Trust Me

Trust Me

By The Brat Queen

Rating: R
Summary: Angel, Wes, and a story title which is very, very meta.
Pairing: Angel/Wesley, Angel/Darla, Wesley/Lilah
Author Notes: Originally posted to my Livejournal earlier this year, this is the final, cleaned-up version. Much thanks to Wolfling for her mad beta skillz.
Spoilers: Up to Destiny, at which point Joss and I go separate ways.
Warnings: Spoilers up to Destiny
Disclaimer: The following is a non-profit, amateur effort not intended to infringe of the rights of Joss Whedon, the WB, Mutant Enemy or any other copyright holders of Angel.

***

PROLOGUE

The room was dark. Not pitch black, but shadowed. Swathes of grey draped over the furniture, lending it a rather funereal feel.

He observed this and thought to himself that it was rather apt, all things considered.

"It's a bad idea," she said, her habit of speaking rather plain and painful truths never having left her, even under the circumstances.

"It is not," he replied, because truth could be painful but it could also, in his opinion, be mutable. Or perhaps not truth but the future. The future could be quite mutable. Subject to change and far too enamored of throwing in wrenches and cutting your legs out from under you and not giving a damn for anyone's carefully laid plans and -

He stood up, walking away from his chair as though he could dismiss it and all the thoughts which were tormenting him. "I can't accept this."

She gave him a sympathetic grimace. "I don't think you get a choice."

He faced her down. "I refuse to accept this."

Now her eyes held hints of a smile, though the expression failed to reach her lips. "You always were a fighter."

"It's not right," he told her, wanting this point to be stressed, wanting her to agree to it if nothing else.

She shrugged, unmoved. "What's that got to do with anything?"

He wanted to embrace her, but lacked the nerve to admit it. "How? How can you say this, when you - "

"I knew what I was getting into," she reminded him.

"You can't have predicted this. No one could."

"I don't predict," she said. "I act. I do. I look out for number one."

"Is that what you're doing now?" he asked, meeting her eyes. "Looking out for number one?"

"And you?" she asked. "What exactly are you doing right now?"

"Fighting to make things better," he said, confident of this.

"For who?" she asked.

"Everyone."

She reached out, brushing her fingertips over his cheek. He knew in his heart this would be her final, parting gesture. "There's just one catch."

"What?"

"Some things can't be changed."


PART ONE

It was nighttime, and the diner had finally, finally given way to quiet. The last of the late-dinner crowd had left and, after a round of batted eyelashes and pleading, so had the rest of the staff.

Angel sat in the middle of all this, a king in a very chrome and vinyl covered domain, and smiled.

"Damn," Gunn said, slapping his hands together as he came through the front doors. A whoosh of cold air accompanied him, making Angel's skin break out in a quickly vanishing flush of goosebumps. "When the fuck did we move to the North Pole?"

"Still snowing?" Angel asked.

Gunn pulled his gloves off, throwing them down onto the counter. "No, all this white stuff all over me is an invasion of tiny little demons intent on taking over the planet by attacking the smartest and best-looking humans first. Unfortunately for them I am this town's version of Will Smith and quickly figured out I could stop 'em by going anyplace that wasn't fifty below zero and melting 'em like they were the Wicked Witch of the West. Now all I gotta do is sit back, collect my residual checks and wait for the offers of sequels to roll in."

"You could have just said 'yes'," Angel pointed out.

"You could've not asked me a dumb-ass question."

"Doesn't Will Smith fight aliens?"

"My ability to care got left somewhere back at the office with my ability to find my balls," Gunn replied. "And before you ask let me remind you that it is fifty God damned degrees below."

"Weatherman said twenty above," Angel said. "'Least last I heard. Guess there might be wind chill."

Gunn gave him a look. "Yeah, there might be wind chill. He say anything about it still being fall?"

"Predicted at least four more inches by the weekend," Angel said, then pretended to think about it. "Or was that four more inches by tomorrow? You know, I seem to remember something about a blizzard warning."

"You can shut up now," Gunn said, heading towards the back. "I'm hitting the bathroom and when I come out it had better be sunny."

"Awh, c'mon," Angel called after him. "Don't you just love it? Doesn't all this snow just fill your heart with joy and the peace of the Christmas spirit?"

"The Christmas spirit and you can both go suck my - "

Angel laughed as the slam of the men's room door drowned out the rest of Gunn's reply. He got up, going behind the counter to warm up a few things. A light from outside caught his attention and he watched as an SUV tried to navigate into a spot whose lines had long since been snowed over.

"I'm moving to Florida," Gunn announced, still wiping his hands on a paper towel as he came back. "And you're low on soap."

"I'll get it tomorrow," Angel said, getting a Caesar salad out of the fridge. "And you say that every year."

"This year I mean it," Gunn told him. "Screw this New England shit. I want palm trees, I want old people, and I want to spend my time bitching about huge ass spiders and alligators living in my pool."

"I assume you want the usual?" Angel asked, adding forks and napkins into a paper sack.

"Yeah," Gunn said, helping himself to a few lemon squares out of the display. "Throw a few sodas in there too."

Angel grabbed the Pepsis, putting them in with the salad so they wouldn't cool down Gunn's pot roast. "What does Gwen want?"

Gunn snorted. "My black ass to have been home about an hour ago."

Angel checked the time. "You are working late. Senior partners?"

"Yeah," Gunn said. "End of year, performance reviews, let's do everything to make it work with tax time, blah blah blah."

Angel grinned. "You love it."

"I maybe love it," Gunn admitted. "You should've seen me this morning on my teleconference. Made some guy in Tokyo choke on his sake."

"They drink alcohol during meetings?" Angel asked. "And since when do you teleconference with Tokyo?"

"I could teleconference with Tokyo," Gunn said.

"Yeah, but when you dial the numbers does anyone actually answer?" Angel asked.

"Rain on my parade all you like," Gunn said. "But I did have a kick ass call today."

"With...?"

"New York."

"Go you," Angel said, giving Gunn an indulgent pat on the arm.

"I just want my props is all," Gunn said. "And toss in a ziti for Gwen if you made it."

"You got it," Angel said, totaling up the order.

"Hey, speaking of cash," Gunn said, giving him the eye. "Should I be worried about you know what?"

Angel frowned. "Should you be worried about - oh that. Nah, it's gonna be a massacre. Might even go home early."

"You can't lie a little?" Gunn asked. "Act a little less confident? Some of us are trying to get a bet on."

Angel's eyebrows quirked up. "You're betting on this?"

"Some of us thought that - "

"You're betting on this?"

"Now before you get all riled up - "

"You're betting on this and you didn't let me throw a few bucks in?" Angel asked. "Nice. What are the odds?"

"Two to one," Gunn said.

"For or against?"

"Against."

Angel gave a low whistle. "Okay, maybe I could lie a little."

"This is all I'm asking," Gunn said. He started to button up his coat again. "You know how it is. You talk, people listen. Is it that hard to maybe spread a rumor or two?"

Angel thought about it. "I hear flu's going around."

"Flu could work," Gunn agreed. He shook snow off his hat. "How much you want me to put you down for?"

"Twenty," Angel said. The bell on the outside door jingled. Angel glanced over to see a man standing in the vestibule, trying to read the announcements that were posted over the fifty cent vending machines. "Thirty if the odds change."

"You got it," Gunn said. He gathered up his things. "We still on for Saturday?"

"Lunch, right?" Angel said. He kept his eye on the newcomer. He was clearly holding something, but a chair by the door blocked Angel's view of what. "Yeah, if I can get enough people here to cover."

Gunn followed Angel's gaze. "Something up?"

A thought niggled at the back of Angel's head. He kept looking at the guy, staring while trying not to be obvious, until it finally clicked. He relaxed, then shook his head at Gunn. "Nah. Just figuring something out."

Gunn motioned towards one of the booths. "Want me to stay?"

Angel smiled. The diner had been robbed once in all the years Angel had owned it, and the one time had mostly been his own fault. "I got it, but thanks. Get on home before your aliens get you."

"Demons," Gunn corrected him.

"Whatever."

"I am moving to Flor-i-da," Gunn sing-songed on his way out the door. He side-stepped to avoid bumping into the new guy, giving Angel one last look before he went. "Call me if you need anything."

"Will do," Angel promised, then busied himself with cleanup.

It was a few moments before goosebumps hit his flesh again.

"I'm sorry," a quiet, accented voice said. "Are you - the sign said 'open' and I thought - "

"Come on in," Angel said, waving his hand in welcome. "Mi diner es su diner."

The man hesitated, seemingly trapped by his own desire for politeness, but then came forward. "Thank you."

"Don't worry about it," Angel said. He gestured to the menus. "It's kind of the job description."

"Even still," the man replied. His eyes darted around, taking in the sight of the empty tables. "I don't mean to keep you late."

"I'm cleaning up," Angel promised. "You're not keeping me at all. Besides - " he nodded his head in the direction of the baby carrier dangling from the man's hand " - in my experience people that size wait for nobody's schedule."

That earned him a smile. "No. They really don't, do they?"

"Not outside of fairy tales," Angel agreed. "So what can I get you?"

"I - " the man laughed, the sound coming out somewhat dry and raspy. It culminated in a cough that he attempted to cover by putting the carrier up onto the counter and fussing with the baby's blanket. "Silly, really, but all I need is some warm water, if you have it? I'm all out of formula. The ready kind, I mean."

"Sure," Angel said, grabbing filtered water out of the fridge. "If you've got the powder and all. Been a while since I've kept the ingredients on hand."

"I do," the man said. He reached into a satchel that hung over his shoulder, producing baby bottles and a can with a picture of a teddy bear on the side. He looked up, catching Angel's eye on him. "I - I'll pay. I don't mean to - "

"Don't worry about it," Angel said, handing him the pitcher. "Here, mix it up. Microwave's over there if you want to heat it. I'll be back in a sec."

The man nodded, then got to work.

Angel pushed through the swinging doors into the kitchen. Once there he made busywork of tidying pots and pans, stacking plates and glasses into neater piles. Anything that would make some noise and sound like something normal.

In his head he pictured the man outside.

He hadn't meant to stare, not ever, but there were certain things that stood out to him - artist's eye aside - and remained stuck in his brain, demanding to be noticed.

Things like a stranger in town, when it sure as Hell wasn't tourist season.

Things like a stranger in town with a kid who couldn't be more than sixth months old.

Things like a stranger in town with a kid who, though the kid was bundled up properly for Gunn's alien weather, was himself wearing only a thin windbreaker for a coat, no hat, no scarf, no gloves, and a pair of pants that were clearly worn around the edges.

Angel walked back to the doors and looked out through the porthole windows.

He was thin. Lean frame, certainly, but with a hollow to his stubbled cheeks that suggested there had once been a bit of meat there. His hands shook, and every so often his breathing stammered up into a cough.

Angel watched him carefully, unnoticed as the man himself had eyes only for his child, who quickly devoured the newly warm bottle then settled against his shoulder to be burped. Angel studied the movement of those trembling hands, looking for a trace of familiarity. When all he saw was hunger, and cold, he pushed his way back into the dining room.

"Here," he said, placing a hot cup of coffee in front of him.

The man looked up. "I - " Angel recognized the hesitation now. It was the one that came whenever you had to stop yourself and recalculate every single penny in your pocket. He'd had that look himself, back in the day. "No, thank you, I - "

"You asked for warm water," Angel said. He pushed the cup forward. "That's warm water with stuff in it."

The man shook his head, returning the now-sleeping baby back to the carrier. "I'm sorry, I - "

"A dollar," Angel said, knowing how sometimes pride really did come before practicality. "For the both of you. For coffee and using my microwave and keeping me up late."

This was apparently acceptable. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it," Angel said. He then turned around and produced a bowl of soup.

The man looked pained. "I - Actually, I'm not - I ate just - "

"I'm throwing it away," Angel lied. He made a bowl for himself as though that would finish off the last of it. "Might as well use it up, right?"

Another cough rattled out. "Thank you."

Angel shrugged, as though getting rid of perfectly good turkey soup was part of his everyday routine. He sat up on the counter, stirring his spoon through the broth to help cool it down. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the man wrap his hands around the hot coffee cup, then slowly move to take up his own spoon and eat. Angel then drew his attention back to his own meal, knowing that no man liked being watched when he had to carefully place food inside of an obviously empty stomach. There were few things worse than having to throw up because you'd gone without for so long you'd forgotten how to digest. "So, not from around here, huh?"

He'd meant it as small talk, but the question earned him a glance. "No. England."

"Figured," Angel said, trying to project an attitude of calm. "That's why I gave you coffee."

That got him a quizzical look.

"Gotta friend who's English," Angel said. "Told me never to try serving that dirt that comes in bags and calls itself tea. Didn't want to insult your tastebuds too so - coffee."

"Anything would have been fine," the man told him. Reminded, he took a sip of his drink. "As long as it was warm. Tell me, is it always this cold here?"

"Pretty much," Angel said. "Gunn - my friend who just left? - likes to complain about it but it's this way every year. We like to say spring, summer and fall are a really nice week in the middle of all those blizzards."

"It's pretty," the man said, spooning up more soup. "A bit difficult to drive in but, still, it's rather like living inside of a snow globe."

Angel smiled. "Yeah. I always thought so. Part of why I like living here."

The bowl was almost empty now. "Do you like living here? I - I was thinking of perhaps staying a while, seeing what it's like."

Angel hopped off of the counter, getting a glass of juice for himself so it wouldn't be obvious that he'd been able to translate all that into things like "I have no more money" or "My car's out of gas". Reminded of the SUV that he'd seen outside, Angel wondered if that had been serving as home for the two of them. "Yeah, I like it. Quiet, friendly. Nice place to raise kids, if you're into that sort of thing."

"It's currently a hobby I thought I might try, yes," the man said, managing a joking smile before another cough destroyed it. "Is there - I don't suppose there's a hotel nearby? I don't need anything fancy, just a room will do."

Angel turned around, leaning against the countertop. "Hotel could get expensive after a while."

The man became very occupied with smoothing out his napkin. "Places to rent require money up front. I - I don't have access to my bank accounts, back home."

Which was a load of bull but Angel figured he could play along with it. "How about a job? I know a place that might take you if you've got a steady job."

"Is anyone hiring?" the man asked, a note of hope creeping into his tone. "I'm not particular."

"What can you do?"

And then, suddenly, nobody was bothering to pretend anymore. "Whatever I have to."

Angel nodded, accepting that. "I might know a few people. Heck, I'd hire you myself except I just took on somebody as a favor for a friend. But lemme ask around. I think I can find you something."

Gratitude flooded the other man's eyes. He reached over to touch the baby as though to comfort himself. "That would be - thank you."

"As for a place," Angel continued, "there's one but it's not too fancy. Two bedrooms by which I mean one bedroom and a really big walk in closet. Living room, dining room and kitchen are all one thing and the kitchen's not really working right now either. But it'd be private, for the most part, and you'd have your own bathroom. As for food you could always come down here. Figure maybe a discount on rent and meals both until I get the apartment fixed? After which we could renegotiate but for now say - two hundred a month? Utilities included? You can pay me whenever your paychecks start coming in."

The man gaped at him. "You - you would do that?"

"I would," Angel said, already making a mental list of all the chores that would need to be done to get the guest apartment up to code.

"Why?"

Angel reached out to brush a gentle finger over the baby's fingertips. "Let's just say I know what it's like. What's his name, anyway?"

"Her," the man corrected. "Alissa. Her name is Alissa."

"Pretty," Angel said, thinking to himself he wouldn't have pegged the Brit for favoring Hebrew. "And you?"

"Wesley Wy - Johnson," there was another cough, and blue eyes looked apologetic. "Wesley Johnson."

"Nice to meet you, Wes," Angel said, holding out his hand to shake. "My name's Angel."


PART TWO

The man - Angel, Wesley reminded himself. His name was Angel - busied himself with what Wesley guessed were the final late-night tasks of the diner. The remains of the soup were put away, dishes were cleaned, counters wiped down, the neon 'Open' sign turned off and, finally, the front door locked.

Wesley watched all of this, wondering if he should offer to help, but Angel's movements were brisk and efficient and didn't seem to suggest the need for assistance. Wesley remained sitting at the counter, watching Alissa sleep and thinking over the events of the day. His mind lingered over the one sharp turn where he'd almost lost control of his vehicle, forcing him to admit he was too sick and too tired to go on.

"Cripes, I forgot," Angel said, standing by the now-locked door. "Did you need anything? From your truck?"

Wesley smiled to himself. As though he possessed anything by way of luggage. "No," he said, slipping into this falsehood with greater ease than his near misstep with his name. "I'm all right for now. I can get the rest of my things in the morning."

Angel, who apparently lived up to his name with an effort as easy as breathing, accepted this without question. "Okay then, lemme show you upstairs."

Keys were fetched from inside of a broom closet. Lights were switched off as Wesley picked up Alissa's carrier, then followed Angel past the restrooms and to a door marked "Private".

"The big key opens this one," Angel explained, holding up the item in question before using it to open the door. A small alcove greeted them, lit dimly from above and decorated only by a narrow staircase. "I wouldn't try getting a stroller past any of this. You can leave it down here if you've got one. It won't bother anybody."

"Thank you," Wesley said. He moved aside so Angel could close the door, then transferred Alissa's weight in front of him so he could fit the both of them up the staircase.

"My place is over here," Angel said, as they paused on a landing. Wesley saw a metal door, still sporting a picture of a turkey from what he presumed was leftover Thanksgiving celebrations. "You need anything feel free to knock. If I'm not downstairs I'm usually in here."

"Thank you," Wesley said again, then cursed himself for his inane ramblings. Had he said anything but that since his arrival? He found himself possessed of the urge to prove that he had a working brain. "It's an interesting name."

"What?" Angel asked, unlocking another door and revealing another set of stairs.

"Hyperion," Wesley explained. He covered his mouth as he coughed, watching carefully to make sure he didn't jostle Alissa. "That's an interesting name for a diner. Did you choose it yourself?"

"Yeah," Angel said. He seemed pleased to be asked. Or perhaps he was still being polite. "Read it in a book. Liked it."

"It's a lovely place," Wesley said, hoping this was the thing to say. He wished he had more experience with this sort of thing. Were the compliments only coming across as attempts to ferret out information for later theft? It was so difficult knowing what one did in order to build trust in these instances. He decided to try for a joke. "The food was exceptional. Alissa was quite pleased with it."

Angel gave a half-chuckle at that. "Yeah, I'm real big with the under ones. They love what I do with pureed vegetables."

Wesley relaxed by a hair, glad he hadn't made things worse. "I'm sure she's looking forward to your expertise with rice cereal as well."

Angel unlocked the final door, then aborted an attempt to hand the keys over when he saw that Wesley's hands were still full. "Okay, here we are," Angel said, turning on some lights. "And let me just say I did not decorate the place."

Wesley stepped inside, coughing once more as stale air hit him.

The flat was old, that much was obvious. Wesley knew nothing of décor but something about the place felt as though whatever decorating had been done had been done two decades ago or more. Wood paneling covered the walls. Orange curtains hung from what windows he could spy. Some form of green tiling intersected with thick, chocolate brown carpeting to create the illusion that the small stove, museum-appropriate refrigerator, white porcelain sink and scant foot of counterspace was a kitchen.

There were pieces of furniture scattered about. A card table was folded against a door Wesley assumed lead to a pantry, or closet space. A chair sat in a corner, looking as though most of its weight came from multiple coats of paint, the last of which was a pale grey blue. A worn red couch sat in the middle of the carpet as though someone had decided they couldn't be bothered with moving it any further. Or, Wesley realized, that it would be too difficult to try to bring it back down the narrow stairs. He wondered how on earth it had gotten up there in the first place.

"I'm sorry I don't have more," Angel said, twisting a dial on the wall that Wesley realized was connected to the heat. "The place has been empty for so long I kinda got lazy about fixing it."

"It's all right," Wesley told him. To his right was a kind of hallway. Three open doors revealed the bedroom, the bathroom, and the closet that truly did have enough size to make an acceptable nursery. The quick inspection also revealed spiderwebs and possible evidence of a mouse problem. It was, frankly, a hovel compared to where he'd been living a scant year ago. However, circumstances being what they were - "It's perfect, thank you."

"I've got some spare stuff in the attic," Angel said. "We could try to wrestle it down tomorrow if you want. In the meanwhile if you need anything just grab it from downstairs. Paper towels, soap, you know, whatever."

Wesley knew that 'whatever' meant more food if he needed it, but he was determined not to take shameless advantage of this charity. "Thank you. I'll have to go shopping tomorrow."

"Microwave too," Angel continued. "Feel free to use it whenever you want. The filtered water is always in the blue pitcher. What else? Oh yeah, there's a washer and dryer in the garage. Not enough room for your car though, sorry."

"That's all right," Wesley said. "It's supposedly an outdoor vehicle."

"Park wherever you want," Angel said. "I'll tell 'em not to give you a ticket if you stay in any of the private spaces."

"Thank you," Wesley said. A cough rasped its way through his throat, leaving him with a slight wince as he swallowed. He felt as though his words were hopelessly inadequate. "For everything."

For a moment it seemed as though Angel himself was at a loss for what to say. "I'll be downstairs if you need anything."

"I'll knock," Wesley promised, since that seemed to be what was being asked of him.

Angel nodded, accepting that. He tossed the keys onto the tiny countertop. "Okay. Night, Wes."

"Good night," Wesley said, smiling to himself as he thought only an American would assume that he preferred to go by some kind of nickname.

Still, he supposed there were worse names in life than "Wes".


The building, far from being quiet, held too much noise, in Wesley's opinion. As he stood there in his new home he could hear the creaking of floorboards, the hiss of steam radiators, the unfamiliar hum of the refrigerator. On top of that he could actually taste all of the dust in the air.

Still, it was indoors. And blessedly warm. That alone was worth every penny he'd just placed himself into debt for.

"Are you all right?" Wesley asked, gently placing Alissa's carrier down onto the floor, then kneeling beside her. Fortunately she was young enough that he didn't have to worry about her crawling off and getting her hands on the multiple things in the flat that no one should touch, let alone a small child. Wesley resolved to make housecleaning one of his first priorities.

Alissa, for her part, remained fast asleep, curling her fist around her lips and nose. Wesley knew that one day she would have co-ordination enough to purposefully put her thumb into her mouth, as he knew that she wanted to.

"This is our home now," Wesley told her. He kept his voice low, so as not to wake her. It hardly mattered since the words would be meaningless to her no matter what, but Wesley felt a need to include her. In his mind it made up for the times when he hadn't. When nine months had gone by with him somehow managing to avoid doing anything which brought the two of them in contact with one another. Though he'd never planned on it, it had been startlingly easy to treat her merely as a thing. "The baby". As in "What shall we do about the baby?" which had invariably meant "When are you going to get around to telling me about the abortion?" but of course that had never happened. Not because Wesley wanted it, but because he had assumed it was inevitable and entirely out of his ability to control.

Then the day came when she was born, and a bright-red squirming creature had been thrust into his unprepared arms and Wesley, now a father, had felt deeply ashamed of himself.

"It's a bit messy," Wesley continued, adjusting her knit cap. "And rather empty. But there's enough space for the both of us, and you shall have your own room."

Alissa shifted, her feet kicking out and tenting her blanket.

"If we happen to stay here that long," Wesley conceded. For months now they had drifted from place to place. The longest stay had been in New York, for all of three weeks. Wesley didn't know why he even bothered to hope this time might be different, but he thought perhaps eventually they would find a place to settle down. Someplace nice, where he could actually make enough money to provide a real life for his daughter.

Almost of its own accord, Wesley's hand drifted down to his back pocket, touching his wallet which still contained a signed dollar bill.

"I'll get it right," Wesley promised, both to Alissa and to himself. He took in their situation - the flat, the wallet which didn't contain much else besides the carefully hidden dollar, the feelings of fever which hadn't left him in the past few days, the hunger that even his free dinner hadn't been able to vanquish - and thought that if he wanted to make this particular goal especially difficult to reach, he wouldn't have to try much harder.

"I will," Wesley said again, and decided that was enough of morbidity. He got up, reaching into his satchel for his toilet kit. He would wash up, make a bed of sorts on the thankfully large couch, and then set about trying to fix things first thing in the morning.

He fell asleep to the sound of his daughter's contented breaths.


Rocking around the Christmas tree at the Christmas party hop. Mistletoe hung where -

"Oh they are not playing Christmas carols," someone - Gunn, Wesley recognized - announced as Wesley finally braved the staircase with Alissa in one arm and a handful of baby supplies in the other. Gunn sat up, shaking a fist at the radio. "It's not for weeks yet. Chill already!"

"It is December, Charles," a young woman beside Gunn pointed out. She was sitting at the counter with him, her hands busy with the buttering of toast. "It's not like they're playing Silent Night during Halloween, though a few stations did that too."

Wesley stayed back from all of this, momentarily overwhelmed.

The diner, which had been all but abandoned the night before, had exploded into a mass of life. In spite of the heavy storm of the previous day - and some flakes were still falling - all the booths and chairs were filled, and the restaurant itself was constantly in motion as orders were taken, things hissed and popped on griddles, the kitchen doors banged back and forth and all around were people eating, talking, arriving, departing, and generally making the most of the breakfast hour.

"Coming through," someone said, and Wesley stepped aside to allow a waitress to pass, ducking to avoid knocking over her tray of food.

"I - " Wesley stepped forward, wondering who he was supposed to talk to in the midst of all this. Alissa was starting to give a few gasping cries, and he knew it wouldn't be long before she was hungry enough to start screaming. He tried to make eye contact with someone wearing a uniform, hoping to get permission to go behind the counter. "Angel said I could use the microwave?"

He felt someone tug at his shirtsleeve. He looked down to see the woman beside Gunn smiling up at him. "Hey. Microwave's over there. You can help yourself. Everybody else does."

Wesley relaxed. "Thank you."

"Cute baby," she said.

"Hungry baby," Wesley replied, by way of apology. He dodged his way around cooks and waitresses, then managed to mix up the formula one-handed. A few moments later and Alissa was happily suckling on her warm meal.

"Hey," another waitress appeared, frowning at him. "You allowed back here?"

Wesley flushed, keenly aware of how shabby he must appear. "I - Angel - "

"You're up," Angel said, suddenly appearing through the swinging doors. He took Wesley by the shoulder and guided him to an empty seat at the counter. "Great. Make yourself comfy. Cordy, give Wes here a number one and the house discount, okay? I'll be back in a - "

"Give him a what?" the waitress asked, and now Wesley could see her nametag which read "Cordelia".

"Number one," Angel said, rummaging in a closet and appearing again with a wrench in hand. "Or whatever he wants. Plus house discount."

Cordelia frowned. "What the heck is a - "

Angel gave her a look. "It's the discount he gets for renting out part of my house, remember?"

"Since when do - " Cordelia started, then immediately stopped herself when Angel's look became sterner. "Oh, right. The house discount. Which is how much again?"

"Fifty percent," Angel said. "Now don't you have people you could be serving or something?"

"Apparently I'm getting him a number one," Cordy retorted, jerking her thumb in Wesley's direction. She then looked at him, notepad in hand. "Okay, hit me. Scrambled or fried, toast or muffin, coffee or tea?"

Normally Wesley would have forced himself to refuse, but after dinner last night it was harder to deny himself. "Fried, toast, tea. Please."

"You got it," Cordy said, then disappeared through the doors.

"I'll pay you back," Wesley told Angel, quietly.

"Don't worry about it," Angel told him. He flashed a smile at Alissa before going back into the kitchen as well.

"You're renting out Angel's place?" the young woman by Gunn said. "That's great. He's been saying it'd be nice for somebody to do that."

"He's been kind enough to allow me to stay there, yes," Wesley said. He lifted Alissa to his shoulder, stroking her back to ease some of the air bubbles out of her system.

"Then it's good to meet you," she said. She stretched out over the counter, offering a hand. "Winifred Burkle. But everybody calls me Fred."

"Wesley Johnson," he replied, pleased that he managed not to stumble over it this time. He shook her hand, then decided he might as well try to fit in. "Everyone calls me Wes."

"This is Gunn," she said, pointing at her countermate. "Charles Gunn if you want to be exact but - "

"People who call me 'Charlie' better be my moms or better be ready to face a lawsuit," Gunn finished for her. "I saw you last night, right?"

"Yes," Wesley said. "I was coming, you were going."

"Thought that was you," Gunn said. His look was studious, and not a little suspicious, but Wesley honestly couldn't blame him. He probably wouldn't trust himself right now either. The gaze softened as his eyes moved down to the baby. "So is that a parasite you got there on your arm or - "

"Oh, my God," another waitress appeared, her eyes wide with delight. "Is that the cutest baby ever or what?"

"Erm - this is Alissa," Wesley said. He glanced at Fred and Gunn for help, not certain what to make of this. "My daughter."

"Well she is just a sweetheart," the new waitress cooed. "Yes you are!"

Her enthusiasm was enough that it was starting to make Alissa tense. Wesley rubbed his hand in circles, hoping to avoid a full on crying jag. "Yes, er - "

"Harmony," Angel said, putting a cup of tea down in front of Wesley. "Don't you have something to do?"

Harmony shook her head. "Not really. I mean all those people over there want food but somebody needs to take their orders and - " the light dawned as Angel stared at her. "Oh, right! I guess I could do that, huh?"

"It might stave off the boredom, yeah," Angel agreed. He made an encouraging motion towards the tables. "Go on. I'm sure they'd love to talk to you."

"You got it, boss!" Harmony said, giving a jaunty salute before wandering back over to the tables.

"Why did I agree to this again?" Angel asked Cordelia, who presented Wesley with his food.

"Because you're a sweetheart and a generous soul and you trust me when I say she'll be great at this," Cordy replied, refilling empty coffee cups without missing a beat.

"And it had nothing to do with me maybe losing my mind?" Angel asked.

"I'm not saying it wasn't a factor," Cordy said, pushing her way back into the kitchen.

"Right," Angel sighed. He grinned at Wesley, then leaned against the counter. "Okay, so in about a week I might have an opening here for a new waiter, but in the meanwhile are you free today?"

Wesley paused as he tried to cut up his eggs one-handed. "I didn't have plans besides the shopping. Why?"

"I gotta friend who's hiring," Angel said. "Name's Lorne. It's nothing glamorous. We're talking filing, answering phones, that kind of thing. But if you're interested I can get you an interview with him in a couple of hours."

Two hours. Wesley tried to calculate if that would be enough time for him to try to make himself look presentable. He had an outfit in the car which was cleaner than the rest. He supposed it would have to do. "Of course. That's very kind of him. Only - what shall I do about Alissa?"

"Could bring her with," Angel said.

"Angel," Fred scolded, "you can't bring a baby on a job interview."

"Why not?" Angel asked.

"Can you picture Lorne being able to listen over the sound of a baby crying?" Fred replied.

"Good point," Angel said.

"Drop her off at Anne's," Gunn suggested. Off of Wesley's quizzical look he said, "Friend of mine. Does a daycare/afterschool kind of thing. She's good people, promise. Could drop her off during the interview and pick her up on the way back."

Wesley thought about it. "I suppose that could be an interview for her as well. If I'm working full time I'll need someone to watch Alissa."

"There you go," Gunn said, finishing off his coffee and motioning for Cordy to give him a refill. "Win/win for everyone."

"How much does she - " Wesley started to ask, but stopped when Angel touched his arm.

"Don't worry about it," Angel said, keeping his voice low.

"I - " Wesley started to protest, but Angel shook his head, refusing to hear it. Wesley tried to cover the frustration of his pride by attempting to make light of the whole thing. "You know one day you're going to have to tell me why - "

"Car keys."

Angel looked over at the teenaged boy that had just thrust his hand into their midst. "Why good morning, son. It's nice to see you too."

The boy sighed. "Dad, keys."

"Good to hear," Angel continued, refusing to be swayed from his amiable tone. "I slept pretty well myself, thanks for asking."

"Dad," the boy said, shaking his hand for emphasis. "I have practice. Come on."

"Not before you eat something," Angel said. "Now what's it going to be, oatmeal or pancakes? And since when am I giving you my car today anyway?"

"Since last Thursday when I asked you?"

"Refresh my memory," Angel said, then gestured at Wesley. "And mind your manners. Say hi to Wes. He's renting out the guest apartment."

"Hey," the boy said, barely looking over. "Dad, you said that I could - "

Angel put a bowl of oatmeal down in front of his son. "Okay, let's pretend that when I say mind your manners it means act like a human being and actually introduce yourself. You know, prove to the world I taught you skills besides grunting."

The boy rolled his eyes, then turned to Wesley in a perfect imitation of courtesy. "Hi, it's nice to meet you. My name's Connor, what's yours?"

Wesley smiled, actually finding himself charmed by the pantomime. "Wesley. Er - Wes. This is my daughter, Alissa."

Connor's act was dropped as he actually smiled and touched Alissa with genuine greeting. Then, catching his father's eye on him, he resumed his former tone. "Hi, Alissa. It's nice to meet you too. I'm glad you and your dad are renting our place, because that means that maybe I can come visit you sometimes and you can tell me what it's like having a dad who isn't senile and forgets when he promised to lend you his car."

"Siddown, eat, shut up," Angel said, no trace of anger in his tone. "And not necessarily in that order."

Connor slumped into a stool beside Wesley, adding enough sugar to his cereal that Wesley's teeth began to ache. "You know, Dad, maybe we should talk about this memory thing. Because I'm worried about you."

"Why am I lending you my car, Connor?" Angel asked.

"The thing is," Connor continued, putting milk into the mix, "you shouldn't be ashamed. Age happens to everybody and so do the consequences. You should never be afraid to ask for help."

"Any year now with the car thing," Angel told him.

"And I want you to know," Connor continued, sitting forward, "that I am here for you. I'll stay by your side, even as you go on this rapid path towards completely dead braincells. I will love and support you, and put you into the best old folks' home money can buy."

"Funny," Angel said.

"I mean it," Connor replied. He grinned, and Wesley could see an echo of Angel's smile on the boy's face. "I'll even visit you on holidays. Or some of them. Or near them since it's not like you'd be able to tell the difference anyway."

"You know I hear jokes about me being over the hill are actually humorous if you wait until I'm over the hill," Angel said, moving his hand through the air to indicate the bump in question. "But since I'm not even near middle age yet - "

Connor laughed. "You're almost forty!"

"I'm thirty-ei - five," Angel quickly corrected himself mid-statement. He looked at Wesley, as though gauging his success. "I'm only thirty five!"

"Oh God, you're not still trying that one, are you?" Cordelia asked, clearing away plates and silverware.

"Go stop Harmony from breaking all my cups," Angel told her.

Cordy frowned. "How do you know she's - "

"It's a gut instinct," Angel replied, and sure enough there was a sound of a crash from the kitchen.

"You are thirty eight," Connor said, stabbing his spoon in the air accusingly, "which is almost forty which is almost middle aged which means - "

"Which means I've got a kid who's old enough to be a pain in my ass," Angel finished. He put a glass of orange juice down in front of Connor, then automatically gave Wesley one as well. Wesley drank, hoping the vitamin C would help him get past his cold. "Now once more from the top: why am I lending you my car?"

"Because I've got practice," Connor said, "and then school and then I gotta hit the library and then it's more practice and then me and Tracy - "

"Aha!" Angel said.

" - have to study for finals which I told you about last Thursday," Connor kept going, ignoring his father's response. "And I can't do all that if I'm taking the bus because then I've got no way of coming home. You do want me to come home, right?"

"It's a fifty-fifty thing at any given moment," Angel replied. "So you and Tracy are studying where again?"

Now Connor looked shifty. "Tracy's place."

"And Tracy's mother is going to be right there helping you, right?" Angel said, pointedly.

"Did I say Tracy's place?" Connor asked. "Because I meant the library."

"As my dearest son just helpfully pointed out, I wasn't born yesterday," Angel reminded him.

"Dad," Connor pleaded, making the word stretch out over two syllables.

"Connor," Angel said, leaning forward and taking his son by the hand. "I think we need to talk man to man."

"Oh God, Dad, ew," Connor said, trying to pull away.

Angel held fast, his voice dripping with sincerity. "Because you know boys your age get certain urges - "

"Dad, come on."

"And it's okay," Angel continued, "I know. Because I've been there. You know when I was your age -"

"I'm going to kill myself right now," Connor warned him, "I swear to God."

"Look, I just want to know," Angel said, meeting his son's eyes. "Are you using condoms?"

"Dad!"

Angel grinned and produced his car keys. "Here you go. Ah - not so fast - " he held them out of Connor's reach. "I want you to remember me forcing you to have this conversation the next time you bring it back without refilling the tank. Got it?"

"You are so weird, do you know that?" Connor asked. He reached up to snatch the keys out of Angel's hand, then gathered up his stuff. "This is why I tell everybody I'm not related to you."

"Do it a third time and I'm putting my CDs into the player and making sure Tracy knows they actually belong to you," Angel retorted.

"I'm late for practice," Connor said, buttoning up his coat. "Is there anything else you want me to remember?"

"Oh yeah, Gunn wants you to tell people you've got the - " Angel turned to Gunn " - what was that again? The flu?"

"Yeah," Gunn agreed, wiping off his mouth. "Or maybe a limp. Think you could fake your way to a limp?"

"I cannot wait for college," Connor announced, dismissing them all with a shake of his head.

"And to think," Angel told Wesley as the outside doors swung closed after Connor left, "I used to long for the days when he would talk."


PART THREE

The snow had settled down into a random flake or two which still fell belatedly from the sky. The day itself was cold, and grey, and not for the first time Angel wondered if he shouldn't have insisted that he keep the car, or agree to take Wes's.

Anne's place wasn't far from the diner, so dropping Alissa off hadn't been much of a problem, once they got past the usual round of introductions and arrangement-making. Lorne's was a bit further but with the day being what it was Angel thought walking might be a good idea, especially since it allowed him to give Wes the lay of the land.

Only catch was Wes didn't have anything by way of real winter clothes.

Angel was feeling really damned stupid.

"The streets are surprisingly clear," Wes remarked as they waited for a car to pass.

"We're experts with winter," Angel told him, stepping past a mound of plowed snow that he knew someone's kids would be turning into a fort later. "Could hit us with three Nor'easters in a row and we'd still be up and running by the next day. Around here pretty much everyone knows how to man a shovel."

Wes looked stricken. "I'm sorry - it only just occurred to me I should have offered to help you clear the walk out front."

Angel waved it off. "Don't worry about it. I've got a snowblower and a teenager, which means this morning it was me and the snowblower. But Connor knows he's gotta lend a hand when the real storms hit."

To his credit, Wes only looked slightly intimidated. "Last night wasn't a real storm?"

Angel grinned at him. "We're not even in winter yet."

They took a turn down Bank street. Angel pointed out the grocery store, and the town's only ATM. He thought about pointing out a few clothing stores as well but wrote that off as too obvious a nudge. Plus he didn't want to come off as insulting the effort Wes had obviously made to get himself looking presentable. He wasn't totally dressed up by a long shot, but he'd somehow managed to shower and trim the stubble into a respectable shave. There was a different outfit too but at that point Angel reminded himself to stop staring.

"The two of you seem to have a remarkable relationship," Wes offered, pulling Angel out of his thoughts. "I can only hope to one day have the same with Alissa."

"Give it time," Angel told him. "These things come in stages. Connor'n me are still getting past that whole 'every teenager hates his dad' thing. And the rebellious thing. And the thing where he does stuff just to see if he can turn my hair grey. Actually I'm not sure we're past any of that yet but he's a good kid."

"You and your wife must be very proud," Wesley observed.

"I am," Angel replied, looking at Wes to show there were no hard feelings. "And she was. Darla passed away ten years ago. It's just me and Connor now."

"I'm sorry," Wesley said.

Inside the privacy of his coat pocket, Angel ran his thumb along his empty ring finger. It had been years since he'd stopped wearing it but sometimes he still felt the weight of the band. "Thanks."

"Alissa's mother - " Wes hesitated, then said. "There were complications with the birth. It's only her and I as well, now."

"Sorry to hear that," Angel said.

Wes seemed uncomfortable with the sympathy. "Thank you."

They turned one last corner, and the sign for Caritas Travel Agency came into view.

"Come on," Angel said, happy to change the subject for the both of them. "I'm sure Lorne's gonna love you."


"Angelcakes, I don't know."

Angel blinked. "What do you mean you don't know?"

"I mean I don't know," Lorne said. He looked through the window of his private office, watching Wesley as he waited patiently out front. "I mean he's nice and all - "

"He needs a job."

"Cute as a button too," Lorne added. He glanced at Angel. "Is he single?"

Angel gave him a look. "He's got a kid."

Lorne scoffed. "Oh yeah. Like that means anything."

Angel sat down on Lorne's desk. "Can you hire him?"

"Can I? Yes," Lorne said. "But will I is the question. Angel, money's tight. It's not exactly the tourist season. There's only so many folks in this town I can send on fabulous tropical vacations before I've run out of people to deal with. Other than the Hendersons and their annual trip to gay Paree I'm tapped out until Valentine's."

"But you said you could use more help," Angel reminded him. "Somebody to answer the phones, do all the paperwork."

"Yeah, and I'd love a personal masseuse too," Lorne said, helping himself to a glass of water out of the cooler. "Doesn't mean I can afford it."

"He can work cheap," Angel said. "Off the books. Pay him in cash. At least until things get busy again."

Lorne went back to the window. His lips pursed in a frown. "I just have a bad feeling about this."

Angel stood up, trying to see what Lorne saw. "What? Why?"

"Who can say why?" Lorne shrugged. "You know me. I see people, I get feelings. I see your pal here and my feeling is I have a bad feeling. I can't tell you more than that."

Angel shook his head, refusing to believe it. "He's a good guy. He'll be great for you - Hell, for the business. Can't you at least give him a shot?"

Lorne studied him. "Boy, you're really working full time on helping this hopeless case, huh?"

"He's got a kid," Angel said again.

"Looks like somebody had a bowl of overidentification for breakfast," Lorne shot back, then waved off Angel's protest. "Okay, okay. I'll do it. But you owe me."

"Anything, name it," Angel promised.

"Yeah, right," Lorne replied, opening the office door again. "I wouldn't write blank checks like that if you're not totally back on the dating scene, but thanks anyway. Wesley? Congratulations! When can you start?"


Wesley's first day of work started right then and there. Wesley rather suspected that this was due to some sort of intervention on Angel's behalf, but he didn't protest it. His wallet was down to almost nothing, and Alissa needed a great deal of supplies.

Angel left to return to the diner. He offered to stop by Anne's to let her know about the new schedule but Wesley declined. He wanted to speak to the woman himself and hear her voice when she promised him that Alissa was fine. It wasn't the first time that he'd needed to place his daughter into daycare, but even so he preferred keeping close tabs on her. A phone call in the morning was enough to last him until afternoon.

Lorne gave him a tour of the office, such as it was. It was quiet, which allowed them time for a quick lesson on using the computer, or more specifically the software specific to the business as Wesley already knew how to use a computer in general.

He also knew a great deal of information about many of the travel destinations that Lorne sent people to, having been there himself, and could speak the native language of each and every one. But he had no idea if this knowledge would be perceived as useful or as pretentious arrogance, so he kept it to himself.

His job was to answer phones and to assist Lorne in whatever he might need, the latter of which covered everything from making coffee to sorting through the mail.

With things being as slow as they were, Wesley decided to find work to do, even if Lorne couldn't assign it. He dusted, swept, and then dedicated himself to the Herculean task of going through the enormous metal filing cabinets and making certain that everything inside was in proper alphabetical order. Doing anything had to be better than sitting around appearing useless.

"Oh, sheesh, Wes, you don't have to worry about that," Lorne assured him, once he realized what Wesley was doing. "Those things have been a mess for ages. Why give yourself the headache?"

"I don't mind," Wesley replied, even though by then his eyes did hurt. "That is - unless you'd rather I not touch anything?"

"No, no, have fun if you wanna," Lorne replied. "Better you than me, I guess. I'm breaking for lunch, do you want anything?"

"No, thank you," Wesley lied, determined to discipline himself after the extravagance of eating two meals in a row. Besides, he assumed any time taking off for lunch would be stricken from his hourly wages. "I'm still full from breakfast. I can mind the store if you like."

"Okay," Lorne said, pulling on an overcoat that seemed far too garish for anyone's tastes, yet looked perfectly fine when contrasted with the man's highlighted blond hair. "I'll be back in a jiff."

The day moved on. Wesley continued his quest to reorganize the filing cabinets. Lorne returned with a bag of something which smelled spicy, and made Wesley's mouth water at the same time his stomach twisted and turned. Perhaps guessing Wesley's hunger, Lorne offered to split part of the meal with him but Wesley politely refused. He wouldn't be known as the town charity case. He'd already relied on others far too much.

He kept working. The faint light of day disappeared and turned into the black of evening, even though it was barely past three. His eyes were hot, and tired, and his muscles ached from the constant kneeling and standing that he'd had to do to move things around from each and every drawer. His throat was dry, and there didn't seem to be enough water in the cooler to make his coughing go away.

"Need me to get you a lozenge?" Lorne asked at one point

Wesley chastised himself. It wasn't as though he didn't know how unprofessional all this was. "No, thank you. It's just a dry spot," he said, and resolved to clamp down harder on his lungs.

Finally it came time to go home. The cold air of outside slapped against Wesley's face, a relief after being locked indoors for hours. He let the wind buffet him for a moment, savoring the cool sensation.

"Need a ride?" Lorne asked.

"No, thank you," Wesley said, priding himself in how self-sufficient he was able to be now, particularly with his first day's pay now sitting in his pocket. "I remember the way, and I need to stop by the store regardless."

"Okay then," Lorne said, getting into his own car. "See you tomorrow. Ten to nine if you can make it."

"I will," Wesley promised, then retraced his steps home.

As he walked he allowed himself to cough a bit louder, trying to clear out whatever it was inside of him. His throat hurt, and his eyes watered, and he still felt overwarm from Lorne's office. He undid his jacket, then unbuttoned his top few shirt buttons as well.

The grocery store was bright, but small and blessedly easy to navigate. Wesley filled a basket with extra formula, wipes, toiletries, and used his other hand to carry a large bundle of diapers. His eyes lingered on the shelves dedicated to medicine, but he forced himself to look away. He had just enough for Alissa and no more.

Alissa herself was happy to see him. He indulged himself with hugs and kisses, cradling her close before putting her back into the carrier to take her home.

"She was really sweet," Anne told him. "Ate like a good girl and everything."

Wesley reached for his wallet again. "How much do I - "

Anne shook her head. "Don't worry about it."

Angel again, Wesley remembered. He wanted to argue it but he didn't have the energy. Tomorrow, he promised himself. Tomorrow he would arrive early and discuss a proper agreement. Perhaps a weekly or monthly payment system. Anything to show he could handle it. For now he had enough on his hands with Alissa on one side and the bulky groceries on the other.

"Thank you," Wesley said.

"See you in the morning," Anne smiled.

The Hyperion diner looked even more welcoming than it had the night before. Wesley walked towards its light as though drawn to it, putting one foot in front of the other by instinct more than anything else. It was late, or at least it seemed so. He was tired, and trembling. Alissa felt as though she weighed easily five times her usual mass and the diapers refused to keep still. He felt the constant bumping of the plastic packaging against his leg as though it were a slap.

He was hungry, he knew, but even so he refused to meet Angel's eyes when the other man greeted him upon his return. He didn't want to argue about meals, and supposed house discounts. He wanted to go upstairs, to bed, and sleep until Alissa woke him, even though the very idea of getting up again made his head hurt even more, and his stomach rolled, and his arms and hands felt so damned heavy and -

"Wes? Wes!" Angel's voice came at him from a thousand miles away.

"I - " Wesley tried to speak, but words failed him, and the world itself filled with cotton.

"Okay, hang on, Wes," Angel said, and Wesley was dimly aware of a pair of strong hands around him. "It's okay. I've got you."

But what about Alissa? Wesley wanted to ask, but he'd already passed out.


Wesley dreamt.

It's not a secret.

What's not a secret?

He felt dizzy, unable to keep still. The universe spun around him, coming at him in snatches of sight and sound and touch.

Us.

Touch. Lilah's touch. The two of them together in a kaleidoscope of memories, all of which felt real and surreal at the same time.

I told you, I couldn't care less about what he thinks.

You faker!

Lilah's laugh. He remembered Lilah's laugh, and the first time he'd realized that she was actually capable of feeling something like joy.

So my father knows about our relationship, big deal.

A dollar! You owe me a dollar!

Oh damn.

Wesley remembered the first time he'd realized that he himself had actually felt joy around her.

Sign it first. As proof.

Proof of what?

Of now. Of this.

He wanted to grab onto her, onto everything. To make it all stay still. To stop spinning and let him hold it. Let him feel it. Let it not slip away one more time.

What are we going to do about the baby?

Not a damned thing, Wes.

Failure. Months upon months of failure.

Mr. Wyndam-Pryce, I'm sorry but -

His failure. His inability to do the right thing, to even recognize it when he'd seen it. there's been complications.

He'd been so bloody certain.

I can't accept this.

I don't think you get a choice.

There had to have been a way.

This wasn't a relationship.

There's a signed dollar bill in your wallet that says different.

There had to be a way, still.

I'm sorry.

Oh, Wes, we don't have that word in our vocabulary.

A way for him to fix it.

Still, if you're that into the whole tilting at windmills thing -

A way to make it better. - I'll tell you what. When the time comes?

A way to make it better for everyone.

And you can admit to yourself what this was? What all of it is? Then I want you to give that dollar to our daughter.

Not just himself, but everyone.

Then we'll see if you still recognize what really matters.

Wesley woke up.


Wesley sat up on the couch, feeling the sweat that drenched his body. The livingroom was dark and quiet. He surged up, feeling panic hit his system. He had to find -

"Hey, you're up," Angel said, appearing from out of the shadows. Alissa was cradled in his arms, fast asleep. "Sit down. Take it easy. She just got fed."

"What - " Wesley started to ask, but couldn't take his eyes off his child. "Please, I need to - "

"Here you go," Angel said, anticipating the request. He knelt down, carefully handing the baby over. "Watch it, you're about as weak as a kitten. Put her against your chest."

Wesley held his daughter close, feeling tears prick his eyes as relief coursed through him. "Thank you."

"She's fine," Angel promised him. "We pulled shifts on babysitting. Plus Anne did most of the work. Either way don't worry about it. Brought back memories for me."

Wesley frowned. "How long was I - "

"About three days," Angel said. He stood up again, gesturing to a small collection of prescription bottles on the table. "You were pretty bad. Fred said it was flu. Personally - well we don't need to get into personally right now. Point is you were down for the count."

"Oh God," Wesley said, as he realized the implications of this. "Lorne."

Angel waved it off. "You were sick. He knows. You can come back to work whenever you're up and ready."

"Tomorrow," Wesley said, looking at the clock. "Ten to nine. I can make it."

Annoyance flickered over Angel's face, but it quickly vanished. Instead he walked a circuit of the apartment, pointing out things as he went. "We pulled a collection together. Hauled some stuff down from the attic, plus everybody else had extras of things. Alissa's got a crib now, and a changing table. There's also pots and pans and dishes and stuff. Fridge's got some food in it. The bedroom has - "

"I'm sorry," Wesley interrupted him. "But what?"

Angel shrugged. "It's nothing."

Wesley sighed, then indicated the pill bottles. "And those? Are those nothing too?"

"No," Angel replied, "those are actually things you still need to be taking every couple of hours, but if you're asking about cost - "

"I can't accept this," Wesley said. "Angel, I - you know how little I have."

"Nobody's asking you to pay them back, Wes," Angel told him. He pulled one of the new chairs over, turning it around so he could straddle it. "I wouldn't let you get into debt like that, promise."

"I'm already in debt like that," Wesley said, feeling overwhelmed. "To you, to Anne, to Lorne. Alissa alone takes up so much of what I earn. There's no possible way - "

"You really aren't from around here, are you?" Angel asked, his voice gentle.

Wesley thought of England, and home. Of enormous family mansions and the lavish dinner parties given inside where one plate alone could cost three times as much as the entire building he now sat in. Of what his family might think of a man like Angel, who took pride in owning what they would have cheerfully condemned in every sense of the word. "My world is quite different from yours," Wesley finally said.

"I'm getting that," Angel replied. "Look, Wes, things are different here. It's not like some big, indifferent city. If somebody needs something, we give it. That's how we are."

Wesley suspected that more than anything that was how Angel was, but he supposed the end result was the same. "Even still, I couldn't possibly - "

"Wes," Angel said, his tone a bit stronger. "I'm trying not to do the big nagging thing because I know what that's like. But the thing is what you're doing right now? It's not just about you. It's about her. You want to do what's best for her and believe me I'm behind that. But what's best for her also involves taking care of her daddy. That means sleeping, and eating, and not driving yourself to exhaustion."

"I'm trying," Wesley said. He wrapped his hand around Alissa's fist, feeling her wrap her fingers around his thumb in turn. "You have no idea. I want to do all of those things but - "

"No 'but'," Angel told him. His eyes met Wesley's. "And I do have an idea. I might not know the whole story - and you don't have to tell me if you don't want to - but I know what it's like. Ten years ago I was where you are now. And lemme tell you this: if it wasn't for my friends, I would have never survived it."

"I don't have any friends," Wesley confessed.

Angel shook his head. "You do now, okay? At least if you'd like some. Look, I know all this is weird to you and probably nothing like what you're used to, but give us a chance. Who knows, you might even like it."

"I will pay you back," Wesley promised, refusing to be swayed. "No matter what, I will return these favors."

"If you want to," Angel said, unconcerned. He offered his hand out to shake. "In the meanwhile, do we have a deal? You stop killing yourself and actually take advantage of what we're offering you?"

Wesley freed a hand to shake Angel's in turn. "All right. But for her sake, not mine."

"I can accept that," Angel said, flashing him a grin that was nothing but confidence.


PART FOUR

The diner was surprisingly empty by the time Wesley felt well enough to attempt to rejoin the world. Wesley looked around, wondering where the patrons were.

"Did you have to quarantine the place just for me?" he asked Angel, trying to stay out of the other man's way as he gave Alissa her formula.

"Nah," Angel said. He was in the midst of packing things into coolers. Wesley watched him as he placed one foil-covered tray after another into the plastic bin. "It's Sunday."

"You go to church?" Wesley guessed.

"Sometimes," Angel said, closing one cooler and moving on to another one. He tossed a slip of paper down onto the counter so Wesley could see it. "And sometimes there's a game on."

"Hockey?" Wesley asked, looking up from the ticket Angel had placed in front of him.

"You got it," Angel told him. He put a breakfast sandwich into the microwave, setting the timer for ten seconds. "Tigers versus Bobcats."

Spying one of the pennants over the cash register, Wesley said, "You're a Tiger fan."

The microwave beeped. Angel opened it up and handed the heated sandwich over to Wesley. "Big Tiger fan. The biggest. Now eat that because you're coming with."

Wesley paused as he attempted to juggle both Alissa and the food. "I am? But I don't know a thing about hockey."

Angel helped him by taking Alissa out of his arms, rubbing her back as he held her. "You know the star player. What more is there?"

Wesley frowned, mid-bite. "The star - "

"Dad, would you finish up already?" Connor said, swiping a muffin off of one of the plates as he jogged through the diner and out the front door.

"They say all the great ones are impatient before a game," Angel said, not missing a beat. "Come on, we'll take my car."


Angel's SUV navigated the icy early morning streets with ease. Wesley watched the scenery go by as they left the center of town and headed out into the countryside. Barns and houses occasionally dotted the landscape, sometimes barely visible under their blankets of snow.

"We're playing an away game," Angel explained, adjusting the heat as the car warmed up. "The Bobcat arena's good, though. It shouldn't be too cold. And if it feels like too much there's a room you can take Alissa to and watch from there. All the parents end up in there eventually"

"That's because you're all wimps," Connor said, leaning forward from his position in the back seat. "Comes with age."

"Hey," Angel protested, "I have never done the side room. It's too far for me to yell at the refs."

"Right, right," Connor said, dismissing it. "Hey, Dad? If it's okay with Cordy can I switch shifts with her tomorrow?"

"How come?" Angel asked.

"I wanted to do stuff with the guys," Connor replied.

"Try that again," Angel suggested, "except narrow 'stuff' down to names, times, places and activities I can approve of."

Connor heaved a put-upon sigh. "After school I'm meeting up with Brenda, Jake and Robin to cram for French, then we were all going to grab dinner with Rick and Tracy, then we were maybe going to try to get some work done on that thing for Social Studies and then Rick and me thought we'd hang out by the elementary school and deal drugs."

"Rick and I thought we'd hang out by the elementary school and deal drugs," Angel corrected.

Connor made a face at him. "So can I?"

"Scratch off the last bit, be home by eleven and then it's fine by me if it's fine with Cordy," Angel said.

"But Dad," Connor said, stretching the name out over several syllables.

"You heard me," Angel told him, refusing to be baited. "No drug dealing."

"All the other guys get to come home by midnight!" Connor protested.

"All the other guys have parents who aren't evil and bent on making your life a living Hell," Angel replied.

"Did your dad always think he was funny?" Connor asked Wesley.

"I can't say my father ever labored under that delusion," Wesley replied, trying not to smile in face of the boy's adolescent plight.

"It could maybe be 11:30," Angel allowed.

Connor gave his father a hopeful look. "11:45?"

Angel turned to Wes. "Does your kid ever labor under the delusion that she's funny?"

"This is so lame!" Connor said.

"Hey!" Angel said, looking at Connor in the rearview mirror. "Keep that attitude up and it's going to be a brand-new curfew of 10, got it?"

Connor slumped back in his seat. "11:30?"

"Hey look, we're in agreement," Angel said.

Whatever Connor might have replied was lost as Alissa gave a few tentative cries.

Wesley turned around, trying to assess her. "She might be hungry. Connor, if you could get me my bag, please?"

"I got it," Connor said, grabbing the satchel. "What's she need?"

"Let's try the juice," Wesley said. "It's the bottle with the flowers on it."

Connor rummaged in the bag, pulled out the bottle, and offered it to the baby. "Here you go. Drink up."

Wesley watched the two of them together, surprised at the rapid disappearance of Connor's sulk.

"Connor's great with kids," Angel said, perhaps reading Wesley's mind. "When he was thirteen - "

"Dad," Connor tried to interrupt, clearly embarrassed by any trips down memory lane.

Angel ignored him. "He started up his own company. Did everything from snow shoveling to babysitting. Even had some of his friends working for him. Drew up a sign for it that he put in the window of the diner and everything. Made good money too."

"Nobody needs to hear about that," Connor said.

"What?" Angel asked. "You were a kid and you had your own business! I can't be proud? You know I still think you should've put that on your college applications."

"No college cares about what I did when I was thirteen," Connor told him. "Nobody does. Not even Wes."

"Well, I, er - " Wesley faltered, wondering what he was supposed to say.

"I care," Angel replied, saving Wesley the trouble. "And I guess if I'm not allowed to be proud of what you do then I can't tell Wes you made MVP two years running?"

"No, you can tell him that," Connor said. He wiped Alissa's chin as she finished with her drink, then amused her by dangling a stuffed toy in front of her. Alissa gurgled happily, trying to reach up for it.

"Connor made MVP two years running," Angel said, slowing the truck down so a deer could pass by.

"So I've heard," Wesley said, grinning. "You must be very proud."

"I am during those pre-approved times when my son allows me to be," Angel replied.

"Hey," Connor said, sitting forward again. "Are you really English?"

Wesley blinked at the non-sequitur. "Er - yes?"

"Like you've lived there and everything?" Connor asked.

"I have lived there and everything," Wesley confirmed, wondering how much he could get away with not telling. He decided the best course of action would be to keep the ball in Connor's court. "Why?"

"Is it nice?" Connor asked.

"I suppose it is," Wesley said. "Though that greatly depends upon what one likes."

"What about the schools?" Connor asked, then clarified. "I was thinking of maybe going to Oxford, if they take me."

"Oxford's quite nice," Wesley replied, then immediately stopped himself from warming up to the subject more than he had to. "I - I had friends who went there. They seemed to enjoy it. What in particular appealed to you about it?"

"The fact that it would tear his daddy's heart out and rip it into a million pieces if he was at a school that was that far away," Angel replied. "Not that I'm trying to influence his decision or anything."

Connor paid no attention to him. "I dunno. I mean there's so much there, you know? I've been thinking Literature, but then there's Religious Studies too, or maybe I'll go for a Psych program or something. My guidance counselor says I should pick something that's got a real career to it, though."

"Pick whatever you want, Connor," Angel assured him. "No matter what you decide, I'm behind you a hundred percent."

"Unless I pick Oxford," Connor said.

"Unless you pick Oxford," Angel agreed, though the twinkle in his eyes belied any attempt at pretending to be stern. "In which case I have no child."

"Fine by me," Connor said, helping to gather things up as Angel pulled into a parking space. "I've been telling people for years that I'm not related to you either."

Angel turned the engine off, then faced his son. "Have I told you lately that you're my favorite kid?"

Connor grinned, clearly having heard this before. "I'm your only kid."

Angel grinned back. "Oh yeah. Funny how that works out."


The emptiness of the diner was rapidly explained as Angel and Wesley hauled Alissa, the baby supplies, and the two coolers down into the arena. Gunn, Fred, Cordelia and some people Wesley didn't recognize were all gathered around in a comfortable sprawl that spanned several rows and included blankets and thermoses that no one seemed to mind sharing. The air felt cool but Angel promised it would warm up as more people arrived.

"We're here early because Connor has to be," Angel explained.

Faces turned as Wesley and Angel were spotted, and Gunn and a few others climbed over the benches to help pull everything into position.

"All right," Gunn said, immediately commandeering one of the coolers. "Ladies and gentlemen, breakfast is served."

Angel's carefully prepared meals were pulled out and unwrapped, their steam escaping into the air in white plumes of vapor. Plastic plates and cutlery were produced and it wasn't long before everyone had something to fill themselves up with.

"Hey, Wes," Fred said, making herself comfortable on the bench just above his. "How are you feeling?"

"Much better, thank you," Wesley told her. He sipped at a cup of hot cocoa, savoring the warmth as it spread through his body. "I'm given to understand I have you to thank for that?"

Fred blushed, adjusting her glasses. "It was nothing. All part of the job."

"I had no idea you were a doctor," Wesley said. He fixed Alissa's hat as it threatened to slip off of her head. "If I'd known perhaps I would've asked you for advice about my cough sooner."

"The flu's a hard one to peg," Fred reassured him. "One minute you're fine and the next, bam! Dead on your feet."

"Luckily Angel was there to catch me," Wesley said.

"It's what I do," Angel said, reaching between them to pour himself a drink out of the coffee-filled thermos. "Hey, do you know Gwen and Knox? Actually, where is Knox? Wasn't he just here?"

"Potty break," Fred replied, helping herself to another serving of everything. "He'll be back in a sec."

Wesley turned to the woman sitting beside Gunn. "I assume you're Gwen?"

"Yeah," the young woman replied. She seemed to be about Gunn's age, and was dressed in tight black slacks and a bright red sweater. "And you're the guy I babysat for two nights ago. Nice to meetcha."

"Gwen owns the boutique on Spring Street," Angel explained.

"I don't know if I'm familiar with that one," Wesley said.

"Can't see how you would be," Gwen smiled. "Considering it's a lingerie shop and all. Unless Alissa there is much more advanced than we all gave her credit for."

"I don't think she's quite ready for that yet," Wesley agreed.

"So what's the stats for today's game?" Angel asked.

"Oh God," Cordy groaned. "Are you guys betting again?"

"It makes things interesting," Gunn told her.

"Not that I don't agree that hockey could use all the help it can get in that area," Cordy said, "But still. You two should save up that money and buy yourselves a life the rest of us won't make fun of."

"Actually," Fred cleared her throat, making room for the gentleman who came up and sat beside her. "Knox and I have some money on this too."

"In favor of the Tigers, right?" Angel asked, giving them a pointed look.

"Oh yes," Fred promised, bobbing her head in agreement.

"Wouldn't dream of betting on anybody else," the newcomer said. He held out a hand to Wesley. "Hey, I'm Knox."

"Wes," Wesley replied, finding himself fascinated with the easy way all of them had happily accommodated him into what was obviously a regular routine. Noticing the varying bonds of friendship between them all, he realized they were perhaps missing a person. "Where's Lorne?"

Cordy snorted. "He does not get up before noon on a Sunday. And especially not for sports."

"He'll catch up with us later at the diner," Angel added.

"Wait," Wesley said, as another missing piece caught his attention. "If everyone here has placed bets in favor of the Tigers, who bets on the Bobcats?"

"Morning, Angel," a female voice called over.

"Speak of the devil," Angel murmured, then he sat up to face the woman who'd joined them. "Morning, Kate. Catch any new criminals today?"

The blonde woman, who appeared to be in her thirties, folded her arms and gave Angel a dry look. "You tell me. You planning in disrupting the game again like you did last time?"

"I dunno," Angel replied. "Your cousin planning on breaking my kid's arm like last time?"

Kate smirked. "He didn't break Connor's arm and you know it."

"It was still a foul!"

"The ref thought otherwise."

"The ref was blind."

"Angel and Kate used to go out," Cordy whispered to Wesley, by way of explanation. "Until she broke up with him."

"I broke up with her," Angel retorted, clearly possessed of better hearing than Cordelia gave him credit for.

"That's not the way I remember it," Cordy replied.

"You know one of these years you're going to act like I'm actually the guy who signs your paychecks," Angel told her. "I'm really looking forward to that day."

"Glad to see you guys are having fun," Kate said, smiling with what seemed to be genuine friendship. She frowned as she spotted Wesley sitting amongst them. "Have we met?"

"Wes is a friend of mine," Angel told her, supplying the information with an ease Wesley didn't know if he himself would've possessed at an impromptu interrogation by a police officer. "He's staying with me for a while."

"Oh, okay," Kate said, unconcerned. She pointed out a spot on the other side of the arena. "Anyway, I'm over there with the gang if you want to stop by."

"We might," Gunn said. "Especially if you guys brought the good donuts."

"Don't we always?" Kate replied. She gave everyone a wave as she climbed back up the stairs again. "Catch you later."

"She did not break up with me," Angel muttered, turning back to his food.

Cordelia patted him on the back. "You keep telling yourself that."


To all appearances the game was a good one. Wesley gave up hope of understanding all of the rules, but he quickly determined which player was Connor and the general goal of cheering when he seemed to do something clever, or when the incredibly impossible to see puck made its way into the proper net. When all else failed he cheered when everyone else in his group did, and that seemed to carry him through.

The game itself took hours. Whatever boredom might have come from this was alleviated from the random moments of excitement during the game and, when those moments were few and far between, by eating.

Angel's picnic breakfast was torn through, then put away. Then snacks were brought out that everyone else had supplied. Then it was forays to the concession stands for hot dogs, sodas, and more. After a while Wesley gave up on protesting any attempts for people to give him things, and instead settled down to comfortably share the large tub of popcorn that Angel bought and set on the bench between them.

"My treat," Angel assured him, munching on a handful of buttered kernels. "Besides, I can't finish all this by myself anyway."

Wesley suspected that Angel could have also bought a smaller tub to begin with, but decided that by Angel's way of thinking this sort of thing was common courtesy. He ate, both because he was hungry and because it was the polite thing to do, and promised himself he'd pay Angel back eventually.

Alissa, for her part, was never bored. Young enough to be aware of new faces while not being old enough to be frightened of them, she was passed from lap to lap as everyone played with her and attempted to make her smile. Fred and Gunn both took turns feeding her when the time came, though of course Wesley took it upon himself to take care of any diaper changes.

As promised, the arena warmed up as more people arrived, but as the game wore on something started to bother her and she began to cry without stopping. Deciding that it would rule out both cold and the potential that he was annoying those around him, he took Alissa out to the warmer waiting room to pass the rest of the game there with the two mothers (one of a newborn, the other a toddler) who'd been in there since the game had started. Wesley hung back at first, not wanting to intrude upon the women's company, but then he recalled Angel's advice to at least try to see what living here could be like, and he introduced himself and engaged them in conversation.

After a half hour of talking about their three children, and the various joys and sorrows of parenthood, Wesley found that there honestly were far more horrible ways that he could have spent a Sunday morning.


"Did you see him?" Angel asked, when he rejoined Wesley at the end of the game.

"I did," Wesley said, having watched the outcome on a conveniently provided monitor. Of course he'd had no idea of the specifics of what he was watching, but he felt comfortable in adding, "Connor did wonderfully."

"He did, didn't he?" Angel said, a proud father to the core. "C'mon. We're heading back to the diner."

Wesley slung his satchel over his shoulder, waved goodbye to his two companions, then followed Angel. He looked around. "Is Connor catching up with us?"

"You kidding?" Angel asked, holding the door open for Wesley as they reached the parking lot. "He and his friends go out for pizza. It's not cool to do the post-game celebration with his dad."

"I suppose he's at that age," Wesley said. He pressed a kiss to Alissa's forehead glad, at least, that the two of them hadn't reached that stage yet.

"Oh yeah," Angel said. He unlocked the car and began lifting the coolers into the back of it. "But that's okay. We adults just celebrate without him."

"Thank you for including me," Wesley said. He reached into the truck to strap Alissa into her car seat. "That was quite kind of you."

"Don't mention it," Angel said. He turned the car on to warm it up. "Sunday morning games are a tradition around here."

Wesley double checked Alissa's belts, then moved forward into the passenger seat. "Even so, you didn't have to issue the invitation."

"You know eventually you're going to believe me when I tell you that around here you've got friends," Angel said.

Wesley smiled at him. "I'm starting to."

Angel began to smile back, then his face grew more serious. "I - look, just so you know I didn't put Connor up to asking you about England or anything. He did that on his own."

"I know," Wesley said.

"I'm not trying to fish information out of you," Angel said. "Whatever you wanna tell me or don't wanna tell me is fine with me. I - Let's just say I'm a big believer in judging people in the now. And everything I've seen about you so far says that you're a guy I can trust."

"You're someone I can trust too, Angel," Wesley told him.

Angel gave him a curious look at that. "You sound surprised."

Wesley watched the other cars line up to leave the lot, wondering yet again how much he dared to tell anyone. "Let's just say it's been a while since I've felt that about anyone I've met."

"Okay then," Angel said, and blessedly didn't press for anything else.


PART FIVE

Wesley returned to the diner on a quiet Wednesday evening and found Angel perched atop a ladder, attempting to do something to the Christmas lights which decorated the awning and windows.

"Isn't that dangerous?" Wesley asked, wondering how Angel could even see what he was doing when the only light came from inside the diner and from the fairy lights themselves.

"Guys like me don't worry about danger," Angel replied. He frowned, poking an ungloved finger underneath a wire. "We just - ow! Shut up, that was a splinter."

"I wasn't going to say a word," Wesley said. "Though if I were to say a word or two I might point out that splinters would be one of the dangers to be found up there."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Angel said. He slid down the ladder, his mouth spreading into a large smile as he spied Alissa in Wesley's arms. "Hey there, princess. Did you have a good day today?"

"To all reports, yes," Wesley answered. "While at Anne's she played with stuffed toys and blocks, and she also joined me at lunch for a walk through the park."

"Did she now?" Angel asked, tickling Alissa's chest and making faces at her. She squirmed with delight, making hiccuping sounds which would one day be proper laughter. "How'd she like the park?"

"Well enough," Wesley said. "There wasn't much by way of animal life, though I do believe she managed to terrorize a squirrel."

"Crying jag?" Angel guessed.

"Indeed," Wesley nodded. "Apparently your local rodent population isn't equipped to handle the verbal demands of a hungry baby."

"I keep trying to tell the town council that but they never listen," Angel replied. He stepped back, spreading his arms out to show off his handiwork. "So? What do you think?"

Wesley studied the view in front of him, trying to determine what had changed since morning. "You added more lights?"

"And the glowing Santa," Angel pointed out.

"It's very... festive," Wesley observed.

"I thought so," Angel said. "Do you think I should add some reindeer? I was torn on the reindeer."

"Do they glow?"

"Yes."

"Perhaps one wouldn't wish to overwhelm the Santa," Wesley suggested.

Angel grinned at him. "You're sitting there thinking I couldn't have made this more gaudy and American if I added some cowboy hats, right?"

"Nonsense," Wesley said, with false innocence. "I was thinking neon. Cowboy hats would have been a step towards the somber, comparatively speaking."

"Just for that you get to help me take this all down when the time comes," Angel told him. "So what about you? Got any decorations up in the apartment yet?"

"Oh no," Wesley said. He fished his keys out of his pocket and dangled them in front of Alissa as she began to grow restless. "It's only the two of us. It hardly seemed worth the effort."

"You should," Angel said. "I know she's young but if you like it she'll like it. Besides, why not do the effort for yourself if nothing else?"

"We'll see," Wesley said, not feeling strongly about it one way or another.

Angel bent down and began to put his tools away. "Made any plans yet?"

"For the holidays?" Wesley asked. "No. I believe Alissa and I shall enjoy a quiet evening alone."

"You're welcome to join me and Connor if you want," Angel said.

"Thank you," Wesley said, "but I wouldn't want to intrude. I'm sure you and Connor have your own traditions and moments of family time."

Angel shut his toolbox and stood up again. "You're welcome to join me and Connor if you want."

"Do you ever listen to a word I say?" Wesley asked.

"I find if I tune you out the first three times it's easier to skip to the part where you agree with me," Angel replied.

"Angel - "

"Look," Angel said, holding his hand up to forestall the protest. "You're not interrupting anything. Christmas morning I've got the diner open for anybody who wants a big pancake breakfast after church, then I lock up and it's me, Connor, a tree, presents and, this year, lasagna. Yeah, it's some nice father/son time but when you get right down to it it's not that much different then any other night we do dinner. It's been years since he's woken up in the morning all bright-eyed and dying to see what Santa brought, so why shouldn't you and Alissa join in? Heck, it'd be nice to have an actual kid around to enjoy the day with. We could even give her a little stocking or something."

"If I say 'no' you're just going to come knocking on my door on Christmas day and insist that I join you anyway, right?" Wesley asked.

Angel pretended to think about it. "Pretty much."

"Then I'd be delighted," Wesley said. "But only if you let me help in some fashion."

"Come over Christmas Eve and help me get the food ready," Angel said. "We'll call it even."

"It's a deal," Wesley agreed. He stepped inside as Angel held the door open for him, blinking as his eyes watered from the change in temperature.

"Hey guys," Gunn called over from his position by the counter. He barely looked up as he scribbled on a legal pad. "Angel, you ask Wes about New Year's Eve?"

"Oh yeah," Angel said, putting his tools away in the broom closet. "Wes, you're joining us for New Year's Eve."

"Good to know," Wesley said, wondering if it really would be simpler to give up all hope of ever trying to decline these invitations out of a sense of courtesy. "What's involved?"

"A big ol' party," Cordelia said. She came over, bending down to coo at Alissa. "Hi there! Can I hold her? No, wait - is she ready to drip from any end?"

"She's been burped and changed," Wesley promised. "Though she needs to get out of her snowsuit before she gets too warm."

"Fashion emergencies I can handle," Cordy said, scooping the baby into her arms. "In fact, maybe Aunt Cordy will even give her a makeover."

Wesley smiled. It seemed that everyone amongst Angel's friends had dubbed themselves 'Aunt' or 'Uncle' to his child. No, he thought. His friends. They were all becoming his friends, which was actually quite nice, for all that it was unexpected. "So - New Year's?"

"Par-tay," Gunn said. He held up his pad, showing Wesley the list he was working on. "Music, food, drinks, good times."

"Just so long as Angel doesn't try to dance or sing," Cordy added.

"I never try to dance," Angel said. "And I sing just fine."

"Make sure you cross off karaoke," Cordy told Gunn.

Gunn made a show of erasing something off of his list.

"Can I help?" Wesley asked.

"You tell me," Gunn replied. "You any good with party stuff?"

"Oo!" Cordy said, brightening as an idea came to her. "We should do something British-y. You know, now that Wesley's here."

"We could do that," Gunn said. "So what do British people do for New Year's?"

Wesley thought back to all the family parties he'd been forced to go to in his time. "Generally we stand about, sip from drinks which are horribly expensive yet still manage to taste like swill, and then spend the entire time making small talk while suppressing any hint of truly expressing our emotions. I suppose we could give that a go but I can't see how it would be any fun for you Americans."

"Don't put Wesley on the entertainment committee," Cordy suggested.

"You can help Angel with the food," Gunn told him.

"I'll do my best," Wesley said.

"It'll be fun," Angel told him.

"Would this be a time to point out that other than formula I'm not much of a cook?" Wesley asked.

"Then you can clean," Angel replied, tossing a dishrag at him.

Wesley hesitated, wondering if Angel meant for him to start now, but was then saved from the dilemma as Alissa began to cry.

"Okay, back to Daddy," Cordy announced, handing her over. "I don't do volume."

"Want me to heat up a bottle for her?" Angel asked.

"Please," Wesley said, trying to distract her from her sobbing.

The front door jingled as Connor walked in. A girl about his age trailed behind him, her features almost lost in an oversize coat and a mop of curly hair. "Hey, Dad."

"Hey son, hey Tracy," Angel said

"Hi, Mr. Angel," Tracy said. She shrugged her coat off, placing it onto one of the empty stools by the counter.

"Here's your car keys," Connor said, trying to hand them over to his father.

Angel didn't even turn around. "Did you put the radio back to the way you found it?"

"I didn't even - "

Angel gave him a look.

"How did you know?" Connor asked.

Angel made a waving motion by his ears. "Magical daddy hearing. Now take it off that junk you listen to and then give me my keys."

"Radio station W-FOGEY coming up," Connor muttered, heading back out the door.

"And fix the bass too!" Angel called after him. He handed the warm bottle over to Wesley. "Last time he had that set so high I nearly lost the floor of the car from all the vibrations."

"He didn't mess it up too much," Tracy said.

"I know," Angel told her. "But it's my job to give him a hard time. Are you hungry? Help yourself to whatever, on me."

Tracy gave him a crooked smile, reaching over the counter for a diet iced tea. "Thanks, Mr. Angel."

"'Mr. Angel'?" Wesley asked, sotto voice.

Angel simply quirked his eyebrows at him, "Problem, Mr. Johnson?"

"Can't think of one," Wesley replied. He turned his attention back to Alissa, trying to make sure she didn't swallow too much air.

"Keys," Connor said, tossing them back at Angel as he returned once again.

Angel caught them effortlessly, putting them into his pocket. "Thanks. You want anything?"

"Yeah," Connor said, straddling one of the stools. "Can Tracy stay over tonight?"

"No," Angel said.

"Why not?" Connor demanded.

"Because my body's not dead enough for that to be over it," Angel replied. "Now what do you want for dinner?"

"We're not going to do anything," Connor said. "She can sleep on the couch. I'll sleep on the couch."

"You can sleep on the moon if you want," Angel said. "Tracy's not staying over. End of discussion."

"Dad!"

"End of discussion."

"But Dad - "

"It's okay, Connor," Tracy said, looking as though she wanted to disappear behind her glass. "Don't worry about it."

Something about the children's tone caught Angel's attention. He dropped his scolding demeanor. "What's up?"

Tracy shook her head. "Nothing."

Angel clearly knew the right person to interrogate. "Connor?"

"Her mom's boyfriend's back in town," Connor explained.

Angel's jaw tightened. "Trace, is he bothering you again?"

Tracy shook her head. "No. He's - it's just a couple of nights. It's okay."

"No, it's not," Connor said. Wesley wagered he had no idea how much he sounded like his father just then.

Tracy picked up her coat. "It is. It's fine. I'll just lock my door and - "

"Cordy?" Angel asked.

Cordelia was already on it. "Why don't you stay with me tonight, sweetie? I've got a nice big pull-out sofa and everything."

Tracy looked uncertain. "Are you sure?"

"Positive," Cordy said, putting her own coat on. She gave Tracy a reassuring smile. "Harmony and I were planning on doing a Russell Crowe festival anyway. You can help us make the popcorn."

"I'll come with," Connor said.

Angel took him by the shoulder and pushed him back onto the stool. "You'll stay here. In fact, go upstairs. Trace? Where's Jim hanging out tonight, do you know?"

"I think he's at the Clover," Tracy said, naming a bar Wesley knew was not far from the Bobcat arena.

"Dad, I - " Connor protested.

"Upstairs," Angel told him, pointing the way.

Connor did as he was told, stomping his feet all the way up to the second floor.

"C'mon," Cordy said, tugging at Tracy's coatsleeve. "We've got a date with a gladiator."

Tracy followed along. "Thanks for the iced tea, Mr. Angel."

Angel was busy locking up the register for the evening. "No problem, Tracy."

"Angel," Gunn said, once the girls had left, "don't."

"Don't know what you're talking about," Angel said. He put his coat on, zipping it up with more force than was probably necessary.

"Like Hell you don't and I'm telling you not to," Gunn said.

"I'm not doing anything," Angel replied, taking out his car keys. "Just going for a ride."

"Don't be stupid," Gunn said. "As your friend I - Hell, as your lawyer I'm telling you this is a bad idea."

Angel shouldered his way through the front doors. "Then as your client it's probably a good idea I don't tell you what I'm doing."

Gunn sighed as the doors swung shut. "Fool."

Wesley watched all of this, trying to make heads or tails of it. "What's he going to do?"

Gunn tossed his pen down onto the counter in frustration. "Get himself arrested. Again."


It was midnight when Wesley dared to try using the baby monitor to leave Alissa sleeping in her crib while he crept downstairs. Though he could never hear anything going on in Angel and Connor's apartment, he could usually hear them going up and down the stairs and hours had gone by without any signs of activity.

The diner was empty, and had been since Gunn had left hours ago to see if he could track Angel down. Wesley turned on some lights for company and wondered if he should drive out and do the same.

The need was thwarted as Angel walked through the door, limping, and favoring one side.

"Bloody Hell," Wesley said, coming over to him. He quickly assessed the damage, noting that Angel was also sporting a black eye. "What happened?"

"This is definitely one of those times when I gotta say you should see the other guy," Angel replied. He went behind the counter and tried to fish out the first-aid kit one-handed.

Wesley shooed him out of the way, motioning him towards a stool. He pulled out antiseptic and bandages. "You beat him up."

"Beat up is such a strong phrase," Angel said. "Morelike my fists may have accidentally connected with his face and body a few thousand times."

Wesley pursed his lips, glaring at him. "Oh, very clever."

"Didn't say it was clever, said it was effective," Angel replied. He tried to stretch his left hand out, wincing as he unbent his fingers. "Or I was implying it anyway. Damn. It did not use to hurt like this. I'm telling ya, I am not getting any younger."

Wesley made an impromptu cold pack, pouring ice into a Ziploc bag and then wrapping it in a towel. "Here, put that on your eye. And let me see your hand. We might have to call Fred."

Angel sighed with pleasure as the cool towel touched his bruised skin. "We do not have to call Fred. It's just some scrapes. I'll be fine."

"You could have broken something," Wesley said, trying to examine Angel's fingers without jostling them too much.

"I didn't break anything," Angel said. "Believe me, I'd know."

"So you're a doctor in your spare time now?" Wesley asked. He pulled Angel's hand into the light and began to clean the wounds.

"No, but apparently you, are," Angel said, watching him. "Since when do you know first aid?"

"Since I was nine, now sit still," Wesley told him.

"Yes, sir," Angel muttered. "Is Connor still here?"

"As far as I'm aware," Wesley said. "I didn't hear him leave. Gunn's out looking for you, though."

"I'll call him," Angel said. "Tell him I'm back. Hell, probably need to talk to him anyway come morning."

"Angel, that was a phenomenally stupid thing to do," Wesley told him.

"Never said I was a Mensa scholar," Angel replied.

"You could have been hurt."

Angel indicated his situation. "What's with the 'could have'?"

Wesley refused to let himself smile at that. "You know what I meant."

"Speaking of which," Angel said, side-stepping the real issue, "if anybody asks I never admitted that any of this was painful. Don't want to ruin my reputation."

"What, for being a moron?"

"For being a macho moron," Angel corrected.

"I'm not certain there's a difference," Wesley told him. He put the antiseptic aside, then rubbed in a healing cream. "If you won't go to hospital at least let me wrap this up and try to keep down the swelling."

"Whatever," Angel said, leaning into the towel. "Right now me and this ice are having a real good relationship."

"Don't tell Lorne or he might get jealous," Wesley warned.

"Let him," Angel said. "I've found the love of my life."

"You are an exceedingly strange man," Wesley said.

"Annoying too," Kate interjected, as she walked through the front doors.

"Damn," Angel said. "Could've sworn I locked those."

Kate walked over to the counter, leaning against it. "Tell me something, Angel: Why? Why do you need to make my life so difficult?"

"Everybody needs hobbies?" Angel said.

"You know," Kate said. "Contrary to what you might think I do like to do my job. If something's going wrong in my neighborhood, I want to know about it. I want to fix it."

"Admirable goal," Angel said.

"What I don't want," Kate continued. "Is people trying to do my job for me."

"I can see how that would be annoying," Angel agreed.

Kate sighed. "Don't do this to me. I've got Jim Mason down at the hospital bitching up a storm to anybody who'll listen that you just beat the crap out of him. That's assault, Angel. As in something I have to arrest people for?"

"So that's what that means," Angel drawled. "Here I was thinking it had something to do with pepper and the other seasonings."

"Do you think this is funny?" Kate asked. "Do you think I like having to come here and - "

"He was going to go after Tracy," Angel snapped.

For a moment Kate's eyes blazed with anger, then she forcibly calmed herself. "I know he's an asshole, Angel. I'm the one who arrested him last time. But I can't arrest him now when - "

"What? I'm supposed to sit back and wait until he gets her pregnant?"

" - when right now the only guy who's committed a crime anybody can prove around here is you!" Kate shouted over him.

"You wanna arrest me, here you go," Angel said, putting the ice pack down then offering his wrist up to her. "Slap the handcuffs on. Get the real criminals behind bars."

"I don't want to arrest you, Angel," Kate said. "I want to arrest him. Hell, I want to go kick the crap out of him like you did! But it's not about what I want. It's about the law."

"Here we go with that again," Angel muttered.

Kate rubbed her eyes, tiredly. "Help me out here, Angel. Throw me a damned bone. Give me something so I can at least go back to this guy and rub it in his face that you're not spending tonight in jail either."

"Maybe it was self defense," Angel said.

"When?" Kate asked. "When you punched him the first time or when you broke his arm?"

"I broke his arm?" Angel asked, a note of pride in his voice.

"Way to go with the plausible deniability," Kate retorted.

"He was with me," Wesley said.

Two sets of eyes swiveled towards him.

"What?" Angel asked.

"Come again?" Kate added.

"You asked for something," Wesley said. "Something to beat what Jim was giving you. Fine. I'm giving him an alibi. Now it's no longer his word against Angel's. It's mine as well."

"He was with you," Kate repeated. Her gaze traveled down to Angel's hurt hand, still cradled in Wesley's palm, then back over to Angel again. "So this would be your 'friend' Wesley?"

"I have a private life outside of you now," Angel said, his poker face impeccable.

"Right," Kate said, rolling her eyes. "And the reason why this private night for the both of you resulted in you sporting a black eye and a sore hand but no marks is because....?"

"I like it rough," Wesley said, proving Angel wasn't the only poker player amongst them.

Kate motioned for him to give her more. "And you have no marks because - "

"I'm the one who's a sadist," Wesley replied, smoothly.

"Not sure I'd buy that after his idea of a good Valentine's but whatever," Kate said. "It's enough. You know, I honestly can't say if this excuse is lamer than the time you tried to convince me you spent a night out at a quilting bee."

"I did!" Angel said. "Gunn was looking for a gift for his sister."

"Of course," Kate turned back to Wesley. "You'd swear to this bullshit and everything?"

"If I had to," Wesley said.

"Fine," Kate said. "I'll go back, file the report, see if I can use it to convince Jim to shove his complaint up his ass. Angel, don't look smug. I want to see you acting like a model citizen for at least a week or else I might not be able to sway this in your favor. And Wes?"

"Yes?" Wesley asked.

She gave him a look of sympathy. "If you're actually dating this guy, you might try keeping him on a leash."

"Well that was coming next, obviously," Wesley said.

She actually seemed to smile at that. "I'll call in the morning if there's any problems."

"I am so sorry," Wesley said, as soon as she left. "I had no idea she would think that I meant that you were - "

"Don't worry about it," Angel told him. "That - that's actually not news for Kate."

Wesley frowned. "What? That you were - oh."

"Yeah," Angel said, nonchalantly. "Oh."

Wesley wondered what the best way of dealing with this sort of social awkwardness was. He decided to try for humor. "Is that why she broke up with you?"

"Shut up and finish up with my hand if you're gonna," Angel told him, his tone in no way serious.

Wesley resumed his work, wrapping a bandage carefully around Angel's knuckles. "I don't mind, you know. About you being - "

"Oh?" Angel suggested, when Wesley faltered for the correct wording.

"Yes," Wesley said, giving him a look of gratitude for the help. "Oh. I'm a bit oh myself, actually."

Wesley saw a keen look of curiosity shape Angel's face, and admired him for not following through on it with further questions. "Good to know."

"It only seemed fair," Wesley said. "To tell you, I mean."

"You didn't have to," Angel said. "Not if you didn't want to. And the same goes for what you did just now with Kate. I'd never ask you to lie for me just to haul my ass out of the fire. I did the crime, I'll do the time. If you want I'll go down in the morning and clear things up."

Wesley looked up at him. "Don't be stupid. I told you I'd pay you back someday."

Angel met his eyes. "Is that why you did it? To pay me back?"

"No," Wesley said. "I did it because it felt like the right thing to do."

Angel smiled at him. "See? I told you you'd fit in here eventually."

Wesley ducked his head, busying himself with the fastening of the bandage. "Yes, well... thank you."

Angel gave Wesley's hand a light squeeze. "Same to you, Wes. Thanks."

Wesley kept his head down, not knowing what to say to that.


PART SIX

"Wes, let me in."

"No."

"Wes."

"I said no."

Angel leaned against the door to Wesley's apartment, letting it take his weight. "You know, I am your landlord. Legally speaking I could walk in any time I liked."

"Good thing I changed the locks then."

Angel actually checked the locks before he realized Wes was pulling his leg. "I could break the door down."

"Wouldn't this result in yet another macho injury that you would be requiring first aid for?"

"The door's not that strong," Angel pointed out.

"Fine, then lower my rent. I refuse to pay for shoddy workmanship."

"Let me break the door down and you can live here for free," Angel countered.

The door opened up. Wes poked his head out. "Have you never heard of patience?"

"Why be patient?" Angel asked. "Way I see it that only encourages people not to give me things when I ask for them. Lose/lose if you ask me."

"Eventually someone is going to teach you that you can't always have your way," Wes said.

"But I like my way," Angel said.

"Tough," Wesley replied, and closed the door again.

Angel sighed, loudly.

"I've dealt with all the demands a non-verbal child can throw at me," Wesley reminded him, his voice muffled from behind the door. "If you think your sighs have any power to persuade me, you are sadly mistaken."

"I gotta take lessons from Connor," Angel said. "That kid can hit you with a sulk at fifty paces."

"I believe that's a talent unique to teenagers."

"Sure, burst my bubble," Angel said. "Okay, how long?"

"Just five more minutes."

"If I have to," Angel said. He sat down on the stairs to wait. After a moment, he decided to sing.

He made it down to fifty bottles of beer on the wall by the time Wesley opened the door. "Kate's right. You are a sadist."

"Never say the first two words in her hearing," Angel said. "It'll make her impossible to live with. Can I come in now?"

Wes stepped aside, making a grand gesture of welcome.

Angel walked into the apartment.

It was different. Not phenomenally different, sure, but still different from the last time he'd been up. Wes had rearranged the furniture, and various surfaces were covered with his own things - books, baby supplies, notes to himself and such.

But, more importantly, he'd decorated.

Strings of white lights had been taped up along the ceiling. Cardboard cutouts of reindeer had been placed along the walls. A tree - no bigger than four feet - sat on a table, overladen with a riot of ornaments, garland, and lights all its own.

Angel looked at it all and felt the advice right on the tip of his tongue - use a staple gun for the lights instead of tape, get a bigger tree, do not cluster all the ornaments together like that - but he saw Wes looking at him expectantly and he shoved all that aside.

"It's great, Wes," he told him.

Wes rewarded him with a brilliant smile. "Is it really? I've honestly never done this before. But I thought about what you said and you're right. I should do it for her, if nothing else."

"You did fine," Angel assured him. "Where is she anyway?"

"Fast asleep," Wes replied, "Apparently the ins and outs of decorating only appeal to babies for about half an hour, then they become bored senseless."

"Shame," Angel said.

"Actually I find it quite useful," Wes said. "I plan on breaking out the decorations the next time she gets colic, see if that doesn't do the trick towards curing her."

Angel laughed. "Hate to tell you, it doesn't stick as they get older. Pretty soon she'll be up to her nose in the garland and trying to help, probably by flushing it down the toilet or feeding it to the dog."

"I don't have a dog," Wes said.

"Oh she'll find one," Angel promised, still having no idea how Connor had managed all that at five. Then again at seven.

"Duly noted," Wesley said. He made motions towards the small dining table and chairs. "Come in. I'd like to do this properly, if you have time for it. Would you like coffee? Tea?"

"Tea'd be great," Angel said. He sat down, offering Wes the gift-wrapped box he'd brought with him. "Here. This is for Sleeping Beauty."

Wes made a noise of disapproval as he filled a kettle with water. "Angel, you - "

" - shouldn't have," Angel finished. "Yeah, I know. I did it anyway. And trust me with this. This is one you want."

"I'm agreeing only because I've learned it's pointless to argue with you," Wesley said. He turned the gas on, then used a match to spark the flame.

Angel reminded himself yet again that he needed to get the stove fixed. Aloud, he said, "See? I always get my way eventually."

"I've been meaning to ask you how successful you are with that teenager of yours," Wesley said. He pulled a pair of mugs out of the cupboard.

"It's a work in progress," Angel said, as though such battles of wills with him and Connor were all part of his plan. "I know I'll get my way in the end."

Wes glanced at him, his lips curling in a smile. "In the end?"

"Yeah," Angel said. "Like my deathbed. I've got high hopes on getting the last word in with that one."

Wes laughed, turning back to his preparations. "Good luck."

"You think I'll need it?" Angel asked.

"Are you joking?" Wesley replied. "He's exactly like you. I've honestly no clue which one of you is the more stubborn."

"I keep holding out hope that I've at least got the advantage of age," Angel said, then rolled his eyes. "As he so kindly reminds me of again and again...."

Wes put the mugs down on the table, then added teabags, sugar and milk. "It could be worse, I suppose. I keep doing the math on how old I'll be once Alissa is Connor's age. It's not a pretty picture."

"It evens out," Angel said. "Sure it looks attractive now with me at thirty-eig - I mean, thirty-five, but imagine how stupid you feel when you're - "

"Seventeen?" Wes supplied, smirking.

"Twenty," Angel admitted. "Twenty and a father. Trust me, if you felt dumb as a teenager you don't get any smarter by turning twenty and adding a kid."

The kettle whistled. Wes turned the gas off, then poured the water into the mugs. "Did you? Feel dumb as a teenager?"

Angel thought about it. "No more than any other kid that age does, I guess. Actually I think my biggest problem was being too cocky. Which I guess would make sense considering the eventual outcome."

That earned him another laugh, though Wes tried to hide it as he took a box of cookies out of the cupboard, then carefully arranged some on a plate. "We all go through that stage, I suppose."

Angel hesitated, trying to cover it by stirring sugar into his drink. Normally he didn't like to pry into Wes's private life, but on the other hand Wes didn't seem to mind sharing right now. And considering the last nugget of information Angel had learned about him he'd be lying if he said he wasn't curious. "You too?"

"I would say arrogant, not cocky," Wes replied. He sat down, placing the plate of cookies between them. "Too confident that I knew who I was, what I was doing, and what everyone else should be doing accordingly."

"Having a kid will definitely cure you of that," Angel said.

"You're not wrong," Wesley agreed.

"Speaking of which," Angel said, pushing the present over. "Here. Merry Christmas."

Wes picked it up. "Should I put it under the tree?"

"Nah, this is a pre-Christmas present," Angel said. He sat forward, watching the play of emotions on Wes's face. "Open it now."

"This would be more of your impatience, yes?" Wesley said.

"Also practicality," Angel replied.

Wes tore open the wrapping paper, then lifted the cover of the box to reveal the red velvet dress inside. He quirked an eyebrow at Angel. "'Practicality'?"

Angel smiled. "Okay, that is not practical. But that's the point. It's silly and frilly and something she's probably going to have on for five seconds before she spits up and drools all over it. But it's also her first Christmas, and your first Christmas with her. Trust me. you're going to want to dress her up and take pictures. It's going to be way too soon before she won't want to anymore, but you'll both be glad that you did."

Wes ran his fingertips down the fabric, lingering on the white lace collar. "It is pretty."

"Comes with a complimentary side-gift too," Angel said. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a disposable camera. "Here you go. For you. I didn't know if you had one or not. Figured this could last you for now."

Wes accepted it, surprisingly without his usual protest. "Thank you."

Angel watched him. Wes's eyes had gone unfocused, shadowed, and Angel knew the look of a man deep in memories when he saw one. He gave Wes the silence to lose himself for a bit, sipping his hot tea and nibbling on a cookie.

It was an awkward situation, make no mistake. Alissa's first Christmas, but also Wes's first Christmas without Alissa's mom, whoever that was. Hell, truth be told it should've been her on the other side of this table, either buying the stupid girly gift or scolding Wes for doing it. But she wasn't there and Angel was, and overidentification issues aside Angel knew it wasn't right to leave Wes alone in this.

"I remember Connor's first," Angel said, speaking quietly so as not to startle Wesley. "He was so small. Just over a month old. I don't think Darla and I had more than an hour's worth of sleep between us."

A faint smile touched Wesley's face. "I remember that. I can't imagine any parent sleeps much during those first few weeks. Not without a nanny."

"No way," Angel agreed. "You're too busy feeding and changing and changing and feeding and wondering why they're crying and asking yourself did you do it right? Did he get enough food? Did he get too much? Is the diaper on wrong? Is he too hot? Too cold?"

"Are you holding her correctly?" Wesley added.

"Oh yeah," Angel said. He mimed holding a newborn. "The neck. I was obsessed with his neck. I was convinced one wrong move and his head would snap right off."

"They're so fragile," Wes said, his eyes back on memories again. "When I held her for the first time it was like nothing. Air. No heavier than the blanket she came in."

"But still able to pull right at your heart," Angel said.

Wes looked up. "Yes," he said, softly. "I - I'd had no idea."

"Before Connor - let's just say Darla and I weren't in the running to win couple of the year," Angel said. "And before I met her I wasn't in line for man of the year either. Or child of the year, I guess. I was a waste of a life, no doubt about it. But when I held my son in my hands and it was like everything on earth changed. This little guy needed me for everything and there was no way I could let him down."

"Yes," Wesley said, speaking now in no more than a whisper. "Exactly."

Angel knew the pain in Wes's voice like it was his own. Hell it had been his own, once. He wanted to reach out, grasp Wes by the shoulder or something and say it was okay. But Wes had never given the appearance of being comfortable with the physical, so Angel stuck with words. "Darla was my friend. High school sweetheart, if you want to call it that, but there was nothing sweet about it. We didn't do flowers or candy or any of that. I wasn't head over heels in love with her. I just loved her."

Wes watched him, showing no signs of interruption.

Angel took that as a cue to keep going. "We both hated our families. My dad and I had a hate/hate relationship going back to when I was a little kid. And Darla's dad... well let's just say her dad and our pal Jim would've had a lot in common.

"Darla understood me," Angel continued. "Like nobody else did. And my family hated hers and hers hated mine and in the end we ran off to get married to piss 'em all off more than anything else. But the funny thing was we kind of meant it. The partnership anyway. Us against the world. Do whatever we wanted and to Hell with the rest of it. No matter how destructive it was."

"Destructive?" Wesley asked.

Angel watched him carefully, bracing himself for Wes's possible reactions. "Self destructive. I was a drunk. Darla too. From sixteen to twenty I don't think we passed a single day sober."

Wes nodded, simply taking that in.

Angel relaxed, glad to have gotten past that hurdle. "Connor was unexpected. I never told him that but he's a smart kid. He's pretty much figured out that he was a surprise. Moreso since Darla was on the pill. Then she starts getting morning sickness and there we are."

Angel sat back, remembering the look on Darla's face when she'd figured out that maybe it hadn't been a case of the flu. "You have to picture this, Wes. Because when I'm telling you I was a waste of a life I'm not kidding. Darla and I did whatever the Hell we wanted, whatever time we weren't drinking we were spending getting into bar fights and stealing. And screwing but I'm guessing you know that."

"I did figure it out, yes," Wes said. He stirred his tea absently, otherwise giving Angel his full attention.

"Fatherhood was not on the menu," Angel said. "In fact I'd made a point of avoiding it thanks to what me and my dad went through."

"Is he still alive?" Wes asked.

Angel shook his head. "Died before Connor was born. Which only encouraged my drinking habit in the end."

"I can imagine," Wesley said.

"Darla didn't want kids either," Angel said. "In fact she hated them. Not saying she actually stole candy from babies but she wasn't far off. Definitely the last woman you'd ever expect to embrace motherhood."

"But she did," Wesley guessed.

Angel nodded. "She did. She took the pregnancy test, got so pissed off that she spent a whole day tearing up the cheap motel room we were staying in, then just collapses. Starts sobbing her guts out. I'm totally useless. So drunk I'm barely standing myself. But she's hurting and I hate that so I'm holding her tight as anything against my chest. Stroking her hair and saying don't worry, it'll be okay, we'll take care of it.

"She looks up at me and she's a mess. Hair ragged, mascara running in streaks down her face, and she's so hoarse she can barely talk but she says, 'We made this.'"

Angel paused, trying to speak around the lump that had formed in his throat. "'We made this,' she says to me. 'We've never done anything good in our lives but we made this.'"

"An innocent child," Wesley said.

"Exactly," Angel said. He clenched his hand into a fist, remembering when Darla had placed it over her stomach and the tiny life inside. "She and I - we'd both figured out we were bastards. Everybody else gave up on us, why fly in the face of public opinion, you know? But that kid - he was like a minute old and there wasn't a fucking thing wrong with him. He wasn't us, he was him. And he deserved a chance.

"So we sobered up," Angel continued. "Cold turkey, which was fun and a half. Got jobs. Got a little rat-trap apartment. Scraped together the money to get Darla to the doctor. Even went to the Y to take classes. Birthing, parenting, you name it."

Angel gave a laugh. "Darla - she went whole hog. If you think I'm overboard with the parenting thing you should've seen her. Started putting her hair in a bun, wore these nun-like clothes. Spent her time trying to cook which was nearly fatal for everybody. We're in class and I'm pinching myself on the leg to pay attention and she's got these reading glasses on and she's scribbling notes like there's no tomorrow. Then we get home and she's quizzing me. Bottle or breast? Cloth or disposable? Midwife or hospital?"

"What did you eventually decide?" Wesley asked.

"What decision?" Angel replied. "Connor got born in an alley. One night Darla says to me she's got cramps but she wants Chinese food. Ten minutes after we pay the check for some mediocre Triple Delight she's clutching my arm and saying the baby's on the way now and one minute after that I've got a coat I can't wear anymore because I had to use it to cushion his landing. It's pouring down rain, my wife is five feet away from garbage cans and I'm holding a brand new human being in the palm of my hand."

"That must have been terrifying," Wesley said.

"I still have nightmares sometimes," Angel admitted. "Othertimes I can't think of any memory which feels quite so good."

"Babies do do that," Wes agreed.

"After that we settled down," Angel said, helping himself to another cookie. "Moved around a bit until we came here. Our first apartment was over on Orchard. Tiny place, even smaller than this."

"Is that possible?" Wesley asked, obviously teasing.

Angel flashed him a grin in response. "Hard to believe, huh? Darla stayed home with the baby, I went out and found work. Started out doing anything anybody would hire me for, but eventually I figured out I preferred being my own boss. So we scrimped and saved even more, Darla even took on some extra work by doing babysitting, and when Connor was four we had enough to do a down payment on this place."

"Why here?" Wes asked.

"I could afford it," Angel replied. He gestured around them. "As you can tell, this isn't exactly a palace. And that's with me putting years of work in. It was worse when I bought it."

"It wasn't because you felt called to open your own restaurant?" Wesley asked. "Become a great chef?"

Angel shrugged it off. "I make hamburgers. Anybody could do it. I'm not trying to be Emeril or something."

Wes looked as though he didn't believe him, but motioned for him to continue.

"We did good," Angel said. "Not gonna lie and say we turned a huge profit but we worked hard and managed to stay afloat. And our friends helped. Gunn, Lorne - everybody. They ate here whenever they could, brought people here whenever they could - Hell they even jumped behind the counter from time to time. We weren't rich, but we were making a life for ourselves. Even giving something back to the community, which was miles away from where we'd been as kids."

"That must have felt nice," Wesley said.

"It did," Angel agreed. He drank the last of his tea, wetting his throat even though the liquid had long since gone cold. "Then Darla got sick."

Wesley grew quiet, letting him take his time before continuing.

"Cancer," Angel said. He stared into the empty mug as though he could see her face in there. The word felt as distasteful to say as they had the first time he'd heard about the illness. "We found out because - well stupid us, we actually thought about having another kid. After months of no luck we both go to the doctor. I go in figuring we'll find out I'm shooting blanks. Too much time spent next to the grill or something dumb like that. That's where my mind is. I'm not even thinking of this - this thing we end up bringing home with us. That had been with us the entire time."

Angel sat forward, focusing on the things in front of him - the table, the crumbs on his plate, the feeling of the chair. Talking about all of this made it all come alive again, but he knew he had to keep going. "She's got cancer and she's dying, but I can't accept that. I don't. I won't. So I throw everything into saving her. What she was to being a mom I am to this. I'm up all night, researching, reading, forcing her to go from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital, trying every fucked up thing I can find because I just know we can fix it. Make her better. Make it so she doesn't have to leave me."

"Go on," Wesley said, gently nudging Angel when he lapsed into silence.

"Of course we don't have health insurance," Angel said. "Joys of being your own boss. So in comes the second mortgage. The third mortgage. Collectors calling night and day. One day a repo guy shows up and he's hauling out our furniture. TV, stereo - the car we keep because it's an old junker that was fully paid for, but I find out later the only reason he didn't take anything from the diner is because Gunn pulled some fancy legal bullshit to stop it.

"But I can't," Angel said. "Stop it. I can't no matter what I do. And Darla - she's going through all this, all the chemo and the operations and the alternative stuff I'm putting her through and she's trying to tell me it can't be done, we just have to accept it and I won't let her. And we're fighting. Can you believe that? We're down to her last days on earth, my last minutes with my wife and I'm fighting with her instead of holding her and touching her and telling her that I love her like nobody's business."

"I can believe that," Wes said, quietly.

Angel took in a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment. "Then she died. In a hospital, which she didn't want but I made her do. That was me. Big expert. Always had to have my way."

Wesley reached across the table as though to touch him, then aborted the attempt halfway. "You were trying to help."

"Yeah, but her or me?" Angel asked. He started to take another sip of his drink, then remembered the cup was empty. He filled it with milk instead. "You might have noticed there's a pretty selfish point of view in this story."

"It was a difficult time," Wesley said.

"It was," Angel agreed. "Now imagine what Connor's going through."

"That must have been horrible for him," Wesley said.

"The worst," Angel said. "Made worse still when his asshole of a dad does the ultra mature thing of responding to Darla's death by falling off the wagon. I crawl inside a whisky bottle and decide I'm not coming out again. Not ever. So now everything's going to ruin. We've got no money, we've lost our stuff, we're this close to losing the diner, Connor's a basket case already because he's eight years old and he can barely comprehend that Mommy's not coming home anymore and on top of that he's got me to deal with. A dad who's walking and talking and smelling funny and damned if he knows why."

Angel shook his head. "You've met Connor so you can probably guess how he tries to deal with it. He figures Daddy's sick. He'll help. So there's my kid, my kid who hasn't even mastered fractions yet trying to run the house. He's cleaning up, he's trying to cook, he's walking around on tiptoe so he doesn't make a sound while I've got a hangover. All that and he's gone on this total obsessive thing about school because he may not know what's going on but he's wise enough to figure out that when the teachers keep asking him if things are okay at home that he'd better act like nothing's wrong or Daddy's going to be in trouble. So I'm at home lying in puddles of my own vomit and he's out there pulling in straight A's and praying like Hell nobody notices if he wears the same outfit a few days in a row because I can't get my shit together enough to do a load of laundry."

"What stopped you?" Wesley asked. "In the end?"

"One night," Angel said. "I wake up - I don't know why - and I go downstairs to the diner. I'm not sober but I'm in this weird state of drunk. Like I'm hyperaware of everything. Like it's all a lucid dream, you know?"

"I think I went through something that while I was ill," Wes said.

"Yeah, like a fever hallucination," Angel nodded. "I go downstairs and nobody's there but the front doors are wide open - and so's the cash register. We've been robbed. And I'm out of my mind at this point but it's all like - " Angel snapped his fingers" - I get it. I've got ESP or something, I know what's going on. All the cash is gone, and that's all of it. Because I didn't close out like I was supposed to. And it was a Saturday night so there's easily close to a thousand bucks that was in there. And we need that money for stuff like food and bills but I'm not sober so what I'm really thinking is that I just lost my booze money. I'm totally fucking broke and all I care is that right then and there I can't even buy a beer. So I start crying. I'm clutching the empty cash register and I'm crying, tears falling down my face and everything, because I can't have my damn beer.

"And it's all my fault," Angel said, "because I was too drunk to lock the doors at the end of the day. And in the back of my head I know this but it doesn't matter. All I'm seeing is the empty register and it's going through my head over and over like a mantra - I can't buy beer, I can't buy beer - and it's like the end of the world to me right then and there. I can't take it. Can't fucking stand it. I'm out of my god-damned mind and Darla's dead and I'm a drunken loser like my dad always told me I'd be and I start thinking: this is the end. It's really the end. I'm going to get my keys, go outside, get into my car, and drive it straight into a tree."

"Kill yourself," Wesley said.

"God willing," Angel said. "Or crush my skull in or something. Anything to make it end."

"How far did you get?" Wesley asked.

"The doors," Angel said. "I got as far as the doors before something stopped me."

Wes looked at him, curious. "What?"

"Connor," Angel said. "Not him, but a drawing. This little scribble-scrabble crayon thing that he did when he was younger. All square houses and triangle people and birds shaped like M's. Me being a proud dad I tacked it up to the walls. Restaurants sometimes showcase local artists, right? Well I've got one in-house. The place is covered with 'em, but this one's placed just right. It's the last thing I see before I walk out the door. And - and it hits me. I've got a son. My wife's dead and yeah, as far as trying to save her goes I failed at that. But he's still here and he needs me. He needs me to hug him and love him and kiss him goodnight. He needs me to teach him and support him and show him everything the world has to offer. He needs me to be his daddy. Even more now because I'm all he's got left. Yeah, Darla's gone. But he's still got me. If I go he'll be all alone and - and nobody will ever know how great he is. Not the way that I know how great he is. He needs me to tell him that."

"That's certainly true," Wesley said.

"So I went back upstairs," Angel said. "Go into his room - he's sleeping through all this, of course - and I kneel by his bed and I start sobbing all over again. That wakes him up. He climbs out of the blankets and starts hugging me, asking what's wrong. I'm holding him so hard he can barely breathe. Hell, I can barely breathe. But I'm telling him I love him and that it's going to be better. I'll make it better. That was the end of it. Next day I joined AA. Been sober ever since."

"That took a lot of strength," Wes said. "And courage."

"And therapy," Angel said. "For Connor and me both. It was a few years before things were totally right between us again, but we got there."

"Even still, it's something to be admired," Wesley said.

Angel shrugged. "It's something I did. I'm not proud of my past, but I've accepted it. All that's left to do is move on."

"And help those who need it?" Wesley suggested, a knowing smile playing about his lips.

"My friends were there for me when I was down," Angel said. "They supported me. Got me back on my feet. If I can help somebody else going through the same thing - so be it."

"I'll pay you back someday," Wes promised.

"Stop saying that," Angel said. "I'm not in this for money, Wes. You needed it. I was happy to give. I would've done the same for anybody else."

For some reason that answer didn't satisfy Wesley. "If you say so."

Angel wondered if this was one of those moments when he'd worn out his invitation. "You know, maybe I should - "

"Her name was Lilah," Wesley said, looking up at him. "Lilah Morgan."

"Pretty," Angel offered. He wondered what a Lilah Morgan looked like, and how much of her face was in Alissa's features.

"She worked for a rival company," Wes continued. "Angel, if you want to know why I am so staggeringly out of my element here it is because I come from a family of multi-millionaires. When I grew up I was not a child who wished for a pony, I had a pony. And a horse, and a nanny, and my very own car and driver to ferry me to and from our many homes. I went to school with royalty. I was worth more than royalty. You sweated blood to try to get the down payment for your business. I most likely could have purchased this entire town."

"Okay," Angel said, evenly. From the tone he knew Wes wasn't bragging. If anything he sounded ashamed of it.

"My family has been wealthy for generations," Wesley said. "Both the money and the business has been passed down from father to son for what is now centuries. With a direct line going from the start of that business right down to me. The so-called pride and joy of our family tree."

Wes stood up, pacing restlessly. "From the moment of my birth it was understood that I was being groomed to take over once my father retired. Every second of my life was dedicated to that task. If I was caught doing anything which my father deemed was in any way not a part of that goal I was punished. I quickly learned the easiest way to avoid that was to do as he wished. Of course that required knowing all of his wishes. I wasn't always successful."

"Sounds like a tough guy," Angel said. Then, remembering Wes's question earlier, he asked, "Still alive?"

"Unfortunately," Wesley said. He perched on the arm of the couch. "He and I stayed on this course for years, never deviating. I began to work for him and though I naturally never managed to please him I did well enough to be allowed to continue. It was hoped I would eventually stop embarrassing him long enough to be worthy of his role."

"Something tells me you probably weren't ever going to be," Angel guessed. "At least in his eyes."

"Probably not," Wes agreed. "Which was something I began to realize as well. Particularly after I was caught in a fire that broke out in the office. He never once visited me while I was in hospital. I was actually clinically dead for sixty-three seconds. Most unpleasant sensation, by the way. I don't recommend it."

"I'll keep that in mind," Angel said.

"As you might suspect, the lack of so much as a get well card rather soured my hopes for a pleasant father/son relationship," Wes continued. "I began to rebel. Rather pathetic, I suppose, rebelling in one's late twenties."

"Better late than never," Angel said.

"Perhaps," Wes replied. "Regardless, I began doing things that I never did before. I drank excessively. Went to clubs. Had a long series of one-night stands with whomever caught my fancy."

Curiosity got the better of him. "Is this when you figured out you were a bit... oh?" Angel asked.

A hint of a smile touched Wesley's face. "No. I'd already known that. This was, however, the first time outside of public school that I actually acted on it."

"Gotcha," Angel said. "I - I mean not that you asked but high school. Before Darla. With her I was monogamous."

Wes nodded, taking that in. "It was during this time that I met Lilah. Or, rather, ran into her. We'd already met before but in business situations. Her family owns a company which rivals my family's. Apparently word had gotten out to them all the way over in America that I was turning myself into a black sheep. They sent her over to try to ply trade secrets out of me, or even offer me a job."

"Did you take it?" Angel asked.

"No, I took her," Wes answered. He moved down to sit on the couch properly. "It wasn't planned, I can promise you that. One moment she's trading barbs with me in the middle of a club, the next I'm snogging her in the back of a limousine."

Angel grinned. "So she was hot."

"Ungodly so," Wes admitted in what was nearly a groan. "Wonderful in bed as well, for all that it's probably blasphemous to say such things now."

"Don't see why," Angel said.

"Yes, well, you're not British," Wesley said, without rancor.

"Right, pretending I don't have emotions: check," Angel said. "So what happened?"

"We kept doing it," Wesley said. "Meet, banter, her asking if I'd sell out or come to work for her, me telling her to go to Hell, the two of us ending up breaking the furniture in my flat and then leaving off to repeat the cycle the next evening."

"Why didn't you?" Angel asked. "Go work with her? I mean if you hated your dad and all?"

"Pride," Wesley said. "Stubborn loyalty. The last vestiges of the belief that even if my father would never approve of me that someday he might die and I could at least prove to myself that I was good enough. It was my name too. I had a right to it."

"Fair enough," Angel said.

"Of course we were caught," Wes said. "Hardly surprising as my father is a most suspicious man. And her family was actually moreso. We were both told that we'd been found out and would have to end it."

"Did you?" Angel asked.

"No," Wesley said. "We thumbed our noses at them and kept going. I think at that point she'd started to become disenfranchised with her work as well. We both talked about starting our own business but I never took it seriously."

Angel got up to join him on the couch. "Why not?"

"Because I never took any of it seriously," Wesley said. "That was the way of it. We'd made that clear from the start. We didn't love one another, didn't even like one another. It wasn't a relationship."

"You went through all that," Angel asked, "for something that wasn't a relationship?"

A ghost of a smile touched Wes's lips. "That's what it was supposed to be. That's what we said it was. What it actually was - well, that's another story."

"I'm guessing not one you two ever talked about," Angel said.

Wes shook his head. "No. I thought of it sometimes. Of even making it formal, somehow. But I thought that was the last thing she ever wanted out of me so I kept my mouth shut. And then when she became pregnant - "

"It got even more complicated," Angel concluded.

"It's not a romantic tale," Wesley said. "We were stupid. Didn't even bother with birth control. You had your self-destructive moments, that was ours. But as I say, it wasn't a relationship. We weren't trying to make anything. When she told me she was pregnant I assumed she would have an abortion. To this day I honestly can't tell you why she didn't."

"Maybe she had things she wasn't admitting to," Angel said.

"Perhaps," Wesley said. "Either way we grew apart. I purposefully didn't see her. I assumed that would only make it worse. That it would give the impression that I was trying to force her into motherhood. Besides, what good would it do for me to try to form any sort of attachment to this child? She was only going to die anyway."

"We convince ourselves of a lot of stupid stuff," Angel said.

"Indeed," Wes agreed. "Months went by with little to no communication. Then I got the message that she was in hospital. I was to go to California to see her. Luckily I was in New York at the time."

"That's when you found out there was a problem with the birth?" Angel asked.

Wesley nodded. "When I arrived they told me. It - it was a lot like you with Darla, actually. I couldn't accept it. I refused to. Lilah had already known and resigned herself to it. I kept insisting that there must be something we could do but she said that there wasn't."

"Some things can't be changed," Angel said.

Wesley looked up, startled. "Yes. Yes. That's precisely what she told me."

"I learned that with Darla," Angel said. "I've come to learn you either accept that or you lose your mind."

"If you did learn how to accept it I'd love the lesson," Wesley said. "As it was I'm afraid I did very poorly. Lilah and I had a few final words with each other, then the doctors took over. I'm told it was a fifty/fifty chance at best. In the end that's what it turned out to be. Lilah died. Alissa did not."

"And you were suddenly a daddy," Angel said.

"A daddy with more trouble than a child on his hands," Wes said. "Because Lilah came from a powerful family. They knew about the baby and they wanted her for themselves."

Angel frowned. "For themselves?"

"Oh yes," Wesley said. "Because, of course, of the stupid rivalry. I was the enemy. As far as they were concerned that rendered me unfit to raise a child. In fact they went to court to attempt to prove that very thing. It was at this point that my years of drinking and indiscriminate sex came back to haunt me. I made it incredibly easy for them to prove that I could in no way provide a stable home."

"What about your family?" Angel asked. "All that money and you couldn't get together a good defense?"

Wes's smile became bitter and ironic. "That's the best part. Because my father, upon finding out that he had a granddaughter, immediately found out with whom and disowned me. All of my money was tied up in the business and in trust funds. All he had to do was say the word and I didn't have a single cent to my name. Even my credit cards were frozen. I was penniless and stranded in America with a baby that by all rights wasn't even supposed to be there."

"You could've given her up," Angel said. "Handed her over to Lilah's family. Bet your dad would've loved that."

Wes looked at him. "I think you and I both know that wasn't an option."

"So you ran for it," Angel said.

"I ran for it," Wes agreed. "Used what cash I had to buy supplies for Alissa, sold the rest to afford the car and then got out of Los Angeles as fast as I could. I've been trying to escape her family ever since."

"Which is why you're now Wesley Johnson," Angel concluded.

Wes turned to face him. "Wyndam-Pryce. My real name is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce."

Angel rolled it over his tongue. "Yeah, that sounds like money."

Wes laughed. "It sounds incredibly pompous too."

"It sounds like you," Angel said, facing Wes in turn. "You've never been pompous to me."

Wes tried to dismiss it. "I assure you, if you had met me years ago - "

Angel cupped Wes's chin in his hand, holding him still. "I know you now. That's all I'm looking at."

There was a long moment of silence between them.

"Angel," Wesley said, and this time his voice was an entirely new kind of quiet.

Angel moved forward. He felt himself drawn forward, as though that was exactly the thing he was meant to do. Wes tilted his head up, his lips placed just perfectly for them to -

"I can't," Angel said, jerking back.

Wes nodded his head, looking about as disconcerted as Angel felt. "Yes - I mean - you're right. That's - "

"I should go," Angel said. He stood up, patting his pocket for keys he didn't even remember if he'd brought.

"Right, yes," Wesley said. He was on his feet as well, making motions in the direction of Alissa's closed door. "I should - the baby - "

"Exactly," Angel said. "And I've got - "

"The diner," Wes finished for him. "So you should - "

"Go," Angel said. "And you - "

"Stay," Wes agreed.

They stared at one another again.

"Right," Angel said, then fled down the stairs to the safety of his apartment.


PART SEVEN

"Here, I made you this."

Angel looked up as Connor placed a sandwich in front of him. "What's that?"

"Peanut butter and jelly," Connor said, sitting down on the other side of the table. "Crunchy, the way you like it."

Angel sat forward and lifted the top slice of bread. "Okay. And the sleeping pills you added to it are hidden where, exactly? And before you even ask, I'm not giving you permission for whatever it is you thought you could do while I was unconscious."

Connor gave him a look. "It's just a sandwich. You were all broody. I thought you could use something to cheer you up."

Angel tried not to smile. He'd been a parent of a teenager long enough to know he had to tone the mushy stuff down whenever he felt like showing it. Instead he said, "Thanks."

Connor shrugged. "There's milk too."

"PB&J and milk," Angel observed, pouring himself a glass. "Wow. You know stuff like this almost convinces me I shouldn't use your college fund to buy myself a new sportscar."

"Does it convince you not to get mad at me if I tell you that maybe I got Tracy pregnant?" Connor asked.

Angel stared at him. "Tell me you're kidding."

"I'm kidding," Connor repeated, dutifully. "Actually I'm bribing you because I failed Calculus. Or maybe this is a pre-emptive thing. Can this last me until the weekend? Because I was thinking of staying out past my curfew."

"You know what kind of car I like?" Angel replied. "The Viper. That'd be a sweet car to have. I could use it to pick you up from any of the three jobs you'll have to have in order to pay off all of your student loans. You'll be wearing a paper trainee hat of some kind and I'll be laughing from the comfort of my leather seats, possibly even standing up so I can do it through the opening of my sunroof."

"Could I borrow it on the weekends?" Connor asked.

"Maybe, if you bribe me again," Angel said. He took a bite of the sandwich, realizing for the first time how hungry he was. "So everything's okay with you? I don't have to talk with your teachers or make statements to the police on your behalf or anything?"

"Everything's cool," Connor said. He reached over to the counter and grabbed a bag of potato chips for himself. "School's fine, Tracy's fine, and last I heard you were the one getting the police record."

Angel cleared his throat. "Yeah, about that - "

"It's okay," Connor said. "I know why you did it. Hell, I wish I did it."

"You shouldn't follow my example," Angel told him. "Stuff like that is stupid, and wrong, and irresponsible."

"But you always told me to stick up for myself," Connor said.

"Well yeah," Angel said.

"And to stand up for other people if I know they're being hurt somehow," Connor added.

"True," Angel said. "And you should, definitely."

"Like that time my freshman year when I helped Tommy Littleford when that asshole Craig was beating up on him," Connor said.

"Absolutely," Angel said. "In no way is that the kind of thing you can condone."

Connor tilted his head thoughtfully. "So what you're saying is that I shouldn't follow your example, and by follow your example what you really mean is I shouldn't get caught?"

Angel opened his mouth, closed it, then nodded. "Well okay. But I swear that wasn't the message I started out with."

"Right," Connor grinned.

"If any of your teachers asked you tell them I said fighting is bad and wrong and you should always settle your arguments peacefully," Angel said.

"And not, for example, by breaking the other guy's arm," Connor said.

"I swear I didn't hit him that hard," Angel told him. "Though maybe throwing him into that dumpster did something."

Connor sat forward, his eyes wide. "You threw him in a dumpster?"

"You think I hurt my back while cleaning the kitchen?" Angel retorted. He sobered up, realizing this was probably not the sort of thing he was supposed to be talking about with his kid. Still, Connor was there. "Hey, you got a minute?"

"That depends," Connor said. "Do the next words out of your mouth involve me doing extra chores or anything?"

"No chores, promise," Angel said. "Though you're still on the eight o'clock shift for tonight. What I was actually thinking of was if you're free for us to talk. About the broody stuff."

Connor sat back, pushing his chips aside. "Okay."

Angel wondered how to word it. He'd been thinking it over for hours and still wasn't sure of what to do. "How do you feel about me maybe dating somebody?"

"That you should shave your head and move into a monastery because the thought of you dating anybody is about the grossest thing I can imagine," Connor replied. "Why?"

Angel threw a wadded up napkin at him. "Thanks a lot."

"What do you want me to say?" Connor asked. "You're my dad. It's not like I can give you tips or anything. Oh God - you don't want me to give you tips or anything, do you? Because I really don't want to have to see Dr. Feldman again. Nothing is worth having to spend an hour a week doing lame role-playing exercises."

"I'm not asking for tips," Angel promised him. "And you don't have to go back to Dr. Feldman. But maybe we could relive that for a sec? Give me some feeling words. Maybe some 'I' statements too if you've got 'em."

"I think that the idea of you dating is sick and wrong," Connor replied, the light in his eyes giving lie to any real anger behind his words. "And I feel that you're probably going to force me to think about it anyway."

"Just so we're clear," Angel said, "you mean sick and wrong in the 'my dad's a thousand years old and I don't want to have to picture him on the dating scene' sense and not the kind where I really do send you back into therapy sense, right?"

"Right," Connor said. He got up to get a soda out of the fridge. "So who is it?"

"Does it matter?" Angel asked.

"Sure," Connor said, sitting down again. "If it's that lady you're always flirting with at the hardware store I'll have to let Rick know that she's off the market. If it's Anne I'll have to try to pretend that she never babysat for me. And if it's Kate again I'll have to tell you that you really shouldn't date anybody who could beat you up in a fight."

"It isn't - She could not beat me up in a fight!" Angel said, letting his pride distract him from the point for a minute.

"Dad, she so could," Connor told him. He held up a hand. "Not that I've got anything against that because we both know Mom could too."

"Well she cheated," Angel replied. "Or she would have, if it ever came up."

"Which goes to show she was smarter than you too," Connor said. He fiddled with the tab of his soda can. "So who is it?"

Angel watched him carefully. "It's Wesley. Or it might be."

"Oh," Connor said. He drank his soda, his expression shuttered.

"C'mon," Angel said, keeping his voice gentle. "I statements, remember?"

"I don't know what to tell you," Connor replied, staring into the contents of his drink.

"How do you feel about it?" Angel asked.

Connor shrugged. "I dunno."

"Well help me out," Angel said, not wanting to risk the chance of Connor truly being upset. "Maybe we could break it down a bit. Does it bug you to think of me dating?"

Connor gave another shrug. "Whatever. Not like it's the first time."

"Does it bug you that it's somebody we don't know as well as we knew the other people I've gone out with?" Angel asked.

"I don't care," Connor said, slumping down further in his chair.

Angel was pretty sure the next question was one his son would rather die than have to talk about, but he pushed his luck anyway. "Does it bug you that it's a guy?"

"Didn't bug me when it was Uncle Doyle," Connor pointed out.

"Yeah, but that was - " Angel paused. "Wait. You knew about me and Uncle Doyle?"

"Dad," Connor told him, finally looking up. "Everybody knew."

"But you were fourteen!"

"Fourteen," Connor said. "Not stupid."

"I thought I was good at hiding it," Angel said. "I mean I figured you didn't want to know and - you're telling me it wasn't a secret?"

"To you, maybe," Connor replied. A hint of a smile played about his lips. "Besides, you suck at keeping secrets. Remember the year you tried being Santa Claus? Or that time you tried surprising Mom with that trip to Vegas?"

"In hindsight I shouldn't have charged the tickets to our credit card," Angel admitted. "Though it was funny when she pretended she was going to call it all in for credit fraud."

"Yeah, she had you going the whole time," Connor said. "You kept trying to distract her, all 'Honey, let's go to dinner!' She so saw through you."

"Remember that time we tried to convince her that I didn't let you eat a sundae for lunch?" Angel asked.

"Hey, we could've gotten away with it if you'd remembered to hide the syrup," Connor said.

"Like the maraschino cherry stains on your shirt weren't going to be a giveaway," Angel said. "The jig was up as soon as she walked in the front door."

"Was that before or after you admitted it anyway?" Connor replied.

"What was I supposed to do?" Angel asked. "She was giving me the Look."

Connor laughed. "Yeah. She got two steps in and she was all 'An-gel!'"

"Right, right," Angel said. "With her hands on her hips like she was going to hit me with that bag of groceries."

"See?" Connor said. "She could've taken you."

"Oh no question," Angel agreed. "Sale on canned goods that day. I'd've been down for the count."

"Remember when she wouldn't let us use the real pots and pans that time we camped out in the backyard so we had to eat directly out of the cans?" Connor asked. "Oh! Or how about that time she got into that fight with Mrs. White during the Science Fair?"

"How could I forget?" Angel asked. "Barb still gives me the evil eye at church sometimes. Serves her right, though. She shouldn't have helped Jason with his project."

"Mom wasn't really going to tear her hair out though, was she?" Connor asked.

"You kidding?" Angel replied. "Mom was a real fighter when she was your age. And when it came to defending you she would've killed someone with her bare hands if she had to. You did your assignment fair and square. You should've won."

"Instead we had to spend the afternoon in the Mr. Harrington's office talking about sportsmanship," Connor said, munching on chips again.

"Yeah, and I had to come down and tell him Mom was only acting like that because she was tired from her trip to visit her aunt in Florida," Angel said.

"Which was a total lie," Connor pointed out.

"All in good cause," Angel reminded him.

"And then you nearly got into a fight with Mr. Harrington before Mom dragged you off," Connor said.

"You should have won!" Angel insisted.

Connor grinned. "That was pretty cool."

"It was, yeah," Angel agreed. He tore the crust off his sandwich, chewing it thoughtfully. "God - everything your mom did. I love her so much, Connor. You've no idea."

"You always do that," Connor said.

"What?" Angel asked.

"Say you love her," Connor said. "Present tense. Not that you loved her."

"I do love her," Angel told him. "I always will. Just because she got sick doesn't mean that I've stopped caring about her. I'm not going to stop loving you either, no matter what happens."

"This'd be a good time to tell you I put a dent in the car, right?" Connor said, ducking his head.

"I'm serious," Angel said. "No matter what, Connor. Fail out of school, get Tracy pregnant, get so angry with me you tell me to drop dead - doesn't matter. I will still love you."

"Wouldn't tell you to drop dead," Connor mumbled.

"Yeah, but I've bet you've thought it a few times," Angel replied, giving him a grin to take the edge off of the words.

"Maybe," Connor admitted. He ate a few more chips. "Why Wesley?"

"I dunno," Angel said. "I like him. He's a good guy. I think I'd like to spend more time with him."

"You're practically stalking him already," Connor said, rolling his eyes.

"So now I'd like to make it official," Angel said, then amended, "If he's interested."

"Should be," Connor said. "You're okay enough. I guess."

"My ego grows by leaps and bounds," Angel retorted. "So would you be okay with this?"

"Would it stop you if I said no?" Connor asked. "Would you stop seeing him?"

"For the record I haven't started seeing him," Angel said. "And also for the record I'm not entirely certain how much the specific details of what Wes and I do together are any of your business. But your feelings matter to me. If I'm doing something that hurts you I want to know so I can make it better. If I'm not - then your blessing is important to me."

"Can I hang out with my friends on Christmas night?" Connor asked.

Angel blinked. "If I say yes that means you'll be okay with this?"

"No," Connor replied. "I just thought I'd throw that in there while you're feeling like you might need to bribe me."

"Know what else I could spend your college fund on?" Angel asked. "A trip to Ireland."

"So can I?" Connor asked.

"I was hoping we'd spend Christmas together," Angel said, going along with Connor's conversational whims for the moment.

"Yeah but then we're always done at, like, nine anyway," Connor said. "And Jake's gonna throw this big party for everybody on the hockey team and since we're graduating this year and we're never going to see each other again for the rest of our lives I thought - "

"Okay, okay," Angel said. "Man can you pile on the drama. Fine. But not until nine and I want you home at a decent hour or I'm selling your video games and spending the money on my new car. Got it?"

"Thanks," Connor said.

"Now can I get an answer to my question?" Angel asked.

Connor rolled his soda can back and forth between his hands. "If you want my blessing or something.... That just sounds weird. I don't know if I can do that. I mean everytime I think about you with somebody I want it to be Mom."

"I know," Angel said. "I've got times like that too."

"But since it can't," Connor continued, "then yeah. Okay. I guess Wes is all right or whatever."

"Thanks," Angel said.

"And - " Connor hesitated, then looked up. "It's the same. For me, you know. No matter what you do, I - you're still my dad. Even if you did something I wasn't happy about I'd still care about you."

"Thanks, son," Angel said, and doubted that anything else in the world could make him feel happier.


PART EIGHT

The table - one which had no hope of seating more than four people, was a chaos of food and dirty dishes by the time the Christmas meal was done. Wesley sat back, feeling fuller than he had in more time than he cared to think of, and wondered if he had room yet for the second piece of cake he felt certain Angel was going to foist upon him.

"More coffee?" Angel asked, getting up to fetch some from the kitchen.

"Yes, please," Wesley answered, feeling confident in his ability to drink a little more if nothing else. Truth be told he wouldn't have minded a glass of proper schnapps to ease the aching in his stomach, but he supposed a recovering alcoholic like Angel wouldn't have any handy. It was just as well, really. Schnapps reminded him of Germany, and nights spent in clubs which were probably best forgotten.

"I'll have some too," Connor called after him.

"You will not," Angel replied.

"Why not?" Connor asked.

"It'll stunt your growth," Angel told him. He returned to the table with the coffeepot, refilling Wesley's mug then pointing out the milk again in case Wesley had forgotten about it.

"I'm already taller than you, how much more can I grow?" Connor asked.

"Okay first off in your dreams," Angel said, refilling his own mug. "And second because I said so."

Connor frowned. "I didn't ask why."

"You were gonna," Angel grinned. He returned the pot back into the kitchen.

"It's not like I don't drink coffee at school anyway," Connor pointed out.

"It's not like I have to let you go see your friends later tonight," Angel retorted.

"Yeah you do," Connor said.

"Why?" Angel asked.

"'cause if you don't I've got this whole foot-stomping, loud music thing planned," Connor replied. "I've got new CDs and everything."

"Lemme guess," Angel said, sitting down again. "101 Songs to Drive Your Father Mad?"

"It's you," Connor said, "I only needed fifty."

Wesley watched the interplay between father and son and smiled to himself, hiding it behind his coffee cup. Any worries he'd had about his presence interfering with their evening had long since dissipated. They'd welcomed him in - Angel perhaps somewhat more warmly than Connor - and absorbed him into their routine. Which, Wesley had determined, was to have no routine. There'd been services in the morning, a large pancake breakfast for what had appeared to be as much of the congregation of Angel's church which could manage to cram itself into the diner, and then Angel had closed up shop and retreated upstairs for the more private parts of the holiday.

Wesley hadn't known what to expect but it certainly wasn't this. An entire day of joking around, casual conversation, watching TV (with Connor, of all people, explaining the finer points of the American football game that had caught his attention), and then dinner.

Angel and Connor had done their own presents earlier, which Wesley suspected had been as much a courtesy to his low budget as it was to Angel and Connor having family time. The remains of boxes and gifts were scattered about, but amongst themselves there had been only a quick gift exchange. Connor had bought gloves, Angel a warm hat and coat that Wesley suspected cost far more than Angel would admit to. Alissa had received yet another new dress from Angel, and a soft toy rabbit from Connor that she had promptly gnawed on and used to soothe herself to sleep. Wesley had returned the favor with books, which had felt woefully inadequate even as he was buying them. But Connor had looked genuinely happy to receive a travel guide about unconventional things one could do while in England, and if Angel didn't actually like classic cars enough to want a book about them he was at least a master of pretending as though he did.

All in all it was nothing like he was used to. Which he supposed his clothes alone could attest to. He'd dressed for the day in the best shirt and trousers that he had - which wasn't much, admittedly. Angel and Connor for their part had worn proper clothes for church, but had changed out of them before Wesley arrived for dinner. They now wore faded jeans, and comfortable sweatshirts (Angel's bore a logo for the Tigers), and generally gave the impression that they felt no need for formality that day.

Wesley actually felt a bit out of his league. Pretentious parties he could handle. Dinner over mismatched plates and paper napkins with pictures of St. Nicolas on them required rules of courtesy that he couldn't even pretend to understand. Fortunately Angel had nothing but patience for him.

"And this is why I'm never letting you make the rolls again," Angel told Connor, drawing Wesley's attention back to the here and now. He realized he'd missed several laps in the conversation.

"This is censorship," Connor said. "You're stifling my creativity. You know this is why I almost failed art class."

"Hanging out with Tracy during third period is why you almost failed art class," Angel reminded him. "I'm old, Connor, not senile."

Connor smirked. "Actually - "

"Boys who want their daddies to be really nice to them this Christmas and extend their curfew should not finish their thought right now," Angel said, his eyes sparkling with amusement.

Connor clamped his mouth shut. Then asked, "You were going to extend my curfew?"

"I might," Angel said. He sat back in his chair, tilting it so that it rested on the two back legs. "If I was generous. If someone could fill my heart with the Christmas spirit. If somebody, I don't know who, could do something to inspire me and fill me with such joy that - "

"All right, all right," Connor said, getting up. "You know you could just ask me to clear the table."

"Yeah but where's the fun?" Angel replied.

"Here, let me help," Wesley said.

"Nah, sit," Angel waved him back down into his chair. "I had the kid for the slave labor. Let me enjoy it before he abandons me for college."

"Sadist," Connor said.

"Cur-few," Angel sing-songed back, the smile never leaving his lips.

"I don't see why Wesley couldn't give you the Christmas spirit or whatever," Connor complained. Then a look flickered over his face. "Actually, uh, nevermind."

"Yeah that was in no way awkward," Angel observed. He gave Wesley an apologetic look then helped Connor with the rest of the table-clearing.


Wesley busied himself checking on Alissa while Angel and Connor sorted out the remains of the meal. Finally some sort of agreement was reached with both a curfew that Connor apparently felt was generous and included the use of Angel's car for the evening, and then Connor bundled himself up for the night and vanished with only a shout of good-bye.

Which left Angel and Wesley alone. Or as alone as two adults could be with a sleeping infant in the middle of the room.

"Coffee?" Angel said, once the silence stretched on past the breaking point.

"I'm fine, thank you," Wesley said. He stood up, brushing a stray piece of tinsel away from his trousers. "Perhaps I should - "

"I'll wash, you dry," Angel announced, and vanished into the kitchen before Wesley could dispute it.

"All right," Wesley said. He followed along and accepted the dishtowel when it was handed to him.

"When Connor was little we'd start everything on Christmas Eve," Angel said. He began to scrub down one of the pots that was floating in the soapy water. "He'd be dressed up in those jammies with the feet on them and we'd play Christmas music on the stereo and he and Darla would make cookies for Santa."

"What kind?" Wesley asked. He took the pot when it was done and began to dry it, hoping he was doing it correctly.

A fond smile touched Angel's lips. "Chocolate chip. Right out of a tube. I told you Darla wasn't much of a cook, right?"

"I believe you mentioned it," Wesley said.

"We'd have franks and beans for dinner," Angel said, "And some of the cookies for dessert. And sometimes Connor would get these ideas in his head. Like one year it was really cold and he got all worried about the reindeer, so he made me heat up vegetables for them so they could warm up at our house."

"That's very charming," Wesley said.

Angel swiped a sponge over one of the plates. "He was five. I had to tell him Santa and the reindeer came in through the window since we don't have a fireplace."

"We had plenty of fireplaces when I was growing up," Wesley said. He hoped it didn't sound like bragging. "They were always lit during winter. Perhaps that's why we never had such visits."

"Didn't come around much when I was a kid either," Angel said. He began to fish out glasses and wipe them down. "My folks weren't into that I guess. But Darla and I wanted to do it for Connor. We figured it was a parenting thing."

"I'm not sure yet what I'll do with Alissa," Wesley admitted. He studied the plate he was drying before putting it onto the counter. "I haven't given it much thought."

"Can be fun," Angel said. "At our first place we lived right above Carmella Petrezzi. Great lady. Taught Darla how to make this phenomenal sausage and peppers, not that Darla ever got it right. Anyway, she grew up in Italy and she was nuts about Connor, so as it got late she'd call him on the phone and tell him she just heard from her family that Santa had stopped by and was heading for America."

"Quite a long trip," Wesley said.

"Not like he knew," Angel grinned. "It got him into bed, anyway. He'd bounce off the walls in there for maybe twenty minutes and then pass out. Which was good. Gave us more time to sleep since he always woke us up by 5:30 in the morning."

"It's very obvious how much you care for him," Wesley said. He twisted part of his towel into a glass, trying not to shatter it as he dried. "Even someone meeting him for the first time could tell that he grew up loved, with parents who were proud of him. He's a very happy, confident young man."

"Young man," Angel shook his head. "Still getting used to that. Next year he won't be here anymore. And I know Christmas is going to be these quick glimpses as he runs out the door to go hang with his friends. He'll be leading his own life."

"He'll still need his father," Wesley assured him. "All boys do. Even those of us who might not have particularly cared for our own."

"Ain't that the truth?" Angel said. "Some days I still get pissed off at my dad for - well it's not important now. All I hope is that Connor's got a better relationship with me than I had with my old man. If I managed that, I guess I did okay."

"I'm only an outsider," Wesley said, "but I daresay you were successful."

"Hope so," Angel said. He finished off the last glass then turned the water on to rinse the soap bubbles away. "So I was thinking about kissing you again."

Wesley's hand froze as it moved the towel up and down the glass he was holding. "Pardon?"

Angel washed his own hands, then turned the water off. "I was thinking about kissing you again."

Wesley wondered what to say to this. He put the glass down carefully. "Again as in this has once more occupied your thoughts, or again as in - "

"I want to do it," Angel said. "Again."

Wesley thought about it. The room felt very silent, and cold. He shivered, feeling as though a breeze had just blown over him, or as though he'd just been haunted by a memory. "One could point out that you never did it the first time."

Angel took him by the arms and hauled him over, wetting the back of Wesley's trousers with the puddles that had formed on the countertop. Angel was in front of him then, his brown eyes dark and full of meaning. And then their lips came together in a strong and hungry kiss that made Wesley's body surge up, right into Angel's embrace, and suddenly ache as though he'd finally found what he'd been searching for in all the years of stupid, wasteful sexual encounters. One frog right after another, until now, until this.

"So I was thinking," Angel said, when he finally drew their lips apart, "about kissing you again."

Wesley's eyes were half-closed as he tried to catch his breath. "I - yes. Yes."

Slower this time. Warm and wet, with an experience Wesley never would have guessed for the other man, considering his many years of domestic monogamy. But there it was. Soft lips. Nips of teeth. A probing tongue that made Wesley's heart flutter in a dizzying beat.

Angel pulled back again. This time his eyes were concerned, clearly wondering if things were still all right between them.

It was possibly stupid, but Wesley couldn't resist.

"I was thinking," Wesley told him, "that I'd like you to fuck me again."

Angel paused, then his mouth curled into a bone-melting half smile. "One could point out that I never fucked you the first time."

"I'd really like you to correct that," Wesley assured him.

Angel laughed, then kissed him once more. "Come on. Connor won't be home for hours."

"I - " Wesley hesitated. "I think my flat would be best, don't you?"

Angel thought about it. "My bedroom's closer."

"Mine has the baby's room," Wesley reminded him.

Angel glanced in at Alissa. "She's still asleep."

"I could put her in her crib where she could remain so," Wesley said.

"She's fine now," Angel replied.

"She'll be more likely to stay that way," Wesley pointed out. "And to stay in her room. Unlike your child who's far more aware of his surroundings and might think to invite some of his friends home if his curfew is earlier than any of theirs."

"We'll use your place," Angel said.

"So glad we agree," Wesley said. He forced himself to let go of Angel's hand so he could gather up his daughter. As he did her very presence reminded him of something. "Angel?"

"Yeah?" Angel said, as he unplugged the lights to the Christmas tree.

Wesley lifted Alissa's carrier, hoping the sight of her would help prompt Angel into memory. "I don't have anything."

Angel stared at him, his expression blank. "Any...?"

"Supplies," Wesley said.

Angel frowned. "You're out of diapers?"

Wesley sighed. "More adult supplies. Angel, it's been months since - "

"Oh," Angel said, realization dawning. "You meant - oh. Oh. Um. Okay. I ... okay, foresight would have actually been helpful with this."

"There's other things we could do," Wesley offered. "It's only that considering what I did before my time with Lilah I couldn't in good conscience - "

"No, no, I get it," Angel said. "And it's appreciated. I wouldn't - not that I was a Lilah guy myself these past few years but no. I wouldn't. To you either I mean. I'm into supplies, honest."

"You just don't have any," Wesley guessed, surprised at how much regret he felt at the possibility of waiting. Yes, there were other things they could do but somehow he knew they couldn't possibly match the feeling of the other man inside of him - or vice versa.

Angel ran a hand through his hair, chewing his lower lip as he thought out the problem. "I wouldn't say that."

"Angel, if they're too old..." Wesley reminded him.

Angel nodded to himself as though deciding something. "Go upstairs, I'll meet you in five, and I can get something if you don't care where it came from."

"At this point I can't say it's a concern," Wesley told him.

Angel closed the distance between them, kissing him once more. "Good. Great. I'll be right there."


Five minutes later, with Alissa safely tucked into her crib, Angel appeared at his doorway, just as he'd promised.

"That kid really needs to update his porn supply," Angel announced.

Wesley noted the handful of condoms in Angel's left hand. "He's also rather optimistic. Or is that his father?"

Angel gave him a look. "I wasn't planning on leaving anytime soon. You got a problem with that?"

Wesley became keenly aware of how much his body responded to Angel's presence. "No. I can't say that I do."

"Good," Angel said, and this time when they kissed Angel didn't bother to stop.


It had been so long since he'd had sex. A record, in fact, considering the average he'd maintained during his years of rebellion.

But nothing since Alissa was born. Very little, in fact, since he'd learned of Lilah being pregnant. He'd had a tiny handful of encounters once he'd been told, all to try to prove to himself or her how unaffected he was by the threat of fatherhood, and then nothing. Months upon months of nothing, because he couldn't stand being around people anymore.

Now there was Angel.

Angel, who on paper was everything Wesley should have avoided - poor, alcoholic, uneducated, American, male - but in reality was turning into everything Wesley could imagine desiring. He was handsome, well-built, confident, strong, noble and, Wesley dared to hope, a friend.

They tumbled into bed together, Angel's hands making quick work of Wesley's clothes. He smiled, apparently startled by the discovery that Wesley had chest hair, then teased them both by running his fingers through it, tugging on it, then eventually bending his lips down to lick and suck at Wesley's nipples.

Wesley for his part tried to respond in kind, getting a shock of his own to find that Angel had a tattoo, then quickly finding out that Angel liked to be kissed on it - or perhaps just enjoyed the kisses as a lovely side-dish to the tickling touch of Wesley's hand between his legs.

They touched, and kissed, and traded turns being on top and down below. Angel was the first to break the barrier of doing oral, but Wesley quickly followed it with a blowjob of his own that had the other man gasping and straining against the sheets.

They held off coming, two adults teasing one another to the full limits of their age and willpower, until they lay side by side, hands stroking one another, pace quickening by silent yet mutual decision, and then their eyes met, Angel's with a question, Wesley with a nod of confirmation, and then it was condoms, and lubrication, and Wesley's turn to tense and grab at the bedclothes and gasp again and again and again until the feeling of Angel deep inside of him made him lose all control.

Angel cried out not long after, his hands hard enough on Wesley's hips to feel as though they might leave bruises, and then they both collapsed, sated, and fell into easy sleep.


It was dark when Wesley woke up. He didn't know what time it was. Somehow his bedside clock had gotten hidden or knocked to the floor. What he did know, however, was that he was alone.

He tried, unsuccessfully, not to be disappointed by this.

It was foolish. Stupid. After all that he'd done, all that he'd been through, what right had he to expect anything else? Particularly considering who and what he was.

Lord, how arrogant! To sit there and think that Angel wasn't good enough for him. It was quite the other way in reverse and there was no doubt about it. What was Wesley to a man like that? A man who lived by his own blood, sweat, and tears. Who'd had to struggle for every advantage in his life - who'd earned what tiny advantages he'd had to keep. Who looked upon others with no judgment, and sacrificed his very self to help those in need.

Compared to that who was Wesley? A stuffed shirt with skills that didn't extend past an office building. A fancy education with no worth to show.

Wesley shook his head. No worth. Indeed, that was the phrasing for it. Penniless, worthless. A true shell of a man. One who hadn't a single thing to show for himself, with only a single exception: his daughter.

Wesley got up, tugging on a pair of pants and slipping his feet into shoes. Alissa would be awake soon. He would hold her, feed her, then wonder how to deal with the difficulty of facing Angel come morning. Could they ignore what they had done? Did Angel plan to? What on earth had this been in the other man's eyes? For if it was only a casual sexual encounter then -

"Morning," Angel whispered to him as he came back into the bedroom. He held Alissa in his arms. "Or night. Guess it depends on how you look at it."

Wesley gaped. Then tried to talk. "I - what?"

"She was fussing," Angel explained. He sat down on the bed, handing the baby over to him. "I figured I'd take a look at her, make sure she was okay."

Wesley held her close, feeling her tender skin against his own. "I - she does that sometimes. Nightmares, I think."

Angel reached out and patted her on the back. "That can be scary when you're small. Bet they don't even understand what nightmares are at that age."

"Probably not," Wesley agreed. He felt as though he'd missed something, as though he didn't know which way to turn.

Angel, apparently unaware of all this, suddenly smiled at him. "Hey, you wanna see something neat?"

"All right," Wesley said, deciding he could figure this out if he stayed with Angel. Whatever it was he needed to know he could piece together if he remained with the other man.

"You'll have to put her down," Angel warned.

Wesley checked on her. "She's sleeping again. I think she'll be all right if I let her rest."

"Okay," Angel said, standing up again. "You do that, then meet me in the living room."

Wesley obeyed, feeling as though he were sleepwalking the entire time. He held Alissa probably longer than he needed to, comforting himself with the feel of her fist wrapped around his thumb. He kissed her, and reminded himself once more that if there was one thing which was constant, one thing which was important, it was this.

He put her down then went into the livingroom as asked.

Angel was there, dressed in his own jeans and shoes. He stood by the window, which was wide open. "Come on."

Wesley stared at him. "Come where?"

"Outside," Angel said, holding out his hand.

Wesley looked from him to the window and back again. "Are you utterly insane?"

Angel grinned, grabbed his hand, and dragged him outside.

They were on top of the garage, the flat roof still covered with snow from the storms and squalls that had plagued the past few weeks. Wesley's feet crunched down, getting his calves wet in the process. "Angel, it's freezing!"

"It's snowing," Angel countered. And, sure enough, flakes were falling down from the reflected light of the night sky.

Wesley shivered, trying to wrap his arms around himself for warmth. "All right, I've seen it. Can't we - "

Angel pulled him closer, looking into his eyes. "Don't you get it? It's snowing. On Christmas, Wes. Christmas snow. Doesn't that make you feel right? Alive or something?"

Wesley looked back at him. Intellectually he knew it was past midnight, and therefore not truly Christmas anymore. But Angel's face was as bright as the sky, and there was a joy inside of him that was almost childlike.

Wesley knew, then, that he was falling in love with him.

"Yes," he answered, trembling now from something far worse than cold. "Yes. It does."

"It's perfect," Angel said, smiling in spite of the white flakes that dusted his long eyelashes. "Best snow of the year."

"Quite wonderful," Wesley agreed, then dared to let himself hold Angel tight.


PART NINE

On New Year's Eve the diner was closed to customers, for all the good that that did at thinning out the crowd. By the time the party began the space was packed with what surely had to be everyone that Angel knew and cared for - other than his son, of course, who had pronounced the entire party to be "lame" and had left earlier in the evening to be with his friends.

"Don't worry about it," Angel had said at the time. "He hasn't done one of these since he was twelve. This is adults-only. Except for the princess, of course."

The princess was currently fast asleep upstairs in her crib. Wesley worried that the sound of the party might wake her, but the portable half of the baby monitor he had clipped to his belt gave no more noise than the usual static and occasional snore, though admittedly he had to press his ear close to the speaker in order to hear it.

The diner was festooned with balloons and streamers, the result of a siege of party supplies Angel had thrust upon them all earlier in the day and demanded they take care of. Glittering hats and cheap tiaras had been handed out (With Harmony managing to shove one of the latter onto Angel's head long enough for Gunn to take a picture and then vanish into the crowd before Angel could demand the negatives) and noisemakers occasionally interrupted the sound of music that came from the speakers.

"I didn't know Lorne could sing," Wesley said at one point, when the man who was his boss took the stage - or rather, stood up on top of one of the tables bolted to the wall - and began to croon various tunes from the disco era.

"Oh yeah," Fred said, having to lean across the counter so Wesley could hear her. "He had an album and everything."

"Whatever happened to it?" Wesley asked.

Fred shrugged, the strap of her dress falling off her shoulder in the process. "It didn't go very far on the charts. But a producer heard it and gave him a job doing a commercial jingles."

"I thought he sounded familiar," Wesley said, looking towards the stage with new admiration. Then something occurred to him. "How much does that pay, usually?"

Fred quickly swallowed the handful of popcorn she was eating. "I don't know but it's enough to keep the agency open."

"Is it then?" Wesley said. He spied Angel into the kitchen. "Pardon me for a moment?"

Fred nodded, already heading back onto the erstwhile dance floor.

Wesley pushed open the swinging doors, managing to catch up to Angel in just a few steps. "Lorne doesn't need to keep that travel agency, does he?"

"Grab some oven mitts, I need help with the appetizers," Angel told him.

Wesley looked around then took a pair off of a hook on the wall. "You didn't answer my question."

"What do any of us really need, Wes?" Angel asked. He pulled one cookie sheet out of the oven, poking the crust of one item with a finger before handing the entire sheet to Wesley to deal with.

Wesley put it down onto the counter. "Financially. He doesn't need to keep that agency open in order to pay his bills, does he?"

Angel snorted as he reached into the oven for what looked to be a berry tart. "Nope. Good thing too. You seen how little he makes over there?"

"Angel!"

"What?" Angel asked, standing up again. "Yeah, he made his money doing the commercial gigs. He gets his checks, it's enough to make sure he doesn't have to work much if he plays his investments right, he got bored, so he figured he'd open the agency and use it to give himself cheap travel discounts. Plus I hear he picks up a lot of good gossip that way. Hell if I know how."

"He never had to hire me," Wesley accused.

"He wanted help," Angel said, putting the tart down.

"Did he really?" Wesley asked. "Or did you force this on him? Because I won't be someone's charity case, Angel. I have skills. I can make my own way. I won't be some kind of parasite which - "

Angel cupped Wesley's cheeks in both hands, silencing him with a kiss. "Okay, first off I didn't tell you that you look good in that shirt. Second, I didn't force anything on anybody. I knew a few people who had jobs to offer. Lorne was one. I figured you'd be a good match for him. Third, you're not a charity anything. Yeah, sure, Lorne was a little weird on hiring you at first - "

Wesley pulled back a little. "He what?"

"Can we maybe pretend that we live in a more tactful place where I didn't say that?" Angel asked. When Wesley refused to back down he sighed and continued. "He said he had a bad feeling about you when he met you. But it's nothing. Lorne's a little flakey. Last week he said he felt I shouldn't be playing in the football game tomorrow. The week before it was don't wear that blue coat that I like. Nobody pays any attention to it, it's just what he does. What's the big deal?"

"There's a football game tomorrow?" Wesley asked.

"Yeah, you're on my team," Angel told him.

"I won't be charity, Angel," Wesley said.

Angel made a face. "Fine, be on Gunn's team then."

"You know damned well what I meant!"

"I'm sorry," Angel said. He squeezed Wes's arms, continuing to hold him. "I know you don't like being dependant on people. And I know what that's like. I promise, you're not anybody's charity case. That's why I brought it up in the first place. If Lorne really didn't think he could use your help he would have fired you. Yeah, maybe he would've told me first so I could break the news or something, but he wouldn't keep you on just to do me a favor. If you're there it's because you've earned it."

"If you're sure?" Wesley asked, regarding him suspiciously.

"I swear on my son," Angel promised.

Wesley relaxed. "I'm sorry. It's just - it's been a long year."

Angel folded Wesley into his arms. "Yeah, I can imagine."

Wesley allowed himself to rest against the other man's chest. He closed his eyes, marveling that he had a place of safety now.

"You know, this is my favorite holiday," Angel said, apropos of nothing.

"I thought that was Christmas," Wesley replied.

"Nah," Angel said. His hand moved up to rub the back of Wesley's neck. "This one."

"Why?" Wesley asked.

"Because this is the first New Year's Eve in a while where I wasn't the big loser without a date," Angel told him.

Wesley gave a bark of laughter at that, then allowed Angel to drag him back into the party.


"So British guys can actually dance?" Cordelia asked him.

Wesley pulled her hand towards him, guiding her through the steps of their modified tango. He kept counting the beat in the back of his head, trying not to lose it in spite of the slightly inappropriate music they were dancing to. "Some of us can, yes."

"Neat," she said. She improvised a twisting turn, smiling up at him when she finished. "I used to take jazz and ballet."

"Ballroom dance," Wesley said. "My mother's idea. She said it would be useful at parties."

"Can't say she was wrong," Cordelia pointed out. She did another twist, then moved closer to let other dancers pass by. "So. You and Angel, huh?"

Wesley recognized that tone. Not from Cordelia, but from others he'd known in his past. Those who looked upon people he spent time with and questioned his suitability for them. Of course in the days of working for his father his suitability was never in question. Now, however.... "Yes?"

"Nothing," Cordy assured him. She gave him a large, almost blinding smile. "I think it's great. Angel could use somebody. He gets too crabby when he goes without."

"Well I... certainly hope to... discourage crabbiness," Wesley said, not really knowing what Cordelia wanted to hear from him.

"Good, good," Cordy said. She moved her feet in a few intricate steps, then allowed Wesley to lead again. "We don't like crabby."

"I can't imagine that anyone would, as a rule," Wesley said.

"Crabby would be bad," Cordy continued.

"Certainly," Wesley agreed.

Cordy stopped and met his eyes. "Angel's my family and if you so much as make him frown I will kill you dead and shove your body so far into a snow drift they won't find you until next New Year's, got it?"

Wesley decided it would be unwise to point out the meteorological fallacies of the threat. "Understood."

"Your head I'll shove somewhere else," she added.

"That's certainly creative," Wesley said.

Cordy narrowed her eyes at him.

"I promise I won't - I don't intend to hurt him, Cordelia," Wesley said. Then said the words to her because it was actually easier than saying them to Angel. "I'm in love with him."

"Like love has anything to do with it," Cordelia scoffed. She stabbed a manicured finger at his chest. "You. Don't. Hurt. Him."

"I won't hurt him," Wesley repeated.

Cordelia nodded, satisfied. "Good." Her bright smile returned once more. "Now let's keep dancing."


When midnight drew near Angel found him once more. He threaded his fingers through Wesley's and guided him to the door marked Private.

"I was thinking," Angel said, having to shout into Wesley's ear so he could be heard over the rise in noise level, "that we should go upstairs for midnight."

Wesley smiled at him. "What did you have in mind?"

Angel grinned back. "Well, that. But also Alissa. It's gonna be loud. Plus it's her first New Year's. You should be there. Do it together. I can join you later if - "

"No," Wesley said, squeezing Angel's hand. "Come with me. Neither one of us would be here without you. I'd want you there even if you and I weren't - well even if we didn't have plans for after."

"You sure?" Angel asked.

"Positive," Wesley told him.


When midnight came Wesley held his daughter in his arms. She cried a little at the sounds from downstairs, but he rocked her, and sang to her, and soothed her back to sleep.

Angel watched all of this while standing in Alissa's doorway. Once Wesley put the baby down he came into the room, took Wesley into his arms, and together they did things which eventually soothed the both of them to sleep.

Wesley opened his eyes inside of a new year and realized that he was home.


"Two team match to the death," Gunn challenged. "This chili won't be done until noon which gives me one full hour in which to kick your ass."

New Year's Day had dawned bright and sunny, with hardly a cloud in the sky. The air was brisk but not freezing and Angel had apparently not been kidding in the slightest when he'd said there was a football game to be played.

"I know you only do this once a year," Angel replied, pulling the ball and various other pieces of equipment out of a bag he'd brought with him, "but did you inhale that hot sauce or put it in the food? Because you are out of your mind if you think you're going to beat me."

They were in a park not far from the diner. Wesley guessed that it must be used by one of the local schools, as it was laid out with baseball diamonds, football fields and the like. Of course all of this had been snowed over, but it didn't seem to bother any of the number of townspeople that had gathered there that morning. Apparently picnics in the dead of winter were something of a tradition. There had even been a daycare of sorts set up in the park's clubhouse, where Alissa currently was with some of the other children.

"Dad, I need cash," Connor said, coming to join them from the group of friends he'd been staying with.

"I need personal fulfillment," Angel replied. "What's your point?"

Connor gave a put-upon look. "We need to rent skates."

"You've another personality in there I need to worry about now?" Angel asked. "And come again? You own a thousand pairs."

"Dad," Connor sighed. "Tracy needs skates. Her mom threw hers out and we're all going skating and she really wants to go and since I spent all my money on your Christmas present - "

"And Tracy's," Angel added.

Connor ignored him. "I need extra money so she can have skates."

Angel fished out his wallet, handing over a twenty. "There. You get nothing else from me until they read my will. Got it?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Connor said, running off again.

"You're welcome," Angel called after him.

Connor pantomimed an exaggerated gesture of thanks, then kept running.

"My kid, the comedian," Angel muttered.

Gunn put the lid back on the pot of chili that he was somehow managing to cook over the fire of an outdoor grill. "Okay, who's playing?"

"Wes is on my team," Angel said.

"I've never played before," Wesley reminded him.

"It's like soccer but with less kicking," Angel said.

"I've never played soccer either," Wesley told him.

"Then it's like cricket but without the bat or the ball or whatever the Hell else you play cricket with," Angel grinned.

"Don't worry," Fred assured him. "The boys make up all the rules anyway. Last year they gave up halfway through and just started throwing snow balls."

"That's because Angel cheats," Gunn said.

"I do not!" Angel retorted. "You were the one who started it when you brought out the water pistols."

"Oh those I'd be good at," Wesley offered.

"Really?" Angel perked up. "Because I had this idea for revenge where I -"

"Can we just play the game you big babies?" Gwen asked. She adjusted the elastic of her ponytail. "I'd like for me and my man to win before I lose my girlish good looks."

"Is anyone else playing?" Wesley asked.

Lorne waved him off, practically invisible inside of his blanket and oversized coat. "Not for me. Way I see it someone with a clear head needs to sit and watch and play referee. Though not sure how clear my head will stay after I do another of these hot ciders."

"Cheerleading," Cordy said, hooking her arm through Harmony's. "Somebody's got to be the pep squad and me and Harm are it."

"You know you actually have to cheer this time," Gunn told her.

"We can't until we have a third to make the pyramid," Cordy reminded him, grinning smugly.

"Knox?" Wesley asked.

"Oh no," the other man smiled from his position by Fred. "I'm not much of a player. I tend to bruise like a magnolia at the slightest sign of conflict."

"He's actually gay, right?" Wesley whispered to Angel, ducking his head so his lips couldn't be read.

"Jury's still out," Angel replied. He flashed Wesley a quick grin. "Okay people. It's two on two and looks like Gunn's team is playing skins this year."

"Just for that I am going to thoroughly humiliate you when it comes time to voting on who heads up the small business committee next year," Gwen told him.

"Have it," Angel said, generously. "I could do without the paperwork. Now come on, let's play!"


The rules of New Year's football seemed to boil down to getting the ball into the designated goals through whatever means were necessary. The game began with a mere courtesy use of order that even Wesley could recognize, then quickly degenerated into whatever got them to the goal, up to and including running into the benches, faking injury, the earlier promised snowball fights and, at one point, Gwen flashing them.

It wasn't long before everyone, even Lorne, was dragged out from the sidelines and brought into the fray. Water pistols and even snow shovels made an appearance and the only thing that stopped them was Gunn blowing a whistle to draw their attention back to the food.

"Lunchtime!" he announced, jerking his thumb back towards the grill.

Paper plates and cups were produced, hotdogs were quickly heated, and soon everyone was eating and drinking and chattering amongst themselves.

"Having fun?" Angel asked, sitting beside him on one of the snow-covered benches.

"Yes," Wesley admitted. He attempted another bite of his chili dog. "I wouldn't have thought so, but yes."

"We do this every year," Angel said, and it was clear the words held an unspoken invitation.

Wesley decided to answer with one of his own in kind. "I was thinking of taking Alissa for a walk now that it's not quite so cold. Would you care to join us?"

"Love to," Angel replied.

They finished their meals then went to collect her. She was awake, and smiled in delight as Wesley greeted her then dressed her for the outdoors. She then tried to grab on to the blanket Wesley used to tuck her into her stroller - the latter of which had been a collective gift from everyone that Wesley had come to think of as the friends from the diner.

"She's a smart kid," Angel observed. "You can tell she notices stuff."

Wesley puffed up with a father's pride. "Thank you. I've always thought so."

The sun continued to shine down on them as they left the day care and found their way towards a path. They walked away from the games and the crowds and followed a tree-lined trail that, though not part of a proper woods, at least gave the feeling of it.

"I used to take Connor here all the time when he was a kid," Angel said. He pointed in one direction. "There's a field down that way with a stream and some rocks. I'd make us some sandwiches and take him out there for a picnic. He was little enough that I guess it felt like camping."

"I've never gone camping," Wesley said. "Not properly, at any rate."

"There's improper camping?" Angel asked.

"When you do it indoors, yes," Wesley said. "Where I'm from one doesn't 'rough it' unless it involves spending the night in a cabin with some form of climate control."

Angel thought about it. "Which is 'roughing it' in the sense that...?"

"The rooms are smaller," Wesley answered.

Angel shook his head. "This whole thing must be like living in the slums for you."

Wesley thought back to his first impression of Angel's guest apartment. "It - I can't say it's not a culture shock. But that isn't what matters. Angel, what you've given me, what you've provided for me is so much more than money, or anything that I had before."

Angel stopped, nodding in Alissa's direction. "You had one thing that was worthwhile before."

"One thing, yes," Wesley said. He thought about it, feeling a nervous chill go down his spine. "Perhaps even two."

Angel looked at him curiously.

"My entire life has been made up of things which never mattered to me," Wesley said. "Everything I've done was done because someone else said so. At best I convinced myself that agreeing with that was actually my own point of view."

"But it wasn't," Angel said.

"No, it wasn't," Wesley said. "Nearly thirty years of my life in which I never even played a part. I merely filled out a role. Dutiful son, excellent scholar - even rebel, when it came right down to it."

"And now you're tired of acting?" Angel said.

Wesley nodded. "Exceedingly."

Angel put his hands into his coat pockets. "When I joined AA one of the things I had to do was learn who I was. Face myself head-on so I could defeat my demons and quit drinking."

"That must have been terrifying," Wesley said.

"Few things scarier," Angel agreed.

"I never - " Wesley started, then stopped himself, deciding to cut right to the heart of it. "Lilah always knew. In fact she knew me better than anyone. For all my bluster and claims of apathy she knew better. She mocked me for it sometimes but - I believe in the end she only wanted me to be honest about it. To myself or to her. I don't think it mattered."

"You think you can be honest now?" Angel asked.

"I think I'd like to try," Wesley said. He reached into his pocket, pulling out his wallet and the folded dollar bill inside. He held it up, showing it to Angel. "My only gift from her. Besides Alissa, of course. We'd had a bet that whoever weakened first and actually called what we had a relationship owed the other a dollar. Or a pound, depending upon who won."

Angel looked at the bill itself. "You lost?"

"I lost," Wesley confirmed. A bittersweet smile shaped his lips. "Like a fool I was making all sorts of proclamations about my inability to care about anything but myself, but with a slip of the tongue I said I had no concerns about my father's feelings about our relationship. She laughed and I had to pay. She made me sign it as proof."

"Why didn't she keep it?" Angel asked.

"She did," Wesley said. He stalled for time by putting his wallet away. The memory was harder to talk about than he'd thought. "Until our last night together. We were arguing about everything - her possible death, the baby, the relationship we'd never had - and at one point she gave it back to me, saying she wanted me to give it to our daughter. But not until I could admit to myself what all of it had been."

"Until you could truly say it'd been a relationship," Angel said, "and not a slip of the tongue."

"That," Wesley said, "but everything. Her, our time together, my feelings about everything my life had become. I lived life by running away from my problems, either physically or mentally. I think Lilah wanted me to at least once take a stand for myself."

"Not easy, considering all you've been through," Angel said.

"I don't think that qualifies as an excuse," Wesley said. Alissa made a coughing sound. He bent down to check on her, smoothing out her blanket as he did. "Yes, I ran from Los Angeles but it's only part of a whole. It's been the only pattern I've ever known or followed. I - I think I'd like to change that."

"You would?" Angel asked.

Wesley stood up again. He found it hard to face him, but made himself meet the other man's eyes. "I would. If you would have me."

Angel took a moment to process that, then responded with a sly grin. "I think I could be forced to do that."

Wesley smiled back. "Truly?"

"If I had to," Angel teased. He came forward, bumping their noses together as he touched Wesley's mouth with a kiss. "If you want that, then I want it for you."

"I do," Wesley told him. His heart was pounding but he found he liked the feel of it. "I honestly do."

"Sounds like that's settled then," Angel said, adding a teasing flick of his tongue to Wesley's lips.

"Indeed," Wesley agreed. He was grinning like a fool but he didn't care in the slightest. "We could go home now, if you'd like?"

"I'd like," Angel said. "I'd very like."

Wesley stepped back before he shagged Angel right up against the frost-covered trees. "Perhaps we should be on our way?"

Angel held out his hand, making a bow of invitation. "After you. Wait - don't forget to give your daughter her present."

"Of course," Wesley said, kneeling to do just that. "Wouldn't want it to get lost."

"Plus I'm thinking she'd love to drool on it," Angel added.

Wesley laughed. He lightly tapped Alissa's hands with a finger until she reached out to touch him. Once she did, he presented her with the dollar. "Here you are, my darling. From your mother and I - " Alissa touched the bill, crumpling it as best she could in her mittened fist. Wesley felt dizzy, as though his heart and mind were suddenly trapped in that item, locked in the emotion of everything represented in its papery folds. " - to... to you."

The world tilted. Alissa took the bill fully, bringing it up to her mouth as Wesley's fingers became too numb to hold it. He fell backward, his spine jarring as he connected with the hard-packed snow and with a sick, almost never-ending tilt he realized not just what his own feelings had been but absolutely everything.

"Angel - " he said, his voice a half-moan and he was humiliated at the quaver in it but at the same time he knew he had no hope in any form of Hell of even attempting to hide it.

"Wes," Angel said, and his voice was strong, and without doubt, and completely filled with anger. "What did you do?"

Wesley looked up at the man who was not, but who should have been a vampire. "I - what I had to."


PROLOGUE REDUX

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, head of Research and Intelligence at Wolfram & Hart, stood alone in a room with Lilah Morgan, former live member of Wolfram & Hart, and was phenomenally pissed off.

"How long, precisely, was this intended to go on?" he asked.

Lilah shrugged, unphased by his emotions. "Not really sure this was an intended, Wes. It is what it is."

"It's a farce," he told her. "Did you honestly believe that no one would notice? That not one single person - "

"Not one single person did notice," she pointed out. She crossed her legs in an easy motion, her skirt riding up her thigh as she sat on the conference table. "Except, of course, for you."

Wesley drew his eyes upward again, reminding himself this was not the time to get seduced by memories - or by memories of her, at least. Others he was feeling remarkably possessive of. "Fix it."

She held up her hands in the very picture of innocence. "Can't."

"You can," Wesley said. He stalked forward, fully prepared to intimidate her by whatever means was necessary, to do whatever had to be done in order for her to admit what was going on now. "You started it, he came to you - "

"And I pointed him in the right direction," Lilah finished.

"Point him back," Wesley told her.

"Because it would be that easy?" Lilah asked.

"This is wrong," Wesley said, feeling seconds away from hitting the table or her if it meant getting his message across.

"Says you," Lilah replied.

Wesley folded his arms. "Do you think me to be that stupid? You gave him this opportunity. If you and the Senior Partners expect me to believe that they didn't plan on this the whole time - "

"Senior Partners gave him the keys to the castle," Lilah reminded him. "What Angel did with it was his own business."

Wesley refused to be swayed. "They had to have known."

Lilah shrugged. "Because they've been so good at predicting so many other things that happen to him? They know the big picture, Wes, but there's a lot of little details that fall by the wayside. Like, oh, say, the kid that's causing all of your problems? You and I both know they didn't see that coming."

"According to them," Wesley said.

"According to them," Lilah conceeded. "But that's what all of this is in the end, isn't it? One big question of who to trust and who to believe in."

"I believe in Angel," Wesley told her.

"That really sound like a smart idea to you?" Lilah asked.

Wesley glared at her. "This ends now."

She shook her head, dislodging a lock of hair that had balanced precariously on her shoulder. "It isn't up to you, Wesley. This was Angel's deal. The only one who can break it is him."

"Can it be broken?" Wesley asked, studying her for any hint of deceit.

"If he wants to, yes," Lilah said. "But therein lies the rub. Right now I'd say he's pretty happy with the status quo."

"He can't be happy with this," Wesley said. "This can't be what he agreed to."

"Hate to tell you," Lilah said, "but it was."

"No."

"Arguing with me won't change that," she reminded him.

"Fine, I'll argue with him then," Wesley said.

Lilah made a sound of laughter. "It's not that easy."

Wesley stepped forward again. "If you did it for him - "

"I can do it for you too," Lilah agreed. Her eyes flashed as though she knew what closer proximity might have meant for the both of them. "But what exactly do you think will happen then? This isn't a dimension, Wesley. It's a reality. Angel changed reality. Now if you want to hop over and try the one he created, fine, but it's not like taking a quick trip to Pylea. You don't go over there. You are there."

Wesley sat down, feeling some of the air go out of him. "Because, naturally, right now I am not."

"Actually right now you are," Lilah said. "There's a Wesley Wyndam-Pryce living his life there just as you're living your life here."

"So I replace him," Wesley said, trying to think over what little he knew of reality changes. "Or we trade places. Or - "

"Or you become one in the same," Lilah told him. "You of all people should know reality doesn't like disconnect. You cross the lines and you can't uncross them. If you do this then there won't be two of you anymore. Only one."

Wesley thought about this. That meant leaving this world - this reality - without his presence. If it was the same arrangement Angel made he knew it would only change things a little bit, but it still meant that the others would be without him for a time. Still, it was worth it if it meant fixing everything. "Fine."

"You think you can handle it?" Lilah asked, and she seemed genuinely curious.

Wesley puzzled it over some more. "There's more tricks, aren't there? If there's only one - " Realization dawned. "It would be him, wouldn't it? The me of that reality. I cross the lines and I don't even remember to come back."

Lilah mimed firing a gun at him. "Bingo."

"Then give me an out," Wesley told her. "A way to remember. A way to make him remember so he knows exactly what he's done - "

"He knew exactly what he was doing when he asked for this," Lilah reminded him.

"He did not," Wesley said.

"You're so certain of that?" Lilah asked. "Or of you? Do you really think you know what you're doing?"

Wesley met her eyes. "I know exactly what I'm doing."

Lilah stared at him, the silence stretching out between them for what seemed like hours. "It's a bad idea," she finally said.

"It is not," he replied, wondering how on earth for her it could even be a question. He stood up, walking away from his chair as though he could dismiss it and all the thoughts which were tormenting him. "I can't accept this."

She gave him a sympathetic grimace. "I don't think you get a choice."

"I refuse to accept this," he told her.

Now her eyes held hints of a smile, though the expression failed to reach her lips. "You always were a fighter."

He thought of all the times he'd fought for her - against the Beast, the lawfirm, herself. Not that it had ever mattered, of course. Not that he'd ever succeeded. "It's not right."

She shrugged, unmoved. "What's that got to do with anything?"

His eyes were drawn to the scarf around her neck, a pale reminder of all his failures had created between them. "How? How can you say this, when you - "

"I knew what I was getting into," she reminded him.

"You can't have predicted this. No one could."

"I don't predict," she said. "I act. I do. I look out for number one."

"Is that what you're doing now?" he asked, realizing there was absolutely nothing in this agreement that provided benefit for her - or at least none that he could determine. "Looking out for number one?"

"And you?" she asked. "What exactly are you doing right now?"

"Fighting to make things better," he said, confident of this.

"For who?" she asked.

"Everyone."

She reached out, brushing her fingertips over his cheek. He knew in his heart this would be her final, parting gesture. "There's just one catch."

"What?"

"Some things can't be changed."

"I will change them," Wesley told her.

She looked sad, though Wesley would never have suspected her of having that emotion. "I'll give you your out. One key to unlock yours and Angel's memory - and remember how to get back, if that's what you really want - "

"I do," Wesley said, immediately.

"You'll get your key," Lilah said again, as though she wasn't even paying attention to his words. "Then we'll see if you still recognize what really matters."

"Fine," Wesley said, satisfied with that.


PART TEN

"You son of a bitch," Angel said.

Wesley scrambled to his feet. "Oh that's quite rich coming from - "

"I don't recall saying you could stand," Angel told him.

"I don't recall giving you any sort of permission to rule my life!" Wesley shot back. "Of all the unmitigated gall!"

"I've got gall?" Angel asked him. "You waltz in here, rip apart everything I worked for - "

"Tell me, Angel," Wesley said, his voice icier than the snow around them, "was this reality the second or the third? You already tried once when you removed Connor. Now this. Considering that it's a pattern with you I can't help but wonder if I should be asking you what my bloody name is!"

"I've got a name for you," Angel said. "I've got plenty of names for you. You had no right!"

Wesley became even quieter. "You had no right, Angel. No right to make deals without consulting any of us, no right to push us - "

"You were going to join Wolfram & Hart anyway!"

"No right to assume you knew what was best for us!" Wesley finished, his eyes blazing. "Without even asking us. Without even consulting us."

"I gave you your life back," Angel said. "Every one of you. There wasn't a single one of you who wasn't doing anything they wouldn't have done anyway!"

"Which of course makes it perfectly acceptable for you to change whatever you bloody well pleased," Wesley retorted. "Which of course you knew which is why you waited until I wasn't even there. This was so trivial to you that you couldn't even be bothered to wait until I was back home!"

"That's not why I did it," Angel told him.

"Do you know I still can't decide what the worst of it all is," Wesley said. "That you did it, that you didn't ask, that you left the world without a Champion - "

"Spike is a Champion!" Angel snapped.

"Like Hell he is," Wesley replied. "That was your job, Angel."

"Well I didn't want it," Angel said.

"How wonderful for you," Wesley said, his voice thick with derision. "Tell me, at this point what would you like for me to believe? That you weren't duped by Wolfram & Hart or that it truly was your idea to abandon everything so that you could steal the Shanshu and force Spike to do all the work?"

"Is that - " Angel stared, temporarily struck dumb. "You think this is about the Shanshu? Is that honestly what you think of me?"

"I don't know that I have words enough to tell you what I honestly think of you," Wesley replied, "but at the moment I'm still favoring the duped theory which means that right now I merely regard you as fatally naive and stupid."

Angel snarled, grabbing Wes by the front of his coat and slamming him up against a tree. "I chose this, Wesley. No dupes, no tricks. This was my damned idea. And get it through your useless head right now that I don't give a fuck if the Senior Partners liked it or they didn't. This was my choice."

"Let go of me," Wesley told him.

Angel held fast. "You know why it was my choice? For Connor. I didn't want a human life for myself, I wanted it for him."

"He had one," Wesley pointed out.

"Not with me, "Angel said. He laughed, shaking his head. "You of all people. 'Angel, you've lost hope', 'Angel, you don't have anything to live for'. I didn't have my damn kid, Wesley. I had to give him up to work with evil and that was not a bright idea. I don't want that life. I want this one. And you are not taking my son away from me again."

"This is the wrong life," Wesley said. He tried shoving against Angel's arms. "You fight evil, Angel. You made sacrifices for the greater good. You had a job! You swore an oath!"

Angel let go of Wes, staring him down. "I swore an oath?"

Wesley blinked, taken aback. "I - I meant - "

"It's just hilarious, Wes," Angel said. "You coming here, lecturing me about making decisions on other people's behalf. Giving me the evil eye about trust, by the way, when from where I'm standing you're the one who staged this entire thing and got me to trust you so - "

"It didn't work like that!" Wesley told him. "I had no memory. No more than you did."

" - you can get me to let my guard down," Angel continued, "get me alone like this so you can work your little spell and steal from me - "

"That's not true," Wesley insisted. "I had no idea that I would fall in love with you again!"

The word hung out in the air between them.

"Again?" Angel repeated. "Gee, Wes, thanks so much for telling me the first time."

"This isn't how it was meant to be," Wesley said. He came forward, trying to look Angel in the eye. "Everything over there was wrong. I knew it. I knew that if I could find you, give you your memory back - "

"You were wrong, Wesley," Angel told him, his voice flat. "This is my decision. This is what I want. You want to try taking me back you go nuts but I'm not going without a fight. Actually, I'm just not going. So pack up your spells and your memories and get the Hell out."

Wesley reached for him. "Angel - "

Angel shoved him back down onto the ground. "Get the Hell out. You've got a day. After that I'd better not see you ever again. Do you got that?"

"Dad?"

The sound of Connor's voice made him freeze. Angel turned to see his son standing on the trail. "Connor?"

Connor frowned, looking curious. "I heard shouting. Is everything okay?"

Angel went to Connor's side, holding him tight before looking him over carefully. "Connor - are you okay? Is everything all right? Do you feel okay? Is anything wrong?"

Connor allowed two seconds of the ministrations before trying to pull out of it. "Yeah, I'm fine. Jeez, Dad, whatever. I just thought something was up."

"Nothing's up," Angel said. He stared at Connor's eyes, looking for any hint of memories of what he'd gone through on the other side. "Absolutely nothing. If you're okay then I'm amazing. You got that?"

"Sure," Connor said, shrugging out of Angel's hold. "So can we go now?"

"Yeah, let's get out of here," Angel said. He kept hold of Connor's arm, not ready to let go of him yet. "I'm suddenly real bored with this."

Connor stopped, moving to help Wesley up off the ground. "Wes, if you - "

Angel snatched him back. "Don't touch him, Connor. Don't even talk to him."

Connor glared at the rough treatment. "Dad, what the Hell?"

"It's nothing," Angel said, moving Connor back onto the path. "Let's go."

Wesley made one last attempt to talk to him. "Angel - "

"Shut the Hell up," Angel told him. "One day. That's it. And take care of your god-damned daughter, Wes. She's crying."

Wesley blinked, looking over at the baby in the stroller as though he'd completely forgotten she was there. "Oh."


"Dad. Dad. Dad!" Connor finally jerked out of his touch when they were halfway home. "I'm not three, all right? I can walk myself."

Angel didn't want to let go of him but he forced himself to go along. "Okay. Right. Sorry."

"And I'm not going home," Connor said. "The gang and I are gonna hit a movie. I was coming to ask for more cash."

"I gave you - " Angel started to say, then felt his head hurt at the double-vision of memories. He pressed the heel of his hands into his eyes. "I - "

Connor was in front of him, touching him gently. "Dad?"

Angel dropped his hands, looking at him. "Do you love me? Connor, you know I would never force you to, never demand that - No. No. Forget I asked that. Are you happy? With your life? With everything? Are you happy?"

"I guess," Connor shrugged. His brows furrowed together in a frown. "'course right now I'm kind of busy with the part where my dad's lost his mind, though."

"I'm sorry," Angel said again. He squeezed Connor's arms then let him go. "I'm sorry. I'm okay. I promise. I just - here, take money." Angel fished for his wallet, pulling out a small handful of bills. "Go to the movies. Have soda, and candy, and popcorn, and normal stuff that every kid should have."

Connor took the money, regarding him suspiciously. "Dad, what the Hell is going on?"

"Wes and I had a fight," Angel told him. "He's not - look, just don't spend any time with him, okay? Go be with Tracy and Rick and everybody else and have a good time. Things will be better in the morning."

"You want me to stay out all night?" Connor asked, doubt shaping his features.

"Your curfew is 11:30 and you know it," Angel replied, surprised at how easy it was for the words to still be there in spite of the hundreds of years of memories which contradicted them. "I just meant have fun. On your old man. All right?"

Connor stared at him a long time, then folded the money into his pocket. "I'm going to be back later."

"Good," Angel said.

"Maybe even early," Connor added, as though this were a warning.

"Whatever you want," Angel replied.

Connor kept staring, then finally walked off.

Angel watched until Connor was no more than a speck in the distance, then decided he could use a walk himself to clear his head.


A walk around town turned into a hike along the Post Road turned into Angel simply putting one foot in front of another until the sun set, there was no sign of life around him and his legs and feet began to ache.

Angel stood there, right in the middle of nowhere, his pounding heart reminding him that he was far too human and even too old to attempt this sort of stunt, and knew that nothing but nothing was ever going to take it away from him. Not even the memories of the life he'd once had.

He turned around and walked home again.


"I don't believe it," Fred was saying as Angel walked into the diner. She, Gunn, and Cordy were there, enjoying what looked like an impromptu breakfast. "It just can't be real."

Angel stood in the doorway, again feeling the double vision of Fred at the counter of the diner overlapping with memories of Fred at the very similar looking counter of the Hyperion hotel, and then felt her actual words send a jolt of panic through his system. "What can't be real?"

Everyone looked up to see him.

"Angel, where the Hell were you, man?" Gunn asked, coming over to take a look at him. "You vanished yesterday and - "

"What can't be real?" Angel asked. He looked from Gunn to Fred to - God, Cordy. Cordy who was supposed to be in a coma. Cordy who'd been taken, hurt by the Powers and made to break his heart and betray each and every one of them. "What?"

"Well for starters your outfit," Cordy replied, brushing her hands over a few wrinkles in his jacket. "What, did you sleep in this or something? How many times do I have to tell you that if you want to earn some respect around this place you've got to dress like it?"

"My outfit's fine, Cordy, what I'm asking is - " Angel stopped, looking down at her. "You're just worried about my clothes?"

"I'm not saying the hair couldn't use a long and heavy discussion too," Cordy said, "but I figured one obstacle at a time."

Angel grabbed her and kissed her. "Thank God."

Cordy pushed back. "Hey! Boundaries! We talked about the no dating thing!"

"Right, right," Angel said. Relief coursed through him. He felt almost giddy. "Sorry. I'm just - suddenly I'm in a very good mood. Let's go out. Do something. The party's on me."

Fred looked worried. "Angel, are you sure that's appropriate?"

"I am absolutely sure that's appropriate," Angel said. He went over to the cash register, needing two tries to remember how to open it. "Come on. What do you say? And let's grab Connor. He's here, right?"

"Yeah, he came home last night wondering where the Hell you were," Gunn said. He came over to the counter, standing beside him. "And what the fuck is going on? We're playing a game then suddenly you vanish, Connor's in a sulk and Wesley - "

Angel's head snapped up. "What about Wesley?"

"He's in trouble," Fred replied.

"Kate came by earlier," Cordy explained. "Said she heard from one of her cop buddies that there's a guy over in Mayford looking for the owner of an SUV with Wes's license plates."

Again Angel's memories came on a slight time delay. "Mayford. That's... two towns over, right?"

"Yeah," Gunn said, watching him suspiciously. "According to him our boy Wes is wanted on a count of kidnapping. Plenty of other stuff too."

"Oh," Angel said, unsurprised by it.

"Oh?" Fred demanded. "Oh? Angel, it can't be true. Wesley wouldn't - "

"Wes would do a lot of stuff you wouldn't give him credit for," Angel said. He slammed the cash register drawer shut, his celebratory mood having left him. "Which is why I told him to get out of town. Now if you'll excuse me."

"Angel," Cordy said, trying to stop him.

"What?" Angel snapped, feeling the exhaustion of the past day catching up with him.

Cordy didn't flinch, but she clearly decided now was not the time to try to sweet talk him. "Here," she said, handing him a business card. "Kate said to give that to you. It's the guy looking for Wesley."

Angel took the card, read it, and smirked. "Yeah that makes sense. I'll be upstairs."

Fortunately nobody tried to stop him.


PART ELEVEN

Connor swooped down on him as soon as he opened the door to the apartment. "You must think I'm stupid."

Angel stood there with his hand on the doorknob, wondering if it was too late to run back downstairs. "No, son, I don't think that."

"You thought I wouldn't figure it out, didn't you?" Connor accused. "You thought I wouldn't know."

Angel closed the door, deciding this conversation was definitely going to be private. "Connor, before you start, let me explain myself."

"Explain yourself?" Connor asked. "Explain yourself? What exactly are you going to explain?"

Angel had to admit this was a good question. "Well... things are complicated. And I thought - "

"I can't believe this!" Connor shouted. He looked ready to hit something. "How could you? How could you do this?"

Angel held up his hands, trying to calm him down. "Son - "

"How could you start drinking again?" Connor demanded. He shook his head in disgust. "Of all the selfish, stupid things you could do!"

"Oh God," Angel said. He came forward, trying to get Connor to listen to him. "Son, no. No. I swear to you that's not it."

"Yeah, right," Connor said. "You're just getting into fights with people, acting all strange, trying to make sure I don't notice you staying out all night. I'm not an idiot."

"Connor, no," Angel insisted. "I'm not drunk."

"Yeah, sure, now," Connor said. "The bars were closed, right? You know, I'm not doing this again. I'm not picking up after you or making excuses for you or walking over your body in the park because you were too much of a loser to even pass out in our house."

"Jesus," Angel said. The truth of what Connor said washed over him. He saw himself, this version of himself, doing those very things. He felt the horror of it all over again. "I'm so sorry."

"Yeah," Connor said. "So sorry that you're doing it again."

"No," Angel said. He took Connor by the arms, meeting his eyes. "Son, listen to me. I'm not drunk. I haven't had a drink. Not for years and not again. I swore to myself I'd never hurt you like that and I meant it. I would never ever hurt you like that. I'd never let anything else hurt you like that either. Not again. Do you understand me?"

Connor looked at him warily. "So what's going on?"

Angel grimaced. "That's... complicated."

"Tell me anyway," Connor said, his attitude a mixture of stubbornness and concern.

Angel let him go, hoping to defuse the fight between them. He put his hands in his pockets, trying to figure out how to explain it. "I - I had a nightmare, okay? About somebody taking you away from me. It was like I lived somebody else's life where - where you weren't in it. And that killed me, Connor. You know, I don't care if you ever forgive me or love me after all the things I've done but it would kill me if I wasn't allowed to love you."

Connor took that in, shifting uncomfortably. "And that's all it is? A nightmare?"

"That's all it is," Angel said.

Connor finally nodded, accepting that. "Fine. But next time tell me. I was up all night worrying about you."

Angel dared to give him a grin. "Remember that next time you stay out past your curfew. You'll know what I go through."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Connor said. He gestured towards the kitchen. "You eaten anything yet?"

"No," Angel said, realizing he'd forgotten all about that. His stomach rumbled, reminding him. "You cooking?"

"I could make us a few sandwiches," Connor said.

Angel smiled. "PB&J?"

"God, you actually want ingredients?" Connor asked. "I was just gonna throw the bread at your thick skull."

Angel took his coat off, hanging it on the hook. "What can I say? I'm picky."

Connor went into the kitchen, pulling out the ingredients from the various cabinets. "So, pretty freaky dream, huh?"

Angel helped out by finding clean knives and plates. "The freakiest."

Connor dealt out bread, then began spreading peanut butter over it. "Was it one of those ones where, like, everything's purple and houses are made out of strawberries?"

Angel watched Connor carefully, deciding now was the time to test the waters if any. "It was one of those ones were I was actually over two hundred years old and somehow you and Cordy got together to have a child that ended up enslaving the world."

"See this is why I tell you not to eat the spicy stuff at parties," Connor said. He gestured at Angel with his spoon before dipping it into the jelly jar. "You think you can handle it but you are so very, very wrong."

"My bad," Angel said, smiling again.

"You should look into simple stuff," Connor continued. He put the sandwiches together and handed one to Angel. "In fact, don't they make energy shakes for people your age? Saves you the danger of chewing."

"Did I mention in this dream that sometimes I had fangs?" Angel asked.

"Yeah, that's in no way Freudian and disgusting," Connor replied, cutting his sandwich in half. "Do you want milk?"

"Yeah, thanks," Angel said, putting his plate on the table.

"There's a carton of it in the fridge," Connor said. He turned a chair around so he could straddle it while sitting at the table. "Help yourself."

"Thanks," Angel drawled. He filled a glass for the both of them. "So how was your day?"

Connor talked around a mouthful of food. "Before or after I got all pissed off at you?"

"We already did the pissed off part, so how about you give me the good stuff?" Angel asked.

Connor shrugged. "Okay I guess."

"Did you enjoy the movie?" Angel asked, sitting down as well. "What'd you see anyway?"

Connor rolled his eyes. "Nothing. We got up to the theater then Rick started acting like a moron because he and Brenda can't agree on who pays for stuff, and Robin had an early curfew anyway so Tracy and I gave up and went home."

"By which you mean that you came right back here," Angel said, "all by yourself and did homework and other kinds of wholesome things I can be proud of, right?"

"Yeah, right," Connor grinned. "By the way, Dad?"

Angel looked up at him. "Yeah?"

"Get your own supplies next time, because using mine is seriously gross," Connor told him.

Angel laughed. "Yeah, that was - " he stopped, the memory of Wes catching up with him. He swallowed and pushed his food away, suddenly not hungry anymore.

Connor looked worried. "You had more than a nightmare, didn't you?"

"Wes and I had a fight," Angel said. He folded his arms on the table, leaning on it for support. "It's - don't worry about it. He's leaving town."

Connor picked at his crusts. "I'm sorry."

Angel shrugged. "No big deal."

"I know you liked him," Connor said.

"My mistake," Angel replied.

Connor looked uncertain about the next question. "Did he hurt you?"

Angel bit his tongue, then finally nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, he did."

Connor made a face. "Asshole."

"That'd be one word for it," Angel agreed. He tried drinking his milk, the taste strange after everything that had happened.

"Well screw him," Connor decided. "He was a jerk anyway. I hope he does leave town. Let him suffer. Let that guy catch up to him and make him pay."

Angel stopped, listening to the words that were coming out of his son's mouth. "No."

"Why not?" Connor asked. "He lied, he stole, he hurt people. He hurt you. Why shouldn't he be punished? I hope he goes to jail. I hope he goes to worse."

"No," Angel said, standing up to his full height. He faced his son down. "No. Don't say that. Don't you ever say that, Connor. You are a better person than that, do you hear me?"

Connor looked up, confused. "Dad, what's the big deal?"

"You shouldn't hate," Angel said, fighting back the echoes of memories that threatened to overwhelm him. "Not like that. Not because of that."

Connor shook his head. "But - "

Angel came to the other side of the table, squatting down so he and Connor were face to face. "Son, you may not ever understand this but - you're in a better place than you could ever be. A place I fought very hard to give you. And I did it because I know that you are full of love, and compassion, and kindness the likes of which nobody has ever seen. You are the most amazing person I have ever known and I don't ever want you to forget that."

"Okay, now you're freaking me out again," Connor told him.

"I'm sorry," Angel said, "but it's true. Don't ever lower yourself because of other people, and especially not because of me. Don't hate somebody just because you think I want you to. Don't hurt someone just because you think it might protect me. I don't want that for you. I just want you."

"What if I get mad about people hurting you anyway?" Connor asked. "You're my dad. I don't want people hurting you."

Angel swallowed hard on the lump in his throat. "Then when it happens and you feel like that come and tell me. I promise no matter what that'll make me feel better."

"I'd rather punch people in the face," Connor said.

"Tough," Angel retorted. "Life's full of sacrifices. Believe me."

Connor squirmed, then reached out to embrace him. "I do love you, okay? And I forgive you for the other stuff. Just don't do it again. I'll kick your ass if I have to, you know."

Angel held him close, knowing he was making the hug last longer than Connor's teenage sensibilities were probably comfortable with. "Like you could take me."

"You'd be huffing and wheezing two minutes in," Connor said. "Plus I cheat. My dad taught me how."

Angel shut his eyes tight. "You're the best son I could ever ask for, you know that?"

"I'm your only son," Connor reminded him.

Angel smiled. "Doesn't matter in the slightest. Now stay here."

Connor frowned. "Where are you going?"

Angel stood up, heading for the door. "To practice what I preach."


The apartment door was unlocked when Angel went upstairs. He pushed it open, watching the light from the hallway fall onto Wes's luggage, and then Wes's back as he sat on the windowsill. Angel walked over, sitting down beside Wes with one leg planted in the living room, the other on the garage roof outside.

Wes didn't even look up. "It's fascinating, isn't it?"

"What is?" Angel asked.

"All of it," Wesley said. His hands curled in his lap, holding Alissa securely in her bundle of blankets and winter wear. "This world, this reality. I've been thinking about it."

Angel leaned back against the windowframe. "It's got a lot going for it."

"You couldn't adjust all of it though," Wes continued. "You knew that going in, didn't you? I recognized the words when you told me. Lilah gave me the exact same warning. Some things - "

" - can't be changed," Angel finished. "Yeah. She did."

Wes looked up. "It's destinies, isn't it? You couldn't change everyone's destinies. That's why Buffy isn't here, or Faith. Their roles as Slayers superceded your wish for this place to happen."

Angel nodded. "That's right."

"And Spike," Wes said, puzzling it out. "He's the Champion now. His destiny couldn't be changed either."

"Exactly," Angel said.

"There's nothing supernatural in this world, is there?" Wesley asked.

"Nope," Angel said. "No vampires, no demons, no witches, not even an oh my."

"It's a powerful spell," Wesley said, his voice almost admiring.

"Took two vengeance demons and something called a Krissniv," Angel told him.

Wes didn't look surprised. "Yes, I imagine it would. So, what did you wish for? A normal life for you, then one for Connor - "

"No," Angel shook his head. "That was one wish. For me to be able to have a normal life with Connor. So I could give him that. Nobody else."

Wesley frowned. "Only one wish for that? And the Krissniv would have tidied up the details and given the extra burst of power necessary for something as massive as this. What was the other demon for then?"

"Darla," Angel said.

Understanding shaped Wesley's face. "She was fated to die. No matter what, her destiny was to die from illness. But you changed that. You used the other demon to change the date."

"I didn't want Connor growing up not knowing who his mother was," Angel said. "Or how much she loved him."

Wesley thought about it, his gaze going back down to the child in his lap. "That must have been quite a difficult decision for you. To choose something like that, knowing that it would mean heartache of that nature."

"It was for Connor," Angel shrugged. "I'd do a whole lot of things for that kid."

"Even give up your memories of Buffy?" Wesley asked.

"Gave up my memories of everything," Angel reminded him. He tried to keep the bitterness out of his tone. "That's the way it worked. Until now, anyway."

Wesley's fingers moved down the baby blanket, avoiding Alissa's touch as she reached out for him. "When I returned from visiting my family everyone was fine. Worried about me, of course, as much as any of them are, but beyond that not a care in the world. Utterly convinced that all was well, and that Spike was doing a wonderful job in his capacity as our leader."

"Was he?" Angel asked, surprised to find that he was curious.

Wesley shrugged. "As well as any new Champion could, I suppose. But I knew that was wrong, you see. I knew that something was missing. Something important."

"Me," Angel said.

"I notice your ego doesn't change either," Wes said, dryly. "Yes, though I didn't realize it. I finally found a way to confront Lilah and make her give me the truth. She let me in on your little secret and then gave me the rest of the story. Imagine my surprise to discover this wasn't the first time you'd tried something like this."

"Connor was hurt," Angel said. "He was dying. I had to do something to save him."

"So you did," Wesley said, looking resigned to it. "To all reports it worked. What changed that?"

"I did," Angel said. He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "When you left the prophecy came up again. Spike became corporeal and he and I fought to see which one of us deserved to get the Shanshu. Turns out it was a trick but - "

"Spike won," Wesley guessed. His blue eyes met Angel's. "That's it, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Angel confirmed.

Wes shook his head. "Angel, that doesn't mean - "

"No, it does, Wes," Angel said. He sat forward. "You were right. I lost it. I lost whatever it was that was keeping me in this. I lost the thing that I was hoping for. All that time I figured, I dunno, it was Buffy, or the good fight, or the prophecy. But it's not. Not anymore. It's my kid. All the prophecies in the world didn't mean nearly as much as getting my kid back."

"So you called Lilah and had her broker a new deal for you," Wesley said. "A new life with Connor. One without demons or vampires."

"One where he and I could really have a life," Angel said. "One that was worthy of him."

"Regardless of what that did to the rest of us," Wesley said. "Of how that meant leaving us without our Champion."

"You had a Champion," Angel said. "You had Spike. Face it, Wes. He does want it more. He's younger, he's hungrier. Yeah, I bet he was making some mistakes but so did I. He's fresh blood. Let him have it."

"You're not going back, are you?" Wesley asked.

Angel shook his head. "No."

Wes gave an ironic smile. "I was once so confident that you would."

"I won't lie to you," Angel said. "I know this might be exactly what the Senior Partners want. Hell, getting me out of the game like this might be exactly what they planned. But I don't care. I've got my kid. That's all that matters."

Wes nodded. "I can understand that."

"I'm sorry," Angel offered.

"It's your decision," Wesley said.

They lapsed into silence. Wes's hand finally stilled its nervous movements, staying in one place as Alissa attempted to hold it.

"Wes?" Angel said, when the quiet had gone on too long

"I can't do it," Wesley said, his voice no more than a whisper. "I've tried, but I can't."

Angel watched him carefully, keeping his own tone neutral. "What?"

"She cries at night," Wesley said. "Almost every night. She's been fed, and changed, and read to, and in all manners satisfied. It's only nightmares. Her own fears and worries. And I know each time that it happens that I am not supposed to help her with it. That I should stay back and let her learn to comfort herself. That I should not interfere."

"But you don't," Angel said.

"I can't," Wes looked up, his eyes tormented. "She cried last night, just as she's done so many nights before and I told myself not to do it. To leave her there, to not care because - because it doesn't matter. I don't belong here and neither does she as she's only a figment of an error in the timeline of history and she'll be gone when I leave and it won't have mattered!"

"Wes," Angel said, trying to draw him out of it.

"But I can't," Wes continued, breathing harder now. "I can't. Because - because she's mine. My own daughter. And - and I couldn't leave her there, Angel. I couldn't leave her trapped in that small room, surrounded by the dark, wondering... wondering why her father wasn't coming to save her."

"Oh Jesus, Wes," Angel breathed. He wanted to reach out to him but knew this was one of those times when men didn't do that. When men especially did not do that. "Christ...."

"She's not real," Wes insisted. "When I came over here I demanded that Lilah give me a key. A way to restore my memory and yours. Do you know what Alissa even means, Angel?"

"Truth," Angel said, remembering when he himself had noticed how strange the choice of name was. "It's from Hebrew. It means truth."

"I'm quite the fool, aren't I?" Wesley asked. "Lilah put all the clues right in front of me. Even chose a language that I would be bound to know here if I was the sort of man to study any languages at all. The facts, quite literally, staring me right in the face and I didn't even notice them. Doesn't that strike you as funny? Hysterical, perhaps?"

"I'm not so worried about the name right now," Angel said.

"I was a Watcher," Wesley said. "Even after I lost my job I prided myself in knowing that I kept my oaths. That I never wavered from my promise to save the world, no matter what the cost was to myself."

"But you can't do it now," Angel said.

Wesley held Alissa's hand in one of his own. "No. I can't."

"That doesn't make you a bad man," Angel said.

Wes gave a bark of laughter. "I beg to disagree with you."

"Disagree all you like, it doesn't make it less true." Angel said. He touched Wes's leg, forcing him to face him. "Wesley, when you arrived here you know what made me trust you? Her. You were starving yourself in order to take care of her. That's not a bad man, Wes. That's a selfless one."

"That wasn't me," Wesley said.

"It was," Angel said, pressing his hand against Wes to drive the point home. "You said it yourself - some things can't be changed. I couldn't change Fred's brains or Doyle's death or my addictions and I couldn't change you. You're a good man, Wesley. You've made some mistakes but so has everybody. That doesn't change who you are inside."

Wes looked away, picking a new subject as though Angel hadn't even spoken at all. "You chose this, didn't you? I just realized the location was a part of it. You asked for something as different from Los Angeles as possible."

"That," Angel admitted, "and snow. I like snow."

"It makes you feel alive," Wesley said.

"It reminds me that there's good in life, and that's worth living it," Angel said. He studied Wes, wishing that he could read thoughts. "I know you tried to save Lilah."

Wes's shoulders tightened, but otherwise he gave no sign of emotion. "Yes."

"I know you couldn't do it," Angel said. "I know her contract was fully binding."

"So it would seem," Wesley said.

"Yours wasn't," Angel said.

Wes looked up.

"You're sitting here thinking that you failed," Angel said. "And I know that because I know you and I know that's what you always think. But did you stop to consider that maybe that wasn't the real mission? You said once you didn't know why Lilah would do this. Why she would have a child when you saw no reason why she should."

"It was the key," Wesley said. "I asked her to provide me with something. She picked something that I wouldn't lose. That I would protect."

"She picked the dollar, Wesley," Angel told him. "That was the one constant. Not your kid."

Wesley shook his head, his mouth agape. "No. No, you're mistaken - "

Angel leaned in, making sure Wes didn't look away this time. "Destinies don't change. Lilah's was to die while she was with you, and I'm sorry about that. But I think she had one more. One she made for herself. I think she decided to save you."

"No," Wes said again, but this time Angel could tell he was listening.

"It makes sense, Wes," Angel said. "Because that's constant too. Her life for yours. In both realities."

"But I had a life here," Wes protested.

"Not there?" Angel asked.

"No, I - " Wes faltered. "I did."

"You liked your job that much?" Angel asked. "Working for a company you didn't believe in, just on the odd chance you might one day make your father happy?"

"Well I - " Wes frowned. "Wait. Which reality are you talking about?"

"You tell me," Angel replied.

There was a long moment as Wesley took that in.

"It's not a failure, Wes," Angel said. "Doing what you want right now does not make you less of a man. If you ask me, it makes you a better one."

"And what do I want right now?" Wesley asked.

Angel gave him a look. "You saying you really don't know?"

Wes became quiet again. Finally he spoke. "I want her. I want this. I want... I want what really matters to me."

"Sounds like some good goals," Angel said.

"Yes, well, easy for you to say," Wes replied. "You're the one who's actually made a life over here. I'm the charity case who's on the run from the law."

"Oh yeah, speaking of which," Angel fished the business card out of his pocket, showing it to Wesley. "Guess who's come calling?"

Wes read it. "Oh Good Lord."

"Yup," Angel said.

Wes frowned, curious. "Do you think he still has his hand?"

"I was wondering that too," Angel admitted.

"I suppose now I'll find out," Wesley sighed. "Some things truly are constant."

"Yeah," Angel said, "but what? Does that mean it's part of your destiny for Lindsey to come bugging you, or that it's part of mine?"

"As he's currently coming after me I assume - " Wes trailed off, then studied him. "Angel..."

"Stay," Angel said.

"You hate me," Wes reminded him.

"I was mad at you," Angel said. "And you were mad at me. But you know what? I'm sick of worlds with grudges that screw up people's lives. What do you say we both let it go and start over?"

"You honestly think we could do this?" Wesley asked.

"I honestly think we could try," Angel said. "Besides, you gotta stop running sometime. Why not some place where you've got friends?"

Wesley grimaced. "That might not be as easy for me as you might think."

"Then you've got me," Angel said. "And Connor. And your daughter. What more could you want?"

"A bigger checking account?" Wesley quipped, then dismissed it. "No. I - thank you. That's very generous. Perhaps even more than I would be under the circumstances."

"Do you really not like me anymore?" Angel asked. "Because of what I did?"

Wes's eyes met his. "I didn't say that."

Angel weighed that carefully. "Something else didn't change. Something you should know about."

"What?" Wesley asked.

"I didn't think I'd fall in love with you again either," Angel said.

From the look on Wes's face Angel knew the words had hit home. "Oh."

"Yeah," Angel said.

Alissa began to fuss. Wesley picked her up, cradling her carefully. With a smirk that was only partially hidden, Wesley said, "Thank you ever so much for telling me the first time."

"What can I say?" Angel asked. "I'm a man of secrets."

"You're a man," Wesley pointed out. "Must be quite the experience for you, particularly now that you know the difference."

"Not saying it isn't taking some getting used to," Angel said. "Food's a little off, I definitely don't have my full strength, and if my memory's right apparently my cholesterol is totally out of whack."

Wes actually smiled. "Perils of age."

"Wes?" Angel asked.

Wesley placed a few soft kisses on Alissa's forehead. "Yes?"

"What is cholesterol?"

Wes laughed. "Nobody knows. It's just something we nod about and pretend to understand whenever our doctors scold us about it."

"Oh," Angel said. "Okay."

"You are going to need my help, aren't you?" Wesley observed.

"Wouldn't be unwelcome," Angel said. He moved closer. "Neither would you."

"You really want that?" Wesley asked. "After everything that's happened? Everything you remember?"

"Do you?" Angel asked.

Wes thought about it. "Lilah said when I regained my memories all that was left was finding out if I could tell what really mattered."

"Can you?" Angel asked.

Wes gave Alissa another hug, then leaned over to brush Angel's lips with a kiss. "Yes. I believe I can."

Angel pulled Wesley close, savoring the feel of him. "Don't go back there, Wesley. Stay right here with me."

Wesley rested himself against Angel's chest. "It's not the life I would have pictured for myself."

"It's the life you can have," Angel said. "If you want it."

Wes was quiet for a moment, then nodded. "I do."

Angel smiled at that, and watched the light of the sun dance across the crystals of snow that covered their garage.

The End

Feed The Brat Queen
Visit The Brat Queen
Return to Writercon Archive
Main