Smoke and Mirrors

by Isis FG

Feedback: vagabond_angel@comcast.net

Disclaimer: if I owned them...well, B/A would be off on some tropical island getting their groove on.

Rating: NC 17 overall, but mostly R
Pairing: B/A, (minor: Gi/Je, Fa/S, Fr/We, C/Gu)
Summary: total AU – Angel, an LA cop, responds to a call about a break-in and finds himself face to face with the girlfriend he’d left after she’d broken his trust four years earlier.
Main Characters: Buffy, Angel, Faith, Spike
Supporting Cast: Giles, Jenny, Dawn, Cordy, Gunn, Fred, Wes, Xander, Lindsay
Spoilers: no spoilers, it’s a total AU

Distribution: if you already have something of mine, you may take this. If not, please ask first!

Author’s Notes: This fic was the result of me humoring my muse and to have something not so serious to work on as a break from 'Midnight Angel'. I meant it to be a fun diversion, but the damn thing went and developed a plot on me. So what was supposed to be a short, light fic, ended up being long and plotty. Go figure. Oh...yeah...the prologue is very different from the rest of the fic, and Buffy is rather out-of-character in it, don't worry, there is a reason for that! Last thing - this fic is NC 17, but this is not a smutfic, that rating is due to only 1 or 2 scenes throughout the whole fic. It's mostly rated R.

Thank you: to my homegirl *Stars* for beta'ing this for me even those she's insanely busy.

Warnings: angst, some violence, language, sexually explicit scenes


{====^====}
Prologue
{====^====}

The club was loud, smoky, and crowded, not exactly a relaxing place to be after nine hours on the job. But for twenty-three year old Angel Callahan, it was better than going back to his quiet apartment and staring at the walls until he fell asleep. He hadn’t gone to the club for any particular reason. When he’d gone off-shift at the Sunnydale Police Department, he’d simply had a vague notion about going somewhere, and doing something. He’d ended up in the town’s lone club, The Bronze.

Clubs weren’t exactly Angel’s forte. He was more suited to less raucous surroundings, but once in a while, he didn’t mind the flash and noise of a club. Tonight was one of those nights. He was feeling restless for reasons unknown to him. Perhaps, he thought, it was the lack of action on the job. His transfer to the Sunnydale police force from San Francisco was only three months old, but he’d already come to the conclusion that being a law enforcer in a small town was quite a bit different than being one in a big city.

The transfer hadn’t been his idea. His boss in San Francisco had approached him with the move, saying his friend, the police chief in Sunnydale, was in need of a new officer. Angel still didn’t know why he’d said yes. He’d liked San Francisco. But at the time, the idea of moving to a small town had seemed appealing. Now, three months later, he was wondering if it had been a mistake. He missed the action of the big city, and the friends he had there. Having been in Sunnydale only three months, he hadn’t really had the chance to make new friends. Angel supposed that was why he was currently wandering through some noisy club.

As Angel approached the bar, he was unaware that his movements were being watched by a pair of appreciative female eyes. She’d noticed him the moment he'd entered the club. But then, so had practically every other female. He was the type that just drew the eyes of all the women around him, and she was no exception.

From her table in a darkened corner, she watched as he leaned against the bar and ordered a drink. He was a little over six feet tall, she guessed, and he filled out his well-worn jeans and dark gray sweater nicely. There were some definite muscles on that body. Ones she wouldn’t mind getting her hands on. The rest of him was a pleasure to look at as well. His hair was dark brown, spiky on the top, and his eyes appeared to be just as dark.

She didn’t ever remember seeing him at The Bronze before, and his was a face she wouldn’t have forgotten. Deciding to go over and introduce herself to the handsome stranger, she slid off her chair and sauntered over toward the bar.

Angel took a sip of his beer and scanned the crowded club. There was quite a mix of ages present, he realized. Most seemed to be of high school age, or college, but there were a scattering of adults as well. He figured that was because it was the only place in Sunnydale, besides the seedy back alley bars, that offered music and drinks, as well as the age-old tradition of flirtation and seduction. He wasn’t here for that. But no sooner had he thought that, he saw a striking young woman crossing the dance floor.

Her legs were encased in a pair of tight black leather pants that showed each and every curve. The black of the pants was contrasted by a snug electric blue tank top that barely covered any skin. A navel ring winked out from her toned stomach, easily seen by the mid-riff baring top. He couldn’t help but stare at the little silver bar. There was something innately sexy about it. But after a moment, his eyes drew upwards, over the curves of her breasts and up to her face.

He blinked when he noticed that her straight, blonde hair was streaked with hot pink. It was definitely different, but not altogether bad looking. If her hair wasn’t so blonde, bleached he assumed, the pink wouldn’t have been nearly as noticeable. As it was, it only drew his attention for several seconds before her eyes pulled him in. They were a deep, mossy green. He wondered what they would look like without the heavy black eyeliner, mascara, and smoky eye shadow.

The woman was a short ten feet away when Angel realized those eyes were trained directly on him. Their gazes held as she strode up to him and slid onto the empty stool to his left. Unconsciously, he shifted his body to face her directly. He thought idly that she wasn’t exactly his type, but he pushed the notion away. There was just something about her.

Pulling out a cigarette, she held it up to her lips. “Got a light?”

“No, sorry,” Angel apologized, his eyes drifting down as she crossed her legs.

Her slim shoulders shrugged and she drew a silver lighter from her pocket and lit the cigarette. “What’s your name?”

“Angel.”

She smiled, her eyes dancing. “Pretty name.”

“What’s yours?” he asked, leaning in to be heard over the din of the music.

“Lizzie,” she answered, drawing deep on the cigarette. “I’ve never seen you here before, and believe me, I would have noticed.”

The direct statement startled Angel momentarily, but he recovered quickly. “I’m new in town,” he told her, taking a sip of his beer.

“That explains it,” she said with a laugh that was bright and rich.

“I take it you come here often,” Angel mused, his eyes flicking to her lips painted in dark red.

Those lips curved into a smile that had his blood heating. His fingers were beginning to itch to see if the skin along her bare throat was as smooth as it appeared to be. Instead, he gripped his beer tighter. He was twenty-three, he told himself. There was no reason for his hormones to be leaping like a teenage. But damn, he wanted to get his hands on her, even if she wasn’t what he typically went for in a woman.

He wasn’t a prude, by any means. During his high school years, then his abbreviated time in college, he’d done his fair share of dating, a loose term for his encounters with the female kind. After joining the academy and entering the force, though, he’d lost the desire for affairs. This petite blonde, however, was bringing back the urge full throttle.

Lizzie watched his eyes darken with desire as he stared at her. She had to resist the inclination to lick her lips. It wouldn’t do to be too overly obvious, but she was already imaging the passion that lurked in that muscular male body.

“Yeah, I come here often,” she finally answered, bringing his attention back to her and away from her body. “Gonna buy me a drink?”

“Sure. What would you like?” he asked as he signaled the bartender.

“Rum and coke.”

Angel flicked a glance over her face. “How old are you?”

She ground out her cigarette in the ash tray at her elbow and eyed him steadily. “Twenty.”

“Just a coke, then,” Angel relayed to the bartender.

“Spoilsport,” Lizzie muttered in disgust. “Isn't twenty close enough?”

“Nope, sorry,” Angel slid a bill over the counter to pay for the drink before shifting his attention back to Lizzie. “Why pink?” he questioned, gesturing to her hair.

“Why not?” she responded, sipping the coke, and wishing she’d been able to get the rum to go with it. “Pink is different. I like to be different.”

“You’ve succeeded,” Angel agreed, his lips quirking in a grin.

The little twist of lips had a ball of desire pooling in Lizzie’s stomach. He had a fabulous mouth. She certainly wouldn’t mind getting a taste of it. To curb the urge to just grab him around the neck and pull his lips to hers, she pulled another cigarette out.

“Those things will kill you.” Angel nodded to the cigarette.

“Everyone’s gotta die of something,” she shot back.

“You’ve got me there,” he conceded.

She laughed and leaned back against the counter. “I could die in thirty years from cancer, or I could die tomorrow by walking across the street and getting hit by a car. Ya gotta live in the moment.”

“Carpe diem?”

“Close enough.” She reached up, trailed a red-painted fingernail down his chest. “Tell me, do you ever do anything...risky?”

Angel fought the urge to shudder at the touch of her finger. His eyes met hers, held. “I’m a fan of taking risks.”

“Isn’t that handy?” she asked, trailing her finger back up his chest. Her legs shifted so that their thighs touched.

He would have had to have been deaf, dumb, and blind to miss the invitation in her eyes. This little blonde was a definite live-wire, he thought to himself. The question was, did he want to take his chances getting singed?

Lizzie slid off the stool, pressed her body against his. She didn’t miss his groan of appreciation as she leaned forward, nipped at his earlobe before whispering, “Wanna get out here?”

Angel’s hand curved over her leather covered hip. Singed, he thought? He was likely to be fried to a crisp. But it’d damn well be worth it.

“Sure. We can go back to my place and....”

“Talk?”

He laughed, full-bodied and very male. “Baby, I don’t think a whole lot of talking will be going on.”

Smiling, Lizzie trailed a hand dangerously close to his crotch. “I have no problem with that.” She turned and sauntered away toward the door, her hips swaying in a way that had every male drooling in appreciation.

Without a second thought, Angel followed after her.

Years later, he would still be telling himself he should have run in the other direction.

{====^====}
Part 1
{====^====}

AN:  Thank you to everyone who sent feedback on the prologue!  I realize a lot of you had questions or were a little confused after reading the prologue, but hopefully some of them will be answered in Chapter 1...though not all.  The prologue was really a glimpse into the past.  You'll get a better idea of what the story is about after this chapter, but it will be a few chapters yet until it all makes sense. 

{====^====}

Angel was not in a good mood. His day had started out bright and early with a call of a drunk and disorderly in a department store where he’d been tackled by a hulk of a man who reeked of whiskey and was raving about the evils of what slurred out as ‘tart clothes’. The day had then progressed on to a call about a nuisance dog. On that one, he’d found the nuisance dog was a neighbors minuscule poodle. The person who’d made the call, a woman of about fifty with dyed flaming red hair, had ranted and raved at him for a half hour about the ‘vicious dog', and then had proceeded to hit on him for another fifteen minutes. He was just glad to have gotten out of there without her tearing off his clothes.

Then, to round out his day, he’d had to deal with two hours worth of paperwork, the bane of a cop’s existence. Now, he found himself in the station’s break room, choking down what laughingly passed for coffee. There was still one more hour to go before he could sign-off and head to his apartment for some well-needed quiet time. He just hoped no emergencies came up to add another few hours to his shift.

Rolling his stiff shoulders, the blame of which fell on the drunk ex-football player, he turned and looked out the wide windows onto the streets of Los Angeles. The city was a bustle of movement and noise. He still remembered the quiet, sedate pace of life in Sunnydale even though he’d only spent ten months there, and he’d now been in Los Angeles for over four years. The sharp contrast between the two places was unmistakable. He hadn’t minded the slower tempo of his time on the Sunnydale PD. His memories of working there were mostly good. Still, some things were best forgotten. And his time in Sunnydale was one of those things.

Angel frowned at his train of thought. Four years, he said to himself. Four years and it still grated on him. She still grated on him. She was one of those things best forgotten. But he couldn’t ever quite seem to accomplish that. After all this time, she was still there in the back of his mind. Like a splinter, he thought derisively, one of those nasty ones that just wouldn’t come out once it had embedded itself under your skin. Yes, that description fit her perfectly.

They’d been together only six months, and still she’d gotten under his skin. What had started out as a blazing passion had changed into something different, something deeper. Oh, the passion had still been there, burning brightly, but somewhere along the line he’d found that he genuinely liked her and cared for her. She’d been witty, fun to be around, and interesting to talk to. And just as he’d begun to realize what that something deeper he’d been feeling for her was, he’d found out that she’d been surrounded by lies. Nothing about her had been what he’d been led to believe. Just smoke and mirrors. That’s all she’d been.

So he’d left Sunnydale, and her, behind. He’d had no choice really. She, and her lies, could have destroyed him. Pure luck had gotten him out before he’d lost his job, or worse. He didn’t feel particularly lucky about any of it. But none of it mattered now. That part of his life was over.

Swallowing the last gulp of the lukewarm coffee, Angel crumpled up the cup and tossed it in the trash can just as he heard a female voice bellowing out his name. He turned to see his partner, Faith Aronson, stride into the room. His eyes rolled, as they usually did, at her annoying habit of calling him ‘Angie’. He knew she did it just to get a rise out of him, so he refrained from commenting.

“I think the whole station heard you shouting for me, Faith,” he told her, all the while wondering how she managed to walk so quickly in jeans that didn’t appear to leave much room for movement. He was male enough to appreciate her curvy body, along with the rest of her, but he’d never felt a sexual attraction to her. She was his partner, and a damn good one, as well as his friend, nothing more.

“Well, if you had answered me, I wouldn’t have had to shout,” she shot back, her tone serious.

Angel caught the urgency in her voice and realized he wouldn’t be getting off his shift on time. “What’s up?”

“Friend of mine just called,” Faith began, grabbing Angel by the arm and pulling him out of the break room as she continued to explain. “She came home and found her apartment broken into and busted up.”

“Great,” he groaned dejectedly. No, he definitely wouldn’t be getting home soon.

“Bitch later,” Faith ordered, yanking hard on his arm. “Move now.”

{====^====}

“Swanky place,” Angel muttered as Faith pulled up with a screech of tires in front of a battered looking brick building.

Faith got out of the car and eyed the building as Angel walked around to stand beside her. “Once you see the inside, you’ll be reevaluating, pal. The inside was completely redone about three years ago. It’s got these really great lofts with high ceilings and hardwood floors.”

“They should have saved on the hardwood and fixed up the outside,” he pointed out, glancing distastefully at some graffiti on one corner of the building.

Shrugging, Faith walked up toward the front door. “It adds character.”

“There’s no lock on the main door?” Angel asked when his partner simply opened it and walked in.

“No, which explains how someone would have been able to easily get inside the building,” she strode over to a refurbished cargo elevator and pulled open the gates.

Angel said nothing as Faith pushed the button for the fourth floor. He was exhausted and his shoulder was really beginning to ache from its contact with a linoleum floor earlier that day. All he wanted was to go home, grab a beer, and flop on his couch. But first he had to deal with Faith’s friend and the burglar-friendly building she lived in.

“There are two apartments on her floor,” Faith explained, ignoring the annoyance she could feel radiating from Angel. “One of them is empty. The guy moved out like two weeks ago and no one’s moved in yet.”

“So it was unlikely anyone saw someone breaking in,” he concluded.

“Right,” she agreed as the elevator came to a stop with a metallic thud.

The hallway they stepped into was brightly lit with overhead fluorescent lights. The stark white walls almost glowed under the harsh illumination. The area was clean, though, Angel noted. And the carpet was unstained, moderately expensive looking. It was too bad, he thought, that the owner hadn’t chosen a softer color for the walls instead of the plain white.

He followed Faith down the hall until she came to a stop in front of a plain wooden door. At first glance he could tell someone had broken in. There were scratches on the paint on the door and adjoining wall as if someone had pried at the door with a crowbar. No deadbolt, he also noted. This place was a B&E guy’s dream, Angel thought with a snort of derision. Faith’s friend obviously didn’t think too much about her safety.

Faith pounded on the door and shouted, “Yo, B! Open up!”

Sighing, Angel leaned against the wall to the right of the door and rubbed at the headache beginning to build in his temples. He winced when she pounded louder on the door. Only a moment later, he heard the slide of a security chain being removed followed by the click of the simple lock on the door knob.

“I heard you the first time, Faith,” a voice spoke as the door opened.

A shiver ran down Angel’s spine. He knew that voice. There was absolutely no mistaking who that voice belonged to. It took all of his self control to hold back a disgusted laugh, and the vicious urge to back down the hallway and get as far away as possible from whom that voice belonged to. Of all the luck, he thought silently.

“Well, if you had answered the door on the first knock,” Faith shot back having no idea what was running through her partner’s head.

“That’s not knocking where I come from, Faith. That's pounding,” the voice rebutted.

“Whatever,” Faith snorted, and suddenly her face went serious. “What happened, B?”

As Faith’s friend was still standing inside the apartment, he couldn’t yet see her. He could still get the hell away before she saw him, he told himself. Just as he was considering the pros and cons of running, Faith grabbed his arm and yanked him forward. Too late, he thought with a sigh.

“This is my partner-“

“Angel,” Faith’s friend gasped in shock.

He could only stare at her. She looked so...different, was all he could think. Her hair was a rich honey blonde that flowed in light waves passed her shoulders. Gone were the hot pink streaks. The heavy makeup he’d always seen her in was replaced by lighter colors that were barely noticeable. Also gone were the leather pants and minuscule tank tops. She was wearing a breezy sun dress in pale blue with white flowers on it. He wondered if he’d have even recognized her if he’d passed her on the street. She looked nothing liked the woman he remembered.

“Lizzie,” he responded flatly.

“Lizzie?” Faith repeated in confusion.

“Old nickname,” B mumbled after moment, unable to tear her eyes away from Angel, or to fight off the heavy feelings of guilt rising within her at seeing him after so many years.

“Oh, huh. I like Buffy better,” Faith stated lightly. “So you two know each other? Well, that makes things simpler,” she continued on, pushing her way into the apartment, completely missing the undercurrents between her two friends.

“Yeah, we know each other,” Angel muttered, hating himself for the aching desire building in his gut as he stared at the woman who’d caused him so much trouble. “So its Buffy now, is it?” he bit out harshly.

“I-I...,” Buffy stuttered, thrown off more by Angel’s appearance than by having her apartment broken into.

Before she could speak again, Faith’s voice broke through their anger-laden conversation. “Damn, B. This wasn’t just a robbery. Who the fuck did you piss off?”

Angel spared a furious glare at Lizzie before pushing past her and entering the apartment. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the destruction inside. Faith was right. It didn’t appear to be a simple robbery. The place was torn to pieces.

In the middle of what he assumed was the living room was a navy blue couch with long slices in it, white stuffing spilling drunkenly from each slash. A coffee table was tipped on its side, the glass top shattered beside it. The TV had a large hole in the screen. Books were scattered across the floor where they’d been tossed off of a now empty bookshelf. And that was just the start of it. Everywhere he looked something was destroyed.

“Christ,” he mumbled as he stepped up next to Faith.

“That sums it up,” she agreed before turning to Buffy. It was then that she noticed her friend’s unease and utterly colorless face. “B? You all right? You’re not gonna pass out or anything are you?”

“I...I need some water,” she answered and quickly dashed out of the room.

Faith turned and stared at Angel with lowered brows. His eyes were glaring in the direction Buffy had gone. “What the hell’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Angel snapped before striding across the room to pretend he was studying the results of the break-in.

Shaking her head in confusion, Faith weighed her options. Seeing Buffy as the lesser of two evils, she went after her friend with every intention of getting an explanation. She found her friend standing in front of the sink with her hands gripping the counter so hard her knuckles were white. “B?” she questioned hesitantly.

“God, Faith,” Buffy whispered as she turned to her friend. “That’s him.”

“Him? What do you mean ‘him’? That’s Angel, my part-.” She broke off quickly at the look of abject misery on Buffy’s face. There was only one person she knew of that put that look in Buffy’s eyes. “Oh! Fuck. You mean Angel is...”

“Yeah, he’s the one I messed up royally with,” Buffy confirmed, running a shaky hand through her hair.

“Damn,” Faith replied. “I can’t believe my partner is THAT guy. You never told me his name.”

“And you always called your partner Angie, and you told me his real name was Liam, I think,” Buffy stated, her eyes nervously darting to the doorway leading to the living room.

“Yeah. He never goes by Liam, though.” She sighed and leaned a hip on the table tucked into one corner of the kitchen. “Man, this blows. I can get rid of him if you want.”

“No. No,” Buffy repeated, more strongly the second time. “I can handle it. Just give me a minute.”

“Sure. I’ll go start looking through the rest of the apartment.” Faith gave one last look at Buffy, feeling her loyalties torn in two. Angel was her partner and good friend. But Buffy was her best friend. How the hell was she supposed to handle this?

She had to force herself not to stomp when she reentered the living room where Angel was picking through the rubble. “Find any clues, Sherlock?” she asked in a bright cheeriness she wasn’t feeling.

Angel looked up and narrowed his eyes at the expression on Faith’s face. He knew without asking that she was now aware of more than just a little of his history with her friend. Groaning, he rubbed at his aching head, before rising out of his crouch. “Nothing so far, but I haven’t made it out of the living room.”

“Well, there are two bedrooms back there, and – oh shit!” she cursed loudly, and before Angel could blink, she was dashing up the stairs to the lofted second level. More out of curiosity than real worry, he followed.

At the top of the stairs, he could do nothing but stare. The large, open area was, besides being a destroyed mess, full of artist’s tools. Paints and brushes, jars and bottles littered the floor. An easel was tipped on its side, bright paint was splashed over it. Several canvases were shredded and tossed around on the floor. Lizzie – Buffy, he corrected himself – was a painter? Just one more thing she’d never bothered to clue him on, he laughed to himself.

Out of the corner of her eye, Faith saw Buffy appear at the top of the stairs. She could see the raw pain in Buffy’s eyes over the destruction in this room. “God, Buffy. All your work.”

Stepping into the room, Buffy forced herself to look at her studio. Almost everything there was a total loss. She kicked at a tube of paint on the floor, avoiding looking at Angel at all costs. “I got lucky,” she said in tired acceptance.

“Lucky? This doesn’t look very lucky to me,” Faith disagreed, waving an arm at the room.

“I had all my canvases for the show taken over to the gallery yesterday. I consider that lucky,” she explained with a shrug. “If they’d been here...”

“Yeah, gotcha,” Faith conceded. “I’ll go with lucky then.”

Buffy walked over to a torn canvas lying face down on the floor in the corner. She picked it up and studied what was left of the image. “This was the only one I’d had left to finish for the show.”

The desolation in her voice was like a kick to Angel’s gut. He didn’t want to feel sorry for her. It was hard for him to believe she deserved it. But even he wasn’t that cruel. Whatever the painting had been obviously had meant a lot to her. It was beyond him to not feel sorry for her loss.

Dropping the canvas to the ground, Buffy wiped her clammy hands on her dress. “Look, just...do whatever you have to do here. I’ll get out of your way.” She hurried down the stairs and away from the ruins of her studio, and the man that made her heart ache with a pain so deep it hurt.

{====^====}

Two hours later, Faith and Angel were back in Faith’s car pulling away from Buffy’s apartment building. They’d done a quick run through of the apartment before calling in a team to do a more thorough workover. After searching through the utter destruction, they hadn’t found any clues. And confirming Faith’s suspicion, nothing appeared to be missing. Everything of Buffy’s had simply been torn to pieces. Robbery obviously hadn’t been the motive. Faith hadn’t wanted to leave her friend alone when someone seemed to have it in for her, but Buffy had all but pushed her out the door. Maybe she’d go back after dropping Angel off back at the station. She didn’t like leaving her friend alone after all that had happened. And she didn’t just mean the unexpected run-in Buffy had had with a guy from her past.

“So,” Angel broke the silence in the car. “You know Lizzie – Buffy – or whatever the hell she’s calling herself these days.” It was an accusation more than a question.

“Yeah.” Faith eyed him warily. “I know her.”

“Better watch your back,” he uttered sarcastically.

Faith gripped the steering wheel hard before whipping the car over to the side of the road, ignoring the blaring horn coming from the car behind her. “Look,” she began, shifting to face Angel. “I know some messy shit happened between you two.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Angel cut in.

“You’re wrong,” she corrected sharply. “I know all of it. But that doesn’t matter. What happened was four years ago. You’re both my friends now. Don’t put me in the middle of it.”

“Hey, you want to be friends with a lying bitch, it’s not my problem,” Angel said with a humorless laugh.

“Don’t push it, Angie,” she shot back then whipped the car back onto the road. “Maybe you should give her a chance to explain sometime,” she added before the car lapsed into silence once again.

{====^====}
Part 2
{====^====}

The sound of the door slamming barely registered in Angel's mind as he stalked into his apartment. How could he think about anything other than her. The very last thing he had expected when he went to work today was that he would have a thoroughly mind numbing encounter with Lizzie...Buffy...whatever her name was. He'd left all that behind him in Sunnydale. At least he thought he had. That had been the plan.

When he had transferred out of the Sunnydale PD four years earlier, his sole intention had been to put his time there completely in his past. That short time in spent in Sunnydale and his relationship with Lizzie had almost ruined his life. There was no way he could have stayed there once he'd learned the truth about her, no way he could leave himself open to running into her, no way he could chance anyone finding out about their relationship. So he had put in for a transfer, packed up his stuff, and left. He hadn't even bothered to tell her goodbye. He hadn't wanted to see her again.

The plan had been to never see her again, to never fall victim to her easy lies once more. Well, that plan was shot to hell. He still couldn't fathom the fact that she had just popped back up in his life so suddenly. The moment he had heard her voice he'd known he was screwed. Something about her just reached inside him and tore him to pieces.

But who was the woman he'd seen today? She certainly wasn't the Lizzie he'd known. Angel could still remember the first moment he had seen her stalking across the noisy club towards him. She'd been wearing skin tight leather pants and a slinky tank top then. Her hair had been streaked hot pink, her face covered in pounds of heavy makeup. And she'd come on to him like he was the last man on earth. That young woman shared little with the one he had encountered today.

Buffy, the one he'd seen today, had been almost demur in comparison to the Lizzie from years ago. There'd been very little resemblance at all. Was this persona of hers just another bunch of lies? Angel wondered. What was she playing at this time? There had to be some kind of game. After all, everything was a game to Lizzie. Angel just hoped that he wasn't about to get snared in her tangled web of lies again.

Pacing across his dimly lit apartment, Angel flopped down onto the couch and let his head drop back onto the cushion. The hours he'd spent in Lizzie's – Buffy's - apartment ran through his head like a movie. He tried to find any clue, any slip-up in her veneer, to give him an idea at what she was trying to pull, but nothing stood out.

She had avoided him for the most part while he and Faith had investigated the apartment, but he'd kept an eye on her. Still, Angel had not seen anything questionable. Everything about her, about her situation, had seemed real. Was it possible that she was on the up and up? Right, Angel snorted. Lizzie – Buffy – was a master at playing games. It had taken him over five months to figure out she had been playing him the last time around.

Faith's words rang in Angel's head, that he should let Lizzie explain. Explain what? There wasn't anything to explain. She had played him, lied to him. Period. There weren't any excuses for that.

Unwelcome, the memory of when her lies first began to unravel snuck into his mind. He should have walked away then, Angel told himself. He should have been clued in that she wasn't at all who she had made herself out to be. Stupid was what he'd been. If things had gone differently that day, he would have been totally fucked...

Barely restrained fury coursed through Angel as he climbed the stairs of his apartment building two at a time. Damnit, he didn't need to deal with this shit. Lizzie was going to have some explaining to do.

Ten minutes earlier, he had received a call on his cell phone from his neighbor, a nice elderly woman who was rather nosy and unfortunately tended to complain, who'd told him that the noise coming out of his apartment was just too loud. When he'd asked what noise, the woman had told him that there was music and the sounds of people laughing and talking coming from the inside of his apartment. And she'd asked him to please tell the party to quiet down, obviously thinking that he was part of the whole deal.

Only he wasn't at his apartment, and there wasn't any party. At least there shouldn't have been. The only possible explanation was that Lizzie let herself in using the key he'd told her to feel free to use anytime, and that she'd brought friends. He hadn't exactly ever told her not to bring anyone over, but she should know better than to be too loud.

Arriving on the sixth floor, Angel threw open the door and thudded down the hallway towards his apartment. Yeah, he could hear the noise all right. He was surprised there hadn't been more complaints. At least his neighbor had called him instead of going to the superintendent. He really didn't need to have that jerk on his back.

Angel slid his key into the lock, flicked his wrist, and threw open the door. The sight that greeted him upped his anger ten-fold. And shocked and hurt him on a level he couldn't possibly explain.

Quickly, he slammed the door behind him. No one, not even Lizzie, noticed. How could they with all the noise? Stalking to the stereo to the right of the door, he turned it off and faced the crowd gathered in his living room.

Immediately, their fun and games ceased, each of their eyes snapping to him. Angel didn't miss the nervous guilt that instantly crossed Lizzie’s face, but at the moment, he didn't give a damn.

His eyes scanned the group of five seated around his coffee table. Cans of beer lay scattered around the area, along with a bottle of what looked like vodka, but that wasn't what shot his anger nearly through the roof. That was caused by the easily identified marijuana cigarettes and the suspicious baggie of blue pills.

“Everybody out! NOW!” he roared.

In ten seconds flat, each and every one of them, except for Lizzie, had darted out of the room. Angel hadn't spared them a glance. His focus was entirely on Lizzie.

That not so little incident had told him a lot about who exactly Lizzie was. She'd been someone who didn't give a damn about how her actions affected others, and someone who lied easily.

When things between them became more than a passing affair, he'd asked her if she did any drugs. He'd known she was a wild child who lived a little bit on the edge. It wouldn't have surprised him if she'd said yes. But she'd sworn to him that she didn't. He wouldn't have abandoned her if she'd said yes. He would have helped her break whatever bad habits she had, but she'd told him no. Obviously, that had been a lie.

He had also told her he wouldn't have any part in her drinking alcohol. She'd been underage and he couldn't take the chance of her getting caught when he was with her. Not that he could possibly condemn her for drinking underage since he'd indulged in that when he'd been under twenty-one. But seeing as how he was a cop, he couldn't take the chance of her getting caught drinking illegally in his presence. And she had agreed, promised him, that she wouldn't do anything she shouldn't.

Another big fucking lie. That little party of hers that included drugs and alcohol – in his apartment – could have ruined him. If his neighbor hadn't called him, if she'd called the police station and complained or gone to the super, his career would have been gone in a flash. A nineteen year old being found in his apartment with booze and drugs would definitely have gotten him fired, and likely brought up on charges, no matter that he hadn't been there.

Lizzie had apologized profusely, telling him that her friends had brought the contraband. He should have walked away from her then, should have booted her right out of his life. But he hadn't. Eventually, he had forgiven her though his trust in her hadn't been fully restored.

Instinct had told him he was asking for more trouble. But by then his heart had been tied up. How could he have known that night when he'd walked into The Bronze and come face to face with a force of nature that he'd fall in love? Or at least almost love? That had been the very last thing he'd planned on having happen. When Lizzie had all but thrown herself at him, he'd figured they'd have a night of good sex and that would be the end of it. But that one night had turned into two, then three, then a week, and on an on.

Behind that mask of skanky clothes, pink streaked hair, and slut makeup, Lizzie hadn't been at all what he'd been expecting. They'd enjoyed the same movies, liked to take late-night walks, and just spend time alone together. During all their time together, though, she'd been especially silent about her personal life. He should have taken that as a clue.

He should have listened to his instincts.

Only two weeks after the party incident, the bottom had fallen out of their relationship. She'd been caught in one more lie, one he couldn't possibly excuse, and that had been the end. He'd walked away and not bothered to look back.

Well, that wasn't quite true. He'd looked back plenty trying to figure out how he could have been so utterly stupid. And despite his best intentions, he'd never been able to push her fully from his mind, not even four years after the fact.

He would never be able to do that now that she had reappeared again, bringing more mystery with her.

That thought brought Angel up short as he was reminded about what had brought him to...Lizzie’s...apartment in the first place, the break-in, the destruction. Angel's brow furrowed as he thought about it. That hadn't been any random break-in or violence. That had been systemic destruction. Someone had obviously been very angry.

What would have happened if Lizzie had been there at the time? He shuddered unconsciously. No matter what his feelings towards Lizzie and their past were, he certainly didn't want to see her harmed. He wasn't that type of guy.

Angel tried to puzzle out the break-in, but all he knew for sure was that the vandalism had been personal, and it had been violent. And there she was living in that building with no outer locks and no deadbolt on her door. She was just asking for trouble. Again. That didn't stop him from picking up the phone and dialing. As it was ringing, he questioned his sanity, but didn't hang up.

“Xander,” he spoke when the phone was answered. “I need a favor.”

{====^====}

The following day, Buffy stood in the middle of the living room surveying the damage. Everything was a loss. It would all have to be tossed. But that was the farthest thing from her mind. She was still seeing Angel's face as he appeared before her at her door the day before.

The moment she'd realized that it was indeed Angel standing there before her, she'd wanted to throw herself in his arms, but the condemnation in his eyes had stopped her cold. He'd looked as thought he hated her. She couldn't blame him. Everything he felt about her she deserved. She'd managed to irrevocably screw up the one good thing she'd had in her life then. God, she'd been so stupid.

Before Buffy could get too involved in her self-reproach, Faith walked out of the kitchen and winced yet again at the complete mess that was Buffy's apartment.

“Man, B, this sucks,” Faith muttered. “What are you going to do about it?”

“I don't know,” Buffy answered, sighing loudly as she tried to push all thoughts of Angel and her royal screw-up out of her mind. “I guess I'll just get rid of everything and start over.”

At least she could afford to buy all new stuff. If her art career wasn't going so well she'd be shit out of luck. But she had the money for new furniture, new clothes...new everything. Even so, the entire situation sucked.

Faith wandered around the room, toeing junk out of the way. “I've got tomorrow off, I can come over and help you get some of this mess cleaned up.”

“Thanks,” Buffy said gratefully. She'd need all the help she could get. Faith was always there when she needed her, and had been since her move to Los Angeles two and a half years ago. “I was thinking we could stop at Ikea or Pier One after we're done tonight so I could order some stuff and have it delivered in a few days.”

“Sounds good. I don't want to have to sit on the floor every time I come over,” Faith joked. She glanced down at her watch and groaned. “We'd better get going or we're going to be late.”

“Okay, just let me go change real quick.” Buffy dashed out of the room and headed toward her bedroom. Hopefully, she'd be able to find something to wear since most of her clothes were torn to pieces.

Just as she was digging a pair of old jeans out a box under her bed, Buffy heard a knock echo through her apartment. She looked down at her half-naked self and winced. “Faith? Could you get that?”

“Sure!” Faith shouted back as she headed toward the door. Opening it, she raised a curious eyebrow. “Xander? What the hell are you doing here?”

“Faith? Oh...I, um...well...,” the young man stuttered uncomfortably.

Faith eyed Xander with interest. She glanced down to see his toolbox dangling from one hand, and a package from a hardware store in the other. The sight wasn't unusual. She knew Xander did construction work, after all he had a contract with the city and had done work at her precinct building a few times. That was how he and Angel had become friends. It took her only a moment to put two and two together.

She glanced over her shoulder, glad to see Buffy was still in her room, and leaned closer to Xander. “Angel sent you over, didn't he?” she whispered to him.

“Uh, yeah. He said the woman who lives here was your friend and needed new locks on her door,” Xander relayed.

“Right,” Faith snorted. She knew exactly why Angel had done it, but she'd keep that to herself for now.

“Faith?” Buffy said as she entered the living room. “Who's here?”

“Oh!” Faith whipped around and faced Buffy. “This is, umm, Xander. He's a friend of mine.”

“Okay,” Buffy drawled slowly.

“I, umm, asked him to come by and put a deadbolt on your door.” Faith turned her head and glared at Xander, daring him to contradict her. “You said you wanted better locks,” she quickly pointed out to Buffy.

“You didn't have to do that,” Buffy replied. “I could have called somebody, or talked to my landlord.”

“I know, but I wanted it to get done as soon as possible and Xander said he had time to do it,” Faith explained, gathering her coat and backpack. “We better go, B.”

“Shouldn't I stay here while your friend is installing the locks?” Buffy asked warily.

“Oh, no. He'll be fine. He won't take anything.” Faith eyed the apartment. “Not that there's anything left to take. And he'll lock up when he's done. Right, Xander?”

“Uhh, yeah, sure,” Xander hesitantly reassured the strangely acting Faith.

“See! Great! Come on, B!” Faith grabbed Buffy's arm and pulled her toward the door.

Buffy thought about putting up a fight, but she knew better than to argue with Faith. “Wait, won't I need new keys to get back in?”

“Oh, yeah.” Xander stooped down and cut open the packages he was holding. He grabbed a key out of each and held them out to Buffy. “I need to keep the duplicates for now to test the locks after I install them, but I'll drop them in your mailbox downstairs after I'm done.”

“Great! Thanks, Xand!” Faith waved goodbye and tugged Buffy out into the hallway, not even bothering to let her say another word.

{====^====}
Part 3
{====^====}

Angel cursed vividly at the “Road Closed” sign that blocked the route that he normally took home each day. Why the hell was the road closed? There hadn't been any notices of construction. At least not that he'd seen. What the hell was he supposed to do now?

Having no other choice, Angel put on his turn signal and went right at the intersection. He'd just have to take a less direct route. That, of course, would probably add a half hour onto his driving time, and all he wanted to do was get home. His take-out would be cold by the time he arrived. Just another thing to add onto the list of everything that had gone wrong lately.

He continued driving down the road, looking for somewhere to turn left so that he could head back in the direction of his apartment. All the roads seemed to be one-way in the wrong direction, though. Just his luck. Finally, he found one he could turn onto and made the left.

The road wasn't familiar despite the fact that he'd lived in the area for four years. He didn't spend much time sight-seeing near where he lived, and his precinct didn't cover this area. Hopefully, it would take him out onto a road he recognized.

Driving slowly so that he could keep an eye out for something familiar, Angel saw a car that looked like Faith's pulling off into a parking space a little ways down the road. He frowned in consideration. Faith didn't live anywhere near here. What could she possibly be doing?

Always concerned for his partner, he pulled over to the side of the road, far enough away so that he wouldn't be spotted. He watched as what he thought was Faith's car finished parallel parking. Sure enough, a moment later, he saw her brunette head pop out of the car. A second later, a blonde got out of the passenger side. A blonde female. It didn't take a genius to figure out who the blonde was. Faith was with Lizzie. But where were they going?

Angel waited while the two crossed the sidewalk and entered into the courtyard of a building they'd parked near. He gave them another minute to get where they were going before he pulled his car back onto the road. He drove slowly, glad no one was behind him, curious about where they could have gone. There didn't appear to be any restaurants or stores in the area. Just houses and large warehouse-like buildings.

When he was opposite the courtyard they'd entered, Angel slowed his car to a halt and studied the space. The courtyard was on the small side and surrounded by a rather tall, black iron fence. It opened to a rather large building that seemed to be a complex of some sort, maybe apartments. He couldn't tell. He searched for a sign to tell him what the place was, but all he saw was a small wooden plaque on the fence that said “The Hyperion”. Nothing else. Odd.

A car horn blared behind him, jolting Angel out of perusal. He reluctantly set the car in motion again, still wondering where Faith and Lizzie had gone. And what trouble Lizzie could possibly be getting Faith into. She always brought trouble. He'd have to talk to Faith again, get her to see the reality of her so-called friend.

{====^====}

Bright fluorescent lights greeted Faith when she walked into the police station the next morning. She glanced at her watch and grumbled. Mornings were her very least favorite time of the day. It was just so...early.

Half stumbling, half walking, she entered the bullpen – the place where everyone's desks were – and groaned when she spotted Angel. There he sat, already entrenched in work. He looked as though he'd been awake and working for hours. Knowing him, it wasn't out of the realm of possibility. Angel seriously needed to get a life.

After reaching her desk chair, she flopped down and promptly propped her booted feet on her desktop. “Morning Angie,” she greeted with an exaggerated yawn.

Angel glanced up and half glared at her over the use of his least favorite nickname. “Your,” he looked down at his watch, “only five minutes late today. I'm impressed.”

“Oh shut up,” she mumbled as she got back up out of her chair in search of some coffee. “Be right back.”

Faith returned two minutes later, a large cup of the station's toxic coffee in hand. Instead of sitting back down in her chair, she hopped up on the corner of Angel's desk and sipped her coffee.

“Make yourself at home,” he said sarcastically without bothering to look up.

“Someone's in a bad mood this morning,” she teased.

“Some of us have worked to do,” he shot back, jotting notes down in a file.

“Oh come on, Angel. Gimme a chance to wake up!”

Seeing an opportunity to prod Faith about where she'd been the night before with Lizzie, Angel dropped his pencil down on his desk and leaned back in his chair. “So what did you do last night to make you so tired today?”

“Not much. Just hung out,” she answered evasively and shrugged.

“Just hung out?” Angel repeated.

“Yeah. You know, hanging out. Oh, right, I forgot you don't have a social life.” She smiled and patted his shoulder condescendingly.

Her answer hadn't clued him in at all about what she'd been doing with Lizzie. He didn't want to ask outright. Likely, she'd get all pissed off and accuse him of spying on her. Which he certainly hadn't been doing. All he'd done was drive down a street. He'd have to find another way to question her without her figuring out what he was doing. And all he was doing, he told himself, was looking out for her well-being. He didn't want to see Lizzie drag her down.

“So what are you working on?” Faith asked, nodding to what Angel had been writing when she walked in.

“Working on a possible lead on the B&E at your friend’s apartment.” He purposely avoided saying her name. If he didn't say it, he could try to ignore who the apartment belonged to and try to solve the case.

“Really?” Faith perked up and looked expectantly at Angel's notes. If they could catch whoever had destroyed Buffy's things she would feel much better. Something really worried her about the break in and property violence. She wanted to make sure her friend was safe.

“Yeah,” he nodded. “I saw a name and phone number written on a piece of paper and stuck to the fridge in her apartment. Knowing Lizzie...Buffy,” he ground out, “I wouldn't put it past one of her...friends...to be responsible. And the name seemed vaguely familiar so I checked it out.”

Instantly worried, Faith sat up straighter and set her coffee down behind on her her desk. “What was the name?”

“William Burns,” Angel relayed.

“W-william Burns,” she stuttered, her hands clenching on the edge of Angel's desk.

Oblivious to Faith's reaction, Angel further explained. “Yeah, also known as Spike Burns. Guy's got a rap sheet too. Possession, drunk and disorderly, reckless driving. That kind of thing.” He stared down at the file, frowned. “He seems to have been clean the last few years, though.”

“Just because he has a record doesn't mean he's guilty!” Faith shot back. “Maybe he went legit.”

“Right,” Angel snorted. “And leopards change their spots.

Faith held back the retort that was on the tip of her tongue. This wasn't something she could fight with Angel about. There were things he didn't know, things she didn't want him to know. But she could do something.

“I gotta go to the bathroom.” She hopped off his desk and hurried out of the room.

Angel stared after her, confused, finally having caught on to her weird behavior. What was all that about, he wondered? Probably nothing. It wasn't like Faith didn't act strange regularly.

Once in the hallway, Faith rushed toward the pay phones. She picked up the receiver, dug some change out of her pocket. Before she dialed, she glanced around, making sure no one was around to hear. The hallway was empty, thankfully, so she dropped her change in and dialed. The phone rang four times before it was answered.

“B! We've got a problem...”

{====^====}

Angel slid his car into one of the few available parking spaces and shifted into Park, leaving the engine running so the air conditioner could continue to shield them against the humid air outside. Beside him, Faith was already rummaging around in the paper bag that their lunches had come in. He spared a moments thought over the unhealthiness of fast food, but right now he didn't care. He was starving and this was the first chance they'd had all day to get lunch.

“Are you going to hand me my sandwich?” he asked when Faith had yet to give him his food.

Pulling it out of the bag, Faith shoved it at him. “There.”

“What bug got up your ass?” he grumbled at her rudeness. Faith had been moody all day and it was starting to get on his nerves.

“I don't know what you mean,” she replied haughtily. Of course, she really did know what he meant. She'd been bitchy all day, but she couldn't help it. She was worried over what Angel had told her about that morning. Buffy had assured her everything would be fine, but Faith wasn't so sure.

“Whatever,” Angel brushed off her denial. He knew Faith, and he knew she wouldn't talk to him unless she wanted to.

“Ugh,” Faith grunted, picking at her sandwich. “I told them not to put onions on it!”

“It's fast food. What do you expect?” he replied, amused at her annoyance.

“Yeah, it's real funny,” she muttered, trying to make sure she got all the onions out.

Angel said nothing, just sat back and ate his lunch. After starting his day off in a less than good mood, he was feeling better. There was nothing like a busy day to take one's mind off his troubles. He knew it wouldn't last. Once work was over he would again have to face Lizzie's sudden reemergence in his life, but for now, he could push her aside. Or so he thought.

“Ya know,” Faith said, suddenly remembering something she'd meant to mention to Angel. “I stopped by B's last night, and the strangest thing happened.”

“Oh?” Angel feigned dumb, though he had a sneaking suspicion where she was headed.

“Uh huh. Xander showed up out of the blue. With a new set of locks for Buffy's apartment. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?” she finished innocently.

Damnit, Angel cursed silently. What the hell had he been thinking calling Xander up and asking him to do that? He hadn't exactly been thinking, he supposed. He'd been worried, remembering the destruction at Lizzie's apartment and the flimsy security of the building. He should have known it would come back to bite him in the ass.

“Don't bother to deny it,” she went on. “Xander's a good friend of yours and there's no other reason he would have shown up like that.”

“A kid could have broken into that place!” he settled on saying, bypassing the more emotional responses that had come to mind.

“Oh come off it, Angel,” she snapped, turning in her seat to face him. “You did it because she still matters to you.”

“Yeah, right,” Angel snorted. Lizzie had lied to him and nearly turned his life upside down. She couldn't possibly matter to him. Could she?

“Deny it all you want...,” she trailed off and became serious. “You really should talk to her, let her explain everything. Maybe it won't make a difference in how you feel, but you should hear her out.”

“Listen, Faith,” he started, but was interrupted by the sound of a cell phone ringing. He was quiet as she fished her phone out of her pants pocket and answered. It was immediately obvious that the call wasn't a good one.

“Okay, just hang in there. We'll be right there,” he heard Faith say then snap her phone shut. She turned to Angel while shoving the remains of her lunch in the bag. “Something's wrong with Buffy.”

Angel didn't bother to ask what, he dumped his trash on Faith's lap and jammed the car into reverse. The tires squealed on the pavement as he shot out of the parking lot.

{====^====}

Angel beat Faith to Lizzie's door by several strides, his longer legs getting him there quicker. He was already pounding on the door when she came to a stop next to him.

“Who is it?” Buffy's voice called from the other side of the door.

“It's us, B!” Faith yelled back.

Her question, followed by the sounds of the safety chain being removed and the deadbolt releasing, relieved Angel. At least Lizzie wasn't a sitting target anymore. No lock was fool-proof, but the new ones would help. He was suddenly very glad he'd called Xander the night before.

The pale look on Buffy's face after she opened the door immediately concerned Faith. She rushed forward, looking over every inch of her friend. “What's wrong? Are you hurt?”

Buffy took a moment to answer, temporarily distracted by Angel's presence. When Faith grabbed her shoulders, Buffy snapped out of her stare and answered. “No, I'm fine. It's just...” She looked over her shoulder toward the couch.

“What happened, Li-..Buffy?” Angel asked, taking a step forward, enough to close the door and lock it behind him. No use taking any chances. Right now, though, his concern was for Lizzie. She looked petrified, her body trembling every so often.

“It's on the couch,” Buffy responded, unable to explain further.

Angel and Faith shared a look and walked quickly to the couch. Lying haphazardly on the cushions was a brown cardboard tube, and next to it a piece of rolled paper. Something told both of them that whatever was on that paper was very bad. Angel reached into his back pocket, looking for a pair of latex gloves, but found none.

“I've got some,” Faith said and began pulling the protective gear over her hands. They snapped into place within seconds and Faith reached down and carefully picked up the paper, making sure to touch it as little as possible. A gasp escaped her lips as the image unrolled before her. “God damn!”

A shudder went through Angel at the vile depiction. It appeared to be a photograph of Lizzie, blown up to the size of a small poster, but that was all that was innocent about it. Whoever had made the poster had also painted a wicked looking dagger dripping with blood, along with bright red slashes on Lizzie's photographed arms and legs. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect was the fact that her eyes had been cut out.

Angel turned away from the image and looked at Lizzie, who stood a few feet away with her arms protectively crossed over her chest. “Where did this come from?”

She didn't answer immediately, her eyes fearfully trained on the poster Faith was still examining. When Angel called her name again, she snapper her gaze to his. “I, um...when the guys from Ikea came to deliver the new furniture, they said it was sitting in front of my door.”

“Did anybody knock before the furniture guys?” he asked, pulling out a notebook to jot down details.

“I didn't hear anything,” she told him.

“Have you been out yet today?” he questioned further.

“Yeah,” she nodded. “I went out early this morning to stop by the gallery to see how the prep for my show was going.”

“And this wasn't there when you left or got back?” Faith interjected, setting the re-rolled picture back on the couch.

“No.”

“Okay,” Angel started and leaned against the back of the couch. “Let's go through your day, including times for everything...”

For the next half hour, Buffy relayed everything she'd done that day, including when she'd gotten up, when she'd left for the gallery and returned, and when the furniture had arrived. When Faith and Angel had all the information, they left the apartment to get an evidence bag from Angel's car and to question the tenants of the building, making sure to tell Buffy to lock up after they'd left. Their casual warning only left Buffy more afraid.

An hour later, they were back, and she couldn't help but be relieved. Even if Angel was one of the people blurring out the fear.

“Did you find anything?” Buffy asked as soon as they had returned.

“Not a thing,” Faith replied dejectedly. “Nobody saw or heard anything strange.”

“Oh,” Buffy mumbled, disappointed that they hadn't gotten any clues as to who was stalking her.

The room was silent for a long minute. Faith watched Angel stalk around the living room, and saw Buffy's eyes following his every movement. Feel the tension, Faith thought. How was a person supposed to deal with these two? She paused and considered. Well, she could give them a little push.

“Listen, I've got to go...meet somebody,” Faith stated out of the blue while grabbing the evidence bag with the poster in it. “I'll drop this off at the station for the guys to go over. Oh, and don't worry, Angel. I'll catch a taxi.”

Before either Angel or Buffy could say a word, Faith had slipped out the door.

“Well, that wasn't obvious or anything,” Buffy mumbled, all the while realizing that she was alone in a room with Angel for the first time in over four years.

{====^====}
Part 4
{====^====}

Angel scowled at the door Faith had just escaped through. He knew exactly what she was doing, and apparently so did Lizzie. How many times had Faith told him he should talk to Lizzie, hear her excuses? Well, this must be Faith's way of speeding things up, leaving him here with the woman who had torn him to pieces. He'd get even with his partner for this.

What he needed to do was get out of here, quick. The longer he was around Lizzie, the worse off he'd be. But even as he thought that, he found himself turning to face her and asking the first question on his mind. “So what's with the name change...Buffy? What? Lizzie wasn't working for you anymore?”

The hostile words made Buffy flinch, though she knew she deserved them. She deserved every bit of rage Angel directed at her. She would deal with this, though. She would deal with him. It was one of the things she'd learned. She had to face her past, her mistakes, her screw-ups. Unless she faced her them, they would always be hanging over her and dragging her down. With that in mind, she took a deep, calming breath, and looked Angel straight in the face.

“Buffy is what I've always been called. My parents gave me the nickname when I was little. Elizabeth was my given name. And Lizzie...,” she hesitated, trying to find the right way to explain what exactly Lizzie had been. “Lizzie was...was my creation.”

“Just a character in your little play?” Angel mocked. “One where I was unknowingly co-star?”

“No, Angel! I never meant-”

“I bet you had a lot of fun lying to me! Was it all just a game?” he accused angrily. All the fury that had built up since he'd left Sunnydale was suddenly boiling over.

“Angel, please?! Let me explain!” Buffy begged, all the while knowing it wasn’t going to do any good if the look on Angel's face was anything to go by.

“Do you know what a fool I felt like?” he continued, blatantly ignoring her pleas, “when I stood there and found out you were seventeen years old? Seventeen! Not twenty like you'd said you were! You lied to me from the very first moment we met, and you certainly didn't give a damn about all the trouble I could have gotten into dating someone underage!”

“I'm sorry! Please, Angel-”

“Ya know what? Save it!” he all but screamed at her. “Everything that's ever come out of your mouth has been lies. I've got better things to do than listen to more of them.”

Before she could stop him, say anything to try to make up for her lies, Angel had stalked out the door, slamming it with a loud smack behind him. A few unbidden tears trickled down her cheeks as she stared at the closed door. He hadn't even given her a chance to tell him why she'd done it all. She knew there was no hope that he'd ever forgive her, but she desperately wanted him to at least understand, to know that she hadn't done it as a ploy or an intentional way to play him.

She'd had her chance with Angel five years ago, and she'd blown it. He'd been the best thing to ever happen to her and she'd let her messed up life ruin it. But she couldn't let things go on as they were. There had to be a way to get him to listen to her. It didn't even really matter if he forgave her. All that mattered was that she tell him, that she make him understand that everything she'd done had had nothing at all to do with him, and everything to do with her.

Determination welled within Buffy. Yes, she would make him listen to her. She would tell him everything. Maybe then they'd have closure. Maybe then she would be able to forgive herself for hurting him. Because she knew she had. She'd seen the look in his eyes when he'd found out her real age all those years ago. There'd been utter disbelief. There'd been anger and rage. But above all those there'd been hurt.

There was only one thing she could do now. She grabbed her cell phone off the new coffee table and dialed.

“Faith,” she said when the call was answered. “We'll get into why you left me here with Angel later. Right now, I need a favor.”

{====^====}

Angel paced around his apartment, each and every one of his muscles still tense. He'd been back home for almost a half hour and he still hadn't been able to let go of the rage from his encounter with Lizzie. No, Buffy. He had to start thinking of her of as Buffy. After all, that was what she'd decided she should go by now.

He snorted out loud and paced to the window on the far side of the room. Buffy, Lizzie. Seventeen, Twenty. It was all the same to her. She wouldn't know the truth if it bit her in the ass. Every single thing he'd ever known – thought he'd known – about her had been based on lies, or been blatant lies. She hadn't even told him her real name for Christ's sake!

Worst of all, though, had been the lie about her age. He hadn't seen that coming. The night he'd met her, she'd said she was twenty, and he hadn't ever had a reason to doubt it. Thinking back, he probably should have. She'd always been a little immature, but he had just attributed that to her eccentric nature. He should have seen through it. She'd never been around during the day, and she often wouldn't stay the night at his apartment. How could she, he snorted, when she probably had a curfew and had to go home.

God! He'd been furious to find out she was only seventeen. Angel didn't know what made him angrier: the fact that she had lied to him, again, or that she'd put him in a position that could have completely destroyed him. If anyone had found out he'd been intimately involved with someone under eighteen...well, it wouldn't have been pretty. Jail would have been the likely outcome.

The memory of the day he'd found out was still vivid. How could it not be when it had been such a shock, and had changed everything? Angel still remembered the look on Lizzie's face when she'd realized she'd been caught in the lie...

{====^====}

Sitting in the squad room, Angel heard someone call his name and looked up to see his boss crossing the floor toward his desk. Must be something important, he thought, to drag the chief out of his office. He hoped he hadn't done anything wrong.

“Angel,” Sunnydale's chief of police said again as he approached Angel.

“Yeah?” Angel asked, setting aside the paper work he'd been completing.

“I need you to go over to the high school and sort out a problem there,” the chief told him, his annoyance at the situation clearly showing in his voice.

“Okay, sure,” Angel agreed, gathering up his stuff. “What sort of problem?”

“A fight or something,” the chief waved his hand dismissively. “See if you can mediate and keep the police officially out of it.”

“Sure,” Angel gave a nod, understanding. He didn't want to have to arrest some kids for what was likely a petty conflict. It usually only caused more trouble and sometimes put good kids in a worse situation. He hoped he'd be able to work it out.

Ten minutes later, he was pulling up in front of the high school in his squad car. As he got out, he saw the principle waiting for him on the front steps. He'd met the guy a few weeks earlier after there had been some vandalism at the high school.

“Mr. Flutie,” Angel greeted him.

“Officer Callahan,” Mr. Flutie returned and stuck out his hand. “Thank you so much for coming. I really hope we can get this amicably solved.”

“You're welcome.” Angel shook his hand and fell into step beside the principle. “What happened? I didn't get many details.”

“A fight between two students. A cat-fight, if you catch my meaning,” he explained knowingly.

“Ahh,” Angel said with a sigh. Great. A fight between two pubescent females. Just what he wanted to deal with.

“Normally, this is something the school would deal with internally, but one of the parents got involved, and well...you know how that can be,” Flutie continued as they reached the front doors.

“Yeah.” Angel really did. Parents liked to make a big deal out of things when it came to their kids.

“From what I know so far, the mother has no grounds. If the story I was told is true, her daughter was the initiator, and the one who gave the black eye.” Flutie shrugged and directed Angel down the hall to his left. “But the other student involved has been known to be a troublemaker, so it's making the situation worse.”

Angel said nothing, just followed the principle down the hall. He wouldn't know anything until he'd been told exactly what had happened.

“I've pulled both students files,” Flutie went on, stopping in front of the door to the main office. “I thought it would be helpful if you looked through those first.”

“Okay, thanks.” Angel took the two manila folders Flutie handed him.

“I've got the one girl and her mother in my office, and the other in the conference room just over there,” he waved to the other side of the office. “You can take a minute to look over those if you want.”

“Thanks.”

Angel glanced down at the first file, and saw the name 'Harmony Kendall' on the tab. He flipped it open and skimmed through the contents. Below average student, only a few disciplinary reprimands. Her picture showed her to be the typical California blonde.

He closed the file and set it on the secretary's desk and opened the second one. The moment he did, his hands stilled and his breath whooshed out of him. It couldnt' be.

“Lizzie,” he whispered.

“Excuse me?” Mr. Flutie asked, looking at Angel oddly.

“N-nothing,” Angel stuttered, his eyes riveted to the file in front of him.

It was her. It was definitely Lizzie, though in this picture, there were no pink streaks in her hair. But he'd know her anywhere.

The implications of what he was seeing were just beginning to settle in Angel's mind. Lizzie – the twenty year old Lizzie he'd been dating and sleeping with - was in high school. His eyes flicked to her date of birth, and he nearly dropped the file as if it had burned him

Seventeen. She was seventeen. Fuck!

Over the shock, a boiling anger began to grow. He remembered the night he'd met her in the club and she had told him she was twenty. What a lie that was! And he'd been and idiot and believed it, believed her.

He snapped the folder closed and dropped it on top of the other one. “I'd like to speak to...Miss Summers first,” Angel requested.

“Sure,” Flutie agreed. “She's over there in the conference room.”

“Thank you,” he said tersely, and walked stiffly to the closed door.

Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door and came face to face with Lizzie. The lying little bitch. The moment she realized it was him, he could see the shock, and the nervous guilt on her face. Yeah, she had a lot to feel guilty about.

{====^====}

Leaning his palms on the windowsill, Angel gazed out at the darkening sky, still lost in the memory. He'd managed to get the situation worked out that day. Lizzie hadn't really done anything except get in a verbal sparring match with a nemesis. The other girl, Harmony, he remembered, had become enraged and punched Lizzie. Then the girl's mother had wanted Lizzie arrested for assault when Lizzie hadn't really done anything.

Some quick thinking, and a lot of official cop talk had gotten the mother to back down. But nothing could have salvaged his relationship with Lizzie. The fact that she'd really been seventeen had played a big role. He was a cop after all. But more so, his trust was destroyed. It had started disintegrating after the party incident, but this lie was just too much. She'd flat-out mislead him, and put him in a really bad situation. Nothing could make that right.

That night after he'd found out the truth, he had stayed at a motel, knowing Lizzie would go to his apartment and wanting to do anything to avoid her. The next day, he'd managed to get a week of his vacation time, and he'd promptly put in for a transfer. There was no possible way he could stay in Sunnydale. The transfer had gone through quickly, and within two weeks, he had moved to Los Angeles. He'd never spoken to Lizzie again.

A loud knock on his door interrupted Angel's brooding. He stared angrily at the partition, hoping whoever it was would go away. No luck. The knock came again, and then again. So he stomped over to the door, cursing in a harsh whisper. He'd get rid of whoever was bugging him. Throwing open the the slab of wood, he groaned.

“Li-Buffy. Great. What the hell do you want now?” he spat at Lizzie – no, Buffy - who stood stiff as a board in the hallway.

“May I come in?” she asked politely, seemingly not thrown by his harsh attitude. She was here for a reason, and she wasn't leaving until she'd accomplished it.

“If I said no, would you go away?” he asked angrily.

“No.” Buffy crossed her arms and stood her ground. They stared at each for a long moment before Buffy sighed and let her shoulders droop. “Angel, I know you don't want to talk to me, and I know you have every reason to hate me, but I *need* to talk to you. I need to tell you about everything. After you've heard it all, I'll leave you alone.”

“Fine,” he snapped at her, and turned away, not bothering to actually invite her in. He'd listen, then he'd tell her to get the hell out of his life.

Buffy followed him in and closed the door behind her. She was tempted to gaze around at Angel's apartment, see where he lived, but she wasn't here for that. She was here to explain what she'd done, and why she'd done it. That was the only reason she'd called Faith to get his address.

She didn't bother to set her purse down, or to sit in one of the chairs. Instead, she stiffened her shoulders once again, and faced Angel. “First, I want to tell you I'm sorry. For all of it. I lied to you, and did things I shouldn't have. You didn't deserve any of it.”

“Well, gee, thanks. I guess that makes it all better!” he sniped sarcastically.

Ignoring the verbal dart, Buffy continued. “I know it probably doesn't make a difference, and it can't erase what I did, but there were reasons. Bad ones, maybe, but they did exist.”

Angel raised an eyebrow and leaned back against the couch cushions, as if waiting for her to put on a show. She was tempted to just leave and say the hell with it. But she stood her ground. She needed to do this.

“Look, Angel, I know you don't care and don't want to hear all of this, but I need to say it. And for it to make sense, I need to start at the beginning, way before I met you. So will you please listen?” she asked as politely as possible. He simply gave a negligent nod.

Buffy took a deep breath, and began the story of her life. “I lived in Los Angeles until I was almost twelve, with my parents and my sister, Dawn. We were pretty normal, I guess. My Dad worked too much, and my parents fought like most, and my sister was the typical annoying, younger sister. Then, when I was eleven, my Dad went away on a business trip.” She took another deep breath and closed her eyes, forcing the anger away.

“He'd been gone two days when...when a guy showed up at the door and served my Mom with divorce papers. It was,” she paused as she tried to think of how best to put. “Well, it was shock. None of us expected it, least of all my Mom. She tried to talk to him, but he wouldn't return her calls. And then she found out he'd been having an affair with his secretary for years.”

“Everything just fell apart. Mom was crying all the time, and didn't care about anything, and Dawn was crying and wanting to know where Daddy was.” Buffy walked slowly to the same window Angel had been standing at earlier and gazed unseeingly out over LA. “It was hard. One minute, I'd had a family, and the next, it was gone. I started acting out. I don't know why, maybe it was to get attention, or maybe I was hoping it would bring my father back. But I got mixed up with the wrong people. Not gang stuff, just kids who were trouble. Mom barely noticed because of everything with the divorce.”

Despite his resolve not to feel anything, Angel couldn't help but feel sorry for the young girl Lizzie had been and what she'd been put through. How could a father do such a thing? But still, it didn't excuse her behavior. So he remained silent.

“Then I got expelled from school,” she said next.

“Expelled?” Angel repeated in shock.

“Yeah,” she gave a sarcastic laugh. “Eleven years old and I got expelled from school. The group I'd gotten messed up with told me if I wanted to be really accepted, I had to do something they'd told me to do. So I did it.”

“What did you do?” he asked, curious despite himself.

“I had to sneak into a school dance and put a smoke bomb in the girl's bathroom. It wasn't hard to do. Unfortunately, when the smoke alarms went off, people freaked. Four people were hurt. Minor injuries...a broken arm, a concussion. Things like that,” she explained, clearly regretting the incident. “A teacher had seen me come out of the bathroom, and in the end I was expelled.”

“Mom flipped out. She blamed me, blamed dad. Eventually, she moved me and Dawn to Sunnydale, thinking it would get me away from the crowd I was involved with,” Buffy continued, leaning against the windowsill and gazing sadly at Angel. It wasn't easy for her to remember how bad things had been, and also knowing they'd only gotten worse later.

“But it didn't change anything,” Angel assumed, still telling himself not to care about any of it.

“Not really,” she confirmed. “Because...because two months later, my mom died.”

“What?” Angel gasped, shocked yet again. Good grief, how much more could there be?

“Brain aneurysm,” she answered clinically, though inside it still hurt. “Dawn and I got up for school one morning, and Mom didn't come down. I just figured she was running late, so we went to school. Dawn had drama club after school and Mom was supposed to pick her up, but she never came. She managed to get a hold of me, and I went to school and walked home with her. When...when we got home, Mom's car was there. And...and I went up to her room. She was there...dead.”

“God!” Angel breathed out. He couldn't imagine finding one of his parents dead.

“I blamed myself,” Buffy went on. “The doctor said her death was instantaneous, and that there was nothing that could have been done to save her. I understand that now, but back then I blamed myself. If I'd checked on her that morning then maybe...”

“You were what? Twelve, Li-Buffy? There wasn't anything you could do,” Angel said, a strange softness in his voice that he hadn't meant to be there.

“I know, but it was hard not to think that way. I-” she was cut off when Angel's cell phone rang.

He shot an apologetic look at Buffy and pulled his phone off the clip on his belt. “Hello?...yeah....now?...okay, sure.” He hung up the phone and reclipped it before looking at Buffy. “I've got to go, there's been a break in one of my cases.”

“Oh, okay,” she said, disappointed that he would have to leave. It had felt good to finally get all this off her chest, to finally explain to him why she'd acted so terribly. But it could wait. She could finish later.

“I'm sorry,” he apologized, and surprisingly, he was. When she'd said she wanted to explain everything to him, he hadn't really known what to expect. Maybe some typical story about teenage rebellion angst, but not what he'd heard so far. And he found he wanted to know the rest. He needed to know. They needed closure on all that had happened between them. So he gazed back at Buffy. “We can finish this later, okay?”

“Okay,” she agreed, relieved that this wasn't the end of it.

Angel walked her down to her car, saying nothing other than a cursory goodbye, and that he'd talk to her later. It wasn't much, but it was more than he'd given her before. Maybe they could salvage something. She missed Angel.

{====^====}

Hours later, Angel was sound asleep in his bed, exhausted after dealing with the development on a case. He'd only been in bed for a half hour, when the shrill ringing of his phone had his eyes snapping open. Groping around on the night stand, he finally managed to snag the handset to his cordless. Groggily, he pressed the On button and mumbled a hello.

“Angel?” he heard a familiar voice whisper tensely. He shot up in bed. Buffy!

“What's wrong?” He knew immediately something wasn't right. Her tone was enough to tell him that.

“There's-there's someone...outside in the hallway. I think they're trying to get in.”

{====^====}
Part 5
{====^====}

Angel shot through the side streets of Los Angeles with one destination in mind: getting to Buffy. She'd sounded so panicked during the phone call just minutes ago. Someone was outside her apartment. He'd been able to hear the sounds of screaming and pounding through the phone line. Whoever had broken into her apartment, and then sent the disturbing poster was back. He'd told her to hang up, call 911, and lock herself in her bedroom until he, or other officers, got there.

Now, he was speeding to her rescue, the portable siren flashing on his dashboard while he strained to hear the police radio over the blare of the siren. He was hoping to hear that someone had arrived to protect her, but so far, she was still alone. There were several patrol cars in route, along with himself.

All the while as he drove, horrible visions flashed before his eyes about what he'd find when he got there. Would the assailant have gotten in? Would he find her door broken down, and Buffy fighting off an attack? Would she be lying injured on the floor in a pool of blood? Or worse, dead?

Angel shook off the foreboding unease. Buffy would be fine. The locks he'd had Xander install were solid. And if she'd listened to him and locked herself in her room, then that was another barrier her attacker would have to get through. Hopefully, before that could happen, either he or the other officers would have arrived.

Peeling around the last turn, his tires squealing loudly, Angel stepped harder on the gas. Just a few hundred more feet. He slammed on the brakes as he approached her building. Barely remembering to shut off the engine, he leaped out of the car. His first instinct was to run into the building, but years of being a cop had him rethinking. He crouched down low, using his car as a protective barrier.

Eyes sweeping all around him, Angel could see no one at all. He double checked to be safe, and pulled his 9mm out of his shoulder holster. Deeming the area safe, Angel carefully dashed around his car and up the front steps of the building. He stood to the side of the door and peered inside. The lobby was brightly lit. And empty.

Entering through the door, he kept his eyes trained on his surroundings and his ears open for any sound. But it was quite as a tomb. The stairs were the best route to get to Buffy's floor so he slowly opened the door, his gun held out in front of him and his flashlight clutched in his other hand. The stairwell was empty and quiet as well.

The climb to Buffy's floor was tense. He expected some lunatic to jump out at him, but he didn't see a soul. When he got to the door that lead to the fourth floor, he stopped and listened. He couldn't hear a thing. None of the pounding and screaming he'd heard over the phone echoed to him. The person had either left, or reached their target.

Angel turned the knob quietly and slowly, then pushed the door open a mere inch. Still not a sound reached his ears. He really hoped that meant whoever had been harassing Buffy had left. For a quick moment, he refreshed his memory of the layout of the floor. The stairway door was at one end of the hallway, the elevator at the other end. A hallway ran between the entrances and on each side there was one apartment. That meant there was no where for a person to hide. It would have been easier for him if the door he was standing behind had a window, but it was solid steel.

Leading again with his gun, he inched forward until with one eye he could see the hallway before him. There was no screaming psycho for him to arrest, but what he did see turned his heart inside out and churned his stomach.

No, there was no one in the hallway, but evidence that there had been someone remained. Still, Angel was careful. He walked the length of the hall, checked the doors to both apartments, saw they were both closed and undamaged, and surveyed the elevator. He was alone in the hallway. Secure in that knowledge, he again faced what was left in the hallway from whoever had been there.

The previously pristine white walls were scratched and dented as if they'd been mauled by a large object. But worse, red spray paint decorated every available surface. Well, 'decorated' was a subjective word. There was nothing pleasant about what he saw.

Hastily scrawled words came at him from all sides:

Bitch
Slut
Whore
Die
Rest In Hell

and on, and on. There were also some primitive drawings demonstrating what the person would apparently like to do to Buffy. It was absolutely sick. Angel had suspected before, but he was now entirely sure that Buffy was in real danger. This psycho wanted to hurt her, and likely kill her, if the words on the walls were any indication.

Just as Angel was about to pound on Buffy's door, he could hear sirens outside and the shouts of his fellow officers. He knew he should tell them the building appeared to be clear, but he needed to check on Buffy. He could speak with them after.

Several very long seconds passed after he'd knocked and announced his arrival to Buffy before she opened the door. Her face was pale, and her hands shook on the doorknob. Fear was still obviously affecting her. Not that he could blame her.

“Oh, Angel!” she cried out in relief, promptly throwing herself in his arms.

The act threw him for a moment, but then he swiftly wrapped his arms around her shuddering body. She held on tightly, gulping in deep breaths of air.

“Are you all right?” he asked, pushing her away slightly.

“Yes,” she nodded emphatically. “Whoever was out there, they left when they heard the siren a few minutes ago.”

Angel felt relief and annoyance all at once. Buffy was unharmed, and that was really all that mattered. On the other hand, the person had still been in the hallway when he arrived, but had likely heard his siren and fled. He should have turned if off. If he had, he might have been able to apprehend the suspect. Hindsight. At least Buffy was okay.

“Did...did you catch them, or see who it was?” Buffy questioned, chewing nervously on her lower lip.

“No,” Angel answered, frustrated. “He, or she, must have gone out the back entrance. I didn't see anything out front or in the building.”

“I think it was a she-.” Buffy's words abruptly cut off as her eyes widened at something behind Angel. She pushed past him, whispering under her breath, “Oh my God!”

The grab Angel made for Buffy's arm failed. She twisted out of his reach and stepped out into the hallway. “Buffy,” he started to say, but she either didn't hear him, or the noise coming from the arriving officers drowned out his voice.

Buffy stared at the violent graffiti on the walls. She was utterly shocked. Turning to Angel, she asked, “Who would do this? Why does someone hate me so much?”

“Detective Callahan,” a voice asked to Angel's left. “What are you doing here?”

Running a hand through his hair, Angel faced the officer, a man who he knew casually and had worked with before. They had work to do. Evidence needed to be collected, and the building needed to be checked out further. He'd have to wait to talk to Buffy more until later. Judging by the spray painted words, whoever was after her knew her somehow. They'd have to sit down and try to figure out who could be this angry with her. But for now, he had a more immediate job to do.

{====^====}

“B! Buffy!” Angel heard just as he was sitting down on the couch in Buffy's living room, followed by, “Holy shit! What the hell happened?”

He knew that voice. It looked like Faith had arrived. He turned to Buffy. “Did you call Faith?”

“No.” Buffy frowned at the doorway as her friend burst through.

“Oh, God, B! Are you all right?” Angel's partner and Buffy's friend exclaimed, out of breath from her run up the stairs. “I was on my way home and I drove past your building and saw all the cop cars.”

Well, that explained that, Angel thought. He decided not to comment on the fact that it was nearing four in the morning and Faith had said she was just on her way home. He'd ask her about that later.

“I'm fine,” Buffy interjected when she saw Faith was about to continue rambling. “There's just some property damage, and ya know, I may never be able to sleep again.”

Faith looked at Angel expectantly. “What the hell happened?”

Angel explained the events of that night in typical cop fashion, giving the straight out facts. He didn't mention how absolutely terrified he'd been on the drive over, or how relieved he'd been when he'd seen that Buffy was unharmed. No, there was no need to get into that with his partner. He didn't particularly want to think about it himself.

“We have to catch this son of a bitch, Angel. This can't go on. They're out for blood.” Faith shuddered, thinking about the destruction inside Buffy's apartment, the mutilated poster, and now this most recent attack. It had to stop before the person managed to actually get to Buffy.

“I agree,” Angel said, and waved a hand for Faith to take a seat next to Buffy. “I was just about to talk to Buffy to see if we can possibly figure out who might be doing this.”

“Me? You think I might know who is torturing me? How would I know, and if I did, wouldn't I tell you?” Buffy answered a bit harsher than she'd meant to. She couldn't help it. Her nerves were utterly on edge. One day, her life is fairly normal, and the next day, she has some freak stalking and threatening her. And of course, there was Angel. He'd also popped back into her life to make everything messy. So if she was a bit snappy, she wasn't going to feel guilty.

“These attacks are personal, Buffy. Whoever it is has something against you,” Angel replied.

“He's right,” Faith agreed, turning to Buffy. “None of this has been just random violence. Everything has been against you, so I think it's safe to assume it's somebody you know or have come in contact with.”

“But who?” Buffy questioned, her voice pleading. “I don't know anybody who would want to do this to me.”

“Is there anyone at the gallery who has been creeping you out or anything?” prodded Faith, trying to jog Buffy's memory to anything unusual at the place where she showed her paintings.

“Not that I can think of. The owner is a sixty year old woman, and she's an old family friend,” Buffy pondered out loud.

“Probably not her,” Faith chuckled despite the seriousness of the situation.

“Do any men work there?” Angel butted in.

Buffy thought about the question. “Just one, I think. He handles bringing in new talent. But we get along great. And I know for a fact that he's gay so I don't think it would be him either.”

“What about any boyfriends, especially recently.” Angel hoped his tone was neutral as he asked that question. And he told himself the answer didn't matter one damn bit to him, but he waited tensely for her answer.

Averting her eyes, Buffy mumbled, “There's no one.”

Angel wouldn't allow himself to be pleased with that answer, so he pressed more. “Lovers? One night stands? Anyone like that?”

Sucking in a breath, Buffy looked back at Angel, staring him straight in the eyes. “There's been no one at all, not since...not since you left Sunnydale.”

The entire room lapsed into silence at her admission. Angel was stunned. The cops nearby processing the crime scene gazed curiously at the group on the sofa and chairs, and Faith just watched it all with avid interest.

“Well, I think we can cross of that avenue of suspects,” Faith said lightly, her amusement at the situation clear.

Angel shook off the shock of learning that Buffy hadn't been with anyone since him and tried to focus back on the case. “What about this William Burns character?” There, that was a good question to ask and it directed his thoughts away from Buffy's lack of lovers since him.

“No,” Buffy responded definitely. “It's not him. He's a friend and he wouldn't do anything like this.”

“A friend?” Angel repeated. “He's got a record, Buffy. People like that can be capable of doing anything.”

“No,” Buffy said again. “And besides, I know where he was tonight, and it wasn't here.”

“But-”

“Knock it off, Angel!” Faith snapped at him. “She said it isn't him!”

Angel eyed his partner in annoyance. She knew perfectly well they had to pursue all avenues if they had any hope of catching the bastard terrorizing Buffy. “I just want to make sure we don't ignore a suspect.”

“Well, he's not a suspect,” Faith shot back, thoroughly angered that Angel would focus on someone just because they'd gotten into trouble in the past. It was so stereotypical. “And if you must know, I was with William tonight. All night. So can we move on?”

For a second time, Angel was rendered speechless. Faith knew this William person? Faith had been with him earlier? What the hell was going on? And why hadn't she mentioned her...relationship?...with him several days ago when he'd first brought up William Burns' name? Something weird was going on. Angel wanted to question Faith about it, but one look at her face told him that if he dare ask now, she'd do something he'd likely live to regret. So he kept his mouth shut on the subject. For now.

“That, uh, pretty much leaves us with no possibilities,” Angel muttered, disheartened at their lack of progress.

“Why don't we put our heads together again tomorrow. I'm beat, and I'm sure both of you could use some sleep,” Faith gave a weary sigh and stood up.

“Probably a good idea,” Angel agreed. He, too, stood and then faced off with Faith. A few unspoken words passed between. He wasn't going to let this William subject drop, and she knew it. But for now, he had a bigger fish to fry. What he was about to say was probably insane, and it likely wasn't going to go over well, but he'd been thinking about it for the last hour. It was the most logical answer to a difficult problem. “Faith, could you stop by my apartment tomorrow and pick up some clothes?”

“Clothes? Why?” Faith frowned. That was certainly an odd request.

“I'll need something to wear tomorrow, and I don't think I'll have time to pick something up in the morning,” he explained evasively.

“But why...”

“I'm staying here,” he finally said.

“WHAT?” Buffy yelped, leaping off the couch. “You can't...but...”

Angel turned to Buffy, his expression stern. “I'm not leaving you here alone with this psycho still on the loose. I'll sleep on your couch until we catch him.”

He was insane. How could he not be for suggesting such a thing, Angel said to himself. Stay here with Buffy? What the hell was he thinking? Buffy was the lying bitch who'd almost ruined his life. He couldn't stay here with her. Who knew what else she'd be able to do to him. Even so, he couldn't in good conscience leave her here alone.

“I-I'll be fine,” Buffy stuttered. “They didn't get in tonight. The locks held. You don't have to stay here.”

Angel could not, absolutely not, stay here with here in her apartment. It was out of the question. How could he suggest such a thing? And why in the world would he want to do it? He hated her. He'd made that pretty clear since they'd first come face to face again after the break-in. And she really didn't know if she could handle being that close to Angel for so long. It was hard enough being around him at times like this. What would it be like if he was sleeping a few feet away. No, it just couldn't happen.

“This is not up for debate, Buffy,” Angel said firmly.

“But-.”

“I think Angel's right, Buffy,” Faith cut in. Oh, she was really enjoying this. These two were circling each other like a pair of horny lions. It was ever so much fun to watch. Besides, Angel was right. It wasn't safe for Buffy to be alone and unprotected until this was over.

“Fine,” Buffy threw up her hands in defeat. “Do whatever you want,” she finished then stalked out of the room. This was an absolute and complete nightmare.

{====^====}

A half hour later, the apartment and hallway had cleared out. Faith had gone home, the other cops had finished taking evidence, and all was quiet. All that remained was Buffy on one side of the living room, uncomfortably looking anywhere but at Angel, and Angel on the other side of the room, wondering again if he was insane.

“Are you sure you're all right?” he asked when she remained silent.

“Yeah, just tired,” she mumbled her answer.

“Oh, yeah. It is kind of late,” he responded, then glanced at the couch. “If you have some sheets or a blanket, and an extra pillow for the couch I'll get out of your hair and let you get to sleep.” When she didn't answer, or move, or even act like she'd heard him, he became concerned. “Buffy?”

“Huh? Oh,” she blinked several times. “You, umm, don't have to sleep on the couch.”

Angel's mouth dropped open. She couldn't possibly mean...

“No!” Buffy quickly said, interpreting his assumption. “I didn't mean...I just.” She sighed. This was ridiculous. “You can stay in Dawn's room.”

“Dawn?”

“My sister,” she informed him, trying her damnedest not to blush over what he'd thought she was suggesting. “She normally stays with me, but right now she’s out of town for a few weeks.”

Sleep on a bed instead of a couch? That sounded a whole hell of a lot better. Right now, he was so exhausted, though, he figured he could have slept on the floor and not cared one bit. So he accepted the offer.

Buffy showed Angel the room, even put fresh sheets on the bed for him. She was suddenly glad she'd gotten Dawn a queen size one instead of the smaller twin. Angel would have dwarfed it. And she really wasn't going to think about Angel in a bed. It was time she mosied off to her own room where she would be as far away from the man she'd chased away with her stupidity four years ago. She said good night and told him where the bathroom and fresh towels were, then made a grateful escape.

Angel watched her nearly dash out of the room, wondering if she felt as weird about all this as he did. They'd been lovers once, after all. But that was neither here nor there. Time for sleep, he told himself. So he stripped off his clothes and slid into the bed wearing only a pair of boxer shorts.

It wasn't until he'd shut off the light, until he'd shut his eyes in hopes of catching maybe two hours of sleep, that he realized that throughout the entire night, he'd never really thought of her as Lizzie, his lying bitch of an ex-girlfriend.

He'd thought of her only as Buffy.

{====^====}
Part 6
{====^====}

Yawning, Buffy stumbled down the hallway and towards the kitchen. Coffee. All she wanted was some coffee. Or a soda. Or chocolate. Anything with caffeine in it. She definitely needed some kind of jump-start this morning. With Angel just a room away, she hadn't been able to sleep a wink the whole night. Well, she'd dozed now and then, but actual sleep had been impossible.

How in the world had she ended up in this mess? Oh right, she was being stalked by some psycho who apparently wanted her dead. And because of that, she was now tangled up with Angel again. Not that that was entirely a bad thing, she mused. It was just unexpected. Maybe if one good thing could come out of all this, she and Angel could put the past behind them and get some closure to the relationship they'd had four years earlier.

The thought of getting closure with Angel didn't bring the relief Buffy would have thought. She'd never forgotten Angel, not even after he'd moved away from Sunnydale without a word to her. He'd been one of the few good things in her life, and she'd chased him away by being a total and complete idiot. She'd messed things up royally. He'd had every reason to leave her and to hate her.

Ever since she'd managed to get her life on the right track, Buffy had wanted to talk to Angel. She wanted to explain to him why she'd been such a jerk. But mostly, she just wanted to apologize. He deserved that much. Even though she'd wanted a chance to make things right with him, she'd never thought she would have the opportunity. After all, she'd had no idea where Angel was.

Then, wham, there he was at her doorstep. Buffy wasn't sure she'd yet recovered from that shock. And now he was staying in her apartment, or at least he had spent the previous night in Dawn's room. It was no wonder she hadn't been able to sleep. Aside from the anxiety over what was going on with the stalker - and that was enough to keep anyone awake - her mind kept focusing on the fact that Angel was so close by. She hadn't been able to stop all the memories that had assailed her from their time together in Sunnydale. As nice as it was to be around Angel again, when his eyes weren't pinning her to the wall for her past transgressions, Buffy knew she'd sleep much better with him elsewhere.

Just before reaching the kitchen, Buffy heard Angel's voice. She grimaced. She'd been hoping he was still asleep or that he'd left for work already. No such luck. If she didn't need coffee so desperately, she'd be tempted to go back to her room and hideout until he was gone. But she needed caffeine. Now.

Angel was shutting off his cell phone as Buffy entered. She gave him a small smile and made a bee-line for the coffee that Angel had already apparently brewed. When she was more awake, she'd have to remember to say thank you.

Pouring herself a cup, she took a huge gulp, swallowed, then mumbled, “I thought you'd be at work already.”

The temptation to smile hit Angel hard. Buffy was not a morning person. She hadn't stayed through the night many times back in Sunnydale, but when she had, she'd always needed to ply herself with coffee in the morning. It looked like that hadn't changed a bit if the way she was sucking down her first cup was any indication. He pushed away the urge to smile, though. This wasn't Sunnydale, and they weren't together anymore.

“Looks like I'm going to be sticking around for a while,” he told her, still trying to decide for himself if the phone call he'd just gotten was good or bad.

The mug stilled halfway to Buffy's mouth as she stared at Angel. Sticking around? Huh? “What do you mean?”

“That was my boss on the phone,” he nodded to the cell phone he'd set on the counter. “With this latest attack, he's agreed that you need twenty-four hour protection until this guy is caught. So I'm going to be hanging around.”

“What?” Buffy squeaked. He couldn't possibly mean...

“I'm your bodyguard,” he clarified simply. And wasn't that a kicker, Angel thought. Ironic, really, that he'd end up in this position given their past. It was the last thing he needed. But Buffy's safety was priority. And if he was honest with himself, the prospect of being around her twenty-four hours a day didn't seem as awful as it might have a few days earlier. He just didn't want to think about why that was.

“But...I mean....this isn't...,” she sputtered incomprehensibly. This was awful. Just awful. Angel was going to be here. All the time. There was no way she'd ever sleep again. “UGH!”

“Yeah,” Angel agreed with a shrug. This definitely wasn't the best of situations. He set down his own mug of coffee and stepped closer. “It's necessary, Buffy. This freak isn't playing around.”

“I know,” she said, her shoulders slumping. “This is just...”

“Awkward,” he finished for her.

“Yeah.”

“We'll-” Angel started to say, but a knock at the door interrupted. He looked quickly at Buffy before pulling his gun out from the back of his jeans where he'd stuck it this morning instead of putting on his shoulder holster. “Wait here.”

The sight of the gun stunned Buffy for a moment. She knew that her stalker wanted to hurt her, but seeing the gun in Angel's hand made the situation seem all the more serious. A shudder worked down her spine, but she recovered enough to nod to Angel. He tried to give her a reassuring smile before slipping out of the kitchen toward the door. Only a moment later, she heard him call out to her.

“It's okay, Buffy. It's just Faith.” Not the psycho, was all Buffy could think for a moment. By the time she made it to the living room, Faith had already entered and was talking with Angel.

“G'morning, Faith,” she greeted her friend, her voice distorted by a yawn that slipped out.

“Yeah, yeah. I don't see what's so great about it,” Faith grumbled.

Angel laughed at the two of them. “I can see why you two get along. Neither of you are morning people.”

“Laugh it up, jerk face. I've had two hours of sleep and I've got a gun. You don't want to piss me off,” she warned. Tossing a bag to Angel, she started stalking to the kitchen. “There are your clothes. I'm goin' to get some coffee.”

Angel accepted the bag chucked at his head with an oomph. He glared at Faith's retreating back for a few seconds before setting the bag down next to the couch. Turning to Buffy, he said, “While Faith is here, we should sit down and try to brainstorm some more about who might be after you. I'm positive that it's got to be someone you're acquainted with somehow.”

“I'm with Angel,” Faith agreed as she reentered the living room. “Everything about this is personal. Whoever it is has something against you.”

“I have no idea who, though!” Buffy replied, exasperated. She couldn't think of a single person who would do this to her. Well, after what she'd done to Angel, she couldn't blame him if he had it in for her. But she knew it wasn't him. He hadn't even known she was in LA until after her apartment had been trashed. Besides, he wouldn't do something like this in the first place. He just wasn't like that.

Angel glanced at Faith. “I still think-”

“Don't even say it!” Faith ordered. “Spike didn't do this. And I was with him last night anyway.”

“Spike?” Angel asked.

“That's his nickname,” Faith answered with a growl. She was sick of Angel trying to pin this on Spike. Just because he'd made some mistakes in the past he was automatically a suspect. Whatever happened to second chances?

“I just think-”

“No, Faith's right,” Buffy cut in. This was going to get ugly soon if she didn't put a stop to it. She knew herself that Spike wouldn't be out to hurt her, even if Faith hadn't been with him last night. But Angel was intent on putting the spotlight on Spike. Well, she was pretty sure she could end that line of thinking. “I think it was a female.”

“Huh?” Faith grunted over a mouthful of coffee.

“A female? You didn't say anything about that before,” Angel accused suspiciously. Or wait...had she started to say something like that after the previous night's fiasco? He wasn't sure.

“I didn't know until last night!” Buffy snapped at him, annoyed at his attitude. “That was the first time I'd heard their voice, and I'm positive it was a female. I meant to say something, but after what happened, I wasn't thinking clearly.”

“I'm sorry, I shouldn't have been so harsh,” Angel apologized, feeling guilty. He really shouldn't have been so rude, but this whole situation was playing havoc with his head. Not only did he have to worry about Buffy's life being in danger, but he had to deal with being around her after what had happened between them. It definitely wasn't his idea of fun.

“Okay, so we now know this person is a chick,” Faith jumped back into the conversation. They really needed to deal with what was important and try to ignore the ridiculously obvious tension that existed between her partner and her best friend. “Can you think of any females who would have it in for you?”

“No!” Buffy practically shouted. “I don't know anyone who would do this to me!”

{====^====}

An hour and a half later, after having spent some more time talking with Faith and Buffy, then having showered and changed into clean clothes, Angel wandered around Buffy's apartment, taking in details he hadn't noticed before. Not that there was much to see. Most of her possessions had been destroyed during the break-in. Buffy had managed to replace quite a bit of the necessary stuff, but the more personal items were still missing. He wondered what it had looked like before all the trouble had started.

The new furniture she'd bought for the living room was a muted blue-green color with white threading running intermittently through it. The style and color were very understated. He wouldn't have pictured the Lizzie he knew with furniture like this. His guess would have been red leather. The walls would have likely been painted black or some other freaky color. But everything about this apartment and about the woman he knew as Buffy was completely different from the Lizzie he'd known in Sunnydale. Buffy was...softer.

Angel winced at that thought. He was letting her get to him. He couldn't let himself forget that she was a habitual liar who had nearly destroyed his life. But she'd apologized for that, an inner voice in his head reminded him. Of course, she could just be playing him again, trying to reel him in just as she had last time. Because the truth of the matter was that he didn't know Buffy.

At the window, Angel stopped and stared out onto the mildly busy street. No, he didn't know Buffy. And in all honestly, he hadn't known a damn thing about Lizzie, either. A large part of that had been her fault. She'd done a hell of a lot of lying to him. At the same time, they'd never really just gotten to know each other.

That night when he'd met her at that club, they'd leaped right into a physical relationship and gone from there. Everything about them had been about the heat and passion that flared whenever they were within sight of each other. He hadn't spent much time learning about what was below the surface. Sure, they'd gotten along great, spent time together that didn't involve sex, but everything had been superficial. He hadn't asked her about her personal life, and he hadn't offered anything about his. The first he'd ever learned anything about her childhood had been when she'd barged into his apartment yesterday – had it been just yesterday? - and told him about her parents divorce.

So who was Buffy? And who had Lizzie been? Angel found himself suddenly wanting to know what lay behind the facade she always seemed to put up. He wanted to know who the real Elizabeth Summers was. And he needed to hear the rest of whatever she'd been about to explain to him before they'd been interrupted yesterday. Maybe if he knew, he could put all this behind him.

With nothing else to do, Angel set out to find Buffy. It was time they talked. Really talked. He hadn't exactly been open before, for good reason. His anger over the past had clouded him, made him reluctant to hear what she had to say. But now he wanted to know.

After checking for her in the kitchen, her bedroom, and the bathroom, Angel grew worried. She wasn't anywhere that he could see. It wasn't like the apartment was that big. What if she had left without telling him? What if something had happened?

Dammit, Angel cursed aloud. He was supposed to be watching her, keeping her safe. And what happens? His first morning on the job, and he'd already lost her. Well, he'd just have to find her. He'd call Faith to see if she knew of any places Buffy was likely to go.

As Angel reached for his cell phone, he thought he heard a noise. Turning his head, he saw the stairs leading up to the medium sized loft. Of course! he exclaimed in his head. That area was her studio. Why hadn't he thought to look up there before? Probably, he told himself, because he was still having a little trouble acclimating to the fact that Buffy was an artist. Supposedly a good one.

Ascending the stairs quietly, he saw that Buffy was indeed in her studio. She was seated on a stool in front of a set of shelves, and looked to be arranging tubes of paint, brushes, knives, and other artist's tools. From the small pile of plastic wrap on the floor, he gathered that she was unpacking new supplies. Thinking back on the night of the break-in, Angel remembered that everything in this room appeared to have been destroyed.

For a moment, he contemplated going back downstairs and leaving her to her work, but before he could, Buffy swiveled on her stool and looked at him. They stared at each other as Angel climbed the last two stairs and came further into the room. He had no idea what to say. He was suddenly feeling ridiculously uncomfortable around her.

“Hey,” Buffy said when Angel remained silent.

“I'm not bothering you, am I?” he questioned, feeling completely out of place in a part of Buffy's world that he knew absolutely nothing about.

“No,” she answered, shrugging. “The new stuff I ordered came in yesterday so I'm just getting it set up.”

“Was everything you had destroyed?”

“Pretty much.” Buffy looked over the room that seemed empty compared to what it had been. She'd had to throw away all her blank canvases, paints, and well, everything. In essence, she was starting from scratch. “At least almost all of my paintings were over at the gallery.”

“Gallery?” he repeated.

“I've got a show coming up in a few days, so all of my current work is over there. And most of my other stuff is down in Sunnydale since I don't have a lot of storage room here,” she explained while arranging the tubes of oil paints.

“In Sunnydale?” Angel wondered aloud. This was a good opening to all the things they needed to talk about. “So you still go back there?”

“Yeah, every couple months or so,” she said, almost evasively.

Angel walked across the room and sat down on the floor near the stool Buffy was seated on. He leaned back against the wall and looked up at her, trying to put as friendly an expression on his face as he could. He wanted Buffy to know that he was open to listening to her. “You never got a chance to finish telling me about your life. What happened after your Mom died?”

The question left Buffy temporarily speechless. Angel was asking about her life? She was shocked that he seemed genuinely interested. All of the anger that had been there before was gone, or almost so. Did he really want to listen? Even if he did, she found she couldn’t get her mouth to work to answer.

Sensing her surprise, Angel gave Buffy a sympathetic smile. “I know I didn't want to listen before, but I'm ready now. I think we need to talk about everything. Maybe it'll help us put the past behind us so we can move on with our lives.”

Buffy turned back to her shelves of supplies and tried to process what was going on. Angel was giving her a chance to explain everything. She felt tears prickle the backs of her eyes. Ever since she'd managed to get her life on track, she'd wanted a chance to talk to him, though she knew she never would. And now she really was. She would finally be able to try to set something right that she'd messed up years ago. Well, maybe not make it right, but make it better.

She tried to think of what to say to him, where to start. What had she told him about yesterday? She thought back on the conversation. Before they'd been interrupted, she'd told him about her parents’ sudden divorce, and her ensuing problems, along with being kicked out of school and the move to Sunnydale. The phone call had come just after she'd mentioned her mother's death. Buffy was pretty sure that was where she'd left off.

“Dawn and I went into foster care after Mom died.”

“Foster care?” The very idea that Buffy and her sister had had to live with strangers was baffling to Angel.

“Yeah,” Buffy laughed, but it was a humorless sound. “When someone finally managed to track down our Dad, he signed off on responsibility for us and we went into the system.”

“He just...abandoned you?” How could a father do that, Angel wondered? Didn't the man have any sense of family and love? “What about other family members?”

“The only other person that we knew of was my Mom's sister. She lived out in Illinois. She didn't want to take in two half grown kids, and there was no one else,” she explained, attempting to ignore the pain she still felt over her father's heartless actions.

“That must have been horrible for you and your sister. I'm sorry you had to go through that,” he said sincerely.

Buffy ignored the sentiment and focused on her paints as she told him more. “We went through seven foster homes in, I guess, three and a half years. Some of them were temporary to begin with, and some just couldn't put up with me. I wasn't exactly the model kid. I found trouble wherever I could. And once I got booted out of a home, Dawn would start acting up until she was moved to the family I'd been placed with.”

Standing, Buffy walked over to the large bank of windows on the opposite side of the room. She crossed her arms over her chest, warding off the chill that came from thinking about her past. “I was a mess, Angel. I'd had problems in LA, and right after we moved to Sunnydale, but when Mom died, I just got worse. Drinking, partying, drugs, hanging out with the wrong people. You name it, I probably did it.”

She turned to face Angel, who was silently listening to her whole wretched life story, and sat on the window sill. “That was when I started calling myself Lizzie. I don't really know why. I guess I just didn't want to be Buffy. Lizzie was someone else entirely, someone I created and made myself be. It was a street name, if you want to call it that. Not gangs or anything, but what I went by with the crowd I'd become part of. At school and with the foster families I was still Buffy, but when I was out on my own, I was Lizzie, the total badass.”

“Looking back,” she went on, “Lizzie was my escape. She wasn't an orphan, she wasn't unwanted. Lizzie was in control and could do whatever she wanted, when she wanted. She had friends, even if they weren't good ones, and she went out and had fun. She was just whoever I wanted her to be.”

“And that's who I meant that night,” Angel chipped in.

Buffy instantly felt guilty at the reminder of everything she'd put Angel through. “It was never my intention to trick you, Angel. Lizzie was just part of who I was at the time. I never expected what happened between us. And even if I did, I don't know that I would have told the truth. My head just wasn't screwed on right then.”

“So you were just expecting a one-night stand?” Angel asked, not sure if he should be offended or not.

“No. Yes.” She shook her head. This was so hard to explain. Buffy wasn't sure if even she understood everything that had been in her head back then. “I know you probably think I was some big slut, but I wasn't. I won't lie and say I was an innocent virgin. I'd had sex before, but I didn't jump from guy to guy. That was probably the one thing I never got involved in. But I watched you come into The Bronze that night, and I just...wanted you. I figured we’d have a night of fun and that would be it. I never thought I'd end up liking you, and that you'd be interested as well in something other than sex.”

“You could have told me at any time,” he pointed out. It was the only logical thing Angel could think to say as he tried to process all of the information. Buffy's life had been absolute hell. Everything she'd told him made her actions make sense for the first time since he'd known her. For so long he'd thought she was just playing some big game with all her lies. But now he realized that she'd just been coping with a horrendous situation. But what did all that mean? To him.

“I know I could have. And should have. It just wasn't that simple, Angel. With the way things were in my life, part of me just didn't care,” she said, being completely honest. “When I was with you, I was part of a different world. I wasn't Buffy with the dead mother, the father who didn't care, and I didn't live in foster homes with my sister. I was Lizzie with the really great boyfriend. I didn't want to lose that. When I was with you, I was almost happy.”

Buffy turned her head away so that Angel wouldn't see the tears that were threatening to fall. “And then I lost it all. You had every right to hate me and to leave.”

“I won't lie and say I wasn't angry as hell,” Angel admitted. “I was pissed off and hurt. And I could have gotten into a lot of trouble because I was a cop.”

“I know. I don't think I really understood all of that until a while after you left and I got myself away from all the bad influences,” she pressed her lips together hard, desperately trying to hold back her tears. “I really am sorry, Angel, for everything I put you through.”

“I think I'm beginning to understand that,” Angel said, truly accepting her apology for the first time. “I just wish you had told me all of this before. Maybe I would have been able to help in some way.”

“I was too selfish back then, and I didn't want to deal with my life. All I wanted was to forget about all the bad stuff,” she told him. “But in the process I lost one of the only good things I ever had.”

Angel could think of nothing to say in response to that. He could hear the regret and sincerity in Buffy's voice. She'd really cared about him. She hadn't just used him and played with him. Still, that didn't change the past or erase all the hurt. So what was he supposed to say to that? For now, nothing. It was something to think about for later.

“What happened after I left?” he asked instead. “How did all this,” he gestured around the room, “come about?”

“Right before I met you, Dawn and I had been placed in a new foster home. One of my teachers at school, Jenny Calender, had offered to take us both in. God knows why. She knew exactly what I was like,” Buffy laughed sadly. “She did it anyway, though, and she stuck it out. She seemed to really care about us, unlike some of the other families we'd been with. Dawn really like her and responded to her, but I could have cared less. I was too lost in myself by then, but she never shipped me off to someone else. She just did the best she could.”

“She sounds like a great woman.” Angel was grateful that someone had finally stood up for them and cared when no one else had. He couldn't imagine not having anyone in his life who truly cared.

“Yeah, she is,” she smiled fully, showing her true feelings toward the woman who'd taken them in and not given up when things were rough. “I still talk to her often.”

“So you and your sister stayed there?” Angel asked, drawing his knees up to rest his arms on them.

“Sort of,” Buffy answered, making herself more comfortable as Angel had. This was going much better than she'd expected. Angel was really listening, and he seemed to be understanding. At best, she'd thought he would hear her out, say okay, and walk away. At worst, he would have laughed in her face and said whatever. Instead, he was really listening and responding. It was a relief to her to finally get this out in the open between them.

“A few months after you left,” she began. “A guy showed up at Jenny's house. He said his name was Rupert Giles and that he was our uncle.”

“Uncle? I thought you didn't have any other relatives,” he interrupted.

“Back then, I hadn't remembered him. I'd only met him once, when I was maybe five or six. He's my Dad's half brother and he'd lived his whole life in England. He and my Dad weren't close at all, so I just never thought of him after Mom died,” she relayed as she pulled her legs up to sit Indian-style on the window seat. “Then he just suddenly showed up one day over four years later. Apparently, he'd run into my father at some party in England. In the course of their catching up, I guess Hank, my father, told him that he and my mom had divorced and that my mom had died only a year later. When Giles, that's what we call him, found out Hank had just dumped us off on the system, he left everything in England and came to Sunnydale.”

“Did he take custody of you and Dawn?” he asked.

“It wasn't that simple. I was eighteen by then so technically I was an adult, but Jenny let me stay with her even though I went off on my own and got in trouble most of the time. Dawn was only thirteen, and still a ward of the state. But Giles had a life and a job in England, and he wasn't sure what to do,” she continued to explain. “He stayed in Sunnydale, though, and got to know both of us. Well, mostly Dawn. I still pretty much didn't care about anything.”

“Eventually,” she went on, “he decided to move permanently to Sunnydale. He and Jenny kind of, uh, hit it off and started dating. So he applied for guardianship of Dawn. When his request was granted, he told me that I was welcome to live with both of them, but that he wouldn't tolerate the things I'd been doing. He didn't want drugs or alcohol in the house or any of the other crap I'd gotten messed up in.”

“So what did you do?”

“Part of me didn't give a damn. But there was another part that was, I don't know, starting to thaw,” Buffy answered, scrunching her nose at how stupid she sounded. “Giles and Jenny really seemed to care. They were always right there in my face, and I hadn't had that in so long. I still didn't quite care, though. In the end, I went. I didn't want to be left alone again.”

“Of course,” she shook her head at her past mistakes, “it wasn't long 'til I messed it all up. I knew Giles was serious about not putting up with my crap, so I tried to sneak around instead of just doing everything out in the open. I went out one night, I'd just turned nineteen, and I got drunk as hell. When I came back to Giles' house, I tried to sneak in by climbing up the tree outside my window. Alcohol and tree-climbing don't mix, in case you didn't know. I fell and ended up in the hospital with a fractured collarbone, a sprained ankle, and a severe concussion.”

“Damn,” Angel mumbled, thinking of Buffy falling out of tree.

“Yeah. It was pretty stupid on my part,” Buffy snorted. “When I came to in the hospital the next morning, Giles was there. He looked so disappointed in me. I think that was the first time I really realized that he loved me, and it made me feel awful. He gave me an ultimatum, straighten up, or I was on my own. He didn't want me being any more of a bad influence on Dawn”

“So just like that, you changed?”

“Hardly,” Buffy shifted and sighed. “He had a friend running this program in LA. It wasn't a rehab exactly, but more of a support home for young people like me. He told me I could go there if I really wanted to try to make something of my life.”

Buffy was quiet for a minute, and Angel gave her the time she needed to put together her thoughts. He knew this had to be hard for her to talk about. Years of being a cop had given him some insight into the world of troubled youth. Most of them never pulled themselves out. Once you got lost in that world, it tended to suck you in forever. But somehow, she'd made the decision to change. Before he'd run into Buffy again, he wouldn't have thought it possible. He was just realizing, though, that he'd never really known a thing about her.

Finally, Buffy stood and walked over to where Angel was sitting. She slid down the wall next to him, seeming to need the closer contact. Resting her head back against the wall, she told the rest of her sordid life story.

“I had a lot of time to think in that hospital bed. About all I'd lost, about the things I'd done, and why. And I thought about you, and how I'd lost you. That was when I really realized what I'd done to you and what could have happened because you were a cop,” she explained, clutching her hands together across her knees. “All of a sudden, everything in my life just slammed me in the chest. And there was the fact that I was in the hospital in the first place because I'd been blitzed out of my mind and fell out of a tree. It hit me how freakin' stupid that was. Giles and Jenny talked to me a lot, too. He spent time telling me what my life could be. But it was Dawn who really made me open my eyes. She cried and told me she didn't want to lose me, too. So when they released me from the hospital, I came here to the place in LA Giles knew of.”

“Seems like everything worked out,” Angel said and reached out to take one of Buffy's hands before he could stop himself.

“It wasn't easy,” Buffy answered, deciding not to comment on the fact that Angel now held her hand. She didn't want to break the companionship they seemed to be having, even if it was only temporary. “I'd spent six years getting myself into trouble and doing whatever I wanted. It was tough to leave all that behind. But the place I went to was great. I stayed there for six months, did a lot of talking, a lot of crying, and came out of it a better person in the end.”

“Is that when you started painting?” he wondered, still curious about that aspect of Buffy's life. In the time he'd known her in Sunnydale, there'd never been a hint that she was artistic.

“I'd always loved to draw. My Mom owned an art gallery and being involved with art came kinda naturally,” she shrugged. “But when things got bad, I just pushed it away. The place I came to here had one of those 'art as therapy' things, and I started painting again. They saw my talent and told me to use it. My family really encouraged it too, so when I left the support group, I went back to Sunnydale for a few months, but then I decided to move to LA. There were more opportunities for artists here.”

“And that's the story of Buffy the screw-up's life,” she ended by saying.

“You're not a screw-up, Buffy. You had a lot to deal with, and look where you are now.” The words tumbled out of Angel's mouth unconsciously. He was shocked by them, at first. For so long he'd held so much anger inside at Buffy – Lizzie – over what had happened between them. Now it all seemed to be fading away. Replacing it, was an odd feeling of pride over what she had managed to accomplish in the face of adversity. It left him feeling a bit confused.

“I wouldn't have been able to do it without Giles, Jenny and Dawn, or Hyp-,” she abruptly stopped.

Shit! Buffy thought. Tonight was Thursday.

“What's the matter?”

“I, uh, just remembered I have something to do tonight,” she said, evading the full answer.

“No problem. Wherever you go, I go. I wouldn't mind getting out for a while.” And that was the truth. He was feeling a bit crowded at the moment, by Buffy, by everything he'd learned.

Unfortunately for Buffy, it was a big, big problem. Or rather, not one for her, but for her friend. She darted up and grabbed her cell phone off the shelf. She needed to talk to Faith. Now.

{====^====}
Part 7
{====^====}

Buffy's hands twisted nervously in her lap as she sat in the passenger seat of Angel's car, giving terse, one-word directions to their destination. She hadn't been able to get a hold of Faith all day. She hadn't even been able to get through to her friend's voice mail. All she'd gotten were numerous 'out-of-range' messages. Where the hell was Faith? And what the hell was she going to do now that she hadn't been able to warn her?

The shit was really going to hit the fan if what she thought was going to happen really did. And Buffy had no doubt it would. There was no way around it. Well, Faith was just going to have to deal with it. Really, Buffy thought, in the end that might be for the best. Facing your past was the only way to move forward. She knew that better than anyone. Faith's reasons for her secrets were understandable, but they were about to be blown wide open. Angel would be okay with it in the end, Buffy was sure. He seemed to be dealing with her life story better than she'd thought, and if he could accept that, then he would be able to deal with Faith's secrets.

“We really don't have to go, Angel,” Buffy tried to convince Angel again. She couldn't help but try to save Faith's bacon even if Buffy thought it would be better for Faith to confide in her partner. She really hated the idea of this intruding on an aspect of her friend's life that she kept private.

“This is important to you, isn't it?” he questioned, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye.

“Yes,” she begrudgingly admitted. And it was important. If at all possible, she tried to never miss the Thursday program. There were some things that meant more than the daily dribbles of life.

“Then we'll go,” Angel responded. “Plus, it'll be good for you to get out for a little bit, take your mind off what's going on.” As long as whoever was after her didn't decide to put in another appearance while they were out.

At the next intersection, Angel turned left as Buffy instructed him to do. He decided not to mention that he already knew how to get to where they were going. It probably wouldn't go over too well if Buffy found out he'd spied her there only days before. At the time, he hadn't know what she and Faith were doing at the place, but he had a pretty good idea now even though all Buffy had told him was that she had a meeting to go to at Hyperion Place.

“So...Hyperion Place...that's the group home you went to?” he said, keeping his eyes on the road.

Buffy sighed. It wasn't that she was trying to hide anything from Angel. Exactly. She was just worried about Faith. “Yeah. Giles' friend runs it. They have about thirty people who live there at any given time. The ones like me who need more structured support. But there are also open meetings. AA, Al-Anon, and whatnot. I still go back and volunteer whenever I can, but Thursday night is open meeting night and I like to be there for those.”

“It's no big inconvenience for me to go, Buffy,” he assured her, though he was getting the feeling again, as he had numerous times throughout the day since Buffy had remembered the commitment, that there was something making her uneasy. “And also, I think I'd like to see the place that did so much for you.”

He winced at that slip. He hadn't meant to say it, but the truth was, he was curious about the support home that had played a big part in the changes Buffy had made in her life. Two weeks ago, if anyone had asked him if he thought Buffy could be anything but a lying, partying bitch, he would have said no way in hell. Four years ago, he'd seen first hand how selfish she'd been. He'd have bet money that someone like her wouldn't change.

Now, though, after hearing the story of her life and seeing what she'd made of herself, Angel was revising his opinion. At first, he hadn't believed she could be anything other than who she'd been in Sunnydale. The image she'd presented upon their first meeting here in LA had seemed as phony as he'd come to realize she was in Sunnydale. Since then, he'd spent enough time with her, learned more about her than he ever had before, to begin to realize that this was quite possibly the real Buffy.

This woman was so completely different from the Lizzie he'd known in Sunnydale. Lizzie had been brash, spontaneous, and always looking out for herself. She'd made no bones about attracting attention, or doing the unexpected. Life had been all about having fun to Lizzie. Buffy was almost completely different. She was quieter, more subdued. Buffy cared about others, looked out for her friends and family, and gave up her free time to help others who had been in the position she was once in.

Was this woman the person Buffy would have become if her father hadn't abandoned her and her mother hadn't died? Those losses seemed to have formed the very fabric of her adolescent reality. So would she have become this Buffy if she hadn't lost so much? Or would she have become someone else? But then, that was the crux of life, wasn't it? That people are altered by their experiences. They grow and change, suffer the heartbreaks and take joy in successes.

What Angel did know was that he found himself admiring this Buffy. She could have allowed the let-downs to rule her, but eventually, she'd seen her way past them and come out stronger on the other side. And he admired that strength. That feeling scared him more than a little, Angel was willing to admit. He was being drawn in again. What was it about this woman that kept him ensnared?

Before he could contemplate that further, he heard Buffy tell him to park along side the road. Just as well, he thought. He wasn't ready to deal with all the things rolling around in his head. So he focused on the now and pulled his car into an available parking spot.

“You don't have to come in,” Buffy's voice drifted to him. “You can wait out here.”

Angel turned his attention to her, once again getting the feeling that something was making her nervous. What had her so out of sorts? Was there something about this place that she wasn't telling him? Was there something about herself that she was still hiding? He didn't want to consider what that might be. If she hadn't told him earlier today in the course of their talk, then it must really be bad. Whatever it was, Angel wasn't going to let it get in the way of doing his job. Buffy was in danger, and he wasn't going to leave her alone until this psycho was caught. If that meant she had to face something from her past, than so be it.

“I'm coming in,” he said firmly, daring her to disagree.

“Fine,” she relented and climbed out of the car before she was tempted to try and persuade him again.

Her eyes immediately darted up and down the street, searching for both her stalker or her friend. Faith, she didn't see, but her attacker, well, she had no idea who that was. It could be the brunette talking on her cell phone across the street, or the blue-haired teenager headed right in her direction. It could be anyone. Suddenly, Buffy felt vulnerable out in the open like this. Whoever was after her could try anything. She nervously scanned every nook and cranny, every person’s hands for signs of danger.

When Angel placed a hand on her arm, Buffy felt inordinately safer. Despite their personal situation, she knew he would do anything possible to keep her from harm. Maybe it was only a job to him, but she was glad he was by her side.

“It didn't hit me until now how easy it would be for someone to do something,” she told him, a shudder making her arms tremble under his fingers.

“I can't make promises, but I will do whatever I can to keep you safe.” Angel, too, searched all around them, feeling the same helplessness Buffy had at not knowing who was after her. “It would probably be good to get inside and off the street.”

With his hand still on her arm, Angel led Buffy into the courtyard of the Hyperion Place. As he did so, he took in his surroundings. The building was much larger than he would have thought. It looked like it had once been a hotel. Which, he supposed, would make it a good place for a live-in facility. The outside didn't have that clinical feel of what he assumed the typical rehab center had. He wondered what the inside was like.

Angel held open the large front door for Buffy and followed her into the building. A large, open foyer greeted him. The inside was just as grand as the outside. It was almost unreal for the type of place it was. How did such a place come about?

Sensing Angel's questions, Buffy turned to him. “Not what you expected, huh? I was surprised when I first got here, too.” She gazed around at the place that had changed her life. It was painful and comforting to be here all at once. This place represented her greatest mistakes, but also her recovery and her success.

“My uncle's friend owns the building and runs the place. He wanted to start a program that wasn't so...sterile, where people like me wouldn't feel like they were trapped, where they'd want to stay and try to make themselves better,” she relayed as she went down the stairs in the foyer. “He worked for years getting funding from the private sector so he'd be able to do everything he wanted.”

“Hi, Buffy,” a woman greeted Buffy from behind a large wooden counter. Angel thought she had a hint of Texas in her voice, but on the outside, she looked like an average girl. Thin with long drown hair. Fairly pretty. Was she a recovering addict as well, he wondered, then chastised himself. It wasn't any of his business.

“Fred,” Buffy smiled and reached over the counter to give the woman a quick hug. “How are you?”

“I'm great,” Fred chirped, setting aside the papers she had been reading over. She looked at Angel curiously.

“Oh,” Buffy mumbled. “This is Angel Callahan. He's a...friend,” she settled on saying. “And this is Winifred Burkle she's....has Wes given you a title yet?”

“Nah,” Fred answered with a shrug. “I just do whatever needs to be done around here. Nice to meet you, Angel.”

“You, too,” Angel shook her hand. “So you work here?”

“Yeah, but I was a, well patient, here once,” she openly admitted. At Angel's shocked looked, she gave a conciliatory smile. “Part of recovery is accepting and being open about your mistakes. A few years ago I moved here from a small town in Texas where I grew up to go to college, and well, I got a little caught up in all the freedom and new experiences, but I've been clean for three and a half years now”

“Oh, well umm, that's good,” Angel stuttered.

“Is Wes around?” Buffy asked, hoping to relieve Angel's discomfort. He wasn't used to this type of thing. As a cop, he'd probably seen a lot of the darker side of life, but the Hyperion Place was a world of its own. The people here who were on the upswing didn't hesitate to talk about their problems.

“He's around here somewhere.” Fred scanned the foyer that was beginning to fill up with people. She saw her target on the other side of the room. “Wesley!”

The man in question looked up and smiled when he saw Buffy. Quickly excusing himself from the group he'd been talking to, he walked across the room. “Buffy, it's good to see you. You're looking well.”

“Thanks,” she returned his hug. “Giles said to say hi. He hopes to make it up sometime this month.”

“I look forward to seeing him. It's been a while since he's come to LA,” Wes said, casting the same curious eye at Angel as Fred had.

“Jenny's been keeping him busy with the baby. I think he's still in shock over the fact that he's now a father,” she laughed, remembering the stunned, awed tone in her uncle's voice when he'd told her that he and Jenny were going to be having a baby. She knew he was ecstatic over it. At times, he still seemed surprised that Jenny had married him. Buffy couldn't have been happier for the man who'd come into her life and given her a real family.

“Speaking of babies,” Fred chimed in. “We're going to be having our own in seven months.”

“Oh! I'm so happy for you!” Buffy exclaimed and quickly hugged both her friends. She turned to Angel. “Wes and Fred met when she came here and they eventually started dating once she was better. They were married four months ago.”

“Congratulations,” Angel offered, feeling a bit out of place here where Buffy was so comfortable and knew everyone.

“This is Angel Callahan,” Buffy introduced him to Wes. “Angel, this is Wesley Wyndham Pryce. Hyperion Place was his brain child, and he's a friend of my uncle Giles.”

“This is quite a place you have here,” Angel said by way of greeting.

“Yes, it is,” Wes replied proudly while placing an arm around Fred. “It's been everything I'd hoped.”

“Yo, B!” came a shout from the entranceway. Buffy immediately stiffened. Shit, she'd forgotten about Faith for a few minutes.

“Ah, I see Faith is here,” Wes stated wryly, seemingly quite used to the woman's brashness.

Angel's head had whipped around at the sound of Faith's voice. Faith was here? Why? He glanced to Buffy, then back to Faith. What was going on? It was then that he consciously remembered for the first time that when he'd seen Buffy here before, she'd been with Faith. Did her friend come with her in support?

Across the room, Faith had stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of Angel. She was staring wide-eyed at him while her companion put a supportive hand on her back. Angel instantly recognized William Burns, or Spike, from the mug shot that had been in his file. So Faith was here, and William was here. And he was absolutely freakin' clueless.

Rushing over to Faith, Buffy pled her case. “I'm sorry, Faith. I tried to call you to warn you he would be here, but your cell hasn’t been working all day.”

Faith ran a hand through her long hair and sighed in resignation. She'd known Angel would be on Buffy-duty, but she hadn't really considered the fact that that meant he would be sticking to her like glue. Which then meant he'd be here tonight. It was too late for recriminations now. She'd just have to face something she'd been hoping she wouldn't have to deal with.

“It's okay, B. I should have thought of it,” she relented with a shrug.

“Just tell him the truth. Angel will understand,” Buffy said softly, hoping Angel didn't hear as he approached their gathering from behind.

“Angel,” Faith greeted him as he joined them.

“Faith,” he returned, giving her a pointed look that said she had some explaining to do.

Tugging on Spike's arm, Faith pulled him around in front of her. “Why don't you and Buffy go into the meeting,” she nodded to the door across the room where people where entering. “I need to talk to Angel.”

“Are you sure?” he asked her.

“Yeah.”

Spike gave her a tight smile and turned to Buffy. “Come on, ducks. We can go on ahead while Faith and you're glowering friend there have a bit of a chat.”

Before Angel could object to Spike leading Buffy away, they were halfway across the room. Faith put a restraining hand on his arm before he could chase after them. “She'll be all right, Angel. I know you don't think much of Spike, but he won't let anything happen to her.”

Angel was torn. He needed to keep an eye on Buffy to make sure she was safe, and letting her go off with that Spike character didn't seem particularly smart. He also needed to talk to Faith. Again, he looked to where Buffy and the rough looking bleached blonde were entering the meeting room. Well, at least she would be in an enclosed room with lots of people. Someone would be stupid to try something, though it wasn't out of the realm of possibility.

“I want to stay nearby,” he stated, glaring at Faith for making him choose.

“We can sit on that couch over there,” she pointed to a long, comfortable looking sofa only ten feet away from the conference room. “If something happens, and nothing will with all these people around, you'll be there in a flash.”

“Fine,” he ground out and marched over to the assigned 'talk' area.

Faith followed at a slower pace, but all too soon she was seated on the couch next to him. She shifted nervously. What the hell was she supposed to say now?

“So?” Angel prodded.

Slumping back against the couch, Faith began revealing details about herself she hadn't ever told him before. “I have a past just like anyone else, Angel. Mine's just not as pretty as your average person's.”

Angel frowned at the veiled reference. Faith hadn't ever mentioned anything about her younger years before. He'd never even really thought about where or what she came from. Obviously, there was a story here that had something to do with why she was here at Hyperion Place. And, it just occurred to him, how she might possibly have gotten to know Buffy.

“I grew up in Boston,” she began, keeping her eyes straight ahead. “My father took off when I was a year old, and my mother was a drunken whore who sold herself for money to buy drugs. She never gave a damn about me. I pretty much ran wild.”

“By the time I was sixteen, I had quite a juvie record,” she shrugged as if it meant nothing, when in reality it meant everything. “Underage drinking, fights, destruction of property. All the typical kid stuff. I didn't care about anything except for having fun.”

“I assume something changed,” Angel said for lack of anything better to say.

“Yeah. My guidance counselor at school really rode me. He was assigned to me when I was sixteen. My old one had tried at first to straighten me out, but I couldn't have cared less,” she laughed sardonically. “Then the new one came along and was constantly in my face. It was kind of hard to ignore him. He knew what my mother was like so he was always asking me if I wanted to end up like her because that's what he said would happen if I kept it up. I always waved it off, but then I came home one night and saw my Mom passed out naked on the couch with a needle in her hand and looking like she'd just banged every guy in the neighborhood. I just stood there and stared at her, thinking how does someone end up like that? It wasn't like I hadn't seen stuff like that before, but that time, my counselor's words came back to me and I heard them over and over again in my head. I knew there was no way in hell I wanted to be like her in fifteen years.”

“So you just changed?”

“I was never perfect,” she replied, finally twisting her head to see Angel. “I don't have good little girl genes. I am who I am. But I went to school instead of hanging out in abandoned buildings getting high and drunk. My counselor constantly threw things in my face to keep me from getting into trouble. Even got me to join the softball team so I wouldn't have so much free time.”

“Sounds like this guy is pretty great,” Angel responded, his mind buzzing with this newest information. This was quite the day for other people's personal revelations. He never would have guessed about Faith's past. He couldn't help but be surprised.

“Yeah, Wes is great,” she agreed.

“Wes? That Wes?” his eyes snapped to the now closed meeting room door.

“One and the same,” she confirmed, shifting on the couch. “By the time I graduated from high school, I'd gotten away from the drugs and booze. The night of the ceremony, which Wes made me go to, he told me about this thing he'd been working on. A support house for kids like me that he was finalizing details on out in California. He told me that if I wanted to, I was welcome to come and help out, offer my experiences to others.”

She thought for a minute. “I had nothing holding me in Boston so I packed up what little crap I had and moved out here.” Seeing a question in Angel's eyes, she quickly corrected his assumption. “There was never anything between me and Wes. I'm not saying he's not a hottie, but he's only ever been a friend who wanted to see me make something out of my life instead of becoming a burnt out druggie like my Mom.”

“I guess this is where you met Buffy,” Angel deduced.

“I still help out here often, and come to these Thursday night meetings when I can. Buffy came here about three years or so after Wes got the place going,” she explained how Buffy had come to be her friend. “We just hit it off. Our lives weren't exactly all that different. So we became friends and stayed friends after she'd left here.”

“And William, or rather Spike?” he wanted to know next.

Faith rubbed at the side of her head. She knew Angel would bring up her boyfriend sooner or later. “I met him through here, too.” She looked seriously at Angel. “I know he's got a record and all that, but we've all done stupid shit, Angel. You can't hold it against him. He went straight and stopped drinking almost two years ago.”

Blowing out a beleaguered breath, Angel stood, wandered a few feet away and then moved back to the couch to stand in front of Faith. “Why didn't you ever tell me any of this?” he asked, hands on his hips.

“I wasn't intentionally hiding it. I know what I did when I was younger. I understand the whys, and I've accepted it. But you have to understand, Angel,” she nearly begged. “I'm a cop and if everyone in that squad room learned that I was once a user and have a juvie record, they'd be lookin' over my shoulder every chance they got.”

“You don't know that,” he disagreed. “You were what? Fourteen? Fifteen? When you did this stuff? They'd understand.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” she responded noncommittally. “Would you want to take that chance? Would you, as a cop, want to tell your colleagues that you were once a user? You come in late one day, not feeling well, and they'd be wondering if you'd had a lapse and were out partying the night before. I wasn't going to deal with that. I've been clean for over seven years, and I plan to stay that way. I don't even drink alcohol.”

Sitting back down on the couch, Angel thought over everything. “I guess I can see where you were coming from,” he relented. “I wish you'd told me. I wouldn't have held it against you or told anyone.” Then he added, “and I won't tell anyone now. If that's what you want.”

“Thank you,” Faith said gratefully. “I like my job, and I don't want anything to fuck it up. And Angel,” she waited until she had his attention. “Give Spike a chance. He's really a good guy.”

Faith got off the couch and took three steps away. She stopped and looked back at him. “You can't always judge people by things they've done when they were young and stupid.”

“As long as he keeps his nose clean and treats you right, I'll lay off Spike,” Angel gave in.

Walking the rest of the way to the meeting room door, she again stopped and added over her shoulder. “I didn't just mean Spike, but thanks for that.”

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Back in her apartment two hours later, Buffy pulled a container of ice cream out of the freezer. She set it on the counter and grabbed a spoon out of the drawer. Just before she was about to dig into the carton with her spoon, she noticed Angel standing in the doorway staring at her. She blushed and lowered the snack.

“Sorry. Did you want some?” she questioned, holding the ice cream back up.

“Sure.”

Buffy rotated and opened a cabinet, then frowned and opened a different one. As she did, she asked over her shoulder, “Is everything okay with you and Faith?”

“Yeah,” he answered, moving closer to the counter. “I just wasn't expecting what she told me, but we're cool.”

“I'm glad,” Buffy smiled at him. “She'd told me before that her partner and coworkers didn't know. I mean, I didn't know you were her partner when she talked about it, but I understood her choice. She's got a lot more at stake as a cop than I do as an artist.”

Yanking open yet another cabinet she let out a curse. “Damnit, where are the bowls?!” She moved to the opposite site of the kitchen to another set of cabinets. “I had to get new dishes and Faith helped me put stuff away. I guess she decided to rearrange while she was at it.”

Angel laughed. Faith wasn't exactly the most organized person he knew.

“Ah! There they are!” she exclaimed when she finally found them. When she noticed they were on the top shelf, she grimaced. Faith had a few inches on her in height. She put a knee up on the counter to give herself a boost. As she went to grab two bowls, her knee slipped and she started to fall backwards.

Angel saw Buffy begin to fall and quickly lunged to catch her. She fell against his chest, letting out a small squeal as she connected. His arms held her around her slim waist, clutching her against him with her feet suspended a foot off the ground. Slowly he lowered her the rest of the way, but he didn't let go. All he was conscious of at that moment was the feel of her body pressed against his. As he gazed into her startled eyes, only one thought seemed to circle around his mind: so long.

It had been so long since he'd held her like this.

{====^====}
Part 8
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Angel couldn't stop the feeling that rushed through him as he held Buffy after her abbreviated fall from the counter. His hands spanned her waist, holding her tightly though she was no longer in danger of crashing to the ground. He couldn't seem to let go despite that. His only awareness lay in the fact that he was touching her. Again. As he had touched her four years earlier.

Unbidden, memories of that first night flashed into his mind.

“So this is your place?” she asked the moment the door to Angel's apartment close behind them.

“Yeah,” he answered distractedly, not the least bit interested in his apartment when his blood was boiling and his pulse pounding. He'd had a hard time thinking of little else but the woman who'd approached him in the bar the whole drive to his place.

“Nice,” she nodded in approval, rotating her head to take in the surroundings.

“Want a tour?” he tossed out with a raised eyebrow.

“Not really,” she purred back, her eyes roving over him.

“Good.” Angel prowled toward her, backing her up step by step until her back hit the wall.

He didn't know what it was about Lizzie, but he wanted her in a way he couldn't explain. It made him feel like a moth drawn to a flame, get to close and you get toasted, but you can't seem to keep yourself away. And he couldn't keep away. This whole thing wasn't exactly his motis operandi. He didn't really do the whole one night stand thing, but from the moment Lizzie had approached him, he'd been snared in need.

“Mmm,” Lizzie moaned, pressing back into the wall as she reached a hand up to touch his chest.

The feel of her hand on his body set off sparks that echoed lower. Angel pushed aside all thoughts of wrong and right. He wanted her, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. With that last try for sanity gone by the wayside, his lust took over.

When his hands grasped at her body, spanning her waist to pull her closer, he could think of nothing but the moment, and the feel of her body as it melded with his.

Deja vu, Angel thought as he snapped back to the present. He'd been in this position before, and considering how things had ended the last time, he'd be wise to get as far away from Lizzie – no, Buffy – as possible. A week ago, he would have done just that. Now, everything was muddled, and as much as he told himself to release her and walk away, he couldn't make himself remove his hands from her waist.

Buffy didn't know what she was feeling as she stood there trapped in Angel's embrace. Her heart was pounding, in part from her almost-fall, and in part because of the sudden situation she found herself in. Beside her, Angel had gone still. He was staring at her with an intensity that she felt deep in her bones. She knew without needing to be told that there was more going on here than just him catching her.

His fingers tightened on her waist and Buffy sucked in a breath. The feel of his hands swept her back in time.

Angel's hands gripped her waist then slid down to her hips before he pulled her lower body forward. She gasped at the contact, immediately noticing his aroused state. A moan slipped past her lips unconsciously. Her hand slid up his chest to lock around his neck, anchoring her body against his.

Her eyes traced the lines of his face, noticing momentarily how utterly gorgeous he was. At the moment, though, it was the feel of him that she couldn't ignore. His strong, muscled form felt huge next to hers. It sent a thrill down her spine. What would he look like without all these clothes on?

The question fell away as his head dipped down to hers. He hovered for a second, his lips mere millimeters from hers, before they touched...

Unaware, at least not fully, of their actions, their lips touched. The contact had barely registered in each of their minds when a ringing sound bleeped loudly nearby. At once, they jerked apart and stared, first at each other, than at points elsewhere. The noise sounded again and Angel's head whipped around to land on his cell phone that he'd tossed on the counter minutes – had it only been minutes? - earlier.

His mind was in a total fog, but Angel managed to remove his hands, somewhat reluctantly, from Buffy's waist. He took a giant step backwards and grabbed his phone at the same time. Space, he told himself, he just needed some space. Then his mind would clear and he could figure out what the hell had just happened. Or not. He couldn't exactly say he wanted to think about what he'd just done.

Instead, he used the convenient distraction of answering his cell phone. He pressed the talk button and stepped further away from Buffy. Yes, more space was definitely needed.

Buffy was still rooted in the spot where Angel had set her after her little gymnastics display off the counter. She couldn't think. She couldn't move. Angel had kissed her? Or had she kissed Angel? Or had they kissed each other? Or was that not even considered a kiss? Or...she cut off the question. She had no clue what they'd just done.

From the looks of it, Angel didn't know either. He didn't look particularly happy about whatever had happened either, judging from the scowl on his face and the half-room’s distance he'd put between them. Staring at Angel secretly out of the corner of her eye while trying to get a grip on what had just occurred between them, Buffy felt as if the room was closing in on her. She needed to get out of here. Grabbing the ice cream carton and her spoon, she hurried out of the kitchen, forgetting completely that she was supposed to have been sharing the frozen treat with Angel.

The phone call lasted less than ten minutes. Angel wasn't sure he'd taken much in that was said to him, but he thought he'd gotten the gist of it. He just hadn't been able to concentrate, nor take his eyes off the doorway Buffy had fled through minutes earlier. As he hung up the phone and shoved it into his pocket, he wondered what he was supposed to do now.

Idiot, he called himself. Stupid, flaming idiot. He should never have let himself get in this position. This way led trouble. Buffy led to trouble. No, Lizzie was the one who'd nearly brought the world down upon his head. But Buffy and Lizzie were the same person. Weren't they? Sort of. Then again, hadn't he just been thinking recently that Buffy was nothing like the Lizzie he'd known? Well, yes. Still...

It shouldn't have happened. Absolutely should not have happened. He knew better. But at the time, he just couldn't seem to have helped himself. All he had been able to think about was her, and how she felt underneath his hands. That shouldn't have mattered, he vehemently shouted inside his head. He could not, absolutely not, even consider Buffy in ways that involved bodily contact.

There, decision made. He wouldn't think about kissing Buffy. Holding Buffy. Touching Buffy. Nope, won't think about it. Angel groaned. Telling himself not to think about something was like inviting the thoughts into his head. Okay, so he'd think about something else. The phone call. Right. He would deal with that. Which, unfortunately, meant he had to go talk to Buffy, the very person he was trying to keep out of his head. Angel groaned again.

Buffy was sitting on the window seat up in her studio when she heard Angel's heavy footsteps coming up the stairs. She wished she could find somewhere to hide. Given Angel's actions after their...whatever it was...she could pretty much guess what he was going to say to her. A mistake. Never should have happened. Stress. Blah, blah, blah. Any combination or variation thereof meant the same thing to her. He hadn't meant it and it wouldn't happen again. Essentially.

Despite the fact that logic decreed that was for the best, Buffy wished things were different. Before she could think too much more about that, Angel reached the top stair.

“That was Faith on the phone,” Angel jumped right to the least complicated subject.

“Did she find out something?” Buffy latched right on to the topic, somewhat grateful for the reprieve.

“Not really. The tech guys have finished the initial study of the evidence from the other night. No obvious clues that point to a suspect other than a few unknown dark hairs. Those could come from anybody, though,” he relayed what Faith had told him, beating back frustration that they were still no closer to finding out who wanted to hurt Buffy. “They're going to compare them to some known samples of me and Faith.”

“Dawn. My sister, Dawn, has dark hair,” she told him. “It could be hers.”

“I'll pass that on.” Angel made a mental note to tell the tech team about the sister. “Faith is on her way over here.”

“Why?”

“I need to get some stuff from my apartment, and stop in at the station so Faith is gonna take over for a while.” Plus, he needed a break. Some time to think, consider, convince himself he didn't want to do anything stupid.

“Oh, okay.” She wasn't disappointed. Really, she wasn't. Okay, that was a lie. She was, but it was obvious Angel wanted to leave. “You, um, don't have to come back tonight.”

Angel frowned at her. Did she not want him to come back? “I'll be here. I'm not leaving you alone all night, not while this psycho is still on the loose.”

“I'll be fine,” she tried to assure him, giving him the out he seemed to want.

“No,” Angel said just as a knock came at the door downstairs. Must be Faith. “I'll be back in probably two hours.” And before she could say anything else, he trotted back down the stairs.

{====^====}

Faith eyed the closed door with a scowl on her face. Angel had barely said two words to her before leaving. He'd just grabbed his duffel bag, mumbled a good-bye and then bolted. Add into that the fact that Buffy appeared to be MIA and it all added up to weird. Something was definitely not right. And if she had to guess, Faith would say that the tension between her best friend and her partner was starting to get to them.

Okay, so she was hoping it was getting to them. They were both wound way too tight for her likings. What they needed was to get laid, preferably with each other. Faith knew both of them, though, and neither was likely to give an inch. Though as she stood in the dead silence of the living room, she wondered if perhaps they hadn't already cracked.

Faith started towards Buffy's bedroom, wondering – okay, hoping – she'd find Buffy sprawled out naked on the bed. Not that she wanted to see Buffy naked, but if she were minus clothes, it would mean her two friends had screwed like bunnies and then maybe all this damn tension between them would go away.

The bedroom was empty, and the bed neatly made, which was unfortunate in Faith's mind. She checked Dawn's room, where she knew Angel was staying while he was playing bodyguard, just to be sure. That room was also empty and the bed showed no signs of anyone getting some nookie. Damn, she cursed.

So where was Buffy? Faith strolled back to the living at the same time Buffy was walking down the stairs from the loft. Hmm, Faith hummed to herself. The studio had possibilities. Lots of room up there for, uh, moving around. And the paints offered some rather interesting options. She almost laughed out loud at the idea of Angel naked covered in paint. That was definitely not an image she needed in her head of her partner.

Buffy's appearance, though, told Faith that nothing scandalous had happened. With her clothes all properly adorned and not a hair out of place, Buffy showed no signs of having gotten horizontal – or vertical – with Angel. Looked like she would have to deal with the serious tension between Buffy and Angel for a while longer. Damn, she cursed again.

“Doing some work?” Faith asked, nodding up to Buffy's studio.

“No. Just eating some ice cream while watching the cars drive by from the window,” Buffy answered, her tone melancholy, yet another signal to Faith that something had to have happened.

“Uh huh.” And pigs fly, and nothing at all happened between Buffy and Angel. Right. “So-.”

The phone rang, cutting off whatever Faith had been about to say. Buffy transferred the spoon in her right hand to her left and picked up the extension on the end table in the living room. Even though she was only a few feet away, Faith barely heard the conversation as she tried to figure out how to pry information out of Buffy. She was dying to know what had happened just before she'd arrived at Buffy's apartment. Angel wasn't likely to tell her so she'd have to work on Buffy.

“Huh?” Faith grunted when she realized Buffy had hung up the phone and was now talking to her.

“I said that was the gallery,” Buffy repeated, giving Faith an odd look. “They need me to come over tomorrow and check out the final setup since the opening is in two days. Which I'd completely forgotten about with everything that's going on.”

“You could ask them to postpone,” Faith posed, wandering around the couch and then plopping down on it.

“No,” Buffy shook her head. “Everything is screwed up enough. I've been looking forward to the exhibition, I don't want to change it.”

“'kay, whatever floats your dinghy.”

While Buffy went into the kitchen to get rid of the ice cream carton and spoon, Faith lounged on the couch with her feet propped up on the coffee table. She still hadn't figured out how to weasel info from Buffy. Beating around the bush would waste time, so the moment Buffy returned and dropped down into the chair next to the couch, Faith opted for the direct route.

“So, what's up with you and Angel?”

“Nothing!” Buffy answered quickly. Too quickly.

“Yeah, right,” Faith snorted.

“I don't know what you're talking about,” defended Buffy, avoiding looking at Faith.

“Come on, B. I'm not stupid. I've known both you and Angel too long. Something's going on,” Faith eyed Buffy intensely, waiting for her to deny it again.

With an exasperated sigh, Buffy caved and told. “We, um, sort of...kissed.”

“Really?” Faith grinned wickedly. “Spill it, girlfriend, and don't leave any details out.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “It wasn't like...whatever you're thinking.” She went on to tell Faith about her near fall off the counter and then the ensuing...whatever...with Angel that had ended with them in a semi-kiss. When she was done, she noticed the disappointed look on Faith's face.

“That's it? That's what has got both of you acting all trippy?” Faith grumbled, crossing her arms over her chest. She'd been hoping for something much more juicy.

“That's all?” Buffy repeated. “We kissed, Faith.”

“Yeah, barely.” Dropping her feet to the floor, Faith leaned forward and cocked her head. “Was it a bad sort-of kiss?”

“No! It has nothing to do with that!” Buffy exclaimed, exasperated. “It's about Angel. And me. Me and Angel.”

“Umm, right. That made a lot of sense.”

“God, Faith! Angel doesn't even like me. You saw the way he acted that first night,” she pointed out, referring to Angel's instant hostility the night he and Faith had responded to her call about the break-in.

“But that was before you guys had talked. You told me you'd explained about everything,” Faith interjected. “He's been different since then, hasn't he?”

“Well, sort of, but-.”

“No buts,” Faith ordered. “Don't interpret what isn't there. Maybe-.” A knock on the door interrupted. Faith glanced down at her watch. “Damn, didn't realize what time it was.”

“Huh? Are you expecting someone?” Buffy asked, her eyes darting to the door. She couldn't stop the jump of fear at the knock. What if it was the person after her?

The knock sounded again. “That's our entertainment for the night,” explained Faith as she jumped off the couch and started towards the door. Before she opened it, she glanced back at Buffy. “We're not done with this conversation about you and Angie.”

Opening the door, Faith grinned. “Hey guys, ready to party?” She stepped back and allowed her boyfriend Spike along with several other of her and Buffy's mutual friends to enter.

As her friends crowded into the room, Buffy fought the urge to stomp her feet and order them out. She really didn't feel like being social tonight. What she wanted to do was crawl into her bed and stare at the ceiling for a few hours. Since her friends were already here, though, she'd be a good little hostess. Didn't mean she had to enjoy and have fun at the same time.

{====^====}

The sun had already set by the time Angel found himself sitting on a bench near the beach in Venice. He'd made a quick stop at the station to brief himself on any new developments in Buffy's case and then hopped over to his apartment to grab some more clothes and necessities. After that, he considered returning to Buffy's apartment, but instead, he headed west. Somehow, he ended up here in Venice, blindly staring at the Santa Monica Bay.

Why he'd come here, Angel didn't know. It wasn't like the place was quiet and peaceful. He had just needed to be somewhere on his own. Unfortunately, that left him alone with his thoughts. He hadn't been able to get the kiss with Buffy out of his head since it happened. It just kept replaying constantly.

Ridiculous, that's what the whole thing was. Four years ago, he'd thought he'd left everything to do with Buffy, or Lizzie as she called herself then, behind. It wasn't something he ever wanted to revisit. When he'd fled from Sunnydale, his job had been put at risk, his ego had been battered, and his heart...well, he couldn't quite say his heart had been broken, but it had been bruised. He hadn't been emotionally connected enough to her to be in love, but he had cared a great deal about her. Because of that, he'd been blind to who she really was.

He'd gotten out of Sunnydale with his skin barely intact. Seeing Lizzie – Buffy – again was something he would have paid money to not have happened. All he'd wanted was to completely leave that part of his life behind. He didn't need the grief, lies, and betrayal she brought into his life. He just wanted to live his life, do his job, and leave behind crap like what she'd done to him. And he'd thought he'd had that.

Now his life seemed to be turned upside down. Again. Because of Buffy. Again.

If he were honest, he knew that Buffy hadn't done anything wrong this time. At least as far as he knew. Since she'd reappeared in his life, everything he'd ever known and thought about her had been turned inside out.

Angel told himself that none of it mattered, that he had a job to do, and that was it. He couldn't stop thinking about all he now knew about Buffy, though. He kept seeing her as a young girl, the victim of a bad divorce, left alone by the death of her mother and abandoned by her father. The hurt he felt for young Buffy gripped tightly at his heart. Everyone had failed her and she'd reacted in the only way she knew how, by disassociating and being someone else, someone who didn't have her lonely life. Someone named Lizzie.

God, he wished he had known all this four years ago. Maybe he would have been able to help her. He certainly wouldn't have become involved with her, given her age, but he would have done whatever he could to help her. He'd have been a friend she desperately needed. But he hadn't know then, and now he did.

So what did that mean, exactly?

Angel pondered that question as he sat on the bench, ignorant of the noisy people strolling past him. He knew who Buffy was now. He knew who Lizzie had been. He knew why things had happened the way they did. He knew everything that mattered. So what the hell did that mean to him?

“Nothing,” he growled in a low voice.

It meant nothing. He'd been down this road with Buffy before, and he had no intention of repeating it. Knowing what he now knew about her didn't mean anything other than the fact that he felt he actually knew Buffy now. Otherwise, it all meant nothing.

There would be no more personal moments. No more almost kisses. No more anything of the sort. He was a cop. Buffy was in danger. And it was his job to keep her safe. The end. Period. That's all she wrote.

Angel repeated that to himself over and over as he stood and made his way back to his car. He needed to get to Buffy's place. To do his job, and only his job.

{====^====}

As Angel approached Buffy's apartment, he heard music blaring loudly. Odd, he thought, reaching back to make sure his gun was where it should be. At the door, he could also hear voices talking, laughing. It eased his worry, and instead gave him and instant case of deja vu. He was unable to fight off the memory of the last time he'd neared an apartment Buffy was inside of and he'd been able to hear music and people inside. That time, he'd opened the door to find Lizzie and some of her punk friends getting drunk and high. Would he find the same this time? The moment the thought came to him, he kicked it aside. He believed Buffy when she said she was through with that kind of thing. She was probably just hanging out with Faith.

Knocking on the door, Angel waited. And waited. No one answered. Not really a surprise considering all the noise coming from inside the apartment. He knocked a little louder, but still wasn't let in. He contemplated pulling out his cell phone and calling, but instead reached for the spare key Buffy had given him earlier that day. What was the use of having a key if he didn't use it?

The sooner he got inside, the sooner he could talk to Faith, give Buffy an update about the case and pick her brain about anything she might know to help them find the creep after her. The sooner he did all that, the sooner the case would be over. The sooner the case was over, the sooner he'd be away from Buffy. And the sooner he was away from Buffy, the sooner he could get back to the life he'd built here in Los Angeles. That's what he told himself as he stuck the key in the lock.

The second Angel opened door, he was assaulted by insanely loud rock music. He winced and wondered how in the world people could listen to music that damn loud. The loud tunes didn't hold his attention for long, though. As soon as he stepped inside, his eyes were drawn to the center of the living room.

Seated around the coffee table were a handful of people, some he knew, one or two he didn't. On the table were some playing cards and piles of peanuts along with the assorted drinks and bowls of chips. They were playing poker? And yet, it wasn't the poker game that held his attention either. Because as soon as he saw her, his eyes were glued to Buffy.

She was seated at the corner of the table, only part of her face visible to him. She dropped a few peanuts into the center of the table, then leaned closer to Faith. His partner said something and Buffy tossed back her head and laughed. The lines of strain on her face he'd seen too much of the last few days disappeared, her hair cascaded down her back. She kept laughing heartily, nearly dropping the cards in her hand.

God, she was beautiful.

Angel felt his insides tremble, felt his heart clutch.

He was in deep shit. Deep, deep shit.

{====^====}
Part 9
{====^====}

Faith fought to keep a grin off her face as she spotted Angel hovering in the small foyer of Buffy's apartment. He was just standing there like a big, dumb dog who was staring covetously at a big, juicy bone – or in this case, a sexy young woman, namely, Buffy. This was just too, too good. She leaned over and elbowed Spike lightly in the ribs.

“Check out the big guy over there,” she whispered in his ear.

Glancing to his right, Spike saw what Faith was referring and looked back at her with one scarred eyebrow raised. “Looks as if he's about to start droolin' any minute.”

The laugh slipped out before Faith could stop it and she slapped a hand over her mouth. Buffy heard the giggle even over the loud music and halted the movement of her hand as she went to pick up the card that had been dealt to her. She looked at Faith, wondering what was so funny. As she did so, she glimpsed Angel standing just outside the living room.

“Oh, Angel,” she squeaked and scurried up to turn the music down. “Umm, Angel. Hi. I didn't hear you come in.”

Buffy's greeting didn't penetrate Angel's mind right away. He was still lost in the vision she'd created, sitting there with her friends, laughing and having a good time. It was the first time ever that he'd seen her so carefree and happy, and without any pretense hovering over her. The sight struck a chord in him that he didn't care to examine right now. Or ever.

When Angel didn't reply, Buffy grew worried. “Angel? Is something wrong? Did something happen?” A muffled laugh came from the direction of the table, and Buffy saw Faith ducking her head down. What was that about?

Snapping his mind out of the daze it'd slipped into, Angel stepped forward. “No, everything's fine. I was just thinking.” Faith laughed again and this time Angel looked down at her and wondered what the hell was so funny.

Spike patted his girlfriend's shoulder and said, “I just told her a dirty joke.”

The lame excuse caused Faith to laugh harder. Spike hadn't said a word to her, in joke form or otherwise. She just thought it was too damn funny the way Buffy and Angel were circling around each other like a pair of horny rabbits. Man, she'd given anything to be a fly on the wall when they finally let go of their reservations and just went at it.

“Right.” Angel scowled at his partner, not believing the excuse for a second. He'd let it go for now. “Having a party?”

“Not really,” Buffy shrugged. “We all hang out every few weeks. There weren't any good movies on TV so we decided to play poker.” She didn't know why she was nervous. There wasn't any reason to be. This was her apartment, her friends, her life. Why in the world should be nervous about Angel being here and seeing her like this? She wasn't doing a thing wrong.

For the first time she realized that Angel had changed from what he'd been wearing earlier. Instead of the khaki pants and blue button down shirt he'd had on when he left, he now had on a pair of pressed black slacks and a dark green sweater. And boy did both of those fit him ever so nicely. Each and every one of the muscles in his arms and chest seemed to be perfectly outlined by the sweater. She gulped and looked away.

Little did Buffy know, but Angel was having similar thoughts. Now that Buffy was standing, Angel took in the short, red cotton shorts and loose fitting white thank top she had on. Her feet were bare and Angel couldn't stop his eyes from trailing up her shapely legs to the cuffs of her shorts, over her abdomen where they abruptly stopped at the soft mounds of her breasts. He bit back a groan. She clearly wasn't wearing a bra underneath that tank top.

“Oh, I guess I should introduce everyone,” he heard Buffy say. Angel tore his eyes off Buffy's chest and forced himself to look at the table everyone was seated around. His gazed landed on Faith first, who was staring at him, clearly amused at something.

“Guys, this is Angel Callahan. He's Faith's partner,” she introduced him to the table, then raised her eyes to Angel. “So you know Faith, obviously, and Spike, Wes, and Fred you met last night.” Buffy gestured to the one's Angel knew.

“Hi, good to see you again,” he greeted them before focusing on the two other people, one a dark-skinned man with a bald head, and the other a pretty brunette who exuded 'princess' out of every pore. Odd group of people, he though to himself.

“And these two,” Buffy pointed to the two in question, “Are Gunn and Cordelia. Gunn is sort of the do-it-all at Hyperion. He fixes things and also helps out if there are ever problems like fights or whatever. Cordy handles behind the scenes stuff, like raising funds and getting donations of supplies.”

“Nice to meet you,” Angel nodded, and wondered if the two had any deeper connection to Hyperion, as in if they'd been clients at one time. Everyone else seemed to. It wasn't his business, though. They seemed like good people. Still, it wouldn't hurt to run a check on them, he didn't want to count out any possibilities of who might be after Buffy.

“Come on and join us, Angie,” Faith patted the floor next to her. “There's plenty of room.”

“Angie?” Cordelia repeated in confusion. “I thought his name was Angel. What kind of name is Angel anyway?”

Buffy laughed while shaking her head at her friend. “Cordelia is a little short on tact,” she said to Angel.

“Angie's my personal nickname for him,” explained Faith while grinning at Angel. She just loved pushing all his buttons, and by the way he was scowling at her, it was working. “His real name is Liam but he gets all grumpy if you call him that.”

“So why Angel?” Fred chimed in from her spot next to Wes.

“Family nickname,” Angel answered, hating the topic of discussion. He'd heard all the jokes over the years about his name. It got old after a while.

“So you gonna join us, mate?” Spike asked.

Angel frowned at Faith's bleached blonde boyfriend. He still didn't trust the guy. And he didn't particularly want to play poker. Or sit near Buffy and play poker. He didn't want to be rude, though, and trudge off to his room like a schmuck. His decision to keep things all business with Buffy was flying right out the window.

“Sure,” he finally gave in. “If no one else minds. I don't want to barge in.”

“All are welcome,” Gunn decreed.

Damn, Angel thought. His valiant hope that someone wouldn't want him there went by the wayside. He'd just have to suck it up and deal with it. At least he'd be able to focus on the poker game instead of Buffy. Toeing off his shoes, he rounded the couch and sat down next to Faith. Too late he realized the only other open spot around the table was right next to him. His desire to keep his mind on the game fell flat as Buffy plopped down to his left, and he became aware of every little thing about her from the light smell of her perfume to the slight brush of her thigh against his. This was going to be a long, long night.

{====^====}

Two hours later, the apartment was finally quiet and Buffy's friends had left. Angel was surprised to admit to himself that he'd had a lot of fun playing poker with everyone. Well, he'd had fun when he managed to ignore the fact that Buffy was sitting beside him. The poker game hadn't been a serious one, as exemplified by the peanuts they used for money, but the game didn't seem to have been the point of it. It was more about hanging out and having fun with friends.

They weren't his friends, of course, except for Faith, and he supposed Buffy, but Angel hadn't felt like an outsider. Wesley was a nice guy, even if at times he was a little uptight. His girlfriend Fred was a sweetheart. He never would have guessed that at one time she'd had a drug problem, but his years on the force had showed him that anyone could get sucked down that path under certain circumstances.

Then there was Spike. Angel would be lying if he didn't say that he'd hoped the guy acted like a jerk so Angel would be proven right. The guy had been okay for the most part. He was at times annoying and antagonistic, making smart-ass comments, but they seemed to be just part of his character. He treated Faith right, and for now, that was all that mattered to Angel.

As for the other two, they were a mixed-matched pair added to the group. Gunn was a bit rough and tumble, but he had a good sense of humor and got along with everyone. Cordelia was a puzzle to Angel. Sometimes she exuded an air of spoiled brat, and at other times, it was almost like she was grateful to have her group of friends.

Overall, they were a fun bunch and seemed very close. It had felt a bit strange for Angel to be there and be a part of it. He didn't have very many close friends. Never had. Growing up in a rich family as he had and going to private schools hadn't given him many opportunities for that kind of kinship. Not that he hadn't had a good childhood, he just hadn't gotten close to many people outside his family. After seeing Buffy's friends interacting tonight, it made him feel like he'd missed out on something.

A noise across the room drew Angel's attention and he saw Buffy bending down to gather the cups and bowls. He ignored, or at least tried to, the smooth curve of her backside. It wasn't easy with the way she was bent over. He couldn't think like that, though. Only a few hours earlier he had promised himself to be Buffy's bodyguard and only that. He was going to stick to it.

“Do you need some help?” he offered his services.

Buffy jumped, startled by his voice. She'd almost forgotten he was in the room. Almost. Okay, so she'd been too lost in her thoughts about him to think about how he was standing next to the window on the other side of the room. Now that everyone else was gone, the room seemed ten times smaller than it had been. Then there was the fact that with only Angel remaining, she had nothing to distract herself from thinking about him.

Sitting there tonight next to Angel and playing poker with him had been utterly strange. It was as if the past – their past – hadn't existed and they were just two people, friends, having fun. Of course, that didn't stop the little tingles that feathered across her skin every time his body accidentally bumped hers. Buffy was pretty sure Faith had seated them next to each other on purpose. She'd get her back sometime soon.

“Buffy?” Angel said, cocking his head.

She blushed, realizing her thoughts of Angel had distracted her from the question. “Umm, yeah. Can you dump all the peanuts in the trash can? I'm gonna go put these in the sink.” She held up the cups and bowls.

“Sure.”

He strode across the room and took the trashcan that had been pulled out for the group to use during the game. As he swiped peanuts into the can, he could hear Buffy moving around in the kitchen. Even with her a room away, he couldn’t drag his mind off her. This whole business-only thing was not going well at all.

Finished cleaning off the table, he wandered into the kitchen, unable to stay away. If he was smart, he would say good night and go to his room. The fact that he was now in the kitchen proved what an idiot he was. Further support for that piece of data came in the form of his eyes drifting over the smooth curves of Buffy's body, which was encased in only the shorts and tank top he'd been drawn to stare at earlier.

His hands clenched into fists at his side and Angel abruptly turned away, needing to take her out of his line of sight, and found himself staring at the very spot where they had kissed earlier. That wouldn't work either. He turned his head to the refrigerator, decorated by a myriad of colorful magnets. There, he could look at those. Seemed like a good idea until he noticed that the magnets held up a bunch of pictures that all included Buffy with one or more of her friends. Damn.

The window. He'd look out the window. The plain view of the darkened street gave Angel relief. There was nothing to remind him of Buffy by staring out the window. He needed to get a grip. Work. He was here because of his work, Angel recited in his head. Buffy was in danger and he needed to help her. He needed to find out who was stalking and threatening her. Not thinking about what she would look like without those skimpy clothes on.

Angel searched his mind for something to say, something to keep him on track. “You're friends seem nice,” he finally blurted out.

“Yeah,” Buffy agreed. “They're great.”

Okay, he'd been hoping for a more elaborate answer. If he wanted to eliminate people, he needed to know more about them. Gut instinct said none of them were after Buffy. He hadn't caught any undercurrents of hate among them, but Angel needed to be sure. And he wasn't yet ready to focus only on females even though Buffy said the voice she'd heard outside her apartment was from a woman.

So far, he could only eliminate Faith, she was his partner after all, and Spike, although begrudgingly. He'd had another detective run checks on Wesley and Fred after meeting them and both came up clean. Apparently Fred's drug problem hadn't ever gotten her in trouble. So he had them tentatively crossed off his list of potential suspects. He had the guys doing a more thorough check on them still and would wait for that information before they were completely ruled out. That left Gunn and Cordelia. He needed to know more about them, and he had a feeling that Buffy wasn't going to like him questioning her about her friends. It needed to be done, though.

“So Gunn and Cordelia work at Hyperion?” he introduced the topic.

“Yeah. They were both already there when I arrived,” she answered, unaware of Angel's ulterior motive. “We've been friends for a while.”

“Do you know much about them?” Angel tried to ask casually.

Not casually enough as Buffy caught some unknown tone in his voice and turned to look at him through narrowed eyes. “What exactly are you asking?”

“Look,” he began. “I know you don't want to consider it, but I have to look at everyone.”

“You think one of those two is after me?” she asked incredulously. “Give me a break.”

“I just want to know more about them.” Buffy still looked unhappy with him. “I'm only doing my job,” he placated.

“Fine,” she snapped. “What do you want to know?”

“Anything you can tell me about them, their past, their relationship with you.”

Buffy leaned back against the counter and crossed her arms over her chest. She was more than a little annoyed at Angel's questioning of her friends. They were people she'd known for years, after all, but she supposed she could understand Angel's point of view. Cops were trained to be suspicious. She'd answer his questions, but she didn't have to like it.

“I don't know a whole lot about Gunn. He doesn't talk about his life much. From what Faith told me, he and his sister Alonna were street kids, abandoned by their parents. His sister got messed up on heroin by her boyfriend and Gunn tried to get her help at Hyperion. She'd been doing well and then her boyfriend dumped her because she didn't want to be part of the drug scene anymore. Two days later, she OD'd and died. Faith said he was torn up about it, blamed himself. She went to Wes because she was worried about him and Wes offered Gunn a job at Hyperion. He's been there ever since.”

“Was there ever anything between you and him, or did he ever seem interested in you?” Angel prodded for more.

“Gunn and me?” Buffy laughed at the ridiculous idea. “Not in the least. I think he dated Fred a time or two, but they're just friends. And that's all we've ever been.”

“Okay,” he accepted the information. It matched what he'd noticed throughout the night. He hadn't once caught Gunn watching Buffy or anything malicious from him, which Angel thought he'd notice if Gunn had any involvement in Buffy's situation. “What about Cordelia?”

“Ah, Queen C.” At Angel's confused expression, she clarified, “That was supposedly her nickname in high school.”

“Cordelia was from a rich family in Beverly Hills. She was apparently your typical spoiled little princess. Someone I would have hated if we'd gone to school together,” she said sarcastically.

“Yeah, I kinda caught the spoiled vibe from her a few times,” Angel replied, thinking of the brunette and what he'd noticed about her.

“It still comes out sometimes,” she shook her head. “But for the most part, she's pretty nice.”

“So what happened to her?” he wanted to know.

“There was some thing with her father. He skipped out on paying his taxes for...well, for a long time. Then the IRS came calling right around the time Cordy was graduating from high school. Daddy dearest went to prison and her Mom took off for Europe. They pretty much abandoned Cordy,” she explained, wondering how parents could be so careless with their kids. Then again, she could imagine it. Her own father had done it to her.

“Ouch,” Angel mumbled. What was it with parents these days?

“Yeah. It was pretty awful for her. She was left with nothing, not even her college fund let alone her trust fund. The IRS seized everything. She tried to become an actress, but Faith says she was awful and couldn't get any jobs.”

“How did she end up getting involved with Hyperion Place?” he inquired.

“I guess she'd run out of money and gotten kicked out of her apartment one night so she was just wandering the streets, not knowing what to do,” she relayed, thinking of how terrible that must have been for her friend. “Faith happened on her as she was about to be mugged and chased the guy off. When she found out Cordy had no place to go, Faith took her to Hyperion and asked Wes to let her stay for a while. So Wes took her in. He knows what kinds of things can happen to people who get stuck on the streets.”

“And she just stuck around?”

“Sort of. She kept trying the acting thing for a while, but that didn't work out. I'm not sure of the details, but Faith said she thought Cordy was worried Wes would kick her out because she wasn't paying or doing anything and was living there for free. So she started helping out with whatever she could. Turned out she had a knack for pestering businesses and rich people to donate money and supplies to Hyperion. Wes was so impressed with her that he gave her a job.” Buffy shrugged, gave a wry smile. “And that's the story of Cordelia.”

“Have you always gotten along with her?” he questioned. So far, nothing about Cordelia made her stand out as a suspect, but it was really her connection to Buffy that mattered.

“Pretty much. We clash sometimes, but nothing major,” she replied. “We bonded over bad luck in having lousy fathers.”

“What about guys? Ever been interested in the same one?” That could definitely lead to conflict, Angel knew.

“You know there haven't been any guys for me,” Buffy muttered, glancing away from Angel as she thought of how she'd already had to admit to him before that she hadn't been involved with anyone since him in Sunnydale. “And besides, I think she's got something going with Gunn. Faith and I haven't figured it out yet.”

“Okay.” Cordy seemed to be in the clear as well, but Angel would have both her and Gunn checked out. It was better to be thorough than end up screwed later.

“So are we done with the third degree now?” Buffy focused back on her annoyance. It was better than focusing on how sexy Angel looked standing their next to the window.

“For now,” he told her. With the questioning over, both fell silent and Angel was once again forced to recognize Buffy standing only a few feet away from him. He felt his lust rising again and knew he needed to get out of the room before something he'd regret happened. “I guess I'll go get some sleep.”

“Yeah, I should, too,” Buffy echoed, happy that he was leaving the room. Having him so close was setting her nerves on edge. “I've got to go down to the gallery tomorrow and check out some stuff for the exhibition,” she said, remembering the phone call she'd gotten earlier that night.

“Sure, just let me know what time.”

Moving toward the doorway, Angel stopped before he exited the room. He faced Buffy again. “Thanks for answering my questions. I know you didn't like it, but I have to consider everyone if I want to keep you safe.”

“I know,” she answered quietly and turned back to the sink as she was reminded of why this was all going on in the first place.

Angel said nothing else, and Buffy could hear his footsteps as he crossed the apartment. She let out a sigh of relief that she was now alone in the kitchen. God, her hormones seemed to be working overtime. Even with her anger at his suspicion of her friends, she'd been fully aware of his presence so close to her.

How in the world was she going to manage to survive however many more days living with him until he caught the psycho who was after her?

{====^====}

The morning sunlight was streaming brightly into the room as Angel lay in bed staring at the ceiling. He'd hardly slept at all since he'd all but run out of the kitchen and away from Buffy. The little bit he had slept, he'd had a vivid dream involving a certain blonde and a container of finger paints and awoken with a hard-on that could have driven nails through steel. Only the stern reminder he'd given himself that Buffy was a case kept him from going to her.

Continuing to stare at the stark white ceiling, Angel knew he was going to have to wrap this case up as quickly as possible. It was the only solution. He couldn't act on these urges he was getting. No way could he do that. He would be asking for trouble if he did.

Sure, Angel admitted, Buffy wasn't at all what he'd made her out to be. After spending so much time around her, and learning about her past, he was forced to accept that she wasn't a bad person, and that she hadn't intentionally set out to hurt him four years ago in Sunnydale. That didn't change what had already happened between them. Not only would getting involved with her again just plain old be a bad idea, but it would also cloud the job he had to do. So his only recourse was to catch the bastard after her. And the sooner the better.

A crash sounded through the walls and into his room. Immediately tense, Angel jumped out of bed, grabbing the gun on the nightstand and tearing out of the room. He barely had time to think, let alone realize he was only wearing a pair of boxer shorts.

Angel stopped at Buffy's room and saw nothing amiss, so he continued on. From the living room, he heard a scraping sound coming from the kitchen so he cautiously made his way to the doorway. Peaking around the corner, his breath hitched at what he saw.

There, crouched down on the floor was Buffy, sweeping up the remains of what looked like a broken glass. It wasn't what she was doing that made him freeze. That was caused by what she was wearing: a shiny, soft pink silk robe. The position of her body left the robe parted at her left thigh, giving him a glimpse of her panties, and the top of the material gaped open, baring the swell of her breasts.

His body moved forward with nary a protest from his brain. Without thought, he reached over and set his gun on the counter. The action must have made some sound because Buffy's head suddenly shot up and Angel found himself staring into her shocked eyes. The silk of her robe shifted further against her skin, revealing even more than before. Pale blue lace peaked out at him from her two most intimate areas.

Angel took a step forward, then another. He couldn't have stopped himself even if he tried.

{====^====}
Part 10 - NC 17
{====^====}

Every muscle in Buffy's body seemed to have frozen the moment she noticed Angel standing in the doorway to the kitchen. Everything around her faded away: the glass she'd broken, the kitchen, everything. Her mind was filled with Angel. How could it not be with him standing only a few feet away, wearing only...

Buffy swallowed and her hand twitched on the dustpan she was holding as she fully took in his almost naked body, covered only by black boxers with red lip prints all over them. She almost couldn't take her eyes off those little crimson lips that speckled the material, but she forced her eyes away, away and upwards. Her gaze traveled over Angel's rippled abdomen, past his smooth chest, lingered for a moment at the wide breadth of his shoulders, then at last, reached his face. Dark brown eyes met hers and held. Buffy felt all the air whoosh out of her lungs.

Her whole body trembled, causing the silk of her robe to slide against her thigh, but she didn't notice. She was held in thrall by the penetrating gaze of Angel's eyes. She'd seen that look before, as if he wanted to devour her. There wasn't time to contemplate that knowledge, though, as Angel took a step toward her, then another.

She should move, do something, Buffy told herself haltingly. She remained rooted in her crouch on the floor.

As Angel came to a stop in front of Buffy, he was snapped out of the uncontrollable lust that had overwhelmed him by the sound of a small crash reaching his ears followed by the clinking of glass. He shook his head slightly in an attempt to clear the image of Buffy's minutely clothed body from his mind. It didn't work, but he looked down anyway, wondering what the small noise had been.

Buffy hadn't even realized the dustpan had slipped out of her hand, causing it to plop with a crack to the tiled-floor and jostling the pieces of glass she'd already swept up. She'd been too focused on Angel's predator-like approach. Now that the trance had been broken, she stared down at the broken pieces of glass that had rattled in the dustpan, looking at them but not really seeing them.

“I, umm, dropped a glass. Earlier. And was just cleaning it up,” she mumbled, explaining the mess, and giving Angel an answer to the unasked question of what had sent him racing from his room. Picking the dustpan back up, she took a deep breath. She forced herself not to think about Angel, almost-naked Angel, standing so close. That way led to badness. She couldn't, absolutely could not, let herself think about Angel's body, about running her hands over the smooth muscles of his chest, or....No! Buffy squeezed her eyes shut. This was not good.

“Here,” Angel reached down and took the dustpan, grabbing it from the end opposite the one Buffy was holding. He turned and set it on the counter, all the while telling himself he needed to get out of the kitchen, fast. One close call was one too many. Who knew what would happen if he stayed in here much longer with Buffy wearing that sexy robe and underwear?

Turning back to Buffy, Angel opened his mouth to say something. He wasn't sure what. Instead, his eyes landed right on the front of her robe, which was gaping open as Buffy still knelt on the floor. From the position where Angel was standing, he could see right down the front and he swallowed hard at the sight of the slope of her breasts and the lacy edge of her pale blue bra. He really, really needed to get away from her. The sooner the better.

The flare of heat in Angel's eyes made Buffy look down and she noticed the compromising state of her robe. She jerked a hand up, pressing the material against her skin. The quick move, along with her flustered mind, shifted her balance and she swayed backwards, nearly falling on her backside.

“Let me help you up,” Angel offered, seeing her uncomfortable position. He tried not to think about his own comfort, or lack thereof. If he didn't leave soon, Buffy was sure to notice the predicament inside his boxers. He couldn't do anything about that at the moment. So he would help Buffy up, then get the hell out of the kitchen. A cold shower would probably be a good idea, too.

Still clutching the top of her robe together, Buffy hesitated in taking Angel's proffered hand. All she wanted to was to get back to her room where maybe she'd be able to start breathing again and maybe the little, okay big, flutters in her stomach would go away. So instead, she started to push upwards to stand, but her balance was still off. Before she could stop herself, she grasped at Angel's hand.

A searing jolt of heat shot up Angel's arm at the contact and he knew he'd made a fatal mistake. He should never have let himself touch her, innocently or not. There was no way he was going to be able to fight the desire that had been building for over twenty-four hours now.

Buffy sucked in a breath as Angel squeezed her hand and tugged her to her feet. Her lesser height left her staring at Angel's chest. She had a brief thought that it seemed larger than it had four years ago, but it flitted away quickly. How could she think of much at a moment like this?

Angel took a step forward, causing his body to brush hers. She jerked her head up and opened her mouth, but whatever she had meant to say got lost somewhere between her brain and her vocal chords. The dangerous look in Angel's eyes made her sway closer, made her body fit more firmly against his.

The move sapped whatever remained of Angel's already stretched thin control. He wanted Buffy and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, he could do about it. Except act.

There wasn't a thing Buffy could do except stare wide-eyed as Angel's mouth descended upon hers. The moment their lips touched, there wasn't anything she wanted to do except surrender to the kiss, to the feel of Angel.

The merest touch of lips set off flames that flashed bright and fast. A switch had been flipped and neither had the control or the desire to shut it off again. Only one thing could sate the desire that burned brightly in each: to give in to needs that were too strong to quell with inaction.

Angels hands dropped to Buffy's hips as his mouth slanted over hers, drawing her deeper into the kiss. Her lips opened without question and his tongue met hers in a furious duel. A low groan rumbled in his throat and he pulled her closer, fitting one of his strong thighs between her legs.

Fire spread through Buffy and she gasped against his mouth at the feel of his rock-hard erection pressing insistently against her belly. She shifted against it, needing something to release the pressure building inside her. The motion ground her aching center against his thigh, but was not enough to quench her need.

Releasing her hips, Angel's hands worked quickly and soon Buffy's robe slipped to the floor, leaving her covered in only her sexy undergarments. If his mind hadn't been so consumed with lust, he would have taken a moment to appreciate the view. As it stood, all he wanted was to get the flimsy lace off her body so he could feel every inch of her soft skin. So that's exactly what he did. His fingers deftly unclasped the tiny hooks on her bra then slid to her shoulders, catching the thin straps and pulling them down her arms. The pale blue lace joined her robe on the floor unheeded.

Tingles raced along Buffy's spine, mirroring the motion of Angel's fingers on her back. They moved up and down the slight vertical hollow in the center of her back before moving up to her shoulders and clasping them from behind. She felt the slight tug of pressure and arched her back, allowing her breasts to press forward. Any wonder over the action fled her mind swiftly as the scorching touch of Angel's tongue traced down her neck on a direct path to one of her swollen nipples.

She gasped at the warm heat that surrounded the tiny bud and arched further. Her hands raced up his back and into Angel's hair, giving unneeded enforcement for him to continue. Legs trembling, she wiggled against his still present thigh between her own legs. Pressure built and built inside her, but she could not find sweet release. She needed more, more than the torturous flicks of Angel's tongue and teasing nips of his teeth on her pebbled nipple, more than the unfulfilling press of his thigh against her greedy clit.

“Need you, Angel. Now!” she choked out hoarsely

The pleading demand was enough. Angel didn't need to be asked twice. With a last lap of his tongue, he pulled his head away. But the tempting fullness of her mouth was too much to resist, so he sealed his lips over hers once again. The kiss was hurried and fervent as his hands jerked to her waist and tugged Buffy's panties down her legs.

Free of her remaining barrier, Buffy stepped out of the bit of lace and kicked it aside. Still locked in the fiery kiss, her hands inched down Angel's chest, pausing only a moment to toy with his own aroused nipples. The detour lasted only a moment before she slipped her hands to his waist and the elastic of his boxer shorts. She was tempted to reach in and find his swollen shaft, run her fingers over each smooth bump, but the need to feel him inside her was too great. Barely a flick of her wrist, and the soft cotton dropped to the floor.

“Now,” Angel growled in response to her plea from a minute earlier.

“Yes. Now,” she greedily echoed, biting at his lower lip.

Angel gripped the lower curve of her buttocks and hauled her up as he walked her backwards to the table. The wooden surface was cool against her skin, but Buffy felt only Angel's heat. With a hand clasped at his neck, she pulled him down with her as she leaned back. Angel was able to do nothing but follow.

The tip of his throbbing cock unerringly found the moist entrance to her body. All at once he felt an all encompassing pleasure and pain. He needed to be inside. Now. Now, now, now. A quick twitch of his hips, and he was embedded as far into her clenching sheath as possible.

A scream ripped from Buffy lips. But not a scream of pain or fear or discomfort. A scream of relief. The climax tore through her without warning. Brilliant stars of gold flashed before her eyes. Shards of exquisite pleasure rippled down her arms, her legs, making her fingers and toes curl into themselves.

Jaw clenched, Angel held himself perfectly still. He was pretty sure his eyes crossed over the deliciously tight, fluttering grip the inner walls of Buffy's sex had on his cock. Even if he wanted to move, he didn't think he would be able to. And if he did, he knew he would last only a second longer. He wasn't ready for this to end yet.

The shattering orgasm oh-so-slowly eased and Buffy felt her body melt. She wondered vaguely if she'd just fallen through the table. Every bone in her body seemed to have disappeared. The reprieve was short. She didn't exactly mind.

Free to move, though his control was still short, Angel withdrew and swiftly thrust back in, his path made easy by her slick secretions. Out and in. Out and in. The pattern repeated several times until he knew he was dangling on a precipice. His hand slipped between their bodies. Sliding through the neatly trimmed curls, he found the pulsing point of her pleasure. He wanted her to join him in release. Timing the move, he drove back into her scorching heat and pinched her clit

“Buffy,” Angel groaned against her shoulder, his orgasm overwhelming him. He barely felt her nails digging into his back as she followed him over the edge of ultimate pleasure.

{====^====}

Reality intruded slowly in the form of the uncomfortable, hard surface of the table, and the heavy weight of Angel's body on hers. Oh God, Buffy moaned silently. Angel was naked. On top of her. Inside her. She'd just had sex with Angel. Hot, raw, absolutely fantastic sex. In her kitchen. On the kitchen table.

Similar thoughts were rushing through Angel's head, but the enormity of what they'd just done hadn’t yet hit him. He was still too caught up in the last vestiges of an explosive climax that left him weak-limbed. Forced to face the moment when he felt Buffy shift beneath him, he pulled away.

“I didn't mean to crush you,” he apologized, standing unashamedly naked before her.

Eyes averted, and a swift heat rushing up her face, Buffy, too, stood. So this was that unpleasant post-sex moment? Somehow, she'd never experienced it before. “No, umm...I...it's okay.” She scooted around him and snatched up her robe, completely oblivious to the underwear she left behind.

Following her lead, Angel tugged on his boxer shorts, at a loss of what to say or do. He hadn't planned this. He hadn't wanted to do this. In fact, he'd wanted to avoid it at all costs. Stupid. He should have known it was inevitable. He'd never been able to resist Buffy. So now what?

“Buffy,” he said hesitantly, worriedly.

The tone of his voice set Buffy on edge. She knew what he was going to say. A mistake. He was going to tell her it was all a mistake, that they shouldn't have just had amazing sex on her kitchen table. Or anywhere. He would tell her that their relationship was long over, and the implication would be there that he didn't trust her because of what she'd done to him before.

Oh, how she hated it. All of it. Angel had been the best thing that had ever happened to her years ago. And she'd ruined it, chased Angel away. Regret had been with her ever since. Now, Angel was back and they were almost friends, something they'd never been before, really. Yes, it had been awkward at times, but in her heart, she was grateful to have him back in her life. And now, she'd had a taste of what she'd missed for so long, only to be told it was a mistake and would never happen again. She didn't want to hear it.

“No, don't say it,” she ordered with a sharp shake of her head.

Angel's brows drew together. Say what? “I-” A loud knock on the door echoed into the kitchen. Why was it they were always getting interrupted by visitors or phone calls?

“I'll get it,” Buffy mumbled immediately and dashed past him.

“Buffy, wait,” he attempted to halt her, but she was already at the door.

Just before yanking open the door, Buffy somehow remembered to peak through the peep-hole. She sighed gratefully, flipped the locks and tugged on the door knob. “Faith. Hi.”

“Hey, B,” the brunette greeted her. Faith stopped before saying anything else and took a long study of Buffy. Silk robe, hastily tied. Mussed hair. Swollen lips. Uh huh. She grinned. “Bad time, huh? I can go jog around the block and come back when you're...finished.”

“What? No! Come in!” Buffy grabbed Faith's arm and pulled her into the room, relieved at the safe haven her friend presented. With Faith around, Angel wouldn't be able to give his intended kiss-off speech. She just wasn't ready to hear it yet.

“I don't want to be in the way,” Faith said cheekily, and had to hold back a laugh when she saw Angel inch out of the kitchen wearing just a pair of boxers. Spike was going to owe her twenty bucks. She'd told him that Buffy and Angel weren't going to last another day or two without jumping each other. She loved being right.

Faith debated letting Angel sneak away unnoticed, but she was enjoying this way too much. “Hey, Angel,” she waved to him.

He stopped and turned his head to glare at her. “Faith.” Then he glanced at Buffy and quickly looked away. “I'm, uh, going to go shower,” he recited and left them on their own without another word.

“Have fun?” Faith asked Buffy, grinning.

“I was just about to eat breakfast,” Buffy lied without compunction. Her friend could be a real pain in the ass sometimes. Most times.

A chuckle rumbled in Faith's throat. She had a good idea what breakfast had been. Slipping around Buffy, she moved to the kitchen. Just as she thought. Reaching down, she picked up a piece of blue lace. “Breakfast, huh?”

Blushing furiously, Buffy jerked the underwear out of Faith's hand and hastily picked up the matching bra off the floor. The least Angel could have done was take them with him when he'd abandoned her to deal with Faith's taunting alone. It was obvious Faith knew what they had just done, but Buffy wasn't about to confirm or deny.

“I was in the middle of getting dressed when the phone rang,” she fibbed again.

“Right. The phone.” Shaking her head, Faith walked over to the counter to pour a cup of coffee. She'd get it out of Buffy eventually.

{====^====}

“Buffy, we really need to talk,” Angel relayed gently as he trekked down the hallway behind Buffy.

She'd barely said two words to him in the two hours that had passed since the...incident...in the kitchen. After Faith left, Buffy had locked herself away in her room and Angel had opted to leave her alone for the time being. They would talk at some point, and in between, he could try to figure out this whole messy situation.

Ten minutes earlier, Buffy had informed him she needed to go to the gallery to look things over for her exhibition tomorrow night. He'd been tempted to press her to talk, but the way she avoided looking directly at him made Angel put it off a little while longer. Now that they were on their way out of her apartment, he'd decided to bring the subject up.

“No, we don't,” she denied. “It happened. It's over. The end. There's no use talking about it.” The best defense was offense, Buffy decided. Angel couldn't give her the it-was-a-mistake diatribe if she didn't let him. If she beat him to it. It didn't matter if she didn't believe what they'd done was wrong. He did.

Angel opened his mouth to deny her claim, but opted to remain quiet. He hadn't expected her to act this way, to say what she said. It had him more than a little confused. She was behaving as if nothing had happened. How could she push aside what they'd done? And why did it matter to him? Hadn't he told himself just last night that nothing could happen between him and Buffy, that he was just her bodyguard while she was in trouble? So why was he bothered by her denial? Damned if he knew.

“Fine,” he relented as they stepped into the elevator. He'd let it go. For now.

A minute later, they reached the lobby of Buffy's apartment building. Angel pulled his keys out of his pocket. “My car's out front.”

“No, that's okay. I want to drive,” she told him tensely, still not looking directly at Angel.

“Drive? You have a car?” he replied in surprise.

“Yeah,” she nodded. “It's parked in the underground garage. The elevator doesn't go down that far so we have to take the stairs.” After explaining, she walked to a door labeled 'stairs'.

Angel followed silently. Things had been weird between them ever since he'd showed up at her door with Faith after the break-in at her apartment, but now they were even worse. It was like walking on egg shells. One wrong step or word, and everything would shatter.

Once in the garage, Buffy strode with stiff steps to a car parked in the middle. Angel's eyes widened as she stopped beside a burgundy Mercedes convertible. He whistled appreciatively. “Nice car.”

“Thanks,” Buffy gave him a slight smile. “It was a gift from Giles and Jenny after my first show a few years ago. I don't get to drive it that much, though.”

Pressing a button on her keychain, a double-beep followed and the locks clicked up. Buffy opened the driver's side door and slipped into the car, sighing at the soft leather of the seat. She really loved her car. Angel soon joined her, overcrowding the fairly small interior space and filling the air with his presence. She promptly started the engine and pressed the button to open the roof.

Bon Jovi blasted out of the stereo and made Angel's ears ring. He considered asking her to turn it down or doing it himself, but he had a feeling that the loud music would be much more pleasant than the tense silence that would otherwise exist. Music he could deal with right now, silence he couldn't.

{====^====}

Three and a half hours later Buffy found that she'd run out of things to do at the gallery to occupy her time. The trip should have taken less than an hour, but she'd been desperate to keep busy and done anything possible to delay leaving. Between checking over the placement of her paintings, verifying the program, chatting with employees, a few other random things, and checking her paintings again, she'd managed to pass most of the afternoon. Angel had long since abandoned following her around and had found a desk with a phone to make some calls. She'd be lying if she said she hadn't been relieved by that.

Unfortunately, there wasn't anything left for her to do or find to do. She couldn't put off returning to Angel and heading back to her apartment any longer. As she climbed the stairs to the second floor office area, Buffy debated what she could do once she was home to avoid being around Angel or talking to him. If it wasn't still so early, she could say she was going to bed, but it was only around five in the evening.

Angel heard the light steps on the stairs and sighed. Buffy was finally done avoiding him. He was perfectly aware of what she'd done. It hadn't been hard to figure out. He also knew why, but he hadn't called her on it. He was just as unsettled as she seemed to be.

The two hours he'd spent at the available desk hadn't helped him to clear his own mind, though. He'd made a few phone calls, one to the lab tech going over evidence from the attacks on Buffy. His hope that something had turned up to point them in someone's direction hadn't come to fruition. There still weren't any clues at all as to her assailant’s identity.

At least the free time had given Angel an opportunity to set up security for the opening tomorrow night. With so many people expected, the danger to Buffy would greatly increase. Luckily, his captain had also seen that and assigned another two officers to keep watch while they were at the gallery. They would be a good backup. Angel, though, didn't plan to let anything happen. He would be at Buffy's side the entire time.

When Buffy stepped into the room, Angel glanced up. “Ready to go?” he inquired casually, not letting on that he knew of her little charade about being busy.

“Yes,” she replied formally.

“Okay.” Angel rose from the chair, grabbing the few papers he jotted notes down on. By the time he reached the doorway, Buffy was already at the bottom of the stairs.

They walked without speaking through the gallery and into a storage room at the back. Buffy had parked in a small lot behind the building. She called out a few goodbyes and opened the door. Angel's eyes were on his surroundings as he trailed behind Buffy. Nothing seemed out of place, but he was getting a weird feeling.

Buffy's violent curse alerted Angel that his suspicions were correct. He moved in a flash to Buffy's side and had his gun in hand.

“What's wrong?” he snapped, scanning for the danger.

“Look!” she waved an angry hand at her car.

Eyes narrowed, Angel stared hard at the Mercedes. All four tires were slashed. No, not just slashed, but shredded.

“Damnit!” he growled as he pulled out his cell phone to call for backup.

{====^====}


Next: Parts 11 - End