1: Jefferson Avenue, Near the High School, Southeast Sunnydale
Raised voices on the wind caught Angel’s attention. Zeroing in on a confrontation ahead, he quickened his pace, the demon within him suddenly eager for a fight.
Since his return from Acathla’s hell dimension, his darker instincts remained close to the surface. It had always been a struggle to avoid thoughts of violence, blood, and death, ignoring the pleasurable pang in his gut even at the idea of it. That other place offered freedom from the guilt that always followed such cravings. Self-preservation required action without hesitation. No soul-searching required.
Time made it easier to forget what he had left behind in Sunnydale, so much time that he had lost track of the days and years and decades that passed. Until all that remained within him was the struggle to survive. Clawing his way back from raw instinct toward a semblance of his old self had come with as much failure as success. Urges he had once readily controlled required far more effort to rein in. Meditation and will power kept his bloodlust and libido in check despite being tempted by the sea of humanity surrounding him again.
The Hellmouth had its own troubles and its share of dark memories, but at least he was home again, cursed soul and all, with only months gone by. How much of his time away was real versus hallucination? While his escape remained a mystery, Angel chose not to dwell on it. Instead, he filled his days by recalling every detail of his time in Sunnydale, sharpening memories, and finding the task surprisingly easy to accomplish. If only it was as easy to suppress the reminders of Acathla’s realm and the specter of his dark desires shadowing him everywhere.
Even as his supernatural hearing picked up the distant clash of familiar voices, he hoped the fight involved something dangerous. Flexing his hands closed he felt the skin stretch over his knuckles anticipating the pain and satisfaction of crashing his fists into whatever demon, vampire, or unsuspecting punk had drawn Buffy into battle.
Moving toward the disturbance, Angel quickly realized he was not going to get the fight he wanted. There was a reason Buffy sounded unusually rattled. It took only a moment to realize this was not a physical fight, but a boisterous confrontation with Cordelia Chase. Armed with a sharp tongue and a stubborn streak, Cordelia argued over something that had her hackles up.
Angel knew better than to interfere. The moonlight created a cover of shadows along the brick building. Black clothes and stealthy moves made him blend into the darkness. Long strides slowed to a stop at the corner where he hugged his body against the brick wall to look toward the school’s front lawn where the two faced off.
Usually unfazed by much of anything, Buffy looked frazzled as if she had just gone ten rounds with a M’klar demon that refused to die. Her fingers threaded wildly through her short golden tresses as she paced away and then back to Cordelia who stood her ground with a distinct air of confidence. Not that the cheerleader’s stubborn attitude was surprising.
At one time Cordelia seemed to like to play the part of the vulnerable damsel in distress whenever he was around to be her hero. Although not as soft and weak as she let on, Cordelia remained as vulnerable as any other human living near the Hellmouth.
Tonight she looked dressed for a date rather than battle wearing red head to toe, from those luscious ruby red lips down to the tips of her polished toenails. Angel’s gaze travelled down the length of toned legs exposed by her silk miniskirt. Looking longer than necessary, he excused it as admiring beauty the way any artist would.
Just as quickly, his thoughts took a far less innocent turn, an image flashing in his head of Cordelia aiming that fiery attitude at him instead in a way that gave his hands and her acerbic tongue other uses. Despite the shard of guilt stabbing at him, he let the image play out until a heavy tug at his groin signaled just how arousing he found it.
Angel let out a low growl at the unwanted reaction, irritated at the ease of his body’s betrayal. He knew that it was not just the inappropriate thoughts about Cordelia turning him on. The fight was enough to rev him up a notch, setting his nerves on edge, causing his instincts to color his thoughts.
Seeing Buffy on the defensive, even if it was just a shouting match, gave him a twisted sense of satisfaction. After all, she tried to kill him and then dispatched him to hell. Deep down where his demon prowled his subconscious, Angel wanted payback. Such feelings were contrary to his plans to rekindle their rocky relationship.
“Even you’re not that much of a blonde,” Cordelia scoffed. The insult was wrapped in a compliment of a sort. “It’s dumb to turn down extra help when it’s offered.”
A little grunt rattled in Buffy’s throat. Sounding confused, “Yours? This has to be a joke because I know you can’t be serious.”
Maybe it had to be done, Angel admitted, still thinking back to that night Buffy needed to stop Angelus from dragging the Earth into Acathla’s realm. Saving the world, even from him, was still her thing. That justified her actions, he supposed, considering the damning things he had said and done without his soul.
“How many times do I have to say it? I’m ready to come back,” Cordelia shouted the words as if the increased volume would help her meaning sink in. It certainly dragged Angel back to the present, her words precisely echoing his sentiments on the subject of his own appearance tonight.
Cordelia’s defiant body language all but dared Buffy to say no as she stubbornly crossed her arms and tossed her lush brown hair over one shoulder.
Would his return to her circle also require a shouting match?
Placating the beast he had become in that hellish place was not an easy task, but Buffy had made an effort. He owed her that too. Somewhere along the way, she decided that while he might be worth saving, their relationship was not. Something so damaged was beyond repair, and she deserved something better.
Angel could not argue with that, but neither could he just let go despite Buffy’s adamant refusal to pick up where they left off. She had moved on, or was still trying to, but he needed her to stop moving, and to see that he was there for her. A fresh start was all he needed. All they needed.
If only Buffy was in the mood for offering up second chances.
Snapping at Cordelia, “You’re not cut out for it,” suggested that she was not.
“Hey, I’ve earned this!” Cordelia bounded forward when Buffy started to walk away.
Angel felt a jolt of concern when Cordelia grabbed Buffy’s shoulder. The restraining hand was a mistake. Slayer instincts ran deep. She whipped back around dislodging the loose grasp and closing the distance between them with a speed that nearly knocked Cordelia off her feet.
“Earned it how?” Buffy wanted some kind of explanation. “By breaking Xander’s heart every day you refused to see him?”
“He’s the one who cheated.”
Reminded, Angel realized that this was the first time he had seen Cordelia around since her injury. The rebar accident coincided with her breakup with the Harris boy. Despite dating the most beautiful girl in school, the kid cheated on her, and had been caught kissing Willow Rosenberg.
Angel never particularly understood Cordelia’s interest in Xander. That had been a very odd pairing that made no sense in retrospect. Yet he supposed that it could hardly be any stranger than a vampire in love with a Slayer.
Ever the defender of her friends, Buffy snapped back, “Xander won’t want you back.”
“Pfft! Like I’d take him. Not!”
“I meant here. The meetings. Scoobiage.”
Different story. “Oh, he wants me back,” Cordelia revealed. A little too smugly if Buffy’s sour expression said anything about it. “He begged for it. On his knees. That’s not why I’m here.”
Leaning back against the brick surface, Angel listened to that little reveal enjoying the idea far more than he should, and not only because it included a little humiliation for the whelp.
“Get to the point, Cor. No one wants you here. It’s too…painful.”
Would those be the same words Buffy used to turn him away again? Clenching his jaw, Angel felt his anger raging to the surface.
Beyond the fading glimmer of hope that Cordelia’s acceptance back into the fold would signal his own return, a dark corner of his heart wanted to watch Cordelia push Buffy to the ground, claw that unfaithful heart from her chest, and rip her hair out at the roots. Maybe then she would know how it felt to be on the receiving end of rejection.
Nothing revenge worthy happened, of course, and he really did not want anything of the sort to happen. So, Angel focused on staying out of sight and tried to pull it together. He shook off his rising anger and lingering lust, ignored the inner urge to release his fangs, and to join the fight.
Reminding himself that Buffy was not the enemy, he reeled his anger back in and stayed put. The last thing he needed was to be caught watching their spat. Experience taught him that the situation would diffuse if he just waited it out.
Their arguments flew back and forth. They had a way of bringing out the worst in each other. Despite Cordelia’s natural ability to rile people up, even her friends, Angel had no fear about Buffy losing her temper on a scale that might end in bloodshed. She might want to strangle Cordelia into silence, but even she had far more control than that.
Cordelia finally got around to telling her, “Giles invited me.”
“Giles!” Buffy’s jaw dropped as she stared in wide-eyed shock at the news. “No way!”
“Something about an apocalypse and needing everyone to pitch in to save the world.”
Buffy seemed surprised at the news. Turning suspicious, she asked, “My watcher asked you, Cordelia Chase, to help with next Big Bad? Giles does not joke, so you’ve got to be lying.”
It did seem a little far-fetched, Angel admitted to himself, but it would be easy enough for the Watcher to refute it if her story was untrue. There had been no similar invitation on his doorstep.
Their voices dropped. Fortunately, the grounds were empty and quiet as usual at this time of the evening, and supernatural hearing made it easy to continue listening in.
A short while after his return, and just when Angel thought things were getting back to normal between them, Buffy suddenly started keeping her distance. She went as far as telling him to stay away from her. Their relationship was over and she no longer wanted his help.
Buffy had been his one reason for crawling his way back toward sanity. Being told that she neither needed nor wanted him was a devastating blow. Hurt and angry about it he had closeted himself away at the mansion like a wounded animal until he realized that he was slipping back into the darkness.
Knowing he could not give in to that temptation, Angel decided to take action. Whether she wanted him or not, Buffy would have to get used to having him around again. He had come to Sunnydale to help her fight and he planned to do just that. Somehow, he had to get her to understand that his return was inevitable. That she could not afford to refuse his help.
As for their relationship, he was not ready to let that go, either.
Hoping to find Buffy in a better mood Angel had planned to crash the pre-patrol meeting tonight. Strangely, Cordelia had beaten him to the punch. “I have as much right to help out as anyone else.” Her protest made it sound as if she was signing up for a bake sale, but Angel empathized. The flash of bitter anger he felt was as much on Cordelia’s behalf as his own.
No one liked being denied what they wanted, or told they were not needed.
Buffy looked flustered, her cheeks flushed and blotchy red in the moonlight. “You were skewered by rebar.”
“Duh!” Sarcasm rolled off Cordelia’s tongue. “I know that. I was there.”
Even from this distance, he could tell Buffy’s defenses were breaking down. A whine sounded as she tried a logical appeal. “It’s too soon to come back.”
Angel got Buffy’s point. Having inquired about the extent of the injury, he knew that Cordelia was lucky to be alive. She was also obstinate about not allowing what she called ‘a little accident’ to get in the way of returning.
“Buffy, you need all the help you can get, and I’m not here to ask your permission. I’m telling you that I’m back.”
Letting her words soak in, Angel fought a smile at the proud tilt of her head. “So get used to seeing me again,” she added with a confidence that he took to heart. Those were his sentiments exactly, and he needed a little bolstering tonight.
Considering Cordelia’s recent experiences, Angel had mistakenly figured she would have given her friends a wide berth. Like him, she was something of an outsider when it came to the Scooby Gang, and so he suspected there was a reason behind her return to the ranks, assuming Buffy allowed it. Cordelia’s failure or success during this standoff might tell him whether his own arrival would be accepted.
“Forget it,” Buffy snapped, fists planted on her hips matching Cordelia’s defiant pose. “It’s only been a week since you got out of the hospital.”
Cordelia’s chin rose up another notch, “It’s not as if you cared then, so why the concern now?”
The notion that she did not care probably riled Buffy up even more, guessed Angel who knew that she had inquired about Cordelia during her hospitalization. Not that anyone knew much considering Cordelia had barred everyone from visiting.
“You’ll be a liability,” Buffy tried another tactic playing each argument like a cards one by one. “Your wound is too fresh. Every vampire in town will be after you.”
Always ready with a swift comeback, “That’s the idea,” Cordelia refused to back down. “Hello, I’m the bait.”
But Buffy was not budging. “Patrolling is out. It’s too dangerous.” Then she threw out her ace, “Besides, I don’t think Xander would like it.”
Angel felt a burst of anger on Cordelia’s behalf. The boy deserved to have some sense knocked into him. Too young and stupid to know that he had something worthwhile, he had thrown it away. Playing a risky game, unintentionally hurting a girl who thought she could trust him.
Bitterly, he realized the story sounded too damn familiar.
He apparently felt more upset about the incident than Cordelia who waved the whole thing off, “Puh-lease,” as if her cheating ex-boyfriend was the least of her worries. “I think he deserves to see what he’s missing.”
“Like that’s supposed to convince me?” Angel noted the way Buffy quickly sprang to Xander’s defense. His eyes narrowed to slits, his mouth a line of disapproval.
Cordelia shrugged, casually flipping her hair over her shoulder. “It was your fault that it happened in the first place.”
“Mine? I wasn’t even there.”
Explaining that she had time to think about the incident while stuck in bed at Mercy Hospital, Cordelia told her, “You were off macking on your homicidal hottie, while Oz and I were at that demon den. That’s when we found Willow all over Xander.”
Angel frowned at the ‘homicidal’ comment, but felt a little rush at the follow-up. Hot was good, right? At least outward appearances had not changed, although he felt different inside. Time in hell had seen to that and Buffy knew it, too.
Recently, the way Buffy looked at him reminded him of the way she stared down a demon just before skewering it. He knew when to keep his distance even if it was in a stalkery manner. Now and then he would let her catch him at it, enjoy the thrill as she rushed up to accuse him—rightly—of following her around town, and search her stormy gaze for a sign that she still loved him.
Lust, longing, regret were all too apparent on their most recent encounter. Buffy had rushed away before Angel could act on what he saw there, but he became determined to reclaim his place in her life. For now, that meant showing up at the Scooby meetings whether she wanted him there or not.
Right now Buffy looked horrified that Cordelia would think she was shirking her duty as Slayer, especially since there had been a deliberate avoidance of anything remotely intimate since Angel’s return. His hope for recovering what they had in spite of the ramifications of the curse was quashed abruptly upon discovering that she already had a new boyfriend.
Scott was no longer an issue, however. They had recently broken up, leaving Angel with another chance. One he planned to take. Things were awkward. Buffy had told him that she could not risk history repeating itself when it came to them.
“We weren’t macking.”
A huff followed. “Getting groiny, endangering the world, whatever.”
Clearly flustered, Buffy stuttered to respond, “W-We weren’t getting, uh— Angel and I were busy slaying the demon that kidnapped them.”
Cordelia did not exactly seem to believe it. “Busy, right, call it what you want. You owe me, Buffy Summers, so don’t try to stop me from coming back.”
As a last ditch effort, Buffy pointed out, “This is the last place you ever wanted to be. Why now?”
“Maybe I like the thrill.”
Laughing at that one, Buffy scoffed at the idea that anyone who complained so much about the wear and tear of vampire dust on her designer clothes had other issues to deal with. “The thrill of offering unwanted opinions and playing vampire bait— sorry, try again.”
“Civic duty?” Cordelia suggested after a thoughtful pause, adding a sour note. “I was really hoping to nab that Citizen of the Year award—unless you’ve already bagged it.”
“I’ll put in a good word with the mayor next time I see him,” Buffy quipped. “I’m not buying, Cor. If you’re coming back just to be a bitch about things, you can save your breath.”
Angel could tell she had hit a nerve. Cordelia’s brows arched high and she stared back with equal intensity. “Here’s the thing. A bit of rebar is not going to change who I am. If I’m a bitch to you or your friends, you need to ask yourself why.”
Nothing would convince Buffy that there was not an ulterior motive involved. Even Angel had his doubts having listened to most of their conversation. He watched Cordelia’s face soften slightly, her lashes coming down to shade her eyes. She paused as if to gather her thoughts and then gave Buffy the only argument she had left.
“I just want to help.”
Buffy’s answer came faster than either of them expected, “Fine.”
Almost startled by her acquiescence, Cordelia’s head jerked up. “You won’t regret it.”
Turning on her heel, Buffy stalked across the school grounds toward the front entrance, muttering, “I already do.”
Cordelia’s triumphant grin flashed in the moonlight. “Go team.” The quick move into a cheer stance caused a sudden hitch making her grab at her abdomen, something Angel suspected she was glad that Buffy missed seeing.
Maybe Cordelia was coming back too quickly after all, he thought watching her drop her hand back to her side and stroll leisurely in the same direction. He moved out of the shadows as soon as she reached the steps, planning to follow her example by showing up even without an invitation.
After Buffy suggested that things were too difficult between them to continue seeing each other, he often kept to himself at the mansion. The loneliness was harder than he imagined, different than he remembered. The experiences of his time in hell were fading, replaced by the vivid recollections of his two short years in Sunnydale. Some days it seemed like eons had passed between then and now. Others times like it was just yesterday.
He had grown used to having these people around and thought he would be able to depend upon Buffy to acclimate him again, that they would resume their relationship despite its challenges. Obviously, he misjudged the level of blame each of them had attributed to the other and the guilt that came with their actions.
Angel thought it was worth it to try, but listening to Buffy as she showed him that stack of college brochures made him realize she wanted future plans that did not include him. If she could leave Sunnydale, she had said there would be nothing here to hold her back.
It was easy to conclude that she meant him, too.
What he felt for her had been simple, but true. Angel knew now that it fed a need he did not know he had. Because of that, he would have done anything to gain it back. Now it all seemed like a bittersweet dream replaced by a nasty taste of reality, something he was more than familiar with.
What he did to her and her friends was possibly unforgivable. Even now, the sound of Jenny Calendar’s fragile neck cracking beneath the force of his grip echoed in his head, just as a phantom ache seemed to gnaw at his chest where Buffy’s sword thrust sealed his fate. No matter that the wound itself had long since repaired itself, emotionally, it had left a hole where his heart used to be.
Angel did not like the idea of being dismissed from Buffy’s life. It was one thing to admit that the feelings between them had changed, but to stay away also meant that he would not be a part of her mission here at the Hellmouth. He reminded himself that he was brought here to protect her, to help her. For now, that needed to be his primary focus.
The Scooby meeting tonight was likely to be a revelation.
Maybe Cordelia’s surprise arrival would distract them from the fact that he was also crashing their latest research party. She had a flair for making herself the center of attention and that was fine with him. He had no doubt that the others would accept her back into the fold since she was so determined to be there and also because Xander and Willow regretted their behavior.
According to Buffy, both seemed to view the incident as a mistake, even though it obviously went beyond something as simple as indiscretion. Oz had apparently forgiven Willow and the two were trying to piece their relationship together again, something Angel admired and hoped to emulate.
His issues with Buffy aside, Cordelia was in the lucky position of bestowing forgiveness on those who had done her wrong, assuming that was part of her plan. For him, it was the opposite.