Imitation Of Life by Joanna C

 

Summary: Part of the Karaoke Kids Series. Previous parts at author's own website. Spike resurfaces just in time for a mass of co-habitation: Angel with Cordelia, Giles with Buffy, and Kate with...well, you'll see. Meanwhile, in other life changes, Cordelia starts school, Dawn takes responsibility and Kate does her very, very best with Lorne, who knows a secret...

 

Spoilers: None specified.

 

Notes: I have four main couples I am juggling here, the primary two being A/C and B/G. I can't possibly deal with all four of them all the time. Do not freak out if your ship of choice does not appear in every single section that gets posted. It DOES all link together in the end :) Just go with it, you'll have fun anyway.

 

 

Part One

***

Cordelia Chase, sweaty from both exertion and the humidity of the Hyperion's cavernous basement, landed a kick with expert precision.

"Ugh," she groaned. "Can we stop now?"

Sam Zabuto, eyes never wavering from his laptop display, clucked his tongue. "Now, now, Ms Chase. We've barely started. Move on to the second routine, if you will, cross-jab combos...Fiona?"

His trainee climbed down from her perch on the stairs and after pushing the heavy bag out of the way, began demonstrating the series. Cordelia fell into step behind her.

"The least you could have done was spring for fans," she grumbled. "It's hot down here."

"Heat makes the muscles more pliable," said Sam. "Gives you better range of motion, the limits of which we're..."

"Psychology," said Angel, appearing out of nowhere.

Cordelia paused, mid-kick. "Huh?"

"Your arts elective," he said kneeling at the bottom of the stairwell and balancing a clipboard on his knee. "I'm filling out your LACU registration forms. Did we decide on psychology?"

"Philosophy," said Cordelia, resuming the kicks.

Fiona, now finished the lesson, wandered to the sidelines to watch the action.

"Keep the abdominals tight," she coached, absently reading over Angel's shoulder. "It protects the lower back, and we all know how impor...journalism?" She paused. "Why on earth would you study THAT?"

With a grunt of effort, Cordelia launched into a rapid punch series.

"A visit from an old acquaintance had me thinking," she said. "A press pass, loads of free stuff and that wonderful 'working on a story' excuse to set my own hours..."

"Don't lock the elbows," said Fiona. "There you go..."

Cordelia tensed, then swung from the hips. "Why are we doing this, again? If I wanted combat training, I'd get Angel to..."

"Of course," said Sam flatly, looking up from his screen. "And although I'm...delighted...that he has chosen to join us, I can't help but feel that since you've only allotted us two hours per day for our work, I should like to have them uninterrupted..."

She crumpled to the floor with a sudden shriek of pain, and the watchers were on their feet instantly, fiddling with their controls and readouts. Neither paid the slightest attention to Cordelia's writhing squirms.

Angel rushed to her side and folded her into his arms with unabashed tenderness. "It's okay," he soothed. To the watchers, he said "You said she might not get them anymore."

"There's a lot we still aren't sure about," said Sam. "Fiona, the orb of Thaliesen if you would..."

"Oh god, Angel, there's this girl," rasped Cordelia. "Bar near Hollywood... lizard something..."

"I'll find it," he said. "Are you..."

She closed her eyes, then opened them again, body softening. "It's already fading," she said with delighted surprise. "Still hurt like hell when I was having it, but it isn't lingering like it used to." She gave him a hopeful smile. "Side effect nine million of the fusion?"

"Fascinating," said Sam, scanning through the latest readouts on his screen.

"Yeah," said Cordelia with an arch smile. "I can see you're all choked up."

Angel was halfway up the stairs. "You sure you're..."

"Yeah," she said. "I think we might call it a day down here. Suddenly, I feel like pizza..."

"Now, Cordelia," began Sam.

"Stuff it, watcher-boy. I'm tired, and I'm starved, and I'm calling it a day."

She was turning to leave when Sam cleared his throat.

"Very well. We'll make up the time with a field trip on Saturday, then."

She bristled. "What?"

"A lovely little spot in the country," said Fiona. "Take the training outdoors for awhile, see how you manage..."

"Manage," Cordelia repeated suspiciously. "What...?"

"Testing your sun tolerance," he elaborated. "See how you perform in the heat and glare. See how quickly you burn..."

"How quickly I...you WANT to hurt me!"

"No, no," soothed Sam. "Well, all right, yes, but it's for your own good, my dear. We need to test the full range of your vampire attributes. Better that we learn, in a controlled setting, then be surprised later..."

"Is it? I think I'll take my chances, if it's all the same to you! Didn't care too much about surprises when I got the visions, did you? Let me figure THAT one out by myself..."

"Now, now," said Fiona. "We had nothing to do with that."

"Exactly! And I did just fine, didn't I?"

"Now, come on," said Sam. "You must realize that we are dealing with an unprecedented confluence of magical attributes here---vampire blood, gypsy magic and a direct connection to the powers-that-be...look, you agreed to submit to our tests, Cordelia. You understood that there might be some discomfort involved..."

"Not this," said Cordelia firmly. "This is crossing the line..."

She turned on her heel, but he was blocking her.

"I'm afraid it's not up to you."

She looked at Sam. She looked at Fiona. Then she looked at the stairs and screeched "Angel!"

"He's already gone," Fiona smirked. "He can't help you."

With a shrug, Cordelia moved her gaze heavenward and squealed "Dennis!"

The watchers went flying in opposite directions, their limbs flailing into the wall with a satisfying smack.

Cordelia folded her arms smugly. "You were saying?"

***

Sweat dripped off her brow in rivulets. Her little band of minions stood nervously at attention, waiting for the morning briefing, but Lilah Morgan---basking in the authority of being boss---sprawled limply in her very expensive chair with a groan.

"What I wouldn't give," she drawled. "For just an hour at the beach.."

"Oh, come on," said Spike impatiently. "It's not THAT bad, is it?"

She inched upright just enough to see over the top of the desk.

"Huh," she said. "It's HOT!"

"And? You're going to let THAT stop you? Come on, woman, you call yourself a big bad?"

"No, YOU call me one. I think it turns you on or something."

"Lilah..."

"It's HOT, Spike. I can't MOVE. I don't CARE about Angel or the plan or the mission, I just want to lie in the ocean and not be so HOT!"

He smirked lasciviously. "Like you could help it..."

That snapped her suddenly to attention. "Don't even think about it, bucko!"

He folded his arms and perched on her desk triumphantly. "Well, now that you're awake..."

Lilah sighed. "Guess the beach will have to wait," she said. "All right, Spike. What is it?"

"Well, for one thing, it's been awhile since I've had anything decent to eat. Was thinking maybe I'd take out that witch of yours..."

"Jenny Calendar is vital to the plan, Spike," she said firmly. "You know that."

"Is she? Looks to me like all she's done so far is sit around like an antler on a chaos demon: pretty enough to look at, but really, useless."

"She's still adjusting," said Lilah. "That was a powerful spell we did..."

"Bollocks. I think you brought her back wrong, Lilah. I think THAT'S why she's still riding the clueless train."

"Now, Spike," soothed Lilah. "There is plenty of latitude built into the plan. We're still..."

"Are we? You know what, Lilah? I'm starting to think maybe there isn't even a plan. That you're just kind of...winging it. Stringing us along like a big...like a big faker!"

"Really? Well, I think YOU are an impotent, power-hungry little toad who's far too impatient to follow through---and I don't just mean in the bedroom."

Harmony rolled her eyes. "Here we go," she muttered. "Bitchslap, the next generation..."

"Agggh!" groaned Spike. "Bloody women! You," he pointed at Harmony. "Are a stupid, brainless little bint who couldn't cross the STREET without a bloody guru. And you," he pointed at Lilah. "Are the most infuriating, irritating, barely evil little tramp I have EVER laid my eyes on in my entire PATHETIC undead life. Now, what have you got to say about THAT, hmmm?"

Lilah sipped delicately from a can of ice tea.

"I say," she said slowly, "That maybe my father was right after all. I should have been a lifeguard."

***

Cordelia bounded up the stairs and headed straight for the fridge, rummaging through the contents with increasing frustration.

"Ahem," said Wesley behind her. "Is this what you're looking for?"

He held up a tupperware container with the remains of last night's take-out pizza. She practically lunged for it.

"Yum. God, Wesley, I don't know what it is about wearing myself out that makes me so hungry, but this really..."

"I noticed. Cordelia, Angel paused on his way out to inform me that you've had a vision."

"Yeah? So?" She ripped off a piece of crust and shoved it in her mouth with almost feral hunger.

"So...a vision is a physical exertion that's linked to your mystical attributes, just as that fire was. And THAT made you hungry also."

Cordelia frowned. "So every time I act superpowery, I'm gonna want junk food?"

"Not as such. But it does seem like your new powers consume energy in ways you are not yet used to. I suspect that's why your cravings have been for fatty foods. Ice cream, pizza...your body is trying to recharge itself after it's been exhausted."

She snapped up another piece of pizza and chomped it ravenously. "So that's bad?"

"Not bad, per se. Just...interesting."

She swallowed, then raised an eye thoughtfully. "I don't think I like the way you're saying that, Wes. Sounds almost watchery, you know?"

"Cordelia..."

"I know, I know, you TRY to be cool, but sometimes your stuffy Brit-ness just seeps through anyway. We're cool. But Wes...you think we can keep this little insight away from Laurel and Smarty for awhile? They're getting a bit too mad sciency for my liking."

"Fair enough. And if I may ask you a favour as well..."

"Okay..."

"Keep a lid on Phantom Dennis, will you?"

"Hey! How did you..."

"You aren't the only one he likes. But Cordelia, you do understand...if he makes things difficult, they'll simply move you out of here. On OUR turf...well, there are lots of people who can watch out for you, but we can't do a thing if they move you away from us."

She nodded and shrugged, then dove into the pizza with renewed vigor. The last thing she wanted to be doing after the day SHE had was think about unpleasant things.

***

Part Two

***

Twilight streaming through the window, golden hair fluttering softly in the gentle evening breeze...stray strands of it matted down in sweat-stained concentration as Buffy Summers dug her nails into the scorched mushball of burned rice at the bottom of the frying pan...

She barely glanced up, as the door swivelled open. "Where were you?"

Dawn returned her frown with a wounded pout. "Geez, will you chill? You weren't here when I came home and I felt like having some company for once, so I went next door to play with Kate's new puppy, and we..."

"Kate has a puppy?"

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Look, just cause YOU don't like her doesn't mean she's evil, okay? I mean, she's loved by kids and puppies, the woman must be doing SOMETHING right..."

"You're not a kid."

"So I keep saying. And yet..."

Buffy squirmed. "When did Kate get a puppy?"

"This afternoon. The woman does have a life, you know. Unlike some people..."

Buffy motioned to the smoking pan. "I cooked."

Her sister glanced at the rancid burn with an unfazed shrug. "Uh huh. So do we order the pizza now, or did you want to wait and have Giles over?"

"Giles won't BE over," said Buffy gloomily. "Tomorrow's the anniversary of the ascension of the demon Sfhyhd, and he's staying open late for the last-minute shoppers."

"The Demon Sfhyd," Dawn repeated, shaking her head. "Do I even want..."

"Like Jesus, except he wasn't martyred and there were no crosses. Big deal, if you're a chaos demon, apparently."

"Oh. Buffy?"

"Hmmmm?"

"I had a really great time with Kate and Bruiser this afternoon, and..."

Buffy smirked. "That's the puppy? Why does it not surprise me that Kate would name it that?"

"...and it had me thinking," continued Dawn. "That maybe something like that is just what WE need."

"Really."

"Just that you're so busy, what with the slaying and the Giles and stuff, and it had me thinking maybe I need a project too. You wouldn't need to do ANYTHING, Buffy, I'd take care of it myself, and pay for it out of my allowance, and..."

"Whoa," said Buffy. "Let's back up here for a second..."

"Come on, Buffy, it'd be fun," pleaded Dawn. "And," she added pointedly. "I think it would REALLY contribute to my stable home environment."

Buffy winced. Dawn had already had two meetings with the school's guidance counsellors, and "stable home environment" was a favourite phrase of theirs.

Buffy sat down at the table and ran a hand through her hair. "It's not that simple," she said. "Dawn, a pet is just a huge commitment, a huge financial...and emotional...commitment. I'm not sure I can...I just don't have a whole lot extra to give right now..."

"It's not for you," said Dawn, a faint glimmer of anger creeping into her tone. ""What part of 'my own project' were you not understanding? This is for me. Buffy, I want to."

"I know, just...things are finally settling down a little, and I'm...I've been feeling so overwhelmed lately, and Giles doesn't even LIKE dogs..."

Dawn froze. "Giles doesn't live here," she said.

"Well, I...not yet, he doesn't. He might some day."

"Some day where we are SO not going there," said Dawn angrily. "Buffy, this whole you and Giles thing is still REALLY new for me. We don't know that you and him are---that you'll---a lot is still up in the air, you know? And somehow, adding a Fido to the family just seems a whole lot less complicated than adding a father, you understand?"

Buffy closed her eyes. "Can we talk about this some more?"

Dawn finally had enough. "That's so not fair! You know, you're not THAT much more mature than I am, why do YOU get to make all the calls?"

"I'm not making ANY calls," said Buffy stiffly. "Except to talk about this later. And Dawnie, if you were really as into making the grown-up choices as you say you are, you'd realize that's the only option right now. I'm tired. It's been a long day. Can we talk about this some more later, please?"

"Fine," pouted Dawn. "If that's the way you're going to be..."

She turned and stomped up the stairs, leaving Buffy alone in the kitchen to ponder her dinner choices.

***

The bar was hopping, and he almost didn't hear the phone ring.

"Hello?"

Silence for a moment, then, a small, hard voice. "Well. You're there."

He tugged on the cord and dragged himself into the back office. "Kate?"

"I've been leaving you messages," she said flatly. "Guess you've been busy."

He sighed. "Oh, sweetheart, you have no idea! Angel's about ready to kill those watchers, Cordy's got school in less than a week, and Phantom Dennis has been a little twitchy..."

"And they needed you," she finished limply.

"I...yeah, they did. Katie, are you okay? You sound..."

"A little snippy? Hell, yeah. You aren't the only one who's been having a busy week, Lorne---as I tried to tell you, in the messages I left you on multiple occasions."

He felt his gut clench with guilt. "Oh, Katie, I'm sorry, I just haven't been checking, I truly, truly haven't..."

"Obviously. Which is too bad, cause I think you might have been interested in some of my activities---for business reasons, at least, even if you could care less on a personal level."

"Now, that's not fair. Katie, you know that's not fair."

"Do I? And how would I be knowing THAT if you won't TALK to me? Do you have any idea how worried I've been?"

"I..." He backpedaled, abruptly touched. "You were worried?"

"More than you seemed to be about me," she said with magnificent venom.

He winced. "Katie..."

"Stuff it, Lorne. Three days ago, I might have been interested in stammery apologies, but now that I finally have you on the phone and I realize that your excuse is NOT 'I was lying in a ditch somewhere,' I just want to take care of business and be on my way, if it'' all the same to you."

"Now, wait a minute," he snipped. "It's NOT all the same to me at all. You're chewing me out cause I got a little busy? I hadn't thought we'd reached the stage where a few missed messages meant something, Kate."

She swallowed hard. "I hadn't either."

He closed his eyes. "Kate?"

She swallowed a mouthful of air, suddenly emotional. "I know we haven't been...haven't been intimate, not the way you've wanted to, at least. And I've been difficult, I know I have, and I guess I didn't realize...I missed you, Lorne. You take me out for a fancy dinner, you wine me, you dine me, we stay up all night talking, and then I go back to Sunnydale and don't hear a word for days and days and days..."

"Oh, sweetheart..."

"And I got WORRIED. Then I got angry. For god's sake, Lorne, I MISSED you!"

"Katie..."

"And not only that, but I've been busy too---burning both ends of the stick milking my buddy on the force for all he's worth---I can't get involved like this, Lorne. You know I can't."

"Um hm."

"But something...god, Lorne, we really need to talk, don't we?"

"Seems like."

"I need to see you."

"I know." He closed his eyes. "Twenty-four hours," he said. "I have some loose ends to tie up..."

"It can't...it can't wait?"

"You know, it really can't. Sometimes, it can't."

"Tomorrow," she said.

"Sunnydale by supper-time. Kate?"

"Hmmm?"

"I love you," he said.

She hung up the phone.

***

Part Three

***

Wesley appraised the tangled mess of weapons and equipment curiously, then stepped over a pile of boxing gloves and toward Cordelia, who lay crouched among the cast-offs, utterly, sweatily exhausted.

"It's nearly suppertime," he said softly.

She blinked, as if coming out of a trance. "Huh?"

"It's nearly dark. You haven't had enough yet?"

She shrugged and climbed to her feet. "There are no windows down here. You lose track of things."

"Guess so." He eyed the motley collection of scattered weapons and props. "Working off some steam?"

"Grrrr, those watchers!" she seethed. "I wouldn't mind so much if they'd just TELL me what they're doing, but no, they have to be all cryptic 'oh, very interesting' and 'oooh, yes, we'll try THAT with her tomorrow' and I'm all 'what?' and they're all meaningful nods and smug little smirks of..." She pounded her fist into the heavy bag, then dropped her eyes, half-frightened, half-embarrassed. "Still working out the kinks of that demon temper," she admitted sheepishly.

"Oh, I absolutely," he agreed, idly fingering a discarded boxing glove. "And shouting at Phantom Dennis only does so much?"

She sighed. "Oh, Wesley...they keep telling me it'll get easier...that I'll get used to it, that I'm just really feeling it now cause the sensations are still so new. But so much has changed, so fast..."

"Not all of it for the worse," he pointed out.

She sighed. "I know. Guess I just need these little reminders sometimes..."

He gave her hand an encouraging squeeze. "Angel should be back any minute now. I can take care of things down here if you want to get..."

"God, Wesley, you're a doll!" She hopped up the stairs with a squeal of delight.

He neatened the last of the weaponry and gathered some stray equipment to be stowed upstairs. When he reached the lobby, Lorne was waiting for him.

***

The shower clinked on in Cordelia's room, but Angel's sensitive vampire hearing could still pick up the faint scuffles of undressing: she hadn't gotten in yet. If he hurried, he could catch her before she washed off the sweat...

With a silent smirk, he pushed open her door and snuck up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist before she could tell what was happening.

"Hey, kiddo."

"Angel?" She spun her head around far enough to lean in for a kiss. "Are you...did you just get back? Was it all okay?"

"Girl rescued, and with minimal trashing of the trendy nightclub, no less. You proud of me?"

"Hmmmm." She traced an emerging bruise on his jaw. "And this?"

"There might have been a tiny scuffle on the way home."

"Angel!"

"What? I had NO way of knowing that the kitty cats had moved to THAT dumpster..."

"Kitty cats?" she interrupted. THAT'S how you got all banged up?"

He squirmed a little and gave her tense shoulder an appraising squeeze. "Guess I'm not the only one who did some scuffling."

"If it's any consolation, I won. The heavy bag's not exactly the most creative opponent."

"Cordelia..."

She shrugged out of his embrace. "I know, I know." She nodded to the bathroom. "Shower's gonna go cold on me."

"Better that way."

"But we can't..."

"Why not?" He looked heavenward, briefly. "They'll stop us if we go too far."

"But I'm still all sweaty."

He licked his lips with a lascivious smirk. "I know."

***

Wesley put down his carton of supplies with measured, careful calm.

"What is it?" he asked.

Lorne hopped up off the floor, where he had been sprawled in idle wait. "Hello to you too," he said. "And I'm tempted to go with 'insulted' for the terse little greeting, but if the vibe I'm sensing is strong enough that it's even affecting you, I think I'm going to go with freaked out instead."

Wesley exhaled. "It IS something, then. I thought I was simply feeling residual tension from all of the changes around here. I assumed that's why you've been avoiding us..."

"And I'm sorry about that, amigo. If I'd known you were picking up on things, I might have come to you sooner..." He shrugged. "Guess I underestimated you."

"Story of my life." Wesley cleared his throat awkwardly. "So there IS something, then?"

"There is. And it's something I'm quite ready to tell the kiddies about...so I'm coming to you because Kate's my only other neutral, and she isn't so good with all of this, to tell you the truth. Magic, vampires, raisings..."

"Raisings," pounced Wesley. "You found out what it was?"

"Worse. I found out WHO it was..."

***

Her skin was still burning, the warm tremble of freshly worked muscle thrumming through the bones, the heat of intimacy charging them, softening them fluidly as she bended into his body.

"Skin to skin," she whispered. "Angel, they've never let us get this far..."

"Shhhh," he soothed. "They'll stop us if they want to, just relax..."

His bare, cold finger traced the curve of her hips, then moved across her stomach in slow, rhythmic circles. He pressed his hand into her thigh, more daring now, more loving, more warm and pliable, even him, even his cold, smooth skin, warming up, melting brazenly into her.

***

"Going on six years," Lorne began. "I still remember...I hadn't been in Los Angeles for more than a week or two, but I had yet to have a single second of panic or regret or culture shock. I was loving every minute of it. And Caritas, as you know it now, was still a good few weeks from being all the way finished, but as an act of faith, on the very evening in question, I'd hung the sign..."

He smiled. "So I'm in there sorting some inventory, and this young lady happens by---and she has this one-night stop-over in the city before she's literally off to face her destiny...that sign in the darkened window---well, it must have really seemed like---a sign..."

"She understood Latin, then," observed Wesley.

"She understood a lot of things that in hindsight proved unusual. That she should choose to spend her last night of real freedom there..."

Wesley fidgeted impatiently. "Well, what happened to her?"

"That night? Not a heck of a lot, actually. Trading drinks and memories and email addresses with a stranger---she was deep enough into the fantastical, even by then, that I'm not sure the demon thing even registered. And of course, I smelled the magic on her the second she walked in..."

***

He was unspeakably gentle, less of a thrust and more a tender bob and weave. She drew away a little, then relaxed, then drew away again...in the back of their minds, they were both waiting for those higher powers that looked out for such things to intervene and stop them, but the moment was so beautiful, so transcendent. Surely, they would let them have it. Surely, it couldn't hurt...her arms flailed backward as he pressed himself toward her, and she grabbed a fistful of his hair to steady herself. He was so caught up in the moment that he didn't even wince in pain.

***

"She died," said Wesley. "You can't be raised if you haven't...she died, didn't she?"

"That's not all she did. You ever ask your buddy Angel about that time his soul went awol?"

Wesley swallowed, eyes wide. "We've all heard the story. What he did to Buffy...what he did to Giles..."

"Giles lived, Wesley. But Jenny..." Lorne sighed. "That's what makes this so difficult. I tried to throw them a hint the other night, you know, testing the waters? And they both shut down. This went way beyond a bad memory, Wes. It was like an oozing, open psychic sore. Hit them in the gut, both of them---him, because he knows what he's capable of and it terrifies him, and her because a nameless wench in the 18th century is one thing, but this was a victim she KNOWS."

Wesley rose to his feet and began pacing. "All right," he said. "So they've brought her back, and...my god, Lorne, how did you FIND her?"

"She found me. She was pretty out of it for the first few days, but she played dumb for awhile so she could eavesdrop---then she heard Lilah talk about you guys."

"I knew it!" said Wesley. "I KNEW those lawyers were up to..."

"Well, obviously. It was her that did the magic swap back at Cordelia's," Lorne added off-handedly. "Lilah's potion was supposed to knock him out completely---paramedics would have checked for a heartbeat, then tagged him DOA. By the time he'd wake up and find his way out of the morgue, Cordelia would have been..."

"Oh."

"Umm hmm."

"But how did you...if she"

"They freaked her out a little," said Lorne. "Obviously, she hadn't known where Cordelia had ended up, but hearing THEM, of all people, linking the poor kid with Angel..."

"But..."

"Then she found MY name linked on the Angel Investigations web site and figured I'd be the safer bet. Truthfully, she wasn't quite comfortable about the Angel thing, and I still haven't fully convinced her he's safe again. But Cordelia, she figured, had to be an innocent..."

"She tried to warn her," marveled Wesley.

"At first. Then she asked me to help her escape. Poor thing...she has to enchant the computers so they don't detect her using them, and it's really draining..."

He coughed nervously. "Wesley, I told her to stay there."

Wesley stopped mid-pace. "What?"

"Gosh, this is hard...but we talked it over, and she was willing to make this sacrifice, for now, at any rate. She's not in any danger---whatever it is they're planning, they need her for it. And if it's something worth raising the dead for..."

"It might be helpful to have a person on the inside?"

"Exactamundo. Poor little thing...but Wesley, what do I do about Angel?"

***

Skin on skin. She reached out to him, like poetry, like dancing. In the back of her mind was the slight hesitation of imminent fear, but she let herself get swept away again, and she touched him, as he was touching her. He had not given the sweat a chance to dry, and under his touch, she was clammy. Big, strong hands squeezed her thighs, pressed electric fingers onto her, into her...she let herself get swept away again.

Hand on hand. He let her withdraw, then thrust himself again at her like a samurai. She moaned beneath him, skin sticky, so unbearably touchable he could almost get lost in it. Skin on skin. An electric tingle of lust coursed through him, and he thrust himself again and let himself be lost.

Heart on heart. He pulled away this time, an agonizing lance of agony clenching his chest as he fell to his knees. No. No...not like this, not with her...he saw her stumble away from him, eyes half-knowing fear and half-flaming anger...at him, at herself for so carelessly forgetting...with a cry of distress, she reached her hand toward him, and he felt the strangest mental tug as she pulled him back again, whole, restored and loved. They rolled onto their backs for a moment, panting with exertion, before she turned to him, very scared, very small.

"Angel? Was that..."

"Felt like."

"Did you..."

"Yes."

"Then how..."

As one, they jumped to their feet, lunging frantically for the staircase and screaming for Lorne.

***

Part Four

***

Buffy pushed open the door to the magic shop and scanned the darkened store with mounting worry.

"Giles?"

He coughed slightly, and at last, she could make him out: a limp shadow, hunched at the research table, eyes closed.

"Hey," she called softly. "I figured you'd be about ready to close up by now. You didn't call."

He might have shrugged, but in the darkness, she couldn't be certain.

She sat down beside him. "Hey," she said again. "Everything okay here?"

He fidgeted. "Long day."

"Uh huh. Got busy?"

"You could say that."

"Where's Anya?"

Finally, movement. He pressed a hand to his forehead and turned to her. "What?"

"Anya," she repeated. "Your employee?"

"I sent her home."

"I see that. Why?"

He blinked. "What?"

"If it's THAT busy here...Giles, this is why people have employees. To do things for them, so they don't work too hard and make their girlfriends worry."

"Oh." He turned away again, eyes scrunching closed. "She wanted overtime."

"You can afford it. Giles, what's going on?"

Then she noticed the books on the table. "Is this what it was about? You sent Anya home because you didn't want her seeing this?"

He jolted to alertness long enough to snatch the book away from her.

"That's it, isn't it?" she said. "Anya talks. Anya talks, and you didn't want her telling us about..." she squinted, the book just barely about of reach. "About...Giles, what IS that?"

"Let's not talk about that now."

"Giles..."

"It's personal," he said, voice uncomfortably pleading. "Buffy, please...it's late, I'm tired..."

"But..."

"Let it go," he said softly. "Please, just let it go..."

"All right," she said carefully, watching him with wary eyes as he stuffed the book into his briefcase. She forced a smile. "Well, the day WAS long, but it's over now. You coming home with me?" She winked flirtatiously. "We could unwind..."

He sank his head into his hands, and she could swear she saw him wincing. "No."

She looked more closely, and for a split second, she saw through the strong, stoic fašade to the little boy inside, too tired, too spent to think beyond his basic primal needs.

"Poor guy," she soothed. "Let me take care of you."

"Buffy..."

"No arguments, mister. Your place. Shower, pizza, beer, bed."

He nearly fainted with relief.

***

In the Hyperion's lobby, Lorne and Wesley faced off.

"We understand each other, then? Under wraps, for now?"

"That's best, I think."

Lorne nodded, satisfied, then spun abruptly and ducked Wesley's head beneath the desk.

"Lorne! What are you..."

He hissed a 'shush' under his breath and beamed a thousand-watt smile at the sweaty, undressed pair that tumbled down the stairs and landed at his feet in a bewildered, naked heap.

"Well," he said with a delighted smirk. "'Bout time you two figured things out."

Wesley bobbed up from the floor, then quickly averted his eyes and squeaked "What on earth is going on here?"

Lorne rooted briefly through a filing cabinet and came out with two blankets, which he tossed at Angel and Cordelia.

"They've done the deed," he said calmly. "Haven't you?"

Cordelia shriveled with a miserable whimper of acknowledgement, instinctively curling up in Angel's arms.

"Hey, it's okay," soothed Lorne. "I told you the curse wouldn't be a problem for long, didn't I?"

She nodded slowly, still clearly dazed.

"But you thought you'd lost it, didn't you?"

Angel looked up, eyes dull and serious. "Something happened," he said. "I forgot. I lost control, I let myself...why am I still okay?"

"That's kind of obvious," said Lorne. "What we're seeing here is one more manifestation of the fusion."

Cordelia bolted upright. "WHAT???"

"Well, it isn't sex per se that activates the curse," Lorne explained. "It's perfect happiness. And while Angel can achieve REGULAR happiness on his own, it's darned near impossible to achieve PERFECT happiness without a strong emotion behind it. That's why so far, sex has been the only trigger---for love, you need another person."

"But aren't I..."

"Uh huh. But Sweetheart, you didn't just get Angel's blood, you got his magic too---and that, my dear, is confusing the mystical sensors just enough to give you your loophole."

She shook her head. "That doesn't...Lorne, HOW?"

"Think of it this way," he said. Mix oil and vinegar, and what do you get?"

"Salad dressing?"

"Got it in one. But mix oil and oil, and...well, all you get is...more oil."

Angel slowly pieced it together. "So I can't lose myself with her, because she's now too much like me?"

"Your magic is in her, Angel. She's like your mystical shadow, a karmic identical twin. And twins...well, twins, you can't even tell them apart through fingerprints."

Angel's glance fell to the still shell-shocked Cordelia. "And that's why the curse didn't activate? Cause she's..." He spoke softly, realization dawning. "She got the curse too?"

"Well---yes and no. It's like your other vampire traits---it'll manifest in her in a lesser form." He shrugged. "If it's like the other ones, it'll probably just make her really hungry. I wouldn't worry."

Angel relaxed, clearly relieved.

"Now, you understand," said Lorne sternly. "That this does NOT let you off the hook, by any stretch? This loophole is only with her, amigo. Perfect happiness with ANYONE else and you still go bad, capiche?"

He nodded vigorously. "Absolutely. Okay."

"All right, then." Lorne reached for his coat. "I'm still in hot water with my own gal...if I get there early, I might win points."

With a wink at Angel, he disappeared.

***

She settled him comfortably, one hand holding his slice of pizza at the ready, the other gently running fingers through his still-damp hair as he nuzzled into her.

"Ummmm."

She smiled. "Better?"

"Some."

"Is your head still hurting?"

"Quite a lot."

She squirmed. "Can we talk anyway?"

He closed his eyes. "You can."

"All right. I'm worried about you. Ever since we got back from L.A....you're shutting me out, and if I wasn't so worried, it would probably piss me off."

"I'm not..."

"You are. You call, you visit, you patrol, but you won't stay over, and you won't...you know..."

She pursed her lips together thoughtfully. "It's like you've been holding back a little, ever since Dawn found out."

"It's been a long week," he suggested. "I've been tired."

"Oh, please. You're scared, aren't you? After she came down on you like that?"

"It's hard enough for her right now."

"And you don't know what to do about it?"

He hesitated, then gave a slight nod.

"Oh, Giles...I know things are hard for her, and not just on the us front, but she's got to learn to deal with it. Other people's lives don't start and stop on her account. We try, and maybe a little harder than she does cause she's the kid and we're...well, not so much. But...look, I'm not claiming to the big kid-expert here either, but doesn't this just feel like it's making it worse?"

She shifted underneath him, accidentally banging her knee into his skull. He inhaled sharply and bit back a whimper.

"Hey, it's okay," she said, a little frightened. "God, Giles, it's okay, we can talk about this later if you...look, maybe we should call it a night. Let you sleep that headache off..."

He twitched, an ominous something running through his eyes. Suddenly, she put it all together. "That's it, isn't it? You haven't BEEN sleeping! It's not the work, or the slaying..."

He nodded weakly to the discarded briefcase. "You may as well look."

The pizza by now long-abandoned, she flipped open the briefcase and pulled out the book from earlier. "Dreams," she read. "THIS is what it's all about?" She fixed him with a business-like stare. "Giles, when was the last real sleep you had?"

"Friday."

"Six DAYS? You haven't slept properly in six DAYS?"

"Think backward," he suggested. "What were we doing six days ago?"

Her eyes widened. "The Hyperion! I spent Saturday with Cordy, so Friday was the last night we...wait, what did YOU do on Saturday?"

"Got massively drunk and woke up on Sunday with a killer hang-over."

"Oh. Do I even want to know?"

"You really don't."

"But Giles, that's...you really haven't slept since then?"

"Fits and starts. But really? No."

She glanced at the book, then, slowly, at him. "Nightmares?"

He nodded. "That research...I thought I could stop them," he said. "A potion, a tonic..." He closed his eyes. "I can't sleep alone. Since we've...since I've had that, with you...it's harder now, to sleep alone."

She gently ran a finger down his cheek. "You don't have to. Why didn't you tell me?"

"You had enough on your mind."

"And you were a large part of that, mister! Did you think I wasn't noticing how you've pulled away? Did you think I wasn't freaking out a little? Giles, you can't do that! You can't just shut people out cause you want to be stubborn or brave or invincible. Let me take CARE of you!"

"For how long? You can't be with me at every moment, Buffy. Dawn needs you."

"So? Move in with me, and then she could have us both."

He froze. "Buffy..."

"I know she's been a little off with you, but Giles, avoiding it doesn't seem to be doing anyone any good. You love me, right?"

"I do."

"And you won't leave me?"

"Buffy..."

"We've already been through so much together," she said. "What could possibly make you think it would go wrong now?"

"That's not..."

"I think it is. You still think you'll damage her, damage ME by somehow disappointing us. And all you've ever had to do is let us in a little. Do any of us have to be hurting like this? Did it ever occur to you that maybe it would be GOOD for Dawn to have you around?"

"I can be difficult," he said.

"As your present behaviour is amply demonstrating. But does it really look like it's scaring me away?"

"I'm sorry," he said, his voice almost not cracking.

"I know," she said. "I love you."

She shifted his weight in her arms and settled in for the night.

***

Part Five

***

Spike sucked lazily at his bag of blood, tapping his feet impatiently.

"Well," he said. "Almost daylight. Guess I should go get some sleep."

Lilah shrugged. "Guess."

He shook his head. "THAT was too easy. No 'But Spike, I need you?' No 'But Spike, we have a lot of work to do?'"

Lilah shrugged.

"Come on, love, what's going on?" he demanded. "What's next? Does that plan of yours involve ANY action at all?"

"Of course. Just waiting for a few things to fall into place is all. There's some supplies I've requisitioned..."

"THAT'S the big hold up? You've requisitioned some bloody SUPPLIES?"

"I work for a law firm, Spike. These things take time."

He growled something unintelligible, and Lilah gave up. "Well, if you're so anxious for a rumble, why don't YOU go start one?" she suggested. "Go...go spy on them or something, I don't know..."

"And have you start the real action as soon as I'm gone? Don't think so, pet. In for a penny, in for a pound, I am."

Lilah shrugged. "Suit yourself. Although..."

"What?"

"Might be good to get some intelligence on them. Last contact you've had is going on a few weeks old...."

"So?"

"So, a lot's changed since then, and they might be vulnerable. Their old buddy Spike, returning from his failed...reunion...with Harmony...aw, poor baby. And maybe he's been snubbed by the evil lawyer..."

"Lilah!"

"Or maybe he's not," she qualified hastily. "Maybe he's got the latest news on her...her nefarious plans! Yes, that's right. And maybe he's willing to help them out, give them a heads-up out of the goodness of his evil little heart..."

Spike glowered. "Don't think so!"

"Oh, come on, a little misdirection, some harmless---well, okay, not really---practical jokes, I'd think you'd be..." She smirked suddenly. "Oh, I see. You just don't want to leave me."

"That so?"

"You LOVE me. You can't BEAR to be apart from me."

"Goddamnit, woman!"

She leaned closer, inches from his ear. "You know," she breathed seductively. "I find spies VERY sexy."

"Now, pet, I..."

"I do," she insisted. She gave his ear a tiny lick. "You spend three days away doing this little thing for me, and I'll...well, let's just say that I'll be VERY happy to see you when you come back."

"I...awwww..."

"Maybe a little TOO happy," she emphasized. "If you know what I mean..."

He drew away thoughtfully. "Three days? All I've got to do is play nice with the slayer for three little days?"

"Well, you don't HAVE to..."

"No, no, I could..."

"Really?"

"Sure, I could. Three days. This is my thing, I can do it."

"Well, if you really want to..."

He backed away from her, stumbling into the hallway. "Oh, sure. Absolutely."

She wiped the insipid grin off her face the second he cleared the door. "Well," she said aloud. "That was almost TOO easy."

She hurried down the corridor to check on her other projects.

***

Wesley pushed open the doors to the Hyperion and instantly felt the burn of eyes upon him.

"Oh, it's only you," said Sam.

"Morning, Wesley," chimed in Fiona.

"Where is she?" growled Angel.

"Morning," he supplied warily. "And what?"

"Cordelia," Angel hissed. "Where...is...she?"

Wesley put down his briefcase. "Well, I certainly don't know. She's not... I mean, I assumed you...well, that after last night..."

Sam snapped to attention, eyes glimmering interest. "Last night?"

Angel paced the lobby in long, mean strides. "She ran out," he said after a moment.

"She...what?"

"Said she was tired...I put her to bed. Ten minutes later, I went to check on her and found THIS on her pillow."

He thrust the note in Wesley's face--- three words only. 'Don't wait up.'

"Angel, I..."

"Spent the whole night looking for her," he growled. "Went to her old apartment...searched the whole hotel...tried Giles, even."

Wesley glanced out the window. "She left the car, Angel. She can't have gone far."

"She has a training session scheduled for eight o'clock," interrupted Sam. "And it is absolutely imperative..."

"Well, then," said Wesley. "Good thing she still has 11 minutes, isn't it?"

On cue, the door burst open and Gunn strolled in, Cordelia behind him.

"Morning," he chirped. "Ya'll lose something?"

Angel's voice was low enough to nearly growl. "Cordelia..."

"Morning to you too," she said dispassionately. She strolled straight past him, and to the watchers. "Let's go."

Angel gave a low hiss, and Gunn took a step backward. "Don't go blaming me," he said. "Don't know what kind of fight you two had, don't want to know."

"A fight?" muttered Sam. He made a note on his pad. "Really?"

Wesley glowered at the watcher, then turned on Gunn. "Is she all right? What happened?"

"She just showed up," Gunn explained. "First thing she did after having a shower and eating half my food was suggest that I might have a...and this is a direct quote here...an elsewhere to be. Like I said, I figured she'd had a fight or something with Angel and needed a place to cool off."

"Then you..."

"Spent the night in my buddy Abraham's basement," he said. "Came by first thing to check on her, and she was already dressed and ready to go."

"I have training," said Cordelia. "Can we..."

"Hold on just a second here," said Angel. "You run off for the entire NIGHT and think you can just..."

"Just what?"

"Well, we...Cordelia, last night..."

"What about last night?" said Sam eagerly.

"Shut up," Cordelia said. Then, to Angel, "Last night may have changed a lot of things, Angel, but I don't think my ability, my RIGHT to set some boundaries is of them."

"It isn't, I...you still have your own room..."

"Sure, my own room. And my own ghost to spy on me for my own good, no offense, Dennis? Angel, that's not the kind of space I'm talking about. I had a lot to process. I just needed to...I don't know, not be here for awhile!"

"Why is that?" said Sam. "What's..."

"None of your business," snapped Angel. Then, to Cordelia, "I was worried."

"I left you a note!"

He bit back a smart remark. "Cordelia..."

She flattened him with a defiant stare. "So we need to talk, okay, okay..." She eyed his tensed and prowling frame suspiciously. "But Angel, you aren't the only one who needs to work off a little steam first. I'm going to go train with the watchers, and while I am doing that, you'll get some sleep, have some blood and get whatever shouting you need to do out of your system with Wesley."

"With me?" squeaked Wesley.

She pulled him aside. "Gunn doesn't know."

"Ah."

"I just couldn't face answering questions last night, Wesley, and I don't even want to THINK about how we're going to tell Buffy...just stall him, for now?"

He sighed. "Cordelia, I'm not sure I can handle being in the middle here."

"You're not," she said. "I promise, I'll meet him for lunch and make with the make-up, but can you just get him through the morning, please?"

He paused only slightly before reluctantly nodding his ascent.

***

The first faint slivers of daylight peeked through the edges of the curtain, and Buffy Summers stirred gingerly, trying not to wake her companion. Unsuccessfully. In the second her eye wandered to the creeping light, Giles snapped awake.

"Buffy."

She smiled down at him and tousled his hair. It still had been damp when they had finally fallen asleep, and it had dried into spiky clumps that stuck out in random directions.

"Morning, sleepyhead. Feeling better?"

He grumbled assent.

"You gonna move your head out my lap now?"

He hefted himself upright, drawing the blanket around himself.

"Hey, it's okay," she said. "You're decent. And it's not like I haven't seen it already."

He tightened the blanket further.

"Oh, I get it. This is some kind of manly vulnerability thing? Can't let the woman see you after you were all weak and needy with her?"

His scowl was ferocious.

"You're a lousy morning person, you know that?" she teased.

He lowered the blanket, instantly chastened. "I'm sorry. It was...it was very nice of you to stay."

"Why wouldn't I? This is how people do relationships, Giles. They do things when their partner needs them to."

"And I imagine they don't lord it over them forever either," he grouched.

"We're about five minutes into the morning after here, Giles. That's not even close to forever."

"I'll stop now," he said sheepishly. "Before I get myself into further trouble. I'm inhuman before I've had my cup of tea."

She leaned over again and gently kissed the top of his head. "I'll put the kettle on on my way out," she said.

"Your...way out?"

"There's only one shower here. And I haven't seen Dawn all night, so I'm letting you have it."

He stiffened. "Of course. I've work soon, anyway."

She nodded. "And you'll be over after? I'll talk to Dawn, it'll all be fine..."

He hesitated. "Yes," he said. "I'll be over after."

She nodded. "I'll start clearing out some space at home for you. You can't go another week with no sleep, Giles."

"Buffy..."

"I'm gonna need you too, you know," she said sternly. "So no more attitude, okay? One of these days, I'm gonna need you too, and I'm not going to be embarrassed about it either. This is how people do relationships, Giles. Do you understand?"

"Yes..."

"Great, then. See you later, alligator."

She hurried home, so wrapped up in the night's experience that no other thought crossed her mind until she came home to find her little sister eating pancakes in the kitchen with a green-skinned anagogic demon.

***

Part Six

***

The sounds of crashes and grunts echoed through the lobby of the Hyperion, and Angel, ear pressed to the basement door, drew away with a smile.

"It's just fighting," he told Wesley with obvious relief.

"Oh. Just."

"Well, I thought she was mad at me. I thought she would...I don't know, break down or something."

"Oh, of course," said Wesley. "And what she's doing right now is so much healthier?"

"Well, how else would she work through it?"

Wesley sighed. "She might talk to you, for one thing, instead of leaving me to do it for her."

"Wesley..."

"She's not mad at you, Angel. She's scared."

"I know..."

"No, I don't think you do. Angel, you had over 200 years of gloriously dangerous free will before the Powers-That-Be took any interest in you. But Cordelia...she's barely 21."

Angel lowered himself to the floor, back slumping against the wall in guilty dejection. "I know."

"And of course, she's got the regular issues on top of that," continued Wesley. "You know, does he love me, do I love him...although, since you don't entirely have other options in that regard, it doesn't much matter in her case, does it?"

Angel's fist clenched hard enough to nearly draw blood. "Cordelia..."

"Still," said Wesley cheerfully. "If you think she's handling it..."

They both jumped as a hideous crash sent tremors through the floor.

***

"An omen," groaned Buffy. "Oh, god, why are you here?"

Lorne and Dawn traded amused glances. "You can calm down, supergirl," said Lorne quickly. "It's nothing personal. Well, not for you, anyway."

"Kate's mad at him," Dawn explained.

"No, she's not," said Lorne. "We just have some things to work on. And I came here to do that only to find my sweetie missing in action."

"She didn't come home last night," Dawn elaborated. "I found him camped out on her porch, all shivery and unfed. He spent the night here. We played Rummy."

Buffy blinked. "Oh. Well...good?"

Lorne took a step back. "Okay, okay, I can see I've worn out my welcome..."

"No!" said Dawn. "I mean...I'm allowed to have friends over if I want to. You don't have to leave just cause SHE'S shown up..."

"Actually, I do. You aren't the teensiest bit curious about where she's spent the night?"

"With Giles, so?"

"So...vibe I'm getting is I'm not the only one with personal business, cupcake. I think I'd better leave you two to talk."

"Lorne, what..." Dawn spun on Buffy. "What's he talking about?"

"Got me," said Buffy. "Kinda lost me at 'nothing personal.' Dawnie, can we talk?"

"Don't suppose Kate'll turn up before dinner," said Lorne, slowly backing towards the door. "I've got some other business to take care of while I'm in town, kiddies. Toodles."

Dawn waved him away off-handedly. "Buffy, what is it? Is something wrong?"

"Don't think so," said Buffy. "Actually, I think it will be good for us."

Dawn froze. "What will?"

"Giles. He'll be good for us."

"Uh, okay..."

"He's moving in," said Buffy.

"He's...what?"

"It'll be good for me. It'll be good for US. He's moving in."

"You can't just decide that!"

"Why not? Life is short. We all could die tomorrow. Why shouldn't we be happy?"

"It's not...Buffy, we're not gonna die! And we're NOT happy!"

"But we could be, if Giles was living here. He's good for us."

"So you keep saying. Buffy, this is so screwed! Don't we get to talk about this?"

"We ARE talking about it," said Buffy calmly. "Dawnie, if he had his way he'd just show up and start living here. I'm at least making an effort."

Dawn clenched. "Oh, sure. Like that's really gonna sell me."

"I'm trying," said Buffy. Dawnie, please...I'm trying to have a real conversation with you."

"No, you're not. If this was a real conversation, my feelings would count for something. I'd get a say!"

"They do. I want...I mean..."

"Shut up! You've already decided, Buffy. Nothing I say is going to make a difference!"

Buffy slumped, voice small and tired. "Will it really be so bad?"

Dawn took a gentle step toward her, then changed her mind and crossed her arms defiantly. "Maybe not," she said. "But I've just been completely rail-roaded here, so I'm gonna say this while I have the excuse: I really hate you sometimes, Buffy. You suck."

She grabbed her bag. "I have school. Anything else you want to say?"

Buffy mutely shook her head.

***

"Fabulous," said Sam Zabuto, eyeing the wreckage of the pummeled heavy bag. "Excellent response times, Cordelia. Either your reflexes are more advanced than we thought, or you're simply...in a mood this morning."

"Bit of both," she admitted. "More?"

The watcher shook his head. "I think that's quite enough for now, don't you? Actually, my dear, we're moving more quickly than I anticipated. We've collected almost all the data we need."

"Really? So you're gonna leave soon?"

"Maybe one more week," he said. "There's one more test we still have to run. Fiona, if you will..."

His assistant hesitated. "Are you sure she's ready?"

"Not entirely. Only one way to find out though..."

"Ready for what?" said Cordelia.

"But Sam, if she's..."

"We talked about this," he said tightly. "She has to learn."

"Learn what?" said Cordelia.

"But it's barbaric," whined Fiona. "Sam, if she's..."

"She'll manage."

"Manage what?" said Cordelia. "What are you guys talking about?"

Sam crouched to her eye level and awkwardly patted her hand. "You won't like this very much," he told her with uncharacteristic sympathy. "But it's for your own good, my dear. Please try to remember that."

He then fumbled among his supplies for a large, sealed container roughly the size of a laundry bucket. He fiddled with a vacuum seal and withdrew the lid.

Cordelia felt her limbs fall out from under her, muscles turning to sand.

"Oh god..."

"Control yourself," Sam commanded. "You must learn."

"Oh god, oh god..."

"You must learn," he insisted. "You must learn to rise above your impulses. They only hit you so hard because you still aren't used to them."

She twitched, eyes scrunching closed, hands clenching. "Oh god..."

"You must learn," Sam repeated. "It's only blood, Cordelia."

She gagged and buried her face in her sleeve. "Stop..."

"I won't," he said firmly. "Angel has learned to control his bloodlust. You can too."

She clawed blindly for traction, jellied fingers scraping at the floor. "Help..."

"Not so fast," he said, holding out one restraining hand to Fiona, and the other in the general direction of the wall, where Phantom Dennis was nervously rattling the broad-sword. He crouched beside her. "I know you're hating me right now, but Cordelia, it's for your own good, it truly is. This is your trigger, and the only way to conquer it is through exposure. You must learn to build your tolerance, for your own safety if for no other reason..."

Her fingers curled. "Don't wanna..."

"You must," he repeated. "If you are in battle with a nefarious demon and someone bleeds, you'll fall to your knees, utterly useless? You would leave yourself---leave Angel---defenseless, because you were...hungry?"

Fiona grimaced. "And let's not imagine the horrible PMS she'll have if she can't handle a little bit of..."

Cordelia whimpered, then shook her head. "Noooo...."

"You can," said Sam gently. "I'll teach you. You'll practice."

"Angel..."

"Will be a wonderful example for you. I sympathize, I truly do---if these readouts on my monitor are any indication, you're in terrible discomfort right now, but Cordelia, this is far too important a matter to coddle you on." he stepped away from her. "You will not leave this room until you can calm yourself down sufficiently to do so under your own power."

She took a deep, trembling breath. "I hate you," she said.

"Wonderful," he told her. "Focus on that, then. It'll take your mind off things."

***

Part Seven

***

Angel crept softly down the stairs and into the basement, stepping gingerly over what looked to be the feathery remains of the biggest pillow fight L.A. had ever seen. The stench of blood was strong enough to make him stagger.

"Cordelia?" He squinted, trying to make her out. "Cordelia, are you all right?"

"Quiet," she hissed, voice oddly tense and controlled. "Give me a minute..."

She sat in the centre of a foam exercise mat, legs crossed, eyes closed in deep meditation, breath flowing in and out in smooth, even rhythm.

"Cordy? Is everything..."

She made an impatient gesture, and he stepped away again when, from beneath the mat, a timer sounded. She slowly opened her eyes. "New watcher thing," she explained. "Trying to raise my tolerance to blood. Ten minutes a day..." She stretched, then climbed to her feet, a little shaky. "You want it? Not sure how fresh it is, but..."

He shrugged, took the jar from her hand and drank. "Thanks."

"Whatever, it's better than having it lying out there where I can smell it. I think the watchers took the rest of it with them, thank god, the smell drives me crazy..."

"Then it's a good thing you're practicing," said Angel.

"I know, I know, that's what THEY said. Only way to up my tolerance is through exposure. Whatever, I'm starved. Do we have any food?"

"Thought we could go out," he said. "Maybe have that talk you promised..."

Her fašade of cheer abruptly evaporated. "I don't want to talk."

"Cordelia..."

"Oh god, you're doing it again, you're just gonna trail off like that and let me ramble until you get it out of me. Well, forget it. I've been training and I've been sniffing blood, and I'm going to faint if I don't eat something NOW."

He reached behind his back and pulled out a granola bar, waving it in front of her with a triumphant smirk. She pouted, then snatched it from his hands. "Fine."

"Fine. So, good morning, for starters."

"Ummmm." She crunched the granola bar, crinkling the wrapper distractedly with her fingers.

"Rough night," he said.

"Yeah. Sex for now and ever-after. You must be real broken up."

"I am. I never wanted to hurt you, Cordelia."

She sighed. "You gonna go all brood-monster this-is-all-my-fault over this? Well...forget I said anything, then, it's not your fault and you didn't hurt me, okay? Are we done?"

"Don't brush me off, Cordelia. We have to talk about this."

She stretched out a kink in her back and began pacing. "Guess we do have a lot on our minds don't we? A lot of changes going on, and not just the superpowery kind. I mean, Angel, we're living together. Living. Together. And that would be big even if we weren't...special."

"I know..."

"And this whole curse thing...just adds another wrinkle, you know? It kind of occurred to me last night that maybe it's been a bit too convenient an excuse, for both of us..."

"And now we can really open up to each other," he realized, following her train of thought. "And you're not sure if you're ready."

"No, Angel, I'm not sure if I even CAN. I don't have the greatest track record with this kind of stuff."

"Me either."

"And that's another thing," she continued. "The magic that made you that way---that's in me now too. The vampire stuff. The gypsy stuff. So what does that mean? What does that make me?"

He reached for her. "Oh, Cordy..."

She sighed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to go all melodrama on you, Angel, I really didn't. Look, maybe we just need to give this some time to, I don't know, sink in or something, take things slow..."

She stomped through the training room, absently tidying as she talked, and she stopped short with a rueful smile when she saw her LACU orientation package. "This probably isn't the best time for me to be starting something new, is it?"

"Of course it is! I mean, school, that's...you know, interesting, and...and fun, and hey. meeting new people, always good..."

"Wesley talked to you, huh? Let me guess, something about how with all the changes in my life it's more important than ever that I maintain connections to regular people?"

"Pretty much those exact words," he admitted.

"And normally, I would agree, but Angel, in the time since I started just thinking about school, I've already crashed into three ghosts from my Sunnydale past. That can't be a good omen."

"That's not..."

"Really? You're telling me that the Powers-That-Be have better things to do than meddle with my piddly little life?"

He lowered his eyes guiltily, and she sighed. "I figured. Angel, I don't want to think about this now. The last thing I need is more stress in my life."

"Then we'll have to make it wonderful."

"Oh, Angel..." She huddled into his chest and wrapped his arms around her waist. "We need some time today, don't we? That whole couply-nurtury thing..."

"Ummm. Like what?"

"Can we sleep for awhile? I didn't really, last night..."

"Me either."

"And dinner, maybe candlelight and fancy Italian take-out , and wine, lots of wine..."

"Ummmm."

"Just remember, bucko, that not everything has changed. I still get to set the pace here."

"Ummmm."

***

Seconds past nightfall, Buffy clomped through the back door and into the kitchen, greeting her sister with a curt 'Where's Giles?'

"Oooh, feeling the love," snitted Dawn. "Yes, I had a lovely day at school, thanks for asking."

Buffy sighed. "Dawnie, I'm sorry. We just...had a pretty intense night last night, and I was worried he'd freak out on me and bail. He said he's coming here."

"And he will," said Dawn. "But I think he was waiting 'til you were home. Cause I'm so rough to be alone with."

Buffy paused her rifling through the fridge long enough to dismissively kiss the top of her sister's head. "Uh huh. And that attitude's really helping."

Dawn shied away. "Right. Cause I'm the one who isn't being mature here. Buffy, come on, you sprung a new stepdad on me, like, this morning, and I'm supposed to just go 'oh, okay?'"

"I thought you liked Giles. I thought you'd reached an understanding."

"We reached an understanding on the dating you and coming over for pizza sometimes part. Guess I thought we had a bit more time to work on anything more complicated."

Buffy sighed. "Dawnie, I'm sorry, I really am. But I know he'll be good for us, right?"

"So you keep saying. Look, are you actually trying to cook dinner there, or are you just trolling for finger foods?"

"Trolling for finger foods. My spidey-sense is tingling and I want to do an early patrol. Look, you can eat with Lorne or something, 'kay? Isn't he staying here?"

"He was, this morning. Buffy, Lorne's busy. He has to go hunt down Kate or something."

"Oh. That sounds fun. Look, just...I don't know, order a pizza or something, 'kay? And be nice to Giles when he comes home?"

"Sure," said Dawn. "I'm always nice." But she was speaking to an empty kitchen.

***

Lorne climbed easily to the top of the tree house and to his lady's side.

"Hey," he said.

She turned her face to him. "So. You've found me."

"Wasn't hard. You DID come home last night, didn't you?"

She shrugged. "Can't sleep sometimes. So I come up here. Dawn's not the only one who likes to look at the stars."

He nodded. "You okay?"

"Maybe. But business first, all right?" She took a deep breath. "Lieutenant Summerset, LAPD."

"Your friend on the force?"

"Uh huh. He had a sister, Marlena...we were kids together, and she went through a rough patch way back when, around the same time I did."

"Rough patch? Katie, when did you..."

"Business first, Lorne."

He hesitated, then reluctantly nodded assent.

"We went through a rough patch," Kate continued carefully. "And I came out of it a cop, and she came out of it a mother..."

"Oh, sweetie..."

"She tried," said Kate. "God bless her, she tried. Took some continuing ed classes, got a paralegal cert...and a job at one of the city's leading law firms..."

Lorne winced. "Wolfram and Hart?"

"Bingo. And two years later, Marlena is dead and my buddy Summerset is three-men-and-a-babying his little niece. And those lawyers Marlena worked for? Not a peep. Not even a lousy bouquet at her funeral, and he knew it in his cop gut that something was fishy, so he started digging. And six months later, he wasn't a single father anymore."

"Oh god..."

"Don't know how he got the stuff he gave me. Don't think I want to know, either. But it paints a very interesting picture if you know what to look for..."

"Katie..."

"He doesn't know what to look for," she finished flatly. "It's yours. I did my bit, Lorne. Bad enough you were involved, bad enough Cordelia, but god, I didn't expect to get Marlena's ghost too..."

He reached out for her. "Sweetheart..."

"This is scaring me, Lorne. I always thought Marlena...I mean, I knew she had a rough go sometimes, but I just never thought...never thought she was involved in anything like this! I thought she was..."

"Normal?"

"Innocent." She closed her eyes. "She died knowing that there was real evil out there, do you know how sad that is? The magic, the monsters...I don't know how they handle it,. kids like Cordelia, like Dawn...you go along thinking that the world works a certain way, then fate comes along and pulls you out of line..."

"Happens to all of us," he said. "Maybe not on such an...an epic level, but sooner or later..."

"I know." She relaxed, put her head on his arm. "You've been so patient with me. Why have you been so damned patient?"

"Fate pulls you out of line. I don't know how I did it, but I fell in love..."

She stiffened. "Not sure it works that way. Did you ever think...I mean, ME and YOU..."

She sighed. "I'm sorry, that isn't fair. It hasn't only been cause you're a demon..."

He held her silently. He has suspected as much.

***

Part Eight

***

Giles pushed open the heavy front door and carefully crept inside. Dawn was sitting on the couch, schoolbook propped open on her lap with a bowl of potato chips.

"I'm not doing anything bad," she said quietly.

He sighed, and sank into the nearest chair. "Never said you were."

"I know, but you were thinking it. Tiptoeing in, back all straight and tense and waiting till nightfall cause you thought Buffy would be here..."

He sighed again. "Am I that transparent?"

She adopted a deep, affected British accent. "You have been in Afghanistan, I presume."

"I...what?"

She held up her book. "We're reading Sherlock Holmes, in English class. His first words to Watson were 'You have been in Afghanistan, I presume.' That whole deductive logic thing, you know?"

"And you are practicing deductive logic on me?"

She shrugged. "You don't make it very hard. Figured you and Buffy talked today. I can pretty much guess what she told you."

"Really."

"So I freaked out on her a little. It doesn't mean I'm bad, Giles."

"Never said it did."

"Giles, you don't HAVE to say things. I never knew anyone in my entire life who could slouch so meaningfully."

He exhaled. "I'm sorry."

"I know. Look, you want to live here? Fine, have fun. But just remember that you are not my parent any more than Buffy is. I still have a say on things. Oh, and if you EVER hurt us? I can make you sorry."

She picked up her book and her food, gave him an angelic smile and flounced upstairs. Giles waited until he heard the slam of her door before he took off his glasses, brought his knees to his chest and silently wept.

***

"Evening, pet."

Buffy froze, then spun around slowly, stake in hand. "Spike."

"You call that a welcome?" He held out his arms. "How about a hug for the old Spike, hmm, Slayer? A little welcome home..."

She pushed past him. "Whatever. Had a feeling something was up. Figures it would be you."

He pouted, genuinely hurt. "You didn't even miss me a little?"

"Should I have?"

"You've already moved on with another man?"

"I didn't need to move on, Spike. We were never going out."

"A minor detail. Look, love, there's still time. I mean, it's not like you're shacking up or anything..." He studied her expression carefully. "You ARE shacking up! Since when? Bloke heads out of town for a few weeks, and next thing he knows..."

"Since today. Not that it's any of your business..."

"With watcher-boy? I'll kill him!"

"Sure. Like that's really gonna win me over."

He kicked a nearby tree in frustration. "Slayer, I admit it, I could never figure you out. All these years I try and I try, nothing ever good enough for the likes of you...what the bloody hell do you want from me, Slayer? Hmm?"

"Well, the going away and leaving me alone thing was a really a swell start. Should have known it wouldn't last...where WERE you anyway?"

He grinned. "Knew you cared. Fact is, I ran into an old friend of mine. She's up to no good, Slayer."

"Really. You know, I've kind of heard this one before, Spike. You're gonna have to do better than that if you honestly want me to..."

"Look, she really is, okay? Fell in with some unsavouries, she did, but l'il Spike played tag-along cause he knew you'd want to hear about this..."

She sighed. "This isn't a good time, Spike."

"Lawyers!" he blurted. "Evil lawyers with dastardly plots of...evil!"

"Sounds fun. What made you leave?"

"I do have other needs. Look, do you want the dirt or not?"

She hesitated. "Maybe. But not tonight."

"Won't come cheap, you know. I'll be wanting blood, and money, place to stay and all that..."

"Something wrong with your crypt?"

He puffed himself up importantly. "What I've got to tell you--- worth better than a crypt, pet."

She sighed. "Fine. But not tonight. You can come to the house tomorrow, but early---Giles and I won't kill a whole night on you. You come over early, you spill, get paid and skedaddle, understand?"

He mock saluted. "Yes ma'am."

As soon as she was gone, he pulled out his cellphone and dialed Lilah.

***

They were lying on their backs, looking up at the stars.

"I never told you about Danny-boy, did I?" said Kate, out of nowhere. "First boy I ever loved. Maybe the only...We were kids together. Babies."

She wrapped Lorne's arm around her shoulder, eyes trained neutrally on the three tiny pinpricks of Orion's belt. "My mother was a teacher. Ritzy private school in the burbs, and one of the perks was free tuition for me. Hated it. All those fancy girls in little dresses going on vacation every Christmas, the cliques, the snobbery, the catty little mind games, boys never do that..."

She clenched her fists. "And maybe I wasn't really happy, but I was okay..." She straightened, fidgety anger making her squirm. "Until I wasn't. They cut me off, Lorne. When she died on me, those heartless bastards cut me off. And on my first day at the public high school, who should I run into but little Danny Abbott from church..."

"You went to church?"

"Everyone went to church. And Danny...we found each other, god knows how, call it coincidence, call it accident, call it godamned fate pulling you out of line again, but he and Marlena and I...""

Kate smiled. "She was the princess. I was the rebel. And Danny-boy was...he was like the battery that kept us all juiced up. We'd go out together on Saturday nights, all three of us, if we could pry Marlena away from the unsavory boyfriend of the moment...those nights, we usually holed up in somebody's parents basement with a stash of ill-gotten alcohol and rock music pilfered from Marlena's brother. But Danny and I...he was my sensitive side, Lorne. Never had one before him, never had one after. Didn't have to be the tough one around him, trying to keep up with glamorous fairy-queen Marlena. Didn't have to be the awkward, misfit outcast. We just...I don't know what we did, went to a lot of movies, I guess, and took every thrill out there---rock climbing, biking, camping, and god, the talking...covered all the bases, art, music, poetry, even..."

"And Marlena?"

She sighed. "Our bond was Danny-boy. Without him, without his antics, his charm, his friendship, we would have had nothing to talk about. He was our bridge." She chuckled wryly. "I'd like to think he loved me better, of course. He was the only...I'd never fit in, never had real friends. And everyone who had ever loved me had left me...we used to joke about that, Danny and I. How our friendship was special. Was magical. How 50 years from now, we'd be sitting there in the nursing home together..."

"What happened?" he asked.

She bit her lip. "People come into your life, then they go out of it. It's the natural way of things. But he was supposed to be different! He promised we would never...we went through so much together, Katie, and Danny-boy, and Marlena...he ran away to college, after she...but we kept in touch, he and I, and every time we talked, he told me how he'd never had a friend like me, how 50 years from now, we'd be sitting in the nursing home..."

She took a deep breath, then slackened into his arms, depressively spent. "He just stopped, Lorne. One day, he just...stopped."

"Like the Marlena kind of stopped?"

She shook her head. "Heard through the grapevine that he had a new job and was doing a bit of travelling. He left a message on my machine about six months later at a time he knew I wouldn't be home. He loves me. He misses me. He'll call when things settle down..."

She took a deep, shivery breath. "It's stupid. God, Lorne, you must think I'm so..."

"No, Katie, it's not. You loved him. You trusted him."

She shook her head. "It's more than that. I trusted before. I loved before. But I let him in. I let him hold my life in his hands when we went climbing and he spotted me. I let him hold my soul in his hands when we cried over Marlena's body. I let him read me poetry, and in the same day, teach me how to shoot a gun. He told me things and I believed them, cause I was tough enough, and I was loved enough, and he was just so godamned important..."

The tears came fast and frantic, and she flinched away from his touch. "Stupid, stupid, stupid..."

"No," he soothed. "No, Katie, it's not. I..."

"Stop," she choked. "Don't tell me it's different. Don't tell me you'll never leave..."

"Shhhh." He gently touched her cheek. "I don't think I have to tell you that, hon. You're the one who offered ME the second chance here. So what changed your mind?"

"You didn't call me back," she said softly. "And I missed you."

"Oh, sweetheart..."

"No promises," she said. "Not from you, and not from me either. I still don't like the demon thing. I still don't like the magic thing, and I certainly don't like the getting involved in the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil thing. But you didn't call me back, and I missed you. And maybe we can build on that."

"Maybe."

"Two conditions," she said, sniffling out the last of her tears. "Number one, you'll have to go slow, Lorne. I'm the one who gets to set the pace here."

"Okay..."

"Number two, you get yourself checked out by one of those watchers you're so fond of before we get intimate."

"I...what?"

"Buffy sleeps with a demon, and he turns evil. Cordy kisses one and she gets migraines. I have no desire at all to deal with any of that sort of nonsense, Lorne. There will be no exchange of bodily fluids until a magical medical professional assures me that it's safe, understand?"

He swallowed hard. "Yes dear."

***

Part Nine

***

Cordelia Chase sunk her head Angel's lap with a contended sigh.

"Ummmmm. Never DONE Kahlua before. Never knew we HAD Kahlua. You got anything else back there?"

Angel gently extracted the shot glass from her hand. "I think you've had enough."

She swatted his arm. "Spoilsport. You told me there would be wine..."

"And there was," he said patiently, wedging an opened bottle of water into her fingers. "And then there was Tequila. And then there was Kahlua. And now...water."

Her hand toppled over, and the water spilled out onto his lap. "Don't want water. Want..."

"What?" he said gently. He moved the bottle away from her before she spilled it further. "What do you want, Cordelia?"

She paled, and attempted to right herself. "I don't feel so good. I think I'm gonna be sick."

"Probably. Might be better that way."

She winced and closed her eyes. "Oh god. Why did you let me do that?"

"Cor..."

"Alcohol...is not a good coping skill," she lectured, punctuating her words with drunken pokes at his chest. "Angel, why did we...why did you let me DO that?"

He shrank away from her a little. "I don't know. I don't...don't know what I was supposed to do."

She belched loudly, then swallowed hard. "That was one of those double-meaningy type things, I know it was, and if I wasn't seeing five of you and about to pass out, I think I'd want to talk about that..."

He scooped her up and carried her into the bathroom, bracing her body against his while she twitched and heaved.

***

Dawn, with sufficient stealth to avoid waking up the passed-out-on-the couch Giles, crept gingerly out the back door for some fresh air, and bit back a screech when she nearly crashed into Lorne.

"Lorne! Is everything...what are you doing here?"

He gave her a gleeful hug. "Hey, kitten. You okay?"

She bit her lip, then nodded. "Guess so. Just being difficult."

"Them or you?"

"Maybe both. Is Kate..."

Lorne nodded happily. "She doesn't want any nonsense. She's setting the pace."

"Okay," said Dawn, eyes narrowing dubiously. "So she gets to be the complete boss of you, and it's okay cause you love her?"

"No, kitten, it's okay cause SHE loves ME. And speaking of, is Giles around?"

"This isn't more of that save the world stuff, is it? Are we all gonna die?"

"Geez, what is it with you people?" he complained. "I can't have problems that aren't about you?"

"Uh...okay...so there's no apocalypse, then?"

"Didn't say that. Look, sweetie, there's no apocalypse TONIGHT, at least. So can I talk to Giles?"

Dawn sighed. "Okay, okay." She pushed open the door, poked in her head and shrieked "Giles!" at top volume.

Even from a door away, Lorne could feel the karmic wince.

***

Cordelia's limbs still shook with drunken aftershock, but sprawled on Angel's soft, clean bed, she had regained sufficient motor skill to prop herself on her elbows and woozily slurp from the water bottle.

"Better?" said Angel.

"Some. That was really stupid, Angel."

"I know. Like you said, alcohol is never..."

"No, not that. I meant the you sneaking in the significant-talk and thinking I was too drunk to remember to ask you about it later thing. Angel, you should have learned by now not to underestimate me."

"I...huh?"

"You didn't know what to do," she reminded him. She chuckled ruefully. "If it makes you feel any better, I didn't either, you know." She took another sip of water and gulped queasily. "As you can see."

"So..."

"So where does that leave us? Well, I think coming clean like this is a very good start, don't you? Okay, so we did the wine and the Italian take-out and we got a little snuggly, and maybe I started freaking out a little cause it hit me again...the you and I thing, and the cosmic loophole and the real chance, and I was scared..."

He looked away. "I was scared too..."

"You were? Cause honestly, I'm thinking you sort of come out ahead in all of this. I mean, you thought you could never love again, and you find out you can, and with sex even, and not that I am bragging, but hey, if you have to have a last-girl-ever, I am pretty cute, and..."

"Stop," he said. "Cordelia, that's not it. It's just..."

"Angel, what?" She sat up alertly, suddenly wary. "What is it, really?"

"Something Wesley said to me before. He was trying to calm me down a little, after you...this morning. And he wanted...wanted me to really understand why this was hard for you. And it hit me again how young you are..."

"Young, but not stupid. Angel..."

"Not stupid," he agreed. "But maybe a little...na´ve? You've seen evil, Cordelia, but you haven't...you can't understand what I really am..."

"I know what you are. I know what you've DONE..."

"You don't," he snapped. "Thousands of victims, maybe millions, I don't know. And you've only seen one, Cordelia. One. You can't possibly understand..."

"That wasn't you. That demon in you took your soul away..."

"It WAS me. It's in me, somewhere, somehow, it's in me. The demon could have exploited a blackness in my soul if it wasn't there to begin with..."

"But..."

"You have the curse now too, or at least some manifestation of it. This you and me, this us...it's forever for you, too. Cordelia, even I wouldn't want to spend forever with me..."

"Oh, Angel..." She rose shakily to her feet, and he nearly had to catch her. "Okay, so you've got evil in you. But you've got good in you too, or the Powers-That-Be wouldn't have chosen you. And they wouldn't have given us this chance, this loophole...god, when you think about what's happened to me in the last few years...moving to L.A. instead of somewhere else, and running into you instead of someone else, then Doyle, then the visions and the magic and the scoobies, and...well, there comes a point where you have to stop believing in coincidences, you know? There comes a point when you have to admit that you HAVE been singled out, that there IS a higher plan---you really think this little curse loophole is an accident? You really think it's not a second chance?"

Now it was Angel who slumped in the pillows. "I don't deserve you..."

"I don't think anyone really 'deserves' anything these days, you know? But we work with what they give us." She sighed. "So...you want ice cream?"

He smiled. "A much better coping skill."

***

Lorne paced the living room. "So, we're set, then?"

Giles nodded. "Come to the magic shop tomorrow, and I'll have Anya take care of you."

"Anya! You can't handle this yourself?"

"She knows love, and she knows magic. And she's far less self-conscious than I am about this sort of thing."

Lorne sighed. "All right, if you say so. Just...hate to put her out is all..."

"Trust me, you won't. I find it difficult to imagine a project she would enjoy more than examining your..."

"Right. Just that I was kind of hoping to keep this between you and me," said Lorne. "It's kind of personal, you know? Is Anya..."

"Soul of discretion," promised Giles.

Lorne sighed, then nodded assent and gave a small wave to Buffy as he headed out.

Giles smiled. "When did you get home?"

"Long enough ago to have no idea what you two were talking about," she said. "Is everything..."

"Yes."

"Was Lorne..."

"This and that."

"And Dawn?"

"Wonderful."

Buffy narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Really. Cause she told me you were sulking."

"Was not! Well, not around her, anyway."

"Doesn't matter, she knew. Lorne's been around, and I think they vibe off each other somehow. It's creepy."

"Hmmm."

"So you're really okay? Giles?"

He sighed. "I admit I might have done a tiny bit of wallowing. Did me good. Got it out of my system, and now I'm just fine."

"Not sure it works that way..."

"It does. For me."

Buffy frowned. "I thought we talked about that whole repressing thing..."

"Buffy, I'm fine! Look, why don't we go upstairs, and I can show you just how fine..."

"Don't have to ask ME twice," she smirked. "But Giles..."

"You're watching me? I tremble in terror at the very thought. Look, Buffy, it's been a difficult few weeks, I admit it, and perhaps I didn't handle things with utmost aplomb. But I am finally emotionally squared away and reasonably well-rested, and suddenly find myself with energy to burn..."

"So don't go ruining it by getting all insecure-girl on you? Giles, I'm sorry, you're right. Guess I'm still a little jumpy...I mean, I saw Spike on patrol, and it still didn't shake this funny feeling I have..."

"Spike?"

"I know, I know, how lame is that? But he says he has news for us, and Giles, if he really IS up to something..." She sighed. "He's coming tomorrow," she said. "Wanted to check out a few things before."

"Such as?"

"You know."

He nodded. "I see. Well, then. Your dereliction of duty in the face of personal concerns seems to have left us with the rest of the evening free..."

"God, Giles, I'm..."

"Kidding," he said, poker-faced. "Come to think of it, there ARE a few demons I know who are better than most at hooked in to the gossip. Perhaps while I'm at work tomorrow, you can check them out?"

Dawn poked her face into the living room. "Sorry to break up the lovefest," she said. "But Janice is on the phone. Can I sleep over?"

"Yes," said Buffy instantly. She turned to Giles. "Anything goes."

***

Part Ten

***

Sam Zabuto put down his pen and slid a dagger across the table to Cordelia.

"Are you ready to train now?"

She groaned. "Ready? We've been training all morning!"

"No, we've been doing word association games and inkblot tests all morning. Which may be well and good and useful, but is NOT 'training,'" he said grouchily.

She winced. "Don't shout at me! It's not MY fault I'm a little...okay, maybe it IS my fault, but still..."

He sighed. "It's nearly noon, Cordelia. Why, with your accelerated metabolism, I would think that even the most unhealthy alcoholic binge would have worked its way through your system by now..."

"Unless she's psychologically hanging on to it," chimed in Fiona. "She IS prone to such dramatics, isn't she?"

"Well, either way," said Sam briskly. "Best way to work it out is to...well, to work it out. Sweat away the toxins AND the malaise, hmm?"

"Sam..." she pleaded.

"En garde!" he shouted, rising to his feet. "Fiona?"

Fiona tossed him a dagger, and he took a step toward Cordelia.

"Sam, please..." Cordelia whined.

He put down his dagger with an impatient sigh. "Cordelia. You've made excellent progress these last few days---well, when you haven't let your snitty little moods interfere with your focus, that is. Would it help your motivation any if I told you that I've gathered almost all the data I need?"

She looked up at him. "What does that mean?"

"It means that you're about ready to keep up the regimen without us. As this morning's deplorable tantrum of pouting is proving, your mental discipline could still use some work---but you can continue the meditations we've been working with on your own."

"And?"

"And I expect that as soon as I've had a proper enough final session with you to satisfy myself that you're sufficiently under control, Fiona and I will be on our way." He smiled. "Well, then. NOW do you feel like training?"

She snatched up the sword with an energetic nod. "Bring it on."

***

Anya slipped on the rubber gloves with an efficient snap, and tapped the three gold stars on her little sketch one by one.

"So, these are the erogenous zones, then?"

Lorne, teetering precariously on a makeshift gurney in the Magic Box's training room, gave Anya a wary nod.

"But that's..." Anya squinted. "How's anyone supposed to navigate THAT one with all the tentacles in the way?"

"They aren't tentacles."

She pulled back his waistband and peered into the depths. "They're...they're not?"

He shook his head.

"Oh. Well, that makes it easier, then," she said cheerfully. "Or possibly more complicated."

Lorne sighed. "I've never had any complaints. Can we get on with it, please?"

"Fine, fine, no need to get grouchy with ME. I'm not the one who's putting you through this."

"Well, actually..."

"What, you can't blame her, really," said Anya. "It's a dangerous world out there, you know. There are just SO many possible diseases, I can't tell you how many times I've gone to curse a man with one only to find that he'd managed to pick it up just fine without me..."

"But..."

"And inter-species stuff is always tricky," she continued brightly. "I mean, first you have the monkeys, which is all well and good, but then you get the Ebola, and we all know how THAT turned out..."

"Um..."

"And then you get the rashes, and the pustules, and the itching..."

"Anya..."

"...and that just makes the sex part LESS fun..."

"Anya!"

"...and since your home dimension WAS a virulent cesspool of filth and chaos..."

"My god, woman, will you shut up!" Lorne finally snapped. "My home dimension is NOT a cesspool. And I do NOT have Ebola!"

She shrugged. "We'll find that out soon enough. Right?"

"WHAT???"

"No, literally. Right. Right armpit. " She held up a cotton swab. "I'm collecting secretions."

"Oh." He peeled off his shirt and lifted his right arm. "Will this take long?"

"Oh, we'll be done in a jiffy." She swabbed his arm, then stuck the q-tip in a test tube. She did another swab behind his left armpit, then methodically began working her way around the horns.

"Is she worth it?" said Anya suddenly.

"What?"

"Your orgasm friend. Is she worth it? I've tried for years to understand love, you see, and it scares me because it never ends well. I have it so good with Xander right now..."

He untensed spontaneously in mother-hen sympathy. "Oh, kitten..."

Anya took advantage of his relaxed posture to jam a cotton swab into his ear. "He loves you," Lorne managed with an uncomfortable wince. "With all his brave little heart, he loves you, he truly does."

"I know. But is it...worth it?"

"You want the big speech here? The poets and the bard and the Indigo Girls all rolled into one? Well, then. In a word: yes."

Anya hesitated. "Well, okay then," she said, smiling brightly. "Are there any other orifices that I should know about?"

***

Fiona Wyndam-Pryce wedged the last of her boxes into the rental car.

"Going somewhere?" said a voice behind her.

She jumped. "Wesley! I...I didn't hear you, you startled me!"

"When one works with a vampire, one does learn stealth..." He sighed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."

"No, no, it's my fault. Suppose I've been rather preoccupied," she admitted. "We're concluding this field assignment today, and there's much to..."

"Really? Then you're..."

"En route to the council field office in San Francisco for debrief and reassignment." She smirked proudly. "I'm official now."

"Oh. Um, congratulations?"

She frowned. "You could TRY to be happy for me, at least. I've worked hard for this, years of study and training and putting up with that insufferable power-hungry twit Zabuto for the last few weeks...I've earned this, Wesley. Just cause the council treated YOU so terribly..."

"They tried to kill me, Fiona. They tried to kill my slayer."

"Your slayer was asking for it."

"Maybe she was. And I have long ago made my atonement for MY share of the blame in that, but..."

"Have you? I've seen the visitor's log the prison has on Faith, and there's only one name on it, Wes."

"There are other ways to atone."

"Oh, don't start! You atone for her actions by fighting the good fight in her place, is that it? Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that just the sort of egotistical, self-righteous hocus-pocus that got you into trouble in the first place? This is a war, Wesley. Good versus evil. Seems to me it doesn't much matter WHY you fight so much as how well you do it."

"And that justifies the wetworks? The under-handed, over-secretive, self-important, bureaucratic..."

"Yes! The council does good work, Wesley. They have tools at their disposal that...well, I wouldn't be working for them if I didn't believe..."

"...that you could finally best me and win our father's love once and for all?"

"Now, that's not fair. Damn it, Wesley, I worked hard for this. It came so easy for you, but I never had the head for such arcanities. I worked HARD, and now..."

"Now you have a chance," he finished quietly. "But for what, Fiona? To pour that unhardened potential into a futile quest to satisfy a bitter old man and his entitled cronies by buying into an outmoded philosophy that hasn't seen the real world in years? Or to take what they've given you and actually do some good out there?"

"God, Wesley, what do you want from me?" she complained. Her body slumped against the car. "I've tried my best, I really have, but much as I loved him, he never lived YOU down. If that made you hate me..."

"I don't hate you," he said gently. "I never did. I just never figured out how to get you out from under our father's thumb for long enough to get a chance to meaningfully relate to you. What do I want from you? I want you to ask the council to station you in the remotest outpost they've got. Someplace where it's not so glossy and prestigious, where you can read, where you can learn without those plodding old men hanging over your shoulder all the time. Someplace where you can make the cause your own..."

She regarded him thoughtfully. "Is that...hard?" In that moment, she let down her guard and she was his little sister again.

***

Part Eleven

***

Lorne skipped merrily over the shrub that separated Kate's yard from the Summers home.

"Hey, Dawnster," he greeted. "Hey, Bruiser."

Dawn was frolicking on the grass with Kate's puppy and gave Lorne an off-handed wave.

"Hey. You in the doghouse with Kate again?"

"Clever pun, and no, I'm not. We're going on a date," he informed her. "And she told me to skedaddle while Willow and Tara got her all glammed up. Mind if I hide here for an hour or so?"

Dawn shrugged. "Suit yourself. Not sure our house is the safe zone you're looking for, though---Buffy told me to stay out here. Something about Spike coming over..."

"I know," said Lorne. "Kate was going all little-lady over our date tonight, and your wiccan friends were the only fellow girls she could rustle up to help her on such short notice. Although I'm not sure she would have gone to Buffy even if she WERE free..."

Dawn shrugged. "Whatever." She sprawled on her stomach, eyes pinched thoughtfully. "Something big is going on," she told him. "I mean, Buffy's never LIKED Spike, but she's never really been scared of him either. But tonight...she's wigging, big-time."

"That so?"

"Oh yeah. This isn't just about playing games with Spike, Lorne. I'm getting vibes."

He took a step away from her. "Oh boy. We're doing that thing again, aren't we? My little psychic battery..."

She smirked triumphantly. "I knew it! Something IS going on, and you know all about it, don't you, Lorne? So, what's the what, is the world gonna end or something?"

"Look, sweetie..."

"Cause I'm thinking it has to be something more than that. I mean, we've DONE the end of the world. The end of the world, we can handle. But Spike..."

"Spike is not really the problem here," said Lorne carefully. "Might want to cut Buffy some slack on this one, kiddo."

Dawn sighed. "And you choose NOW to go Yoda on me? Come on, what is it Lorne? What's really going on?"

"I have no idea," he said. He idly held out a hand to Bruiser, and the puppy flinched away with a distrustful whimper.

***

Buffy tornadoed through the living room, duster in hand and expositioning about her day to Giles.

"...and Xander's off for the week, so he loaned us his truck and I got almost all of your stuff over here except the personal bits, which we'd figure you'd rather do yourself..."

"Buffy..."

"...and now that Willow's moved out and we have that other room, I thought we could both settle there and use my old room as an office, or a library, or..."

"Will you please slow down!" said Giles. "Buffy, you haven't stopped moving since I've got home, and..."

Buffy froze and drew a hand to her chest. "Giles! You called this 'home'...."

He fidgeted. "Yes. Um, Buffy, as I was saying regarding your..."

"I'm just so proud of you for settling in so fast," she gushed, voice cracking tearfully. She idly neatened up a knick-knack as she paced past the coffee-table. "I mean, it's only been a day, and you're already..."

"Stop," he said gently. He rose, and clasped his hand in hers. "You're nervous," he observed.

"Well, of course I am! Moving in together's a really big..."

"No, not about that. About Spike. You've been at it non-stop for hours, moving boxes, clearing closet space and going at Xander or Dawn or whomever was closest at miles a minute... you're nervous."

"Giles..."

"Spike disappears for weeks, then suddenly turns up again just when you've finally begun to get your life together..."

She stiffened away from him. "Yeah. And you know, until now, my aimless busywork was actually doing a pretty good job at keeping the foreboding panic of doom at bay. But YOU had to be all Mr. Percepto and ruin my buzz!"

He sighed. "Buffy..."

"I know, I know, you're doing your job. You just HAD to remind me that Spike is not a neutered little kitty cat..."

"Actually," he interrupted, "I was hoping I could get you taken care of, love. You're rather...running out of things to clean...

She took a deep, centering breath. "I'm okay," she said slowly. "Chest pain, stomachache, pounding head, but...okay. Cause this is my life, isn't it? I should know by now that this is how it works. They give you something, and it's good and it's right, but they always make you pay for it later."

He froze. "What?"

"Come on, Giles, you're telling me you really haven't figured out why Spike came back NOW? After the night we had...after the things we DID..." She sighed. "Sex with Angel, and he goes evil. Sex with Riley, and he goes wrong. Do I even want to know what sex with YOU will get me?"

"Buffy..."

The door creaked open. "I'm okay, Giles."

"Buffy!"

"You won't sort this out with one conversation," she hissed. "So you may as well just shelve it for now because we have more important things to worry about..."

She clenched her fists and bravely smiled. "Evening, Spike."

"Evening, pet." he nodded at Giles. "Rupes."

Giles glowered irritably. "Don't call me that."

"Suit yourself. So, Slayer, what have you got for me? Blood? Cash?"

"I think the question you should be asking is what have YOU got for ME," said Buffy. "This little powow was your idea, Spike. You claimed you had some information."

"I do. Hooked up with Harmony again. She's in with some lawyers..."

"And?"

"And...soon as I realized they were up to no good, I got myself out of there and came straight to you," he said.

"Right. Out of the goodness of your heart, you came straight to me."

He rolled his eyes. "Course not. Came straight to you cause I knew you'd pay me for it. So what's it gonna be, slayer?"

"Let's see what it's worth. So, lawyers...these the same lawyers involved in the raising Cordelia saw in her vision?"

"Yup."

"So what'd they raise?"

Spike casually slung his feet onto the coffee table. "Funny story, that..."

"Short version."

"Right. They tried to raise a giant hairy hellbeast. Didn't quite work. So they're trying again."

"Really."

"Uh huh. Only thing is, they've burned out that hotspot. They'll be using a different one this time, I suppose." He grinned hopefully. "I could tell you where it is for a very reasonable sum."

"Or you could tell me where it is and I don't chain you to a lamp-post and immolate you in all that pretty sunshine we're so known for in California."

"Right. Well, then. There's this spot in Colorado, see..."

"Colorado."

"Yup. You could probably beat 'em there if you leave right now..."

She studied his earnest face impassively, then marched into the kitchen, opened the back door and shouted "Lorne!"

She reappeared a moment later with the anagogic demon. "Spike says the lawyers want to raise a giant hairy hellbeast in Colorado," she explained.

Lorne's eyes sparkled darkly. "Don't think so, amigo," he told Spike.

Spike shook his head. "Such slander, why, it makes me downright furious! Don't listen to him, Slayer. He's just trying to get in my way. He can't really read me unless I sing."

Lorne had his fist at Spike's throat with near-vampiric speed. "Don't need to read you on this one, friend. You aren't the only one with inside information..."

Spike's cocky grin faltered. "Maybe I should be on my way. Give you a day or two to think about my offer, hmmm?"

He scrambled out the door, and Lorne addressed Buffy and Giles with a sigh of deep resignation. "Well, then. Looks like you we need to talk."

***

Part Twelve

***

Angel wandered into the office and snuck softly up behind Cordelia.

"Hey. I was looking for you."

She was sitting in front of the computer, hair damp and body wrapped in a fluffy purple robe. Her eyes never left the screen. "I was here all along."

He fidgeted. "Uh huh. Watcha doing?"

"Sending Giles an email, telling him all about my completely, absolutely normal day..."

Angel tensed. "Right. That."

Cordelia sighed and pushed the keyboard away. "Oh, is this what we're doing? Angel, you need to relax sometimes, okay? I mean, seriously..."

"I am relaxed," he said.

"No, you're not. First you send Wesley after me because you don't think it's safe for me to go buy textbooks for school by myself..."

"Well, evil lawyers, you know, out and about..."

"...then you get all sulky jealous-boy when I have a nice time with him? Do we need to go over the personal space thing again?"

"Cor..."

"Repeat after me," she instructed. "It is okay for you to have fun without me. Say it, Angel."

"It is okay for you to have fun without me."

"And it is okay for you to spend time with other people."

"And it is...Cordelia, come on!"

"Angel..."

"It is okay...look, is this really necessary?"

"You tell me. Angel, I start school on Monday. And you know what they have at school?"

"Books?" he guessed.

"People," she told him. "People who I'm gonna need to be talk to and do stuff with on a fairly regular basis. Angel, what if I have to so a group project or something, you're going to skulk around in the sewer tunnels and scare them away?"

"No! Cordy, I just..."

"I know, I know...just that you feel guilty that you can't always be there to protect me. Angel, I love you for that, I do---you're the first person whose ever cared like that..."

He beamed proudly. "I do, I really do."

"But you have to trust me to take care of myself," she finished. "I'm not a baby."

"I know that."

"And plus...well, it's kind of nice for me to have a break sometimes, you know? The boardwalk is pretty in the moonlight, but it's pretty in the sunlight too..."

His brow darkened. "Oh."

"You're not...Angel, come on, you aren't upset, are you? You knew this going in---what you are, what I am---it doesn't make me love you any less. Just means that sometimes it's nice for me to be a normal girl for awhile. To go out in a car and not a sewer tunnel. Today...well, I had a nice time with Wes. We had lunch. We went shopping. He bought me ice cream, even."

"Did he?" Angel smiled through gritted teeth. "Well. I'll have to remember to thank Wesley for taking such good care of you then, won't I?"

She slapped his arm. "Hey! What have I told you about jealous-boy? Huh? Huh?"

"That you love Angel," he parroted obediently. "Not jealous-boy."

"And?"

"And you can take care of yourself, and you know how to handle things."

"Right." She smiled brightly. "Well, then. I'm glad we're on the same wavelength here." She shrugged off his arm and glued her eyes to the computer screen.

***

Giles broke off his anxious pacing and propped himself against the doorjamb, back tense and body rigid.

"Go on," he said coldly.

Lorne's hands twisted in his lap. "Hoo boy. Look, this is a tough one, even by your standards. And I'm not entirely...well, she wasn't ready to tell you yet, and I really felt it was her call..."

"Whose call?" said Buffy. "What the hell is going on here?"

"The raising," said Giles. "It DID work, didn't it?"

"Yes."

"And it was...us they are after?"

"Well, Angel, specifically. Although they were not unhappy when they learned they'd whammied you too."

"What are you saying?" said Buffy. "What IS it?"

"Angelus," guessed Giles.

"His victim," Lorne clarified. "His most recent victim, actually."

"But that's..." Buffy's eyes widened. "Ms Calendar?"

Giles sank onto the couch. "Dear lord..."

Buffy felt the breath knock out of her. "But that's..."

"Uh huh. Look, I only found out just after...well, okay, awhile, but it's not...you understand that I was going to tell you. It's complicated, you understand that, right?"

Giles nodded, turning on Lorne with flat, cold eyes. He did not untense as he casually shoved aside Buffy's slackened limbs and rose from the couch, humming a few bars of the Twilight Zone theme song under his breath. He walked out.

***

Angel slumped on the round lobby couch, making shadow puppets against the desk with his hands.

"Are you finished yet?" he called.

Cordelia looked up briefly from the computer. "Hmmm?"

"Your email," he said. "It's been, like, forever..."

She rolled her eyes. "Of all people who should know what forever REALLY feels like..."

"Well, are you?"

"What?"

"Finished."

She shook her head. "It's times like this I wish you had a last name, so I could yell at you properly."

He blinked innocently. "Hey..."

She swiveled her chair around to the computer again. "And I'm never going to finish if you keep interrupting me, for one thing."

"But..."

"And for another..." she swiveled again so she was facing him. "What if I'm NOT almost finished? What if I want to spend the whole NIGHT on here doing work or writing emails or playing Tetris, even?"

"Just...Cordelia, I'm bored," he complained. "There's nothing to DO."

"There's lots to do. You got by just fine before I came along."

He pondered this briefly, then decided on a different tack. "It's just that I love you so much that I..."

"Hold it right there," she interrupted, wagging her finger in his face. "Don't think that a line or two of romantic mumbo-jumbo is gonna get you off the hook here. Yes, I love you too. Yes, I love spending time with you. But we don't have to spend every MINUTE together, do we?"

"We had the whole day apart, Cordelia."

"And maybe YOU spent all of it pouting all alone in your room or something, but Angel, I was OUT. I was busy."

"And now?"

"Now, I need to do a little decompress. I'm tired, Angel. It was a long day, and it was a nice day, but I didn't get ANY work done, never mind the personal stuff. I just want an hour or so to catch up on things and unwind a little, is that all right with you?"

"Cor..."

"Look, go to bed, okay? Get yourself a nice boring book, you love those, and go to bed. And when I'm ready, I'll come up there and join you and we can do some cuddling, just give me an hour first..."

He nodded. "Okay."

He was halfway to the stairs before she called him back again. "Angel?"

"Hmmm?"

"That was an hour in, like, general time, not 'broodily staring at the clock and counting down the seconds' time, we clear on that?"

***

Buffy stumbled to her feet. "Giles?" Near-drunk with post-shock trauma, her fingers reached blindly for her coat. A strong hand guided her back to the couch.

"Easy, kitten. You'd best stay put."

"But Giles...Lorne, Giles is..."

"Uh huh."

"But I should..."

"No, you shouldn't."

"He's hurting. He needs me."

"Actually, he doesn't. And he isn't---at least not yet."

She shuddered. "What he must be going through..."

Lorne sighed. "Are you even listening? He's not going through anything right now, sweetheart. You've seen him do this before---a karmic stasis of sorts. A complete emotional shutdown while he uses his brain to process things."

"Lorne, he just found out that a girl he loved who was brutally killed by my formerly evil ex-boyfriend than left in his bed as a godamned party favour has been brought back to life by some evil lawyers. You're telling me he's just run out for awhile to think things over rationally?"

"Well, yes."

"And you aren't the slightest bit concerned that he's...god, Lorne, once it does sink in, he'll...something could happen! He's out there all alone..."

"He's safe, Buffy---he hummed just long enough for me to get THAT out of him. If he does get hurt, it won't be from doing anything reckless."

"He did it on purpose..." Buffy realized. "Kept his soul open just long enough for you to read THAT much, then shut it down like a freaking robot...I'm going after him. Lorne, he wouldn't shut down like this unless he was really in deep, even you know that..."

"I do. And I also know that if he wanted you to find him, he wouldn't have hummed that little keep-away. Going after him, doing your girlfriendly bit and 'being there,' as they say---right now, that would be a lovely ego boost for YOU, I'm sure, and it might help YOU hold it together---but don't go kidding yourself that you'd be doing it for HIM. You know what he needs right now."

"But he's..."

"When he comes out of it, he WILL turn to you," said Lorne. "But he doesn't have it in him to ask for the help until he knows what it is he needs. Let him sort this out his way, and I promise, he'll come back to you."

Lorne stepped away from the window, and Buffy winced as an ominous glow of lightening zipped through her. She closed her eyes. "That can't be good."

Lorne sighed. "He's fine. Even in this...look, you'll be okay, won't you?"

Her eyes widened in hurt realization. "You're leaving me? Now?"

"Well, I do have a life, kitten. Even now."

Buffy shook her head. "Unbelievable. You come in here and drop a bombshell like this, and then you just LEAVE? I thought you were on our side, Lorne."

"Whatever gave you that idea? Look, sweetheart, I know what I know, I've said what I said. There's really nothing anyone can do right now except wait."

"You bastard..."

"I'll let that pass. But only cause I can read you, and I see how much you're hurting. Look, I'm sorry---I AM your friend, and I WILL help you---but Giles is not the only one who needs a break right about now. I have some stuff at Kate's that might help---I still don't know exactly what the black hats are planning, but it'll be big, I can tell you that much. I think we have a battle ahead of us, kitten---and all of us need to prepare in our own way, you understand?"

The window shook with the weight of thunder, and it began to pour. "I understand," said Buffy coldly. "Go."

***

Part Thirteen

***

In the night, Cordelia snuggled into him and softly nuzzled his chest.

"Angel?"

He murmured sleepily. "Hmmm?"

"We should tell them," she said.

He blinked and struggled awake. "Tell who...what?"

She gently cuddled deeper into his arms. "It hit me, when I was down there earlier...this second chance of ours...it's not just about sex or curses or gypsies, you know? It's kinda...everything, isn't it? A second chance...to have as normal a life as freaks like us can have...and I don't want to screw it up, you know?"

"Um...okay..."

"It's finally coming together," she told him. "I mean, I've got these great friends, great ghost, great boyfriend complete with spacious, haunted hotel...we've finally got the watchers out of hair, and okay, evil lawyers still floating around, but hey, what else is new...it's almost TOO settled, and I was sitting down there wracking my brain trying to figure out what could possibly blow up in our faces to ruin it, when I remembered. Angel, I start school on Monday, and that's a huge step for me. I kinda want to go into my future with a clean slate, you know? So I decided we should tell them."

"Um, Cordelia..."

"Tomorrow's Sunday, they'll be home...we could be in Sunnydale by lunchtime, and get this whole thing worked out."

He slowly pieced it together. "You want to tell the scoobies..."

"Yes, about us. I mean, they already know about us. But not about US, you know? None of them were here when we figured out the loophole..."

"The sex," he clarified. "You want to tell them we can now have..."

"Right. Well, no, I don't WANT to, per se. Just...I want to get it over with, you know? It could be...it could be a hard thing to tell them. I mean, Buffy...sure, she's all over you---well, all over Giles, but all OVER...you know. But still...happiness clause, kind of a sore spot on account of the whole you-turning-evil-and-trying-to-kill-her-friends thing, and if telling them is gonna be an angst-fest...well, I'd rather get it over with BEFORE we ride off into the sunset, you know?"

"Cordelia..."

"Please," she said a little desperately. "Angel, I know you pride yourself on your deeply rooted ability to avoid and repress, but this is really important. I mean, it's been a crazy couple months...but it's settling down now, isn't it? Her and Giles together, you and me together...it's almost normal, for us. I mean, even the watchers up and left...and I had this gut feeling there was a loose end somewhere, and now that I've figured out what it is..."

The tone in her voice completely melted him. He hugged her tighter. "Don't worry," he said. "I'll take care of it."

***

Dawn pushed open the back door, and, taking care to remain in the shelter of the kitchen, propped it open with her foot and peered into the torrential blackness.

"Buffy?"

Her sister had not moved in over two hours, and at the sound of her voice, clenched shut her rain-lashed eyes with a sigh of pure misery.

"He's out there," said Buffy.

"Uh huh. Look, Buffy..."

Buffy squirmed, leadened clothes squishing audibly beneath her. She briefly locked eyes with Dawn, then looked away again, gazing dolefully at the web-like swirl of water snaking through her fingers.

"I'm cold and I'm wet and I'm tired," she complained.

Dawn nodded. "I know. It's warm in here...Buffy, just come inside..."

Buffy shook her head. "No, no, no. It must be worse for him..." She sighed heavily. "It's been long enough. I should go looking."

"No! Buffy, Lorne said..."

"Lorne says a lot of things, Dawnie. Can't believe everything you hear..." She gave a hoarse chuckle and tried to bat away a sticky strand of damp, flat hair. "Damn it! It's so cold..."

"Buffy..."

"He didn't answer when I tried his cell phone," said Buffy. "Don't think he'd be at his apartment either. Maybe the Magic Box?"

"Buffy, you're..."

"No, too obvious. Well, where would he go? Spike's crypt? Willy's?"

"Buffy, you're scaring me..."

"I'M scaring you? After everything you've heard tonight, I'M the part that's scaring you?" She shook her head. "We REALLY have to up your tolerance, hon. This is NOTHING."

Dawn took a step back. "I should call Xander," she decided. "Maybe I should call Xander."

"Oh sure. Call Xander! He can help me look...there's SO many cemeteries...you think he'd go there?"

"I think he'll come home when he's ready," said Dawn sternly. "And I don't think you'll help him like THIS."

"What, so YOU'RE the mother now? I'm going to catch my death of cold, is that it? Oooh, dangerous germs..."

"Actually," said Dawn. "I was thinking more along the lines of 'dangerous sanity,' but anyway...you're wrecked. Buffy. Like scarily, mental-breakdowny trashed, and I don't know if it's cause you're worried about him, or whether you're reliving your own salad days of love-with-the-evil-monster. But this---this helps no one."

"Word of wisdom to live by," said Buffy with a manic smirk. "God, Dawnie, how could he leave me like this? I don't know what to do..."

"Come inside," said Dawn again. "God, Buffy, just please come inside..."

***

They were halfway through desert when Kate put down her fork with a sigh.

"All right, all right, just call them, will you?"

Lorne leaned forward and gently licked a spatter of whipped cream off her finger. "What?"

"It's admirable, really, how you tried to pay attention to me, even with the big scary magic stuff you've got going on," said Kate. "And before you get all insecure, I'm NOT mad...I know you love this crap, and I know you tried to put it aside cause I DON'T love it...but damn it, Lorne, you've had them on your mind all night, and I wish you would just call them and get it over with already."

"Katie..."

"Just get it out of your system," she said. "Take ten, call the slayer and tell her where her stupid boyfriend is, then we can get on with our night without them hanging over our heads, okay?"

"Sweetheart..."

"Look, I need to fix my makeup anyway or something, all right? Get it done, get it over with, then we can go back to my place and REALLY be alone..."

Lorne jumped to his feet with a look of profound relief and raced for the phone, stopping only long enough to give Kate a grateful kiss as he passed her.

***

It was as he said it would be. Buffy had briefly stopped in the tavern to wring out her clothes and ask for directions, but it was as he said it would be: the dingy parking lot edged against a small grassy knoll---at the bottom of which crouched Giles. He had long ago abandoned his glasses in the face of the hurricanic downpour.

"You found me," he squinted.

"Looks like."

"Are you..."

"Oh, fine. Ranted at Lorne until he got sick of me and left to go bang Kate, then sat out in the rain for three hours in nervous-breakdowny post-traumatic meltdown before Xander and Dawn dragged me bodily inside to get directions from Lorne to this lovely hidey-hole. You?"

"Wandered aimlessly through the streets until I found myself here. Consumed large amounts of alcohol, then stumbled blindly into the bushes and heaved it all up, finally collapsing at the bottom of this grassy knoll where I have remained until this moment..."

She crouched on the muck beside him. "Next time, we should both try a middle ground, huh?"

He sighed. "Not sure it's that simple. Buffy..."

"I know, I know, Lorne explained it all to me. You have to do this sometimes. It's how you cope with things."

"I never said I was a perfect man. I never promised you..."

"I know. But Giles, I just got so worried! I know you don't need to hear that now. I know you have enough on your mind, but I can't help it either. I just..."

"I know."

"So did you...did you work it out, at least? Are we..."

"It's not that simple."

"I know! Which is exactly why I need to talk about it, Giles, I still haven't figured out what all of this means."

"Not sure it means anything, really."

"Doesn't it? Okay, it's scary and it's sad and god knows what they plan to do with her, but on top of all of that...Giles, you were WITH her once. You LOVED her. And now she's back...there's not a part of you that thinking 'second chance' here?"

He shrugged. "Not sure there are ever second chances when love and magic mix," he said. "In the first place, there's always a catch. And in the second place..."

"What? Giles, what is it?"

"Well, in the second place, it doesn't work that way. Fate is not known for redoubling, Buffy. It's like---like in a dice game, one time you play, and it all comes out on sixes. Another time, sixes will tap you out."

"So you're telling me that if you saw her again..."

He sighed. "She died young and tragically, Buffy. There will always be regret---how could there not be? There will always be doubt---replaying it in your own mind, how the dice were rolled and where they fell---but you can't play same round again, Buffy. The game doesn't work that way."

"Sure it does. I died too, Giles. I was brought back too."

"You did. And you changed us both for it, I'd daresay---the game is different now. They've given me a second chance with YOU, Buffy---I've already got my free pass. They won't give me another one."

"But do you...do you want one? Giles, she could have been the love of your life! You're telling me you don't wonder..."

"I'm telling you I CAN'T wonder. Nobody can, or they would simply go insane---there are too many roads not taken, too many roads closed off..."

"So how do you work it all out, Giles? How do you crawl into bed at the end of a night like this with your head in one piece?

"I'm not sure I entirely do," he said. "I'm an old man sometimes; I have too many ghosts in my head."

She touched him gently. "Just tell me what to do..."

"There's not much you CAN do---except to understand that such is the way of things, and let me be in pain sometimes."

The rain was finally letting up. She gathered him into her arms and pulled him under her jacket, hugging his body tightly to preserve warmth. She could not tell if his shivering was from shock or pain or cold---or if his face was wrecked with rain---or tears.

End.

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