A Damn Fine Ride

PART I

And I …didn’t think we’d end up like this. --Tori Amos, A Sorta Fairytale

It hurt a little less today, Angel thought, as he’d thought yesterday, and the day before. Not a lot less, but a little. Certainly less than it had that hideous day six weeks ago, when he’d stood between Cordelia and Wesley, staring down at the gray tombstone.

Buffy Anne Summers. 1981 - 2001. She saved the world a lot.

It had been all he could do to keep from breaking down right there, in front of the entire Scooby gang. And Spike. He still didn’t know why Spike had been there. Didn’t care.

He’d held it together, though, barely, and had forced himself to go on. People needed him. Cordelia needed him. Fred. People he didn’t even know.

And it hurt a little less today.

He was done showering but he didn’t want to get out. The pounding water drowned out the sounds in the rest of the hotel: Cordelia and Wesley squabbling downstairs, Fred’s pen scratching on the wall--she’d started early today--the rats in the basement, the howling of the upstairs plumbing. Empty as this place was, it could be unbearably noisy.

Finally he turned off the water and got out. And was, as usual, bombarded by voices. New voices this time. Clients, he supposed. But something about one of the voices seemed familiar.

Then it hit him. Giles.

What was Giles doing here? His heart lurched. He tried to keep from forming the thought, but it came to him, anyway. She’s alive she’s alive she came back again…

He dried off quickly, threw on a sweater and pants, and half-ran downstairs, barefoot and with his hair still wet and uncombed.

Halfway down the stairs, he realized the collection of British voices was somber. He slowed down, feeling the knife go into his heart again, deeper, slicing him open. He stopped, gathered himself, shoved a hand through his wet, untended hair, and went the rest of the way down the stairs.

They were in the office, Giles and Wes and two other men in immaculate suits.

"I’m not entirely certain this is a good idea," Wesley said as Angel headed for the office door. "Somehow I doubt enough time has passed for anything to have really changed."

"I don’t know that we have much choice," Giles said. His voice was tight and strained. It occurred to Angel to wonder how Giles was dealing with his own loss.

One of the other men--Watchers, Angel was certain--said, "You know what an incredible violation of Council policy this proposal is. We wouldn’t even entertain the thought if we didn’t feel it to be absolutely necessary."

"Well, I could certainly talk to Angel about it," Wesley began, and Angel pushed the door open.

"Talk to me about what?"

Wes turned to face him. "Angel." He stared momentarily, undoubtedly thrown off by Angel’s unkempt hair. "Are you all right?"

Angel took a seat on the desk. "I’m fine. I just--I heard Giles and I thought--" He stopped. "Doesn’t matter." He looked at Giles, who looked down at the table, undoubtedly realizing exactly what Angel had assumed. "What do you need?"

Giles’ colleagues had gone suddenly tense, apparently discomfited by the presence of a vampire.

"Perhaps I should do the talking," said Giles, with a look of mild disgust.

"Yes," said the elder of the other two Watchers. "Perhaps you should."

Angel glared at him. "Bloody ponce," he said. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wes cover a smile with his fist in front of his mouth.

Giles, though, had sobered, and removed his glasses, wiping them carefully with his handkerchief in a ritual Angel knew only too well. "It has been six weeks," he began, "since Buffy’s…death." He hesitated, but only a moment. "There has as of yet been no indication that another Slayer has been Called to take her place."

Angel was surprised by this. "Really? But isn’t that the drill? One Slayer dies, another takes her place?" He realized belatedly that he was echoing Buffy’s own words, from five years ago.

Right before the first time she’d died.

Giles’ eyes darkened a little, and Angel realized he heard the echoes, too. "Generally, yes. But it appears that our current situation has gummed up the works a bit."

The current situation. Angel puzzled over this a moment before it made sense. "Faith. Because there are two Slayers right now."

"Yes. And apparently once Kendra was called, the Slayer line shifted to her. Which means another Slayer won’t be called as a result of Buffy’s death."

He said the word more steadily this time, but Angel felt it pass through him, cold, jolting all the way to his fingertips. He still couldn’t comprehend it. She was gone. He would never see her again, never touch her or taste her…

He swallowed hard. It hurt a little less today, but not much. "I still don’t understand why you’re here."

The elder Watcher spoke. "We have a proposal for you."

Gears clicked in Angel’s head. "No. Absolutely not."

"Angel--" Wesley broke in gently.

"No!" Angel insisted. "I won’t do it. No way in hell will I kill Faith for you. Not gonna happen."

Wesley touched his elbow. "Angel, that’s not why they’re here."

Angel subsided. "Oh." He felt a little foolish then, until he looked at the two Watchers. The younger one had a grim smile on his face. "You see?" he said to Giles. "I told you it was the most obvious course of action. Even the vampire can see it."

Giles ignored him, still focused on Angel. "Actually, we have an entirely different proposal in mind."

#

Faith was reading when the guard came to tell her she had a visitor. It was an old, musty book, one from a box Angel had brought her several months ago. But it was funny. That Jane Austen was quite the catty little bitch, for her time.

She put the book away reluctantly, because she was enjoying it, and it reminded her of Angel, and she had no idea who might be coming to see her. But she went quietly with the guard. That was the drill here. Do what you were told, don’t cause any trouble. She’d gotten good at it.

She was pleasantly surprised to see Angel there on the other side of the glass. She hadn’t seen him in ages, which was why she’d finally decided to request permission to rummage through his musty books. Every once in a while she needed to be reminded that somebody out there still cared.

He smiled vaguely as she sat down behind the glass. He picked up the phone at the same time she did.

"Angel," she said. "Long time no see. I was beginning to think you didn’t love me anymore."

"Sorry." He looked like he meant it. He looked whipped, actually--tired, drawn, a little paler even than usual. "Things have been weird lately."

"Yeah, I guess all the demons and apocalypses and whatnot probably keepin’ you hopping, huh?"

"Something like that."

She waited for him to say more, but he didn’t. "So why you here, big guy? You just get to missing my sweet face?"

"No," he said, and he looked about as sober as she’d ever seen him. "I’m here to take you home. I’m your new Watcher."

#

Faith tossed her meager possessions--including the box of Angel’s books--into the back seat of Angel’s convertible, then launched herself over the side, into the passenger seat.

"I don’t really get this," she said, watching him open the driver’s side door and get in. He should try the vaulting, she thought. It was more fun. "I got, like, twenty years left before I’m up for parole. How’d the Council get me out?"

"Pulled some strings."

She studied him. There was definitely something wrong with him. He seemed dull, slow, uninspired. "Are you okay?"

He didn’t look at her as he backed the car out of its parking space and headed out of the lot, toward the highway. Faith had serious doubts they could make it to LA before sunrise. In fact, she was almost positive they couldn’t.

"Yeah, I’m okay," he said, but Faith didn’t find the assertion very convincing.

She decided to let it go for now. "So what’s the big bad? What’s so scary they have to spring me instead of just letting B and her little Scooby gang handle it?"

Angel was silent a moment, his hands clenching the steering wheel. "Buffy’s dead."

Faith gaped at him. She simply couldn’t believe it. Buffy dead. She flashed briefly to the time she’d spent in Buffy’s life--in her body, in fact--and all the people who had loved her during those days. Buffy had been bright and powerful and intensely cared for.

But it hadn’t saved her.

Faith started to ask how it had happened, then saw the pain in Angel’s eyes. It was so deep, so dark she knew nothing she could say would ever touch it.

"I’m sorry, Angel," she said, because there really was nothing else she could give him.

He nodded. "It’s been six weeks, and there’s been no new Slayer called. Apparently the line goes through you now. And they need an active Slayer. Some dark shit coming up, I guess, according to some prophecy or source or other."

Faith snorted. "I’m surprised they didn’t just hire somebody to off me, get a new Slayer that way."

"That was Plan A. Giles got wind of it, went over their heads."

"How do you go over the heads of the Council?"

"Not sure. Anyway, Giles convinced them you could be brought back into the game as long as you were supervised by somebody who could keep you under control."

"Which would be you." Faith shook her head. "Do they not understand the definition of the term, ‘Vampire Slayer’?"

He slanted her a look, the Angel she knew glinting briefly from his eyes. "Giles and Wesley both stood up for you. For this. You kill me, they’ll be pretty disappointed."

"I’m not gonna kill you."

"I know. You’re gonna come back to LA with me, and Wes and I are going to turn you back into a Slayer. The kind of Slayer you should have been in the first place."

Faith blinked, surprised to find her eyes moist. "I like the sound of that."

#

A few hours later, just before dawn, Angel pulled into the parking lot of a roadside hotel that looked slightly less seedy than the last three they’d passed. He grabbed Faith’s duffel bag out of the back seat, as well as a cooler and a suitcase Faith hadn’t noticed when she’d tossed her own stuff back there.

"I can’t let you out of my sight," he said, "so it’ll have to be one room."

"Fine by me," she said, trying to keep her mind from following the most logical course after that announcement.

But he got a single room with two beds, which shut her lustful brain up. Besides, what was she thinking? No way he would jump into bed with her, not all bereft about Buffy, and with the curse to worry about. Too bad. She’d always thought he’d be a damned fine ride.

He pulled a book out of the suitcase and stretched out on one of the beds. "I brought some stuff for you," he told her, gesturing toward the suitcase. "Take a shower, if you like. Just don’t crawl out the window and run off. I’ll chase you down. And don’t forget I have a bit of a taste for Slayer blood."

She chuckled. "Whatever."

There were a few shirts, some shorts, and a pair of jeans in the suitcase. To her surprise, Faith discovered they were actually all the right size. She picked out a tank top and a pair of shorts and headed for the bathroom.

She hadn’t had the luxury of a long, hot shower in a long time, and it feel unbelievably good. Orgasmically good. Hot water on her shoulders, her back, and really clean hair, clean scalp-deep. She luxuriated in it until she heard Angel’s voice call through the door, "You all right?"

"I’m fine!" she called back, and shut the shower off. She wrapped herself in a towel and scrubbed her hair dry. Warm, clean, and--this part was just starting to soak in--free, she pulled on her clothes and left the steamy bathroom.

Angel sat on the bed, staring at nothing. A plastic container sat on the nightstand next to the bed, about a third full of what Faith abruptly realized was blood. That must have been what was in the cooler. He picked up the cup and took a swig. She’d never seen him drink before. It was a bit odd, she had to admit.

He watched her as she sat on the other bed. "I ordered you some breakfast," he said. "It should be here in about an hour."

"Thanks." She regarded him, evaluating, wondering what she should say. He seemed bigger somehow every time she saw him, as if her memory made him smaller.

"How did she die?" she finally asked.

He told her. The story surprised her, mostly because there wasn’t a vampire in it anywhere. But, in the end, Buffy had sacrificed herself to save the world, and that didn’t surprise Faith at all.

"I should have been there," Angel said, and this didn’t surprise Faith, either. Of course he would blame himself. "Maybe I could have saved her."

"It wasn’t your fault," she said, but she could tell from his expression that he didn’t believe it.

#

Angel had dozed off by the time Faith’s food arrived, leaving her to dig through his coat until she found his wallet, so she could pay the delivery man. Angel’s wallet was light, she noticed, and poking through it found only cash--about $300--an Angel Investigations corporate Visa, a handful of AI business cards and a tattered picture of Buffy.

She could take the money and the credit card, she thought. His car keys were in his coat pocket. She could be a hundred miles away before he even woke up.

But for once the Watchers’ Council had known what they were doing. She wouldn’t do that to Angel. Wouldn’t betray him like that.

She sat on the bed and ate her breakfast. He’d ordered bagels and cream cheese, fresh fruit, coffee, orange juice, a cinnamon roll. She ate all of it. After prison fare, it tasted like heaven.

Outside, daylight rolled in. Faith adjusted the curtains when she saw a shaft of morning drifting dangerously close to Angel’s bed. He slept on.

It was odd, watching him sleep. He didn’t breathe, and so didn’t snore, but every once in a while he twitched, or made a sound. It was like watching a corpse, otherwise. A pretty corpse, though.

He made a noise then, suddenly, making Faith jump. More than just a sleep-noise. A dream-noise. A nightmare noise. He moaned, low and deep in his throat, the pitch rising until the hair on the back of Faith’s neck stood up.

The sound drained back into him, then rose again, soft and somehow more frightening for the softness. Faith realized then what it was. Not a fear-sound, or an attack-sound. A mourning wail.

He was dreaming about Buffy. He couldn’t not be.

She swallowed, watching him, aching for him. She knew how much he had loved her, even after he’d forced himself to leave her. She couldn’t imagine loving anyone that much. If she did, and they died, she couldn’t help but think she would die, too. Just shrivel up and blow away, after that dense, deep love had been ripped out of her.

It had seemed like he was handling it okay, though his eyes had been so dull, like something vital had been smothered inside him. But if this was what was really going on inside him…

The wail rose again, and Faith couldn’t bear it anymore. She went to sit on the bed next to him. There had to be some way to make it stop. Gently, she brushed a hand over his face. "Angel."

The sound choked in his throat, like sobs now. And a word, "Buffy."

Of course. He moved under her hand, his face pressing down into the pillow. "Buffy, no, don’t…"

"Angel." She spoke a little louder, shook his face. "Angel, wake up."

He went suddenly completely still under her hand, then, slowly, his eyes opened. And there Faith saw pain so deep she knew she could never touch it. He looked up at her, broken beyond repair, empty, bereft, eviscerated, and just the sight of his eyes made hot tears spring to her own.

"Faith," he breathed, pulling himself back to reality. A reality where he no longer had to relive Buffy’s death, but where it was still real, still something he had to accept.

"Angel, you were dreaming." She didn’t know what to say to him, knew nothing she could do would ease him. How could he feel things so deeply and still function? She’d wondered this about him in the past, when she’d seen second-hand how intensely he’d loved Buffy. It had made her jealous then--she hadn’t though it possible for someone to love another person that consumingly. Now it made her hurt for him. She cupped his face as he looked up at her. "Wake up, baby."

"Faith," he said again. His hand rose to cover hers on his face. "God, Faith, she’s gone."

And he broke. Just broke apart in front of her, pushed his head into her, pulled her to him and crumbled into shaking, weeping pieces. "She’s gone…she’s gone…"

Faith was crying, herself, as she drew him closer, cradling his head against her chest while his big hands clutched almost painfully on her back, fingers digging in as if he simply had nothing else in the world to cling to. "Shh," she whispered, and he pulled himself up on her body, pressing his face against her shoulder, covering her skin with tears. "Shh. It’s okay. I’m right here, Angel, I’m right here…"

He had held her this way, not really that long ago, while she shredded to pieces in his arms. It was only fair, she supposed, and maybe that was why he was letting this go now. Because she had the distinct feeling he hadn’t let himself do this before. No wonder he had seemed so listless and dull. He hadn’t given himself a chance to grieve, to move on to the next step.

His body convulsed in her arms, spasm after violent spasm. She stroked his hair, his face, his back, but nothing eased him. She pressed her lips against his forehead, his eyes. "Angel, shhh, hush, baby." Then, partly by accident, partly because it followed in natural progression, she touched her lips to his. "Hush, hush," she said again, the words going into his mouth, and suddenly he was kissing her, hard, ferocious, even, and his arms around her dragged her into the bed and under him.

Startled, Faith started to push him away, then stopped. He needed this, and she could give it to him. Wanted to. Because she could take whatever he needed to dish out, whatever he needed to do to her to get this out of him.

Faith had had plenty of hard, ferocious sex in her time. Post-slayage sex where she’d found the handiest man--or more often more than one--to pound her as hard as he could, pound the lust out of her. Sometimes it took hours. More often than not she was left unsated even then. But she’d never, ever done it with a vampire.

His big hands ripped her clothes off her, effortlessly rending the denim of her shorts, shredding her cotton underwear. He was still sobbing as he shoved himself into her, harder and deeper than any man had ever taken her, and yet it was almost as if she wasn’t even there. There was nothing in the bed with Angel besides his raging grief.

His lack of control frightened Faith at first. She’d never seen him like this--doubted anyone ever had. And she had never been forced into such a submissive position during sex. Short of stopping him completely--and she knew she could if she wanted to--there was simply nothing she could do but let him take her.

So she did. She wrapped her legs around his hips, so she could follow his rhythm more tightly, clenched her body on him, dug her fingers into his back. And let him ride.

He rode her hard, while she kissed his shoulders, his face, licked the tears from his neck, his jaw. The sounds wrenched from him were barely human, part sob, part arousal, part the howling of his demon. His face fell to her shoulder and he bit her hard enough to break the skin, but somehow even in the depth of his catharsis he managed to hold back his fangs.

She surprised herself by climaxing not once but twice before he finally drove her roughly into the bed with a last, deep thrust, shoved his forehead into her shoulder and howled out his grief, his pain, his rage, as his body spilled into her. Faith was in tears by now, barely able to comprehend the depth of his pain. He sobbed into her skin and she petted him, stroked his hair, embraced him with her legs as he bucked into her.

Then, slowly, the tension faded out of him. He sagged against her, easing his weight to the side. Kissed her, tender, her face, her mouth, the bite mark on her shoulder. After a moment he looked at her. His eyes seemed clearer, but so dark, the irises almost black.

"Faith," he murmured.

Seeing an apology on his face, she touched his lips to silence him. "Don’t."

He smiled a little and nodded, then settled carefully into the bed beside her, pulling her against him. He wrapped an arm across her chest. One big hand clutched her shoulder, and she laid her own, smaller hand over it, laced her fingers between his.

"Is it better?" she asked him.

"A little," he said. He kissed the back of her neck. "Are you okay?"

"Five by five," she said, smiling, and closed her eyes.

#

It hurt a little less tonight, Angel thought, tossing the suitcase and Faith’s duffel bag into the convertible. He looked back toward the hotel room door, at Faith pulling it shut behind her. Maybe more than a little less.

She had changed into jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, replacing the clothes he’d ripped off her. They covered the mark on her shoulder, at least. That was good. Anybody seeing that would know exactly what had happened. He had a feeling the Council wouldn’t approve.

He should have felt guilty about it, but he didn’t. She had been right there with him, every second of the way, even when he’d hurt her. Now she walked toward the car, a little stiffly, but she grinned as she hopped into the car, over the door into the passenger seat.

"You got a big damn dick, you know that?" she said, shifting in the seat. "Next time try not to shove it up out my throat."

"Next time?" He slid behind the wheel, looking at her wicked smile.

"You think I’m gonna let you get away with that wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am shit? I don’t think so. You’re stuck with me, big guy." She gave him an impudent wink. "Maybe next time you can shove it down my throat. Sound good to you?"

Yeah, Angel thought. It really did hurt a little less tonight.

 

PART II

Not sayin Not charmed at all Not sayin that you weren’t worth the fall --Tori Amos, Crazy

 

"No! No! Goddamn it, Faith, not even close."

Angel slammed his wide broadsword into Faith’s only slightly smaller blade and sent it spinning across the room. It struck the opposite wall of the training room with a shower of sparks, as Angel stopped his blade’s advance only inches from Faith’s throat.

"Go get it," he told her brusquely. "See if you can fucking get it right this time."

Faith flexed her hand. Her fingers hurt from the jolt of having the sword wrenched out of them. "Fuck you, bitch," she said.

"Maybe later."

She glared back over her shoulder at him, but he wasn’t even looking at her, seemingly more concerned with the stupid sword. God forbid he should nick the blade or something. He paid more attention to his damned weapons than about anything else in the hotel. Even her, she felt sometimes.

She picked her sword back up. She should be glad, she thought, that he didn’t care as much about her as she wished he did. Because if he did, one of them would have to leave.

She’d been in Los Angeles for a month now, training with Wesley and Angel, trying to get into shape for the Council representatives, who dropped by once a week to assess her progress. They never seemed happy. She knew this was why Angel worked her so hard. He was determined she would impress the Council pricks this time, no matter how many bruises he had to put on her to do it.

"You ready to try this again?" he said, mocking her a little. "You’re supposed to be a Slayer, and you can’t even take one lousy vampire? What are you gonna do when there’s a twenty-foot demon coming at you? Cry?"

Ignoring his taunting, Faith took her stance, eyes on Angel’s blade, then on the middle of his chest. "You’re right about one thing. You’re a lousy vampire." She lunged, he parried, his blade sliding off hers into another attack. He was good, she had to give him that. But she was getting better.

Focused, she used her superior strength to beat him back. His reach was so much longer than hers it gave him a distinct advantage, but she was damn well going to have him this time. She kept her eyes on that spot in the middle of his chest, where he telegraphed his movements. Slam, slam, metal against metal, she caught one attack after another and then, darted forward, past his wide, deadly blade, and shoved her own sword right into him.

He staggered back, staring down at the sword sticking out of his stomach. "Shit, Faith!"

She smirked grimly. "That a little closer, there, boss?"

Angel sat down abruptly, grimacing. "Yeah. That’s pretty much what I was after." He jerked the sword out and tossed it aside. "You weren’t supposed to actually stab me."

"Why not?"

He pressed a hand against the wound, blood seeping between his fingers. "Because it hurts."

She felt a little guilty, then. Avoiding his gaze, she went to get the First Aid kit, then knelt next to him with it, peeling up his shirt. "Here, let me look."

He lay back on the floor while she examined the wound. She’d gotten him pretty good. If he’d been human, a trip to the hospital would have been in order, or maybe straight to the morgue. It was hard to tell. Gently, she cleaned the blood, taped a large square of gauze over the still-oozing gash. Only when she had finished tending him did she say, quietly and not without sincerity, "Sorry."

"No, you’re not."

She looked at his face, caught his wry grin. "Yeah, I am. Because this pretty much screws me for the evening."

"Or makes sure you won’t get screwed."

"Either way." She stood, held a hand down to help him up. She braced herself easily against his weight as he came to his feet. "They’re coming tomorrow?"

"Yeah. You think you can jump through their hoops this time?"

She shook her head. "I hate that shit. Why can’t they just take Wesley’s word for it?"

"Because they don’t trust you."

Faith nodded. Trust Angel to tell her the hard truths. But he was right. It was for exactly that reason that the Council’s lap dogs kept hounding her. She tilted her head, looking at him. No jokes this time, no innuendoes. "Do you trust me, Angel?"

"Yeah." His lack of hesitation meant more to her than any Council test ever could. She smiled a little.

"Thanks."

#

Angel watched from the opposite side of the training room, tense, as the two Watchers put Faith through her paces. It was ridiculous, he thought, to test her every week, but he knew why they were doing it. They were trying to break her, to make her temper flare with their constant badgering. And Angel kept expecting it to, in spite of all the work he’d done with her.

Sweaty, hard, violent work, which more often than not ended with him pinning her against the wall of the training room and driving inside her while she pulled too hard on his hair and tried to suck his tongue out of his mouth.

It wasn’t the best system, but at least she was learning.

The older Watcher--his name was Cornelius, which Angel thought was utterly ridiculous--pursed his lips as Faith finished demonstrating her defensive martial arts techniques. "Please run that sequence again, Faith."

Faith’s lips tightened a little, but she did as she was told. Angel wondered if anyone besides him had noticed her momentary rebellion.

"She’s doing well." Wesley stood next to him, also watching. "You’ve worked wonders with her." Angel started to nod, but Wesley wasn’t done. "Although I doubt the Council would entirely approve of your methods."

Angel looked at him. Wesley had cocked an eyebrow, and there was a hint of disapproval in his eyes. "Fraternization between Watchers and Slayers is highly frowned upon."

"We’re not fraternizing," said Angel. "We’re having sex."

Wesley’s mouth tightened. "Which you quite likely shouldn’t be doing, anyway."

Angel laughed bitterly. "You worried about the curse, Wes? Don’t be." He picked up the sword leaning on the wall behind him, readying it for Faith’s next demonstration. "It was always Buffy. She’s gone. And I’ll never be happy again."

#

Much to Angel’s surprise, the Watchers ended their latest evaluation with the announcement that they wouldn’t be back again for a month.

"This is good," Wesley announced after the two men had let themselves out. "This is excellent." He looked at Faith, mustering a smile. He still harbored little affection for the Slayer. Angel couldn’t blame him, and tolerated his ambivalence, but not any outright hostility. "Good work, Faith."

Faith smiled. "You didn’t think I could do it."

Wes shrugged. "I had my doubts."

Angel carefully set the swords Faith had used for her demonstration back into the weapons cabinet, trying not to wince. He still hurt where she’d stabbed him. "We should celebrate," he said.

This announcement was met by silence. He turned to see Faith and Wes both gaping at him.

"Angle, baby, you celebrate?" said Faith.

"I do, on occasion. And don’t call me Angle."

"I only call you that because you’re obtuse."

"Ha ha, very funny." He locked the weapons cabinet. "So, do we hit the town, or what?"

Faith darted into the office and came back out with Angel’s leather coat. She held it up for him while he ducked backwards to shove his arms into the sleeves. "You’re not always obtuse," she said. "Sometimes you’re kind of a-cute."

Wesley laughed a little, but Angel could tell he was uncomfortable with Faith’s obvious flirting. Angel, on the other hand, enjoyed it. "I had no idea you had such an interest in geometry," Wesley said, trying to keep his tone light and failing miserably.

Faith slanted him a look as she adjusted Angel’s coat over his shoulders. "I learned a little geometry before I ditched high school. And sometimes when I’m in his bedroom, it’s to read. I learn things." She put her hand in Angel’s coat pocket and pulled out his wallet. "You got cash?"

He took the wallet back. "Enough for dinner." He put his arm around her and steered her toward the door. "Let’s go."

They headed out the door, Wesley trailing behind them.

#

They were halfway through dinner when Wesley cleared his throat and said, "I think this implication of approval from the Council might be a signal for us to rearrange our operations."

Angel, who was watching Faith tear into her second filet mignon, looked up. "What do you mean?"

"It might be time for Faith to spend a few days in Sunnydale."

Faith looked at Angel, but said nothing. Angel studied Wesley, trying to suss out what the other man was really thinking. He had a feeling he knew. "It’s probably not a bad idea."

Since Faith’s arrival in Los Angeles, the AI crew had been splitting time between LA and Sunnydale, trading shifts from time to time with the Sunnydale Scoobies. Gunn had unofficially taken charge of the Sunnydale crew, mostly because he somehow managed to get along famously with Xander. Cordelia had been back and forth, depending on where the visions took her. She seemed to be handling them better--Angel assumed Giles had come up with some way, mystical or otherwise, to reduce her pain levels. Fred, once Angel had convinced her to come out of her room, seemed happier with Gunn, so she went where he did. Wesley, Angel and Faith had become permanent fixtures in LA, while Xander, Willow, Tara, and Anya had taken over the bulk of the Sunnydale duties. Dawn had been gone for a while, living now with her father, but Willow and Tara had bought the house on Revello Drive.

"You want me to go hang with the Scoobs?" Faith’s tone sounded casual, but Angel saw something in her eyes that looked disturbingly like offense.

"Just for a short time at first," Wesley said. "It would be test of sorts, to prove to the Council you can work independently and maintain proper decorum and control." He paused, challenging her with a look. "Can you?"

"Course I can, Wes. This is the new me you’re talking to." But there was a smolder in her dark eyes, and she tossed her hair back over her shoulder. "I gotta pee."

Angel watched her head for the ladies’ room, head back, shoulders square. "I think you pissed her off, Wesley."

Wesley pushed rice pilaf across his plate. "It’s more than that, Angel. You know that."

Angel met Wesley’s gaze for a moment, then looked at the table. He hadn’t bothered to order any food, figuring Faith would put away enough for both of them. "You want to get her away from me."

Wesley leaned over the table, keeping his voice low. "She’s become far too dependent on you. Not to mention the…extracurricular element to your relationship."

Angel glared at him. "It’s better than having her catting all over LA taking out her post-training…energy. You know how she is."

"I don’t think it’s right for you to encourage it."

"It’s not hurting anything, Wesley."

"But it is." Wesley’s voice was so sincere Angel couldn’t riposte right away. "It’s hurting her. Or it will. If not now, then later."

Angel stared at the table, teeth clenched. He wanted to tell Wesley he was wrong, that he didn’t know what he was talking about. But it would have been a lie.

"She cares about you, Angel. Too much. You need to start letting her go now, before it gets too serious."

"Yeah." Angel forced the word out. But Wesley was right. Angel had seen the softness in Faith’s eyes, when she forgot to hide it behind her veneer of kick-ass. He didn’t want to hurt her. "Fine. I’ll talk to her tonight. We’ll send her to Sunnydale for a while. Gunn can keep an eye on her."

Wes nodded. "You know it’s the right thing."

"Yeah."

#

Wes went home after dinner, leaving Faith alone with Angel in the big hotel. Not that this was unusual--they’d spend nearly every night since Faith had come to LA alone in this huge, sprawling, mostly empty building. As usual, she trailed him up the stairs to his bedroom. She had her own room but she rarely slept in it.

He had been far too sober on the drive home. She knew what he was going to say to her, but she didn’t want to hear it. Not yet.

"Thanks for dinner," she said, closing his bedroom door behind her.

He looked at her, that hang-dog look firmly in place. "Faith, we need to talk."

"No, we don’t." She walked up to him, eyes tilted at him seductively, and jumped up into his arms. He caught her, of course, to keep her from falling ignominiously on her ass, and she kissed him, pushing his mouth open so no more annoying words would come out of it.

He kissed her back for a few seconds, then, with much difficulty, broke loose. "Faith, I’m serious."

She tilted her head back, looking into his eyes, her fingers stroking the back of his neck. "I know. And I’m okay with it. Send me to Sunnydale. I got no problem with that. But I don’t want to talk about why, or how, or anything else. Right now I just want to fuck you crazy, while you’ll still let me."

He gave in, of course. He was so easy for somebody who prided himself on taking the moral high ground. Within minutes they were mostly naked and more or less on the bed, and she was straddling him, working herself on him. Then he rolled her over and pushed her into the carpet, kissed her hard and rode her, then she took over again and they fought for a few minutes over who got to be on top, until Faith was laughing and suddenly coming at the same time, and Angel, surprisingly, grinned broadly, picked her up, pushed her up against the wall next to the bed and thrust hard into her, kissing her laughing mouth, until he, too, finished with a shout.

That was round one. An hour later, Faith rolled off him for the fourth time and stretched languidly, pressing into his hard, cool flesh. No other man she’d ever been with had ever satisfied her like this. No ordinary mortal had ever been able to take her far enough, hard enough, to leave her feeling genuinely satiated. But right now she could honestly say she’d had enough. Time to cuddle--and she’d never done that with anybody else, either.

He turned a little to curl into her, a finger drawing the tattoo on her upper arm. "We still need to talk."

She sobered. "No, we don’t. I know what’s going on. You don’t have to spell it out for me."

"It’s for the best."

"Yeah. It’s fine. No big. We had a good ride, time to move on."

He said nothing, but kissed her shoulder softly. She pressed back into him and closed her eyes, and as he put his arms around her she pretended, just for a minute, that he loved her.

#

She woke alone in the bed. She looked at the clock; it was noon already. Why was he up? Usually he was dead to the world at this hour.

On the edge of concerned, she got out of bed, gathered yesterday’s clothes from around the room and pulled them on, then headed downstairs.

Halfway down the stairs she heard Gunn’s voice. "It’s pretty serious. I think Xander’s got it covered for the moment, but he thinks you might be able to talk some sense into her."

Angel stood next to the reception desk, regarding Gunn soberly. Next to Gunn stood Fred and Giles. Wes was on the other side of the counter, also sober, taking in the conversation. "I’ll drive you back to Sunnydale," Giles said, "and Gunn can stay here in case he’s needed. Where’s Faith?"

"I’m here." Faith joined them, padding up in still-bare feet. Reflexively, she touched Angel’s arm. "What’s up?"

"Emergency," he said curtly. His tone concerned her more than it offended. "Can you and Gunn hold down the fort here?"

"Yeah, sure, boss." She threw a look at Gunn. "No problem."

"Good. Gunn, catch her up. Giles, let’s go."

#

Somehow, in spite of the seriousness of the situation, and in spite of his uncomfortable position under a blanket in the back seat of Giles’ midlife crisis car, Angel managed to sleep most of the way back to Sunnydale. Which was good, he thought when Giles finally shook him awake, because it meant he would be alert.

He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to be alert. Maybe muzzy would have been better.

With the blanket over his head, he had no choice but to let Giles guide him, and so didn’t know where they were until they got inside. The smell told him, though--it was the Magic Box.

"She’s here?" He dragged the blanket off and reflexively checked his hair. It felt more or less normal.

"Downstairs," said Giles.

Angel wasn’t sure what he’d expected to see, based on the story Giles had told him, but the tableau downstairs was relatively quiet. Willow sat in a chair, Xander, Anya and Tara elsewhere in the room. It was a training room of sorts. Angel had never been here, but he knew automatically that this was where Buffy had honed her skills. He could still smell her, and the pain came back, the pain he’d thought he’d pushed away.

Willow looked up at him with wide, dark eyes. She had been crying. "Angel?"

"Hey, Willow," he answered gently.

She came slowly to her feet, wringing her hands, her eyes pleading. "You understand, don’t you?"

He nodded. "You want to bring her back."

The others didn’t move, but somehow seemed to retreat, going still and silent, waiting.

"I can bring her back. I know I can."

The desperation in Willow’s eyes concerned Angel more than anything else. "How?"

"Invocation of Osiris." She was so sincere, her eyes wide, so much of her still the uncertain schoolgirl.

"That’s dark magic, Willow. It asks for blood, and power that could rip you to pieces." He had no doubt Giles had told her the same thing.

"I told you, Willow." This was Tara, her voice vehement. "It’s wrong."

Willow glanced toward her girlfriend, then looked back at Angel. Angel knelt in front of her chair, took her hands in his. "Why do you want to bring her back?"

"Why wouldn’t I want to? Don’t you want her back?"

Angel swallowed. Yes. Of course he wanted her back. More than anything else, he wanted her small, golden form in his arms again, wanted to breathe in the smell of her hair, to taste her mouth. But that wasn’t the point. "What if she’s not meant to be back?"

"If she weren’t meant to be back, I wouldn’t have found the spell. Don’t you see? I found it and I can do it. I know I can. How can she be meant to be gone?"

"Willow--"

"She’s in hell, Angel. You know what that was like. We can’t leave her there."

He rocked back on his heels. This had simply never occurred to him. "What makes you think she’s in hell?"

"Glory opened a portal to a hell dimension. Buffy was sucked into it when she died."

"But we saw her body," Giles put in gently.

Angel studied Willow’s face. "Have you asked her?"

Silence fell over the room, deep and puzzled. "Asked her?" Willow repeated.

"If you can work a spell to bring her back, surely you can work a spell to communicate with her. Find out where she is, and if she even wants to come back." He paused, hardly able to believe he was arguing against this. But it was dark, dark magic, and he knew all too well what the consequences of that could be. Willow wasn’t strong enough to deal with that kind of power.

"I…I didn’t think about that."

Angel nodded, squeezing her hands gently. "I’ll help you set it up. We can do it right away."

#

Upstairs, Angel gathered the last of the ingredients they needed for the spell, handing jars and bottles to Giles.

"I was hoping you would suggest that to her," Giles said.

"Why didn’t you?"

Giles shook his head. "She wasn’t listening to anything I tried to tell her. It was as if she thought she needed to do this, needed a reason to use the magic. You were the only person I knew who might be able to talk her out of it. Because if you said she shouldn’t be brought back--"

Angel found himself relieved that Giles didn’t finish his sentence, especially since he wasn’t sure what he would tell Willow if Buffy was trapped in hell somewhere. "Willow’s in way deeper than she can handle." He picked up the rest of the bottles. "You’re going to need to watch her."

"I know. Tara’s been concerned, as well."

"Well, hopefully this will settle some things." He started toward the stairs.

"Angel," Giles said, and at the concern in his tone, Angel stopped and turned. "What if Buffy is in a hell dimension?"

"Then we’ll have to decide what to do, won’t we?"

#

With Tara’s encouragement, Willow had reluctantly agreed to let Angel be in charge of the spell. Angel watched her with concern as she took her place in the circle. Something was terribly wrong with her, her power out of balance, her control not commensurate with her skills. He was glad people were watching her. There was no telling how far this could have gone if her friends hadn’t been paying attention, if it had gone unchecked.

They closed the circle, Angel holding Willow’s hand on one side, Anya’s on the other. Tara, on Willow’s other side, gave her one last, concerned look before closing her eyes.

Angel cleared his throat and suddenly realized exactly what he was doing.

Contacting Buffy. He squeezed Willow’s hand tight, and Anya’s--too tight, then carefully relaxed his grip. Carefully, holding his voice steady with an effort, he began to speak.

"As friends we call to you. As friends we reach out in love--" In love--his voice cracked--he couldn’t help it-- "--to speak to you. Those who are living seek--" His voice stopped. Because she was there.

He was as certain of her presence as if she stood in front of him. He felt as if he could reach out and touch her, but somehow he knew she wasn’t there.

No, she said. No, love. Let me go.

And she showed him where she was. Let him feel it, and it washed through him, filling him, deep peace, intense, pure, transcending anything he had ever experienced, beyond his capacity to comprehend.

Let me go.

He opened his eyes slowly and blinked, finding tears on his lashes. "Did you feel that?" He could hardly force the words out.

Willow, wide-eyed, nodded. And then burst into tears. "I didn’t know. I didn’t think."

Automatically, Angel reached toward her, but she had sunk in the other direction, toward Tara, who held her and softly kissed her forehead. Which was as it should be.

# Angel stayed until nightfall, spending most of the time upstairs with Giles. Giles had recently acquired some new magical items, and asked Angel’s opinion on several he didn’t recognize. Since Angel had nothing better to do, he obliged.

"Willow needs training," Angel said, peering through a jeweler’s loupe at miniscule writing on the back of an amulet. "She’s walking a fine line and somebody needs to be sure she doesn’t cross it."

Giles frowned. "She seems to have progressed beyond my capacity to guide her."

"I’ll ask Wes if he knows anybody. There’s a Wicca council somewhere in the area, isn’t there? They should be able to help." He laid the amulet down. "That one’s genuine. I’d keep it locked up if I were you. Looks like it summons some kind of singing spell or something."

Picking the amulet up, Giles looked at it, then slid it into his jacket pocket. "What we felt in there--it was really her?"

Angel smiled a little. "Yeah. It was. Beautiful and bright and right where she belongs."

"Heaven," said Giles, as if he didn’t quite believe it.

"Something like that." He picked up a jeweled ring. "Damn site better than that place she sent me, that’s for sure." He started to fit the jeweler’s loupe back into his eye, then stopped, letting it drop into his palm. "This is the first time since she died that I haven’t hurt for her."

Giles nodded. "I know what you mean."

"I miss her. But it’s good to know she’s all right."

"Yes," said Giles.

Angel readjusted the loupe and went back to work.

#

All the long, dark ride home, he thought about Buffy. Rolled the memories around in his head. The first time they’d met, the first time they’d kissed--though that hadn’t gone very well--the first time they’d made love--again, not the best outcome--and that one, glorious day they’d spent together that had never really happened, at least not for her. It didn’t hurt as much now, that that was all they would ever have. Because he had his memories to treasure and keep, and she was in a place where nothing and no one could ever hurt her again.

He felt lighter, easier than he had in a long time when Giles pulled up in front of the hotel and let him out. Until he saw Wesley, grim-faced, standing behind the reception counter.

"Angel,"he said. "I’ve been trying to reach you on your cell phone."

"I don’t have it," Angel said. "What’s wrong?"

"It’s Faith."

#

They couldn’t do much but wait at the hospital. Gunn was already there, pacing the floor.

"Man, it was my fault. I shoulda checked things out before we went down there." He rubbed a broad hand over his smooth, brown scalp, fingers digging into his skin. "It just got her so damn fast."

"It’s not your fault," said Angel. "She’s a little too impetuous sometimes."

"It wasn’t even that," Gunn said. "She was right with me. Not rushing ahead or anything like that. It just--dammit, Angel, it went for her first."

Angel nodded, proud of her everywhere that he wasn’t already soaked in fear. He’d just let Buffy go, finally. How could he possibly let go of Faith on the same night?

Then, in a slow, painful epiphany, he realized that, no matter what happened to her, he was going to have to do exactly that.

#

He sat for hours in the waiting room, after Wes and Gunn finally left to try to get some sleep so they could hold down the fort back at the hotel. Angel got up once, took a quick trip to the parking garage to check for sewer access in case he needed to leave the hospital, then went back to his vigil.

Finally a doctor came in, frowning at a chart. "Is there someone here named Angel?" He looked hopefully at a woman sitting near the vending machine.

Angel pushed to his feet eagerly. "That’s me."

The doctor recovered quickly. "Yes, hello. I’m Dr. Ross. Faith has come out of surgery."

"Is she okay?"

"She has a long recovery period ahead of her, but there’s a very good chance she’ll be okay."

"Can I see her?"

"She’s still unconscious."

"I want to see her."

The doctor mulled, measured Angel’s size and the intensity of his expression, then nodded. "This way, then, sir."

For the next hour he sat by her bed, waiting for her to wake up. The demon had clawed her right across the belly. If she hadn’t been a Slayer, it would have killed her. As it was, she was pale and drawn, with stitches making ugly tracks across her stomach.

Finally, she stirred a little. He went to kneel by the bed, took her hand. After a moment, her fingers squeezed his and she opened her eyes.

"Faith?" he said, hesitant.

She smiled. "Hey, baby."

He kissed her fingers. "You’re gonna be all right."

# Faith’s convalescence took a third of the time the doctors had predicted. Angel doted on her at first, during the days she was bedridden. Then, gradually, he got her training again, helping her relearn the use of muscles gone soft with disuse.

He was gentle and sweet and tender, and Faith knew there was something wrong.

One day after training, she actually felt like her insides weren’t ripping apart, and she looked at him and said, "Let’s go."

He frowned. "Go where?"

"Heaven," she said. "Orgasmo-land. You ain’t done me up good since I got home from the hospital. I’m getting my groove back and I want some action."

He smiled at her, sadly. "I’m sorry, Faith."

"For what?"

He came to her, set his hands on her shoulders, kissed her. His mouth was cool and sweet and suddenly she knew the answer to her question.

"For falling in love with you," he whispered.

She blinked back tears. How much she had wanted to hear those words; how much she had hoped he would never say them.

"Damn," she said, fighting to keep her voice steady. "That’s too bad." She slid one hand softly inside his shirt, let her fingers trace up his back. "You were one damn fine ride."

 

PART III

 

"If there is a Horizontal Line that runs from the MAP off your body…Will this Horizontal Line when asked know how to find Where you end where I begin." --Tori Amos, Your Cloud

She went to Sunnydale a few days later, and didn’t see Angel again for a month. He was avoiding her, she knew, and she understood why. Just thinking about him made her sad.

There was no replacing him, either. After her first major night of Sunnydale slayage she’d headed for her old haunts, found a guy she knew she could count on not to ask questions, but it was no good. Nothing could hold a candle to hard, sweaty vampire sex.

Or maybe it was just Angel-sex. But she didn’t want to dwell on that.

The Scooby crew didn’t offer any reasonable alternatives, either. Gunn seemed like a good bet, but he was besotted with Fred. Xander had Anya, and still had a tendency to flinch when Faith looked at him. Giles didn’t do much for her--plus she was afraid she might kill him. And Wesley--as much as had gone on between them in the past, she’d developed a healthy respect for him over the past months. Too much respect to use him like that. In fact, she had started to think of him as a friend.

In Angel’s absence, Wes and Giles had stepped in again as Watchers, more or less. She was inexpressibly grateful for what they had done for her, the second chance they’d engineered. Even the Council seemed pleased with her, these days.

So she settled into her new life as Sunnydale’s resident Slayer. She pushed Angel to the back of her mind, concentrated on her duties, and tried not to think hard about the fact that, for the first time since she’d lost her virginity, she wasn’t getting any.

Things were just starting to get boring when Spike blew into town. Out patrolling the cemetery, she found him crouched next to a crypt, muttering incoherently. She almost staked him before she recognized him.

"What’s wrong with him?" she asked later, as Spike, wrapped in a blanket, huddled over the kitchen table and mumbled to himself.

"I don’t know," said Willow, trying to coax Spike to drink from a glass she’d filled with blood. "Do vampires get sick? Maybe he has the flu."

"Perhaps we should call Angel," said Wesley, carefully, and without looking at Faith.

Faith stiffened a little, feeling her heart lurch. "Yeah. I’ll do it."

Cordelia answered the phone. She’d gone back to LA after Faith had come to Sunnydale, to help Angel hold down that end of the operation. Some days, Faith remembered to be jealous, but most of the time she pretended it meant nothing to her.

"Hey, Cordy, it’s Faith. I need to talk to Angel."

"Just a minute."

Cordy didn’t even try to put her off, which surprised Faith a little. Then Angel’s voice said, "Hey, Faith," in her ear, a little too gently, a little too much like a caress.

"Angel," she said, and suddenly realized she hadn’t said his name in ages. Maybe she’d even gone out of her way to avoid it. "We have a bit of a situation going on here. Thought maybe you could help."

She explained, trying not to picture his face in her mind as she talked, the dark, straight brows drawing farther and farther down as the story progressed, as she knew they would be.

"Spike?" he repeated. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah. He’s totally out of his head. And Angel? His hair’s brown. Whatever it is, I think it’s serious."

"I’ll be there as soon as I can."

# Two hours after sunset, Faith found herself pacing the floor of the Summers house, chewing her nails. Tara and Willow had gone downstairs to keep an eye on Spike, who was ranting again but didn’t seem dangerous.

"He’ll be here soon," Wes told her.

"Yeah." Faith folded her arms over her chest.

"You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to." Wes’ voice was gentle. He noticed far too much these days. "I can talk to him."

Faith shook her head. "It’s okay. I…I want to see him."

Wes nodded. "I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you."

It was hard to tell, when he finally showed up, if he was glad or not. He carried a bit more than his usual reserve, but the vaguest hint of a smile edged his mouth when Faith opened the door.

"Hey, Faith," he said, in that same soft, careful tone he’d used on the phone.

"Hey, big guy." She tried to make it flip and casual, and figured she’d succeeded for the most part. But she didn’t give in to the urge to kiss him, not even on the cheek.

"Where is he?" Angel asked.

"Basement," said Faith, and led the way.

Willow looked up with some concern as Angel came down the stairs. "Don’t stake him," she said.

Angel took a few steps toward the other vampire, then stopped, a strange, baffled expression on his face. "I won’t," he said, almost absently, then sat next to Spike on the bed. "So that’s what a soul smells like. No wonder the other vampires never want to play with me."

# Angel coaxed the story out of him bit by bit. Faith stood by watching, because there wasn’t much else she could do. And because she couldn’t bear to go to any room in the house where Angel wasn’t.

"I did it for her," Spike said, finally gaining some lucidity. "I loved her, you know, and she went and got herself killed. Couldn’t save her, so I bloody well saved myself, didn’t I? For her."

When the story had finally come out, and Spike seemed quiet again, Angel spoke with Giles and Willow for a time, then headed back upstairs. He seemed calm, but something about the set of his shoulders bothered Faith. She followed him.

He left the house, walking out into the darkness. Running a few steps, Faith caught up with him. "Hey, baby, you okay?"

"Don’t call me that," he said, almost harshly.

Faith blinked, taken aback. "Sorry. Why not?"

His eyes slanted toward hers, glinting in the darkness. "Because it hurts."

She had nothing to say to that. It hurt her, too, just seeing him. Big and dark, stalking the darkness, scent of leather and Angel. She wanted to take his hand, but he had them both jammed into his coat pockets. He wouldn’t have wanted her to, anyway.

She followed him for a time, both of them walking in silence. After a while, Faith began to wonder if he even knew she was there, then he said suddenly, "Does that make him better than me?"

"What do you mean?" Faith had been lost in her own thoughts, remembering what it felt like to shape her hand to the curve of his bare ass.

Angel stopped, turned to look at her. "Because he got his soul back on purpose. I had mine shoved down my throat. I didn’t want it. He got his on purpose, for Buffy. Does that make him better than me?"

Faith tilted her head, eyeing him, trying to keep her gaze from sliding along the lines of his wide mouth. "Way I see it, he hasn’t proved yet what he can do with his. You have. And having a soul doesn’t make you automatically good. I mean, I’ve always had one, and look how I fucked things up." Something in his shoulders seemed to ease. "Besides, what difference does it make? You’re you and he’s him. End of story."

"That’s what I love about you, Faith--" He stopped abruptly, and the small smile that had begun on his face slipped away.

She regarded him sadly. "Yeah, that’s kind of our problem, isn’t it?"

He just stood there a moment, a wide, black shadow in the dark. Then he stepped forward, closed a big hand over her shoulder, and kissed her. Sweet, deep, tender, expressing everything he couldn’t express to her with his body. Faith kissed him back, savoring it. After a moment, she tasted tears, but she wasn’t sure if they were hers or Angel’s.

# She walked him back to the house, to his car, and by the time they stopped he had folded his big hand around hers.

"I’m going to head back home," he said. "Probably better that way."

"Maybe," she admitted reluctantly. She lifted his hand to her lips, brushed kisses over his knuckles. One of them was split open and she gave the wound a moment of attention. "I miss you."

He nodded. "Yeah." He kissed her softly again, and when he spoke his voice was little more than a breath. "I love you."

"Love you," she said.

For what fucking good it does, she thought, watching his car pull out, and suddenly she was angry, so angry she could spit, or kill something.

She stormed back into the house and found Giles in the kitchen, making tea.

"All right, Rupert," she snapped, and he looked up, startled. "You answer me a question."

"And what would that be, Faith?"

"How the hell do you go over the heads of the Watchers’ Council?"

# It was as she’d suspected. Over the heads of the Watchers’ Council meant nothing less than direct contact with primal forces. The primal forces. Possibly even the Powers who guided Angel’s mission through Cordelia’s visions.

"I want to talk to them," she told Giles firmly. "You tell me how I can do that."

"Faith, this is not something to be undertaken lightly."

"Do I look light, Giles? This is serious."

Giles regarded her soberly. He was, she thought, being deliberately obtuse. He wanted to make her spell it out.

"I just had to watch him leave," she said. "I just had to--" Her voice broke and she stopped, determined to stop the trembling in her lips before she went on. "You’ve known him longer than I have. You’ve seen what he’s been through. Would it kill them to give him a break?"

Giles looked at her with a tender sympathy she found surprising. "Perhaps not," he said. "They arranged for me to give you one."

"He won’t do it for himself. You know that."

"No, I’m sure he won’t."

"Then please." Angry at herself, she dashed tears from her eyes. "Please just show me how I can talk to them."

# Giles took her to his apartment, where he withdrew a few talismans and set them out in a pattern on the kitchen table. Then he sat on one side, Faith on the other, and she clung to his hands while he spoke the spell.

The ritual wasn’t difficult, but the power required was so intense Faith could feel it prickling on her skin, and as a general rule she wasn’t very sensitive to magic. Giles spoke words in a language she didn’t recognize, a language that seemed to drip with age and power. The power moved over her and suddenly she was somewhere--

Somewhere else--

And not alone, but she had no clear sense of who might be with her, except that the presence was all-encompassing, and a little cold on her skin.

"Why are you here?" The voice was accusatory.

Faith gathered her courage and lifted her chin, though she wasn’t entirely certain either of them had actually followed her here. "I want to ask--"

"You want something of us. Of course."

"Not for myself. For someone else." She wondered if this would make a difference.

"For Angel," said the voice. It seemed more like a color, or an odor. It was too pervasive, too bright, to be called a sound.

And the scornfulness in it broke the last thread of restraint she had left.

"Yes. For Angel. What the fuck are you playing at, treating him like this?"

"He has much to atone for."

"Oh, you can so bite me with that atone shit. My God, he spent a hundred years in hell! What more do you want from him? You took Buffy away from him--" Suddenly she was sobbing. She knew how deep that love had been--she herself had almost died because of it. Once she’d hated Buffy for that but now it all seemed so inexpressibly sad. Now, she would have done the same thing herself, to save his life. "He loved her so much, and how hard would it have been for you to fix things for them so they could be together?"

"It was not meant to be."

"Oh, bullshit! What would it have hurt, in the big picture? They never had a chance to love each other. You just sit up here--or wherever--and watch, and manipulate, and never get your hands dirty, while he’s down there fighting, doing your dirty work, because he hates himself so much, he hates what he is--" She drew a ragged, sobbing breath. "But he wouldn’t give up on me, he never did, and if it weren’t for him I’d be dead or God knows what right now." There was no answer. Was there ever an answer? "All I can say is, if this is the way you treat your champions then I don’t want to have anything to do with it." Silence. "Do you hear me? Do you hear me, you fucking piece of--"

Light flared. Something appeared just in front of her face--an amulet. She lifted her hand and it fell, soft and cool, into her palm.

"What’s this?"

"Take it to him. This must be his decision."

"What does it do?"

"Take it to him. He will know."

And she opened her eyes with a shudder, back in Giles’ apartment. She looked down at her hand. The amulet was there.

"What is it?" Giles asked.

"The answer to my question." She stood. "I gotta go to LA."

# He hadn’t thought it would hurt so much to see Faith again. He’d been through this before, after all. He knew the pain that came with the whole, "Look but don’t touch," setup. He’d been sure he could handle it.

He’d been wrong. This hurt like hell.

It was worse even than it had been with Buffy, because he’d never gotten the chance to find out what it would be like to really be with Buffy--except that single day, the twenty-four hours he’d given back. He had accepted that he would never have anything more than that. His relationship with her had changed him so much, on so many levels, that he’d even begun to think it was acceptable that he had lost her, first to the curse, and then to death. And she was happy now, cared for.

But this--

Over the past two years, since his return from hell, he’d tried not to think about the implications of his curse. That he potentially had eternity in front of him, and in all that wide stretch of his future he would never be allowed to love. Seeing Faith tonight had shoved that fact right into his face.

God, how it hurt.

A blackness had settled in his chest, rage and despair he was trying hard to ignore. He had fallen into despair that deep last year, when he had ripped Angel Investigations up by the roots, and he’d sworn he would never do it again.

So now he sat in the office that had been his, then Wesley’s, that they now more or less shared, trying to find case files so he could make up a schedule for next week. But it seemed that, just about the time he thought he’d figured out Cordelia’s filing system, she changed it.

And, God help him, as much as he was trying to put her out of his head, he could smell Faith, that musky woman scent layered with Slayer smokiness and a tang like kumquats. Though, come to think of it, he’d never tasted kumquats as a human, so maybe he was way off the mark there--

The hotel’s front door closed. He jerked to attention and had a split-second to wonder who could be coming into the hotel at two a.m. before he realized the smell was not his imagination.

She was here. He looked through the office window and saw her there, standing by the door. His eyes met hers across the distance between them and she smiled.

He wanted to tell her to leave. The pain was already so deep, so agonizing, and seeing her just made it worse. But there was something in her eyes…

He laid the mish-mash of file folders back on the desk and left the office, rounded the reception counter to meet her.

"What’s wrong?" he asked her, as she met him halfway.

"I brought you a present," she said. She took something out of the pocket of her denim jacket, held it up for him to see. It was a copper amulet, about three inches across, with a dull red jewel in the middle and writing all over its surface.

Hesitantly, Angel took it. "What is it?"

"They told me you would know."

"Who told you--" And then he stopped, suddenly recognizing the language. "Faith, what did you do?"

"I went over your head." The look she tilted up at him was almost seductive, but her eyes--she’d been crying recently, he realized, her eye makeup still smudged a little with it.

Angel turned the amulet in his hands, puzzling out the words. Then, hardly able to believe what he was reading, he looked at Faith. "I should call Wes. He can translate it."

Faith’s eyes flashed darkly at him. "You’re stalling."

"I know." He looked down again at the amulet. "Let’s go upstairs."

He had decided what he was going to do before he opened the door to his suite and let her in. He watched her cross the room, but she stopped halfway to the bedroom and turned around to face him. The look on her face was expectant. "Well?"

"Why did you do this?"

She tossed her hair back over her shoulder, defiance rising in her eyes. "Because I want you to be happy. You got a problem with that?"

"No. I just…I just can’t believe this. Why now?"

Her expression had changed, closed off a little. He wondered why. "Maybe because I cursed them out. How the hell should I know? It worked. Are you gonna use the damn thing or not?"

He reached for her, cupped her face in his hand. She was so warm, so beautiful. "Come with me."

Smiling a little, she nodded.

He took her hand and led her to the bedroom, where he sat cross-legged on the bed. She climbed up and sat across from him, watching with interest. Angel closed his eyes a moment, gathering himself, then lifted the amulet with one hand, reaching for Faith with the other. She wove her fingers into his and held him tight.

He drew a breath to speak, let it out in silence. Maybe he should check this with someone first, be sure it really was what he thought it was. Be sure it was really a good idea…

"It came straight from the Powers, baby." Her voice soothed him even though he heard a tremor of fear in it. "Bona fide PTB mojo, cooked up just for you."

The amulet lay cold and edgy in his hand. "Faith?"

"Yes?"

"If something goes wrong, you know what to do?"

Her hand tightened on his. "They don’t call me the Slayer for nothing."

He nodded. Again, he closed his eyes. Something rose inside him--maybe it was a prayer. Turning the amulet carefully in his hand, he found the first words, and began to read.

He spoke the words slowly. It had been a long time since he’d spoken Proto-Bantu. But after a few seconds he felt the power begin to flow into his fingers, up his arm--he clenched Faith’s hand hard, heat running up into him, through veins dead for two and a half centuries…

She scooted a little closer to him, her other hand going to his shoulder, holding him steady as he fought his way through the words. It hurt, burned, as if the power cauterized him from the inside. He forced himself to go on, to finish the invocation, because stopping didn’t seem to be an option right now.

Words, words, strange vowels he could barely get his voice around, and finally, his body burning deep all the way to his bones, he said the last word, "Shanshu."

The power skewered him. He breathed. Hard. Because he needed the air. He gasped and choked, pulling in breath after breath, feeling all the pulses in his body come to life. This was worse than it had been with the Mohra demon, the pain so intense he didn’t think he could bear it. But he’d endured worse, he reminded himself. He’d spent a century in hell.

He slumped forward into Faith, and she caught him, holding him against her. "Angel," she said, "Angel." Her hands on him felt cooler than usual, and he realized it was because he himself was warmer. His heart pounded in the back of his throat. He could almost taste it.

He’d been human before. For twenty-four hours he’d felt his heart beat, had eaten and breathed and made love. This was different. He didn’t know why until carefully, deliberately, he eased his grip on Faith’s hand.

He was human, breathing and pulsing with the flow of blood, but he could still feel the strength in his hands. Before, he’d felt different, and had known almost immediately after the transformation that he was human in every way, down to the frailty of a normal human body.

This was different. He lifted his hand from Faith’s, stared at it. His skin had changed color, picked up a slight pink cast from the blood flowing beneath it.

Faith took his face in her hands, pushed fingers through his hair. "Angel, are you okay?"

He stared at her, not quite comprehending. Then he took hold of her knit shirt by the collar and ripped it open, straight down the front, effortlessly.

He should have felt different. He should have been marveling in the newness of this, the miracle of it. But all he could see was the smooth curve of her bare breasts--was it a rule that Slayers never wore bras?--the soft expanse of her belly. All he could feel was the need that swarmed through him at the sight of her, the sudden, profound knowledge that she was his now, he was hers. All it needed was a question, an answer.

He asked the question with his hands, cupping her breasts, smoothing his palms back along her skin, her nipples rising under his touch. She answered it, leaning into him, pressing her mouth into his. A coherent thought finally crept into his brain: Kumquats. Do I know where to buy kumquats?

Then the thoughts left as he let emotion flood him. Need, want, desire, love. Because he could, because it was safe.

He let her lead him, gave her everything she wanted, loved her as hard as she asked, poured everything he had into her, let himself feel it all. No holding back, not anymore, not ever again. She wept, shuddering under him with her release, and he pressed her hands into the bed, fingers laced between hers, and lost himself deep and high inside her. Never had it been like this for him, so intense, so deep and powerful and perfect.

Finally he eased himself down against her, kissing her face, her throat. He could feel her pulse under her skin but there was no demon to fight anymore, no urge to pierce her flesh there and drink her. He licked her instead, savoring the salt-sweet taste of her.

There was nothing really to say, no words he could find to express how he felt. He rolled next to her, pulled her against him, held her, pressed his face into the dark fall of her hair. Her long, shuddering breath vibrated against his chest as she nestled back into him.

They were silent for a time, resting in the quiet, then Faith said, "Do you wish it were different?"

"Different?"

"Before, when you said, ‘Why now.’ I know what you meant. You meant, why not before, with Buffy."

"No."

"Yes. I know you did."

He settled his chin into her shoulder. She was right, but she was also wrong, and there was no point dwelling on it. "I love you, Faith."

"But you loved her so much."

He couldn’t deny it. He slipped fingers down the fall of her hair, over her shoulder, down to the tattoo on her arm, where he traced its lines.

After a time she spoke again, her voice quavering. "Don’t you wonder why?"

Folding himself around her, he kissed her shoulder, her cheek, the back of her ear. "Maybe you just needed me more than she did."

He felt the hitching sob move through her, and held her closer, trying to stop it. "Faith, don’t. It is what it is. Two hundred and fifty years, Faith, and I’ve loved her, and I’ve loved you. No one else. And this…this is a miracle. It’s more than I deserve."

"It’s everything you deserve, you fucking broody-bitch asshole."

He bit the back of her ear. "You have a nasty little mouth."

"Get used to it." She rolled over, looking up into his small, quirky smile, his deep, dark eyes. "You’re my Slayer-boy now, you know that? That’s what they turned you into."

"Something like that."

"Exactly like that. Human, but with vamp powers." She slid a hand down him, over the curve of his hip, the back of his thigh. "They better not take you away and send you off with some Watcher."

He laughed a little. "You’re not getting rid of me that easy." His hands slipped down to cup her hips, tilt her against him. "I’m not going anywhere, Faith. You can count on that. Because this is gonna be one damn fine ride."

END.



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