Disclaimer: I wish the characters were mine, but they're not. I have every intention of returning them to Joss when I get a life.
Pairing:  B/A (but of course g)
Spoilers: Everything up to "The Initiative." (Yup, that far backg)
Rating: PG13 I guess (it's pretty mild)

Author's Note:  First in the now-complete "The Road Home" series, and one of my first fics (so be kind – I got better, honest g).  This series, for me, takes the place of Season 4/1.

The Road Home

Part 1

by Gem

Cordelia smiled to herself as she popped the tape into the miniature tape player and hit "PLAY." She glanced quickly at her watch, beginning the countdown as a familiar voice filled the shadowy office.

"Hi Cordy, it's me," the voice began.

"Five."

"I don't know why..."

"Four."

"you wanted to keep..."

"Three."

"in touch this way, but..."

"Buffy?" Angel said as he burst into the room, shooting lightning glances all around the room for her.

Cordelia looked up from her watch and smiled even more.  "You're early. I guess you're even worse off than I thought." She hit the "STOP" button and prepared for the storm.

"Where's Buffy?" he asked urgently.  "And what are you talking about?"

"Oops, sorry," she replied, not looking one bit sorry.  "No Buffy, just Memorex."  She pointed to the tape player.  "I thought you might like to hear the tape she sent me, so I brought it in to work with me."

If Cordelia thought her smile projected innocence, her acting career was destined to be over before it began, Angel reflected sourly as he threw himself in a chair.

"You thought I might like to hear it," he repeated slowly, wanting to clarify his grounds for justifiable homicide.

Cordelia decided to take pity on him at that point, big sad husk of a vampire that he was.  "Listen, you're in one of your Brooding Guy moods again, and they're getting worse. And more frequent. Any time you see a little blonde, or martial arts, or even my bra strap, for pete's sake, it brings you back to her. Now I happen to know the one thing that picks you up from one of these episodes is calling Buffy's house and just listening to her answer."  She held up a hand to forestall his instinctive expression of outrage.  "Don't ask how I know, just know that Mrs. Summers is about one call away from changing the number because she's afraid she's being stalked."

"I never meant to scare her," Angel said uncomfortably. He stood up and began to pace, carefully steering a path to avoid the sunlight filtering in through the partially covered windows.  "I just needed..."

"To hear her voice," Cordelia finished for him.  "Look, I understand. That's why I called Buffy and asked her to start taping letters and send them to me. She doesn't know I'm working for you I asked Oz not to tell her. She just thinks I'm lonely, and I know she's lonely, because contrary to the myth about being able to tell best friends everything, she can't talk to Willow about you."

Angel stopped pacing long enough to glance at Cordelia. "Why not?"

"Willow is still pretty mad at you for dumping Buffy. And she thinks this is Buffy's chance to move on. You know, date guys with a pulse."

"It is," he replied softly, resuming his restless prowl of the office.

Cordelia noticed sunlight wasn't the only thing he was avoiding; he was carefully staying away from her desk and the temptation of the tape player.  "Please," she said in exasperation.  "If she had any interest in anyone else, any real interest, she would have pursued it one of the many times she dumped you. She wouldn't have waited until you made her feel like three-day-old cat food to put herself on the market."

Angel winced at her summary of the end of his relationship with Buffy.  "She's dating again," he said defensively.  "Spike said so. She even..." His mind closed down at this point, unwilling to bear the images Spike's words created. Not his Buffy. Now truly not his Buffy, if Spike was to be believed.

Cordelia made an inarticulate expression of disgust.  "Spike," she said dismissively. "You can't trust him. I mean the man was trying to torture you. Short of telling you he killed her, which you wouldn't have believed, how else was he going to get to you?"

Angel hated himself for the surge of joy her words gave him.  "So you don't think..."

Uh oh, Cordelia thought, went a little too far with that one. She spoke quickly, to save Angel the embarrassment of articulating a very private pain she couldn't fix.  "I think she still loves you," she said carefully.  "And I think if she makes a few mistakes in her loneliness, you shouldn't take that to mean she loves you any less."

Angel's face fell as her words sunk in. Spike had been telling the truth, and she was still lonely to boot. He hadn't thought it possible to hate anyone so much, but if he had a stake handy he'd gladly put in his own chest to even the score for the pain he caused his beloved.

Cordelia sighed and picked up the tape recorder. She held it out to Angel with a small smile.  "Take this and play it. Listen to her voice, and get answers to all the questions you won't let yourself ask her. She talks about her classes, and dorm life, and the parties on campus...all the stuff you wanted her to experience."

Angel stared at Cordelia's outstretched hand, wondering if his penance allowed him the joy of hearing Buffy's voice again, outside of his dreams. He was trying so hard to make amends, and make himself worthy of the love she had given him. It hurt almost more than he could bear, knowing he'd never hold her again, or touch her, or feel her touch him. But he wouldn't let his sins hurt her anymore the suffering was to be his alone. And part of that suffering was letting her go, as much as he was able.

Cordelia grabbed his hand and placed the tape player in it.  "Angel, it's not a sin. I know you were trying to be all noble, giving her up for her own good, but nobody asked you to."

"You're wrong," he replied softly, closing his fist around the recorder.

Cordelia was confused she thought she had the full story.  "But Buffy said...the Mayor...you mean someone asked you to leave her?"

"Cordelia," Angel began, but he was halted by Cordelia's astonishingly quick solution of the puzzle. Really, he thought, they had underestimated her brain for far too long.

"Her mom, that's who it was; I'm right, aren't I?" she asked with a triumphant smile, which faded when she saw the pain in his dark eyes.  "That must have really hurt." She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder in sympathy.

"Why I left doesn't matter now. I did, and she's moving on and it's not fair of me to cling to her like this."  Angel hoped his voice sounded calm, because his heart and soul were screaming from the pain as he tried to give the tape player back to Cordelia.

"My God, you are the most stubborn vampire I have ever met," she exclaimed. She waved away his hands, and crossed her arms.  "After all the trouble I had convincing Buffy I missed hearing from her, and that I had to hear her voice, of all things, you are going to listen to that tape, mister. I don't do these random acts of kindness things as a rule, so when I indulge, I want it appreciated. Now go."  She pointed to his private office.  "Listen to her voice, wallow in misery for awhile, and emerge the better vampire for it. I mean man."

He still wasn't moving.

"I said go. A half-hour of happiness won't kill you, at least not this kind of happiness. It won't wreck your penance gig, either, because I'm sure you'll torture yourself that much more for having been at peace a little while. And by the time you've worn yourself out with the mea culpas, the next tape will have arrived."

She pushed a semi-unwilling Angel towards his office. He looked over his shoulder as she prodded him.  "The next tape?"

"Well duh. Like I'm going to say 'Oh Buffy, please send me a letter on tape, but just once.' She's going to be sending them every week or two, so you better get out the old hair shirt. I am going to cheer you up or kill you trying."

* * * * * *

Angel gently laid the tape player down on his desk and stared at it for a moment. He jumped and spun around when the door opened behind him, only to see Cordelia pop her head in.

"Doyle is taking me to lunch. A long lunch, so you'll have the office to yourself for a while. And I've put the machine on and turned down the phone, so you won't be bothered by anyone else either. Enjoy!"

Cordelia pulled back from the doorway and closed the door behind her, leaving Angel alone in the dimly lit office with the tape, and his memories.

He settled himself in his big leather chair and pushed "PLAY," then spun his chair to face the window. If he was going to do this, he was going to pretend she was really in the room with him, not just a little tape player and a 99-cent tape.

With a click, the tape began.

"Hi Cordy, it's me. I don't know why you wanted to keep in touch this way, but I suppose this is one less thing I have to type, so it can't be all bad. Of course I find it hard to believe you miss the sound of my voice that much, but you always seem to surprise me."

Angel smiled at the wry tone in her voice, the one that mixed affection with exasperation. He closed his eyes to picture her sitting cross-legged on her bed, talking to him. The sunlight was caressing her blonde locks, the way he wished he could, and Mr. Gordo, her stuffed pig, was comfortingly close at hand.

"So, you wanted to know how college is. Gee, where to begin. Umm, my first roommate was a demon, a literal one, but her father came to bring her back to hell, so Willow and I are roomies now."

Angel's eyes snapped open and he glanced at the tape in alarm. Buffy's voice continued calmly, however, so he forced his eyes shut again

"Classes are okay. Well, they're sort of okay. I mean they're a little hard, and there's an awful lot of reading involved, which is kind of hard to fit in between stakings, but you remember how that is. Same old same old. I can deal."

There was a pause, and Angel was afraid this was going to be a very brief reunion with his beloved. Then Buffy continued in a much more serious tone.

"Okay, Cordy, I'm going to be straight with you. I'm not sure why; I mean it's not like we were such great friends back in high school. But we were friends, and the one thing I learned about you is that you have no appreciation for gilding the lily. There's no point in lying to you anyway, because you don't need to hear that everything is okay, like my mom, or Willow, or Giles."

Angel covered his eyes with his hand as he heard Buffy sigh deeply. She sounded so lost and alone to him.  This wasn't the way it was supposed to be.

"College sucks. My great experiment with a normal life sucks. My classes are hard, and my professors don't seem to like me much. Nothing new there, I guess. Willow is a terrific roommate, and I'm grateful the demon Mariah Carey fan is gone, but that's been about the high point. My mom has turned my old room into a stockroom for her gallery, so obviously she's not exactly crippled by the Empty Nest Syndrome. Neither is Giles, actually. Every time I go to him for help, the first thing he says is 'Buffy, I'm not your Watcher anymore. You're an adult now.' He does help eventually, but it's not the same. Nothing is the same."

Angel tried to swallow the lump in his throat as he heard the tears behind Buffy's voice.

"Most of all...God, most of all I miss him. You know...you know who I mean.  I can't believe how hard it is to get from one day to the next without seeing him. Knowing I'll never see him again, probably. You'd think this summer would have been practice, but somehow summers aren't real. They're limbo, and now limbo is over and I'm faced with daily life without him. I can't even talk to Willow about it, because she's so set on me starting a brand new 'normal life,' whatever that is. She wants me to go to parties, and out on dates, and I try, but I'm so wretched at it."

There was another long pause, then Buffy began the part of the monologue Angel had been dreading.

"I actually only went out on one date, but it was such a disaster...Well, I thought it was okay at first, to be honest. It wasn't until the next morning that I realized what an incredible idiot I'd been. Wait, no, to be really honest, it still took a few days for the light to dawn. You see, I decided to pretend to be Faith for a night and just live for the moment. I know, great role model, but it was the only way I thought I could get through it without screaming, and I really needed to take that first step. Except the guy was a jerk, and he didn't call the next day, which, come to think of it, is usually what happened to Faith too. I kept thinking he'd call, though, so I guess I was a jerk too, or at least incredibly stupid. I just couldn't believe it didn't mean anything to him, though I don't know why since all it meant to me was..."

Angel sat up and uncovered his eyes again, as though staring at the tape player would force her to continue.

"A milestone, I guess," she said at last.  "Shallow to the core, that's me. I just wanted to sleep with someone so I could say, 'Look, I'm moving on. I'm having sex with other guys.' Aren't I so mature?"

He winced at the self-loathing in her voice. He wanted so badly to take her in his arms right now and make all that pain go away, but it was there because of him. He tried so hard to do the right thing for a change, and he ended up hurting her even more. Nice going Angel, he reflected bitterly, you screwed up in reverse. Typical.

"But at least Willow is happy now, and so is my mom. Of course Mom doesn't know all the sordid details, and Willow is ready to team up with Anya to put a whammy on Parker, but they're still happy that I'm moving on. The thing is, I'm not.  I try; I'm out there every day, talking to guys, going to parties, having fun. You know, normal life stuff. But every night I go back to my room and write in my diary the thousand things I'd tell Angel if he were here. Some of them aren't very nice, I admit. Mostly I tell him I miss him, and I love him, and if I'd known he would eventually make me take the normal life over him, I never would have bitched about wanting one." Her voice became very soft and wistful.  "I wish he'd let himself believe all I ever really wanted was him."

There was a tremulous sigh on the tape, as Angel struggled against the tears forming in the corners of his eyes.

"I'm sorry, Cordy. This probably is not what you were looking for in the way of communication, but I guess I needed someone to talk to besides a diary. Feel free to tell me to keep my venting to myself, if you even feel like replying to this self-pity fest. Somehow or other, I will get through this I always do. Bye."

There were a few minutes of whirring as the tape spun itself to the end, time enough for Angel to reach into his desk drawer to pull out a picture frame. It was a curved double Lucite frame, with two very different pictures of Buffy in it. On the left, a studio portrait, very formal, but with a slightly wry, "my mom made me do this" expression. On the right was his favorite picture, which he now gently caressed. It was a candid Willow had taken of her last spring, and while the photography had its flaws, the subject was perfect in his eyes. Willow had taken it from a slight distance, over his shoulder, as he was approaching Buffy, so her eyes had the look that shut out the rest of the world except they two. Her smile was the one meant for him alone, and her arms were outstretched to pull her to him. For a few minutes, Angel could look at that picture and tune out the rest of his miserable existence as he communed with his memories.

Until the tape player clicked off and he was snapped back to the real world, all alone with nothing but his memories.

"Oh God, baby, I miss you so much," he whispered to the darkness enveloping him

* * * * * *

Cordelia hummed softly, and off-key, as she placed the latest missive from U.C. Sunnydale on Angel's desk. Over two months and Buffy was still pouring out her heart on tape for Angel's benefit. Everything was going perfectly. She turned around to leave the empty office, and ran straight into Doyle.

"That the latest?" he asked sharply, jerking his head towards the desk. He made no move to get out of Cordelia's way, much to her annoyance.

"Why yes it is," she purred, knowing that would annoy him. "Jealous because no one sends you any mail?"

"No one sends him any either," he pointed out. "She thinks she's talking to you."

Cordelia sniffed and slid past him in the narrow doorway, certain she was giving him an undeserved cheap thrill by doing so.  "All that matters is she's talking about him. I don't think he really notices she uses my name at all."

"And he's still not noticing much after he hears the tape either. Your romantic meddling is going to get him killed one of these days."  Doyle perched on the edge of Cordelia's desk as she began to sort the other mail.

"He's already dead," Cordelia said airily, holding an envelope up to the light to see if a check or a bill was enclosed. When Doyle did not respond, she gave up her pretense of unconcern and prepared for a long delayed talk.

"Look Doyle, you've only known Angel a few months. Now I don't think anyone really knows him but Buffy, but I'm certainly more of an expert than you, and I know this is helping."

"How? He's depressed until a tape arrives, then he's distracted by what she says, and doesn't say, then he's back to depressed again because it's going to be another week till the next one. How is he better off than before? We should be trying to get him to move on, not cling to a past he can't get back or a future he can't have."

"Who says?" Cordelia flashed. She stood up, hands on hips and ready for battle. "Where does it say he doesn't get a happy ending? He did a millennium in hell for things he did in a hundred and forty years. I think his debt to society is paid. And Buffy didn't do anything at all why should she suffer?"

"She shouldn't suffer, she should move on," Doyle explained patiently, as though to a small and exceedingly slow child. "And it's written in his curse, that's where. No happiness, remember?"

"Then according to you he's doing great, so there!"

"Cordelia..." Doyle sighed, but he was not allowed to go any further.

"Besides, some of us aren't too sure about that happiness clause. Oz remembers that curse word for word...he's funny that way...and he's checking it out with some of Michael's witch friends, to see if Jenny's curse has the clause. If it does, he'll have them find a way to get rid of it. You see; I'm not as dumb as you think I am. I have a plan."

Doyle stood up and began to pace the small outer office.  "And just what plan is that, darlin'? Find a cure that doesn't exist for a problem that never should have existed?"

Cordelia came around from behind the desk and grabbed Doyle by the collar of his leather jacket, forcing him to look her in the eye.  "I'm going to make him crazy with those tapes, until he has to confront her. Once they're together again, whether it's talking or shouting, eventually they will realize they can't live without each other. Hopefully by then Oz and his friends will have found a way around the loophole. If not we just tell them it's in the works, and they have to be patient."  She released her stranglehold on Doyle and turned away.  "Not exactly what they excel at, patience I mean, but they will if it means they get to be together."

"You're pinning your hopes on a dream, girl," he said softly to her back.  "A couple of them, actually. One, that he will let himself near her. Two, that she still really wants him, and not just a romantic memory. Three, that your friends can find a cure. Four, that..."

Cordelia whirled around to smite his calm, rational assessment with sheer force of will, a will forged by almost two decades of getting everything she'd ever wanted just because she wanted it.

"Hey, I come from Sunnydale, remember? Land of vampires and werewolves and witches who make the cheerleading squad by switching bodies with their really uncoordinated daughters. If the past few years have taught me anything, it's that there is no such thing as impossible. The minute you say, 'No, that can never happen,' you're knee-deep in monster guts kissing your Ferragamos good-bye."

"I appreciate your faith, Cordelia, but I think your talents might be better spent helping them both move on to their new lives. The past exists only in re-runs, you might say."

"You never saw them together," she said stubbornly, once more sitting behind her desk, staring at the pile of bills.

"Why does this matter so much to you?" Doyle decided it was time to go to the heart of his confusion. In the time he'd known Cordelia, she had proved to be more sensitive than she liked people to think, but this seemed unusually selfless. There had to be an underlying motive somewhere. He leaned over her desk, trying to peer into her downturned face.

She raised her head at last, and he was struck by the faintest sheen of tears in her brown eyes

"There aren't a whole lot of things, or people, I believe in," she said slowly.  "My parents raised me to believe in the power of money, which worked great while we had it. When the IRS said 'the end' to that little fairytale, I had to look around for something new to believe in. Eventually I realized it had been right in front of me for quite a while."  She stood up once more and turned to stare out the window, though all she really saw were reflections of the past.

"When you look at Angel, you see him as a separate entity from Buffy, but I see each of them as part of a greater whole. They seem to have no hope of a future, they're natural enemies, and for about four months they tried to kill each other on a daily basis. And yet, they're still willing to die for each other."  She looked over her shoulder at Doyle.  "And I mean really die, like put your money where the monster is, not just pretty words in a greeting card. So I believe in them. I also believe no one is given that much bad karma to deal with unless there's something, or someone, waiting on the other side. Last of all, I believe that fate sometimes needs a little push, and so do those two."

Before Doyle could compose a suitable reply, a heavy step was heard outside the door. A moment later, Angel hurried in, trying to appear relaxed, despite his mis-buttoned shirt and rumpled hair.

"Did the mail come yet?"

* * * * * 

The tapes continued with regularity, causing Angel both joy and concern. He found himself mentally replaying certain passages whiles he was working, or eating, or simply existing. He hungered for news of her life, as well as the sound of her voice, but he was worried about the way she was dealing with his absence. Sometimes she sounded fine, but other times...

"I get so tired of being the fifth wheel, you know? Willow has Oz, and now Xander has Anya, and even Giles seems to be dating again, or at least getting some, if you know what I mean. I feel like I should just grab the next guy who says hello to me and say 'Hey, take me, I'm yours.' Anything to get back into the game again...School is getting better, at least grade-wise. Of course my social life is non-existent, and the vamps just never seem to give up, but at least I got a B in Psych....Riley Finn asked me out today. Oh, I don't think I told you about him. He's the TA, I mean teaching assistant, in my Psych class. He's nice, and kind of cute, and seems demon -free, so I'm thinking of saying yes...Riley and I had our first date last night. He was really sweet, and unlike Parker, he wasn't expecting it to end at his room. I may have been too quick to judge this 'normal life' thing. On the other hand, I had to lie to him when I needed to chase after a few vamps. Before you know it, it will be Scott and the whole 'you're distracted' routine again...Riley and I have been seeing a lot of each other, and I really think he likes me. I like him too, though it's not the same as ...well, you know. I just hate lying to him. How am I ever supposed to have a normal relationship if I can't share the biggest secret of my life? Riley has started asking questions. I knew it was just a matter of time. So now what do I do? I could trust him, and maybe get him killed. Or I could keep on lying, have him hate me, and still maybe get him killed. Or I could just walk away. It worked for Angel."

Leaving Buffy had left Angel's heart in shreds, and the only protection he had was the very high wall he had built around it. Some women had tried to breach that wall since he'd come to LA, mostly his friend Kate. None of them could even come close, but a few words from Buffy could tear huge chunks out of it in no time at all. He lived for those tapes from her, but when he heard the pain and anger in her voice when she spoke of him, he felt a physical pain in his frozen heart. And now that she was getting closer to this Riley guy, it made that much harder to listen to her. He wanted her to have a normal life, but now that she was...dammit, he wanted it to be with him! She was the only woman in the world for him, so why was he so replaceable for her?

* * * * * 

Cordelia hurried into Angel's apartment one morning without bothering to knock, catching him in just a towel and a frown. She didn't seem to notice either, so intent was she on the mission at hand. She was carrying the tape player from the office in one hand and a tape in the other, both of which she placed on the nightstand next to Buffy's picture before she addressed Angel.

"You need to listen to this. Now," she said tersely.

Angel wanted to say something about her entrance, but he was having a hard time speaking around the fear that was clutching at his throat.

"What's wrong? Is she okay?" he asked urgently, as he hurried to put the tape in the player and turn it on.

Cordelia sighed, feeling even worse for Angel when she heard the panic in his voice. She knew how much he still loved Buffy, and she hated to be the one to bring him this new pain, after all he had suffered.

"She's okay physically, but she's about to do something incredibly dumb. Again. Just listen."  Cordelia turned to go, then quickly reversed her course when a thought struck her. Her hand snaked out to hit the "STOP" button just as Buffy's voice began.

"What the..." Angel exclaimed, glaring at Cordelia.

"Umm, Angel, before you listen to this tape, you need to know something. I haven't exactly been, well, honest, with the tapes. I've been listening to them first, before I gave them to you."  She backed up slightly, waiting for him to growl, or snarl, or maybe grow fangs.

"I figured that out already, Cordy, " he replied impatiently. "It's not a big deal; they are addressed to you, after all."

"Yeah, but...I haven't given all of them to you. I never changed any of them," she hastened to add, when she saw the anger growing in his eyes.  "Everything you've heard her say is real, and unedited, but one of the tapes...I just thought it would hurt too much. I wanted to protect you."

"What did you hold back?" He tried to speak calmly, pretending it was to shield her from his wrath instead of himself from pain. He sat down on the bed, and reached for Buffy's picture, unconsciously using it as a touchstone to center himself.

"She slept with Riley. I mean she is sleeping with him." Cordelia said it in a rush, as though a quick blow would hurt less.

Angel couldn't look at Cordelia. He couldn't see anything right now except an image in his mind's eye, of a rainy night two years in the past. A night when anything seemed possible, even for someone as unworthy as himself, because his angel loved him. Loved, past tense.

"Angel..."

"He's her boyfriend," he said at last, in a barely audible voice.  "It's only natural." The words almost choked him, but somehow he pushed them out into the air for all the world to see what a good sport he was. And what an incredible liar.

"Angel, you have to listen to this tape," she replied urgently.  "Why she's sleeping with him doesn't matter. The real problem is she wants to tell him the truth. About her, I mean."

Angel looked at her blankly. "Truth?"

Cordelia almost growled herself in impatience with his density.  "Yeah, truth. What she does at night. Why she sleeps with a sharp wooden stick under her pillow and has a bigger cross collection than the Pope. You know, the slayer thing?"

Angel tried to focus on what Cordelia perceived as a problem, but he couldn't move past her earlier revelation. "But if she's...with him...she...he should know..."

"Men!" Cordelia spat out.  "So she slept with him. Big deal. That's not where the intimacy is for her. I mean, she may have tried to pretend it was with that Parker guy, but the truth is, the truth is where it's at for her. When she tells Riley about her real life, she's giving up on you, Angel. And you can't let that happen."

"But I knew the truth about her from the beginning, from the moment she did." Angel was lost in this sea of feminine logic.  "That didn't mean...it was still a long time before we..." Again the memories came crashing back, threatening to pull him under.

"Hello! That's my whole point. She felt a connection with you from the beginning. Sex took a back seat, so to speak, because you were already in synch. There was no rush. But with every other guy she's trying to do it in reverse. Whoa, that didn't come out right."  Cordelia drew a deep breath and tried to marshall her thoughts.

"What I'm trying to say is she's starting with the sex now and trying to work up to the connection, because she knows she's not going to be able to duplicate what she had with you. What she could still have if you'd get off your ass and go home to talk to her."

"It's too late, Cordelia," he sighed. He finally noticed he'd been caressing Buffy's picture and drew his hand back to his lap.  "I left and she's moving on. And Doyle is right, I have to stop living in the past with these tapes." He pushed the eject button and removed the tape from the player

"So you're giving up," Cordelia said flatly. She crossed her arms and tapped her foot, glaring at his dejected form on the bed.  "You're going to let her live her life, her short life, with some loser who got her on the rebound, while you sit in a towel and feel guilty for stuff you couldn't help. That's pathetic."

Angel knew she was trying to stir him up, but the pain spreading through his chest didn't leave any room for anger. He didn't bother to meet her eyes, because he knew it would only enrage her more to see the defeat in his own. He could only stare at the tape he clutched in both hands, waiting for...just waiting.

Cordelia crouched down so she could look Angel in the eye.  "You can't stop living in the past because you gave up your future. And you gave up hers too, without asking her what she really wanted. If you want to feel guilty about something bad you've done, Angel, feel guilty about that. You couldn't help what Angelus did, but you are the one who left her, not him. God, he was going to end the world because she wouldn't have him. He might have been a homicidal maniac, but at least he cared."

Angel's head snapped up at that comment; Cordelia had finally touched a raw nerve. "Don't you ever say that! What I did as Angelus...I left her because I love her, not to hurt her. But he, I mean I...don't ever say that!"

"Got you there, didn't I?" Cordelia's smile was more in pity than in triumph. She had come to regard Angel as her one true friend, and it pained her to wound him like this, but it had to be done. Of course, giving him a little more personal space at this juncture might not be a bad idea either, she thought, backing a few steps away from the tortured vampire.

"I can't go back, Cordy," he said, pain and guilt once more submerging anger.  "I'm the one who left and told her to have a normal life. How can I go to her now that she is and ask her to stop? And what can I offer her in return?"

"What the hell is normal on a hellmouth anyway? Who are you to say that a slayer and a vampire together isn't normal for a mystical convergence? Who died and made you Miss Manners?"

Angel was surprised at her anger, and her passion. He didn't understand why it meant so much to her if he and Buffy got back together, but it seemed to be her only concern these days. She was almost as obsessed as he was.

"Cordelia, I don't...why are you...what do you want me to do?" he capitulated at last in the face of her unrelenting determination.

"Listen to the tape, and then do the first thing that comes to your mind. Don't brood about it don't worry about what's right or if it's fair. Just follow your instincts."

"And if my instinct is to stay here and burn this tape, will you finally leave me alone?" His voice was weary as he stared at the tape in his hands.

Cordelia gently took it from him and placed it in the tape player, closing it with a soft click. "If your instinct is to stay here with the ashes of that tape, alone is all you'll ever be." She turned on her heel and made a speedy retreat, before Angel could get mad again, or worse yet, change his mind.

* * * * * 

An hour later, Angel was in his car, speeding towards Sunnydale in the gathering dusk. In his pocket was a little silver claddagh ring, once given and received with so much love it pulled him from the depths of hell. Its rightful owner had abandoned it, along with their hopes for the future, but tonight he would try to restore both and pull himself yet again out of hell.

* * * * *

To Be Continued