"Is there anything else you will require, sir?"
Angel shook his head, not bothering to look over his shoulder as the somber attendant pulled the door shut. He took a seat at the small table, staring at the dull gray box. There was nothing else to divert his attention. The room was tiny, windowless, all of the walls painted a gleaming white. There was only the table and the box.
Crossing his arms over his chest, Angel leaned back in his chair. He had yet to sleep. He'd gone straight from Lindsey's rat hole to LAX. He hadn't managed to rest on the flight to New York. After this little errand was finished, he would go to his penthouse with the great view of Central Park and hopefully catch a few hours of sleep. Since he was in town, he would take care of a few business negotiations and then catch a flight back to Los Angeles. But first, he had to finish this task.
Being near Buffy killed the part of him that gave him power. Her indomitable light was anathema to his darkness ...
It should have been an easy call to make, but it wasn't. Buffy set his soul free. He took a deep breath and a shudder trembled painfully through his body. For as long as he could remember, he thought that power was everything. He would - and did - sacrifice everything he was for power. Power meant never again being at the mercy of another human being, subject to their whims. Power meant no longer being forced to endure that which he could not change.
But for all of its advantages, power had never once made him happy. It had never once eased his pain the way merely being in Buffy's presence did.
Ignoring the weakness in his hand, he reached for the safety deposit box.
As Buffy should have anticipated, an easy escape was not in the cards. While her father's manner was reserved and tentative, Jenny openly fussed over her. She insisted she stay for lunch and then guilted Buffy into spending most of the afternoon with her two half-siblings - which, actually, was rather enjoyable. Before she knew it, Buffy was stuck staying for supper. Buffy finally drew the line when Jenny suggested she simply stay the night again. Tempting though it was, Buffy was firm about her plans to leave. Jenny took the opportunity to pull out all the stops. She pressed for her to move back in, to start college like she had planned and to most of all cut Angel out of her life.
Though Buffy was still stinging from her own recent realizations about her relationship with Angel, she found that she couldn't bear for Jenny to know how much of a fool she had been. Buffy adamantly denied that Angel was anything but absolutely respectful and fair. She found herself defending his honor even as she wanted nothing more than to be rid of him.
Jenny's frown let her know that she wasn't convinced about Angel's apparent valor. Nor was she supportive of Buffy's leaving. She tried everything she could to get her stepdaughter to reconsider, but Buffy was firm. Buffy didn't know where she was going - staying with Willow didn't seem doable at the moment. She didn't know what the future held, but she knew she had to find out on her own.
Leaving as she had arrived, Buffy slid into the back of a taxi. She needed to talk to Wesley. She had been in a rush two nights ago. She left her phone at the Hyperion after her run-in with Faith and in current fashion, she had no idea what her Watcher's phone number was. It was stored in her cell, which she didn't have. Damn her for not keeping an address book. Without the phone, her only option was seeing Wes face to face. He was her Watcher and though he was loyal to Angel, she had never sensed any animosity or manipulation within him. Maybe he could secure her an advance on her paycheck and point her to another Watcher. Buffy knew that Sunnydale was a hotbed of demon activity. Surely they could use a Slayer over there, especially now that Faith was back at work. It might even be interesting and a little comforting to go home after all this time.
Buffy vaguely remembered Angel saying he was leaving town for a few days - thank you gods. But she didn't know where Wesley would be. She couldn't stand the thought of going to the Hyperion and chancing another meeting with Faith. Nor was she in the mood for Caritas and Lorne's unsolicited advice. She wasn't about to go to Angel's home. That left Temple Flesh as the last contact point. Somebody there would know how to get in contact with Wesley.
There was already a line around the block when the taxi dumped her out, despite the fact that it wasn't yet midnight. Buffy groaned. Scores of gorgeous starlets and models waited their turn to enter, making Buffy feel even more removed from her former life. A year ago, she would have been one of them. Now they seemed completely foreign. Buffy walked to the front of the line, nodding to Groo as she brushed past him and into the club. Buffy couldn't ignore the protests or the catty comments hurled at her by the throngs as she entered while they had to wait.
Gunn was working and Buffy smiled sweetly enough to get him to call Wesley and arrange for the Watcher to meet her at Temple Flesh. Wes was apparently in the middle of something and it would be at least two before he could be there. Buffy was nonplussed. She had no desire to wait around the club, but she had little choice.
As Gunn pushed through the patrons to head off a fight before it began, Buffy leaned back against the wall, wishing Wesley would hurry. Her wish was not granted. Buffy groaned as she caught sight of a familiar face in the crowd. She tried to duck out of the way, but was unsuccessful.
"Hiding?" Lindsey drawled. "Funny thing for a Slayer to be doing."
Ashamed at having been caught trying to duck him, Buffy slowly turned around and faced Lindsey with a wry grin. "You shouldn't be in here," she said.
Lindsey shrugged. "Word is, Roarke is out of town. Seemed like prime time to drop in and see the place."
"That all you're doing?" Buffy asked warily.
"For the most part," he said. "I'm spending some time with new acquaintances."
Buffy raised her eyebrows. She had no doubts about Lindsey and his acquaintances. There was no way a woman could be platonic with that man. Well - unless she was entangled with Angel as well. Of course, Buffy had previously thought the number of people in that potential situation was small. How perfectly childish of her to make that assumption. Overwhelmed with a fresh heaping of self-loathing, Buffy was searching for a way out of the conversation. Unfortunately, she didn't find one quickly enough.
"Oh, my god," Sunday sneered with a malevolent smile, "isn't it just too wonderful that we ran into you tonight?"
Buffy turned and looked at the small group of people who were approaching. Sunday, Cordelia and Ford all looked like they stepped out of a Vogue fashion shoot. Buffy's mouth went dry as she watched Sunday lock her arm through Lindsey's, looking exceedingly comfortable. The predatory glint in her beautiful eyes unmistakable.
Buffy's teeth ground together. She didn't need this. Faith's taunts, Willow's admissions and Jenny's warnings still echoed in her ears. She wasn't up to a confrontation with Sunday and Cordelia, especially when they were flanked by Ford and Lindsey.
"I heard you were down on your luck," Sunday said with a blinding smile, "but I didn't realize that you were going in for the whole Melissa Etheridge lifestyle."
Buffy flushed hotly, but forced herself not to cower. She was a Slayer. Her clothes were not an attractive ensemble. They weren't designed to be. The outfit was functional when chasing vampires and demons through sewers and abandoned factories. Of course, Buffy wouldn't have been caught dead in such rags in high school. Previous to her debut as a Slayer, she would have made Sunday look like the sad imitation. But so much had changed between then and now. Self-consciously, she crossed her arms over her chest.
In high school, when dealing with Sunday, Buffy had been unerringly confident. She was a cheerleader, the prom queen, and the debutante daughter of one of the Los Angeles elite. She spent more money on her wardrobe in a week than she made in an entire month on the A.I. payroll.
But Buffy wasn't that shallow, vacuous girl any longer. She was a bouncer and a Slayer. She had to make rent, buy groceries and save up money for school. Buffy spent the entire summer immersed in her life as a Slayer, surrounded by magicks, demons and violence. She had grown as a woman and as a Slayer.
But at the moment, looking at Sunday dressed in all of her slutty glory, Buffy couldn't help but feel like a silly tomboy. She kept playing Faith's taunts over in her mind. She was just Angel's most recent conquest. Of course he didn't actually care about her. He probably laughed at her behind her back, amused by her willingness. Buffy looked at Lindsey. He made eye contact for only a moment before his gaze flitted away.
"You're even more pathetic than I'd heard," Sunday gloated.
Lindsey had the decency to look embarrassed by his date's behavior, but he was helpless to rein in Sunday. After everything that had happened, Buffy simply could not take this. She felt her stomach twist violently and was on the verge of bolting when a deep voice shattered the strained silence.
"Is there a problem here?" Angel asked. His tone was casual, but Buffy heard the malevolent undertones.
Startled, she flicked her head towards him. What was he doing here? He was supposed to be out of town. "Angel?" she said without thinking.
Sunday laughed and it was more of a cackle. "Jesus Christ, Buffy, did your memory go, too, when you lost your fashion sense?" she derided. "Angel?" she said, mocking Buffy's voice. Her expression was hard and cruel. "His name is Liam Roarke, you backwater dyke."
Buffy stared blankly at Sunday, her eyes welling with tears she would not allow herself to shed. Sunday had always been a bitch, but this level of unrestrained antagonism was completely unexpected. She was numb. Buffy did not react as Angel walked up behind her, putting a decidedly possessive hand over her abdomen as he pulled her back against his large frame, wrapping his arms around her waist.
"Actually," Angel said calmly, though his voice was rife with condescension, "my given name is Angel. Only two people in the world are allowed to use it to address me." Lowering his head, he brushed his lips against Buffy's temple, nuzzling against her briefly. "Ionuin is one of them."
Buffy watched Sunday flush in the wake of her fading bravado. Sunday's fingers tightened around Lindsey's arm and she swallowed harshly, trying vainly to regroup. Liam Roarke was the epitome of everything Sunday desired in a man. He was sinfully handsome, wealthy, predatory - an alpha male in every sense. The fact that he would protect Buffy, touch her so possessively was an affront to the code of conduct by which Sunday lived. Buffy lost and losers didn't get to walk away with the prize. Flipping her hair over her shoulder, Sunday said cattily, "Ionuin? Is that your real name? I hope so, because I always thought Buffy was absolutely wretched."
Angel laughed, but somehow it was completely devoid of mirth. There was a barely contained darkness in the sound that raised goose bumps all over Buffy's flesh. Through slitted eyes, he looked at Sunday. "Ionuin is Gaelic," he said in a low, warning rumble. "It is a term of affection. It means beloved."
Buffy forced herself not to show surprise. Beloved? She always thought it was derisive. Angel's grip tightened. Buffy allowed herself to melt back against him, molding to the long lines of his powerful body as if seeking shelter. The part of her she thought died with Faith's words sprang to life once again despite her best efforts to quell it. Angel called her beloved. His hands held her anchored to his body. For reasons she could not explain, Buffy knew that Angel would protect her with any means necessary. She wasn't proud of the fact that she had stupidly fallen in love with him, shared intimate pleasure with him, but she wouldn't trade those moments for anything.
Sunday watched them predatorily, and for the first time that night, Buffy did not flinch under the weight of her gaze. She knew that she and Angel had to look like an odd pair, he impeccable as always and she looking decidedly worse for the wear. But Buffy also knew a few other truths. She knew that from their body language Sunday could tell they were comfortable with each other's presence and touch. The bitch might be entertaining herself with Lindsey, but Buffy knew that Sunday wasn't going to get serious about someone who worked as a public defender. Lindsey might be hot, but he had his flaws. Angel was the real prize. He was the end to which Sunday's entire existence was geared. Sunday would sell her soul for a man like Angel.
A wicked thought occurred to Buffy and her lips curled back into a snarling smile. Sunday wanted Angel. Sunday could never, ever have him. But Buffy could - even dressed like a pin-up from "Butch" magazine. The large warm hand on her abdomen holding her to him, the protective stance, the possessive term of endearment - all of it told Buffy that regardless of the fact that she might simply be his latest conquest, that he would play along with any game she wished. Emboldened by that knowledge, Buffy twisted in Angel's embrace, nuzzling against the warm flesh where his shoulder met his neck. He smiled with pure masculine satisfaction.
Sunday watched in shock as Buffy, dressed like some sort of refugee, curled into Liam Roarke's embrace. This was not happening. The mere idea was absolutely foreign. Buffy had lost the war. She was no longer the "It" girl. She had no money, no clothes, nothing - and to top it all off, she was still a virgin! She had nothing to offer a jaded, carnal man like Liam Roarke. Yet, the physical evidence was right in front of her. For whatever reason, he wanted Buffy Summers.
Sunday lusted after Liam Roarke, but she was not a victim to her emotions. She wasn't about to save face at the expense of insulting one of the most powerful men in Los Angeles. She knew how ruthless he could be in his business dealings; she had heard her father speak of it many times. Her father's business depended a great deal upon Roarke's continued generosity. If she ruined things, the fallout could be extreme.
Clearing her throat, Sunday said lightly, "I wasn't aware the two of you were acquainted."
Angel's glance flitted back to the insipid blonde and he decided maybe she wasn't so stupid after all. He felt her intentions shift and knew that she would do anything to appease him. It was a sensation with which he was well acquainted. He smiled coldly. It was a damn good thing Sunday had realized the error of her ways so quickly. He had already been mentally thumbing through a list of other distributors he would use after leaving her father's company high and dry.
Running one finger sensuously along Buffy's jaw line, Angel mused, "Acquainted ... I guess you could say that. I've wanted Ionuin for years, but until recently she has kept me at bay."
Shocked, Buffy pulled back far enough to give him a curious look, which the others could not see. Angel held her gaze for several heartbeats before looking pointedly at Ford. "It always amazes me," he said, "how intensely stupid some men can be." His gaze then turned to Lindsey. It could have frozen ice.
Turning his gaze back to Buffy, Angel gave her a devilish smile. He wrapped both arms around her, holding her close. "Mo chroí," he said, his lips brushing her temple, "we should be going if we're going to make it on time."
Buffy was overwhelmed, surrounded by the heat and smell of Angel - of her other half. It was heady, making her feel slightly drunk. If he hadn't been holding her so tightly, she would have wobbled. She knew all too well why women threw themselves at him. Being held by him was decadent, intoxicating. It was very tempting to let herself pretend it was real, that he did care. She remembered his kisses from the night she was stabbed, from the counter of the Hyperion and from Wesley's office floor. Despite the fact that she knew he was using her, her body ached with hunger for more.
Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy caught sight of Gunn watching them intently, an expression of barely restrained curiosity on his face. It jolted her back to reality. They were playing. Convincing as it might be, it was all a game. A game for the benefit of Sunday, Ford and Lindsey. Buffy took a deep breath and was disheartened to learn that knowing it was a charade did not make it any less enticing.
Gently, Angel turned her in his embrace. Buffy's eyes locked with Ford's for a split second and what she saw there brought a blush to her cheeks. His expression was muddled, angry, betrayed, jealous. She felt vaguely guilty for her seeming betrayal, but given that he was with Cordy and Sunday, it was tempered measurably. Lindsey's expression, on the other hand, was neutral, shuttered. He had played poker with Angel before and lived to tell the tale.
Nodding his head, Angel sneered, "Ladies," his tone of voice making it evident he felt they were anything but. With a firm hand against the small of her back, he steered Buffy to the door. Groo held the door, staring openly as the boss escorted Buffy into the waiting limo.
Buffy scooted across the plush leather seat, making room for Angel. The door shut and Angel barked a terse order to the driver before rolling up the dividing window. The car quickly pulled away from the curb. Buffy took the brief opportunity to try and think of something to say. Did she laugh? Did she say 'thank you'? Did she bolt out the other side of the limo and embrace road rash rather than another broken heart?
Her dilemma was moot when Angel clearly ignored the generous amount of space she had left for him, wrapped his hands around her waist and dragged her across his lap. Buffy's breath caught in her throat and she met his gaze. Their faces were centimeters apart. She could feel his warm breath puffing against her skin.
She took a deep breath and licked her lips before saying breathlessly in their language, "Thanks for playing along back there."
Angel did not look happy. "What makes you think I was playing?" he asked.
Buffy let out a snort at the absurdity of his question, but the sound died as his expression became painfully serious. Emboldened, she asked, "Does Ionuin really mean beloved?"
His frown intensified. "I've called you that for years," he said, "and you've never asked Jenny what it means?"
Giving him a helpless look, Buffy replied, "I assumed it wasn't very nice."
Angel's lips pursed together in apparent displeasure. "It means beloved," he said, his voice sounding strangely hoarse.
Buffy looked at him for a long moment, trying to puzzle him out. It was no use. She had no idea what his motivations were. "What does mo chroí mean?"
He stared at her, his gaze wandering over her face, settling on her pouting, pink lips. "It means my heart," he said in a near whisper. Lifting his hand, he traced his fingertips over her cheekbone, her jaw. Buffy's eyes fluttered shut. She was tired of thinking, tired of being conflicted. Angel was here, now. He was warm and strong and at the moment she wanted nothing more than to lose herself in him - to feel wanted. His lips brushed against hers and she did not think of denying him. She yielded softly and completely, relaxing into his embrace, parting her lips as he coaxed.
Angel touched her carefully, holding himself in check. After several long minutes, he pulled back and looked into her eyes. His expression was hard, angry. "Where the hell have you been?" he demanded. "I've had people out scouring the city for you."
Buffy was quiet for a long moment. "I spent the night with my parents," she replied defiantly.
His expression was incredulous. "Your parents?" he repeated. "You've barely talked to them in months. Why would you go running to them?" Angry, he dragged a hand through his hair, trying to calm down. "You took off before I could talk to you. Then Willow said you didn't come home until dawn and then left very upset. What happened?"
She stared at him blankly for a heartbeat. "What do you mean 'what happened'?" she countered just as angrily. She smacked him on the chest. "You were there! You know exactly what happened. One minute you can't wait to get me naked and the next you're all This-Is-Just-Business Guy!"
"Buffy - " he started, only to be cut off.
"No!" she continued, undaunted. "Look, I know I may not be as worldly and jaded as most of your lovers, but I think I deserve a little more than 'fix your hair' and 'go beat up Merle' from you."
"Ionuin - "
"And I know that I've never had an office romance before, but I think some common decency should play into it somewhere. You could have at least told me 'by the way, Buffy, don't feel special, I sleep with every woman who works for me'. At least then Faith wouldn't have blindsided me."
Angel placed a finger over her lips, stilling her words. "Faith said something to you?" he asked, his voice low and deadly.
Slowly, Buffy nodded. Wrapping her hand around his wrist, she pulled his finger from her lips. "Was she your lover?"
Lips pursing into a thin line, Angel watched her carefully. Honesty had never been one of his strong points, but he couldn't ignore his bond with Buffy. If he lied to her, she would know. "For a very brief period of time many, many months ago ... yes."
Even though Buffy thought she was prepared for the admission, his words still stung. She cleared her throat. "And Willow?"
"Yes," he replied tightly.
Buffy stared at him, trying to mask her hurt and failing pitifully. Angel's hand cupped the side of her face, his thumb tracing the line of her jaw. "What did Faith tell you?" he asked quietly.
Buffy looked away, watching the headlights of passing cars, dimmed by the limo's tinted windows. Angel's touch became more persistent and she sighed. "She said not to feel special because you mess around with everyone," Buffy admitted.
"Really?" Angel murmured, his voice clearly conveying his lack of pleasure. "And did you talk to Willow too?" he asked.
Nodding, Buffy said, "She admitted she had a thing with you."
"Did Willow say anything else?" he pressed.
Buffy shrugged, unable to meet his gaze. "Willow said that Faith told me that stuff just to hurt me. She said that you got around, but that you're ... different ... with me. Whatever that means."
Somewhat mollified, Angel said, "So let me get this straight, you decided to take the word of a girl that you know to be unstable over the word of your best friend? And you did all of this without even mentioning anything to me."
Buffy looked at him uncomfortably. "Well, when you put it like that ... " she huffed. "But I don't really see how this is all my fault. I mean, you kicked me out of the office, gave me an assignment and then took off on a business trip. What was I supposed to do?"
Angel frowned at her. "You were supposed to take your phone with you," he said dryly. "You were supposed to check in with Wesley. And if you had reservations about us, you were supposed to talk to me. Not Willow. Certainly not Faith."
Buffy stared at him. Her bottom lip stuck out in a pout, but he knew that her anger was somewhat placated. She just wanted to pretend she was still seething mad at him. She wanted him to grovel. Angel had to exert a good deal of effort to keep from smiling. Groveling was such a small price to pay to keep Buffy.
He took a deep breath. "Aren't you even curious as to why I left in such a hurry?"
She nodded slowly.
Angel gently tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "I was abrupt with you in Wesley's office," he admitted reluctantly. "I handled it badly. Things between us are ... complicated. I had a lot on my mind. I didn't intend for it to get that out of control. There was something I needed to take care of first."
He reached into the pocket of his jacket and removed something. He handed it to her. More confused than ever, Buffy took the proffered object. It was a small, black velvet box, like the kind you would get from a jeweler, though it had no name. It looked old. The velvet was worn in places.
Slowly, she opened the box. Her breath caught. There, nestled amid the black velvet, was a shining silver Claddagh ring. Buffy couldn't breathe. Her vision shot to Angel, searching his face.
He seemed somewhat sheepish, uncomfortable. "That was my business trip," he explained gruffly. "It belonged to my great-grandmother. It's been sitting in a safety deposit box in New York for more than a decade."
[End Chapter 15]
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