitting on a piece of driftwood. With a sliver of the moon behind him, he was a silhouette against the line of trees blocking the road, his broad leather-clad shoulders filling her vision almost like a powerful apparition.

 She stood very still… and yet, he knew she was trembling.

“I had to see you,” he said quietly, knowing immediately that simply seeing her would not be enough. With measured steps, he advanced toward her.

Buffy responded to his murmured words as if he touched her, a desperate sense of relief combined with pleasure inundating her senses.  A single heartbeat later, a small voice of reason reminded her to be less desperately happy and more wary. Seeing Angel in front of her wasn’t the same as having him back in her life. Seeing him wasn’t going to take away the bills, the problems, the pain…

“I’m glad. I mean, I wanted to see you too,” she said, still rooted to the spot. Her fingers were curled tightly in her palms, her body rigid.

“How are you?” He stood very close now, although he made no move to touch her. He could feel the warmth of her body and smell the sweet delicate fragrance of warm vanilla that would forever define her to him. Achingly potent memories of times past stirred.

“I’m good,” she returned, trying to be as cool as he, even as she was struggling with the sensation of his nearness. “I mean, things are good. I’m trying to deal. With stuff… you know, the house, the bills and the basement, which happens to be flooded.” The words tumbled out in a rushed flurry. “And there’s Dawn and school. Oh, and slaying, of course. I thought I could ease my way back into things there, but no. There’s no quiet on the hellmouth. I should know that after all this time, but I guess I just… forgot.”

“Buffy.” His voice was low, just carrying over the sound of the nearby breaking waves.

“Huh?” She paused in her ramble, looking up at him.

“How are you really?” His hands brushed her shoulders lightly as he reached her.

He was too close suddenly, the look in his eyes and the husky velvet resonance of his tone conveying a message apart from his words. His concern never failed to touch her deeply, and tonight was certainly no exception.  

“I’m trying…I am…” she whispered, her eyes glistening with tears. There was a hint of desperation in her voice. Her palms settled on his chest as she held her hands up to hold him away.  ”Please, Angel, you’re too close and I can’t…”

For a breath-held moment, his thoughts scattered and he was only aware of her touch, the warmth of her hands burning through the silk of his shirt. He closed his eyes briefly, attempting to stave off the intensity of his feelings but when his lashes lifted, he said instead, “I’ve missed you, every day…”

His voice drifted around her, caressing her. She fought against it, knowing that he’d only hurt her again, knowing that he couldn’t give her what she wanted, and then she felt his arms slide around her waist. For a second more she controlled her impulses but the control slipped away and she slowly slid her palms up his chest. Rising up on tiptoe, she wrapped her arms around his neck.

Their kiss was one of insatiable hunger, of longing and desperation, and of unrequited love. Slanting his head, he pulled her tightly into his body, one large hand splayed at the base of her spine and the other moving to cup the back of her head.

They were in the sand, lips still melded together, hands tugging at clothing and moving over bare skin and intimate places before he knew what was happening.

“Come to Sunnydale with me, Angel, please. I need you,” she said in small breathless voice, clutching him close, her body undulating with the smallest of motions beneath him.

Holding himself motionless and rigid over her, he sucked in an unneeded breath. He struggled then to remember all the reasons for leaving her those years ago, all of the pragmatic, rational ones that he had replayed time and again in his mind but was finding it hard to do with her slender form pressed so close and so intimately to his own.

His eyes closed as her lips, soft and warm, drifted along his neck. When she bit down softly he jerked back, suddenly aware that he was dangerously close to losing all control.

“Buffy…” his voice was gruff, heated. His fingers bit into her shoulders as he forcibly moved her away from him. “We shouldn’t be doing this. We can’t…”

“I know, I’m sorry. But I… I need you. I can’t do this on my own. It’s too hard.”

“Don’t say that,” his dark gaze was turbulent, fierce.

“I mean it. Please…” she whispered, feeling needy, frantic and unashamed. She clutched at him, holding tightly. “We can find a way, some way, to make it work. I can’t do this on my own… please Angel, please…”

“We can’t Buffy, you know that,” Angel said, very softly, his heart breaking. It was one of the few times in his life that he had ever been overwhelmed by emotions he couldn’t control or rationalize. “I can’t.” The final words were only a whisper of sound.

“You mean you won’t,” Buffy snapped, wiping at the fresh sting of tears in her eyes. Shoving him away, she rolled and struggled to her feet. With trembling fingers she righted her clothing.  ”Did you ever love me at all?  Tell me the truth, Angel.”

Running a hand through his hair, he too came to his feet. “Of course I love you, Buffy, but our feelings don’t count for everything. Our lives are restricted by circumstances beyond our control.” He was saying the words with the cool pragmatism that was, by necessity, part of his personality, but the cautious sentiments were far from the turbulent emotions he was intent on controlling.

“Come to Sunnydale,” she said again, ignoring his words. “Please? Just for little while. I… you… we… don’t have to do… anything.”

Angel took a steadying breath. “It’s not that simple.”

“Why? Because you don’t want it to be?” she retorted tersely, stung by his refusal.

“You know that’s not true,” he said softly, his eyes holding hers insistently.

“I don’t know anything anymore,” she sighed, wondering if he had any idea what she had been through or if he assumed, like the others, that she had been in hell. She wondered then if he knew that she had been waiting for him, that in her version of heaven they would have their someday and they would be together without constraints.  ”Tell me again why you left me,” she asked, her voice low, her hazel eyes anguished.

He stood perfectly still for a moment, darkly handsome in the faint moonlight, debating on how best to answer her question.

“You deserve better than anything I could give you,” Angel explained finally, trying to force his feelings into a semblance of calm he was far from feeling. “You should be with someone that can share your life, someone that can grow old with you… someone that can make love to you and give you children, if you want them. I can’t give you any of those things. My leaving was about doing the right thing for you.”

“You didn’t love me enough, you mean.” The harsh declaration matched the flare of hurt and resentment in her eyes.

“It’s not a question of degrees, Buffy,” Angel replied quietly, his frustration evident. “You know that.” He advanced toward her, his hands out.

“Don’t touch me,” she whispered, clutching her arms to her chest as the tears stung her eyes. “I get it. You’re right. There is no future for us. I’ll just go back to Sunnydale alone and forget about you and forget about us. I should find someone else,” she said with a new heat in her voice, “who can do all those things that you can’t. Someone who will love me and who will be there for me when I need them.” Her voice hitched as she fought for control of her emotions.

Angel stopped and dropped his hands back down to his sides. He doubted that he could ever convince her that it was because he loved her so much that he had to leave her. If he didn’t… he could go to Sunnydale for days or weeks and it wouldn’t be a problem.  But to try to explain now would only complicate things. And as much as he wanted to say otherwise… he couldn’t go to Sunnydale, even for a short while. He wasn’t at all sure that he could maintain his distance from her, and to let his resolve slip was simply too risky. All too often he wanted to succumb to the temptation of her, his soul be damned.  He took a deep, unneeded breath before he spoke.  “I think that’s for the best.”

“Fine,” she whispered. “Goodbye then.” As she walked past him she forced herself not to cry, because she had shed too many tears over him already and because she didn’t want to explain herself when she got back to Sunnydale.

With the same sort of determination that allowed him to walk away from her at least twice before, he watched her walk away without saying a word.  The pain of losing her again felt like a knife twisting in his heart and for a moment he almost ran after her.  But he couldn’t.

A horn blaring nearby startled Angel out of his thought. Sighing, he forced away the painful memory and continued on his way up 7th Street and back to the Hyperion.  If he hurried, he’d still have time to follow up on another case before sunrise…

#

Buffy steered easily through the chaos of people and machines crossing the lot at the end of the track to where Xander Cage and Augustus Gibbons waited.  Hoping off the motorcycle, Buffy guided it toward them. Her adrenaline was still pumping, her breathing rushed, and the exhilaration of the race still pulsing through her body. She’d almost won! And against the state champion! It was only her third motocross race – ever – and with only a few months of experience riding and she managed to come in third, losing 2nd place only be a few seconds on the last hill.  A personal sense of pride and accomplishment brought a smile to her face.

“There’s my girl,” X greeted with a smile, taking her helmet as she removed it.

“You do ride well, Miss Summers,” Augustus commented, his praise offered with his characteristic solemnity. He had returned to Sunnydale a few days ago with Xander, and reluctantly joined them at the race, if only to finish up his debriefing with X regarding his recent assignment.

“Thanks,” the blonde Slayer replied brightly, stretching up on her toes to give Xander a quick kiss before guiding the bike into the parking space next to the larger bike belonging to X.

“I’ll leave you two for now,” Augustus interrupted, adjusting his sleeves in the warm afternoon sun. “It was nice to see you again, Miss Summers. Xander, I’ll see you tomorrow, 7 am sharp. We have to finish our conversation, and discuss the little incident that I mentioned to you in Rota.”

“Bye,” Buffy called over her shoulder, unzipping her leather riding jacket and draping it across the bike.

X only nodded as the NSA director turned and walked away, his attention focused on the girl in front of him.

“You are damned good.” A warm, deep voice purred in her ear as a pair of muscular arms slipped around her from behind.

Buffy looked over her shoulder at the smiling countenance of the man that had only just returned to Sunnydale and to her.  He hadn’t changed in the time away; her memory of him was excellent.  He was much too handsome and sweetly adoring for any woman to resist, and she wondered for not the first time, how it was that Yelena could have simply left him. She couldn’t imagine anyone more loving, supportive, and encouraging than he had been to her, but undoubtedly there was more between the two of them than she knew.

“So, you want to stick around for the later races, or…” Xander asked softly, his arms tightening around her as he nuzzled her hair.

“Or what?” Buffy asked teasingly, though her heart began to race now for reasons other than exertion.

“Or whatever you decide,” he calmly replied, his lips sliding along the smooth column of her neck.

“Well, the races are really fun…” she said playfully, leaning back against him and resting her hands on his forearms. “But it sounds like you have an early day tomorrow.”

“I do.”

“And you’re leaving again soon?” she ventured quietly, her voice lowering slightly.

“Not for a couple of weeks. Longer if I can convince Gibbons to send Sanderson instead,” he replied lightly.

“Hm… well, unless you want to stay, I say we get out of here.  I’ll contrive to find some other way to amuse you at home,” Buffy said flirtatiously. She had resolved to take each day as it came, and not worry about what would happen in the future; today was as good a day as any to make sure and stick to that resolve.

“You’re on.” Dropping his arms, he reached out and plucked her helmet from the seat of his bike where he had placed it only moments before and tossed it to her.

“First one home, winner’s choice.”  Buffy said with a sporting gleam in her eye. She was determined to push away any serious contemplative for the rest of the day.

“Choice?” Xander asked, a smile warming his eyes, as he plucked his own helmet from the handle bars where it had been hanging.

“Top or bottom,” Buffy returned matter-of-factly as she slipped her helmet on then reached for her jacket.

X grinned, “I win, either way.”


Angel spent the next few weeks attempting to once again compartmentalize his feelings for Buffy, to tuck them away again somewhere in the depths of his heart and mind where they were safe from perusal or free from pain.  When he wasn’t brooding, he filled his hours with activity so as to avoid having to think because too much consideration only made him question his decision.  Work became his refuge, and he approached it with an indefatigable determination and persistence.

And, much to their annoyance, he expected the rest of the AI team to do the same.

“Why do I have to do it?” Cordelia asked indignantly, gazing at the group now gathered around her desk and looking at her expectantly. “Wesley should do it. It’s a guy to guy bonding thing.”

“No, no. I believe that a woman-” Wes began assertively, glancing at Gunn and Fred for support.

“Stop right there,” Cordelia interrupted, her dark eyes flashing.

“Why don’t we draw straws?” Fred suggested with a shrug, hoping to head off any argument before it could get started.

“I don’t know…” Gunn said skeptically. “I’m not good at this kinda thing. I have to agree with Wes, I think that a woman-”

“If we have to do this, then we’re definitely drawing straws,” Cordelia interrupted. She looked at Gunn then Wes pointedly.

“Fine with me,” Wes said slowly with a nod.

“All right, all right,” Gunn agreed albeit reluctantly.

Fred gathered four of the red coffee stirrers from the nearby table and handed them to Wes, who cut the bottom off one and then held them out.  Starting with Cordelia, they all took one.

“Damn it! You did that on purpose.” Cordelia glared at the former Watcher accusingly as she held the shortest of the four straws up.

“Not at all,” Wes countered indignantly. “You chose that one of your own accord. Luck of the draw, so to speak.”

“You’re up.” Gunn grinned, obviously relieved.

“Two out of three?” The brunette seer suggested with a coquettish smile.

“No!”  The other three cried in unison, none of them particularly anxious to talk to their boss, even though they all agreed that it needed to be done.

“Fine,” Cordelia muttered as she stood and strode over to Angel’s office door.  Stopping, she turned, “You guys are… wimps.”

“Yes, we know,” Wes agreed complaisantly, a pleased smile on his face. “Now go.”

Opening the door Cordelia peeked into Angel’s office. He was sitting behind the desk, staring intently at an open book, apparently engrossed in the contents.

“Angel?”

“What is it, Cordelia?” he asked without looking up.

She slipped into the room and closed the door behind her.  Casually, she walked around the room, as if seeing it for the first time, before finally coming to a stop in front of the desk.

“So…. uh, how’s it going?” Cordelia sat down in the chair across from him, tucking her hands under her thighs.

“What do you want?” Angel finally lifted his gaze from the passage in the book he was reading. He wasn’t fooled by her casual demeanor; Cordelia wanted something. He couldn’t guess what it was this time, though most often it was money. She had to spend more on clothing, shoes, and makeup than any other woman he had ever known.

“Nothing. I just thought we could, you know, talk or something. Share some thoughts, or say, some feelings like friends do. Confide in each other so that you feel better and can move on when certain things are bothering you. That kind of thing.”

Angel leaned back in the chair, one eyebrow quirking up in question.

“Ok, fine. Let me be the first to stay that I did not volunteer for this. I drew the short straw,” she confessed, dropping the pretext that she was simply dropping in for a friendly chat.

“Okay, and?”

“And, look, let me be honest. You’re making everyone miserable.”

Angel didn’t reply, only stared back at the brunette with an impatient expression.

“You’re angry and you’re brooding and most importantly, you’re working us all to death. It’s not good to keep all that, you know, angst,” she said with a wave of her hand, “all bottled up. A week, we understood, two weeks, okay, understandable, it’s Buffy. There will be backlash.  But we’re going on almost two months now and there’s no sign of the brood – or the work – letting up. I need- We need a break. I can’t remember the last time I had a day off.”

“I am not brooding. And if you want the day off, take it.” Leaving forward, he returned his attention to the text he was previously reading.

“Yes, you are. And you’ve been like this since we got back from Sunnydale,” she insisted, sitting back in the chair and crossing her arms over her chest. “And I’m not leaving until we talk about this, though I will take that day off so don’t forget that you said that.”

Angel sighed. Cordelia was nothing if not persistent.  Looking up, he said, “Okay, so talk.”

“Admit it, you’re brooding over Buffy again and have been ever since we went to Sunnydale and you saw her with her new honey.”

“You can go now. Tell them you did your duty, you talked to me,” he grouched, returning his attention once more to the book in front of him. He’d spent weeks trying to put aside his feelings for Buffy, so he didn’t particularly want to talk about her, or her new boyfriend, and especially not with Cordelia.

“I could do that,” Cordelia said slyly. “But then… maybe I could tell you this instead… While you were out in the alley arguing with Buffy I had a little talk with Mr. Xander Cage.”

“Yeah, so?” Angel’s gaze flicked up. His expression was carefully neutral as he tried unsuccessfully to appear uninterested.

“Um-hum,” she murmured, studying her nails casually.

Silence hung between them for a long moment before Angel finally asked, “Are you going to tell me?”

“Are you going to stay in here and brood?” Cordelia looked up, meeting Angel’s dark gaze with her own.

“I’m not brooding,” he countered sullenly.

“You so are, and because you won’t admit it I’m not going to tell you,” she said smugly as she stood and made to leave.

“Cordelia…” Angel growled menacingly, his hand landing on the table with a solid thump.

Pausing, the brunette looked back over her shoulder. She gave a put upon sigh, and ran her fingers along the back of her chair. “Look, Buffy’s still in love with you.”

Angel’s eyes widened slightly with surprise. Her words were unexpected. “How do you know?”

“Well, besides the fact that it’s completely obvious to anyone with half a brain-” At his annoyed look she stopped and amended insincerely, “Sorry… So I asked X  about Buffy and their relationship…”

“X, huh?”  Angel scoffed, leaning back in his chair. “One meeting and you’re on a first name basis already?”

“What am I supposed to call him, Mr. Cage?” she retorted sardonically, “And you don’t really have much room to talk, Mister with no last name.”

Angel snorted dismissively.

Cordelia waited patiently, her dark brows arched in question.

“What did he say, Cordelia?” he ground out reluctantly.

“So I asked him how they met and he said that they met at the Bronze several months ago, not long after Buffy’s return from the dead, er, grave, um, resurrection. They’ve been dating a few months, and while it’s serious it’s not really that serious. I mean, they’re together together, but I got the impression that it’s not a forever kind of thing.”

“That’s it?”  Had he really been hoping for something more specific?

“Hey, that’s a lot for only a few minutes in a loud club,” Cordelia shrugged. “Besides, he wasn’t all that forthcoming with information. Though there was one more thing… he did ask about you…”

Angel only stared back at her.

“Don’t you want to know what he asked?” she asked, taking in Angel’s bland expression.

“Not really,” he returned with a slight lift of his shoulders. His curiosity was well masked.

“He asked about your tattoo, about the design.”

“So? Obviously the man is into tattoos. What difference would that make…” Angel trailed off as the thought crossed his mind as to why the man might be asking.  “Tell me he’s not going to copy it…”

“X isn’t the one that copied it,” Cordelia countered. “But someone else may have…”  She paused, waiting for Angel to catch her meaning.  When he just stared at her, she rolled her eyes and added, “It turns out that our little Slayer got a replica of your tattoo – one just like yours – over her heart.”

A small silence ensued while Angel considered Cordelia’s statement, wondering if it were true and at the significance of it if it were. “So?” he finally asked, the question evasive to the disordered turmoil of his thoughts. Buffy copied his tattoo? Why?

“Xander seemed to think that it had something to do with love. Not that he said it in those words exactly, but it was definitely implied.”

“I see,” he murmured, an acerbic edge to his tone.

Cordelia’s glance flickered in irritation. “Don’t you find that just a little bit interesting?”

“That doesn’t mean that she-  Look, Cordelia, it doesn’t mean what you think it means,” Angel muttered sullenly. “It doesn’t mean anything. If it’s even true. I mean this X guy probably just made it up.”

“Uh-huh,” she replied skeptically. “We are talking about the same Buffy, right? Buffy Summers? Your ex-girlfriend and love of all time? The girl that you had for lunch once?”

“Cordelia… I talked to her.” His jaw was clenched, his expression shuttered. The reminder of what he had done still made him feel guilty, though it tempted him at the same time. Her blood called to him… it was one of the more pertinent reasons why he couldn’t stay in Sunnydale…

“And?” she prompted, her hands on her hips.

Angel sighed. “And nothing. Look, there’s no reason to dredge all this up.”

“Nothing, huh?” Cordelia queried in a mocking tone. “It’s nothing, and that’s why you’re in here brooding and have been for weeks.  That doesn’t sound like nothing to me. It sounds like a big fat something.”

“I am not… I’m working,” Angel insisted, before adding pointedly, “Unlike some people around here.”

“Listen, I’ve worked with you long enough, I know brood and you’ve got it in a big way.” Coming around the chair she sat down again.

Angel scrutinized her crossed arm form, her jaw set stubbornly. “I know what you’re trying to do, and I appreciate it, but I’m fine. I’m not brooding, I’m working and I’d appreciate it if you, Wes, Fred and Gunn would do the same.”  Giving her a dismissive look, he sat forward and attempted to force his attention to the book in front of him.

A small silence descended on the room.

“Seems to me that if you really wanted the girl, you’d go get her,” Cordelia suggested lightly, changing her tact.

The only sign that he had even heard her was the muscle clenching in his jaw.

“Hmpf,” she snorted softly, crossing her legs. “I guess you really don’t love Buffy as much as I thought. As much as any of us thought, really. I mean, I guess we were all under the impression that it was this soulmates, once in a lifetime, forever kind of thing. Huh. I guess we were wrong.”

Angel’s gaze came up, chill and piercing. “It’s not that simple, Cordelia.”

“Really?” she questioned blithely, undaunted by his look.

“Really.” He repeated mockingly, his tone chill and uncompromising. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Then explain it to me. Use small words so I’ll be sure to understand.” A hint of sharpness underscored the banter in her voice.

Long moments of silence passed as they stared at each other stubbornly.

“Buffy deserves a better life than I could give her. Buffy and I… she’s moving on with her life, and that’s what I wanted for her.” Angel finally said. Logical words, delivered evenly and unemotionally, but even as he spoke he felt empty, depleted.

“Uh, huh.”

“It’s true.”

“Oh my God!” Cordelia cried, jumping up from her chair as if to punctuate her sudden realization. “You’re afraid of the competition!”

“Competition?”  Angel shook his head, his expression perplexed. “X isn’t competition, and even if he were, I’m not afraid. And I’m not competing either.”

“Okay,” she agreed unconvincingly as she sat back down. “But tell me something, Angel. What did Buffy say about him? Did you ask her?  And no, I’m not going away until you tell me, so you might as well spit it out.”

Sighing, Angel said reluctantly, “I asked her if she loved him, Cordelia.”

“Okay, and so what’d she say?”  Her brows rose almost infinitesimally.

“She said…”  Angel paused, searching his memory for Buffy’s exact answer.  “Go home, Angel.”

“Well, did she say yes? Or no?” Cordy pressed tenaciously. “It’s pretty easy to answer that question.”

“She didn’t… answer” He admitted finally.

“Okay, and so then what did you say?”

“Nothing,” he admitted reluctantly.

At the look of shock in Cordelia’s gaze, he shrugged and added defensively, “What could I say? She wants him.”

“Nothing?! You didn’t say anything?” she exclaimed with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “Well, it’s no wonder you have a hard time getting the girls, despite your… other attributes. The physical ones. Not physical as in physical, but physical as in looks. You know the tall, dark, handsome thing.”

“What?”

“Honestly, a man with your experience and you don’t get that she was practically begging you to tell her how you felt,” Cordelia explained, shaking her head sadly.

“What?”

“Let me explain something… You dumped her and left town, which hurts. I mean, you might as well have just ripped her heart out and stomped on it. So, the last thing a woman wants to do is leave herself vulnerable to that again. The ball is now squarely in your court.  You have to make the effort.  You have to tell her that you love her. Once in awhile, we girls want a little bit of that he-man stuff – you know, the ‘you are my woman’ chest pounding thing. And if that fails, well, a lot of groveling is good. And expensive presents. That’s good too. Actually, it wouldn’t hurt if you started with the groveling and presents at this point.”

“With Buffy I don’t really think…” His voice had taken on a defensive edge.

“Well, stop thinking. Love isn’t a decision, it’s a feeling.  Just admit that you’re wrong here because you are. Wrong, that is.”

Angel stared at the brunette seer as if she had lost her mind. “Buffy and I can’t be a normal couple, you know that. We can’t have a life together. It’s too-”

“I know, I know. I’m aware. I lived through the crazy no soul thing. Look, did she say anything else? Anything that might clue you in on how she still feels about you?  Think hard, this is important.”

“She might’ve said a few things.” Angel mumbled, shifting in his chair uncomfortably. How could he have not heard her – really heard her?  He was so busy being guarded, afraid to let himself really feel, that he closed himself off to her. He was afraid of being hurt, almost as much as she was. And yet, that’s what they did to each other again and again.  Every time they parted, he thought it would get easier. But there wouldn’t be enough time in the world to completely remove Buffy from his heart and mind.

Restless suddenly, he stood and walked over to the bookshelf against the wall. One of her pictures was tucked securely in the third book on the second shelf, page 259. He knew it by memory from the many times he would study it as if afraid to forget her image; though he knew he never would. Not even the slightest detail of her had faded from his mind.

Would she want a future with him now, after all they had been through?  Did he want that?  Dare he even consider the possibility if he did?  Could he risk disrupting her life again for just such a possibility?  Nothing was certain…

He ran his fingers along the shelf, trying to sort out the chaos, or at least the possible from the impossible in his mind.

“Look, if you want Buffy back, you need to go get her. If you wait any longer, she could die again and then you’ll just be stuck with all these bad feelings and regret, and we’ll be stuck with a brooding vampire for months and months, if not years. You need to tell her that you love her and this time, don’t take no for an answer.  Find a way Angel, to make it work, if you really do love her.”

Cordelia’s voice broke into his thoughts. He hated to admit it, but the smug brunette was right. Time with Buffy was limited. Abruptly, he whirled around and strode across the office. Grabbing Cordelia’s shoulders, he gave her a hard kiss on the lips. “You’re right. I should go to Sunnydale and see Buffy.” Turning, he headed toward the door.

“Yes, go!” Cordelia beamed, a wide grin on her face. She was pleased with herself now that she had broken him out of his brood.  As the door closed behind him, realization dawned.  Sobering, she ran out behind him, shouting, “Wait! Wait!  No, go.  No on the going!

Angel stopped short just in front of the doors.  He swung back around to face his friends, all of who had been hovering around Cordelia’s desk pretending to work while trying to listen in on the conversation from the office next door.

His gaze settled on Wes.  “We have to find a way to secure my soul.”