CLOSURE--Part Two

-0-

The sun, just under the horizon, cast its last warm glow across the rooftop as the flourescents connected on. The air held a slight chill, but the warm day's heat was still radiating from the roof's tar surface. Angel felt his fever wane a little and actually enjoyed the shiver he experienced.

Folding his arms across his chest, feeling defensive, he tried to repress the dislike for Riley he had no reason to feel. Yet. "OK. Well, now I guess we can talk," Angel tried to say cordially, knowing it came out a little harsh instead.

Riley didn't notice, or if he did, he was being too polite to acknowledge the tone. "I guess you're probably wondering why I don't want to just avoid you. In fact, I would think you're probably wondering why I even came along in the first place? Maybe I'm afraid of having Buffy around her ex or something like that. Or-"

"Riley?"

"Yes?"

"OK. Why don't you just say what's on your mind? Get this 'simple conversation' over and done with?"

Riley looked past him for a moment to gather his thoughts, looking as if he was rephrasing a question he had rehearsed in his head a dozen times.

"Mr. Finn?"

When Riley looked up, they exchanged a friendly half-smile in agreement over the awkward situation. Angel wondered if Riley had a mean bone in his body. And then he imagined what it would be like to break one of them-even if it wasn't mean.

"I was wondering, Angel..."

'Rephrasing his ideas again,' Angel thought and grew real impatient, real fast, his impending bad mood difficult to keep at bay. He wanted very badly to be completely alone and the thought of sending Riley over the edge of the roof seemed reasonable. But Buffy would never forgive him if he did that, so he thought to just chuck him down the stairwell instead. And listen to him tumble end over end over end...

"Just spit it out, Riley. Please. We're both not getting any younger here."

"OK. Well. Like you. You're in the same line of work as Buffy, but you seem to be able to separate yourself from what you do..."

"You think so?"

"Well, it seems so. So, when you and Buffy were together, maybe what she does didn't bother YOU so much. You know, get in the way of trying to get your relationship off the ground."

"Buffy is the Slayer. I knew that going in."

"Right." Riley thought for a moment more before continuing. "Maybe that's my problem. I didn't know going in. Heck, I didn't even know what a Slayer was, so imagine my surprise."

"I can't." Angel didn't care about the tone of his voice. He needed the conversation over with. Immediately.

Riley didn't ignore the tone, this time. "OK. Moving right along. Buffy," he paused, flustered, his brows crossed in consideration against a thought he didn't want to own. "Do you believe in God?"

REALLY hating that question, Angel glared at Riley in reply.

"I'm just asking because it kinda goes along with what I wanted to talk to you about."

"We're not at a bus stop, Riley. So help me if you dare pull out a pamphlet out on me..."

Riley, trying to alleviate the situation, laughed uncomfortably. "Oh, no. It's nothing like that. It's... well..." he pressed on, "I asked about your beliefs because I DO believe in God. I have a really strong spiritual background and, frankly, what I've been seeing over the course of the year has led me to start questioning what I believe in. You know? And then, Buffy. Wow. She's like this ultra human being-which would kind of make her NOT human, in a way..."

"You think she's unholy," Angel stated, cutting to the chase.

The pained expression across Riley's face confirmed the comment, and brought into the open what the young man had been trying to avoid admitting. Riley also carried the look of a man who's life was in tumult, the look of a man in love with someone he didn't want to stop loving.

Angel pondered his own appearance when faced with the same dilemmas.

"Y...y...yes. Unholy," he barely got the word out. "Everything I was raised to believe in means she's unholy."

Angel's attitude softened. "Well, Riley, everything in my background has led me to believe she's quite the opposite."

"But how can she be?" Riley whispered, as if having trying to exclude his God from the conversation.

"You want me to tell you there's only God and only Satan, right? That's what you were raised to believe. God sends his angels to protect and Satan sends his demons to destroy. That good people go to heaven and bad ones go straight to hell and there's no in between and if you live your life right and make your confessions you'll be OK in the end."

Riley nodded and Angel continued, "What you're finding is the real world is a little more complicated than that. If you're trying to fit Buffy into the context of your faith then you're only going to end up losing one of them."

Distraught, looking for an answer, Riley stepped closer and Angel could smell the man's fright.

"Which one should I lose?" he asked, earnestly, willing to make a choice despite the consequences because a choice had to be made.

"I won't take your God from you, Riley. And I won't take Buffy, either. It's your choice to make and only yours."

"I can't. Not alone. I was figuring that maybe you had to make the same decision..."

"About what? What do you think I know that you don't?"

"About THIS stuff. The evil around us," his tone was soft, his voice heavy with anguish as he glanced around. "The Bible-"

Angel backed away, shaking his head. "No, Riley. You don't want to go there. Not with me. I'll shred whatever verses you toss out so fast..." He stopped when he thought of Giles' words; how easy it was to destroy something known so intimately.

"I have NO ONE to talk to about this."

"There's Giles, he knows theology. Or how about Buffy, Riley? You know it would certainly make a lot more sense to speak to her about your fears than her ex. Or you could pray. I'm always being told what great results that exercise brings about. I'm the LAST person in the world-"

"Maybe you're not, though." Riley interrupted, agitated. "So many people in my life-the people I thought I KNEW-have turned out to be the last people I should have trusted. I can't believe your advice could be any more misleading than anything they told me."

"And they told you to stop seeing Buffy?"

"Yes. Exactly."

"Then it seems to me you've already made your decision about her."

Riley stopped pacing, completely still as he accepted Angel's synopsis. "Yeah. I guess maybe I have after all. Huh?"

"You're just looking for assurances you made the right decision. That when you walk through the shadows in Death's valley, your God will remain at your side. Did it ever occur to you maybe Buffy is supposed to be your guide?"

"Wow. I NEVER thought about it that way. That's really heavy. But, still, it's, like, if she's supposed to be my guide, how can I be sure she actually knows the way?"

"Riley, I think it's pretty safe to assume she's already taken the tour."

Relieved, Riley began to laugh under his breath. "You made it seem so simple. And, here I am, imposing on you. You must think I'm just a complete-" His outlook restored, Riley joked, "if I was you, I'd probably want to punch me out or something."

The arc started low, down by Angel's thigh as his torso twisted for the follow-through. The power behind the blow expanded as his clenched fist thrust forward, targeted until he met flesh. It took a split-second to realize, though, it was not the hard impact of knuckle meeting jaw, but the familiar pressure of a steady palm impeding brute force.

"Who said you could hit my boyfriend?" she asked, demanding an answer.

"Who said I couldn't?" Angel smiled wryly, meeting her eyes to accept the challenge there.

The duel began uneasily as each opponent tested the other. Their movements were uneven, each parry and strike miscalculated. Buffy took a blow too hard or Angel lost balance too often until, at last, the restored familiarity of their past encounters caused the fight to lose its uncertain edge.

Angel's arms swept past hers as they averted one another's jabs, their legs kicking out in combination, deflecting or connecting. A taken stroke sent one or the other to the roof's surface, only to be used for momentum to push up and out of the way to reset and return to the brawl. They knew each other too well at this game to hurt or be hurt. As physical equals, their supernatural prowess and speed continued to mount.

The fight became more fluid, a well-rehearsed dance without pause or concern over what was at stake. Angel examined Buffy's face as she attacked, enthralled by her concentration. She grabbed onto his shirt and spun him over her shoulder and he was thrilled by the action. He knew her--this young woman--as his adversary, his ally, his lover when he seized her from behind only to have the maneuver used as counterbalance by Buffy to take the advantage.

And then as Angel slid on his back, away from her, he took sight of his successor on the sidelines, Riley's mouth agape as he watched in awed horror. Angel knew at that moment Riley had competed against her like this and written on that youthful face was the absolute understanding he didn't have the strength or the stamina to spar at her level.

The hurt was so evident Angel stayed down.

Buffy posed over him, panting heavily as she examined Angel, disbelieving their fight had ended so quickly. "Get up!" she commanded, wanting so much more than he had given her.

Angel, also panting, shook his head 'no'.

"Buffy," Riley called, "don't you think it's rude to fight with our host? I mean, if you beat him, he has every right to throw us all out." But Riley's joke rang false without mirth in his voice, with only the anguish of knowing how much she needed the fight.

THIS fight.

When Buffy disregarded the younger man, Angel saw what she wanted, why she needed it and he kicked up, prepared to reengage her. "You're hurting his feelings," Angel cautioned. "We can end this now. I'll concede."

Buffy reprimanded him as she cast her forward foot and pivoted to sweep back with it. "You always did talk at the wrong time, Angel."

Angel tossed her over after catching the leg, but she landed on her feet. He paused. She taunted him and he wanted her, wanted this encounter and the sensation of connecting with her body, with her muscles warmly exerted. He was intoxicated by her perspiration permeating his skin and stepped forward to drop his head, regarding her with a sideways glance. Then, explosively, he swung and kicked at her, making her shout with delight.

"Who's talking now, Buffy?" he teased.

When she grinned in between defending against his left backhand, he upped his intensity. Buffy seemed at the edge of even her ability until she yanked his arm across his chest, twisting her torso to toss him across the small of her back. Not willing to let her have the final advantage, Angel reached under her as he rotated, bringing her along as he fell and they rolled , side over side, until finally coming to rest.

"Had enough again, Angel? Giving in?" she mocked, her lips next to his cheek.

He had the sudden thought to straddle her and pin her down, knowing from experience she would writhe herself free. But, instead of acting on impulse, he let the thought remain in his mind as he followed through with it, his tongue down her throat, her mouth swallowing him as she kissed him back passionately. He could feel her hands repelling him as he bore down on her, his body moving as hers moved against him, as they fell into the rhythm of what they had been to each other at one time.

Her hands caressing, her mouth exploring, her body devouring...

"Buffy," he breathed, unable to shake his vision, unable to control the violent movements of his body.

"Angel," she shouted, her voice overly-concerned. "An earthquake. The Hellmouth. It's pretty bad."

He opened his eyes and witnessed everything around him moving erratically, the earth's movements only making his desire that much more apparent. Angel wanted to take her downstairs and make love to her again, to listen to her voice call his name as they moved with each other, like they were doing already. As the tremor wound down, the desire for what he couldn't have began to escalate and he rose up and away from her, turning his back on her.

Knowing how much she hated when he turned his back on her.

Leaping onto the ledge, he kept his balance as an aftershock rolled past, and slowly turned to consider his audience. Buffy, confused, approached him cautiously, but her boyfriend maintained a discreet distance, Riley's demeanor displaying his prominent self-esteem.

"Get down, Angel," Buffy pleaded. "You'll fall."

"Will I fall, Buffy?" He paced the narrow ledge expertly, occasionally dipping a foot over the street side for show. "What would you tell Riley if I leap? Will you tell him that I'll be OK for the same reasons I'm able to fight at your level? Are you ever planning on telling him what I am?"

"C'mon, Angel. You're scaring me." Buffy stepped closer, her hand reaching for his.

After watching Riley walk into the staircase, Angel smirked when her eyes flashed with fear. "Don't worry, Buffy, I'll keep your secret, but he's not stupid. He'll ask you why. You shouldn't have let him think someone other than a demon can fight at your level. Now he'll start wondering why HE can't fight you as The Slayer and he'll eventually start to put two and two-"

"Angel! Get off the ledge and stop being such a drama king! Ohmigod. You've been fighting? I've warned you about the clothes you fight in haven't I? Maybe Buffy doesn't care about the crappy stuff she wears. But your clothes FIT you."

Angel, distracted, looked at Cordelia with her hand outstretched, her face stern but not unamused. She did that thing with her eyes again that made him realize she knew exactly what he was doing and she wasn't going to let him get away with it.

"I think I've got the situation under control, Cordy," Buffy told her, annoyance overcoming her concern. "By the way, sandals don't go with EVERYTHING."

"Oh, yeah, Buffy. Don't get me started on YOUR shoes. So, Angel here is threatening to toss himself over and you're doing what? Is that a hand I see? Were you going to push him off or clap after he landed?"

"You used to be more glib, Cordy. What's the matter? Being around Angel has made you lose the will to wit?" She mirrored Cordy's scrunched face before returning her attention to Angel.

"Actually, Buffster, under the right circumstances, I'm still very up on the quipage. Maybe I'm off my game. What do you think, Angel? Am I off?" She gave him her most innocent smile, inviting him to go for the open-ended question.

"Angel," Buffy spoke.

Cordelia glanced at her competition and shook her head, unimpressed with the effort. "So, seriously, Angel. If you leap then who's going to cook for everyone since Wesley has obviously been sucked into the Hellmouth never to be seen again?"

"You're hungry?"

"Yeaaaaah! And I'm, like, not the only one. So you think you could get down and start busting those pots and pans? Play time is over, guys. I'm sure everyone else would have loved to do something other than work on Hellmouth, The Sequel all day long. You could have, at least, invited someone other than Riley to watch."

Angel considered his options for a moment longer before taking Cordelia's hand, ignoring the surprise on Buffy's face when he did so.

"I knew I'd win," she whispered into his ear before pulling away from his grip and smacking him across the arm.

"How'd you know?" he asked, genuinely interested since he didn't fully understand the choice himself. But Cordelia only flicked her hair from her shoulders before she walked away, leaving him to figure that out on his own.

-0-

"The sleeping arrangements are not a problema, Angel. We're all KOA-ready," Willow explained.

"In fact, once I zip Anya and me together, we've got a double wide. That is, unless you've got a problem with us zipping together."

Angel walked away from Xander without saying a word, reasonably satisfied with the sleeping arrangements. Giles automatically got the guest bed and Cordelia, the sofa. True to Willow's description, everyone did, indeed, have sleeping bags.

Not especially sleepy, Angel could feel the effects of overexerting himself during the fight with Buffy. He felt more drained by its emotional toll and just wanted to close the doors to his room sit in the dark. But when he entered his bedroom, Angel realized that wasn't going to be the case. There, in the center of his bed, lay Buffy asleep, and it took everything he had left not to completely panic.

"I think she only meant to take a nap, you know," Spike spoke from behind, "but, poor baby. You wore her out and she must have fallen asleep."

"I still don't know why you're here, Spike. It just doesn't make any sense."

"Trying to change the subject, Angel? Won't work. It's MY play time now. Her asleep in your bed makes you angry doesn't it?"

"She's asleep, Spike. Why is that going to make me angry? You're not going to get to me because I won't let you."

"Because she knows you... Knows how you are. Knows you're imagining what she's dreaming about, alone there in the center of YOUR bed. Couldn't even shove off to one side, selfish bitch, at least to make you think she wanted you to crawl in next to her. And you'd do it, too, I bet. Let the boyfriend watch like you let him watch your foreplay up there on the roof."

Angel pushed past his peroxide nemesis, only to end up being hurled into the bathroom, the door locked and the barricaded.

"Get off it, Spike. You're not going to pretend you're in my head."

"What actually makes you angrier, though, I wonder. That she doesn't even notice you're sick?"

Angel, disgusted with the situation, made a movement for the door. When Spike cut him off, the full-length mirror leaning reflective-side against the wall, almost fell onto the tile floor.

"Well, well." Spike carefully leaned the mirror back into place, his face filled with good humor as he sang, "someone's been spending the ni-ight."

Angel scowled.

Spike, in a show of superiority, shoved Angel. "I heard rumours the mutation was back and, here it is, right in front of me. Since you're more anal about your feeding habits than your housekeeping, Angel, that makes me wonder, 'how did you get it?' Or more importantly, 'why?' Was it for the warmth? To feel so warm again after losing your snugglebunny to other guys?"

"Let me out or I'll give it to you," Angel seethed, in no mood to listen to the direction Spike was taking his conversation.

Laughing, Spike flipped on the exhaust fan and pulled out his pack of cigarettes, taking a moment to light one. "There it is! Finally. It's about time you got pissy about something, Angel. But, I'll pass up the offer. You on my neck once in a couple of lifetimes is enough."

"If you're going to keep babbling, you could share." After taking a cigarette from Spike and lighting it, Angel dropped the lid on the toliet and took a seat.

"That's it. Settle down like a good boy. You know, I almost had Buffy myself." Seeing the disbelief on Angel's face, Spike nodded sincerely before continuing. "Oh, yes I did. Almost took another of your pass-alongs. No doubt would have ended up just as badly as the others. What is it you do? Now THAT. If you could pass THAT along, I'd let you have another go at me. Every one you leave, Angel. You loved Buffy enough. You could have made her immortal. But you didn't so she ended up a whore instead. Not the first and probably not quite the last since you seem to be breaking in Cordy now."

"I'm tired of listening to you already..."

"See, Angel. That's the difference between the way you used to be and the way you are now. Before, you wouldn't have heard a word I muttered. But, now... Now you listen, Angel. Because you know that no matter what bed she's in, Buffy will always be waiting for you. That's what you knew the second you walked in your room. So, it's eternal until you finally give in and realize since you can't be human then she'll have to be-- Oh. Pity. The shape you're in you're not the one to do it anymore and there's still that issue of time..."

"You done yet?"

Spike took another drag and exhaled in little rings, dotting each of their centers with the lit end. "So many will be so happy when you're finally gone for good. You know why everyone you ever had anything to do with wanted you dead, don't you? The way you'd reel 'em in, make 'em think they were getting a glimpse, and then you'd turn on 'em. Make everyone feel like turds just for wanting to care about you. But I was different. I wasn't trying to get into your bed or touch that icy heart of yours. That's why I know you so well."

"Really? Spare me the porcelain psychology, Spike. I've already been analyzed twice today. And, believe me when I tell you you're not the expert you think you are."

"Angelus! Oh. That hurts. It really does. You mean all those years of living with you, your friggin' idiosyncrasies with the finer things in life and the tidiness... Or you being Mr. Most Desirable... Or the Supreme Ruler of The Secret Order... You still have all your precious secrets, Angel? Still writing them all down after a few hours of quality brooding?"

"Observations, Spike. Not actual knowledge."

"Right. I guess I need to explain what makes you tick, don't I? What goes on in that brilliant mind of yours. What made you stand out as so evil you scared the hell out of VAMPIRES, Angel." He paused and finished his smoke. Unable to come up with an answer, he shrugged. "Don't know. Guess I really don't care, to tell you the truth."

"That hurts," Angel pouted. "Never cared? Or don't care now?"

"Probably never cared, Angel. Sorry."

"You didn't have fun?"

"Fun? Hell, yeah! You did some amazing evil. How you came up with some of that stuff is beyond me. The imagination! No one could ever meet my expectations after you got souled." Spike sighed heavily, lost in a memory.

"Spike?"

"Yeah, Angel," he answered, still distracted by his thoughts.

"I see you Spike, wanting her."

"Wanting who, Angel?" He lit another cigarette and took a heady drag from it before lighting another for Angel.

"Willow. The way you look at her. You've thought about it, haven't you? Taking her. Not just the kill, either. You want her. Mortal first?"

"G'on, Angel. You know I don't do mortals." He laughed, taking another hit.

Angel watched Spike carefully, the familiarity returning. He knew this other being. VERY well. "It's just as well you don't do her mortal. It'd just get in the way of the relationship in the long run. You know, in 50 or 60 years you'd begin to miss her heartbeat, the way she smells alive."

"Yeah. I don't fancy the beating hearts or the bodily fluids. Mortals get all sweaty. I like my sex less perspirational. I never understood how you didn't mind that stuff..."

"So, you've imagined how you want to do it? Will you tell her first? I bet you would. Cause you'd want her to agree to it. Maybe wear her down over a few months. Turn up what little personality you have to make her consider the opportunities of being immortal. Here's a hint: tease her with magic."

"Yeah, I was thinking about that. But I don't know if she'd agree or not. She seems pretty adamant about living life to it's fullest in the bright sunshine and what not."

"She's young. The young like the sun even though it's no good for them. Maybe work on her over the course of a year. Steal a nip or two? Nah, that's not your style and she'd have to be really into you to pull that off."

"Hey! I bet I could pull it off. You're not the only one here to-"

Angel exhaled towards the ceiling, shaking his head. "Face it, Spike. I've never been afraid of mortals, so it was easier for me. I fake human better than you do and you know it." Spike, willing to give him that, nodded in acceptance.

"So. The day would come and you'd move in for her. You should come at her from behind. Did you ever notice how much they like it from behind? It's the surprise element, that little gasp they do when you've buried your face in their necks and they're not sure why they don't mind so much. Turn up the lure, and kiss her throat. Feel the pounding vein against your lips as you test for the perfect spot to plant your perfect kiss..."

Spike watched him, enraptured as Angel smoked his cigarette. Spike's impatience was apparent as he waited for the plan to continue unfolding, afraid to press for fear of hearing his own voice ruin the mood...

Angel enjoyed being patient. "And then you'd lean in to her, maybe come around front and test the other side, feel the way she'll lean into you, wanting you to do something, to stop teasing her. Kiss her lips..."

"No, I don't want to kiss her..."

"Yes you do. You'll want to feel her lips on yours. You should kiss her. Kiss her mortal once to know what she won't be like anymore. Her breath under your nose as you excite her, her breasts firming against your chest as she grinds against you, Spike, moving, beginning to move around. The way she'll kiss you back, explore your neck, touch you, lifting your shirt..."

"No. I don't want her mortal, Angel..."

"Her breath on your chest, Spike as she takes your flesh in her mouth and she bites you and makes you want to..."

"Stop it, Angel. NOT MORTAL, dammit."

Reprimanded, Angel continued, "so then you'll have to make her stop, Spike. You'll have to lean over her, grab her by the shoulders and force her to stop the only way you know how. You'll change and she'll feel it and know what you're preparing to do...

"Will she be scared?"

"Hmmmmmmmm. You'll smell it. The fear. Taste it on her skin. Sense her blood growing sweeter, flowing stronger, Spike. And the initial puncture..."

"Oh, Angel. She'll spurt..."

"Warm. And fast. And you'll have to back off so you don't take her too quickly. Because you want HER to give it to YOU, Spike; to make her make you take it. Your mouth working her neck and she's still moving against you, moaning. She's throbbing beneath your bite, Spike, she won't stop moving..."

"Ow. OW!"

"You bite harder, you draw faster, you want her all, right now..."

"OW! ANGEL, dammit! You're making my head hurt. STOP IT!"

"You feel her swoon as she loses her last breath..."

He pushed Angel hard. "What part of 'YOU'RE MAKING MY HEAD HURT' don't you understand? Bastard!"

"You didn't let me finish, Spike. Don't you want the climax?"

Angel took another cigarette from Spike and lit it from his finished one. Satisfied, he watched Spike attempt to recover by massaging his forehead continuously, gradually lightening the ministrations until gripped by a flashback. A devious smile twisted Angel's lips before he wet them and rolled the cigarette on the tip of his tongue before a long, slow drag.

Spike shook off the connotation, angry. "You are such a bastard, Angel. I need a REAL meal now and can't do a damn thing about it, even with all those sleeping munchies spread throughout this basement. You and that bleedin' mouth of yours. I thought you had a soul to keep you from coming up with those schemes."

Angel feigned surprise. "What's wrong? I thought you always considered my mouth to be one of my best qualities?"

When Spike cut a glance at him, Angel shrugged, acknowledging his insolence. "Besides, what do you think my soul actually does, Spike? I never stopped being a vampire. I still think vampire thoughts. I still have vampire urges."

"That's AWFUL." Spike looked, honestly, horrified.

"Not really. I like my soul. I really do. And if you knew me, you'd know why. For one thing, it let me conceive of siring Willow for you so you'll never be able to do it."

"What?" Spike tried to put some understanding into Angel's words, realizing he had been spun, probably his own fault.

"You don't have enough imagination to figure out your own scenario, Spike, so if the time ever came, you'd start using mine. That would just eat you. You picked out your ONE, your ONLY that you want for all time and you'd end up siring her the way I would, completely ruining the whole experience. In the end, you'd just give up and let her be."

"I hate you, Angel."

"You think when you get your bite back it's going to go back to being all feasting all the time? Well, think twice about it, Spike. Just the little time you've spent around them, they've already corrupted you, the way you look at them. Remember how you used to avoid them? I bet you even hang out at The Bronze, now."

"Shut your pie hole, Angel! You lost that soul of yours and you went back to Insanity City. Just as evil as you ever were-worse in fact. Looked like you were making up for lost time."

"Is that what it looked like?"

"Yeaaaah! The Judge touched you and knew you were a freakin' maniac, devoid of humanity."

"Even so..."

Spike snorted. "Oh, you're trying to tell me you were feeling for them? I don't believe it. Not for a minute. You did some nasty stuff that short time you were liberated. Really nasty, Angel."

"Because it hurt."

"What hurt?" Concerned, Spike examined Angel closely. "What? You still loved The Slayer? Even after you lost your soul? Did you forget? Demons don't love." After Angel's consideration, Spike added, "not like THEY do."

"Whatever you want to believe, Spike. Maybe you don't think it's love..."

"You are so yankin' me, Angel. I'll never believe you still loved her. Even though... you could have killed her... any number of times but you didn't..."

"You're going to start missing them. And you won't be able to stop feeling for them. And then you're going to start thinking, 'what if they ceased to exist?' but-

"They won't be just SnackPacks anymore. They'll be real to you. You'll want to be near them after they've been in the sunlight and you'll want to them to exhale against you. And you'll want them to show you how to see the world in that innocent, optimistic way they live in it no matter what horror they come across."

"Sod you, Angel. I won't. And listen to you. You're talking about them like they're you're friggin' pets. They're not your pets, Angel. They're human beings."

Angel finished his cigarette and he smiled at Spike. REALLY smiled at him.

"I hate you," Spike reiterated. Then, before opening the door, he turned back as another thought weighed heavily across his brow, "but, the truth is, when you're really gone, I'll mourn you. And I mean that, Angel. It'll just be the three of us left, you know, after you're gone?"

After disposing of their cigarettes' remains properly, Angel brushed past Spike into the hallway. He accepted Spike's condolence with genuine gratitude. "Spike. You DO care. But, you know, I never told you the count before and you're not going to bait me into telling you now. I will tell you, however, that if I had the opportunity, I'd find each and every one of you and take you out before me. So, the rest of the time you're here, you might want to watch your back."

-0-

Angel felt as if he had been awake for days as he faced the deserted street from behind his office window. Dawn was still hours away and he thought to just go out and research the Hellmouth himself, finding it portentous to think about the phenomenon and then have the blinds begin to shimmy against the windows.

Until he realized HE was the one making them move, not another aftershock.

The first jolt of pain was like a knife inserted between his shoulder blades and he almost completely passed out from its urgency. The second one tore up the back of his legs making his knees give way and he fell onto them as every ligament in his body seemed to explode. Needing to cry out for some relief, his throat felt as though he had swallowed pins and needles, leaving him with no other alternative but to silently convulse against the wall.

"Angel?"

Her hand on his face felt cool and he tried to clear his fluid-filled eyes to focus on her instead of the misery. She smoothed her hand across his forehead and pressed her lips there, checking his temperature.

"You're burning up, Angel. You know, for you."

"I..." was all he could manage, every increment of him gripped by immeasurable suffering.

It was comforting to be drawn across her lap after Cordelia sat next to him. As his body began to relax over the course of the hour, Angel's physical torment became less severe only to be replaced by another torment, equally physical. He was too exhausted to fight against it, too exhausted to do anything more than just think about it. Her circulatory system mocked him as she gently stroked his face.

"Cordelia--" He needed to be alone, but couldn't bring himself to tell her to leave.

"Hmmmmm?" She sounded, sleepily.

"I woke you? I'm sorry." And he was. For being what he was, for wanting more.

"My butt is the only thing asleep. Can you get up?"

He wearily pushed himself to sit up next to her, allowing Cordelia to reposition. "That better?" He shook his head in an attempt to remind himself he had promised not to hurt her.

She studied him, really hard in that way of hers, the corner of her mouth slightly turned and her brows knit in concentration. "I'm worried about you, Angel. How often are you having these little episodes of yours?"

Part of him wanted to lie, to put her at ease. Another part of him wanted her to put her head on the edge of his shoulder. He stopped himself from leaning towards her and, as if in warning, a spasm pulled across his stomach and he moaned, unable to catch the sound before it escaped.

"Where?"

He couldn't determine why he took her hand and moved it over the pain, only that he needed to. "Do you feel it?" he asked, savoring the connection.

"Oh, Angel. Like a wormy thing? You've got, like, Alien running around in your body?" Her face was twisted, more disgusted than fearful. "Ew?"

With perfect timing, she pushed his morbid thoughts aside. Again. "It's been different. This is the first time it's felt like a wormy thing." He frowned, disgusted when he realized it was probably his intestines, making him wonder, for the first time since becoming a vampire, about his intestines. "And 'ew' is right. I hope it's the last."

But, Cordelia, in her typical fashion, became less revolted the longer she fixated on the problem. Her hand began to follow the rolling motions, as if she could anticipate the movements. After unbuttoning his shirt from its hem, she peered intently at his stomach to try to visually confirm what she was feeling.

By the outer office's lighting, he watched her examine him, perplexed by her curiosity. Both of her hands pressed against his flesh as if she was a trained physician until she lowered her head. "What are you doing?" he asked, a little freaked.

"I'm going to listen. This is really weird, Angel. Shhhhh."

A real aftershock rumbled past as he sat in the silence with Cordelia's ear against his stomach and Angel protectively placed his arm around her. But, she didn't seem to notice as she probed a little more and moved her ear a little higher, her tumble of dark curly hair feeling curiously natural against him.

"What you hear?" he asked after a minute, more interested than freaked.

Cordelia twisted her head negatively as her hands continued to follow the movement becoming less active. "I thought there was something, but-- Hey, did you know you're really quiet? REALLY quiet, Angel. Even when you sometimes breathe. Whoa. Trip."

He gasped when she poked his navel. It tickled, a little.

"Go bake something!" she demanded, poking again, finally making him laugh.

"Oh, dear God!"

"Wesley. You're finally back. It's about time!" Cordelia mock-scolded as she lifted her head, extending into a stretch. "Took you long enough! So, what's up with the Hellmouth? I thought you fell in or something."

Recognizing that look on Wesley's face as he bolted from the room, Angel rose quickly to follow him. When he finally caught up with the flustered man in the building corridor, Angel took him by the shoulder and spun him around. "It wasn't what you thought, Wesley!"

Wesley dipped his shoulder away from Angel's grasp and took a step back, his face filled with condemnation and confusion. "Angel, don't."

"I know what it looked like, but-"

"I know what it LOOKED like, Angel. But, I've been around the two of you long enough now to know that looks are deceiving. And, please, button your shirt."

"Then you know we're not like that." Ignoring another tremor, he added, "Cordelia and I are just-"

"Friends? To coin a phrase: puh-leeze, Angel. You and Cordelia are so something other than friends... You know, maybe it wouldn't be so bad if you WERE having sexual relations. At least THAT would be understandable. But this intimacy between you two is unnerving. I fear where it may be leading."

"I don't understand what you mean."

"I think you do on some level. You're taking advantage of Cordelia. Whether because of that demonic receiver in her head or because of your nature, she's so in tune with you, Angel, it's scary. And the scariest part of it is: SHE'S NOT SCARED. You want to be unbelievably angry, or withdraw to sulk in silence and she finds some way to regale you. What was going on in there? You had a boo boo and she kissed it to make it all better?"

"I think she can read my mind."

"That's no excuse. She doesn't read your MIND, Angel, she reads YOU. She knows you better than you know yourself. And she's positive it's her role in life to be that way and to fix whatever is wrong with yours."

Concerned, Angel shook his head. "She can't do that. No one can."

"WE know that, Angel. But, she can't be convinced otherwise. Your abduction only made it worse and not just for her..."

"For you?"

Heaving his exasperation, Wesley responded, "I may feel left out of your relationship... Not me. You."

When Angel involuntarily stepped away, Wesley closed the gap.

"Angel, she's distracting you. And you let her. You look forward to it. Your day doesn't begin until she appears. And, as beautiful as your smile is, I dread seeing it. She makes you happy. Genuinely happy."

"No, she doesn't. I swear I'm miserable. She's annoying, and she talks too much..." But when Angel realized how much more he'd rather be listening to Cordelia's opinion on how Chelsea Clinton doesn't try to do enough with her hair, he backed off from defending his position.

"She has the potential to flip that switch and you know it," Wesley stated dolefully, his tone not unsympathetic. "Since I wasn't around for the original Hellmouth, I have an excuse for not seeing the signs of its rebirth. But you don't. Maybe your not knowing anything about it is a signal, Angel. It's out there just like Giles said it is and it's growing stronger by the minute. You know for a fact The Powers That Be aren't aware of everything and you should have noticed SOMETHING concerning this presenting disaster. But, you haven't. You've been too preoccupied with what's going on in your life."

"Cordelia was right. I should have let Kate die. But I thought I was helping. I just wanted to save ONE life."

"And it wasn't up to you to make that choice. ONE life, Angel. How many will be affected if we aren't able to destroy this Hellmouth in time?"

The building swayed with Angel's thoughts. "But I swear there was nothing to notice, Wesley. This isn't like the one in Sunnydale. It's different."

"Maybe there was nothing you WANTED to notice, Angel. I don't blame you for trying to enjoy your existence, especially what's left of it. But tending to your personal life isn't what you're here for." Wesley placed his hand on Angel's shoulder, wincing before removing it quickly to stare at his palm. "You need to distance yourself from Cordelia, Angel. Please. If the PTB are beginning to let you go, perhaps you should do the same for her. At least for a little while. Maybe she should return to Sunnydale when everyone leaves."

Sad couldn't describe the aching feeling that cut Angel in two. "She won't go," he spoke for her, hoping he wasn't lying.

"True she won't go forever because she won't let you die without her. But if you two continue at this rate, Angel, she literally won't let you die alone."

-0-

They stood as a group, just beyond the kitchen table, looking into the kitchen area. Although the setting was different, but the scene was familiar.

"This shouldn't be happening," Willow said.

"What's up?" Riley asked as he approached, his attention following the direction of everyone else's.

"It's the Buffy and Angel Show, Hellmouth Edition. Both back from hiatus," Xander explained.

"Xander. Don't joke. This is serious. And wrong. Very wrong." Giles tossed his head in Riley's direction.

Understanding immediately, Xander moved to shuffle everyone away, "Right. So now it's all over. C'mon, people, moving right along-"

But Spike eased closer, past Willow to get a better view. "It's not over, Xander. Let BlondieBoy see the past in action. This is a good one. They haven't done THIS in quite a while..."

Riley, bewildered, laughed uncomfortably. "I think I'll go walk around the block until they're done. They probably have a lot of catching up to do."

"Oh, but if you wait, Riley, they might resolve the underlying repressed sexual desire which the argument represents. That, and then they might ask you to watch." Shrugging after Riley's departure, Anya finished under her breath, "he doesn't seem like one to try new experiences anyway..."

"Anya, honey, maybe we need to get you a job. Get you away from watching those daytime talk shows."

"Wow, Xander," Cordelia commented as she joined the group. "Could you have found a bigger example of what a 19 year-old boy dreams of in a woman?"

"Man. Cordy. I'm officially a man. And, to answer your question. That would be a gigantic negatory. Fantasizing that effectively just doesn't run in the Harris gene pool."

Ignoring the gathering stares from outside their area, Buffy continued to vent. "When are you going to stop avoiding long enough for us to have a conversation, Angel? All you've done since we've gotten here is cook. First off, I didn't know you could cook and secondly, I'm sick of eating!"

"But, I believe that's only ONE vote from the stop cooking delegation..."

Angel didn't hear Xander's comment, replying, "I'm just trying to cope, Buffy. How do you expect me to react when all of a sudden you all just show up out of the blue? I had zero time to prepare..."

"Oh. And I did? Remember the ad for this gig, Angel? The one that said, 'no advance warning in most cases'? Things come at you. You deal. I thought that's why you came to L.A. You know. To deal. Alone. But, lookey here. You're not alone. How did Cordy become part of the equation?"

"Hey! We're not like that!"

The group was not convinced by Cordelia's protest.

"Why not?" Anya asked, genuinely concerned. "You look like you could use some and he looks like he'd be good at it. I've noticed the size of his hands-"

Casting a discretionary glance at his own, Xander nudged his girlfriend. "Anya, it's not the size of the hands that matters."

"Xander, you don't EVEN want to open THAT discussion," Cordelia responded arrogantly.

"When did this become about Cordelia? Get what you're angry about into perspective, Buffy! What do you really want? You want me to explain how difficult it is to live without you in my life with your boyfriend standing right over there? Did you bring him along to test his jealousy or mine? Cordelia was right. When did you become such a mega-"

"Bitch? You're calling me a bitch, Angel? You ARE evil. But, I'm stronger than I was the last time. You go tend to your muffins and I'll be right back with Mr. Pointy and we can finish settling what we didn't Thanksgiving weekend."

"Yeah, Buffy. I'm evil because my existence has become a damn country-western song. You don't even know what's been going on to just come in here accusing me-- Forget it! We'll get The Hellmouth closed and then this is over forever. For EVER, Buffy. Just like this."

Angel turned away from her to shut off the sounding oven timer. When he reached for the oven mitt, Buffy pinned his hand against the counter.

Her voice less angry, was subdued, as she asked him, "can't you just stop cooking long enough-"

When she stopped mid-sentence, Angel turned to her just as she gasped, her face unreadable before she lifted her hand, backing away from him until the refrigerator stopped her regress. Gasping again, she seemed to be on the verge of panic as she moved uneasily to the table to take a seat, barely able to touch its surface before she dropped her hands into her lap.

Her tearful confusion was painful to watch as Angel knelt by her side. "Buffy?" He whispered her name gently, flooded with emotion as he watched her lift her hand, her fingertips extending towards the center of his chest...

"I'M NOT HUNGRY!" she yelled before pushing him out of her way and bolting from the room.

After removing the muffins from the oven, Cordelia came to Willow's aid as she helped Angel to his feet. "Let it pass, Angel," she spoke.

"Buffy's just stressed, Angel. There were exams, and then this Hellmouth thingy and then. You know. There's been stuff with Riley. And then seeing you. Don't take it personally. You guys didn't mean the unbelievably mean things you said," Willow added, attempting to restore his composure. "Oooooooo!" she exclaimed suddenly, unhanding Angel and almost leaping away from him.

Cordelia, concerned, peered deeply into the other young woman's face. "Willow? Are you OK? Angel!" she smacked him affectionately, "you did that vampire thing and now Willow's all wigged."

"Vampire thing? You did a vampire thing to me?" Willow backed away a little more, anger replacing her initial confusion. "That was RUDE! I mean. Why would you do something like that. To me? What'd I DO to you, Angel? I was trying to be nice. Helpful. I said comforting words. And you whammied me?"

"It's not a whammy, Willow, relax," Cordelia laughed. "He gives off some weird vibe. He's like a giant people repellant except he doesn't light up or go 'bzzzzzzt!' when you get zapped."

"You feel it, too?"

She tch'd. "Duh, Angel. You do it to everyone who touches you, just more when you're upset. In fact, you need to go relax. Why don't you do it upstairs while everyone eats? Pull yourself together."

Angel studied Cordelia as she placed the back of her hand against his forehead. Suddenly self-conscious, she pulled it away and he warned her, "I keep hurting you. Stop touching me."

Cordelia smiled apologetically, her voice tender as she pushed him away from the kitchen. "You're not hurting me, Angel. I'm treating you like you're sick. And you're not. Not to them."

Her affection was overwhelming, leaving Angel speechless.

"So go upstairs and get yourself together and after they get fed, I'll get you fed. OK?"

He despised his thoughts as he mulled over her concern, wondering if she could possibly know what he really wanted for breakfast.

-0-

The office was almost too quiet, he observed. No phones ringing, no Cordelia/Wesley bickering. No nothing, just the sound of the desk chair's wheels as they rolled across the flooring and a slight groan as Angel lowered into it.

"I thought I'd be alone."

'So did I,' he thought.

Her voice, so familiar, caused him to tense for a moment and then he turned around and looked at her sitting across the room from him under the pictures that did, indeed, look out of place on the wall. He motioned to get up, leave, but she rose instead and took a chair facing him.

They were just across the desk from one another. He stared at the color of her lips...

"We just haven't been having a very special get together, have we, Angel?" Buffy mused aloud, the irony lost in the sad tone of her voice.

...the highlights were a different color, complimentary this time. Maybe too much mascara. Too dark or just too thick?...

"Angel?"

He shook himself away from his thoughts, away from studying her, away from feeling. "We're uncomfortable, I guess. Well, maybe not you. Me. I'm uncomfortable. I could use some alone time. REALLY alone time."

That look. He had hurt her feelings unintentionally. Again.

The thought to flee crossed her countenance, but she merely schlumped deeper into the chair before looking at him. REALLY looking at him. "You seem so different, you know? It's weird. Like you're some complete stranger to me, but I feel you here," she tapped her heart, "and I KNOW you, Angel. But I don't. And after seeing you here, what you do, how you do it, I know I don't know you. And this whole whatever I'm talking about just makes no sense, I guess."

"Yeah, it does."

"What? Not make sense?"

"No. Everything you're saying makes sense, Buffy. I don't know you either. Not anymore. Not ever, maybe?"

"Great, Angel. The world almost came to an end and you never got to know me?"

"That's not what I meant." And, it wasn't. And it hurt that's what she thought he meant. After all this time, she still didn't know. "There was no time," he finally added.

Her regard was sober. "Three years, Angel, if we don't count the time you were other-personalitied or other-dimensional. When was there no time?"

"Ever." He ignored a shooting pain across his diaphragm, realizing there would never be any time, unable to restrain the pained expression she detected. "We were always so busy, Buffy. Fighting evil and fighting one another. Fighting our chemistry..."

When she blushed, he smiled, encouraged. "And if we weren't fighting, we were hiding. From the 'what-I-am' thing, the 'what-you-are' thing from your Mom, the 'what-we-were' thing from Giles and ourselves. There was never any time to slow down and LEARN who we were separately or together. How much about me do you really know from what you learned outside of one of Giles' books?"

"I know..." she paused for a moment, whatever thought she may have had left unspoken.

"It's OK, Buffy. Because I look at you across this desk and I see you and I know I couldn't begin to comment on what's happened in your life over the past 9 months. The things you're learning that are changing the way you view the world; the people you're meeting that make you challenge your opinions. You're growing in ways you need to now and I'm not there to watch you do that."

"But you could have been." Her eyes weren't hostile, but they were unforgiving. Her scrutiny was unbearable.

"I could have been. But you wouldn't be the person you've started to become. Can you understand that, at least, a little?"

She could, but looked like she didn't want to. She was being obstinate and he couldn't blame her.

"So, lemme ask you this, then. When you're sitting in lecture and your mind starts to wander, are you thinking about me? What I'm doing? What we would be doing if I was still in Sunnydale?"

She lowered her eyes and his heart wrenched. He had, at least, expected her to feign a thought or two. When it hit him harder than he thought it would, he had to turn away, diverting his attention through the blind out to nothing to see.

"Angel?" The tone was kind, conciliatory. She was sorry, but not sorry. "I see your point. I do. It's super pointy. And it hurts. A lot."

"Truth hurts," he spoke, his attention still far away. He wanted to be somewhere else, but couldn't rearrange his thoughts. So, he stayed. With her.

They were silent for, like, ever. What they were at one time haunted the air between them. She sighed.

"I love you, Buffy. Don't ever doubt that," he finally confessed. "But, time isn't our friend and what we had may be all we were ever supposed to have. What we stole." When he finally turned to face her, her eyes were clear. Understanding.

He was troubled. And he hurt. Deeply.

"I can waste moments here going over again all the reasons why we can't be together. But, why bother having this conversation at all? You're in the beginning stages of the life you deserve. That reasonably normal life of a reasonably normal 19 year-old. And I don't fit into that. At all. Not like Riley does."

She smiled wanly, too agreeable. "Riley's a good guy," she stated, matter-of-factly.

He wanted to hate the good guy, but couldn't. She was content.

"So, Buffy, just let us rest in peace and start enjoying everything you've been wanting out of life."

"If you're telling me to do that, Angel, then I guess you're right we never knew one another." The questioning look on his face urged her to finish, "Because, Angel, everything I ever wanted was for YOU to be everything."

The door edged open slowly, breaking the solemn stillness between them.

"Wow, where's a camera when you need one, huh?" Cordelia commented as she set Angel's container on the edge of his desk. "I can't believe you two managed to have a conversation without breaking a window or knocking any furniture over. Amazing!"

Angel watched Cordelia with some concern as she absently went around to the other side of his desk and looked under it. "What's down there?" he asked.

She merely blinked, then pointed at his breakfast.

Buffy stood, smoothing her pants across her thighs before proceeding to the staircase. "You're coming with, Cordy?" Buffy asked, holding the door ajar for just enough time to watch Cordy answer the question by taking her vacated seat.

-0-

The rest of the day was spent going over research as Angel hovered around his guests, listening in on the strategy meeting and making observations of his own. Finally, knowing he wouldn't be missed, Angel crept to his room to rest, only to find Cordelia there stripping his bed of its covers. She mentioned he might want to flip the mattress before she closed the door gently, gracing him with solitude.

"Finally, someone who honestly knows you," that familiar voice called from the opposite end of the room as Spike opened the room's secondary door to stroll in. "Fancy that. Here let me, since you know you won't do it."

He easily flipped the mattress before reclining on it, his back against the iron heading and his arms tucked smugly behind his head. "Come on, Angel. You don't have to go catatonic. The girl merely serviced your linens."

"Get out, Spike."

"You want her. It's the way you're standing there. You're obsessing about her. She's your Willow. But why? I couldn't imagine spending an eternity with her. She's so-- I don't know. Irritating? Blah-blah-blah. Me-me-me. We're a narcissistic lot the way it is. And her without a mirror? Please, don't do it."

"You don't know. GET. OUT."

Spike rose and moseyed up to Angel, ducking around to examine him from every angle. "You ARE a vampire, Angel. Here, all this time I thought that soul castrated your fangs. You'll do her mortal first? Do her over what little time you have left? Just insert Cordy's name instead of Willow's?"

The transformation came easily for him and it felt wonderful to take on the persona. After Spike met the challenge, they growled at one another. Angel wore the hostility as if it was one of his favorite shirts, letting it surge his circulation as he studied the prey before him. "You don't know me, Spike," he repeated.

"Oh, I know you, mate. Well enough, at least. THIS is show, Angel. You're not going to fight me here. Risk ruining your belongings. How much is that table over there worth? How priceless? That painting? The things that belong in THEIR world, Angel. Not yours."

Stepping into his adversary as Spike backed away--not exactly afraid, but cautious nonetheless, Angel puffed in amusement, reminded of the routine in Spike's combat style. "I'll take you anywhere I want, Spike. I WARNED you."

Spike sidestepped his imposing opponent, shaking his head. "You keep torturing yourself with all these things. It was never enough to just find someplace out of the sun, it always had to be 'just so'. What for, Angel? It never made any sense. And the mortals. Some you'd murder voraciously, others you'd just toy with, and the ones you just let go... Playing God? Playing human? Always some role. Like it wasn't good enough to just be a bloody demon, you had to test the boundaries of it. Is that what you're still doing? Testing? To see how far you can go before you just go off?"

"You're all the same. You limit yourselves with the same old/same old..."

"No, Angel. That's where you're wrong. It's not limitation, it's satisfaction. I'm happy with what you made me. Glad to be a vampire. I rather enjoy all the killing and I do so hope to get back to it sometime soon. You keep fighting against it. And, now you've got a couple months and you're going to torture yourself until the very end? Shhhhhhhah! Just give it up and accept it, Angel. Have a fling. Bring Cordy along for company-she'll be awright for a couple month's worth and then take HER out when you end it."

"I would NEVER do this to her."

"Why not, Angel? It's not right you're always lonely. I bet she understands every single one of those personalities of yours, doesn't she? Where you go when you just sit in the dark. When you're studying. When you watch them sleep. When you prowl."

"You DO understand." He spread his arms wide. "But, never Cordelia. Not again..."

A very wary Spike approached him slowly. "Embrace it, Angel," he whispered. "Be what you want to be, what you're so good at. C'mon, here's a hug. Now just dry those weepy eyes of yours and get on with it. It doesn't have to be the dry hump you keep making it out to be."

Angel planted a solitary kiss upon Spike's forehead as he enveloped him. "How should I do it?" he asked, in between sniffles.

"I don't know Angel. I fancy you could just start out with a Scooby snack. You know, if you just weaken them, I'll probably be able to finish them off for you." More than uncomfortable, Spike attempted to loosen Angel's hug. "Alright, Angel. I've done all the comforting I'm going to do for you. Let go."

"I had always assumed we'd battle until daylight and then I'd push you out in front of the sun, Spike. Do you realize how horrid that experience is? Because you're OK for a split second-just long enough to remember the simple pleasure of being outside in it. It really does make you feel happy. But, then it starts--the burn. You ignite and then you feel yourself torching from the outside in while you witness it. Like a really bad dream, Spike. But what you deserve. You deserve to burn..."

Spike pulled away and tried to stave off Angel's advance, only to find himself rapidly pinned back against Angel's chest, helpless, at his sire's advantage. "Angel," he laughed, extremely nervous, "c'mon. You don't want to do this. It's good sport and all. We'll go up on the roof later and kick each other's asses. For old time's sake."

Angel growled along the length of Spike's neck in reply. "I should have never done this to you. Do you forgive me?"

"Angel..."

"Any last words? Repentance? If you mean it, you'll be OK. MEAN it, Spike. Say you're sorry and mean it..."

"Sod you, Angel."

"Spike. Wrong words. Didn't anyone ever teach you how to confess?" A strange sensation swept through him as Angel produced the stake that left his offspring a dusty stain against the black of his outfit. And he reeled as he lost the transformation, dropping into the pool of ashes as the earth jerked back and forth beneath him.

When he was able to, at long last, Angel tore from his room. The apartment was dark, completely empty except for a lone young woman standing in the kitchen with a cup of tea held out in offering.

"Willow?" he asked, disbelieving. The residue of Spike's remains was abrasive as he washed his hands in the kitchen sink. "Where'd everyone go?"

"The Hellmouth, Angel. You know, silly. What they were here for."

"Cordelia, too? That doesn't make sense." Taking the cup from her hand, he held in his palms for a second before slamming it into the sink. "This isn't right, Willow! Where's Wesley? Where's Cordelia? They wouldn't leave me."

"Duty called, Angel." Her smile radiated from within, making her green eyes sparkle with her innocent charm.

"I should be there, too..."

"Why? You're not part of us anymore. When you left Buffy, you left the team, too. You left all of us, so there's no reason you should be along."

"Then why Cordelia? Why Wesley? They're not part of your team. Wesley never was." Angel continued to shake his head against the incongruity of the situation, holding onto the counter as the earth jolted in rapid succession. "And why aren't you there?"

Placing her hand on his forearm, Willow patted Angel to ease his growing panic. "Yeah, I guess it isn't so bad once you get used to it. It's actually kinda nice. Like a warm, fuzzy feeling."

Her touch was disconcerting and Angel felt violated. He tried pushing her away, but she used the movement to pull his arm around her shoulders as she moved her body close to his.

"What are you doing? Willow?"

She caressed his face, affectionately. "You're my greatest achievement, Angel. I'm mostly awful at sorcery. Always needing help? I can do the spells, but they backfire most of the time. Something's always going wrong." She pouted for a moment, her full lower lip out of line with the upper, disfiguring her pretty features. "But you. I got you right. I put you back together."

"OK. Thank you?"

She squeezed him tightly, snuggling against him. "Mmmmmmm."

He wriggled, but couldn't escape her clench. "Willow. What's going on? This isn't you."

Releasing him just enough to look up into his face, Willow shook her head, strands of her red hair softly swaying against her pale skin. "That's where you're wrong, Angel. It is me. And maybe that's why the magic's not working. I'm trying to be something I'm not anymore. Spike kept trying to tell me, but I just didn't want to get it. Maybe I changed at some point and didn't want to notice." Rubbing her tongue on the back of her hand, she added, "is this what death tastes like?"

Deeply terrified, Angel summoned what little strength he could piece together to push Willow away.

When he lost his balance and stumbled backwards, she instinctively reached out for him. It took a moment for the recognition to hit that the hand she saw was her own.

"I don't know you," he stated, trying to reassemble his composure.

She took a moment to watch him, then finally barely responded, "T... T... Tara," She stammered, "Wi... Willow's friend." When he seemed accepting of her answer, his demeanor calmed her anxiety.

"She put you up to this?"

"No. She d... does... doesn't know."

He peered at her, impatient, and snapped, "there had to be a reason. Care to share?"

"It started out-" she paused and winced, barely meeting his eyes, when it hit her he was more attractive than she had expected.

"As?" he prompted. "You decided you wanted to have some strange transcendental experience? Why me?"

"No. That's not really it."

"Generally when you're in the middle of an explanation, you don't stop, Tara. You explain. Keep going."

"I wanted to see it for myself. See the way W... W... Willow described her friends to me. But it went kind of wrong. You took it away."

"Took what away?" Not completely understanding what Tara wasn't saying, Angel's concern escalated. "I'm not the only one who was really here? This was REAL?"

"No. Not really. It's a dream. To you. To them. They won't remember."

"But, who's dream. Yours? I KNEW it. It never seemed right. The Hellmouth. Giles. The roof. I would have NEVER taken Cordelia's hand over Buffy's. This is really sick and I want out. Right now."

"Their thoughts. Your thoughts. It's not MY dream. You took it away. I had pieces, but it was yours."

He didn't believe her and he said as much again.

Tara fell silent and, with grave sincerity, corrected him. "YOU took Cordelia's hand because that's exactly what you would have done. If it was MY dream you would have jumped."

"And I would have died? Or what?"

"First off, in MY dream, you would have never been on the roof. But, since you were... Your leap would have made for a spectacular dramatic effect AND it would have ended the spell. When you took this away from me, you made it your own. The Hellmouth, fighting with Buffy, staking Spike. Everything, Angel." She dropped her head, the straight blond hair falling from uneven parts, screening her face. "You being able to see me."

"You'd have to be enormously strong to pull this off, if what you're saying is true. That makes you dangerous. Too dangerous." Not wanting to accept the possibilities, Angel switched his line of thinking, "maybe it would have been possible to pull me in, even at this distance, but Cordelia and Wesley? And I don't even know Riley."

"Buffy brought Riley just like you brought Cordelia and Wesley. It wouldn't have made sense to either of you without them."

"They'll all know I'm dying?"

"No. They won't remember anything."

"But Buffy-"

"Not even Buffy. They were here, but NOT here. Participants, but it was YOUR dream."

He wondered if it was possible to destroy the stranger, or if he should try. Although in a dream, he was incredibly ill and growing weaker. Besides, he realized, even in this state there was only one way he knew to destroy her effectively-- "So. Now I want out. How?"

Tara tentatively moved closer to him and placed her right palm on his chest and with her left, drew his face down to hers. Closing her eyes, she set her lips against his, softly. Pulling slightly away and blushing, she looked into the vampire's face expectantly, a little frightened as Angel pushed the stray hairs away from her round face.

"I'll kiss you and then I'll wake up?"

As he bent over her face, the fever was drained from him when their lips met. They kissed briefly and when he opened his eyes, he was more confused than before.

"You're pretending. I'm someone else. You're someone else. But you're pretending. And that's not fair. You, of all people, should realize that. I need to be out of this. Now. Please."

"But..."

"You're stronger than me at this and I can't risk trying to fight you. You said a kiss." When she made no effort to give in, he implored, "please. It's not fair. I don't forget my dreams. You have no right to do this to me."

Moved by his fervent plea, Tara took his hands consolingly. After concentrating on his palms, she memorized each line before releasing them and him.

-0-

She awoke with her head nestled in between velvet pillows, the pre-dawn light beginning to filter through a crack between the heavy curtains over her windows, with Willow's excited face just inches above hers.

Tara smiled back.

"That was AMAZING!" Willow exclaimed, her excitement uncontainable. "I mean, it would have been amazing if I remembered any of it. But, I FEEL so great! Wow. We were under all night. Did you reach what you went in for?"

Tara shook off the last of the spell as she sat up, trying to hold onto the pieces of it that she could. But he had been too dominant and most of it was already lost.

Her obvious disappointment caused Willow to frown. "Oh. It didn't work out after all, Tara? Was it something I did? I'm sorry. Was it a total waste?"

The young woman took her friend's hand and smiled to put her at ease. "You were great, Willow. It was me. You didn't feel anything?"

"Nope, not a thing!" Willow put her concentration face on, then shook her head again, 'no'. "Nothing. Hey! Not to change the subject, but, you know last week when I finished telling you the whole Buffy/Angel saga-"

She laughed apprehensivively. "How could I forget? Some story." Looking directly into Willow's face she asked, "You sure you didn't feel ANYTHING?"

"Yeah, Tara. Anyway. It's been on my mind that I shouldn't have mentioned anything about wondering. You know. What it was like for Buffy to be with Angel... The whole undead thing. That's kinda ick of me to think about, not to mention probably making me seem like I wanted to... You know. With Angel. Which I never did. Ever."

Tara embraced her friend warmly. "No problem, Will. It'll be my secret..."

-0-

Cordelia's exuberance was infectious as she related the phone call from her agent. After obtaining assurances from Angel he would be able to survive without her, she wasted no time to accept the role as the Audi TT girl for a regional automotive fair.

Wesley reached into the polka dot box and took out another donut, dunking it in his coffee mug. "I must say, with Cordelia's coffee-making skills improving so dramatically, I might actually miss her while she's gone. Did she say how long? I don't believe I caught that."

"Six weeks," Angel told him, really disturbed by the string of déjà vu occurrences all morning. "It'll be strange without her here."

"I'll say."

"Mmmmmmmmmm. Lemony filling. Although, if I'm going to be wearing slinky gowns, I should probably lay off of these. Want one, Angel?"

He motioned for her to wipe the powdered sugar from under her nose. "No thanks. Unless you've got a donor-filled?"

"That's absolutely disgusting, Angel! Probably the most repulsive thing you've ever said. Ew!" Cordy tossed her donut onto the desk top, missing the napkin as crumbs and powder drifted across the open case files.

"I dare say, Angel. I'll have to agree with Cordelia on this point. What would possess you to say such a thing? You usually don't make such comments unless she provokes you."

Angel, sufficiently berated, passed off a weak grin as apology to his two employees. Accepting, they continued their banter.

"So, Wesley, since I'm going to be gone for a while, I need you to watch Angel's diet. And, you can't leave him alone with it. You have to make sure he drinks it all or else he'll pour it down the drain or something."

"Will do. Angel's health will be my top priority. You can count on that."

"I'm not a baby," Angel protested, feeling extremely excluded.

Cordelia turned and REALLY looked at him. "You are when it comes to important stuff, Angel. You avoid. You know that. Something comes along you don't want to deal with, you go off into la-la land. Wesley doesn't know how to pull you back when you drift off, so you're going to have to try to stay in THIS reality. OK? Here. Angel. Work with him. Alright?"

He looked into Wesley's expectant face then back into Cordelia's. Nodding, he unwillingly agreed. "All I can do is try," he said.

"Alrighty, then. This meeting is over and I've got packing to do. So, be good, guys, and I'll see you when I see you!"

Angel tried to ignore how much he hurt, a much more difficult task when it wasn't purely physical, so he twisted his chair and stared through the crack in his blinds at absolutely nothing to see. He could tell they were saying goodbye, with Cordelia reminding Wesley to clean under the desk occasionally, another reminder to baby-sit during mealtime. It was eerily quiet and he barely sensed Cordelia's air kiss as she swept past him during her final farewell.

But she was too excited to notice he had already gone back on his word.

-0-

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