Baked Goods

Author: Leni

Summary: Buffy makes a call. "Hi, Angel. If it’s not a bad time – I mean. I probably shouldn’t be calling you. In fact, if you ignore this call, I'll understand. I just - I need…. You know what? Never mind. Forget I called."
Rating: PG-13

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Acknowledgements: Thank you to Moonbeam, for helping me straighten up many of the scenes and key dialogues. Nicia and Raya, for the last minute beta and nitpicking. Everybody on my 'fandom' list at FB, for being so understanding and chuckling at the many ways I yell at imaginary characters; especially Ashes, who held my hand through the writing process. Last, but never least: thank you, Rebecca. Your suggestion was the seed for this story. ;)

 **


PART ONE


Nursing a bloody shoulder after his patrol, Angel checks his voice mail out of habit more than because he actually expects a message. Only two people in the whole world have this number. Connor is never awake before dawn if he can help it, and Spike has learned not to drunk dial. Not unless he's run into a bigger demon trying to stake him.

Some things don't change.

Some things can't change.

Like the way he stands to attention at the sound of Buffy's voice.

"Hi, Angel. If it’s not a bad time – I mean. I probably shouldn’t be calling you. In fact, if you ignore this call, I'll understand. I just - I need…. You know what? Never mind. Forget I called."

Forgetting.

That's something he has never done well.

Fourteen hours and three states later, his car is parked in front of a nondescript apartment building in Cleveland. Good timing, as the last of the sunlight disappears from the streets.

Angel gets out of the car and climbs up the steps to the main doors.

708. B. Summers, it says in the middle of a double row of buttons.

He stares at the name, wonders what the hell he is doing at her doorstep on a warm May night.

His hand hovers at the bell, hesitating. He can still go home, Angel thinks.

The main door buzzes open and a family of four bustles out, the youngest boy barreling straight into Angel’s legs. “Sorry!” the child chirps, letting his mom steer him away.

Angel mumbles, “It’s okay,” while glancing between the little black button and the open glass door.

Experience has taught him to be wary of Fate’s signs. However, he’ll follow this one.

He can always go home afterwards.

----

His first sight of Buffy in five years is a deep frown through the narrow space of a half-open door. The first sounds are a wordless grumble, then a sigh. "One day, they'll discover how to delete messages from other people's cell phones."

It takes him a moment to find the girl he met more than a decade ago. He finds her in a corner of her eyes, one second where she sizes him up and finds him worthy.

Then she says, "Damn you, Angel.”

That makes him laugh. In the story of them, it's far from the worst welcome he's gotten.

She gives him a fondly exasperated look, but the grip on the door's edge doesn't budge.

"I remember when you pestered me about getting a pager." She had wanted a way to stay in touch with him. He'd placated her by installing a home line in the mansion. A vampire at the Slayer's beck and call. No, some things really don't change.

"I remember asking you to forget my call." Her eyes narrow, and her voice raises a notch. "And I never pestered you for anything."

Angel smirks, shrugs one shoulder. “You also wanted to add color to my wardrobe.”

Buffy studies him from head to toe. “It obviously didn’t work.”

The door on the opposite side of the hallway creaks open, and the curious face of an older man stares down at them. The stranger gives him a long once-over, and his eyebrows shoot open when he realizes that Buffy is obstructing the doorway. "Everything all right, dear?"

Not a stranger, then. Buffy's concerned neighbor.

Someone who will consider him a threat until Buffy says otherwise.

Angel doesn't remember feeling like this since her senior year, and it makes his hands clench at the memory.

"Yes, Mr. Rodríguez." Buffy adds a charming smile, leaning her upper body just a little bit further so she can wave. "Say hi to your wife for me!"

Mr. Rodríguez smiles back, but throws Angel a warning look before he re-enters his apartment.

If Angel breathed, he would exhale in relief. "That was awkward."

Buffy snorts, and shakes her head amusedly. "Oh, you haven't seen awkward yet," she chuckles, but doesn’t explain.

Time was, the cryptic was his specialty.

He gives her a questioning look.

She answers with a sigh.

"You called me, Buffy," he breaks the silence.

She looks ready to break some bones. "And I retracted my call in the same sentence."

Angel considers turning his back on this impossible woman and stalking back downstairs to his car. The memory of a laughing teenager, her arms tight around him before she leaned up for a kiss, keeps him in place. "You can't possibly believe you'll out-stubborn me."

Buffy blinks.

"I didn't drive through a sunny day to go back now." Not now that he’s seen her. He leans into the doorframe, crossing his arms over his chest. “I can wait.”

Buffy gives him a puzzled look, and Angel remembers he'd never put his foot down around her.

It makes him wonder how much she's changed in the last decade.

"Besides," he says with a daring smirk, "what will the neighbors think?"

Buffy bites her lower lip in consideration. “Come in,” she finally relents, issuing the necessary invitation. "Don't say I didn't warn you.”

Keeping herself behind the door, she moves backwards until there's enough space for him to pass.

"About time," he grouses, coming through. "Now can you explain what the hell -"

He means to glare at her. He really does. But his eyes stray downwards and fix themselves there.

“Angel?"

He has no words.

"I never thought I'd say this to you," she huffs. "My eyes? Up here!" The door slams closed, but not even the noise shakes him. "Damn it, Angel. Don't make this worse than it has to be... please."

It's the final note of her words which makes him drag his eyes back upwards. "You're...."

Her right hand lowers to rub her belly. "Yup."

He needs to sit down.




PART TWO

Buffy makes herbal tea.

From the smell, he can tell it's an expensive brand, perfectly brewed. Sense memory takes him back to lazy mornings at the Hyperion. Other memories hammer in that Buffy was a coffee girl, one hundred percent and proud of it.

It must have irritated her to abandon caffeine.

He can imagine her moaning about it, numbering all the reasons why her morning cup of joe was her best friend. There were seven reasons, he remembers that, at least four of them were related to the flavor. The eighth one, the one she told him in the cover of darkness, was that strong black coffee reminded her of her dad at the breakfast table.

For the first time in years, Angel wonders if her father is still alive. He should know, he feels. He lives in the same city as the man.

Does Hank Summers still have coffee at breakfast?

Does he know that his older daughter can’t do so anymore?

"You made tea," he points out. The comment sounds stupid to his own ears, especially now, two minutes after he accepted the cup.

He can't taste it, but her expression says it's an excellent one.

Maybe Giles finally taught her how to appreciate it.

Maybe Wesley would have taught him if Angel had asked.

From the couch in front of his, she nods, and then sips hers. "You never liked OJ." Right. The little boxes she used to take on patrols, for hydration. Until she noticed his dislike of the smell of preservatives in the juice. "There hasn’t been any blood in my fridge in -" She stops herself, and glances up at him quickly before taking a deep breath to complete her sentence. " - in months."

Not years.

"Spike mentioned you a couple times." Not by name, but Angel hadn't groomed him from a whelp into decent competition for Drusilla's favor not to recognize the glimmer in Spike's eyes.

Buffy scowls into her cup. "I told him not to give my address away."

Angel has never been unaware of Buffy's whereabouts. Tenancy at Wolfram & Hart left him with a long list of private investigators, with supernatural strengths and otherwise. Since Buffy never distrusted humanity, he chose the less travelled route. His hunch paid off; he hasn’t had to call in someone new in years. A middle-age woman putting her girl through Ivy League makes a better shadow than any demon he could have hired.

He can confess. Or let the other vampire take the fall for this one.

It's not as if Spike isn't an expert at climbing back into Buffy's good graces, anyway.

“You were in the directory?” The lie is so bold that Buffy doesn’t bother to call him on it. "It's a nice apartment."

It really is.

He looks for bits of her bedroom at Revello Drive until he remembers the desolate crater where Sunnydale used to stand. Then he wonders if the old furniture would have fit in this room.

It’s subtle, but his eye catches the changes in style. The decoration is edgier, more daring. There are no weapons openly displayed, and the stone images covered in protective runes are set in a discreet pattern around the room. But a painting hangs in the focal point of the room, an expensive piece of art if he’s seen any. Perhaps a random visitor would only see a harmless twirl of sunset colors; but Angel looks at it and shivers inwardly, reminded of flames of hell and an eternity surrounded by them.

This isn’t the sanctuary of a school girl with a crappy night job; this is the abode of a woman who’s challenged her demons on top of the world’s.

This is Buffy’s new home.

Where she makes tea because caffeine is off-limits for the next... two months?

"You're staring," she scolds.

Angel remembers that time she woke up in his bed, and he realized they wouldn't be able to keep a relationship for long. The sewer where he broke her heart. That last second that erased twenty-four hours of bliss, and the one that followed that had her across the room, telling him that she would try to forget.

In none of those moments had it been as difficult to meet her eyes. "I - I was trying -" He waves toward her, to the expanded middle of her body. "Seven months?"

"And three days." Her eyebrows rise. "You're good."

His head attempts an acknowledging nod. Instead his eyes sink into his tea. Maybe if he stares deep enough he'll discover how he's supposed to act in this situation.

He doesn't think he should leave, though.

But that doesn't tell him why he should stay.

"Welcome to the awkward," Buffy mumbles after another moment of silence, clearly disgruntled.

Her hair is longer than he remembers; even hastily gathered into a high ponytail, it reaches the middle of her back. The color is darker, too, and he wonders when she started dyeing it.

But it still smells of strawberry shampoo.

Some things don't change, he tells himself.

Some things don't need to change.

Setting a woman at ease, that's a talent that never went away. He just stopped using it to lure his victims in.

His cup makes a tinkling noise as he sets it on the low table. He leans forward, loosening his shoulders into a relaxed line. He knows his smile is thin, but at least it's not a lie. "Medieval princess," he says.

Her brow furrows.

"Halloween? Running around scared?" The corner of his lips twitch up. "In a wig?"

Buffy blushes, and her mouth falls open to form a perfectly affronted 'o'.

"You remember our conversation that night?”

Cheeks still reddened, she nods.

“Right. That was awkward."

Her laugh is refreshing.

And neither the sound of it, nor the way it makes him smile back reflexively, has changed one bit.

Their eyes meet across the gap between their seats, and the situation stops sinking in and starts sliding into place instead.

They burst out laughing.

He tries not to, but he can’t stop.

Story of his life.

---

"You need protection," he states half an hour later while he rinses the tea pot.

Her kitchenette is all wooden tones with splashes of beige. It reminds him of Joyce's kitchen, though he is unsure whether to mention that. Her mother was never a subject they discussed amongst themselves, not even when they were standing by her grave.

"I was thinking of free help to paint the baby's room, too," Buffy grits out. She wasn't happy when he planted himself by the sink and started doing the dishes. She was even more infuriated when he refused to move away. Something about being able to take care of herself, thank you very much.

"You could have called anyone for that."

Her eyes become green slits that slice through him. "But you're the artist."

Her tone speaks of charcoal portraits at windowsills.

...and he'd thought Darla's mood swings were bad.

"I can work on a mural," he offers, his voice level and understanding. What a century with his sire hadn’t taught him, three years with Cordelia had beaten into him. In case of unwarranted female displeasure, deflect and appease until the storm’s passed.

Buffy glances up at him, uncertain.

He wonders when’s the last time someone has stood up to her on her turf. "If you wish, of course."

He is rewarded by a apologetic ‘Sure. That'd be nice.’

Buffy was never good at saying 'sorry'.

They spend the next few minutes caught up in the monotony of housework. Her contentment in the task is obvious, even if she’s miffed at being delegated to drying. He tries to remember a moment like this, back in Sunnydale. He comes up with the picture of a much younger Buffy who’d tried to dust the basement apartment, and the embarrassed look on her face as she'd somehow managed to knock over the glass figurines he kept on a shelf.

Now he tries to picture her starting a life in Cleveland, setting up a home in this tiny apartment in-between Hellmouth emergencies.

He kind of wishes he'd asked his detective for more details.

But he is sure that he was better off keeping his knowledge to the basics.

"Angel?”

From the corner of his eye, Angel catches her fiddling with the edges of the kitchen towel. The expression on her face warns him that she is warming herself up to something. It doesn’t take long for Buffy to sense his attention. Immediately, her eyes drop to her hands as she starts wiping off the spoons he just set on the rack.

Angel waits.

She tries to keep her voice smooth, but the question comes out bewildered instead of curious. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because you called."

She nods, mostly to herself, probably doesn't notice how her hand moves to lay below her breast. "That I did."

The smile that follows is a true welcoming sign.

He smiles back, and hopes that, just this time, he will be able to leave without regrets.



PART THREE

The address Buffy scribbles for him takes him eight blocks away from her apartment. A five-storied building with several bright signs in the windows, announcing room service, hot water, and cable TV. From the look of the place, Angel suspects at least two of those are false advertisement.

"It's the only place close by. Dawn seems to like it," Buffy had said as she saw him out her door. "Not that you can't stay somewhere else. In fact -"

He'd shaken his head.

Looking at his residence for the next weeks, Angel has a sharp pang of nostalgia for the Hyperion. His old place may have been haunted, ravaged, and ultimately blown to bits, but it had style until the last.

The girl at the desk pops a bubble of gum and rolls her eyes when the front door creaks open, clearly displeased at the idea of tearing herself from the computer to receive a client. When she catches sight of him, though, her eyes widen and she's quick to straighten up and smooth down her hair. "Good evening,” she chirps, all smiles. “How can I help you?"

He smiles to himself. Among the things that haven't changed in centuries is that good looks will always get the welcome mat spread out for him. "Buffy Summers said she'd call ahead?"

The girl's blue eyes widen even more, and she logs off her chatting session with a few key strokes before giving him an appreciative look. "You the new guy?"

He doesn't want to know what she means. There are questions he didn't ask of Buffy – out of respect for her privacy or clinging to blissful ignorance, perhaps both. He doesn't want to find out from a social networking junkie he'd never met. "More like the old one."

She snorts, her amusement genuine. "I like you better than Alexander already,” she announces. “He was number sixteen. Good guy, but his sense of humor...." A roll of her eyes. "So off."

He gives an understanding nod. Flirting is still a rusty sport for him, and one he won't use on some random girl barely out of her teens. Doesn’t mean he can’t try to make friends. If he is to spend a long time stuck in this hotel, the more amiable the staff is, the easier it will be to get some of his more particular requests done. "Thank you.” He leans into the counter. “That means you'll have a better room for me?”

The girl twirls a strand of her between her fingers, gives him a conspirational smile. "Can't help the size," she tells him, calling up a reservation chart on the computer. "They always take a double room. But -" She makes some quick changes, and winks at him when she's finished. "403. The hot water never fails there."

By now, he is considering changing hotels. He has a car; he can afford the distance.

But that would be silly. Childish.

He stopped having reasons to be jealous five years ago.

"Sounds great," he says absently, before realizing that his young hostess is frowning at his tone. "Sorry. Long night."

She actually slaps her forehead. "Sure, sure! It's almost midnight." After a quick search in the cabinet under the desk she presents a heavy keychain to him. "Here's your key. See you at breakfast?"

He doubts the large outside windows in the dining room next to them are necro-tempered. "Perhaps," he lies, "but I'll probably sleep in."

"Another night owl, huh?" The girl chuckles. "Ms. Summers's friends always are."

With the life-style she leads, Angel is not surprised.

He is at the elevator's door when the girl calls out to him. "Hey, Mr. -" She peeks down at the form he just signed. "- Mr. - uh - Hunter?"

Demons who print fake papers have no imagination. "Call me Angel."

"Oh. That's... cute. I'm Christina."

"Yes, Christina?"

"Right! Since you're the new guy…. Mind telling Dawn I'm so beating her Angry Birds record this week? She’s been offline for weeks!"

“Buffy’s little sister?”

“Little?” The girl’s dark eyebrows shoot upwards, and her lips twitch with humor. “She is older than me.”

Is she really?

When he thinks of Dawn Summers, Angel pictures a girl proudly announcing she’d be thirteen in a few more weeks, wheedling her older sister into convincing their mom to let her watch a PG13 movie with her friends. In the end, he and Buffy had taken the sulky child to the theater, and Buffy had sworn him to silence before pushing Dawn in the direction of her classmates. That had been a good evening, he remembers, cuddling with his girlfriend in his bed while they waited for the movie to end.

But that had been before.

He also pictures a terrified child running away from him, yelling for her sister’s help. Buffy had looked so scared, so incensed at his taunt, that he had laughed in her face.

It doesn’t matter that none of that was real; Angel still wonders how Dawn remembers him. "I'm not sure I'll be seeing her."

"Oh."

Angel cannot tell which one of them looks more confused. The elevator dings open before he can wonder further. "What about your bags, Mr. Angel?" he hears as the doors slide close.

Damn. He shouldn't have left L.A. in such a hurry.


-----

The next time he sees Buffy, she is snickering over a bundle of plastic bags. Her door is thrown wide open, and she thrusts the packages into his hands. "Every sales lady at the mall kept pushing me out of the men’s section and pointing me to the maternity one. I think they're still scandalized over the time I bought two sweatpants and three shirts." She points at her outfit, which dangles a bit about her. It will fit better in July, but for now it offers a glimpse of what she'll look like at full term.

He wonders whether a compliment is appropriate. D'uh, Cordelia's voice responds. "They look good on you."

Buffy looks down at herself and shakes her head. "When I lose the extra eight pounds, try that again. I might believe you."

"I bet every salesman offered to carry your bags," he insists, “and not because they actually thought you needed the help.”

Her shrug doesn't deny it, and she is smiling as she waves him further inside.

Angel doesn't blame those men. At seventeen, Buffy was a lovely teenager on the cusp of more. At twenty-seven, she is a woman who commands the attention of any hot-blooded male - and some undead ones. Even the new shape of her body would be no deterrent for someone interested when there’s no wedding ring to accompany it. "Did you have fun?"

She throws him an amused look over her shoulder. "You can't have forgotten that much about me."

He has not. But... "I was afraid it would tire you out."

"Please." She sinks down into the same seat she occupied the last evening. From the way she curls into the cushions, Angel guesses that's her favored spot. "I was patrolling until late April. An emergency shopping spree isn't going to get me. Now, whether your credit card survived...." She fishes it out of her jacket pocket, hands it over with an expression as sincerely unapologetic as Cordelia's had been.

His money has never been safe in the hands of these Californian girls.

"As long as you left enough to cover the hotel bill."

Buffy nods her head solemnly. "There's even enough for gas. If that monstrosity of yours doesn't suck on it by the gallon. Haven’t you heard of environment friendly models?” She clicks her tongue. “You should. You’re the one stuck here for the next couple of centuries."

He groans. In the last month, five of his female clients have made similar comments. "Does no woman like a classic anymore?"

A surprised look flicks in his direction. He doesn't understand why until she says, "You have got to understand that the dating scene has changed in the last century."


****

He should have corrected Buffy’s assumptions on his personal life, Angel thinks later that night. But if she isn’t sharing, why should he? Instead, he distracted her with a shrug and a complaint on the first item of clothing he grabbed from the bags.

Buffy’s defense of his new wardrobe had been passionate, complete with exaggerated hand gestures and digs at the bad influence of the 60’s. Nineteen sixties, she remarked – “…because the thought of an eighteenth century with you in puffy sleeves and breeches hurts my brain.”

He would have objected to that – such a fashion was outdated even when Liam, son of Galway’s silk merchant, was alive – but he is touched that she remembers his favorite decade. Touched, but not surprised once he gives it some thought. Not after all the times she prodded him for information on the Rat Pack. So he didn’t say a word, just sat back and watched this animated version of the woman he’s getting to know all over again (and yet would recognize even if he were blind).

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Buffy has interests other than her calling and the attempts to live a normal life despite it.

Now he’ll have to add the baby to that list.

He wonders how she’ll make it fit.

It.” He shakes his head at the word, doesn’t care that the vampire before him throws him a contemptuous look. “That’s an awful word for the unborn. See? That’s a problem, right there. I haven’t even asked if it’s a boy or a girl. The worst part is -” He ducks, thrusts out his hand in a precise angle. “- I don’t know if I want to find out.”

Dust showers onto him.

This is the third pack he’s found tonight, only two hours into patrol. From what Buffy has explained, it doesn’t look like the tide will go down any time soon.

Angel cocks an eyebrow at the remaining vampires. “You can try to kill me now,” he starts slowly, making sure the unsaid threat sinks in as he reloads the shooting mechanism around his arm. “Or you can be smart and come back when I’m less likely to use you as therapy.”

The female vampire snarls at him. “The bitch is at her weakest. You’d protect her rather than join us?”

Angel tilts his head and chuckles. “You must be new at this.”

The other vampire taps her shoulder.

His name is passed down in an awed whisper, and Angel tamps down on the pride that rushes through him. It will be decades before the underworld forgets he challenged the Senior Partners – and lived to wreck revenge on their remaining servants.

Or at least that’s the story that goes around.

He remembers when human fright brought a thrill to his nights. Now terrified hordes of demons think twice before crossing his path.

He tells Connor it’s not the same feeling.

He might be lying.

“That makes no sense!” the vampiress exclaims, wrenching herself from her partner’s grasp and rushing at Angel.

A minute later, he stands over her ashes. “It really doesn’t, does it?” His eyes fix on the last vampire. “I’m too tired to bother about one of you. What will it be?”

Flight, of course.

Good decision.

When the whole nest attacks the next night, he thanks the vampire that escaped. “See, without you confirming I was off my game, they wouldn’t have dared come.” The vampire explodes into dust, and Angel focuses on his next kill.

It was getting tedious to take them out by the handful.


***


“Where are you?”

Faith sounds pissed. Which means she’s worried.

“Out of town.”

An insult is growled down the line. “No kidding, Daddy.” For the record, Angel prefers the insult. “Are you okay?”

The room is dark thanks to heavier curtains carried in last afternoon. The little desk girl wasn’t there to take his request, but an older lady looked just as sorry about his condition as Christina would have – weren’t migraines awful?

Not as awful as being trapped in this room.

He misses the sunlit foyer of his latest accommodations. He misses sparring with someone and being dragged off to a bar afterwards. The strongest drink he’s had in Cleveland is Red Raspberry.

That situation isn’t likely to improve.

“Sure, I’m great.”

“Uh-huh.” If frowns could speak, Faith’s just did. “Are you about to get killed?”

Angel stares up to the ceiling, eyes following the humidity marks and trying to make up a picture out of them.

The hotel has no sewer access. The mini-fridge he requested for his blood still hasn’t arrived. If he squeezes between the twin bed and the door, there is hardly space enough for the basic forms of Tai Chi.

“Of boredom,” he replies.

“You, bored? When we’re swamped by work here, too. Slacker.” Faith laughs. “I’ve been fielding calls from three clan heads, two of them with interesting death threats –”

“I’m sure the feeling was mutual.”

“You know me. Take the Slayer out of the girl, but the warrior stays.”

Quite a leap for the woman who’d crashed into his chest three years ago, eyes bloodshot and dry tear tracks on her cheeks, wailing about cosmic injustice.

“Tell me you didn’t actually try to kill any of them.”

He can hear Faith’s pout across the distance. “It’s not a solo move.” And how glad he was when she learned the concept of team work. “Your son refuses to come along.”

“He didn’t refuse to give you this number,” he points out.

“I have my ways."

Angel grimaces. “Faith, please.”

“Sure, Dad.”

“Faith!” They’ve had this conversation countless times. “If you cannot stop calling me that, at least stop hinting at things no parent should know.”

He’ll never regret having Connor in his life, or that Faith came to him when the Slayer’s powers were forced back into a single girl.

He curses the day the two met, though.

“Hey. You disappear without even leaving a note, or taking your designer shampoo and hair gel –”

He never should have given her a key. One day, the pieces will fall into place. She’ll understand that when Buffy’s message ended, he turned on his heel, headed straight for his car, and ended up halfway across the country without even one change of clothes or his favorite soap – and she’ll laugh herself silly.

“- what else is a girl to think except that her boss’s been kidnapped. Again!”

She laughed herself silly that time, too.

“I have not been kidnapped, Faith.”

She heaves a sigh. “When are you coming home, then?”

In late July. Maybe early August.

Or later today.

“I don’t know.”

“You need an extra hand over there?” Pause. “Wherever you are.”

That’s Faith’s version of a subtle prod for information.

But Buffy asked him not to tell anyone. She’s had enough trouble with demons following the rumors spreading out from Cleveland.

Faith's curiosity will have to stay unsatisfied.

“I need you there.” Not a lie. “Arrange meetings with all three clans, get them to sign the treaty.”

“If they don’t?”

“They will.”

“They don’t sound very enthusiastic about it, Angel.”

The use of his name tells him Faith is now in full Slayer mode. She had it wrong a minute ago. The second spell took away the superhuman strength, the overdeveloped agility and reflexes – but nothing can make Faith less of a Slayer.

If she’d gone through her Cruciamentum, perhaps she’d understand it better.

“Enthusiasm means little.” He smiles. The stains on the ceiling resolve into the shape of a horned purple head. It’s mounted on a cave wall while dozens of living horned purple demons stare in horror. “Remind them of the Hywry’s late king.”

His Majesty was also less than enthusiastic.

“Ouch.” Then she perks up. “Can I add my own threats?”

It took months to assimilate Faith’s diminished power into some semblance of her trademark wild style. Spike says her unpredictability, added to her experience, makes her a worthy partner. When Connor smirks and nods, Angel never wants to know what kind of experiences Faith revisits on his son.

But it’s obvious that her fighting abilities have improved in the last years. That still doesn’t make him feel comfortable having her face three clans on her own.

“Take Lorne.”

“Come on!” comes the indignant shout. “Peace-loving Krevlornswath?” Faith has never forgiven Lorne for calling her a marshmallow after she sang at the new Caritas. Lorne is just as mad about her using his birth name – and butchering its pronunciation – in retaliation. “I’d rather take Spike.”

No.” There is no end to the ways Spike can set fire to an already combustible situation. That boy never understood long-term strategy. At least Faith, with proper coaching, is a controlled flame. “Forget about meeting them. Just… stall things until the weekend. I’ll be back on Friday.”

His life does not stop because Buffy needs him.

He almost misses the time when it did.

“Okie-dokie, Dad.” Before he can complain at the nickname, her voice grows stern. “By the way…. Angel? You don’t sound okay.”

“I’ll see you in a couple of days.”

He disconnects the call.

By Friday, he’ll know how to pretend better.





PART FOUR

He thought he’d save time by using the underground parking place below Buffy’s building.

He shouldn’t have bothered.

“I’m not going.”

The last time he failed this badly at convincing a woman of something for her own good, Drusilla brought Spike home to stay.

“But –”

“I have things to do, Angel.” Buffy has her back to him, busy measuring the tiny guestroom and jotting down the numbers on a purple little notebook. “And I have to do them while I can still carry furniture from one end of the room to another.” In a corner of the emptied room, there is a box with a huge picture of a crib on its side. Next to it, various other unopened boxes: changing table, stroller, bassinet, Moses basket….

This will not be a guestroom for long.

“You are not safe here,” he reasons.

“The last time I felt safe….” Her shoulders stiffen and she lowers her measure tape. “Never mind. I’ve lived on Hellmouths since I was fifteen, and one of them didn’t survive me.” She looks over her shoulder, smiles at his serious look. “I’ll be fine if you leave.”

There’s something about the way she says it…. “I’m coming back.”

She shrugs. “Sure you are.”

He wonders whether there really was a time when she trusted him. “Jesus, Buffy. Is that it? Did you think I’d get you to my city and lock you up until your due date?” Even as he says it, Angel knows it’s an idea that would have crossed his mind ten years ago, if they’d been in this situation. Even now, it doesn’t sound that bad a thought, though he knows better than to voice that aloud. “It’s just one day. Maybe two.”

“The nursery won’t furnish itself.” Shaking her head, Buffy walks over to the furthest corner and refocuses on her work. He cannot follow her, trapped by the sunlight poring through the window.

She’s taken everything down before starting her redecoration project, even the curtains.

“I’ll help you out, once we come back.” Pen and notebook clatter to the floor; the shock on her face doesn’t wear off even as she awkwardly crouches down to pick them up. He lifts his shoulders, his offer sincere though he’s just as surprised by it as she is. “I have some experience putting baby furniture together.”

When Buffy doesn’t react to that bit of information, Angel is sure of something he’d only suspected.

She knows about Connor.

Figures. If he knows his son, Connor himself was the one to make the introductions. Ever since Faith was comfortable enough to tease about his past with Buffy (about ten hours after her arrival), Connor has been curious about his ex. Add Spike into the mix, and his son’s inexplicable camaraderie with the other vampire, and it was a matter of time for Connor to take the first opportunity to talk Spike into bringing him along.

If Angel had known his son would be lured by mischievous troublemaking, he would never have allowed Spike to take up permanent residence in L.A. Where, it dawns on him now, Spike will still be tomorrow. It almost makes him reconsider taking Buffy with him, but he knows he won’t be able to focus if he leaves her here.

“Think about it.” He gestures to the whole room. “You’d still have this ready this weekend, and you get a road trip on top. Deal?”

When Buffy stares down at her hands, he knows that she’ll refuse.

“Why not?”

He watches her bite the inside of her cheek, and remembers it’s her telltale for when she’s phrasing something he won’t like hearing into something he’ll have to agree with. “I… I think this is why I called you.” Her eyes fix on a point on the wall behind him, as if she can’t look at him while she gathers these thoughts. “I knew you’d sweep in and try to solve all my problems. Which is nice -” She frowns. “- or it should be.”

“I’ve been nice,” he defends, having the feeling he’s been on the other side of this conversation.

Add a sewer, and the feeling would turn into a conviction.

“The definition of niceness,” she agrees. “I’ve had a great time, better than anything I expected. But –” She takes a deep breath and moves forward, coming so close that their eyes must meet. “I haven’t had my problems solved for me in… ever. I’m the problem-solver, and I think… I think that now I like it when it stays that way.”

“Buffy….” He reaches out, meaning to put a hand on her shoulder. A supportive gesture, nothing more. He yanks the arm back when his skin meets sunlight, and sighs. “You didn’t mind when I offered to paint this room.”

“I was baiting you. I didn’t think you’d agree.”

By the way every new piece of baby furniture is ready to be placed, he realizes that she never intended for him to keep his promise.

He realizes something else. “You didn’t think I’d come at all.”

Her silence confirms it.

Who is this woman, who knows him so little? Who has he become, that she thought he’d leave a call for help unattended?

“Where else would I be?”

Her eyes threaten to water, but he doesn’t know if it’s because of the situation he’s managed to put them in, or hormones, or a combination of both. “I’m sorry, Angel,” Buffy says softly. She used the same tone of voice when she asked him to close his eyes that time. “You don’t need to be here.”

Of course he doesn’t.

That was never the point of it.

“Fine,” he grinds out, stepping back from her. “I’ll go. You stay.”

He doesn’t realize how rough his voice has become until she flinches at it.

A part of him wants to apologize for hurting her, however minimally he’s done it. Another part, the more irrational one, feels wounded and wants nothing but to lash out.

He settles for setting off for L.A.

“You know, we were better than this. What happened to us?” Without waiting for her answer, he pivots around and marches over to the front door. “Right. Now we don’t turn a blind eye to each other’s faults.”

The door slams closed behind him.

But even as he takes the elevator down, stalks through the parking lot, and sinks down behind the wheel, Angel still has no idea how it came to this.

 

 

PART FIVE

“I’m not going back there.”

His glass slams against the counter, and he is surprised to see his hand attached to it. He is quite shocked that the next day has already started to dawn.

In retrospect, it might have been a bad idea to allow Spike to open the liquor cabinet.

“Sure you are,” Spike’s voice sounds heavier than usual. Three bottles of straight whiskey will do that to a vampire.

“She doesn’t need me there.”

Angel cannot remember when he started sharing about his trip to Cleveland. Now that his head is clearing, he hopes Buffy’s secret is still safe.

Spike nods, seizing a new bottle and pouring its contents into both their glasses. “She doesn’t need anyone.” He tips his head back, and the amber liquid vanishes down his throat. Then he stares at Angel. “Why are you surprised?”

Because she once made him feel… more than needed, wanted. “When did she change?”

Spike snorts. “Did she?”

Angel remembers a seventeen-year-old accepting his ring at the docks, a teary-eyed girl of eighteen begging him to stay. Even the year after, as their romance was being bludgeoned into nothing but a bittersweet memory, she had clung to him, refusing to believe that their perfect day could end.

“She did,” he confirms, swirling his glass in slow circles.

“Aw, shit,” comes Faith’s slurred voice from behind them. She yawns as she stretches, and finishes with a scathing glare whose only weakness is the ruined makeup around it. “Bad enough that I can’t go through half the alcohol I used to. Now I have to hear you bitch about B?”

Spike shrugs. “’S not bitching if it’s all true.”

Faith rolls her eyes. “I heard it all in Sunnydale –” She points at the blond, not bothering to repress a scoff. “- though who’d guess you’d get involved?”

“Ugh. Don’t remind me.” Spike buries his head in his hands, but flicks a thumb in Angel’s direction. “At least I’m not jonesing for a repeat.”

“Hey, you mope in the middle of my celebration -” Angel can’t deny that without her help, there would be no signed treaty now. “- I get dibs to the mocking.”

“Please don’t,” Angel moans. It’s too bad a headache to handle an exasperated ex Slayer. When Connor comes out of the spare room, yawning widely and wearing lipstick smears all over his face and neck, Angel decides he wants to be anywhere but here.

Or Cleveland.

But at least his son’s presence derails Faith’s focus. “Hello, stud,” she says, stepping closer for a kiss.

Connor complies happily, then grunts something and heads over to the bathroom.

Faith looks after him, a smile on her face, and turns back to Angel. “Actually, don’t save me a place in this pity party. We’re out.” After her announcement, she collects her coat and grabs some bills from the hiding place in the freezer. It’s not as if Angel keeps the blood bags there. “If either of you decides to greet the sun, don’t call us. My husband and I just kept Jahu warriors at bay until Dad came and threatened to slice through the whole clan if they didn’t behave, and looked ticked off enough to carry it out, too.” She frowns. “I should have guessed you’d been in Cleveland right then.”

“Don’t worry.” Angel stares at his full glass and sets it aside. “I’m not going back.”

“I’ll worry about whatever I feel like,” she snaps, walking by him to slap the back of his head. “And of course you’re going. You’re Angel; you’d explode if you didn’t fix whatever you left broken.”

“I don’t want to go back.”

Both of his companions break into laughter.

“Did I hear right? Because, honestly –” Faith gets interrupted by her own giggles.

Spike is quick to take up the post. “When has that ever stopped you?”


***

Half an hour later, in his efforts to get his home back to its impeccable order, Angel ends up lifting a stained couch cushion and staring at what he finds underneath. “How did a sword get here?”

Spike’s eyebrows knit together. “Sword-carrying fairy?”

“Not likely to leave their weapons here.”

“Right.” Spike squints as he aims one of the empty bottles at the trashcan. His way of helping with the clean-up, Angel figures. “I’d forgotten.”

How Spike can forget fighting against winged fairytale creatures – with gorgeous faces and sharp teeth – is a mystery. “It’s not mine.” The design is unfamiliar, far rougher than anything he’d pick for his personal arsenal.

“Maybe we stole it?”

Angel’s impulse to deny such a thing is nowhere to be seen. Must be hiding behind memories of other nights with Spike, Faith, and too much alcohol. “Last time we only broke into Caritas.” Lorne was appalled that they’d brought Connor along. Angel still isn’t sure it wasn’t his son who suggested the whole thing.

“Your own fault, for not restocking before we started.”

Every bad decision in his life, Spike hasn’t stopped chalking up to Angel.

One day, Angel will get tired of it. But for now, throwing the cushion at Spike’s face seems like the perfect answer.

Maybe he’s not as sober as he thought he was.

Spike catches the soft projectile in mid-air, of course, but the face he makes as his hand closes on the sticky stain is satisfaction enough. “Bugger off, Angel. It’s not as if -”

Silence is enforced when Angel flips on the vacuum cleaner. In full daylight, the room looks more hopeless than it did when Faith left. There’s confetti everywhere, and dried mounds of mud going from the front door into every room of the house. Vaguely, he remembers Connor proposing a Hunt & Hunted game, and Faith enthusiastically seconding him. They must have decided that the front yard was part of the game.

While Angel passes the floor brush down the same spot for the tenth time, Spike chooses to snap his fangs whenever Angel happens to glance in his direction.

It’s a miracle neither of them has thrown the other through the window yet.

At last, the room is clean. That sadly means he’s stuck with Spike in the house with nothing else to do, as there’s no sewer connecting directly to Spike’s place.

Spike abandons the childish antics and comes to join him on the couch, stuffing the cushion with the dirty side downwards. “How is she?”

Even more sadly, there isn’t enough liquor to get plastered again. His one consolation is feeling confident that he didn’t mention Buffy’s state. Overprotective as she is, Faith wouldn’t have left without warning him not to get tangled up in that mess.

Not that he’s tangled up in anything. Or that it’s a mess.

Or that Spike’s patient look is niggling at him.

Angel leans back and stares at the ceiling. He doesn’t want to know how they got confetti stuck there, though. “She’s doing okay.”

Spike chuckles. “For someone who booted you out of her town, you mean.”

“She didn’t –” He notices the smug smirk. “I said that, didn’t I?”

Infinitely pleased isn’t an accurate description of Spike’s expression. Sheer gleefulness comes closer. “Come on, big guy. Don’t take it personal.” Glee morphs into a mix of amusement and pity. “Bloody hormones won’t wear off for the next eight weeks or so. That you braved them anyway….” He whistles. “No wonder you’re the fearless lead– Angel?”

Angel’s body has jumped up from his seat, and rounded over to face Spike before the shock catches up with him. He hasn’t been this unsettled since… well, since he caught sight of Buffy’s body earlier that week.

But that was a special circumstance.

“I didn’t tell you that,” he growls, hoping he’s got the right of it. Buffy may not be his favorite person at the moment, but he made a promise to her. He’s always at least tried to keep those promises.

Spike starts laughing. “She really thought she kept it a secret? From me?” The mirth comes to a sudden halt, as Spike’s eyes widen in realization. “She must think I’m deaf. Or stupid.” With a scowl, he pushes himself off the couch and stalks back toward the kitchen area, grabbing a new bottle of whiskey and a glass before settling at the counter. “You know how that bit has a knack for stomping on your dignity without even noticing?” Angel’s face must have set on an expression of profound confusion, because Spike snorts and takes a long swig from the bottle, without bothering to reach for the glass. “You lucky bastard.”

Rages like this turned entire city blocks into cinders, and their inhabitants into a high body count. Instinct says to goad Spike on, see what Drusilla’s boy has to offer. Reason makes him speak in a soft tone, “You knew, then.”

“Before she did. Or before she got over the denial, at least.” Spike’s voice calms slightly, and he raises the bottle in a wordless toast. “When it got to the point I could hear the heartbeat from across the room, she slapped a de-invite spell on her doorstep. Guess she got tested that week.”

“And you just… left?”

A corner of Spike’s lips twists into a mockery of a smile. “Best for both of us that I don’t keep her secrets. Didn’t work out last time.”

The less he knows about the years Spike spent chipped in Sunnydale, the better for their working relationship.

Angel closes his eyes. “We make poor friends for her.”

“Nuh-uh. I’m a great friend, one who knows when his welcome wears off. I’m amazing, and I have ready all sorts of compliments for her spawn once she gets over the paranoia.” Spike points the tip of the half empty bottle towards him. “You, on the other hand, never got the gist of just being the Slayer’s friend. Poor sod.”

“Not that again,” Angel groans.

Spike throws him a look. When Angel doesn’t explain (and he won’t, he’d never live down remembering that little speech from a decade ago), the blond shrugs it off. “’Sides, it must be rankling you that she didn’t tell you herself – what?”

“She called me.” He frowns. “After a fashion.”

She called?”

“There was a message….”

“’Course she did,” Spike huffs. “I was putting too much faith in your ability to detect increased demon activity outside your city.”

“Hey.” Of course he heard the rumors. But the unsaid agreement says to keep their efforts to their own towns. “Hellmouths act up every other weekend. I assumed she was taking care of things.”

Cleveland might as well be in a different dimension, for all he’s intervened in that city.

He knows nothing about it. Finding a convenience store that first night had taken half an hour of driving around, and they still didn’t have a decent bar of soap. Hunting demons had been impossible without Buffy’s guidance. And driving.... Without any knowledge of which streets to avoid at what time, he ended up stuck in more traffic jams than during a holiday weekend in L.A.

He also missed his team, and he has to acknowledge he’s grown unused to working on his own. With Buffy keeping herself in her apartment and refusing to call in someone else, he had nobody to rely on in battle.

For three days, he’s felt like a fish out of water.

No wonder Buffy left him gasping for breath.

“I never considered she’d need help.”

Spike glares at him. “You do suck as a friend. At least I knew for sure she didn’t want me around.”

“She doesn’t want me around, either.” Now he wishes for a bottle of his own. “She wants to do things her own way, by herself.”

“And yet, she still called you.”

“After a fashion,” Angel points out again. “The message I mentioned? She ended it by telling me to stay away.”

After a pause, Spike starts nodding his head with the air of an experienced authority. “She likes her mixed signals.”

Angel remembers her dancing with Xander, that time after she killed the Master. Taking care of him at the mansion, while making clear that she was dating someone new. Basking in a kiss and babbling about cookies – just to send him back to L.A. in the next breath. “She does.”

But he also remembers never being mixed up by her contradictory behavior.

Back then, he knew when Buffy was scared, or worried, or stressed. He knew when she acted one way though she felt otherwise, out of fear that if she gave into her insecurities, she would be made weaker by them.

When did he forget to watch for her reasons, instead of focusing on her actions?

“I’m a dolt.”

“Show of hands for those surprised,” Spike drawls, sticking his down his coat pockets.

Angel doesn’t pay him any attention. “I’m going back.”

Spike’s wrists disappear into the pockets.

“Right. You'd already guessed.”

Spike smirks back.

Grabbing the car keys from the coffee table, Angel heads for the hallway leading down to the garage. He’s already disabling the alarm when he hears Spike’s shout.

“And remind the Slayer that William is a perfectly fine, strong name!”




PART SIX


His shirt smells like Spike’s favorite whiskey brand; there’s a hint of Faith’s perfume underneath.

He’s making a bad habit out of leaving town without taking care of the basics.

“Mr. Angel!”

It's Christina, looking excited at his entrance.

“Good evening,” he says politely, hoping to reach the shower within the next minute. It’s bad enough that he has to make a stop at the hotel before going to Buffy’s.
No such luck.

A rapid spatter of clicks terminates whatever chat session the girl’s been holding, and now he finds himself the object of her complete attention. “Well, hel-lo.” She rises from the desk chair and leans on her elbows onto the counter. “I knew you wouldn’t leave us just like that, despite what Ms. Summers said.”

“There was a misunderstanding,” he says, suddenly wary of the girl’s body language.

Blue eyes run up and down his body, and the slow smile that parts her lips has no business being aimed at him. “I’m glad you’re back.”

“Um.” The appreciation of three days ago has turned into batting eyelashes and thrust up cleavage. He considers turning on his heel and finding other accommodations, but he’s not buying another set of clothes in less than a week. “My key, please?”

Christina reaches for it, but leaves the keychain dangling an inch away from her face. “I managed to get through to Dawn.”

The non-sequitur hangs there.

So does his key.

“That’s... nice.”

“She says you’re not her new guy,” she says with a smirk. “In fact, she says you’ve never been one of her guys. Though she laughed hard when I suggested it.” Her confusion at Dawn’s reaction doesn’t stop Christina from leaning even further toward him. She must have gotten close enough to catch a whiff, because her nose furrows at the same time her smile widens into a pleased arch. “You know how to party,” she approves. “That lying Summers. She said you were a bore in that department.”

He’ll have to thank Dawn for trying to save him from her friend.

Forcing a smile, he closes his fingers on the dangling end of the keychain. “Now, what about –?” His rebuff skids to a halt as his brain catches up with her words. “You thought I was Dawn’s boyfriend?”

“You’re her type. Tall, dark-haired, and handsome. There’s always a new one when she comes.” Christina shrugs her shoulders. “Though she’s stuck with Alexander the longest.” She tugs back on the hostage key, intending to pull him closer, and pouts when he yanks it from her grasp. “I’m glad she didn’t trade up.” At his lack of reaction at the supposed compliment, she tries harder. “I mean, the guy can make her laugh. I’ll give him that. But that eyepatch? Please. She can do much better.” She adds another smile, which dies at his patent indifference. “Eh – you’re not friends with Alexander, are you?”

Angel snorts at that notion.

“Then why are you being so stand-offish?”

He teeters between cruelty and honesty, and finally decides he doesn’t know her enough to grant her either. “I’m staying for an hour only, miss.” With a Hellmouth beneath this city, there has to be a place that will cater to his needs. “Have my bill ready by then.”

The girl’s mouth drops open, and her cheeks redden brightly.

Angel doesn’t wait to find out whether her reaction comes out of embarrassment or anger. He calls for the elevator, and as he rides up to the fourth floor, he finds himself whistling a cheery tune.

No, he still doesn’t know the details. But the truth can’t be worse than believing that the girl who fought tooth and nail for a chance to have a serious, loving relationship has changed into someone who’d serial date her way through Cleveland.

For the first time in a week, he dares to hope that the Buffy he knew might still be around, after all.


-----


When he next sees Buffy, his stern speech crashes laughing onto the floor, and Angel himself can’t help but crack a smile.

Jean overalls that were obviously meant for someone a foot taller hang loose around her shoulders but tight at her abdomen. He glances down, and finds the legs rolled up so many times they’re now thick stumps around her ankles. The outfit is completed by a ratty paint-streaked shirt underneath, matching smudges covering her bare arms, dust all over her ponytail, and a surprised ‘oh’ on her lips.

He can think of very few times when she’s looked any cuter.

“You’re not the pizza guy.”

“And you aren’t Martha Stewart.”

Buffy looks down at herself and quirks a grin. “Touché.” Just then, a fleck of dust decides to drift its way down from her head. With a self-conscious wince, she raises her hand to pat at her hair. “How bad is it?”

He opts for total disclosure. “You look cute.”

Her eyes narrow, but then she relaxes. “Still a terrible liar, I see.”

Angel shrugs. “Not my fault if you don’t believe me,” he says, leaning a shoulder against the doorframe. “What happened? The crib fought back?”

“It’s worse than going after sewer hydras,” she sighs, giving up and loosening her hair to give it a slight shake. “Right when you think you’ve gotten it down, another head pops up and you have to start again.”

“Hydras are irritating that way,” Angel agrees, uncomfortably aware that he didn’t know last year’s infestation had gone beyond L.A. “You look like you can use an extra hand.”

Buffy gives him a weary look. “Angel….”

She is holding the edge of the door for dear life. He stands outside with no idea what’ll happen when he comes in.

All they’re missing is a nosy neighbor and they would be exactly where they started.

Except Angel’s had enough of repeating his mistakes.

“I’m helping you.” The confident statement makes Buffy’s stance change from guarded to tense. Angel makes sure to look the picture of relaxation, spooking her is not part of the plan. “Unless you give me a good reason not to,” he adds, aiming for reasoning her into his new idea. “Actually, make it an excellent one.”

Buffy’s eyes narrow. “What about, I’ve been doing fine all this time. And I really don’t need-”

“I don’t doubt that,” he cuts her off. If they continue down that route, they’ll end up in different cities, with him mulling over and over their conversation, one more time – maybe for a last time. He cannot keep coming where she doesn’t want him, but she called him, and that means something. “I also know for a fact that you do better with a team around you. I was there in Sunnydale, remember?” He smiles. “I was the boyfriend your team didn’t approve of.”

She doesn’t smile back. “Things change, Angel.”

“Not everything.”

“But enough,” she asserts, her eyes speaking of old pain. “Stop trying to force things.”

“I just want to come in, have a chat.”

Buffy rubs at a paint stain on her wrist, avoiding his eyes. “I have a nursery to finish. I’m sorry.”

Not for the first time, he wonders why not even Willow and Xander have been allowed to join her. When he asked, Buffy said it was so news of her temporary disadvantage in the battle field couldn’t leak any further. Angel nodded and let her change the subject; but now he wonders, is that the real reason?

In the years that followed his departure from Sunnydale, he has never been able to picture Buffy without her best friends at her side. He remembers them as the impenetrable wall he couldn’t break at his worst, the one that closed around her after his return from hell.

He cannot conceive of Willow or Xander letting her down.

Buffy, apparently, believes otherwise.

“You always detested the idea of a Slayer working alone.” He thinks it ironic that Faith, who once followed no law but her own, now works alongside others while Buffy, who enjoyed her friends’ support, now is glaring up at him, fighting the idea of someone helping her. But… Faith is not technically a Slayer anymore, is she? “Faith says everybody expected the spell to transfer the Slayer’s strength to her, since you…” Died. “…since she was the last one called.”

Buffy’s lips turn downwards. “She wasn’t happy that day.”

“She’s gotten over it.”

“I figured.” Her chuckle is bitter. “I sent a training dummy after I found out about the wedding.”

“Elopement,” Angel corrects automatically. It’s a long-standing issue between him and Faith, though she claims it was Connor who pushed for it. Also – is he the only one who’s been completely out of touch with Buffy? “She says you weren’t happy at the result, either.”

One of her hands moves down to settle on top of her belly, and Angel wonders when that turned into an attempt to comfort herself. “It was a tough day for everybody.”

Their conversation comes to a halt as the elevator doors ding open and the smell of tomato sauce wafts into the hallway. The teenager carrying the huge pizza box brightens when he discovers them by the door. “Ms. Summers!” He hurries to them, the grin on his face receding when he notices how close together they stand. Buffy must be a favorite client.

Buffy’s expression melts into a grin, as her hand reaches into her front pocket. She frowns, and pats the pockets at her sides and behind. “Aw, damn. I forgot the money.” The smile turns into an embarrassed one, and she rushes back into the apartment. “Just a moment, Nicky!”

‘Nicky’ doesn’t seem happy at the boyish nickname, but recovers quickly when he feels Angel’s eyes on him. “Er… hi.”

“Hello.” His experience with hormonal teenagers in this city has not been pleasant so far, but this boy reminds him more of an overgrown, awed puppy than a Casanova wannabe. “She orders those often?”

“Not often enough,” he sighs, staring after Buffy. Then he notices Angel’s darkening glower, because he jumps back and almost loses his grip on the box. “I mean, not anymore. No! I mean….” The boy seems to shrink where he stands. “Don’t tell her?”

Angel doubts he needs to tell Buffy anything. She was younger than this kid when she figured out that he liked her more than a fellow fighter should like another. She would have pegged Nicky down the first time the boy smiled dreamily at her. “Don’t worry. Buffy doesn’t need to know everything.”

Buffy comes back to the door, a wad of bills in her hand. “Buffy doesn’t need to know what?” she questions curiously while handing over the money.

Nicky looks like a deer caught in highlights. “Um….”

“That there’s not one ounce of real cheese in a pizza,” Angel says smoothly, taking the box and leaving the boy free to make his escape. “You should take better care of your health.” He flicks a pointed glance down her body. “Especially now.”

“Excuse me?”

“Um. Ms. Summers?” Nicky stares between Buffy’s narrowed eyes and Angel’s defiant stance, and takes a long step backward, rushing away from the scene as fast as his legs can take him. “See you later, ma’am!” he shouts from the stairwell doorstep, not even waiting for the elevator.

Angel,” Buffy grits out.

Angel waves the pizza box before her. “Meet my hostage.” He smirks. “Can we now have a conversation inside, like normal people?”

Buffy glares and scowls but, when he doesn’t give in, she turns on her heel and stalks in. “Whatever.”

The door stays open. There is no mystical barrier keeping him out.

That gives him hope.


--------------------


Half the pizza is gone, and he found chamomile tea to accompany it. Most of Buffy’s anger dissipated into stunned gaping when he commandeered her kitchen area, boiled water, and added the tea bags into it.

“You cook?”

“The basics.” He remembers Cordelia and Wesley digging into scrambled eggs, though he likes to think he can deal with more variety now. His son is human, after all, and with a metabolism that may outrank a Slayer’s…. He glances at what remains of the pizza. Or maybe a Slayer is superior in all things. Chuckling to himself at the thought, he adds two spoonfuls of sugar into her cup, remembering that she did the same on his first night in Cleveland and surprised that he kept in mind such a detail.

“It’s not bad,” she pronounces after sipping on it.

He doesn’t disagree. He’s still getting a coffee machine, though, as soon as he finds a place to stay.

By the time she’s started on her fourth slice, Buffy seems to have forgotten her aggravation and is sitting contentedly in her favorite spot.

She always loved feeling pampered.

Time to ease her into the conversation.

“Your sister is dating Xander,” he starts, not needing to fake the surprise in his voice. “I never saw it coming.”

Buffy looks up, dumbfounded that he’s aware of her sister’s love life. Then she rolls her eyes and relaxes back into her seat. “Christina.” She shakes her head. “That little babble-mouth.”

“She seemed very… communicative.”

“You mean gossipy.” Buffy tosses the crust back into the box, and takes another slice. “At least she didn’t hit on you. She keeps making eyes at Dawn’s boyfriends, or so Dawn won’t stop complaining.”

“I thought they were friends.”

Buffy shrugs. “They are.” At his confused look, Buffy takes pity on him and explains. “Deep down, Christina is harmless. So far, three of the guys Dawn brought over have flirted back, and Christina told Dawn right away. Meanwhile, she gets to brag to her other friends that she totally could have snared a European hunk away from his girlfriend if she were that kind of girl.”

Angel blinks. Some things, only women will understand about each other. “Right.” Before she can tutor him some more on the symbiotic relationship between young girls, Angel moves onto the next subject. “It’s been… interesting… to get to know the girl, but I’m not staying there anymore.”

“Oh?”

He wonders whether Buffy believes that, somehow, he’s changed his mind in the last twenty minutes and will return to L.A., or if she’s got an inkling of his intentions but is too relaxed to argue with him.

It’s option number three.

“I don’t mind you staying in Cleveland,” she says slowly, weighing every word. “It’s even fun to spend time with you, like this.” She motions at their comfortable positions in her living room, the half empty pizza box and the chamomile cups, all signs of a quiet night between friends. “But it takes less than seventy-two hours for you to start making decisions about my life, and for me to resent you for it.” She sets her cup down, one hand rubbing her belly in small circles. “You’ve been great, keeping the big bads at bay. We still make a good working team, and I’m glad for it.”

“But?” he prompts.

“But….” Buffy takes a deep breath. “Angel, I don’t think we make good friends.”

He won’t laugh. “I know.”

“You know?”

“Somebody pointed it out to me recently.”

Buffy peers at him for a long moment, then shakes her head. “You’ve been talking to Spike.”

There is no point denying it. Sooner or later, Spike will confirm it to her. “The topic happened to be part of a longer conversation.”

With a sigh, she sinks deeper into her couch, pulling out a piece of pepperoni and nibbling at it. “I don’t think I like being a topic in any conversation between the two of you.”

He does laugh at that. “Believe me, it doesn’t happen often.” Even Drusilla gets mentioned more often than the woman before him. “We’re not as eager to brood as other people would think.”

That draws a smile out of her. “I have trouble thinking of a way you’d survive each other. I still can’t believe you work together.”

“Better the souled annoyance you know….”

Buffy’s head falls back in laughter. “Sorry,” she says between hiccups, picking at the bits of cheese that fell on her lap at the brusque movement. “It’s just – Spike says the exact same thing.” Her brow knits in thought. “Well, maybe a little more vehemently, and with worse vocabulary.”

“Color me shocked,” Angel drawls.

Buffy bites her lip against another fit of giggles, eventually sobering up enough to ask, “Is he angry because I uninvited him?”

Angel doesn’t need to think about it. “Not enough to stop asking you use ‘William’ in exchange.”

“He did not!”

He shrugs. “You’ll have to ask him yourself.”

Buffy’s eyes widen, and she reaches over for his tea, looking at it as if it’s been drugged when she wasn’t looking. Then she stares at Angel incredulously. “You’re telling me to talk to Spike.” She tilts her head in confusion. “What happened to you?”

“I grew up.” His smile turns gentler. “Didn’t you?”

She reels back, but relaxes when she doesn’t sense any mockery in his tone. “You mean there was a choice?”

“There is no choice now, either.” Angel braces himself. “I’m staying. For your own good.”

Buffy’s mouth opens, then closes again. She pinches the bridge of her nose, mutters this is not happening to herself, and takes a deep breath. “Is it Reverse Day in your world? Because we’ve had this conversation before, except that time you were leaving.”

He was hoping she wouldn’t make that connection.

“Yes, everything matches. Ultimatum, check. For my own good, check. Your choice, not mine – oh, make it a double check!” Pizza forgotten and glaring daggers at him, she crosses her arms over her chest. “Aren’t you supposed to bring up freak shows right about now?”

Ouch. Of course she’d remember that.

Angel now can admit that it had been a really poor choice of words. In his defense, he had never broken up with anybody before, and she had taken him by surprise, demanding they have that conversation right then and there.

But agreeing with her now would serve no purpose. Instead he leans back and shrugs his shoulders. “I was right back then, too.” He believes that the only reason he doesn’t get tossed out of the room is because her body doesn’t allow her such exertions anymore. “Tell me I was wrong,” he challenges.

Her eyes alone would make a lesser vampire take refuge, but she doesn’t refute him.

Angel allows a minute to pass, waiting for her temper to settle down. When Buffy leans against the back of the couch and reaches for her next slice, he reaches over the coffee table for her cup and walks to the stove for a refill.

She doesn’t speak until he sets the chamomile in front of her.

“That was mean.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You really want the best for me, don’t you?” Her eyes fill with tears. “If I asked you to fight for me, but not come visit, you would do that.”

“I would,” he agrees. “But I wouldn’t believe you really want that.”

“I’ve been alone for too long, I think.” She takes her cup and stares into the yellowish liquid. “It’s difficult, being the only Slayer again. Willow said it’d be like old times, and Xander made jokes about how we were only a Hellmouth-under-the-library away from going back to high school….”

“But it wasn’t the same.”

Buffy shook her head. “When I was fifteen… I don’t know. My parents were getting divorced, my mother was moving us to a tiny town, the tiny town was a portal to hell…. I barely had time to freak out about being the Slayer. I never realized how… responsible I had to be, how it was all in my hands, and my hands alone.”

“That’s not how I remember it.”

“Teenage angst, Angel. It will blow anything out of proportion.” She sets her cup back down and meets his eyes. “I saw a couple of nights at the graveyard, one or two missed parties or failed exams, and I thought it was the end of the world.” She smiled. “I died too soon, that first time. Before I knew it, Kendra was around, and then Faith.”

“But neither of them supported you.” He hates to say it of Faith, knowing the caring person she’s become, but it’s the truth. “You still fought alone.”

“But I wasn’t alone. In the back of my mind, I could say – if worse comes to worse, someone else can do it. And I was right. When I almost lost Sunnydale, Faith rode in, fresh from prison, to pick up the slack.”

He chuckles. “That’s not how she remembers it.”

“Funny. It’s what it felt like.” Buffy drags the back of her hands down her cheeks. “Great. I’ve become a big weepy mess. Damn hormones.”

“I don’t think that’s it,” Angel remarks kindly, moving to sit on the arm of her couch. It’s the closest he’s been to her in years, he realizes, as he spent every other encounter on the other side of this room. “And I don’t think you want to be alone.”

“Don’t tell me what I want, Angel,” she snaps, drawing away from him.

That might be the hormones.

“All right,” Angel says, keeping his voice soothing. “Then I’ll tell you what I want. I want you to be cared for, not because I think you can’t take care of yourself, but because you don’t need to do it alone. I want you to stay out of danger for the next few weeks, and I’m not fool enough to believe that protective runes will keep you safe forever.”

“Willow made those runes!”

“And someone will figure out a way to break through them,” he responds, glad when she doesn’t argue further. “It’s only a matter of time.”

“You want to save me,” she says, spitting the words as if she’s bitten into a lemon.

“Exactly.” When she gasps, shocked at his candid admission, the corner of his mouth quirks up. “It’s only a couple months, Buffy. You’ll survive my white horse and shiny armor.”

“And if I say no?”

“I’ll do it anyway.”

“That’s not fair.”

And you won’t get to taste my masterful chamomile skills again.”

She fights down a smile. “Is that supposed to be blackmail?”

“Depends.” Angel laughs. “Is it working?”

Instead of a vocal answer, she reaches for his wrist and moves his hand towards her abdomen. “If we’re going to work together, you have to meet the Bun.”

He thanks all gods that he doesn’t need to breathe. He figures his bafflement shows enough in his face. “The Bun?” he says at last. “That’s awful, Buffy!”

She shrugs. “Better than ‘William’.” When he opens his mouth, she tuts at him. “’Liam’ is out of the race, too. This one is living in the twenty-first century.”

Perhaps drawn by the voices over him, the Bun picks that moment to make his presence known. “Connor was a kicker, too,” Angel says, and when he sees Buffy smile happily, he keeps to himself that Darla hated every second of it. “You really are pregnant,” he whispers, amazed that it’s just sinking in.

Buffy is having a baby.

Buffy is having a baby.

Buffy frowns. His expression must explain everything, because her face softens and she lets out a cheerful laugh. “What, you thought I’d tucked a watermelon under my clothes?”



THE END