Buffy settled back into the couch, contentedly sipping a glass of white wine. Various bustling noises could be heard from the kitchen. "I still can't wrap my mind around you cooking."
"It was either cook or starve to death. Besides, I used to cook a little in L.A. for my friends." He tried to keep the melancholy out of his voice, but when Buffy fell silent, he supposed he wasn't that successful. He decided he'd better try to repair the damage. "It's been a while. I'm pretty much…"
"No, no," she interrupted. "I was thinking that it must have been nice for you to take care of them like that. I'm sorry I didn't know them."
He was surprised that she had known exactly what those meals had meant to him. Then again, she always did understand him.
"So, what do you do during the day?"
Angel looked up from his chopping for a moment. "How long has Giles been your watcher? I figured you knew what I did."
Buffy rolled her eyes, even though Angel couldn't see it. "I meant while Ari's in school. You're not researching all day long."
"Different things. I did a sketch of Arianna and someone saw it, so I've been doing the occasional portrait."
"You've been painting? Where's your studio?"
"My bedroom's pretty big, so I converted most of it."
Angel heard rather than saw Buffy walking across the floor and the opening of a door. It took a moment for his brain to puzzle out the entire scenario, but then he sprinted out of the kitchen, dropping the fork on the countertop and switching off the stove. "Buffy, I don't want anyone in my…"
The popular conception was that artist studios were romantic, broken down garrets, brushes and canvases flung everywhere. The truth was much more mundane. Paints that weren't capped dried out. Brushes that weren't rinsed became ruined. Due to a small working space, coupled with Angel's natural tendency toward orderliness, his studio space was a model of clutter-free efficiency. His brushes were carefully lined up by size in small boxes mounted to the wall. His blank canvases were neatly stacked against one wall, right past the foot of his bed. Directly in front of his bed was his easel, a half-finished landscape in progress. Paints were lined up in color wheel progression on a shelf over a small desk. And in an unusual display of sloppiness, a sketchpad was opened on the desk, turned to a page that held dozens of drawings of one Buffy Anne Summers.
He hadn't been able to sleep last night, knowing that she was so close by. He had spent an hour staring at the cracks in the ceiling, imagining he could hear her even breathing, wondering/knowing how she looked in her sleep. Finally he had gotten up, pulled out his old sketchpads that were covered with pictures of her, and had started drawing.
He tried to gauge her reaction, but he had no idea what she was thinking. She flipped through page after page. He knew exactly what she was seeing. Sketches of her as a teenager, baby fat still clinging to her cheekbones. Slaying, sleeping, doing research, all drawn with the look of love in her eyes. A large set of erotic drawings where she was alternately sensual and wanton. Pictures where she was a bit older, all displaying intense emotions of anger or grief. The next few pages were done just a few years ago. Here she appeared content, but she never looked directly at the artist in any of the portraits.
The last set of drawings had been drawn last night and this morning, which explained why the sketchbook was still open. Angel hoped she didn't understand what he had been trying to capture in these. A pretty, vibrant woman who wasn't emotionally connected to the artist in any way. He had been trying to convey the longing he still felt, but he wasn't completely sure he had been successful.
Neither of them said anything. The only noise was the soft rustling of paper as she kept flipping back and forth between pages. Finally she looked up, the current page still held between her fingers. "I don't understand. Why? Why are you…Dawn told me that you said you didn't love me any more. That you had moved on."
Throughout the long years of their relationship, he had only outright lied to her once and after that, he had vowed that he never would again. It hadn't stopped him from telling her only partial truths, knowing full well she would come to the wrong conclusion. Sometimes he had done it to protect himself, sometimes to spare her, sometimes because it was the only choice he had. He knew if he said nothing else that she would misinterpret. He knew that was what he should do; she was married now and he had long ago lost any claim he might once have had. He knew but he didn't care.
"I did say that that, but it was a lie. In the last fifteen years there hasn't been a single day where I haven't thought about you, even if it was only for a second, a week hasn't gone by where I haven't wanted you, a month hasn't passed where I haven't wished…"
During his last few words, he had stalked across the room until he was directly in front of her. He stared into her eyes, but he couldn't read her expression. He took another step until there was almost no space between them and placed his hands on the desk on either side of her.
He bent down and began to kiss her ferociously, passionately, and barely a second passed before she was kissing him back with equal abandon. He reached around her and knocked his sketchpad to the ground and in one fluid motion hoisted her onto the desk.
His right hand was under her shirt, just resting on the bottom of her rib cage, his fingers splayed across her belly. He could feel her breathing speed up. Her skin was so soft, but the hard muscles directly under the surface exposed the dichotomy between utterly feminine and hardened warrior. He still found it an intense aphrodisiac. He could smell the clean scent of soap and the light citrusy smell of her perfume but he could also smell a hint of her sweat and he was instantly transported back years. They say that certain smells are comforting to people, baby powder and crayons, fresh baked cookies and the air after it rains. For Angel, comfort was the scent of Buffy herself.
She was making small noises into his mouth that he swallowed down, and her hand was just below the small of his back, whisper touching the sensitive skin right underneath the waistband of his boxers, just gently, gently touching. He was harder than he'd ever been in his life and the way she was teasing his skin if she'd only touch him like that right. There.
His tongue was in her mouth now and she tasted like some exotic tropical fruit mixed with cotton candy with an undertone of peppermint (toothpaste, his mind murmured) and his left hand was pushing against the wall and his right hand was under the band of her bra, and she was moaning now, and he was still drinking her down, her noises and her breath and could he faint from lust and want and need? Her hand was no longer on his tailbone and he pushed his body in closer.
She was nipping his lips now and when she stopped, he pushed his tongue in and out of her mouth and she puckered up around it, for a second sucking on his tongue. She was groaning, her voice low and earthy, the sound traveling through his body. His hand was cupping her right breast and his palm was sliding the cotton fabric back and forth over her distended nipple. He could feel her hands pull open his belt and pop open his pants' button and he was impossibly harder as her fingers combed through the coarse hair at the top of his groin.
He thrust his body closer to hers, seeking more, needing her to lose control…
And then took one step, two steps, three steps backward. "We can't. I can't -- I don't…"
Silence hung like a heavy curtain between them and then was shattered by Buffy's shrill laugh. He saw self-loathing flit across her face and he understood that she thought he had pulled back on the basis of morals. Maybe once upon a time he would have. But that hadn't entered his mind at the moment.
"It's not because…" he stuttered. "There aren't…" and again he stopped, unable to find the words. He took another step backwards and bumped into his bed. Sitting down heavily, he hung his head. "I don't have any condoms," he finally explained, feeling like a fool.
Buffy's eyes widened a bit and then she laughed again, except this time there was an undertone of fury. "Well, I'm not surprised." Her tone was ice. "I'm sure you have a parade of women marching through your bedroom, so I guess you run out of rubbers on a regular basis."
Her words infuriated him. He was angry that she was right about the parade of people in bed after he first turned human, angry that he still wanted her and once again couldn't have her, angry that she was judging him when she had no right to, angry simply because she was angry at him. He was about to spit back an equally venomous retort, when he caught a glance of her face. Along with the anger, he saw sorrow? Fear? He wasn't completely sure, but it tempered his remarks.
"I don't own any condoms because I haven't been with anyone since I saw you in London three years ago."
This time there was no mistaking the surprise on her face. "You don't deserve to be lonely like that."
He shrugged. In truth, he deserved that and more.
"Ironic," she said half under her breath, while she pushed her feet back onto the floor. She was looking past him into space, but he decided not to ask her what was wrong. If she wanted to tell him, she would.
"When we were first reforming the council, I asked Giles if he could leave a few things out of his official watcher's journal. I asked him if he could leave out the entire story about Willow going crazy and trying to end the world. I was afraid that all the new slayers would never completely trust her if they knew the truth."
Angel tried to appear unaffected by Buffy's confession. Even he didn't know the full story about Willow.
"And I asked him not to write that I was dead and brought back to life. I didn't want the girls to not be able to relate to me. I didn't want them to always look at me. So, aside from Dawn and Giles and Willow and Xander no one knows. No one. Well, you know."
She paced a little, back and forth in front of the desk. She sat down on the bed, leaving plenty of space between them.
"I was so messed up after Willow resurrected me. I didn't even want to be alive."
Angel's chest tightened in pained remembrance.
I'll come back to Sunnydale with you. I know you're hurting right now. I'll help you through all of this."
"You could. You could make me stop hating my friends and you could help me take care of Dawn and you could help me patrol and you could make the world stop being so ugly. You could make me want to live again. And when that happens, are you going to stay with me? We both know you won't."
He didn't say anything and finally turned away from her. "Don't call me anymore, Angel. I don't want you in my life anymore."
And he hadn't called her for a year and a half, until he came to Sunnydale to deliver an amulet to save her life and the world.
She was starting to speak again and he silently vowed to be there for her now, whatever she needed.
"I went to Tara, Willow's girlfriend?" Angel nodded; he vaguely recalled being told about her. "I asked her to find out what was the matter with me. She did some magic testing and told me basically nothing. That it was like a sunburn.
"About a year after we were married, Damien and I decided to start a family."
Her abrupt change of subject wasn't all that surprising to Angel; non-linear conversation had always been a specialty of Buffy's. The fact that she was staring at her lap, idly playing with a strand of hair, told him that more was going on. He carefully schooled a neutral expression, even though the revelation that she had been planning a family was a knife to the heart.
"Three months passed, then six months, then nine months and I still wasn't pregnant. We started going to doctors. They ran a lot of tests. Unpleasant tests. Dame was fine. The doctors came to talk to me alone one day, I think, because things didn't add up. They were hoping that maybe I could shed some light on what they saw."
Angel had seen Buffy ecstatic, he had seen her despairing, but he had witnessed the look that crossed her face now only one other time, when he had seen her after she had returned from the dead. An involuntary shiver overtook him.
"The doctors thought I had primary amenorrhea, except none of the secondary symptoms matched. Ever hear of it?" Buffy's tone was almost conversational except for her dead expression. Angel carefully kept his gaze locked onto her face as he slowly shook his head. "Women who have it don't have their periods, they tend to look masculine, have brittle bones. None of that applies to me. They only thing that does apply is I have no eggs. None. No little babies for me." Her voice had become a whisper and she was rocking, back and forth, her eyes unseeing.
Tears were running freely down her face but she kept talking as if she didn't realize it. "See, I know what the matter is. And it's not an illness. It's not genetic. It's magic. When Willow brought me back, she bargained for one life. Mine. Not all those other potential lives. They stayed behind. I'm a freak. I'm a freak." Her voice finally broke and now she was crying outright.
He gathered her into his arms and held her. As always, he was struck by how small she was; his hand easily spanned her back. When she finally quieted, he pulled back so he could look at her face. "I'm sorry you can't have children. But I'm selfish enough to just be glad you're here. And I can't imagine anyone else not feeling the same way."
He bent down and gently brushed her lips with his own. Just enough pressure to let her know that he would always be there for her. He pulled back, his previous haze of lust dissipated. Her gaze was intent, as if he was the only thing in the world that mattered. She used to look at him like that once upon a time, but now he wasn't sure what she meant by it. Slowly leaning forward, she grabbed the hem of his shirt and in one quick motion, pulled it over his head.
She gasped, a small shocked noise, and then softly kissed a spot on his right side, right below his ribs. He had a permanent reminder there of an encounter with a set of claws. She kissed the red welts, the thin silver lines, the bits of ugly, twisted flesh. She kissed every mark on his chest, every healed wound on his shoulders, every scar on his arms, she even twirled her tongue around the thin line on his index finger tip, acquired when he slipped chopping an onion. When she finished, she pulled back, looking at him with the sweetest smile he had ever witnessed. Then she reached past him.
It took him a moment to register that she had taken off her wedding and engagement rings and left them on his night table. By the time he fully understood what she had done, her hands were tenderly cupping his face. As she pulled his head down, his eyes fluttered closed, wanting to concentrate solely on the feel of her lips on his. Instead, she pulled him down to the junction of her neck and shoulder.
Memory threatened to overcome him, even as his tongue sought out the small bit of roughness on her skin, her only imperfection, a mark he had put there. He had spent years reliving those moments, hating himself for his weakness, for the pleasure he had found in draining her, for the proof positive that he was a monster. All of that was gone now, though. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't smell the blood that rushed beneath her skin and even if he somehow could, he had no desire to taste it. For the first time ever, he saw that long ago moment as a sacred connection between them, an act of selfless love given and received. He nipped lightly at the spot and one of her hands gripped his arm tight enough to bruise it, but her soft moan of pleasure ensured that the pain didn't register.
He could feel her hands moving down his chest and as she shifted away from him, she pulled her shirt and bra over her head in one swift motion. He was speechless and for a moment, she was a seventeen-year-old girl again, giving him the only gift he had ever wanted – her love. He bent down, eagerly pressing his mouth and tongue to her breast, the feel of her own mouth on his neck and chest causing his mind to empty itself of everything except the delicious feel and taste of her. They managed to shuck the rest of their clothes even as they somehow never let go of each other, fingers and mouths and tongues rubbing and touching and licking, small grunts and startled groans the only noises.
He had been with hundreds of women over the span of his long life; none of them, aside from Darla, had made much of an individual impression. Excepting, of course, Buffy. She still hummed inside of him; he hadn't forgotten a single intimate note. The way she smelled, smoke and musk and violets; the way her skin was marked by a single mole (a beauty mark, she had announced with righteous indignation) that was just above her bellybutton; the way she tasted of salt and almonds; the way her ass fit perfectly in his hands as he lifted her onto his cock.
A moment later, she rolled them so he was on top, completely surrounded by her. Her entire torso was pressed into his body, hard nipples rubbing against his chest. Her arms and legs were wrapped tightly around his back, her tongue inside his mouth, pushing in and out, mimicking the way his cock was slowly stroking in and out of her body. She tilted her hips so that he was impossibly deeper. There was no thought now except for the desire to merge with her. He had been human for eight years now, but only in this moment was he finally free of the past.
She was chanting his name now, screaming and moaning and crying, "Angel." He had known love when he had that name, and he knew it again and as he spilled hard and deep into her willing body, he experienced bliss once more. Everything was forgotten, his sins forgiven, and he once again tasted heaven, because heaven and Buffy would always be synonymous.
He was crying and laughing as he kissed her hair, her nose, her cheeks; he pulled her body tightly next to his. Here was the final proof he was redeemed. She was kissing him back with equal abandon.
"I love you, Angel. Still. Always." She rested her head on his chest, right where his heart was and he remembered a day that never happened, so long ago. He could feel her breath hitch the tiniest bit.
"Sweet, my love," he murmured. He turned a little and he caught a glimpse of golden jewelry and beyond that, a photo of a young girl who was part of his heart. Differently than Buffy, but there just the same. He wasn't going to lose his soul, but the sudden intrusion of the real world was just as harsh in its own way. He wasn't a prince and Buffy would never need rescuing. Not by him.
He half expected her to tell him she'd never forget but instead she looked at him with resignation in her eyes. She had also known that this was only a shadow play and nothing to do with their real lives.
"Do you think there are other worlds?" Her voice caught and she looked away for a moment. "I mean, parallel dimensions. Like the world without shrimp."
"There are. And in one of them, there's this regular girl named Buffy. And she likes to go to the local dance club with her friends. And one day, this regular guy walks in. And his name is Angel."
"And he sees her and thinks she's the most beautiful girl ever?"
"No, I mean, yeah, he thinks she's very pretty, but that's not it." He regrouped, trying to marshal his thoughts. He needed her to understand, even though it wouldn't make any difference. "She's so alive. Like she's burning hotter than everybody else there. And as he gets to know her, he sees that she's brave and funny and self assured and wonderful."
"And they stay together? He never leaves her?" She sounded like a child, looking for reassurances in the dark.
"He never leaves her." Angel was holding her hand, fingers interlaced, but neither of them looked at the other one.
"And they're happy?"
"Bliss." He could barely speak the words. "Every day is bliss for them, Buffy."
"I do love Damien."
"I know you do."
Neither of them moved, until finally Angel reached over and slowly, carefully, reverently placed her engagement and wedding rings back on the appropriate fingers. He thought that the tremble in his hand was so subtle that maybe she didn't even notice it. He threw on his boxers, pants, and shirt and moved toward the door without looking back, as if he was Lot. "I'm going to go make sure the cab gets here on time."
"You sure you don't want me to come to the airport with you?" They were standing on the steps leading into his building, the taxi already waiting.
"I'm fine. I'll be fine."
He wondered what would happen if he told her that somehow they could make it work. They'd figure it out and they'd be happy. But then he remembered seeing her at Giles' home and the way she looked at her husband to be, and he was reminded that she already was happy.
She laid her hand on his cheek and her eyes were the color of London's fog. It was where she belonged. "Live," she whispered. "Please live." Her lips brushed his for just an instant. She tasted like tears. "Goodbye, Angel."
He stood there staring until long after the taxi had taken her away. Finally, he trudged back inside. She had never said goodbye before.
Ari wasn't coming over tonight and he felt at loose ends. He wandered into the kitchen in order to clean up the ruined meal he and Buffy had never eaten. He was placing the last pot in the dishwasher when out of the corner of his eye, he saw a scrap of paper. He picked it up and thought about falling in love. He thought about Ari and his dead friends and the son he gave away. He thought about trying to make the world a better place and about becoming a man and how much he still had to learn about that. He thought about Buffy and her final words.
He picked up the phone and dialed. "Hi. This is Cian Brennan…Oh, so she already told you. Yeah, she did the same to me." He laughed a little, leaning against the kitchen wall, arms crossed over his chest. "A magic shop is a very interesting business…So, maybe you'd like to go for a cup of coffee tomorrow afternoon…Yeah, I know the place. Two-ish? Great, see you then."
He closed his eyes, not exactly sure what he felt. A strange sort of anticipation, he supposed. He walked into his bedroom in order to put his sketchpads away.