If the day before at Wolfram and Hart had been strange, this was somewhere in a realm beyond strange.
Xander didn’t know what to do with himself. Buffy was sitting up front, in the passenger seat next to Angel, so at least, if she wanted to, she could busy herself by playing with the radio. He, however, had been relegated to the back seat. Like a child. Xander might not be able to see Angel’s face in the rear-view mirror, but something told him the asshole was smiling.
His own horrible mood surprised him. After the meeting yesterday, he had been almost cheerful—in fact he hadn’t been able to stop gloating. Xander knew it bothered Buffy, but he couldn’t help it. After nearly ten years, he was finally getting a chance to say ‘I told you so.’ He had been right all along. Angel was a jerk.
It all just sort of slid into place, sitting there next to him in Lilah’s office. The bad-guy checklist was complete. Vampire? Check. Vicious killer? Check. Obscenely and undeservingly good looking? Check. Bad-breaker-upper? Double-check.
That was all the same as before, but now Xander could add divorcee and willing lackey of evil law firm to the list. Irrefutable evidence that the guy was no good.
Not that Xander needed confirmation. His opinions had been formed by Angel’s original sin. He simply wasn’t good enough for Buffy.
“Xander?” she said right then.
“Yeah Buf?” He imagined what she was going to say. ‘Thanks for being here Xander, I don’t know how I would do this without you.’ Or perhaps ‘could you please grab a stake and get Angel out of our lives for good?’ Or maybe—
“Can you please quit with the tapping?” Buffy begged suddenly, both apologetic and annoyed.
Buffy sighed. “Yes.”
“I wasn’t aware I was tapping.”
“Hands and feet,” she informed him.
“Well, who wouldn’t be tapping along to these kick-ass tunes that Angel picked out?” Xander joked, reaching forward and playfully smacking Angel on the arm. It was a subtle dig at the classical music they were listening to.
“You weren’t even tapping to the music,” Buffy told him.
“Are you sure?” Xander asked.
Angel answered by simply turning off the radio. Conversation died back down again and now the car was a vortex of uncomfortable silence. Xander started fiddling with the door lock.
He knew it wasn’t completely rational, his violent aversion of all things Angel. It was immature, and petty and…and who was Xander kidding? Angel hurt Buffy. Doing it once was bad. Doing it over and over, time and again, turning it into an art form? That was unforgivable.
And yet somehow, Buffy seemed to be doing that. Forgiving him. Xander couldn’t see her face but he was intuitive enough to know that the waves of apprehension radiating off her yesterday were gone. She was stuck in the car with her ex and yet Buffy seemed, oddly, comfortable. There was no anger, no fear, and, thank god, no more of the sexual tension that previously characterized her relationship with Angel.
Xander had no idea what to make of this.
There hadn’t been anyone else. Not since Sunnydale. Buffy had effectively put that part of her life on hold since then. And, whether intentionally or not, so had Xander.
It made sense at first, the waiting. They were grieving. And then later…well, Xander wasn’t sure what happened. Did they just get too busy? The weird part was that his utter lack of a love life didn’t bother him as much as he thought it would.
It should bother him. Not having someone to hold. Someone to make pancakes for. Someone’s fingers to kiss. Someone to slow dance in the kitchen with while he hummed an off-key rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Xander knew he should miss all that, knew he should be tired of being alone. It had been three years. But it honestly wasn’t that bad.
Maybe cause he wasn’t alone. He had Buffy. They had each other.
Whatever it was that “they” were, Xander was grateful they had it.
“Xan,” Buffy whined. “You’re tapping again.” He looked down and saw that, with the pointer and middle finger of his right hand, he was indeed tapping. Whoops.
He cleared his throat. “So Angel, meet any senoritas while you were down south?” No response. “Tough crowd,” Xander murmured. He went back to twisting the door lock. Taking a deep breath, he tried again.
“This, uh, this car’s not too shabby.” It was the truth, Xander conceded; Angel did have a very nice ride. Black Chevy Tahoe. All leather interior. Tinted windows—no surprise there.
“Thanks,” Angel said. It wasn’t much, but Xander decided to find it encouraging.
“You know, wearing my sunglasses and riding around town in this bad boy,” he said, twisting the lock even harder, “everyone’s gonna think I’m Secret Service.”
Buffy’s cough sounded suspiciously like a laugh, but Xander decided to let it slide.
“I don’t think a lot of people will make that mistake,” Angel said. That time Buffy definitely laughed. Looking down at his hand, Xander realized he had twisted the door lock right off. Oops.
“So, ah, didn’t you used to have another car?” Xander asked brightly, leaning forward so much that he was practically sitting between Buffy and Angel. “A convertible? I thought you said he had a convertible?” Buffy shrugged and, as nonchalantly as possible, Xander tossed the tiny piece of plastic behind him, into the very back of the car.
“If by convertible you mean a classic 1957 Plymouth GTX 440 convertible, then yes,” Angel answered, seemly unaware of the undercover backseat maneuverings. Xander grinned. He so could have been Secret Service.
“So what happened to it?” Buffy asked.
“What happened to what?” Angel said, not following.
“The convertible,” Xander huffed.
“Oh.” Angel nodded. “ I left the car here, with Cordelia.”
Xander was shocked. “Let me get this straight. You just left it here?” For a second he thought he saw Angel flinch. But then he decided it was probably just the car going over a pothole. “You gave up a beauty like that!”
“I didn’t give it up,” the vampire said.
“Ah, you sure about that pal?” Xander chuckled.
“I didn’t give anything up.” It was impossible to miss the edge in Angel’s voice. “I left it here while I was gone. It’s still mine. It will always be mine.
Suddenly, Xander wasn’t sure if they were still talking about the car. He decided to quit while he was ahead.
Buffy couldn’t help but notice how tightly Angel was clenching the steering wheel. For whatever reason, the conversation was really getting to him. She turned around to signal to Xander that it was time for a subject change, but apparently he’d already figured that out and was back to quietly fidgeting.
Xan was nervous, that much was obvious. Was it that he still felt uncomfortable doing this last job for Wolfram and Hart? Or was it sitting in the backseat while Angel chauffered them around town? Buffy was almost sure that was it. Almost sure. But a small, annoyed little part of her worried that Xander’s unease had another cause. One that started with a C.
He hadn’t seen Cordelia since graduation, and Buffy could count on one hand the number of times her name had come up since then. She and Xander had a different life, together, that Cordelia wasn’t even aware of, let alone a part of. And yet…
Those two and their crazy mixed-up relationship had always bothered Buffy. There was a tension between Cordelia and Xander, an energy that crackled and shifted and made everyone else in the room disappear. In high school they had played off of each other, pushed each other’s buttons, danced around that thin line between love and hate.
Even though that was a million years ago, and everyone had grown and changed, and Cordelia herself was engaged, Buffy couldn’t help but worry that they would pick up the dance right where they left off. If they did, she just might have to do something crazy. Like throw Xander up against a wall and have her way with him.
Or rip Cordelia’s hair out. One or the other.
Buffy shifted in her seat and glanced over at Angel again. He was focusing a little too intently on the road in front of him, and she knew not all of that rigidity could be attributed to this forced reunion. That was about Cordelia too.
Buffy recognized that fact and was pleasantly surprised when all she felt was relief. It was kind of nice to NOT be the one making Angel miserable. Sure, she felt bad for the guy, felt his pain and all that; it was just rather refreshing to not be the cause of it.
In fact, despite the niggling doubt that this whole scam would work, and the maddening undefined-ness of her relationship with Xander, Buffy felt pretty good.
Sure the situation wasn’t ideal. But it was a lot better than the last time she’d driven around Los Angeles with Angel.
Angel cleared his throat uncomfortably. “This, uh, this shouldn’t take too long. The psychics at the firm said it was just a couple of vamps.” When Buffy didn’t say anything, he went on. “You, you don’t have to come. I mean, if you don’t want to…”
Buffy choked by a dry laugh. “Don’t worry about it Angel. It’s not like I have other plans.” Plans had gone out the window twenty minutes ago, up in Angel’s office, listening to his stuttering explanations. Seeing that ridiculously nervous smile on Cordelia’s face, on his WIFE‘S face, which was so obviously an act, because even a fool could tell she was gloating on the inside.
A fool. That’s what Buffy was. She’d been a stupid, naïve little fool, to think, to think…whatever she had thought.
Buffy had been an idiot to think she would ever get a chance to be happy.
Angel, not party to the inner-workings of Buffy’s mind, was still rambling. “So, I mean, this stuff, the missions, it’s not really my job. I mean, not officially. But I still like to get a little fieldwork in. So I’m not, uh, office guy all the time. I mean, I need a little healthy aggression every now and then, you know me…”
She knew him? Riiight. Buffy leaned slightly to the left so that the wind whipping past the car hit her directly in the face, hoping it would bring some clarity to the situation. Because right now? She could use a little clarity. Everything inside her head was so jumbled and crazy and incredibly close to exploding.
“But I guess you could say I run the place,” Angel continued, unaware he was sitting next to a human land mine. “I mean, there are the senior partners, and even I’m sorta hazy on what they are, but, uh, basically, outside of the realms of hell, I’m number one. The go-to guy.” He darted a quick glance over at her and gave her what had to be the tiniest, fakest, smile Buffy had ever seen.
All she could offer him was an unblinking stare, and he quickly turned back to the road. “Yeah, so that’s what I’m doing. We. We’re doing. I mean, Cordelia’s not completely comfortable with the firm, but, I don’t know, it’s, right now, it’s good.” Deep down, under the awkward babbling, there was pride in his voice.
And right then her heart broke a little more. As the car slowed down and pulled into the deserted parking lot of a strip mall, it hit her. It wasn’t that he was married. It wasn’t that he was married to Cordelia.
Angel had a life. A real honest to goodness life. Not only did it not revolve around her, it didn’t involve her.
And that chapter of her life, the one of girlish dreams and fantasy love, the one she thought would never end, was over.
So Buffy did the only thing she could do. She threw open the door, hopped out of the car, and started running. Angel immediately slammed on the brakes and turned the car off, but by then she already had a substantial lead. “Buffy!” she heard him call out as she rounded the corner. “Buffy I’m sorry!”
By the time he caught up with her, in the darkened alley behind the Chinese restaurant, the three vamps were dust, the young delivery boy sat sobbing on the ground, and Buffy was leaning over, hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath.
Angel came sprinting down the alley. “Buffy please don’t—oh.” He skidded to a halt when he took in the seen around him.
“Please don’t what?” Buffy asked, not looking up.
“You thought what?” she said, extending an arm and helping the kid off the ground. “You thought I was back here crying my eyes out?” The delivery boy mumbled his thanks and ran off, but neither Buffy nor Angel was in the frame of mind to notice, let alone respond.
“What did you think Angel?” Buffy pressed. “That I was bawling like a child just because you’re with her now?” It hurt too much. To say her name. It hurt to know her name.
“Of course not,” Angel said, trying to sooth, stepping toward her with his arm outstretched. She quickly stepped out of his reach.
“No! Don’t, for God’s sake, don’t touch me!” Buffy briefly struggled for composure, fought to keep her tears in check, then realized just how futile it was.
“I ran back here to do my job Angel,” she sniffed. “Because that’s what I always do. No matter what. It’s what I do.”
He approached her again, cautiously. “ I get that. That’s what I—”
“Don’t,” Buffy yelled. “I mean, do you really think it would matter to me? Do you honestly believe I care?”
“You’re crying” Angel stated quietly.
“Of course I ‘m crying!” Buffy exploded, knowing she wasn’t making any sense. Sense had long since left the building. “You went off and got married to Cordelia fucking Chase! Without telling me!”
“That was wrong. I know that and I’m sorry for not making sure you found out differently.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry about that,” Buffy hissed, tears streaming down her face now. “I want you to be sorry for lying. I was your girl. You were supposed to always be there.”
“I’m still here,” was all Angel managed to say before Buffy pushed him hard into the wall.
“You and me Angel. Always. No matter what else was going on in our lives, we knew that. And now, you’re replacing me—”
“No one could ever replace you—” Angel interjected.
“With her! You replaced me with some sociopathic beauty queen.” Buffy was pummeling him now, throwing frantic punches and slaps. Everything inside of her was bleeding and she’d be damned if she’d do it alone. “The idea, of you two, together, it makes me sick. You couldn’t hurt me more if you tried!” She kept hitting him, and Angel just stood there, allowing it.
“Is that it Angel? Were you trying to hurt me? Picking her, that stupid, trite, ridiculous b—.” Angel finally stopped her brutal attack, grabbing both of her wrists and holding them up, so they rested against his chest.
“I love her.”
Buffy’s anger deflated, leaving only a tidal wave of sorrow that threatened to bring her to her knees.
“Why?” she asked brokenly. So many questions all wrapped up in that one little word. Why Cordelia? Why not her? Why couldn’t he have waited, until she was ready? Why couldn’t he have waited forever?
Angel somehow knew not to try to answer that. Instead, he did the only thing he could do, the only thing that in that moment Buffy needed him to do. He wrapped his arms around her, her hands still clasped tightly in between their bodies, and held her while she cried.
He squeezed her tighter when the sobbing petered out into silent tears. He stroked her hair and whispered comforting nothings in her ear while Buffy took deep calming breaths. And a lifetime later, when the crying was done and Buffy wiped her nose against his sweater, he made a joke.
“Go ahead,” Angel said. “After all, it’s only cashmere.”
He did everything right and it felt so wonderful, being cared for, being comforted, being held in his arms. If felt so right and perfect that all rational thought skittered away and suddenly Buffy found herself going up on her toes, leaning in and pressing her lips to his.
It was like falling off a cliff and landing in your childhood bedroom. Thrilling. Familiar. She may not have known the man anymore, but she knew this. The startling coolness of him. The shape of his lips, the indefinable taste. Buffy slid her hands out from between them and clutched at his shoulders, bringing him closer, eager to capture his mouth as well as a piece of the past.
“No” Angel exclaimed, wrenching his mouth away and forcing her back a step. “No,” he repeated when she reached for him again, raising his hands in a defensive pose. Warding her off.
“Angel,” she began but he stopped her.
“I can’t do this,” he told her. When he saw the look in her eyes, Angel clarified. “I don’t want this.”
The hurt sliced cleanly threw her, pain so hot it burned. All she could do was stare down at the ground.
“We should head back,” Angel said after a few minutes. She didn’t answer.
“Buffy? I, uh, I need to get back.” To Cordelia. It was unsaid, but implicitly conveyed and dear God, it stung.
“Go,” she finally choked out.
“I can’t just leave you here.”
She didn’t look up, and finally, mercifully, Angel did as she asked. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Buffy just stood there, listening to the sound of his footsteps on the pavement, the roar of his engine starting up. “Why?” she asked again, long after he had left.
Why did everyone she loved always, always leave?
“Buf?” Pulled out her reverie, Buffy glanced down at Xander’s hand on her shoulder.
“Yeah Xan,” she said, turning around to see how he was doing in the back seat.
“Angel was just saying that we should be there in a few minutes,” Xander said. Silently he mouthed ‘are you okay’ and it was so thoughtful and adorable and so very Xander that it was all Buffy could do to not crawl back there. But that was probably a bad idea. It might freak Angel out. Hell, it was more likely to freak Xander out.
Glancing sideways at Angel, Buffy found he was staring at her with an odd expression on his face. Like he knew…no. He couldn’t know. Xander didn’t even know.
“So Cordelia lives in a hotel?” Buffy asked brightly, before she could give Angel anymore cause to speculate.
“Pffft. Figures,” Xander mumbled under his breath.
“It used to be a hotel,” Angel said, checking his mirrors and merging into the right lane. “Back in its heyday, it had 100 rooms and more than a few scandals. It had basically been abandoned by the time we bought it. Used it as an office first. Cordelia moved in after all the renovations, and now she runs the agency out of it.”
“So like I said, she lives in a hotel,” Buffy reiterated.
“Trust Cordelia to need 100 closets,” Xander kidded.
“The Hyperion is right up here on your right,” Angel informed them gruffly. Buffy and Xander turned and made the requisite oohs and ahhs.
“Uh, but isn’t that the front door right there?” Xander asked. “Why are we driving right past it?”
“There’s a space right there, behind the Lexus,” Buffy helpfully pointed out.
Angel kept on driving, making a right turn at the corner. “We’re going around back,” he said.
“What, we’re going in the servants entrance?” Xander whined. “Are we not cool enough to go through Cordelia’s front door?”
Angel fought for patience. This weekend would be long enough. Choking Xander would only complicate matters. “We’re going into the garage,” Angel said brusquely as he turned into the underground facility—Connor’s idea, and a pretty good one at that. “Seeing how it’s the middle of the day, it’s pretty much the only option. Unless you prefer me extra crispy.”
“I wasn’t aware I had a choice,” Xander grumbled.
“Hmmm?” Angel asked, pulling into a space and turning off the car. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.” Buffy glared at Xander.
“Who me? I was, uh, just saying how I…like James Joyce.” Even Xander had to grimace at the randomness.
Stepping out of the car, Angel raised his eyebrows doubtfully. “Right then. Follow me.” He started walking to the elevator at the far end of the garage. Buffy and Xander wordlessly hurried after him. He pushed the “up” button and the doors immediately opened.
“This is all new,” Angel explained as they stepped into the elevator. “When we first got the place, I used to have to come and go through the sewers and enter the lobby through the basement.” He pushed the “L” button and continued as they started heading up. “Now Cordy has underground parking for her more, ah, nocturnal clientele and they get door to door transportation.”
As the doors opened, Angel added “There’s usually someone here to greet new arrivals,” just as one such employee came running up. Buffy and Xander’s jaws nearly came unhinged.
“Mr. Angel!” the demon gushed as Angel walked out of the elevator. “It’s wonderful to see you again sir.”
“Good to see you too Clem,” Angel said, shaking his hand. He glanced behind him, where Xander and Buffy stood frozen in place. Angel gestured for them to follow before turning back to Clem. “Do you have any idea where I might find my wi—I mean, Cordelia? Or maybe Fred? Or Connor?”
Clem tapped his finger against his chin in thought. “I’m not totally sure sir. This place is pretty crazy right now. They could be in the back office! Want me to call there and tell them you’re coming?” The hotel’s original switchboard system had been repaired and now one could call any room in the place from the front desk.
Angel hesitated before saying “No, don’t bother, I’ll just head back myself and surprise them.”
Clem eyed him speculatively. “Well, they’ll definitely be surprised.”
Angel smiled in agreement. “Oh, I forgot, Clem, this is Bu—”
“Buffy and Xander,” Clem exclaimed, finally appearing to notice them and clapping his hands together excitedly. “How are you two?”
“You’ve met?” Angel asked, unaware of their history.
Clem smiled at Angel. “I haven’t seen these guys since, gosh, when was it?”
“The day you fled, right before Sunnydale fell into Hell,” Xander said, with more than a little animosity.
“Right, right,” Clem agreed. “Good times.”
“Well,” Angel said, handing his car keys to Clem. “I’ll let you three catch up. Clem, please see that someone gets the luggage out of my car.” Then he turned on his heel and started walking back to the large first floor office space. “Why don’t you show Buffy and Xander to the third floor sitting room,” he added in lieu of goodbye.
“So,” Clem said, ushering them towards the stairs. “Should be one hell of a weekend, huh?”