Stay

TIMELINE: I wrote this way back when, after "Sanctuary", but before "The Yoko Factor". Hence, it falls somewhere in that area and everything after "TYF" never happened in either show. Oh, yeah, and "Where the Heart Is" never happened, either, so Riley never found out about Angel. (Although, I gotta say, that ass kicking was the high point of the season, for me.  Well... after "THE SMIRK", that is.  *grin*)

SPOILERS: As per usual, the whole B/A Canon is fair game.

SYNOPSIS: The way things might have gone if Joss hadn't brought out his big Crappy Story Dustbuster at the end of BtVS season four...

And just as a final thought? I STILL think Buffy owes Angel an apology.

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Prologue - Bitter

I can feel her, walking through the office. I hear her strong little legs carrying her to the elevator, and I'm suddenly glad I cut the power and shut the door to the stairs when I came home two days ago.

Two days... It's been two days since she ordered me out of her life forever... told me I was the worst mistake she ever made. Now, look at this -- she's already come to backtrack and second-guess herself.

Buffy never believes in anything, including herself and her own feelings, for long. For all the years I've known her, I gave her so much credit, because she was the Slayer, and because I loved her. She was the only comfort I'd had in centuries, the only thing that made me feel that maybe, just maybe, eternity was worth it. Because of that, I put her up on a pedestal... made her into some shining goddess... some perfect heroine, who deserved only the best things life had to offer. She deserved better than me and I could never truly be worthy of her. That's why I left Sunnydale, and Buffy, behind. So she could move on. Be normal. Have a life... love... a family. I wanted her to have all the things she dreamed of, and none of them could really include me.

Some part of me still believes that. All of it. But the other night, as she tore my heart out with her bare hands in defense of her new lover, I looked into her eyes and realized...

She's just a girl. An extraordinary one, but still just a girl. A girl, who lashes out when she's hurt, thoughtless and angry, like a wounded animal. Something in my heart just died, right in that moment. The little light of hope didn't even flicker... it was doused, and now the candle has just been washed away by the stunning realization that nothing... nothing that passed between us meant anything to her at all. How could it, when she doesn't even mean anything to herself?

She's not a heroine. She's just a human being.

It's hard for me to remember, now, why I loved her. When I recall the expression of hatred and rage on her beautiful face... my entire being just goes cold, and even the bittersweet memories I have of her have an edge of unreality to them, as if I'd seen them on television. I don't blame her for her anger... or her hatred. Hell, I deserve those, and more. The problem is, her reasons for feeling it are utterly unrelated to my opinions of why I deserve it.

She's knocking on the door, softly speaking my name... words of apology spill from her lips... she's sorry. Everyone's always so sorry. All she has to do is ask me to close my eyes, and I'll know for certain that all of this is as evil as it feels in my dead heart. I could get up and answer it... I could make her crawl and beg for my forgiveness... I could lash out at her myself, with my own pain.

But I won't. I am not a child. I haven't forgotten all that we shared.

I turn off the light and sit as still as I can. I know Buffy could break down the door, but I also know that she won't. And I won't get up to answer it.

I once told her that was it. That wasn't it. But this is.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Buffy stared at the big grey reinforced steel door that blocked her from what she knew was Angel's apartment. She could feel him, even through that impenetrable barrier. Hell, she could feel him before she even got out of the car.

She knocked again. "Angel, please. I'm sorry. Will you let me in? I really need to talk to you."

Cordelia rose from her desk and gathered her things. No matter how angry she was with Buffy, there was no power in all the dimensions that would convince her to stay and watch the bitch grovel and prostrate herself like this.

'Okay... so, maybe just a few digs. For Angel.'

"I told you he didn't want to see you. I don't know what you expected, after the way you treated him. God, Buffy, I always knew you were selfish, but I never, ever thought you would purposefully hurt him."

"Shut up, Cordelia," Buffy snapped, not turning around.

"Why, can't handle somebody telling you the truth for a change? Can't stand to hear that you broke his heart, again? After everything he's done for you?" she went on.

"Shut UP, Cordelia!" Buffy shouted, spinning on her, "You don't know what the Hell you're talking about! AS USUAL!"

Cordelia's big brown eyes narrowed to furious slits, "Oh no? Let's see. Angel came to Sunnydale, for you; killed his sire and became a pariah, for you; went to Hell for you; left Sunnydale for you; went back there for you. And what do you do? You punish him for it. Don't you think he already suffers enough? I thought you loved him!"

The last words stung Buffy as though her former classmate had slapped her, and she felt her anger run away like a mouse chased by a hungry cat. But Cordelia wasn't even close to finished. She stalked over to where the Slayer stood and glowered down at her, a perfectly manicured finger stabbing Buffy's chest.

"He came back from Hell for you. He stood by you when you pushed him away. He fought beside you no matter how much it killed him to even be close to you," she was working herself into a righteous frenzy now, "He would die for you! In fact, he has! More than once! He's given up everything for you! But is that enough to get you to treat him with even a shred of the respect he deserves? NO! NO, NOT FOR BUFFY THE PERFECT! YOU HAVE TO JUST MESS WITH HIS MIND--COME HERE AND TRASH ALL OF HIS HARD WORK WITH FAITH, AND THEN-- THEN YOU RUB YOUR COLLEGE BEEFCAKE BOYFRIEND IN HIS FACE WHEN HE GOES SCRAMBLING BACK TO HELP YOU. AGAIN!"

Cordelia was genuinely screaming, now. Other tenants in the building had begun to gather in a chattering cluster outside the office door.

"BUT EVEN THAT'S NOT ENOUGH! ON TOP OF THAT, YOU KICK HIM IN THE FACE AND TELL HIM HE WAS THE WORST MISTAKE YOU EVER MADE???" the tall brunette got in the smaller, but infinitely stronger, woman's face, which was frozen in a mask of utter shock and horror, "I THINK YOU'VE GOT IT BACKWARDS, HONEY! THE ONLY MISTAKE WAS THE ONE ANGEL MADE - FOR EVER CARING ABOUT YOU! YOU MAKE ME SICK!"

"That's enough, Cordelia," Angel's soft voice sounded like a bare whisper after Cordy's ranting, so neither woman initially noticed his appearance.

"I OUGHT TO..." Cordelia went on.

Angel stepped quickly between them, "CORDELIA, I SAID THAT'S ENOUGH!"

Cordy started as if Angel had struck her, and took a step back. Never, in all the time that she'd known him, had she heard him raise his voice.

"But..." she objected, motioning toward the still-frozen Buffy.

Angel silenced her with a look. She relented, but her anger didn't fade. She turned it on him, instead. "I'm only telling her all the things YOU should have! She doesn't even know what she's done to you, Angel! She has no idea what a stupid bitch she's been! And believe me, I know from bitch!"

He laid a gentle hand on each of his friend's slim shoulders. "Stop it, Cordelia. This isn't doing anybody any good. Just go home. I can handle this myself," he punctuated the end of his gentle command with a grateful kiss to her tanned forehead.

She blinked up at him, angry tears stinging her eyes. "I just don't want to see you get hurt again, Angel," she whispered, "I can't stand seeing you in pain because of her.  She doesn't deserve you!"

Angel gave her a small smile, silently reminding her that if there was anything he knew how to handle, it was pain.

Cordy understood. Giving Buffy a final withering glare, she reclaimed her bag from the desk and left without looking back. Angel stood, staring after her, not ready to turn around just yet.

"Angel..." Buffy said weakly from behind him. In that same old way she had--like a question instead of a statement, and his heart wrenched like it always did at the sound. Only this time, instead of giving in to the almost irresistible urge to comfort her, he hardened himself against the agony apparent in her voice.

Standing tall and taking a deep breath, he turned to look once more at his One True Love.

She was stunning, as usual. Casually but elegantly dressed in a long, wine-colored cotton sundress, her blonde tresses crammed carelessly into one of a billion clips he knew she kept stashed in her top bureau drawer.

He crushed yet another thought that suggested familiarity with her. This woman was no one that he knew... no one that he loved. He was no longer certain who his heart and soul belonged to, but he knew it wasn't her.

"What do you want, Buffy?" he asked coldly. He had been about to ask what he could do for her, but those days were long past, now. She'd made it perfectly clear that she neither wanted, nor needed, his help any longer.

"I... I just..." she cast her eyes down at the floor, unable to bear the emptiness in his eyes. Anger, she could have understood... would have deserved, and been able to handle. If he hated her, or cursed her, it would hurt, but she knew she had it coming. She was ready for it. What she wasn't prepared for was this... this nothing, coming off him in cold waves. "Can we... talk? I mean... somewhere private?" She asked, her voice small and pleading.

Angel stared at her, recalling the look of pure rage on her face when she'd found him several nights ago. The way she'd cursed him as she'd pulled her lover's beaten body away. She told him that she hated him. She told him to go away and never come back. She told him that he was the worst mistake she ever made.

Perhaps all of those things were true. But the fact that she had said them simply to hurt him... He'd never known Buffy to be mean on purpose, and her words had crushed something precious and delicate inside of him.

"I don't think there's much left to say, do you?" he queried, "I think you made yourself abundantly clear the other night. I respected your wish that I leave, so I don't understand why you're here."

Buffy looked up at him. Why was she here? All of her carefully planned words had just suddenly disappeared, leaving her speechless in the wake of Cordelia's angry outburst, and now, Angel's cold indifference.

"I... I came to, um... I came to say... I'm sorry. I've been thinking about what happened... a lot, and... I've realized some things," she looked away again, "You're the only one I can talk to about it. The only one who'll understand."

A part of Angel wanted to throw her out on her perfect rear end. Or to say one of the many bitter and angry things that were blazing around in his own head. But the rest of him could feel her pain. Knew it completely and intimately, as if it were his. The way it had always been. Yes, she was just a human being... she was not the perfect woman he had built her up to be, in his heart. But she was a human being in need... in need of him. And no matter how much he wished he could want to, he couldn't find it in himself to turn her away.

"Okay," he relented softly, "Why don't we go downstairs? I'll make us some tea, and we can talk."

There it was. The warmth began to seep back into his rich voice, and Buffy felt the dead weight on her heart lighten, just a little. If he was willing to let her in at all, it would be a first step in the right direction. Toward a direction that she had desperately been hiding from for the better part of a year:

Toward herself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Angel propped the steel door open, and stood aside to let Buffy descend the stairs. He watched her enter his sanctuary, and he couldn't help but think how right it felt to have her there.

'No. Not right. Everything about this is wrong.'

"Have a seat," he told her, "I'll start the tea."

Buffy complied, shuffling numbly into the living room. Everything about the place spoke of him. Every detail, from the artwork to the books, to the weapons, even the furniture, radiated with his essence. It still amazed her that someone who was dead could have so much presence.

She sat heavily on the couch and folded her hands in her lap, struggling to remember what she wanted to say while she waited.

Angel leaned wearily against the kitchen counter. It had been so easy to be cold when he was sitting down here alone, in the dark. When he didn't have to look at her or feel her quite so strongly. He easily could have turned her away, if he hadn't looked into her eyes and saw the desperation there. He might have even let Cordelia take care of it for him.

But, no. Angel had never been one to shirk his duty. And at least part of that duty was still to Buffy. He owed her for far too much to let her suffer, no matter what she'd done. Besides, it wasn't like he'd never caused her pain.

The kettle whistled and he poured two cups of hot Earl Grey, filling Buffy's with enough sugar to feed a large ant colony.

Funny, that he still remembered how she liked her tea. He, on the other hand, liked his black and bitter.

Another poetic synchronicity.

Angel brought the two cups back to the living room, setting one before Buffy, then sat in the chair across from her. She didn't raise her eyes from her hands, or reach for the cup. He sipped at his for lack of something else to do, and waited.

After a long, tense few minutes, Buffy finally looked up.

"I'm sorry, Angel," she apologized, "I'm sorry for all the things I said the other night. I can't make excuses... I know I was way out of line, but..." she trailed off.

He said nothing, unwilling to help. She had wanted this summit, and now she had it. The work was hers to do.

Buffy shook her head, and finally reached for her tea. She took a long sip, and almost burst into tears to taste that he had added just exactly the right amount of sugar.

She decided to forget about her carefully prepared speech (a lucky thing, considering she already had), and speak from her heart.

"It's been hard, since you left," she began, "Everything's... different. It's like you took my whole world with you, and left me in this place that I didn't know... and I didn't know who I was anymore, in it."

Angel looked at her. So she was going to blame him...

Buffy recognized the little flash of anger in his eyes. "That's not... I mean... it's not your fault. It's nobody's fault. You did what you had to do. It's just... everything changed, all at once, and I had no one to turn to... until Riley. He's been the only stable thing in my life, since. So I... I focused on him. I hid behind him. I threw myself into our relationship with everything I had, which, sometimes...didn't feel like very much."

He felt his heart cracking. Was this what she had come to tell him? Was she going to explain away her cruelty with her love for another man? That seemed even more brutal than the initial wrong she thought she needed to apologize for.

"Buffy, you really don't need to--"

"No. Let me finish. I know why you left. The other night, for the first time, I understood. And I realized... all of it... Faith... saying what I said to you... I did it all because I felt like I had lost myself. And I'd fought so hard to build something to take the place of my old life... I forgot who I was. All I knew was Riley... and when I saw you..." she grimaced at the memory of Angel creaming her boyfriend into a bloody pulp, "Fighting... the truth, and all my lies... It was too much. I never told him about you. Not one word."

Angel snorted bitterly. "That was pretty apparent."

Buffy looked at him, her eyes full of pain. "What was I supposed to say? If I told him anything, he would have left me."

Her unspoken 'just like you did' broke Angel's heart a little further. He'd forgotten, somehow, exactly how lonely and scared Buffy could be... how her greatest fear was being left alone with the monsters under the bed. Alone, period.

"I doubt that's true, Buffy," he told her. He had no inkling why he should defend the character of the man whose ass he'd handed to him several nights before, but he did.

Buffy shook her head. "You don't know him. He believes in what he does. He never would have understood. The more I told him, the less he would have."

Angel thought it didn't sound like a very good relationship, but he held his tongue. He had left Buffy so that she could have a normal life, and that meant she had to make her own choices, for good or ill, based on her own instincts.

"But... then I watched you walk away... again... and it hit me. I was fooling myself and everyone else. Instead of learning from what happened and facing things, I was just avoiding them. And I took all that out on you. The whole thing with Faith... God, Angel... for three years, nothing could have shaken my belief in the way that you felt about me. Nothing. But first, you left me. And then... I found you with her, and..." she sobbed suddenly, her voice choking, "It was like all that was a lie, too!"

Angel closed his eyes, unable to watch her coming apart. The bond between them was like an umbilical cord that carried her pain directly into his heart.

He was angry. He was hurt and disillusioned. But truth be told, beyond all that, he loved her. Still adored her with every ounce of his being. His carefully constructed walls came crashing down, and his feelings for her threatened to wash him away for the millionth time since they met. He got up and sat beside her, no longer hesitating to take her shaking body into his arms.

"I hate my life without you!" she sobbed into his chest as she clutched at him, "Nothing is real! Nothing makes any sense! I can't do it, Angel! I tried so hard, but I just can't do it!"

He rocked her slowly, stroking her hair. "Shhh. It's okay, Buffy. It's okay..." he murmured.

"NO! It's not! Angel... all I do is hurt the people I care most about! I don't know who I am anymore! I don't know what to do!"

He rained soft kisses into her hair. He didn't know what to tell her... didn't have the words to make it all better. And if he told her the truth--that her existential confusion was just a natural part of growing up--would she understand any better than any other young person since the beginning of time? He doubted it.

Buffy might be the Slayer, but she was still just a little girl, at heart.

He held her away from him and tenderly wiped at her tears with his fingertips.

Buffy blinked and peered into his eyes... his deep, loving, soulful eyes... How could she ever have thought, even for a moment, that she could spend the rest of her life looking into anyone else's?

"I love you, Angel. I don't love Riley. I mean, I do... but not like that.  It's not the same. I've just been lying to myself. And to him. And to everyone else," she admitted, her words broken by the hitching of her sobs, "I didn't mean to hurt you. I'm so sorry. For everything... I didn't mean any of it. You weren't a mistake. You were the only thing I ever did that was really right. And I don't want you to go away. And most of all, I don't... I can't... ever... hate you."

Angel stared at her, feeling an unexpected relief cover him like a warm blanket. He had taken her angry words directly to heart, believing them from her because he believed them about himself. She had only brought voice to his own crippling self-hatred, and his long-standing view that he was a curse on her life.

But for the first time, he thought that maybe he was wrong. Maybe they both had to travel this painful road to realize...

They belonged together. Together, they were a force to be reckoned with. A fortress that could stand against anything, even the buffeting storms of Hell. Alone? Alone, they were dead.

He couldn't help the feeling that he'd heard that somewhere before...

Angel took her hand and held the warm palm gently to his lips, never taking his eyes from hers.

"I love you too, Buffy. I'm sorry you've had to endure so much pain. I'm sorry I haven't been there to help."

She almost smiled. "Does... does this mean you forgive me?" She sniffled forlornly.

He returned the smile. "There's nothing to forgive, between us. Ever."

She didn't accept that for a moment, but she knew what he meant. Understanding and forgiveness went always without saying, with them. Buffy moved slightly closer, still keeping her gaze locked to his.

"Come back to me, Angel. I need you," she begged.

He caressed her face with his eyes, devouring her with his mind and his heart. "Buffy... I never really left," he promised her.

THE END.

THERE, TAKE THAT, JOSS, YOU SOUL SUCKING BASTARD! ;)

 



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