The drive back to LA was endless.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time they arranged things: two cars, twice the room for Buffy's things and only one trip required. Now though, as he mechanically drove his overstuffed convertible for two long lonely hours, Angel wished they had taken just one car and driven however many trips it would take, if only it meant they could be together.
He scolded himself for his clinginess; he was a grown man, and then some. He had survived for centuries before he met Buffy, and he had managed for months alone in LA while they were estranged...but that was what it had been. Survival. Managing. When he was with her, it was life, and he begrudged the loss of even a few hours of it.
He tried to keep an eye on Buffy's little Bug while they were on the highway, but she darted in and out of traffic like a firefly on a summer night. He worried about her safety, but he knew she was anxious to get home as he was.
Home. Their home. God, he loved the sound of that.
The miles of highway inevitably melted away, and they began to wend their way through darkened city streets, until they reached a quiet corner on the outskirts of the city proper.
The pale adobe bricks of their new house rose cool and aloof among the surrounding trees, dimly outlined with the aid of small lights scattered along the long curving driveway. Angel parked next to Buffy and slowly climbed out of his car, his eyes fixed on her face. He wanted to catch that first reaction as she took in their new home, knowing it was their home. It had all seemed so different before, when it was just a plan for the future. Now it was the present, now it was reality, and he was going to treasure every moment of it.
"It's wonderful," she said breathlessly, turning to smile at him. "It's really real this time, isn't it? Forever?" She held out her hand, but he wrapped his arms around her instead, resting his cheek on the top of her head as she burrowed into his chest.
"Forever," he agreed fervently, resolutely closing his mind to his old definition of the word. There would be no more shadows between them, and no more separations. They would be together on this earthly plane for as long as they were allowed, and if her time came before his, he would follow her wherever she went.
"Let's go in. We're wasting all this fantastic alone time on the front lawn." The smile she turned on him was as playful as a child's, but he could see the intent of the woman underneath.
Without warning, he leaned over and swept her up into his arms. "I know it's not official yet, but I want to carry you over the threshold."
"You are such the romantic," she gloated, settling into his embrace.
His romantic gesture was somewhat tarnished by the modern day inconveniences of deadbolts and burglar alarms, but together they managed to combat technology without losing hold of one another. Angel gently set Buffy down on the stone floor in their foyer, and turned to close the heavy wooden door. A moment later he felt two warm arms slide around his waist as she molded herself to his back.
"Never, ever, ever going to move," she murmured into his spine. "I finally have everything I want right here."
"I agree with the part about having everything we could want," he said softly, "but if we're never ever going to move from the hallway, can I at least be facing you? It might work better." When her arms obligingly loosened just enough to allow him to turn and face her, he continued, "You know we can probably do better than the hallway for comfort too. The furniture has been delivered, and I made up the bed before I left for Sunnydale. I had a feeling we weren't going to be spending a lot of time housekeeping the first few weeks."
"Try the first few decades." She stood on tiptoe to brush his lips with a kiss. "I have much better ways to show how much I adore you than rearranging the furniture."
He was in the process of obtaining a more detailed explanation of her housekeeping alternatives when they heard a knock on the door.
"No, no, no," she groaned, pressing her face into his shoulder. "It's our first night; I don't want to play the good little hostess." She raised her head to grin mischievously at him. "Unless you're playing the sexy mysterious stranger seeking shelter from the storm and I..."
"We have to answer the door,"
he said hastily, extricating himself from her embrace before it was too
late. He risked a quick brush of his
knuckles across her cheek to tease away her pout. "I'll get rid of them, sweetheart. Whoever it is, I will get rid of them right away."
Buffy could tell he was sincere, and she trusted his word absolutely, at least until she saw that their guests were Doyle and Cordelia. There were some people her beloved simply could not turn away, and right now the top two (after herself, of course) were standing on her doorstep.
"Out, get out!" she commanded futilely, pointing at the door. "We just got home and we have things to do."
"Anything we can help with?" Doyle asked hopefully. He winced when Cordelia smacked him on the arm and Buffy glared.
"I think we can handle this on our own," the Slayer snapped.
"Why don't we let Doyle and Cordy tell us why they're here, quickly," Angel stressed, "and then they can leave. I mean go home. I mean...I don't mean to sound unfriendly but..."
"But we just got home," Buffy reiterated, crossing her arms over her chest and tapping her foot. "So state the nature of your demonic emergency in twenty-five words or less, and then make with the feet moving backwards towards the door."
"And to think you weren't voted Miss Congeniality at the prom. Go figure." Cordelia would have said more, but she sensed Buffy was just a trifle tense.
"Hey, I have an even better idea," Angel said hastily. "Why don't you save whatever this is for Monday at the office? It's not life or death, is it?"
"No, it's not life or death," Doyle answered slowly, "but it's kind of about why it can't wait until Monday at the office. I, uh, won't be there."
"You came over at four a.m. to tell us you won't be at work two days from now? You mean Cordelia hasn't introduced the concept of a telephone to you?" Buffy had gone from annoyed to outraged with her usual Slayer speed.
"It's more about why I won't be there." Doyle looked everywhere but at Angel. He couldn't bear to see the concern he knew would be in those dark eyes.
"Why don't we all sit down and you can explain," Angel suggested, gently guiding Buffy toward the living room and motioning the others to follow. When they were all seated, he nodded at Doyle to continue.
"I won't be there Monday, or any day after that actually, unless it's just to say hey," Doyle said awkwardly.
"You're quitting?" Angel couldn't mask the shock in his voice.
Doyle met his eyes at last. "It's time, Angel. You know it as well as I do; you don't need me anymore. I was sent to you for a reason, and now that reason no longer applies."
"I don't understand." Buffy glanced quickly at Angel's frozen face before she confronted Doyle. "You're leaving because of me? Because you feel like you don't have a place at the office anymore because I'm here? That is so not true, Doyle."
"I'm not being a sore loser; truly I'm not. This is the way it was meant to be," Doyle protested. "The Powers sent me to help Angel get back on the path; he stumbled just a bit when you two broke up. Now he's on his way, and you're back together, so I've done what I came to do. It's time for me to move on."
"You knew about this." Angel directed his bewildered gaze at Cordelia. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Cordelia blushed and shrugged her shoulders. "It was Doyle's secret, not mine, and he didn't even tell me the whole story until this week. I just knew he's been all weird and up with the power-brooding since he got back from Santa Marisa."
"That's what started it," Doyle agreed. "I realized a lot about myself when I was leading those Scourge away from here, and most of it wasn't too comfortable." He stood up and began to pace. "I got off easy when it comes to the demon half of myself. It didn't manifest until I was a grown man, and I can control it most of the time, so I never had to deal with the kind of fear and discrimination most demons do. The Scourge never would have come looking for me if I didn't come looking for them first."
"But that's part of what we're about," Angel protested. "We fight the darkness, and things that thrive in it, like fear and prejudice. Why are you walking away from all that?"
"I'm not; I just have my own way to fight. You and Buffy, you fight with your fists, and that works for you. I'm a teacher, Angel, even though I made myself forget that for a time. I'm not meant to fight evil full-blown and full-grown; I'm supposed to stop it from forming."
"What are you talking about?" Buffy didn't mean to snap at him, but the pain on Angel's face was tearing her apart.
Doyle ran a hand through his dark hair, trying to find the words to explain his revelation.
"When I first found out I was half-demon, I thought 'that's it; I'm evil.' Demons are evil; everyone knows that. But I'm not evil; never was, unless you talk to Sister Augustine, my first grade teacher." He grinned reminiscently. "Now she might tell you a different story, but I say I'm just a regular fella, because that's what I was taught to be. I think there are a lot of other demons out there who might be the same, if you give them half a chance. Teach them when they're young to be good joes and there might be a few less demons you two will have to kill."
He threw himself back down on the sofa next to Cordelia and waited for a rebuttal.
"Doyle, I understand what you're saying about you," Buffy began, "and obviously we know that not all demons are evil, but aren't there, umm, types of evil demons? I mean, Giles has all these books that talk about demons, and some of them are listed as evil and some they say are nice. Well, they never actually use the word 'nice.' More like 'not-so-evil,' but still..."
"Buffy, try to think of them as pitbulls," Cordelia said kindly.
"Hey!" Doyle and Angel yelped at the same time.
"I just mean that they have this really bad rep, but they can be perfectly nice, if you train them to be," she explained with exaggerated patience. "I think Doyle is trying to say demons are the same way. The ones with souls, anyway."
Angel recognized the look of determination on Doyle's face; the decision was made and all that was left were the details. "So you're going to teach them what exactly?"
"Reading, writing, math; just what I'm certified to teach, or maybe a bit more. I can only teach the little ones, at least at first, but once they learn the basics they can teach themselves whatever they want. The important thing is to get them together, thinking like a community." He leaned forward, arms waving as he painted the future in the air. "Demons fight among themselves a lot because they think of themselves as separate. If they learn together as children, maybe they can work together as adults. And if they don't feel like they have to fight to survive, maybe they won't be so rough on the human beings that cross their paths either."
"That's really great, Doyle. I mean it." Angel smiled wistfully as he held out his hand to his friend. "I only wish we could offer you a little student of our own some day, but that's..."
"Not going to happen, for a lot of reasons," Buffy finished firmly. She wound her arms around Angel's and leaned her head on his shoulder, trying to let her resolve flow through to him. They already had so much more than most; why quibble about the few things they could not have?
Angel focused on the untroubled light shining steadily from his beloved's eyes. There was a deep sense of peace there, for perhaps the first time since he had met her. As much as he wanted to give Buffy the world, including the children he never could, maybe it was enough to give her the love in his heart. And if letting go of old dreams was the price for that glow in her eyes, it was one he would gladly pay.
If only he could be sure Doyle's reward would be as great.
"Doyle, I'm not trying to argue you out of this or anything, but how can you be so sure this is the right thing for you, or that now is the time? What about the visions?"
The Irishman shrugged, leaning back in his seat. "What about them?"
"Aren't they why you were sent to me in the first place?" Angel persisted. "What happens to them now?"
"Angel, I haven't had a vision since the Scourge," Doyle said gently. "After we took care of them, Buffy decided to move here and I think the Powers decided my work was done. You get enough business though word of mouth these days, and trouble has a way of looking you up. I wouldn't worry about the books."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know, I know. I just mean it's another sign that you don't need me anymore, and it's time for me to go." He offered a crooked smile. "Even Obi Wan had to leave Luke at some point."
"Umm, Doyle, bad example," Buffy pointed out with a wince. "He kind of went out on the wrong end of a lightsaber."
"And what about you?" Angel switched his focus to Cordelia. "Are you planning on seeking greener-skinned pastures too?"
She looked surprised by the question. "Me? Teach at the Little Portal on the Prairie? Not on the likely."
Buffy grinned. "What would she teach them anyway? Make-up tips?"
"Well better me than you, Miss I-Wear-Red-Lipstick-With-Pink-Leather-Pants," Cordelia sniffed. "As though the pink leather pants weren't bad enough."
"Hey, those pants were..."
"Cordelia's job is her choice," Doyle interjected hastily. "This is something I need to do for me."
"Are you okay for finances?" Angel asked hesitantly. "I mean, where is this school going to be? Do you need help with the rent?"
Doyle chuckled as he shook his head. One minute Angel was trying to save him from himself, and the next he was offering to finance the venture. He had to admire the man's loyalty.
"I already have a place fixed up in West Hollywood. David Nabbitt came through with the cash; I think he must figure it's insurance against other people getting into trouble with demons like he did. I'll be okay."
"Though, you know, if you still want to do that little credit card deal for a bookstore," Cordelia added hastily, "we won't complain. And you know I'm worth it." She smiled with a complete, and strangely endearing, lack of humility.
"It won't be the same around the office without you," Angel said wistfully.
"Or the sewers," Buffy added, trying to lighten the mood. "Who else is going to help Cordy over the puddles?"
"I'll buy her some hip boots for her birthday," Doyle promised, crossing his heart as he winked at her. "It's not like you'll never see me, you know; we're still pals. I may even still bring you some business. But I need to strike out on my own now and so do you Angel. You have a whole new life starting with Buffy, and it's just what you've always wanted. You need to concentrate on that, and not worry about a half-demon Irishman who wandered your way."
"You did a whole lot more than that Doyle, and you know it." Angel smiled ruefully at the memories. "You saved me. I was sinking fast when I came to LA, but you made me look outside my own pain and that was a lifeline."
"And now it's time for him to start throwing them at other people. I mean demons. Well, people-like demons. Is that an offensive term?" Cordelia turned to Doyle in confusion.
Doyle grinned at her as he pulled her to her feet. "Why don't we discuss it on the way home, darlin'. I think these two need some time alone, and so do we."
"Oh right." Cordelia nodded sagely. "We have wallpaper for the classroom to pick out." Over Doyle's shoulder, she winked at Buffy as Doyle groaned.
"What have I done?" the Irishman moaned as he led Cordelia from the house.
"Get used to that phrase!" Buffy called after him as she shut the door behind them. Turning to Angel, the smile fell from her face. "How are you holding up?"
Angel took a moment to consider the question, knowing she deserved the complete truth. "I think that I think he's right," he said slowly. "And I know I envy his certainty that he is." He grinned and shook his head. "I'm going to miss him, though."
"He was your first friend in a long time," she said as she crossed over to him. Sliding into his waiting arms, she rested her chin on his chest and stared up into his dark eyes. "He won't be the last, though; you have to know that. I bet there's a whole bunch of people out there willing to be friends with a great guy like you, if you'll just let them in."
"How about I settle on a few of unusual quality," he compromised. "You being the first and most important, of course."
"Of course," she agreed solemnly, sealing the pact with a kiss.
"And so, my first and finest friend, what do we do now?" Angel's left hand snaked out and turned the brass lock on the old door with a definitive snap. "We have the house to ourselves; no guests, no work, no family crises." His lips met hers once more as he murmured against them, "How ever shall we pass the time?"
Buffy returned his kiss with considerable enthusiasm before she answered, "Wedding plans!"
Angel groaned, slave to an instinct even older than he. "Isn't that what you're supposed to be talking to Willow and Cordelia about?" he asked desperately. "Or your mother maybe. It sounds much more like a mother-daughter sort of thing."
She tilted her head, staring quizzically at him. "Honey, you're not going to start turning all eighteenth century guy on me now that we're using the 'M' word, are you? Because it's kind of cute in small doses, like when you pull out a chair for me, or kill a bug or something. But I'm not exactly an old-fashioned girl."
To prove her point, her hands began a southerly journey along his back destined for regions the "nice" girls of his youth didn't even dare name.
"Point taken," he said with some difficulty, surrendering to the inevitable in more ways than one. "But do we have to talk about it now?"
She grinned at the husky tone in his voice. "Relax, big guy; I know we have better things to do this morning. I just wanted to make sure we're on the same page of our wedding album first. How does Tahoe at Christmas sound?"
She rested her cheek against his shoulder and began to sway slightly, almost as though they were dancing. Angel groaned again, this time more in anticipation than dread, but he retained enough command of himself to consider her suggestion.
"You want snow, don't you?"
"Oh yeah," she sighed. "That was wonderful day. Miracles on the hellmouth; go figure." She stopped swaying and looked up at him very seriously. "That's when I knew that there would be a way out for us. It didn't come as quickly, or as easily as I wanted...but I knew it was meant to be."
That day lived clearly in Angel's memory too; a day began in raw despair that somehow ended in a gentle semblance of peace. He could still see the anguish in Buffy's hazel eyes as she fought for his life, until the falling flakes washed their world clean, leaving wonder in its wake. He remembered brushing the cold crystals from her hair, her face, her lips; savoring each chance to touch his dream made flesh, because he knew this fantasy could not survive the inevitable daylight.
He could only thank the Powers that such fleeting moments were enough to sustain her faith, at a time when he had so little else to offer.
"I didn't know; I just hoped," he confessed with a soft laugh. "Or at least what I called hoping at the time. I, uh, wasn't very good at it back then."
She pressed a tender kiss to his cool mouth, exulting in the curve of his increasingly frequent smile beneath her lips. "You've improved like a thousand percent about that; trust me. So Tahoe is okay? With the gang in tow, of course."
"Yes to both," he promised swiftly. "I will marry you wherever and whenever you choose. On the top of a mountain at dawn, or a cathedral at high noon, or...or in the middle of Super Bowl Sunday, if you that's what you want."
"Super Bowl, huh? Greater love hath no man," she commented dryly. "Though you're not much of a football fan, so maybe you're just hoping for a small turnout."
"Okay, since you doubt me, how about: I would marry you in the middle of the game in the middle of the stadium itself..."
"Ouch. Even Slayers dent, you know."
Angel took a playful nip at her lower lip. "I don't care about the where, Buffy, or the how, just that it happens." He smoothed his hands down her sides, pulling her flush against his body. "For right now, though, I was thinking of a more, umm, tangible expression of the...one-ness...that we want our marriage to mean," he continued, flashing her an impudent grin.
"Right now I want to go into the garden," she said hastily, abandoning her teasing for more important considerations. "The sun is going to be up soon, and I want to see you when you see it." Among other things, she continued to herself.
It wasn't quite the way Angel wanted to greet the new day, but he quickly realized there would be compensations.
"I warn you; it's going to be a dull show. Because all I want to do is watch the way the light shines on your face." Angel lightly stroked her cheek. "It's been a long time since I've seen that. Too long."
Buffy clasped her hand over his and clung tightly to him. "Come on," she whispered.
Together they strolled down the cool stone hallway to the French doors that opened into the courtyard. The garden was still in darkness; the first streaks of dawn were just beginning to appear on the slate grey sky. Buffy led Angel over to a wrought iron bench, and gently pushed him down on it, sliding onto his lap once he was settled.
Angel wrapped his arms around Buffy's waist and held her close, watching the growing light gradually reveal her face to his loving eyes.
"I've waited so long for this," he murmured, marveling at the rosy glow creeping across her features.
Buffy nodded somberly, picturing the endless days spent in darkened rooms, while life moved past his shuttered windows. While he was a "practicing" vampire, it wouldn't have been so bad, but to the souled Angel, it must have been torture.
"I'll bet you have," she whispered in reply. "But now you can have all the sunshine you want, whenever you want. We can go on picnics, or to the beach, or even fight demons that are afraid of the dark. Whatever gives you a happy."
"You make me happy," he said firmly, running a fond hand down her tanned cheek. "Anyway, it's not the sun I meant. I've spent so long wanting to be human again, and suddenly, even if I'm really not, I feel more like it than I ever did. Ever," he emphasized.
She kissed the corner of his mouth. "Why the 'Helen spells water' moment now after all this time?"
"I think it's because I finally understand what I was really looking for. I spent so long wanting to be human for you; I wanted a pulse and a heartbeat and grey hairs some day, and wrinkles." He looked away for an instant. "I wanted to be the father of your children." A deep pull of air into his lungs gave him a moment's respite before he looked into her eyes again. "Those things will never happen, but I'm okay with that. Mostly. Because that's not what being a human really means. That's just being mortal."
"So what's the big revelation, then?" Buffy ran her fingers through his shock of silky dark hair, wondering what it would look like when the sun's rays began to leave their mark. Would the highlights be red or gold? She couldn't wait to see.
"Do you know the meaning of life now?" As though there was one beyond this hard-won moment.
He lifted a lock of her hair in return, and brushed it across the tip of her nose. Someday these golden strands clinging to his fingertips would be frosted with silver, and he would be there to see it. And when the silver turned to white, he would still be there to see it. Seeing it, reveling in it, and counting such pleasures among his greatest blessings.
"Not hardly...but I think that's the point. There is no one answer, because it's not about the answers; it's about the questions. And about getting the wrong answers, but still trying to get the right ones."
"Well we can do that," she said lightly. "I am so the right woman for getting wrong answers; just ask any of my old teachers."
Angel couldn't help his foolish grin; he loved her casual use of the word 'we.'
"I think the good Father Hanratty would have said almost the same thing about me," he volunteered. "Actually I think he did. Repeatedly. So I guess that means together 'we' should have no problems with this life stuff."
"You just said a mouthful," she agreed with a sharp nod of her head. "And don't you ever forget it, mister."
"Never again, my love," he promised, slipping his hand beneath the warm hair at the nape of her neck. "My life."
She needed little urging to give in to the gentle pressure of his hand guiding her head down to his. Angel felt the heat of the sun slowly warming his cool flesh, but it was not half so intense as the light of Buffy's smile as her lips met his in their first kiss of this new day, in their new life.
And pulse or not, Angel was human enough to be glad no one else could see the rest of her plan to greet the dawn. There were some parts of their life he intended to keep private despite their continual audience, even if he had to dig a moat around the house to regulate the flow of traffic.
He and Buffy had both made a lot of mistakes on the path to this new life, and more than once they had done so at someone else's instigation. But despite their best efforts to avoid destiny, somehow they had stumbled into their own little happy never-ending. From this moment on, Angel wasn't planning on letting anyone else, however well intentioned, help them write this fairytale.
So tomorrow the moat. For today, at least he had remembered to lock the door.
* * * * *The End