Tenderness

Tenderness

At the very instant his icy flesh impaled her, Buffy had a moment of blinding clarity. Her eyes flew open, met his own startled gaze, but she didn't blink, didn't look away- only settled deeper onto his rigid cock. He began in earnest then, as if afraid she might suddenly change her mind. But she'd already made up her mind, hadn't she. Had already made the decision to see this through to the end. Spike's supernatural strength could only keep the two of them aloft for so long and as his own orgasm barreled through him, he felt his knees buckle, felt Buffy pitch forward knocking them both backwards where they crashed through the weakened floor to the level below. Impossibly joined, they lay staring at each other in disbelief.

"Slayer," Spike began.

Buffy silenced him with a look and not the look of a woman basking in any post-orgasmic afterglow either. She rolled off him and, back turned, adjusted her clothing.

"Buffy," Spike tried again.

"Please. Please don't say a word, Spike," Buffy said so softly that it was only Spike's preternatural hearing which allowed him to discern the words.

Spike reached down and pushed his recovering penis back into his pants; wondered, briefly, if she'd go again. It hadn't been how he'd imagined it, over and over in his crypt. It wasn't how he'd planned this first seduction at all; but, then again, he hadn't really imagined it would ever really happen. He sat up, tentatively reached a pale hand forward, pulled back as she shrugged off its approach.

"We'll have to deal with this, pet. Sooner or later. You know that, don't you?"

"I know." She twisted around to look at him, gave him a small, sad smile. "But not now. Not tonight."

Buffy stood, absently brushing the dust and debris from her clothes. She moved towards the partially crumbled stairs and without looking back, ascended.

***

In the dream his skin was warm. He stood beside her staring out at the ocean, his hand closed over hers and his skin was warm. She looked up at his face, his profile a beautiful silhouette against the sun.

She wanted to tell him. She wanted to explain but the words stuck in her throat.

He pulled her down the steps to the beach and they began a long, aimless walk along the sand.

"Angel," she said.

"Mmmm," he replied.

"I need to tell you something. It's important."

Then, suddenly, it occurred to her. It was day. It was sunny. She was standing on the beach in the searing sun and Angel was with her.

"But, how?" she said, without having articulated her thoughts.

Angel turned and Buffy was momentarily blinded: steep cheeks, wide mouth, intense eyes. He raised his hand to rest on her cheek, tucked a strand of golden hair behind her ear, positioning his thumb to catch a tear before it had even formed in her eye.

"It's just a dream, Buffy," he said.

***

Buffy awoke with a start. Her gaze shot to the window Angel had come through so many nights, so many years ago. She rolled over, turning her back on the fluttering curtains, the empty sill.

Images of Spike crowded into her head. Spike smashing her across the face. Spike telling her she'd come back from the ether wrong, Spike kissing her without mercy, but not, strangely, without tenderness.

Buffy suddenly felt queasy. Angel's luminous face hovered in her mind. What had she done?

What is done cannot be undone.

Twisted as it might seem, Buffy knew that Spike had feelings for her. Were they selfless feelings? Buffy knew they were not. Would his feelings exact a painful price? Without question. But she was not an innocent bystander. She had used him, deliberately: the kissing, (cold mouth so familiar), the superhuman strength (that matched her own, almost). No matter how you stacked the deck, the outcome was always the same.

For the first time since Willow's magick had brought her back from the dead, Buffy felt rage rising in her like a tide. What had she done?

The images of her and Spike together flashed in front of her eyes like one of those stupid kid's viewfinders. Click: Spike slugs Buffy. Click: Buffy slugs Spike. Foreplay concluded. Click: Zipper frees essential body parts. Click: Slayer now shagging vampire. Click.

Buffy swung her legs out of the bed and reached for her leather pants. Maybe dusting a few vampires would settle her stomach, calm the burning there. She dressed quickly and slipped silently from the room.

***

But the only vampire out in Sunnydale that night was, of course, Spike. He rested against a tombstone, legs splayed in front, cigarette smoke whispering past his bleached hair, a half-finished bottle of Jack Daniels clutched in his fist.

By way of greeting he tipped the bottle toward her.

"Drink?"

"No. Thanks."

The cemetery was silent except for the sound of Spike pulling alternately on the cigarette and the bottle.

"I'm…"

Buffy cut him off before the word had barely left his mouth.

"If you tell me you're sorry, I swear to God…"

Spike laughed. "Actually, I was going to say, well, never mind. I'm not sorry, by the way."

"Figures," Buffy replied.

Spike stood and took a relatively steady step toward her, despite the nearly empty bottle of Jack.

"Are you sorry, Slayer?" he asked, quietly.

"What do you think?"

"Is that a rhetorical question," Spike asked, "or do you really want me to answer?"

Buffy shrugged, raising her eyes to meet his for the first time since entering the graveyard.

"I'm not him. Thank God. And he's not coming back. Thank God. Whatever is going on in that pretty little head of your, I can help…" Spike paused. "Jesus. I sound like some poncy self-help guru. Look. You came to me. You told me about where you'd been when you couldn't tell anyone else. Not even Giles. You. Kissed. Me. I wasn't alone in that building. You were definitely there…"

"Spike, I…" Buffy started and then stopped, hand clapping tightly over her mouth, tears leaking from her eyes.

Spike closed the short distance between them in a heartbeat and pulled her against his hard chest.

"It's time to move on, pet," he said, smoothing her hair with his fingers, tipping her face up so she could look at him, really see him.

Which, actually, made it easier: to pull the stake from her pocket, to ram it up into the space between them, into his dead heart.

Spike's eyes reflected nothing, not even surprise. As the dust settled around her, Buffy sank to her knees, the tears coming in earnest now.

Spike hadn't been much, but he'd been something. And now Buffy had nothing. Nothing at all.

Wounded

It is raining when she arrives in Los Angeles. Standing in front of the Hyperion, she can feel the stabbing drops run down the knuckles of her spine. She knows she must look a sight, knows Cordelia will have some flippant remark about her appearance: "Buffy, the wet look is so over." She can almost see the arched eyebrow now.

The Hyperion is so large; Buffy feels the weight of all those silent windows staring down at her. Somewhere in the depths of the hotel, a dim light burns. She wonders how he manages to feel at home here, wonders if he has created a space for himself that he feels comfortable in: stacks of antique books, an oversized chair, fireplace, velvet drapes, obviously a bed, though she doesn't try to imagine that.

She puts her hand on the Hyperion's front door and gives a small push. The door slides open with a whisper and then she is standing, dripping, in the grand marble foyer.

There's something odd about the place. She's never been here before, yet she senses that something is amiss- like there's been a hastily cleaned-up party. Distantly she can hear voices, but she can't make out what they're saying. Absently, she moves toward the sound. She has barely taken two steps when she hears the crying, a lusty wail signaling hunger or discomfort, but brief, indicating that its needs have been met. Two more steps and a waif-like girl with long brown hair emerges from the rooms behind the marble counter.

"Hello," the girl says. "If you're needin' some help, well, I…" she stops suddenly. "Gee, you do look kinda, well, hopeless and that's well, that's sorta our motto at Angel Investigations. We help the hopeless. Do you need help?" The girl came to a breathless stop.

"I need Angel," Buffy said, quietly.

"Well, Angel, as in the company or do you mean Angel as in the Angel? He's a little busy right now, there's been a sort of unexpected, well, occurrence which shouldn't really be unexpected, not if you knew what sorts of things we deal with…"

"You must be Fred," Buffy said.

"My gosh, how did you know that? Do I know you?" Fred's voice trailed off. Buffy could almost see sudden realization cross the girl's face.

"Oh." And, "Oh."

"Is he here?"

Fred nodded, noticing for the first time that Buffy was soaked through and looked, somehow, bruised.

"You need a towel, or a blanket. I could get you a blanket," Fred said solicitously.

"I need to see Angel," Buffy said with a firmness she hadn't intended.

"Of course. It was silly of me…" Fred stopped. "I'll just go get him."

Fred left Buffy standing in the foyer and when short seconds later she started to shiver uncontrollably, she knew Angel was standing behind her.

"Buffy," he said, his voice low, barely audible.

She turned to face him, felt tears sting her eyes, and crumpled to the floor.

***

Buffy drifted towards consciousness slowly. Her body felt stiff and uncooperative. An image of Spike flashed through her head; his mouth pressed tightly against hers as if trying to suck the very breath from her lungs. There was something she needed to remember. Spike's voice," I wasn't planning on hurting you…much." Then a sharp pain, a violation so terrible that in her sleep Buffy cried out.

Cool hands smoothed back her damp hair, tucked the blankets more firmly around her shivering body.

"Angel?"

"It's okay. You're okay."

Buffy's eyelids fluttered. She was dreaming, of course. She couldn't possibly be with Angel. She heard voices.

"Angel," she said again.

"No, Buffy, it's me."

Buffy surfaced through the last few layers of sleep, slowly becoming aware that it was Cordelia sitting beside her, not Angel.

"Look, Wesley's made you some tea. Earl Grey." Cordelia wrinkled her nose. "How 'bout some nice hot, stinky, perfumey Earl Grey tea?"

Buffy sat up slowly. She ached; every joint, muscle, fibre of her body, like she'd been fighting a powerful demon. Like she'd been raped by one.

Cordelia handed her the steaming mug of tea.

"Where's Angel?" Buffy asked after taking a tentative sip. It did smell like perfume, but it was wonderfully soothing to her parched throat. She had sobbed in the graveyard for what seemed hours after her final confrontation with Spike.

"He's…" Cordy hesitated. "Well, he's just a little busy at the moment."

"Busy?" Buffy croaked.

"Well, he was here earlier, y'know, checking in, but you were asleep and he had another…well, matter to attend to…so he left."

"Oh."

"He'll be back," Cordelia said. "Of course." She smiled brightly and leaned over to plump Buffy's pillows. Something was definitely wrong.

It was at that very instant that Angel appeared in the doorway. Buffy felt the air leave her lungs and the tremble that ran up her arm was so violent that Cordy reached over to take the mug before Buffy could spill any of the hot liquid on the velour blanket.

"Thanks, Cordy," Angel said. "Could you help Fred with…" he hesitated. "Could you help Fred?"

"Sure," Cordelia said. She put the mug on the mahogany bedside table and without a word to Buffy, left the room. Angel closed the door softly behind her.

Buffy drank in the sight of him: Oh God, she never, ever tired of the sight of him.

He stood by the door, eyes never leaving her face. "Buffy," he started. "Buffy."

"You said that already," Buffy said, quietly.

"I thought we agreed. I thought when we met we agreed that we, that you and I…"

"We agreed. We did," Buffy said. "Only, something's happened. I needed to see you."

Angel moved toward her, but instead of sitting beside her on the bed, he took the chair next to it. The yawning distance was not lost on Buffy. Still even this close made Buffy's senses reel. She wondered, for an instant, if he would know, would sense what had happened.

"As it turns out…"

"It's about Spike…"

They spoke at once, stopped at once, smiled briefly at one another.

"Go ahead," Buffy said, wanting desperately to put off the inevitable.

Angel leaned forward, the long muscles of his arms bunching up under his silk shirt. He winced as Buffy turned her luminous hazel eyes to him. Jesus. He was damned, no question. He couldn't even fully enjoy the new miracle in his life, not knowing how it would hurt Buffy to hear of it. He considered, briefly, not telling her at all.

"I killed Spike," she said suddenly, without preamble. "Staked him." The tears in her eyes spilled over and Angel, without even thinking of the consequences, moved to the bed and gathered her into his arms.

"Shhh," he whispered. He was shocked to feel how thin she'd become, how fragile. How long had it been since he'd seen her last…a month, no more than six weeks. She trembled in his arms and Angel felt whatever resolve he'd had give way. "Shhh," he said again.

"Oh, Angel, everything is wrong. It's all wrong. Giles is gone. Willow is, well, she may as well be gone. Xander and Anya, well they're knee deep in issues of 'Modern Bride.' Dawn …" Buffy's voice broke again and Angel felt her arms tighten around his waist as if she were drowning and he was a life preserver.

Unbelievably, Angel felt the stirrings of an erection. No matter what had happened, no matter what words they had exchanged, one fact remained: no one in Angel's whole life, and the life beyond that one, had ever moved him the way Buffy did. He had been a fool to think they could lay it to rest with one meeting. He was a fool, period.

"What happened?" he said into Buffy's hair.

Buffy hesitated. She ran her hands up the front of Angel's shirt, considered touching him even more intimately, wondered if it might not be worth it to go all the way, just to remove the scent of Spike from her body, even if it meant the return of Angelus.

Angel caught both of Buffy's hands in one of his large ones and held them still against the place where his heart should have been beating, felt like it was just to have her close.

"It's complicated," she said. "Things have been volatile between us for a while and then just…exploded."

"Asshole," Angel spit out.

Buffy pulled herself away from the protective strength of Angel's chest. "There's more," she whispered.

He waited. A long moment passed. Buffy prayed for the courage to let the words leave her mouth but they seemed trapped there. She cleared her throat and reached up to touch Angel's smooth cheek. He placed his hand on top of hers.

"Tell me," he said. "Whatever you need to tell me, just tell me…"

"We…Spike and I…" Buffy's eyes filled up with tears once more.

But she didn't need to go on. Angel's eyes darkened, the tenderness replaced with something dangerous. "You slept with him," he said. The venom in his voice was unmistakable.

"I…"

"Don't. Say. Another. Word," Angel said, heaving himself off the bed, walking purposefully to the window. Night had fallen and beyond the window, Los Angeles twinkled like an inverted sky, full of stars.

"It's complicated," Buffy murmured.

"Complicated?" Angel said, turning to face her. "How fucking complicated could it be?"

Buffy rose unsteadily from the bed. Clad only in a t-shirt borrowed from Cordelia she padded across the cold floor to stand in front of Angel.

"You have no idea, Angel. You have no idea how difficult my life has become, how out of control everything seems. You haven't been around.."

"So, this is my fault? Is that what you're saying. You fucked Spike because of me? Or was it lovemaking? Was it all hearts and flowers and tender kisses?"

Buffy shuddered involuntarily. Her breath seemed too loud in her ears, and images rushed through her subconscious like a fast-moving train: the fighting, the adrenalin, the force of Spike's kiss and her equally fevered response, the shock of penetration, the even bigger shock of her own orgasm.

Angel grabbed Buffy's arms painfully and pulled her close. "Then, what, it was so amazing, so incredible that you killed him?"

Buffy wrenched herself free of Angel's hands. "Yes, that's it. I always kill my demon lovers." Or try to kill them.

She took a step backwards. "There's nothing I can say to you that will make this okay. Nothing. There's nothing I can say to myself to make it okay and, believe me, I've tried. You don't deserve this, Angel, I know. But we are finished, I thought that's what we decided."

Angel swept his eyes over Buffy's tiny frame, the slim hips and tiny waist, the perfect handfuls of her breasts, up the long column of her neck marred only by a faint scar, his brand on her skin and he felt something primal stir in him. He'd understood about Parker, he'd tolerated Riley; this was beyond incomprehensible. If he'd had the chance, he would have staked Spike himself, gladly.

"Do you really believe that, Buffy?"

"Believe what?" Buffy, replied. "Believe that we're through, over? Oh Angel…There's just so much."

"Until this moment, I don't think I realized how much I…" Angel stopped, took a step forward, reached for Buffy's hand, thumb resting on her pulse. It made him feel alive, this, just this steady drumming of her pulse under his thumb.

"I don't know what I am anymore, who I am, what I'm doing. If I was honest, really honest, this isn't just a side-affect of having come back from wherever I was. This is an old wound."

"A wound I gave you," Angel admitted.

"No, it's self-inflicted, Angel." Buffy said, "I should never have let you go."

"I should never have left you."

"Water under the bridge," Buffy smiled, closing her eyes. When she opened them short moments later, Angel was peering at her intently. "In a perfect world, " she said, " this would be the part where we'd kiss and make up."

Angel smiled, the clouds behind his eyes clearing for the first time since he'd guessed about her infidelity. "Too bad we don't live in a perfect world."

"Yeah, too bad."

They stood facing each other, neither breaking contact nor asking for more, in a silence aching with promise. Angel's will was slowly eroding, the smell of her was intoxicating, the feel of her smooth skin a balm, but he dare not act on his impulse.

"I should…"

"I know," Buffy said, their reverie broken.

"Get some sleep," Angel said. "We'll talk later."

"Okay," Buffy agreed, knowing that she would slip out of the hotel as soon as he was gone, would go back to the world she no longer belonged to, would move forward without the benefit of her watcher, her mother, her friends. She had nothing to hold on to, was adrift except for the memory of this: Angel's face, beautiful beyond the telling of it.

Catch My Fall

It came as no surprise that she was gone. The covers were pulled up under the pillows, and Cordelia's t-shirt was folded neatly on the chair he himself had been sitting on a few hours earlier. He brushed his hand through his hair, rubbed his tired eyes and sat heavily on the bed.

He should have come back sooner, should have known she would do a "confess and dash," but the baby- his baby- was, well, he was the most beautiful creature Angel had ever seen in his life and he couldn't seem to tear himself away from the smooth, perfect fingers and toes and the toothless mouth and the warm, sweet, human smell of him. When he'd finally fallen asleep in a bureau-drawer cum crib, even then Angel had been fascinated by the slow steady rise and fall of his chest.

But he should have come back to her. He knew beyond all else that Buffy was shattered. The hopeful light in her eyes was gone, replaced with a look he knew all too well: despair, confusion, misery. If he'd had the luxury of seeing his own reflection he knew that there would have been many times when he would have encountered that exact look. And now she was out there somewhere, hurting, and he wasn't there to help her.

Worse, while she had made her own awful admission, he had held back his own news. He supposed it was partly due to the shocking nature of Buffy's revelation: she'd fucked Spike. She'd killed Spike. He didn't know which truth was more devastating. But her news came on the heels of a pretty crazy day.

Only hours ago (really only that?) he'd watched Darla do the only selfless thing he'd ever known her to do in her whole un-life. She's staked herself. Angel was pretty sure that was a first in the vampire world. She'd turned to dust, slipping through his fingers like water; then, the baby: whole, human, his.

Angel swung his legs up onto the bed. Faintly, he could smell Buffy on his pillow. He closed his eyes, hoping for the sleep he so desperately needed. Instead he was haunted by visions of Buffy and Spike, a dirty movie playing over and over in his head. Knowing Spike as well as he did, knowing his predilection for pain, Angel knew that their union hadn't been about tenderness. He doubted Buffy would have fared any better afterwards even if it had. His feelings were so conflicted. There was no small measure of anger, a painful thorn in his pride…and, to be honest, jealousy. That was the worst. Angel liked to think he was beyond such superficial human emotions, but truth be told, he'd never been anything but possessive of Buffy. Even as Angelus, she'd belonged to him.

And the thought that one of his kind had touched her, had filled her with his cold seed, had kissed her, moved against her, breathed in the scent of her…Angel bolted upright in bed. There would be no sleep for him this day.

***

At dusk, Cordelia knocked softly on Angel's bedroom door.

"I'm up," came the muffled response.

Cordelia pushed open the door and found Angel, shirtless, drinking a cup of blood. She marveled at the comfortable way he regarded her approach; made no move to cover his alabaster flesh, or hide his meal.

"Where's Buffy?" she asked.

"Gone," Angel replied. He set his mug down and reached for his shirt. "Home."

"Is everything all right?"

Angel said nothing, concentrated on buttoning his shirt.

"Angel."

"What do you think, Cordy? Do you think anything could possibly be all right?"

"So, you told her about the baby, eh?" Cordy said. "Well, I mean, she had to understand, right. I mean, she had to know that the thing with Darla was a one of." Cordelia paused, "I mean, you explained it to her, right?"

Angel moved to the window, pulling the heavy drapes back, exposing the room to the night.

Cordelia moved to stand next to him. They made an odd pair, one reflected in the window, one not.

"Angel," Cordelia said softly. "You did explain it to her, didn't you?"

"No," he said, almost a sigh.

Cordelia placed her hand on his muscled forearm. "Angel, I may not know much and I may not even like Buffy all that well, but you know that I think…" she hesitated. "I think that you two are forever. It defies explanation. It defies logic. But Darla, pffft. So she was your sire, whatever. The girl is…was…seriously deranged. You were in a bad place. You made a mistake. You're entitled, aren't you?"

"It was no mistake, Cordy. That baby is no mistake," Angel said, firmly.

"No, of course not. But sleeping with Darla..." Cordelia shrugged.

"It just seems that Buffy and I can never get it right, can never get to the same place at the same time. We can never just be."

"Be what? You just are. Look, Angel. There's no question that there are some big obstacles in your way. The baby just underlines the fact that if you want each other, really want each other, you're gonna have to fight for it." Cordelia stopped. "So, the only question is, do you really want her?"

Angel's mind tumbled back to the day that wasn't, the precious memory of he and Buffy together, of his human self. Image after image assaulted his mind: the moment he'd burst through the hedge into the sunshine, the incredulous look in Buffy's eyes as she'd registered his approach, her trembling mouth as he'd kissed her, kissed her. Cup after cup of tea to drown out his need for her, to push away the desire. In the end, all it took was a simple gesture, her small hand on top of his much larger one. There was no backing away from her, no rational thought as he'd pulled her toward him, into him and then into her.

"Yes," he croaked, miserably. "Of course, I want her. But it's more complicated than that."

"Bullshit," Cordy spat out vehemently. "Every day of your life, every day since you got your soul back has been a fight, Angel. And the prize? Nothing. Just you trying to make up for every rotten, horrible, evil…" Angel shot her a look. "Well, you see where I'm going with this? If you and Buffy aren't meant to be together, if a vampire and a slayer can fall in love without any big purpose to that, well, there's just no point. What's it all for then?"

"I don't know, Cordy." Angel said.

"Well, you'd better figure it out," Cordy said, giving her friend a small smile. "I have faith that you will."

Cordy turned to leave.

"How's…the…"Angel started.

"Your son is fine, Angel." Cordy said. "You should go to her."

***

Angel had a powerful feeling of déjà vu as he stood below Buffy's window back in Sunnydale. The drive had seemed inordinately long, but now that he was here; here where he could almost hear her breathing, Angel felt a sweeping moment of panic. He grabbed the trellis and began the climb up. Peering cautiously over the ledge, his first glimpse of her in almost 6 hours knocked the figurative breath from his lungs.

God, she was beautiful. She lay on her side facing him, her long hair spread across the pillow, hand tucked under chin, eyelashes closed protectively over her eyes, those eyes. She seemed utterly defenseless. Her sleep wasn't a peaceful one. She twitched and moaned and Angel watched, mesmerized by the appearance of tears that left a silvery trail down her smooth cheek.

Angel pulled himself up over the ledge of the window. He felt his throat constrict, felt a painful throb in the pit of his stomach as he moved to stand next to Buffy's bed. He reached out a tentative hand, so wanting to wipe away her tears, but not wanting to wake her.

Buffy moaned, tossed her head and called out, "Oh."

Angel sat quietly on the edge of her bed as he had done so often years ago; before Spike, before Angelus, before Glory, before graduation when he had finally removed the temptation by leaving her, delivering the first in a series of emotional wounds she would have to endure. He'd just assumed she'd be okay. He'd justified, rationalized, even lied in an effort to put distance between them and in the end all he'd really done was hurt her, hurt them.

Did he dare touch her? Did he dare lie beside her; gather her frail body into the shelter of his own much stronger one? Did he trust himself to do that? He didn't know. He stretched out cautiously and innately, Buffy moved back against him. At the contact Angel's body stirred instantly to life.

Angel brought his hand up, traced the long line of her throat, the perfect symmetry of her collarbone. Buffy shifted in her sleep, moving on to her back and her change of position exposed her to him. There she lay in all her glory: curves and angles, hills and valleys, a feast for his eyes. Then, suddenly, as he was contemplating moving his hand from her throat to her breast, Buffy's eyes flew open and a sob escaped her mouth.

"Is it a dream?" she murmured. "Please, God, don't let this be a dream."

"It's no dream, Buffy. I'm here."

"I can't bear this, Angel. I can't bear it for one more second."

Angel touched his forefinger to her mouth, shushing her. His eyes locked with hers and she drank in the sight of him, drank in his face as if she were a parched woman who had stumbled, near death, upon on oasis. She was surprised to discover that she did, indeed, have more tears to cry.

"Please don't cry," Angel said. "Please."

"But how can we ever…how can we ever go back?" Buffy managed.

Angel smiled. It was the smile she'd always felt was reserved for her and her heart gave a little leap.

"That's just it Buffy. We don't go back. We go forward."

Damage

What is this love That I leave behind
How can I turn
From the tears in your eyes
What is this world
Where we always pretend
That it is worth it
Worth it in the end
What is this life we share
That I just throw away
Is this love
That causes so much pain
What is the promise
That I leave behind
Why can't I
Just lie by you again
What's going on?
How'd it get so wrong?

Angel watched Buffy. It was what he did best of all, watch her: up close, from the shadows, in his head. He could see her trying to make sense of his presence. Could almost read the thoughts as they passed through her clear, depthless eyes.

"Angel?"

The words had come out of his mouth before he'd really thought about the consequences. That's just it. We don't go back. We go forward. How was that possible? And he hadn't yet told her about Darla or the baby.

Angel leaned forward and pressed a tender kiss to Buffy's forehead. He heard the air escape her lungs, a long, slow sigh and he felt his body stir instantly to life. There had been too little of this for them.

"Angel," Buffy started again. "Angel…I want…"

"I know, baby. Me too. Always." Angel smiled at her, this perfect creation laid out before him, a banquet, an offering.

"Even...even after…whatItoldyou?" the last of Buffy's words came out in a rush, as though she was afraid that the words themselves had the power to hurt her. But nothing would hurt her worse if Angel rejected her, if Angel was not able to forgive her.

Angel smiled. " I won't say that I like the idea of what happened much. That's a kind of pain I thought I'd never feel. I wanted you to go on, it's true. I wanted you to have a life that had some semblance of normalcy. I wanted you to be with someone who could give you all the things I couldn't…." Angel hesitated. He was about to say, "children," but under the circumstances he doubted even Buffy would miss the irony. "No question, I hate Spike," he stopped, looked into Buffy's eyes and said, softly, "but I could never hate you."

"That's okay, I hate me enough for both of us," Buffy said miserably, shifting under the weight of Angel's steady all-seeing gaze.

Lifting her chin with his long forefinger, Angel caught her eyes and whispered," Don't. If you want to hate someone, hate me. I was weak, although I've never been anything but. I walked away from you when I should've stayed and fought for you, for us. I thought it would be easier, to remove the temptation you presented to me, the desire to warm myself in your light, but I was a fool, Buffy. I was nothing but a damn fool. It didn't matter where I was, you were always with me, always in here." He moved the finger from her chin and pointed to his head. "And here," he indicated his chest. "How was I ever going to get you out from under my skin?" Angel's voice cracked. "I walked away from the only thing in my life that made me feel human, clean, redeemed somehow. You were it, Buffy. I didn't need an epiphany to tell me you were it."

"Angel," Buffy started, mesmerized by his confession.

"No, there's more, much more." Angel sat up and pulled her up to sit facing him.

"For a while, a long while, I was lost in a darkness so absolute, so complete I felt almost as though he was back. You weren't the only one who tried to fill the darkness with something else, I did it too." Angel stopped, waiting for realization to dawn in Buffy. She nodded slowly, but said nothing. "Darla and I…"

"Wait a minute, Darla?" Buffy asked, puzzled. "You mean, Darla?"

"Long story, best saved for another day. Suffice to say, I went a little wacky and well…"

Buffy couldn't help it, the tears sprang to her eyes almost immediately when it suddenly occurred to her what Angel was trying to say.

"You slept with her?" she asked, incredulously.

"I fucked her. Nothing more, nothing less. I'm not proud of myself, Buffy, but at the time…"

Buffy closed her eyes at the image of Angel on top of Darla, moving into her, sinking his fangs into her flesh, hers into his, at the exact moment of orgasm.

"Buffy," Angel said firmly. "There's more."

Buffy wasn't sure she could bear more, but she also knew that to deny Angel his moment to come clean would put an insurmountable obstacle in their way. She swallowed, nodded and waited in silence.

"After it was over I told her to leave, that if I ever saw her again I would kill her. And that was that. Until I saw her again a few months later…very…pregnant."

"What?" Buffy squeaked. "What do you mean pregnant?"

"I mean she was pregnant. I know, "Angel shook his head thinking back to Darla's dissolving body and then, out of the ashes like a phoenix, his own son. "it's incredible. Unbelievable. A miracle."

"Oh my God," Buffy said.

"Just before you came yesterday she went into labour, Buffy. She wasn't doing well and neither was the baby and so Darla…Darla staked herself and, unbelievably…" Tears suddenly filled Angel's dark eyes. "I have a son. A son, Buffy."

Buffy wasn't sure which moved her more: Angel's revelation that he was a father, or the tears which coursed down his beautiful face. A son. Buffy's heart convulsed. Angel's son. Not hers. Darla's.

"Oh my God," she said again.

"I don't know what it means. When you came yesterday, well, it had all only just happened and I reacted badly to your news about Spike. I'm sorry for that."

Buffy shook her head. "Sorry. You're telling me you're sorry?" It was all she could do to keep from breaking into hysterical laughter.

***

What is this dream That I'll never find
What is this prayer
That's stealing my mind
What is this deal
That I've made with fate
And I wonder
If I've left it too late
What's goin' on
How'd it get so wrong?

Buffy swung her legs off the bed and went to stand by the window. She needed to step out from the blinding light of Angel's gaze. It was more intimate than any touch could ever be, always had been. Short moments later, Angel was behind her.

"Buffy," he said, a whisper in her ear. "Please look at me."

Buffy turned slowly. When she was facing him, Angel placed his hands gently on her shoulders and Buffy felt her knees buckle. The merest touch was enough to render her completely helpless. She'd been naïve enough to believe she could live without his touch had even told him that day in the sewer, right before the prom, that sex didn't matter, children didn't matter. He'd known the truth of it, though. So much older, so much wiser.

"This baby, for some reason, has made me believe that anything is possible. And, Cordelia, believe it or not weighed in on the whole situation with some pretty wise advice."

"Cordelia?" Buffy half-laughed.

"I know," Angel smiled. "Well, she's come a long way. The point is, if a vampire can have a baby…well, why can't I ...why can't I have you? What I came to realize after that whole Darla fiasco was that there wasn't any greater purpose to work toward; now, right now, that's all that counts. And if that's the case, if my reward is only in doing what's right at the moment then I have to assume that choosing you, choosing us is right, too. Otherwise why would I have been given the chance to know you at all. That day, on the steps of your school, when you walked into the light, God, Buffy, you blinded me. You- just you, before I knew a single thing about you, I loved you. And now, after everything, I love you even more. You're the other half of me, the better half and I can't walk away from you. I can't and I won't."

A sob tore, small and bleeding, from Buffy's throat. She felt her knees give way and, had it not been for Angel's strong arms, would have crumpled to the floor. But he caught her, held her, anchored her and when, nestled in the circle of his arms he finally kissed her, he completed her.

The kiss was possessive, consuming, fierce. Buffy didn't hesitate to kiss him back with equal passion; nearly swooned when he slipped his cool-hot tongue into her mouth. The sensation of having him so close nearly made her faint. This moment, this exact moment when he would kiss her just like this as if she belonged to him and only him, was the only thing that had kept her sane since the very second he'd walked out of her life after graduation. She wound his hair through her fingers, pulled him tighter against her and was rewarded with a guttural groan. In an instant they were off the floor and she was on the bed. Angel stood beside her watching her, waiting.

"I…" she started.

"I know," Angel said, reading her thoughts.

Her silky drawstring pants came off first, then the tank top, leaving her naked and golden in the moonlight. He unbuttoned his shirt, letting it slip off his broad shoulders, exposing the wide expanse of his firmly muscled chest. His hands shook imperceptibly as he undid his belt, tugged down his fly and pulled his pants and boxers to the floor, pausing only long enough to slide off shoes and socks. Then: a moment of indecision, a second of fear, the unstated knowledge of the possibility of unspeakable consequences.

Buffy blinked and reached out her hand. Angel took it and she pulled him forward. He joined her on the bed, angled above her, his eyes hooded and unreadable.

"I want you to know, Angel, that I never meant to hurt you. I think I only ever really meant to hurt myself…."

"Shhh," Angel said, kissing her collarbone, the swell of her breast, the slope of ribcage and the jut of hipbone. The smell of her was intoxicating and Angel's cock felt painfully hard. He concentrated on Buffy, on the way her body responded to him even when he was barely touching her. He sensed that he could make her come without even touching her and the thought made him smile.

But there was time enough for that, Angel was certain. As he trailed a litany of kisses up the length of her glorious body, as he pulled her into an embrace that was both loving and possessive, as she buried her head into the slope between chin and shoulder, resting her small hand on his chest, Angel had only one thought: tomorrow would be time enough for repairing the damage. Tonight, tonight was just this.

THE END

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