A Small Sacrifice For Tomorrow - #4 in the 'Shadows in Time' series

by Isis FG

Feedback: vagabond_angel@comcast.net

Disclaimer: I don't own 'em...though that should be quite obvious.

Rating: PG 13
Pairing: B/?, B/A, C/D, W/O, X/A
Series Summary: post-s3 (BTVS) AU.departs from canon after the s3 finale and jumps into my own universe. From there, almost everything will be different. A few characters and concepts will pop-up, but really, this doesn't relate at all to the seasons that followed s3.
Fic Summary: It's six years later and an old face is about to resurface as danger lurks.
Spoilers: The first 3 fics in the series, and anything through the end of s3 of BTVS, but mostly the end of s3, and also mild generic spoilers for BtVS & AtS later seasons

Distribution: my site (Vagabond Soul), and if you already have any of my fics, you may take this one, if not, please ask first.

Author's Notes: This is the 4th fic in the SiT series, the first 3 can be found here:
SiT series index
This fic jumps six years into the future. As with the last fic, a few concepts have been taken from the actual BtVS and AtS seasons and twisted to fit the alternate reality I've created. So there will be a few things you're familiar with, but they won't be exactly the same.

Thank you: to *Stars*, my fab beta, and to everyone who has sent feedback throughout this series. You guys are the greatest!!

Warnings: very angsty, maybe a few bad words, possible character death


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Part 1
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~almost six years later~

"Night sweetie," Buffy whispered, placing a light kiss on her now sleeping daughter's forehead.

She carefully raised herself off the bed, not wanting to wake Ashlynn up. It had taken her long enough to get the energetic little girl to go to sleep and she really didn't want to go through it all over again. Leaning over the bed, Buffy tucked the covers in around her daughter and turned away from the bed. Instead of leaving the room and heading to her own bed, she walked over to the rocking chair in front of the window and sat down.

For a few moments, she stared out of the large window, thinking of years past before her gaze drifted back to the sleeping form of her precious baby girl. Well, she wasn't really a baby anymore. Ashlynn was almost six years old, a fact she liked to point out regularly these days. Six years old. How had the time passed so quickly? It seemed like only yesterday that Buffy had run from Sunnydale, pregnant and alone. Now she had an almost six year old daughter, a steady well-paying job, a great group of friends...she had almost everything she could ever want. But it still boggled her mind that in a few weeks they'd be having Ash's sixth birthday party.

Being a mother was more than she could have ever imagined it would be. Every single day was a learning experience. Who would have thought that a little girl could find so much trouble to get into! They'd all learned pretty quickly to keep things out of reach of the curious toddler. Of course, that was after Ash had raided the bathroom and played with Mommy and Aunt Cordelia's makeup. And then there was the oh-so-fun case of chicken pox. Poor Cordy. The former cheerleader had never had the chicken pox and had caught them from Ashlynn. That little episode had cost Buffy a trip to a spa for Cordy once she was better.

All in all, though, she loved being a mother. It was an amazing feeling to have someone love you unconditionally, and to look to you for guidance and support. Each and every turn in Ash's life had brought warmth to Buffy's heart; seeing her crawl for the first time, watching her learn to walk, teaching her to read, and all the other things that had come across their paths. She never knew what a rewarding experience it was to have a child.

The others were quite enamored with the lovable girl as well, and Ashlynn adored all her 'aunts' and 'uncles', even Lorne. Buffy's happy thoughts faltered slightly at that thought. Ash wasn't quite the normal little girl, though she wasn't exactly abnormal. She was rather intelligent for someone her age, and she seemed to possess more strength than she should, which was likely because of her parentage. The odd part was that, even at an early age, Ash appeared to grasp the concept of good and evil, and humans and demons. None of them could figure it out, but Ash just seemed to understand. She knew that Lorne was a demon, and it didn't bother her in the least. Buffy just hoped that it wasn't a prelude to anything, such as being Called as a Slayer.

If that time came though, she would find a way to deal with it. She couldn't fight fate anyway, and she had her friends to help her through anything that might come their way. When she'd left Sunnydale nearly seven years ago, Buffy could have never imagined that she would be surrounded by such wonderful people. Cordy had become one of her best friends, Doyle had also become someone who she could count on, Lorne had been a savior when he came into her life, and then there was Willow and Oz who had come back into her life years ago and remained. They were her support group, and her confidants, always there when she needed a friend, or two.

Cordy and Doyle were now 'officially' together, though they'd been 'dating' for quite a long time. Buffy couldn't help but shake her head at those two. They had a strange relationship and were always bickering with each other, but it worked for them. Cordy had recently moved upstairs to Doyle's apartment and they were now planning their wedding, a huge, all-out affair at Cordy's insistence that would take place in a few months.

Not wanting Buffy to be alone in her apartment after Cordy moved upstairs, Willow and Oz had moved in with her. The two of them had gotten married three years earlier on a trip to Vegas. Lorne had decided that the club needed some remodeling so he closed it down for two weeks and told them all to take a vacation. So they'd gone off to Vegas where Willow and Oz decided on a spur of the moment wedding. It was perfect for them, though, and Buffy couldn't have been happier.

The club was doing better than any of them could have expected. It was a huge hit among young adults, and most nights they found themselves turning away people. They'd all found their niche when it came to their jobs at the club. Oz handled all the music; Doyle dealt with the liquor; Cordy worked with the finances; Willow was solely responsible for anything computer related; Lorne oversaw everything and made sure the club met regulations; and Buffy found herself in charge of all the employees. It was a nice little thrill to have control over people, and she had a knack for giving orders. Their jobs kept them fairly busy, but the success of the club and the resulting income washed away any complaints.

There was still evil to be fought as well. As much as she wished she could have left her role as a Slayer behind, Buffy couldn't. It was part of who she was. Still, she didn't patrol nearly as much as she did in Sunnydale. Usually, she only went out two or three nights a week, and never alone. Her friends never let her slay alone, knowing she had a better chance of returning if she had backup. No one ever said it out loud, but they knew there was always a chance that Ashlynn could be left motherless. So when Buffy did patrol, they went out in groups, usually with either Cordy and Doyle, or Willow and Oz accompanying her. Most times, though, their evil fighting centered on uprisings that either Doyle or Lorne heard about through their connections.

On the surface, her life appeared perfect, but there was still a gaping hole in her heart. A hole left by the absence of her soulmate, and which had never fully healed. The ache was less these days, but all Buffy had to do was look at her blonde haired, brown eyed daughter and she'd see Angel staring back at her. It brought tears to her own eyes more than once when looking at her beautiful little girl, but she couldn't dwell on it. Angel was gone, and had been gone for much longer than they'd been together. It wouldn't do her any good to stay lost in the past.

Ashlynn was almost three when she first asked about her Father. They'd been at the park when she'd seen another girl playing with an older man. With the typical curiosity of a child, Ash had asked who the man was and why he was with the girl. It had broken Buffy's heart to explain that the man was the little girl's father. When she'd asked where her father was, Buffy couldn't hold back the tears that crept down her cheeks. She was torn about what to tell her daughter about her father.

Her first instinct had been to not say anything. Why give Ashlynn memories of a man she'd never know? But the questioning deep brown eyes of her beautiful baby girl told her she couldn't deprive her of knowing about her father. So she'd given in and told Ashlynn about Angel. It was one of the hardest things she ever had to do. All Buffy could really tell her was that her Daddy was a wonderful man named Angel and that he couldn't be with him, but that he loved her very much. Being so young, Ash had taken the words at face value.

As she got older, she asked more questions, and in time, Buffy became more comfortable answering them. Angel couldn't be there with them, but that didn't mean Ashlynn didn't deserve to know about him. Many nights, when Buffy put her daughter to bed, she would tell Ashlynn a story about her father. Given that they had not been together that long and that a lot of their time together was not child-rated, stories were often repeated. But Ash didn't seem to mind. She was happy just to hear about him.

Buffy had even given her a picture of Angel which was kept on her nightstand. It wasn't easy for her to talk about the man who'd walked away from her, but in the end, she'd do anything to make her daughter happy. And she knew that it wasn't fair to let her past interfere with Ash knowing who her father was. So she persevered and did the best she could when it came to mentioning Angel.

Sighing, Buffy pushed all thoughts about her daughter's father out of her head. The less she thought about him, the better she felt. He wasn't part of her life anymore. She'd long ago accepted that fact and moved on. It didn't matter that Ashlynn deserved to know her father, or that Angel should know he had a daughter. She couldn't change the way things were, and that was really all there was to it.

Buffy looked over at her sleeping daughter once again for a minute before realizing she, herself, needed to get to bed. She had a busy day at the club tomorrow and it would do her no good to stay up half the night. Pushing herself out of the rocking chair, Buffy was overcome by dizziness and quickly reached out to steady herself on the windowsill. Her eyes closed, waiting for the feeling to pass. When they opened again, the world had righted itself. Buffy shook her head, cursing herself for not getting enough sleep, and quietly walked out of Ashlynn's room.

Within moments of lying down in her bed, Buffy was sound asleep. Her age and active life seemed to be catching up with her quicker these days. It was the price she paid, though, for the life she led.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~somewhere in Europe~

The door slammed loudly behind him as Angel stumbled into a quaint little pub somewhere in Ireland. With slow steps, he wandered toward the bar area and plopped down onto one of the empty stools in the corner. He slouched heavily against the counter, his entire body worn and exhausted. Absently, he noticed the many cuts and abrasions on his hands, but he paid them no mind. They were a small price to pay for the battles he fought.

His night so far had been spent taking out a nest of Gur'boluck demons that had taken over an empty building a few blocks away. Nasty little buggers they were, had a tendency to try and bite. Angel frowned in distaste and glanced at the holes in his pants. Damn demons. They hadn't stood a chance, though, against the battle hardened vampire with a soul. Now, each and every one of them were buried in the forest behind their hideout, ripped to shreds by a warrior's axe.

It was the same thing every night for Angel. Fighting the good fight, ridding the earth of the demon plague. It was the only thing he could do. There was nothing else for him in this world, at least not anymore. Once upon a time there had been someone; a smiling young woman with golden blonde hair, and mesmerizing hazel eyes, but she was just a memory now. A painful reminder of who he was and what he could never have.

So he fought, night in and night out, city to city, country to country. His travels had taken him from France, to Spain, to Germany, to Italy, to China, and virtually everywhere in between. Now he found himself in Ireland, a place he hadn't been to since before the return of his soul many, many years ago. Why on earth he had to come back here, he did not know. There were so many bad memories associated with his homeland, but it seemed to be calling to him. He had to admit there was a certain comfort level being back in Ireland. Still, he probably wouldn't stay for long. He had no cause to drop down roots anywhere. That was just the way things were for him. The more he moved around, the more he fought, the easier it was to block out everything else.

Angel's brooding was slightly interrupted when he heard the stool next to him pulled out and a body haphazardly seat itself on the rickety wood. Ignoring the unwanted company, he leaned further into the shadows, content to be alone. When he heard the new person speak, though, his attention quickly snapped to his left.

"Gimme a beer, would ya?" the all too familiar accented voice shouted loudly despite the fact that the bartender was only two feet away.

Warily, Angel lifted his eyes, dreading, but knowing exactly what he would find. And he was right. If the voice hadn't given it away, the bleach blonde head would have.

"Spike?!?" he bit out in annoyance.

The blonde head whirled around at the word, eyes widening.

"Well, well, well. What do we have here?" Spike smirked and frowned at the same time.

"What the Hell are you doing here?" Angel nearly screamed at him. He had no desire to deal with his arrogant childe.

"Fuck off, mate," Spike waved his hand at him and turned back to his beer causing Angel to roll his eyes. Same old Spike.

Deciding he might just be better off ignoring the blonde, Angel shifted away from Spike. He carelessly guzzled at his own beer, wishing he wasn't a vampire so that he could get completely wasted. Nothing like the ignorant bliss of alcohol, but it would take more than just a few beers to dull the ever-present memories in his mind.

The two sat in silence for a long while, enjoying only the company of their drinks. It wasn't until Spike reached his fourth dark brew of the late night that his attention switched back to his brooding ponce of a sire.

"Ya know, mate," he started cockily, and waited until Angel's exhausted, bleary gaze was on him. "I woulda thought you'd be blowin' in the wind by now."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Angel growled at him.

"Honestly...," Spike pondered the idea momentarily. "Yes. But, really, I'm surprised to see you sittin' 'ere."

"And why is that?" Angel asked, not entirely caring what the answer was, as he twisted on his stool to fully face the bleached wonder.

"No reason," shrugged Spike indifferently. "Jus' thought that with that bloody tormented soul of yours you wouldn't be able to go on now that your precious blondie's gone."

Angel's body stiffened instantly. "What are you talking about?"

His childe went on as if Angel hadn't spoken. "I figured you'd have taken the first sunrise train to Hell after the little Slayer bit the big one. Now, really, with you still being here, unfortunately, what does that say about that fuzzy love crap between you two?"

"What the fuck are you talking about?!" Angel roared, leaping to his feet and pulling Spike off his seat by the lapels of his worn duster. Spike couldn't be saying...no it wasn't possible! It couldn't be...

"Easy on the coat, mate! It's real leather!" the blonde vampire shoved Angel away from him.

"I'm going to ask this one more time, boy," Angel spoke clearly, fighting off the cold that was settling deep in his soul. "WHAT are you talking about?"

"Settle down you bleeding ponce," Spike sat back down on his stool, his eyes though, focused on Angel, reading the frightened worry. "You don't know do you? Such a shame about her. She had quite a scrumptious little body, for a Slayer an all."

"Spike!" Angel growled threateningly.

The blonde stared at Angel for a minute. "You really don't know do you?"

"KNOW WHAT?" Angel shouted in frustrating, his worry increasing ten-fold. He couldn't even think what Spike's words were meaning.

"I paid a little visit to good old Sunnyhell last year," Spike began, enjoying the slow torture of his sire. "Ran into a feisty brunette. Imagine my surprise to find that she was a Slayer. Pity too. Bet she woulda been a good screw."

"A Slayer?" Angel questioned in bewilderment. Another Slayer? His body wilted, falling carelessly onto his stool.

"Surprising, I know," Spike replied, not caring in the least about the effect his words were having. "Disappointment too. I was looking forward to a good tumble you're your little Fluffy."

"But....no," the last word came out in a harsh whisper. It wasn't possible. She couldn't be gone. All these years he'd told himself that she was happy, living the life she deserved. She couldn't be...no, it just wasn't possible.

"So I asked the feisty brunette where Blondie was," Spike continued disinterestedly. "Was told she's been gone for almost seven years."

"No...," Angel pushed away from the bar, knocking over his stool. "No!"

He staggered backwards a few steps, not hearing another word out of his childe's mouth. The only thing he could focus on was the word 'gone.' She was...no! No! It wasn't possible.

Angel turned and fled from the bar, running as fast as his feet would take him. He ran until his body could take no more, collapsing to his knees on the dirt covered ground somewhere.

"NOOOOOOOOOO!!!" his anguished howl sounded loudly through the stark night.

A long while later, face wet with tears, Angel found himself still on his knees, praying to anyone that would listen that it wasn't true. Buffy couldn't be...dead. The word caused a strangled cry to escape his lips. She couldn't be. Just couldn't be. That wasn't what was supposed to happen! She was supposed to be happy!

His eyes flashed amber as the unwanted thought of some vicious beast ending her life entered his mind. No! He pushed the idea from his head. He wouldn't accept it. She wasn't dead! He would have known it if she had...died.

Angel pushed himself to his feet unsteadily. He had to know. All this time he'd gone on believing she was living a happy life. Now...he had to know. And if it was true...if she was really...gone, he'd find the son of a bitch who'd done it and tear him limb from limb until there was nothing left. Maybe throw in a few weeks of torture first. But first, he had to know.

It was time to go home.

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Part 2
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~several days later~

Standing in the doorway to Buffy's room, Willow peered in hoping to find Buffy awake. Actually, she wasn't sure if she wanted Buffy to be awake or not, because she wasn't sure she had the nerve to tell her what it was she was here for. She honestly didn't know how her friend was going to handle the information she just found out. Still, she had to tell her, it was the right thing to do.

Buffy was in fact awake, standing in front of her full length mirror wearing only panties and a bra. The sight would have made Willow blush if she hadn't gotten caught up looking at the same thing Buffy appeared to be studying. Trailing down the blonde's back and twisting around her side was an ugly, raised scar about half an inch wide. A slight tremor of terror rippled through Willow as she saw the highly visible mark.

Unlike other wounds, this one had never faded having been too severe to be fully healed by the Slayer's advanced powers. It would likely forever be a reminder of the battle they fought almost two years earlier. An old warehouse had been taken over by a group of Cystyic demons who had a penchant for feeding on the flesh of homeless people. Lorne had heard there were at least eight of them living in the warehouse so they had come to the conclusion that they would all be needed to take them out.

The demons weren't actually that tough, but unfortunately, neither Doyle nor Lorne had been informed that the demons had two minions each, raising the total number of demons to twenty-four. Upon realizing this after their arrival at the warehouse, the group had been totally thrown off. Buffy and Doyle immediately went after the Cystyic demons while Cordy, Willow and Oz tackled the vampire minions (Lorne was home with Ashlynn).

Things had been going okay until Doyle was thrown across the room and knocked unconscious. The two remaining demon leaders ganged up on Buffy and one of them slashed at her from behind with a dagger, deeply shredding her skin from the center of her back and down around her side. To her credit, Buffy kept fighting, managing to kill both demons and helping with the remaining vamps.

Once the battle was over, Buffy collapsed, blood quickly pooling around her body. If it hadn't been for Tara, who'd accompanied them in case magic was needed, Buffy may not have made it. She performed some type of healing spell to stem the blood flow until they could get her to the hospital. The Slayer survived, for which Willow was immensely grateful, but still bore the mark of that fight. The others hadn't escaped injury either. Oz had broken his wrist, Doyle received a concussion, and Cordy had been pushed into a piece of exposed metal, cutting her arm and requiring sixteen stitches plus tetanus boosters.

Willow knew Buffy was happy to have made it through the battle, but she also knew that the lasting mark on her skin bothered her. It was just another reminder of the destiny she lived, but never asked for. She never complained about it, though, just accepted that the scar would always be there.

Breaking out of her reverie, Willow took a deep breath, remembering what she'd come for, and knocked on the door. Buffy startled at the sound and looked up to see Willow standing in the doorway. Remembering that she was almost naked, Buffy quickly pulled on her robe.

"Sorry," Willow blushed, saying nothing about seeing Buffy looking at the scar.

"It's okay," Buffy shrugged nonchalantly. "We're both girls. I have the same parts you do. Come on in."

Willow walked into the room and took a seat on the Slayer's bed. "Where's Ashlynn?"

"Upstairs with Cordy and Doyle. She wanted to play dress-up with Cordy," Buffy rolled her eyes, wondering if it was smart to let her daughter play dress-up with a fashion princess. "So what's up?"

Averting her eyes, Willow pulled at the hem of her shirt. "Oh...umm...well..."

"Just spit it out, Will," Buffy sat down next to her friend, growing slightly nervous.

Willow took a deep breath and looked up, meeting Buffy's eyes. "Oz talked to his parents on the phone today. They, umm,...they said that...that your Mom-."

"What about my Mom?" the blonde interrupted sharply.

"Buffy," Willow placed a hand on Buffy's arm. "She was in a car accident last week."

"What?" she whispered hoarsely, feeling tears sting her eyes. "But...but...she's okay right?"

"She...," her eyes closed for a second before continuing. "It was a head on collision with a drunk driver. She didn't make it. They said she died instantly from the impact."

"No!" Buffy cried out, her tears now falling freely. "No...s-she can't be dead!"

"I'm sorry, Buffy," Willow pulled the sobbing Slayer into her arms.

"She c-can't be d-dead," Buffy mumbled against Willow's chest. It didn't matter that they hadn't spoken in nearly seven years. She was still her mother, and even though they'd parted badly, Buffy still loved her.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

An hour later, the entire group was sitting around in Buffy, Willow and Oz's living room in silence. No one knew what to say to the distraught Slayer. They were aware that Buffy and her Mother were not speaking and hadn't seen each other since she left Sunnydale, but they knew it still had to be hard for her to hear about her death.

"Okay," Willow announced, looking up from her laptop. "I made you reservations to fly to LA."

"Good, thanks Willow," answered Buffy softly, wiping at her eyes.

Willow sat back against the couch, "are you sure you don't want us to come too?"

"I'm sure," Buffy nodded. "You've got that Wiccan thing to go to with Tara this weekend, and I know she's excited for you to go with her."

"Okay, but I wish I could go with you," Willow sighed, reaching for Oz's hand.

"I know, but it's okay. Plus Cordy and Doyle will be there with me," Buffy yawned after she finished speaking.

"And we're taking Ashlynn," Cordy chipped in, reminding them that Buffy wanted to have her daughter with her.

"Why don't you go get some sleep, Sunshine," Lorne placed a comforting hand on her shoulder from where he stood behind the couch. "You're flight leaves early tomorrow."

"Okay," Buffy agreed, standing up from the sofa. "I'll see you guys in the morning."

The Slayer walked numbly out of the room, leaving her friends to stare sadly at her back. Each wondered why it was that Buffy always had to deal with such tragic events in her life. It seemed as though fate was constantly testing her with new obstacles. They knew she'd make it through this, but they also knew it had to be difficult for her.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean~

Angel paced restlessly around the small cabin of the plane. If he hadn't been so preoccupied with thoughts of Buffy, he would have been petrified about being on an airplane, but he hadn't given a second thought to the first time experience. Planes and vampires usually weren't things that went together due to the sunlight issue, but he felt it was necessary in this instance. He needed to get to Sunnydale, and he needed to get there quickly.

It had taken many, many favors, and digging into finances he hadn't touched in a very long time to get passage on the small plane. Thankfully, his deeds fighting demons had made him a few friends and he was able to find someone to fly him to the States, and then to the small airport in Sunnydale. The fact that it was a small private plane allowed him to make sure coming into contact with sunlight wasn't a problem.

So now he was pacing back and forth across the floor, waiting anxiously for their arrival in New York. They would refuel the plane there, and unfortunately stay for a day while the pilot dealt with some other business. Then they would begin the trek to Sunnydale. For Angel, it seemed like a never-ending journey even though they'd only left Ireland a few hours earlier.

He couldn't get his mind off of Buffy and what Spike had told him. Seven years. That would mean that he had only been gone a couple months when she... No! He wouldn't accept that. He wouldn't accept it because it wasn't true. She wasn't dead. She was alive. Spike was lying, just trying to get a rise out of him. There was no possible way that his Buffy could be dead.

Angel tiredly leaned his head against the wall of the plane, repeating over and over to himself that Buffy was in fact alive. He conjured up a mental vision of her smiling, walking in the sun with a loving husband on one side and a beautiful little girl on the other. The happy fantasy caused a different sort of anguish to ripple through his body.

He'd left her so that she could have a real life, one with sunlight, and family, and someone to love her, but the very thought of her having that with anyone but him shattered his already fractured heart. Even though they'd been apart for so long, he still loved her with every fiber of his being, and even if all he wanted was for her to be happy, it still hurt beyond words. If he had to choose between her having a life with someone else, and her being dead, it was an easy pick. He'd rather see her smiling in the arms of another, than as a cold, lifeless body, buried and forgotten in the ground.

His fist banged loudly against the solid metal of the plane. He wouldn't accept that she was dead. In the back of his mind, though, he knew it was a real possibility. She was the Slayer after all, fighting night after night. There was always a risk, always the chance that she'd not survive her next battle. Buffy was strong, though. She'd beaten the odds more than once. For now, he would hold on to that knowledge.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~Sunnydale~

Inside the rental car, Buffy tiredly leaned her head against the window, wishing that this day would end and that she was back in her home in Seattle. Being in Sunnydale was taxing enough on its own, but being here because of her Mother's death seemed to push the emotional and physical strain to another level. They'd only been in town for about twelve hours, but to Buffy it felt ten times longer.

After arriving in Los Angeles, Doyle had gotten them a rental car and driven the four of them to Sunnydale. Once there, Buffy hadn't really known what to do. She hadn't really thought about what she would do once she returned to her former home. Eventually, they'd decided to go to Joyce's house for lack of anything else to do.

At the house, the group had encountered Buffy's Aunt, Joyce's sister, who was in town dealing with the aftermath of the accident. Her reception of Buffy and her friends had been cold to say the least. Obviously, she was well aware of all that had occurred between Buffy and Joyce. At least she hadn't kicked them out.

The rest of the morning and afternoon they spent going through the house, sorting through what would be kept and what would be thrown away or given to charity. Joyce's sister had already gone through much of the house, but they'd finished up the rest while Buffy was there. It was surreal to the blonde headed Slayer, being in her old house with her Mother not there, knowing she'd never be there again. The family pictures and mementos brought tears to her eyes.

Not for the first time, Buffy found herself wishing that she'd tried to work things out with her Mom. Maybe if she'd sent her a letter, or called, they could have repaired their relationship. Maybe...just maybe...but now it was too late. She'd never have the chance to mend what had been painfully broken years before. Her Mother would never again be part of her life, Ashlynn would never get to know her grandmother, and Joyce would never meet her granddaughter.

Buffy supposed that all those sayings about how you never realize something until it's too late were true. Since hearing of her Mother's death, she'd been filled with regrets. Not over what she'd done, and not over her refusal of her Mom's demands, but because she'd never tried to contact Joyce after leaving. Seven long years and she'd let the rift between them remain. Maybe they wouldn't have been able to work out their differences, but at least she would have tried. Now, she would never know. Now, it was too late.

Wiping a tear off her cheek, Buffy looked out the window at the cemetery they were approaching. Joyce's funeral and memorial had been a few days earlier, but Buffy wanted to visit the grave site. If she'd known before hand, she would have come for the funeral, but she hadn't know till yesterday so she would have to settle for visiting the grave.

"We're here," Doyle broke the complete silence inside the car.

The sound jolted Buffy out of her half-asleep daze and she raised her head off the window, taking a deep breath in the process. "Thanks."

"Do you want us to come with you?" Cordy asked in a whisper, turning to face Buffy in the back seat.

"No. I...I-I want to go alone," Buffy ran a hand through her hair and started to open the car door.

"What about Ash?" Doyle nodded his head to the little girl.

Buffy looked down at her sleeping daughter for a moment and shook her head. "Let her sleep, she's had a long day."

"Ok, we'll be here if you need us," Cordy squeezed her hand sympathetically.

Smiling faintly, Buffy climbed out of the car, smoothing down her skirt for no reason other than to give her hands something to do. Hesitantly, she walked toward where she was told the grave rested. Her hands trembled as she neared the place where the woman who had given birth to her would forever rest. Within seconds, the light granite headstone was right in front of her, making her face the harsh reality of death.

Step by small step, she approached large stone until she stood right in front of it. Her eyes closed as a wave of nausea swirled deep down in her stomach. Opening them again, Buffy knelt down in front of the grave. Tears falling, she placed the bouquet of white roses down onto the grass. With a shaky hand, she reached up to touch the cold stone that bore her Mother's name.

"Hi Mom," she whispered brokenly, her fingers tracing the lettering on the headstone.

"I wish I knew what to say," she began, leaning back on her heals. "I'm sorry we never got to make things right. I-I never stopped loving you. Even though we haven't talked for seven years, you were always my Mother. I can't apologize for what happened because I don't regret having my daughter, but I wish you could have been a part of our lives."

"I had a little girl, Mom," Buffy smiled at the thought of her daughter. "She's beautiful, and smart. I never thought being a Mother could be like this. You would have loved her. I know you would have. I told her about you. I wanted her to know who you were. There's a picture of you and me together in her room."

"I know we had our problems, Mom, but I know you did the best you could. I wasn't the easiest kid to deal with. And the Slayer stuff didn't make things any better. I wish I could have ignored it and been the daughter you wanted, but I did what I had to do. I hope that you understand that," she paused, taking a moment to calm herself. "I never hated you for all the bad stuff."

She kissed her fingers and placed them over the scripted name. "I love you, Mommy."

Rising from her spot, a wave of dizziness stuttered her steps. Buffy reached up and grasped at her head, willing the spinning to stop. After breathing in a few deep lungfuls of air, the sensation eased away. Taking one last look at the grave, she turned and began to walk away when an all too familiar voice stopped her dead in her tracks.

"I didn't think you had the nerve to show up here."

Buffy whirled around, immediately wishing she hadn't as the dizziness returned.

"Xander?"

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 3
^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Buffy felt frozen in her spot, like time had ceased moving as she stood there staring into the eyes of her one time friend. It had never crossed her mind that she'd run into him while in Sunnydale, and really she did NOT want to see him. Her anger over what had happened before she left was still strong, and it was obvious that his fury with her remained as well.

"Should I be touched you still know my name?" he bit out harshly, eyes showing nothing but distaste for the girl he once held on a pedestal.

"What do you want, Xander?" Buffy spoke tiredly, pressing a finger to her throbbing temple.

Xander shook his head condescendingly at the question. "I can't believe you'd show your face here again. What? You think you can just waltz back into town?"

"What I do is none of your business!" she snarled at him, her anger replacing the overwhelming weariness. "My Mother is dead, Xander. I came here to say goodbye and that's it."

"A little late for that, isn't it?" he raised a sneering eyebrow. "Seven years too late, I think."

"Ya know what, Xander," she marched up to him, her voice echoing loudly. "I don't give a FUCK what you think of me, of what I've done, or not done, but don't you dare bring my Mother into this!"

"Just pointing out the facts, Buff. You left here and never looked back. You never gave a damn about anyone but yourself," he looked at her in disgust.

"Think whatever the Hell you want," Buffy started, but was interrupted before she could continue.

"Buffy? Is everything all right," Cordy's voice sounded through the quiet night.

"Yeah, we heard yelling," added Doyle as the two stepped into view.

"Cordelia?" Xander spat out in shock and took a step back.

"Mommy?" Ashlynn's sleepy voice spoke softly as the little girl raised her head from Cordy's shoulder.

"Hey, Sweetie! Did you have a good nap?" Buffy forced a smile onto her face, pulling her daughter into her arms.

"Yup!" Ash grinned at her Mommy. "Who's that?" she pointed to Xander.

Buffy looked from Ashlynn to Xander and back. This was not a situation she wanted to expose her daughter to. "That's...that's just someone I used to know, baby."

"Oh," the little girl frowned slightly and laid her head on Buffy's chest.

"What the Hell is going on?" Xander shouted and then eyed Cordelia. "Why are you here?"

"What's it matter to you?" she retorted in annoyance. Xander Harris was definitely someone she would like to forget existed.

"I see the Bitch is back," he snarked at her.

Doyle stepped forward, finding himself growing angry at the unknown man. "I better not hear ya speak ta my fiancée like that again."

"Fiancée? You're engaged to that loser?" Xander laughed out loud.

"Mommy? What's going on?" Ashlynn spoke up, her eyes wildly looking around at the arguing adults.

"Nothing, baby. It's okay," Buffy soothed her frightened daughter and then looked back to her ex-friend. "Xander, just leave."

The sound of a cell phone ringing stopped Xander from answering. Buffy reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out the noisy device, glad to have a distraction from the current conversation.

"Hello?" she responded into the phone. "Oh, hey Wil...no, everything's okay...yeah, we'll be heading back to the airport soon....I just want to get back home...okay, we'll call when our flight gets in...bye."

As Xander listened to the conversation, his eyes darkened in rage. So that's where Willow was? They hadn't been talking, all because of Buffy he had to add, and then her and Oz had just up and left Sunnydale one day. And now he finds out that she's been with Buffy the whole time! Willow had been his best friend since childhood and she'd just traded him in for some traitorous bitch.

"What did Willow want?" Cordy asked as Buffy was stuffing the phone back into her pocket.

"She just wanted to make sure we were okay, and to check if we were still flying back tonight," Buffy relayed, looking directly at Cordy and Doyle, her hand stroking her daughter's back.

"We better leave soon if we want ta make our flight," Doyle looked at his watch.

"Okay. Xander...," she started as she turned back to face the angry man only to find him no longer there.

Cordy looked around but found no trace of her ex-boyfriend and shrugged her shoulders. "Good, he's gone. Can we leave now? I think this town is giving me hives."

Glancing to where Xander had been standing, Buffy sighed. "Yeah, I don't particularly want to be here anymore than you two.

"Come on, girls," Doyle put his arms around his fiancée and friend. "Let's hit the road."

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~Sunnydale, the next night~

By the time the small plane landed at Sunnydale's non-commercial airport, Angel felt like he was going to crawl out of his skin. The near day-long wait in New York felt like twenty days. When they finally took to the air to fly to Sunnydale, his nerves were completely shot. He both feared and anticipated what he would find when he returned to the place that had been the source of his greatest happiness and his most agonizing sorrow.

Now that he was here, he wasn't quite sure how to proceed. A glance at his watch told him it was just after eleven p.m. He supposed he could try searching through the cemeteries. If she was here, if she wasn't...dead...she would likely be patrolling. The numerous graveyards in Sunnydale made that a daunting task, though. He took a deep, unneeded breath and clenched his hands before deciding that his best bet would be to try going to her house. Maybe there he would get some answers.

Twenty minutes later, Angel was walking up the pathway leading to what he hoped was Buffy's house. In the back of his mind he knew it was unlikely she would still live there anymore. His vision of her life always had her residing in a cozy, two-story house with a large back yard, and a swimming pool. It was possible, though, that Joyce still lived there. The prospect of encountering Buffy's Mother made him shudder involuntarily, knowing that Joyce had always hated him.

Stepping onto the front porch, Angel frowned as he looked around. The entire place was dark, there were no cars in the driveway, and he couldn't detect any heartbeats inside. He walked up to one of the windows and peered inside. His enhanced vision allowed him to see the interior of the house, but what he found was even more disheartening. All of the furniture was gone and he could see boxes scattered around the floor. Inhaling deeply, he scented the air. A myriad of smells wafted through his nose. Very faintly, he thought he could detect Buffy, but he wasn't sure and it was not enough to ease any of his fears.

Angel again studied the inside of the house hoping to find anything to identify who had lived there recently. Near the window he could see an open box, a few items peeking out. He squinted his eyes slightly and shifted his position to get a better look. There, on the top of the pile in the box, was a picture frame holding a picture of Buffy and Joyce. The small find was enough to tell him that this was still Joyce's house. Why then wasn't he picking up a stronger trace of Buffy? If her Mom still lived here, wouldn't she be over to visit often?

Maybe she moved to another town, he thought to himself. Sunnydale was still the Hellmouth, though, for all he knew. Would she be able to move away? And what about that other Slayer Spike had said he ran into? Angel didn't want to examine the answers to those questions too deeply because they all pointed to one thing and he wasn't yet ready to face that. Backing away from the window, Angel resolved to try another avenue. He was determined to find out what was going on.

A short while later Angel arrived at Giles' apartment. There was a light shinning through one of the windows so he decided to knock on the door. If he felt it would make a difference, he would have prayed that Giles answered the door. To his dismay, it wasn't the Watcher who appeared before him, but rather a young couple who looked at him warily.

"Can we help you?" the man asked, his arm protectively around his girlfriend.

"I'm sorry to bother you," Angel apologized, keeping his hands in full view so they wouldn't be afraid. "I won't keep you long. I was just wanting to know if Rupert Giles still lived here."

"Umm, no, this is my apartment," the woman spoke up, smiling at the handsome man before her.

"Oh, uh, thanks. If you don't mind me asking, how long have you lived here?" he questioned as his heart sank further.

"I've been here for about four years," she told him.

Angel's shoulders slumped. "Do you know who lived here before you?"

"An older woman. I think she'd lived here for about two or three years," she added helpfully.

"Okay," Angel fought the tears in his eyes. "Thank you. I apologize for interrupting your evening."

"Good night," he turned and walked away solemnly.

After that, Angel wandered around Sunnydale feeling as if his worst fears were coming true. He had been so sure she was alive, but now, everything was beginning to tell him otherwise. There was still hope. He still wanted to believe she was happily living her life somewhere, but it was growing harder to think that way. There had to be someone in this town who had answers for him.

As if by fate, Angel looked up and found himself standing near Willy's bar. Perfect! Surely the annoying snitch would know about Buffy. Straightening out his long coat, he walked determinedly into the bar.

"Angel," Willy's voice squeaked out the moment the vampire stepped up to the bar.

"Hello, Willy," Angel spoke menacingly, wanting to intimidate the little weasel.

"Uhh, what can I do for ya, buddy?" Willy inched a few steps away, not liking the look in Angel's eyes.

"Information," the ensouled vampire stated simply.

"S-sure. Information. W-what do you, uh, want to know," the small bartender questioned nervously.

"Buffy. Where.Is.She," he stated forcefully, leaving no room for debate.

"B-buffy?" Willy repeated, not quite surprised that the vampire was asking about his former girlfriend. "She's gone."

Angel reached over the bar and grabbed Willy's shirt, pulling him half over the intrusive barrier between them. "What do you mean she's gone?!?"

"I-I didn't mean anything, Angel. Really!" Willy replied quickly. "She's gone. Disappeared about s-seven years ago. N-no one's seen her since."

"Are you telling me the truth?" Angel's face shifted to his demon form.

"Y-yes. I wouldn't lie to ya, Angel! Promise!" Willy assured him. "No one k-knows what happened. S-she was just gone one day."

The urge to throw the obnoxious man across the room overwhelmed him, but instead he just dropped him to the floor. Without saying another word, Angel quickly fled the bar.

Once outside, his body began to shake as heavy sobs rose in his throat. It was true. Everything that Spike had told him was true. Buffy was gone. His foot shot out and kicked a nearby trashcan across the alley. Needing more, he punched at the brick wall next to him, bloodying his knuckles. The pain never reached his brain. All he could think about was that Buffy was dead. He needed to know more. He needed to know what exactly had happened and then he would find and dismember whoever was responsible for her death. Turning, Angel took off in a sprint to the only other place he could think of that would provide answers.

A mere two minutes later, he arrived at the front door to The Bronze. He hoped that one of Buffy's friends would be there. They would be able to tell him what he needed to know. Opening the door, he strolled into the noisy club, ignoring the pang in his heart over shared memories with Buffy at this very place. It took him only a moment to spot the brown-haired boy sitting at the bar with a vaguely familiar strawberry blonde.

"Xander," he spoke after walking up to the boy, wishing he'd found Willow and not someone who had always hated him.

Xander's head slowly raised when he heard his name. His eyes instantly narrowed at finding his worst enemy standing two feet away. "What the Hell are you doing here?"

"What happened to Buffy?" Angel cut right to the chase.

"That isn't any of your business," he foolishly stood up and faced the larger man.

"Listen, boy," growled Angel as he took step closer. "You will tell me what happened."

"She's gone," Xander backed up a step, wanting desperately to hit the vile creature. It was all his fault he'd lost his friends. "They are all gone."

"Do you know what happened to Buffy?" Angel questioned in growing frustration.

Xander sized up the situation for a moment before answering. "No," he lied convincingly, having no desire to help the thing that had cost him all that was important in his life.

"Fine," Angel snarled angrily. He didn't bother to say goodbye, just turned and walked out of the club. Just as he exited the door, he plowed over someone about to enter the club.

"I'm sorry," he stated distractedly, reaching a hand down to help the person up.

"Why don't you watch where you're going!" the pissed off female brushed the dirt off her pants.

The voice shook Angel out of his internal thoughts, and he abruptly backed up a step. "Faith?!?"

"Yeah, who wants to kn-," she started to say as she raised her head. "Angel?"

"You're back slaying," Angel blurted out for lack of anything else to say when he saw the stake in her hand. He didn't trust the girl one bit.

"Uh, yeah," Faith frowned, not understanding why that was a surprise. She was a Slayer, she was supposed to slay.

Angel looked at her oddly. Something seemed different about the young woman. Her entire posture was different, and her eyes didn't have that hateful, angry look anymore. He was mildly curious, but it wasn't important. His thoughts were needed elsewhere. He still needed to find out about Buffy. He suddenly eyed the girl expectantly.

"Do you know what happened to Buffy?" he spoke no pretenses about what he wanted to know.

"Buffy? Why?" she wanted to know.

"Because...because they told me she's go-," no, Angel told himself. He needed to face the truth. "They told me that she's dead."

"Dead?" Faith repeated in surprise. "No, Buffy's not dead."

"S-she's," he stuttered, hope surging throughout him. "She's not dead? But they all told me..."

"Last I heard, she'd skipped town," Faith shrugged. "That's what Willow told me when her and Oz came back to get their stuff."

"Where? Do you know where she is?" he asked hurriedly. He didn't care about anything else. All that mattered was that he finally had hope.

Faith thought for a moment before answering. "I think Willow said Seattle. Not sure though."

"Seattle?" Angel perplexedly asked. "Do you know why she left?"

"I think Seattle, but like I said, I'm not sure. And no, I don't know why. Willow only told me she'd left," Faith was growing more confused by the second.

She didn't understand any of this. No one had ever bothered to tell her what had happened to Buffy. If she hadn't of run into Willow years ago, she wouldn't even have known the blonde Slayer had moved. She couldn't help but feel like there was a lot going on that she didn't know. But that didn't particularly surprise her. Ever since she woke up from the coma everything had seemed so off, and her Watcher would never answer any of her questions. She had shrugged it all off though and focused on slaying.

"What's going on Angel?" she questioned, not missing the look of relief on the vampire's face.

"Nothing," Angel answered curtly, his mind elsewhere. "I've got to go."

Before Faith could press him more, Angel quickly walked away. The brunette's behavior had been strange, but that was at the very back of his mind. All he could think about was that Buffy was alive. If he was to believe Faith, that is, but he hadn't seen anything in her to make him think she was lying. Any lead was better than nothing, though.

The relief he felt at the news was mildly muted by the need to see it for himself. He had to know for a fact that she was alive and well. Seeing a payphone nearby, Angel jogged over to it and dialed the cell number of the pilot who had brought him to Sunnydale. He hoped he was still in town because Angel had at least one more trip to make.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 4
^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~back in Seattle~

"No buts, Buffy," Cordelia stated as she folded her arms across her chest.

"But-," Buffy started to reply but was cut off.

"I'm pretty sure I said no buts," the brunette repeated and then turned to look at Doyle. "Didn't I?"

"That's what I heard, Princess," Doyle nodded in agreement.

"I have work to do, though!" yelled Buffy in frustration, not liking being ordered around.

"No, you have until Friday off," Cordy smiled smugly. "Lorne's orders."

Buffy frowned and glared at her two friends. Pouting slightly, she leaned back against the couch before conceding defeat. "Fine."

"Buffy," Cordelia sighed and walked over to sit down next to the blonde. "We just want you to take it easy for a couple days. Things have been pretty stressful with your Mom's death and then running into Xander. Take some time just to let everything settle."

"I'm fine, really, I am," she tried to reassure them, though she knew they were right. Her life was already busy with having an almost six-year-old daughter, a job, and slaying, and then add onto that the recent events and she was a bit worn out.

"We know you're fine," stated Cordy sympathetically and put her hand over Buffy's. "But it can't hurt to take a few days to relax. And hey, how often do you have your boss ordering you to take time off?"

Buffy had to chuckle at the statement. She supposed a few days off would be nice. "Okay, okay. I'll do it. I won't set foot inside the club until Friday."

"Good!" Cordy grinned. "Oooh! Why don't we kick off your vacation right and go shopping later?"

"Yeah, and I can watch the li'l one," Doyle offered his assistance. "I can take her down ta the office. Ya know how much she loves ta sit in yer big chair."

"I think she spends more time in that chair than I do," Buffy mock frowned, but then couldn't help but smile thinking of her little daughter happily seated in the huge leather chair that sat behind her desk.

"So, shopping?" Cordy reiterated anxiously.

"Sure. I have to get some stuff for Ashlynn's birthday, plus something to wear for the party," Buffy answered, mentally going through all the things she needed to get while out.

"Good. I have an appointment to get my nails done in half an hour, so how about we plan to leave in and hour and a half?" Cordy checked her watch to see what time it was.

"Sounds good. I'll check with Willow to see if she wants to come with us," Buffy added, knowing the redhead could probably use a day of shopping since she spent so much time working.

"Okay," agreed Cordy. She and Willow weren't exactly the best of friends, but they managed to get along fairly well these days. As she was about to get off the couch, she felt Buffy put a hand on her arm.

"Thanks for being there for me, and for being such a good friend," Buffy spoke seriously, her eyes showing her genuine appreciation.

"Anytime," Cordy smiled warmly as the two girls hugged briefly before Cordy stood up. "All right, I'll see you in an hour and a half then."

Buffy watched Cordy and Doyle leave, silently saying 'thank you' to whoever was responsible for bringing them into her life all those years ago. She honestly didn't know how she would have made it to this day without their support. Would she have even made it out of Sunnydale without Cordy? Probably, but she was glad that she didn't have to do it alone.

Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy saw Willow standing in the doorway leading to the hall that their bedrooms were off of. She turned her head to look at her friend and noticed the pensive look on the redhead's face.

"Something wrong?" she asked worriedly.

"What? Oh...no, nothing's wrong," Willow shook herself out of her internal thoughts. When Buffy gave her a disbelieving look, she spoke again. "It's just still weird, even after all these years."

"What is?" Buffy asked in confusion.

"Cordy. Or you and Cordy I guess you could say." Willow walked into the room and sat down on the couch next to Buffy. "It's just still kinda hard to fathom that you guys are such good friends."

Buffy frowned at the statement, which Willow immediately noticed and corrected herself. "I didn't mean like that. I just remember how she used to be, and how she treated all of us, and it is odd seeing her the way she is now."

"I know. It is kinda strange, but she's been a really good friend," Buffy answered honestly.

A flash of guilt flickered in Willow's eyes as she remembered all that had occurred nearly seven years earlier. "Yeah, she has," she agreed in a quiet voice.

The tone was not lost on Buffy. She knew exactly what her friend was thinking about. Even after all these years, the memories of her last days in Sunnydale were still vivid in her mind. She'd long since forgiven Willow for her inaction during the confrontation at Giles', but even so, she would never forget it.

"Does it bother you? That Cordy and I are such good friends?" Buffy asked suddenly.

Willow's eyes flickered to Buffy for a moment before she looked down at her hands. "It did a lot...at first. Seeing you so close to her when Oz and I first came was really hard. I remembered the way she was, and to see you two the way you were...it just made no sense. And I guess I was kinda jealous."

"I can understand that, but you know you are important to me too, right? I'm glad that you found me, and that you and Oz stayed here," Buffy told her friend.

"I'm glad we came too. I really missed you after you left," she smiled back at Buffy. "And I'm glad that Cordy was there for you when I wasn't."

"Oh, Willow," sniffled Buffy slightly, and then wrapped her arms around one of her best friends. They hugged for a long moment before they both burst into small chuckles at themselves over their impromptu bonding session.

"So, uh, did I hear something about shopping?" Willow questioned as she dabbed at the moisture in her eyes.

"Yup. Girls' Day Out. You game?" Buffy grinned, thinking about how nice it would be to get out for an afternoon and not think about anything serious.

"Of course! Though are you sure shopping with Cordy is such a good idea?" Willow raised a teasing eyebrow.

"Probably not," Buffy laughed and shook her head.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Several hours later, Buffy stood in line at a small Thai restaurant waiting to get some dinner. They'd decided to take a break from shopping so that they could eat. Actually, she and Willow had. Cordelia stated that she wasn't hungry and was going to try on some more clothes at the boutique they'd just been in. After she and Willow ate, they would go back and drag Cordy out of the store.

Once she'd gotten her food, Buffy surveyed the seating area of the small food court for Willow. She found her friend still waiting in line at the pizza place so she walked toward the nearest empty table. Placing her tray down, she realized she'd forgotten napkins and a straw. Not wanting to carry everything back with her, she left the tray and her bags at the table and went to fetch the items she needed.

Having gotten napkins and a straw, Buffy turned to walk back to the table. She wasn't quite paying attention and ended up walking smack into a person standing behind her. Her balance faltered momentarily and the napkins and straw slipped out of her hand, falling to the dirty ground.

"I'm so sorry!" she apologized quickly, and bent to pick up what she'd dropped.

When she stood back up to face the person she'd almost run over, there was no one there. She glanced to her right and left but found the tall gentleman nowhere. Shrugging, she threw the soiled napkins into the nearby trashcan and picked up some new ones. This time, she made sure to watch where she was going as she walked back to her table.

As she sat down and looked at her tray, a frown formed on her face. Her fork unexpectedly lay half nestled in the plate of food. Hadn't it come in a plastic wrapper? She didn't remember taking it out of the protective covering and putting it in her food. Or was it the Italian place that gave out forks in wrappers? She couldn't remember, they'd only eaten here a few times before.

Shrugging, Buffy told herself that the Thai place must just give out plain plastic forks. After all, who would come and unwrap her fork and put it in her food. Her thoughts about the oddly placed fork quickly left her mind as Willow walked up to the table and sat down opposite her.

"Ugh! That line took forever!" the redhead groused unhappily.

"Told ya you should have gotten Thai with me," Buffy grinned smugly.

"Whatever," Willow waved her hand in a sarcastic gesture. "I can't believe that Cordy is still trying on clothes!"

"Did you expect anything else?" Buffy chuckled and started to eat her food.

"Actually," Willow pondered the thought for a moment. "No."

The two continued eating their dinners, sharing random chatter about various topics as they ate. They were almost finished when Willow suddenly remembered there was something she was supposed to tell Buffy.

"Oh shit!" the redhead exclaimed, smacking herself lightly on the forehead. "I totally forgot that I was supposed to tell you something!"

"Tell me what?" Buffy gave Willow and odd look.

"Lindsey called yesterday morning," she relayed with a pointed look toward Buffy.

"Shit!" This time it was Buffy who knocked herself on the side of the head.

"Uh huh," Willow acknowledged Buffy's screw up. "He's not very happy with you."

"Damnit!" the blonde cursed herself. "I meant to call him before we headed to Sunnydale, but everything was so screwy."

"Understandable," Willow gave her a sympathetic look. "He said you should have called and told him, though, and that he would have come home early and gone to Sunnydale with you."

"I know he would have," Buffy smiled gratefully, thinking about what a sweetie Lindsey was. "Is he still staying until next week?"

"No, he said he'd probably be home either tomorrow or the next day. I think his parents are driving him nuts," relayed Willow while getting her trash ready to throw away.

"He knew that they would," Buffy shook her head. "I don't know why he planned a two week visit knowing how they usually are."

"Men," snorted Willow and rolled her eyes. "They never think things through. Well, except my Oz."

Buffy laughed at the exemption of Oz and started gathering her stuff together. "Come on, let's go get Cordy before she buys the whole store."

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~the next night~

"Are you sure you don't want to go to a movie, Darlin'?" Lindsey asked as he and Buffy walked back toward the club after having dinner out. He'd arrived back in Seattle earlier in the day.

"Yeah. I'm sorry," she apologized and then released a heavy yawn. "I'm just really tired tonight for some reason."

"Nothing to be sorry for. We can go see a movie over the weekend," he grinned at her, showing that he was not at all upset. Wrapping an arm around her shoulders, the two continued the remaining short walk to Buffy's apartment.

Nearly two blocks away, Angel's anxious footsteps stopped abruptly. His eyes closed as he felt a slight tingle trickle down his spine. It was a feeling he hadn't felt in so long. One that told him that a Slayer was nearby. But not just any Slayer, His Slayer. The feeling was faint, but enough for him to recognize, though.

For long moments, Angel only stood and let himself luxuriate in the sensation. He wanted to jump for joy and weep all at once. She was alive. She was really alive. The hope that had sprung from his conversation with Faith now burned brightly inside of him. He had wanted to believe it before, but there was a small part of him that knew it was entirely possible that Faith was lying and trying to trick him. But now...now he had real hope. He could feel her presence, and he could finally truly believe that the nightmare that had started in a small bar in Ireland was just that; a nightmare.

He'd arrived in Seattle nearly two days ago and immediately set about tracking down any possible lead. It hadn't been easy. He wasn't familiar with the town and didn't have any sources to draw upon. So he'd had to resort to walking the streets; eavesdropping on other demons' conversations. The lucky break had come when he ran into one of Spike's old minions who, thinking he was still Angelus, had warned him to stay away from the opposite side of town because a Slayer was working the streets there. He'd pumped the vampire for everything he knew and then promptly staked him as a thank you.

So now he found himself walking toward some club called 'Black Destiny' that, if he was to believe the minion, Buffy was working out of. He was anxious and afraid and everything in between. All he wanted to do was see her, catch one small glimpse to reassure him that she was alive and well. After that, he didn't quite know what he would do.

Crossing a street, Angel glanced at his surroundings. On the opposite side of the road his eyes were immediately attracted to a large brick building with a neon sign above the door that read 'Black Destiny'. He scented the air, picking up trace amounts of what he knew was her, but it was muddled with many others. This was the right place, though, he was sure of it.

Hesitantly, his eyes scanned the building and then to the right. As he shifted his gaze to the left, he could make out two figures walking toward the club across the street. Immediately, he knew it was her. It wasn't the short, petite figure, or the medium length blonde hair that gave her away, but rather a feeling inside him. He released a cleansing sigh as a solitary tear trailed down his cheek over the definitive proof that she was really alive.

Angel tucked himself into the shadows and watched as the two figures drew closer. His unbeating heart lurched when he realized that the other person was a man. And not just any man, but one who had his arm leisurely draped around his Buffy. Shattered at the sight, he slumped back against the wall, closing his eyes against the horrible truth. He'd always told himself that he'd wanted it to happen, that he had wanted her to find someone to spend her life and be happy with. Now that it was staring him dead in the face, tearing his heart to shreds, he didn't think there could be anything more painful.

He wanted to run, to get as far away as possible from the happy pair, but he was rooted in his spot. Slowly, he pried his eyes open and forced himself to watch the woman who would forever hold his heart. She looked as beautiful as ever, smiling and laughing in the arms of another. Obviously life had been good to her. That was what he'd wanted wasn't it? It hurt like a million holy water drenched stakes being shoved into his body at once, though. Still, he couldn't take his eyes off her, drinking in every nuance of the woman he hadn't seen in seven years.

The two arrived at the entrance to the club, and what he was also told was where she lived, with Angel's eyes still glued on them. Just as Buffy reached the door, he saw her abruptly stop and turn quickly around. Slinking further into the shadows he saw her eyes scan the surroundings searching for her discontent. He didn't reveal himself, and moments later she shrugged and entered the building with the lecherous man following behind.

For the remainder of the night, Angel remained standing in the same exact spot. He didn't know why he stayed, but he just couldn't seem to make himself leave. Part of him dreaded walking away and no longer feeling her soothing presence washing over his body, and other parts of him wanted to wait for the man to leave so that he could do something he knew he shouldn't. The man never left, though. He waited until nearly sunrise, but the only people he saw leave were drunken club-goers.

He didn't want to face it, but he knew he had to. She'd moved on. She was happy. He hated it, but his feelings were inconsequential. All that mattered was that she was really alive and that she was doing well. At least that was what he told himself was all that mattered. Ignoring the ache in his heart, Angel finally turned and slowly walked away, again, from the woman he would always love.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~same night~

Lorne and Doyle stood stoically inside the office, both nursing stiff drinks. They waited until the club closed and all the others had gone off to bed before retreating to the club's private sanctum. But now that they were there, each found themselves unable to voice the thoughts in their heads.

Doyle was the first to break the uneasy silence. "It's starting isn't it?"

"'Fraid so, my friend," Lorne sighed and shook his head.

"Damn!" the half demon cursed loudly, slamming his glass down on the desk. "Have ya been able ta read anything else off her?"

"No, not even a smidge of detail out of the perky little head of hers," Lorne frowned at his lack of information. "All I get off her is that things are about to get ugly with a capital 'U'."

"Damn!" Doyle cursed once again. "They're not making this easy on us."

"Do they ever?" the green demon grimaced. "The Bosses aren't givin' you anything either?"

"Nothing," Doyle shook his head. "Whatever is going ta happen has them worried, though."

"That's not good. You sure we shouldn't tell her?" Lorne's eyes glanced upwards to where the object of their discussion was sleeping.

"Ya know we can't interfere in things like this. The bosses would have my head. And it's not like we really know anything," Doyle sighed and slumped down on the office's leather couch.

"I don't like it," Lorne again looked to the ceiling. "I just hope she'll make it through."

"Me too," Doyle added worriedly.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 5
^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~a few days later~

The bright morning sun slowly crept across Buffy's bedroom until it reached her pillow. Her eyes flickered open, blinking furiously against the harsh light assaulting her vision. After a few moments of adjusting to the light, she sat up in her bed, yawning away the remnants of sleep. The movements made her wince as wave after wave of nausea wracked her body. She closed her eyes, trying to force the uncomfortable feeling away, but within seconds was making a mad dash to the bathroom.

Once inside, she fell to the floor in front of the toilet, retching up the contents of her stomach. Minutes later, with her heart racing and beads of sweat pouring down her face she slumped down to the cold tile floor. Her fingers trembled as they tried to soothe the spasms still attacking her insides. Gradually, the nausea and pain began to fade away, leaving Buffy weak and exhausted on the bathroom floor.

She laid there for another fifteen minutes, allowing her body to recover from the sudden sickness. Carefully, she pulled herself off the floor hoping that the nausea would not return. When it didn't, she made her way to the sink and brushed her teeth, removing the foul taste from her mouth. After splashing some cool water on her face, Buffy quietly opened the bathroom door and peeked out into the hallway. She was glad to find no one nearby. If they knew she wasn't feeling well, they'd pester her non-stop.

Walking into her room, she tiredly laid down on her bed and curled into a ball. Being sick was definitely not on her list of fun things to do. And today was not a good day to be sick. Ashlynn's birthday party was tonight and she just couldn't ruin it. Her daughter had been looking forward to it for weeks. Lorne was closing down the club for the night so that they could use the downstairs for a party for family and friends. She just couldn't mess up Ash's night.

Buffy let herself rest for a few more minutes before taking in a deep breath and resigning herself to getting up. At least whatever illness that had come over her this morning seemed to have, for the most part, passed. She still felt kind of gross, but the nausea was gone. Happy for that, Buffy went to her closet and pulled out some old clothes so that she could go down into the club and get it ready for the party. No matter what, she planned on making this a fun night for her daughter.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~that night~

Angel once again found himself standing on the sidewalk across from 'Black Destiny'. He didn't know why he was still in Seattle. His intention had been to come, make sure Buffy was okay, and then leave again. She didn't need him here. He'd only mess up her life. But as he'd walked away a few nights ago there'd been a nagging feeling deep in his gut telling him not to leave, that it was important for him to stay. So against his better judgment, he was still in Seattle, standing only a short distance from Buffy.

He knew he was playing with fire by getting so close, but he couldn't help himself. After seven years apart, he was starved for her. Just seeing her face and her smile touched him on a level he couldn't even begin to describe. He craved the mere feel of her presence nearby. Maybe that was why he was now risking being found.

Creeping across the street, he moved closer to the building. He could tell that she was inside. The tingling in his spine told him that much. He wasn't sure he wanted to know who she was with, though. His heart ached at the thought of seeing her in the arms of that man again. Wanting her to be happy with someone else was one thing, seeing it was an entirely different issue.

Despite that, he snuck up to one of the windows to the right of the staircase. Maybe just one more glimpse of her would sate his need and he'd be able to leave and let her live her life in peace. Or it could just make him want to stay. It was a toss up. Either way, he needed to see her again.

His height allowed him to peer unobtrusively through the window and into the club. He was surprised to see that it didn't appear to be open. From what he could tell there were only about ten people inside gathered around a couple large tables in the center of the room. A large column was blocking his view, though, so he couldn't get a clear picture.

Angel looked to his left and noticed there were a few windows on the other side of the stairs. As quietly as possible, he left his position and moved to one of the other vantage points. The new angle gave him a much clearer view of the inside of the club and also its occupants.

He was only somewhat surprised to see Willow and Oz present and sitting together. If he was remembering correctly, Faith had said something about Willow and Seattle. The only other person he recognized he was quite shocked to see. What on earth was Cordelia doing there? She and Buffy had never really been friends. Angel was slightly baffled by the brunette's presence, but he supposed that things could have changed in the seven years he'd been gone.

None of the others were familiar to him. There was a short, rather sloppy looking man with dark hair sitting close to Cordelia. It appeared as though they were romantically involved. Another surprising detail since the guy didn't look to be the former cheerleader's type. Then next to those two was what was obviously a demon with green skin, red horns, and the most ugly suit he'd ever seen. Angel assumed the demon was a good guy since everyone seemed okay with his presence. There was also a shy looking woman with dirty blonde hair sitting near Willow and Oz.

Finally, there was Buffy standing at the head of the center table wearing an absolutely gorgeous deep blue dress. He involuntarily sucked in an unneeded breath at the sight of her. Gods, she looked amazing. Angel was dismayed, though, to see the man from the night before walk up to the table holding a cake in his hands. The mere presence of the strange male made Angel's fists clench at his sides.

Soon, it became apparent to Angel that they were having a birthday party for someone. He watched as Buffy lit the candles on the cake and then walked out of his line of vision. When she returned a few moments later, his dead heart nearly fell out of his chest. In her arms rested a blonde haired little girl with her hands over her eyes. He knew in an instant that the child had to be Buffy's. If it weren't for the way she lovingly held the girl he would have known it from physical appearance.

Buffy had a child. The realization made him want to combust on the spot. She really had moved on. She had a...lover...and a child, and what looked like a great job and place to live. The perfect life. She'd found it all. And without him. It hurt more than he possibly thought it could. In the back of his mind he'd always hoped that someday they'd have a chance. That hope was gone now. She didn't need him, not when she already had it all.

There was no need for him to stay and watch anymore, but he did anyway. Maybe it was his masochistic need to punish himself that made him remain, or maybe it was just his need to get his fill of her before he left. The reason didn't really matter as he continued to stand there and watch the group's activities through the window.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Inside the club, Buffy walked back toward the tables with Ashlynn in her arms. They wanted to surprise her with the cake so she'd told her young daughter to keep her hands over her eyes and not take them off until she told her too. The cake was custom made strawberry and vanilla swirl on the inside, vanilla icing, a picture of the Power Puff Girls on top, and 'Happy 6th Birthday Ashlynn' written in pink gel icing above the picture. Buffy knew Ash was going to love it.

The little girl squealed in delight once she was finally able to remove her hands from her eyes. She impatiently waited while the group of friends and family sang 'Happy Birthday' to her and then excitedly blew out the candles. As is tradition, she received the first piece of the cake and managed to eat it and get only a little bit on her clothes.

After cake came what was of course the best part of the night: presents. As usual, Buffy spoiled her only daughter by giving her numerous new outfits and toys. Willow and Oz got her the video game system that she'd been asking for months to have. To go with that, Cordy and Doyle had gotten her several children's rated games. From Lorne, she received several teen-pop cds. Buffy had grudgingly allowed him to buy them, wary of the influence of scantily clad females on her little girl. Tara gave her quite a few books since she knew Ash loved to read even at her young age. So at least that balanced out the questionable music.

The last gift came from Lindsey. Knowing of Ashlynn's love for drawing, painting and other such activities, he'd gotten her a large, and rather expensive, art set. The birthday girl grinned broadly at the wonderful present and ran to Lindsey, allowing him to swoop her up in his arms. She laughed at the act and gave him a hug and he kissed her cheek lovingly. After a minute, he set the girl down and watched as she raced off to play with all her new toys.

Her joy was contagious and the adults in the room found themselves smiling happily. They contented themselves at the tables with drinks and chatter while Buffy quietly slipped away to the far side of the room. She leaned heavily against the wall, feeling a sad pang in her heart as she watched her daughter giddily fiddle with the art set from Lindsey.

Moments like these brought memories long past to the forefront of her mind. She was well aware of the heritage of Ashlynn's artistic abilities. The child certainly hadn't gotten them from her. No, they were a genetic link to a man she'd never met; her father. She'd only ever bore witness to his abilities during his time as Angelus, but she knew of his love to draw just as she knew that talent had been passed on to their offspring. It was a painful reminder of what was lost and gone, never to be returned.

Seven years may have passed, but to Buffy, it was always there. He was always there. How could he not be when all she had to do was look into her daughter's deep brown eyes and see him reflected within. It soothed and stung all at once, an ever-present reminder of her past and a man never forgotten, but gone nonetheless.

A sudden chill swept down Buffy's spine as she reclined against the wall. She shivered at the sensation, her body growing tense. Unable to shake the feeling, nor the growing tension in her body, she swirled her eyes around the club searching for...something. She found nothing, though, except her friends jovially laughing a few feet away and her daughter engrossed with her gifts.

So lost in her thoughts, Buffy startled slightly when an arm wrapped around her shoulders. "You okay, darling?"

Buffy turned her head to find Lindsey gazing worriedly at her. Forcing a smile onto her face, she answered, "I'm fine. It's just been a long day."

"You sure?" he pushed, tucking a strand of blonde hair behind her ear.

"Yeah," Buffy nodded her head and relaxed against him though she couldn't lose the earlier feeling that had rushed over her, one that felt oddly like she was being watched.

Cautiously, her eyes again scanned the club for the source of her discomfort, but there was still nothing. Maybe she was just still feeling the remnants of whatever sickness had overcome her this morning. Sighing, she forced away her worries and walked with Lindsey back to the tables where her friends sat. She was supposed to be having fun tonight, not stressing over something she wasn't even sure was there.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Under the guise of retrieving more snacks, Lorne and Doyle had managed to slip away from the group and back into the club's kitchen. They carefully checked to make sure the room was indeed empty, not wanting to have their upcoming conversation heard by anyone. Once positive they were alone, Doyle carefully closed the door and walked to the center of the room, leaning heavily against the stainless steel counter.

"Seems as though the Angel-cakes I've heard so much about has made his triumphant return," Lorne stated with a bit more glee than he was actually feeling.

"So ya noticed that too?" Doyle sighed and ran a hand through is already disheveled hair.

"Kinda hard not to with that one's aura just screaming away to anyone and everyone," the green-skinned demon grimaced at the things he felt radiating off the unexpected visitor. Typically he had to hear a person sing to get a beat on them, but with the infamous vampire, well...his soul was like Rudolph's nose in a pitch-black room.

"Well, that's better than having the bosses mentally slap ya upside the head and point out our peeping-tom," Doyle frowned unhappily. The move was a little surprising for The Powers, but he supposed they wanted to make sure he was aware of the vampire's presence. Given that piece of information, Doyle was forced to believe that the souled one had a role to play in whatever was about to happen.

"You thinkin' what I'm thinking?" Lorne questioned when he noticed that Doyle was lost in thought.

"That if the bosses want me ta know he's here, he's supposed ta be here?" the half demon voiced his thoughts.

"Pretty much," Lorne shook his head in the affirmative.

"Yup, that's what I was thinking," he reiterated and ran a hand over his face.

"Think she knows he's here?" pondered Lorne absently.

"No, but I think she feels something," Doyle shrugged noncommittally.

Lorne's eyes drifted to the door, past which his friend was enjoying a night with her friends and daughter. He couldn't help but worry over whatever it was she was about to face. "We better get back. Don't need them wondering what is taking us so long."

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Still perched outside the window, Angel had watched each and every moment inside the club with morbid fascination. A little voice in his head told him that what he was doing was wrong, but he couldn't force himself to leave. So he'd stood there and watched every heart rending detail of the life he was no longer part of.

He'd watched friends laugh and gather together; the cake and the singing; the exchange of gifts; and he'd watched Buffy, the girl, and man who had taken his place. It tore at every fiber of his being when the giggling blonde headed child had leapt into the man's arms, and the resulting smile on his beloved's face. And he'd watched as the man worriedly embraced his love just moments ago after he'd almost been found out.

Yes, he'd also noticed the sudden concern tense the ever-vigilant Slayer. But he had also noted the lack of recognition in her eyes. She no longer felt his specific presence. That small iota of information only further reinforced the knowledge that his place in her life was gone. He tried to keep telling himself over and over that that was what he had wanted for her, but it made no difference. Seeing her happy with someone else, and with a child was a veritable nightmare. But, he reminded himself, she was alive, not dead as he had believed when he first started this 'mission'.

That realization alone was enough to temper even the fiercest of his varying emotions. He was a man, or rather demon, who could endure much. But Buffy being dead was something he knew deep inside he would not survive. If her being alive meant that she was with another, then he would accept it. He didn't like it, but he would accept it. All other feelings could be pushed aside and he would take a small amount of comfort in the knowledge that she was alive and happy.

Still, the fact that she had not recognized his presence struck a sad chord in his soul. He knew she had felt something, her wondering eyes had told him that much. The roving gaze had forced him to tuck out of the line of vision so that she would not spot him. Luckily, he had not been caught. At least not by her.

It had not escaped him that the dark haired man with Cordelia had glanced almost directly at him. Angel had been about to run, afraid to be confronted, but the man had casually redirected his eyes back to the party and said nothing to the others to lead him to believe he'd been spotted. Maybe the unknown man had just heard something and looked in his direction. Either way, he was relieved nothing had come of it.

The remainder of the night held much the same for Angel. He never left his position, watching the group inside laugh, smile, and be happy. Even after the party ended, he stayed. Only the dirty blonde had left, accompanied by the dark haired man and the odd looking demon. The man returned a short while later and helped some of the others clean up. All the while, Angel still watched.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Sometime later, Buffy walked quietly out of the front door of the building, frowning to herself. She hated lying. Her friends thought she was going to run to the all-night market a few streets away for some ice cream. It wasn't an unusual act, at least not to them. To Buffy, though, it was her typical story when she just needed to get out for a short while on her own. She loved her friends dearly, but they had a tendency to be a bit over-bearing.

The rule was that she never go out alone at night, or at least patrolling alone. It was safer that way. They made concessions when she wanted to 'run out to get ice cream' thinking that she would stay only on well-lit, busy streets. So that was the excuse she used tonight, needing even just a few short moments by herself. She was well aware that she was putting herself at risk, but she was the Slayer. It wasn't like she couldn't handle trouble. She wasn't going to go looking for it either. All she wanted was a short walk to try and clear her head a little bit. Too many things were bothering her at the moment.

Striding down the concrete staircase, she turned right and headed down the street. In her mild distraction, she never noticed the shadow beneath the window that shifted ever so slightly. She walked slowly down the sidewalk, taking time to enjoy the fresh air, and the cool temperature. There were a fair number of people out and about so Buffy relaxed somewhat, knowing a vamp attack on a busy street was unlikely.

She was a few blocks away from her home when the feeling from earlier returned, but even stronger this time. There was someone watching her, she was positive of that. Years of being a Slayer clued her in to the sensation. Instinctively, she wanted to turn around and confront whoever, or whatever, was following her, but she knew that probably wasn't the wisest decision. So instead, she carefully scanned her surroundings, looking for a way to outwit her stalker.

In front of her, a large group of people, drunk teenagers she thought, were goofing off in front of a twenty-four hour coffee shop. Seeing the opportunity, Buffy advanced directly into the group, allowing herself to be surrounded by the oblivious teens. She pushed to the other side as nonchalantly as possible until she was free and then quickly ducked left into an alley just past the coffee shop.

Using her Slayer speed, Buffy dashed down the alley, turned left, and then circled back around. The movements, she hoped, would bring her out behind whatever was shadowing her. As she neared the end of the second alley that would lead her out onto the street she'd originally been on she slowed her pace considerably. Reaching the exit point, she carefully peeked her head out, searching for anything suspicious.

At first, she saw nothing of relevance. Then, as she continued inspecting the area, she saw a dark figure hovering in the shadows along a building just before the group of teens she'd just walked through. Bingo! she spoke triumphantly to herself. Her feeling had been dead on. Someone was indeed tracking her. Except she'd lost him...it...whatever...and now had the upper hand.

Sneaking silently out of the alley, Buffy crept toward the unaware stalker who appeared to be searching for her everywhere but behind him. That, of course, made it all the more easier for her to sneak up on him. And from her vantage point now, it did appear to be a him. A tall, bulky him. She felt a little twinge in her gut at that, but ignored it, focusing entirely on the situation in front of her. Within seconds, she was only a few feet from the still unaware man. Raising a brow at that, Buffy halted her steps, and crossed her arms over her chest.

"Any particularly reason you are following me?" she spoke clearly into the night. The sound of her voice, she noticed caused the man's body to tense immediately, but he made no movement otherwise and said nothing in response.

The relative lack of response irked her and she shifted her weight slightly before speaking again. "Do I get an answer or do I have to beat it out of y-."

Anything else she had to say died on her lips as the mysterious man slowly turned in her direction. The face that met her eyes sent her mind reeling. Never in a million years would she have expected this. So great was the shock that the stake held poised in her hand fell clamoring to the ground without a second thought. All she could focus on was the oh-so-familiar face now staring back at her intently.

She told herself she was dreaming, that it wasn't possible. There was no way that he was standing mere feet from her. It couldn't be him. It just couldn't. She knew otherwise, though. The eyes searching hers were the same dark brown ones she'd dreamt about for so long. The supple lips were the ones she remembered kissing more times than she could count. There was no denying who it was that was stalking her, but still she couldn't quite face what was staring straight at her. She didn't know if she wanted to face it.

Her feet took two steps backwards, needing space, needing air...needing anything but to be in the situation she was currently in. Frantically, her eyes darted around her, looking for what she didn't know. This was too much. It was all too much. And then he spoke.

"Buffy," came her whispered name in only that tone he could create.

The single word snapped something inside of her. Confused and dazed, she did the only thing she could think to do; turned and ran.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 6
^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Angel could only watch as Buffy ran away from him as fast as she possibly could. He was torn between going after her and falling to the ground in tears. How could he have been so stupid to let her catch him? She'd snuck right up on him and he hadn't even noticed until she'd spoken. He mentally cursed himself for not paying attention. This was not what he had wanted to have happen.

Buffy wasn't supposed to see him; she wasn't supposed to know he was here. Her life was perfect now. She didn't need him coming along and lousing it up. And now that is just what he had done. The look on her face was enough to tell him that she didn't want to see him. There hadn't been an ounce of happiness in her eyes. Had he really expected there to be? Maybe before he'd come here he had, but now that he knew about the life she'd built he could understand her reaction.

There was no place for him anymore in her life. She had friends, a job, a life, and someone who could give her all things he could not. Whoever the man was, he filled the void that Angel couldn't. He gave her love, happiness, security, and a child, all things she rightly deserved. Angel was glad she had them, really he was. But it still hurt.

His eyes closed for a moment and his shoulders slumped as he felt the loss deep within his soul. Yes, he'd already lost her many years earlier, but now it felt even more final. She was truly gone to him now. And judging by her actions just minutes ago, she did not even want to speak to him or see him. So he opened his eyes and stared in the direction of where Buffy had run, knowing in his heart what he needed to do.

He didn't belong here. There was no reason to stay, not that he had planned on staying anyway. He also hadn't planned on letting her see him, but it had happened. Now it was time to leave before he caused any more damage. Turning, Angel started to walk away. He only made it a few feet before a voice stopped him.

"Going somewhere?"

Angel quickly faced the direction of the voice and saw a man step out of the shadows. He instantly recognized him as the dark haired gentleman that had been at the party. Shocked by the unexpected event, he could say nothing in return.

"Looks ta me like ya were about ta high tail it outta town," Doyle's accented voice spoke again.

"Who are you?" Angel narrowed his eyes at the stranger.

"Ya didn't answer my question," Doyle shot back. "But ta answer yer question, I'm a...friend...of yer old buddy Whistler."

"You know Whistler," Angel took a step forward and scented the air, picking up on something he had missed before. "You're a demon."

"Half demon, thank you," corrected Doyle in irritation.

"What do you want?" the vampire asked, growing wary of the half demon's intentions.

"Fer ya ta answer my question," Doyle repeated again. "Though, knowing what I know about ya I should already know."

"What's it matter to you?" Angel answered sadly, turning his head away from Doyle.

"It matters a lot ta me," Doyle replied hotly to the back of the vampire's head. "It matters because it involves people I care about."

"She doesn't need me," Angel spoke in a near whisper.

"She doesn't need you?" Doyle parroted in the form of a question. "And how would ya know that? A couple hours of stalking and ya have all the answers?"

"Leave me alone!" demanded Angel, growing angry with the stranger and still refusing to face him once again.

"Piece of advice, buddy," started Doyle, hoping this would work out. "I wouldn't be leaving so quick if I were you. There are things you don't know, things that you need ta face. You'll regret it if ya don't."

Angel heard the words, but didn't immediately react. When he finally turned his eyes back toward the half demon to question him on his statement, the man was gone. He searched for him in the surrounding area, but didn't find the cryptic messenger. Frowning, Angel just stood there trying to figure out what the demon meant and what exactly he was supposed to do now.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

"When's Mommy coming back?" Ashlynn looked up and asked Cordy from her spot on the floor amongst all her gifts.

Cordy knelt down and smiled at the little girl. "She'll be back real soon. She just went to get something."

"Okay," Ash nodded her head and went back to looking through the books she'd received from Tara.

Cordelia sighed and straightened herself up. For a few seconds, she watched Ashlynn play before walking toward where Willow was cleaning up one of the tables in the center of the club. She carefully glanced at the others to see what they were doing and found Lindsey taking down decorations on the other side of the room. Doyle, though, was no where to be found. She wondered where he'd run off to after walking Tara home. Seeing that no one was paying attention to her, though, she pulled Willow into a corner, needing to talk to the redhead.

"You noticed it, too, didn't you?" the brunette whispered, hoping the guys wouldn't notice their conversation.

"Unfortunately. Something was definitely bothering her," Willow answered and leaned back against the wall.

"I know. She seemed worried about something and then she just ~had~ to go out and get ice cream," Cordy continued Willow's train of thought, keeping an eye on the others.

Willow frowned and thought back on Buffy's slightly odd behavior. "It was like she kept looking around the room for something."

"Or someone," added Cordy with a shrug not really meaning anything in particular. The statement, though, lingered between the two girls.

For an unseemly long minute, both females allowed the implication of Cordy's word to roll around their heads. There was something familiar about Buffy's behavior. Both knew it but couldn't quite yet place it. The realization seemed to hit both of them at the same time.

"No...," Cordy started to say.

"You don't think...," Willow trailed off, not sure she wanted to actually complete what she was thinking.

"Shit," spoke Cordy, her voice low and full of worry.

"We have to be wrong," Willow shook her head, trying to tell herself they couldn't possibly be right.

"Willow, we've both seen this before," the brunette whispered harshly, knowing they were correct, but hating it all the same.

"But-" Willow never got to finish her sentence because at that moment, the blonde in question came bursting through the front doors of the club.

The sounds of the doors slamming against the wall sent all eyes in the room looking toward the commotion. What they found caused instant worry in each of them. Buffy was standing just inside the door, half doubled over, panting with tears trailing down her face. The group quickly rushed toward her, noticing that she didn't appear to be hurt but instead, was upset about something. Willow and Cordelia shared a look of recognition, realizing their earlier assumption was likely true.

"Buffy?" Willow spoke softly so as not to spook her friend.

At first, the blonde didn't respond, but slowly she raised her head, casting her glazed eyes at Willow. She said nothing in return, only stared at the redhead looking lost and confused. At one point, Buffy's mouth opened as if to speak, but no words came out. Her mind was too trapped in a jumble of thoughts to try and form a coherent sentence.

"Buffy?" This time it was Cordelia who spoke, placing a hand gently on Buffy's shoulder.

The physical contact made the Slayer jump slightly. Her eyes nervously darted around the room for a few seconds. The walls felt like they were closing in on her. Everyone was staring at her, expecting something. She needed to get away, needed space, needed to get away from all these people who wanted something. So for the second time that night, she ran. In the blink of an eye, Buffy rushed passed the concerned group and darted up the stairs, not bothering to wait for the elevator to take her up to her apartment.

Willow and Cordelia looked at each other, growing more worried by the second. There was only one thing that could make Buffy act this way. They were both well aware of that. And neither really knew what to do. This was all so unexpected. Their state of shock was quickly halted when they saw Lindsey move to run after Buffy.

"Lindsey! No!" Cordelia shrieked without thinking.

"What?" the dark blonde haired man asked in confusion.

"Umm...don't go. You, uh, need to stay here. We'll go," Cordy nodded to Willow. The last thing Buffy needed was to deal with Lindsey at the moment.

"Why shouldn't I go? She's my-,"

Cordelia quickly cut him off, knowing she needed to do anything to keep him away from Buffy for right now. "It's a, uhh...."

"Girl thing!" Willow supplied for her.

"Yeah, right. Girl thing," babbled Cordy nervously, grabbing Willow's arm and pulling her toward the stairs.

"How do you know that?" Lindsey frowned at them.

"Because we're, uh, girls?" Willow spoke more in the form of a question.

"Yes! We're girls, and we...know these sorts of things!" Cordy supported Willow's previous statement.

"Aunt Cordy? What's wrong with Mommy? Why was she crying?" Ashlynn interjected suddenly making the group remember she was standing there watching all that occurred.

"Oh, umm...," Cordy knelt down to look at the little girl. "She's okay, sweetie. Sometimes, adults get upset over things and cry. Don't worry, though. She'll be fine. Aunt Willow and I will go make sure. Okay?"

Ashlynn looked toward where her Mom had run up the stairs and frowned. "Okay."

"Lindsey, stay here and help Ash clean up her presents. Willow and I will go talk to Buffy." Without waiting for his agreement, Cordy grabbed Willow's arm again and pulled her as she quickly ran up the stairs.

"You do know that we just made him even more suspicious," Willow mumbled as she was struggling to keep up with Cordelia.

"Yeah, well, did you want him to go up there and try to talk to her?" Cordy snapped back.

"No, but we don't even know if we're right!" the redhead glared.

Cordelia turned and gave Willow a 'duh' look. "Trust me, there's only one thing that could make her act like this. Now shut up."

The two girls quietly walked into Buffy's apartment above the club, looking for any sign of their friend. They didn't see her right away, but they could certainly hear her sobs emanating from what they thought was her bedroom. For what seemed like the millionth time that night, they shared a worried look before heading towards the sounds of crying. If they were right in what they thought happened, they knew things were about to get a whole lot more difficult.

Standing in the doorway to Buffy's bedroom, they found the blonde Slayer sitting on her bed with knees to chest and Mr. Gordo clutched in her arms. The strength of her sobs was causing her entire body to shake uncontrollably. It appeared as though she had no idea that two of her friends had followed her and were now in her room.

"Buffy?" Cordy spoke up, wishing she could do something for the person who had become one of the best friends she ever had.

She received no response, which wasn't entirely unexpected. Both Willow and Cordelia were torn on how to handle this situation. They knew it was likely that Buffy wanted to be left alone, but they also knew it was probably better if she talked about it. So they walked further into the room and sat on the bed, one on each side of their crying friend.

"Buffy, talk to us. Please?" Willow requested softly

"Whatever it is," Cordelia started, acting as if they had no idea what was behind Buffy's actions. "We're here for you. We want to help."

Still, there was no reaction from Buffy. The only sound in the room was that of her heavy sobs. Cordy and Willow began to wonder if she even realized they were there. Not knowing what else to do, Willow grabbed the soft fleece blanket from the end of the bed and draped it over Buffy's shoulders. It was when Cordelia was about to speak again that Buffy finally broke her silence.

"I saw him." Her voice was came out as a small, choked whisper.

"Who, Buffy? Who did you see?" Willow questioned although she already knew the answer, but needed confirmation.

Buffy said nothing for a moment, but finally, she raised her head off her knees. "A-angel."

Cordy closed her eyes and cursed inside her head. She and Willow were right. After seven long years, Angel was back. In the back of her mind, she knew it was something that would happen someday. Well, at least years ago it was something she had considered. But as time passed, it had become less of a possibility. She didn't know whether to be angry or grateful for his reappearance. On one hand, this was the man, err creature, who'd long been a part of her friends heart and deserved to know he had a daughter, but on the other hand this was something Buffy didn't need. Everything was going so well and now he was back. Either way, she supposed, it didn't matter because he was already here.

"Oh, Buffy," Cordy stated sympathetically and pulled the crying girl into her arms.

"What happened?" asked Willow, ignoring the slight pang of jealousy over the closeness between Buffy and Cordelia.

Buffy pulled out of Cordy's arm and swiped at the tears on her face with the edge of the blanket that was around her shoulders. After taking a few deep breaths she hoped would calm herself down, she told them about the feeling she had gotten at the party. She then explained about her walk and how she knew she was being followed. And finally, she described sneaking up on the man and finding that it was Angel.

"So you ran," Cordy concluded after hearing the tale.

"Yeah," Buffy looked down, feeling a modicum of shame for her cowardice.

"It's understandable that you did, Buffy," comforted Willow, sensing her friend's displeasure. "I probably would have passed out if I were you."

"I almost did," Buffy let out a meek laugh that turned into a sob. "I can't believe he's here."

"Did he say anything?" questioned Cordy, reaching for the box of tissues on Buffy's nightstand.

"No, just my name, and then I ran." Buffy accepted the tissues and tried to dry her eyes though it was a useless act because her tears were still falling.

Cordy looked to Willow for a moment before taking the plunge and asking the question she had on her mind. "Do you wish he hadn't of come?"

"No...yes...I don't know," she pulled the blanket tighter around her. "I used to hope, so long ago, that he would come back to me, but now....it's so hard. I just stopped thinking it would happen."

"Do you still love him?" Willow figured she might as well get to the real heart of the matter.

"Always," Buffy answered swiftly, leaving no doubt to her feelings. "I never stopped."

"Are you going to talk to him?" This time the question came from Cordelia.

Buffy's eyes closed and her shoulders sagged under the weight of her stress as she pondered the question. "I don't know."

"Why?" Cordy prodded.

"Because I'm angry with him," she finally revealed, releasing a tense sigh. "I know I shouldn't be. I know his reasons for leaving made sense, but it still hurts. He didn't talk to me about it. He just decided it all on his own."

Buffy crawled out of the bed and walked to the window, her hand reaching up to touch the cool glass. "He just walked away and never looked back. If he loved me so much how could he do that?"

"Buffy, you know he loved you," Willow tried to reassure her.

"I know," Buffy conceded. She knew he really did love her. It was just hard to believe it sometimes considering what he had done. "It's just hard. And he doesn't even know...Oh God! Ashlynn!"

Reality suddenly smacked Buffy in the face. In the shock and confusion over Angel's reappearance, the full implication hadn't quite hit her. Angel was Ashlynn's father. Ashlynn was Angel's daughter. Buffy's forehead thumped loudly against the window pane as it became clear to her that this situation wasn't just about her. She had her daughter to consider. And, despite her anger with him, she had to consider Angel.

"Are you going to tell him?" one of her friends asked, though Buffy was so lost in thought she didn't know which.

"He deserves to know," she whispered more to herself than to Willow and Cordelia.

She'd always told herself that no matter what, Angel deserved to know he had a child, and Ashlynn deserved to know her father. Could she get past her own feelings and do what she knew was right? Buffy wanted to say yes, but there was still that part of her that resented his actions.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~several days later~

Buffy sat in the rocking chair in her daughter's room alternately watching Ashlynn sleep and staring out the window at the night sky. She was still torn on what to do about Angel. Even now, three days later, she had yet to make any decisions. Her mind was constantly distracted by Angel's reappearance. Everyone was worried about her, not knowing what was going on since she had sworn Willow and Cordelia to secrecy. They'd been told it was just hormones from 'that time of the month' and because her daughter was growing up. She knew they weren't buying it, but so far no one had pushed the issue.

Angel was still there. She could feel him lurking outside in the shadows. Now that she was aware of his presence the tingle down her spine was stronger and she knew he was near. If she was guessing correctly, he was outside right now, standing across the street in an alley. Part of her wanted to run out there and leap into his arms, and the other half of her wanted to completely ignore he was there. And a small corner of her mind wished she could go back to a week ago before all this happened.

She knew she should talk to him. She knew she had to tell him about Ashlynn. She knew lots of things, but she still couldn't make herself confront the past. Hundreds of questions echoed in her mind. Why was he there? How did he find her? Did he still love her? Was he staying?

Of course, she knew that if she wanted answers to those questions she had to talk to him. Knowing what she should do, and actually doing it, though, was a bit harder. She wasn't quite sure she even wanted to know the answers. Could she handle it if he was just dropping by and had no intention of staying? As far as she knew, nothing had changed. Then again, she couldn't be sure. She had no idea why he was there. And she wouldn't know until she talked to him. Maybe she just needed a few more days to let this all sink in.

Glancing back at her daughter, Buffy was again struck by pangs of guilt. She knew she needed to deal with this because of her daughter. How would Ashlynn react to hearing her Father was there? Would she accept him? Would Angel want to even meet her? So many questions, and so many answers she didn't have.

Deciding to go to sleep instead of trying to come up with a solution, Buffy pushed herself out of the rocking chair. Her body swayed as a wave of nausea rolled through her stomach. Damn, she wished she'd kick this flu-bug already. Spending time getting to know the toilet wasn't making any of this any easier. She was just glad her friends hadn't noticed yet that she was sick. They'd only pester her more if they knew.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 7
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~a few days later~

Buffy ran her hand across her forehead as she walked along the sidewalk a few blocks from her home. She swiped her hand on her jeans, wiping off the sweat from her forehead. Despite the fact that she was only casually walking down the street, she was sweating as if she were battling an eight-foot tall demon. She shook her head, hoping to clear away some of the fogginess, but it only served to make her dizzy. Pulling her jacket off, Buffy looked ahead and was glad to find that she was almost home. All she wanted to do was climb into bed and go to sleep.

Glancing at her watch, she saw that it was almost two a.m. She hadn't meant to be out this late, but she'd been visiting with Tara and they'd lost track of time. At least she had managed to convince Doyle and her friends that she would be fine by herself. It had taken a bit of arguing, but in the end, they'd let her go. She knew they just worried about her being out on her own because of all the dangers she tended to run in to, but they were a bit too over protective sometimes. They would probably be surprised, and rather angry, if they knew how many times she'd used excuses to just get even a few minutes to herself.

Tonight she hadn't used an excuse, though. She really had gone to visit Tara. Over the years her former boss had become a really good friend. Tara also still babysat for Ashlynn when needed and she spent time at the club on her nights off. Usually Tara came over to her apartment, but she'd had a late shipment of artifacts coming into the store tonight so Buffy had gone to visit her there and kept her company.

Buffy was nearing the club and her apartment when she heard a scream come from the alley across the street. Groaning out loud, she grabbed the stake out of her waistband and dashed across the roadway towards where she could hear someone struggling. The source of the noise was immediately evident. A rather large, male vampire had a middle-aged woman pinned against a dumpster trying to hold her still long enough to bite her neck.

The vampire had yet to notice Buffy's presence so she was able to come up behind him without any trouble. Grabbing his body, she pulled him off the woman and threw him a few feet away. She glanced at the woman, and seeing she appeared unharmed, told the female to run and then turned her attention back to the vamp. By now, he'd gotten back on his feet and was growling angrily at Buffy for interrupting his meal.

Taking a fighting posture, she glared at the demon, waiting for him to charge. He didn't make her wait long and she rolled to her left to avoid the attack. She circled around and faced the vamp again trying to form a battle plan in her mind. The vamp charged again, and this time Buffy raised her right leg intent on kicking him in the chest. Her balance faltered though and the kick was only a glancing blow on his side. The botched move made the vampire laugh and he swiped at her with his arm, sending Buffy flying into the brick wall along the alleyway.

The sound of the thud of her head against the wall reverberated throughout the alley. Buffy's head throbbed, spots appearing before her eyes as she slid down to the dirty ground. She tried to push herself back up, but the dizziness overwhelmed her and she slumped back down. Looking up, she could see the vampire stalking toward her, a feral grin plastered on his face. Again, Buffy tried to stand up, but as she attempted to do so a dark body tackled the vampire, sending him sprawling to the ground.

Within seconds, the stranger had staked the vampire and was brushing the dust off his long coat. She knew in an instant who it was. If the coat hadn't of given it away, the feeling now tingling down her spine would have. She should have known he was following her, but she hadn't felt him earlier. He must have stayed far enough away to keep her from noticing him.

As she once again began to try and pick herself up off the ground a large, familiar hand gently grasped her arm and helped her to stand. The contact caused shivers to go down her spine, and sent her mind back to days past. For a moment, she could only stare at her arm where his hand was positioned. She wanted to reach out and touch his skin, but reality took over and she twisted out of his grip, backing a few feet away.

"I could have handled it," she found herself mumbling to him as she brushed the dirt off her pants.

"Usually people say thank you," Angel frowned at her reaction. "And it didn't look like you were handling it."

"I was fine," she bit back in annoyance. "And thank you."

"Are you okay?" he gestured to the lump on her head from where it hit the brick wall.

Buffy raised her hand and winced when it came into contact with the wound. "It's just a bump."

"Are you sure?" Angel took a few steps toward her and moved to touch the injury.

Panic seized Buffy. He was getting too close. "I-I have to g-go," she sputtered and quickly turned to walk away, or run if need be.

"You can't keep running," Angel's voice echoed all around.

Buffy's steps halted at the words. With narrowed eyes, she turned to face him. "What? You mean like you did?"

"That's not fair, Buffy," Angel walked toward her, stopping a few feet away.

"Fair? You walked away from me. And what? You just reappear out of nowhere and expect me to leap into your arms? It doesn't work that way," Buffy replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

"That's not what I expect," he corrected her. No, he certainly didn't expect her to come running back to him. In fact he hadn't even wanted her to know he was there. But it was too late for that now. He honestly had no idea what was to come next.

"What do you want from me, then, Angel," Buffy sighed loudly, trying to ignore the pain in her head.

"I...I don't know," he told her. It was the truth after all.

"I have to go. People are waiting for me." Buffy cringed as she realized that her friends could be out looking for her right now. She'd called them right before she left Tara's to let her know she was on her way home.

"Right. Have to get back to your boytoy?" Angel snapped at her without really thinking about what he was saying.

Buffy's mouth dropped open as she attempted to respond, but she said nothing. He'd seen her with...she should have known he'd been following her longer than she'd realized. Her anger, rational or not, flared at the fact that he was snooping around her life after he was the one to walk away. What right did he have to spy on her?

"It's what you wanted for me, isn't it?" The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. "Didn't you say you wanted me to find someone who could take me out in the sun, who could have sex with me, and who could give me kids?"

She wasn't finished with her tirade and stepped right in front of Angel. "I clearly remember you telling me that. So I did. Went out and got what you told me to. And now, seven years later, you're back and acting like a jealous boyfriend. Well, guess what, you're not my boyfriend, and you certainly have no right to be jealous."

Angel wanted to reply, but there wasn't much he could say. Everything she'd said was true. He'd done all that and then some. What, then, could he say? Nothing. And apparently Buffy agreed with him.

"Ya know what? I can't deal with this." Buffy swayed as she spoke, dizziness and nausea swirling throughout her head and stomach. Without waiting for a response, she turned and walked away, leaving Angel to watch her retreating back.

Buffy left the alley as quickly as possible, though her gait was slower than normal as she struggled not to fall. Her entire body ached and her head felt as if it were under a thousand feet of heavy ocean water. The urge to vomit tickled the back of her throat, but she fought to keep it contained. She just needed to make it a few feet and she'd be home, and away from him.

"Buffy!" a voice called out somewhere in front of her. "Oh my God! What happened?"

Through her blurry vision, Buffy could see Lindsey running toward her. Relief flooded through her at the sight of the familiar face. "I-I...my head..."

"What happened?" Lindsey grabbed at her arm to keep her from falling over. "We were so worried when you didn't come home right after callin'."

"I...there was a vamp...the wall...," she reached a hand to her head hoping to dull the pain and leaned, or rather fell, against Lindsey's sturdy body.

"Shh, Darling. It'll be all right," he scoped her small body up into his arms and rushed toward the club where the others were nervously waiting.

Buffy allowed him to pick her up, knowing that if he didn't she would be on the ground in seconds. His embrace comforted her battered body and she laid her head down against his shoulder. She was tempted to glance behind them. He was watching. She knew he was. Instead, she clumsily wrapped her arms around Lindsey's neck and ignored the pang of guilt that was thumping in her heart.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Inside of his rented motel room, Angel had been pacing from one end of the room to the other for the last hour. This trip wasn't turning out at all as he had expected. He'd gone from believing Buffy was dead, to having a small sliver of hope, to knowing that she was in fact alive and well. Once he knew she was fine, he had planned on leaving, but even that had gotten screwed up when he'd been careless and she'd snuck up on him.

After her less than pleased reaction to his presence he told himself that leaving would be the best thing. She didn't need him there, not when she had a happy life. He'd only mess it up. Then that half-demon had appeared. His words still haunted Angel. What had the man meant when he said he should stay and that there were things he didn't understand and didn't know? The message had been worrisome. Enough so that Angel decided to stick around if only to find out who the half-demon was and what he knew. He told himself he'd leave Buffy alone, but that hadn't work and he'd found himself following her once again.

The events from earlier that night were running in a loop through his head. He couldn't stop thinking about the confrontation with Buffy. He couldn't stop thinking about her period. She looked as beautiful as ever, he thought to himself. There was a maturity that hadn't been there before, but that was only natural. Her hair was longer and her body more defined and toned than it had been. She still captured his heart, though.

The words she'd spoken to him tore a hole in his dead heart. They were true. He was well aware of that. He had told her to move on with her life; to find someone to be with; to walk in the sunlight, have kids, and all that accompanied; and most of all to be happy. Yes, he had told her all that, and he had meant it. But there was that small part in him that wanted her to hold onto their love forever. They were soulmates. Weren't they? Or had he been wrong?

She had moved on. She didn't even seem to care that he was back. Maybe he had underestimated the love between them. That thought hurt almost more than he could bear. Had he meant nothing to her? Had it all been a lie? Had she even cared about him at all? Angel shook his head for even thinking that. He knew she'd loved him. Loved, in the past tense. It was obvious to him that whatever they'd once had was over. She had someone else now, a family. He was just an ex-boyfriend. He supposed it was better that way. Nothing had changed. He still couldn't give her anything.

Something else was bothering Angel about his encounter with Buffy. He couldn't quite figure out what it was, but something had been off. He was sure of it. Sure she'd taken that blow to the head and it had affected her, but that wasn't what was worrying him. In his mind he replayed each moment from earlier in the evening. She'd been at that store and then left. He remembered her wiping her forehead and looking a little unbalanced. Then in the alley she'd tried to fight the vampire. The kick! Buffy had moved to kick at the vamp and almost completely missed. That wasn't like her at all.

Angel was positive now. Something was definitely wrong with her. She'd never been that off in fighting a vampire. Perhaps she was sick. If she was, then why was she out by herself at night? That was pretty much asking for trouble. She was in no condition to fight demons if she was ill. Angel felt himself growing angry that she'd put herself in such a dangerous position. She was always stubborn, but even she should no better than to do what she did. That vamp could have killed her if he hadn't of been there.

Pacing over to the window, Angel stared off in the direction of Buffy's home. He couldn't help but worry about her. She may not want him to care, but he would always worry about her. He loved her, would always love her, and because of that he would always worry about her. She was ignoring what her body was telling her and that concerned him. He couldn't let anything happen to her, not after just finding out that she was alive. She may hate him for it, but Angel had no intention of leaving her alone until he was sure she was better.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~the next night~

Buffy slowly moved around the various tables and counters collecting trash after a busy night at the club. Why people couldn't throw their own cups away was beyond her. Of course, they had hired people who were supposed to do this work, but she needed to be doing something. Ever since what happened the night before, they'd been pestering her non-stop. She wasn't some invalid, but they were treating her like one. It was just a bump on the head. Well, to them it was. They didn't know there was more.

The bump on her head was almost gone, but she still felt awful. She hardly slept at all the night before and then had spent a half hour in the bathroom this morning throwing up everything in her stomach. The sight of food made her want to run back to the toilet and she hadn't eaten a thing all day. And now, as she cleaned up trash, she had to force her hands to stop trembling so no one would notice. She knew that if her friends realized she was sick they would make her go to the doctor and that was not something she wanted to do. It was just the flu. She'd be fine in few days.

"You're supposed to be upstairs resting," she heard Lindsey come up behind her and speak.

"I'm fine, Linds, really," Buffy lied without turning to face him.

"No, you're not," he took the bag of trash from her hands. "Now go back upstairs and get into bed.

"I'm not an invalid!" Buffy snapped at him.

"I didn't say you were, Darling," Lindsey tried to console her, a little thrown by Buffy's attitude.

"Then don't treat me like one!" she said in exasperation, harshly grabbing the trash bag back from Lindsey.

"Buffy," Lindsey took hold of one of her hands. "I'm sorry. I'm just worried about you."

"I'm fine, Linds," she softened slightly and squeezed his hand, hoping he wouldn't notice her sweating palms and trembling hand.

"Are you sure?" he eyed her warily.

"Yes, positive. And see, it's almost gone," she pointed to the barely noticeable bump on her head and forced a grin on her face.

"All right. But you better get your butt in bed after you finish cleaning up," Lindsey ordered her sternly

"I promise. I don't want to keep Tara much longer anyway," she referred to her friend who was upstairs with Ashlynn.

"Okay. I'm gonna go help Oz get the music equipment shut down," he leaned down and kissed her cheek before walking toward the stage area.

The moment Lindsey was gone, Buffy's hand dropped down to grip the counter she was standing in front of. Her fingers tightly held onto the wood as she tried to stop the room from spinning. The action did little and the dizziness persisted. Not wanting anyone to notice her discomfort, she forced herself to focus on cleaning up. Her hand shakily reached for the leftover cup on the counter, almost knocking it over before finally grabbing it at the brim. She managed to get it into the trash bag and realized that maybe she should go upstairs and get into bed. Someone was sure to detect her unsure actions if she stayed down here much longer.

Glancing around the club, Buffy took note that her friends were all preoccupied at the moment. With a bit of a struggle, she tied the top of the trash bag in a knot and slowly walked toward the door. Her vision blurred causing two, then three, doors to swim before her eyes. She blinked her them furiously, trying to still the moving images. Finally, she reached the exit and as hurriedly as possible stepped outside, glad to be out of view of her friends.

Holding the railing tightly, Buffy descended the stairs in front of the club. She turned left and walked to the dumpster that was just around the side of the building. It took her two tries, but she managed to somehow throw the light bag of trash onto the top of the heap. She took three steps back towards the entrance of the building before pausing to lean against the rough brick and clutch at her stomach. Biting her lip, she tried not to scream as intense pains shot through her gut.

"Buffy?" Damn! She should have known he was out here.

"Go away, Angel." Buffy straightened up and forced her façade back up.

"No," he spoke definitively.

She whirled around at the denial and immediately regretted it. Her hand again sought the support of the wall to keep herself from falling. "No?"

"No, I'm not going to leave you out here alone like this," he waved his hand at her swaying body.

"W-what are you t-talking about?" she stuttered out as spots began to blot her vision.

"Something's wrong with you," Angel took a step closer, noticing that her footing looked more and more unsteady.

"I...I'm f-fine." Buffy was anything but fine. She had no intention of telling him that, though.

"You're lying," he glared at her.

"Lea-....leave m-," she never finished her sentence as her eyes rolled back in her head and her body went lax.

"Buffy!" Angel lurched forward and was able to catch her before she hit the ground.

He cradled her unconscious body in his arms. For a split second, Angel reveled in the feel of her against him for the first time in seven years, but his glee was short lived. Something was very, very wrong. He could feel her heart pounding in her chest and the clamminess of her skin. His eyes scanned her body searching for some sign as to the source of her illness, but there was nothing.

Holding Buffy securely in his arms, Angel strode quickly up the stairs and haphazardly pulled the door open. In any other circumstance he would have been panicking about revealing himself to the others, but now was not the time for that worry. He was concerned with Buffy's health and nothing else.

"Willow!" Angel bellowed the second he entered into the club.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 8
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"What the Hell did you do to her?!" someone screamed at him. Angel knew without looking that it was the boytoy.

"I didn't do anything to her," Angel nearly snarled at the insipid man.

"Angel? What...Buffy!" Willow ran to where he was still holding Buffy in his arms. Angel briefly took note of the lack of surprise in Willow's eyes at his presence, and quickly realized Buffy must have told her about him.

"Who the Hell are...Angel?" The name finally clicked in Lindsey's head. "You're Angel?"

"What happened?" This time it was Cordy who spoke as the entire group closed in on him and the limp Slayer he cradled close to his body.

"I was talking to her outside and she passed out," he explained tersely.

"Let's get her upstairs," Doyle ordered worriedly. He met Lorne's eyes for just a moment before he ran over to the elevator and pulled the gates open.

Angel ignored the boytoy's movement to grab Buffy out of his arms and strode quickly to the elevator. Freeing one of his hands, he pulled the gates closed before anyone else could enter. Grateful to be away from the group's prodding, if only for a minute, he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes as Doyle pushed the button to take them to the third floor. Being around all these people who knew him, or at least knew of him, was making his skin crawl. That was the least of his worries right now, though. Buffy's health was the utmost priority.

As the elevator came to a stop, Doyle finally spoke. "Decided to stick around?"

"Yeah," Angel grunted in response and swiftly left the confining space.

Momentarily, his eyes widened in shock at the large, homey room he found himself in. It was immediately obvious that this was Buffy's home. Her scent attacked him from every corner of the room. He wanted to stand there and breathe in every last nuance of her essence, but there wasn't time for that now. Instead, he spotted a sofa on the opposite side of the room and moved toward it. As gently as possible, he laid her still unconscious body down onto the soft material of the couch.

For an instant, he regretted the loss of her body in his arms, but he pushed the feeling aside and focused on making her comfortable. The half demon, whose name he still did not know, tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a cold cloth, which he carefully placed on Buffy's heated forehead. Just as he was about to ask Doyle for a pillow, he heard a door open and turned to see all of the others coming from what he assumed was the stairs. He knew they'd want to check on their friend, but he couldn't seem to make himself move from his spot kneeling at her side.

"Angel? Is she awake yet?" Willow came around the couch and bent down next to Angel.

"No," he answered without looking at the redhead and then lifted his hand to brush the hair off Buffy's face.

"Tell us what happened?" Angel heard the weird one with green skin request.

"I already told you," he half growled in irritation, but seeing the concerned looks decided to repeat his earlier explanation. "She came out, threw a bag of trash into the dumpster, we talked, and then she passed out."

"You're sure you didn't...do...anything to her?" Lindsey asked suspiciously and glared at Angel.

Hearing the accusatory statement, Angel stood and stalked toward the boytoy with narrowed eyes. "Don't you EVER suggest something like that again," he ordered forcefully, the demon within him raging to escape.

"Listen, Vampire, why should I trust you?" Lindsey stepped right up to Angel, not the slightest bit intimidated.

Willow and Cordy, seeing that a fight that was about to start, quickly scrambled to get between the two combatants. The last thing they needed right now was Angel and Lindsey beating the crap out of each other while Buffy lay unconscious on the sofa only a few feet away.

"Now stop it you two," Cordy demanded with arms crossed over her chest.

Angel spared another angry glare at his replacement before returning to Buffy's side. He ignored the various looks from those around him as he took one of Buffy's hands in his and stroked his thumb across the back. The urge to scoop her up in his arms pulsed through out his being. The feel of her touch after so long without sparked an unquenchable need inside him to be as close as possible to her.

"Damnit!" Doyle exclaimed while pacing across the room. "I knew that knock ta her head was worse than she told us!"

"We should have made her stay in bed today." Willow sat down on the edge of the couch and took Buffy's other hand.

"Maybe we should take her to the hospital," Lorne posed, receiving incredulous looks from just about everyone. "Just a suggestion."

"Don't you remember the last time we had to take her to the hospital?" Oz reminded them of the time a year earlier when Buffy had sliced her hand open while attempting to cook Thanksgiving diner.

"Oh right. But still..." Lorne trailed off, leaving his inference up to them. He couldn't help but worry, and he couldn't seem to shake the feeling that the foreboding darkness he'd seen whenever he read Buffy was coming to fruition.

"She's sick," Angel quietly interjected.

The quiet chatter that had started up abruptly ceased. Every single pair of eyes turned and focused on Angel. It was quickly apparent to him that they'd been unaware of her condition. He wasn't surprised that Buffy hadn't told them. She'd probably figured they'd make her see a doctor. Still, he was a bit angry and wondered how people who were supposedly her friends had missed the signs.

"What are ya talking about?" Doyle stepped forward, Lindsey following suit.

"It's not her head. She's sick," Angel repeated, finally tearing his eyes off of Buffy.

"No, she's not," Lindsey loudly denied the claim. He had a million questions running through his head, first and foremost being why the notorious Angel was outside talking to Buffy. And why exactly he seemed to be the only one surprise by the vampire's presence.

"Lindsey! Be quiet! Don't wake up Ashlynn!" Willow shooshed the angry man and looked toward the little girl's bedroom where she knew Ash and Tara were.

Seeing the confused yet pained look on Angel's face, Cordy quickly changed the subject. "Why do you think she's sick?"

Angel released Buffy's hand, stood, and faced the group. "I was following her last night."

"She didn't tell us that," Willow spoke over the semi-shocked gasps coming from around the room.

Ignoring the questions he could see about to be asked, Angel continued with his explanation. "I saw her leave the place she'd been. I didn't realize it until afterwards, but she looked like she wasn't feeling well. Then she went after a vamp and I watched from the end of the alley. It was just a normal vamp, but she couldn't stake him. She almost fell over trying to kick him out of the way and then he threw her against the wall. I saw the vamp moving in so I knocked him out of the way and staked him."

"She just said it was a strong vamp," Cordy stated softly as the group digested what Angel had just told them.

Any further questions or statements were held in as a small moan drifted to their ears from the couch. Holding their breaths out of sheer nervousness, they watched as Buffy's eyes slowly flickered open. She moaned again when the bright apartment lighting assaulted her eyes but kept them open.

"Buffy?" Willow spoke gently, not wanting to scare her friend.

Buffy blinked here eyes and focused on the person who had spoken to her. "Wil?"

"Hey," greeted Willow with a smile.

"Hey Buffy," Cordy knelt down near Buffy's head. "Glad you decided to wake up."

"What's going on?" the dazed Slayer tried to sit up, but was unsuccessful.

Lorne sat down on the arm of the couch by Buffy's feet and studied her for a second before speaking. "Do you remember what happened, Sunshine?"

"I...I...," Buffy paused and tried to remember what had happened and how it was that she ended up on the couch with everyone staring at her. "I was outside, and..."

Angel's hands twitched nervously when Buffy's raspy voice trailed off. He knew she remembered their confrontation outside. He held his position behind the others, though, and watched as her eyes apprehensively scanned the group until they landed on him. For a split second, when her eyes met his, he thought he saw shades of what he used to see when she looked at him, but it was quickly gone. She held his gaze for a second longer before looking back to her friends.

"I remember," she told them flatly.

Lindsey walked over and knelt down next to Cordy, "You gave us quite a scare."

"I'm sorry," Buffy gave him a weak smile

"What's going on?" a whispered voice interrupted. The group looked over to see Tara standing in the entrance leading to the hallway.

Willow and Cordy quickly filled in Tara on what had happened while the others in the room shifted glances between Buffy, Angel, and then back again. It wasn't lost on any of them that Angel couldn't take his eyes off Buffy, and if they weren't mistaken, the blonde was stealing looks at Angel as well. Those seeing the two together for the first time were almost mesmerized by the tension that sizzled between them.

Angel, for his part, remained quiet, and stood near the large windows on one side of the room. It was true, he couldn't take his eyes off of her. Aside from the pale, sickly look, she was absolutely beautiful. He wanted to pull her into his arms and kiss her soft, pale pink lips. He knew he couldn't, and shouldn't, not when the blonde headed leach was kneeling there fawning all over her. So he contented himself to stand on the sidelines and watch.

"Why didn't you tell us you were sick?" Angel heard Cordelia ask. He was still a bit baffled that the snobby brunette appeared to be such good friends with Buffy. What exactly had happened between the two?

"I-I didn't want you to worry," Buffy answered, her voice hoarse and weak. "I'm sorry."

"How long have you been sick?" Willow asked the question they had all been wondering.

"Since just after we came back from Sunnydale," she answered, her eyes looking down in guilt.

"Buffy!" Doyle exclaimed in shock. "That was almost two weeks ago!"

"I'm sorry," Buffy mumbled quietly before yawning.

"I think our favorite Slayer here needs to get some shut-eye. We can finish talking about this later," Lorne looked pointedly at Buffy telling her that her not-so-little fib wasn't going to be forgotten.

"Thanks," Buffy smiled weakly at Lorne in gratuity. She tried to sit up on the couch but her arms buckled and she fell back down.

"Woah, Darling," chastised Lindsey with a frown. "I don't think you're in any condition to be walking yet."

Angel had to bite back a growl as he watched the blonde boytoy manhandle HIS Buffy. He wanted to go over there and knock a few teeth out of his annoying, loving smile, but he didn't think anyone would appreciate him attacking Buffy's...lover. That didn't mean he had to stand there and watch, though. Seeing her go off with another man was too much, so he quietly and unobtrusively walked around the edge of the room toward the door leading to the stairwell. He was almost there when Willow called out to him.

"Where are you going?" she walked over to him and placed a comforting hand on his arm.

"Back to my hotel room," he grunted out in response.

"Angel," she sighed and nodded toward the window. "The sun is starting to rise."

Angel's eyes flittered to the window. She was right. The sun was coming up. There was no way he'd make it back to the hotel room he'd rented, but he could at least get out of here and find somewhere else to hide until nightfall. He didn't think he'd be able to stay here all day only feet from where Buffy was snuggled into her bed, someone else's arms wrapped around her body.

"I'll find some place to stay," he almost spat out and continued toward the door.

"No, you won't," Willow dashed into his path and stared at him determinedly. "You're staying right here."

"I'll be fine," he assured her even though he didn't believe his own words.

Willow ignored the statement and looked to Oz. "Go get some heavy blankets and cover up the windows in the extra room."

Angel went to deny the offer, but Willow cut him off. "No, buts!"

"It's no use saying 'no' to her, man," Oz patted him on the back and left to do what Willow asked.

Looking back at the redhead, who seemed to have grown up immensely during his absence, Angel again went to turn down her offer. The look in her eyes, though, told him it would do no good. She was not about to let him walk out of the building, let alone the room.

"Fine," he relented a moment later.

Angel reluctantly followed Willow through the living room and toward the room she'd mentioned. He paused at the doorway to the room he'd seen Buffy be carried into. The door was open so he could see inside, though he wasn't sure that was a good thing. Lindsey was sitting against the headboard of her bed with Buffy's head in his lap, stroking her hair. He wanted so badly to be the one in there with her, but it wasn't his place. Not anymore.

With his head down, he trailed behind Willow and into what he assumed was a guest room. He said nothing, only nodded at her before she closed the door and left the room. Did she really expect him to be able to sleep with Buffy so close? Angel highly doubted he'd be able to do anything but stare in the direction of her room.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

"Why didn't you tell me?" Lindsey questioned, not so much out of anger but more out of hurt, after they'd seen Willow walk past the bedroom door with Angel and then walk back past without him.

"Tell you what?" Buffy shifted her head to look up at Lindsey as she willed the various aches and pains in her body to go away.

"That he is Ashlynn's father," he clarified, trying not to be upset.

In all the years he'd know Buffy, he'd heard a lot about the vampire Angel and her relationship with him, but she'd never told him about Ash's conception. Whenever he brought it up, she would quickly change the subject. He always figured that she had made a mistake when she was grieving over the loss of her sort of lover. Seeing the vampire for the first time, it was rather obvious he was the father. How that was possible, he didn't know. Everything he'd been told about vampires led him to believe it wasn't possible.

"I'm sorry," Buffy mumbled, her eyes starting to drift shut.

"I just wish you'd told me," he sighed and pulled the blanket tighter around her now shivering body. "Does he know?"

"No..." Buffy spoke, a slight hesitation in her voice.

Lindsey stared at her for a moment, the pain in her eyes obvious to him, before saying what he hated himself for saying. "Doesn't he deserve to know?"

"Yes." Buffy turned her head away from him. "But I don't know if I can tell him," she breathed out heavily before falling into a restless sleep.

For a few minutes after she fell asleep, Lindsey only stared at her sleeping form. He shook his head and rested it against the headboard of the bed and thought about what he now knew. Angel was Ashlynn's father. He'd never even suspected it, though now that he thought back on the little things over the years it made sense. Why was Angel here anyway? Had he heard about Ash and come for her? And why hadn't Buffy told him he was back? From what he'd gathered, she'd known for a few days he'd returned. It hurt that she hadn't trusted him enough to tell him. Then again, it didn't surprise him. The 'Angel issue' was one Buffy tended to avoid at all costs.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~later that day~

Gathered in the doorway to Buffy's room, Willow, Cordelia, Oz and Doyle fearfully watched as Lindsey sat in a chair next to the bed and swabbed their friend's forehead with a damp cloth. She was getting worse. They all knew it even if no one had yet to say it out loud. Speaking it meant accepting it, and none of them wanted to do that.

Buffy had been fine for a few hours after falling asleep, but since then, she'd gone down hill. About a half hour earlier she'd starting groaning in pain and her body was trembling so strongly that it made the bed shake. She was still conscious but she wasn't really responsive to their presences. Something was very wrong, they were just beginning to realize.

"I think we should take her ta the hospital," Doyle stated solemnly, though a little voice in his head told him it wouldn't do any good.

"I agree. She...she's getting worse. What if...," Cordy's voice faltered. "What if something's really wrong with her?"

Silence hung in the air after Cordy finally said what'd they'd all been thinking. Willow was the first speak again. "I'm going to get Angel."

She hurriedly turned and walked to the room she'd forced him to stay the day in. Without knocking, she entered the room and saw Angel asleep on the bed, or at least it looked like he was asleep. She wasn't quite sure. Cautiously, Willow approached the bed and contemplated how to wake him. Deciding on the direct approach, she reached out a hand and shook his shoulder.

Angel's eyes instantly shot open, causing Willow to jump back in surprise. "Willow?"

"Angel...," she started hesitantly.

"What's wrong?" He leapt out of the bed, sensing immediately that something wasn't right.

Willow took a deep breath and let her eyes travel toward Buffy's room. "She's getting worse."

The words hadn't even finished coming out of Willow's mouth before Angel was on his way out of the room. The redhead's hand on his arms stopped his forward progress. "What?"

"I...I'm worried, Angel," she tried to hold back the tears threatening to fall. "Something's not right."

"What do you mean?" he looked at the young woman in confusion, anxious to get to Buffy.

"I don't know how to explain it," Willow thought for a second, trying to put into words her concern. "I just keep getting this feeling that there is something more going on."

"Like what?" Angel gave her his full attention now.

"I don't know. It's just this feeling...I-I don't know how to explain it," Willow's shoulders slumped, wishing she could tell him more. "I called Tara to come over. She might be able to help."

"Tara?" Angel questioned, not knowing who that was.

"The blonde that was here last night. She's a friend of ours, and is a powerful Wiccan. She might be able to sense something," Willow relayed just as Cordy came to the door.

"Willow, Tara's here. She said you called her," the brunette stated and moved aside so Tara could enter the room.

Willow greeted her friend and introduced her to Angel. She waited for Cordy to get the others before explaining to the witch what she wanted her to do. Once they were all present, she explained to them the feeling she was getting. Tara agreed to try and read Buffy's aura, but said she didn't know if she'd be able to find anything out.

Quietly, the group moved into Buffy's room. Tara sat on the edge of the bed where Buffy slept fitfully while the others stood around the outskirts of the bedroom. She closed her eyes and performed a short mediation to center herself before focusing on Buffy. Pushing the hair off Buffy's face, Tara placed her palm on her forehead and closed her eyes again.

The group of Buffy's friends and family watched in trepidation as Tara's body went rigid and all of the color drained out of her face. A tremble shook through her body before she abruptly pulled her hand off Buffy's forehead, acting almost as if she'd been burnt. Fear gripped the voyeurs as Tara stumbled away from the bed and clutched at a nearby dresser.

"Tara? What's wrong?" Willow moved toward her friend.

"Magick...dark magicks...consuming her...," the blonde witch choked out before collapsing to the floor.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 9
^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

"How's Tara?" Doyle questioned as Willow walked back into the living room.

The blonde Wiccan was currently resting in the extra bedroom, recovering from whatever had happened when she read Buffy's aura. They didn't really understand what exactly had occurred, and Tara was still too dazed to fully explain it to them. She'd been out for nearly a half hour and when she woke up all she could tell them was that there were dark magicks in Buffy's body. That alone was enough to send them into a panic, but they all worried that there was more bad news to come.

"She's still out of it," the redhead sighed and sat next too Doyle.

After Tara's revelation, the group had been stunned. Their worry over their friend's health had quickly escalated into sheer terror. If she didn't have the flu or something along those lines, then what was making her sick? That was what they were now trying to figure out. Every single book related to the supernatural world had been carted up from the offices downstairs and were now spread throughout the apartment's living room.

Despite their desire to be by Buffy's side, they knew they needed to focus on researching. Cordy was currently on Buffy watch while the rest of them scoured the books in search of answers. Willow, Oz, and Angel were familiar with the tedious task, but for Lindsey, Lorne, and Doyle, it was a daunting mission. They had absolutely no idea what they were looking for or where to look for it.

"Find anything yet?' Cordelia asked as she walked into the living room.

"Not unless a lot of dusty books count," Oz chimed in without looking up from the old tome he was reading.

"How's Buffy?" Willow looked up and blinked the bleariness out of her eyes.

"The same," Cordy said as she slumped down on the couch next to Willow. "She's still drifting in and out of sleep."

"I'll go in and sit with her. Maybe sing her a song or two," Lorne tried to say cheerfully but failed.

"What about the club? Don't we have to get ready to open?" Willow suddenly remembered that they all had jobs.

"Don't you worry you're pretty little head about that. The club will be closed for a few days. We have more important things to be worried about," he answered and left the room before the issue could be debated.

Cordy watched him leave and then looked around the room and frowned. "Where's Doyle?"

"He went to pick Ashlynn up from school," Willow relayed, rubbing at the tension headache she was getting. Then, suddenly realizing what was about to happen, her eyes snapped up, glanced briefly at Angel before moving over to Cordelia.

Catching the look, Cordy almost leapt off the couch. "Uhh, Willow, why don't we go get some drinks and, uh, snacks for everyone."

"Yeah...snacks...good...sure," babbled Willow incoherently and practically dashed out of the room.

Angel stared in confusion over the odd antics until the initial statement registered in his mind. Ashlynn. Buffy's daughter. The child she'd had with someone else. The boytoy's child. If there was a hole nearby for him to crawl into, he wouldn't have hesitated. A small part of him wanted to meet the little girl that was part Buffy, but the larger part of him didn't want to see one of the reminders that she had moved on. It was bad enough that her...lover...was sitting only a few feet away from him.

Inside the kitchen, Cordelia was pacing anxiously across the floor. "This is sooo not good!"

"Shhh!" Willow peaked out the door and saw Angel looking in her direction.

"What are we going to do?" Cordy whispered as quietly as possible.

Before the redhead could respond, they heard the noise of the elevator rising to their floor. Both girls quickly dashed out of the room and toward the elevator, reaching it just as the gates opened. Ashlynn skipped out the compartment and smiled when she saw her two favorite Aunts waiting for her.

"Hey, Sweetie! Did you have a good day at school?" Cordy asked and knelt down and to gave the little girl a hug.

"Yup! Look what I made!" she chatted happily, pushing a large piece of paper in front of Cordelia's face.

"Oooh! Did you draw that? It's beautiful!" Cordy beamed as she looked at the wonderful drawing Ash had done.

"Lindsey!" Ashlynn squealed when she caught sight of the blonde man out of the corner of her eye. Before Cordy could stop her, the girl was across the room and sitting on Lindsey's lap showing him her drawing.

"Where's Mommy?" Ash asked after Lindsey had complemented her picture.

"She's still not feeling well, Darling," Lindsey replied smoothing down the hair on her head.

"Oh," she mumbled, some of the happiness in Ash's eyes fading. "Can I see her?"

"Maybe later. She doesn't want you to get sick too," he lied to her. They'd all agreed earlier in the day that it was best to keep Ashlynn from finding out how sick her Mommy was.

"Okay." Her lower lip trembled and she squirmed out of Lindsey's lap.

The moment her little feet hit the floor, Ashlynn froze. The picture that had been clasped tightly in her hand fell fluttering to the floor. She didn't need anyone to tell her who the strange man sitting opposite her was. Years of staring at his picture left his image ingrained in her memory. Cautiously, she took a small step toward the man she'd heard so much about.

"Da-."

"Ashlynn, Sweetie, why don't we go get you out of that dress?" Cordy spoke, cutting Ash off as she rushed over and swept the girl up into her arms before she could finish the word that had started to come out of her mouth.

"But-," she started to speak again, but was again interrupted.

"Nope, no buts! You don't want to ruin your dress now do you?" Cordy didn't give her the chance to speak again and quickly left the room with Ashlynn.

Angel's eyes followed her out of the room. Looking into the little girl's eyes had given him the strangest feeling. It was almost as if he should know her, but he supposed that wasn't that odd. After all, she was Buffy's child. There was something else, though. She ignited a feeling in him that he couldn't put a finger on.

Confused, his gaze drifted back across the room and landed on Lindsey, who was staring intently at him. She had called him 'Lindsey'. Why? Shouldn't she have called him Daddy? She didn't though. That would mean...Angel didn't want to think about what that meant. He didn't want to know that there had been others. But obviously there had been, and he was just one of the pack.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

A few minutes later, Willow was waiting outside of Ashlynn's room for Cordelia to emerge. Her hands nervously twisted at her sides as she thought about what had almost happened out in the living room. She should have known that Ashlynn would recognize Angel. Buffy had never kept his identity a secret from her and had even given her daughter a picture of her Father. Now Angel was here, not knowing he had a daughter, and Buffy was bed-ridden with a mystical illness. Gods, Willow thought, could this situation get any worse?

"That was way too close," Cordy whispered after she'd stepped out of the room and closed the door.

Willow grabbed Cordy's arm and pulled her down the hall into her and Oz's bedroom, closing the door behind them. "What did you tell her?"

"What could I tell her?" Cordy paced across the room. "She already knew who he was."

"You told her the truth?" Willow screeched a little too loudly.

"Shut up! Do you want him to here you?" she waved a hand toward the living room. "I didn't really have a choice!"

"What exactly did you tell her?" This time Willow kept her voice low.

"I told her that, yes, that was her Father, but that he didn't know who she was. I said that he had to leave before her Mommy could tell him about her and that's why he didn't know," Cordy explained, wondering how she'd gotten into this mess. Why did this have to happen when Buffy wasn't able to deal with it?

"How did she react?" Willow took a seat on her bed.

"She was sad about it. You know she always wanted her Daddy." Cordy's heart broke for the poor girl. "She asked why he had to leave. So I told her that he fought bad guys like her Mommy did and that he had to go away to fight them."

"Did she believe you?" Willow couldn't imagine what the child was going through. She was only six years old. Grant it, she was a bit advanced for her age, but it still had to be confusing.

"I think so. But we need to keep her away from Angel for now. I told her there was a bad guy we needed to catch right now and that she needed to stay in her room so that we could figure out how to catch him," relayed Cordy tiredly. This was going to be a long night, or days even.

"Good. That'll buy us some time hopefully. We better get back to the researching," Willow sighed and stood up from the bed.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~two hours later~

The room was deathly quiet except for the rhythmic flipping of book pages and the occasional shift of bodies on furniture. They were all intently searching through the many books for the slightest clue about Buffy's illness, even Lindsey as he sat by Buffy's bedside keeping vigil. So far, they had not found anything to give them answers. Not even Tara's recovery had helped. All she could tell them was that there was dark magick reeking havoc on Buffy from within. Their only hope was to find something in the books.

"Nothing!" Cordy threw the book she'd finished scanning down onto the growing pile by her feet. "There's got to be something else we can do!"

"Calm down, Princess," Doyle put a calming hand on her back.

"Calm down!" Cordelia looked at him incredulously. "She's getting worse, Doyle!"

"I know," he said dejectedly and slumped back into his seat.

"Isn't there something you can do? I mean you have connections and stuff," she asked, looking at him hopefully.

"Not ones that would help in this situation," he answered dismally.

Cordy was about to reply when suddenly the door to the stairwell flew open. All eyes in the room quickly landed on the two figures that raced into the room without warning.

"Giles?!? Faith?!?" Willow screeched, jumping up from the couch.

"It's happening isn't it?" was all the former Watcher said in response.

Angel was in front of him before anyone could blink an eye. "What are you talking about?"

"Buffy. Something's wrong with her isn't it?" he panted from the exertion of racing up the stairs.

"Yes. What do you know?" Angel practically growled at him.

"Damn!" Giles threw his bag to the floor and shared a look with Faith.

"Giles? What's going on? Do you know what's wrong with Buffy?" Willow managed to squeeze her way between Angel and Giles.

"Yes, unfortunately I do," he responded as he pulled his glasses off. "The Watcher's Council has poisoned her."

"What?" nearly everybody in the room gasped.

"But why would they do that?" Willow choked out, shock running through her system.

"Please, why don't we sit and I will explain," Giles said and pointed to the various couches and chairs.

It wasn't until they were all seated that it occurred to Angel that Giles' arrival had surprised the others. He hadn't noticed before that the Watcher was missing. What exactly had happened? Why wasn't Giles with his Slayer? And why was Buffy in Seattle anyway? He'd never bothered to think about it before, but now he began to wonder about what had happened after he left. Still, now wasn't the time for those questions. Getting Buffy well was first priority.

"We're waiting, Giles," Cordy snapped harshly, remembering what Buffy had told her about the confrontation at Giles' apartment back in Sunnydale.

"Oh, yes, s-sorry," Giles stuttered, tearing his eyes off the vampire. His presence was unexpected. His sources had not told him that Angel had returned.

"You see," the Watcher began the long explanation. "When Buffy...left...I told the Council that she had disappeared. They believed her to be dead. Another Slayer was not called because Faith was still, alive, or rather in a coma. They intervened and made her the active Slayer once again," he looked at Faith who still did not know about the Council's full actions against her.

"You let them think she was dead?" Doyle asked in disbelief.

Giles gave the strange man a cursory glance, wondering who he was. "Yes. It was better that way. If they had found out that their Slayer had gone off on her own, and of her...situation...they surely would have sent a retrieval team to...eliminate her."

"They would have killed her?" Oz frowned at the disturbing thought.

"Likely, yes. The Council does not take well to Slayers who go against their rules," Giles confirmed.

"So they thought she was dead all this time? How did they find out she wasn't?" Willow wanted to know.

Faith looked to Giles and took over this part of the explanation. "Apparently my Watcher was following me. I don't know why, but the same night I'd run into Angel I overheard my Watcher on the phone telling someone he had reason to believe Buffy was alive. He must have heard me talking to Angel when he came to Sunnydale looking for Buffy."

"Faith then called me to inform me of the situation," Giles continued on. "I was instantly worried for her safety. I used some contacts I still had within the Council and found that once they suspected that there was a chance Buffy was still alive that they had quickly searched for and located her."

Angel listened as the others talked and couldn't help feeling like there was a backstory that he was completely unaware of. There seemed to be much more going on than he had initially thought. He wanted to ask what else he had missed, but he knew they had to focus on Buffy at the moment. There would be time for his questions later.

"So they just decided to take her out?" Doyle spoke up again. He was quite disturbed by the current turn of events.

"To put it simply, yes. They were rather displeased, to say the least, to find that one of their Slayers was working outside of their guidance. They felt she was too much of risk to allow things to remain as they were," Giles relayed and shook his head at the Council's ways.

"Poison doesn't sound like something the Council would do," Angel absently interjected.

"No, you're quite right," the ex-Watcher agreed. "But, you see, for the last few years, the Council has been in a state of disrepair. Quintin Travers still has a tedious hold over everyone, but insurrections have arisen from within led by a small group who feel that the Council's ways are antiquated. So far, they have not succeeded in taking control, but Travers' resources have become limited due to the lack of trust in his own organization. So he was unable to handle the situation as he once would have."

"What did they do to her?" Angel asked, leaning forward and staring at the Watcher.

"From what I was able to learn, Travers sent two of his confidantes here to Seattle with a mystical poison. They likely followed her until an opportunity presented itself to administer it, possibly in her food," he relayed solemnly.

"Mystical poison?" Willow repeated and glanced toward the hallway. "That would explain why Tara felt dark magicks in her."

"Tara?" Giles asked in confusion.

"She's a friend of ours who is a witch. When Buffy got worse we had her read Buffy's aura. She said there were dark magicks consuming Buffy. Whatever she felt, it was so strong she passed out afterwards," Willow explained of the events from earlier that day.

"The poison would cause such a reaction," Giles nodded in confirmation.

"What do you know about this poison?" Doyle looked expectantly at the man he assumed was Buffy's former Watcher.

"It is mystical in nature, as I said," Giles started and again took off his glasses. "I'm not quite sure about the details, but I believe it takes over the body and systematically attacks the internal organs. The effects start off slow, but once it takes hold, the recipient rapidly deteriorates."

"That sounds about right," Doyle said with a sigh and ran a hand over his face. "Apparently she was feeling sick for almost two weeks. We didn't even know until last night when it got so bad that she passed out."

"So what do we do Giles?" Willow questioned and turned to the older man, feeling slightly relieved that they now knew what they were facing. "How do we stop what they did to her?'

"W-well...I...t-that is...," sputtered Giles, his eyes suddenly looking downwards. This was the part he didn't want to face.

"Giles?" Willow sad nervously as she stood up, her earlier relief vanishing instantly.

Giles gazed up at the group staring waitingly at him. They were all so young, with the exception of Angel. Too young to have to face things like this. And Buffy. She'd been through so much in her short life. It broke his heart to think about the girl who was still like a daughter to him despite what had happened. She didn't deserve this. She deserved so much more than this wretched life she'd been dealt.

Finally, after a long moment of silence, Giles found the courage to tell them what he knew they would not want to hear.

"There is no cure."

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 10
^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Author's Note - the dialogue in italics in this part are excerpts from earlier in this series.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

No one spoke after Giles' tragic words. They were all shocked into silence. If there was no cure then that would mean Buffy would...die. That was a reality that none of them wanted to face. Buffy was a friend, a confidante, a Mother, a savior...a soulmate, she couldn't die. They all needed her just as much as she needed them. She couldn't die. There had to be something they could do.

Before anyone could deny the claim, the group was startled out of their silence by a small noise coming from the hallway. Looking up, they found Buffy hunched over, leaning against the wall. The look in her eyes was enough to tell them that she had heard enough to know the situation.

"Is it true?" she wheezed, her eyes landing directly on Giles.

"Yes, I'm sorry, Buffy. I tried every source I had, but they all told me the same thing," Giles tried to be diplomatic, but he couldn't fight the emotions within and a tear slipped down his face.

Buffy's eyes closed and her head drooped back to rest against the wall. Angel was by her side in an instant, picking her up in his strong arms. She trembled in his grip, a combination of the illness and the sobs she was fighting to keep inside. Needing the comfort, and no longer able to fight it, she relaxed into his arms and let herself cry.

"Shh, don't cry, baby," Angel soothed. The endearment slipped out, but he didn't care. "We'll find a way. We'll fight it."

"Some things you can't fight, Angel," she whispered in resignation.

"Don't say that! You can always fight," he responded with more determination in his voice than he actually felt.

"He's right, Buffy. We can't, and won't, give up," Cordy said in support and came to stand next to them.

Buffy looked at her friend and then around at the others staring at her. She knew they'd try, but she knew in her heart that it wouldn't do any good. They wouldn't find anything to make her better. This thing...this poison...was going to finish its job. It was going to kill her. And she knew what she had to do. There wasn't time to wait any longer.

"I...I need to talk to Angel. Alone." She didn't say why, but everyone, except Giles, Faith, and Angel himself, knew what was about to happen.

Angel's head whipped down to look at her in confusion. "What?"

"C-can you take me t-o my room?" she requested, wincing as a wave of pain racked her body. "There are t-things we need t-to talk a-about."

"Buffy, we can do that later." Though he wanted to talk to her, Angel didn't know if now was the right time, not when they were in a dire situation.

"Please?" she begged, gazing at him with pleading eyes.

There was no way he could deny such a request. When no one from the group made any attempt to stop them, Angel relented. Slowly, he turned and carried Buffy toward her bedroom. All the while, he wondered what was so important that she needed to talk to him right at that moment.

"Oh shit," Willow blurted out once they were out of site.

"Willow!" Cordy gaped wide-eyed at redhead.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Buffy lay in her bed watching Angel as he stood near the window staring at her. So far, neither of them had said anything. He had only carried her into her bedroom and gently placed her in her bed, tucking the covers around her trembling body. After, he had stepped toward the window and waited. Now, several minutes later, he was still waiting.

Unconsciousness was beckoning her; a sweet oblivion that would take away the debilitating pain terrorizing her body. But she fought it, for now at least. She needed to keep it together just a little bit longer. He needed to know. She needed to tell him, and she needed him to make a promise to her. She just didn't know how to start.

Exhaustion overwhelmed her and her eyes began to drift shut, but she pried them back open. Just a little bit longer, then she could sleep.

"Buffy, you need to get some sleep," Angel's calming voice broke through the haze clouding her mind.

"No...n-not yet...need to...talk," she wheezed, using all her remaining strength to pat the bed next to her. "Sit."

Angel walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed, taking one of Buffy's hands in his. "Whatever it is, it can wait."

"No, Angel." Her head shook a fraction of an inch. "No time...need to...now."

"Shh, you're going to be fine," he tried to soothe her and reached up to brush the hair off her sweaty forehead.

"D-don't...know t-that," Buffy forced out, willing herself to remain awake for just a little bit longer.

"Yes, I do." Angel couldn't help it as a tear slipped from one of his eyes. "You're going to get through this."

"Angel," she coughed and groaned at the exertion. "P-promise...me..."

"Buffy-," he attempted to stop her words.

"No...promise m-me...if I...d-don't...p-promise." The last word was so quiet that if Angel hadn't been a vampire he wouldn't have heard it.

"Promise what, baby?" Angel's worry was growing each second. She was slipping further and further away from him.

"Ashlynn...must...take care...of Ash." That wasn't how she meant to say it, but it was the best she could do.

"Ashlynn? Your daughter?" Angel asked, perplexed at the statement.

"Yes...promise...she...will...need you," Buffy barely whispered. She knew she wasn't going to be able to go much longer.

"Me? Buffy, you're not making any sense." Angel began to wonder if the illness was making her delirious.

"P-promise me," she demanded as forcefully as she could muster.

"I promise," Angel agreed. How could he not heed her request? Still he was confused. Why him?

"Thank you," she replied and smiled weakly. "She will...need you."

"What about your friends...and Lindsey." The question was out before he could stop himself.

"N-not Lindsey's...," she blurted out hoarsely, her eyes closing for second before she pried them open again. "She's yours."

Angel frowned and tried to understand what she had just said, but it didn't make sense. "Buffy-"

She didn't let him finish. "Ashlynn...your...daughter...yours."

Angel's hand flinched away from Buffy as her words registered in his mind. Ashlynn was his daughter? No, that wasn't possible. He was a vampire. He couldn't have children. The poison had to be making her see things as they weren't. That was the only possible explanation. There was no way. No possible way. But even as he thought that, a feeling eased down his spine that made him shudder.

"Buffy," he started again, not sure what he was going to say, but when he looked at her he saw her eyes were closed. The sound of her breath and heartbeat assured him she had just fallen asleep.

Several long minutes later, Angel was still staring at her sleeping face trying to process what he knew couldn't be true. Even as he contemplated that, thoughts and memories began to tick down in his mind: the last night with Buffy, the candle shaped like a six on the little girl's birthday cake, the feeling he got the first time she looked into his eyes, Cordy's actions earlier that day, and the way everyone seemed to stare at him. All those things were leading to a conclusion that couldn't possibly be true. Could it?

Blindly, he stood from the bed, nearly falling in the process, as he tried to deny what his soul was telling him was true. Stumbling toward the door, he was greeted by Cordelia, Willow and Doyle. All staring at him in sympathy. Angel's eyes met theirs then shifted toward Buffy before returning back again. He knew they were about to tell him it was just the sickness that had made her say the things she had. It was the only reason. It had to be.

"Come on, Angel," Willow said instead of denying Buffy's claim.

He said nothing as Willow and Cordelia each took one of his arms and steered him toward the living room, and he never even noticed when Doyle slipped into Buffy's room behind them. There was only one thing he could think about; Buffy...Ashlynn...daughter...his daughter? No, he told himself again. She wasn't his. She couldn't be his.

Angel didn't even realize that they were now in the living room. His numb body didn't feel them shove him down onto one of the chairs. He didn't see that the room was now empty except for Willow and Cordelia. The outside world was all a blur as Buffy's words echoed in his mind. It wasn't until Cordy spoke up that he pulled his focus elsewhere.

"Angel, there are some things you need to know."

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

"...I'm pregnant..."
"...A-about two months..."
"...That would have been around graduation. We didn't know you were seeing anybody..."
"...Angel..."
"...So you slept with him..."

No....no...it wasn't possible. That was all he seemed to able to tell himself. Yes, they had made love that last night, but he was a vampire. He wasn't able to give her a child. It was a physical impossibility. Yet here he was, sitting in a chair, listening to Willow and Cordelia tell him that Buffy had gotten pregnant from that final night together.

Could it be true? Could that little girl in the other room be his? Oh how he wanted it to be true. To have a child with Buffy was something he'd only imagined in his dreams. How wonderful it would have been to have created life with her, something that was part her, part him, and a combination of their love. But he was a vampire, he kept reminding himself.

They told him it was true. There had been no one else right after he left. It was his child. His. He had a daughter. A beautiful, blonde haired image of her mother. As much as he wanted to fight the truth, he knew deep down inside that their words were true. The physical impossibility couldn't negate everything else. It was true. It was all true. That little girl was part his.

The tears fell unhindered as he accepted a reality he never thought feasible.

*******

"...You disgust me...you put all of us, and the world, in danger just so you could screw your vampire lover!..."
"...I used to look up to you, admired you for everything you've done and sacrificed.but you're just a whore who can't keep her legs shut. You don't give a shit about the rest of us or the world as long as you can have your vampire lover..."
"...To say I'm extremely disappointed and ashamed of your actions is an understatement...you have ridiculed your Calling and my position as your Watcher. The Buffy I know would have never put the world in mortal danger like that. I do not think I know who you are anymore..."
"...Poor little Buffy, the pride and joy of the Council, knocked up by a vampire. I hope you have a nice life with your demon spawn..."

Willow and Cordelia visibly jumped at the vengeful growl that Angel emitted as he listened to the aftermath of Buffy's revelation back in Sunnydale. It was a good thing neither the Watcher nor the useless whelp were within his sight or he'd be forced to do something he'd regret. They deserved nothing less for being heartless cads.

How could they be so uncaring? How could they treat her as if she was some kind of plague? Buffy had needed her friends and family most then, and they had not only turned their backs on her, but also berated her in a way that no one deserved. It broke his heart to think about what she must have gone through at the hands of her so-called friends. And she had had no one to turn to because he was gone as well.

If he hadn't of known what guilt felt like before, he certainly did now.

*******

"...You want me to get an abortion?..."
"...Why, yes, of course. You certainly cannot have this baby..."
"...I'm dead serious. I'm keeping this baby..."
"...If you plan on keeping this baby then you can find yourself somewhere else to live..."
"...I'm not going to get an abortion..."

An abortion? No....no! The very thought of losing a child he hadn't even known about until minutes earlier was like a holy-water drenched stake to the heart. To think that the beautiful little girl he'd met earlier might possibly have never existed sent shudders through his body. But it hadn't happened. Buffy had not aborted their child.

Buffy! Gods! What she must have felt to have her Mother not only tell her to get rid of the baby but then to kick her out when she wouldn't. It must have been absolutely horrible for her. He'd like to say he was surprised by Joyce's actions, but truthfully, he wasn't. Everything he knew about Buffy's Mother told him that the woman would have never gotten past her ideal of what her daughter should be, and obviously eighteen and pregnant, by a vampire no less, was not part of that ideal. And she'd been kicked out of her house and alone because of it.

Would things have been different if he had been there? That was a question he'd never know the answer to.

*******

"...I plan on getting out of this Hell-hole town, probably in a day or two. I can't stand being here any longer..."
"...What about you?..."
"...Same. No one wants me around. They made that perfectly clear. And I don't want to raise my baby anywhere near them..."
"...So I guess we're going to Seattle..."

That answered quite a few of the questions in his mind. After being tossed to the curb by everyone important to her, Buffy saw no reason to stay. Angel couldn't say he blamed her. She'd been subjected to so much and the town must have held one too many bad memories. Leaving had probably been the best thing for her, though he wished the situation would have been different. At least she hadn't been completely alone. She'd had Cordelia.

The strange camaraderie between Buffy and the brunette hadn't been lost on him since his arrival. It had definitely seemed odd, but now it all made sense. And Angel found himself feeling grateful that the ex-cheerleader had been there for Buffy when she needed it the most. It didn't cease his heartache, but it helped somewhat to know that someone had been there to support Buffy.

As he looked at Cordelia, he couldn't help but think of that phrase that said sometimes the worst situations bring out the best in people.

*******

"...Name's Allan Francis Doyle, but everybody calls me Doyle..."
"...The Powers know of yer...condition. They are worried that yer at risk because ya can't defend yourself as well. Yer important to them in the fight against evil and they don't wan' ta lose ya because of a demon attack while yer pregnant..."
"...Now don't worry, lass. I'm going ta make sure nothing 'appens to ya, or yer little one..."

The Powers That Be? Doyle? Half demon? Angel's mind was swirling over this latest round of 'let's recap Buffy's life after you ran away'. Whoever these Powers were had had enough interest in Buffy to send a protector for her. He didn't know whether to be glad or concerned over that fact. What was so important about Buffy that they felt the need to send Doyle?

Not that he wasn't grateful for the half demon's presence. It seemed as though this Doyle had been a welcome addition, and had become good friends with both Buffy and Cordelia. Angel couldn't help but feel a twinge of jealousy that someone else had done what he was supposed to do. He should have been there to keep Buffy safe while she was pregnant. It was his child, after all, he should have been there.

He hadn't been, though, but at least Buffy had others around her when he had abandoned her.

*******

"...Well, Ladies, I'm here with a...business... opportunity for the both, well three, of you..."
"...I...huh?...I mean...let me get this straight. You want us to help you open up and run a club?..."
"...I was told you are looking for somewhere better to live, and I've got all this extra space. So why not put it to good use?..."
"...So do we accept Lorne's offer?..."
"...I guess we do..."

Another piece of the puzzle to Buffy's life fell into place after hearing this latest explanation. He was a bit awed by the generosity of a complete stranger. Lorne, the one with the green skin he'd seen earlier, had opened up his life for two people he didn't know, and given them a chance at a better life. From what Cordelia said, things hadn't been good before that.

They had been given a wonderful opportunity, though, and thrived in it. Pride swelled at all that Buffy had accomplished. She'd been at one of the lowest points in her life and risen from it to make a life for herself and her...their...child. All because of the generosity of a stranger.

Angel knew that the next time he saw the demon named Lorne he would have to say thank you which wouldn't even begin to express his gratitude over what the demon had done.

*******

"...M-my water just broke. I t-think I'm in labor!..."
"...Congratulations, Buffy! It's a girl!..."
"...Have you decided on a name yet?..."
"...Ashlynn Darcy Summers..."

A little girl. She'd had a girl. Their child. And he hadn't been there for any of it. He'd missed seeing her grow with their child, feeling it kick within her stomach, soothing her aches and pains, and experiencing his daughter's birth. He was supposed to be there for those things. That was what fathers did, but not him. He hadn't been there for Buffy or Ashlynn.

Ashlynn Darcy Summers. A shadow of a smile flickered across his face. Buffy had picked an Irish name for her...their...child. It warmed his heart in ways he couldn't begin to express. Despite everything, she'd given the child a piece of his heritage. And they weren't just any names. She'd picked ones with meaning, though he could only imagine the pain it must have caused her.

Logic fought to convince him that this all wasn't possible, but his soul was telling him it was true. He had a daughter.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Anger. Hate. Fear. Hurt. Pride. Sorrow...what wasn't he feeling as he sat there and listened to Willow and Cordelia highlight Buffy's life. It was almost like watching a movie and experiencing the gamut of emotions that one went through. But this wasn't just a movie. It was something he was connected to. The main character wasn't some bubbling actress playing a roll, it was his Buffy.

He wanted to run into her room and crush her to him in a never-ending hug. So much. She'd been through so much for someone so young. Why did fate have to throw so much at her? Being Called as a Slayer was bad enough, but it hadn't ended there. No, the trials and tribulations had just kept coming and coming and coming for her. And for a while, he'd been there to support her.

Then he'd left, never knowing that she'd gotten pregnant the night they spent together after graduation. He'd often chastised himself for being weak and going to her that night, but knowing now that that joining had resulted in a child he could never regret it. He knew Buffy didn't regret it either. One look at the interaction between Mother and Child was enough to tell him that Ashlynn was the light of her Mother's life. No, there were no regrets anymore about that night.

The question of how the conception was possible vaguely plagued his mind as Angel sat by himself in the living room; Willow and Cordelia having left him alone to brood to go downstairs and research a cure for Buffy with the others. He was vampire. His body wasn't alive. How could he have helped create a child? Angel supposed the why didn't matter because he knew it was true. He didn't know how he knew, but he could feel it in his soul, and he knew that Buffy, Willow, and Cordelia wouldn't lie to him about something like this.

A moving shadow on the wall caught Angel's attention out of the corner of his eye. Raising his head, he saw Lindsey leaning against one of the walls of the living room staring at him openly. Angel fought a growl as he looked over the boyto-...no, he caught himself. This was someone important to Buffy, someone who made her happy. He wasn't going to begrudge her that. If that meant being nice to...Lindsey...then he would, for Buffy's sake.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 11
^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Lindsey silently moved toward Angel and sat on the opposing couch, setting the object in his hands down on the coffee table in front of the vampire. Angel looked from Lindsey to the object and back to the blonde man. After a few moments, he finally reached over and picked up the item. It was a book of some kind from what he could tell. He was tempted to open it and see what was so important about the book, but instead, Angel's eyes were trained on the man sitting opposite him.

Before he could think too much about it, Angel blurted out the first question on his mind. "How long have you and Buffy been together?"

Lindsey neither flinched nor answered the question immediately. Instead, he stared pensively at Angel for a minute before responding. "We're not."

"Oh, that's ni-...you're not?" Angel snapped to full attention. That wasn't what he was expecting to hear at all.

"No," Lindsey raised an eyebrow, knowing full well what the vampire had assumed.

"But..." Angel's brow furrowed in confusion as he struggled to find something to say.

"We're friends," the blonde man who was apparently not Buffy's lover stated. "Close friends."

"You're...you're friends?" Angel choked out, relief and the slightest hint of hope filling his heart.

"Yes," Lindsey leaned back on the couch and crossed his right leg over his left. "Don't misunderstand me. Buffy is an amazing person, which I'm sure you know, and I wouldn't say no to being more to her, but her heart is still taken by someone else."

Angel gaped at Lindsey, a plethora of emotions playing on his face. Things he hadn't noticed before suddenly came to the forefront of his mind. He'd never seen them kiss, never heard them say I love you, never noticed anything remotely intimate between them. And the scents. Buffy's room smelled overwhelming of her and was only minutely tinged with others. In her room, there was not trace of their scents being intimately intertwined with each other.

A morose chuckle rose in Angel's throat, but he held it back. Man, he'd really jumped the gun on this one hadn't he?

Lindsey, meanwhile, was watching Angel with his own thoughts running through his head. He loved Buffy. He really did, and once upon a time years ago, he'd thought that if he waited long enough she would finally let him in. It never happened, though. Buffy always held a part of herself back; the part of her that had, and would, always love the souled vampire named Angel. So he'd settled for being her friend, and now that the vampire was back it was obvious to Lindsey that that was probably a wise decision. Anyone could tell that Angel still loved Buffy, and he knew that Buffy, even though she never said it, still held deep feelings for Angel.

"I thought...," Angel mumbled more to himself than to the man opposite him.

"I know what you thought," Lindsey's face remained expressionless. "Aren't you going to look at the book?"

Angel looked at the heavy book sitting in his lap and wondered what it was. The cover was plain with no writing on it giving him no clue whatsoever as to what could be on the pages inside. When he looked up to question Lindsey about its contents, Angel saw that the man was no longer seated on the couch. Looking around the room he caught sight of Lindsey's back just as the door to the stairwell closed behind him.

Shaking his head at the odd situation and fighting the urge to get up and jump up and down like a little kid over the revelation that Buffy and Lindsey were not together like he thought they were, Angel turned his focus back to the mysterious book in front of him. He didn't know why, but his hands were shaking as he pulled the front cover open.

Inside, on the first page, all he found was a plain white envelope. Something told him to open it and read whatever was in it so he carefully pulled the flap open and drew out what was a soft pink sheet of paper. Opening it, Angel read the words that he found were addressed to him.

My Sweet Angel,

If you're looking at this book, it means you must now know the truth; that Ashlynn is your daughter. We made a child together, Angel. You and me. Something that is a part of both of us.

I know you wish you could have been there to see it all, and I wish that you could have been there too. But we don't always get what we want do we? Well, at least we never seem to.

I knew, somewhere deep down inside, that I'd see you again someday, that you would finally get the chance to meet your daughter. I don't know when it will be, or if ever. Maybe it's just wishful thinking that you're not gone forever. If you ever do return, I know that there's nothing I can do to give you the memories of your daughter that you will have lost. So I made this for you.

Cordelia is the only one who knows what this book really is. She helped me put it together and add to it over the years. Everyone else thinks it just a photo album, but it's not. It's a chronicle from early in my pregnancy until now. There are pictures from the various stages of the pregnancy, a few sonograms, ones from the birth, and then others from different times in Ashlynn's life. I know they can't replace real memories, but maybe they will help, if only a little.

Love Always,

Buffy

By the time he finished reading the letter, Angel's face was drenched with tears. He almost couldn't believe that Buffy had done something so incredibly thoughtful after the way things had ended between them. She had, though, and now he had in his hands a pictorial of his daughter's life. He was almost afraid to look, afraid to see what exactly it was that he had not been there for, but his need for even the smallest taste of his beautiful little girl was too overwhelming. So with shaking hands he turned the page, bracing himself for the emotions he knew were forthcoming.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Some time later, after Angel had finished looking through the entire book, he sat staring at one picture in particular. It was one of Buffy and Ashlynn sitting under the shade of a large tree smiling and laughing as they blew bubbles. They looked so happy and he could almost feel the love between mother and daughter. It was a sight he never thought he would see; Buffy with their child, and it was amazing and heart breaking all at once.

He never thought a bunch of pictures would be so hard to look at. Each and every one was a reminder of some part of Buffy's and his daughter's life that he had been absent for. Looking at the images of Buffy's expanding stomach had made him want to rub his hands all over the bulging skin and place gentle kisses upon it. The one of Buffy holding newborn Ashlynn had made him shed more tears, as had the following pictures of various times in his daughter's life.

With each new picture he looked at, Angel fell more in love with the little girl he'd only met once. He was awestruck by every little detail: the smiles, the laughs, the tears, all of it. She was absolutely amazing. For one of the few times in his long, miserable life, he felt like he had been part of something truly good. He had helped to create something so completely pure and wonderful that he couldn't help but feel unworthy of it. He didn't deserve to be this little girl's father after all that he had done in his life.

Buffy did, though. She deserved everything their daughter brought to her life. He could tell from looking through the pictures and from watching the birthday party a few nights earlier that Buffy loved Ashlynn dearly. After all she'd been through in her life she had finally been given something to look forward to each day. And now something was threatening that happiness she'd found.

Looking back at the smiling picture of his soulmate and his daughter, Angel knew that he had to do something. He couldn't let Buffy die. He couldn't let Ashlynn lose her mother, the only parent she'd ever known. There had to be a cure to the poison that was decimating her body. And Angel was damn sure he was going to find it.

Feeling more confident than he knew he should, Angel set the photo album on the coffee table, hating to walk away from it but needing to do something, and strode toward Buffy's room. It was time to stop sitting around. It was time to do something. It was time to save Buffy's life.

As he passed by a door with a colorful nameplate that said 'Ashlynn' Angel paused momentarily. He could hear her inside watching what he assumed was TV. The temptation to go in and see her was great, but he fought it off, at least for now. Dealing with Buffy's illness was the foremost priority. He needed to focus on that before he could even think about getting to know his daughter. So he pulled his hand away from the doorknob and proceeded down the hall.

From the doorway of Buffy's room he could see Buffy lying motionless in sleep. In the chair next to the bed, Doyle sat reading what Angel assumed was one of the books they'd pulled to research Buffy's affliction. He remained silent for a few minutes content to merely watch the labored breathing of his beloved before turning his eyes once again to Doyle; the half demon who had been sent to protect Buffy years ago.

When Doyle finally looked up from his book, their eyes met and held for a second until Angel gave a slight nod of his head signaling that he wanted to talk to the half-demon. Sparing one more glance at Buffy, Angel turned and walked back into the living room and waited for Doyle to meet him.

"I think you can do something for me," Angel stated the moment Doyle had entered the room.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~the next morning~

"Are you sure you're ready to do this?" Cordy spoke quietly, her hand poised on the doorknob in front of her.

"Yeah," Angel replied though he wasn't quite sure he was ready.

"Okay," the brunette sighed, feeling sympathy for the vampire. "Let me go in and close the shades first."

"Ash? You have a visitor" Angel heard Cordy say after she had entered into the little girl's bedroom. Moments later, once the threat of sunlight was gone, he stepped over the threshold and saw his daughter sitting at her desk with her back to him.

"Who's here?" Ashlynn looked up at her Aunt Cordy.

"Why don't you turn around and see," Cordy smiled and pointed toward the door where Angel stood.

Slowly, Ashlynn revolved in her seat and let out a small gasp when she saw the man standing a few feet away. Her eyes followed him as Angel walked into the room and knelt down next to her tiny desk chair. An eternity seemed to pass as the two stared into one another's eyes.

"Hi," Angel finally spoke and then cursed himself for such a lame greeting.

"Daddy!" Ashlynn flew off her chair and into Angel's arms, nearly knocking him over backwards.

Angel was shocked at the reaction but relished the feel of his daughter in his arms for the very first time. He hugged her tight to his body as a few stray tears trickled down his cheeks and onto the little girl's blonde hair. It was almost impossible for him to believe that this child was his daughter. Nothing could have prepared him for the feelings she brought about in him.

"You're here," Ashlynn stated softly as she loosened her grip and pulled back to look at the man she had heard so much about.

"You know who I am?" he asked and then raised a hand to gently touch her cheek.

"Uh huh," she nodded emphatically before she scurried out of his arms and raced over to her nightstand to grab something that Angel could not see.

Upon returning, Ashlynn plopped herself down onto Angel's lap and handed him what she had just retrieved. He took the object from her and instantly knew what it was; a picture of him and Buffy at her senior prom. Shakily, his fingers touched the smooth glass as his mind drifted back to that night when he'd held Buffy in his arms on the floor of Sunnydale High's gym. It was such a long time ago, but he remembered each and every second of it.

"Your Mom gave you this?" his voice was hoarse as he studied her big brown eyes.

"Yeah. She said it was you and her a long time ago," Ashlynn told him, settling comfortably in his lap.

"She's right," Angel gave her a sad smile and wondered what else Buffy had told their daughter about him. "She told you about me?"

"Uh huh," Ash tilted her head and looked at Angel. "Mommy and Aunt Cordy and Aunt Willow tell me stories about you."

"They do?" To say he was surprised that they'd talk about him was an understatement.

"Yeah." Ash's smiled turned to a frown. "But it makes Mommy sad and sometimes she cries."

Angel's shoulders slumped as he thought about Buffy talking to Ashlynn about him. Did he ever cause her anything but pain? That's all he seemed to do. Despite the sadness it caused her, Buffy had told Ashlynn about him. It warmed his dead heart to know that he hadn't been forgotten, that even though he hadn't been there he was still her Father.

"What did she tell you about me?" he inquired after his curiosity got the better of him.

Ashlynn took a second to consider the question before answering. "She said that you had to go away to fight the bad men and that's why you couldn't be here. She said that you loved me very much," she paused and peeked at Angel with tear filled eyes. "Do you love me, Daddy?"

His heart almost broke over the timid question. Without hesitation, he once again pulled her into his arms and hugged her tightly. "Of course I love you, Sweetie. Never doubt that I love you."

They simply held each other for the next few minutes, building a rapport that had never before had a chance to grow. For Angel, the little blonde headed ball of energy clutching at him was a miracle. When he was a human eons ago being a Father had never once popped into his drunken, lust-driven mind. His years as Angelus had been focused on torturing, killing, and other things that he didn't want to think about let alone mention. When his soul had been returned the only thing he could think about was all the atrocious things he'd done. Then came Buffy.

From the moment he first saw her sitting on the steps of Hemery High, sucking on a lollipop, he had loved her. She was the epitome of everything good and pure about the world. And never in a million years would he have thought she'd return his feelings. She had, though, and it was then that the idea of creating a child with her had first entered his mind. It was a pipe dream. He was a vampire; a demon living in a body that should have been long dead. He was supposed to take life, not create it.

He'd resigned himself to never giving Buffy a child, and in the end had left her so that she could have all that he couldn't give her. But by some miracle his dead body had done the impossible, creating the bubbly little girl now snuggled against his chest. What he'd done to deserve such a blessed gift was beyond him. He didn't know how it had happened, but he wasn't about to question something so wonderful.

"Wanna see the picture I drew?" Ashlynn's voice broke through his internal musings.

"Sure," he grinned at her and helped his daughter stand so that she could give him a glimpse of who she was.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

Later that day, after spending hours getting to know his daughter, Angel finally slipped from her bedroom and closed the door quietly behind him. He took a few steps before stopping to lean against the wall, fighting the tears that threatened to fall. As he stood there, head leaned back, his mind recalled part of the time he'd spent with Ashlynn.

"Can I see Mommy soon?" her voice trembled as she asked the question.

"She's still not feeling well, Sweetie," he told her, tucking a wayward strand of blonde hair behind her ear in a gesture so familiar to him.

"Oh. Will she be better soon?" Ashlynn tried not to cry, but she wanted to see her Mommy.

"Soon. I promise," he swore and tried to smile, knowing in his heart that he was not going to let Buffy die.

"Okay," she nodded, seeming to believe him. "Daddy? Are you going to stay?"

"I-I...," Angel stuttered, the question taking him completely off guard. "I don't know."

"Oh," her lower lip trembled and a few tears slid down her cheeks. "Please stay, Daddy."

"I can't make any promises, Ashlynn," he took one of her tiny hands in his. "But I can tell you that no matter what happens that I will always love you. Even if I'm not here you'll still be my little girl."

"I love you too, Daddy," Ashlynn threw herself into her Father's arms and cried.

Angel ran a hand through his hair as he thought about the amazing little girl. He hated lying to her, but he couldn't tell her the truth. He couldn't tell her he wouldn't be staying, that he wouldn't be there to see her grow up. As much as he wanted to be there, he couldn't, and it wasn't fair to her to make promises he knew he wouldn't be able to keep. Pulling his tired body away from the wall, he continued on to his next destination: Buffy's room.

He found Lorne sitting in the chair by Buffy's bed, humming lightly to her. "Any change?"

Lorne startled at the question having not noticed Angel's presence. "Geez! You are a stealthy one aren't you? To answer your question, no, she's not woken up again."

Angel gave a quick nod having expected to hear that. Buffy hadn't regained consciousness since the previous night. "Do you mind if I spend a few minutes with her?"

"Not at all," Lorne rose from the chair. "I'll go read some more dreadfully boring books with the others."

"Thanks," Angel mumbled and solemnly took his place in the chair Lorne had just abandoned.

From the doorway, Lorne studied Angel and frowned. The vampire was giving off weird vibes. He needed to find Doyle. Maybe the half demon would know what's going.

"Hey, baby," Angel murmured to Buffy once Lorne had left the room.

"I met Ashlynn," he started to tell her about his first real encounter with their daughter. "She's beautiful. You did an amazing job with her."

Angel sighed, wishing Buffy was awake so he could talk to her. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you, and for her. I know it must have been hard. But you made it through. You have everything I always wanted you to have."

"I promise you, Buffy, I won't let anything happen to you," he reached up to cup her cheek. "Ashlynn needs you. Your friends need you. I won't let you die."

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

"There has to be something we can do!" Angel could hear Cordy's voice before even entering the living room an hour later. "We can't just let her die!"

"I wish there was something, Cordelia, but the poison has no known cure," Giles repeated what he had already told them many times.

"We're just supposed to let her...," Willow couldn't finish the sentence as she began sobbing on Oz's shoulder.

So caught up in their arguing and misery, the group never noticed Angel enter the room and creep along the outer edges until he reached the door to the stairs. He paused for only a moment, questioning himself and the decision he'd made while on his errand the previous night. He glanced to the group of friends only feet away, then to Buffy's room, and finally toward Ashlynn's room, before carefully pulling open the door and sneaking out into the night.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 12
^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

~later that night~

Despite Giles' assurances that there was no way to stop the mystical poison slowly killing Buffy, the group of friends was still determinedly scouring the books for any shred of hope to save Buffy. Cordy was currently sitting with Buffy, keeping watch in case anything happened. No one said it, but they were beginning to feel like they were on a death watch. Though they kept searching for a cure, hope was dwindling. Buffy had not spoken or even woken up in over a day. Time was running out, and they all knew it.

"Pizza's here," Oz walked out of the elevator and sat two full pizza boxes down on the coffee table.

"I think if I eat I'll throw up," Willow said, cringing at that thought of the pizza.

Silence descended upon the room as they all just sat and stared at the food. Eating meant acting like everything was normal, but things certainly weren't normal. Their friend was dying. How could they possibly think about eating now?

"There's nothing we can do is there?" Lindsey finally said what everyone was thinking.

"I'm afraid not." Giles' eyes teared up at the thought of losing Buffy. Things hadn't been good between them for so long, but he certainly didn't want her dead.

"She can't die," cried Willow helplessly.

"I-I can go to my s-store and try some of m-my contacts," Tara offered. She'd finally recovered enough from reading Buffy's aura to join in the researching earlier that day.

Giles was about to respond when they heard Cordy shriek from Buffy's bedroom. "OH MY GOD!!"

No one moved immediately following the shout. They all feared that the worst had finally happened. But even so, they needed to know. Almost as one, each person leapt from their seat and dashed toward Buffy's room, bumping and knocking into each other in the process. The sight that met their eyes was one none of them expected in the least.

"Dear Lord!" Giles exclaimed as he stumbled further into the room.

"Buffy?" gasped Willow, steadying herself against Oz.

"Uh, hi? Someone wanna give me a hand?" Buffy pleaded as she struggled to get out from underneath Cordelia's unconscious body.

Oz and Doyle quickly rushed to the bed and pulled Cordy's limp body off of Buffy and laid her down on the other side of the bed. Once free of the cumbersome weight, Buffy sat up on the bed and pushed her hair out of her face. "Thanks. She was kind of heavy."

"What happened?" Doyle worriedly looked down at his girlfriend and then to the Slayer who seemed to be perfectly fine.

"I think she fainted," Buffy answered with a shrug, the oddness of the situation not fully dawning on her yet.

"Ow," groaned Cordy as she started to come to. Suddenly she shot up in the bed and turned to look at Buffy. "Oh my God!! You're all right!!"

"What's going on?" Buffy was growing more confused by the second. The last few days were such a blur and she didn't understand why everyone was staring at her like she was a ghost.

"Yes, that's a very good question." Giles took his glasses off and furiously wiped at them with his handkerchief.

"Cordy? What happened?" chimed in Willow, torn between going over and giving Buffy a giddy hug and getting some answers to the strange occurrence.

Cordelia massaged her temples for a minute before answering. "I was sitting here reading when Buffy just woke up and was fine."

"Fine?" questioned Giles in disbelief. That simply wasn't possible.

"Yeah, fine," Cordy repeated and glared at the ex-Watcher.

"That makes no sense," he mumbled, brow furrowed in confusion.

"You don't feel sick at all, Buffy?" Willow moved to stand next to the bed.

"No," Buffy shook her head and glanced around at her friends who were all in her room. "Someone wanna please fill me in here?"

"Tara?" Giles turned to the dirty blonde. "I don't suppose you could do whatever you did before?"

"S-sure." She nodded her okay even though she really didn't want have a reoccurrence of what had happened before.

Buffy watched with wide eyes as Tara sat down on the edge of the bed. The witch went through her short meditation and then placed her palm onto Buffy's forehead. The others watched nervously, waiting for any sign to clue them in on to what she was sensing. Those who had seen her do the reading previously were immediately aware that Tara wasn't having the same reaction. When Tara pulled her hand away a minute later, they eagerly awaited the news.

"S-she's clean," Tara faced the group and stated. "T-the magick isn't t-there any m-more."

"This...this is unprecedented," Giles mumbled, staring hard at Buffy and needing to verify the fact that she was fine.

"Umm...hello?" Buffy waved her hands to catch the groups' attention. "I'm still waiting for an explanation here."

"Oh, sorry," apologized Willow sheepishly. "We're just glad you're okay."

"Yes, she is right," agreed Giles as he sat down in the chair near the bed. "Buffy, you were poisoned by the Council."

"Poisoned?" Buffy repeated, somewhat shocked. She could vaguely remember hearing Giles talk about a poison days ago, or what she thought was days ago.

"Yes. They found out you were not dead, as I'd led them to believe." At Buffy's hurt look he clarified his statement. "I knew if they found out that you had...left...Sunnydale and my guidance they would send a retrieval team for you so I told them you'd disappeared and were presumed dead."

"Oh. I guess that makes sense," Buffy mumbled.

"Unfortunately, they were able to gain the knowledge that you were in fact alive and here in Seattle. Needless to say, they did not take the news well and sent a team to, well for lack of a better term, take you out," Giles explained and carefully eyed Buffy. "They somehow slipped you a mystical poison."

"That's why I haven't been feeling well," pondered Buffy out loud, recalling the sickness that had plagued her for the past two weeks.

"You are correct," Giles confirmed her assumption. "The poison's effects start off slowly and then rapidly get worse which is why you have been so ill the past few days."

"But I feel fine now," Buffy stated, trying to understand all of what Giles was telling her.

"It appears so. That is what has us quite perplexed," Giles replied, standing so he could pace around the room.

"Why?" Buffy's eyes followed Giles as he paced.

"Buffy," Willow started softly. "The poison had no cure."

"No cure? Then how..." Buffy suddenly understand what had the entire group confused. "I was going to die?"

At her question, all eyes in the room shifted away from Buffy, not wanting to admit that they'd all but conceded defeat. How were you supposed to tell someone that they were going to die? Giles' fervently recalled the time years ago when Buffy was to face the Master and meet her death. He hadn't wanted to tell her then, and he didn't want to tell her now even though it seemed as though the poison was gone from her system.

"I was, wasn't I?" Buffy whispered through her tears.

"I'm afraid so," Giles affirmed her suspicions.

Doyle, hand still clutching Cordelia's, lifted his head to face the former Watcher. "Do ya have any idea what's goin' on?"

"None whatsoever," Giles shook his head. "The poison should have..."

"Killed me," Buffy filled in the final words, a shudder going through her body.

Their discussion was interrupted by a small voice coming from the doorway. "Mommy?"

"Hey, baby." Buffy smiled at her daughter, tears once again threatening to fall as she realized how close she'd come to never seeing her beautiful little girl again.

"Aunt Cordy said you were sick. Are you better?" she asked softly, her tiny hands clutching her favorite stuffed animal to her chest.

"Yeah, Sweetie. I'm feeling better." Buffy patted the bed next to her. "Come here."

Ashlynn padded softly into the room and climbed up onto the bed. "I missed you."

"I'm missed you, too. Were you a good girl while I was sick?" Buffy questioned, smoothing her hand down Ashlynn's hair.

"Yes, Mommy," Ash nodded insistently. "And I played with Daddy this morning."

"You played with...oh my God! Angel!" Buffy tensed and her eyes shot up to scan the room looking for the vampire. "Where's Angel?"

"I don't know." Willow tried to remember when she'd last seen Angel. "He was here earlier tonight."

"Where'd Daddy go, Mommy?" Ashlynn's lower lip quivered. She already missed her Daddy.

"I don't know, Sweetie," Buffy distractedly answered as she tried to remember what had happened while she was sick and how it was that Ashlynn appeared to now know her Father. She had fuzzy memories of Angel being there and talking to him about Ashlynn. He must have met her at some point after that. Where was he now, though? Would he just disappear after meeting their daughter?

"He, uh, probably just went ta get somethin' ta eat." Doyle was grasping at straws, but he had to say something. A sinking feeling in his gut was telling him that something wasn't quite right, and that maybe he'd played a roll in whatever that was.

"I'm hungry, too, Mommy," Ash chirped and bounced lightly on the bed.

"Oh, uh, right," Buffy said, running a hand through her messy hair. There was so much plaguing her mind; Angel returning, him finding out and meeting his daughter, the Council poisoning her, but right now her daughter was her first responsibility. She could freak out about everything else later.

"We have pizza. It's probably still warm," Oz chipped in.

"Cool!" Ashlynn scrambled off the bed and was out the door before anyone could even blink.

"I guess we should follow the Little One if we want any pizza," Lorne laughed at the exuberant child.

Buffy started to get out of the bed when Doyle caught her attention. "Are ya sure yer okay to get up?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just a little stiff," she replied and stood up, stretching her achy muscles.

Almost the second she was on her feet, Willow pulled her into a firm hug. "I'm so glad you're okay."

"Me too, Wil," Buffy tearfully mumbled.

Cordy followed suit and hugged Buffy the moment Willow released her. "Don't do that to us again."

"Ya gave us quite a scare, lass," Doyle told her and kissed her on the cheek.

"I don't know what we would've done without your pretty face to look at everyday, Sunshine," Lorne too gave her a welcome back hug.

"I love you guys, too," Buffy returned the sentiment, wiping at the tears falling down her cheeks.

It was then that she noticed both Giles and Faith standing uncomfortably in one corner of the room. She hadn't even noticed Faith before, and it threw her slightly to see her sister Slayer for the first time since their fight before graduation. From what Willow had told her years ago, Faith had returned to the good side, and her appearance with Giles seemed to reinforce that. For now, she'd give the brunette Slayer the benefit of the doubt. It wasn't Faith's presence, though, that had her tense. Giles was the cause of that.

Sure she'd spoke to him just minutes earlier, and listened as he explained what had happened to her, but it was just now hitting Buffy that Giles was in her room. With everything that was going on, her mind hadn't had a chance to associate the facts, and now that she had, the memories from her last few days in Sunnydale came back full force. His words that day in his apartment still stung as if they had just happened. She could tell he wanted to hug her as the rest had, but she couldn't let him, not after what he had said to her.

Giles seemed to notice the change in her posture because he gave her a slight nod of his head before speaking. "I'm glad you are well, Buffy."

"Thank you," Buffy replied stiffly, staring at him for another second before walking out of the room. At some point, she knew she'd have to talk to him, but she wasn't ready for that yet.

Upon entering the living room, Buffy saw that Ashlynn was already chowing down on a slice a pizza while Doyle and Willow were handing out plates to everyone else. She took a moment just to watch her friends and thank whatever higher powers there were for keeping her alive and for giving her such great friends and family. As she was about to join the group, Buffy noticed a familiar book on the coffee table. She didn't remember getting that photo album out.

"What's this doing here?" she asked as she walked over to the table and pointed to the album.

Lindsey looked up guiltily and strode over to Buffy. "I, uh, gave it to Angel so he could look at the pictures. I hope that was okay."

Buffy paled slightly, realizing that Lindsey had no idea that the book was more than just a photo album. Only Cordelia knew that she'd made the book for Angel, so that if he ever returned he'd able to get a glimpse of his daughter's life. She didn't know if she actually expected him to really return, and she definitely hadn't thought about what was going to happen when and if he did.

"Uh, yeah, fine," Buffy muttered while lifting open the front cover of the book. The letter she'd felt compelled to write a few years earlier had been opened, she could tell. That meant Angel had read it and looked through the book. Was that why he'd disappeared? Did he now want nothing to do with her and his daughter?

"Mommy? Aren't you going to eat?" Ashlynn interrupted her worrying.

"Yeah," Buffy said, forcing a smile on her face as she looked at her daughter. She could agonize over all this later when she was alone. Picking up the album to move it so they would have room to eat, she was startled to see a white envelope underneath with her name written on the front in a flowing script that she knew instinctively was Angel's.

"What's that?" Cordy asked with a frown and stepped closer to Buffy who was now holding the envelope in her hands.

"I don't know." Buffy turned the off-white paper over and hesitantly pulled out the letter inside. As she started to read the words addressed to her, she couldn't shake the sickening feeling settling in her gut.

My Dearest Buffy,

If you are reading this letter, it means that you are better and that what I have done was not in vain. I know you have no idea what I am talking about, but I will explain.

First, I want to tell you how sorry I am that I was not there for both you and our daughter. Words can not even begin to make up for all that I have been the cause of. It seems as though the only thing I ever do is hurt you. I never wanted to cause you any pain, but I didn't succeed in doing that did I?

I don't know if leaving you was the right thing to do. I don't know if staying would have worked either. Hindsight is twenty twenty, though, isn't it? I can't change what I did or did not do. All I wanted was for you to have a happy life. And you've done that, beloved. You have everything I thought you deserved and wanted you to have.

Ashlynn is a beautiful little girl. You've done an amazing job with her. I couldn't be any more proud of you. I'm honored to be her Father and glad to have been part of her life, if only for a little while. Please tell her that no matter what, I will always be her Father and that I will always love her.

I couldn't let you die, Buffy, not when you have so much to live for. You've survived so much and made the perfect life for yourself. You have loyal friends, a great job, and a truly wonderful daughter. They all need you, the world needs you.

No one needs me. That is why I have done what I've done. Willow and Cordelia told me about all that has happened to you since I left and about your friend Doyle. I thought that since he had a connection to The Powers That Be that there was a way I could talk to them and beg them to help you. He took me to this place where I could speak with the Oracle, a being who represents the Powers. I never told Doyle why I wanted to talk to them, just that I did. So don't be mad at him. He didn't know what I was going to try to do.

I offered the Powers a trade; my life for yours. There was no way I could let you die, Buffy, not when I could do something, anything, to stop it. You deserve more than to suffer because of some poison administered by a group that is supposed to be on your side. The Powers agreed with me. They said they would cure you of the poison in exchange for my life. They knew, just as I did, that your life is worth so much more than mine.

I took the deal without regret, only asking that they give me a few hours before they acted upon it. The reason I asked for time was so that I could me our daughter and spend some time with her, and with you. I couldn't leave without saying goodbye.

Since you're reading this, I'm assuming They honored our agreement. You can go on with the life you built for yourself, now. I wish you all the happiness I could never give you.

Always remember that I love you,

Angel

"NO!" Buffy cried, the sound coming out in a wretched howl as the letter falling from her hands down to the floor. Her knees buckled, Lindsey catching her before she to hit the ground. She sobbed uncontrollably in his arms, hating Angel for giving up his life and hating herself for never saying all the things she wanted to say to him.

The others watched in confused horror, not understanding what had just happened. They could only make out one thing; a phrase Buffy seemed to be repeating over and over.

"But I needed you."

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^


THE END!!

Next: 'A Choice For The Future' - #5 in the Shadows in Time series:
The final fic in the series.

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