Angel could not believe that he was having this conversation with Buffy. "What is wrong with you?"
"You sold your soul for a different kind of life."
"That's low, Buffy, and entirely different."
"Is it? I'm not doing anything wrong, Angel. I have a job and it's a legitimate, income earning job and I didn't have to give a demon free reign over my body in order to get here."
"Buffy, you're stripping! How legitimate is that? If your mother was alive would you tell her you were doing this?" It was not fair to bring her mother into it, but the words were out before he could stop himself. He could not help but think of the roll of money she had tossed at him as if it was nothing more than a few dollars. She was obviously successful at her chosen occupation. He wished she had chosen one that required her clothes remaining on.
"What exactly is wrong with it? It's not like I'm prostituting myself."
She sounded so sincere that it was hard for him to think she did not know what she was doing. He thought of those basement rooms he had visited, the lap dances he had briefly witnessed. Xybler ran a nothing's taboo establishment. "You're better than this."
"Better than what? Earning thousands of dollars a night instead of minimum wage and coming home smelling like greasy food with spilled milkshakes on my uniform shirt?"
"What is it you need that much money for?"
"To live. Do you have any idea the conditions I've been living under since Mom died?" She threw her duffle bag over her shoulder and began walking once again.
"No, I don't."
"Of course you don't, because you have been gone."
"Buffy, I didn't know. How could I possibly have known what was going to happen? Your Mom, Dawn, all of it?"
She came to an abrupt halt again and turned to face him. He could see the rise and fall of her chest as she took a deep breath. "You left me, called our relationship a freak show. And now you are passing judgment on my life choices." She started walking again and Angel had no choice but to follow. He could go back to The Neon House tomorrow on the hope of catching her, but he had a feeling this was going to be his only shot at finding out where she lived.
"Buffy, I'm not. I just don't understand it. You're better than this."
"So you say. But I have no college degree and my high school record is not exactly stellar. So my options are limited. I've waited tables and I've flipped burgers. No thanks. I'll stick with this for now."
She exhaled sharply, clearly frustrated. Maybe he was a little slow on the uptake, but he was still shocked at her being in LA. "What don't you understand about needing money to survive, Angel? Surely in your two hundred fifty years you've realized that as much as a nice smile and eyes will get you, in the long run without money you may as well die."
He followed as she cut through a yard and across an alley. She pulled a garbage can from the edge of the alley to the garage and then walked to the back door of the house. "If you're going to lecture me about my sinful ways, Angel, I'm not going to invite you in."
"I'm not going to lecture you, Buffy. That's not what I'm trying to do."
"Fine," she said as she unlocked the door and opened it. "You can come in, Angel." He followed her inside and watched as she closed the door behind them, locking it. Hopefully that meant she was assuming he was going to stay for a while.
"You live here?"
"No, I broke in," she said with a roll of her eyes.
When did she get so bitter toward him? The last time they had talked, she seemed good. He had left Sunnydale with the hope that one day he would have his girl back. Did she no longer want that? He would not necessarily blame her if that was the decision she had come to. She had had two years now without him or Spike to pressure her. But he had always believed that he would get her back again.
He followed her up the set of steps that led to the kitchen and took it in once she had turned on the light. He was admittedly impressed. He had no idea what exactly he had pictured, but it was not this quaint little place.
"Do you live by yourself?"
"Yes," she said tossing her keys into a dish on a shelf by the door. He watched her intently. She obviously had a routine. He noticed a plate, a glass, and a knife and fork sitting in the sink strainer. There were four placemats with complimentary napkins on the table, but only one showed any evidence of use. Seeing that made Angel very sad for some reason.
How long had she been living alone like this? Buffy did not belong alone and it bothered him that Giles allowed it. What was she doing here? Where was Dawn? It really bothered him that she had been here alone for months. "It's nice," he said.
"Thanks," she said with a shrug as she took her hair out of its ponytail. "I don't have any blood to offer you."
"I'm fine," he said, watching her every move. He followed her through the kitchen into the living room.
"Would you like the tour?"
"Sure," he said with interest. He was curious how she was affording this place and wondered if this was why she was stripping. There were cheaper places out there, apartments, she could live in and not be stuck with such high payments each month.
The first floor consisted of the kitchen, a large living room, and a dining room. Upstairs there were three bedrooms and a bathroom. One she was obviously using as storage and the second one was a study with a computer and other things in it. Angel noticed text books on the desk and a backpack set on the floor by the desk and grew curious about them. The third room was hers and it was totally different than the room she had in Sunnydale. Gone was the little girl stuff she had there, she had decorated this room tastefully.
"It's nice," he said as he stood in the doorway leading to her room. He was not brave enough to cross this particular threshold even if he had spent a lot of time in her bedroom in Sunnydale. The house suited her. It reminded him in a way of her house in Sunnydale, not too large but big enough. "Did it come furnished?"
"No," she said as she opened a door that led to a walk-in closet. He noticed she had her own bathroom as well. "Do you mind if I change?"
"No, that's fine. I'll just go downstairs and wait there."
"I'll just be a minute."
"No problem," he said and left her room. He stopped in the other room she used and glanced at the text books. "Sociology, Anthropology, Geography and Political Science," he whispered.
"Find anything interesting?" she asked, startling him. It was rare for a human to startle him but he had not been expecting her to be quite so fast.
"I, uh," he said turning to face her. "What is all this?"
"I'm going to school."
"Is that what the job is for?" She did not say anything, merely darted her eyes around the room as if ensuring there was nothing there he should not see. "Why didn't you just say so?"
"It shouldn't make a difference. Because I'm putting myself through school it's okay to take off my clothes?"
"Well, it's certainly more understandable."
"You know if you're so anti-stripper what were you doing there tonight anyway?"
"I was there on a job." She scoffed. "What? I was." He admitted it sounded pretty lame to him, too. "Someone's been killing The Neon House's clientele, other strip joints too. The owner hired me to look into it."
"Any ideas what it might be?" she asked and he saw a spark, a fire in her eyes he had not seen yet tonight.
"Demon hunter is all I can figure right now. Tonight was my first night on the job."
"Just my luck," she said softly.
"So you're working full-time and going to school full-time?"
"Nope. And I'm not really working full-time. I work every Friday and Saturday night, I don't have a social life for that to interfere with, and those are the two nights I make the most money. I pick up a couple of shifts during the week, but I could work just those two weekend nights and survive."
"You do that well?"
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"I just never gave much thought to how much a stripper could make."
"I didn't either, but I knew it would have to be more than when I waitressed or worked at Doublemeat."
"You're really doing it then."
"Living a normal life."
"As normal as my life can be you mean? Yeah, I guess I am," she said and Angel saw pride in her eyes. She should be proud of herself. She had come a long way, particularly since being pulled from heaven.
"I don't suppose you'd be interested in helping me."
"With your case?"
"I can't be there every night, all night, it's just not possible. No offense, but if I have to watch those guys looking at you while you do your routine one more time I won't be held accountable for my actions."
"Really?" she asked. She seemed legitimately surprised.
"Christ, Buffy, what kind of man do you think I am?"
She frowned. "I thought you had moved on. You had Cordelia."
"So did you with Spike no less."
"And Cordelia isn't just as big of a betrayal?"
He had no comeback to that because in a way she was right. Spike had never tried to come between them, except the wanting to kill one or both of them part when he first arrived in Sunnydale. But Cordelia had tried to come between them from the beginning. He refused to justify his life choices to her. "Did you stop loving me?"
"I didn't either," he said simply. She turned away from him then and left the room. He wondered if he had said the wrong thing. Maybe she did not want him to love her anymore. It was something he had counted on since leaving Sunnydale, that they would always have their love for one another even if they could not be together. Had he been wrong?
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com