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TITLE: Ever Seeking Solace

AUTHORS: Sunny D and Aurora

RATING: eh, PG-13ish.

DISCLAIMER: All hail King Joss, we're just his dutiful subjects.

SPOILERS: BtVS S6 up to 'As You Were' and ANGEL S3 up to 'Loyalty'

SUMMARY: Sometimes the hardest thing about moving on is learning to let go.

FEEDBACK: can be sent to: shade_78@hotmail.com and girl292@hotmail.com

DISTRIBUTION: is fine and dandy, just drop one of us a line so we know where to visit it.

AUTHORS' NOTES: This all started when Sunny D mentioned that there was a glaring lack of anything but AngstFic out there in the Buffyverse this season and Aurora decided she would try and dust off the neglected HappyMuse and get a short semi-fluffy fic written. It sounded like a good plan until she was derailed midfic by her utter lack of interest in Angel as a character anymore. So, she sent the half-done fic to Sunny D who seamlessly filled in the gaps, fleshed it out, and saved this fic from the black hole of unfinishedness.

AN2: This takes place about 4 years from the current S6/S3 timeline.

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Ever Seeking Solace

by Sunny D and Aurora

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She walks in slow measure, the soles of her boots scuffing against the fallen leaves littering the sidewalk. Unhurried, pushed more so by the light autumn breeze than by any need to be somewhere soon, now, immediately. It is still strange to her, this unexpected solace after so long spent waiting for the next demon, battle, apocalypse. . . death.

She smiles, inhaling the crisp early evening air and letting its cleanness fill her lungs, clearing away the smoke and smog of the city day and replacing it with something bright, something reminiscent of faded hope.

She stuffs her hands into the pockets of her thin jacket and watches with amused eyes as a young couple, very much in love and oblivious to anything outside of each other, hurries past her. Arms, hands, and fingers linked together, stumbling over the curb because they were too busy sneaking awe- filled glances at each other to worry with the trivialities of everyday living. Watches them disappear among the growing traffic of joggers, weekend shoppers, and people out walking their dogs and suddenly feels like it was a lifetime ago that she was ever that young, that caught up in something beyond her control. Feels it settle over her, making her feel older than her twenty-five years before she shrugs it off and laughs at the thought that she once felt that was the end all be all of existence: to love someone so much it kills you both.

She knows better now.

Can see beyond the fantasy of perfect love and perfect happiness to the reality underneath. Knows that some things are more important than all- consuming passion and need. Like forgiveness.

Forgiveness.

It was just a few years ago that the very word used to taste bitter on her tongue. Someone's idea of a quick fix for betrayal and mistrust, that only existed to allow the guilty party to ease their own pain. Felt secure in her beliefs until she was on the other side of the asking. Until her transgressions were laid open to those whom she'd crossed.

Now it's the one thing that enabled her to be here, like this. Well that, coupled with a whole lot of tears, and yelling, and pain. But still, learning to forgive and forget, was a big step in the whole learning-to- live-life as an almost normal girl again. A girl without the burden of a sacred duty or super-powers, just an actual job (in advertising, who knew the ability to quip would be useful in real world scenarios as well?) and a little sister in college.

It took her some time to sort through the wreckage of her life in the Post- Hellmouth world. The seemingly normal night of patrol two years ago that turned out to be the Real Thing and ended with a less demon-y world and a *lot* of bloodshed. Both literal and metaphorical.

The arrival of the L.A. Crew in hour seventeen of the battle had helped shift the balance and allowed them to come out, not unscathed, but at least victorious. It was after that that everything fell apart.

That feelings were bruised and lies were told, and things turned into one giant mess of anger and recrimination. It took her six months to be able to say *his* name without anger, scorn, or bile rising up in the back of her throat.

Then a year ago came the simple phone call that changed everything and allowed them both the room to breathe and to begin to sort through their past and come to terms with it.

She rounds the bend and spies the coffee shop at the far end of the street, the evening sun bouncing off its glass exterior with an orange glow. Unaware that her step has quickened ever so, she tries to recall who chose it for their first meeting, and why it has stuck. The distance from her apartment almost demands she drive it and he doesn't even live in this part of LA.

And maybe that's why they like it.

It's somewhere new, somewhere they haven't tainted with the mess of their lives, and even if they were to someday stumble from it, lips locked, hands fumbling, bodies desperate – rational thought would return long before they reached anywhere.

She can almost see the coffee shop interior now. She doesn't need to wonder if he'll be there yet, he always is, second and fourth Saturday of the month, bang on time. She's been tempted to ask how early he arrives, but it might sound condescending and they're not that familiar yet. It's significant enough that it was he who broke the four-year silence.

He's sitting by the window, slumped gracefully in a high-backed chair, engrossed in a book. She smiles at the picture, it's so typically familiar. Thoughts of the mansion, a fire burning – just in case she decided to drop by – and Angel, sitting in a chair, hidden in the shadows, reading. She'd asked him once why he never saved his page, he told her it was because he knew every book he owned by heart, it was just nice to see the words written. That was Angel, always throwing her a curve ball, saying exactly what she didn't expect, but somehow balancing the scary unconventionality out by being a creature of habit and reading the same book to distraction.

He doesn't look up when the door jingles signaling her entrance. She is only a few minutes late so he probably isn't expecting her yet, and her heart contracts painfully at another must-get-used-to-this aspect of their new relationship. The way they used to be able to sense each other's presence – it was like magic – a positive standing tall in the face of a wave of negatives, testifying to their rightness for one another. To not have that internal awareness. . . it leaves them an ordinary man and an ordinary woman who have to work on their relationship the way ordinary people do. No relying on the fates and stars to make the moves for them.

"Is this seat taken?" she asks playfully stopping by the table's unoccupied chair.

He looks up in surprise, breaking into a grin that makes her heart do that funny out-of-rhythm thing it likes to do around him, as he immediately stands.

"Sorry, I thought you'd be a while yet," he apologises leaning forward to press a brief but gentle kiss on her lips.

To kiss or not to kiss. It had been the topic of an entire two-hour meeting.

It went back to forgiveness really. While she was still angry she wanted him nowhere within her personal space and, at that first meeting, she'd sensed the same from him. So it had taken months before they were able to feel comfortable sitting closeted together the way the coffee shop's tiny tables forced them to be. Then two months ago they had hugged before parting, and the wacky range of emotions that had brought on forced them to spend the next meeting talking about acceptable physical contact, and most importantly, the possibility of kissing.

"You thought I'd be late?" she asks innocently, eyes wide and hurt.

"Uh, no, just that…" he trails off, noticing the small smile playing at the corners of her mouth and he smiles in return, taking his seat, completely missing the effect the brief intimate contact had on her.

When he'd called her that evening, out of the blue, she'd agreed to a meeting immediately despite her anger. It had been years, the mere thought of his name still irritated her, yet he hadn't even had to persuade her. Why? Because after all the ugly words they'd exchanged, the other lovers, the skeletons that insisted on jumping out of random closets, the betrayals, the let-downs, the lies. . . all it took was a "hello" down the phone line, and she was breathless.

And it wasn't sexual attraction. At least not just that. It was the remembrance of tender words he'd spoken in that same serious tone. It was recalling the times that were so good. It was remembering that he'd never done anything to hurt her deliberately and had instead done a whole lot that proved how much he loved her. So maybe they owed it to themselves, and each other, to at least get through the anger.

The phone call was also why, months later, she was so reluctant to let him kiss her. If she could want him with that much time apart, through that many negative feelings, did she have a hope in hell of retaining the rational thought of working-through-the-past-and-trying-to-move-on-SLOWLY if just his voice left her weak?

As she takes her seat trying not to let the tremble in her legs show, she knows she was right to worry. Kissing is definitely a bad.

"Looks interesting," she says, nodding to his book.

He smiles and shifts the book to the corner of the table so that he can rest his elbows in its place.

"One of my kids is having problems with her parents over an arranged marriage. I thought it might help if I knew a little more about them."

"She doesn't want one?" she asks, removing her jacket and revealing creamy shoulders above a strapless green lycra top.

'I'll just turn up in whatever I put on that morning,' she'd promised herself months ago when she'd caught her double-crossing mind planning possible clothing combinations for their evening meeting. Unfortunately, she now found herself putting on clothes that were totally unsuitable for the day's activities, just so she could argue she hadn't put them on especially for him.

"Would you?" he responds with surprise, trying to avoid comparing the green of her eyes with the green of her chest.

"Well, arranged marriages have a lower divorce rate than conventional marriages, so they can't be all bad," she explains.

He looks intrigued, "But isn't that because women in those marriages have less power and often acquiesce with what the man wants?"

She smiles and agrees, "Sure, partly, but it makes sense to have an impartial person, someone whose reason isn't clouded by emotion, decide if two people are compatible."

"Rationally, yes," he agrees instantly, "But sometimes emotions are all that make a couple compatible. Having a third person match-make is painting by numbers."

She pauses considering the alternative: the messy, frenzied, unpredictable, organic type of love. The kind that has no rhyme or reason, but can be so much more. . . and nods slowly, meeting his eyes.

"Yeah, but not everybody can have that," she reminds him gently.

He smiles in response and it's another connection, another little healing, another step in the right direction.

"Are you ready to order yet?" The waitress asks, interrupting the moment and startling her customers.

"Um, sure," he speaks, nodding to her to go first.

She glances swiftly over the bright yellow menu that is already so familiar, and barely gets out her order before she is distracted by his chuckle.

"I thought these meetings were supposed to be experimental-boundary pushing," he shares in response to her raised eyebrow.

"This *is* experimenting, I haven't had a lemon iced tea here before," she defends herself.

"Emphasis on the 'lemon' and 'here'," he says nearly laughing now, "You wuss."

She tries to hold the mock scowl even in the face of such an un-Angel phrase. "Well some of us have had our whole lives to try every possible combination," she tells him pointedly.

"Oh really?" He asks, then proceeds to order a banana and orange fruit juice blend with strawberry ice-cream and mint chocolate chip sprinkles.

Even the waitress grins as she jots it down.

"Still dealing with those sweet tooth issues then, Angel?" Buffy teases and the two slip into playful banter, barely aware of the arrival of their drinks. They talk about the children he counsels, the power suits she hates wearing, old and new friends, their hobbies. . . and it's surprisingly easy. The awkwardness of trying to catch up on four years apart isn't gone completely, but it's eased significantly.

And then the drinks are finished.

The shop's still buzzing, but the sun has set and it's time for the not-so- easy part of the meeting.

"It's your turn to start the wheel of pain tonight," Buffy tells him, trying to hide nerves under familiar playful wit.

He looks at her thoughtfully, concerned that she still feels the need to hide behind her defense mechanisms with him.

Her eyes glance away from his, over to the teenagers at the table behind him, as she tries not to take a reassuring deep breath. She wonders if he pre-prepares his questions the way she does. If he pauses before he starts in order to do a last mental roll-call of the various rehearsed ways of phrasing said question, so that it comes out clear but not painful - at least not *too* painful.

Maybe he wants to ask about Spike – again. She tries not to blanch at the thought of the embarrassing discomfort that always accompanies talking to Angel about Spike. But they've really exhausted that topic so maybe he'll want to know- -

"The day of the battle," he begins, and she remains silent. It's short- hand now, they've raked it over so many times it's obvious which battle they're talking about, "You didn't know about the lost day, Darla or. . . Connor. . ." He almost doesn't pause before the last name, the way she almost doesn't pause before she mentions her mother, "And yet. . . you didn't call me for help." He swallows hard, "Why?"

She decides to take that deep breath after all, preparing to sift through the twisted knot of emotions that governed her actions during the fight.

"Didn't you ask this that night?" She asks finally, remembering the shouting match in her kitchen after they'd won the battle, only to have a whole new one start in the house.

"Yes," he acknowledges watching her closely, "but you weren't exactly coherent."

She accepts the barb without comment, it's not untrue and even though she can only recall tendrils of the red haze that swallowed her for those few but decisive minutes, she knows the anger was justified, at least the part that was directed at him.

But to explain it here, in this cheerful coffee shop, when the object of much of that night's anger is wearing a crisp white shirt, looking like a GQ cover model for 'good, clean, demonless living' – it's a world away from Sunnydale, and it's hard.

Yet it's important to do this now, to get all the nagging questions out, even if they're hard to answer. So that when they are finally to the point where they're able to take that first (huge) step back into a relationship, he doesn't wonder if it's someone else she wishes she was with. So that she doesn't balk when he makes a promise, fearful that he won't keep it. So that he doesn't worry that she won't call him in times of trouble. They need to clear the air so that the past doesn't trip them up in the future, holding them to ransom.

So she tells him again about feeling betrayed and let down by his attitude at 'that meeting' following Willow's resurrection spell. She tells him how after the Spike saga she was determined to be self-reliant and handle the various parts of her life alone. She swirls the remaining contents of her glass with her spoon and confesses that she must have been more angry with him than she had wanted to admit at the time, because when 'that patrol' turned into 'the battle' she realized she'd rather die than have him come sweeping into town like some knight in shining leather, acting like he was doing her a favour by helping her fight the Hellmouth's demons, when her personal ones –the one's he wouldn't stay around to help with – had just quadrupled thanks to his presence.

She looks up into his eyes and she can tell from the deceptively calm expression that she's hurt him. So what else is new? She's been hurt too. Between his relationship with Cordelia, the child he had with Darla, the involvement of her mother in their break-up, his reasons for not sticking around after her 6-foot-under experience, the perfect day she can't remember. . . sometimes she's just gone home from their meetings and balled her eyes out for the whole night. Each revelation still echoing in her mind and stinging like he's purposely designed it to exact the maximum amount of pain.

He meets her eyes and takes a breath of his own, taking the new knowledge in, storing it away to ponder over later, when he doesn't have to hold his emotions in check.

"Your turn," he tells her, his voice revealing only a trace of what he's feeling.

She opens her mouth to ask what he and Cordelia had spoken about after she'd warned Cordelia to "Get. Out. Of. My. Face," looking like she wouldn't hesitate to backhand her the way she'd just hit Angel. Then she closes it again as she realises that she really doesn't need to know and instead tells him: "I'm done."

"You're what?" he asks alarmed, his mind swirling around the possible meanings of her unexpected statement. Done with this, done with them, done with him. . . ?

"My questions - I don't have any more," she tells him, watching the expressions flit across his deep brown eyes.

Some things she's learned to forgive, some things she'll just have to accept, but not having to turn the questions over and over in her mind until they churn her insides because there are no answers except the ones she invents – it's such a welcome relief she wonders how long it has been since she last felt this light.

"I know what I need to know Angel, but we can keep doing this for as long as you need to. . ."

"What do you know?" he interrupts.

She takes a deep breath and wonders why she never realised she was done last night, or some other time when she could have organised her thoughts and decided what she really wanted to say.

"I know that you've hurt me more than anybody else ever has or ever could – I hope," she pauses as he winces slightly, and she fights the urge to stop. To give up. She needs to say this now so that she never has to again.

"I know that it hurts this much because I care about you. I know that being with you makes me smile, like my favourite ice cream and sunny days," she pauses to breathe, determined to let down the walls and share this with him, "You calm me and you comfort me and you fill me with a sense of well- being."

He looks away trying to process her conflicting feelings and she's glad for the momentary respite from the intensity of his gaze as she stumbles over what she has to say next.

"I know that I don't entirely trust you with my heart. Even though you've explained the reasoning behind the decisions you made, I can't help but feel that trusting you is like sticking my head in a guillotine and hoping you don't let it fall - again." Pause. "And I know that I can live without you and I can be happy. But-"

She softly touches his hand, willing him to look at her and then feeling almost physical pain at the glassy expression in his eyes when he does, "But I also know that being with you makes living special. I know that I've made a lot of mistakes and I need you to get past them because I love you more than I ever thought possible. And this?" She gestures with the hand not currently entwined with his on the table, "This peaceful space I'm in right now? This solace I've found? Will never be complete without you in it. I know that I want to trust you and I want to try again. I want to try us again. . . if you still want me."

Her voice wavers on the last part and she silently chastises herself for it while she waits for him to respond. He's no longer looking at her, his gaze has dropped to rest on their hands, loosely entangled and warm against the cool metal of the trendy coffee shop table. Her eyes slowly follow the line of his arm down to his wrist, to his fingers, and to hers, surprised at the satisfied feeling that settles over her at the simple sight of her hand in his. Especially when it wasn't too long ago that they sat closed off to one another, separated by so much more than the few feet the small table imposed, and the very thought of him touching her, of his hand even brushing hers as he reached for the sugar, made her skin crawl and her stomach ache with anger, revulsion and with sour regret she'd tried hard to keep hidden.

She figures it's at least a good sign that he hasn't let go of her hand yet.

"Buffy?"

His voice registers in her mind and stops it from tumbling down into the painful and familiar depths of their pasts. Pasts. As in separate. Separate lives, separate existences, separate futures.

She forcibly shrugs off the thought and turns her attention back to Angel when he gently squeezes her hand, bringing her attention to focus squarely on the present.

He smiles, that sexy little half-smile that was guaranteed to make her stomach flip when she was a teenager, and she returns it before she can stop herself, forgetting all about the trepidation over her earlier confession and his current lack of response.

"Okay."

One word. It's all he says, and it's enough. She doesn't want to hear grand speeches and poetic decorations of love from him, they're both long past that. Instead, she sighs in relief, his smile broadens into an amused grin, and for the first time in what seems like forever, the silence between them is something other than bitter or stifling. Instead, it's something new, something warm, something, she thinks, like possibility.

"And just for the record," he ends the moment, his tone serious, "I've *always* wanted you."

She laughs at that, a real laugh, and not one of those chuckle-politely-to- avoid-uncomfortable-silences laughs, and he gives up the charade and joins her. Both allowing the residual tension inherent in these meetings to slide away. She releases his hand to push her bangs out of her face and he leans back and twirls his straw between his fingers.

There's a moment of awkward silence as the echo of their laughter fades and she wonders briefly if they've said everything there is to say.

"There is one other question I want to ask," his voice gives nothing away and he glances out the window as she amends her previous thought to wonder if they'll ever really be free of their history. If the rest of their lives will forever be tainted by the wreckage of those years in between Then and Now.

She feels that same tightness that arises with each new round of twenty questions settle in the center of her chest once more, extra-apprehensive over what he could possibly want to bring up after all she just admitted, as she replies: "Yes?"

"Would you like to go to dinner with me, sometime?"

His question hangs there between them until her mind, still caught up in preparing for the worst possible scenario (not Spike again, not now), finally wraps around reality and she feels that knot of dread in her chest dissolve and slide past her heart, forgotten, as it's her turn to continue the game he started. She purposely lets out a deep breath, and bites her lip in mock consideration, delaying her answer as payback for the setup he dragged her through with the question.

She runs a fingertip along the rim of her glass, arches an eyebrow up at him and smiles slyly when she sees that he's trying, and failing, to seem composed and unaffected. Lets the silence stretch out a little too long before answering: "Okay."

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