"Come on," Angel said excitedly pulling Buffy forward through the darkness

Lending a Hand

Disclaimer: Premise and characters borrowed from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel".

"Come on," Angel said excitedly pulling Buffy forward through the darkness. They were in a low ceilinged, stone walled, rabbit warren of a cave. The only light came from the faint gleaming of a hundred times reflected light shining from the occasional smooth plane on the walls of the cavern, but Angel lead her at a fast, confident pace as if he knew exactly where they were going. Buffy stumbled after him, wishing she had a little of his certainty.

"Slow down," Buffy cried. "My legs aren't as long as yours."

"We don't have much time left," Angel objected, but he did slowed to a pace Buffy could comfortably match.

The tunnel was getting lighter, allowing Buffy a better view of her companion. For once Angel's face was free of guilt, he looked pleased, if a bit wistful and when their eyes met Buffy could see his love for her and his pride in all that she was.

"You're going to love it," he promised. "We're almost there."

Then they were at the mouth of the cave. Buffy stepped out into a bright, sunlit meadow of vivid green grass spotted with a colorful rainbow of wild flowers. The sun shown warmly in a blue sky dotted with a few picturesque clouds. Buffy felt light and free, like nothing was holding her back anymore, like her fears and doubts had been left behind in the caverns. Buffy had forgotten it was possible to feel this good.

"It's wonderful," She said, turning back to see Angel standing in the sun, smiling happily at her, ignoring the wisps of smoke rising from his flesh. "Angel!" Buffy shrieked, pushing him back into the safety of the cave's shadows.

"I have to go out there," Angel said. "Please come with me."

"But you'll die," Buffy protested.

"Then you'll have to go on without me," Angel replied.

"I can't," Buffy said.

Angel sighed sadly, "Then it was all for nothing."

Buffy hated to see Angel looking so defeated. "I'll go if you stay," she compromised.

"I can't stay," Angel said. "My time's over."

"Then I won't go," Buffy threatened.

"It's your choice," Angel replied. "I'd hoped you'd go, you'll be happier there."

"Not without you," Buffy objected, sliding to the ground and wrapping her arms around her knees, drawing them to her chest.

Angel knelt in front of her and gently brushed her cheek with the tips of his fingers. "Never forget I love you," he said. "I came back for you, but it will all be meaningless if you stay here. I'd stay if I could, but there's no time left."

Angel pressed a chaste kiss to Buffy's forehead then rose and walked out into the sunlight. Buffy hid her face against her knees and sobbed.

Buffy woke-up alone, her face wet with tears. "Angel?" she asked in a frail voice, then sighed: Angel had moved back to LA eight months ago. Everyone from Angel himself to the psychiatrist she'd been talking with said she needed to live on her own for awhile before getting back into a relationship. Buffy even understood why, as Cordy had so bluntly stated it: Angel wanted Buffy to get better, not to replace Riley as her crutch. So he'd left. They still talked on the phone regularly and exchanged visits. Buffy hoped that, someday, she and Angel would be a couple again.

If it weren't for the curse Buffy would be sure it would only be a matter of time. In the year since Angel had returned, Buffy knew she'd gotten a lot better. She could deal with the nightmares and with not being part of a couple. She had started putting the non-Slayer part of her life back together. Buffy felt certain it wouldn't be much longer till she could consider herself back to normal, then she'd be ready to get into a relationship.

Except the only relationship she wanted was with Angel and as long as the curse stood Angel wouldn't risk getting too close again.

Buffy sighed again and got up to make a cup of hot chocolate, this particular line of thought wasn't going to let her get back to sleep any time soon. Besides, her latest nightmare was still flitting around the edges of her mind.

It felt different from the one that had plagued her nights for so many years Buffy realized as she watched the timer on the microwave counting down to zero. Although Angel had still died in the dream, Buffy hadn't felt guilt, just grief. The nightmare hadn't been based on her memories either; it felt more like something that would happen.

Buffy felt a lump of ice form in her stomach. It felt like one of her prophetic dreams she realized.

"You aren't going to tell her, are you?" Wesley said tiredly.

"No I'm not," Angel replied. "It will be better for Buffy this way. Just tell her it was one of those things no one could have predicted or stopped. Tell her I got knocked into a branch or something."

"In other words, lie," Cordelia said, arms folded across her chest, a stubborn look on her face.

"It's for her own good," Angel argued.

"Uh-huh, I'm sure that's exactly what Riley told himself when he decided not to tell Buffy what he'd done to you," Cordelia replied.

"You two honestly think it would have been better to tell Buffy there was a time limit on my second return from Hell?" Angel asked. "Tell her I agreed to loosing my soul again in exchange for a year to see that she was okay? You know how she'd take that."

"You should give her the opportunity to say goodbye," Wesley said.

"Besides," Cordelia added. "It's not like you're going to let Angelus run riot again."

"That's the part I don't like," Wesley commented. "I still can't imagine the First allowing you to foil it's plans so easily."

"Wesley trust me, there aren't any catches or loop-holes in the deal. I get a year to do with as I please without interference from the First. Except I can't die during the year, you both know I'm truly immortal now. In payment I allowed my curse to be modified to include a time limit which expires the day after next," Angel said. "The last twenty-four hours before the curse breaks are the critical ones. The First and any minions it can recruit can do anything to give my demon another shot at the world and I'll be free to destroy myself before they succeed."

"You're sure we can't just tie you up then re-curse you after you loose your soul again?" Cordelia asked.

"It won't work," Angel said.

"Cause the First told you so," Cordelia said. "There's a real trust-worthy source. Couldn't we at least try? If it didn't work we could stake Angelus afterwards."

"Cordelia, when the curse breaks this time, I won't just loose my soul, it will be destroyed, there won't be anything to restore. By killing myself before the curse breaks I thought I might escape that," Angel explained. "It's the only hope I've got left."

"Something's wrong with Angel," Buffy said as soon as Giles picked up his phone.

"He called you?" Giles asked.

"Prophetic dream," Buffy replied.

"You're certain it was a prophecy and not simply a nightmare?" Giles asked.

"I did the trance and everything," Buffy said. "Something bad is going to happen to Angel and it will happen soon."

"Call him, Angel is very capable of taking care of himself, a warning should be sufficient," Giles advised.

"Giles, Angel already knows but he's just going to let it happen. I need to go to LA. If I see him in person I can make him confide in me, then we can figure out how to fix it. I was hoping you'd come with me. Angel respects your opinion, he won't just over rule you if you say we can work things out."

"All right Buffy, I'll pick you up in an hour."

"Morning," Cordy said sleepily, glancing at the little group that had gathered in the Hotel's kitchen. Wesley and Gunn had taken rooms in the Hotel years ago, as had a number of Gunn's vampire hunters, but Cordy had always kept her apartment. In part because Doyle had found it for her, in part because it was her way of saying that she still had a life outside of the agency. Also it was nice to be able to take a date home and only have to deal with Dennis' heckling rather than Wes' older brother routine or the awkwardness with Gunn.

Cordy and Gunn had dated for a while, but it hadn't worked. Unlike Xander and Doyle, Gunn had no tolerance for Cordy's occasional May-Queen moments and Cordy felt exactly the same about Gunn's I'm-a-big-bad-demon-hunter image. Both of them were too stubborn to change and it had made for a turbulent relationship. Eventually they'd gotten sick and tired of the screaming matches and long hostile silences. They'd gone back to being just friends, but not without regrets that it hadn't worked.

So it was generally just better if Cordy kept her own apartment. But when Angel moved back to LA Cordy moved into the Hyperion. Unlike the Scoobies in Sunnydale, the group in LA had known Angel's return was only temporary from the first. And regardless of how much Cordy hated that and Angel's passive acceptance of his fate, she wasn't gong to waste the time Angel had left.

Of course, Angel's idea of making the most of the remainder of his life included working nearly non-stop. Which made it even more important that Cordy was around for the rare chance to spend time with him when there weren't demons involved.

Buffy was the only one Angel really made time for, and Cordy was distinctly glad that the whole year hadn't been like the first few months when Buffy had been practically glued to Angel's side. If they hadn't decided that Buffy needed a time out from relationships Cordy thought she would have gone crazy. Sure Buffy was the love of Angel's life, but Cordy and Wes were his family, they deserved time with him too.

All and all, it had been a good year, a frantically busy one, but a good one. Angel had given up sitting alone in the dark brooding for hours at a time, for one thing. He just didn't have the time to waste on recriminations anymore.

Wesley had brought up Angel's eventually shanshu in a last attempt to persuade him to try to circumvent the fate awaiting him, but the souled vampire had just replied that the Aberjian scrolls always carried the implication that he might not survive the trials set out before him. As far as Angel was concerned he'd already chosen his path, all that was left was for him to follow it to its end.

"When does the last twenty-four hours of the curse begin?" Wesley asked.

"Six-thirty tomorrow morning," Angel said. "About forty minutes before sunrise. I've been thinking that I'd like to see one last sunrise."

"You really do have a mellow dramatic streak," Wesley said. "Wouldn't it be less painful to simply ask someone to stake you rather than burning to death."

"Vampires burn very rapidly," Angel said with a shrug. "I don't think it will hurt much and I'd rather take care of it by myself."

"You still have time to tell Buffy," Wesley said.

"Tell Buffy what?" the Slayer in question said, walking into the room with Giles.

"Buffy," Angel sighed, looking both pleased to see her and exasperated by what would undoubtedly be a major wrinkle in his plans.

"Tell Buffy what?" The girl reiterated. "I won't be lied to or kept in the dark Angel. I know something is happening. I need you to tell me what it is."

"I guess the most cliqued way to put it would be I sold my soul to the devil…"

Buffy was grateful for Angel's healing factor, which was accelerated even by vampiric standards, because she knew she'd be too ashamed to look at him until the last vestiges of the black eye she'd given him faded.

She knew she shouldn't have hit him, but after what she'd learned Buffy had to lash out as something. And, as was all too often the case, Angel had been the easiest target. It wasn't really him she was mad at, it was the universe in general. How could fate have been so cruel as to bring Angel and herself together only to tear them apart all over again?

Buffy and Giles argued with Angel for hours about the fluidity of the future and how he shouldn't just accept death. Angel had answered their every objection with calm, well-thought out replies that showed he'd already considered every point they had made and already recognized them as flawed.

Angel had argued out the details of the arrangement over a century or two in Hell. He, Wes and Cordy had already had a whole year to check into every possibility Angel might have overlooked and they'd found nothing. In the end Giles agreed with Angel's original conclusion that he couldn't be saved and that the best they could do was deny the First Angelus.

Personally, Buffy couldn't see what it would hurt to just try the curse, but Angel was certain it wouldn't work even if he absolutely refused to discuss how he could be so sure, so Buffy had let the subject drop.

"Why do you have to do it so early?" Buffy asked continuing her newest tangent. "We could have a whole other day together and you could still… do what you have to before the curse broke."

"We'd spend that day fighting everything the First could throw at us, it's too much of a risk," Angel said. "People could get hurt. You could get hurt Buffy. I could end up Angelus, I won't be him again, I just can't. A day isn't worth the price we could pay. The truth is I should be staked at six-thirty exactly, but it's only forty minutes and, well, I wanted to have appreciated a sunrise at least once in my life."

Buffy opened her mouth. She wanted to argue. She wanted to fight for every possible second she could have with Angel, regardless of the danger or what he wanted. She wanted to cry and plead for him to stay with her. She wanted to rail at fate and destiny and the Powers that Be who seemed so uncaring.

"Forty minutes doesn't seem like too much of a risk to me," Buffy said. "And we've still got most of today, was there anything particular you were planning on doing?"

"You're sure you want to come?" Angel asked.

"I want every last second," Buffy said. "Besides, you shouldn't watch sunrises alone."

Angel smiled very fleetingly and offered Buffy his hand.

"Where are we going?" Buffy asked as he escorted her to his car.

"Out of the city, up into the hills," Angel replied. "Better view, and I want to keep moving, there's no reason for us to make it easier for anything looking for me."

"Okay," Buffy said.

They slipped into a companionable silence as they drove through LA's empty pre-dawn streets.

Angel had decided to start moving before the last day actually began, hoping to throw off anyone expecting him to be at the Hyperion at six-thirty that morning.

Buffy glanced over at Angel, noticing yet again that his choice of clothing wasn't what he normally wore. The light tee shirt looked good on him. It showed off his muscles unlike the loose shirts and the heavy coat he habitually wore, but Buffy couldn't appreciate it, couldn't ignore why he'd worn it. Angel's normal cloths provided a few minutes protection from the sun if he got caught outside, as well as fending off the occasional stray sunbeam that worked itself into building not designed with vampires in mind. Today that protection would be both unneeded and unwanted.

Buffy forced her thoughts away from that realization by asking the first thing that came to mind. "Angel, you've been invulnerable for this whole year, why didn't you ever do any fun-in-the-sun stuff?"

"Immortal, not invulnerable," Angel corrected. "The First didn't do anything for me that it didn't have to. If I get staked I still end up with a hole in my chest for a few days. If I go out in the sun I get third degree burns in under five minutes, I just don't die. I never tested beheading, staking and exposure to sunlight were sufficiently agonizing to discourage further experimentation."

When they ran out of road, Buffy and Angel abandoned the car and continued on foot. Walking hand in hand, much like they had on another morning when the sun had miraculously failed to shine.

Angel stopped when they entered a small clearing on an east-facing ridge. "I like it here," he said quietly.

Buffy swallowed a sob as she noticed the lightening sky.

"False dawn," Angel commented.

"It will be real soon enough," Buffy said miserably.

Cautiously Angel embraced her, not quite sure if comforting her would help now. Buffy returned the embrace with all her Slayer-enhanced strength, as if she could prevent him from dying if she simply held on to him tightly enough.

They stayed like that for several minutes, then Buffy asked in a tiny voice, "Is it my fault this is happening?"

Angel pulled back so she could see his face. "No, it's not."

"But if I'd been stronger, if you hadn't had to make that deal to save me?" Buffy asked.

"Then I'd still be in Hell," Angel replied. "If you hadn't needed me I'd never have dared to try to get back. I'll never regret any time spent with you Buffy."

"Okay… I promise I won't fall apart again," Buffy said.

Angel smiled and hugged Buffy again, only to feel her sag bonelessly in his arms.

Angel lifted her into his arms, scanning the woods for a threat. He felt a slight stinging sensation in his shoulder, then darkness closed in on him.

Angel woke up lying on a concrete floor, he could feel handcuffs cutting into his wrists and ankles. As his eyes focused he saw Buffy, similarly bound, lying several feet in front of him.

"We thought you'd appreciate us saving her for you once your worse side puts in an appearance," a voice said.

Angel twisted to see several vampires standing about watching them. He strained uselessly against his restraints, silently cursing himself for being a fool.

Buffy woke a few seconds later. "Angel?" she asked.

"Buffy, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry I got you into this mess," Angel said.

"We'll fix it, you'll see," Buffy reassured him, testing her own bonds.

"Aww isn't that sweet," the vampires' spokesman said sarcastically. "I wonder if she'll be so supportive when our boy here loose his soul and decides it's play time?"

Outside Angel could sense dawn breaking then a fierce pounding began in his chest and Angel found himself gasping for air.

"What's happening?" one of the vampires demanded. "Nothing was supposed to happen till tomorrow morning!"

"I don't know!" the vampires' leader snapped.

Still gasping for air Angel giggled, a disturbed sound that sent chills down Buffy's spine. "I guess you're calendar was off," he said rising to his knees. "Now unchain me before I get angry."

"It wasn't supposed to happen until tomorrow, we'll wait," the lead vamp announced.

"Do you know who I am?" Angel snarled. "Angelus, scourge of Europe, the First's choose one. Release me now!"

"It wasn't supposed to…" The vamp reiterated.

"Now!" Angel ordered.

Cowed the vampire unlocked Angel's restrains. Angel stood and stretched casually. "It feels good to be free," he said, snatching the handcuff keys from the vampire's hand and walking over to Buffy. "It's been awhile, Lover," he said leaning over her. "Miss me?"

Buffy opened her mouth to retort when Angel smiled reassuringly and winked.

Angel slung her easily over his shoulder.

"Hey, what are you doing with her?" a vampire protested.

"I thought you said she was a present," Angel replied irritable. "I want some place comfortable to play with her, it's going to take awhile."

Reluctantly the vampires backed off. As Angel carried Buffy past the building's door, he abruptly changed direction, kicked the door open and rushed into the early morning light.

Howling in fury the vampires charged after him, only to be driven back by the sun.

Angel set Buffy on her feet and unlocked her restraints.

"You're not burning," Buffy said, confused.

In explanation Angel pressed her hand to his chest. Buffy's face took on an expression of childlike wonder. "Your heart's beating, how?"

"I don't have a clue," Angel replied grinning.

"My client had an agreement with Angel," Lindsey said.

"I see you've got yourself a new job," Doyle replied. "Too bad you had to die for it."

"Some sacrifices have to be made for a person's career," Lindsey replied with a shrug. "And there are certain perks."

"Oh, you mean fucking Angel's sire," Doyle said.

"I'm shocked, a representative of the Powers that Be, using such crude language," Lindsey mocked.

"What would you call it, love making?" Doyle asked with a short laugh. "Cause I don't see it. The only real passion either of you feel is for Angel."

"Why don't we stick to the matter at hand," Lindsey said shortly. "Angel, of his own free will, entered into a contract with the First, your side had no business interfering."

"Who's interferin'" Doyle replied. "The PTB had their own deal with Angel. He lived up to his end of the bargain, he was willing to sacrifice himself to protect the world from his demon. That was the last test. Sure it was a bit of a gimme, but he still passed it. It was time he received his reward, it's got nothing to do with your people."

Lindsey considered that for a moment. "I believe we could also say that our arrangement with Angel has nothing to with you. The Powers made him a second Avatar, the male equivalent of a Slayer. We would have preferred him a vampire, but he'll still do. Angel may have his Shanshu, but he still owes us his soul."

"You don't understand Lindsey, you've got no hold on Angel now. It's time for you to be a good sport and deal with havin' lost." Doyle said. "Your own overly specific agreement negates your claim on Angel. Your agreement said that at the end of a year, the curse on the souled vampire known as Angel would be broken. There is no souled vampire any more, nor is there a curse, just Angel."

"You're violating the intent of our agreement," Lindsey protested.

"Like that's ever concerned you before," Doyle said, rolling his eyes. "Come on Lindsey, did ya truly expect the Powers to just let the First take Angel after all he's been though?"