All Roads Lead to Sunnydale Chapter 8 By Gem

Buffy dropped down onto the curb and pulled her knees up under her chin. She was too far away to feel the heat of the flames or smell the smoke, but she could still hear the sirens in the distance. It wasn't over yet.

Four days, that was all it took. Four days ago she was hanging with her friends at the Bronze, patrolling suspiciously quiet cemeteries and putting off any life-altering decisions until some indeterminate point in the future. No one asked anything of her other than her presence, so she didn't have to play any games or pretend to feel things she couldn't. For the first time in a year she had permission not to feel anything at all. And somehow, in the dearth of expectations, she slowly began to rediscover the emotions she thought were forever lost.

Then came a sound she had never expected to hear again. The indifference she had been slowly trying to unwind from around her soul was stripped away in a flash, leaving her heart bruised and torn.

And Angel thought she was the one with the prophetic dreams.

* * * * *

This time she didn't hear any sounds from the past, or any sound at all, but suddenly she could sense his presence just the same. Some things, at least, never changed.

"I guess you found me." She didn't bother to turn around.

"You knew I would."

She didn't answer.

"It wasn't too hard really," he continued after a moment. "Only in Sunnydale would there be a cemetery next to the city park."

"Home sweet home," she sighed.

Angel approached Buffy slowly. There were so many things left unsaid, and most of them were probably safest left that way. But it was so hard. When he saw her small form crouched on the curb, alone in the dark, all he wanted to do was take her in his arms and tell her everything would be okay.

Lies, all lies. Nothing was the same; it never could be.

"How are you?" he asked softly.

"Peachy." One foot slowly extended to push a pebble around on the cobbled path. "Let's latest attempt at a non-you romance literally went up in smoke, my best friend is about to get her heart broken, and I don't even want to think what Mom will say when she finds out I've burned down yet another public building. Just another day in the life of Buffy Summers, defender of the universe." She cocked her head to look up at him. "So how's your night going?"

He grinned with relief at her wry tone. If Buffy could still be sarcastic, she would be just fine.

"Compared to you, great."

"Happy to be of help." She returned her attention to her shoe.

The smile faded from his face. "How are you really? I mean about the whole Riley thing?"

Buffy looked off into the distance, trying to find the perfect way of expressing her current state of confusion.

"Would that be the thing where he turned out to be 400 years old and the son of your ex-girlfriend; the one who killed you before I did? Or are you talking the thing where he only dated me in the first place because he wanted to kill you?"

"Yes," he answered weakly.

She sighed heavily. "Honestly? I'm not sure. I know I should miss him or feel guilty or something but...I mean, what happened was horrible, but it feels like it happened to a stranger. It did, really. I knew I never knew him, but...I really, really didn't know him."

"It wasn't your fault, Buffy. You couldn't have seen this one coming."

"I never do," she sighed as she dropped her chin on top of her knees. "Did you get Tara home okay?"

"Yeah, I took her all the way into the apartment, made sure Willow was there and that they started talking." He looked down at his hands. "No guarantees, but I think they're going to be all right."

"Good. Maybe we can salvage at least one happy ending from tonight."

Buffy showed no signs of interest in leaving this quiet place, so Angel decided to join her. Noticing her slight shiver in the cool night air, he removed his leather duster and draped it around her shoulders.

"You look cold." He hesitantly sat down next to her, carefully preserving a distance between them.

She sat up a little straighter and wrapped her arms around herself, clutching the coat to her body. A brief smile tugged at her lips. "You know, one of the first things I remember about you is when you lent me your leather jacket outside the Bronze because you thought I looked cold."

Angel shrugged. "What can I say? You never remember to bring a coat when the weather first turns. I worry." Instantly he wished the last phrase back, but there was no reneging on it now.

"I still have it, you know."

"I know."

She stared up at the starry sky. This was a night meant for love and lovers. Yet despite all the tremendous, life-altering upheavals they had shared in the past 24 hours, somehow this awkward outreach was the best she could manage. She struggled for the words to explain all the emotions that now raged within her.

"I don't wear it anymore. I used to, all the time."

"There's no reason for you to wear it now. As big as it was on you, I think you outgrew it."

She turned her head swiftly to look deep into his eyes, trying to communicate with her heart what she could not find the words to say.

"That's not why. I wore it until...until Acathla came into the picture and I killed you." She raised her hand before he could interrupt her. "I didn't stop because of anything you did as Angelus; don't ever think that. I could always separate you from the demon, even if you have trouble believing that. I brought it with me to LA, actually. I took one tiny duffel bag, but I made sure that big leather jacket was in there. For LA in the summer. Makes a lot of sense, huh?"

"It does to a vampire," he said with a forgiving smile.

"I stopped wearing it then. I took it out when I got to LA and I was going to put it on...and then I realized it still smelled like you. After all the times I'd worn it in the year I'd had it, it still smelled just a little like you, and I knew if I wore it anymore the smell might wear off. I'd already lost you, but I couldn't let that last little piece slip away." She blinked back her tears as she turned her head away.

A moment later she felt his hand ever so lightly stroking her hair.

"Don't cry, baby," Angel whispered. He leaned over, fighting the urge to take her in his arms. She was wounded, and all he wanted to do was kiss the pain and make it go away.

But all too soon he was going away, and if he held her now, the pain would be that much worse for both of them when he had to let go. He had spent too much of the past 24 hours ignoring that fact; he would not fail her again.

She wiped her eyes and forced a half-hearted smile. "I'll stop now. I don't want you to remember me crying when you walk away this time."

Angel drew back abruptly and dropped his hands onto the curb on either side of his body. He stared at the trees waving in the cool pre-dawn breeze, not daring to look at her righteous anger.

"I have responsibilities," he said steadily, "people who depend on me, just like you do. I have to go."

"I know. I mean I understand." She suddenly realized this was an eerie echo of their prom night conversation. "I really do understand this time, Angel. You were right when you left before, even if you were too polite to say the real reason."

He stared at her in total confusion. "Buffy, you know why I left. There wasn't anything polite about it. Sewer, remember?"

"Angel, please, after all we've been through tonight, we at least owe each other some honesty."

"Well, as you've pointed out, that's not always my strong suit," he responded glumly.

"Were you ever going to tell me? About the past human and future human stuff?" There was no anger in her voice this time; it had all burned out as she stared at the stars, waiting for him to return.

He thought about it for a moment, wanting to be as forthright as possible. She was right, he owed her at least that much. "About the future, if it happened, then yes, when it happened I would have told you. And the past, well, I was saving that for after the future one, if it happened in time. I wanted there to be some time, some happy memories in between it and us."

"I'm sorry you had to be the one stuck with all the angst this time. I wish...I wish I could remember it more clearly," she said hesitantly. "I have these dreams, but they're not really specific; they're kind of fuzzy and, you know, dreamish. Feelings mostly, not a lot of words, so I don't remember anything about saying I wanted to be normal with you being normal, but...I know I didn't mean it the way it sounded. I'm just not really good at expressing myself."

"Buffy, it's okay. You were only trying to tell me you were happy, and that's all I've ever wanted for you."

God, why did she have to remember any of it? They'd promised him she wouldn't, and as hard as it had been to carry on alone, at least he'd known for once he had spared her pain. Somehow, though, he managed to screw up even that.

"But I hurt you," she protested. "Even if things had stayed the same, even if you were still human, that would have made you feel like you weren't good enough before, and it's not true."

"I survived," he reminded her gently. "We both did."

"Thanks to you."

"It had to be done. No matter what we might have wished for, I couldn't see another way out." No need to mention the endless nights spent replaying that day, trying to see where he might have changed the bad and still kept the good.

Kept her.

"So once again our plans went up in smoke." She winced. "Okay, time for a new metaphor."

"I am sorry for all the things I've hidden from you; I promise there aren't any more."

"None except the real reason you left." Buffy wasn't about to let go this time without a fight. That was where she made her mistake the last time.

"You keep saying that, but it's not true," he protested. "You know why I left."

"Well, putting aside the whole legal thing, which I still don't really get, what do we have? Kids? I think my behavior this past year has pretty much proved that's not going to happen either, no matter who I'm with."

"Buffy, please..."

She raised her hand to rest over his cool lips. "Angel, I'm sorry," she said swiftly. "I didn't say that to hurt you, though why you should believe that after the things I said last spring, I don't know. I just mean..." She dropped her hand and looked away, unable to face him for this painful portion of her confession. "I did a lot of stupid things a lot of times and if it was ever going to happen, it would have already. So kids are a not, too. And sunlight is a dead issue, if you'll pardon the pun. I'm in class during the day and when I graduate I'll be at work, so I really don't need a daytime playmate." She sighed heavily. "What I need is a keeper. After the way I acted this year, I don't blame you for leaving."

"I didn't leave because of anything you did, Buffy. I wanted you to have a better life than I could give you."

She reached out and softly touched his pale cheek. "Always the gentleman. You left so I could grow up, and I realize now you were right."

"You have one of the oldest souls I know."

"Well then, welcome to the wonderful world of bipolar. Slaying made me grow up too fast, and then I think I grew backwards or something when you left, just because I was so angry that you thought I wasn't grown up enough for you." She took a deep breath. "But now I've had my playtime, and now I think I'm ready to start the real life stuff. Kind of like you are." She slid her hand down to clasp his. "I still have some growing to do, and so do you, Mr. I'm the Only One Who Knows How to Make A Decision, but I'd like to know that someday, when we're both a little steadier on our feet, we'll finally have that future we used to be afraid to talk about."

"Buffy, nothing's changed," he protested. "You know there's no guarantee that I'll ever become human, and without that we can't...we can never truly be together. Sooner or later that would tear us apart. I don't want that for you." He stared at the small hand clasped in his own. It felt so right, so natural, and yet it was not meant to be. The universe had other plans for both of them.

"Angel, I know part of what you thought I needed to be happy was sex, but I think you're wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but...when we made love, it literally shook the soul right out of you. Has it ever been like that before?" She looked away for a moment. "Or since?"

"No!" He couldn't believe she would even ask him such a thing. He reached over and put his palm to her cheek, gently but firmly turning her head to face him. "No," he repeated emphatically.

She lifted her hand and held it over his on the side of her face. His palm felt so cool against her skin, so soothing, so...Angel.

"Then why would you think it would mean anything more to me to have sex with someone not you?" she whispered.

"That's not exactly the point, Buffy. I mean, fine, say you become celibate, I become celibate. Do you really think we can stay celibate together?"

He gently pulled his hand away and rested it in his lap. Touching her was too familiar, and too dangerous. He couldn't even bear to look at her; she was always so beautiful to him, and never more so than at this moment. But the closer they were, the closer he wanted to be. It was a vicious circle from which there could be no magical escape.

"I asked Willow to research binding spells," she confessed softly. "To keep your soul front and center in the event of a happiness emergency."

Angel's head snapped up. "When?"

"Last spring," she explained, "after you came to apologize for all the awful things I said to you. She hasn't found anything definite yet, but she's narrowing it down. And I think we can count on Tara's help now too, so you ought to be clause-free before you know it."

She closed her eyes for a moment to whisper a silent plea to whatever benevolent forces might be listening. Please, oh, please, let this be the truth, she begged; if anyone deserves happiness, it's him.

"Why did you do that?" His voice was an anguished whisper.

"What, you're the only who gets to make decisions for both of us?" she teased. When he didn't smile back at her, she sighed and explained. "I know you still don't believe it, but you are a good person. You deserve happiness, whether it's with me or not. And I don't blame you if you don't want me after all I've put you through, but..."

Shock warred with confusion in the ebony depths of his eyes. She lived in every corner of his soul, her breath gave him the closest thing to life he would ever know; how could she believe he would forget the joy she gave him?

"Where did you get the idea I don't want you? It took me 241 years to learn how to fall in love, why would I forget so easily?"

"Because you've changed," she replied softly.

"Not that much," he protested. "Nothing will ever change how I feel about you. You taught me how to love, and to trust and to give something back instead of just taking. The day I first saw you was the day my life began."

"You turned your life around, not me." Buffy could hear the ragged edge building in her voice, and tried to calm down. She had to stay focused; she had to get through to him. "I saw how you are with your friends, and they really are your friends, not just friends-in-law. I saw you smile, and joke, and tease; I saw you taking charge and taking care of people and...and I think I'm even more in love with the man I see you becoming than the man you were, if that's possible, but I am so mad that it's happening without me!"

"It's never without you," he whispered as he reached out to trace the tear slowly sliding down her cheek. "You're a part of me always."

She caught her breath and steadied her voice. "Then prove it. Come back to me. Not now, not yet, but...don't close the door this time. I need some time to figure out what I want out of life besides you, and you need to do some major self-esteem repair." She smiled at him through her tears. "I'm not ready yet, and you're not ready yet, but I think together we may be ready sooner than you think."

He looked deeply into her eyes. They had been through so much during this time apart, almost as much as when they were together. The latest trip to hell may have been more metaphorical than in times past, but the ravages still showed in her eyes, and probably his own. Yet somehow they survived, and their love survived. It was almost enough to make a person believe in that elusive happy ending.

Angel stood up regretfully. "It will be dawn soon. I need to go."


He could hear his father whispering to him, telling him to run before he hurt her again. The longer Angel's silence held, the louder his father's voice became, until at last the voice was shouting an endless litany of his failures and promises of future ones. He couldn't stand it; he had to make a choice, here and now, and hold fast this time. For once and for always.

"I won't close the door, Buffy. Not as long as you want it open."

As Angel looked down at her, his smile was full-blown, for the first time in almost a year. And, at least for now, his father's voice was silenced.

"So no more stupid 'wait till I'm human' talk?" Her voice was filled with fragile hope. "I know we have to take things really slow, but I don't want to put off getting started while we wait for something that never really mattered to me anyway. I wanted it for you, Angel, not for me. I thought maybe if you were human, you'd believe you were forgiven and you'd feel...whole again."

"You make me feel whole," he whispered. "Only you."

"So that would be a 'no' to the wait thing?" she asked impatiently. She didn't want to leave anything open to interpretation, or misinterpretation, this time.

"That would be a no," he agreed in a solemn voice, just the barest twinkle lighting his eyes.

She closed her eyes for a moment and whispered a prayer of thanks. Then she stood up beside him and took his hand. "I'll walk you to your car."

"I can give you a ride home," he offered.

She shook her head. "It's a nice night for a walk."

They wandered slowly through the cemetery and back to the park, hand clasped firmly in hand and Buffy's head resting on Angel's arm. When they reached the car he opened the door, but she put her hand down to push it closed again.

She thought quickly, desperate to keep him with her for just a few more precious minutes. "Hey, what about Cordy's shoes? She'll never let you hear the end of it if you forget," Buffy warned him.

Angel smiled. "I'll buy her a new pair. Or maybe I'll bring her back to get the old ones herself."

"Is that how this will work?" She wavered between doubt and delight. It all seemed to good to be true. "We can visit sometimes, and talk on the phone, and I saw a computer in your office last year so I bet you can do e- mail, though come to think of it, your office did blow up so maybe not, but..."

"We'll figure it out as we go," he interrupted her with a smile. He couldn't believe how happy she sounded proposing the same scheme she had hated so much last Thanksgiving. Maybe they really had needed that time apart, but now it seemed right that it should end. "You're right; we both need to deal with our own problems, but...aren't friends supposed to help with that sort of thing?"

"That's the rumor," she agreed with a matching smile.

"I really have to go," he said regretfully, looking up at the night sky. "As it is I might have to stop off on the way to get out of the sun."

She fingered the sleeve of his shirt, coyly glancing up at him through her lashes. "I shouldn't have kept you so long. I'm sorry," she murmured, not looking particularly repentant.

"No, you're not," he laughed.

Oh, how she loved the sound of that laugh.

"Well, if you insist on leaving...don't I get a good-bye kiss?" she whispered, leaning against him as he leaned against the car.

He shook his head, his dark eyes for once unreadable.

"No, you don't."

She gazed at him in deep confusion. "But I thought..." she protested, until he sweetly silenced her.

His long cool fingers curved along her jaw as he tenderly brushed his thumb against her warm lips. He opened both heart and eyes, so that she might see the truth shining from deep within.

"I won't say good-bye to you, remember?" He smiled softly as his lips closed over hers.

She slid her arms up around his neck, clinging to him with all the slayer strength at her command. He held on to her just as fiercely, trying to imprint the feel of her body against his to keep him company in the lonely days to come. For just an instant, Angel remembered the way it felt to hold her and kiss her that last time, at the end of their lost day, believing it would indeed be the last time. The pain of that fleeting memory clawed at him, as always, but he finally had the strength to push it away. That was the past, and nothing could stand between them now. Not even themselves.

At last, when Buffy thought her air would run out, Angel broke the kiss and rested his head on top of hers. Her hair reeked of smoke, and he could feel the tiniest fragments of glass against his chin, but he didn't care. All he required of paradise was within the circle of his arms.

"I love you," she whispered, pressing a gentle kiss in the hollow of his throat.

His arms convulsively tightened around her as he basked in that simple phrase. They had fought so long and hard for the right to say those words, and he would never take them for granted, even if he did actually live forever.

"I love you," he whispered huskily in return.

Eventually he had to release her and she reluctantly stepped back to allow him to open the car door. Angel climbed in, but he didn't turn the engine on yet. Looking up at Buffy as she leaned against the car, he couldn't help but grin; she looked like a little girl playing dress-up with her father's coat.

"I'm going to need this one back, you know." He tugged at the sleeve of the leather duster.

She pushed back one of the long sleeves of the coat to free her hand, and pulled up the collar of his shirt to protect his neck from the cold. Succumbing to an irresistible urge, she briefly slipped her hand inside the collar to twine her fingers in the hair that lay on the back of his neck.

"I'll bring it myself, special delivery," she promised.

He grabbed her fingers and pulled her hand to his lips to bestow the softest kiss imaginable, just a brief sketch of his cool lips across her warm skin.

"I'm counting on it."

With a twist of the key, and swift shift of gears, he was off; once again headed away from Sunnydale and Buffy. This time, though, she wasn't worried. That road ran both ways, and sooner or later he would be driving towards her once again. Some day, when the ghosts in him had been laid to rest, and the woman in her was more reality than potential, he would come back to her, or she would go to him.

In the meantime, she had some growing up to do, and he had some letting go.

But she had his word that they didn't have to do it alone, she mused. She could still call him, or maybe drop in unexpectedly, just to see the look on his face when she walked through the door. The look that said he'd been waiting for her, and only her, all his life.

Now that she thought about it, Thanksgiving might be the perfect time to do it. Two months should allow for plenty of personal growth on both their parts, and maybe this visit would help to ease the pain of last year's memories, and non-memories.

Who knows, she thought happily, maybe by then Willow and Tara could even have come up with a loophole-free binding spell. But if not, it would still be all right. Despite her missed chance for immortality, and Angel's soon-to-be loss of the same, for once she had no doubts that time was on their side.

With a chuckle of pure delight, she launched into an off-key version of "My Guy" as she began to the long walk back home.

-The End-

Author's/Historical Note: In order of mention: the Battle of Kinsale, where Jamie Finn supposedly died, was real, and it was one of the most pivotal battles, and defeats in the history of Angelo-Irish relations. The Brehon Laws were also real, and they did actually contain statutes forbidding impotent or sterile men from marriage. This ancient code of the Gaels was abolished by the English in 1603, but after more than a millennium of observance and respect, the Irish did not let go easily. As late as 1921, the Brehon Laws were brought before the parliament of the newly formed Republic of Ireland in an attempt to reestablish them as the law of the land.

As for the Finn family of Kilcolgan, Co. Galway, well, there the facts were somewhat...interpreted. To the best of my knowledge, no mention of otherwordly connections was ever made about the family, but they fall into an odd but true category historically.

According to the English census of 1861, there was exactly the same number of Finn family members in the village of Kilcolgan (located just 10 miles southeast of Galway City) as there had been in 1841 census. This fact would not be so surprising were it not for the Great Famine of 1845. By 1848, the population of Ireland had decreased by more than 2 million, due to death and emigration. Two million gone, and yet the Finns remained as numerous as ever.

Kind of makes you wonder about old Riley, eh?