Disclaimer:  The line of dialogue bounded by // marks is a quote from "I Will Remember You."  The lyrics at the end are from "Heal Me," by Melissa Etheridge.  The characters, of course, belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy and 20th Century Fox.

Heal Me

Part 11

By Gem

"You know that I love you."

Angel's words fell like a veil between he and Buffy, leaving her alone and frightened on the other side.   

"Did you ever notice," she said quickly, "how three little words in front of the big 'three little words' suddenly makes something really good...really bad?"

"Buffy..."

She pretended not to hear the tender entreaty in his tone; she didn't want to think about it might foretell.  "I kind of noticed it because every time you've used that phrase, something I really didn't want to hear came next."

"I love you; okay?  I've always loved you, from the first moment I saw you."  Angel's tense faced relaxed a little from the memory.  She'd been so young back then.  In some ways they'd both been so young.  "Nothing could ever make me not love you.  It's me I'm not always too crazy about," he finished ruefully, returning to the present with mixed emotions.

"Tell me about it."

"I'm trying," he reminded her, trying to keep the tightness in his gut from showing in his voice.

"Oh, right. Sorry."  She bit her lip, holding back the nervous words that were bubbling up in her throat.

Angel tried to collect his thoughts, searching for an explanation that wouldn't sound like an excuse.  "I've never regretted falling in love with you, but there's been times I regretted you falling in love with me.  Because it hurt you," he continued quickly, holding up a hand to ward off her instinctive protest.  "Or because I knew it would hurt you later.  All I've ever wanted is for you to be happy and safe, and everything...even the stupid things...that I've done since I met you has been because I wanted to do what was best for you."

"I know that."  She caught his upraised hand in hers and brought it down to rest beside the other in her lap.  They were bound now; the connection running from one pair of joined hands to the other, completing a circuit nothing could breach. 

"I may not have always liked the decisions, Angel, but I never doubted you made them for my sake, not yours."

"Good.  Just...hold that thought for a few minutes, okay?"

Buffy frowned; her fear was easing slightly but curiosity was taking its place.  "Okay, well we know the why now, so what did you do and when did you do it?"

"Do you remember coming to visit me at my old office a couple of years ago?  Not when Faith was here," he added before she had a chance to respond.  "The first time, after Thanksgiving."

"I remember."

Her words, uttered with such unhappy certainty, almost broke his heart. 

"No you don't.  What you remember of that day and what I remember...they're different.  Very different."

"Kind of a 'he said; she said' sort of deal?"   Somehow she wasn't surprised when Angel shook his head.

"More like a 'take one; take two' deal," he corrected.  "Or maybe a 'now you see it; now you don't' thing."

"See what?"

How...where...to begin?  What words would make the quickest, cleanest cut?  He'd thought of little else since they climbed in the car, but Angel still wasn't sure there was a right answer.

"Me breathing, for starters." 

"You breathe, Angel."  She nodded at his chest, now falling as he released pent-up air and tension.  "You just did.  Where's the headline in that?"

"But I don't breathe because I need to...except for that day.  Because that day...only that day...I was human."

"No you weren't."  She pushed the words out quickly, instinctively slamming the door on any other possibility.

"Yes I was.  You don't remember it, but I was."  He watched her face closely, trying to read what she was thinking from her shuttered hazel eyes.

"Human," she repeated, in an oddly flat tone.  "Human and breathing."

"That's right." 

He was telling the truth; oh God, he was telling the truth.  A voice in her mind kept repeating the chant, trying to make the words seem real.  Trying to reshape her world to fit this new knowledge, even as she sought to distance herself from it.

"Bleeding too?  Oh wait; you already do that.  How about eat...no, you can do that too.  So you were breathing, huh?  For the first time in a few centuries, too."  She heard her voice from a distance, heard the mindless babble but was powerless to stop it.  She needed time, however it was purchased.  "How did you like it?  Bet you missed that nice clean 18th century air, huh?  Boy, LA in the twenty-first...no, it was still the twentieth, wasn't it...that's some air you can really sink your teeth into.  Except of course your teeth wouldn't be the same either because you were..."

"Human," he finished for her. 

"And this little newsflash slipped my memory because?"  Buffy's voice was rising, a fine edge of hysteria pushing it ever upwards despite her best efforts to maintain control.  "It seems like something fairly earth-shattering, at least in terms of us.  So why am I not remembering anything about that day but a quick, and let's not forget painful, chat in your office before I took the bus home and cried myself to sleep for a week?"

"Because the Oracles...representatives of the Powers That Be...took away your memories when they erased the day," he said gently.

"Erased?  They took a big old sponge and just wiped it away?  That's a cute trick, especially considering that I do remember that day.  I just don't remember you being human."

"You weren't supposed to."  Angel turned his fingers within her grasp so that he was now cradling her hand.  "They erased the day we had lived and then we relived it.  Only the second time around I changed something that changed...everything."

"What did you change?"  She was amazed at how calm she sounded, at least to her own ears.

"The Mohra demon.  The second time he came into the office I knew how to kill him before he bled on me."

"And the first time you didn't," Buffy said.  "So his special brand of monster goo turned you human.  Do you know how crazy that sounds?" she demanded. 

She'd changed her mind; it couldn't be true.  There was no way it could be true.

"Crazier than a vampire with a soul?" Angel shot back.  "Or climbing out of your own coffin three months after the funeral?  Crazier than hellmouths and giant demon snakes who run for public office and..."

"Okay, okay," she interrupted.  "Point taken.  Except about the demon snake politicians.  I don't think they're all that rare."

"Mohra demon blood has regenerative properties," he said wearily.  How could this all still hurt so much?  "Ask Giles; he'll tell you. The first time we didn't know how to kill it...that you had to stab it in the eye.  It took longer to find it, and in the process of fighting it, and I thought killing it, it bled on me.  And I turned human."

"And then turned not."

Human; he'd really been human.  For one day, a day she had no memory of.  Make that too many memories, but not the right ones. 

"That was the next day, after I realized how impossible it all was."

"Impossible!" she choked.  "Thanks for the ego boost."  Buffy yanked her hands out of Angel's cool grasp and crossed her arms over her chest.  Taking a few deep breaths to calm herself, she forced the next words out of her mouth.  "Go on."

He wanted to stop, to go back to before he listened to Cordelia's advice and opened his mouth.  But Buffy had been brave enough to share her mistakes with him, even though she was sure he'd reject her for them.  It was time for him to show the same amount of courage, and it was time, finally, to trust her completely with his far-from-perfect heart.

"After I was changed, after I was human, I found you.  On the pier.  It was..." a soft smile lit his face, "it was a warm, sunny afternoon, just like the first day I saw you.  And just like then, all I could see was you."

He was painting the scene in her head in soft and shining colors, but she refused to be seduced.  "Obviously not, if you also saw this whole impossibility angle."

Angel shook his head.  "Not at first.  At first, I thought it was our chance, a real chance to be together.  No curses or clauses to trip us up; no demons to endanger you.  It wasn't until the next day, after the Mohra had regenerated and I couldn't fight it by myself, that I realized there was one demon we still needed."  He slapped his hand against his chest, fingers curling inward as though to drag the monster forth for display.  "As much as I hate the demon inside of me, it makes me strong enough to help you fight.  Without it...I was a liability.  A danger to you."

The Riley defense, Buffy thought incredulously.  She'd always thought Angel was better than that, but obviously she was wrong.  What was it with men, or was it only the men she knew that had this weird thing about fighting their own battles?

"I don't agree," she said, each word issued as an individual challenge.

"No, you didn't," he agreed. 

"I didn't?"  His words sent up a red flag in her mind.  "There's more to this, isn't there?  It's not just about the missing memories, as though that isn't enough."

He'd thought the hard part was over.  He'd been wrong.

"After you had to rescue me from the Mohra, after you really killed it, I took a long walk."  He looked away.  If he saw the pain he was already causing her, saw it grow and multiply with each damning word from his mouth, he'd never make it through to the bitter end.  "I needed to think.  And my thinking led me back to the Oracles, to ask them for a trade."

"You traded," she said slowly, almost seeing the long-ago confrontation unfold before her mind's eye.  "You handed over your heartbeat...for mine."

He nodded.  "The Oracles said you would die."

"Everybody dies, Angel!  Slayers sooner than most."

"But not for me!"  His head snapped up, eyes blazing and face almost flushed with emotion.  "Not protecting me.  But the Oracles...they said if I stayed human...there was a great battle coming and you...no, forget that part."  Angel shook his head; the details behind his decision no longer mattered.  "They said we'd have to redo the day; they said it was the only way to undo my rebirth.  I knew...or at least I thought I knew...that the only way I could help you stay alive was if I had my powers back, and with them my demon.  And I knew...I thought...we couldn't be together anymore once that happened."

"I can't..." she pressed her hand over her mouth, "I can't breathe," she mumbled.  "I have to get some air.  I just...I need air."

"Buffy..."

"Just give me a minute," she begged.  "Please.  One minute."

His reflexes were as good as hers, or nearly so; he could have stopped her flight if he had thought it would help.  Instead Angel watched the love of his life slip out of the cottage, not even closing the door behind her in her haste.

* * * * *

Buffy took a few quick steps away from the cottage and then stopped and turned around.  She wasn't running, not this time, she promised herself.  She just needed a little time; just one minute to herself to start processing all that Angel had shared with her after three long years of keeping it his guilty secret.  If she couldn't get a handle on it, and soon, she was going to say something they would both regret.

She wasn't sure what was hardest to accept about the whole situation: what he'd done or the fact that he'd never told her about it until now.  He knew how hard it was for her to trust people, and yet he'd kept a huge secret from her without ever betraying even a hint of it.  How could she trust him after this?

And yet, he'd given up his life...no, more than that...he'd given up his death for her.  Buffy pressed her back to the cottage wall and slid down until she huddled on the ground, suddenly thinking about exactly what Angel had lost in addition to their shared future.  He was immortal again.  He'd chosen to spend eternity with a demon whispering in his ear because it would hurt him more to cause her harm.  How could she not trust a man who would make such a sweet, stupid sacrifice just for her?

And how could he trust her if she pushed him away the moment he shared a moment of his past? 

She might never know the full scope of Angelus' activities over the centuries, and she wasn't sure she wanted to.  She was sure, though, that Angel had to feel safe enough to share any part of his past, no matter how bad, without fear of rejection, or this relationship would never work.  This couldn't be about her anymore, or even about him.  It was about them now, and as a full partner in 'them,' she needed to get back inside and make him realize it too.

* * * * *

He was sitting right where she'd left him on the sofa; only his head moved when she came back into the cottage, his dark eyes following her every movement.

"Are you okay?" Angel asked hoarsely.

Buffy paused for a moment, searching for an honest answer that wouldn't wound either of them.

"About as good as you," she finally answered.  She glanced at the shuttered windows, thinking of all they held in, and all they shut out, out of Angel's life.  "It will be dawn in a few hours."

"I know."

She hesitantly sat down next to him, maintaining a small but definite distance between them.  There were still too many sharp edges to cut herself on.

"Did we...did we get to see the sunrise together?  Or did you...did they...change things back before then?"

"Buffy do you really want to go there?" 

He had known she would want details, once the first shock had passed.  He'd tried to prepare himself for the return to that place and time, to all those overwhelming emotions.  In the end, though, there was no way to soften the blow for either of them.

"I can tell you, but there's no way I can make it real for you.  And even if I could...it would only hurt worse."  He smiled grimly.  "Trust me; I know."

"I'm not big into pain, Angel, but I can't spend the rest of my life tip-toeing through every conversation to avoid hitting a nerve I don't know about.  Besides, it was my day too."

Angel gritted his teeth, knowing she was right but hating it too; hating himself once again for the pain he was about to cause her.

"After you killed the Mohra demon for good, we went back to my apartment.  I was hurt so you patched me up, and then...we went up on the roof.  To watch the sunrise."  His voice lowered to a barely audible rasp.  "And then, after the sun came up, I went out for a walk." 

Buffy tried to find some portion of these memories in her mind; even after all the mental rearranging the monks had done to accommodate Dawn's presence in her life, she still couldn't believe Angel's Oracles could have taken away ever vestige of that day.  But there was nothing.  No ghost of an image, no fragment of a conversation existed beyond what he had told her.

All that was left of that day were the shadows in Angel's eyes.

"We were happy that day, weren't we?"  She didn't know whether his answer mattered more for her or for him, but it mattered.  "We planned to stay together?  I mean really together?"

// That time you just spent in the kitchen? That was enough time apart. //

"Yeah, we did," he answered, trying to quiet the Ghost of Buffy Past in his head.  "And I wanted that life more than anything...except your life."

She swallowed a groan.  That darned 18th century knight in shining armor complex again; they were never going to be free of it.  Most of the time Angel kept his inner Sir Galahad reasonably under control, but every once in a while it got the best of him.  Literally.  And when it did, she alternated between wanting to swoon into his arms, and beat him over the head with his own breastplate until he cried "Susan B. Anthony!"

"I'm can take care of myself, you know.  I did it the whole time you were gone, and for quite a few fights before you decided to come out of the shadows."  Buffy leaned in closer, speaking very slowly and clearly for the benefit of the sexual revolution-impaired.  "You don't have to protect me."

He made an indistinct sound and turned his palms up in a shrug.  "Apparently at some point I'm supposed to.  Or maybe I'm just not supposed to be in the way when all hell breaks loose."

"How could you be in my way?"

Angel raised an eyebrow at her question.  "We both know how protective you are of me, Buffy.  And I don't have a problem with that...unless I have reason to believe it will get you killed."  He could see she still didn't understand, forcing him to drag to the surface a memory better left alone.  "The way it almost did the last time you saved me.  The night I...fed from you."

Her jaw dropped in astonishment.

"So if I hadn't made you drink my blood the night before graduation, you wouldn't have turned down your newfound pulse?"  Buffy slapped her palm to her forehead.  "Of course not; you'd already have been dead."

"I'm not trying to blame you for what you did," he said earnestly.  "You saved my life.  But that night taught me how far you would go to protect me, and that was when I still had vampiric strength on my side.  If I were human, would you really have been able to let me fight with you as an equal?"  Angel watched her eyes closely, looking for signs of guilty evasion.  "Or would you have always kept one eye turned towards me, watching over me, even when you needed to focus on your own safety?"

"I don't know," she snapped, not yet ready to admit any validity to his argument.  "I never got the chance to find out, did I?"

"No.  I didn't want you to have to face that choice, so I made it for you.  And for that part, I am sorry."

She could see the truth in his eyes; she knew his contrition was real.  There was more to this story than the past, though.

"Then I guess it's my turn for the 'Would you do it again?' bonus round."

Angel dropped his chin down to his chest, cradling his head between his hands.  "How can I answer that?  Everything is so different now."  He looked up again, locking his gaze on hers.  "Would I give up my life to protect you?  Without a second thought.  I can't change that, and I won't apologize for it."  His impassioned tone softened, his voice growing husky with emotion.  "But would I do it the same way, not telling you until after the deal had been sealed?  That I can't tell you, because I'm a different man now.  Back then, it seemed like the only way."

"You make me so mad."  She bit her lip and tried to swallow the tears rising in her throat.  This man made her cry more than any other being on Earth, which only made her want to cry the more. 

"It's not enough for you to leave town to save me from you; no, you even have to die for me so I can't die first.  Well I fooled you, didn't I?"  The tears started to fall freely, but she no longer cared.  "I went ahead and died anyway, and you weren't even here to rescue me.  You gave it up for nothing."

Angel didn't say anything; he couldn't.  He reached out and rested his hands tentatively on her shoulders; when she didn't pull away he gently drew her into his arms.  She submitted to the embrace, but she didn't relax; not at first.

"You gave it up for nothing," she repeated in a hollow voice.  "That's why...is that why you were so angry before?"  Buffy pulled back from Angel's comforting embrace and stared hard into his face, searching for answers in his brown eyes that words might not reveal.  "You wanted to be human for so long, and then you had it, and us, and you had to give it up for me.  And then I didn't even stick around long enough to do anything with the life that you saved."  She freed one hand to rub the tears from her cheeks; suddenly it seemed selfish to be crying for what she had lost.  "You must have felt so...cheated."

"In a way," he admitted, "but because the Powers owed you more than the life you got.  Buffy, the main reason I wanted to be human was for you.  Because you deserved a normal guy, not some twelve-stepping demon with about a million hang-ups."

"So you wanted to be human for my sake, but you didn't want to be human for my sake?"

"I admit, it's got sort of a Fred-ian circle to the logic, but that's about the size of it."  He took a deep breath, preparing for the worst.  "Can you...can you forgive me?  For that, and for not asking you about it before I made my decision?"

She didn't let anything show on her face; it wasn't time yet.

"And for not telling me for the last three years that this ever happened?"

"That too."

"Yes."

* * * * *

Angel stared at her in astonishment.  "Yes?  Did you just say..."

"Yes; I just said yes.  I'd say it in French, but you know how well I did in that class."  She reached out to him, curling her fingers so that the back of her warm fingers pressed lightly against his temple.  "I can forgive you, Angel.  Forgetting is going to take more time."

His face fell.  "Yeah, I can see that it would."

She felt guilty for the making him feel guilty; it gave her a weird flash of how it felt to be Angel on a daily basis.

"I know you've always been scared that someday I'll leave you for a 'normal' life and a 'normal' man."  She ran her hand quickly down his face from brow bone to throat.  "For a little while you were that normal guy, but you were willing to give it up to save me.  That's not something I'm going to easily forget."

"I can't believe you're not mad."

Buffy couldn't help smiling at his dazed tone.  "You weren't paying attention; I am mad.  Just like you're still mad that I jumped off of that tower." Her tone switched from teasing to gently persuasive.  "You were trying to protect me, and maybe, just maybe, protect yourself.  That's pretty much what went down with Dawn and I on that tower.  So we both did what we thought was the right thing for some of the wrong reasons."  She frowned.  "Or do I mean the wrong thing for the right reasons?"

"Maybe both."

"I know we're never gonna be able to forget the past...and we probably shouldn't even try.  But I don't want to be stuck there anymore."  She flashed him a flirtatious smile.  "It's getting boring."

He slid sideways on the sofa, edging closer to her, until his thigh pressed against hers. 

"I think maybe it's time to put the past to rest with more than words," he murmured, reaching up to catch a strand of her hair between his fingertips. 

"Wait," she said, capturing his hand as it started a downward journey along her throat.  "Before we...there aren't any more secrets, right?  No more little bombs waiting to drop on my head just when I start to feel secure?"

He thought immediately of his shansu.  He no longer feared telling her; if Buffy could forgive him for his lost humanity and the future that he'd abandoned, he knew she could forgive him for not telling her of the future that might never be.

But he was also fairly sure that if his shansu had not been realized in the last three years, the secret could wait another few hours.

"Nothing we need to talk about now," he said evasively, leaning in to brush his lips against the base of her throat.

"Angel," she protested, with less force than usual given her sudden scarcity of breath.  "A secret's a secret."

"Mmm, but this is a prophecy kind of secret," he mumbled against her skin.  "Trust me, it'll keep."

She twined her fingers in the curling dark hairs at the base of Angel's neck, her fingernails inadvertently scratching his pale flesh when his lips switched from caressing to sucking at the sensitive base of her throat.

"Good prophecy?" she asked, trying to hold on to the thread of the conversation.

"Mmm," was his only response, and could have been interpreted as more of an expression of passion than an affirmative answer.  Buffy chose to take it as both. 

Talking was nice, she reflected dreamily as she felt Angel's big cool hands slide beneath her top, but sometimes words were just too...wordy.

* * * * *

"Lorne, I'm getting a cramp.  Can't we just talk about this, you know, like grownups?" Cordelia begged.

"If you could talk like grownups, my little glow worm, we wouldn't have had to resort to such drastic measures in the first place."  Lorne peered over the edge of the large white cardboard square in his hands.  "It was either this or a sing-a-long, and I couldn't find enough Tanqueray Gin in the house to get me through that."

"But I'm going to get crushed," Dawn complained, her voice somewhat muffled by Fred's sleeve.

"Think of it as a bonding experience," Lorne advised.  "You all have to learn to share, and there's no time like the present."

"But I wasn't even fighting.  Much."

"Right hand on red," the demon said, ignoring the teenager's complaint with the ease of one who's heard it many times before.

"Hey, I was just pointing out my man Angel was getting a bad rep as a heartbreaker," Gunn protested.  He bent his elbow, trying to find a more comfortable position.  "And I was willing to try the sing-a-long idea as long as I didn't have to start it."

"Listening is a skill that grows with practice, children.  I said right hand on red."

"I wasn't even in the room," Wesley grumbled.  "I'm going along with this merely in the spirit of cooperation."  He gazed sourly at Cordelia over Willow's back.  "Unlike some people." 

"Can we just get on with this," Willow sighed, pulling her right leg up a little closer to her body so that her hip was now in Wesley's face.  "I'm really tired, and I'd like to get to bed sometime this century."  A moment later she abruptly shifted her leg again.  "Wesley, get your chin off my..."

"Willow," Fred hastily interrupted, "stop moving or you'll hit..."

"Fred!" Dawn shrieked, as Wesley arched his back to get away from Willow and then lost his balance.  He toppled over onto Willow, who bumped into Fred, who fell on Dawn.  Dawn then slid beneath Cordelia's precariously braced body, causing the older girl to slam into Gunn's chest and bring him down into the tumbled mass of arms and legs and protesting voices.

Loudly protesting voices.

"Uh, gang, you might want to keep it down or..." Lorne winced as the first wail wafted down the stairwell.  "Yeah, like I didn't know that was coming," he sighed.  "Oh well, it's my get.  You can all sort yourselves out while I'm seeing to the little nipper." 

He stood up and placed the Twister wheel on his chair to save his place.  "Maybe when I come back down we can switch to Pictionary.  Less potential for assault charges."

Cordelia waited until she could see Lorne round the top of the stairs, and until Dawn had gotten off of her lap, before she scrambled up from the multi-colored plastic mat and grabbed Willow's wrist.

"This was not my fault," Willow said quickly.  "Wesley's chin was right on my..."

"Believe it or not, I could actually care less where Wesley's chin, hands, or mind were; I just want to make a deal."

Willow's eyes narrowed as she shook off Cordelia's hand.  "What kind of deal?"

"Not so loud!"  Cordelia glanced anxiously at the stairs, but there was no sign of a demon, green or otherwise.  ""Call it a separate peace," she said quietly.

"I loved that book."  Fred smiled in wistful reverie.  "The end was so sad, though.  I've always wondered if it was really possible for Finny to..."

"Get to the point," Cordelia interrupted.  "Yeah, I used to wonder about that too; that guy just loved the sound of his own voice."  She shook off the memory with visible effort.  "Meanwhile, back in Kansas, I think Willow and I need to make a deal to stop playing offense."

"Cordelia Chase using sports metaphors?  I must be a good influence on you, girl."

Cordelia tossed her head at Gunn's comment.  "I was a cheerleader for three years, after all."

"Big surprise there," Fred murmured in his other ear.

"Cordy, if you have something to share with the class, could you just get it over with?"  Willow stretched her stiff arms out wide and turned her wrists in circles to get the blood flowing again.  "I'm tired and sore and..."

"Way cranky.  I noticed.  Look, I know I've been a little overly tonight; I'm not even sure where it's coming from."  She shivered and rubbed her arms.  "Something about being back in Sunnydale...seeing you again...it's like a gag reflex."

"And this was supposed to convince me to make a deal how?" Willow asked doubtfully.

Cordelia forced herself to take a deep, cleansing breath.  She had to stay calm, for the greater good, and for her greater sanity.  She'd lived through the Buffy Brood-a-thon one too many times; there was no way she was going to let Angel screw things up this time, even if it meant putting on the pompoms for Team Slayer.

"All I'm saying is that if you back off on the Saint Buffy martyred on the altar of love..."

"I never said she was a saint."

"I'll back off on the arch-Angel slain by the evil temptress.  Not that she's such a wiz in the temptress department, but..."

"Don't blow it now, Cordy," Gunn cautioned.  "I think you're on to something."

"...but hey, for Angel she's like catnip."  Cordelia flashed Willow a bright smile, hoping to distract the witch from her close brush with an insult.  "The point is that I want him to be happy, and for some strange reason Buffy makes him happier than anyone else does."  She shrugged at the mystery.  "We've seen the headstones to prove it."

"I don't want Angel to be unhappy," Willow said.  "But Buffy is my best friend and...and her happiness matters just a little bit more to me than his," she finished stoutly.

"And being with Angel makes her as happy as a day without meds can be for her," Cordelia assured her.  "Sure she cries a lot around him, but honestly, how into a guy can you be if you're not willing to let your eyes get a little puffy over him?"

"So you're saying we should make nice for their sakes?" Willow asked, slowly feeling her way through the compromise.  "Try to become friends?"

"Friends?" Cordelia repeated dubiously.  "Umm, not exactly.  We," she waved her hand to indicate the group at large, "will stop saying nasty things about the captain of the opposing team; that's a gimme.  The rest...well, we'll work on it when Romeo and Juliet are out slaying...or whatever they really do on those long patrols."  She smiled brightly, the way she did when Angel asked if his hair looked all right.  "We don't have to become one big happy family all at once.  There are families and then there are families."

"You mean you and I aren't going to stop with the little digs and snipes and sneers that have warmed my heart all these years?"

"Someday.  Maybe."  She smiled again, this time with something resembling respect shining in her eyes.  "Maybe not."

Willow thought about it for a moment.  "I can live with that."

"Well thank heavens that's resolved," Wesley exclaimed.  "I have no idea what this 'Pictionary' thing is, but I'm getting a most unpleasant vision of hurling ice picks at innocent birds in their nests."

Cordelia stared at him as though he were a Gnoshen demon without an exoskeleton.  "What exactly do English people do at parties anyway?  I know it can't all be about the food; I've tried some of it."

"We have heard of party games before, Cordelia."  Wesley straightened his aching spine, trying to suppress a grunt of pain.  "I happen to be very good at Shut-the-Box, I'll have you know."

"Oh, I'll bet that's a crowd-pleaser."  She rolled her eyes.

Explaining the game to her would only take up more of the time he might be sleeping; for once Wesley didn't feel the effort was worth the inevitable outcome.  Even when Cordelia lost an argument, she won.

"It is not my fault that Buffy chooses to collect games requiring physical agility rather than mental," he surrendered with a sigh.

"I'm not even going to say it; it's just too easy."

"Plus it's not allowed," Dawn warned her darkly.  "You just made a pact, remember?"

Willow patted Dawn on the back.  "Give Cordelia some time, Dawnie.  Some are born to niceness and others have it thrust upon them by empath demons."

"Hey, we all appreciate Lorne's opinion, but he knows enough to keep his thrusting to himself."  Cordelia frowned, catching a glimpse of Dawn's smirk.  "Wait, that didn't come out right."

* * * * *

From the landing, Lorne listened to the swirl of competing voices as he rhythmically patted Connor on the back.

"Don't worry, little man; I'll get them straightened out eventually."  With a martyred sigh, he began to descend the staircase.  "At least by the time you graduate to the big table at Thanksgiving."

A demon's work was never done.

* * * * *

"Human?"  Buffy's arms tightened around Angel's chest.  "Again?"

"That's right," he murmured into her hair.  "Wesley finally figured out I had to be alive first in order to die."

She tilted her head to peer up at him, unintentionally digging her chin into his ribcage.  "Not wild about that last part."

"Immortality is a lot less fun than it sounds.  Magazine subscriptions pile up, you eventually end up on every tele-marketer's list in the world, and people keep trying to sell you life insurance because it will never pay out."  He cupped her cheek with one hand, gently shifting her chin to a less painful spot on his chest.  "But you do know there's no guarantee this shansu will ever happen, right?  There were a lot of battles and apocalypse hurdles to jump through first; there's no telling if I'll..."

"Hush," she scolded tenderly, pressing her fingers over his lips.  "You don't like me to talk about dying, and I can't say it gives me a happy to hear you thinking about it either."

He kissed her fingers before he pulled her hand away from his mouth.  "I just want you to realize this is only a maybe, prophecy or no prophecy."

"Is that why you didn't tell me before now?"

He looked carefully into her eyes, the dim light in the bedroom fortunately no impediment to his vision.  To his relief, it seemed her question sprang more from curiosity than hurt. 

"That's why," he agreed.  "I wanted to; you were the first person I thought of when Wes told me.  But it wasn't long after we had that fight, the big one, and I...I didn't feel like I had the right to come running back to you on the off chance that someday I might be able to offer you the life that he...that Riley could."

She smiled ruefully at the mention of her former boyfriend's name.  "Am I supposed to be sorry that you couldn't?"

"I was."

"I know."  She dipped her head and reverently pressed her lips to the spot where her chin had left a red mark on his pale skin.  "And I also know that this isn't a done deal.  What I need to be sure of is what happens if it does."

His brows knit together in confusion.  "Well...my heart will start beating, I'll start to breathe, and I probably better start working out or give up cookie dough fudge mint chip ice cream."

She wondered for a moment why he'd chosen that particular flavor of ice cream, a longtime favorite of hers, as it happened.  But there were other, more important things to wonder about.

"And do you stay with me or leave me because you think I love you too much for my own good?"

Angel stared at her in shock.  "Buffy, I'm not going anywhere.  This is forever; I swear it."

"You've said that before."  She remembered the night, the stars, the sweet words; all hers for a few brief weeks before the world came crashing down around her.  "You promised you'd never leave me, and then you did."

He placed his hands on either side of her face.  "And I kept coming back.  I had to because I belong with you.  I don't know why, because I don't deserve you after all I've done...but there it is."

"And there it was after the Mohra demon, but you gave it up," she pointed out. 

She wanted to trust him; she did trust him, mostly.  But there was always that small worm of fear in each of them that said something so deep and so strong as the love they shared couldn't really exist outside of storybooks.

"Things have changed.  I've changed.  You're talking to a guy who's spent the last three years fighting side by side with everyday, ordinary human beings; it's taught me they're a lot stronger and smarter and...just more amazing than I gave them credit for."

"You better be talking about Gunn," she warned him.

"Buffy, the Mohra demon was an accident; when I went to ask the Oracles about it, before I found you on the pier, even they were surprised.  But the prophecy, when...if...it happens, I'll be what I'm supposed to be."  He lifted his hand to run his shaking fingers through her silken hair.  "I'm not saying I won't fight like hell to keep you safe, but at least I'll know the world is going according to plan."

"That'll be the day."

"It may never be that day," he reminded her.

"But that's not fair," she complained.  "The prophecy said...fair."  Abruptly she twisted out of his arms and sat bolt upright in the bed.  "Fair.  When I came into bedroom Cordelia was saying something wasn't fair."  She curled her legs up to her body and wrapped her arms around them.  "Does she remember that day or did you tell her about it?"

"Neither one."  He sat up beside her, resting a light hand on her stiff shoulder.  "I told Doyle...you remember my friend Doyle?"  At her slow nod, he continued, "I had to tell someone; I'm not quite as brave as you think I am, sucking it all in for the greater good.  I needed someone else to know so it wouldn't seem like such a dream.  I just found out tonight that he had told Cordy."

Angel could feel her muscles instantly relax beneath his hand; he even felt the slightest bubble of a chuckle working its way out of her as she said, "Okay, I guess I won't have to kill her.  Yet."

He wondered briefly if he should mention the slight hitch with her attitude towards Cordelia, but decided to put the moment of truth off for just a few more minutes.  There were more important things to be said.

"I hope someday you'll believe how much I love you; no one comes before that."  He laid both hands on her shoulders and kneaded his strong fingers into her muscles.  "I know I've dumped a lot on you tonight, and I know it's going to take a while for you to work through it all."

"For us to work through it," she corrected him, looking over her shoulder to fix him in her stern gaze. 

"For us," he agreed with a small smile.  "But you said no more secrets, so I'm laying my cards on the table.  Now it's all in the dealing."

"Oh goody; my favorite part."

"We'll be okay this time; I've got a good feeling."  Angel thought about his words for a moment.  "I really do, you know.  It's been so long I'd almost forgotten what a good feeling feels like, but it's coming back to me."

She wanted to be mad at him, or at least have a little mad left to save for when he wasn't naked in the bed beside her.  But that smile on his face, the smile that used to be so rare, left her weak in the knees and floundering for righteous indignation.  They'd already wasted so much time.

"I didn't think we'd be like together this morning," she murmured, turning around to push him back down onto the bed.  She draped herself along the length of his body and began pressing kisses along his jaw as she talked.  "I thought for sure I'd be waking up alone for the next week, but this is so much...much...better."

Angel nuzzled her hair, and then pushed it out of the way to reach her throat.  "This is all I want," he agreed, mumbling into her warm skin.  "You.  Connor.  A life together...somewhere."

She pulled back slightly, looking down at him in surprise.  "I thought we'd settled on Sunnydale.  We talked the other night and..."

"We did," he said quickly, but his eyes didn't quite meet hers.  "It's just going to take a little while to think of it as home."  Angel's dark eyes shifted again, locking on to Buffy's as he stroked the line furrowing her brow with one cool finger.  "But I will, because you're there.  Wherever you are is my home."

"You say things like that and honestly expect me to ever let you go back to LA?"  Buffy dipped her head down and kissed him, seeking out his mouth this time.  It was several minutes later before she was able to continue her thought.  "I want to be with you 24/7 starting now, but...you were right.  There's no rush because it's forever this time.  So when you can call Sunnydale home without even thinking about it, I'll know we're ready for the next step."  She grinned.  "I kind of like having our own private little sign."

"Other than 'No Trespass'?" he teased.

"I plan on doing a whole lot of trespassing," she promised, "so you better get used to it."

Angel raised his head from the pillow to seal the deal with a kiss.  After a minute, he released her mouth, but continued to smooth his hands along her back, delighting in her shivers.

"As long as we're talking about getting used to things..." he began in a wheedling tone.

She groaned, but grudgingly murmured, "What?"

"Well, you do realize that because of the visions, that, umm, Cordy kind of comes as part of the package?"  He waited for a nervous moment in the dead silence before he rushed to fill it.  "Unless the Powers change something, when Connor and I move to Sunnydale, she'll have to come too."  He braced for the explosion.

"Excuse me?"

Buffy sounded perfectly calm, if politely confused, to Angel's ears, but in his experience this was not necessarily a good sign.  In the interests of peace in his time, however, he decided to take her reaction at face value.

"The Powers give her visions that guide me to the people I'm supposed to be helping, so wherever I'm living..."

"No, I meant: excuse me, you're mentioning Cordelia in our bed?"

He frowned.  "But you..."

God, how she loved that adorable little wrinkle on his forehead, the one that appeared whenever she confused him.  Buffy stretched up to press a kiss on the favored spot, prompting a slight groan from Angel as she slid along his body.

"And by the way," she murmured against his forehead, "think yellow pages."

Angel wanted to explain it to her, so that Buffy would know it had nothing to do with Cordelia and everything to do with his mission.  Buffy, however, had begun a tactile adventure of her own and he was having a little trouble concentrating.

"It's not..."

"Important now," she finished for him.  "We have ages and ages to fight about Cordy and every other woman who throws herself at your feet."  She sighed in mock resignation.  "I'll end up having to hang pest strips around the bed to keep them away.  But that's still at least a day away."

His lips curved upwards again in a slow sweet smile as he slid his hand down her tousled blonde locks.  "There are no other women in the world.  There never were for me, not really."

"Good answer."  She dropped a quick approving kiss on his mouth.  "But I'm still buying the pest strips."

"Kinky, very kinky."

Just a week ago that comment would have made her blush and stammer as she tried to outrun memories best left in the dark corners of her mind.  But this morning, after all they had shared and endured to get to this morning, all it rated was a shrug.

"Welcome to the new Buffy.  Willing to try pretty much anything but live without you."

"That's not even an option."

Buffy burrowed her face in Angel's neck, relishing the feel of his skin warming at her touch.  She could feel his hands moving on her back again, and up her sides, making promises she had no doubt he would keep.  It was a moment to hold onto for the rest of her life.

With one tiny, tiny flaw.

"Are you absolutely sure we need Cordy?" she purred into his neck.  "Totally and completely su..."

"Buffy."

"Just checking," she sighed.

He wound his arms tightly around her small frame, savoring the warmth of her flesh and her heart as he made amends with a conciliatory kiss.

"I'm sorry about...you-know-who."  A roguish grin lit Angel's pale face.  "Still love me anyway?"

"Always."

Always.  The word had long been their private pledge to each other, but the sweet fervor in Buffy's whispered reply this morning made it sound more like a challenge to Fate, or the Powers.  Even if his own heart hadn't echoed hers, Angel wouldn't have dared disagree, and he pitied anyone who did.

"Just checking."

* * * * *

Heal me lift me

Take me to the other side

I'll take what I've earned

These lessons I've learned

I'm ready for the ride

* * * * *

The End