Prelude With Tears 

"And I’m so sad like a good book I can’t put this Day Back a sorta fairytale with you a sorta fairytale with you"--Tori Amos, "A Sorta Fairytale"

Much to Angel’s relief, the hotel lobby was empty. He might just get out of here without getting caught, after all. He ducked into the office to grab his coat off the hook on the wall. Shrugging it on, he pulled his ticket out of the pocket and double-checked the time. He might miss the beginning of the show, but that was all right. He wasn’t going for the show, anyway.

Damn. Where the hell had he left his car keys? They weren’t in his coat pocket where he normally kept them--had he switched them to his other coat? No, here they were--wrong pocket.

Time to go. He headed out into the lobby.

And of course, just as his hand touched the doorknob, Cordelia’s voice piped up behind him. "Hey, Angel. Where you going?"

"Out."

"Anywhere fun?"

"No."

"How long will you be gone?"

Good God, that was from Wesley, popping up from behind the counter. Angel could have sworn he hadn’t been there before. So much for super-charged vampire senses. He was just too distracted lately. Plus he hadn’t been eating. The hearing and the general awareness of his surroundings were the first to go when he quit eating.

"Three, four hours," he said to Wes, and made another play for the doorknob, but Cordelia wasn’t done prying.

"Is that a ticket in your hand?" She walked toward him, the personification of irritating nosiness. "You’re not just going out, you’re going out." And before he quite realized what she was doing, she had snatched the ticket from his hand. "You’re going out to the--" She sobered, reading the ticket, and stared at him. "You’re going to the Ice Capades?"

Wes laughed. "The Ice Capades? Goodness, Angel, I--"

But Cordy, of course, had zeroed in on the significance. "Angel, no. Please tell me you’re not."

Wesley’s grin faltered, but only a little. He came closer, watching curiously as Angel grabbed at the ticket, only to have Cordy whip it sideways, out of his reach. "You are not going," she said, her voice hard.

"I don’t understand," said Wes. "Did you have a vision? Is there mortal danger at the Ice Capades?"

"Yes, there is. For Angel, there is."

"Give me the damn ticket, Cordy."

Wes was looking concerned now. Angel, on the other hand, was about five seconds away from showing Cordy a nice mouthful of fangs. "If there’s a danger, Angel--" Wes ventured.

Angel finally got his fingers on the ticket and snatched it back from Cordy’s hand. "There’s no danger, Wes. Cordy’s just sticking her damn nose where it doesn’t belong. As usual."

"It’s Buffy’s birthday," said Cordelia.

Wes was still lost. "So?"

"So Buffy’s dad--who lives here in LA, by the way--always takes her to the ice show on her birthday."

Realization dawned in Wesley’s eyes. "Oh. I see."

"Why do you want to do this to yourself, Angel?" Cordelia had a valid point, but Angel was in no mood.

"This is my business, not yours." He grabbed the doorknob again, this time managing to get the door open before Wesley’s voice stopped him.

"Will you be reachable on your cell phone?"

Angel looked at Wes, surprised by the unspoken support. "As reachable as usual."

Cordelia made one last effort. "Angel, don’t go."

Angel’s anger faded, seeing the genuine concern in Cordelia’s eyes. "I have to," he offered. "I had--I just have a bad feeling. I need to be sure she’s okay."

She said nothing, but he saw a hint of understanding on her face. "Call me if you need me," he added. "I’ll try to remember to turn the phone on."

Finally, he made his escape. He looked at his watch. He’d be lucky to catch the last half of the show, now. Not that it mattered. He pretty much hated the Ice Capades, anyway.

#

Buffy looked at her watch. This had to be the dullest ice show she’d ever been to. She wasn’t sure why. The skating was fine, the storyline about what one usually expected from this kind of show, but it just wasn’t holding her attention. Maybe she was getting too old for the Ice Capades. Or maybe it was because her father was so obviously preoccupied.

As the lights came up for the intermission, he asked if she wanted another drink.

"No, thanks, Dad. I’m fine."

He nodded. He’d barely smiled all evening. This was all she needed--another broody guy in her life.

"What’s wrong, Dad? You’ve got something face."

He didn’t even have the decency to wave it off. "We need to talk, Buffy."

Her heart clenched. What was it now? It seemed like only a matter of days had passed since she’d heard those words come out of Angel’s mouth. "What about?"

"I’m leaving, Buffy. Leaving the country."

And another hideously painful flashback. She blinked at her father, dazed. "You’re doing what?"

There was honest pain in her father’s face, but it didn’t help. "I’m going to Spain with Colette."

"What, for a week or two? A vacation? And who the hell is Colette?"

Her father looked away. "For six months at least. And Colette is my secretary."

"You’re sleeping with your secretary?"

"Buffy--"

She cut him off with a sharp movement of her hand. "I really don’t want to hear this."

"I’m sorry, Buffy. I just need--"

"Need what? A young, nubile girl in your bed? Somebody more interesting than Mom?" Her voice had gotten far too loud, especially considering the number of children in the audience. She stood. "I suppose you thought one last ice show would soften the blow?" Grabbing her purse, she headed up the aisle. "I’ll be back. Maybe."

"Buffy, please--"

"No. Not now."

Grateful they’d gotten aisle seats, Buffy headed out. If the line at the ladies’ room wasn’t too long, maybe she could hide in there for a while and cry.

#

The lights were just coming up for the intermission when Angel finally made his way into the stadium. He was, he discovered, on the opposite side from where his seat was supposed to be. Of course. He couldn’t have parked on the other side. Resigned, he headed past concession stands and hot dog vendors, making his way around the stadium.

He sensed her, somehow, before he saw her. He wasn’t sure what alerted him--her smell, perhaps, even mingled as it was with a hundred other bodies, plus popcorn and hot dogs, or maybe he’d heard the unique note that was her breathing. Or maybe--and there were times he really thought this was true--maybe she was just so much a part of him, so embedded in his heart, that he just knew she was there.

In any case, when he turned to seek her out, she was looking right back at him, an expression of utter shock on her face. And tears, if he wasn’t mistaken. She scrubbed her face hastily, trying to hide them, but it was too late.

He started toward her, realizing only then that she was in line for the ladies’ room. There were only a couple of people ahead of her.

"Buffy, are you okay?" He stopped next to her. The woman in front of her in line and the woman behind her each took a long step back, giving them room.

"What the hell are you doing here?" She sounded almost angry.

The woman in front of Buffy gave Angel a quick once-over. "I have a cell phone. You want me to call 911?"

Buffy stared at her blankly a moment, then shook her head. "No, no, it’s okay."

"Are you all right?" Angel prodded again.

She looked at him, still dazedly, as if she weren’t sure he was really there. "I’m okay. Look…let me get washed up a little. I’ll meet you back out here."

He nodded. "Okay." She disappeared into the ladies’ room and he leaned against the wall to wait.

When she came out, she had fixed her eye makeup and most of the tear streaks were gone from her face. She came to him and smiled wanly while he fought an overwhelming urge to touch her.

"You’re about the last person I expected to see at the Ice Capades," she said.

He shrugged. "I thought you might be here."

"So you’re stalking me?" She said it with more humor than accusation, which surprised him. "I thought we got past that phase of our relationship a long time ago."

"I, um…" Why was this so hard for him to admit? "I had a bad feeling."

She shook her head. "You do know how to use a phone, don’t you? I mean, I know it’s new-fangled--"

"I actually did try to call earlier today, but there was no answer." He looked at her again, into her eyes, and one hand almost lifted far enough to touch her before he stopped it. "You’ve been crying. Why?"

"My dad. He’s leaving--" She stopped, and he could only stand and watch as her eyes welled up again and her lower lip started to tremble. "He’s going to Spain with his secretary--God! How can he do this to me?"

She turned half away from him, waylaying any attempt he might have made to reach out to her. Whether this was intentional or not, he couldn’t tell.

"Buffy, I’m sorry." There wasn’t much else to say, really.

She was too busy trying to hold back the tears to say anything. Hesitant, he laid a hand on her shoulder. At his touch, she sucked back a huge sob and bit her lip. His fingers tightened a little. He hated to see her hurting. The smell of her tears made him ache.

"I can’t go back there," she managed after a moment. "I can’t even look at him right now, I’m so angry."

"I’ll go with you. Then if you want, I’ll take you back to the hotel."

"The hotel?"

"Yeah. It’s where my office is now--long story. There’s plenty of room, possibly some snack food."

She gave a watery smile. "Okay."

He lowered his hand from her shoulder as she moved away, leading the way back to her seats. He wanted to hold her hand as they walked, but didn’t dare even offer. Instead he stuffed his hands into his coat pockets.

To his credit, Buffy’s father at least looked concerned when they made it back to the seats.

"Buffy, honey, are you okay?" he asked, then spared a wary glance at Angel.

"Dad, this is Angel," she said, sidestepping the question. "Angel, this is my dad, Hank Summers."

"Mr. Summers." Angel put out his hand, and the other man took it. His handshake was firm, Angel noted.

"Angel," Hank repeated. "I think Joyce mentioned you once or twice."

"Yes, Dad, he’s--" She stopped. "He was my boyfriend in high school."

Hank cocked a disapproving eyebrow. "Isn’t he a little old?"

Angel, used to having people talk about him as if he wasn’t there, waited it out. Buffy rolled her eyes.

"Yeah, Dad, he’s like, two hundred and fifty. It’s a moot point now--we broke up, okay?"

Hank still seemed determined to protect his daughter’s virtue. To Angel, he said, "What are you, twenty-five? Twenty-six?"

"Somewhere in there," said Angel.

"And how old is your secretary, Dad?" Buffy bit out. "How is that really any different?"

Hank’s jaw clenched. "Look, Buffy--"

"I really don’t want to hear all the gory details of your midlife crisis. Look, I ran into Angel and he’s offered to get me home, so I’m just going to go."

"Buffy--"

"No, Dad, I--"

"Buffy, listen to me. I wanted this to be a nice night for us together before I leave. Do you have to ruin it like this?"

"I’m ruining it? I think it was already ruined by the time I got here. And what about Dawn? Were you even going to tell her?"

"She’s a little young--"

"For what? For the truth?"

"Buffy," Angel ventured. She was on the verge of making a scene, and the lights had dimmed, getting ready for the second half of the show.

She turned a little toward him, collecting herself. "Let’s go, Angel."

He looked at her retreating back, held stiff and stubborn, and something made him turn back to Hank and say sincerely, "It was nice to meet you." Buffy’s father almost smiled at him, the friendliness offset by an odd, almost suspicious look in his eyes, as if he wasn’t at all sure how to take Angel.

Buffy’s expression, though, as she looked back over her shoulder at him, was all too readable. In her mind, Angel was treading on dangerous ground. Angel gave Hank a last commiserating look and followed Buffy.

She was silent until they left the building, then, suddenly, she took a quick breath and grabbed Angel’s hand, squeezing it.

"So you had a bad feeling," she said. "What kind of bad feeling?"

He shrugged. "Nothing really specific. I just woke up yesterday afternoon thinking that you were sad, or upset, or in danger--I wasn’t really sure. And I couldn’t shake it, and I couldn’t get hold of you on the phone, so--here I am."

"I’m glad you’re here," she said, smiling, then looked at him and the smile faded. "At least I think I am."

"Yeah. I know what you mean."

They had reached his car by then. He unlocked the passenger door and let her in, then walked around to the other side. She gave him an odd look as he slid behind the wheel.

"What?" he asked.

"Give me your hands. Both of them."

He had no idea where she was going with this, but he turned and held his hands out to her. She took them in hers, then felt them one at a time.

"Your hands are cold," she announced.

He quirked an eyebrow. "And your point would be…?"

"No, I mean they’re really cold." She touched his face and he pulled his head back, annoyed at her perception. Reclaiming his hands, he started the car.

"Are you okay?" she pressed on, then, suddenly, as he backed out of the parking space, "Have you been eating?"

He didn’t answer right away, both concentrating on his driving and mulling over how he wanted to answer her. When he was driving frontward again, he said, "No, I haven’t."

"How long? Three, four days?"

He cast her a sidelong look. "Something like that."

"Angel, why?"

He didn’t answer. To his surprise, she didn’t press. She just eyed him for a moment, then looked forward out the window.

"You want to stop on the way?" he ventured after a time. "Get a burger or something?"

She gave him a narrow look. "Will you eat when we get back to the hotel?

"I might."

"I could go for a milkshake."

He found a place with a drive through, ordered her a chocolate milkshake and fries, then parked in the lot and put the top back on the convertible. With the top of the car open, he leaned back in his seat and looked up at the night sky and she said, "You like this car, don’t you?"

"It gets me where I need to go." He wouldn’t admit, not even to her, the affection he’d developed for the Plymouth. He wasn’t sure why he liked it, or what that said about him, and he didn’t really care. It was no shame, he thought, for a man to like his car.

"I like it," she said. "It’s fun."

"Mileage sucks." He closed his eyes. A soft breeze wafted over his face. He could smell burgers and grease, the ocean, a couple having sex in a car on the other side of the dark parking lot. He could smell Buffy. He could tell a lot about Buffy’s state of mind by her smell. He’d never told her that. For starters, she reeked of Riley, but there were other things, as well.

"Why were you so hard on your dad?" he asked, aware it was a dangerous question.

"He’s running off to Spain with his twenty-year-old secretary." Her voice was hard, brittle. "He’s leaving me. Leaving Mom and Dawn."

"He needs to have his own life, too."

"He doesn’t need to have it in Spain with a girl younger than I am." Her voice broke and she fought hard against tears. "God, I’m such a mess tonight."

She dug into the milkshake with her plastic spoon, savored the chocolate, letting it calm her. Angel watched, weighing his next words.

"This wasn’t the best night for him to drop this on you," he said finally.

"No kidding. Happy birthday to me." She pulled three fries out of the bag and shoved them into the milkshake, using them as a scoop, and ate the whole mess. Angel winced. Buffy chewed and swallowed. "This tastes so good it’s scaring me."

Angel smiled a little. "You’re going to feel a lot better in about three days."

She stopped, another handful of French fries embedded in the milkshake, and stared at him. "Three days?"

"You’re just late," he said gently. "Probably stress." He paused, then decided he’d better just spill it all. "You’re not pregnant, if that’s what you’re worried about."

Her eyes widened. "I’m not--" She blinked, and something in her seemed to ease. "Are you sure?"

"I’m positive."

Turning away, she blinked hard and ate her milkshake-covered French fries. "I don’t know whether to be relieved, humiliated, or completely grossed out."

"There’s certainly no reason to be humiliated." He’d been afraid she might have that reaction. "Although that French fry thing is starting to gross me out pretty good."

She shook her head slowly. "That explains why you always managed not to be in the cemetery two or three days out of every month."

"Contrary to what many people believe, I am not stupid." He snitched one of her fries, not sure why he wanted it, except perhaps to save it from the milkshake treatment. "Those were usually pretty quiet nights, anyway. I wasn’t the only vampire in Sunnydale who didn’t want to tangle with a Slayer with PMS."

"Oh, God." She let her head fall back against the car seat. "Okay, at this point I’m going to have to go with the grossed out option."

He ate the French fry, tasting little past the salt. He was so hungry he could barely feel the pain of it anymore. "Were you afraid you might be? Pregnant, I mean."

She rolled her head toward him. "Yeah. I took a test, and it was negative, but still…" She stopped. "Three days? You’re sure?"

He shrugged. "Maybe closer to four."

"This is so disturbing."

"Not really any more disturbing than you being able to touch me and tell that I haven’t been eating."

She frowned. "Why haven’t you?"

He looked away. In a way he owed her an answer, and in another way he owed her nothing at all. His hands felt cold even to himself, his stomach icy. "Sometimes," he began, haltingly, "the craving gets so intense it scares me. Even animal blood triggers it. If I stop eating altogether it goes away in a few days."

"I would think it would get worse."

"It doesn’t, though. It just blows over and then I’m okay again for a while." He smiled a little. "I’ve never told anyone that before." It embarrassed him that he had so little control over his urge to feed, even after a century of abstinence.

"Would you be able to eat tonight? Just so I would feel better?"

"I’m not sure yet." He gave it a moment’s thought. He’d prefer to wait another day, but it would probably be all right, and if it would make Buffy feel better-- "Buffy," he said suddenly, and she looked at him, chewing on another mouthful of French fries dumped in shake. "You know I’m always here for you, right? I mean, if you ever need me."

"You mean like if I ever got myself knocked up or something." He attributed her sarcasm to her general mood rather than taking it personally.

"I’m serious, Buffy. Anything. You need me, I’m there."

She blinked ferociously, but this time the tears fell. "Thank you."

He leaned toward her, cupping her face in his hand. "Anything, Buffy." He indulged himself, only for a moment, letting his fingers trace her cheekbone, catching her hot tears. He was torturing himself, though, making himself want her in spite of the Riley-smell that reminded him he couldn’t have her. He leaned back. "We should go back to the hotel. Maybe Cordelia’s got some Midol or something."

"Would she be there at this hour?"

"God, I hope not. But I know where she stashes her stuff." He started the car. "Don’t hold your breath, though--the way Cordy is, I’d bet she’s never touched a Midol in her life."

Buffy laughed a little. "Couple days a month you stay out of the office, too, huh?"

"I can’t. I live there. So I just sleep late and then, you know--leave." He backed out of the parking space, gave Buffy a weary smile, and headed back toward the highway.

#

They hit the highway and Buffy closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of the wind on her face. Angel looked over at her and smiled a little but didn’t say anything. He’d been remarkably non-nosy, she thought, considering. But Angel was like that. He didn’t divulge and he didn’t pry. There were times when it could be incredibly frustrating, but this wasn’t one of them.

She cast him a sidelong look. He had his right hand draped loosely over the top of the steering wheel, his eyes on the road. Why, she wondered suddenly, did she trust Angel’s assessment of her condition over the supposedly 99.9% accurate home test? Why did she hate her father for leaving her, but she didn’t hate Angel?

Tears sprang up again and she brushed them away, trying to hold back the rest. Angel shifted a little, almost looking at her; he knew she was crying. She couldn’t hide anything from him. It would have been easy to resent it if he didn’t work so hard to keep it from her.

He pulled up in front of a large building with a sign that read, "Hyperion Hotel." This must be the place, then.

"Nice," she said.

He smiled a little. "Home sweet home." He put the top of the convertible back before escorting her to the front door.

"I should call Mom," she said. "Let her know where I am."

"Probably a good idea." He pushed open the door. "You could stay the night if you want. I could probably get Wes to take you home in the morning."

"Or not." Wes’ voice floated over from the reception counter.

"Why are you still here?" The sharpness in Angel’s voice startled Buffy a little.

"We’re worried about you, Angel." This was Cordelia, of course. She stood, looked at Buffy over the reception counter, then looked at Angel. "We’re afraid you’ll go crazy and do something stupid. Like, say, bring Buffy home with you."

Wesley stood, too, but when he caught sight of Buffy, concern passed over his face. "Buffy, are you all right?"

Wesley’s perception surprised her. "I had kind of a rough night. I just--I need to call home. If it’s okay with Cordelia, that is."

"I don’t see Cordelia’s name on the business cards," Angel said. "Go use the phone and then we’ll talk."

"Oh, he’ll talk." Cordelia’s biting tone made Buffy wince. "He doesn’t talk to us, like, ever--"

"Cordelia, that’s enough," said Wesley.

Cordelia rolled her eyes, but shut up.

Angel still had a scary sort of glint in his eyes. "Cordy, you got any Midol?"

Cordelia looked taken aback. Buffy had to admit it wasn’t the kind of question Angel normally asked. "Um…yes."

"Take some. Then toss Buffy a couple." Angel touched Buffy’s shoulder, steering her toward the reception counter. "The phone’s over there."

Cordelia waited until Angel looked at Wes, then made a face at him behind his back. Buffy surprised herself by laughing. Cordelia pulled a bottle out of her desk drawer and met Buffy at the counter.

"How did you put up with him?" she asked Buffy.

Buffy looked at Angel, who was talking quietly with Wes. "If you stick your tongue in his mouth, he doesn’t bitch as much."

Cordy wrinkled her nose. "I don’t think I want to try that." She gave the pill bottle to Buffy. "Did you want the PMS kind or the crampy kind? ‘Cause they’re both in there.

Buffy sorted out the PMS kind and swallowed them dry. "Thanks."

Cordelia was still looking at Angel. "Doesn’t he get, like, blood breath?"

"He eats a lot of mints."

"Ah. Now that you mention it, he does have a bit of an Altoid aura." She pushed the phone toward Buffy. "Call your mom now, so you can go home."

"Trying to get rid of me?"

"Just trying to keep the boss out of trouble. Because if you make him evil or something, I’m out of a job."

"I think I’m old enough to take care of myself," said Angel. "You guys head home. I’ll see you tomorrow."

"Angel--" Cordelia protested, but Wesley cut her off.

"Angel’s right. We should go home."

Cordelia looked from Wesley to Angel and back, but both men looked adamant. Buffy said nothing, figuring that to be the best option at the moment. Finally Cordelia went back to her desk and retrieved her purse. Wesley headed for the door, but Cordy stopped partway there and turned back to look at Angel. There was something odd on her face, a genuine concern. Buffy didn’t think she’d ever seen anything quite so real on Cordelia’s face before.

"Angel, do you understand why I worry? It’s because it’s Buffy. And every time she sees you, you end up broken. Your heart may not beat, but when it bleeds, we all hurt."

"Cordelia. . ." Wesley cast Buffy an apologetic look, which Buffy appreciated, even though she was used to Cordelia’s tactlessness. It had cut a little too close to the bone this time, though. She looked at Angel. He had schooled his face to careful expressionlessness, but he wasn’t looking exactly at Cordelia, and Buffy knew him well enough to understand the significance of the lack of eye contact. Her words had hurt him, too.

"Fine," said Cordelia. She looked at Buffy. "Just please stay out of his pants."

"Cordy." Angel’s voice was tight. "There are other ways you could lose this job."

Either the threat or the brittle note in Angel’s voice finally got through to Cordelia. Her mouth tightened a little and she turned, followed Wes out of the hotel.

"Hasn’t changed much, has she?" Buffy offered.

Angel turned toward her, but he wasn’t quite looking at her, either. "Call your mother."

Buffy blinked. That had felt a little like a slap in the face. She picked up the phone and dialed.

"The invitation stands," Angel said as she listened to the phone ring. "You can stay if you want."

She nodded, but then her mother answered. She turned her back to Angel as she talked. "Yeah, Mom, it’s me."

"Your father called a little bit ago. He said you left with Angel." Her tone was just shy of accusatory.

"I did, Mom. Look, Dad dropped a bombshell on me. I don’t know if he told you--"

"He told me." The sharp tone now seemed directed more at her father than at her.

"And anyway, I’m just really not feeling well, so I’m going to stay here for the night and catch a ride or take the bus back home in the morning."

There was a weighty pause on the other end of the line. "You’re going to spend the night with Angel."

"He owns a whole hotel, Mom. There’s plenty of room."

Her mother sighed. "All right. I’d rather you do that than take the bus home at this hour of the night. Could Angel just drive you home now? He has time to get back before sunrise, doesn’t he?"

"He has some stuff here he needs to take care of." Buffy justified herself hastily. "Look, Mom, I’ll be all right."

"Okay. I’ll see you in the morning, then."

"’Bye, Mom."

Buffy hung up the phone and stared at it a moment. The Midol had kicked in and it had taken the edge off her irritability, but left behind something that felt like a giant pit of black despair. She swallowed part of it and turned back around to face Angel.

He sat at a desk behind the reception counter, staring at a glass sitting in front of him. It was half-full of blood. Buffy went around the counter to join him.

"Drink it," she said.

"Give me a minute."

She pulled up a chair to sit next to him. "Are you okay?" He had a strange expression on his face, almost as if he were in pain. "Are you going to be able to?"

He sighed. He did that a lot, she’d noticed, though she wasn’t sure why, since he didn’t have to breathe. Just an all-too-human expression of emotion, she supposed. He held his hand out toward her and she took it. His fingers were icy. It made her want to close them up in her own hands, breathe on them, press them against her body.

"Angel, I’ve never felt you this cold."

"I know." He closed his eyes, opened them again. "A few days ago Cordy came in--she must have cut herself shaving her legs or something, I don’t know. That kind of thing happens from time to time--I mean, Wesley’s always hacking his face up. Hell, I do it myself sometimes. But this time--it was too much. It couldn’t have been more than a few drops of blood but it was all I could smell, all I could think about, and after a couple of hours I wanted more than anything to just grab her and rip her throat out."

Buffy swallowed, discomfited in spite of herself. "Well, if it’s any consolation, there’ve been a couple of times when I’ve wanted to do that to Cordelia, too."

He smiled a little, but his eyes remained haunted.

"I spent the day upstairs. Hibernated. Then we got called out on a case." He stopped, gathered himself. His hand on Buffy’s tightened a little. "This demon--it slaughtered this girl. Ripped her to pieces. Wes was looking for clues on the body, claw marks and such, and all I could think was, ‘She’s already dead. It won’t hurt anything. Surely there’s some blood left in her. Wait until Wes leaves and then go for it.’ It was like somebody else talking in my head. I wanted it so badly I couldn’t even think."

Buffy gathered herself again. He needed this, she sensed, needed to get it out. It was hard for her to hear, but she could handle it. She knew what he was. Absently, she rubbed at her neck, the curved ridge of scar there. "What did you do?"

"I got the hell out of there. I made some stupid excuse and I left. Wes was a little pissed. . . I couldn’t tell him. Can’t talk to Cordy--well, maybe I could, but I don’t know."

"You can talk to me."

He nodded. "Maybe that’s the real reason I came looking for you tonight."

She put her other hand on top of his, unable anymore to hold back from the attempt to warm his distressingly cold skin. "Angel. . .doesn’t seeing me just make it all harder for you?"

His gaze tipped up into hers, then away. "Not so much now."

She chewed her lip, wondering what he meant, not sure she wanted to know, certain she didn’t want to ask.

But, to her surprise, he laughed a little. "You indulge your cravings, you put on a couple pounds. I indulge mine, people die. And I’m not just talking about the blood thing."

She nodded. "I know."

"There have been times I’ve wanted you as much as I’ve wanted blood." He paused. "Not tonight, though."

Buffy’s heart twinged in spite of herself. Why would he not want her? Something in her had been certain the feelings between them would always be there, no matter what.

But he wasn’t done. "Tonight," he said, "you smell too much like Riley."

She just blinked, unsure how to react to that. "One less thing for you to worry about, then."

He must have sensed his words had stung, by the tension in her voice if nothing else, but he said nothing. Instead he reached for the glass of blood with his free hand, lifted it from the table, and drank.

It surprised her a little. He’d always been unwilling to drink in front of her, but he seemed to have gotten over that. She supposed maybe he’d had to, sharing space with Wes and Cordy as he had been. In any case, he drank, and she watched him, but he stopped after only a few swallows.

"Too fast," he said. "Too much." He set the glass down and hunched over the table.

"It’s probably cold by now," Buffy ventured. "Should I heat it up for you?" She knew Spike preferred his blood nuked, but she wouldn’t put it past Angel to drink his cold just to make himself that much more miserable.

"Please," he said.

She released his hand and took his glass to the small microwave behind the counter. Silent, she heated the blood, then brought it back to him.

"Okay, now you look pale," she said.

"Your point being?"

"I mean white. Really pale." She touched his forehead reflexively. "Cold, pale--God, a person would think you were a vampire or something." She handed him the glass and he took it, drank a little more.

"This is always the hardest part," he said. "Getting started."

"Why do you do this to yourself?"

"Because I have to." He took a few more drinks. "I’ll be all right."

"Are you sure it’s not just another one of your exercises in self-flagellation?" The minute she said it, she wished she could take it back. But she was angry at him suddenly, angry that he punished himself so severely, angry that she couldn’t be with him to help him through. Angry that, tonight of all nights, he didn’t want her. No one did, apparently.

But he only looked sidelong at her, and a corner of his mouth twitched. "Maybe."

She smiled a little. "You’re a piece of work. Drink your blood."

He did, slowly, then set the empty glass aside and scrubbed his hands over his face. "More?" Buffy asked him.

"Please." He put his head on the table. "God, bring me the whole damn jug."

She poured and warmed another glass and brought it to him. He sipped this one at a more normal rate, and she sat in the silence watching. In spite of everything that lay between them, it was a comfortable silence. After a time, he broke it, saying, "Are you feeling any better?"

"A little. You?"

"Yeah." He reached for her hand again. "I’m glad you were here."

"It’s kind of nice, taking care of you."

"It’s nice being taken care of."

"Cordy not too nurturing, huh?"

"She’s pretty handy with gauze and tape. Which is good, since I seem to get holes poked in me an awful lot these days."

"That’s always a drag." She tried to sound casual, but the tears sprang up again. The Midol really wasn’t working very well, and it hurt her to think of Cordelia patching up Angel’s wounds. It was too intimate, and she didn’t like to think about anyone else touching him that way. Sniffing back the tears, she smiled a little, apologetically. "I really should go to bed. I’m sure sleep would help." Then her voice broke and the tears came and she couldn’t do anything to stop them.

"Shit," she said, and started to get up, but Angel was there suddenly with his arms around her, cradling her against his chest. Even as oddly cold as he was, it was a comfort to be there in his arms, because it was familiar. Or maybe just because it was Angel.

He didn’t even shush her, just held her, as if he knew she needed to cry it out. His lips brushed her hair. She felt as if something were being physically ripped from her, wrung and twisted and then torn out of her chest as she sobbed. She clutched at him, pulling him closer, though it hardly seemed possible, and suddenly realized she wasn’t going to be able to stop. She was going to cry out every bit of pain she’d experienced since Angel had left her over a year ago, every bit of pain she hadn’t been able to let out in front of Riley. And that was a situation she didn’t even want to think about right now.

She spasmed, lost in her pain, and he did start shushing her then, soft and gentle so that the sound stirred her hair. "It’s all right," he whispered. "It’s all right. Buffy, it’ll be okay. You’re gonna hurt yourself."

Buffy made herself breathe, trying to rein in the seemingly uncontrollable paroxysms that had taken over her body. It took a few minutes, but finally she got herself back under control. She pushed away from him, but he didn’t quite let her go, lifting a hand to cup her cheek.

"I should go to bed," she said. "Any particular room?"

His hand caressed her, ever so gently. It suddenly occurred to her that he hadn’t said he didn’t want her. He’d said he didn’t want her as much as he wanted blood. It made her feel a little better. Especially since he’d been starving himself for four days.

"I’ll take you up," he said. "There are a couple of rooms cleaned out up there." His thumb brushed across her cheek, catching tears.

"Okay." He took her arm, eased her to her feet, and they went upstairs.

#

She was still crying. He’d put her in a room four doors down from his own, one he knew was clean and reasonably well-equipped, and then he’d gone back downstairs for more food. Now, two hours later, he felt better, the edge taken off the ravenous hunger he’d lived with for the past four days. But he could hear Buffy crying upstairs.

It was as if, once the waterworks had started, she had no power to turn them back off. Something to do with the hormonal flood she was going through, he assumed. He’d never really understood all that nonsense. It was complicated and confusing and it was just a great deal easier to be absent while it was going on. But he couldn’t ignore this much longer. It hurt too much.

He had picked up a sketch pad about an hour ago, doodling to keep his mind off Buffy, but of course he immediately started drawing her. He hadn’t sketched her in a long time, but the lines still came easily--her round face, the soft, down-tilted eyes, the funny little bump at the end of her nose. Moving the pencil along the shapes of her face was almost like touching her, the engrained knowledge that made it possible to draw her so intimate it ached.

And she was still crying.

He laid the pad aside finally and stood. The last thing he should do right now was go see her. She was vulnerable, and, frankly, so was he. Not a good combination.

So, of course, he headed upstairs.

He paused outside her door. She wasn’t crying quite as hard as he’d thought--either his hearing had amplified the sounds or she had composed herself a little in the time it took him to walk up the stairs. It didn’t matter. Softly, he knocked on the door. "Buffy?"

There was a spasm of sniffling from the other side of the door, then Buffy said, "Come in."

He pushed open the door and suddenly it seemed overwhelming that she was here, and he was here, and they were completely alone in this huge, silent hotel. He stepped into the room, careful, silent.

"Did you want something?" she asked.

"I, um . . ." He stepped a little closer to the bed. "I heard you. I heard you crying. Are you okay?"

"Yes, Angel, I’m fine. That’s why I’m crying." Tears and sarcasm didn’t mix well in her voice, he thought. He held out his hand.

"Am I warmer?"

She twined her fingers into his. "Still not quite back to normal, but better." Her palm touched his, then she pulled him closer. "Is it too much to ask for you to stay here? Just for a while?"

"Yes, but I’ll do it." He sat down next to her, held her, kissed her temple. I love you, he thought, and he was fairly certain he hadn’t said it out loud, but maybe he had, because she took a long, shivery breath and sank into him, and he tucked her head under his chin and held her.

"Why didn’t you tell Riley?" he asked suddenly. "You didn’t, did you?"

"No." She shrank away from him a little. "No, I didn’t tell him."

"Why not?"

"I would have. If there had been a reason to tell him, I would have."

Angel swallowed hard. "I should have taken you home. You should be with him."

"Probably."

But she didn’t move, and she said nothing else. He held her, her warmth soaking into him, and after a long time her breathing slowed, and she fell asleep.

Carefully, he eased her down onto the bed, covered her with a blanket. She would be better in the morning, he was certain.

She moved a little under the blanket as he adjusted it over her shoulders, nestling down into the bed. Her face was blotchy from crying. He bent forward and kissed her gently on the forehead, then, unable to resist the temptation, brushed his lips over hers.

"Sleep well, love," he whispered, and forced himself to leave her.

#

Angel brought her breakfast. Buffy wasn’t sure why this surprised her, but it did. She had just drifted awake when he knocked on the door, then swept into the room with a breakfast tray laden with eggs, bacon, toast and coffee.

"Where did this come from?" she asked as he set the tray on the bed.

"I made it." He seemed a little proud of himself.

"I didn’t know you cooked."

He shrugged. "I have skills."

She laughed a little. She felt better this morning, more like she could handle the curve balls her life kept throwing at her. His soft, return smile eased her even a little more.

"This is nice," she said.

"It is." But then his smile fell, and she knew what he was thinking. That the homey little scene was just another example of all the things he could never have.

"Angel--" she started, but she had no idea what else to say to him, how to even come close to touching his pain. He just looked at her, his eyes soft, and she knew he understood. "Thanks," she finally told him, and somehow it was enough.

#

"So how are things back in Sunnydale?" Wesley asked her as they headed out into the morning, the two of them in Angel’s big convertible. Buffy had been surprised when Angel had just tossed Wes the keys.

"Same old, same old." She leaned back against the seat. It was fun, she’d decided, to ride in a convertible. But it was just another thing she couldn’t really share with Angel. Not this, the sun and the wind. The daylight. "Demons and vamps, the occasional apocalypse."

He smiled a little. "Not much better here, these days."

Buffy looked at him, studying his profile. She’d hated him once, with an unreasonable passion. She couldn’t really do that anymore. He’d changed so much he hardly seemed to be the same person.

"You spend a lot of time with the books, right?" she said suddenly.

"Of course. It’s a vital part of the job."

"Have you done any research into Angel’s curse?"

The question seemed to take him aback. "Actually, yes, I have."

"Have you found anything? Anything at all?"

Wesley took a long breath. "Gypsy magic is a difficult subject, I’m afraid. Many of the most powerful magics were lost during World War II, in the Holocaust. It’s a similar situation as with Jewish Kaballah. Many masters of the art were killed, and that knowledge has never been regained. Unfortunately, Angel’s curse is one of the more obscure I’ve seen."

"We have the text of the original curse, the one Jenny translated. Is there some way to modify it?"

"Not safely. Again, it’s a matter of understanding the balance of the magics involved. It’s proven quite beyond me, at least so far."

"There has to be some way to get rid of that damned perfect happiness thing."

Wesley nodded. "It would certainly make things easier for him."

"For you, too. Imagine how much easier he’d be to be around if he could get laid once in a while."

Wes laughed. "And I presume that would be a good thing for you, as well."

"I don’t know. I’m with Riley now. Even if Angel were… I don’t know if it would work out."

Wes was silent a moment, then said carefully, "You’ve grown apart. Built your own lives."

"Exactly." But the thought nagged at her. If Angel could be cured of the odd caveat of his curse, what would she do? Wish him luck? Or pack her bags and move to LA? She honestly didn’t know. And it bothered her she didn’t know, because she had Riley in her life now, and she loved him.

"Did you get him to eat?" Wes asked suddenly.

"You knew?" Buffy was surprised. "He didn’t think you did."

"I knew. I keep a closer eye on him than he realizes."

"That’s good to know. I’m glad someone’s taking care of him." She rubbed her neck, barely aware she was doing it. "He needs that. He wouldn’t admit it, but he does. Otherwise he gets wrapped up in his own head and we lose him." She paused. "Yes, I got him to eat."

Wesley nodded. "Thank you for that. It would have been two more days, otherwise, and he was getting rather insufferable."

"He’s always insufferable." She smiled a little, and suddenly realized what her hand was doing, her fingers tracing the ridge of the scar on her neck. She made the hand go back into her lap, suddenly self-conscious. He had left marks all over her, to be honest--the scar was just the only visible one. "Maybe you should hook up with Willow, compare notes. She might be able to help you with the research."

"I’ll do that." He turned onto an off-ramp--they were only a few miles now from Sunnydale. "It might be best not to mention this to him."

"I won’t." She crossed her arms over her chest. "It’s not like I talk to him that often, anyway."

Wes gave her a sympathetic smile. Buffy leaned her head back and closed her eyes, feeling the sun on her face. It felt good. Warm, and it made her feel like she could get through the next few days. She would tell Riley about her father’s desertion, and he would comfort her. Then, later, when he had gone home, she would call Angel, just to be sure he was all right.

Just to be sure he was all right.

END.



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