A Cleansing Fire
an Elseworlds Fic
by indie
Version 2.0


NOTES:  This is a re-write of a story I originally posted in July of 2001.  The story was written in about two days and while I loved it, it was a very fluffy, light piece.  I decided to go back and try and do it justice.  The re-write contains large chunks of material from the original piece, but it’s almost twice as long.  It’s much darker and while it still contains all the same basic plot points, they are handled in a much different and IMO a much more satisfying manner. Warning, graphic depictions of sex, violence and abuse.
DEDICATION:  To my lovely betas who are so patient with me, especially Trammie who has been an absolute godsend.  ::smooch::  for you, Sweetie.


 

"Oh no, B," Faith said as she stared past her friend towards the entrance of the spectacularly adorned room.

Buffy felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise and she knew without turning around exactly who had just arrived.  With much effort, she kept her expression neutral and took a sip of the expensive champagne.  She smiled easily at an attractive young man who brushed past her a little too closely even if the room was packed to bursting.

Tearing her gaze back to her friend, Faith asked, "Wanna get outta here?"

Shaking her head firmly, Buffy replied, "It's not like I can avoid him for the rest of my life.  If I leave, it would make him think I have something to hide.  I'm not going to run."

Faith smiled conciliatorily at her friend although she was fuming inside.  How could Xander do something so cold?  Even if he wasn’t privy to all the specifics, he should have known better than to invite Angel to the restaurant's opening.  Traitor.  Faith knew that Angel was a silent partner in Xander’s business, but he was very, very silent.  Surely Xander could have managed to misplace his invitation to the opening.  As far as Faith knew, aside from forking over a lot of cash to Xander, Angel had never shown any interest in this particular investment.

"Is he alone?" Buffy asked, despising herself for being curious.

Faith frowned at her friend, but glanced back towards the entrance, trying to be discrete.  It wasn't an easy task.  She squinted as she tried to make out the people making their way through the throng of patrons.  Damn it, she was going to have Lasik surgery as soon as she managed to save enough money.

Rolling her eyes, Buffy asked, "Why didn't you wear your glasses?"

Making a face, the brunette replied, "As if."  Squinting for several more moments, she sighed and looked back at her friend.  "He's with that hottie brother of his, Will, but I don't see anyone else."

Buffy sighed inwardly, careful not to let her relief show.  Apparently he didn't have a new girlfriend yet ... or he'd left her at home.  /~Probably the latter~/ she thought wryly.  Angel may have been easy, but he wasn't stupid.  Having a new girlfriend so soon after their split wouldn't look good while he tried to plead his case for an annulment.  Being seen without his requisite knockout blonde might have hurt his pride, but he could deal with that.  The wound to his bottom line, if Buffy was able to convince the judge that their marriage had been valid and that he was the one who had broken it, would be far more damaging.

She ground her teeth together in an effort to maintain her smile.  Annulment.  He was actually trying to get an annulment.  She had laughed when Lindsey had the paperwork delivered to her via courier.  She’d thought it was some horrible joke.  She and Angel had been married for seven years.  Seven Years.  How could you annul seven years?  A little digging and an appointment with a lawyer she could not afford shed a little light on the subject.  An annulment wouldn’t be easy.  Five years was usually the cut-off point, but Lindsey had found some loopholes and a very amenable judge.  It appeared there were ways to annul seven years, to legally decide that they hadn’t existed.

Leave it to Angel to kick her when she was down.  A divorce was bad enough.  But an annulment?  She knew how utterly cold he was capable of being.  She had seen the horrors his parents put him through and she knew that his struggles, his pain at such an early age had made him ruthless by necessity.  It had been integral to his survival.  He had done anything necessary to protect himself.

Apparently, divorcing her didn’t provide him with enough protection.  He had to pretend their life together had never existed.  Buffy sighed and blinked back tears.  Angel was feared and respected, but she knew underneath it all that he was defenseless and vulnerable as a newborn.  When left with no defense, humans will often adopt the ultimate offense.  He kept people away.  He let no one in.  He survived by keeping everyone and everything at bay and under control.

He was ruthless.  He was mercenary.  He would do anything in his power to keep her out of his life.

So why couldn’t she stop loving him?

*****
"Hell of a turnout," Xander happily noted almost an hour later to Faith.

"Yeah," she replied sharply, "quite the crowd you have here.  Whoring yourself out as usual, I see."

Xander's brow furrowed at the slight as he studied his longtime friend.  "Okay," he said slowly, "are you going to tell me what I did wrong or are you just going to hold it against me for the rest of my life?"

Scowling at her friend, Faith hissed, "How could you invite Angel, Xander?  You know that he and Buffy are in the middle of a really messy split.  It's bad enough that it's probably going to drag on for months.  Why do you feel it necessary to make it harder on her?"

Xander blanched and studied something on the toe of his shoe.  He spent the last six months trying to convince himself that it wouldn’t be a problem, but he knew it had been a lie.  Approaching Buffy’s estranged husband to be an investor in his restaurant had been a sketchy move at the time, but now, with Buffy and Angel no longer simply separated, but actively ending their relationship, his actions seemed even more untoward.

"I just ... " Xander began.

"You what?" Faith countered.  "You thought it would be fun for Buffy to be stuck in a room with her cheating soon-to-be-ex and all of their former mutual friends and see who takes who's side?"

Xander shot her a hard look.  "You know that's not true," he said firmly.  "It’s business.  You know how much I love Buffy.  I would *never* do anything to hurt her."

"Trust me," Faith replied, "this hurt her.  She’s holding up really well, but it’s an act.  She was not ready to be stuck in a social situation with Angel."

"Buffy is my friend," Xander said with a weary sigh.  "She's always been there for me, and I owe her so much.  But let's face it, I would be nowhere without Angel’s money and connections.  Without him, I would be stuck flipping burgers in some diner.  There’s no way that I would be opening the hottest new spot in L.A..  If I turn on him, I will lose *everything*."

Regarding him with disgust, Faith replied, "Glad to know you have your priorities.  I thought you were different, but you’re not.  You’re a man.  First you ditch Willow and now you ditch Buffy.  Bravo, Xander, you'll be a member of Angel's inner circle in no time with moves like that."

Xander sighed and watched Faith walk away.  He had deluded himself with the belief that he would be able to remain friends with Faith and Buffy, but he knew that wasn’t true.  When he had accepted Angel’s capital investment he had started the fire.  By breaking it off with Willow two months ago, he had effectively thrown gas on the fire.  Odds were that his bridges would be burned before the evening was out.

Xander ran a shaky hand through his hair.  The evening was a success, but it was a meaningless one.  Without Willow there to share in his accomplishments, it meant nothing.  He never imagined that such a brilliant success could feel like such an absolute failure.

*****
"How'd it go?" Willow asked cheerily as Buffy entered the apartment they shared.  The redhead's jovial mood departed as she saw the weary expression on her friend's face.  Quickly, she jumped off the sofa and hurried over to where Buffy stood in the entryway.

"Xander had a good night," Buffy replied with faux enthusiasm, biting back tears.

"Oh, Buffy," Willow said quietly as she enveloped her dearest friend in a hug.  Buffy slumped against her friend, shoulders shaking with the force of her sobs.  She had been successfully holding herself together for hours, but the stress had finally taken its toll.  Surrounded by Willow's comforting embrace, she gave in to the emotions she'd been holding at bay.

Long minutes later, Buffy was wrapped in her comfy pajamas, curled up in bed as Willow handed her a steaming mug of cinnamon tea.  She took it gladly, letting the warmth of the mug seep through her chilled fingers.  Angel had often kept her tiny hands tucked safely inside his own, knowing how quickly her fingers turned to ice when left to their own devices.  For months she had been forced to acclimate herself to having cold fingers again.  Roughly pushing away the painful memories, Buffy smiled weakly at her friend.

Willow had been a lifesaver when her relationship with Angel fell apart.  Everything happened so suddenly and Buffy was left adrift, in dire need of help.  Willow quickly stepped forward, offering her friend a place to live and even securing a job for her when Angel froze all of their mutual assets.  Buffy was deeply grateful.

"Want to talk about it?" Willow asked carefully.

"Angel was at the opening," Buffy said with a sigh followed by a sniffle.  "We didn't ... talk or anything . It was just ...  Everyone kept staring at me like they were waiting for me to make a scene or something.  It was so humiliating."

Willow looked at her friend, her gaze full of empathy.  She had warned against going to Xander's opening, but Buffy was too proud to let Angel cow her and too loyal to let Xander down.

/~Maybe I should have spoken up more~/ Willow thought to herself.  She had bitter knowledge of just how quickly the tides of friendship could change in the wake of a break-up, especially one as high profile as Buffy's.  Angel's friends were moneyed and powerful.   They doted on Buffy while she was a Roarke by marriage, but as soon as Angel and his money left her, so did they.

"I'm sorry I wasn't there," Willow said, brushing a lock of hair back off Buffy's forehead.

Buffy smiled pitifully, tears in her eyes.  "I'm sorry, Wills.  I know how hard tonight was for you.  I'm sorry I'm being so selfish."

"It's okay, Buffy," Willow replied easily.

The evening opened up a lot of wounds, not only for Buffy, but for Willow as well.  Her recent split from Xander was still extremely raw.  They hadn’t been married, but their relationship was long term and, at least Willow thought, deeply committed.  The fact that he seemed to be doing so well in her absence while she was having trouble making ends meet didn't make things any easier.  But Willow comforted herself with the knowledge that Xander didn’t possess Angel’s capacity for cruelty.  Poor Buffy was in for a rough time.

*****
"Your ex was looking in fine form this evening," William Rayne drawled slowly as he took a sip of Scotch.

"Really?" Angel asked offhandedly.  "I didn't notice."

Will laughed lightly under his breath.  It was a bald faced lie if he'd ever heard one.  Although Angel had been very discrete about it, Will knew he had kept an eye on the petite blonde for most of the evening and they left only after her departure.  Not that it had been hard to keep an eye on the girl, she'd looked absolutely delicious in her little black cocktail dress.

"Afraid someone's going to come in and carry off your scraps?" Will asked antagonistically.  He knew from experience that it wasn't wise to push his older brother on a subject that he didn't want to discuss, but it was simply too tempting to leave alone.

Angel narrowed his gaze at William but held his tongue for almost a minute.  When he finally spoke, it was with icy control.  "Technically," he said calmly, "Buffy is still my wife.  Until the point at which she no longer is, I will treat any advances made towards her without my characteristic patience and understanding."

Will bit his tongue knowing full well that Angel was about as far from patient and understanding as a person could get.  His temper and capacity for revenge were notorious.  It appeared that anyone trying to put the make on his soon-to-be-ex would find themselves faced with a war they couldn't possibly hope to win.

Will shrugged and then frowned as a thought hit him.  "Speaking of which,” he drawled, “why exactly *is* she still your wife?  It's been months, mate.  I woulda figured a neurotic businessman like yourself would have had the paperwork done within days of the split and little Buffy would be safely tucked away in some Italian villa waiting on her next alimony payment."

Scowling, Angel did not meet his brother's gaze.  He rose to pour himself another drink.  Will lit a cigar as he watched his elder sibling carefully, wondering how wise it had been to bait him.

They were brothers, bound by blood, but they had never been close.  At thirty-two, Angel was eight years the elder.  While they had grown up together for the first two years of William’s life, they had been raised apart after their mother’s suicide.  William didn’t remember much of his mother, but what he did was not pleasant.  She had been deeply disturbed, and not been a fit parent.  After the funeral, William went to live with his paternal grandmother and Angel was sent to his father.

Jenny Roarke Rayne had not been a good parent, but gossip had it that she was fantastic in comparison to her abusive, alcoholic ex-husband.  Holtz and Jenny had been married for six tumultuous, violent years.  Despite the fact that William lived with Ethan’s mother, he still got to hear all of the tidbits concerning Angel and his father.  Even an income gap as wide as the one that separated William’s life from Angel’s couldn’t keep tongues from wagging and his grandmother had often openly lamented Angel’s fate.  Local opinion held that Holtz and Jenny’s relationship had been bad after the divorce, but previous to that, their marriage was nothing short of open warfare.  He shuddered at the thought of what it must have been like for a child to be forced to live with the two volatile tempers.  From what his grandmother had related to him, Angel had been little more than a pawn in his parents’ wars and after Jenny’s death, his father had taken out a good amount of his lingering rage on his young son.

After tossing back one drink and pouring himself another, Angel once again took a seat in one of the plush leather chairs that decorated the office of his expensive high-rise apartment.  "I'm not divorcing Buffy" he replied evenly.

Will frowned.  He knew his brother hadn't exactly been acting like himself lately, but he hadn't realized he'd gone totally mental.  "Um, no, Angel,  I'm really sure that you are getting a divorce.  Little Fluffy moved out and everything ... and your army of lawyers has been hanging around more than usual."

Angel regarded William carefully.  He detested having to explain his actions.  "I didn't say we weren't in the process of dissolving our marriage," he clarified.  "I said we weren't getting a divorce, at least not if I can help it."

"Come again?" Will said, cocking an eyebrow.

"Buffy wants a divorce.  I want an annulment," Angel explained.

"What's the diff?" he asked with a snort.

Angel sighed in exasperation.  Sometimes his brother really had problems following the action.  He didn’t remember his mother’s second husband well, but Angel was beginning to think the man must have been an idiot.  "If Buffy and I get divorced,” he explained, “she will be generously compensated for her troubles."

Will nodded.

"An annulment, on the other hand, means we go our separate ways like our marriage never happened.  No division of property.  No alimony.  No ex-wife walking off with half of the Roarke fortune."

"Pretty slick," Will said with a low whistle.  "Leave it to you to figure a way to screw your wife out of her due.  I'll assume she's fighting this."

"Yes," Angel said with a wry grin, "she's fighting it."

Will frowned again.  "Shouldn't all of this have been agreed to before you ever put the damn ring on her finger?  You find a problem with the contracts ol' Lindsey drew up or something?"

Angel let out a bark of laughter.  Will stared at his brother, wondering if he’d finally snapped.

Angel smirked.  "There was nothing to find fault with," he said cryptically.

"Huh?"

"No prenup," Angel explained, finishing off the rest of his drink in one long draw.

Will actually gaped at the response.  "*You* didn't have a prenuptial agreement?" he choked.

"That's what I said," Angel answered quietly.

Will didn't think he could possibly be more shocked.  Angel was the type to painstakingly document *every* business arrangement.  He never left anything to chance.  Ever.  He was a complete control freak.  He had a lot of money that he guarded very carefully.

After the initial shock faded, Will asked, "Why on earth didn't you have one?  Don't you dare tell me that you were so bloody head over heels that you were certain it would last forever."

Angel smiled mirthlessly.  "I'm not that naïve," he answered dryly.

"Then what?" Will asked.  "California is a community property state, mate."

"I never thought it would last forever,” Angel said, wearily spinning the empty glass in his hands.  “I just figured that when it finally fell apart that she would deserve whatever she got."

"Deserve?" Will asked in shock.  "You're an asshole, but there's thousands o' birds out there that would go through the horror of being married to you for a lot less than half.  What the hell did Fluffy do to deserve walking away with half your fortune?"

Angel studied the empty glass for a long moment.  "She was pregnant when we got married," he said quietly.  "I figured that as the mother of my child, she would be entitled to whatever she could get out of me.  I didn't trust my generosity to hold up through a divorce and I didn't want to deny my child anything."

Will was stunned into silence.  Buffy had been pregnant?  He knew for a fact that Angel didn't have any children, neither did Buffy.  His mind was awhirl with suspicions.  He'd never been overly fond of his sister-in-law, and this seemed to confirm his previous assumptions about her character.  "Pregnant, eh?" he snorted.  "Sounds like she got you good.  You were in such a rush to marry her that you got taken, mate.  One fictitious child and seven years later she walks away with half your bloody fortune without having to ruin her pretty little figure with a brat."

Angel winced.  What had possessed him to confide that information to Will?  He'd never discussed the matter with anyone.  /~Fictitious child~/ Angel pondered.  He couldn't help but think back to that night, waking to find Buffy next to him, bleeding, hysterical, shaking so badly her teeth chattered.  If only it *had* been a ruse ...  But it was not.  The lingering depression that followed the miscarriage, her devastation at the loss of their first child ...  Watching his wife go through that had worn on Angel more than he would ever allow anyone to know.  For all of their many problems, he knew that Buffy would never use a child, or the possibility of one, in such a manner.  It was far too important to her.

"Buffy *was* pregnant when we were married," he said in a tone that let Will know the subject was closed.

*****
Buffy sighed as she wrapped the apron around her waist and prepared for another day of slingin' espresso beans.  Willow owned a small bookshop and coffee house named The Book 'n Bean.  It was similar to the first place where Buffy had worked after fleeing Iowa for southern California.  She didn't know what she would have done eight years ago without Willow, or three months ago for that matter.  It seemed like Wills was always there to help her pick up the pieces.

"You sure you're up to this?" Willow asked quietly, making sure the other employees wouldn't overhear their conversation.

Buffy shrugged and smiled wryly.  "It's not like I can let him bring my life to a screeching halt every time I see him, Wills.  People end their marriages every day.  I'll get through it."

Willow smiled and let the subject drop.  She'd always been impressed by Buffy's vocal pragmatism on life, but she also knew that she hid behind it a lot.  Buffy was much more of a softhearted optimist than she wanted anyone to know.

As Willow walked into the storeroom to check on inventory, Buffy smoothed her apron down.  It wasn't wrinkled, but she had to keep her hands busy or she would go insane.  Eight years ago she thought she had gone through the hardest thing she would ever have to face in her life.  How wrong she was.  Her flight to California was impulsive, a last ditch effort to preserve her dignity and independence.  Stuck in the stiflingly small town of Huxley, Iowa in the wake of what happened ... she would have drowned in the pity.  When Riley left her, almost literally at the altar, she was completely unprepared.  She was eighteen and thought herself desperately in love with the man who had been her boyfriend since junior high.  He was safe.  Maybe their relationship wasn’t perfect, but she had known him for as long as she could remember.  Buffy had her entire life mapped out.  She would have been content to spend the rest of her life with him, raising kids in Huxley, never longing for more.

But Riley was not satisfied with her.  Often times, he openly lamented that she was too meek, too predictable.  Buffy stoically held her chin up when he said things of that nature, telling herself that once they were married, Riley would settle down.  But he didn’t settle.  He said he wanted more out of life.  ‘More’ apparently entailed fucking around with resident debutante, Cordelia Chase.  Riley had not been ready for marriage, but rather than admit that, he blamed his fiancé for his faults.  Buffy found out that they flew off to Jamaica as she was getting ready on the morning of her wedding.  She could still clearly remember Riley's father, deeply embarrassed, showing up to tell her what had happened just after her mother had finished helping her on with her wedding dress.

//  "Honey," Joyce had said hesitantly, looking incredibly nervous, "there's someone here to see you."

Buffy spun around, watching in the mirror as the voluminous white skirt puffed out when she twirled.  Her face was lit by a radiant smile.  "Who?" she asked, her eyes twinkling with warmth.

Riley's father appeared in the doorway.  His face fell as he saw the wedding dress and he flushed, unable to meet her eyes.  "Oh, Buffy ... " he said, his face tight with shame.  "Buffy, Riley ... isn't here."

Buffy looked at him, uncomprehending.  Something was wrong. "Isn't here?" she asked, her voice slightly frantic.  “Is he all right?  Has he been hurt?”

Riley’s father shook his head, his gaze fixed firmly on the floor.  "I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” he said.  “Riley left this morning ... ran off with Cordelia Chase.  He left this note."  //

Buffy walked around in a stupor for weeks.  For the first time in her life, her future was unknown.  Terror didn't even begin to describe what she was going through.  In a fit of desperation, she boarded a bus bound for the west coast.  She didn’t tell anyone what she was doing, she simply did it.  Weeks later, she sent her parents a postcard assuring them she was safe.

It was a lie.  She hadn't been safe.  She was scared out of her wits, homeless, jobless, with a total of about fifty dollars to her name.  She started hanging out in a bookstore that stayed open all hours.  The shelters were way too scary and she knew she would be easy prey if she stayed on the streets.  Eventually, the owner took pity on her and gave her a job and the name of an employee who needed a roommate.  Enter Wills.  Buffy had taken to the redhead immediately and in return, Willow had been the best friend she'd ever had.  They'd been inseparable ... until Buffy met Angel Roarke.

// Willow laughed, pulling Buffy into the stock room.  “Go see if he needs anything,” she goaded.

“I can’t,” Buffy said, her face burning with a blush as she merely thought about the idea of speaking to the incredibly gorgeous young man sitting at one of the small tables reading a financial newspaper.

“You have to,” Willow said.  “He’s been watching you all afternoon.”

“He has not,” Buffy said.

“Has too,” Willow replied with a confident grin.

“He’s too old,” Buffy said.

Willow looked around the corner and made a dismissive gesture.  “Whatever,” she said, “you’re nineteen.  He’s probably twenty-four or twenty-five.  Trust me, it’s legal.”

“I can’t,” Buffy said, mortified.  “Did you see the car he drove up in?  It’s a BMW.  I can’t even afford a bus pass.”

“He doesn’t know that,” Willow said.  “Now go on.”  And with that, she gave Buffy a push out the door towards Angel.//

Shaking away the memories, Buffy rubbed her temples.  She needed to keep her mind off of Angel, at least until enough time had passed so she could think about the subject without wanting to scream or cry or vomit.  The ding of the bell over the door tore her from her wallowing and she plastered on a cheery smile.

*****
Daniel “Holtz” Roarke snorted as he looked at his only child, his expression riddled with disgust.  "Figures," he said harshly.  "I knew you would find some way to screw it up, even with someone as mild mannered as Buffy.  You always were your mother’s son."

Angel's face was devoid of emotion.  Years of experience taught him well that showing any weakness to his father would only encourage the man to further aggressive tactics.  He started back blankly, his expression a perfect mask in inscrutability.

"What happened?" the elder man prompted when his son remained silent.  "You cheat on her?  She cheat on you?"

"I see no reason to discuss the specifics," Angel said, his voice betraying none of the rage he felt at his father’s prodding.

"Oh, but there is," Holtz countered aggressively.  "I didn't build this fortune from nothing to see you piss it all away on divorce settlements.  You didn't even get an heir out of this.  Your mother was a psychotic bitch, and a lying whore, but at least she was smart enough to produce you before she ran off with that drunken con man."

//”That’s it, Daniel!” Jenny screamed.  “It’s over.  Over.  I’m leaving and you’re never going to see your son again!”

Four year old Angel tried to remain upright as his mother dragged him down the hallway, striding for the door, trying to reach it before his father caught up.  He turned and the look on his father’s face scared him to the core. His face was almost unrecognizable, contorted with rage.  He reached out and grabbed Angel’s trailing arm.  Holtz pulled hard enough to bring both his son and wife to a stop.  Angel let out a high pitched scream as his little shoulder dislocated.

Neither of his parents seemed to notice. Holtz kept pulling on the dislocated arm until Jenny was forced to let go.  He pulled Angel around behind him with enough force to send the little boy sprawling onto the Persian carpet that ran the length of the darkly paneled hallway.

Angel bit into his bottom lip to keep from crying out.  His shoulder hurt so much, but making noise would only make them pay more attention to him.  He blinked through his tears, cradling his arm to his body and turned back towards his parents.

“You bitch,” Holtz seethed as he pulled back and struck Jenny across the face with enough force to send her to her knees.

Jenny lay on the floor, staring up at her husband, her eyes wide.  Blood stained the corner of her mouth.

“You aren’t going anywhere with that little bastard,” Holtz said.

Swallowing harshly, Jenny glared up at her husband.  “Your little Angel is not a bastard,” she said, her voice thick with scorn.  “I sure as hell wouldn’t have ever had the brat if he wasn’t your issue.  Do you think I wanted him?  Do you think I wanted to get fat and have to listen to his constant complaining?  I did it for the money.  For your money and you can be damned certain that you’re going to give me a lot of it if you ever want to see him again.”

With a growl, Holtz lifted his wife off the floor and slammed her into the wall, causing the back of her head to crack loudly against the wood.//

”Yeah,” Angel said dryly, shaking off the unbidden memory, “she was real smart when she had me.”

Holtz was quiet as he studied his son’s face.  If Angel hadn’t known better, he would have thought it was something close to remorse that momentarily stole over the old man’s grizzled features.  But Angel knew him too well for that.  Holtz Roarke prided himself on his ruthlessness.  There was no room for regret.  That was a lesson he had taught his son very early.

Holtz coughed loudly, clearing his throat.  "Well?" he prompted harshly.

"Neither," Angel bit out.  "No third parties, it just didn't work out."

Smiling sardonically, Holtz said, "I don't believe you, boy.  But keep your secrets, I'll find out the truth eventually."

Angel fumed quietly.  He knew it wasn't an idle threat, his father's network of spies and informants was legendary.  Angel had his suspicions about Buffy’s infidelity, ones so strong it had led to their subsequent separation.  But he had no hard proof, much to his chagrin.  And Buffy still maintained her innocence no matter how hard he pressed.

His own innocence was an entirely different matter.  Part of Angel secretly hoped that she had taken back her wayward lover.  The idea that he had suspected her of something untrue was too horrible to contemplate.  It would mean that he truly was the monster she had accused him of being.

*****
"Buffy?"

She turned quickly, but her spirits sank as she saw who was calling her name.  Riley was not at the top of her list of people to see.  She had long since forgiven him for deserting her at the altar - secretly thanking him in fact - but he seemed to bring her nothing but trouble.  She'd been planning on a quiet day of studying in the park not far from her apartment building, but her peaceful moment had been only that, a moment.

"Are you okay?" he asked in concern as he jogged up to where she sat with her algebra book.

Cocking an eyebrow at him, Buffy replied, "I'm fine.  Why would you think otherwise?"

Riley smiled in that condescending way of his and took a seat at the picnic table next to her.  Leave it to him to try and play knight in shining armor when she was in absolutely no mood to be rescued, least of all by him.

"I saw Faith yesterday," Riley said by way of explanation.

"Uh huh?" Buffy answered innocently.

Riley frowned.  "She told me about Xander's opening last week," he said, his voice slightly admonishing.

"What about it?" Buffy asked, continuing her dumb blonde routine.  It never failed to work on him.  He was convinced she was an idiot.  Of course, she returned the favor happily.  Despite their long history, Riley had never bothered to look beneath the surface where Buffy was concerned.

Beginning to get irritated, Riley said, "I know Angel was there.  Are you okay?  Did he hurt you?"

Buffy looked at him incredulously.  "Of course he didn't hurt me," she said, her voice thick with censure.

Giving her a look of disbelief, Riley said, "Don't play it off, Buffy.  I heard those things he said to you.  I know he's capable of violence."  Unconsciously, Riley rubbed at the bump on the bridge of his nose.

Buffy sighed.  Riley had experienced first hand her husband's capacity for violence as well as hearing some of Angel's more colorful and inventive threats.  Angel had attacked Riley, and hurt him badly, breaking his nose and knocking out a few teeth.  He hadn’t even felt bad about it.  Buffy was certain that given another go at it, Angel would gladly pound Riley a second time.  But to suggest that he had raised a hand to her ...  Buffy knew about Angel’s parents’ past.  She knew that his father had often been physically violent.  Holtz hadn’t thought anything of beating his ex-wife in front of their small son and though Angel wouldn’t admit it, Buffy suspected his father had been physically abusive with him as well.  Those events had scarred Angel deeply.  There was no way he would have ever lifted a finger against her in violence.

"He was just angry,” she said seriously.  “Angel would never hurt me."

"If you believe that, you're setting yourself up to be a victim," Riley said in his "professor" voice.  He was a GTA in the psychology department at UCLA and he never let anyone forget it.

Buffy growled and snapped her textbook shut as she rose to her feet.  Staring down at him she growled, "I am *not* a victim, Riley.  I was married to the man for seven years and I know for certain that he would never harm me.  I know what you heard him say, but it was all for show."

Riley didn't look convinced, but he backed down.  "I just ... I've known you for so long, Buffy.  I know how trusting you are.  I would hate to see you hurt again."

"What?" she snapped.  "You mean you don’t want him to hurt me the way you hurt me?  Trust me, Angel didn’t abandon me because I wouldn’t sleep with him."

Riley flushed.  Eternally the Boy Scout, he would feel guilty for deserting her for the rest of his life.  Good.  She only wished that Angel was as susceptible to guilt.

/~No~/ she thought sharply, she didn't wish that.  She would never attempt to manipulate her husband the way she did Riley.  Riley could take it, Angel couldn’t.  Angel had a hard life despite all the money and power.  Love, compassion, tenderness, they were things no one had ever shown him, least of all his parents.  Angel was one of the most closed off, distrustful human beings Buffy had ever known.  Somehow, she managed to get inside him, to make him feel something.  She had loved him and he had loved her back, maybe not with complete abandon, but it was the fullest of which he was capable.  Riley was happy and articulate, he wore his emotions on his sleeve.  Angel was closed up and closed off, deeply guarded and reserved.  Still, Buffy knew that she had the ability to wound Angel a thousand times more deeply than she could Riley.  Riley had the ability to bounce back, to recover.  Angel did not.  He had been burned one time too many, betrayed by those who were supposed to love and protect him.

Picking up her backpack, Buffy quickly shoved her books inside.  Riley got to his feet and stood around nervously, obviously looking for something to say to placate her anger.  To her eternal relief, he kept his mouth shut.  Without a word, Buffy stormed off to her sensible Japanese car, the only mutual asset she'd taken with her when her marriage had crumbled.

"Buffy," Riley half called, half whined behind her.

She didn't turn, instead piling all of her things in the car and driving off.  The irony of the fact that she was furious with Riley for making accusations about Angel was not lost on her.  She was upset enough with Angel to strangle him herself, but if anyone else tried the same, she'd defend him to the end.   Her husband was spoiled and self-righteous and perfectly capable of acting like an overgrown three-year-old when he didn't get his way, but he was not abusive and even his faults were not without reason.  He had been taught that loving someone meant letting them hurt you, physically and emotionally.  He had learned to keep his distance, to trust no one but himself.  At first, Buffy had thought he was just self-centered, but as she delved deeper, she learned that it was simply a form of protection.  Underneath it all, he was the terrified little boy looking for someone who would keep their promises, protect him, love him.  After she peeled back all the armor, he was hesitant but gentle and sweet and loving ...

But that was all years ago.  Before she took the love he had given her in an act of ultimate trust and used it as a weapon.  Buffy sighed.  Even if Riley's intentions were good, she still resented his prying.  No one knew the real reason behind the breakup, Buffy wasn't even sure she knew herself what had happened.  All she knew was that she had wounded Angel more than either of them had ever thought possible.

Pulling into the parking lot of her apartment building, Buffy grabbed her book bag and nearly sprinted up to the fourth floor apartment she shared with Willow before breaking down into tears.  Willow was gone, busy at work and Buffy was secretly glad.  She didn't enjoy having an audience for her little spells.  She cried long and hard for all of the bittersweet memories that she kept with her day after day, for all of the “what ifs”, for all of the pain.  It was a good long while before her sobs finally quieted.  She drew in harsh, ragged breaths.  Wiping at her eyes, she blew her nose loudly.

She'd been plagued by these violent mood swings since the first miscarriage.  It had taken her months to pull it together again, but she eventually had with Angel's help.  He'd been incredibly supportive and understanding, finding compassion and patience that neither of them had known he possessed.  Buffy's breath caught as another sob broke from her throat at the memory.  Nobody knew Angel the way she did.  No one.  Not his family, not his friends, not his employees.  When they were alone he could be so loving and tender.  He'd let her see a side of himself that the rest of the world wasn't aware existed.

Several years into their marriage, they'd decided to try to have a child again.  The first time had been an accident, but the second pregnancy was planned.

//Buffy’s expression was pensive as she looked her husband up and down.  He felt her watching him and set down the financial magazine he was leafing through.  “What?” he asked cautiously.

“I’ve been thinking ... “ she said quietly.

Angel nodded, scooting closer to her on the bed.  She looked at him, entranced by the way the light played on his bare chest.  He pulled her close, cradling her against his body tenderly.  He kissed the top of her head.

“Thinking about what?” he asked.

She sighed heavily and pulled back far enough to look him in the eyes.  “The first baby,” she said, her voice catching.

Angel’s face was a mask of concern as he touched her face lightly.  “Buffy?” he asked anxiously, worried that she was slipping into a depression again.

She smiled, trying to reassure him.  “I’m not upset,” she said.  She bit down on her bottom lip, trying to gauge how she thought he was going to react.  “I was wondering if maybe it was the right time for us to try again,” she said, unable to look in his eyes.

He put his finger under her chin and forced her to meet his eyes.  He was smiling broadly.  “You want to have a baby?” he asked.

Buffy bit into her bottom lip again.  Cautiously, she nodded.

His smile grew.

Buffy’s brow furrowed as she looked at him and shock played across her features.  “Are you ... happy about this?” she asked.

He laughed and squeezed her.  “Why are you looking at me like you’re waiting for me to get upset?” he asked.  “Of course I’m happy about this.”  Quickly he added.  “I mean, if we can’t have children it won’t be the end of the world, but if you want one, I’m not opposed to trying.”

Slowly, Buffy smiled at him.  “You really want a baby?” she asked.

Angel looked at her seriously.  “Yes,” he said.  “If you do, I do.”

“I do,” Buffy said.

Angel smiled.  “Well, then so do I.”

Her expression was still one of slight disbelief and Angel sobered.  “Why don’t you think I want one?” he asked.

Buffy shrugged and looked away.  She knew Angel didn’t like to be reminded of his past.

“Buffy?” he prompted.

Reluctantly, she met his eyes.  “I just ... you’ve mentioned some of the stuff that happened to you when you were little.  The first pregnancy wasn’t planned, so there never was a really a question of whether or not you wanted it.  I just didn’t know if you would want to be a father.”

Angel looked at her, his expression grave.  “My childhood was a horror show,” he admitted.  “If you had asked me six years ago if I would ever want a child, I would have told you no, unequivocally.  But now ... with you.  It’s different.  We aren’t my parents.  You sure as hell would be a thousand times better mother than mine.  I think we could make it work.”

Buffy smiled at him, tears glistening in her eyes.  “I love you,” she said.

“I love you too,” he replied, pulling her close for a kiss.//

They read books, consulted with the doctor and everything seemed fine.  They had *a lot* of fun trying to get pregnant.  Angel seemed to take his job very seriously and Buffy had no complaints when he would show up in the middle of the afternoon when he was supposed to be in a board meeting.  They conceived after only two months of trying and the pregnancy was progressing normally.  They made plans, talked about what they were going to name their son or daughter.  Angel joked that Fescue would be a wonderful name for their child because he was convinced he or she had been conceived in their back yard.  Buffy vetoed the name although she suspected that he was right about the place of conception.  Either the backyard or his office at work.  Buffy hoped it was the backyard.  Deskblotter seemed even worse a name than Fescue.

Things were going wonderfully for the Roarkes which of course was when everything went to Hell.  One of Angel's former lovers, Darla insinuated herself back into his life in the guise of friendship.

There was trouble from the get-go.  Buffy openly loathed the interloper.  Darla was one of Angel’s oldest friends and confidantes, one of the few people he actually trusted.  Angel was cautious and guarded.  He did not make friends or lingering attachments easily.  Years of practice gave him faith in his instincts.  He trusted Darla.  She was a friend.  The fact that she was a former lover didn’t mean anything to him.  Their relationship was long over, he valued her as a confidant, but nothing more.  His heart belonged to Buffy.  She was the center of his world.  Even at their most involved, his affection for Darla hadn’t come anywhere close to matching what he felt for his wife.  He and Darla were much better as friends.  He enjoyed her company, her ruthless humor.  She grew up in the same world he had.  They had a shared history.

Buffy had no warm and fuzzy feelings towards Darla.  It was war from the moment they met.  In front of Angel, Darla was a paragon of respectability and propriety.  In private, she was evil incarnate.  The bitch had been completely open with Buffy about the fact that she intended to steal her husband.

Buffy had been in a rage, bristling at the mere mention of the other woman's name, but Angel seemed incapable of seeing what a monster Darla was.  He trusted Darla and thought Buffy was simply overreacting.  He blamed it on hormones, convinced her jealousy was unfounded.  He was wounded that she did not trust him.

// "This is insanity, Buffy," he said, his temper short.  "You honestly expect me to believe that Darla told you she plans to take me away from you?"

"She did," Buffy said, incredibly wounded by the fact that he did not believe her.

"You're just overwrought,” he said patronizingly.  “You need rest.  You haven't been sleeping and that isn't good for the baby."

"So what?  Now I'm a bad mother on top of being a liar?" she demanded, getting progressively more upset.

"I didn't say that," he said softly, trying to appease her.  "You just need to take it easy."

"I can't take it easy with that woman in our house!" she screamed.

He shook his head and looked at her as if he didn’t even know her.  "I love you,” he said, his voice sounding oddly defeated.  “You know that no one could ever come between us."

She glared at him.  "I want her out, now."

Angel looked at her desperately.  “You can’t be serious,” he said.

“You have no idea how serious I am,” she snarled.  “Either Darla goes or I and the baby go.”  //

Too late, Buffy discovered the chain of events her ultimatum set off.  Desperate, Darla had resorted to playing as dirty as possible.  When they had started dating, Buffy had been put off by  Angel’s drinking, especially after he confided in her that his father had been an alcoholic for nearly thirty years.  As a caveat of her agreeing to date him, she had insisted that he give up drinking.  At the time, it had seemed a small price to pay and he had done as she requested without a second thought.  But in spite of his promise, that night, Angel was upset, stressed to his limits, worried about his wife’s mental and physical health and about their child.  Darla, the good friend, suggested they go out for a few drinks before she left town.  Angel eventually agreed and Darla managed to turn the few drinks into a few bottles.

When Buffy burst in to their bedroom, the scene was very compromising.  In Angel's defense, he didn't appear to be an active participant in the events, too intoxicated to even understand what was happening.  However, Buffy understood.  She physically attacked Darla, blind with anger.  Wesley had to pull the two apart, after which Buffy collapsed.

Buffy woke in the hospital the next morning.  A disheveled looking Angel explained to her in a weary voice that she lost the baby.  The next week was a complete blur as Buffy became a virtual zombie.  Angel kept a constant vigil by her side, too guilty to leave her alone.  Four weeks after the loss of the child, an expert in reproductive medicine informed the Roarkes in a somber voice that Buffy would be unable to bear children.  The information pulled Buffy out of her haze and sent her straight into a tailspin.

She refused to talk to a therapist or even see the family doctor.  As her mental state deteriorated, she became progressively more abusive to her husband.  Angel had always been the protector, the provider, but he was completely unequipped to deal with a problem of the magnitude with which Buffy was dealing.   Weeks stretched into months until a particularly violent outburst in which Buffy held Angel personally responsible for the deaths of both of their children.  She raged for hours.

//  "It's all your fault!" she screamed, hysterical.

"Buffy, you need to calm down," he said in a near whisper, inching towards her.  "If we can just talk about this rationally."

She was seething with rage, as he attempted to grab her, she grabbed a glass figurine the size of her fist that sat on her nightstand.  She threw it at him as hard as she could and managed to clip him in the temple.  He flinched and stopped. Blood trickled down the side of his face.

"You and your whore are to blame for this!" she yelled.  "You killed my babies!"

On the last word, she dissolved into tears, crumbling to a heap on the floor.  Angel watched her, helpless.  His presence only seemed to enrage her more.  Neither of them had been eating or sleeping.  And it was all his fault.  He walked over to the door, but did not go through it.  Turning, he leaned against the wall and slowly slid down to huddle on the floor.   From a distance, he watched Buffy sob pitifully, unable to do anything to help. //

In the aftermath, Angel retreated into himself.  He could no longer deal with her problems.  The entire situation threatened to overwhelm him, to destroy what little was left of his heart.  He did the only thing he could.  He walled himself off from everyone and everything.   When he met her, Buffy had been a vibrant, warm, loving creature.  He was the one who had done this to her.  He had poisoned her.  Watching the vengeful, wraithlike being his wife had become, Angel wondered if the same thing had happened to his mother.  Had Jenny been a gentle, fragile creature turned into a monster by his father’s cruelty?  Had Holtz ruined Jenny the way he had ruined Buffy?   He remembered his parents.  He remembered just how much their relationship had deteriorated before they finally called it quits.  He remembered being taken to see her in the hospital after a particularly vicious beating.  He had hurt Buffy, he knew that, but he didn’t have to make it a repeat of his parents’ relationship.  He would not let it come to that.  Seeing him exacerbated her problems, so Angel made sure she wouldn’t have to look at him.

He was personally overseeing his father’s business in England when Willow managed to push her way past the housekeeper and pick the lock to Buffy's bedroom.  The scene Willow found had chilled her to the bone.  A call to 911 and Buffy was admitted against her wishes for immediate medical treatment.  The usually tiny blonde was deathly thin and not in a healthy mental state.  Willow called Angel in England, but it was weeks before he finally returned, before he could trust himself to see her.

When he arrived home, he found Buffy still physically weak, but mentally stronger.  She was no longer in either a fog or a rage.  She was mostly quiet, deeply depressed but no longer abusive or suicidal.  After a month in a live-in treatment facility, she came home to see what was left of her life.

Her relationship with Angel was deeply strained.  He continued to blame himself for her miscarriages and the entire episode with Darla.  Buffy was still too fragile, too wrapped up in healing herself to deal with his pain.  They became strangers, living in different worlds, sleeping in separate bedrooms.  They purposely avoided seeing one another, communicating through Angel’s personal assistant, Wesley.

By the time Buffy found her way back to herself, Angel was out of her reach, physically and emotionally walled off from the world. Their physical relationship was dead and buried.  They hadn't been intimate since the beginning of the whole Darla incident.

Angel started spending more and more time with his good for nothing half brother, William.  Buffy knew he was drinking again, hanging out with the shady friends he’d had before they started dating.  He did everything he could to bury his pain with vices.  It didn’t take a genius to figure out that if he picked up one bad habit again, he had probably picked them all up.  Buffy didn't know for sure, but she seriously suspected that Angel had taken lovers.  He was a healthy male with extreme physical appetites that she remembered well.  Given the fact that she wasn't sating them, she figured someone else was.

The realization was difficult for Buffy, but she accepted it as part of her punishment, confident that she would one day be able to win back his trust and love.  She was placated by the fact that he obviously hadn't given his heart to any of his new lovers.  He still looked every bit as miserable as she herself felt.  She took some measure of solace in that.

As Angel returned to his old friends, so did Buffy.  She began spending more and more time with Willow, her live-in boyfriend Xander, and made a new friend in Faith.  They had undoubtedly thought it odd that Buffy went out so often without Angel, but none of them had said anything openly.

Out of the blue, Riley walked back into her life.  Apparently things fell apart rather quickly with Cordelia, and he was in Los Angeles trying to build a new life.  He had a GTA appointment at UCLA, where Buffy was working on her bachelor's degree.  Despite all of the painful history between them, Buffy and Riley started spending time together.  Their past was simply too intertwined and they were both too far from home to stay estranged.  They were friends and Buffy took comfort in that relationship, especially since she assumed Angel was largely indifferent to anything she did.

Buffy found out how badly she miscalculated Angel’s emotions the night he discovered she was friends with Riley.  Months of cool apathy dissolved into maddening rage as Angel attacked her former fiancé, mindlessly bellowing a litany of threats at both of them.  Angel pulled her bodily out of the stunned college eatery and dragged her back to their home.  In the hours that followed he accused her of multiple infidelities with everyone from  Riley to Xander to Wesley.

Buffy had been too weary to defend herself as she watched him rage.  What had happened to the sweet tempered man she married, the one who swept her off her feet like Prince Charming out of a fairy tale?  She had no idea who the irate stranger before her was.  Part of her died as she realized that she was the one who had made him into what he was.  She listened dispassionately as he informed her that their marriage was over.  She watched with dead eyes as he destroyed most of her possessions.  None of it had seemed real.

/~But it was~/ Buffy thought as she blew her nose for the thousandth time.  She lost two children, and in her mindless grief laid the blame for their deaths at her husband's feet.  He retaliated by retreating into himself so far that she no longer knew him.  He betrayed and abandoned her while she sat by and accepted it because she thought she deserved to be punished.

But it wasn't over yet.  The horror that was the dissolution of their marriage was going to stretch out for months and every one of these painful events was going to be dredged up and made public record.  All for the sake of the Roarke fortune.  Buffy sighed as she looked at her left hand, the fourth finger now conspicuously bare.  Angel had ripped off the platinum Claddagh ring the night he kicked her out of their home.  For all she knew, he threw it in the ocean or gave it to a new girlfriend.

She laughed bitterly.  Angel's money didn't mean anything to her.  Buffy had been of very moderate means most of her life.  Pinching pennies was nothing new.  But she'd be damned if she'd let him annul their marriage and pretend that they'd never shared a life together, pretend that he'd never loved her, that their children hadn't been real.

Aside from the night that he dragged her out of the restaurant, Angel had treated her with an icy politeness that made her burn with anger.  His rage and his passion she could deal with, but not his indifference.  She wanted to elicit a response from him, and the surest way to do that was through his wallet.

With a final hiccup, Buffy rose from the couch to give Willow a call at work.  Perhaps she'd be up for seeing a movie later.  Lord knew Buffy couldn't sit around rehashing her past ghosts all evening.  She'd had her pity party and now it was time to dry her tears.

*****
Buffy frowned as she placed the last bag of groceries into the trunk of her car.  Willow had been unable to get away for a movie and for complete lack of something better to do, Buffy had gone grocery shopping.  It had seemed more tempting than Must See TV or studying for her midterms.  Wheeling around a cart and looking through boxes of muffin mixes and cake decorations wasn't exactly what she wanted to be doing with her evening, but since Wills doubted she'd be home before morning, Buffy had improvised.  It wasn't odd for the owner of The Book 'n Bean to pull an all nighter doing inventory or bookwork.

Sitting at home moping was not a luxury Buffy would allow herself more than once a day.  She'd already reached her tears quota, and now it was time to bake.  By the time Wills got home, there'd be a plethora of breakfast items awaiting her.

Closing the lid on the trunk, Buffy hopped in the car and pulled out onto the heavily traversed street.  Caught up in her forbidden angst over Angel, she never saw the car coming.

*****
"Miss, miss!" someone was yelling frantically.

Buffy came awake very slowly, irritated at the prolonged shrieking noise she couldn't place.  Blinking several times, she realized she was slumped against the steering wheel of her car, leaning on the horn.  With great effort, she pushed herself back in the seat and the noise stopped.

Awareness came to her gradually, but she eventually realized she must have been in a car wreck.  She wasn't sure how bad it had been since her airbag hadn't deployed.  /~Of course, maybe her car was just a piece of shit~/ she thought.  Buffy laughed at the thought and quickly regretted her actions.  Her head was killing her.

*****
"So it's not broken?" Buffy asked the young intern impatiently.

"Ma'am, it's a very bad sprain.  You're going to need to stay off it for a couple of weeks."

Buffy growled under her breath as the intern scurried away.   This was the last thing she needed.  Now much more alert, she'd been checked over by the doctors and pronounced fit, except for the sprained ankle.  She also had a cut on her forehead, but it hadn't required stitches.

"Ma'am, I need to have a word with you."

Buffy turned her head and saw the police officer standing at the end of the bed on which she was sitting.  Of course, she thought wryly, he would need a statement about the wreck.  Good luck, Buffy thought.  She didn't have any information of use.  She’d been too busy thinking about Angel to notice anything.

"Sure officer," she replied.

"I really hate to do this, ma'am, but I'm going to have to take you in."

Buffy watched in shock as the police officer placed a set of handcuffs around her wrists.  The officer truly looked sorry for what he was doing, and noting the look of utter confusion on Buffy's face, he explained, "Ma'am, the car you were in was reported stolen several weeks ago."

Buffy's brow furrowed and then she growled again as she realized what had happened.  "That was a mistake," she explained.  "My husband and I are in the middle of a divorce.  He was upset when I took the car and he reported it stolen.  He said he worked out everything with you guys to have the report rescinded."

"I'm afraid he didn't, Ma'am.  We're gonna have to take you to the precinct for holding until all of this gets sorted out."

*****
Angel didn't say a word as the statuesque young blonde sidled up next to him at the bar.  She wore a skintight red dress that showed off her voluptuous figure perfectly.  He noted in a detached manner that being obscenely rich and single was rarely boring.  However, he wasn't in the mood for company.

"Drinking alone?" she asked, her voice lightly accented, east coast.

She took careful notice of his attire, dark, lightweight sweater, black slacks.  It all looked perfectly casual, but the exact fit of the clothes betrayed the fact they were expensively tailored.

"For the moment," he answered vaguely, ignoring her approving glance.

"Waiting on your girlfriend?" the girl asked with a provocative smile.

Angel didn't answer.  Carefully looking over his bare fingers, she cocked an eyebrow and pointedly asked, "Or a wife maybe?"

"No," he answered honestly, tiring of her questions, "she's not here tonight."

The blonde laughed lightly.  "Would she be upset if she knew you were talking to me?"

"I doubt it," Angel answered with more than a touch of bitterness, "we're in the middle of a split."

This time the blonde raised both eyebrows.  "What happened?  Did she turn out to be a cold fish?"

Angel smiled wryly.  "No," he said firmly.  "She was the love of my life and I destroyed her."

The answer definitely wasn't what the blonde had been expecting.  She couldn't find a way to turn his response into witty banter, so she gave him a sad, pitying smile.

"Good evening, miss," Angel said dismissively.

The blonde's lips formed into a tiny pout, but she retreated.  Angel swirled his glass, watching the ice cubes and bourbon glint in the dim lighting.  Funny that he could only be completely honest with himself when he was half tanked out of his mind.

At times like these, he knew that it was he, not Buffy who was to blame for the demise of their marriage.  Whether or not she'd slept with her ex-fiancé didn't even matter.  Lord knew he hadn't been faithful to her after the second miscarriage.  Was it any wonder that she'd turned to another man in search of the comfort that her husband was unwilling to provide?  Angel hadn't even been able to bring himself to sleep in the same bed with her after she regained her sense of self.  He'd been too afraid of having her push him away, of having her resent any physical hungers he still had for her.

He spared her his physical attentions because his hunger for her was nothing short of overwhelming.  He was terrified that being intimate with him would remind her of finding him with Darla or worse, a reminder of the fact that their union could never produce a child.  Angel didn't have any idea why he hadn't forced himself to talk to her about it, to ask her openly if she still had any desire for him.  Rejection would have crushed him, but at least he would have known.  He wouldn't be stuck with the lingering question of "what if".

But that question was destined to remain unanswered and in an act of ultimate stupidity, he had attempted to sate his hungers elsewhere.  Up until the moment he cheated on his wife, Angel had never really understood the difference between sex and making love.  As he had taken physical pleasure with the voluptuous brunette, the distinction became clear. He loved Buffy.  Being with her was making love.  Everything else was just sex.  Somehow the realization wasn’t enough.  He kept trying to make it go away.  He kept trying to not pretend that every woman he was with was Buffy.  It never worked.

Tossing back what was left of his drink, he thought back to the first days of their relationship.  Buffy had been so sheltered, so naïve that it was no effort at all to seduce her.  She'd been so helpless, so absolutely trusting that it had nearly broken the heart he hadn’t known he possessed.  Initially, he pursued the relationship as a physical diversion.  She was beautiful and young, he simply wanted to bed her.

//  "What's your name?" he asked.  He’d been watching her all afternoon as she waited on customers and chatted with friends.  Coffee shops and bookstores weren’t his speed, however, he’d been dragged inside by his friend, Penn.  Now, Penn was gone and he still lingered.  He wasn’t used to having to chase women, but for this one, he would make an exception.  In the tiny blue sundress, with her long blonde locks loose down her back, she was absolutely stunning.

Her smile was blinding as she looked him up and down.  He was so handsome, dressed in a pair of worn jeans and a black dress shirt unbuttoned over a white tanktop.  "Buffy," she said with a surprisingly seductive smile.

He smiled back and her blush intensified and she had to look away.  So beautiful, but also so shy.  She looked like she was straight off the bus.  "What are you doing here, Buffy?" he asked.

She shot him an adorable, exasperated look.  "I *work* here,” she said.  “Some people do that, you know.”

He laughed.  “You don’t think I work?” he asked.

“It’s two o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday.  With a tan like yours and the car you and your friend drove up in?  No.  I don’t think you work,” she said.

Angel whistled softly.  Cute and observant.  Intelligence wasn’t a necessity for his bedpartners, but he did enjoy someone who kept him on his toes.  “You’re right,” he said, “but that’s a good thing because I won’t be jeopardizing my employment with all the time I’ll be spending in here.”

”All the time?” she asked skeptically.  “I’ve worked here for six months and this is the first time I’ve seen you.”

“But not the last,” he assured her.  //

The tryst hadn't turned out the way he expected.  The more he got to know Buffy the more amazing she became.  There was absolutely no pretense to her, none of the female manipulations with which he was so familiar.  It became glaringly obvious that a fling with him would probably wound her irreparably.  But just as he came to that realization, he came to another about himself.  He didn't want to use her.  He had no desire to do anything to jeopardize her trust and adoration for him.  Buffy was the first person in his life who had ever loved him completely, in spite of all his multiple flaws.

When they finally became intimate, her innocence shocked him to the core.  Who expected to find a nineteen year old virgin with a body like Buffy's?  And a heart.  And a mind.  She was perfect and for the first time in his life, he didn't screw it up.  He didn't play games with her and he didn't lie to her.  She was terrified and upset and ashamed when she found out she was pregnant, but Angel had used it as the perfect excuse to tie her to himself for the rest of her life.

// “Buffy?” Angel called.  He could hear her sobbing, but couldn’t tell where she was.  He ran through the apartment and found her on the bathroom floor, crying.  He crouched down in front of her.  “Baby, what’s wrong?” he asked frantically.

She sobbed louder and handed him a little plastic stick.  He looked at it.  “What’s this?” he asked, confused.

She stopped crying and looked at him, her irritation almost comical after her near hysterical state.  “It’s a pregnancy test,” she said bluntly.

He dropped the stick like he’d been burned and then sheepishly looked at his girlfriend.  “Pregnancy?” he asked carefully.

She started sobbing again.  "My mom is going to *kill* me," she whimpered, looking totally miserable.

Angel sat back on the floor and watched Buffy cry.  Pregnant.  She was pregnant.  They were going to be parents.  He knew Buffy well enough to know that for her there would be no other alternative.  She would have the baby and keep it.  He couldn’t lose her, so he was going to be a father.  Terror threatened to overwhelm him, but he remained absolutely still.  He loved Buffy and she was going to have his baby.

The terror melted away and he pulled Buffy into his arms.  She didn’t fight him, burrowing into his embrace.  "She's not going to kill you," he said softly.

"Oh yes she will,” Buffy said, her voice sounding slightly hysterical.  “Trust me, having a grandchild born out of wedlock will not make Joyce a happy woman and my dad will probably come after you with a gun."

Angel took a deep breath and hugged Buffy tighter.  "He can’t kill me,” Angel said firmly, “and the baby won't be born out of wedlock."

Her confusion was palpable.  "What do you mean?"

"Marry me."

She was quiet for several incredibly long heartbeats, searching his face for some sign that he was joking.  "Is that a proposal?" she asked.

"Marry me,” he repeated, this time smiling as he said it.

Her answering smile was slow, but it intensified exponentially.

"Is that a yes?" he asked.

"Yes."  //

They eloped to Vegas without telling anyone about their plans.  It was one of the happiest moments of Angel's life, second only to the day Buffy found out she was pregnant several years into their marriage.  The first baby had never seemed real to Angel, Buffy had lost it so soon after the wedding.  He'd been too overwhelmed with caring for his wife to deal with the loss of his child.  Only now, after he'd lost everything, did the full impact of the situation hit him.

He was alone, utterly and completely.

Sure he had his father, and even William, but they were a pitiful excuse for a family.  Neither of them had ever loved him in the unconditional manner Buffy had, the way their children would have. He threw it all away in a self-righteous tantrum that was completely hypocritical.  And now not only was he not with the woman he would always love more than life itself, but he was embroiled in a bitter war with her for control of his family's fortune.  He knew Buffy didn't care about the money, that she was merely making a point.

Surprisingly, he found that when it came down to it, he didn't care about the money either.  But his father did.  Given the fact that Holtz was just about the only thing he had left in this world, Angel felt the need to try and please the man.  He had always been driven by that desire, but to date, he had never been able to fulfill his father’s expectations.  He couldn’t stand the thought of having to explain to the man that half of the family fortune would be going to Buffy.  He didn’t think he could stand anymore of Holtz’s loathing censure.

With a weary sigh, Angel paid the tab and headed for his car.  So much for a relaxing and diverting evening.  Upon opening the door, he realized his phone was ringing.  With much irritation, he answered it.

*****
It took Wesley nearly an hour to track down his employer on his way home from the bar, and though Angel tried to expedite the process, Buffy had been in the holding cell for nearly two hours before he had everything straightened out.  He was waiting in the lobby when they brought her out.  He cringed at the look on her face.

She was mad, more than mad, she looked ready to kill him.  But she also looked wonderful.  Gods he missed her.  Hard as he tried at times, his memory never did justice to the reality of her beauty.  Her light floral print skirt was wrinkled and slightly dirty from her taxing evening, and there was a spot of blood on her blue shirt, probably from the cut on her forehead, but she was still the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

Trying to assist her as she walked with a pronounced limp, Angel found himself pushed away roughly.  "I can do it by myself!" Buffy hissed, looking as amenable as a wet cat.

"Buffy, I'm sorry," Angel said, doing his best to grovel.

"Sorry?" she bit out.  "I was *arrested* because you forgot to take care of things like you promised!"

"I thought it had been taken care of," he explained.  "You can't honestly think I wanted you arrested."

"Oh really?" she sniped.  "Maybe I think that's exactly what you wanted.”

"Why on Earth would I do that?"

"I don't have a fucking clue how your twisted mind works," Buffy retorted impudently.

Angel winced at the cut.  She had a very valid reason to be pissed at him.  The car was the only one of their mutual possessions that she'd taken, and she’d been arrested for her troubles. To top it all off, now she didn't even have a way to get around.

"Let me give you a ride home," he said as gently as he could.

"I don't want you near me," she replied coldly, pulling her arm out of his grasp again as she tried to limp on one leg.

"Don't be a brat," he admonished.  "I'm here, I have a car.  You can barely walk.  How do you think you're going to get home?"

"I'll call Faith," Buffy replied, her chin sticking out proudly.

Angel's brow furrowed.  "Where's Willow?"

Scowling, Buffy replied, "She's going to be at work all night.  Some people have to do that, you know.  Not everyone was born with a silver spoon in their mouth."

Angel rolled his eyes at her pitiful attempt to insult him.  "You're going to call Faith, who lives clear across town, to come and get you while I'm standing right here?" he asked in irritation.

"Yes," Buffy replied firmly.

"It's almost midnight," he pointed out, "you really want to inconvenience her like that?  I'll bet she has to work tomorrow."

Buffy scowled at her husband, but she knew he had a point.  It would be selfish, and rude, to call Faith when Angel was right here.  "Fine," she said in a huff, "you can give me a ride home."

Angel sighed inwardly as he helped her hobble towards the car.  It was slow going and with a growl of frustration, he picked her up and carried her to the parking lot.  Buffy bristled, but she let him carry her.  It had been a taxing day to say the least and she wasn't sure she had the strength to make it to the car.

"Wait," Buffy said with a jump.  "We have to go back, I don't know where my backpack is."

"It's right here," Angel said, motioning to the bag thrown over his shoulder.

Buffy sighed and slumped against his strong frame.

"So what's the story on the books?" Angel asked as he made his way out of the building towards the parking lot.

Buffy scowled.  No doubt he'd gone through her things as if he had every right.  "If you must know," she said haughtily, "I'm going to school."

"School?" Angel asked, his brow furrowing.  "I didn't think you liked school."

"I didn't," Buffy noted wryly.  "At least I didn't like it when I was nineteen.  I guess I've changed because I'm actually enjoying it."

Angel smiled gently.  "What are you studying?"

"Right now just basic courses," she said.  "I think I'm going to go into education.  I'd like to work with little kids."

Angel's heart clenched at her quiet admission.  Buffy probably thought teaching was the only way she'd be able to be near children.  He was quiet as he continued walking towards the car, until a realization hit him.  "How long have you been going to school?" he asked.  It had to be the middle of the semester.

"Since before you kicked me out," Buffy said, slightly mollified by the fact that it had been such a shock to him.

Angel swallowed hard.  "I didn't know that," he said quietly.

"That's why I was with Riley that night," Buffy said, taking advantage of the fact that he was listening rather than lecturing.  "We were studying.  He was helping me with my algebra.  I would have told you that if you'd given me a chance to explain."

Angel was quiet on the remainder of the walk to the car.  When they reached their destination, he gently helped Buffy in before sliding behind the wheel.  "You know," he said as he turned over the key, "this is the most civil conversation we've had in almost a year."

"Yeah," Buffy said quietly, "I know."

The drive to her apartment was made in silence.  Buffy didn't bother asking Angel how he knew where she lived.  It wasn't a shock that he'd kept tabs on her.  Spying seemed to run in his family.  After pulling into a parking space, Angel once again lifted his wife from the car.  This time she didn't complain as he held her. Upon reaching the door, Buffy pressed the code that kept non-tenants out of the building after hours and directed him towards the bank of elevators.  As much as she would have liked to watch him walk up four flights of stairs while carrying her, she wasn't in the mood to rekindle their mutual animosity.

When they entered the elevator, much to Buffy's surprise and - oddly - her relief, Angel didn't put her down.  She couldn't help herself.  All of her months of longing washed over her in a moment and she lay her head on his shoulder, breathing in the achingly familiar scent of her lost mate.  She was hyper-aware of his strong arms around her, of the hard expanse of chest to which she was pinned.  He still felt exactly the same.  Though her mind knew the score, her heart and body only knew that they missed him more than they could bear.

Angel tensed as a tiny hiccupping sob broke from Buffy's chest.  He screwed his eyes shut tightly as he felt her tears wet the fabric of his lightweight sweater.  He knew what was wrong because he felt the pain with equal intensity.  Being so close was too familiar, too right to ignore.  But there was still so much pain between them, so many disturbing memories.  Turning his head, he brushed his cheek against hers as he whispered, "Don't cry, baby.  Please don't cry."

His gentle plea only served to make the tears flow faster, and in short order, Buffy was sobbing openly as she clung to him in desperation.  The elevator doors opened and Angel blindly made his way to the door of her apartment.  Suddenly aware of where they were, Buffy pulled herself together enough to locate her keys.  Angel took the proffered key chain and opened the door.

Buffy's weeping did not subside once they were in the safety of her apartment.  If anything it intensified.  For long moments, Angel simply held her, wanting desperately to offer her comfort.

"Baby, which one is your bedroom?" he asked quietly, his lips brushing gently against her forehead as he spoke.

Buffy sobbed.  She didn't want him to take her to her room because it would only hasten his departure.  For all her weeping, she was content to be held by him, to pretend that he still loved her as much as she loved him.

When she didn't answer, Angel asked again.  Still, she did not respond.  Angel knew the source of her reticence.  She didn't want to be parted.  Fortunately for her, he had absolutely no intention of going anywhere.

Bending his head to slide his lips along hers, Angel kissed her gently.  Buffy gasped as his flesh touched hers and she leaned her head back.  As her lips slowly parted, Angel deepened the kiss.  They clung together like that for long moments, slowly exploring the textures of their lost mates.

Pulling his head back far enough to look into her eyes, Angel asked again, "Which one is your bedroom?"

One look in his eyes and Buffy knew exactly why he was asking.  "The one on the right," she answered quietly, having no idea if she was doing the right thing or not.

Angel smiled against her lips, unable to disguise his joy at the fact that she still wanted him.  Upon entering the room, he shut and locked the door and then set Buffy on her feet.  He studied the sanctuary of his wife's new bedroom and it shamed him deeply.  Gone were all the trappings that had adorned the room they shared eons ago.  No giant four poster mahogany bed, no luxuriously soft imported sheets, none of the expensive jewelry he'd loved to shower her with.  The room was small but functional.  A desk and nightstand were crowded against one wall.  Her bed was tiny, looking like something meant for children.  Of course, with her diminutive stature, it was more than big enough, but it definitely didn't leave any room to share.

"Sorry," she said, noticing him looking at her single bed, "I haven't had to worry about company."

"It’s okay," he replied huskily, dipping his head to kiss her again.  "I'm sure we'll make do."

Buffy sighed tremulously as his lips pressed against the flesh of her neck.  Despite the tension she could feel suffusing his body, his kisses were gentle, his lips tender, almost reverent.  Picking her up, he laid them both down on her tiny bed.  The space was cramped and his legs hung off the end, but he couldn't imagine anywhere more inviting.

He took infinite care to wring every response from her lips and tongue as he moved to crouch over his mate.  Buffy wanted to weep at his hesitant treatment.  His large body loomed over hers, yet his presence was not dominating.  He wasn't possessing so much as protecting, almost as if he understood exactly how vulnerable and raw she felt in spite of, or maybe because of, all the time that had passed.

He was her only lover and despite his accusations to the contrary it seemed he understood that all too well.  He was the last person with whom she had been intimate and that had been almost a year earlier, before Darla, before the loss of their child, before he told her to leave ...  He wanted her with an unearthly hunger, but he would not rush things.

Buffy sighed as he moved off her and rolled them both onto their sides facing one another as his strong arms cradled her against the muscled wall of his chest.  He placed butterfly kisses over the abrasion on her forehead, and Buffy burrowed into the solid warmth of his body.

"Are you sure you want this, baby?" he asked quietly.  "I know you've had a bad night."

She laughed lightly.  "It's getting better."

Angel groaned and his mouth found hers again.  "Let me make love to you," he breathed against her lips, his entire body taut with need.

Buffy nodded her assent, knowing she was probably making a huge mistake.  If this didn't lead to something more, how was she going to watch him walk away again?  As one of his large hands sifted through the material of her skirt, she decided she didn't care.  It was about the moment and at that moment she loved him and she wanted him.  Tomorrow be damned.

As his hand slid up the outside of her thigh, working around to gently grasp the swell of her buttock, Buffy moved against him involuntarily, feeling her body respond to his touch.  With a groan, Angel worked the tiny zipper of her skirt and pulled the material down her legs, tossing it on the floor.  He paused a moment to inspect her swollen, blackened ankle.

"Are you okay?" he asked, mindful to not jostle her wounded appendage.

"It's only a sprain," she answered, suddenly very conscious of being clad only in her white bikini underwear and her light cotton top.

It appeared that Angel too was aware of her semi-nakedness, and he set about remedying the situation.  Buffy didn't resist as he pulled at the hem of her shirt until it too lay on the floor in a heap.  Silently cursing herself for her overly sensible choice in undergarments, Buffy shot her mate a withering gaze.  A matching white cotton bra and panty set weren't exactly designed for seduction.

Angel didn't seem to mind in the least.  He smiled his beautiful lopsided smile in return and rose from the bed to shed his clothes.  Buffy's mouth went dry as she looked at his powerful body, so familiar yet so foreign.  He was thinner, she noted.  His body had a leanness that hadn't been there the last time she'd seen him like this. The corded muscles of his frame were etched in harsh relief.  It was as if he could no longer abide any softness.  Buffy silently wondered if her own body reflected the same sentiment.

Joining her on the bed once again, Angel startled at the shocked look on her face.  He followed her line of vision to the simple silver chain around his neck.  It wasn't the chain, he knew, it was the ring strung on it.

"Is that?" she asked quietly, gently fingering the ring.

He closed his eyes, but answered, "Yes.  It's yours."

Buffy smiled wistfully.  "I thought you would have gotten rid of it," she said.

Desperate to change the subject, Angel frowned as he studied her skin.  Looking down, Buffy saw that there were deep bruises on her flesh from the wreck and while not particularly painful, they were rather unsightly.  As she attempted to cover herself, Angel stopped her, dropping his head to press feather light kisses to the abused skin.  Buffy gasped, instinctively reaching for his shoulders as he crouched over her, kissing along the tops of her breasts.  Gently, he reached behind her, undoing the clasp before sliding the white cotton down her arms.

With a moan so soft, Buffy wasn't sure she'd heard it, his head moved lower.  The descent continued until he could take one of her pebbled nipples into his mouth.  His tongue reverently traced her areola, laving the flesh gently before he tugged lightly with his teeth. Buffy hissed in pleasure and arched her chest against his mouth in silent entreaty.  He was thrilled at her response, but continued to take his time.  His hand came up to slowly massage her neglected breast as he began to suckle at her sensitive flesh.

Buffy's response was immediate and intense.  Blinded by her growing need, she draped her uninjured leg over his hip, arching against him.  Her movement pressed his engorged cock roughly against the softness of her inner thigh, and he groaned in pleasure.  Shifting his weight onto one arm, he moved his hand from her breast down her body to the apex of her thighs.  He grabbed the waistband of her panties and slowly pulled them down her legs.  She aided him, shimmying to get free of the material.  Bare at last, she instinctively spread her legs as his skillful fingers sifted lightly through the downy hair covering her sex.

As his digits carefully spread her nether lips for his plundering, Buffy mewled in response, gently kneading the corded muscles of his shoulders.  His explorations were slow and gentle despite the urgency of their combined need.  He took his time, tenderly massaging her sex, emboldened by the honey seeping freely from her body.  As one of his talented fingers slipped inside her sheath, Buffy's mouth fell open in a pant.  Angel met her gaze, staring deeply into her eyes as his thumb slowly circled her slick nub.  Eyes screwing shut of their own accord, Buffy arched against his hand with a whine of need.

The sound was Angel's undoing and before she had to ask, his cock was situated at her entrance.   He didn't plunge into her as he wanted, instead taking deep breaths to calm himself.  When he was once more under control, he bent his head and captured her lips in a demanding kiss.  As her lips parted, his tongue made a gentle foray into her mouth at the same time his hips pressed forward to push his cock ever so slightly inside her warmth.  His game continued for long drawn out minutes, his tongue and cock working in tandem, teasing, mimicking each other's movements until at last both were seated fully inside her welcoming body.

Angel broke off the kiss, resting his forehead gently against hers as they both panted harshly.  The sensation of being one, of being whole again after such a long absence swept over both of them.  The feeling was incredible, but eventually they had to move against one another as the hunger of their flesh won out over the hunger of their souls.

Burying his head in the juncture of her shoulder, Angel thrust against his mate, his movements a seamless glide as she eagerly accepted his engorged flesh.  She arched under him, grasping his shoulders tightly as he continued to stroke in and out of her body.  Buffy mewled again as she felt her crisis fast approaching and Angel did everything in his power to hasten her release, angling his hips to press against her where she needed it the most.  The sensation broke over her like a wave and she arched against him sharply, throwing her head back as a cry of release tore from her throat.

Angel's movements intensified as ecstasy overtook his mate and soon he was pounding against her, their flesh meeting with a wet slapping noise as her inner muscles rippled around his sex.  The feel and scent of her was too much and with a harsh shout, he joined her, his muscles cording as his cock touched the mouth of her womb, his thick, warm cum pouring into her liquid depths.

Long moments later, Buffy lay boneless on his chest, the couple having switched positions.  Gently, Angel stroked her back as he pressed a tender kiss to her forehead.  Idly, she fingered the chain around his neck.

"Sorry," he said with a sleepy laugh.

"'Bout what?" Buffy asked, her eyelids heavy with exhaustion.

"That should have lasted longer," he said with a wry smile.

Buffy grinned, unable to muster the energy to look at him.  "It was perfect," she pronounced.

Angel chuckled silently.  If she wasn't inclined to complain, neither was he.  Wrapping his arms around her tightly, he drifted off to sleep.

*****
Hours later, Buffy managed to maneuver herself out from under a sleeping Angel.  The bed really wasn't big enough for him, let alone both of them.  Their second round of lovemaking had left him blissfully unconscious, and she took a moment to study his sleeping form.  He was still sinfully beautiful, but there was a harshness to his face that was new.  Tiny wrinkles had begun to appear at the corners of his eyes.  How many times had Buffy noticed the same things about her own appearance?  Bending over, she placed a gentle kiss to his cheek, but he didn't stir.

As quietly as possible, she removed her robe from her closet and padded out into the kitchen.  She found Willow sitting at the table, reading the paper over a cup of coffee.

"Good morning," Willow said, sounding very tired.  As she looked up at her roommate, she froze.

Buffy realized what she must look like, her hair was going a thousand different directions.  She was hobbling on her sprained ankle, and her face and neck... and a few other parts of her body, had slight abrasions from Angel's unshaven face.

"Interesting evening?" Willow asked, cocking an eyebrow.

"You could say that," Buffy murmured as she poured herself a cup of coffee and took a seat at the table.

"Do tell," the redhead prompted with a grin.

Buffy laughed lightly.  "Let's see, first there was the part where I totaled my car, then the hospital,"

"Buffy," Willow gasped, obviously worried.

"No wait," she continued, "it gets better.  Then I got *arrested*."

"Arrested, what for?"

"Grand theft auto," Buffy said wryly.

"You stole someone's car?" Willow asked in confusion.

"Yeah, *mine*."

Willow's brow furrowed and Buffy sighed.  "Angel was pissed when I took the car so he reported it stolen.  He was *supposed* to have taken care of it, but he didn't and after the wreck yesterday, the cops arrested me."

Willow was stunned into silence for several seconds, and then she asked, "So how did you get out of jail?"

"Angel," Buffy replied soberly.  "He came down and sorted things out with the cops ... and then he brought me home."

Willow frowned.  "Angel brought you home?" she asked carefully.

"Yeah," Buffy replied, refusing to elaborate.

"Okay," the redhead drawled slowly, "so when did he leave?"

Buffy guiltily studied the front page of the paper.

"Buffy?"

"Okay," the blonde huffed, "he's asleep in my room."

"Asleep?" Willow said in a screeched whisper.  "Are you *crazy*?  You just slept with your ex-husband."

"Technically we're still married," Buffy noted without meeting her friend's gaze.

"Technically you're in the middle of a divorce," Willow clarified.

Buffy sighed, bringing her legs up to her chest and resting her chin on her knees as she wrapped her arms around herself.  "I know, Wills.  I know how bad it looks but ... I was so tired and upset and *lonely*.  And it's been like a *year* since I had sex.  I'm not a nun!  I mean, Angel may be a jerk a lot of the time, but he's still the only guy I've ever slept with.  There's a certain level of comfort being with him."

"Yes," Willow said, "I'm sure there is.  And don't think he doesn't know that."

Buffy frowned.  "What do you mean?"

With a sigh, Willow rubbed her temples.  Raising her head she looked at her friend and said, "When you and Angel first got together, he was like some guy out of a fairy tale."

"Yeah," Buffy said glumly, "your point is?"

"He didn't stay that way, Buffy.  I know that a lot of things happened between the two of you that I don't know about, but I'm not stupid.  I know that there were other women.  I know that he shirked a lot of his responsibilities."

"You're right," Buffy replied stiffly, "there is a lot of stuff you *don't* know."

Willow nodded, accepting her friend's anger, but continued, "I'm not everyone else, Buffy.  I'm your best friend.  You can lie to Faith and Xander and your parents, but don't lie to me.  I saw you that morning I took you to the hospital.  I saw how sick you were.  I also called Angel in England and talked to him.  It was *two weeks* before he came back, Buffy.  Two weeks.  I'm not sure Angel is capable of caring about anyone besides himself."

Buffy blinked rapidly to prevent the tears from rolling down her cheeks.  "You don't know him," she said in a near whisper, not looking at her friend.  "You don't know all of the horrible things his parents did to him, all the horrible things *I* did to him."

"I know you want to believe that," Willow said soberly, "but Angel is a master of manipulation.  It sounds just like him to desert you, to cheat on you, and then to make you blame yourself for what happened.  Last night may have just been part of his game, Buffy."

"Gee," Angel said from where he was leaning against the entryway to the kitchen, "it's nice to know I'm still so popular."

Buffy and Willow both startled at his appearance.  Buffy cringed, fearing how much he'd overheard, but Willow met his hard glare with one of her own.  She didn’t care if he had heard every word she said.  As far as she was concerned, she spoke nothing but the truth.  Angel’s expression remained neutral.  Buffy took in his rumpled appearance, noting the fact that he wore the silver chain outside of his clothes.

"I need to get some sleep," Willow said and rose from the table, stiffly walking past her unwanted houseguest.

Buffy stared blankly at the wall as Angel sat down in the chair Willow had vacated.

"So, do you think last night was just a game?" he asked harshly.

"I don't ... I don't know," she said, toying nervously with the edge of her robe.  She wanted to scream no, that it wasn't just a game, that she still loved him and that she needed him to love her in return ... but she couldn't bring herself to make a sound.

Angel stared at his wife, slowly feeling his insides turn to ice.  Last night he felt alive, truly alive for the first time in a year, and now ... This was worse than before.  Prior to their evening together, he was numb, but this was like allowing a man dying of thirst only a sip of water before pouring the glass out on the ground.  He was better off living with his memories.  As it was now, he could still smell her on his body, still taste her sweetness in his mouth ... but she didn't want him.  She didn't believe in him.  She was abandoning him just when he needed her the most, just like everyone in his life had.

"I'm glad I could be of some ... comfort," he said coldly.  "If you ever get that lonely again, give me a call, I can probably free up some time."

Buffy couldn't watch as he left the room.  She was vaguely aware of the door to the apartment opening and closing.  She couldn't cry, she was too shocked.  Somehow she managed to screw it up again, to wound him when he was at his most vulnerable.  Comforting ... that was how she described making love with him.  And it had been.  It had been comforting because he was the only person she would ever allow herself to be that free with.  But the description had been lacking.  It made him sound ... convenient – as if she had merely needed release and he had been handy.

Buffy sighed, blinking back the tears she knew she could not keep at bay.  She wrapped her arms around her middle.  She would not fall apart.  She took a deep, fortifying breath and lifted her head high.  She would survive this.  She would survive Angel.  She had no other option.  With determination, she headed for the shower.  The need to wash his scent and his seed from her body was overwhelming.  Things were never going to work out between them, and she had to let him go or it was going to be her destruction.

*****
“Mr. Roarke,” Dr. Sanga said, motioning for the older man to have a seat.  “I have gone over your test results.”

Holtz scowled.  He had always been a robust, healthy man.  He never got sick. He could stay up for hours on end, drink anyone else under the table, indulge every appetite without feeling ill effects, but lately his health had been failing.  Preliminary test results pointed to cancer, but he had recently undergone a barrage of tests to verify exactly what the problems were.

“The drinking has got to stop,” Dr. Sanga said bluntly.  “Your problems are not directly related to your abuse of alcohol, but it will cause serious complications if you do not stop completely.  The chemotherapy drugs you will have to take will react badly with alcohol and your liver simply cannot handle the stress.”

Holtz swallowed harshly, but remained silent.

“I am being quite serious,” Dr. Sanga continued.  “You have put your body under a great deal of stress throughout your lifetime.  Frankly, I am shocked that you have not suffered the consequences sooner.  If you wish to continue living, you must stop drinking.  If you do not, you are going to die.  I do not wish to waste either my time or yours on such a fruitless endeavor.”

*****
"Nice wheels, B," Faith said appreciatively.

Buffy smiled, feeling intensely conspicuous driving the new car Angel's lawyer had sent a week earlier.  It was a new Volvo sedan, sleek but very safe.  Some part of her wanted to believe he'd sent that particular car because he had some interest in her well being, but another part was convinced that he'd probably just told Wesley to take care of things.  "Thanks," the blonde said quietly.

"Maybe I can get somebody to hit my piece of shit," Faith said almost to herself.  "Lord knows a  new car would be nice."

Buffy smiled, not bothering to clarify that it was her estranged husband and not the insurance company that had provided the new car.  If only it had been the insurance company, she thought wryly.  Then maybe whenever she looked at her new car, she wouldn't be reminded of her husband, her ex-lover.  As it was, she was still worried they weren't going to pick up the tab on her little trip to the hospital.  It was imperative to her that they did, especially since she'd have to go back and have her ankle checked again.  She didn't relish the idea of begging Angel for the money and she knew she couldn't afford it on her salary.  She was barely paying the bills as it was.

"That's a hell of a bruise on your forehead, B.  Are you sure you should be driving?"

Buffy shot her friend a wry glance.  The bruise did look bad, but she suspected Faith simply wanted to drive the car.  That was so not going to happen.  Faith was the queen of fender benders and speeding tickets.

"I think I can make it to The Book n' Bean," Buffy said firmly.

Faith sighed in defeat and slumped down in her seat.

*****
"You're pissier than usual," William noted with a snarl.

Angel glared at his brother and then dismissed Lindsey with a nod.  The lawyer quickly scurried off to work on the papers they had been discussing.  "I'm busy," Angel said once they were alone.

"What's with all the commotion?" Will asked.  "I've been trying to get ahold of you for a week."

"I've been working on the annulment proceedings," Angel growled.  "I'm sick of dragging this out. I want it done."

Will cocked an eyebrow speculatively.  "Something happen between you and Fluffy?"

Angel's glare was the only response he received.  Will sighed and decided to take his chances.  "This is hopeless you know," he said offhandedly.  "No judge in his right mind is going to grant you an annulment without Buffy’s consent.  The amount of time you two were married combined with the fact that you cheated on her ...  You don’t have a leg to stand on and you know it."

"We'll just have to wait and see about that, now won't we?" Angel snapped.  He knew that William was right, but he also knew that Buffy was broke.  Provided the judge didn’t throw his case out, he had the financial reserves to win out.  Buffy couldn’t afford a prolonged legal battle regardless of how much her pride had been stung.

*****
"It looks like business is good," Buffy said to Xander as he joined her at the secluded table.

He nodded, licking his lips nervously.  He hadn’t seen his friend much in the weeks since his opening.  "Buffy, I just want you to know that I'm sorry about what happened," he said in a rush.

Buffy smiled at her friend.  "I understand, Xand,” she said.  “I wish you would have given me a heads up or something, but I know why you did it.  Angel gave you the money to open this place.  He did it to get back at me, but I’m sure he didn’t let you in on that tidbit.  You don’t know him well enough to understand his motives.  He played you.  I get that, I really do."

Xander sighed, feeling like an even bigger jerk.  "I just need to know that things are okay between you and me," he said quietly, too ashamed to meet her eyes.

"We're of the good," she reassured with a smile.  "I mean, I have to be mad at you on Willow’s behalf.  What you did to her was pretty despicable.  But between you and me, no, I don’t have any hard feelings about the opening or about your business deal with Angel."

Xander nodded, but still looked distracted and more than a little twitchy.  Buffy took time to really look at him.  He looked haggard, his skin was puffy, pasty and pale, there were dark circles under his eyes.  Success was apparently not all it was cracked up to be.  "How have you been?" she asked gently.

He looked at her and his expression was one of abject misery.  "How is Willow doing?" he asked meekly.

Buffy pursed her lips together as she regarded him.  "She is really angry," she admitted honestly.  "She feels very betrayed, rightfully so and when she mentions your name, it is generally not nice.”

Xander flinched and stared at his hands which were laced together on the tabletop.  Buffy reached across and laid a gentle hand on his forearm.  “But she misses you," she said.  “If she didn’t love you, she wouldn’t be so angry.  But don’t read into that too much.  She may still love you, but she is very, very upset.”

Xander raised his eyes nervously, like an abused dog scared of being kicked again.  "Do you think she'd talk to me if I called her?" he asked.

"No," Buffy said baldly.  “She is madder than I have ever seen her and she has every right to be.  She supported you both emotionally and financially.  She worked two jobs so you could afford to go to cooking school and then when things started looking up for you, you dumped her.  She’s very bitter.”

Xander’s expression was utterly crestfallen.  “I made a mistake, I know that now,” he said quietly.  “I love her so much.  I don’t know what happened.  I got scared.  I had all these people around me telling me how much money I was going to be making and how much fun I could have if I was single.  They told me that she was holding me back and I was enough of an idiot to believe them.”

“You were an idiot,” Buffy agreed.  “You know Willow better than I do.  You know how long she can hold a grudge.”

“Yeah,” Xander said dejectedly, “I do.”

“But,” Buffy said, “she still loves you and she misses you – even if she does tend to curse your very existence several times a day.”

Xander looked at her, tears in his eyes.  “What can I do to make it right?” he asked pitifully.

“Grovel.  Convince her,” Buffy said.  “Make her believe that she can depend on you.  Talk to her, pursue her, and when she pushes you away, don’t listen.  Make her believe that you are serious, but be willing to deal with her rage, because trust me it’s there and there’s a lot of it.”

“I deserve it,” Xander said resolutely.

“Yes you do,” Buffy replied.

Xander smiled.  "Thanks, Buffy," he said with genuine gratitude.

*****
Willow frowned at Faith as she opened the door to the apartment and stepped aside.

"What?" the brunette asked.

"I don't think you guys are going anywhere tonight," Willow said with a wry expression.

Faith sighed.  She and Buffy had been planning their Friday night outing for weeks.  They were supposed to be going clubbing in one of the trendier new nightspots.   It had taken Faith forever to convince her friend to go.  "What did Angel do this time?" Faith snapped, stepping inside the apartment.

"She's in the bathroom," Willow replied, and then followed quickly on the brunette's heels as she headed to see Buffy.

Faith leaned against the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest as she looked at her friend, slumped on the floor next to the toilet.  "You look like shit, B," Faith said bluntly.

Buffy gave her a miserable excuse for a smile and handed Faith a set of papers she had clutched in her hand.  The brunette took the documents to study, but was unable to make heads or tails of them.  "I know this has something to do with Angel," she said in irritation, "but I'm afraid you're gonna have to explain it to me."

"They're court documents," Buffy said quietly.  "Angel is proceeding with this stupid quest for an annulment.  We have a court date next Thursday."

Faith gaped at her friend.  "That bastard!" she gasped.  Buffy nodded miserably and instinctively placed her hand to her mouth.  Faith looked away as her friend dry heaved into the toilet.  "Are you sure there’s not something really wrong with you?" Faith asked with a grimace once Buffy had herself under control again.

"I'm fine," Buffy answered wearily, "just the stress getting to me."  She wiped her mouth with a piece of toilet paper.  She’d been sick for the last couple of days and it didn’t seem to be letting up.  She prayed that it would go away.   She couldn’t afford a visit to a doctor and even getting  a prescription filled could put her in a serious financial bind.

Faith frowned at her response, unconvinced, then looked at Willow who wore a similar expression.  "I don't know, B," Faith said.  You smacked your head pretty good in that wreck.  Maybe you have a serious problem."

"She's right, Buffy," Willow chimed in.  "I know you're really frayed right now, but this looks like more than nerves.  I think you should see a doctor."

Buffy scowled.  "Fine," she said in a defeated voice, "I have an appointment on Monday to have my ankle looked at.  I'll tell the doc about my other symptoms.  No use making two trips."

*****
When Willow arrived home from work on Monday afternoon, she found Buffy nearly catatonic on the sofa, staring out the sliding glass door to their tiny balcony.  Willow's heart stopped, fearing that Buffy had been given some horrible news by the doctor.  Quickly throwing down her backpack, she moved to the sofa, taking a seat next to her friend.  "Buffy?" she queried gently.

It was almost a minute before the blonde acknowledged her presence, blinking at her with a startled expression like she couldn't understand where she'd come from.  "Willow," she said quietly.

"Buffy, are you okay?" Willow asked, trying to keep her voice even.

Buffy blinked several more times, then turned and resumed her staring out the door.  After an interminable pause, she said, almost  absently, "I'm pregnant."

Willow sat in stunned silence trying to absorb what her friend had just said.  She knew about Buffy's miscarriages.  She knew that the doctors told Buffy she would never be able to have children.  Clearing her throat, she asked, "Are you sure?"

"I wasn't ... I didn't believe him ... "Buffy explained, searching for the words.  "They did a blood test and I told him he was wrong ... I told him what the other doctors had said ... "

Willow took a deep breath.  What had the doctor done?  Buffy couldn't have children despite the fact that she wanted them desperately.  If some quack mistakenly confirmed a pregnancy, it could be disastrous.  "Maybe you should see another doctor," Willow suggested gently.

Without looking at her friend, Buffy handed her a small piece of paper she was holding.  Taking it, Willow studied the grainy black and white print out.  It didn't mean anything to her.  "What is this?"

"A sonogram," Buffy replied in a near whisper.  She shook her head as if to clear it and turned to look at Willow.  She pointed to a tiny white spec on the picture.  "That's ... the baby," she said quietly.

Willow stared in astonishment.  Buffy was actually pregnant.  Willow had doubted the veracity of the blood test, knowing that lab mix-ups were possible, but the fact that it was positive, combined with the sonogram ... The baby was real.  "Is this a good thing?" Willow asked cautiously.

Buffy’s face split into a blinding grin.  "Of course it is," she said.

Willow nodded, her expression guarded.  She knew how badly Buffy's last pregnancy had ended and she was in no rush to see a repeat performance.  "Are you going to tell Angel?" Willow asked.  There was no question about paternity.  She knew Angel was Buffy’s one and only.

Buffy's face fell and she chewed nervously on her bottom lip.  "No," she said quietly.  "I'm not."

Willow didn't say anything.  It wasn't as if she blamed Buffy, especially given all she went through with Angel in the last year.  To be honest, the odds of the pregnancy leading to a live birth probably weren't great.  If she didn't want to add to the strain by involving her estranged husband, who was Willow to say anything?  "What are you going to do about the annulment proceedings?" Willow asked cautiously.

"Nothing," Buffy said.  "I'm going to give him the annulment."

"You're going to *what*?"  Willow demanded.  "How do you think you can afford to have a child without any financial support from him?"

Buffy shrugged.  "I don't know, but I'll find a way.  I can't go through the stress of a legal fight right now.  I won't risk losing the baby like that... and if I don't want Angel to find out, staying away from him is kinda necessary."

Willow took a deep breath, but mentally accepted Buffy’s reasoning.  Involving Angel in any way meant stress and that wasn’t what Buffy needed, but there was no way she could afford a child and everything having one entailed.  “What about your parents?” Willow asked.

Buffy frowned.  “I suppose I’ll have to tell them,” she said begrudgingly.  “They are not going to be happy.  They never really liked Angel to begin with and now when they find out I’m pregnant and he’s out of the picture ...  It won’t be pretty.  But I have to, I don’t have any other way to get money.”

*****
"The court date has been cancelled," Lindsey said, tossing a folder down in front of Angel.

Angel looked up abruptly.  He'd only been half paying attention while the lawyer prattled on about a hundred dull things.  "What'd you say?" he demanded gruffly.

"It's done," Lindsey said with a smile.  "Buffy's lawyer delivered the papers to our offices this morning.  She's decided not to contest the annulment.  You'll be free by the end of the month."

Angel stared at the folder.  Slowly he opened it and leafed through the papers.  There was Buffy’s signature, plain as day.  Very carefully, he closed the folder and rose from his desk.  Lindsey didn’t say anything as he left the room.

*****
Hours later, Angel sat alone in his library, slowly nursing a drink.  He was free in the legal, literal sense, but it did nothing to lighten the burden on his heart.  He felt as intensely chained to his doomed relationship with Buffy as he ever had.  Why did she throw in the towel?  It wasn't like her.  Buffy was above all, a fighter, a survivor no matter how weak she thought herself at times.

No, he hadn't won.  He hadn't broken her down or forced her into something she didn't want.  She ... gave up - like their relationship wasn't worth the effort anymore.  She walked away from him and his fortune without a backward glance, without a word.  And that hurt more than any prolonged court battle ever could.

He instinctively placed a hand on his chest, feeling the cool press of her ring through the fabric of his shirt. He still wore it, keeping it close to his heart even when he found himself unable to do the same with Buffy herself.  Was there someone else?  His insides roiled at the thought.  He appreciated the irony of the situation.  He pushed her away, going so far as to deny that a marriage had ever existed between them at all ... and still he could not abide the thought of her in another man's arms.  Angel prided himself in his newfound ability to differentiate between sex and making love.  He had slept with a lot of women since Buffy, but never once was it making love.  Could Buffy make that distinction?  Angel doubted it.  Buffy would never sleep with someone without being in love with them.  If she found physical pleasure without him, it meant she had truly moved on.  Left him.  Found someone else.

Rising from the chair, he went to the bank of windows that looked out over the city.  He knew with finality that he would never be free of her and he hated himself for that.  The jaded ten year old that sat through his mother’s funeral without once shedding a tear hated him for letting someone get that close again.  He screwed his eyes tightly shut as his hands balled into fists.

There was a soft click as the door to the library opened, sending a ray of light shining across the carpet.  "Brooding in the dark?" a female voice asked with amusement.  "How horribly poetic."

"Darla," he replied without bothering to turn.  That voice was intimately tied to the most painful events of his life, he would know it anywhere.  "How did you get in here?"

She laughed lightly.  "Your dear little brother thought you might be in need of some companionship.  And since I’m such a dear old friend, he gave me a call."

Angel looked at her over his shoulder.  He didn’t buy her explanation for a minute.  William would never have sought her out, it simply wasn’t his style.  Darla had probably tracked William down and convinced him to help her insinuate herself back into Angel’s life.  He forced himself to smile at her.  Years of living with his father had made him a consummate actor.

Watching her closely, Angel couldn’t help but notice her beauty.  It wasn’t like Buffy’s.  Buffy’s beauty was rooted in her vitality and innocence and passion for life.  It was as honest and true as the sun.  Darla’s beauty was stunning, but contrived.  It was artifice, every bit of minutiae planned and executed to perfection, a cold beauty.

But from now on, he would no longer have Buffy’s warm beauty.  She gave him the annulment.  She clearly illustrated that she no longer wanted him in her life, that she was content to pretend their marriage had never existed.  He watched as Darla slinked across the darkened room.  He turned and looked out the windows again.  He didn't react as she wrapped her arms around him from behind, pressing her body along the length of his.

”I missed you,” she said and almost sounded sincere.

He laughed silently and tossed back the rest of his drink.  Why fight it?  Buffy was warm and safe in someone’s arms, why should he be lonely?  He turned and pulled her into his embrace, kissing her with abandon.  What was better than sex and revenge?  Darla didn’t know it yet, but she was going to pay for her hand in destroying his marriage.

*****
Buffy couldn't remember the last time she was so pleased and her face reflected it clearly.  Riley looked like his head was about to explode.  There was justice in the universe.

"You're gonna have ... you're, um ... " he stuttered.  "A baby ... wow."

Buffy smiled easily.  "I'm thrilled about it," she said truthfully.

Riley took a seat on the bench next to her.  He ran across her on her way home from finals and she took the opportunity to share her good news.  It was several moments before he could gather his thoughts.  Buffy waited patiently.  "Um," Riley said when he recovered from the shock, "you're not married anymore."

"No, I am not," Buffy confirmed with faux severity.

Riley frowned.  "You don't see this as a problem?"

"No,” she said honestly, smiling.  She could feel him shift into lecture mode and prepared herself.

"Buffy," he said in a very serious tone of voice, "I never thought you were the kind of girl to get yourself in a situation like this."

Rolling her eyes, she responded, "What *exactly* is that supposed to mean?  I don't look like the kind of girl who would have sex?"

"You know exactly what I mean,” he said gravely.  “Having a child out of wedlock is a big deal.  Have you given any thought to how many difficulties he or she will face because of your shortsightedness?"

Buffy's good mood evaporated in the face of his condescension.  "My baby won't suffer," she said firmly.  "I may not be married, but I want this baby.  I love this baby.  And I'll do everything in my power to make sure that he or she has a good life."

Riley scowled.  "And you think you can raise a child without a partner?"

"People do it all the time, Riley,” she said, her tone dry.  “Look around you."

"So," he asked cautiously, "do you ... I mean I'm assuming you know who the father is?"

Buffy gaped at her former boyfriend. "Of course I know who the father is!"

Riley pursed his lips together and looked at the woman he’d known for as long as he could remember.  Of course she knew who the father was. He knew who the father was as well.  Buffy was loyal to a fault and she was still deeply in love with her ex.  “Does Angel not want the baby?” he asked gently with genuine concern.

Buffy took a deep breath and blinked quickly.  She wasn’t going to cry in front of Riley.  She hated it when he got all insightful on her.  Was it that obvious that Angel still played such a big role in her life?  “He doesn’t know,” she admitted quietly.

Riley’s expression let her know that he wasn’t pleased, but she didn’t flinch.  “I know you two have a really messy past,” Riley said, “and I take responsibility for some of it.  If I hadn’t been so stupid, if I hadn’t left you the way I did, you never would have met Angel and none of this ever would have happened.”

Buffy sighed and laced her fingers together in her lap.  “We wouldn’t have been happy together, Riley,” she said.

Riley shrugged.  “We’ll never know,” he said.  “But I do know that I wouldn’t have hurt you the way that he did.”

“You did hurt me, Riley,” she said bluntly.  “You abandoned me, embarrassed me ... But you’re right.  You never could have hurt me the way Angel did because I didn’t love you the way I love him.”

Riley winced, but remained silent.  After what he had done, Buffy was entitled to her anger.  And he knew it was true.  Buffy had loved him with the unthinking love of a first crush, but she hadn’t been in love with him.  Angel was her true love and he couldn’t compete with that.  “He deserves to know,” Riley said quietly.

“I can’t,” Buffy said.  “I can’t tell him.  I can’t go through the turmoil with him again.  I won’t lose this baby like the others.”

“You can’t be sure that is what will happen,” Riley cautioned.

“I don’t care,” she said defiantly.  “I will not take the risk.”

*****
"So, how about we take a vacation," Darla said, nipping lightly at his earlobe.

Taking her forcibly by the shoulders, Angel firmly removed the woman from his lap and gave her a light push.  Darla scowled.  She'd been trying for days to get him out of his depression, but he seemed determined to brood despite all her efforts.  He was drinking more and more, seldom sleeping.  When they had been together in the past, it had been fun.  They had both been young and rich with money to burn.  Of course that was before Angel’s marriage, before he took over a large portion of his father’s financial responsibilities.  The new and improved Angel was decidedly not fun.  "Are you going to sit here and mope for the rest of your life?" she asked, her temper rising.

"I'll do whatever I damn well please," he bit out tersely.  He didn’t look at her.  Angel was good at that.  He could ignore people better than anyone she had ever met.  She’d been with him for the last eight weeks and as far as she could tell, he had hardly noticed her except when they were having sex.

Trying a different tactic, her lips formed a perfect pout.  "Come on," she said, "you just need a break.  We'll find a nice private beach, sip some fruity drinks with umbrellas."

Slowly, he looked up from the papers he was working on and fixed her with a hard stare.  "And what do you think that will accomplish, Darla?  Do you think that a few days on a beach and spending an obscene amount of money will make me fall in love with you?"

Her expression looked like he had slapped her.  “You do love me,” she said, her voice firm, but her eyes betrayed her insecurity.  “You will always love me.  We are meant for each other.”

Angel sneered in disgust and leaned back in his chair.  “You were my best friend, Darla,” he said, his voice oddly regretful.  “We were young and stupid with too much money and too little morals.  You were the only girl I knew who liked to live as fast and hard as I did.”

“I still do,” she said angrily.

He shrugged as if it didn’t matter to him one way or the other.  “That was then,” he said.  “I genuinely liked you.  I trusted you.  I thought you were a real friend.  You were the only woman I ever dated that had as much money as I did.  You didn’t need me for anything.  We had a good time.”

“But?” Darla prompted, her rage building.

“But that was a long time ago,” he replied.  “I trusted you and you hurt me.  You tried to destroy my marriage.  You played a big part in Buffy losing the baby.  Your actions had serious consequences for me.  I will never trust you again.”

She let out a sharp bark of laughter.  “What about this?” she asked.  “What about what we have now?”

He smiled cruelly.  “I’m a man, Darla,” he said.  “You’re very beautiful and you’re willing.  I may not trust you, but I will fuck you.”

“You son of a bitch!” she spat.

“Whore,” he countered, his face lit with amusement.

“I’m leaving,” she raged.

He laughed, the sound full and deep.  He stopped and fixed her with his piercing glare.  “Leave, Darla,” he said, his voice full of barely contained rage, “but know that if you ever come near me or Buffy again, I will use every bit of my power to destroy everything you have.”

*****
Holtz picked up the photograph and stared at it until his vision blurred with the tears he would not allow to fall.  He did not deserve pity, even from himself.  Four months.  He’d been absolutely sober for four months.  He rubbed his calloused hand roughly over his stubble laden cheeks.  Without the comfort and oblivion alcohol had provided him for the last forty years, life was devastatingly different.

Sobriety forced him to take a look at his life – or what was left of it.  There wasn’t much.  The niggling thread of guilt and self-loathing that had plagued him, even while still drinking was an almost unbearable weight on his shoulders now that he was sober.  His relationship with his only child was non-existent.  Angel openly hated him, and with good reason.  He had been a total bastard to his son for his entire life.

Holtz looked at the photograph of a ten year old Angel.  He should have been laughing and happy, but instead the child was chillingly solemn.  He had done that.  He had done that to his only child, subjected him to a lifetime of pain and horror.  He had warped and twisted a gentle, young boy into the distrustful and guarded man who could barely manage civility towards his father.

But it wasn’t too late.  His brush with mortality had shown him how desperately he wished to live.  And how much he wanted Angel in his life.  Holtz looked at the fax from the private investigator.  His son was about to be a father and he didn’t even know it.  Holtz was going to be a grandfather.

A second chance.  That’s what this child was and Holtz was not about to let it slip away, not from himself and not from Angel.

*****
Buffy opened the envelope and carefully unfolded the letter.  There was a check.  She sighed in relief and immediately grabbed her purse so she would remember to deposit it.  Turning back to the letter, she picked it up carefully and read it.  Tears pricked at her eyes.

It had been extremely difficult explaining to her parents about her situation.  After she had moved to Los Angeles, things had been strained.  They had been very upset that she had left without a word, that she had been really bad about keeping in touch.  They had worried about her for months.

When she finally had returned to Huxley, it was to inform them that she was married to Angel.  They hadn’t been pleased.  They were immediately distrustful of his money and his reserved manner.  He wasn’t like the open, honest people they were used to and they were afraid he would hurt Buffy.  They hadn’t known about her first miscarriage, but they had about her second, and the circumstances surrounding it.  They had gone from disliking Angel to openly hating him.

When Buffy had decided to stay with him and try and work things out after her stint in the clinic, her parents had been very upset.  It had effectively halted all communication between Giles and Joyce Summers and their daughter.  The fact that Buffy had reinitiated contact by telling them that Angel had annulled their marriage while she was pregnant with his child and dead broke hadn’t exactly helped things.

Oddly, it wasn’t as bad as she had expected.  Her parents still hated Angel, but since he was no longer in the picture, they seemed somewhat placated.  Moreover, they were thrilled at the prospect of a grandchild, even if it would be born without a father.  They didn’t have a lot of money, but they sent her a check once a month to help pay for doctor visits and other expenses.

Buffy cried as she read the letter.  She missed her parents so much and they wanted her to move back to Huxley.  Buffy hated the idea of returning to the small town, especially in her current situation, but she was afraid that she was going to be left without a choice.  She was barely scraping by and Willow was a great help but she couldn’t leach off of her forever.  Slowly, she refolded the letter and put a hand over her belly.  “We’ll figure out something,” she said to her unborn child and was rewarded with a tiny kick.

Willow studied her friend's odd expression as she sat in one of the comfy reading chairs on her break, her hands placed protectively over her womb.  Her expression was not one of turmoil, but rather wonder.

"What's goin' on?" Willow asked, taking a seat near Buffy's.

Turning to face her with a huge, wondrous grin on her face, Buffy replied, "I'm in my seventeenth week."

Willow's brows knit together as she tried to determine the significance of that statement.

Buffy smiled at her friend.  "The other two  ... "she explained with a hint of sadness, "I lost them in my first trimester."

Willow nodded, aware of the circumstances of her miscarriages.

"I'm in my second now," Buffy said with a look of wonder.  "The doctor told me at my last visit that I would start to feel him, but I didn't think ... "

Willow's eyes went wide.  "You felt the baby move?"

"Yeah," Buffy said almost dreamily.

"Buffy, that's wonderful," Willow gushed.  Up to this point, she had been hesitant to get excited about the child, fearing that Buffy would lose it, but her fears disappeared as she looked at her glowing friend.

"It's really real," Buffy said absently.

Willow smiled.

*****
Buffy looked at her friend across the counter in their kitchen.  "A little bird told me something pretty interesting yesterday."

"What?" Willow asked innocently, busying herself with chopping vegetables.

"So how is Xander?" Buffy asked evilly.

"It was just lunch," Willow countered.

"Uh-huh," Buffy said in obvious disbelief.

Willow sighed and looked at her friend.  “I feel so stupid,” she said.  “After all the things he did, I’m having lunch with him.”

Buffy shrugged.  “He’s been very persistent,” she said.  “And besides, I’m not one to talk.  Look at all the crap Angel pulled and I did a lot more than have lunch with him.”  She patted her gently rounded belly.

*****
Angel frowned as he read the phone message in Wesley’s scrawling hand.  Yet another summons from his father.  For weeks, Angel avoided Holtz, claiming he was too busy dealing with company business to take time for a personal meeting.  Part of him was still too raw from everything with Buffy to be able to handle a barrage from his father.

Apparently, Holtz didn’t care.  No big shock there.  He had reached the end of his rope.  The message threatened a litany of unpleasant consequences should Angel refuse this time and Angel took his father at his word.  He never bluffed.  Though he no longer feared his father physically, the man still had a great capacity to wound him emotionally.  It was not going to be a pleasant evening.  Resentfully, Angel resigned himself to making the hour drive to his father's estate.

*****
"I see you received my message," Holtz drawled slowly as his son entered the study.

"With such a charming invitation, how could I resist?" Angel retorted insolently.

Holtz took a moment to assess his son's appearance.  He hadn't seemed right for quite some time, but at the moment he looked like something the cat had dragged in.  He was thin, almost gaunt and his usually piercing gaze was blood shot.  There were also  large dark circles underneath his eyes.  Combined with the fact that he had apparently abandoned any interest in his appearance and it did not make for a pretty picture.  His black shirt and pants were wrinkled and looked like they had been slept in more than once.

"Good Christ," Holtz said, "you look like shit."

"Thank you," Angel replied dryly, scratching roughly at his unshaven jaw.  "Now what exactly did you need to see me about?"

Holtz motioned to a vacant chair and Angel threw himself down into it carelessly.  His manner was edgy and impatient.  It was clear he did not want to be at this meeting.

"I told you once that I would find out what really happened between you and Buffy," Holtz said evenly.

Angel snorted with impudence.  "What the hell does it matter now?" he asked.  "The marriage was annulled.  Your precious money is safe."

Holtz crossed his arms over his chest as he regarded his son carefully.  Their relationship was antagonistic at best, it always had been.  But Holtz knew it was possible to change.  He had made a lot of mistakes that he regretted bitterly, but it wasn’t too late to make amends.

"I think," Holtz said carefully, "that you would do well to check in on your former wife."

Angel's brow furrowed as he stared at his father.  "Why on Earth would I want to do that?" he asked, both annoyed and curious by the odd request.

Holtz smiled an oddly mirthless smile.  "It has been brought to my attention that you may find the visit very ... enlightening," he said cryptically.

A thought hit Angel and something inside his chest tightened to the point of pain.  “Is she all right?” he asked quietly.

Holtz smiled again, but this time the expression held genuine warmth.  “To my knowledge, she is in the best of health,” he said.

Angel relaxed.  Now that he was reassured of Buffy’s safety, curiosity gnawed at him.  He knew his father was up to something and he didn’t trust him one bit, but he couldn’t quell the feeling of anticipation he got just thinking about seeing Buffy again.  What could Holtz possibly think to accomplish?  Things were over between he and Buffy, very over.  Sure, he still thought about Buffy all the time, but he had no illusions about her reciprocation.  Her granting him the annulment seemed to signal that she had already moved on.

Without comment, he rose and exited his father’s study.  As much as he hated playing into Holtz’s plans, he couldn’t ignore the suggestion.  Climbing into his car, he headed for the Book n’ Bean.

*****
Despite Willow’s best efforts to keep Buffy off her feet, the latter was determined to earn her keep.  Given that she wasn’t supposed to be lifting, stocking wasn’t an option but she did have other manageable tasks.  She decided to start taking care of the annoying little jobs that everyone seemed to avoid.  Grabbing a step stool and a feather duster, Buffy set about dusting the top shelves that were seldom bothered.

It was around eight thirty Saturday evening when Angel finally reached The Book n’ Bean.  The shop was located in a busy little shopping district, so he had to park several blocks away and walk.  It was after dusk and the store was brightly lit so as he approached he had no trouble seeing inside.  He glanced up and then looked away.  As the image he had seen registered, he stopped in the middle of the sidewalk.

Buffy had several nice maternity outfits, but she wasn’t about to wear them while dusting.  Money was tight and they would have to last her for a while.  She was just over five months along and already showing.  Jeans and other fitted clothes were no longer an option, they were simply too uncomfortable.  This evening, she was wearing some of her more accommodating regular clothes, a pair of stretchy black capris and a light blue t-shirt with a pair of sensible running shoes.  Buffy had never been heavy, but after all of the stress with her separation and annulment from Angel, she lost enough weight that she had been very unhealthy.  Her morning sickness had been mild and once it passed, she finally started gaining some weight.  However, due to how underfed she had been, all of the weight she gained seemed to go right to her belly, making her pregnancy even more pronounced, especially when she wore her old clothes.

Angel stood absolutely still in the middle of the sidewalk.  Through the window he could see Buffy standing on a step stool on her tiptoes, dusting some shelves that were just out of her reach.  Her body was stretched out as long as was possible, drawing even more attention to her distended stomach.

Angel felt like someone had punched him.  Buffy was pregnant, there was no other explanation for the changes in her body.  He stared at her for a long time, watching as she stopped to answer a customer’s question and then as she shooed Willow away when the redhead tried to get her to sit down.  She looked wonderful, happy and content, nearly glowing.

Angel walked over to a bench that afforded him a view of the storefront and sat down heavily.  Buffy was pregnant.  He let out a long, slow breath.  This was what Holtz wanted him to see, his former wife’s body swelling with a child.

But how?  Part of Angel wanted badly to believe that it was their child, that their last, sweet time together had created a new life, but he knew that couldn’t be true.

//Buffy’s expression was still somewhat vacant, but she was more composed than she had been the last several days.  She was pale, the large purple bruise under her left eye from Darla’s fist showed in harsh relief.  Angel reached over for her hand, trying to curl his fingers around hers, but she pulled her hand out of his grip, not deigning to look at him.  He swallowed audibly, steeling himself as he turned to face Dr. Greenberg.

The doctor’s expression was somber as he pushed his wire rimmed spectacles up on his nose.  He looked over the casefile in front of him one more time before shutting the plain brown folder.  He steepled his fingers on the desktop as he looked at the Roarkes.

“I went over the test results,” Dr. Greenberg said, “and I took the liberty of conferring with some well respected colleagues in the field.”

Buffy’s gaze never wavered as she stared at the doctor.

His lips pursed together and his eyes dropped to his hands.  “I’m afraid the results are not what we had hoped for,” he said.  “A great deal of damage was done with the two previous miscarriages.  The odds of Mrs. Roarke being able to conceive and carry a child to term are negligible.”

Angel felt his heart wither.  This was his fault.  The pregnancy had been their last hope for having a child and his own stupidity had destroyed that chance.  He looked at Buffy.  There was no reaction on her features, she stared blankly ahead at the doctor.

“Buffy?” he said quietly.

She didn’t respond.  He reached out to her and she reacted as if his touch had burned her.  She hissed at him, spinning out of her chair like a creature possessed as she backed up against the wall.  Her face was so contorted by rage and pain that her features were almost unrecognizable. Dr. Greenberg called for his nurse to bring a sedative while Angel stared helplessly at his wife.

 “Don’t you dare touch me,” she screamed.  “All you have ever brought me is pain!  I’m glad I can’t have your children.  I hate you.”//

Angel shook off the painful memory with a shiver.  Buffy was pregnant.  It shouldn’t have been possible.  The doctors, the specialists said she wouldn’t be able to get pregnant and that even if she had, she wouldn’t have been able to carry the child.  Obviously, they were wrong.  The unmistakable swell of her belly was proof enough.  Was it his?  Why wouldn’t she have told him about it if that were true?  Why would she have let the annulment proceed uncontested?  Buffy could barely afford to take care of herself, there was no way she could afford a child without help.

There had to be someone else.  That was the only answer.  Angel felt himself go cold with the realization.  That was why she hadn’t contested the annulment.  She was pregnant with another man’s child.  The pain was so intense that Angel physically doubled over on the bench.

Anger coursed through Angel’s body.  He had to find out who it was, and if it was Riley, he was going to tear the frat boy’s head off with his bare hands.  He waited outside the store, watching Buffy as she continued dusting and helping customers.  Her absolute happiness only served to darken his mood further.

As he watched her a little voice inside his head nagged him.  /~This is stalking ...~/  Angel ignored it.  /~Just talk to her.  Ask her who the father is ... and then try your hardest to not upset her when you dismember him with your bare hands~/.  Angel waited outside The Book n’ Bean until Buffy’s shift was over.  He followed her as she walked to her car, which was parked relatively close to his.  Her car.  The one he bought her.  /~You did owe her~/.

When Buffy drove off, he followed her and was mildly shocked to realize she was driving to the apartment she shared with Willow.  Apparently she wasn’t living with the father of her child.  Angel watched as she got out of the car and headed for the door.  /~This is a dangerous neighborhood.  She shouldn’t be walking around alone in her condition~/.

Angel waited and waited and waited ... and finally realized that Buffy’s secret lover wasn’t going to show up.  He watched as Willow pulled into the parking lot and went inside the apartment building.  He pounded the steering wheel in frustration.  When Wes handed him the summons from Holtz, he thought all he would have to do was talk to the man.  Now, there was no way he was going to be able to go about his daily life like nothing was wrong.  This was going to eat at him until he got to the bottom of things.  With a growl, he started the car.  He was going to find out who Buffy’s new lover was.  He pushed away the nagging “what if” that tugged at him.  The baby wasn’t his.

*****
 “Is he still out there?” Buffy asked as she took the mug of hot water out of the microwave.

“He just left,” Willow replied as she shut and locked the door.  She frowned at her friend.  “What do you think he wants?”

Buffy shrugged as she set the mug down on the counter and dunked a teabag into it.  “If the expression on his face was any indication, he knows I’m pregnant and he thinks I have a new boyfriend,” she said with a sigh.  She knew Angel and she knew him well.  It was his nature to be distrustful and jealous.

Willow smiled mirthlessly and hooked her backpack over the back of one of the kitchen chairs.  “Jackass,” she said.  “Why do men have to be so difficult?  It’s like it would kill them to just ask a simple question.”

“That would be too easy,” Buffy said with faux seriousness, removing the teabag and pouring a liberal amount of sugar into the mug.

Willow sat down at the table and motioned for her roommate to have a seat.  Buffy joined her at the table.  “Are you going to tell him?” Willow asked.

“No,” Buffy said firmly.  “If he wants to know, he can ask me.  I’m not going to throw myself on his mercy and beg him to take me back.  Doctor Gabbert says my pregnancy is progressing perfectly, but I still don’t need the stress.  Besides,  I’m tired of being the one to give.  I know I hurt him, but I never betrayed him.  I’m through making concessions.”

Willow smiled.  “Good for you,” she said, “but if he starts scaring off my customers, I’m calling the cops.”

Buffy nodded.  “Do whatever you have to do.”

Willow smiled wryly.  She honestly wouldn’t hesitate to call the cops if he got out of hand.  Buffy might have been willing to cut him a lot of slack, but she sure as hell wouldn’t.  She smiled again as a thought hit her.  “Are you going to warn your parents that he’s stalking you?”

Buffy’s eyes went wide and she stared at her roommate.  “Oh my god,” she said.  “I totally forgot that my parents get here on Wednesday.”

“You might want to think about it,” Willow said. Buffy made no secret of how much her parents did not like her former husband and if they found out he was following her around, things could get bad.

*****
Tuesday morning, Angel watched as Buffy entered the Baby Gap which luckily for him was situated on a corner and had large plate glass windows.  From the bus stop shelter he was skulking in, he had an unimpeded view of the entire store.

He’d followed her for the last two days and was no closer to figuring out who the father of her child was.  He spent most of the morning in a diner across from The Book n’ Bean, watching her and when she left for lunch, he followed.  She stopped by a candy store and bought a bag of lemonheads, her favorites, then wandered around the shopping district.  She acted as though she wanted to avoid the Baby Gap, but was sucked in against her will.  That happened a lot with Buffy when she was shopping.  Some biological imperative kept her from walking past a sale.

She made one circuit around the store looking at everything and then made a second lap, paying a lot more attention to the little boys’ clothes.  /~She’s having a boy.  She’s far enough along that it would show up on a sonogram.~/  Angel shook off the thoughts.  Maybe she just liked those outfits.  He watched as she held up a tiny little t-shirt that a child would probably outgrow in five minutes.  She smiled and draped it over her belly, laughing.  A sales clerk stopped to ask her if she needed help and Buffy modeled the shirt for her, turning from side to side with the tiny little shirt against her stomach.  She laughed and the sales clerk laughed and Angel wanted to scream.

Buffy’s shoulders sagged as she sighed and she handed the little shirt to the sales clerk with a nod.  He watched as she leafed through her billfold, carefully counting out the money.  /~She works part time at a bookstore.  There’s no way she can afford a child.~/  Angel felt sorry but quickly steeled himself.  /~Maybe her new boyfriend just keeps her on a tight leash.~/

Discretely, he followed her back to work and watched as she smoothed the apron over her rounded stomach.  Wonder was written on her face as she put a hand to her belly and smiled.

Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy watched Angel lurk.  He thought he was being so sneaky.  She let him keep his illusions.  Sighing, she rubbed her tummy.  “Your daddy loves you,” she whispered to her child.  “He’s just being difficult at the moment.”

The rest of the afternoon progressed without incident and Angel was beginning to wonder if there was a boyfriend in the picture.  If there was, he was sure keeping a low profile.

Angel /~Stalker.  I’m a stalker.~/ followed Buffy and Willow when they left work together.  They stopped by a convenience store that had dirt-cheap and surprisingly good Chinese food for supper.  He and Buffy used to stop there quite a bit and Buffy always swore she never wanted to know what the special ingredient was.  He smiled before he could catch himself.  He followed them back to their apartment and sat in the parking lot staring at their lighted windows for hours before giving up and going home.  He had an early morning meeting tomorrow that he couldn’t miss and a full day of dealing with work related matters that didn’t care about his relationship with Buffy.

*****
Buffy smiled as she handed her father the cup of coffee.  She had picked Giles and Joyce up from the airport at eight o’clock that morning.  Most of the day, they had been relatively well behaved, but her mother managed to offhandedly mention Riley at least four different times and Giles had insisted she invite him over for coffee after dinner.

Buffy had relented, but not before making it clear that Riley was not in the running to be the father for her child.  She pointedly reminded them that Riley too, had left her and hurt her and he was the reason she was in L.A. at all.  Giles and Joyce hadn’t been pleased to hear that, but they had laid off a bit.

Willow stood by the sliding glass doors, watching the parking lot.  She laughed.  Buffy turned and looked at her curiously.  “This should be interesting,” Willow said.

Buffy’s face fell.  “What?” she asked.

“Riley is on his way up,” she said.  “And it looks like he’ll have company very shortly.”

“Oh no,” Buffy said, sitting down on the sofa.

“What’s going on?” Joyce asked, looking first at Buffy and then at Willow.

“You better tell them,” Willow said.  “They’re definitely going to find out.”

Joyce and Giles looked at their daughter.  She flinched.  “Angel has been following me around lately,” she admitted, unable to look at either of them.

“He’s been what?” Giles asked, his voice low and full of menace.

“He’s not hurting anything, Dad,” Buffy pled. “He just ... lurks.”

“He doesn’t have any business near you,” Giles fumed, his arms crossed over his chest.

“He’s not near me,” Buffy explained.  “He hasn’t spoken to me at all.  He’s just ... around.”

Joyce’s brow furrowed as she took a seat next to her daughter on the sofa.  “Well, why is he going to be here tonight, then?” she asked.

“Riley,” Buffy said.  “If Riley hadn’t come over, he probably would have sat in his car in the parking lot all night, but if Riley comes up here, Angel is going to follow him.”

“Why?” Giles asked.

“To beat the crap out of him,” Willow said, reaching for the cordless phone.  “I’m calling the cops.”

There was a knock on the door and Joyce rushed to open it.  Riley stood alone in the hall and she quickly ushered him inside and locked the door.  “Did you see Angel out there?” Joyce asked.

Riley shook his head.  “No,” he answered.  “Is he here?  I’ve been trying to convince Buffy to talk to him for weeks.”

“No,” Buffy said, “he isn’t here.  At least not yet.”

Riley frowned.  “You’re still not speaking with him.”  It wasn’t a question.

“No,” Buffy said in a near growl.  She was getting really sick of people telling her what she needed to do.

“He deserves to know, Buffy,” Riley said, his exasperation clear as he tried to talk some sense into his friend.

“If you think he deserves to know, then you can tell him when he gets here,” she replied impudently from where she sat on the sofa.

Riley’s brow furrowed.  “What are you talking about?” he asked, looking from Buffy’s worried expression to her parent’s furious ones.

“Someone must have told him about the baby,” she said.  “He’s been following me around for about three days.  He’s been sitting in his car in the parking lot for the last two hours.  When you came in, he followed.”

Before she finished talking, someone pounded on the apartment door.  Riley looked at the door and unconsciously rubbed his nose.  “Go ahead,” she said sarcastically.  “Explain it.  I’m sure he’ll be real reasonable.”

Willow looked at the phone in her hand.  “I am calling the cops,” she repeated.

“Just give me a second,” Riley said to Willow, motioning for her to put the phone down.  As afraid of Angel as he was, he still had the ultimate confidence in his ability to be an effective counselor.  He walked to the door.  “Who is it?” he yelled through the door.

“Open. Up.”

“Angel just calm down-“ Riley started.

“Open the fucking door, Riley,” Angel countered, sneering the name.

Riley stepped back from the door and touched his fingers to the bridge of his nose again.  “You have a lot of nerve,” he said, his anger with Angel getting the better of him.

There was absolute silence from the hallway.

“What did you say?”  The menace was clear in Angel’s voice despite the fact that the sound was muffled by the door.

“I said you have a lot of nerve,” Riley yelled louder.  “First you cheat on Buffy, then you kick her out, then you get her pregnant and have the audacity to annul your marriage.  You abandoned your wife and child.  I can’t believe I’ve been trying to convince Buffy to talk to you.  You don’t deserve her.”

Buffy sat there holding her breath, eyes wide.  She really hadn’t intended for Riley to explain things to Angel, especially in front of her parents.

“Let me talk to Buffy,” Angel said through the door.

Buffy started to get off the couch and Giles gave her a withering glare.  She sat down.  Slowly, he flipped the bolt on the door and pulled it open.  Angel’s expression was furious, but as he realized that it was his former father-in-law, and not Riley, before him, he wilted.

“S-s-sir,” he stuttered in shock.  He’d seen Buffy’s father a total of five times the entire seven years that he had been with her.  He was completely unprepared for the man to be standing in her apartment.  He had no idea Buffy had reconciled with her parents.

“I think it would be best if you left,” Giles said, his voice icy.

Angel swallowed and looked around Giles into the apartment.  Riley stood near the door, hanging back behind Giles.  Buffy and Joyce sat on the couch.  Buffy wouldn’t look at him, but Joyce glared.  Willow looked as happy to see him as Buffy’s parents did.  “I just ... “ he started, but trailed off.

“Just?” Giles prompted.  “Just what?  Just wanted to physically attack Riley when all he’s done is be a friend to my daughter?”

Angel stared blankly at the older man.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Giles hissed, his voice thick with contempt.  “You abandoned your wife while she is pregnant with your child.  You paid off a judge to get the marriage annulled so that she cannot support herself or the baby.  You disgust me.”

Angel swallowed thickly, but shook off his stupor.  “I didn’t know,” he said.

“Know what?” Giles demanded.

“About the baby,” Angel answered, his voice taking on weight.  “I would never have done that if I had known.”

Giles’ jaw tightened as he looked at his former son-in-law.  “How nice to know,” he said, “that you would abandon your wife, but not your child.  That speaks well of you.”

Angel flushed in embarrassment.  “That’s not what I meant,” he said.  “Buffy and I ... I still ... I wasn’t thinking clearly.  I never meant to hurt her.”

“Do you honestly expect anyone to believe-“ Giles stopped as Buffy laid her hand on his arm.  He turned and looked at his daughter, there were tears standing in her eyes.

“Please don’t do this,” she pled, her voice wispy.

Giles’ rage faded as he looked at his baby girl, so sad and in such a difficult situation.  Slowly, he brushed a lock of hair off her forehead.  He loved her and as much as it pained him to admit, he knew she was an adult.  She had to make her own decisions, ones that were best for both herself and her child.  Giles stepped back so Buffy could walk out into the hall.

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

Angel backed up as she stepped into the hallway, pulling the door shut behind her.  He had to bend his neck to look at her.  Somehow he always managed to forget just how small she was.

“You wanted to talk to me,” Buffy said, her arms crossed over her belly, her vision fixed firmly on the floor.

Angel opened his mouth and then closed it again.  Actually face to face with her, he didn’t know what to say.  Slowly, Buffy looked up and met his eyes.  Angel swallowed harshly and steeled his nerve.

“Who is the father?” he asked, his voice deceptively even.

Buffy looked at him and some spiteful part of her wanted to lash out at him, to make him suffer like he had made her suffer, but she couldn’t do it.  She wanted to hate him after all he’d put her through, but when it came down to it, she was no more capable of hurting him than she was of hurting her unborn child.  “The baby is yours, Angel,” she said clearly.  “You know that as well as I do.”

He looked at her, fighting to retain his composure.  If she was playing with him ...  He wanted this.  He wanted it so badly that if it wasn’t true, he knew it would destroy him.  Completely.  With calculated effort, he cleared his throat.  “Are you certain?” he asked, his voice thick with skepticism.

Buffy winced and then pursed her lips together, shaking her head lightly as she looked at him with an expression that was a mixture of incredulity, exasperation, rage and pain.  She wanted to hurt him.  She wanted to physically lash out, but she didn’t.  Tears glistened in her eyes.  “I am absolutely certain,” she said, her voice a bare whisper but her conviction echoed.

Angel simply stared at her, but Buffy watched the emotions play in his eyes.  He was wavering.  Everything life had taught him, everything he had learned from his parents cautioned him to disbelieve her.  He was being handed a second chance, but he couldn’t allow himself to reach out and grab it.  “But the doctor said –“ he started.

“I know what the doctor said, Angel,” she interrupted, her anger getting the better of her as she snapped at him.  “Trust me, I was listening.  For months I heard to his ‘expert’ diagnosis over and over again in my head.”

He had the decency to look sheepish.

“This baby is yours,” she said firmly, glaring at him.  “I am telling you the truth and you can either believe me or not, but I refuse to spend the next four months trying to appease your bruised ego.  You can accept the truth and you can be a part of this or you can accuse me of lying and when this baby is born I’ll slap you with a paternity suit and sue you for child support so fast it will make your head spin.”

Angel’s eyes went wide for a moment and he opened his mouth to say something.  Apparently his brain kicked in and he managed to think better of it.  He shut his mouth and slowly nodded.  His gaze dropped to her swollen belly and his expression softened.  “How?” he asked quietly.

Buffy took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  She knew that this was his way of saying he believed her.  “You know exactly how,” she replied.  “And when.  And where.”

Angel lifted his gaze and smiled wryly at his former wife.  “You know what I mean,” he said gently.

Buffy frowned and tried to look at her toes.  She couldn’t see them over the swell of her stomach.  The realization made her smile.  “I don’t know,” she admitted in a tiny voice.  “And I haven’t asked.  It doesn’t matter to me how it happened, just that it did.”

Angel sighed and some of the tension he’d been holding for months eased away.  Buffy’s fingers were laced together over her rounded stomach.  Lightly, he ran his fingertips over her knuckles.  “Let’s go somewhere and talk,” he said.

Buffy sniffled but still didn’t look up.  “I don’t have any shoes on,” she said, sounding utterly pitiful.

Angel smiled.  “Well, then go get some shoes,” he said gently.

Buffy looked up at him.  “Okay,” she said.

As Buffy turned, Angel was right at her back.  She stopped with her hand on the doorknob.  “You wait out here,” she said.  She felt Angel tense behind her.  “You were never their favorite person, Angel, and right now you’re about as in the doghouse as a person can get.”

*****
Buffy blinked away tears as Angel pulled the car into the driveway in front of their house.  Their home.  She knew he’d been living in his condo downtown for months.  Meredith, the housekeeper, was the only person still in residence.

Angel got out of the car and opened Buffy’s door for her.  He held out his hand, but she didn’t take it, preferring to get out of the car by herself.  Angel didn’t push the issue.  It was enough that she had agreed to talk to him.  They walked to the door and Angel pulled out a key and unlocked it.

“Where’s Meredith?” Buffy asked as they stepped into the foyer.

“I called her when you went to get your shoes,” Angel replied.  “She has the night off.”

Buffy looked at him, her expression somber.  “That’s fairly presumptuous,” she said.

He shook his head.  “I’m not assuming anything,” he said.  “I just didn’t want an audience.  I’m sick of having our private affairs played out in public.”

Buffy turned and wrapped her arms around herself.  She hadn’t been back in the house for more than half a year and even then, it had been at least twice that since she had been happy here.  Her last months had been spent sleeping alone in her huge bedroom while Angel stayed in the pool house, coming and going at all hours.  At least he’d never been stupid enough to bring any of his companions home with him.

Buffy walked through the house and up the huge staircase that led to the second story.  Angel followed closely, but didn’t say anything.  He shadowed her as she walked down the darkened hallway and pushed open the doors to the master suite.  She flicked on the light and blinked against the glare.  It looked perfect, but sterile. All personality had been removed.  In her absence the room had been redecorated, presumably under Angel’s authority.  The carpet, the wallpaper, even the furniture was different.  Slowly, she moved across the room to the partially closed door between the walk-in closet and the bathroom.  She stepped inside.  Angel leaned against the doorjamb and flicked on the light.  Buffy looked around the small space.

“You forgot a room,” she said.

“I didn’t forget anything,” he replied.  “They emptied out this room just like all the others.  When I found out, I made them put it back.”

Buffy walked over to the crib and ran her fingers along the polished, albeit dusty, wood.  When she found out she was pregnant the second time, they bought an entire set of nursery furniture.  After the miscarriage, she had always intended to turn the little room into an office, but she could never bring herself to do it.  It would have been too much like giving up.

“Why did you keep it?” she asked.

“Because I’m a masochist,” he said acridly.

Buffy looked at him over her shoulder, her expression harsh.  He looked chagrinned and stood up straight.  “Because I still dreamed,” he said quietly.  “Because it was the one illusion I couldn’t stand to destroy.”

Buffy nodded and turned back to face the crib.  “Did you ever share this illusion with any of them?” she asked.

“Them?”

“Don’t insult me,” she said.  “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Angel sighed and closed his eyes.  “I know I don’t deserve your trust,” he said, “but you have to believe me when I say ‘no’.  I swear to you that I did not.”

Buffy picked up a tiny stuffed rabbit that was sitting in the crib.  Despite all of her anger, she did believe him.  She took a deep breath, cuddling the toy close.  “I know I pushed you away,” she admitted.  “I know that I blamed you for everything and that I shut down.  But I won’t take all the blame anymore.  I was never unfaithful to you.  I regretted what I had done so much, and I hated myself so much that I stood by and did nothing while you catted around town.”

She turned to face Angel. He met her gaze, but said nothing to defend himself.  “I won’t do it again,” she said.  “I want you in the baby’s life, but I just don’t know about us.  I don’t know if I can trust you.”

Angel stepped into the room and looked at Buffy seriously.  “I want to try,” he said.  “I know I have a lot to prove to you, but I will do anything for that chance.”

Buffy looked at him and then suddenly laughed.  It was a shrill, unsettling sound.

“Buffy?” Angel asked, concern etched on his features.

“Sorry,” she said, “I’m just thinking we’re going to be the biggest screw ups as parents.”

Angel smiled self-deprecatingly.  “Trust me,” he said, “there’s no way we can be any worse than my parents.”

Buffy frowned.  “I’m not sure that’s a vote of confidence,” she said.

“Maybe not,” he conceded, ”but it could be a lot worse.  We both want this baby.  We both care about each other. I know it’s not perfect, but we’re willing to try.  I know we have a messy past, but we still have a future.”

Buffy patted her rounded belly.  “Yeah,” she said, “we do.  We have a son on the way.”

Angel’s eyes went wide.  “It’s a little boy?” he asked.

Buffy nodded and winced.  “He’s really active this time of the evening,” she said.  She reached for his hand and Angel went along docilely as she placed it on her belly.  Before long, he could feel the tiny little movements.

A single tear made its way down Angel’s cheek and Buffy had to grip the side of the crib to prevent herself from wiping it away.

*****
Giles and Joyce watched Buffy like a hawk as she poured herself a glass of milk.  “So?” Joyce asked impatiently.

Buffy put the glass of milk down on the counter and turned to face her parents.  “We’re talking,” she said.

“And?” Giles prompted.

“And nothing,” Buffy said.  “We have a lot to work through before this baby is born, so at the moment, we’re talking.  He’s agreed to give me a settlement to pay for the doctor bills and rent and so I won’t have to work, but nothing is permanent.”

Giles sighed.  Part of him had been terrified that once again Buffy would welcome her worthless husband back with open arms, but she was being cautious and wary.  He should have known that she wouldn’t risk anything where her child was concerned.  “Are you okay?” he asked seriously.

“Yeah,” Buffy said, “amazing as it is, I am.  We had a really nice, brutally honest discussion.  It was painful, but it was good too.  I think we can go somewhere from here.”

“Where do you want to go?” Joyce asked.

“I don’t know,” Buffy replied.  “I want him in our son’s life, but I don’t honestly know if we can be together or not.  We’ll just have to wait and see.”

*****
Holtz looked at his son.  “I assume you’ve spoken with your ex,” he said.

“Former,” Angel corrected.  “It was an annulment.  Buffy isn’t my ex.”

“Answer the question,” Holtz said, not amused.

Angel looked at him warily.  “You knew all along, didn’t you?” he asked.

Holtz took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  Speaking with his son had never been easy, but he was making a concerted effort to be better about it.  Mother Nature had given him a brutal reality check.  And he wasn’t out of the woods yet.   Angel was all he had in this world.  “I knew,” he said quietly.  “And I thought you should know as well.  I know you still love that girl.”

Angel looked past his father to study the walls of his private library.  He rose from his chair and paced around the room.  Something on one of the bookshelves caught his eye and he ventured closer.  He looked at the picture and his throat tightened painfully.  “Why do you have this?” he asked.

Holtz looked at his son and at the worn picture of Jenny holding Angel when he was just a baby.  “Because it is important to me,” he said.

Angel looked at the man, trying to find the hidden agenda in his words, but could discern none.  Slowly, his lips twisted into a cruel smile.  “You’re sick aren’t you?” he asked.

Holtz laughed wryly and nodded.  “Cancer,” he said.  “I find that major surgery and a regiment of chemotherapy drugs make me more susceptible to maudlin sentiment.”

Angel’s smile faded and he regarded his father seriously.  The man had major surgery and nobody had bothered to tell him.  It wasn’t odd, especially given how close they weren’t, but it still bothered him.  He didn’t like the fact that it bothered him.  “Are you dying?” he asked.

“Not yet,” Holtz replied dryly.  “The doctors have informed me that as long as I abstain from alcohol, I have an eighty percent chance of living long enough to die from something else.”

“So why all the outpouring of emotion?” Angel asked callously.

Holtz looked at his son, his expression pensive.  He was quiet for a very long time and Angel shifted nervously under the weight of his gaze, eventually retreating to his chair.  Holtz cleared his throat loudly.  “I am truly sorry,” he said quietly.  “I know I was a horrible father.  I know that I blamed you for your mother’s actions.”  He laughed self-deprecatingly.  “I know that I drove her to most of her treachery.  I treated her like a possession and a servant, not a partner.  I ignored her needs and her pain.  I ignored you.  I took my rage out on both of you.”

Angel swallowed thickly, blinking back tears.  “Why are you telling me all of this?” he asked.

“Because I regret it deeply and I wish to make amends,” he said with a sigh.  “You and your unborn child are all I have in this world, Angel.  I find that as I accumulate more and more possessions that they mean less and less to me.  Humanity is what is important.  Regardless of what my actions may have seemed to indicate, I do love you and I would like to know my grandchild.”

Angel looked away as a tear streamed down his face.  He hated himself for this weakness.  He hated that after so many years and so much pain that Holtz still had the ability to hurt him.

“I know you don’t believe me,” Holtz said, his voice morose, “but I speak the truth.”

“I have to go,” Angel said, levering himself out of the chair and walking out of the office before Holtz could say anything.

*****
“What the hell do you want at this time of night?” Willow demanded as she opened the door a crack being sure not to remove the chain.

“Please just let me in,” he said.

“It’s two in the morning,” Willow hissed.  “Buffy is asleep.”

Angel looked at her, his eyes red rimmed.  “Please,” he said quietly.

Willow frowned, but stepped aside.  He was upset.  Not angry, but deeply upset about something and he wanted to talk to Buffy.

Buffy woke disoriented, her door was open and light from the nightlight in the hallway seeped in.  Someone was in her room, touching her, shaking.  She wasn’t alarmed - and slowly realized it was because the touch was achingly familiar.  As her eyes adjusted she could make out Angel’s form, kneeling on the floor next to her bed, crouched over her, his face pressed against her belly as he sobbed soundlessly.

She ran her fingers through his hair.  “Angel?” she said gently.

He turned his face towards her and she could see the tears on his cheeks.  “Angel,” she repeated.  He remained silent and she eventually gave up and scooted over on the bed far enough to make room for him.  She pulled on his arm and he took the cue and climbed into the tiny bed with her, wrapping his arms around her and burying his face in her hair while he concentrated on slowing his breathing.

Buffy held him, but she was worried.  This wasn’t Angel’s style.  Even at his worst, she had never seen him fall apart like this.  Anger, yes, but crying, no.  She held him for a long time.  When she was finally certain he had calmed down, she asked, “What’s wrong?”

He groaned.  “Nothing,” he said.

She sat up in bed and clicked on her lamp.  He looked like hell.  She gently traced his brow with her fingertips.  “What happened?”

He sighed, turning into her touch and placed his large hand on her belly.  “I had a nice little conversation with my father today,” he said.

Buffy frowned.  Holtz Roarke was not her favorite person.  “What did he have to say this time?” she asked dryly.

Angel took a deep breath and looked at her.  “He told me that he loves me and that he was a horrible father and he wants to make things right,” he said quietly.

Buffy gaped at her former husband.  “Are you serious?” she asked.

Angel nodded.

Buffy sighed and ran her fingers through his hair again as he chewed on his bottom lip, lost in some internal monologue.  Angel didn’t talk about his father much, but she knew that things between them had been very bad.  She honestly couldn’t imagine what such a revelation would do to Angel.  He tried to be so self-sufficient, so hard, but there would always be part of him that desperately longed for his father’s attention, affection and approval.  To have Holtz broach this subject while Angel was grappling with his own impending fatherhood had to be overwhelming.

Buffy grunted softly as the baby kicked, dragging his father from his thoughts.  Angel smiled and scooted down the bed until his face was even with Buffy’s stomach.  His feet hung off the end of the bed, but he didn’t seem to notice or mind.  He pressed his face against her abdomen and waited for the baby to move.  It took several minutes, but he felt the sharp motion of his child deep in his mate’s body.

“My boy,” he said with a sigh, wrapping his arms around Buffy’s waist.  “I swear I’ll be a good father.”

Buffy ran her fingers through his hair and made a decision.  With some rather graceless shifting, she managed to pull her nightgown up until it bunched under her breasts.  Angel looked at her questioningly.  “Temperature,” she said.

Angel frowned, looking at the bare skin of Buffy’s belly.  She blushed.  Fifteen pounds heavier and pleasantly rounded while wearing some decidedly un-sexy underwear was not her first choice for ways to be seen by Angel, but it couldn’t be helped.  He’d seen her in less and her current distorted appearance was his doing, so he could just deal with it.  “Skin to skin contact seems to make a difference,” she said.  “He moves around more if you touch bare skin.  It has something to do with body heat.”

Angel smiled and pressed his face to the skin of her abdomen.  It was warm and fragrant, the scent that was undeniably Buffy.   He sighed, rubbing against her like a contented cat.  The baby reacted almost immediately, kicking.  Angel laughed and the baby kicked harder.

Buffy lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling, giving Angel a chance to bond with his son.  She knew it was different with men.  A lot of times, for them, none of it was really real until the baby was actually born.  It seemed to be sinking in on Angel faster than most.  Buffy was very pleased.  If anyone needed time to acclimate, it was Angel.

She felt it as he placed a gentle kiss on her belly.  Buffy’s initial reaction was to cuddle close to him, but she stopped herself.  The fact that someone had body-snatched Holtz and replaced him with a Stepford robot did not change things between them.  She felt for Angel, but Holtz’s mind trip wasn’t a get out of jail free card.

She sighed, pushing her nightgown down.  “Angel,” she said.  “You need to go.”

He looked up at her solemnly.  She felt like she’d just kicked a puppy.  “You can’t stay here,” she said.  “And I can’t let you stay here.”

“Buffy,” he pled.

“I would offer you the couch,” she said, “but I don’t think Willow would appreciate it.  And you can’t stay in here.  It’s just ... You can’t.  It makes things too confusing.”

“For whom?” he asked grumpily.

“For me,” she said firmly.

Angel frowned, but it was obvious he was feeling much better.  Reluctantly, he rose from the bed and waited while Buffy got her robe and walked him to the door.  When he was in the hallway, he turned to face her.  “Can we have coffee tomorrow?” he asked.

“I can’t have coffee,” she said.  “Too much caffeine.”

“Fine,” he said, “can we have water tomorrow?”

Buffy smiled in spite of herself.  “Pick me up at three,” she said.

Angel pulled her close and pressed a chaste kiss to her forehead and then dropped to his knees and kissed her belly.  “See you tomorrow,” he said.

*****
Days later, Buffy closed the apartment door and leaned back against it with a contented sigh.  It had been a good day.  A very good day.  Idly, she smoothed the front of her overalls down around her belly.

“You look like the cat that ate the canary.”

Buffy raised her head and met Xander’s teasing gaze.  She smiled warmly and he returned the gesture readily.  “I might say the same about you,” she said.

His grin intensified.  “I’m just happy, Buffster.  Nothing more, nothing less.”

Buffy nodded and took a seat on the sofa next to him.  “Where’s Will?” she asked.

“Changing,” he said.  “We’re going to a play tonight, Titus Andromeda or something.”

“Andronicus,” Willow called from her room.

Xander shrugged.  It was obvious he didn’t care what they were going to see.  He’d never been much for cultural events, but Willow was and he was bound and determined to win her back.  He’d sit through hours of unintelligible Indian movies if it would help him get back in her good graces.

“You and Angel have been spending a lot of time together lately,” Xander goaded.  “Will tells me you’ve been out for either lunch or dinner six times in the last week and that he’s going to your doctor visit with you tomorrow.”

Buffy looked at him with mock severity.  “It is his child, Xander,” she said.  “He has every right to be at the doctor visit.”

“And what about dinner, does he have every right to monitor what you’re eating?”

With a smile, she replied, “Okay, so maybe we have been hanging out a lot.”

Xander’s jovial expression faded to something more serious.  “You look happy,” he said, “and that makes me happy.”

“Thanks,” she said.  “It looks like you and Wills aren’t doing so bad yourselves.”

He sighed and sank back in the cushions of the couch.  “She’s talking to me,” he said hopefully.  “Beyond that, nothing else, but I know I screwed up.  I know I owe her big time.  I know I should be licking her boots until the end of time.”

“But you’re not licking her boots, you’re having quality bondy time,” Buffy said, waggling her eyebrows at her friend.

He smiled.  “And that is exactly why life is so good.”

*****
“Everything looks perfect,” Dr. Gabbert said as she flipped the chart shut.

“You’re certain?” Angel said abruptly.

He was being rude, but Dr. Gabbert was used to that by now.  First time fathers were often jittery and suspicious.  Buffy had shared enough of her medical history to let Dr. Gabbert know that as the father of this child, Angel had every right to be worried.  Buffy had experienced serious complications in the past. This pregnancy, however, seemed to be right on schedule whether Buffy’s “friend” wanted to accept it or not.

“Certain,” Dr. Gabbert said firmly.  “But given the difficulties you’ve had in the past, I would like to start seeing you once a week from here on out.  We usually don’t start that until the eighth month, but I think it would be wise to err on the side of caution.  I hope this won’t put you in a pinch financially or with your job.”

Buffy shot Angel a sidewise glance and then looked sheepishly at the doctor.  “It won’t be a problem,” she said.  “I’m not working anymore.”

“Oh,” Dr. Gabbert said, clearly shocked.  Buffy had been coming to see her since she initially discovered she was pregnant and everything she had said had led Dr. Gabbert to believe that she was in a financially difficult position.

“Angel has us taken care of financially,” Buffy explained vaguely.

Dr. Gabbert leveled her gaze on the young woman.  She seriously liked Buffy and hated to think what it would do to her to be abandoned by the child’s father.  “Are you two married?” she asked, knowing full well that Buffy had left her marital status as “single” on her charts.

“Not yet,” Angel said defensively, before Buffy could reply.

Cocking an eyebrow at Angel, Dr. Gabbert said, “Yet?”

“Angel and I were married before,” Buffy said.  “For a significant amount of time.”

Dr. Gabbert nodded and sat back in her chair.  If they had been together for a “significant amount of time”, then odds were that Buffy’s two previous miscarriages had been with Angel.  Apparently his anxiety wasn’t all due to his impending fatherhood.  Dr. Gabbert had seen Buffy’s medical history.  She had seen what the miscarriages had done to the young woman.  Angel was right to be worried and to do everything in his power to take care of her.  Obviously, they had their problems, but Angel’s concern for the baby and the baby’s mother was genuine.  “I’ll expect to see you both in here next week,” she said.

Buffy and Angel nodded in unison.

*****
Buffy laughed and popped another piece of popcorn into her mouth.  She loved this movie.  It had to be the twentieth time she had seen it, but it never failed to make her laugh.  Without taking her eyes off the screen, she wiped her hands on a napkin and then threaded her fingers through Angel’s hair.  He was laying with his head in her lap, turned towards her rounded stomach rather than the television set, so she didn’t have far to stretch.  He sighed and snuggled closer to her.

Buffy knew that she was doing a horrible job of keeping her distance, but she couldn’t help it.  Despite all the horror and pain that they had experienced in the past, she just didn’t feel whole when Angel wasn’t around.  And the fact that he wasn’t even making a vague attempt to keep his distance wasn’t doing anything to further her resolve.

They were spending a quiet evening together.  Angel made omelets while Buffy dug through his DVD collection.  She discovered that he hadn’t thrown away any of hers and when she wanted to watch her favorite movie again, he hadn’t complained.  Of course, he hadn’t watched it either.  He spent the entire evening with his face buried against her stomach, dozing.  Not that she minded.

As the credits began to roll, Buffy stopped the playback.  The TV flipped to a blank blue screen, the only illumination in the room.  Buffy sighed deeply and looked around.  On the pretext of giving Xander and Willow some private time, they spent the evening in the house they used to call home.  Buffy forgot how much she loved this room, Angel’s inner sanctum that smelled of leather, raw wood, cigars and brandy.  And of course it was filled with every electrical toy available to the modern male.  She smiled and sank back as far as she could into the soft leather couch.  Angel shifted his head in her lap and Buffy knew he wasn’t asleep.  She ran her nails lightly along his scalp.

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

He sighed contentedly and rolled onto his back far enough to be able to meet her gaze.  “Names,” he said.

She smiled.  “Names,” she parroted, her voice soft and wistful.

“Do you have any picked out?” he asked.

She shook her head and smiled again, only this time it was tinged with sadness.  “I didn’t want to get ahead of myself,” she said.

Angel’s lips pursed into a grim line and he said gently, “We can’t think like that, Buffy.  This pregnancy isn’t like the other two and you’re far enough along now that even if there were some major complication, odds are the baby would survive.”

She sighed.  “I know,” she said, “it’s just ...  I’m gun-shy I guess.”

He reached out for her hand and pulled it to his face, pressing a kiss inside her palm.  “Everything is going to be all right this time, Buffy,” he said.

*****
“Are you fucking brain dead!” Angel yelled, slamming his palm into the Volvo’s horn.  “Move!”

Reaching over, Buffy grabbed his wrist and pulled his hand off of the horn.  He turned and looked at her, almost as if he was surprised she was there.  He was more than a little frazzled.  Rush hour traffic wasn’t helping – or the fact that Buffy was in labor.  Though her jaw was clenched tightly shut, she smiled at him with as much patience as she could muster.  “Angel,” she said softly.  “I would like to live long enough to get to the hospital.”

He dropped his gaze sheepishly.  “I just want to get there,” he said quietly.

“I know you’re nervous,” she said, “but it is probably going to be a while before junior gets here so please don’t get into a car wreck.”

He nodded and turned back to the road, somewhat more composed.  Buffy knew it wouldn’t last long.  He’d been on pins and needles the last two weeks and when she finally started having contractions, shortly after noon, he came completely unglued.

*****
Buffy blinked slowly, yawning.  She rolled her head to the side and looked at Angel who was seated in the chair next to her bed, completely transfixed on the infant in his arms.  She smiled broadly.  “Hey,” she said softly.

Angel looked up and smiled from ear to ear.  “Hey,” he replied.  With great care, he scooted the chair closer to the bed and handed the sleeping baby to Buffy.  “He’s so tiny,” Angel whispered, gently running the tip of his finger over the back of his son’s hand.

Buffy stared at the father of her child.  “Angel, he weighed nine pounds,” she said.

“I know,” he said, all of his attention riveted on his son.  “He’s tiny.”

Buffy smiled and looked at her son.  He was tiny, but her perception was somewhat colored by the fact that she had actually given birth to him.  For a baby, he was rather on the large side.  She sighed and cuddled the baby close.  Angel rested his chin on his hand and watched them.

“What?” Buffy asked with a smile.

“Just thinking,” he said.

“’Bout what?”

Slowly, he reached inside his shirt and pulled out the silver chain that he always wore.  Unhooking the clasp, he unthreaded Buffy’s ring from the chain.  He grasped the Claddagh between his thumb and forefinger and held it up to her.  “Marry me,” he said.

Buffy pursed her lips together, tears welling in her eyes.  “Because of the baby?” she asked.

“Because I love you and I want to be a family,” he said seriously.

A tear streamed down Buffy’s cheek.  “I love you,” she said.

“Is that a yes?” he asked.

She nodded.  “Yes,” she whispered.

*****
The waiting room was full when Angel finally made his way there with his son.  “Angel!” Willow chirped, jumping to her feet and bounding across the room.  While Holtz and Giles managed to not appear quite so rushed, they were both hot on Willow’s heels.

“He’s perfect!” Willow cooed, wrapping herself around Angel to get a closer look at the baby.  Angel smiled.  Apparently he was back in the redhead’s good graces.

Giles cleared his throat loudly and Angel met his expectant gaze.  His vision momentarily flitted to Holtz who was standing right next to Giles.  The two grandfathers faced off for several tense seconds, but Holtz took a tiny step back.  “By all means,” he said solicitously.

With great care, Angel handed his son to Giles who beamed at the sleepy infant.  “Astounding,” he said.  “What’s his name?”

“Liam Connor Roarke,” Angel replied.

Giles looked slightly miffed about the fact that Liam didn’t have Summers as a last name, but his irritation vanished as his grandson made a tiny gurgling sound.  Angel watched as Joyce pried the baby from Giles grasp with a look that promised a painful death to anyone who attempted to intercede.  Buffy’s parents huddled around the baby as Faith, Xander, Willow and Riley all vied for a closer spot.

Cautiously, Holtz approached his son who stood several feet back from the action. “I trust Buffy is doing well?” he asked.

Angel nodded. “She’s sleeping,” he said, “but everything went fine.”

“Very good,” Holtz said.

The two stood there in a strained silence while everyone else was fixated on the baby.  Holtz shifted nervously, turning to face his son.  He awkwardly placed a hand on Angel’s forearm.  “Congratulations,” he said seriously.

“Thank you,” Angel replied, tears glistening in his eyes.

*****
Angel studied his wife’s pensive face as she stared at the ceiling, chewing on her bottom lip.  She unconsciously toyed with the Claddagh, spinning it around on her finger.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Angel said, scooting closer to her under the covers.

Turning her head towards him, Buffy frowned.  “Penny?” she said in mock insult.  “You’re loaded and all I get is a penny?”

Narrowing his eyes at her, Angel crawled over her, pinning her to the bed with his warm, naked body.  “Alright, smartass,” he said wryly.  “You already know that everything I have is yours so don’t act all put out.

She grinned wickedly at him and lifted her head to kiss along his collarbone.  Angel shut his eyes and groaned at the sensual torture.  Steeling his nerve before he lost it completely, he pulled back and looked down at her.  “I’m serious,” he said.  “What’s bothering you?”

She sighed and pursed her lips.  “You’re a killjoy, you know that,” she lamented.

He took a deep breath and raked his gaze over her bare upper body, blatantly ogling her breasts.  He shifted, pressing his erection against her thigh.  “I’ll make it up later,” he promised with a wicked grin.

She grinned like a cat in cream.  “I have every intention of holding you to that promise, Mr. Roarke,” she said.

“And I have every intention of keeping it, Mrs. Roarke,” he replied.  “It is, after all, our honeymoon.  It would be bad form not to do my husbandly duty by you.”

She let out a bark of laughter and it was a sound of pure joy.  Quickly, she caught herself and clamped a hand over her mouth.  Quietly, she pushed herself up on her elbows as Angel did the same.  They both stared expectantly at the crib in the corner, waiting.

Apparently, Buffy’s laughter wasn’t enough to wake their four month old son, and they eventually relaxed again.  Angel crawled off Buffy, sprawling on his back before pulling his wife against his chest, kissing her soundly.  Angel eventually broke the kiss and pulled back far enough to look Buffy in the eye expectantly.

She sighed and folded her hands together on Angel’s chest, using them to support her chin as she looked at him.  “I’m just wondering what he’s going to think,” she said.

“He?” Angel asked suspiciously.

Buffy gave her husband a withering glare.  “Your son,” she said dryly.

“Oh,” Angel said, chagrinned.  “About what?”

“Us.”

Angel frowned.  “What about us?” he asked.  “I’m assuming he’ll think we’re his parents.”

Buffy sighed.  “That’s not what I mean,” she said, searching for the words.  “I wonder what he’s going to think about our relationship, our past.  We weren’t exactly low key, Angel.  Our less savory incidents made it into the gossip columns and what didn’t is openly speculated on by half of the city.”

“You’re exaggerating,” Angel said wryly, “in L.A. people are too self-obsessed to spend their time worrying about us.”

Buffy smiled at him, but it was tinged with sadness.  “I may be exaggerating,” she said, “but not by much.  It will be an issue.  The Roarke name comes with money and power and privilege, but it also comes with scrutiny and gossip.  People are going to talk and Liam is going to hear a lot of rumors.  Problem is that the lies are probably going to be tamer than the truth.”

With a sigh, Angel rolled onto his side and pulled Buffy into his arms.  They stared at each other, their heads inches apart on the pillow.  “We are who we are, Buffy,” Angel said seriously.  “The fact that we’re now happily married with a child doesn’t mean that we didn’t have a horror filled past.  I would rather that Liam know the truth – though not until he’s *much* older – than have him think that everything is sunshine and roses.  We both made mistakes, we both did some really stupid stuff, but we got through it.”

Smiling, Buffy pressed her palm to the side of his face, running her thumb along his cheekbone.  “Yeah,” she said, “we got through it.”

“And now we’re together,” he said.  “We’re older and wiser and more humble.  We’ve learned from our mistakes.  We’ve figured out what’s important.  We’re together because we love each other and because it feels right, not because it was expected or convenient or because we have a baby.”

They stared into each other’s eyes for a long time.  “I do love you,” Buffy said.

“I love you too,” he replied, pulling her closer.  He kissed her deeply.  “It seems that I have a promise,” to keep, he whispered against her lips, pulling her body under his.

“You most certainly do,” she replied with a wicked grin.

*****
Buffy watched the tension in Angel’s broad shoulders as he stared out the bay window that overlooked the large backyard.  Cautiously, she approached him and wrapped her arms around him, pressing herself against his back as fully as her distended belly would allow.

Angel hugged her arms.  “You feeling okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” she answered.  “I was wondering about you.”

Angel unwrapped her arms and pulled her around so she could look out the window with him.  Holtz was playing in the sandbox with their three year old son.  The pair were obviously enjoying themselves immensely as they did every Sunday afternoon.

“Liam is fine with him, Angel,” Buffy said gently.  Several years ago, she might not have been such a blind supporter of Angel’s father, but the man had shown he was committed to being a positive part of his grandson’s life.  He spent time with Liam – and Angel – any chance he got, though Liam was much more receptive to the attention than his father.

Taking a deep breath, Angel let it out slowly.  “I know,” he said ruefully.  “I still just have a hard time trusting him.”

“He’s doing his best to make amends,” Buffy said.  “He loves you and he loves Liam.”

Angel nodded and hugged his wife more tightly.  Buffy rested her head against his chest.  She knew that things were a thousand times better between Holtz and Angel than they had ever been, but they still had a long way to go.  Odds were the damage Holtz had wrought would never be fully mended, but they were both still trying and that was the important part.

Angel sighed heavily and seemed to shake off his melancholy mood.  “When do Willow and Xander get here?” he asked.

Buffy looked at her watch.  “About twenty minutes,” she said.  “Molly had her dance class this morning.”

“Dance class?” Angel asked warily.  “She’s two.”

“Oh just wait, daddy,” Buffy said mischievously.  “You think Molly’s spoiled rotten, just wait to see what your father does for our little princess.”

Angel smiled wryly at his wife and placed his hand over her belly.  Their daughter kicked.  “She’s gonna be a hellion,” he said with a blinding grin.

{end story}

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