Title: The Road From Babel
Author: Kairos
Wordcount: 10,042
Characters: Buffy/Angel
Rating: R
Disclaimer: It's Joss's yellow fish, I'm just putting it in my ear.
Summary: The words were always in the way.
Notes: This was my entry in last year's I Will Remember You fic marathon, an annual event in which a new B/A story is posted every day of the month. At the time I'm writing this, sign-ups are open. Look for the iwry_marathon LJ community, or if you can't find it or have questions, feel free to ask me. We'd love to have any author who's interested.


Classical music flowed into the room, softly at first but gradually gaining volume until Buffy rolled over and turned off the alarm. She had nowhere to be, but sleeping beside a vampire meant sleeping in a room with no natural light, and without the rising sun to awaken her she had found that she could easily squander the whole day in bed. Keeping the same schedule as her boyfriend was tempting, but she knew it wouldn't take long to get sick of the darkness if she tried.

She first greeted the sun from the bathroom, where it shone onto the mirror as she brushed her teeth and contemplated her day. There was some shopping that needed to be done, and Dawn had said that she would have time to get lunch after her classes. The weather was beautiful—maybe an afternoon at the beach was in order.

Angel didn't stir as she got dressed and put up her hair, but before she left the bedroom she affectionately bid him goodbye. He responded by pulling the blankets away from his face and offering her a sleepy smile. "Sho suserri," he said clearly.

She smiled back and dipped down to kiss him. "I love you too."

Angel woke to Mozart playing on Buffy's alarm, but he kept his eyes closed, neither startled nor disgruntled by the sound of it. When the music stopped he felt her rise from the bed, listened to her enter the bathroom, smelled the perfume that she applied there, and waited for her to return to the bedside. He always fell back asleep easily once he was alone, but as she had her morning rituals, his was staying conscious to witness her presence.

"Chousúlibarh," came her soft voice from just above him.

He pulled the blankets away from his face and smiled. "I love you."

She returned the smile and leaned down to land a kiss on his lips. "Taszli burrith kalo."

They had been living together for seven months, and in more ways than Buffy had thought she could reasonably hope for, it was everything she wanted it to be. Angel was with her every day, fighting at her side whenever they went out, nonchalantly sliding his hands into her clothes whenever they stayed in. He left her little drawings and romantic mementos. He never made messes and he didn't complain when she did—although she had to admit that for that item, he probably wished that he could.

There were fights, and they were both harder and easier than they used to be. The first time Buffy tried to hang a picture, Angel took it down and started to remove the hooks, and she thought he was refusing to let her make choices about the décor. "What's your compulsion?" she asked, annoyed. "That was my mom's. It looks good here."

He stopped what he was doing and frowned, then pointed at the hooks and gestured with his hammer. "Muth gou fe iyam. Alkismis reyso."

"I don't know what you're saying. I want this picture here, okay?" She put one hand on the frame and slapped the wall.

"Raufil, ces—"

"Angel, I don't know what you're saying.Can you just stop trying to explain yourself and let me have this one?" She lifted the picture with both hands. "Art. Wall. Buffy want. You cannot possibly be misunderstanding me here."

It ended with him slamming his tools down on the shelf and stalking out of the room, while Buffy spat out a few more choice words that she knew were meaningless to him. Later on, the picture fell down and cracked its frame, and Buffy picked up the hooks that she had installed improperly and sat down on the floor, forehead on her knees, until Angel found her there.

"Boy," she said as he slipped an arm around her and she leaned into his shoulder, "what I wouldn't give to just hear you say 'I told you so' right now."

"Chos'l rai, Soukka. Chos'l rai."

Making up was definitely easier.

Those few friends of theirs who knew about the situation were uniformly amazed—-to the point of outright disbelief, for Xander and Giles—-that they were making it work. Buffy supposed it seemed odd from the outside, but they had established a few routines and learned a few tricks, and now she was so accustomed to it that there were days when it never even crossed her mind.

When it did, she would spend long moments watching Angel, or better, touching him, trying to memorize everything she loved about the expressions passing through his eyes and the movements of his body. He was relaxed, and laughed more often than she remembered from any part of their past, and both of them were at peak performance in battle.

What they had was good. But it couldn't last forever.

Angel woke up again about an hour before sunset, and was passing the time with the morning paper and a cup of blood when Buffy returned from wherever she had been all day. The towels in her beach bag carried the faint scent of Dawn, but Angel wasn't surprised that her sister hadn't come back to the apartment with her. "Every time I hang out with both of you at once," Dawn had said to him, "I end up spending the whole time translating. Sorry, but I'm already studying three different languages. I need a break."

Buffy wrinkled her nose at the contents of his coffee cup and pressed her sun-warmed forehead against his in lieu of a kiss. "Lleytoani amma ki eltic frabboin," she said cheerfully, and kept talking as she moved around the apartment putting things away and going about her business. He was glad that she had so naturally picked up the habit of verbal monologue; it was good to hear her voice sometimes, and it helped him understand how she was feeling.

"Get some new clothes?" he asked when there was a break in her chatter. She looked over at him and he pointed to the shopping bag she had left on the counter.

"Raxtorry!" she exclaimed. One by one she removed her purchases, holding each one against herself and waiting for his nod of approval, and then handed him a sapphire-blue men's silk shirt. "Beril yoaka. Eshlaurren?"

"Thank you." He smiled, running the material through his hand and trying not to let her catch him looking at the price tag. "I like it."

In a few minutes night had fallen. Right on cue, Buffy opened the drapes, demonstrating her increasing skill at identifying the exact moment that sunlight would no longer affect Angel. He wasn't sure how he felt about the way she had replicated his internal clock-—the last thing he wanted to do by moving in with her was steer her into a vampire's lifestyle, and of course they hadn't been able to discuss it. On the other hand, she definitely wasn't turning nocturnal, and as far as he could tell, her friendships were as strong as ever.

She knew how to balance, like nobody else he had ever met. Without school or the need for a paid job to eat up her time, it seemed she was taking full advantage of her daylight freedom. Slaying gave her the satisfaction that it should instead of exhausting her. Her life was no longer divided, but Angel still wondered: had she ended up on the right side of the division?

The kitchen sink turned red for a mere second as he washed out his cup. Buffy came back in and tapped him on the shoulder, and he faced her cheerful smile with a long, measured look. "When you want to get out of this," he said, "I hope you'll tell me."

She tilted her head, curious about what he was saying but not to the point of frustration. Her smile didn't waver, and she held up a stake in one hand and raised an eyebrow. Evidently, she didn't want to get out of it tonight.

Even with the memory so far behind her, Buffy still blushed a little when she remembered Faith's blithe declaration that slaying made her hungry and horny. Whenever Faith found something to say that was actually true, it was almost bound to be the uncomfortable kind of truth.

Not to mention, Angel seemed to know it. Whenever they finished a successful hunt, he would point to an all-night burger joint or otherwise indicate food, and she would nod exuberantly, and she would eat and he would sit across from her and smirk. She tried to communicate through glares that she wasn't amused, but she didn't have the necessary self-control to show him that his smug attitude wasn't going to get him laid. A few dusted vampires plus a second dinner for Buffy was an equation that could only lead to the bedroom.

This evening was unlikely to be an exception. They had spent the whole walk home flirting shamelessly, and they entered the apartment with Buffy laughing as if he had just told her the world's funniest joke, even though all he had really done was pinch her butt in the elevator like some moronic frat boy.

The phone rang almost as soon as the door was closed behind them, and Buffy left off kissing his neck and jaw to flip some lights on and answer it. Angel, looking tolerantly resigned to the interruption, sat down in the living room and watched her flop into the armchair with the cordless phone. "Hello?" she said briskly.

"Hiya, Buff!" The voice on the other end was excited, echoing faintly with distance…and unforgettable.

Buffy's entire body snapped to attention, taking her from a slouch to the edge of her seat in a split second. "Willow?Oh please tell me this is Willow and not some magical pre-recorded hoax Willow..." She glanced over at Angel, unsure of how to convey what he hadn't already seen in her change of posture, but he was leaning forward and watching her with patient intensity.

"It's me!" the distant voice answered. "I can't talk right now, but I had to tell you, it's done, I'm coming back. Just talked to Gi—-" the connection crackled, losing her next few words "—-you and Angel."

"Oh my God." Buffy stood up and paced a few quick steps, trying to work off the rough edge that emotion had put into her throat. "You're really coming back?"

"Thursday! You'll be around?"

"Yes, of course, Wills, I missed you so much…"

The crackle sounded again, and Willow response came out as "—to go now for realsies but Thursday, okay? Bye Buffy!"

After she hung up, Buffy stared at the phone for a few seconds, then took a deep breath and turned to Angel. She couldn't have held back her smile if she tried, and she knew her eyes were glistening, but he wouldn't be able to guess the caller from that alone. It was too unexpected.

"It's Willow!" she said uselessly, tossing away the phone and throwing up her hands for equally useless emphasis. Angel's face was still devoid of comprehension. "She's coming back, she's coming back..." Her mind raced through a few of her friend's identifying traits and discarded them all as too hard to portray, and then, struck by sudden inspiration, she darted into the kitchen and grabbed the broom from the closet.

Angel laughed in open delight as she held the broomstick between her legs and went running in circles in front of him. "Kyrah?" he asked, with the same excitement in his voice that she was feeling. "Gof Kyrah?" Recognizing the futility of his words, he reached for the nearest piece of paper and pencil and quickly began sketching. While Buffy's methods of impromptu communication usually resembled a game of Charades, Angel's were more like Pictionary. She let go of the broom and ran to his side to see the drawing take shape.

He was clearly aiming for speed, not precision, but after his first few strokes formed the face of a woman, she began to nod. Her nodding became more vigorous as he continued, adding features that clearly belonged to Willow, and he drew correspondingly faster until finally he dropped the pencil and reached for a red pastel stick. When he dragged its broad side across the hair in the portrait, filling it all in with one stroke, it was the final confirmation that both of them needed. Buffy's triumphant whoop joined Angel's laughter, and he threw his arms around her and whirled her around until she was breathless and liquid against him.

"Chou'sh skila ry fallunertch, ome shash," Angel murmured when they had stopped prancing around and were facing each other with smiles still stretching their faces.

"We probably shouldn't get too excited," said Buffy. "We don't even know if she'll be able to do anything about it. But oh, Angel, it was so good to hear her voice again…" Her last few words were spoken against his cheek, and from there it was easy to trail off and seek out his tongue with her own.

Angel's hands rubbed up and down her back, and she lifted up her arms so that he would know that it was time to take off her shirt. Before she knew it he had hoisted her up into his arms and was raining kisses onto her bare breasts. She crossed her legs behind him and arched her body to give him better access, and in an impressive display of coordination, he started walking them into the bedroom while at the same time drawing a nipple into his mouth and sucking hard enough to make her shudder and moan.

When he laid her down on the bed she immediately pulled him down with her and then went to work on his buttons while he made the job more difficult by returning his kisses to her face. She succeeded at last in removing the shirt, but when her hands' exploration reached his hips, he caught them in his and held them still, smiling at her through the dim light.

Buffy shook her head in amused incredulity at his defiance. This was one thing that she really wished she could ask about: he was always slowing her down, making her wait for her gratification. She had felt the hard bulge in his pants and she knew that he could tell when she was ready, too, but there must have been something important to him about pacing their lovemaking, since they couldn't discuss it directly.

Angel brought one of her hands to his lips and then released them both and turned his attention to her jeans instead. She couldn't really object to him doing it his way, she admitted internally as he slid them off her legs in one smooth motion, taking her panties along and leaving her suddenly nude. He nuzzled his face into the crook of her legs, just long enough to make her whole body quiver with anticipation, and then his head was on the pillow beside hers and his fingers were stroking her cleft with the skilled touch of dedicated practice. Relishing the sensation, she tried to match his movements with her mouth on his neck, and at the same time reached again for his fly. This time he didn't stop her.

"Hoquoi," he whispered enigmatically as she wrapped her hand around his cock, but the sounds he made when she moved into a rhythmic caress needed no translation. This was the true language, untouched by any curse and unrestrained by deception or doubt. Even if their tongues were silenced forever, their bodies would continue the conversation they had begun so many years ago.

Buffy recalled then that her tongue still had its ways of speaking, too. She shifted position and brought her head down to Angel's lap as he finished ridding himself of his clothing. His hands were in her hair in a flash, but he held still, allowing her to tease him with fluttering licks before she took him fully into her mouth. He hissed a few more words that could have been prayer or curse, and she sucked harder, increasing her speed until he pulled away and rolled her onto her back. He was over and inside her instantly, moving in and out as evenly as a sonnet, and her arms flew up to clutch his back and dig in her nails.

When she felt her climax approaching she bared her neck to him, a renewal of what she wanted to tell him was a standing invitation. For once he barely hesitated, and didn't even slow his thrusts before vamping out and plunging his fangs into her old scar. The penetration hurt little, but the rush of blood as he drank was powerful-—it seemed to heat up as it left her body, culminating at the point of contact and leaving both of them aflame. She was aware that she was chanting his name, and wondered if he could tell, and what the word sounded like to him. She clawed at his shoulders as the chant bloomed into a scream, and he released her neck to respond with a distinctly feline growl. His seed spilled into her as she was riding her aftershocks, and he collapsed on top of her, head nestled against her shoulder and lips just brushing against the fresh punctures on her neck.

They lay like that for a long time, Buffy making only a slight adjustment to the pose to allow her to breathe comfortably. She liked having him blanket her, running her fingers over his body in repose, feeling the way his dry skin felt against her all-too-human sweat. Every few minutes his tongue would sweep over the scar again, though there was no blood left there for him to taste. There had been little enough in the first place—he had somehow learned to take a minimal amount when he fed from her, so they could both enjoy the physicality of it without weakening her unnecessarily. It must have taken unimaginable control. She wished she could thank him.

Eventually he rolled onto his back and switched on the bedside lamp. He would be up for hours yet, she knew, but he would stay there in bed with her until she fell asleep, as he always did. She cuddled up to his side and watched lazily as he took a book from the drawer and opened it.

"Ilé rask o ghis lu bae?" he asked, pointing to the book, and she nodded. Out loud he started in on whatever passage he had chosen, weaving the foreign words together in his rich low voice. Buffy listened attentively. His accent never seemed to change from the one she knew, so the sound of it was unintelligible yet unmistakably him, as if coming through the haze of a dream.

After a few minutes had passed she moved his hand so she could take a peek at the open pages, curious about the content of her lullaby. He chuckled, and she saw why: the book was in Italian. With a snort of laughter she tucked her face against his chest and closed her eyes. Maybe someday she'd have him tell her what it was about.

Willow faced the parade of reunions waiting for her with mixed exhilaration and fear. As she expected, seeing Giles again after so long had her in tears. Seeing Xander again was twice as emotional, and neither she nor Dawn could even form complete sentences for the first five minutes after meeting. By the time Giles left his house and came back with Buffy, she felt like she must have exhausted all her reserves, but Buffy ran to her and tackled her with such a loving embrace that she was soon blubbering again.

Once everyone had settled down and Willow herself had emptied a box of tissues and regained enough composure to handle a normal conversation, she asked about Buffy and Angel's shared condition. Giles had described it in such vague terms that she had little idea of what to expect, but she was sure she just needed some time and research.

"Oh, don't worry about that yet," said Buffy. She was sitting on Giles's couch, as close to Willow's right side as Dawn was to her left, while Xander and Giles were each an arm's length away in the chairs they had pulled up. "We want to hear more about Willow's Adventures in Witchy Wonderland."

"Well, I want to hear about you guys too," Willow insisted. "It's really true you're living with him? And not, like, doing the Ritual of Restoration every morning?"

Xander groaned loudly. "I gotta back up Buffy here. We don't want to hear about Angel's happy times right now, or, speaking for myself, possibly ever."

"I concur," coughed Giles.

Buffy looked crossly at Xander, but kept her cool. "I'm pretty sure I remember being told to butt out when my little sister started spending most of her nights with you instead of in her dorm," she stated. "I'm thinking this is a good time to pitch the 'butt out' back to you."

Willow swiveled in her seat in time to see Dawn roll her eyes and sigh heavily.
"Dawnie!" Unable to find anything to add to the thought, she turned back around. "Xander!"

With this new revelation coloring the atmosphere, Buffy and Angel's curse-sponsored living accommodations were forgotten, and by the time Willow thought to bring it up again, most of the others were gone and Giles was making up the couch with sheets for her. "We're all very glad to see you again," he said gently as he switched on a table lamp for her and turned off the overhead light.

"I'm all glad again seeing you too," she mumbled with a smile, her eyes resisting each renewed attempt to keep them open. "I killed a monster, Giles, I can't wait to tell you…"

The next day she got to see Buffy again, and the apartment she shared with Angel, and Angel himself, who initiated a hug by himself and allowed her one happy reunion that she could handle without excess sentiment. Buffy led her on a tour of the place, overflowing with excited commentary, and Angel slipped in his own remarks so naturally that Willow had to pay careful attention to see the gap in comprehension between them. Finally they all sat down together, Buffy cuddled close to Angel's side, and Willow examined them closely, ornithologist-style, studying their movements and trying to remember if she had ever even seen Angel sit with his arm around Buffy before.

"So," she began. "Curse?"

The two rare birds looked at each other, and then Angel nodded and Buffy spoke. "You remember right before you left, we'd heard about that half-demon warlock guardian guy who specialized in lovers' curses? Well, I had some time, Angel had some time, we were both getting fed up with the dating scene, and we thought it wouldn't do any harm to just talk to him and see if Angel's happiness clause qualified us as the kind of star-crossed that he could fix."

Willow nodded along. Before she set off on her solitary quest, she had seen the frustrations developing and had wondered if they would get to this point. "I'm guessing not quite?"

"Not quite what?" asked Angel.

She blinked. "Not quite the kind of star-crossed...okay, so Buffy just told me that you two went off to talk to the warlock about your curse."

"Okay." With another brief nod at Buffy, Angel picked up the tale. "This guy is serious business; you can't just make an appointment. We thought we were on the right track, but then we were sent to this underground chamber where he was supposed to live, and it turned out to be a trap. Not a trap he'd set for us or anything, just an aspect of his magic."

Buffy had been listening patiently, but now she piped in, "Did he tell you about the cavern under LA yet?"

"I think so. He called it an underground chamber."

"Really? I'd call it a cavern."

Angel frowned. "What did she say?"

"She said it was a cavern," said Willow, and then, unable to hold it in any longer, continued, "You really can't understand her? Anything she's saying at all?"

It was Buffy who answered, shrugging: "We told you."

"Yeah, but…neither of you sound any different. You're both speaking English and you can both understand me.This doesn't make any sense."

"Not exactly the insight we were hoping for," said Angel mildly.

Willow sighed, reminded herself that she was supposed to be the professional consultant here, and asked Buffy, "What did it sound like he just said?"

Buffy creased her brow in concentration and then replied, "Koofy walla something something ekthi boom-girdle." Angel gave her the oddest look, and both of them burst out laughing. Willow joined in; if this was the way they had been interacting, it was no surprise that they were getting along so well.

"Anyway," Angel went on, "there was this underground chamber. A few demons starting crawling out of the walls, nothing too bad, but they attacked and we had to fight them. At some point there was a beam of light that came from nowhere and went swinging around the room, and I think that's when the spell hit us. I asked Buffy if she felt it, and she said—-I'll never forget this—-'Genha fraes ulammin?'"

He paused, and Willow took the opportunity to relay what he had said to Buffy, who nodded soberly. "It was scary. I couldn't even ask him if he could understand me; I just knew I couldn't understand him. We were just standing in this cavern with these dead demons all around us, and I had no idea what we were supposed to do next. But Angel...well, he took my hand..."

She gazed at him there with such gratitude in her eyes that Willow could almost see the memory unfolding, the two heroes reaching for each other across the language divide and resuming their journey as one. "Did you find the warlock?" she prompted Buffy.

"Yeah." Buffy broke eye contact with Angel and let out a long breath. "And here's the big miscommunication that started it all: he doesn't specialize in lovers' curses. It was the place itself, the cavern where he lives. Apparently some girl and her forbidden boyfriend died there and now it's enchanted. The warlock is supposed to be its guardian, but he didn't catch us in time because I guess the demons are enough to chase most visitors away. Any two people in love who end up there are going to come out with a curse. Not sure how it decides what the curse is going to be. Maybe there's a forbidden roulette wheel we didn't see."

Willow echoed all of this for Angel's benefit, considering its meaning as she did. "So instead of Krazy Gluing Angel's soul, it just slapped you with a new problem? Wait, but now you two are all smoochies all the time so you're not done telling this, are you?"

"Well," said Angel, "as fate would have it, the terms on my soul really did signify as a lovers' curse. The enchantment in the chamber wouldn't allow two on the same couple, though, so it knocked the old one out of me to make room for the new one. The guardian explained all this when we talked to him, but he said he had no way to remove curses once they were applied. If we went back again, we would probably just get landed with something worse."

With the puzzle now fully laid out, Willow's mind began to work on it in earnest, searching for what helpful knowledge she might have that the cavern/chamber's guardian didn't. "I'll get going on the research," she said. "I really don't know yet, but there might be a bypass that I can activate. Ooh, or maybe we could just counteract it with a good omni-translation spell. Although, those don't always stick too well, you'd need to have it renewed, like, a lot…"

She trailed off. Buffy had laced her fingers into Angel's, and they were beaming at each other and drawing closer and closer. Willow cleared her throat. "Uh, guys? Not everyone in the room is part of your little romantic silent movie world."

They snapped back to attention. "How can we help?" chirped Buffy.

"I guess mostly I'm trying to understand what exactly we're dealing with." She waved her hand at the two of them. "Just describe how this works."

Both looked a little uncertain. "Well," Buffy answered, "Angel takes out the garbage, and I vacuum every Sunday, and we both do our own dishes..."

"The curse, Buff. How does the curse work?"

Angel glanced from Buffy to Willow. "What did she s—-ah, never mind." He leaned forward, taking charge of the conversation. "Everything she says, I hear as a foreign language, and vice versa. It's her voice, and it's coming from her lips, but it's always words I've never heard before. They're always changing, and they're not real languages, so we can't learn them from each other."

Willow frowned. "What about sign language?"

"Even when we were looking in the same instruction book, we couldn't understand each other's signs."

"Can't you write notes?"

"No, writing or typing works the same way. We can only read it if it was written by someone else. Most numbers and symbols don't make sense, either." Angel paused and then added optimistically, "Drawing works, though."

"Well, that's lucky!"

"What's lucky?" Buffy demanded.

Willow tried to conceal her sigh as she relayed the last few remarks that had passed between herself and Angel. She had already acquired a new determination to fix this, if for no other reason than that she didn't want to have to choose between constantly acting as a translator and not spending enough time with the two of them. "So how long has it been?" she continued.

"Seven months and change," said Angel at the same moment that Buffy said, "Going on eight months."

Eight months. Willow tried to imagine it. Had they resumed their relationship immediately? Started sleeping together as soon as they had the warlock guardian's validation? How had they managed to make the necessary arrangements to move into the same apartment, or even decide to go through with it? She shook her head in amazement. "And you're okay? I mean, obviously, not the ideal sitch here, but...otherwise you're happy?"

Buffy's reply was a simple smile and nod, but Angel's gaze had turned piercing, and his tone was wary. "Why do you ask?"

"It might be relevant," Willow confessed. "I don't know for sure yet, but you guys might need to make a choice."

"Lesser of two curses?" said Buffy, her smile gone.

Angel looked at her, squeezed her hand, and then turned back to Willow with evident gravity. "We thought it might come to this."

Weeks went by and Willow's reintegration to the Scoobies became a contented normality, which Angel noted from his usual external perspective. Her progress on altering his and Buffy's condition, however, remained at a standstill. Whenever he asked how he could assist her, she had the same discouraging answer for him, and supposedly for Buffy as well: that they needed to keep considering which curse was the lesser of two evils.

Angel knew evil all too well. He remembered exactly how he had felt every time he fought off the tremendous desire to give Buffy everything she wanted, to engage her in an act of joy so primal and encompassing that its only flaw was that he wanted it too. He had turned his frustration and rage primarily on himself, but often he felt as if something vast and sentient was pulling the strings to the entire sordid ordeal; not a vengeful Romani ghost or a prankster god but a force which loved suffering for its own sake. The curse was mocking him and mocking Buffy, and in ways he would never admit out loud, he knew that there was evil at work.

He also knew that the present choice between curses had nothing to do with how he felt. Language or no language, sex or no sex, his life would change little. He would fight on behalf of the helpless, try to atone, love Buffy as she grew old, love Buffy after she died. What kind of life she had in the meantime was all that mattered, and that was for her consideration, not his.

For Willow's benefit, he pretended that he was trying to make a decision, since she seemed to take it for granted that he and Buffy would both come to her with their conclusions and she would mediate. He even had conversations with her about it, soon discovering that she was the exception of the Scooby Gang and would seek out his company even when Buffy wasn't with him.

"It's nifty the way you're not trying to send the world into Hell these days," she said one night when he was at her new apartment to borrow a few of her books and loan her a few of his.

He raised an eyebrow. "If that was a hint about keeping the language curse, I'm aware of the benefits."

"Well, world sent to Hell would suck for everyone, so I think we should all weigh in."

Angel sighed. "If I went back to the happiness clause I would move again."

"Well, you moving again would suck for Buffy!" Willow pouted.

"Willow, there's more to how she feels than just the way our relationship functions. I can live like this forever. She can't." He caught himself before going on, remembering that Willow would gladly talk him into a corner if he let her.

She didn't seem that intent on verbal sparring, though. "I haven't seen her like this since high school," she said, eyes downcast. "I missed it. Don't screw this up, Angel, okay?"

Buffy began to arrange beach days with Willow, Xander, and Dawn whenever an opportunity presented itself. Xander and Dawn had lately been absorbed in each other to the point of inadvertently turning Buffy into a third wheel, but Willow's presence changed the group dynamic in a way that left none of them lonely.

Xander and Dawn were currently splashing around in the ocean while Buffy and Willow took in some sun. Their conversation soon turned to Buffy and Angel's curse, as it did at least once a day. "What would you have done if I never came back?" Willow asked.

Buffy lifted her sunglasses an inch off her face to cast her friend an incredulous look. "Cried like a tsunami, Will, you know that."

"I mean, what would you and Angel have done."

The sunglasses dropped back into their place, and Buffy folded her hands beneath her head. "Dunno. Nothing, I guess. Sooner or later one of us would have to leave, so why rush the process?"

Willow rolled to one side on her towel and propped up her head with one hand. "What makes you so sure of that?"

"It's just how it is. Angel and I aren't in the cards, not as long as we've both got destiny congestion. He'll get his PTBs yanking his leash, or my biological clock will start to tick, or the Slayers will all get depowered and we'll be the only ones left to cover the defense of the whole world. If we could talk, maybe we could work something out, but without that, we're just vacationing in Perfect Happyville."

"Is it really that perfect? Don't you miss talking to him?"

Buffy smiled. Conversations she'd had with Angel felt like heirloom memories, now, and it was hard to express the mixture of deep longing and peaceful acceptance that they gave her. "It's so much better this way. I must sound so shallow—-hey, who needs intellectual stimulation from a man when you've got his sexy body, right? But I try to think about what I have to say to him that's so important, and then I look at him, and I realize he already knows." She let out a dry laugh. "We were never so good at the talking with words thing anyway."

Willow was silent for a few moments after that, and Buffy glanced over to see that her face, bright and pale in the sunlight, was awash with melancholy. "Oh, Willow," she said in a belated rush of compassion. "You'll find someone. I swear."

"Let's not tread there," Willow replied with a clearly deliberate attempt to shake off her sadness with a broad grin. "We're talking about you. Do I hear a vote for silence over abstinence?"

Angel missed Cordy. He missed Wesley. He missed Fred. He missed Gunn. He missed being part of a team. He missed having friends he had made on his own.

He was in his own home with his lover at his side, but it was her friends confronting him—or confronting her, or confronting each other. It kept changing. Willow's gradual diagnosis was getting closer and closer to a confirmation that she would be unable to eliminate the curse without allowing the old one back in, and the pressure to choose one outcome over the other was getting proportionately stronger. Giles and Willow had shown up together without even a pretense that they were there for any reason aside from discussing the choice.

"Taltal braumlin fheyghlos ips," Buffy snapped at Giles, her arms crossed tightly and her posture stiff.

"I won't apologize for taking an interest in your future, Buffy," he replied just as sternly.

Willow voice was a shrill whine. "I don't understand! You can finally be together! You've both been happy like this for almost a year, why not just stick with it?"

"Because—" started Angel, but Buffy was speaking at the same time and he closed his mouth.

Nobody translated what she said; Giles simply spoke directly to her. "That's a sensible outlook, but this indecision can't hold."

"I want to hear what Angel thinks."

Angel sighed. "I think it's not fair to her. She's been a Slayer for half her life, and as long as she's with me she won't be anything else. Not without communicating."

Willow scowled. "You don't know that!"

"It isn't you that makes her a Slayer," Giles added caustically.

"Onviale! Nai whex!" cried Buffy.

Angel's voice rose to match how loud everyone else's was getting. "She should be back in school now! She should be finding a career, a life of her own! You want her to keep hunting demons with me for the next sixty years?"

"You're making decisions for her!" Willow accused him. "He's making decisions for you!" she yelled at Buffy.

Buffy whirled to face him. "Glym?"

"No I'm not! I'm trying to let you decide. I'm trying to…God, Buffy. I can't let this happen to us. I can't…" His voice dropped and his shoulders sagged, all too aware of the only two people in the room who knew what he was saying. "I couldn't bear seeing you resent me."

Willow spoke now in a soft, controlled voice, translating for them without adding any comment of her own. All the anger seemed to drain out of the conversation, but Angel was too ashamed to meet anyone's eyes. Buffy closed the gap between them, and he pressed his cheek to her hair and stared at the floor.

"Angel," said Giles from across the room. "It's true this is about Buffy. If she chooses to resent you, you'll abide by it like the rest of us."

Buffy was roused from her sleep by the phone ringing; it was late morning, but still a few minutes ahead of her musical alarm. She glanced over at Angel while answering it and found him already sitting up and watching her through sleepy eyes, waiting, no doubt, for a sign that all was well and he could rest easy.

It was Xander, calling to ask if Buffy knew where Dawn was. She hadn't joined him last night, and he said he had thought little of it until he went to pick her up for breakfast and she wasn't in her own room, either. Buffy was out of bed in an instant, attempting to put some clothes on while drilling Xander on everything that might be relevant. When she got the phone stuck in the loop of her bra she told him to call her back on her cell as soon as he knew anything else, and hung up to free her limbs.

"Eiokumir ele?" said Angel softly.

Buffy groaned. Xander wouldn't be happy if she called him right back and told him to repeat everything he had just told her; they didn't have the time to waste on that. Anyway, it was daylight: Angel couldn't really help. She kissed him swiftly on the cheek. "Just go back to bed, sweetie. I got this one."

He was on his feet and protesting as she left the apartment, but she had nothing to appease him with except an apologetic shrug. She'd have someone call him once they had a chance.

Giles chauffeured her around to Dawn's dormitory and other likely haunts, uncomfortably out of his element but enduring it silently. When that search turned up empty, he brought her to the lairs of a few known snitches for the underworld, and she spent the afternoon beating up demons who might have heard something about the Slayer's sister being kidnapped. In the end, none of them had.

Buffy was both exhausted and unable to keep still when she checked in with Willow to see how the seeking spells were moving along. She was told to take a seat and concentrate on Dawn, and she did, involuntarily picturing her dead or hurt or trapped or lost or just scared and alone. She began to fall under a trance, which fell apart abruptly just seconds later when Willow's phone rang.

It was Xander again. "She's here. She's fine."

Of every outcome that Buffy had imagined for the day, somehow, the one that never crossed her mind was an angry adult woman telling her—and everyone else—that they had no right to monitor her every movement. "Samantha and I missed the shuttle last night. It was a long walk and her dorm was closer, so I crashed there."

"And then what?" Buffy demanded. "This morning—-"

"This morning I woke up and ran home to take a shower and then I went to class. I didn't have time to check my messages, okay? Nobody told me I was guest of honor at a search party. Anyway, I called you at home and Angel said you were on some kind of unplanned mission, so I thought I'd leave you to it."

Giles sighed loudly, and Buffy felt like knocking her own head against the wall. Angel! He didn't know Dawn was missing, of course, but he still should have called her—-but he couldn't talk to her. He should have called Giles—-but Giles didn't have a cell phone. He should have called Willow—-but Willow had been synched into her magic network all day and wouldn't have heard. "He should have called Xander," she said out loud.

"Aheh," Xander stammered, somehow managing to look even more embarrassed than Buffy felt. "He did call me. I didn't pick up."

Four murderous pairs of eyes turned on him, and he continued, "I thought he just wanted to know what was going on! I was trying to avoid distraction. Hey whoa speaking of distraction, let's depart from my personal guilt for a moment and ask why Dawnie didn't call me."

Dawn was pure ice. "Because youwere supposed to be at work."

Willow came a little closer to her and touched her shoulder with a tentative hand. "Don't be mad, please? We were just worried. What if there really had been something wrong?"

The tension had gone out of Dawn's posture, but Buffy noted that the discontentment was still there, and it was directed at all of them, herself and Xander most of all. "Then Angel wouldn't have been able to reach any of you, and he'd probably go get himself caught on fire trying to rescue me by himself, and Buffy would be driving around in circles scaring my friends with questions about where they'd seen me last, and hey, I guess maybe I'd be dead."

It was past three a.m. when Angel felt Buffy's breathing slow into a sleeping pattern. He put down the poetry collection he had been reading to her, making a mental note to use that one more often. She seemed to like it—maybe the rhymes and meter carried through into what she heard.

Her head was pillowed on his shoulder, and he lingered for a moment before attempting to move her. Leaving the bed was difficult when she was still in it, her natural aroma enhanced as it was with recent sex and bloodletting. He couldn't waste all his night hours, though, so he gave her one last kiss and eased her down onto her pillow.

He had just let go of her and hadn't even gotten as far as fishing under the covers for his boxers when she lunged up from the bed and grabbed his arm. It was a shock—she had definitely been asleep just seconds ago—but he made no move to resist when she threw him onto his back and climbed on top of him. Her hand was already between his legs, urgently stroking him back into hardness, and when he touched her he found her still slick from earlier. With no further preamble she guided him into herself and started moving at a rapid pace, hands on his shoulders and breath coming as forcefully as sobs.

As it ended he was breathing just as hard as she was, not knowing why his body kept imitating life but savoring it as much as he did his death grip on her hips. She was shuddering with satisfaction, but left her position only when he put his palms to her head and shoulder and pulled her down into his embrace. Then she pressed her face against his neck and whispered desperate words, her fingers fluttering all over him like a hummingbird in a rosebush.

"You made up your mind, didn't you?" he murmured. "Shhh, Buffy, it's okay. We had our time. It's been more than I ever dreamed. Shhh, Buffy, beloved, we'll be okay..."

She made no answer, but he kept speaking, knowing there might not be many more chances left to say all he wanted without consequence. "I love you. I'll always love you. I'll miss you so much, Buffy, I know it's going to hurt, but you'll live a good life. There are other Slayers; you don't have to save the world anymore. You belong to yourself now. Just yourself."

There had been no prophecy nor revelation about Angel since the day he brought down the Senior Partners. After months spent searching for further guidance and finding none, he had accepted that he was meant to shape his duty on his own from that point on, and that the fight against evil would eventually release him when it took his unlife in battle. He allowed himself the joy of Buffy's company when it didn't endanger his soul, but it wasn't the same as belonging to himself, or even belonging to her.

Buffy slept soundly that night, tears drying on her cheeks. Angel stayed with her until the sun rose.

They performed the spell at Buffy and Angel's own apartment, soon to be Buffy's alone. Willow set up a ring of candles on the floor, placed a few dishes of the appropriate herbs where she could easily reach them, and then exhaled heavily and looked at the couple standing quietly outside the circle and holding hands.

"Buffy," she said, and then, reluctantly, realized that she couldn't say this to Buffy alone. "Angel. Before we go through with this, please. Hear me out. Sit down."

They did, neither looking very happy about it. From their standpoint it probably seemed like she was just making it harder for them now that they had settled on their decision, and maybe they were right. Still, she had to try.

"Do you remember the Gentlemen? Angel, I don't know if you ever heard about this one. We had a few days in Sunnydale, our freshman year of college, when the whole town was cursed so that nobody could speak. That was when Tara and I first...when we...well, we cast a spell together."

It had been so much more than that; she didn't think she could adequately explain it, but Buffy's expression suggested that she already understood. Willow continued, "After we got our voices back, we started hanging out and practicing magic and having those 'I'm not sure how to say this but I think I want to see you topless' conversations...well, you don't need to know about all that. But once things got bad, I got kind of obsessed with coming up with ways that it could have been different. And I couldn't stop thinking, what if we had stayed mute forever? Just me and her? Instead of telling her I thought I was lesbian, I could have just kissed her. Instead of hurting her so bad, I would have just been there for her. Maybe she would even still be alive today.

"For our whole relationship- goddess, Buffy, for allof us, all along- it was always words that ruined everything. All of our lies, and our secrets, and our good intentions, they dragged us down where the Hellmouth couldn't. You and Angel- listen to me, Angel- you could be done with it. You could love like we're supposed to love. Please don't do this."

To her surprise, it was Angel who seemed most moved by her speech, his eyes shining and his brow creased. Buffy's expression had more pity than anything else, though whether it was for Willow and Angel was unclear. They didn't look at each other, and Willow couldn't tell if it was a conscious effort or whether they just already knew all of the answers they would have found in the other's face.

"You're right," said Buffy, unwavering. "We fucked everything up." Angel looked up, as if her uncharacteristic use of profanity had filtered through the language barrier and startled him, but Buffy went on without a sign that there was anything abnormal about the discussion. "But we saved the world. Didn't we?"

Willow frowned. "I kinda feel like you're changing the subject but I'm not sure how or why."

"I'm not. We neededyou, Will. We needed Tara. All that time we spent ruining our own lives was the same time we were spending saving everyone else's. It doesn't work any other way. You can simplify into happiness or you can take the whole human mess and roll with it."

"You could still roll," Willow objected, aware that desperation was creeping into her voice. "We don't have to save the world anyway, it's all saved for keeps now, and there are so many Slayers..."

"No," Angel cut in. "Don't do that, Willow. Buffy could be a warrior or not, but she's still a hero and this is her world. Our world. It's never over."

There was a silence. Buffy and Angel still hadn't looked at each other. "Don't you want to know what each other said?" Willow asked timidly.

"No," said Buffy. Angel shook his head.

She turned away from them, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and opened her purse to find a box of matches. "Step into the center of the circle and face each other."

Angel folded up his favorite blue shirt, hesitating as memories washed over him, and then lay it into his suitcase with the others. Everything he owned would still smell like Buffy for weeks; he would have time enough to linger with it.

She was sitting on the bed, watching him pack. At length she spoke: "Did you find a place yet?"

Automatic comprehension of her words took some readjustment, and there was an awkward gap before he responded, "I applied to one. I should hear from the landlord by Monday."

"Oh."

"Are you going to stay in this one?" he asked, trying to make it sound casual. Please say yes, he begged internally. Stay here, it's our home, please stay please stay...

"Yeah," she said, easing his tension. "Giles said there'll be some red tape about my 'active Slayer' status if I stop patrolling regularly, but even if I'm taking classes my stipend should be enough to cover it. I don't want to move."

He added the last of his shirts to the case. "Good. That's good."

Buffy shrugged and peered into a box that he had filled with those of his books that he knew she wouldn't read. "What's this book about?" she asked, pulling out his Italian copy of The Divine Comedyand flipping through it.

"Mostly a guy talking about his travels." In Heaven and Hell, he didn't add.

"Oh." She put it down and swung her legs up beside her on the bed. "I kind of hate you for leaving like this. You should have tried to make me make it work."

Angel closed the suitcase and sat down on the floor beside it. "I see."

"Sorry. I shouldn't have just said that out loud. We got into some bad habits, huh?"

"Some, yeah. I'll miss them."

"You could stay."

"You know I can't."

She smiled at him at last, though it was a smile of pain and regret. "Yeah, but neither of us had said it yet. Now we can check that off the break-up list."

The word 'break-up' put a frigid grip onto Angel's heart. He wanted to question it, to make her cycle through a dozen other potential labels for this parting and settle on a gentler one. He didn't want the parting labeled at all. If they couldn't name it, it wouldn't be happening.

Buffy made a sound of discontent at his silence. "We at least have a couple more nights, right?"

"A couple," he agreed, wondering if it could still be called a break-up if they were both looking for delays. "Is there, uh, anything you want to do first?"

She nodded, her eyes narrowed. "I want you to not sleep on the couch. We're adults, Angel. We can lie next to each other without caving in."

Sleeping on the couch last night had been miserable- or rather, lying awake on the couch had been miserable. He didn't want to do it again. He got off the floor and sat down on the bed next to Buffy, and was kissing her the very moment she turned her face toward his. It was not an innocent kiss, and Angel had to consciously freeze his roaming hands before they both came perilously close to crossing the line. They broke it off simultaneously.

"What if I got a chastity belt?" said Buffy.

Angel chuckled. "I'm sure that would solve everything."

"Or it would just give you a new kink." She sighed. "Alright. Move out. But I'm not coming to your housewarming party. Take that personally."

Angel's gaze swept around the disarray of the bedroom undergoing the moving process. There was something wrong about the suitcases and boxes, he realized. There was something wrong about an impending housewarming, even if he managed to avoid having a party for it. The apartment he had applied to, across town from Buffy, was a worse idea than a chastity belt.

What he needed was a car and a portable armory. And no cell phone.

The mailbox downstairs had an apartment number on it and no name, making it the only external part of Buffy's personal life that hadn't changed since Angel's departure. Every time she returned home, the mailbox was her cue to begin steeling herself for the onslaught of memories that came with entering a space that was full of Angel's influence but had no actual Angel in it. When that man vanished, he didn't do it halfway.

Lately, the worst moment of every day was seeing the note she had pinned on the refrigerator for herself: OPEN THE BLINDS. If she took it down, though, she'd never remember to open the blinds.

She reached into the little metal box and brought out a handful of mail, which she examined as she waited for the elevator. Bills, notifications, a J. Crew catalog...a postcard.

In the elevator she stared at the picture without turning it over until she had missed her floor and failed to notice. It was a photograph of a city at night, brightly lit and festive for a celebration of some kind. The warm golds and oranges had Buffy entranced on a level she didn't really understand. She had been preparing herself to face loneliness, not beauty.

When she finally made it to her floor, she closed the door behind her, leaned back against it, and looked at the other side of the postcard:

It's my first time in New Orleans. I took down the local demon crime ring; the mayor thanked me himself and said I was a hero. Wish you were here. The food is terrific (supposedly). Nights are warm and people are happy. Laissez les bon temps rouler.

Instead of a signature, he had filled the remaining corner of the card with a sketch of a rose, technically flawless despite its medium of ballpoint pen. Buffy's throat constricted.

"What kind of dire you got there? Eviction notice?"

Buffy jumped. Dawn was lying on the couch, one leg swung over the back and a book open on her chest. Her mouth quirked into a smile: she loved being able to startle her sister.

"What are you doing here besides spying on me while I'm reading my mail and no, for your information, I am the model tenant?"

Dawn lowered her feet to the floor and sat up. "Your furniture is comfier than Xander's and you're the one who gave me a key and you need company, Buffy. Come on, what are you looking at all serious-face like that?"

Buffy glanced down once more at the note, then flipped it over for another look at New Orleans. There would be many more where this came from, she suddenly knew. She needed to get a big cork board for them, some way to show them all off as they accumulated. She wanted everyone to see.

To her credit, Dawn waited patiently as Buffy reread the postcard one more time. Finally she smiled ruefully at the last line and shook her head. "Dawnie? I need you to translate something."