A Choice For The Future - #5 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/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: Final installment in the Shadows in Time series.
Spoilers: The first 4 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 5th, and final, fic in the SiT series, the first 4 can be found here:
SiT series index

Thank you: To *Stars* for beta'ing even though she's really busy, and to Roz for being a test reader!

Warnings: mild angst


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Part 1
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Five days.  Five incredibly long days had passed since Buffy and her friends and family found out how it was that she was cured of the mystical poison that was rapidly killing her.  At times it felt as if they had just read Angel's letter explaining his selfless actions to save Buffy's life yesterday, but at other moments, it seemed as though months had passed.  Really, it had only been five days.

They were all still utterly shell-shocked to learn of the extent to which Angel had gone to ensure that Buffy's life would continue.  He had made the greatest sacrifice for her.  He had given up his own life so that she would live.  It was awe-inspiring and tragic all in the same breath.  They could only imagine the love the ensouled vampire felt for Buffy to do what he did.  There were likely very few people in the entire world that would save another even though the cost was their own life.

No one knew quite what to feel about the events that had occurred five days ago.  On one hand, they wanted to rejoice in the fact that their friend was going to be okay.  She was someone who made everyone around her a better person.  None of them wanted to lose her.  Then, there were also the parts of them that were weeping over the loss of Angel.  Even those who hadn't really known him, including Lindsey who could never win Buffy's heart because of Angel, were terribly saddened by his death.

At the moment, each and every one of them was incredibly worried about Buffy's well-being in the aftermath of reading Angel's explanatory letter.  The blonde haired Slayer had basically fallen apart after realizing what he had done, and as of yet, had not even begun to recover.  Truthfully, none of them were sure that she would be able recover from this latest horrible blow.

All of them were aware of the vampire's importance to Buffy.  Those who initially knew of his reappearance, namely everyone but Lindsey and Oz, knew that Buffy hadn't been dealing with it well, but that eventually she would have softened once the anger faded.Now she would never have the chance.  She would never be able to make peace with him, with their past, and with the fact that they made a child together.  They knew it would forever haunt her that she never got to reconcile their problems.

Even worse, though, was the fact that her soulmate was dead.  Before, Angel had only left and gone somewhere else.  It allowed there to be hope that someday things might change and they'd be able to be together.  But now, all that hope was effectively crushed.  Angel was dead.  There would be no more chances for them to be together.  Buffy would never get to be with the one person in the world whose soul matched hers.  And that was what had them worried the most.

It was never actually talked about, but they all knew that somewhere deep inside, Buffy held out hope that Angel would return to her someday.  She'd forgone a relationship with Lindsey, a man who adored her and her daughter, because of the love she still felt for the vampire with a soul.  How was she ever going to get over the fact that he was now truly gone?  The answer was that she probably wouldn't.  She'd manage to pull herself together if not for herself then for her daughter, but she would never be the same.  This loss was too great.

Buffy had hardly said anything since she read the letter five days ago.  She had sobbed in the arms of her friends and family for hours upon learning of Angel's sacrifice, but since then, nothing.  Most of the time, she lay in her bed curled in a fetal position, staring glassy-eyed at the wall.  She refused to talk to anyone, wouldn't even acknowledge them if they walked into the room.  The only time she got out of bed was to tend to her daughter or to go to the bathroom.  Needless to say, they were a little worried about her mental health.

Currently, almost everyone, Cordelia, Doyle, Oz, Lindsey, Giles, and Faith, were sitting in the living room of Buffy's apartment discussing the situation.  When they heard Willow enter from the hallway leading to Buffy's bedroom, all eyes turned toward her.

"No luck?" Cordy nodded to the tray, still full of food, carried in the redhead's hands.

"No," Willow sighed worriedly and set the tray down on the coffee table.

"Has she eaten anything since...," Doyle trailed off and leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees.

"I think she ate a sandwich yesterday when she was with Ash, but that's it," Cordy answered while putting a comforting arm around her fiancé.

"We have to get her to eat.  She can't go on like this."  Lindsey moved from where he was leaning against the wall and sat down on one of the leather chairs. 

He was seriously concerned for Buffy.  Having known her for about six years he knew how much Angel meant to her.  Years ago, he'd harbored illusions that he could have a romantic relationship with her, but over the course of time it became obvious that she was still no where near over the vampire.  Even so, he still cared deeply for her and because of that he worried a great deal about her.  And with the current circumstances, his worry was multiplied times ten.

"Did she even say anything when you went in there?" Cordy again spoke to Willow.

"Not a word.  I don't even think she knew I was there," Willow shook her head in the negative.  Buffy's behavior was really beginning to scare her, and she had no idea what to do to help her.  She wasn't even sure there was anything she or anyone else could do.

Giles took his glasses off and rubbed at his temples.  He was at a total loss over what to do for Buffy, and it didn't help that he'd been out of her life so long and that things were tempestuous, at best, between them.  Losing Angel had to be horrible for her.  He was well aware of that.  When she had been forced to send him to Hell years before she'd disappeared for months afterwards.  This time, well, he wasn't sure she'd be able to handle it.  He wanted to do something to help her, but considering their current relationship he didn't think she'd be open to his help.

Seven years had passed since the dreadful encounter back in Sunnydale that precipitated their estrangement and her move to Seattle, and in that time, Giles had spent many long days and nights regretting his actions.  His anger had been valid, but he now knew he should have not let it take over.  He should have supported her.  He should have done so many things, but he couldn't change what had happened now.  All he could do was be there for her and hope he got the chance to make things right.

"Hate to bring this up," Oz interjected and spoke up for the first time.  "But should we be worried the Council will come after her again?"

"You think they'll try again?" Cordy turned to look at the usually quiet man.

"Just something to consider," Oz shrugged.

"Giles?" Willow looked to the ex-Watcher for an answer to their worries.

"It's possible, I suppose."  He put his glasses back on and considered the question.  "I don't think we have to worry about that immediately.  They are probably unaware of her recovery from the poison, and if they have found out it will likely take them a while to regroup and try again."

"You said they most likely put it in her food before, right?" Cordy asked for clarification.

"It would have been the simplest method, yes," Giles nodded his agreement.

"With her not eating then we don't really have to worry about that," Willow sighed dejectedly.

"Yeah, she'll just starve to death," groaned Cordy, leaning back against the couch.

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

Ashlynn quietly crept out of her room and down the hall.  She didn't want anyone to hear her moving around.  All she wanted was to see her Mommy.  Something was wrong.  She didn't know what, but it was obvious to her, even in her young age, that something wasn't right.  Her Mother wasn't acting as she usually did.  There were no happy smiles, no tickling laughter, no loving kisses, no nothing.  The little she'd seen of Buffy the last few days had only exposed her to a blank face and empty eyes.  Even to a six year old that was impossible to miss.

No one would tell her what was wrong with her Mommy.  They said she was feeling sick again and that she shouldn't bother her.  But Ashlynn didn't believe them.  They also wouldn't tell her where her Daddy was.  She'd only spent one afternoon with him but she already madly loved the man she'd only ever before heard about.  She wanted to see him again, but he'd disappeared and every time she asked about him they never answered.

Arriving at her Mother's room, Ashlynn peaked inside the partially closed door.  The room was dark except for a small light on the nightstand that was on.  She could see her Mom lying on the bed sound asleep, or at least Ashlynn thought she was sleeping.  Noting that no one else was in the room, she crept softly inside, not wanting to wake her Mommy.

She stared at Buffy for a minute, trying to decide what to do now that she'd managed to get near her before climbing gently onto the bed.  Kneeling near her Mother's head, she frowned at the sight of Buffy's face.  It looked like she'd been crying.  Ashlynn reached out her tiny fingers and lightly touched Buffy's cheek.  The skin was damp, confirming Ash's suspicion that her Mom had been upset about something.  She wanted to know what was wrong, and why she'd been crying, but she didn't want to wake her up.  Instead, she lay down on the bed and curled herself up next to Buffy, falling asleep in only a few minutes.

The moment Buffy felt her daughter's breathing even out; she opened her eyes and looked down at the blonde haired child.  She'd been awake the entire time, but didn't have the nerve to face her baby girl yet.  How was she supposed to tell Ashlynn that her Father, the man she'd just met and already adored, was gone?  How could she tell her that when she, herself, couldn't yet accept it?

Words couldn't even begin to describe how horrible she felt over the way she treated Angel.  When she first saw him that night days ago, she'd been completely shocked to say the least.  Seven long years had passed since he walked out of her life.  The first few months, years even, she kept expecting him to come back to her.  After a while, that hope died.  It was still there, buried deep inside, but each day that passed the possibility of his return seemed less and less.

Then he was there, standing before her in all his handsome glory.  She wished now that she hadn't run from him.  She wished that she'd talked to him, or hugged him, or done anything but run.  The next time she saw him she acted even worse, and she regretted every second of it.  She'd yelled at him and let him think she moved on.  She practically threw herself at Lindsey and rubbed it in his face.  But worst of all, she tried to keep his daughter from him.

Sure, when push came to shove, she told him about Ashlynn.  Buffy wondered, though, if she still would have done it if she hadn't believed she was really going to die.  Would she have told him?  Yes, probably someday, but he didn't deserve someday.  She should have told him right after his return.  Instead, she held back, and he had to hear the news when she was half delirious.  And then he had to hear the whole story from Willow and Cordelia.  Gods, she was a horrible person.

Now, he was gone, and she'd never be able to make it up to him.  She'd never be able to talk to him, hug him, or see him with their daughter.  He would never be able to do anything again, and all because of her.  Angel sacrificed himself for her despite how badly she treated him.  She was the one who was supposed to be dead, not Angel.  The poison was given to her, was supposed to kill her.  Angel wasn't supposed to die!  It wasn't fair.  It was supposed to be her not him. 

The sobs that Buffy had been holding in for days once again rose, but she couldn't cry.  Her daughter was pressed up against her and would certainly wake if she let loose the torrent of tears she could feel threatening to fall.  So, as quietly as possible, she slipped out of the bed, making sure to tuck the covers around Ashlynn's sleeping body.  Stumbling because of her weakness from not eating and residual effects from the poison, Buffy left the room.

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

Down in the office of the club, Lorne and Doyle finally managed to get a few minutes away from everyone else.  The green-skinned demon had been trying to find the opportunity to talk to his friend for days, but there always seemed to be others within listening distance.  Thankfully, some club business came up that allowed them to get away from the others for at least a few minutes.

"Did you know what he was going to do?" Lorne half snapped at Doyle the moment they were within the confines of the office.

"No," Doyle shook his head emphatically.  "He came ta me, asked about my connections, and said he wanted ta speak ta them."

"And you just took him there?" Lorne eyed him in exasperation.

"Hey! The man's a big, strong vampire!  Ya wanna try sayin' no ta him?" Doyle held up his hands in defeat.

"Did he really threaten you?" Lorne asked as he sat on the edge of the desk.

"No, but that glare of his will make ya do jus' about anything."  He shuddered as he remembered the deadly look Angel had given him when he tried to keep the information about the Oracle from him.

"So you told him about the Oracle.  He didn't say why he wanted to see them?" Lorne continued his prodding, trying to piece together the events of the past week.

"He jus' said he wanted ta speak ta them.  Nothin' else.  I had no idea what he had planned," the half demon sighed dejectedly. 

"We have no idea if he went there to offer his life for hers though.  He probably wanted to know if they could do anything to help her," Lorne offered his thoughts.

"Probably," agreed Doyle.  "But ya know them.  I'm not surprised they did this."

"Me either," Lorne frowned with a shake of his head.

"I hate that he did it, but it saved Buffy," pointed out Doyle.

"He may have kept the poison from killing her, but I don't think we can say he saved her life."  The vibes Lorne was getting from the Slayer seriously frightened him.  She reeked of practically every negative emotion there was.

"Gotta agree with ya on that."  Doyle, too, knew they may have one the battle, but they were still waging a war on keeping the Slayer from self-destructing.

"I have a feeling that this story isn't over yet, my friend," Lorne suddenly stated.

Doyle looked at him oddly, surprised by the out-of-the-blue declaration, and curious as well.  "Why do ya say that?"

"Just a feeling," he shrugged noncommittally.

"Well, whatever yer feelin', I hope it's somethin' good."  Doyle started toward the door.  "I better get back before 'Delia comes lookin' fer me."

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

"So no one's got any idea on how to get her to eat?" Willow asked the group still gathered in the living room.

"We could always force it down her throat," Cordy chimed in.

"Oh, yeah, that'll work.  Pry open a Slayer's mouth and shove food in it," snorted Faith, saying something for the first time that night.  She felt awkward around these people.  It was like they kept staring at her, expecting her to do something.

"Good point," Cordy frowned and wrinkled her nose.

"She'll eat when she's ready to," Lindsey added his two cents to the conversation.

"But what if she doesn't?"  Willow's voice broke slightly as she spoke.  She was truly worried about her friend's well-being.  If they didn't get through to her soon, she was afraid Buffy would waste away to nothing.

"We have ta snap her out of it soon.  Ashlynn needs her Ma."  Doyle spoke up from where he'd been standing since he came back from talking to Lorne.

The reminder of the little girl sobered them all more than they already were.  It was hard enough dealing with Buffy's sabbatical from reality, but they were skating on thin ice when it came to Ashlynn.  They'd been lying to her non-stop the last few days trying to keep her from Buffy.  And every time she asked about Angel, they were forced to distract her so she wouldn't find out the truth.  Even though the child had only just met Angel, they knew it would break her heart to hear he was gone forever.

"Maybe we should let Ashlynn in to see her," Oz pondered out loud.  He clarified when he saw the disbelieving looks from the others.  "It might snap her out of it."

"I don't think-" Giles started to say.

"No, he's right," Willow smiled at her husband.  "She needs something to remind her that she can't just crawl into a hole.  Letting Ash in might just do that."

"Ya know, I think you're on to something," Cordy agreed eagerly.

"Any suggestions on how to go about this?" Willow leaned forward, looking at the group expectantly.

Cordelia thought for a second then snapped her fingers.  "Tomorrow morning we could take Ash in to have breakfast with her.  She might eat if Ash if there watching her."

"Do you think it's a good idea to take Ashlynn in there when Buffy's so out of it?" Lindsey questioned, worry evident in his voice.

"It's the only idea we have!" Cordy glowered in irritation at Lindsey then softened her look.  She knew that everything from the past week had to be hard on him.  He'd been pining after Buffy for so long and Angel's reappearance and subsequent death showed him that he never really had a chance with Buffy.

"I hate to bring this up now, but are we still going to have the memorial?" Willow raised an issue they'd been talking about the day before.  With Angel gone, it seemed only appropriate to do something to remember him.  Those who had known him, even if they hadn't really been friends with him, wanted an opportunity to say goodbye to the man who meant so much to their friend and who had given up his life for her.

"I don't think Buffy's ready for that yet."  Doyle shuddered at the idea of telling Buffy they were planning a memorial for her dead lover.

Giles sighed and leaned back against the couch he was seated on.  He felt direly out of place amongst these people, and didn't know if they really cared about anything he said.  "I must agree with, uh, Doyle.  I doubt Buffy could handle it in her stated of mind."

"I guess we should wait a while.  Buffy's libel to go completely catatonic if we were to do something now."  Willow rested her head on Oz's shoulder, relieved that she had her husband there with her.

"Yeah, and I mean, it's not like we're in a hurry since there's no body.  He wasn't even alive, err, you know what I mean," Cordy pointed out the not so small fact that Angel was a vampire.

"Cordy!" Willow chastised the brunette for her coarse words.

"What?  It's true," huffed Cordy.

"So we're holding off on the memorial?" Oz stepped in to keep a fight from starting.  Cordy and Willow may have put their past differences aside long ago and become friends, but they still tended to get on each others nerves.

"No," a new voice sounded before anyone else could speak.  They all turned to find Buffy standing at the entrance to the living room.

"Buffy!" Willow squeaked nervously.  "How long have you been standing there?"

"You want us to have the memorial now?" Cordelia stated her interpretation of Buffy's 'no'.

"No," repeated Buffy, her tone serious.  "There will be no memorial."

"Buffy," Lindsey stood up and walked over to Buffy.  "We think it would help if you were able to say goodbye."

"Goodbye?" Buffy choked back a sob.  "You think I can just say a few words, light a candle, and then forget that he...he's d-dead."

"Now, Buffy."  Giles, too, stood to face his former Slayer.  "We don't expect you to forget, but you cannot let this ruin your life."

"Oh come off it Giles!" she shouted angrily at him.  "You've hated Angel ever since Angelus killed Jenny.  You're probably glad he's gone!"

Giles visibly flinched at the barb.  He tried not to let it get to him, considering Buffy's state of mind, but it still stung.  "Buffy, you know that's not true."

"Do I?" she laughed in disbelief.  "H-how can any of you t-think I could just say goodbye and m-move on.

Buffy tried to step forward, but she stumbled and nearly fell.  Managing to catch her, Lindsey pulled her into his embrace and hugged her as she cried.  He wished there was something he could do for her, but he knew there wasn't.  It was obvious, though, that she wasn't ready to face any of this yet.  So he scooped her up and moved to carry her out of the room, sharing concerned looks with their friends.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 2
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"Buffy?" Doyle asked softly as he stood in the doorway to Ashlynn's room. 

Moments after Lindsey had carried a sobbing Buffy out of the living area, he had returned and summoned Doyle.  He was told only that Buffy wanted to talk to him, and not about what.  As he moved toward Buffy's bedroom, Lindsey promptly stopped him and pointed him in the direction of Ash's room.  Doyle didn't bother to ask why they weren't in their actual rooms, just did as he was told.  Now, standing there gazing at Buffy, he was getting and eerie feeling.

She didn't answer him right away so he repeated her name.  "Buffy?"

This time, she turned to face him, and he almost flinched at the look in her eyes.  "Doyle."

"You, uh, wanted to see me?" he shuffled into the room, closing the door behind him.

"Yes," she nodded, facing him fully with arms crossed over her chest.  "I want to speak to these Oracle people."

"What?" Doyle gasped in utter shock.

"The Oracles," she repeated and then pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper from her back pocket.  "In Angel's letter, he said you took him there, and that these people represent the Powers.  I want to talk to them."

"No, Buffy..."  The vicious gleam in her eye made him take a step back.  Déjà vu.  Hadn't he just been in this situation five days earlier?  "Why do ya want ta talk ta them?"

"Because they can't do this!"  Her shout sounded loudly throughout the room.  She took a deep breath, continuing on in a softer voice.  "They can't just play with people's lives like this.  It isn't right, and I intend to tell them that."

"It won't change anything," he tried to explain to her.  The Powers weren't the type of beings who changed their minds once they did something.  Buffy could only end up disappointed if she went to the Oracles on Angel's behalf.

"I don't care!" she cried out.  "I want to talk to them!"

"Yer not going ta take no fer an answer are ya?" Doyle sighed and sat down on the bed.  This was not good.  Not good at all.  Buffy was setting herself up for a fall, and there didn't seem to be anything he could do to stop it.

"No, and if you don't take me I will find them on my own," she stated in determination.

Doyle rubbed his temples and contemplated his choices.  The Oracles were not the type of beings who has discussions.  They made decisions, gave orders, etc.  And they certainly did not like being questioned or second guessed.  Buffy going to speak to them would not sit well.  It didn't look like he had a choice, though.  She was going to do this with or without him.

"Fine," he finally relented.

"Good.  Let's go."  Buffy immediately marched toward the door.

"Now," he squeaked, jumping off the bed.  "Ya want ta go now?"

"No time like the present."  She didn't wait for his reply as she marched out of the room and through the apartment.  It only occurred to her momentarily that the rest of the apartment was empty, but any concerns she had over that were pushed away.  She was on a mission, and nothing would stop her.

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

"Are ya really sure ya want ta do this?" Doyle questioned for the tenth time since they'd left the apartment.

Buffy sighed in exasperation, turning to face him and then grimacing when her foot landed on something gross and sticky.  Why exactly were these Oracle people located in the sewers?  It didn't seem very appropriate.  She'd imagined them in some lavish hotel at least, or maybe a mansion somewhere.  But the sewers?  The smell alone would be enough to chase people away.

"Yes, Doyle.  I'm sure, and no I won't change my mind."  She tried to sound emphatic, but it came out rather flat.  All the emotional distress of the past week was taking its toll on Buffy and she didn't have the energy to argue with him.

"All right."  He moved forward, pressing his fingers along the grimy walls until he reached a particular spot.  Finding the mark he was looking for, Doyle's thumb hit an unseen button and a door appeared to his left on the wall.  "Well, go on in."

Peering curiously at her friend, Buffy stepped forward and poked her head through the door.  A scowl appeared on her face at the room on the other side.  It looked like just another part of the sewer system, though not quite as dirty.  As far as she could tell, though, there weren't any higher beings inside.  Still, she went in anyway with Doyle following behind her.

Once inside, she further glanced around the room.  It was about a five foot by five foot square with concrete walls and flooring.  There didn't appear to be any other doors that would lead her to the Oracle people.  As a matter of fact, there weren't any entrances or exits period.  The door they'd just come through was now gone, leaving Buffy feeling a bit trapped.

"You do know what you are doing, right?" Buffy asked warily.  She startled when a panel on the floor moved and a small stone altar rose upwards.  This whole thing was really beginning to creep her out.

"Yes.  They do this because they don't want just anyone finding them," he replied before moving to the altar that had just appeared. 

"Oh, okay."  That made sense, she supposed.  It wouldn't be good if any bum off the streets could gain entrance to whoever these beings were.  "What now?"

"I have ta say a chant and then use a special key sort of thing.  Once it's done, if they agree ta see ya, an entrance will appear."  As he said the word 'key' Doyle pulled an odd looking crystal from his pocket.  It was long and thin, and seemed to be a silvery blue color.

Doyle stepped up to the altar after his explanation.  He sprinkled a handful of a sand-like material on its surface first and then softly whispered a chant that Buffy could barely hear let alone understand the words.  The small stone seemed to vibrate as he spoke, and Buffy couldn't tell, but also might have glowed slightly.  Though she would never admit it, Buffy was a bit nervous over what was going on and was wondering if perhaps she'd made a wrong choice.

When Doyle finished the chant, an area on the top of the altar about the size of an orange blurred and shifted shape.  A metallic object formed out of what was once pure stone, rising about six inches tall.  It was the color of aged bronze with flowing curves and twists that gave it an inherit beauty.  The center was hollow and there was an opening at the top that looked as if it would hold something.  Buffy instantly realized that the key Doyle mentioned must go there.  Her suspicion was confirmed when he took the crystal and placed it in the metal lock.

The second the key was in place, it glowed a blinding bluish light, forcing Buffy to shield her eyes.  A low hum echoed through the room, tickling deep down in her gut.  As quick as the bright light appeared, it vanished.  Removing her hand and blinking her eyes to refocus, Buffy was shocked to find herself no longer in the small concrete room with Doyle.  Somehow she'd ended up somewhere else without even taking a single step.

Spinning around in an attempt to gain her bearings, Buffy found herself even more confused.  Wherever she'd ended up didn't even seem to be an actual room.  It was more like empty, open space clouded over by an opaque white haze on all sides.  She could see nothing but fog; no doors, no floor, no walls, and no Oracles.  Just fog.  Everywhere.  What the Hell did Doyle get her into?

"Hello?" she shouted out into the abyss.

"Greetings, Slayer," a voice spoke from behind Buffy.  She whirled around and tried not to be shocked by the fact there was now an expensive looking chaise two feet away where there had just been nothing.  This place was enough to drive a person insane.

"Umm, hi?!" she squeaked nervously, facing the person sitting on the chaise.

Buffy wasn't sure, but she assumed the being was an Oracle, or maybe it was their secretary.  Who knew?  Doyle hadn't exactly given her directions.  And he also didn't tell her that the people...beings...whatever...in this place, or wherever the Hell she was, defied explanation.  The being before her seemed neither male, nor female.  It was sort of androgynous.  The clothes didn't help decipher It's sex either; togas were a unisex article.  Shrugging off the oddness, Buffy focused on her purpose.

"We've been expecting you," It spoke in a low voice as It sat up fully on the lounger.

"You have?" Buffy wondered out loud in confusion.

"Of course.  You're visit is not a surprise."  It stood up and seemed to float towards Buffy, circling slowly around her.  "You have served the Powers well.  They are quite pleased with the work you have done."

"It's not like I had a choice," she snorted indignantly.

"You are unhappy with your duties?" It asked before retreating back to the chaise.

"No...well, sort of.  It just would have been nice to have gotten a choice in the whole thing," Buffy replied honestly.  She didn't really hate being a Slayer, but at the same time, it's not something she would have picked for herself.

"Only the strongest of mind are bestowed the responsibilities of protecting the world.  You should be honored to have been Chosen," the Being told her as if the reasoning were obvious.

"Oh," mumbled Buffy, never having considered that line of thought before.  "Look, I didn't come here to discuss my being a Slayer-"

"We are aware of that as well."  It waved It's hand at Buffy.  "You are here with regards to the vampire, yes?"

"Angel.  He has a name you know."  Hearing him referred to as 'a vampire' pissed her off.  He wasn't some animal.  He was a person.

"You did not answer our question.  He is the reason you are here, is he not?"  It ignored Buffy's correction, and gazed intently at her.

"Yes, he is," Buffy confirmed the motive behind her visit.

The Oracle smiled knowingly at Buffy over her confession.  "As you will learn, we are never wrong."

"Good for you," she grumbled at the pompous statement.

"Respect is warranted here, Slayer.  Insolence will not be tolerated," the Oracle relayed forcefully.

"Sorry," apologized Buffy half-heartedly.

"Now, as for the reason of your visit."  It settled back in It's chair.  "You wish to plead for the vampire Angel's life, yes?"

Buffy frowned at the being's knowledge.  It was like she was having her thoughts read and that unnerved her.  She didn't want anyone in her mind but her.   "I am," she spoke defensively.

"We cannot just return him to this plane at your will."  It went straight to the point.

"Why not?" Buffy demanded in a growl.

"It does not suit the Powers to do so," It stated indifferently.

"He does not deserve this!" she shouted in anger.

Eyes boring into Buffy, the Oracle pondered for a moment before speaking.  "Why do you believe he deserves otherwise?"

The question startled Buffy.  She hadn't been expecting it.  Doyle had told her the Oracles didn't discuss things, but this Being she was talking to seemed to be content to do just that.  Maybe she had a chance.  Maybe she could make them see that what they did wasn't right.

"Because he is a good person," she started off.  "I know he has not always been that way, but he had no control over what the demon did.  He has a caring soul.  If it weren't for him I would probably be dead, and the world might not exist."

"Your point is valid," It conceded.  "But should he not atone for his sins?  Is that not the way of the world?"

"That was the demon, not him!" Buffy argued.  Why did people not understand that he was not responsible for Angelus' crimes?

"That is true," the Oracle nodded, shifting to a more comfortable position.  "However, he willingly went with Darla to the alley all those years ago, and asked to be shown her world.  And even before that, he was a drunken lout content to disgrace his family and chase after women."

"But...but he's c-changed," she sputtered in response, the blunt words getting to her at first.  "Everyone changes and makes mistakes.  He's not who he used to be.  He fights for the world now."

"We do not disagree with you," It sighed in an almost sad manner.  "The fact remains, though, that the Powers cannot just bring him back."

"Why?  They are the Powers.  They should be able to do anything," Buffy pleaded tearfully.

"Because that is not the way of things.  The vampire, your Angel, made a deal.  That is the way They work," It iterated concisely.

"Then take back the deal!" she ordered without thinking.

"You wish to reverse the way things are?" It questioned with a raised eyebrow.

"Yes!" an infuriated Buffy practically yelled.  This person...Being...whatever...talked in circles, and it was irritating.

"It would do you well to consider the consequences of such an action," the Oracle pointed out.  "The only way to take back the deal, the one where the vampire's life was taken in exchange for yours, would be to rewind time and go back to before the deal was made."

"Go back? Then I'd..." Buffy trailed off, realizing the implications of her request.

"Yes, you would return to your death bed," It confirmed.

"Why can't you just bring him back?" she again asked.  The hope that had risen was beginning to falter.  Either way she was screwed.  If she did nothing, Angel would stay dead, if she reversed time, she would die.  It was a no-win situation.

"As I have said, that is not how things are done.  The Powers do not just give.  They make exchanges," the being repeated its earlier reasoning.

"There has to be something you can do!" she cried out desperately.  There just had to be a way to bring Angel back.  He couldn't be dead.  That was just unacceptable.

The Oracle sat up again, intrigued.  It nodded its head imperceptibly, and in the blink of an eye, a cage-like structure, invisible to Buffy, appeared a few feet to her right.  Inside the cage, also invisible to Buffy, stood Angel in utter confusion.  He had absolutely no idea what was going on.  One moment he had just made a deal to save Buffy's life, and the next he was locked in a metal box.  Gazing around him, he was stunned to find himself back in the Oracle's chamber, and even more shocked to see Buffy there, and looking healthy...er....than before.  What the Hell was going on?

"Buffy?" he called out to her, not realizing that she could neither see nor hear him. 

"Buffy!" he shouted louder and again got no response.  Looking to the Oracle, he tried to get It's attention, but It too ignored him which only added to his confusion.

"You wish to make a deal for the vampire's life, Slayer?" It asked, hiding a smile.  Now they were getting down to business.

Inside his cage, Angel gasped.  Buffy was here for him?  To ask for his life?  It shouldn't have shocked him, but it did.  Considering all that he'd done to her, it was unfathomable to him that she would come to ask for his life.  And it scared him.  With the way the Powers worked he was afraid of what she would do for him. 

"Yes," Buffy answered simply.

"The Powers will not accept your life for his.  You are too important to this world," It stated up front. 

"Just tell me what to do to bring him back!  Whatever it is I'll do it!" she appealed to It.

"It is not wise to make such a bold statement, Slayer," It chastised her, and then cocked It's head as if it were listening to something.  "The Powers have a deal to offer to you."

"What is it?" she eagerly wanted to know while Angel listened to the conversation apprehensively.  He had a bad feeling he would not like this deal.

"In exchange for the Vampire's life they will require you to be indebted to them," the Being recited and then added, "For eternity."

"No!" Angel's shout echoed unheard to Buffy.  He couldn't let her do this.  His hands grasped at the bars to his cage, trying to escape and stop Buffy before she risked too much for him.

"What?" Buffy gasped.

"You are a powerful Warrior for the Powers.  They would be more than willing to have you fight for Their cause for the rest of your life...an immortal life," It clarified the deal being proposed.

"Immortal?" she whispered to herself.  "They want...I'd get Angel back if I became immortal?  And fought forever?"

"No!  Don't do it Buffy!" Angel raged on, oblivious to the fact that he was merely an observer to what was going on.  His fear rose another notch at the idea of Buffy condemning herself to immortal life.  Living forever may seem appealing to some, but in reality, it was horrible and depressing.

"Yes, we will return the vampire if you commit you're eternal life to the Powers as a warrior," It repeated her only option.  "Think hard, Slayer.  This is not an endeavor to be taken lightly."

And Buffy did think about it.  Would she be able to live and fight forever?  Would she be able to handle seeing everyone around her die while she remained young?  For the first time, she began to understand the thoughts that plagued Angel when he left her.  She'd never before considered herself in that situation.  Now that she did, she could see how hard it would be.  Could she take on the burden of becoming immortal in order to save Angel?

Yes, she could.  He shouldn't have died, at least not as a deal to save her life.  It wasn't right.  She couldn't accept that the price of her recovery was Angel's existence.  True, she was grateful he did it because she wasn't ready to die just yet.  At the same time, though, Buffy wasn't ready to accept that in order for her to be alive, Angel had to die.  That didn't quite seem fair.  If she could bring Angel back by only giving up her mortal life wasn't that the right thing to do?  Maybe it wasn't right, but it was what she wanted to do.  Both she and Ashlynn needed him.

"I'll do it," she finally answered after five minutes of deliberation.

"Buffy!  Don't!"  Angel threw himself at the bars of his cage, hoping to escape.

"Very well."  The Oracle waved its hand just as Angel hit the bars of the cage. 

Buffy saw the air shimmer and for a split second saw the cage and Angel before the bars vanished leaving Angel to fall to the floor.  His immediate presence left her unable to move for a moment.  She hadn't expected him to appear right away.  But the second she realized he was really there, she rushed towards where he fell to the floor, practically throwing herself on top of him.

Before Angel could realize what happened, he felt Buffy's body grasping at his.  Lost in the moment, they embraced each other, tears of joy falling from both their faces.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 3
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The elation over seeing Buffy again quickly passed when Angel thought of the price she paid for his life.  He instantly stiffened in her arms, regret and sorrow overwhelming him.  It wasn't right.  He couldn't allow Buffy to suffer the burden of immortal life for his useless existence. 

Pulling away, he looked her straight in the eyes.  "Don't do this, Buffy.  I'm not worth it."

"No, Angel!  Don't say that!" Buffy grabbed his head between her hands.  "You are so much more than you think you are.  I need you, Angel.  Our daughter needs you."

"Immortal life...it's not a walk in the park, Buffy!" he pulled his hands into hers, trying to make her see what she was doing.

"I know that!  I'm not a child!  I can make my own decisions!" she snapped resentfully. 

"Buffy, you have a wonderful life.  You should continue to live it, not have to suffer through eternity while everyone else dies," he angrily replied.  "How are you going to feel when Willow dies?  Or as you watch Ashlynn get old and die as well?  It's not a fun way to live!"

"But you'll be there with me."  The words came out as a light whisper, but Angel heard them perfectly well.  His eyes immediately dropped down.  "You will won't you?"

"Nothing's changed," Angel forced himself to say.

Buffy recoiled from the verbal blow, tears trailing down her cheeks.  "So...what?...after all that's happened, and after finding out you have a daughter you're just going to take off again?"

A burst of laughter drew their attention away from themselves and back to the Oracle, lounging casually on her chair.  "This is better than those dreadful soap operas in your realm," It laughed cheekily.

"I'm so glad you find this amusing," Buffy growled at her, sarcasm dripping in her voice.

"How could you let her do this?" Angel glared at the baffling being.

"Let?  I think you misunderstand, Vampire."  It stood and walked toward them.  "She was not forced to do anything."

"You and your bosses gave her the choice!" he snapped at It.  "They just want a warrior, and don't give a damn about her."

"Umm, excuse me, but ~she~ is standing right here!" Buffy tried to butt into the conversation.

"The Powers That Be know exactly what they are doing, and why," It marched right up to Angel, showing no intimidation.  "You would do well to respect that."

The look on the Being's face disturbed Angel.  Something wasn't right.  "Why do I get the feeling that there is more going on?" he suddenly asked.

"Ah, very perceptive of you," It grinned at the question.

"What's going on?" Buffy interjected, having no idea what Angel was referring to.

"That's what I'd like to know," Angel eyed the Oracle warily.  This Oracle person was hiding something.  He was sure of it.

The Oracle waved its hand and two more chairs appeared near Its chaise.  "Sit, please."

"Why?  Just tell us what's going on?" Buffy demanded, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Because I prefer to be comfortable while talking," the Oracle dismissed Buffy's order and crossed the space to her seat.

Following Angel's lead, Buffy sat on one of the chairs that the Oracle summoned.  Her fingers nervously fidgeted in her lap as she waited to find out what the strange being in front of her was about to reveal.  She worried that Angel's return was all a joke and that It would take him away again.  That was something she simply wouldn't accept.

"All has not been as it seems," It spoke after a long pause.  "You have been misled."

"What are you talking about?" Angel leapt from his chair, ready to throttle the apparently lying Oracle.

"Sit!" It commanded and waited until Angel obeyed.  "Allow me to explain."

"Do it quick."  Buffy had had just about enough of all this crap.

"You, both of you, were being tested."  Oh, It so loved It's job.

"Tested?" Angel and Buffy verbalized at once.

"Yes.  Your worth was being judged."  The Oracle reclined on Its chaise.  "They have been watching you for a long time and have liked what They saw.  But They needed to make sure They were making the right decision."

"Our worth?  I don't understand."  Buffy looked to Angel only to see the same confusion on his face.

"One of the Powers main concerns is protecting the human realm, maintaining its existence," It began It's explanation.  "The balance will soon be shifting, in a positive way, and both of you are to play a role, but They needed to make sure you were the right beings for the opportunity."

"What's going to happen?" Angel grew worried. 

"That I cannot reveal," It stated definitively.  "But if all goes well, it will lead to good things for your world."

"What does this have to do with us?" Buffy wanted to know.  She was growing more confused by the minute.  Why couldn't this Oracle person just spit it out and tell them what was going on?

"As I said, you play a role in the changes to come," It repeated with a sigh.  It didn't like repeating Itself.

"But you had to test us first?" added on Angel, trying to put together all the pieces to this mystery.

Buffy nearly groaned in frustration over the constant battle of words.  "I don't suppose you want to tell us what this test was?"

"Patience, young Slayer," It shook It's head in annoyance.  "The test was used to judge your merit; to ensure that you are loyal, trustworthy, and are ready for the job that will be presented to you soon."  A heavy, silent pause filled the room, before It spoke again.  "You both passed."

"Uh, that's great.  I think," Buffy wearily ran a hand through her hair.  It occurred to her that she should be concerned about whatever this upcoming 'change' was, but she was so exhausted her mind couldn't process the thought.

"I know what you are about to ask," the Oracle waved off the question about to come from Angel.  "You're test was whether you would sacrifice your humanity for the life of the Slayer."  It turned to Buffy, "and your test was whether you would give up your mortal life to secure his return."

"Those were tests?" Buffy gasped in surprise.

"Yes," It nodded in the affirmative.  "The deals were merely a front.  The Powers would not have let the Slayer succumb to the poison no matter what, but they saw an opportunity to administer a test to determine your worth to Their cause."

"Wait...if it was just a test then I'm not going to be immortal now?"  Buffy didn't mean to sound relieved, but she did anyway. 

"No, you are not," the cryptic Oracle verified.  "You will remain as you are."

"So you put me through all this for nothing?!?" she huffed, thoroughly disgusted.  First she had to deal with Angel's death and then she'd had to choose between being immortal and not having Angel only to find out it was all some sort of sick joke.

"Not for nothing, Slayer.  You have Angel back do you not?" It pointed out the positive.

"Oh yeah, great." Buffy laughed sadly.  Fat lot of good that did her.  "You heard him.  'Nothing's changed' which means he'll just take off again."

"That is not acceptable!"  The emphatic statement surprised both Buffy and Angel.  "Do you not understand that you are stronger together?  Apart, you are each formidable, but together, you are even more so."

"It's not that simple."  Angel wondered why no one ever seemed to understand his dilemma.  He never wanted to leave Buffy.  She was the only thing he ever truly loved, but there were just too many valid reasons not to stay.

"You are referring to the Gypsy curse and your vampire status, yes?" It inquired, head cocked to the side.  "We are aware of that issue."

"Can you fix the curse?" Buffy perked up instantly.

"In a manner of speaking," It paused, allowing anticipation to grow.  "Yes."

Angel stumbled out of his chair at the blunt statement.  He hadn't been expecting this at all.  His trip to the Oracles had been to save Buffy's life, and now he wasn't dead, Buffy was fine, and this Being was telling him that his curse could be changed.  It was all almost too much.  For almost eight years, the curse had been constantly hanging over his head, playing a role in his decision to leave Sunnydale, and here was some higher Being saying it could be changed.  Frankly, it left Angel dumbstruck.

"Y-you can c-change it?" came Buffy's disbelieving whisper.

"Yes, but not quite in the way that you are thinking."  The Oracle had to force the grin off Its face.  This next part was a real kicker.  "The Powers have no desire to see Angelus released upon this world ever again, but the demon is not your only limitation.  Your...aversion...to sunlight is problematic as well."

"Wh-...what are you saying?"  Angel was feeling light-headed all the sudden.  His fingers gripped the back of his chair as the leading statement of the Oracle dug deeper into his brain.

Wanting to draw out discussion a bit longer, the Oracle moved on to Its purpose.  "The Powers are prepared to offer you a deal; a real deal this time."

"Oh, great, another deal." Buffy muttered under her breath though she was quite anxious to hear what it was.  She, too, had caught the underlying message in Its words.

"The deal," It began with a slight lick of Its lips.  "Is that you, both of you, commit the rest of your natural lives to the side of Good, and fight evil as long as possible in exchange...for Angel's humanity."

"For my..." Angel's eyes bulged.

"Humanity?" Buffy said the last word.  "You're going to make Angel human?"

All of the breath seemed to leave Buffy's lungs as she thought of the implications of what had just been said.  Angel?  Human?  The very idea was foreign, and strange, and yet so utterly wonderful.  How many times had she dreamed of this over the years?  Too many to count.  And as many times as she'd fantasized about him becoming human, they'd always been just that; dreams.  Never had she thought it could really happen.  Could it really be true?  Could this Oracle person really make him human?

Angel's thoughts were along the same lines, well at least when they weren't swirling in confusion and disbelief.  A vampire becoming human again was unheard of.  Could They really do it?  And what would it mean for him, and for Buffy?  Did he even deserve to be human?  He'd committed so many atrocious sins in his unnaturally long life.  He should be rotting in Hell.  Was it fair to accept this gift?  Was it fair not to?  He honestly didn't know.

"Well, not exactly human," It interrupted their internal thoughts and could see the hope on both their faces shrink.  "A measly human would not serve Their cause."

"I don't understand," Buffy frowned at the thoroughly confusing being.

"I apologize," the Oracle spoke, only half sincere.  "They wish to grant Angel his humanity and to imbue him with the supernatural strengths like those of a Slayer.  In essence, he would become a male Slayer.  It serves Their purposes better to have another Warrior who can fight in all situations not just in the dead of night."

It laughed at the silent, wide-eyed, open-mouthed expressions on both the Slayer's and vampire's faces.  The reaction was more than even It expected.  But even It, in all Its impartialness, couldn't help but smile and be happy.  The trials and tribulations of the pair were well known, as were their dedication to keeping the world safe.  Even though the Oracle wasn't supposed to be, It was truly happy for the opportunity given to the Warriors.

Buffy managed to snap out of her daze first and asked the question foremost on her mind.  "This isn't a trick or anything?"

"No, Slayer.  I have spoken nothing but the truth."  It understood her hesitancy, but It did not like being questioned.

"There's got to be a catch," Angel jumped into the conversation once he'd found his bearings.  It was too good to be true.  He couldn't believe that they were offering him his humanity.

"There is no catch, Vampire," the Oracle eyed him carefully.  "I have told you all there is to know; your altered humanity in exchange for your commitment to the fight against evil."

At the reminder of the provisions to the deal, Angel's mood instantly sobered.  In order to become mostly human, Buffy would have to sacrifice her freedom.  She would have to spend the rest of her life tied to the Powers; fighting demons and constantly in danger of dying.  That wasn't what he wanted for her.  She didn't deserve that.  True, she was a Slayer, but he wanted for her to someday be able to leave all that behind and live a normal life.  If he accepted this deal she would never be able to do that.  He couldn't ask that of her.  It wasn't right.

"No," Angel stated somberly.

Whatever Buffy had expected Angel to say, 'no' wasn't it.  She was shocked into silence over the rejection.  How could he turn down such an offer?  This was everything they could have ever hoped for.  He wouldn't have to be a vampire anymore, and he'd be strong enough to help her fight.  It was the answer to all their problems.  They'd finally have a real chance at happiness.  Why was he turning it down?

"What?" she whirled around to face Angel.

"No," he repeated, avoiding Buffy's penetrating gaze.

"How can you say no?"  Buffy stood up and came toe-to-toe with him.  "This is everything we've ever wanted!"

"I can't let you do it," he explained softly.  "I can't let you tie yourself to the Powers forever."

"Isn't that my decision to make?!" she snapped angrily at him.  He was doing it again; making choices for her and she hated it.

"You don't know what they are asking you to do, Buffy!  You're so young; you can't possibly want to spend the rest of your life fighting!" he pleaded desperately with her.

Buffy took a step back from him, feeling as if she'd been slapped.  "I'm twenty-five years old Angel and not a stupid teenage anymore.  I think I can decide what I want to do with my life."

Mouth snapping shut, Angel realized too late how his words could be taken.  He hadn't meant it that way, at least he didn't think he did.  "Buffy, please, think about this!"

"I have."  She backed up another step, the walls around her heart beginning to harden once again.  Why did he never seem to trust her?  She wasn't some young, stupid girl.  She was completely capable of making her own decisions, but he never seemed to understand that.  Sparing one more glance at Angel, she turned back to the Oracle.  "Do it."

"You accept the conditions of this deal, Slayer?"  It tried to hide Its glee.

"Yes," Buffy nodded in confirmation.

"Vampire?" The Oracle looked at Angel for his agreement.

Angel said nothing for a moment.  He was utterly torn.  He wanted to be human.  He wanted to be able to be with Buffy without restriction, and to truly be a father to his daughter.  But could he do it at such a high cost?  Buffy's steadfast glare told him she wasn't about to change her mind, and somewhere, deep inside, he didn't want her to. 

"Fine," he eventually relented.

"Very well," It closed Its eyes and smiled brightly.

"So how does this wo-," Buffy started to say when the room suddenly began to spin.  Her vision darkened then went black.  Dizziness overwhelmed her and she felt like she was flying until gradually it stopped and she felt her body thud against something hard.

"Ow," she groaned, reaching up to steady her dazed head.  "What the Hell happened?"

"Buffy?" another voice spoke from somewhere nearby.

"Doyle?"  Buffy blinked open her eyes and focused on the figure in front of her.  What was Doyle doing there?  Wasn't he waiting outside for her?  That was when she noticed she was no longer in the Oracle's chamber.

"I was gettin' worried."  Doyle helped her to stand.  "You've been gone fer six hours!"

"Six hours?" she repeated in surprise, stumbling slightly as she tried to clear the muddled mess inside her head.

Doyle's response was interrupted when he heard a groan come from the other side of the room.  He was thoroughly shocked to find Angel slumped against the wall on the opposite side of the room.  "Angel?" he gasped loudly.

"Angel?" Buffy's eyes wildly searched the small room, quickly finding him.  She rushed forward, but came to a swift halt as memories of his actions just moments earlier returned.  Confused didn't even begin to describe how she felt.  Angel was back, and if the Oracle kept its promise, he was now human.  She should be happy, and she was, but she was also hurt by the lack of trust he seemed to have in her.  "Did...did it work?" she settled for asking.

It took a moment for Angel to figure out what she was wanting to know as he, too, tried to work through the dizziness caused by being expelled from the Oracle's chamber.  "Yes," he answered finally, his hand coming to rest on the rise and fall of his chest.

"Good," Buffy stated unemotionally, fighting herself the whole time.  Angel's human! She wanted to scream loudly and throw herself at him, but she held back.  She just couldn't let herself revel in the news, not when there were still so many things that were wrong instead of everything being right.

Angel's heart dropped at Buffy's cold reception of the drastic change.  This was what she wanted so why didn't it seem like she was happy?  "Buffy?"

"What's goin' on?" Doyle questioned once he'd gotten over the sight of Angel being alive.  He couldn't believe it.  Buffy had really managed to bring him back, but their actions were perplexing.  Neither one seemed overly happy with the situation.  Shouldn't they have been jumping for joy?

"We better get back," Buffy stated hastily, ignoring Doyle's question.  "Ashlynn is probably worried and Cordy probably wants your head on a platter for disappearing without telling her where we were going."

She stomped out of the chamber before either Doyle or Angel could object.  Both were left to wonder over her attitude.  Doyle had no idea what happened with the Oracle, but she obviously got Angel back.  That should have been cause for joy.  Seeing as she wasn't happy, he had to wonder what happened.  Angel, on the other hand, knew exactly what the situation was and it didn't stop his own confusion.  He wanted to talk to her, but she'd already walked off.  Seeing no other choice but to follow, Doyle and Angel trudged after her, knowing they wouldn't get answers until Buffy was ready to give them.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 4
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Cordelia stealthily poked her head out of the kitchen door and peered out into the quiet, dim club.  They had closed almost an hour ago and were now just finishing up shutting everything down for the night.  The focus of her attention, though, wasn't on the club's nightly processes, but rather on the sullen blonde seated at the bar going over inventory.  Cordy couldn't help but shake her head.  Things were so far from right it was ridiculous.  Something had to be done about it.

"What are ya looking at?" Doyle whispered into her ear from behind.

The unexpected question startled her and she quickly jumped away from the door, cringing when it clunked shut.  "Don't do that!"

"Sorry," he grinned unrepentantly.  "What were ya lookin' at?"

"Buffy," Cordy answered with a sigh.

"Is she still sitting out there?" Willow asked from where she was leaning against one of the counters next to Oz.

"Yeah, and she's got that 'someone just killed my puppy horribly' look on her face again," the brunette explained and walked further into the kitchen to where everyone else was standing.

"She doesn't look like someone killed her puppy," Lindsay crossed his arms over his chest and glanced toward the door.  "She looks like someone killed a litter of puppies."

"I don't get it," Cordy worriedly glanced at the others.  "She's been like that ever since they got back from the Oracle."

They were all shocked, to say the least, at the turn of events since Angel became human.  Doyle and Angel had quietly explained what had happened once they returned that day while Buffy just sat there quietly.  They almost couldn't believe what they were hearing.  They all thought Angel was gone for good and then there he was, standing before them with a newfound heartbeat, among other things.  It should have been the best news ever, but it didn't seem like everyone thought so.

Ever since Angel had returned Buffy had become quiet and withdrawn.  She and Angel avoided each other like the plague.  It made no sense whatsoever.  The biggest obstacles between them had finally been removed.  They could finally be together, but it wasn't working out that way and no one understood it.  Barely two words had been spoken between the two in the six days since Angel's change, and with each day that passed they were becoming increasingly worried.

During the day, Angel would hide away from everyone.  He'd either sit in the room he'd been given, or go up onto the roof of the building and sit.  In both cases he was always alone; never accepting the company of anyone.  Then at night when Buffy was down working in the club he would go down to her apartment and spend the evening with Ashlynn.  When she would return, they'd ignore each other and Angel would go back to his room.  If Cordy wasn't mistaken, it always looked as though Angel wanted to talk to her, but he never did.  And Buffy wouldn't even look him in the eye, just mumble some words and go to Ashlynn's room to kiss her goodnight.

Buffy, on the other hand, tried to act like everything was normal, at least when she was around other people.  When she was alone, though, her walls seemed to crumble.  More than once since Angel's return the members of the group had spied her sitting alone with a pained, confused look on her face.  They had all tried to talk to her at one point or another, but Buffy only pushed off their concern saying she was perfectly fine.  She was anything but fine and they all knew it.  Even so, they had no idea what exactly the problem was or how to fix it.

"I tried to talk to her last night, but she just told me she was-."

"Fine."  Cordelia jumped in and finished Willow's sentence.

"She's hardly fine, dumplin'," Lorne said as he strolled out of the walk-in freezer at the back of the kitchen.

"No duh!"  Cordy rolled her eyes at the obvious statement.

"Has Angel said anything to anybody?"  Willow looked around the room as she asked the question, hoping that someone would be able to shed some light on the situation.

Oz shook his head no in response.  "I don't think he's talked to anybody except for Ashlynn."

"I see now what ya meant by Angel broodin'."  More than once Doyle had caught the now ex-vampire sitting and staring off into space with a pensive look on his face.  It was a bit disturbing that someone could sit and think for that long and that much.

Lorne didn't mean to laugh, but he did.  "That man could win an Olympic medal in power brooding."

"This is absolutely ridiculous!" Cordelia repeated her earlier sentiment.

"I hate to say it, but Cordelia's right."  Willow ignored the annoyed glare from her friend.  "It makes no sense."

"Yeah, I mean, they finally have a real chance to be together, but they can't even look each other in the eye!" Cordy exclaimed, frustrated.

"Now 'Delia."  Doyle looked at her in a chastising manner.  "They will work it out on their own time."

"How can they work it out if they won't even talk to each other?" she hotly retorted.

"Again I have to agree with Cordy."  Willow cringed internally, wondering when she'd become such a Cordelia fan.  "They need to talk to each other."

"Got any ideas in that fiery little head of yours?" Lorne asked though his eyes were trained on the paperwork in front of him.

"Unfortunately, no," she said with a sigh.

"Ok, so we need to force them to talk," Cordy mumbled to herself as she paced across the room.  There had to be something they could do to get the ball rolling on a Buffy/Angel reunion.  She was not going to stand by and let them throw this chance away.  "Think.  Think.  Think."

"Cordy?"  Doyle wasn't sure he'd ever seen such a determined look on his fiancée's face before.

"I've got an idea!"  Cordelia's voice reverberated around the room loudly and she slapped her hand over her mouth hoping that Buffy hadn't heard her out in the club.  She really didn't need to be cluing the Slayer in on her absolutely perfect plan to get her and Angel back together.

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

~the next day~

The moment the elevator doors closed behind her, Buffy slumped against the back wall and glanced down at her watch.  Three a.m.  Damn.  How had it gotten to be so incredibly late?  It was her fault though.  She'd stayed down in the club trying to find anything possible to keep her busy.  Her hope had been that Willow or Oz would return to the apartment before her so that Angel would be able to leave and not be there when she went up.  Unfortunately, her two friends weren't cooperating with her well thought out plan.

She wasn't trying to avoid Angel.  Really she wasn't.  Ok, who was she kidding?  She was avoiding Angel.  And she hated herself for it.  Immature and petty.  Yes, that's what it was.  But she just couldn't face him.  Every time she saw him she remembered how he planned to leave her again even though he now knew about Ashlynn.  And she remembered how he tried to turn down the Oracle's deal because he thought she couldn't possibly make such a decision by herself.  The seemingly little amount of faith he had in her stung and so facing him wasn't something she was prepared to do yet.

At the same time, it was taking every ounce of her willpower to not throw herself into his arms and weep over the fact that he was now basically human.  It was everything she'd ever dreamed of and more.  Just yesterday she had spied him standing in front of a window in a patch of sunlight and her heart ached to be there with him.  But pride and anger kept her away.  She just needed time.  That's all.  Just a little bit of time to let her feelings settle.  And then...well, Buffy had no idea what would come after that.

Her mind was drawn back to the present by the clatter of the elevator reaching her floor.  She pried herself away from the back wall and pulled the gates open before strolling into the apartment she shared with Willow and Oz.  Sighing loudly, Buffy dropped her bag near the couch and stood there for a moment.  Her lips formed a frown at the continued silence and emptiness.  Usually, Angel shuffled out of Ashlynn's room and was gone within moments of her return from the club.  Feeling slightly panicked, she hurried down the hall to her daughter's door and pushed it open.  The room and the bed were empty.  No Angel and no Ashlynn.

Absolute terror gripped Buffy for nearly a minute as she tried to comprehend the situation.  Ashlynn was gone, and Angel was...she stumbled back against the door-jam as a horrible thought occurred to her.  Had Angel taken Ashlynn?  No.  He'd never do that.  Would he?  No.  He wouldn't do that to her.  She had to find them.  Both of them.

Needing to take action, she dashed out of the room, down the hall, and into the living room.  She was almost to the door leading to the staircase when it opened and Angel appeared before her.  To her dismay, there was no sign of Ashlynn.

"Where's Ashlynn?" she blurted out before he could say a word to her.

"What?"  Something in her tone worried Angel, and he found himself growing concerned despite the fact that he had no idea what she was talking about.

Buffy's body started to tremble at his confused look.  "Ashlynn!  Is she with you?!?"

Angel shook his head as his newly beating heart started to thump in his chest.  "No.  Your friend Tara came by earlier and wanted to spend sometime with Ash so I went up to my room.  Aren't they here?"

"No," Buffy spoke in a whimper.  "There's no one here."

"Come on."  He grabbed her arm and dragged Buffy toward the door he'd just come through.  "They've got to be around here somewhere.  We'll find them."

Gripping the handle he went to turn and pull the door open, but it didn't budge.  "What the Hell?"  He put more force into his actions, but still the door remained closed.

Buffy broke away from Angel and rushed to the elevator but found that it, too, resisted any attempt to open it.  "No!"  She banged on the sturdy metal, hoping it would open.

"Buffy!" Angel screamed to get her attention and pulled her reddening fists away from the gate.  "I'm sure everything's fine."  At least he hoped it was.

"No!  It's not!"  She struggled to get out of his strong grip.  She needed to find her daughter.  Now!

Their actions stilled as a bright light flashed all around them.  Both shielded their eyes against the blinding light that lasted only a few seconds.  As their vision adjusted, a plain white envelope floated to the floor at their feet.

Hands shaking, Buffy reached down and retrieved the object and stared at it warily.  Millions of thoughts were running through her head.  Was whatever was inside the envelope a ransom letter?  A threat?  A detailed account of her daughter and Tara's demises?  Well, only one way to find out.

Pulling out the crisp white paper inside, Buffy read the neatly printed words.

Dear Buffy and Angel,

 

By now you've realized that Ashlynn is missing.  Well, actually, she isn't missing.  She's with us.  Cordy and Doyle are going to take her down to Lorne's beach house for the weekend.

 

Why?  Good question.

 

We all think that you both need to sit down and talk about whatever the Hell is wrong, but you're both too stubborn to do it.  Don't try to deny it.  We're not stupid.  You guys need to work out your issues.

 

So we've decided to give you a little push.  You've probably noticed that the door and elevator won't open.  That's our doing.  They're magically sealed so you won't be able to open them.  And that means that you're stuck in the apartment, together, for the entire weekend. 

 

Cordy and Doyle will have Ash for the weekend, and the rest of us will be staying here to take care of the club and anything else that might arise.  Oh, and the phone doesn't work either so you can't call and yell at us.  There's plenty of food, too.  We didn't pack you any extra clothes, Angel, but we're hoping that you won't need any.

 

Have fun and try not to kill each other!  We expect you to have things worked out by Monday because if not, well, we'll just leave you there until you do.

 

Sincerely, Your Friends,

 

Cordy, Doyle, Willow, Oz, Lindsay, Lorne, Giles, and Faith

"I'm so going to kill them," Buffy muttered.

Angel looked at her oddly, not understanding the anger.  "What's going on?"

She didn't answer him.  Instead she just shoved the letter into his hands and then stomped away, mumbling under her breath about how she knew this was Cordy's idea and that her friend was as good as dead next time she saw her. 

Angel quickly read the letter and understood Buffy's reaction.  It seemed their friends, well technically her friends, were running a little interference.  And judging from Buffy's annoyance, she wasn't the least bit happy with their scheme.  It hurt that she hated him so much that the idea of being locked together for a weekend would make her so angry.

If there was one thing that had become painfully clear since leaving the Oracle's chamber with his new human body it was that Buffy wanted nothing to do with him.  She'd hardly spoken to him since they'd made the deal to return his humanity and she seemed to avoid him at all costs.  He didn't know if she'd admit to what she was doing, but he wasn't stupid.  Her actions were quite obvious.  And it tore at his heart.

He wanted to cry.  He wanted to run.  He wanted to shake her and force her to talk to him.  But really he just wanted answers.  Did she hate him?  Was she just angry with him?  Did she not love him anymore?  He felt like his life was in stasis, not knowing where things stood or where they were going.  Here he was, now human with so many doors finally opened, and he didn't know where to go.  And he had a daughter to get to know.  If Buffy didn't want him around, though, Angel didn't know what he was going to do.  How was he supposed to stay and be a father if Buffy has such obvious disdain for him?

If he had any doubts about Buffy's feelings, they were quashed when he took notice of her frantic movements around the room.  She was checking each and every single window as well as trying the staircase and elevator doors again, searching for any way out.

"They're magically sealed, Buffy," he spoke in resignation.

"Well, at least I'm trying!" she snapped harshly at him.

Angel shook his head and leaned back against the nearest wall.  "I should have just stayed upstairs."  He didn't mean for her to hear that, but she did.

"Why are you here anyway?" Buffy asked, stopping her search for a moment.

Opening his eyes, he looked at her warily.  "When Cordy came up, she told me you wanted to see me."

"Sneaky little bitch," she muttered to herself before stalking out of the living room and down the hall.

This was going to be a very, very long weekend, Angel knew, if Buffy was going to continue to act so hostile.  There wasn't anything he could do about their situation, though, so he supposed they'd just have to make the best of it and try not to drive each other nuts.

He was just sitting down on the couch when Buffy stomped back into the living room, her arms laden down with several heavy books.  She completely ignored his presence, just slammed the books down on the coffee table and flopped down on the chair farthest away from him. 

For the next several minutes, the room was silent except for the periodic rustle of paper from Buffy going through the books.  Angel contemplated asking what she was doing, but thought better of it.  It seemed as though anything he said to her pissed her off so maybe it was better if he stayed quiet.

"You could help, ya know!" Buffy finally said sometime later.

"Help with what?" he asked her cautiously.

She eyed him like he was an idiot before replying.  "I'm looking for a spell to get us out of here!"

"You're looking..."  He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair.  "Buffy, you don't even know how to perform magick."

"No, but you do," she told him without even glancing up from whatever book she was currently searching through.

Her attitude was really starting to get to Angel.  She was treating him like some stray dog that wouldn't go away.  Maybe Cordy and the others had the right idea.  Maybe they needed get to the root of whatever was going on.  They certainly couldn't keep going on like this.  If he was going to stay and be there for Ashlynn, they had to at least come to a compromise for the sake of their daughter.

"I'm not going to do any spells."  No, he definitely wasn't going to do anything to help her get away from him.  They were going to settle this whether she liked it or not.

"Why the Hell not?" she yelled in exasperation.

What was his problem?  Did he want to stay locked together for the entire weekend?  Buffy saw little appealing about that idea.  She didn't think she could handle being so close to him for so long.  Could she trust herself?  Yes...no...maybe.  It didn't matter.  What did matter was that she couldn't trust him.

Yes, she was angry with him, and hurt over everything.  Even now, seven years later, his leaving Sunnydale was still a thorn in her heart.  Sure, she understood his reasons, even accepted them to a certain degree, but all the logical reasoning in the world couldn't overrule the fact that he'd left her and that he'd done it without even talking to her about his decision.  And it didn't change the fact that he'd stayed gone for so long without bothering to check up on her or let her know he was still existing.

Faith had told her what Angel said when he saw in her Sunnydale.  For some reason he'd thought she was dead.  She may not be the brightest crayon in the box, but she wasn't dumb.  There was little doubt in her mind that if he hadn't believed she was dead he would have stayed away.  And she also knew he hadn't meant for her to find him that night out on the streets.  All he wanted to do was see her and then he was going to run off again.

How was she supposed to trust him to stay?  He'd even said in the Oracle's chamber that he would leave.  And then he didn't want to take the deal to become human.  There was nothing in their way now, but how was she supposed to trust him?  How did she know he wouldn't find some other reason to leave?  The answer; she didn't.

Angel was silent for a moment as he stood and paced around the room.  Instead of answering her question, he asked the foremost one on his mind.  "Do you hate me so much that you can't stand to be in the same room as me?"

That certainly hadn't been what she'd thought he'd say, and she wasn't sure how to answer.  "What?"

"You heard me."  He stood his ground, determined to get to the bottom of her actions.

Fueled by anger at Angel's bating, Buffy threw the book on her lap to the floor and stood up to face him.  "Yeah, I heard you.  I'm not deaf nor am I a child."

"I know you're not a child," he replied forcefully.  Why would she say such a thing?

Buffy snorted at his denial.  "Yeah, sure.  Your actions say differently though!"

Angel didn't respond to her claim.  He was suddenly too mesmerized by her beauty as she stood there staring at him, eyes blazing in anger.  Gods she was stunning.  And she was standing so close.  All he had to do was reach out and touch her.  He knew he shouldn't.  He knew she wouldn't want him to.  But right at that moment, he didn't care.  He simply did the first thing that came to mind.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 5
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Whatever thoughts that had been in Buffy's head vanished the moment Angel's lips touched hers.  It was like she was transported back in time to when she was sixteen years old and she and Angel would steal secret kisses in graveyards.  His mouth felt exactly the same; so soft and consuming.  She couldn't help the moan that rumbled in her throat as his tongue tangled with hers.

"Buffy," Angel murmured against her lips; a multitude of emotions roaring through his body.

That single, uttered word snapped Buffy back to the present and, horrified by her actions, she pried Angel off of her and stumbled across the room.  Her back slammed against the far wall with such a force it caused her to wince.  Lifting her hand, she touched her lips and gazed at Angel with confused, angry eyes.  She opened her mouth to reprimand him, but the words wouldn't come out.

Seeing her distress, Angel looked down and mumbled, "I'm sorry."

"I...I-I need to...to go to bed," Buffy sputtered and started inching her way along the wall, palms resting flat against the surface to guide her

"Buffy-."

"I...sleep," she mumbled incoherently. 

Buffy continued moving along the wall, making sure to stay as far away from Angel as possible.  The moment she reached the hallway she turned and dashed toward her bedroom without a second glance at the stunned man left in her wake.

Angel watched her run from him, torn between going after her and staying where he was.  When he heard her door slam shut, he knew she didn't want him to follow.  And he knew in his heart that he'd had truly lost her.  Forever.

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

Late the next morning, Buffy hesitantly left her bedroom.  She would have preferred to stay there the entire day and weekend, but she couldn't deny things such as eating and going to the bathroom.  So after holding out as long as possible, she finally managed to make herself leave the safe confines of her room.

After stopping in the bathroom to obey the laws of nature and to brush her teeth, Buffy slowly walked out into the living room.  She was surprised to find Angel sitting there in one of the chairs, still as a statue, staring out the large wall of windows at the outside.  He looked as if he'd been sitting there the entire night if his unrumpled clothes were any indication.

She stood for several long seconds watching him as he made no acknowledgement of her presence.  Finally, she shuffled away and into the kitchen for something to eat.  If she were lucky, she'd be able to shovel in some food and get back to her room before he decided to talk to her, or something worse.

Once she'd quickly eaten a sandwich, Buffy grabbed a bottle of juice from the refrigerator and made her way back into the living room.  She kept her eyes trained directly in front of her instead of on the silent man only a few feet away.  All she wanted to do was make it back to her room.  But just as she reached the entrance to the hallway, he spoke.

"I'm going to leave."

The words stopped Buffy instantly.  Leaving?  He was going to leave?  Whipping around, she faced Angel with wide eyes.  "What?"

Angel's gaze remained directed to the bank of windows as he spoke.  "When they let us out, I'm going to pack my stuff and leave."

The bottle of juice that had been tightly grasped in Buffy's left hand slipped to the floor and her lower lip trembled slightly.  He really was going to leave.  She should have known he would.  It's what he always seemed to do, whether intentionally or not.  He'd left her the night of her seventeenth birthday, then again just after his soul returned, and then for the final time the night of her graduation. 

"Why?" she whispered, fighting to keep her tears from falling.

The almost desperate question caused Angel to finally turn his eyes to Buffy.  "Because it's obvious that you don't want me here.  So when we get out, I'll leave and won't bother you again," he explained.

Leaving by far wasn't what he wanted to do.  But Angel had sat up the entire night thinking about the situation and he'd come up with only one solution.  He had to go.  He couldn't stay and have Buffy continue hating him.  It would be hard, leaving behind his daughter and the woman he'd always loved, but it was for the best.

"I don't hate you," Buffy cried out softly, raising her teary eyes to meet Angel's.

"You could have fooled me," Angel snorted in response.

"And I don't want you to leave," she continued on.

"Then what do you want, Buffy, because I sure as hell don't know," Angel asked, his tone louder than he'd intended.

"So you think that means you can just walk away?" she shot back, feeling her anger grow.  Taking a few steps closer, she stood facing him, arms crossed.  "Things get a little tough or too hard and you just leave.  Is that how it works?"

Angel sighed and ran a hand over his face before speaking.  "You know why I left."

"Yes, I do," Buffy conceded.  "And I'm not saying that I...I don't understand or agree with your reasons, but that's not the point.  You just did it.  You didn't bother to consider my feelings or what I'd want."

"I did what I thought was right," he pointed out, still believing he'd done what was best.

"What about me?!" she shouted at him, slapping a hand onto her chest as the cool façade she'd been wielding the past week began to melt.  "What about what I wanted?  I didn't want you to leave!"

"But I don't regret that you did," Buffy kept going, swiping at the tears trailing down her cheeks.  "Because if you hadn't we might never have slept together before you left and I might never have had Ashlynn.  She was all I had left of you when you were gone."

Angel could say nothing to her claim.  He knew she was right.  If he hadn't planned to leave they would never have slept together, and so soon after he had consumed her blood.  And if that had never happened, then Ashlynn would never have been conceived.  Even though he'd only known the little girl for a short time, he was already in love with her and he could never wish that she didn't exist.

"Seven years, Angel," Buffy's tirade continued.  "Seven years and you never once sent a letter or even bothered to contact me.  And then all of the sudden, here you are."

"I didn't mean-."

"Yeah, I know.  You didn't mean for me to see you," she cut him off, inserting her own interpretation of his actions.  "And I also know you wouldn't even have come looking for me if you hadn't of thought I was dead!"

The guilty mien radiating off Angel was enough to tell her that her assumptions were correct.  He had never wanted her to know he was around.  All he'd planned on doing was skulking in the shadows for a while before disappearing again.

"I'm sorry," Angel mumbled, casting his eyes downward.

"I didn't know whether you were okay or whether you were hurt.  For seven years, Angel, I didn't know anything.  You could have been dust and I wouldn't have even known!" she screamed at him.

"I was fine," Angel managed to get out.

"Oh, fine?  Well that helps knowing that now!" Buffy snapped at him, nearly panting from the anger racing through her veins.

"What good would it have done, Buffy?  It would only have made it worse if I'd kept in touch," he defended himself, loath to admit she had a point.

"How do you know that?  God!  I couldn't even tell you about Ashlynn!  I couldn't tell you about the beautiful little girl that we made," she half yelled, half sobbed.

"You could have tried to find me to tell me," Angel replied, feeling a little angry that she was placing the all the blame on him.

"Oh, right," Buffy snorted.  "And how was I supposed to do that?  Just go around searching seven continents and billions of people while I had a daughter to raise, your daughter, a job to go to everyday, and slaying on top of all that?"

Without stopping to let Angel say anything, Buffy's rant pressed on.  "Then you come back but try to hide from me which didn't work.  You were still going to leave after I realized you were here.  Even finding out you have a daughter and meeting her didn't matter.  You were still going to leave.  Again!"

"I couldn't have stayed, Buffy.  You know that.  Nothing had changed," Angel explained softly.  He couldn't tell her she was wrong because she wasn't.  He hadn't tried to contact her, hadn't let her know he was okay, wouldn't have come back if he hadn't believed she was dead, and he certainly hadn't meant for her to see him.  And, yes, he had planned to leave again even after she'd found him.

"Everything had changed!  We have a daughter, Angel.  YOU have a daughter!  Didn't she deserve to know her Father?" she asked, her mind replaying the many times Ashlynn had wanted to know about the man she'd never met but knew was her Father.  "And what about when we were with the Oracle?  You were offered a chance for everything we'd ever wanted and you were going to say no!  You would have rather stayed dead than come back to me!"

"That's not true!" Angel shouted back.

"Really?  It's not?  Whatever."  Buffy shook her head dejectedly, shoulders drooping out of sheer exhaustion.  "So you know what?  Leave.  Just leave.  And don't come back.  Ever."

"Is that what you really want?" he asked hoarsely, knowing that if she said yes he would do as she'd requested.

"No!  That's not what I want!" she sobbed exasperatedly.

"Then what do you want from me, Buffy, because I don't have a clue!" Angel cried out, raising his hands in defeat.  He couldn't have been more confused about what Buffy wanted.

"I want you to stay!  I want us to be a family!  I want you, Angel!  Since I was sixteen years old all I've ever wanted is you!" she recited helplessly.  Why didn't he get it?

The desperate plea drove Angel from the chair he hadn't moved from the entire night.  He stepped up in front of Buffy, who refused to look at him, and took her hands into his.

"I'm right here, Buffy," he soothed in a reassuring voice, tilting her chin upwards with his right hand.

"No!  You're not!" she answered, twisting away from him.  "You'll leave again.  I know you will!  You'll find some reason to leave me!"

Suddenly, it all made sense to Angel; the way she'd acted after discovering him, the cold shoulder he'd been getting for the past week, and her current outburst.  She was afraid he would leave, not trusting him to stay.  And he couldn't blame her.  He'd given her no reason to believe differently.  If he were in her place he wouldn't trust himself either.

But everything was different now.  For the first time in many, many years, he could see a future, one filled with love and happiness and everything he'd ever wanted.  He could make love to Buffy without fearing the return of Angelus and he could take his family out into the sun without turning to dust.  It was a dream come true, and he wanted to stay and be part of it.

"Buffy," he said, forcing her to look at him.  "If you want me stay...if that's what you really want then I will."

"How do I know, Angel?" Buffy whispered in a tear-laden voice.  "How do I know that tomorrow, or next week, or next year that something won't happen to make you change your mind?"

"I've always wanted to stay with you," Angel responded, daring to reach a hand up to stroke her cheek.  "You're the only woman I've ever truly loved.  I would have given anything to have stayed and been with you. I just wanted to do what was best for you."

"But don't you understand?  It wasn't just about you.  It was about us, and now it's about Ashlynn, too," she answered back, fighting to urge to nuzzle his hand.  "Whether what you did was right or wrong it should have been about both of us.  You can't make decisions for me."

"But I didn't-."

"Yes, you did," Buffy interjected, pulling away slightly.  "You just told me you were leaving before graduation.  I know maybe in the long run it was for the best, but you should have talked to me."

"It wouldn't have changed anything," he replied, shaking his head.

"Maybe not," Buffy somewhat agreed.  "But we should have talked about it.  I may be young, Angel, but I'm not a child.  I can handle adult conversations."

"I never meant to make you feel like a child," he said apologetically.

"I know, but you do," she admitted sadly, staring up into Angel's deep brown eyes.  "Like with the Oracle when you just jumped in and went to turn down the deal when it was my decision to make."

"I just want what's best for you," Angel reiterated, holding her stare.

"I know you do, and I appreciate that.  But it was my decision, or at the very least OUR decision because this is MY life, too.  I deserve to have a say in what happens in it," Buffy rebutted in sturdy voice.

"I'm sorry that I made you feel like you were a child or that you were somehow unimportant.  That wasn't my intention.  I just wanted you to be happy," Angel explained.

Buffy stepped up closer to Angel, tilting her head back so that she could look into his eyes.  "You make me happy, Angel.  YOU...whether you're a vampire, or a human, or whatever it is that you are now.  All I want is to have you in my life.  Forever," she said as sincerely as possible.  Raising a hand, she placed it over his now beating heart.  "Don't you know how much I need you?"

"You don't need me, Buffy," Angel disagreed.  "You've made a wonderful life for yourself here.  Without me."

"Yes, but I missed you every single day.  I missed talking to you, feeling your arms hold me, and having you watch my back.  No one has ever known me as well as you have," Buffy answered back, trying to convey all of her emotions through her words.  "I want you to stay, but I need you to want it, too."

Placing a hand over top of the one Buffy had on his chest, Angel caressed the smooth skin as he tried to think of what to say to her.  How could he convince her that he really wanted to stay?  She had every right to distrust him.  His track record allowed her that.  But he did want to be with her and their daughter.  He wanted them to be a family.  Now, it was just a matter of convincing her.

"I do want to stay," he whispered honestly.  "More than anything else in this world I want to be here with you and Ashlynn."

"But how do I know?  How do I know that someday you won't find another reason to leave me, us?" she questioned, expressing her strongest fear.

Angel took both of Buffy's hands into his and raised them to his mouth to place a gentle kiss on each set of knuckles before speaking.  "I wish I could promise you that everything would be perfect from here on out, but I can't.  Neither of us knows what the future will bring.  I can promise you that I will do everything in my power to always be here with you and Ashlynn.  And I can promise you that if something should come up that I will talk to you about it instead of just making a decision."

"I wish I could believe you," Buffy responded in a meek voice, averting her eyes from his.

"You can.  You just have to trust me," Angel spoke, his tone almost pleading as he again lifted her chin to look at her.  "Can you trust me?"

Buffy stared into his deep brown eyes and felt torn.  Could she trust him?  Could she have faith that he would stay, that this time would be different?  She wanted to.  She desperately wanted to.  For as long as she could remember she'd dreamed of having a future with Angel, but something always came between them.  But now everything had changed and the future was standing there gazing into her eyes.

It was the loving shining out of those eyes that told her all she needed to know.  All the things that she didn't want to believe shone there for her to see.  She knew in that instant that he was being honest when he said he wanted to stay.  And she knew that he'd never wanted to hurt her and would do anything possible to make things right this time.  There were no guarantees, though.  Nothing in life was set in stone.  But could she take the chance again?  Could she live with the regrets if she didn't?

As she stood there and continued to stare into Angel eyes, Buffy tried to picture her future in her mind.  Just like when she was sixteen, the only thing she could see was Angel.  She saw walks in the park with Ashlynn holding both their hands, the two of them working side by side to keep the world safe, cozy nights spend alone together, and a multitude of other scenarios she'd dreamed about but never dared to hope come true.

The lagging silence began to worry Angel, and with each passing second his heart broke more and more.  He wanted so badly for her to trust him, to give them a chance, but he couldn't blame her if she wouldn't.  If she told him no, if she told him to leave, he would.  He'd hate it and it would hurt more than he could bare, but he would do it.  Anything to spare her more pain.

So lost in his thoughts, Angel almost didn't hear her reply.

"Yes."

"I...y-yes?" Angel stuttered, trying his hardest not to get his hopes up.

"Yes," she repeated slowly, a few tears falling.  "I love you, Angel.  I always have and I always will."

"I love you, too.  Forever," he replied, fighting the urge to weep over her acceptance.

Angel wasn't sure he'd ever expected her to take him back.  He wondered if he'd dreamed the small 'yes' he'd just heard, but the hesitantly hopeful look on Buffy's face told him he hadn't.  She really was giving them another chance to find happiness.

Despite know that things were still cautious and that they still had a lot to work out, the joy Angel felt inside brought a blinding smile across his face.  Never in his life had he felt so hopeful about the future and what it may hold.  And before he could stop himself, Angel was leaning down to capture Buffy's lips with his own.

The kiss surprised Buffy, but she didn't fight it.  She was tired of fighting what she was feeling.  So she gave herself in to the gentle embrace, responding by looping her arms around his neck and opening her mouth to his.

As simple as Angel's initial gesture of love had been meant to be, it soon spiraled out of control.  Emotions long pent up boiled to the surface, turning the simple kiss into a fevered need to be closer.  After being denied each other for so long, neither could stop the raging passion consuming them both.

Angel's hands slid up Buffy's back as his tongue slipped into her mouth, reveling in her unique essence.  She tasted different which he attributed to his new human status.  But she was still Buffy.  His Buffy.

The warmth of Angel's mouth surprised Buffy at first.  He'd always been so cool, but now he was warm, and human, like her, and she wanted more.  She pressed her body closer to his leaner one as her tongue tangled with his in an all too familiar erotic tango.

"Buffy, maybe we should...," Angel murmured when he pulled away slightly to catch his breath, an entirely odd feeling.

"Shh.  Don't.  Just kiss me," she said, repeating words spoken so long ago.

Angel trembled at the familiar phrase.  He hesitated only a moment before seizing her lips once again and slowly lowered her small body onto the nearby couch.

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

"Ow," Buffy groaned, shifting slightly on the couch.

"What's wrong?" Angel mumbled, his voiced dulled because his mouth was pressed against Buffy's hair.

"I don't think this couch is meant to sleep two," she answered, then yawned.

"Mmph," was his only reply.

The puff of warm air that Angel released tickled the back of Buffy's neck, sending a shiver down her spine.  It was at that moment that reality hit her, and quicker than she should have, she flipped around on the couch to face Angel, nearly falling off in the process.

"You're still here," she whispered, tears threatening to fall as she touched his cheek to reassure herself of his presence.

A pang of guilt went through Angel at the gesture.  He knew what made her say what she had.  She'd woken up alone after their only other two times together.  The first time he'd become Angelus and tormented her endlessly for months, and the second time he'd left town, not to be seen again for seven years.  This was their first true 'morning after'.

"I'll always be here," he soothed her fears.  "You'll never have to wake up alone again."

Buffy relaxed a little, realizing that things were very different than they had once been.  Still, she couldn't stop the voices in her head that told her he would leave again.  It wasn't that she didn't believe he would stay; it was just hard breaking years of defenses down in one day.

"I'm glad you here," she told him with a smile, but then winced when she tried to move into a more comfortable position.

"Are you okay?" Angel asked after noticing the pained expression on her face.

"Yeah.  I'm just a little...sore," she replied hesitantly as a light blush crept over her skin.

"I...I hurt you?" he said, guilt suddenly plaguing him.  He instantly berated himself for not being more careful with her.

"No.  You...it's just been a while," Buffy responded softly.

"How long?" he questioned before his brain could tell him not to.  "I'm sorry.  I shouldn't have asked that."

"It's okay," she told him, contemplating how she should answer that question.  "About five years or so," she admitted after a minute.

"Oh," Angel mumbled, knowing right away the implication of her words.

"I'm sorry," Buffy apologized for her betrayal, casting her eyes away from him.

"No, Buffy," he quickly rebutted.  "You have nothing to be sorry for.  I wanted you to be happy."

"I tried to be," she relayed honestly.  "It was just hard."

"Do you...do you want to tell me about it?" he asked, not sure whether he wanted really know.

Buffy looked at him curiously while she chewed lightly on her lower lip.  She wasn't sure if she wanted to tell him about some of the things from when he was gone, but she supposed the truth was the best way to go.  If they couldn't be honest with each other then they were fooling themselves to think they could have a future together.

"Are you sure you want to hear?" she finally said.

"Yes," Angel answered after only thinking for a second.  He was about to say more when Buffy's stomach growled loudly causing them both to chuckle.  "Maybe we should find some breakfast before we...talk."

"Yeah.  I guess we do have a lot to talk about."  She knew he was right.  There was still so much to be said between them.

"We kind of skipped over that, didn't we?" he said, realizing they'd not spent much time really talking.

"Yeah," Buffy agreed, blushing again.  She noticed a pensive look on Angel's face then and wondered what he was thinking about.  "What?"

"I...I just...maybe we should have waited before we...," he trailed off, his manners getting the better of him.

"Oh.  You regret what we did?" she asked nervously.

"No!" Angel replied emphatically.  "I could never regret making love to you.  It was absolutely wonderful.  It's just...maybe....we have so much to work through.  Maybe we should have waited."

Buffy thought for a moment before speaking.  "I don't want to wait anymore.  I've waited long enough for you.  Whatever we need to talk about, we will, and we'll work through it, but I don't want to wait any longer to start our lives together."

The second the words left her mouth, Buffy realized how true they were.  Perhaps for the first time she truly accepted that Angel was back, that he intended to stay, and that she wanted him to.  She wanted him in her life, and Ashlynn's, and wanted to wake up next to him each day, and to go on picnics with her family.  They could have it all now, and she wanted it.

Angel smiled blindingly at her as if he seemed to sense the thoughts that were going through her head.  "I love you," he whispered, his voice a gentle caress.

"I love you, too," she replied, wondering if hearing those words would ever not make her want to cry.

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

A short while later, the two sat on opposite ends of Buffy's bed with a tray of food resting between them.  They nibbled on the bagels and fresh fruit for a few minutes, neither sure how to start this 'talking' thing they needed to do.  It was Buffy who finally broke the silence.

"I met Lindsey not long after Ashlynn was born," she began talking about the subject she wished she didn't have to broach.  "He performed on opening night at the club.  The crowd loved him so Lorne had him start singing regularly.  We became friends pretty quickly.  I enjoyed talking to him."

"He told me you two weren't together," Angel stated slightly confused.

"We're not.  At least not now," she corrected herself.  "For a while we were friends and just hung out a lot.  I knew he wanted more, but I just couldn't do it.  Then about a year and a half after I met him we...we kissed one night."

"I was so confused because I still loved you so much, but I liked Lindsey.  And Willow kept telling me to go for it.  So we started dating," she continued, thinking back to a time she regretted.  "The night of the club's two year anniversary Lorne had a huge private party.  We all got completely smashed."

Angel cringed in his mind.  He had a feeling he knew what she was going to say next.

"I woke up the next morning with a horrible hangover and I was in his bed," she explained, moisture filling her eyes.  "I tried to tell myself that it was okay, that he was a really great guy, and that he was wonderful with Ashlynn.  But it just felt so wrong."

Hearing that she'd been with someone else stung, but Angel wasn't upset about it.  He knew she had every right to try and move on.  And as much as he didn't want to admit it, Lindsey did seem like a good guy.  He hated to see her hurting, though, so he crossed over to the other side of the bed and pulled her into his arms.

"Shh, it's okay.  I'm not mad at you," he soothed her tears.

"It just feels like I betrayed you," she said quietly.

"You didn't," Angel stated definitively.  "I wanted you to be happy, and to have all the things I couldn't give you."

"You're the only one who can make me happy," she replied, brushing away the tears that had fallen.

Angel smiled lovingly at her before delicately asking what wanted to know next.  "What happened with Lindsey?"

Sighing, Buffy snuggled back against Angel's chest.  "By the time he woke up, I was lying on the bathroom floor sobbing.  I think he knew it would never happen again because he just gave me this sad smile.  Then he went and tossed his cookies in the toilet."

Despite the seriousness of their discussion, they couldn't help but laugh at the imagery.  Angel smoothed her hair off her face and kissed her forehead to reassure her that he wasn't mad about what she'd told him.  "I guess you decided to stay friends?" he added in more of a question than a statement.

"Yeah," Buffy nodded.  "He left for a while afterwards to give me some space and because he was hurt, but he came back eventually.  It was weird between for a while, but we talked and I told him I just wanted to be friends."

"I can't imagine that went over well," Angel wondered out loud.

"No, not really, but he went along with it," she said with a shrug.  "I think he believed if he gave me enough time I'd give him another chance.  I tried to tell myself to so many times, but I just couldn't."

Angel thought to himself for several seconds before he asked seriously, "Were you happy though?  I mean with your life here?"

"Yes," Buffy answered without hesitation.  "I like my job, and I had my friends, and Ashlynn.  She made every day worth living.  There were some tough times, though."

"Like when you got this?" Angel posed as his fingers slide under her shirt and touched the long scar that trailed down her back and around her side. 

He'd seen it the night before and been completely horrified.  He knew just by looking at it that it must have been a serious injury.  When she finally told him how it happened he wanted cry and curse himself for not being there to protect her.  But Angel couldn't change the things of the past.  He was damn sure, though, that he would be there to protect her in the future.

"Yeah," she said, shaking her head in the affirmative.  Thinking about that battle was something she generally tried to avoid.  "And the first few months after leaving Sunnydale were hard."

For the next two hours, Buffy told Angel about the different things that had happened since he'd left Sunnydale.  He had already heard some of the basics from Cordelia and Willow, but hearing them from Buffy meant more.  She was also able to give him small details that an outsider wasn't privy to.

So he listened as she talked about finding out she was pregnant and what happened afterwards.  She told him each and every little detail about what being pregnant was like, and then being a mother.  His heart ached and rejoiced at hearing it all.  He wished he could have see her swollen with their child, and been their for his daughter's birth.

She also explained to him more about Doyle, Lorne, and the club, then about how Willow and Oz had come to stay.  Tale after tale she told him about the years he'd been gone.  When she came to her Mother's death, he held her as she cried for the relationship gone wrong that could never be mended, and promised her they'd all take a trip to Sunnydale again soon to say a more thorough goodbye.

"I wish I could have been there for all of it," Angel recited mournfully.

"I wish you could have been, too," agreed Buffy, her voice slightly tinged with anger.

Angel heard the underlying tone of her voice and shifted on the bed so he could look at her.  "I had to leave, Buffy.  You understand that, don't you?"

"I try to," she answered, her eyes avoiding his.

"I just wanted you to have all the things you deserved, things I couldn't give you," he answered back, taking her hands into his.  "I wanted you to have picnics in the sun, and to someday have children..."

"I think WE got the child part covered," Buffy pointed out.

"We never even knew it was possible then," Angel replied.  "And there was the curse to worry about."

This time, Buffy did look directly at Angel.  "But I told you that sex didn't matter to me."

"It would have, eventually," he disagreed seriously.  "But it wasn't sex that triggered the curse, Buffy.  It was the happiness of making love to you, and holding you afterwards.  I felt at peace then for the first time since I'd been cursed.  And I began to worry that something as simple as watching you sleep would make me too happy.  Every day I wondered how happy was too happy.  I just couldn't take the risk of letting Angelus loose again."

Hearing his words spoken with such sincerity made Buffy realize for the first time what he'd been facing back them.  She'd never really thought about the limitations of the curse to that extent.  It had always been associated with sex for her.  But hearing his worries gave her a perspective she hadn't had before.

"You should have told me all of this back then, Angel," she spoke sadly, hurt over his lack of honesty with her.

"I know, and I'm sorry," he apologized, pulling her hands into his lap.  "I just...everything was so confusing then.  I only knew I needed to leave.  I didn't mean to hurt you or make you think I didn't love you."

"I know you didn't," she answered honestly before sitting up straighter and facing Angel.  "If we're going to make this work, Angel, we can't keep things from each other.  I can't...I won't go through all of that again.  I want to be with you, but you have to respect and trust that I'm able to make my own decisions."

"I do trust you, with all my heart," Angel replied softly.  "I promise to discuss things with you from now on.  I'm not perfect, though, Buffy.  So I need you to promise me something."

"What?" she asked, somewhat surprised at his request.

"You can't just run away if things get tough, or if you're angry, or if I do something wrong," he explained, staring directly at her.  "It doesn't solve anything, and we can't work through our problems if you run.  We have to talk through them whether they are about us, or slaying, or even if it's something between you and you're friends."

"I...I...," Buffy sputtered, looking down as she tried to deny his claim.

"You know I'm right," he said with a sigh.  "After...after Angelus you ran away, and Willow told me about how you left Sunnydale, and then when I came here you tried to avoid me.  You have to let people in, Buffy."

"It's just...it's hard.  It's easy to just ignore it and hope it goes away," she whispered, knowing his words were true.

"But whatever it is won't go away.  It only creates more problems if you run from them," he told her.  "If I hadn't stayed here after you..."

"After I treated you like crap?" she filled in.

"Yeah...I hate to think what would have happened," he continued, his voice breaking over the thought of how Buffy may have died.

"I'm sorry I treated you so badly," she spoke guiltily.  "It was just such a shock.  I never thought I'd see you again and I wasn't prepared for it."

"I understand.  I probably would have felt the same way," Angel responded and then pulled Buffy closer so that she leaned against him once more.  "We've both done a lot of things we shouldn't have."

"Yeah," she agreed.

"I can't promise you that things will be perfect," started Angel, running a hand up and down her back.  "Nothing's ever perfect, but I promise that I will try my hardest to make you happy."

"Having you here with me and Ashlynn is enough to make me happy," Buffy answered back.

Angel smiled and hugged Buffy tighter to him, placing a kiss onto the top of her head.  It felt so natural to have her in his arms even though they'd been apart for so long.  He never thought he'd have this chance.  His days had been destined to be dark and lonely, but by some miracle he had a chance for everything now.  He intended to spend the rest of his life by his beloved's side, and thanking whoever was in charge of this world for giving him a second chance at life.

Neither spoke for a while.  Buffy was content to simply rest in his embrace.  Feeling his arms wrapped around her always made her feel so safe and loved.  It brought tears to her eyes to know that he was there for good.  She'd never go another day without having him close if she had any say about it.  And to think she'd almost pushed him away and made him leave.  She wanted to kick herself now for acting the way she did.  It didn't matter now, though.  She had her Angel and she intended to keep him.

"You haven't told me yet what you've been doing the last seven years," Buffy finally asked after several minutes of silence.

"There's not much to tell," he answered indifferently.

"I want to hear anyway," she replied, shifting them so that they rested against the bed's headboard.

"I mostly just traveled around," Angel started, shrugging his shoulders slightly.  "I traveled from place to place, never staying anywhere longer than three or four months."

"How come?" she questioned just before a yawn crept past her lips. 

"I don't know, really.  It just seemed like the thing to do," he explained and then pulled the covers up over the two of them as he realized Buffy was getting tired.

"Oh.  So what did you do in all those places?" she asked, snuggling down a bit to get comfortable.

"I fought demons when I needed to, tried to keep people safe.  I read, and basically just tried to exist," he went on, feeling slightly ashamed that he'd not done anything better with his life.

"Sounds lonely," Buffy responded sleepily.

"It was.  Every day I wished you were there with me," he answered, love shinning through his voice.

"I wish I was too," she said quietly and then asked a question she already knew the answer to.  "What made you come back?"

Angel sighed and hesitated for a moment before telling Buffy about his run in with Spike.  He relayed what the blonde vampire had told him and how he'd believed her to be dead but needed to know for sure.  Then he went on to explain how he'd gone to Sunnydale and searched for her, and his run-ins with Xander and Faith. 

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm glad you thought I was dead.  I wouldn't have gotten you back if you hadn't," she stated softly before yawning again.

"I know what you mean," Angel agreed.  He'd hated thinking she was dead, but he knew she was right.  If he hadn't of run into Spike he wouldn't be in the position he was in now.  "You should get some sleep."

"Don't want to," Buffy responded, her eyes drooping shut.

"Why not?" he questioned, confused by the vehemence in her voice.

"Cuz I'm afraid you won't be here when I wake up," she answered after a moment's hesitation.

The sincere fear in her voice tore at Angel's heart, but he knew she had reason to say what she did.  "I will be here in the morning, beloved."

"Promise?"

"I promise," he swore firmly.  "Go to sleep, baby."

"Mmm 'kay," Buffy mumbled, already half asleep.

Angel kissed her forehead and tucked the covers closer around her body.  He stayed awake for a while longer, content to merely watch the rise and fall of her chest as she slept.  But soon, he too felt his eyes drifting shut.  Pulling Buffy closer, Angel fell asleep, a happy smile playing on his face.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 7
^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

"Will you shut up!" Cordelia hissed just loud enough for Doyle to hear.

"What?" he asked, still not lowering his voice.

"The entire world could hear you as loud as you are yelling!" Cordy whispered harshly.  "We are trying to sneak in here!  Key word being ~sneak~ which means shut the hell up!"

"Now I know what they mean by not a 'morning person'," Doyle mumbled under his breath.

"I heard that," she snapped back at him as she poked her head through the door at the landing of the stairwell.

"Can we jus' get this over with?  I don't know what we're doin' here anyway," he grumbled, following his fiancée through the door and into the apartment.

"Well, I don't hear any shouting so that's a good sign," she said quietly and walked further into the room, looking around as she did so.  "And it doesn't look like they managed to kill each other.  Another good sign."

Doyle sighed, shaking his head as he did so.  He loved Cordy; truly he did, but she could drive a man nuts sometimes.  "Don't ya think we've interfered enough already?"

Rolling her eyes, Cordelia ignored the question and continued looking around the living room for any sign that things weren't going as she'd planned.  It all looked okay so far, no signs of a fight where objects were thrown.  The couch looked a little rumpled, but that wasn't out of the ordinary.  So far, she could see nothing to make her worry.

The absolute silence in the apartment was unnerving though.  There wasn't a single sound to be heard.  So either they'd somehow managed to kill each other or they'd found a way to escape and weren't even in the apartment.  Of course, there was a third option, and that was the one she was rooting for.  It involved them being together in Buffy's bedroom.  Hopefully sleeping, because Cordy really didn't want to walk in on nakedness.

"I just don't want them to screw this up," she finally answered Doyle's previous question.  "They're both so damn stubborn."

"Cordy," Doyle chastised.  "They need ta work this out on their own."

"And they will!" came Cordy's exasperated rebuttal.  "I'm just making sure they do it right.  Now if you're not going to help then go back downstairs with the others and stop bothering me!"

"Fine.  I'll shut up.  Are ya happy now?" he shot back sarcastically.

"Immensely," Cordy replied with a glare in his direction.

Careful not to make any noise, she crept down the hallway toward Buffy's room.  Just before she reached the open door she motioned for Doyle to wait behind her and to be quiet.  As soundlessly as possible, Cordy poked her head just far enough to see into the room.  When she peeked back at Doyle, a huge grin lit up her entire face.

"Well?" Doyle prodded impatiently.  As much as he was getting on Cordy's case for interfering, he also wanted to know how things were going between his friend and the now ex-vampire.

"Shh!" she hushed him quickly.

Turning back to the door, Cordelia once again peeked into the room.  She couldn't help but grin at what she saw inside.  Buffy, her best friend in the whole world, lay curled against Angel, a peaceful smile on her face that Cordy hadn't seen in years.  It brought a tear to her eye to see them together as they always should have been.

She simply stared at them for another minute before remembering that Doyle was standing nearby waiting.  Looking a bit harder, she noticed that the two in bed appeared to be dressed so she stepped over a foot and waved Doyle to join her.  He hesitated for a moment but then walked over next to her.  Once he saw what made her so happy, he too, found the need to smile widely.

"Ya did good, Princess," he leaned over and whispered into her ear.

"Of course!" she agreed happily before a wicked smirk formed on her face.  Facing Doyle, Cordy lightly shook the sleeping little girl in his arms.

"What?" Ashlynn mumbled sleepily, looking up at Cordelia with her big brown eyes.

"Look, Sweetie," she said and pointed toward the bed where Buffy and Angel were sleeping soundly.

"Mommy!  Daddy!" the little girl shrieked, wiggling out of Doyle's arms before he could stop her.  The moment her tiny feet hit the floor, she took off for the bed and leapt onto it.

The occupants of the aforementioned bed startled when the mattress bounced and shook from its newest guest.  From her spot sprawled across Angel's muscled chest, Buffy's eyes snapped open, instantly aware of their unexpected visitor.  She heard Angel mumble something that had the word 'sleep' in it, but she wasn't quite sure what the rest of the sentence had been.  Before she could ponder that much further, she realized that the bed was still shaking.

Frowning in annoyance, Buffy lifted her head and found herself staring into the deep brown eyes of her giddy, and very awake, six year old daughter.  She blinked her eyes slowly, trying to process what she was seeing.  When her lids fluttered open again, the little girl was still there watching her expectantly.

"Ashlynn?" Buffy spoke in confusion. 

Hearing the name of his daughter mentioned, Angel finally tore open his tired eyes and was surprised to find the girl in question bouncing happily on the end of the bed.  Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Cordy and Doyle both standing in under the doorframe, smirking at the scene before them.

"Hi Mommy!  Hi Daddy!" Ashlynn squealed excitedly before crawling further up the bed so that she could squish herself between Buffy and Angel.

"Hi, honey.  What, uh, what are you doing here?" Buffy questioned, shifting over some to make more room for her daughter.

"We decided to come back early to make sure everything was okay here," Cordy explained as she stepped into the room.

Buffy jumped slightly at the brunette's words, not having noticed her presence before.  She looked up and saw her best friend standing there staring at her with a barely contained grin on her face.  Rolling her eyes, and knowing Cordy would never shut up about her successful plan, Buffy sat up in the bed with a sigh.

"Everything's fine," she answered evenly.

"Uh, huh.  I can see that," Cordy responded in amusement, looking pointedly at the rumbled bed.

Rolling her eyes for a second time, Buffy was about to reply but before she could, she was interrupted by Ashlynn.

"Are you going to stay, Daddy?" the girl asked timidly, looking at Angel with wide, puppy-dog eyes.

The pleading quality of her voice made Angel's eyes water.  For a moment, he only gazed lovingly at her.  He'd missed so much of her life, but yet she already trusted him implicitly.  It was a humbling feeling.  With all of his heart, he wished that he could have been there for Buffy during her pregnancy and all the troubles that resulted, and he wished that he could have see her grow plump with their child, and see the birth and each and every milestone that followed.  The past couldn't be changed, however.  He was here now, though, and that was what really mattered.

"Yes," he finally replied, pulling Ashlynn into his arms and hugging her tightly.  "I'm going to stay.

Ashlynn smiled brightly at him, curling against his lean body.  "Forever?" she asked.

"Forever," Angel promised, kissing the top of her head.

Buffy watched the entire scene with happy tears rolling down her cheeks.  This moment was everything she had dreamed of for so long.  And now it was coming true.  Angel was back, and human.  They had their daughter, and now they were going to be a family.  A real, true family.

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

"You look like the cat that swallowed the canary," Willow teased, plopped down on the stool in front of where Buffy was refilling her glass of diet cola.

They were all gathered down in the club, preparing for its opening in an hour.  After finally getting to leave the apartment, the whole gang had converged on Buffy and Angel wanting to know if things were okay.  Buffy had begrudgingly thanked them for the interference once she'd assured them that she and Angel were fine and that they had worked things out.

Buffy shook her head and grinned at the same time.  "I'm just happy."

Laughing, Willow clasped one of Buffy's hands.  "I'm glad things worked out between you and Angel.  You both deserve it."

"Thank you," Buffy accepted graciously.

"Hey Buff," Oz greeted, walking up to Willow.  "Sorry to interrupt, but Lorne needs your help with something, Willow"

"Okay.  Talk to ya later Buffy!"

Buffy smiled as she watched them walk away hand-in-hand.  They were so cute together.  She was so glad the people around her were happy.

Turning around to grab a straw, Buffy jumped when she found Lindsey leaning on the counter behind her.  "Lindsey, sheesh!  You scared me."

"Sorry," he apologized, grinning as though he didn't really mean it.

"What's up?" she asked, unwrapping her straw and putting it in her glass.

"I just...," he started, sighing as he thought about all the changes that had happened lately.

"What?" Buffy prodded seriously, facing the man who had been her sort-of boyfriend for a long time.

"I just wanted to tell you how happy I am for you," he explained sincerely, swallowing his pride at having lost the woman he'd wanted for so long.

"Lindsey..."  Buffy placed a conciliatory hand on his arm.

"You don't have to say it, Buffy," he cut off her upcoming words.  "I've known for a long time that I never had a chance.  I just...I tried not to see it."

"You've been a great friend, and I hope you know how much I appreciate it.  I don't want that to change," she told him honestly.

"I'll always be your friend, Buffy," Lindsey replied, smiling as he pulled her into a hug.

Buffy hugged him back, happy that he seemed to be accepting everything gracefully.  She knew it couldn't be easy for him.  For so long he'd hoped that she would give him a chance, but her heart just wouldn't let her.  Now, she supposed, it had been for the best.  If they had been together when Angel returned, she didn't know what would have happened.  And this way, they could remain friends without all the animosity.

"Do me a favor?" Lindsey asked, pulling away to look into Buffy's eyes.

"Anything," Buffy promised.

"Just be happy," he requested.

"That, I think I can do," she answered with a chuckle.

"Good."  Lindsey nodded, and released Buffy from the hug.  "Okay, I better finish getting set up for the show tonight."

"Okay, if you need anything, let me know," Buffy offered, squeezing his hand to let him know her offer extended to more than just setting up for the show.

As Lindsey walked away, Buffy heard Angel speak from nearby.

"Hey."

"Hey," she greeted, smiling brightly.

"Everything okay?" Angel asked, glancing towards the stage where Lindsey was getting his equipment ready.

"Yeah, fine," she assured him, looking at him curiously.  Her eyes twinkled mischievously as she realized what was going on.  "You're jealous aren't you," she teased.

 "No," Angel denied, glancing at Lindsey again.  "Okay, yes."

"Angel."  Buffy took one of his hands into hers.  "There's no reason to be jealous.  Lindsey is a friend, a good friend.  I hope you can accept that."

Angel sighed, knowing he was being a bit over reactive.  "I know.  I'm sorry.  I know he's just a friend, and I'm okay with that."

Just as Buffy was about to reply, Ashlynn ran up to Angel, latching onto his right leg.  "Tag!  You're it, Daddy!" she shouted, giggling at the same time.

"I'm it, huh?" Angel laughed.  "Guess I better try and catch you."

Ashlynn shrieked and took off across the room with Angel chasing after her.  Buffy laughed, shaking her head at the duo. 

"They already act like they've known each other forever," Cordelia said as she walked up to Buffy.

Watching Angel chasing Ashlynn around the empty club, Buffy couldn't seem to wipe the smile off her face.  "Yeah.  I'm glad.  I wasn't sure how she would react to him."

"She's a smart kid," Cordy pointed out.  "I think she understands that he would have been here if he could have."

"Yeah," agreed Buffy.

"And now he can stay here with you two," the brunette went on and then looked at Buffy expectantly.

"What?" she questioned, confused at the wondering gaze.

"What was all that ignoring each other bit about?" Cordy asked the foremost question on her mind.  She was still a little baffled over how the two had reacted after Angel's return and subsequent newfound humanity.

Sighing, Buffy sat her glass down on the counter and turned to lean against the sturdy wood.  "I was just angry I guess."

"Angry?" repeated Cordy.

"It just all sort of hit me at once, what happened back in Sunnydale and the current stuff," she explained hesitantly.  "I was just angry and hurt that he couldn't seem to ever let me be involved in decisions that affected us both.  I mean, I understand why he left in the first place, but he just did it without bothering to talk to me."

"That was a long time ago, though," Cordy added in.

"I know, but it still hurt, especially after he just reappeared the way he did," Buffy continued, glancing behind her where Ashlynn was giggling as Angel tickled her.  "And then with the Oracles...he wasn't going to take their deal despite the fact that I wanted to.  It was like it didn't matter to him what I thought."

"I can see how that would bother you," replied Cordy with a small nod of her head.  "So I take it you got everything worked out?"

"We talked," Buffy said evasively.

"Talked?  Is that all?" Cordy pressed.

"I don't know what you're referring to," Buffy answered, blushing minutely, and avoiding Cordy's eyes.

"Oh come on!  I'm your best friend!  You have to tell me!" Cordy pleaded forcefully.

"Ok, fine," sighed Buffy in exasperation.  "There was some talking, a lot of talking actually, and some...other...stuff."

"Uh, huh.  I knew it!  You got lucky!" she chirped, grinning at the blonde.

"If you must know, yes," Buffy answered with a roll her eyes.

"So, how was it?" Cordy wanted to know, leaning conspiratorially closer to Buffy.

"Why are you so curious about my love life?" she shot back.

"Buffy!  You've lived like a monk the last like five years," Cordy answered as if it explained everything.

"You're point?" Buffy asked curiously.

"I wanna know if it was worth it," prodded Cordy.

"I'm not gonna answer that," stated Buffy defiantly.

"I'll take that as a yes," she smirked victoriously.

"Don't you have something you should be doing?" Buffy suddenly changed the subject.

Frowning at Buffy's avoidance, Cordy then sighed and shook her head.  "Unfortunately, I do, but that doesn't mean this conversation is over!"

"I'll keep that in mind," Buffy chuckled, rolling her eyes.

Cordelia laughed as well then raised an eyebrow when she saw something curious on the other side of the club.  "Well, that's interesting."

"What?"

"Those two," Cordy answered, pointing across the dance floor to where Lindsey and Faith were talking and laughing comfortably with each other.  "They look quite cozy."

"So?" Buffy questioned, eyeing Cordelia in confusion.

"It doesn't bother you?" she prodded.

Thinking for a second, Buffy then shook her head.  "No.  I never felt that way about him.  He's just a good friend."

"They'd certainly be an interesting pair, but anyway, I better get to work before Lorne starts getting all testy," the brunette grumbled.

As Cordelia started to walk away, Buffy reached out and touched her arm.  When the brunette turned and looked back at her, Buffy spoke again.  "Thank you for everything Cordy.  I don't know what I would have done without you."

"That's what I'm here for!" Cordy responded just before strolling off elsewhere in the club, the sincerity in her voice belying the light-hearted statement.

Buffy chuckled at the brunette's self-satisfaction, reaching over to pick up her abandoned glass of soda.  When she did, she saw Giles hovering a few feet away, looking as if he was trying to gather the nerve to approach her.  She wasn't surprised.  She'd known sooner or later he'd want to talk to her.  Personally, she'd been hoping it would be later, but it seemed as though she wasn't going to be able to avoid it any longer. 

"Giles," she said, facing him fully and crossing her arms over her chest.

"Buffy, I, uh, was wondering if perhaps I may speak with you," he requested nervously, avoiding eye contact.

Her first instinct was to say 'no' and then walk away, but Angel's words from the day before echoed in her head.  She was trying to run away from her problems again.  As much as she wanted to not have this conversation, Buffy knew she had to.  It was the only way to truly put the past behind her.

"Fine.  Let's go up to the offices," she answered after a few more seconds of deliberation.  And then without waiting for him to reply, she turned and headed for the stairs, rather than the elevator since it would give her a little more time to prepare herself.

^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^
Part 8
^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^-^

"Well?" Buffy spoke once they were both standing inside the club's main office and Giles had yet to say anything.

The former Watcher removed his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose as he did so.  Replacing the glasses, he took a deep breath before finally looking up at Buffy.  "I believe I owe you an apology.

"And what makes you think that?" she asked solemnly, resting a hip against her desk.

"I behaved badly in Sunnydale after you told us what happened," he responded, though he knew she was just making him admit his error.

"Ya think?" Buffy snorted indignantly.

"I should not have done what I did," Giles continued despite Buffy's hostile tone.  "There has not been a day gone by that I have not regretted what happened.  I am truly sorry."

Buffy said nothing immediately, just stared at her ex-Watcher.  She moved away from her desk and wandered the office for a minute until she'd gathered her thoughts.  When she did, she faced him once again.

"Do you know how much it hurt?" she asked pensively.  "I needed your support and you just turned your back on me, along with telling me what a disappointment I was."

Bristling at her blunt words, Giles sighed, realizing this was going to be as difficult as he'd expected.  "I was angry, Buffy, and terrified.  I reacted on those two emotions."

"That doesn't make it right," rebutted Buffy, emotionally torn over whether she should readily accept his apology.

"I know it doesn't," he responded quietly.  "But you have to understand where I was coming from.  You willingly slept with Angel knowing what the consequences could have been."

"I know it was wrong," Buffy agreed, her voice wavering a bit.  "But you don't know what it was like, thinking that the person you love with all your heart was just going to walk away and that you'd probably never see him again.  You don't know what it was like to feel as though your heart was being torn out of your chest!"

"No, I don't quite know what that feels like," Giles conceded, his mind drifting to a certain Gypsy who had died years earlier, at the hands of Angelus no less.

"I did the best I could, Giles.  I know I made mistakes, but I wouldn't change any of it," she proclaimed honestly.

Giles took a few seconds to peer at his surroundings and to think about the life Buffy now had.  "No, I don't suppose you would," he replied, knowing she meant her words, and he really couldn't blame her.  She had the life he'd always hoped she would have a chance to experience.

"For my part, I am sorry that I did something so risky, but in the end, I don't regret it," she said, her chin jutting out defiantly.

"You've grown up so much," he spoke suddenly.

Buffy shrugged.  "I had to."

The comment stung, but Giles could tell it was not maliciously directed at him.  It was just a statement of truth.  She'd been forced to change from a teenage girl to a Mother almost over night, and on her own.  No, he supposed she wasn't alone.  She'd had Cordelia, Doyle, and all the others who'd become her support team.

"For what it's worth, I'm proud of all you have accomplished here," he commended sincerely.

"Thank you."

"I know you may never trust me again, but I would like to be a part of your life," Giles went on, directing their conversation back to its original topic.

Buffy stiffened at the request.  She wanted to say yes.  After all, Giles had once been more of a Father to her than her own, but still, a part of her just didn't know if she had it in her.  He'd hurt her so much with his words years ago.  Could she let go of that pain?  She knew she would never forget it, but could she get past it?  Honestly, she didn't know.

"I can't answer that now.  Just...just give me some time and we'll see," she answered, flinching slightly at the hurt that entered his eyes.

"I understand," Giles nodded sadly.

"Thanks," Buffy said, returning the nod.  "I better get back to work."

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

"What's it like?" Buffy asked softly as she and Angel sat on the roof of the apartment building watching the pinks, oranges, and reds start to creep across the sky.

"What's what like?" Angel questioned, tightening his arms around Buffy.

"Being able to see the sunrise again," she clarified, snuggling closer against his chest to ward off the early morning chill.

"It's...," he started, struggling to find the right way to describe it.  "It's amazing.  I'd forgotten all the colors there were, and how bright it was."

"I can imagine," she replied softly.  "I used to come up here once in a while to watch the sun come up, and I'd think about how you couldn't ever see it."

"But now I can," Angel added.

"Yes, you can," Buffy agreed, tilting her head up to kiss Angel gently.

Sighing, they broke apart seconds later, content to merely sit together holding each other.  They watched the sun rise in silence, reveling in the new experience they were afforded because of the return of Angel's humanity. 

"I heard you talked to Giles today," Angel spoke up.

"Yeah," Buffy confirmed, her voice indifferent.  Her feelings towards her former Watcher were still torn.  His apology had sounded sincere, but his actions still hurt.  She didn't know if she could forgive and forget.

"What did he say?" Angel asked, tightening his arms around Buffy, knowing this was a sensitive subject for her.

"He apologized for what happened back in Sunnydale and explained why he acted the way he did," she relayed morosely, hating to think back on that awful period in her life.

Angel sensed her hesitation.  He could only imagine how hard facing her Watcher again was.  "You don't think he was being sincere?"

"I don't know.  I think he was," she answered with a shrug.  "It's just hard.  Seeing him brings back all the memories of what happened."

"It's not good to dwell on the past," Angel pointed out.

"I know," she said with an exaggerated sigh.  "At the same time, how can I just forget everything and act like it never happened.  I needed his support, Angel, and he literally just turned his back on me."

"You don't have to forget, Buffy," he corrected.  "But you can forgive and move on."

"I just...I don't know if I can.  I told him I needed some time," Buffy explained how her conversation with Giles had ended.

"Whatever you decide, I will support you," he offered, resting his chin on the top of her head.

"Thanks," she accepted, relaxing into his embrace.  After several seconds of silence, she cocked her head slightly.  "It's weird having everyone here."

"Yeah, it's almost like it was back in Sunnydale except for...," he trailed off, not wanting to say the name of the missing person.

"Xander," Buffy filled her, the name being spat out as if it were poison.  "I'd be perfectly happy if I never had to see him again."

Angel started to say something, but stopped, knowing it would not go over too well.  Hearing the halted words, Buffy asked, "What?"

"You don't want to ever try to work things out with him?" he finally questioned.

"Angel," Buffy started, turning slightly in his arms so that she could look at him.  "You didn't hear the things he said to me.  They were mean, hateful, and cruel.  Yes, I know he had a reason to be upset and angry, but I can never forgive or forget what he did to me."

"I guess I can understand that," Angel conceded.  He didn't know exactly what Xander had said.  Between Buffy, Willow, and Cordelia he'd only been told the general gist of the hurtful words, but he knew that they had been just as Buffy said:  cruel.

"I saw him when Doyle, Cordy, Ashlynn and I went to Sunnydale a few weeks ago," she told him, realizing she had neglected to mention that little detail during their previous conversations.

"You didn't tell me that," he replied.

"I forgot.  I guess I blocked it out," she explained, shrugging.

"I take it the run-in didn't go well," Angel concluded from the tone of her voice.

"No, it really didn't," Buffy confirmed, thinking back to the meeting.  "He was just so full of hate.  He told me I had no right to come back to Sunnydale."

"You were in Sunnydale before I got there," he mumbled half to himself, realizing something.

"So?"

"I saw Xander when I was there.  He said he didn't know where you were or what happened to you, and all the while, he had just seen you," Angel explained what had just occurred to him.

Buffy shook her head.  "I guess I shouldn't be surprised by that.  Sometimes I wonder...," she trailed off.

"Wonder what?" he pressed.

"I wonder if things would have gone differently if I'd gotten pregnant by anyone other than you," she said, putting words to her thoughts.

"Oh," Angel mumbled, stiffening slightly.

"No, Angel, I didn't mean it like that," Buffy corrected.  "I wouldn't want to carry anybody's child but yours.  I just...he hated you so much, I just wondered how he would have acted if it hadn't been you."

"He probably would have hated them too because it still meant you'd chosen someone else over him," he pointed out.

"Hmm.  That's true.  I guess it doesn't matter," she conceded.  It really didn't matter.  "Besides, I'm glad Ashlynn is yours. I wish..."

"Wish what?" Angel asked, curious.

"I never found out how we were able to make a baby.  I mean, you told me vampires couldn't have kids," she reminded him of their graveyard conversation from years ago.  "I was completely shocked when I realized I was pregnant.  After we got to Seattle, Doyle and Cordy helped me research how it was possible, but we never found anything."

"I know how," Angel said, suddenly feeling guilty that he'd forgotten to tell her.

"You do?" Buffy exclaimed, pulling away and facing him expectantly.  She had always wanted to find out how Ashlynn had been able to be conceived.

"I never thought it was possible.  After all, I was technically a demon in a dead body," he began, taking hold of Buffy's hands.  "I wanted to know how it could have happened, so I asked the Oracle."

"And?" she prodded excitedly.

"It was the blood...your blood...from when I...bit you," Angel mumbled, wincing at the memory.  "Your blood was still in my system.  The Oracle said that's why we were able to conceive."

"I guess that makes sense...sort of," she said, not noticing that Angel seemed to be lost in thought.

Angel raised his left hand until his fingers touched the scar that had never faded from Buffy's neck.  He traced over the raised skin, guilt flooding through him over the mark and the fact that he had bit her.  "I'm sorry," he apologized.

Placing a hand on top of his at her neck, Buffy looked him in the eyes.  "Don't be.  I never regretted it.  You would have died if you hadn't drunk my blood.  It saved your life, and now, knowing that it allowed us to have Ashlynn, makes it all the more special."

"Still..."

"No regrets, Angel," Buffy softly ordered.  Wanting to get off the subject before Angel went into pure brood-mode, she went back to the original conversation.  "When did you find out from the Oracle?"

"Oh...I asked right before they completed the deal to save your life," he explained, trying to shake off his guilt at the events of the past.  "I just wanted to know."

Buffy nodded before shifting back to rest against Angel.  His arms immediately wrapped around her again, holding her closely.  Buffy sighed, her eyes once again watching the sun rising over the horizon.  Thinking back on all the changes that had happened recently, Buffy decided to ask a question that had been lurking in the back of her mind.

"Why'd you do it, Angel?"

He looked down at her, confused over the out-of-the-blue question.  "Do what?"

"Give up your life for mine," she explained, hoping he wouldn't get upset that she'd asked.

"Because I would do anything for you," Angel responded honestly.  "I've lived a long life, Buffy.  You're still so young, and you have so much to live for:  Ashlynn, your friends, your job.  Compared to your life, mine meant nothing."

"But it does!" Buffy exclaimed, turning to face him.  "When I thought you were gone, truly gone, I thought I'd die along with you."

"No, you wouldn't have," he disagreed with a shake of his head.  "You're stronger than you think, Buffy.  You would have found a way to go on."

"Maybe, but I wouldn't have wanted to," she whispered, reaching up to touch his cheek.

"It doesn't matter, though.  We're both here, now, and we're together," Angel pointed out, not wanting to dwell on the pains of the past.

"You're right," Buffy said, once again cuddling up against him.

A moment later, they were startled out of their quiet time together by the sound of the roof door opening and closing.  Turning at once, they saw Giles walking toward them, a perplexed look on his face.

"Ah, Buffy, Angel.  I found you," he spoke once he was close enough.

"Giles?  Shouldn't you be sleeping," Buffy questioned, looking at him oddly.  He was dressed in tweed pants, a t-shirt, and his hair was sticking up all over the place.

"Oh, well...I was, but then I got a phone call," he explained, embarrassed to realize how untidy his appearance was.

"Um, okay.  So you decided to stroll up here and tell us that?" she asked, still confused.

"The call...it-it was a friend of mine that is part of the Council," Giles started to explain the news that had instantly dazed him only moments earlier.  "Apparently, Quentin Travers suffered a fatal heart attack late last night."

"He's dead?" Buffy questioned bluntly, eyes widening.

"Yes."

"Huh.  I never liked him anyway," Buffy said with a snort of disgust at the abhorrent, now dead, man.

"There's more," the former Watcher went on.  "His death evidently opened up a window of opportunity for the group of Watchers who feel that the Council should change their ways to make their move.  They've managed to take over the executive board."

"And you're telling us this because?" she wondered out loud.  The Council was not a group on her list of favorite things.  She could care less what they did.  Well, as long as they weren't trying to kill her.

"Buffy," Angel chastised her.  "What does this mean, Giles?"

"Well...they...they have asked me to become Council leader," he finally said.

Both Buffy and Angel were shocked into silence at the statement.  Despite their lack of connection to the Council in recent years, both understood the monumental implications of the move.

"Well, I guess that explains that," Angel managed to say a minute later.

"Explains what?" Buffy asked.

"The Oracle...It said that something big was going to happen soon that would change everything," he clarified the thought that had occurred to him.

"Oh...yeah.  I guess you're right," she nodded in agreement.  "So are you going to accept?"

"I think so," a stunned Giles replied.  "It is an excellent opportunity to change the way the Council acts."

"Good.  They need to learn how to treat their Slayers better," Buffy said sarcastically.

"Congratulations, Giles," Angel butted in before Buffy could start a tirade on the ways of the Council.  "I, we, wish you the best of luck."

"Thank you.  It is all so overwhelming.  I must go make some phone calls," Giles rambled, already starting to walk away.

"Well, that was unexpected," Buffy spoke, chuckling slightly at the oddness that was Giles.

"Yes, but I think it's a good thing," Angel voiced his happiness at the news.

"Mmm, yeah, I guess it is.  Maybe future Slayers won't have to go through all that I did because of the Council," she replied, then yawned.

Angel noticed the yawn and glanced at his watch.  "You're tired.  We should get some sleep.  We've been up here for hours."

"Have we?  I hadn't noticed," she answered, wrapping an arm around Angel's waist, and laying her head tiredly on his chest.

Smiling down at her, feeling a lightness in his heart he'd never before experienced, Angel reached down and lifted Buffy into his arms.  "Off to bed, beloved."

"Mmm, bed sounds good," Buffy mumbled, already half asleep as she rested in his embrace.

Angel chuckled as he kissed the top of her head and started walking away from the bench they'd been sitting on.  When he reached the door to the stairwell, he paused and turned to look at the sun cresting on the horizon   He stared at the myriad of colors for a few seconds before he realized the sunrise would be there tomorrow, and every day thereafter.  He would be able to see it again, whenever he wanted, with Buffy at his side.

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

~five months later~

"Oh God, I think I'm gonna throw up!" Cordelia groaned, raising a hand to her mouth.

From where she was kneeling on the floor in front of her daughter across the room, Buffy stifled a laugh.  She finished fixing the bow on Ashlynn's dress before she stood and walked over to where Cordy was pacing restlessly.  Grabbing on to the brunette's arm, she stilled her movements.

"Cordy, you need to calm down.  Why are you so nervous?" Buffy asked calmly.

"Why am I nervous?" shrieked Cordy.  "Why do you think!?  I'm getting married in fifteen minutes!"

"Umm, yeah, but you've known you're getting married for a year now," said Buffy, pointing out the obvious detail Cordy seemed to be forgetting.

"I know!  But...but then I was only thinking about it!  Today I'll actually be doing it!" she exclaimed, exasperated at Buffy's lack of understanding.

Tugging lightly on Cordy's arm, Buffy directed her over to the couch on one side of the room in the bridal suite at the chapel.  She forced the nervous woman to sit down and then followed suit.

"Take a deep breath, Cordy.  There's nothing to be nervous about.  Doyle loves you, and you love him," Buffy relayed in as soothing a tone as possible.

"I know," Cordy sighed, trying to get herself to relax.  "It's just...I'm getting married today!  To Doyle!  Who would have ever thought I'd marry someone like him?"

"Doyle's a good guy, and he loves you.  That's all that matters," Buffy stated seriously.  "And besides, the unexpected happening isn't always a bad thing."

"Yeah, you're right," agreed Cordy as both women's thoughts went back to years earlier when they'd struck up an odd friendship and set off on their own together.  "Who would have expected we'd end up where we are today, huh?"

Even seven and a half years after leaving Sunnydale, the coincidental chain of events that had pushed them together were still fresh in their minds.  If one little thing had gone differently, if Cordy had decided to leave Sunnydale a few days earlier, or if Buffy had gone to a different motel who knew where they would be right now.  Neither could have ever predicted what their joint venture out of Sunnydale would turn into.

"I certainly wouldn't have," Buffy answered with a chuckle.  "But I wouldn't change a thing."

And she really wouldn't.  Cordelia, and then Doyle and Lorne, had been her saviors, unintentionally or not.  If one good thing came out of the lowest time in her life, other than Ashlynn, it was the group of people who'd become her closest friends.  Without them, Buffy had no idea what would have happened to her.  She'd probably either be dead, or some tired, overworked mother on welfare.  But they had come into her life, and she would be forever grateful.

"Neither would I," Cordy responded, a soft smile lighting her face.

Before either could speak again, a light knock sounded on the door and soon Angel's head peeked into the room.

"Daddy!" Ashlynn squealed, running to Angel and leaping into his arms.

In the five-plus months since his return, the bond between the former vampire and his daughter had grown each day.  One would hardly be able to tell that he had not been present for the first six years of her life.  But now, she was Daddy's little princess, as Buffy liked to tease him.

"Don't you look pretty," Angel said with a grin, lightly tapping Ash's nose.

"I got to pick my dress out!" she exclaimed proudly of the lacey pale pink dress she was wearing.

"You picked a good one," he answered with a nod of his head, and then turned his focus to Buffy and Cordelia.  "Are you ready?  It's time."

"Oh God!" Cordy screeched nervously, clutching a hand to her mouth again.

"Breathe, Cordy," Buffy ordered.  "Just think, in a few minutes, you'll be Doyle's wife."

"I will, won't I?" she asked, taking in a deep lungful of air.  "Well, let's go get me married then!"

Cordelia gathered the train of her dress up and marched out of the room, leaving a laughing Buffy and Angel, and a confused Ashlynn, behind her.  The little girl shrugged at the strangeness of the adults and then followed, picking up her basket of flower petals on the way.  Angel, meanwhile, crept up behind Buffy and snuck his arms around her waist.

"You look absolutely beautiful," he spoke softly into her ear.

"Why, thank you, kind sir," Buffy replied, sighing at the feel of his arms around her.

"I can't wait to get you out of that dress later," he whispered wickedly to her.

"Angel!" she chastised, blushing a soft red color.

"What?" Angel asked innocently.

"Never mind," Buffy chuckled, shaking her head.  "Come on, loverboy.  We have a wedding to go to."

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

Several hours later, the wedding reception was going full force with all the gang's closest friends and family dancing and enjoying themselves.  Buffy couldn't help the smile that was plastered on her face at all the happiness that surrounded her.  Everything was absolutely perfect.  She had her Angel, her daughter, and all her friends.  What more could there be?

Cordelia looked absolutely radiant, and Doyle looked as if he'd won the lottery as the two danced around the main floor of the club.  Buffy was glad they'd found each other.  It was a strange match, she had to admit, but sometimes those were the best kind.  After all, she was a Slayer who'd fallen in love with a vampire.  There wasn't anything stranger than that.  In the end, it only mattered that they made each other happy, and she knew they did.

Gazing around the room, she took in all of her friends.  Willow and Oz were swaying in each other's arms off in one corner.  Tara was dancing with her girlfriend, a fellow Wicca she'd met at a retreat a few months earlier.  Buffy had been a little surprised when she met the young woman for the first time, but Tara seemed happy so who was Buffy to judge her lifestyle?

A loud giggle, coming from her daughter, reached Buffy's ears.  She searched the room and found Ashlynn laughing like a hyena as Angel danced exaggeratedly with the little girl in his arms.  It was an amusing sight considering how much Buffy knew Angel hated to dance, but he'd do anything to make his little princess happy.

Then her eyes landed on Lindsey and Faith, who looked almost as if they were glued together.  There didn't seem to be enough room to squeeze a piece of paper between the two.  For Buffy, it was a little odd seeing them together, but she was glad they'd found each other.  Lindsey deserved someone who could love him, and Faith needed a stable influence in her life.

The dark haired Slayer had stayed in Seattle for three months after first arriving.  It was risky leaving the Hellmouth unguarded, but Giles had sources there to let him know if there was trouble.  He'd asked her to stay in Seattle, saying that with the turmoil in the Council it was safer for her to be around people she could trust.  So she'd stayed around, helping out at the club and with slaying, and also getting to know Lindsey.

When she'd gone back to Sunnydale, after Giles had assured them it was safe for her to be on her own, Lindsey followed not much later.  Buffy missed her friend, but they still talked on the phone often, and now he and Faith were back for Cordelia's wedding.

"How come you're over here all by yourself," Willow spoke up, dragging Buffy from her internal thoughts.

"Huh?  Oh!  I was just getting some punch," Buffy answered, holding up the glass of red liquid.  "Aren't they just so cute?"

"Who?"

"Angel and Ashlynn," Buffy said, pointing to her boyfriend and daughter.

"Oh, yeah, they are," the redhead agreed, though her voice took on a sad quality.

"You okay?" asked Buffy, facing Willow after noticing the depressed tone.

"Yeah," Willow replied with a sigh.

"Still no luck, huh?"  It had taken her a moment, but Buffy suddenly realized what had changed her friend's mood.  Willow and Oz had been trying for a baby, and so far they had not been able to conceive.

"No, and we've been trying.  A lot," explained Willow, shoulders slumping as she spoke.

"I'm sorry," Buffy apologized, placing a comforting hand on Willow's arm.

"Thanks.  The doctor said we're both healthy and that we just need to relax and let it happen," Willow relayed.

"Well, she's probably right," agreed Buffy.

"I know, I just hate waiting," Willow half pouted.  "Anyways, is Giles here?  I haven't seen him."

"He came for the ceremony, but then he had to leave to fly back to England," Buffy answered.  Things between her and her former Watcher were better than they had been, but at times their relationship was still a bit stunted.  She didn't know if they'd ever be able to regain the close relationship they'd once had, but she was trying her best to put the past behind her.

"He's really wracking up those frequent flier miles," Willow pointed out.

"I know, but until the Council moves into their new headquarters he doesn't have much of a choice," Buffy explained, thinking about all the changes that had been set in motion with Quentin Travers' death.

One of Giles' first moves as the new Council head was to start the process of moving the Council to a large compound he'd acquired in northern California.  He'd said it did no good for the group to be located so far away from both active Slayers.  To better serve the Slayers, he felt it was beneficial for them to be closer.  So at the moment, he was quite busy getting every transferred to the Council's new home.

The move was only one of many changes.  Another immediate act Giles had initiated was to abolish the Cruciamentum test, which Buffy whole heartedly agreed with.  She'd always felt it was a horrible thing to do to Slayers.  The executive committee of the Council was also looking at ways to change how they handled Slayers so that they would be able to help them fight better and live longer.

"He's coming back next week isn't he?" Willow asked.

"Yeah.  He has some stuff he wants to go over with me and Angel."

That was another thing that had changed:  her involvement with the Council.  Now that Giles was in charge, Buffy had reinitiated her contact with the group.  It wasn't the only thing that had changed with regards to her position, though.  Seeing as how she was the longest living Slayer in a long time, and how Angel was a former vampire with a wide expanse of knowledge, they had both become Giles' respected advisors.

At first, Buffy had been unsure about taking such an active role with the Council, but then Angel had talked to her about how much they could do by helping the Council.  And he was right.  This was her chance, their chance, to help make the world a better place, and to do anything possible to make future Slayers' lives more bearable.  So now, they talked with Giles and the other members of the executive committee often about changes they could make.  It was a daunting task, but both she and Angel knew it was worth it.

"May I have this dance?" a voice whispered into Buffy's ear, causing her to jump.

She turned and grinned at the speaker.  "I don't know.  My boyfriend gets kinda mad when I dance with other guys."

"You better not be dancing with other guys," Angel growled possessively.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Buffy teased innocently.

"Oh will you two just go dance!" ordered Willow, rolling her eyes at their playfulness.  It didn't really bother her; she just enjoyed picking on them.  She was happy that they'd worked everything out. 

"I guess we better go dance," Angel answered, tugging Buffy out onto the dance floor.

They settled into each other's arms, swaying slowly to the soft song playing over the speakers.  Those who knew Buffy and Angel, and knew of their tragic past, smiled at the two who seemed oblivious to the world.

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

~three weeks later~

"This is the perfect day for a picnic" Cordelia sighed happily as she reclined on her towel.  "I so needed a day off."

The entire group had decided to spend the day on the beach in front of Lorne's waterside condo.  It was the first chance they'd gotten to relax since Cordelia and Doyle's wedding three weeks earlier because of work with the club, and for Buffy and Angel, helping out Giles with the Council.  A day at the beach was definitely needed.

"A day off?" Willow repeated with a raised eyebrow.  "You just got back from your honeymoon last week!"

"So?" Cordy asked, not bothering to look up at the redhead.

"Never mind," Willow said, shaking her head at Cordy's oddness.

"Hey, man," Doyle greeted Angel as he took a seat next to him under the large umbrella Buffy had insisted they needed so Angel wouldn't get sunburn.  "Where are your girls?"

"They're down by the water," Angel answered, nodding to where he'd last seen them.

Angel looked on curiously when he noticed that Buffy was kneeling down in front of Ashlynn and appeared to be whispering something into their daughter's ear.  Being so far away from them, he couldn't hear the secret conversation, but he saw Ashlynn's face light up, and then he thought he noticed Buffy glance in his direction.  Angel was about to get up and go see what they were talking about when suddenly Ash took off running toward him.

"Daddy!  Daddy!  Daddy!" the little girl screamed all the way up to the chair her Father was sitting on.

"What is it, Princess?" he questioned, nearly falling backwards as Ashlynn threw herself onto his lap.  His eyes gazed at the blonde-headed little ball of energy for a moment, and then searched beyond her to where Buffy was casually strolling up the beach toward the group.

"Guess what?!" Ashlynn exclaimed excitedly.

"What?" he asked, trying to keep a hold of his squirming daughter.

"Mommy said I'm gonna get a brother or sister soon!" she revealed loudly, causing each and every one of the group to turn their heads quickly in her direction.

Angel was stunned into stillness at the words.  It took several seconds before the meaning truly sank into his mind.  He opened his mouth to speak, then quickly closed it, finding himself at a loss for words.  Quickly, he looked up to where Buffy was standing only a few feet away.  She nodded her head, confirming what Ashlynn had just told him.

Rising swiftly, Angel carefully set Ashlynn down onto the sand and rushed over to Buffy.  He swept her up into his arms, tears already falling from his eyes.  "We're going to have a baby?" he questioned softly when he pulled back to look at her face.

"We are," Buffy verified, touching his cheek with her warm hand.

"I-I....I don't know what to say," Angel managed to say, totally shocked at the unexpected news.

"Are you happy about this?" she asked nervously.  They hadn't been trying to have another baby.  Like this first time, this one just happened.

"I'm ecstatic!" he nearly screamed in response, then kissed her soundly.

Seeing the heated kiss, Cordelia leaned over and whispered to Willow, "I'd say that he's very happy about this."

"I think so!" Willow laughed in agreement.

When the kiss finally ended, Angel stared lovingly into Buffy's eyes.  He almost couldn't believe that they were going to have another child together.  And this time he would be able to experience it all.  He would be able to see her grow large with their child, and be able to feel it move underneath her skin.  He'd get to be there for the birth and see its first breath.  It was everything he could have ever dreamed of.

Happy tears fell down Buffy's cheeks as she met Angel's eyes.  She knew just what he was thinking.  It still upset him from time to time that he had missed out on so much of Ashlynn's life, but now he would be there for their second child.  It wouldn't erase his previous absence, but it would ease the pain of the memories, or rather the lack thereof.

"I guess it's a good thing I brought this with me today," Angel spoke suddenly as he took a step back from Buffy and reached into the bag that sat next to his chair.

She watched with wide eyes as he produced a small velvet box and then proceeded to kneel down in the sand in front of her.  "Angel?" she whispered, stunned.

"I had planned on doing this later tonight, but I think now is better," he started.  "I love you, Buffy.  I have since the first moment I saw you, and I never stopped, even during all the years we were a part.  I never thought that we could have a life together, but now that we can, I never want to let you go.  Will you marry me?"

For nearly a minute, Buffy said nothing.  Her mind was still trying to clear the daze that clouded it.  When she realized everyone, most importantly Angel, was staring at her waiting for an answer, she snapped herself back into reality.

"Yes!  Of course I will!" she finally answered, her voice breathless as she leapt into Angel's waiting arms.

"I love you," Angel proclaimed softly, wrapping his arms around his now fiancée.

"I love you, too," Buffy repeated just as quietly before pressing her lips to his.

They kissed gently, a reinforcement of the love they felt for each other.  Around them, their group of friends watched teary-eyed, embracing their significant others and overjoyed at the peace and happiness that all of their friends had found.

The path hadn't been easy; it was marred by a patchwork of shadows that signified the darker times.  They'd survived, though, found their ways out of the shadows and back to each other.  Fate had thrown them more obstacles than one could count, but they faced them all, persevering when others would have quit, and now they were reaping the rewards.  They were finally able to be together, and really, that's all they'd ever wanted.

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


THE END!!!  (finally!)

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