A Cleansing Fire: an Elseworlds Fic
by indie


AUTHOR'S NOTES1:  Inspiration taken from Lady Raven's Elseworld story (as was Angel's last name and the fact that he's filthy rich). Concept is pretty straight forward, this story is not set in the Buffyverse, it's total AU.  Just to be clear, it is not set in the specific AU created by Lady Raven either.  Things in slash marks and italics are  //memories//  A free squeaky toy and a can o' beans to the first person who gets the two pop culture name references.
AUTHORíS NOTES2:  Iím blaming this one on Univision, which Iíve been watching a lot lately.  My brain is total soap opera mush at this point.  At least I managed to keep the nuns out.
DEDICATION:  I sort of hate to dedicate it to anyone Ďcause itís such a fruity story, but Shayla deserves a lot of credit.  She has the unenviable task of trying to make me readable.  Also, to all the writers whoíve been turning out just yummy fic lately, Shayla, Ducks, Margot, Trix, Laure ... this list goes on and on so Iíll just stop now.


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

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

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

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

Faith smiled conciliatorily at her friend although she was fuming inside.  How could Xander do something so cold?  Even if he didn't know all the specifics, he should have known better than to invite Angel to the restaurant's opening.  Traitor.  She'd find him later and have a word, and maybe a fist about his guest list.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xander blanched and studied something on the toe of his shoe.  He'd been telling himself since he sent the invitation to Angel that it wouldn't be a problem.  He'd known he was lying to himself, but leave it to Faith to make sure he was properly punished for his transgression.

"I just ... " Xander began.

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

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

"Trust me," Faith replied, "this hurt her."

"Buffy is my friend," he explained.  "She's always been there for me, and I owe her so much.  But let's face it.  I would be nowhere without Angel and his connections.  If Buffy hadn't married him, I would be stuck flipping burgers in some diner rather than opening the hottest new eatery in L.A.  If I turn on him, I risk losing *everything*."

Regarding him with disgust, Faith replied, "Glad to know you have your priorities.  First you ditch Willow and now you ditch Buffy.  Bravo, Xander, you'll be a member of Angel's inner circle in no time with moves like that."

*****

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

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

"Oh, Buffy," Willow said quietly as she enveloped her dearest friend in a hug.

The blonde slumped against her friend, shoulders shaking with the force of her sobs.  She'd been successfully holding herself together for hours, but the stress had finally taken its toll.  Surrounded by Willow's comforting embrace, she gave in to the emotions she'd been holding at bay.

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

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

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

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

Willow looked at her friend, her gaze full of empathy.  She'd warned Buffy against going to Xander's opening, but the blonde was too proud to let Angel cow her and too loyal to let Xander down.  Maybe she should have spoken up more, Willow thought to herself.  She'd known just how quickly the tides of friendship could change in the wake of a break-up, especially one as high profile as Buffy's.  Angel's friends were moneyed and powerful.   They'd doted on Buffy while she was a Roarke by marriage, but as soon as Angel and his money left her, so had they.

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

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

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

The evening had opened up a lot of wounds for the redhead as well.  Her recent split from Xander, while they hadn't been married, was still extremely painful.  The fact that he seemed to be doing so well in her absence while she was barely scraping by didn't make things any easier.  But she comforted herself with the knowledge that Xander was no where near as cruel as Angel was capable of being.

*****

"Your ex was looking in fine form this evening," William Broad drawled slowly at his half brother and best friend across a glass of scotch.

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

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

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

Angel narrowed his gaze at the blonde but held his tongue for almost a minute.  When he finally spoke, it was with icy control.

"Technically," he said calmly, "Buffy is still my wife.  Until the point at which she no longer is, I will treat any advances made towards her without my characteristic patience and understanding."

Will bit his tongue knowing full well that Angel was about as far from patient and understanding as a person could get.  It appeared that anyone trying to put the make on his soon-to-be-ex would find themselves faced with a war they couldn't possibly hope to win.  Will shrugged and then frowned as a thought hit him.

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

Angel scowled, not meeting his brother's gaze and rose to pour himself another drink.  Will lit a cigar as he watched the elder male carefully.  After tossing back the drink and pouring himself another, Angel once again took a seat in one of the plush leather library chairs.

"I'm not divorcing Buffy" he replied evenly.

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

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

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

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

"What's the diff?"

Angel sighed in exasperation.  Sometimes his brother really had problems following the action.  "If Buffy and I get divorced, she will be generously compensated for her troubles."

Will nodded.

"An annulment, on the other hand, means we go our separate ways like our marriage never happened.  No division of property.  No alimony.  No ex-wife walking off with half of what I've spent my entire life accumulating."

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

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

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

Angel let out a bark of laughter.  "There was nothing to find fault with," he said cryptically.

"Huh?"

"No prenup," Angel answered curtly.

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

Angel smiled sardonically.  "That's what I said."

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

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

Angel smiled again.  "I'm not that naÔve," he answered coolly.

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

Taking another drink, Angel said, "I never thought it would last forever ... I just figured that when it finally fell apart that she would deserve whatever she got."

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

Finishing his drink, Angel studied the empty glass for a long moment.

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

Will was stunned into silence.  Buffy had been pregnant?  He knew for a fact that Angel didn't have any children, neither did Buffy.  His mind was awhirl with suspicions.  He'd never been overly fond of his sister-in-law, and this seemed to confirm his previous assumptions about her character.

"Pregnant, eh?" he snorted.  "Sounds like she got you good.  You were in such a rush to marry her that you got taken, mate.  One fictitious child and five years later she walks away with half your bloody fortune without having to ruin her pretty little figure with a brat."

Angel winced.  What had possessed him to confide that information to Will?  He'd never discussed the matter with anyone besides his own father.

Fictitious child, Angel pondered.  He couldn't help but think back to that night, to waking to find Buffy next to him, bleeding, hysterical, screaming in terror.  If only it *had* been a ruse ...  But it hadn't.  The lingering depression that followed the miscarriage, her devastation at the loss of their first child ...  Watching his wife go through that had worn on Angel more than he would ever allow anyone to know.  For all of their many problems, he knew that Buffy would never use a child, or the possibility of one, in such a manner.  It was far too important to her.

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

*****

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

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

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

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

As Willow walked into the store room to check on inventory, Buffy smoothed her apron down.  It wasn't wrinkled, but she had to keep her hands busy or she'd go insane.  Six years ago she thought she'd gone through the hardest thing she would ever have to face in her life.

How wrong she had been.

Her flight to California had been impulsive, a last ditch effort to preserve herself.  Stuck in the stiflingly small town of Huxley in the wake of what had happened, she would have drowned in pity.  When Riley had left her, virtually at the alter, she had been completely unprepared.  She'd been eighteen and desperately in love with the man who had been her boyfriend since junior high.  He was safe.  She'd known him her entire life.

But Riley hadn't been satisfied with her.  He'd told her she was too meek, too predictable.  He wanted more out of life.  Apparently "more" meant he wanted to fuck around with resident debutante, Cordelia Chase.  Buffy found out that they'd flown off to Jamaica as she was getting ready on the morning of her wedding.  She could still clearly remember Riley's father, deeply embarrassed, showing up to tell her what had happened just after her mother had finished helping her on with her wedding dress.

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

"Who?"

Just then, Riley's father appeared in the doorway.  His face fell as he saw the wedding dress.  "Oh, Buffy ... " he said, his face tight with shame.  "Buffy, Riley ... isn't here."

"Isn't here?"

"He left this morning ... ran off with Cordelia Chase.  He left this note."  //

She'd walked around in a fog for weeks.  For the first time in her life, her future was unknown.  Terror didn't even begin to describe what she was going through.  In a fit of desperation, she'd boarded a bus bound for the west coast.  She hadn't told anyone what she was doing, she'd merely sent her parents a post card after she arrived telling them she was safe.

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

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

*****

Rupert snorted as he looked at his only child.  "Figures," he said harshly.  "I knew you would find some way to screw it up, even with someone as mild mannered as Buffy."

Angel's face was devoid of emotion.  Years of experience had taught him that showing any weakness to his father would only encourage the man to further offensive tactics.

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

"There is no need to discuss the specifics," Angel said coldly.

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

Angel winced.  His father was right.  Bearing her first child had been the saving grace of Jenny Roarke Broad's short life.  If she hadn't been Angel's mother, she would have been completely without means after Ethan Broad abandoned her and her youngest son only months after their marriage.  Her ties to Angel had ensured that neither she nor her sons went hungry.  Rupert even went so far as to make sure that her youngest son, William had a decent education after her death.  Granted, Will hadn't lived the life of privilege that Rupert's true son had, but it was a far cry from the life the boy would have lived had he not been Angel's half brother.

"Well?" Rupert prompted harshly.

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

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

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

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

*****

"Buffy?"

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

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

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

Riley smiled in that condescending way of his and took a seat at the picnic table next to her.  Leave it to him to try and play knight in shining armor when she was in absolutely no mood to be rescued  at least not by anyone who's first name didn't begin with the letter A.

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

"Uh huh?" Buffy answered innocently.

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

"What about it?" Buffy asked, continuing her dumb blonde routine.  It never failed to work on him.  He was convinced she was an idiot.  Of course, she returned the favor happily.

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

Buffy looked at him incredulously.  "Of course he didn't hurt me, are you insane?"

Giving her another one of his condescending looks, Riley said, "Don't play it off, Buffy.  I heard those things he said to you.  I know he's capable of violence."  Unconsciously, Riley rubbed at the bump on the bridge of his nose from where Angel had broken it some months earlier.

Buffy sighed.  Riley had experienced first hand her husband's capacity for violence as well as hearing some of Angel's more colorful threats.

"He was just angry.  Angel would never hurt me."  Physically, she mentally tacked on to the end of the sentence.

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

Buffy growled and snapped her text book shut as she jumped to her feet.  Staring down at him she yelled, "I am *not* a victim, Riley!  I was married to the man for five years and I know he would never raise a hand to me.  I know what you heard him say, but it was all for show."

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

"What?" she snapped.  "You mean like the way you hurt me?  Trust me, Angel didnít abandon me because I wouldnít sleep with him."

Riley flushed.  Eternally the Boy Scout, he would feel guilty for deserting her for the rest of his life.  Good.  She only wished that Angel was as susceptible to guilt.  No, she thought sharply, she didn't wish that.  She would never attempt to manipulate her husband the way she did Riley.  She loved Angel far too much to toy with his emotions.

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

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

She didn't turn, instead piling all of her things in the car and driving off.  The irony of the fact that she was furious with Riley for making accusations about Angel was not lost on her.  She was upset enough with Angel to strangle him herself, but if anyone else tried the same, she'd defend him to the end.

Her husband was spoiled and self righteous and perfectly capable of acting like an overgrown three year old when he didn't get his way, but he was not abusive.  He was gentle and sweet and loving ... and thoroughly disgusted with her at the moment.  Even if Riley's intentions were good, she resented his prying.  No one knew the real reason behind the breakup, Buffy wasn't even sure she knew herself what had happened.  All she knew was that she had wounded Angel more than either of them had ever thought possible.

Pulling into the parking lot of her apartment building, Buffy grabbed her book bag and nearly sprinted up to the fourth floor apartment she shared with Willow before breaking down into tears.  Willow was gone, busy at work and Buffy was secretly glad.  She didn't enjoy having an audience for her little spells.  Wiping at her eyes, she blew her nose loudly.

She'd been plagued by these violent mood swings since the first miscarriage.  It had taken her months to pull it together again, but she eventually had with Angel's help.  He'd been incredibly supportive and understanding.  Buffy's breath caught as another sob broke from her throat at the memory.  Nobody knew Angel the way she did, not even his family.  When they were alone he could be so loving and tender.  He'd let her see a side of himself that the rest of the world wasn't aware existed.

Several years into their marriage, they'd decided to try and have a child again.  The first time had been an accident, but the second pregnancy was planned.  They read books, consulted experts and everything seemed fine.  Buffy had conceived after only two months of trying and the pregnancy had been progressing normally .

Then everything went to hell.  One of Angel's former lovers, Darla had inserted herself into their lives.  She'd been completely open with Buffy about the fact that she intended to steal her husband.  Buffy had been in a rage, bristling at the mere mention of the other woman's name.  But Angel seemed incapable of seeing what a monster Darla was.  She was one of his oldest friends and confidantes as well as being a former lover.  He trusted her and thought Buffy was overreacting.  He'd blamed it on hormones, convinced her jealousy was unfounded.

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

"She did."

"You're just overwrought.  You need rest.  You haven't been sleeping and that isn't good for the baby."

"So what?  Now I'm a bad mother on top of being a liar?"

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

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

He pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her gently.  "I love you.  You know that.  No one could ever come between us."

She twisted out of his grip, glaring at him.  "I want her out."  //

The night Buffy had caught the two of them together had been the worst of her life.  Desperate, Darla had resorted to drugging Angel.  When Buffy burst in to their bedroom, the scene was very compromising.  In Angel's defense, he didn't appear to be an active participant in the events, too intoxicated to even understand what was happening.  But Buffy had understood.  She'd physically attacked Darla, blind with anger, finally collapsing after Angel's personal assistant, Wesley had pulled the two apart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the last word, she dissolved into tears, crumbling to a heap on the floor.  Angel watched her, helpless.  His presence only seemed to enflame her more.  Neither of them had been eating or sleeping.

And it was all his fault.  He walked over to the door, but did not go through it.  Turning, he leaned against the wall and slowly slid down to huddle on the floor.   From a distance, he watched Buffy sob pitifully, unable to do anything to help. //

In the aftermath, Angel retreated into himself.  He couldn't deal with her any longer, so he simply left her alone.   He was personally overseeing business in England when Willow managed to push her way past the army of household servants and picked the lock to Buffy's bedroom.  The scene she found had chilled Willow to the bone.  A call to 911 and Buffy was admitted against her wishes for medical treatment.  The usually tiny blonde was deathly thin and not in a healthy mental state.  Willow had called Angel in England, but it was weeks before he finally returned.

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

Her relationship with Angel was deeply strained.  He continued to blame himself for her miscarriages and the entire episode with Darla.  Buffy was still too fragile, too wrapped up in healing herself to deal with him.  They became strangers, even going so far as to occupy separate bedrooms.

By the time Buffy found her way back to herself, Angel was out of her reach, physically and emotionally.  Even looking at her seemed to bring him guilt and pain.  Their physical relationship was dead and buried.  They hadn't been intimate since the beginning of the whole Darla incident.  He started spending more and more time with his good for nothing half brother, William.  Buffy didn't know for sure, but she suspected that Angel had taken lovers.  He was a healthy male with extreme physical appetites.  Given the fact that his wife wasn't sating them, she figured someone else had to be.  The realization was difficult for Buffy, but she moved on, confident that she would one day be able to win back his trust and love.  She was placated by the fact that he obviously hadn't given his heart to any of his new lovers.  He still looked every bit as miserable as she herself felt.

As Angel returned to his old friends, so did Buffy.  She began spending more and more time with Willow, her live-in boyfriend Xander, and made a new friend in Faith.  Only Wills really knew Angel, so it was easy for Buffy to avoid the subject of her absentee husband.

Out of the blue, Riley walked back into her life.  Apparently things had fallen apart rather quickly with Cordelia, and he was in Los Angeles trying to build a new life.  He had a GTA appointment at UCLA, where Buffy was working on her bachelor's.  Despite all of the painful history between them, Buffy and Riley became friends again.  Their past was simply too intertwined, too comfortable for them to stay estranged.

Buffy found out how wrong she'd been in assuming that Angel was indifferent to her the night he found out she was friends with Riley.  Months of cool apathy dissolved into maddening rage as Angel attacked her former fiancť, mindlessly screaming a litany of threats at both of them.

Angel had pulled her bodily out of the stunned college eatery and dragged her back to their home.  In the hours that had followed he accused her of multiple infidelities with everyone from  Riley to Xander to Wesley.

Buffy had been too weary to defend herself as she watched him rage.  What had happened to the sweet tempered man she'd married, the one who swept her off of her feet like Prince Charming out of a fairy tale?  She had no idea who the irate stranger before her was.  She'd listened dispassionately as he told her he wanted to end their marriage and then watched with dead eyes as he destroyed most of her possessions.  None of it had seemed real .

But it was, Buffy thought as she blew her nose for the thousandth time.  She had lost two children, and in her mindless grief laid the blame for everything at her husband's feet.  He'd retaliated by retreating into himself so far that she no longer knew him.  And then he'd left her . But it wasn't over yet.  The horror that was the dissolution of their marriage was going to stretch out for months and every one of these painful events was going to be dredged up and made public record.  All for the sake of Angel's money.

Buffy sighed as she looked at her left hand, the fourth finger now conspicuously bare.  Angel had ripped off the platinum Claddagh ring the night he'd kicked her out.  For all she knew, he'd thrown it in the ocean  or given it to a new girlfriend.

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

Angel didn't answer.

Carefully looking over his bare fingers, she cocked an eyebrow and pointedly asked, "Wife?"

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

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

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

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

Angel smiled wryly.  "No," he said firmly.  "She was the love of my life and I was the one that screwed up."

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

"Good evening, miss," Angel said dismissively.

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

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

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

Tossing back what was left of his drink, he thought back to the first days of their relationship.  Buffy had been so sheltered, so naÔve that it was no effort at all for him to seduce her.  She'd been so helpless, so absolutely trusting that it had nearly broken his heart.  He'd initially begun the relationship as a physical diversion.  She was beautiful and young, he'd simply wanted to bed her.

//  "What's your name?"

Her smile was blinding.  "Buffy," she said with a light giggle.

"What are you doing here, Buffy?"

She shot him an adorable, exasperated look.  "I *work* here."

"Guess I'll have to come here a little more often."  //

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

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

// "My mom is going to *kill* me," she whispered, looking absolutely miserable.

"She's not going to kill you."

"Oh yes she will.  Trust me, having a grandchild born out of wedlock will not make Joyce a happy woman."  The shaking of her hands betrayed the fear that gripped her insides.

"The baby won't be born out of wedlock."

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

"Marry me."

She was quiet for several incredibly long heartbeats.  "Is that a proposal?"

"Marry me."

Her smile was slow but it intensified exponentially.

"Is that a yes?"

"Yes."  //

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

He was alone, utterly and completely.

Sure he had his father, and even William, but they were a sorry excuse for a family.  None of them had ever loved him the way Buffy had, the way their children would have. He'd thrown it all away in a self righteous tantrum that was completely hypocritical.  And now not only was he not with the woman he would always love more than life itself, but he was embroiled in bitter war with her for control of his family's fortune.  He knew Buffy didn't care about the money, that she was merely making a point.

Surprisingly, he found that when it came down to it, he didn't care about the money either.  But his father did.  Given the fact that Rupert was just about the only thing he had left in this world, Angel felt the need to try and please the man, to make an attempt at amends before his father departed the physical plane.

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

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

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

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

*****

"Miss, miss!" someone was yelling frantically.

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

Buffy turned her head and saw the police officer standing at the end of the bed she was sitting on.  Of course, she thought wryly, he would need a statement about the wreck.  Good luck, Buffy thought.  She didn't remember anything of use.

"Sure officer," she replied.

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

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

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

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

*****

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

She was mad, more than mad, she looked ready to kill him.  But she also looked wonderful.  Gods he missed her.  He never failed to forget just how perfect she was.  Her light floral print skirt was wrinkled and slightly dirty from her taxing evening, and there was a spot of blood on her blue shirt, probably from the cut on her forehead, but she was still the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

Trying to assist her as she walked with a pronounced limp, Angel found himself pushed away roughly.

"I can do it by myself!" Buffy hissed, looking as amenable as a wet cat.

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

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

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

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

"Why on Earth would I do that?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes," Buffy replied firmly.

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

Buffy scowled at her husband, but she knew he had a point.  It would be stupid, and rude, to call Faith when Angel was right here.

"Fine," she said in a huff, "you can give me a ride home."

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

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

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

Buffy sighed and slumped against his strong frame.

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

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

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

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

Angel smiled gently.  "What are you studying?"

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

Angel's heart clenched at her quiet admission.  Buffy probably thought teaching was the only way she'd be able to be near children.  He was quiet as he continued walking towards the car, until a realization hit him.

"How long have you been going to school?" he asked.  It had to be the middle of the semester.

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

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

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

Angel was quiet on the remainder of the walk to the car.  When they reached their destination, he gently helped Buffy in before sliding behind the wheel.

"You know," he said as he turned over the key, "this is the most civil conversation we've had in almost a year."

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

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

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

Angel tensed as a tiny hiccupping sob broke from Buffy's chest.  He screwed his eyes shut tightly as he felt her tears wet the fabric of his lightweight sweater.  He knew what was wrong because he felt the pain with equal intensity.  Being so close was too familiar, too right to ignore.  But there was still so much pain between them, so many disturbing memories.

Turning his head, he brushed his cheek against hers as he whispered, "Don't cry, baby.  Please don't cry."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angel smiled against her lips, unable to disguise his joy at the fact that she still wanted him.  Upon entering the room, he shut and locked the door and then set Buffy on her feet.  He studied the sanctuary of his wife's new bedroom and it shamed him deeply.

Gone were all the trappings that had adorned the room they shared eons ago.  No giant four poster mahogany bed, no luxuriously soft imported sheets, none of the expensive jewelry he'd loved to shower her with.

The room was small but functional.  A desk and nightstand were crowded against one wall.  Her bed was tiny, looking like something meant for children.  Of course, with her diminutive stature, it was more than big enough, but it definitely didn't leave any room to share.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sorry," he said with a sleepy laugh.

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do tell," the redhead prompted.

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

"Buffy," Willow gasped, obviously worried.

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

"Arrested, what for?"

"Grand theft auto," Buffy said wryly.

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

"Yeah, *mine*."

Willow's brow furrowed and Buffy sighed.

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

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

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

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

"Yeah," Buffy replied, refusing to elaborate.

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

Buffy guiltily studied the front page of the paper.

"Buffy?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffy frowned.  "What do you mean?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffy and Willow both startled at his appearance.  Buffy cringed, fearing how much he'd overheard, but Willow met his hard glare with one of her own.  His expression remained neutral.  Buffy took in his rumpled appearance, noting the fact that he wore the silver chain outside of his clothes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffy couldn't watch as he left the room.  She was vaguely aware of the door to the apartment opening and closing.  She couldn't cry, she was too shocked.  Somehow she'd managed to screw it up again, to wound him when he was at his most vulnerable.  Comforting ... that was how she'd described making love with him to Willow.  Buffy sighed and headed for the shower.  The need to wash his scent and his seed from her body was overwhelming.  Things were never going to work out between them, and she had to let him go or it was going to destroy her.

*****

"Nice wheels, B," Faith said appreciatively.

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

"Thanks," the blonde said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

Faith sighed in defeat and slumped down in her seat.

*****

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

Angel glared at his brother and then dismissed Lindsey with a nod.  The lawyer quickly scurried off to work on the papers they had been discussing.

"I'm busy," Angel said once they were alone.

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

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

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

Angel's glare was the only response he received.

Will sighed and decided to take his chances.  "This is hopeless you know," he said offhandedly.  "No judge in his right mind is going to grant you an annulment without Buffy on board."

"We'll just have to wait and see about that now won't we," Angel snapped.

*****

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

He nodded, licking his lips nervously.  "Buffy, I just want you to know that I'm sorry about what happened at the opening."

Buffy smiled at her friend.  "I understand, Xand.  I mean, I wish you'd given me a heads up or something, but I know why you did it.  Angel's an important man.  I understand how much his support can help you."

"I just want to make sure that things are okay between us," he said quietly.

"We're of the good," she reassured with a smile.  "Don't worry."

Xander nodded, but still looked distracted.  Buffy had her suspicions about why.

"Is there something else bothering you?" she asked gently.

He looked at her miserably.  "How's Willow?" he asked.

Buffy smiled.  "She's mad at you," she admitted.  "But I think she misses you too."

Xander stared at his hands for a long moment before raising his eyes nervously.  "Do you think she'd talk to me if I called her?" he asked.

"No," Buffy said, smiling at his crestfallen expression, "but you just need to keep calling until she does."

Xander smiled.  "Thanks, Buffy."

*****

Willow frowned at Faith as she opened the door to the apartment.

"What?" the brunette asked.

"I don't think you guys are going anywhere tonight," Willow said evenly.

Faith sighed.  She and Buffy had been planning their Friday night outing for weeks.  They were supposed to be going clubbing in one of the trendier new night spots.   It had taken Faith forever to convince her friend to go.

"What did Angel do this time?" Faith snapped, stepping inside the apartment.

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

Faith leaned against the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest as she looked at her friend, slumped on the floor next to the toilet.

"You look like shit, B," Faith said bluntly.

Buffy gave her a miserable excuse for a smile and handed Faith a set of papers she had clutched in her hand.  The brunette took the documents to study, but was unable to make heads or tails of them.

"I know this has something to do with Angel," she said in irritation, "but I'm afraid you're gonna have to explain it to me."

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

Faith gaped at her friend.  "That bastard!" she gasped.

Buffy nodded miserably and instinctively placed her hand to her mouth. Faith looked away as her friend dry heaved into the toilet.

"Are you sure you're not sick?" Faith asked with a grimace once Buffy had herself under control again.

"I'm fine," Buffy answered wearily, "just the stress getting to me."

Faith frowned, unconvinced, then looked at Willow who wore a similar expression.

"I don't know, B," the brunette said.  You smacked your head pretty good in that wreck.  Maybe you have a serious problem."

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

Buffy scowled but didn't say anything.  She knew they were right.  She was under a lot of pressure, but she couldn't shake the feeling that there was something else wrong.

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

*****

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

"Buffy?" she queried gently.

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

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

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

Willow sat in stunned silence trying to absorb what her friend had just said.  She knew about Buffy's miscarriages and that she was supposedly barren.

Clearing her throat, the redhead asked, "Are you sure?"

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

Willow took a deep breath.  What had the doctor done?  Buffy couldn't have children though she wanted them desperately.  If he'd mistakenly confirmed a pregnancy, it could be disastrous.

"Maybe you should see another doctor," Willow suggested gently.

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

"What is this?"

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

Willow was astonished.  Buffy was actually pregnant.  Willow had doubted the veracity of the blood test, knowing that lab mixups were possible, but the fact that it was positive, combined with the sonogram ... The baby was real.

"Is this a good thing?" Willow asked cautiously.

Buffy gave her a goofy grin.  "Of course it is," she said happily.

Willow nodded, unconvinced.  She knew how badly Buffy's last pregnancy had ended and she was in no rush to see a repeat performance.

"Are you going to tell Angel?" Willow asked.  There was no question about paternity.

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

Willow didn't say anything.  It wasn't like she blamed Buffy, especially given all she'd gone through with Angel in the last year.  To be honest, the odds of the pregnancy leading to a live birth probably weren't great.  If she didn't want to add to the strain by involving her estranged husband, who was Willow to say anything.

"What are you going to do about the annulment proceedings?" Willow asked cautiously.

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

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

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

*****

"The court date has been cancelled," Lindsey reported to Angel.

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

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

*****

Hours later, Angel sat alone in his library, slowly nursing a drink.  He was finally free in the legal, literal sense, but it did nothing to lighten the burden on his heart.  He felt as intensely chained to his doomed relationship with Buffy as he ever had.

Why had she thrown in the towel?  It wasn't like her.  Buffy was above all, a fighter, a survivor no matter how weak she thought herself at times.  No, he hadn't won.  He hadn't broken her down or forced her into something she didn't want.  She'd just ... given up, like he wasn't worth the effort anymore.  She'd walked away from him and his fortune without a backward glance, without a word.  And that hurt more than any prolonged court battle ever could.

He instinctively placed a hand on his chest, feeling the cool press of her ring through the fabric of his shirt. He still wore it, keeping it close to his heart even when he found himself unable to do the same with Buffy herself.

Was there someone else?  His insides roiled at the thought.  He appreciated the irony of the situation.  He'd pushed her away, going so far as to deny that a marriage had ever existed between them at all ... and still he could not abide the thought of her in another man's arms.

Rising from the chair, he went to the large bay windows that overlooked the ocean.  He knew with finality that he would never be free of her.

"Brooding in the dark?" she asked with amusement.  "How horribly poetic."

"Darla," he replied without bothering to turn and face her.  "How did you get in here?"

She laughed lightly.  "Your dear little brother thought you might be in need of some companionship."

He didn't react as she wrapped her arms around him from behind.

"Would you be interested in some ... companionship?" she asked, pressing herself against him.

He laughed silently.  "I seem to have an abundance of free time at the moment," he said with a mirthless smirk.

*****

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

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

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

Riley took a seat on the bench next to her.  He'd run across her on her way home from finals and she'd taken the opportunity to share her good news.  It was several moments before he could gather his thoughts.  Buffy waited patiently.

"Um," Riley said when he had recovered from the shock, "you're not married anymore."

"Nope," Buffy confirmed lightly.

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

"No."

She could feel him shift into lecture mode and prepared herself.

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

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

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

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

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

"People do it all the time, Riley.  Look around you."

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

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

"Well," Riley said haughtily, "he must be some great catch if he's going to let you raise this child all by yourself."

Buffy bit her tongue as she glared at him.  Eventually her anger subsided and she admitted, "He doesn't know about the baby."

"Doesn't know?" he asked incredulously.

"No," she said firmly, "and that is exactly how I want it.  This is *my* baby."

Riley shook his head in admonition.  "I'm disappointed in you, Buffy."

"The feeling is mutual, I assure you," she bit back bitchily.

*****

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

Grabbing her forcibly by the shoulders, Angel removed the woman from his lap and gave her a push.  Darla scowled.  She'd been trying for days to get him out of his funk, but he seemed determined to brood despite all her efforts.

"Are you going to sit here and mope for the rest of your life?" she asked, her temper rising.

"I'll do whatever I damn well please," he bit out tersely.

Trying a different tactic, her lips formed a perfect pout.  "Come on," she said, "you just need a break.  We'll find a nice private beach, sip some fruity drinks with umbrellas and in no time we'll ..."

He fixed her with a hard stare.  "We'll what, Darla?  Fall in love?  I'll ask you to marry me and you'll be able to get your hands on the Roarke fortune?  Is that what you have planned?"

Her eyes went hard as she looked at her lover.  "Would that be so wrong?" she asked, her voice icy cold.  "We're suited to each other, Angel.  You and me, we're two of a kind.  Buffy never understood you.  She could never truly appreciate you."

"Enough!" he barked.

Darla glared at him, but held her tongue.  Buffy was a sore spot to be sure.  She'd been convinced that once their marriage was in the past, he would be able to move beyond it, that they would once again share the easy camaraderie they once had.  But it hadn't happened.  Angel seemed to mourn Buffy as if she were dead.

"I'm leaving," she said, hoping to elicit some reaction, some bit of possessiveness.

"Fine," he said offhandedly.

*****

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

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

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

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

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

Willow nodded, aware of the circumstances of her miscarriages.

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

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

"Yeah," Buffy said almost dreamily.

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

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

Willow smiled.

Shaking her head, Buffy looked at her friend.  "A little bird told me something pretty interesting yesterday."

"What?" Willow asked innocently but she was betrayed by her blush.

"So how is Xander?" Buffy asked evilly.

"It was just lunch," Willow countered.

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

*****

Angel frowned as he read the phone message Wesley had scrawled.  Yet another summons from the old man.  He'd been avoiding him for weeks, claiming he was too busy dealing with company business to take time for a personal meeting.

Apparently, Rupert had reached the end of his rope.  The message threatened a litany of unpleasant consequences should Angel refuse this time.  Resentfully, he resigned himself to making the hour drive to his father's estate later that evening.

*****

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

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

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

"Good Christ," Rupert exclaimed, "you look like shit."

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

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

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

Angel snorted with impudence.  "What the hell does it matter now?" he asked.  "The marriage was annulled.  Your fortune is in tact."

Rupert crossed his arms over his chest as he regarded his son carefully.  Their relationship was antagonistic at best, but despite what Angel might have thought, he did care for his son.  He regretted the fact that he had held his mother's actions against him for so long.

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

Angel's brow furrowed as he stared at his father.  "Why on Earth would I want to do that?" he asked in shock.

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

*****

Angel cursed under his breath as he made his way out to his car.  What the hell was Rupert up to?  He'd vowed to himself never again to put himself through the hell of seeing Buffy face to face, but now, in light of his father's damn puzzling message, he reevaluated his position.

What would it matter?  Things were over between them, very over.  Sure, he still thought about Buffy all the time, but there was no way she did the same.  He'd swing by the nauseatingly quaint little bookshop where she worked and be done with it.

*****

Buffy was sorting through a new shipment on a table in the storage room when she heard someone call her name.  Glancing towards the doorway, her eyes met Willow's almost frantic gaze.

"What's wrong?" she asked, worried.

"You have a ... visitor," Willow replied.

Buffy's brow knit.  "Who?"

"Angel."

Buffy's heart stopped as she stared blankly at her friend.  Angel was here.  Why?  What on Earth could he possibly need with her?  She'd granted him the annulment precisely so she wouldn't have to see him again.  Their business was finished.  Or at least it should have been from his perspective.

"Can't you get rid of him?" Buffy asked anxiously.

"I don't think he's going anywhere without seeing you," Willow said.

Buffy nervously looked at her body in a nearby mirror.  While it was readily obvious when she was naked that she was expecting a child, when covered by the layers of baggie clothes she'd taken to wearing, it was harder to tell.  Maybe Angel wouldn't notice.

"Should I send him back?" Willow asked.

Buffy sighed.  She had no desire to have a discussion with him in front of a store full of customers, but being alone with him wasn't exactly a comforting idea either.

"I suppose," she said wearily.  "It's not like it's going to get any better if I put him off for a while."

Willow smiled sadly and disappeared around the corner.  Buffy went back to her box of books, trying to look busy.  It was mere moments before Angel's heavy footfalls heralded his arrival.  Buffy met his gaze, careful to keep the box of books squarely between herself and her former mate.

"What do you want?" She asked bluntly.  Gods he looked awful.

Angel frowned as he took in her appearance.  She looked ... frumpy.  Her normally stylish clothes had been replaced by a pair of baggie sweats and an oversized shirt.  And a pair of sneakers!  Buffy wouldn't normally be caught dead without some cute little sandals or other completely impractical footwear.  He'd secretly loved it when she showed off her painstakingly painted and subsequently adorable little toes.

"Why are you dressed like a soccer mom?" he asked acridly.

Buffy bristled.  Okay, so she wasn't as stylish as normal, but let him try fitting her gut into a DKNY mini dress.  It just wasn't happening.

She managed to suppress that very observation, and came back with, "Me?  What about you?  Have you been sleeping in your car?"

Angel was stunned for a moment, but then laughed.  She was right.  Who was he to judge appearances?  He hadn't even had a shower in days.

"Touchť," he replied dryly.

"What do you want, Angel?" she asked again.

Throwing up his hands, he said, "Beats the hell out of me.  My father thought I should come and talk to you."

Her heart sunk a little at his admission.  "Your father?"

Angel nodded, putting his hands in his pockets and affecting a casual stance.  "Old man's been acting really weird lately."

Buffy's lips pressed together tightly.  She suspected there was more to it than that.  Rupert was notorious for the information he could dig up on people.  It was entirely plausible that he knew about the baby and had sent Angel here to find out for himself.

"Well, that's nice," she said hurriedly, "but if you don't want anything then maybe you better lea- ... oooff!"

One of Buffy's hand's instinctively shot to her stomach as the other braced on the table while she leaned forward.

"Buffy?" Angel asked, concerned as he pulled his hands from his pockets and took a hesitant step towards his former wife.

"I'm fine," Buffy said with a groan.  She was going to have to have a talk with junior about all of his moving around.  "It's just the ba- "

She stopped mid-sentence and clamped her mouth shut praying he hadn't caught her slip.  And he didn't.  Not at first anyway.  He looked at her blankly for several seconds.  Just as she was beginning to have hope ... her ruse was up.  She could almost see the realization hit him.  He cocked his head and opened his mouth, but didn't say anything.

"Angel?" she asked, worried he'd had some sort of meltdown.

"You're pregnant," he said evenly, like 'nice day we're having' or 'did you change your hair'.

She blinked at him, but didn't answer.  Slowly, she walked over to the sofa that lined one wall and sat down.  Angel followed her blindly, stopping to stand in front of her when she took a seat.  Sinking down onto his haunches he studied her face.

"But you can't ... " he started and then stopped.  The way she was sitting now, with her hands at her sides, the gentle swell of her stomach was plain to see.   Her lips were pursed together tightly and she met his gaze.

He cleared his throat and asked, "How f-far along are you?"

"Twenty-two weeks," Buffy replied evenly.

She could see him frantically doing the math in his head, trying to figure out if he was the father.  She let him churn away for a while, keeping her face completely neutral.

After a little more than a minute, he said, "It's mine."  And then added nervously, "Right?"

Buffy nodded at him slowly.

"H-how?" he asked, glancing between her face and her belly.

She gave him a withering look.  "We weren't exactly careful," she noted dryly.

Angel looked nonplussed at her answer, but said, "You know that's not what I mean.  How did you ... how did we make a baby?  The doctors said-"

"Angel," she interrupted, "you are familiar with the term 'don't look a gift horse in the mouth', yes?"

He smiled wryly at her.

Buffy sucked in a breath sharply as the baby kicked again.  Angel's eyes shot open in concern.

"Are you okay?" he asked, nervously.

She smiled at him.  "I'm fine," she said, rubbing her belly.  "He just doesn't like to stay in one place."

"He?" Angel breathed, his eyes wide with wonder.

Buffy nodded. "It's a little boy," she said quietly.

"Um, can I ... " Angel asked, watching her rub her stomach.

"Yeah," she said, "just a sec."

He watched as she began untucking her shirt and gave her a confused look.

"It's easier to feel if it's skin on skin," she explained with a slight blush.  "Something about the temperature difference.  He moves around a lot more if you touch the bare skin."

Angel could do nothing but take her word for it.  When her shirt was untucked she took his hand and placed it under her shirt on her belly.  For several long moments he didn't feel anything, and then ... the baby moved.  Angel felt like someone had shocked him.  He was beyond words as the baby kicked inside his mate's womb.  Without conscious thought, he moved closer, pressing his face against her belly.  He was perfectly still for long moments as he reveled in the marvel that was his unborn son.

It became apparent to Angel some minutes later that he was crouched over his former wife with his head in her lap.  He couldn't bring himself to move.  As her hand came up to gently sift through his hair, he wrapped both of his arms around her.

"I love you, Buffy," he said quietly.

He heard her sniffle in return, but didn't look at her. He didn't want to risk ruining the moment.

"Did you pick out a name yet?" he asked.

Buffy let out something halfway between a laugh and a sob.  "Yeah," she said, her voice thick with tears, "I was going to name him Roarke, but now I suppose you'll want that to be his last name so I'll have to find something new."

Angel squeezed her tighter, mindful not to squeeze *too* tight.

*****

Dr. Gabbert was shocked when she entered the exam room where Buffy waited and found a man hovering near her.  In all the months she'd been a patient, Buffy had always come either alone or with her roommate.

"Hello," she said warmly, "and you are?"

"The father," Angel replied tersely, obviously nervous.

Buffy elbowed him sharply in the ribs and said, "Dr. Gabbert, this is my husband, Angel."

Angel sullenly nursed his sore ribs, but did not move away from his wife.

Dr. Gabbert smiled and said to Buffy, "It's nice to see you have a partner to share your joy with."

"Yes," Buffy said with a goofy grin, "he's very joyous.  Unfortunately, he's very nervous.  He wants to rush to the hospital every time I get gas."

The doctor suppressed a smile.  Nervous fathers were nothing new, especially the first time around.  Angel was tense, but obviously attentive to his wife's needs.

After giving Buffy's chart another perusal, Dr. Gabbert set the clipboard down and reached for a pair of latex gloves.  Angel blanched.

"Let's get started," the doctor said with a smile.

*****

Thirty minutes later, in the doctor's office, they went over the results.

"Everything looks fine, Buffy.  Your weight gain is progressing normally.  I know you're starting to experience some severe discomfort, but unfortunately, that's part of the game."

Buffy nodded with a wry smile.  As much as she was overjoyed at the prospect of motherhood, being kept up half the night by her son was wearing on her.  And having to pee every five minutes wasn't a joy either.

Looking over the chart again, Dr. Gabbert asked, "Are there any other specific concerns you have?"

"Can we have sex?" Angel asked bluntly.

Buffy's face burned bright crimson.  Leave it to him to have his priorities.

Dr. Gabbert just smiled, well used to being asked that question by expectant fathers.  "Given Buffy's history," she said evenly, "I would normally be inclined to suggest you refrain, but this pregnancy seems to be perfect.  I'd say if Buffy feels up to it, that it should be fine."

Angel smiled at his wife who had her eyes covered with her hand, trying to stave off her embarrassment.

*****

Rupert watched quietly as his son cradled the newest Roarke to his chest.  The babe slept comfortably, obviously well accustomed to slumbering in her father's arms.  The serenity of the moment was broken as baby Jennifer's older brother, Liam, came tearing around a corner, crashing into his grandfather's legs.  Rupert picked up the high strung three year old with well practiced ease.

"Where's the fire?" he asked the smaller scale version of his son.

The boy giggled mischievously but didn't say a word.

"He wishes," Buffy said as she entered the room, obviously following her son at a much more relaxed pace.  "It's nap time and he's not too excited about that."

Rupert looked at his grandson, whose face reflected his absolute distaste for that idea.

"No," the little boy said with finality, sticking his chin out in defiance.

"Yes," Buffy said, narrowing her eyes.

Rupert took it upon himself to intervene.  "How about if I read Liam a book?" he asked, looking at Buffy.

With a smile, she said, "I think he would like that."

When the two had departed for Liam's room, Buffy looked at her husband.  His expression was closely guarded as he watched his daughter sleep.

"It still freaks you out, doesn't it?" she said quietly.

He nodded.   "Yes it does."

Taking a seat on the nearby sofa, Buffy patted the cushion next to her. Somewhat reluctantly, Angel sank down next to his wife.

"He's really good with them," she said quietly.

"I know," Angel answered without meeting his wife's gaze.  "It's just so different from the way he was with me."

Buffy sighed.  Angel and his father's relationship had improved exponentially since Liam's birth, but it was still uneasy.

"He feels guilty," she said.  "He regrets what he did or didn't do with you when you were little and he's trying to make it up."

Angel gave his wife a wry smile.  "Are you sure you're a teacher and not a shrink?" he asked.

*****

"Not like that.  Like this," Liam said as he demonstrated the workings of the drinking fountain at the park to the tiny redheaded girl.

Buffy smiled.  "We're gonna have to start calling him Charlie Brown," she said to her husband.

Angel frowned at his wife and then turned to look at his son, flanked closely by Willow and Xander's little girl.  A grin broke across his face and he said with a roll of his eyes, "You're funny."

Buffy watched her eight month old daughter play with toys on the blanket for several minutes before yelling, "Liam, Tara, it's time to come back over here."

The two didn't seem thrilled with the idea, but they followed orders.  Buffy grinned wryly as she watched her son chatter away at the extremely quiet little girl.  Tara rarely spoke, but she always seemed to hang on whatever wisdom Liam felt it necessary to impart to her.  Usually, it was something terribly vital like an accounting of their last trip to the zoo.

As the two older children played in a nearby sandbox, Angel managed to get Jennifer to sleep.  Buffy took a second to sit back and enjoy the peace.  Being parents of two small children, it was rare that she and Angel spent quiet time together, and even this moment was tempered by the presence of the three kids.  Glancing at her husband, Buffy saw that he was engrossed in some mind numbing financial publication.  With a sigh, she looked around the busy park.  It was filled with similar families, older couples with their dogs, young guys playing frisbee golf and the requisite eighteen year old knockout jogging in next to nothing.

Buffy frowned as the lycra clad bottle blonde bounced down the running path in front of them.  Angel didn't bother digging his nose out of the newspaper to appreciate the view.  For some unknown reason, Buffy decided to bring the bimbo to his attention.

"Do you think she's attractive?"

Angel followed his wife's line of sight to the stunning young woman.  His lips formed a thin line as he quickly snapped his gaze back to Buffy's face.  He was well aware of the fact that one wrong word or look would have him sleeping in the guest room for the next week and a half.

"I think you should be aware of the fact that there may be a hit man after me," he said evenly.

Buffy stared at him in utter confusion.  "What *are* you talking about?" she said, her brow furrowed.

"Mini-vans," he replied, turning his attention back to the newspaper.

Buffy's confusion intensified.  "What?"

Putting the paper down again, he looked at his wife.  "I have very clear memories of telling my friends years ago that if they ever saw me driving a mini-van that I should be shot on sight."

Buffy frowned, cognizant of the fact that they had indeed driven to the park in a mini-van.  "What's your point?" she asked, getting irritated with his cryptic conversation.

He shook his head.  "The point is that I drove here in a mini-van with three  count 'em, *three* - car seats in the back and I have absolutely no intention of discussing the wholly unattractive young man you just pointed out."

Buffy frowned again as she watched him move onto all fours and start towards her.  "That was a *girl*," she said and then clamped her mouth shut as she caught onto his game.

Angel grinned as he stalked towards his wife, mindful to be quiet with the baby sleeping only inches away.  She crinkled her nose at him as he crouched over her and then rubbed his pelvis against hers.  Buffy blushed as part of his anatomy poked her in the hip.

"We're in public," she hissed at him without any real heat.

"Nobody's looking," he said without even bothering to check.

"Angel, what are you doing?" she asked, trying to sound exasperated but failing horribly.  It was readily apparent that she was enjoying the attention.

He sighed.  "Convincing you that I have been quite successfully domesticated, dear," he said as he nibbled along the shell of her ear.

"Domesticated?" she said with a laugh.  "That is not a word I would ever use to describe you."

"Why not?" he asked in mock insult as he continued to rub against his wife.  "I drive the mini-van more than I drive my Boxster, I know at least three different treatments for diaper rash, and if needed I can have an educated conversation about the characters from the VeggieTales videos."

Buffy giggled as he kissed his way down her neck.  "Domesticated men don't ravish their wives in public," she said in a strangled whisper.

"The hell they don't," he replied, not bothering to move his attention from her breasts to her face.  "It's the biggest perk to being domesticated."

Placing her hands on either side of his face, Buffy brought her husband's face up for a kiss.  Just as their lips were about to meet they both stopped as they heard a telltale gurgle.  Turning their heads in unison, they found their daughter wide awake and staring at them.

"You're supposed to be asleep," Angel said evenly to the baby.

She laughed and kicked her feet in response to her father's attention.

Underneath him, Buffy sighed and said, "Yet another perk to domestication, constant coitus interruptus."

Angel smirked.  "At least we weren't actually at the coitus part ... yet."

Buffy grinned at her husband's implied promise.  "I'll hold you to that," she said deviously.

"I was counting on it," he replied.

~*~The End~*~

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