On Hold

Author: Alas

Summary: Human AU. Working two jobs to support her and her sister, Buffy feels suffocated by small town monotony, until she meets a single father named Angel who makes life all the more livable.


Rating: R

Notes: Rated for mature themes.



I said, watch. Where. Youre. Going, the brunette seethed, hands on her hips as she glared daggers.


The boy who had bumped into her, initially apologetic, now wore a scowl that held an impressive level of contempt. Look whos talking, he replied coolly. Thought about having your tunnel vision checked out?


When she drew herself up to full height she was only shorter than him by a small margin; her expression of withering fury lessened the gap even further. He shrank back at first, but then looked down on her defiantly. Her nostrils flared. Ive babysat toddlers with more self-awareness than you.


Oh yeah?




From the sidelines, two adults let out simultaneous sighs: the man with tired embarrassment, the woman with amusement and exasperation. She had long since given up on being ashamed of her sisters actions.


You wouldnt think a well-behaved child like her would even end up in detention, she commented dryly as the teenagers voices rose in volume. They were like verbally aggressive peacocks. She was just glad there wasnt much of anyone roaming the campus to stumble across this spectacle.


Wincing at an especially colorful string of profanity, the man said, Ill be surprised if this doesnt end in bloodshed.


The blonde shook her head, resigned in spite of the tiny smile on her face. Dawns a brat, but shes a pretty nonviolent brat. After a beat, she added, I hope.


Remembering her manners, she turned to her companion and regarded him pleasantly, trying not to make her appreciation of his looks too obvious. Hi, Im Buffy. Long-suffering older sister of the demon spawn over there. She extended her hand on instinct; when he took it she was hit by an inexplicable wave of warmth, noting with mortification that the faintest blush had risen to her cheeks.


Angel, he replied. Once theyd both let go, he seemed to look her over briefly, lips quirking in a way that she hadnt seen in ages. She had trouble remembering the last time shed flirted with anyonebefore Riley, probablynot that she necessarily considered any of this flirting. They were just two adults, meeting for the first time, having a nice, normal conversation. Then he asked, If shes demon spawn, wouldnt that mean you are, too?


Well, he had her there. She shrugged. One of us was adopted. Glancing at the bickering pair, she said, So based on what Dawns told me, Im thinking thats Connor, right? Is he your sibling of questionable relation?


Um. Angels brows rose, expression filled with mirth. My son, actually.


For a fraction of a second she thought he might be joking, but then she realized with shock that he was entirely serious. Oh. Well, I just thoughtI mean, you really dont look that old


Dont worry about it, he cut in, saving her from an extended bit of rambling. People make that mistake all the time. His mother and I were pretty young, he explained.


Oh god. So shed been making googly eyes at a man who was older and probably married? That was more than kind of mortifying. Clearly she had misread the entire situation. Well hey, youve aged really well, she offered lamely.


He made a noncommittal sound. I guess Ive done all right. You know, for thirty-one, he added in a teasing tone, no longer disguising his level of amusement.


So by pretty young he hadnt meant early college like shed assumed: he meant high school. Dawns age, practically. She let out a nervous laugh. Okay, Ill just give up on this whole talking thing while Im still way, way behind. Biting down on her lip, she whirled back around to her previous position. Dawn and Connor were still locked in a heated battle of words, coupled with emphatic gestures.


Angel laughed. No, really, I shouldnt be giving you a hard time. You made a completely valid assumption. In fact, lets start over. She turned her head to find him offering his hand. Im Angel. Former teenage parent.


A grin escaped her as she turned to face him fully, taking his hand once again. Nice to meet you, Angel. Im Buffy. And I think our respective relatives are about to murder each other.


Sure enough, Dawn had just slapped Connor in retaliation for what was probably a wholly uncalled for remark. A groaning Angel took a few steps toward them. Connor, he called out over their squabbling, get your stuff, were leaving. As an addendum: And would you stop picking fights?


The boy bristled. She hit me!


Dawn argued, Only because you said I was a dumb


As much as I dont want to hear the rest of that sentence, Buffy interrupted, we should get going, too. Cmon, my shift starts soon.


For some reason Dawn looked somewhat disappointed; it was like she enjoyed fighting with that kid. Buffy just hoped it wasnt a treat-him-like-crap-cause-you-like-him kinda deal. After all, shed just seen Angels left hand, completely devoid of any rings, and it wouldnt do for her sister to start jonesing after the son of the only guy Buffyd had any chemistry with in recent memory.


Not that she had any reason to think she would see him again, of course. That was exactly her luck. Suppressing a heavy sigh, she shot him an amiable smile, saying, It was nice talking to you.


You too, he returned. He looked to Connor, now by his side. Ready?


Connors gaze flickered between his father and Buffy. He raised one eyebrow. Arent you gonna ask for her number? he asked, his tone that of a person pointing out something stupidly obvious. She had to admire his straightforwardness.


Meanwhile, Angel was looking flustered. As payback for poking fun at her earlier, she goaded, Thats a good question. Are you?


Uhwell, yknow, if you


She looked to her sister, trading amused glances, before Dawn procured a pen and paper from her bag. Buffy scrawled the digits out, then added her own name at the top in clear, loopy letters. I work evenings, she supplied, handing him the slip. As he took it, that expression from before resurfaced, the appreciative smirk that warmed her insides like fresh espresso (though maybe she was just reminded of coffee because of the shade of his eyes).


Ill keep that in mind, he said.


At last in the safety of their car, Dawn whirled around to face her older sister with a demanding stare. Who was that? Her voice was unnecessarily low; it wasnt as though the guys had a chance of overhearing, considering they were a good fifty feet away.


Who was he? A tall and well-built stranger with a sense of humor and kind disposition and really gorgeous smile. The only man Buffy had found herself resisting the impulse to mentally undress in a long, long while. An ally in the treacherous world of raising a rebellious teenager. Someone who looked like a really good fuck.


Oh, just some guy, she said, feigning indifference.


- - -


They kept the conversation relatively light till the third date. Shed invited Angel over for dinnerDawn was crashing with a friend for the night and would thus be unable to spoil everything as she had the habit of doing, intentionally or otherwiseand now they were lounging on the couch (opting for caffeine instead of wine; alcohol made her drowsy). Being as close as they were, knees touching, made her giddy even though theyd already kissed. More than once. She felt like a high schooler all over again. Now, listening to him tell her about his son, she was fascinated.


We were fifteen, he began after a long inward breath. As soon as she found out, she wanted to get rid of it. Her parents were ready to kick her out if she did, though. It was her responsibility, they said.


What about you? asked Buffy. What did you want?


I dont know. I didnt want her getting the abortion, but I didnt wanna be stuck raising a kid, either. He sighed. So I guess I just hoped Id wake up one day and my life would be back to normal. Pausing, he pursed his lips and made a thoughtful noise deep in his throat. After a moment he continued, saying, She didnt smile a single time during the pregnancy, and when Connor was born she did it once, when she held him after ten hours of labor. It mightve been the drugs, though.


She smiled, trying very, very hard not to dwell on the idea of childbirth that lasted for ten hours. Shed grown up wanting loads of kids, but once she hit adulthood she was struck with a strange and alienating fear of pregnancy. Whereas other women her age were starting to get the baby fever, Buffy shied away from the concept more and more. Having a stranger sharing her body, her lifeeven a tiny stranger made of bits of herwas too frightening.


But Angel said hed been afraid, too, and maybe never stopped. Everyone made it sound like Id have this divine revelation when I saw him for the first time, he said. But when she offered to let me hold him, I froze up. I still couldnt believe he was my kid, and then I was afraid Id drop him. Im still scared Ill do something wrong, he admitted, and Im not sure if thats normal but Im not sure I wanna know, either.


In a way, she knew the feeling. She was anxious about disciplining Dawn too little or too much; not setting the right example for her; not preparing her for the world. And even if she didnt have social services breathing down her neck half the time, she knew shed still have all those worries bubbling in her gut. She nodded understandingly. Socan I ask what happened to her?


Post-partum depression. She hanged herself when he was ten weeks old. His tone had the distant quality of someone whod had to explain the same thing so many times that it didnt hold meaning anymore. He finished his drink in one last swallow, turning the empty mug in his hands.


She frowned. Oh. Im sorry, she said genuinely.


I dont really deserve any condolences here, he replied with a wry smile. Connor was the one who lost a mother. Maybe not a very good one, but well never know. And her parents lost their only child, but me? I didnt even like her, if were being honest.


Her eyebrows shot upward in surprise. You didnt like your own girlfriend?


She wasnt really my girlfriend. We hung around the same crowd, but that was about it. You could argue we didnt even go on dates. Expression sheepish, he added, I was different as a teenager.


While she couldnt quite imagine the man in front of her having casual hookups with girls he didnt especially care for, Buffy was starting to learn that the Angel shed met and the Angel of the past were separate entities. In a way it reminded her of Rupert Giless stories of his debauchery and rebellion, all the more unbelievable now that he was a subdued and mild-mannered former librarian.


Anyway, her parents raised Connor while I finished high school, then a family friend helped me move to California when I was nineteen. Its been an uphill battle most of the way, but I think Sunnydales working out. When he shifted in his seat she caught a whiff of his aftershave. He smiled. So, what about you? Howd you get where you are?


Oh, wasnt that a fun story. Okay, Ill give you the short version. Parents divorce was over and done with around the end of my freshman year, so Dawn and I moved out of LA with our Mom and settled down here. And, um, a few years ago she was having some health problems, so the doctors took a look around and found a brain tumor. They removed it, but a couple months later she had an She took a quick gulp of lukewarm coffee, then a calming breath. An aneurysm. I found her when I came home one day. She didnt add that theyd taken that sofa and thrown it in the dump. No point specifying where the death had happened; and anyway, she didnt like thinking about it too much, even after all this time.


Angels eyes were deep and troubled and sympathetic. My parents died when I was twelve, he said, and she knew it wasnt a game of trying to one-up each other. He was telling her he understood, and she appreciated it. That isnt something anyone should have to see.


She nodded. I took an incomplete for the semester and started working to keep things going, she went on. When the next term started, II didnt wanna go back to school, not after all that, but some of my friends moved in for a while and made me let them pay rent, and then Gilesgod, hes more like a dad to me than my own father, you know?um, he helped out with money and all the things I didnt really know how to do. Like filing taxes, changing tiresthat stuff. And he said if I kept going to college for at least another year, hed consider it paid back in full. So now Ive got a degree in religious studies with a minor in education, and nothing to do with either one since I work at a magic store on weekdays and serve food at a trashy diner every weekend to keep up with bills. A short laugh escaped her. Living the dream, huh?


There was a momentary pause. Youre amazing, he said in earnest. The look he fixed on her was one of admiration, and she felt that telltale heat lighting up her cheeks.


But youre the single father here! Youve been raising a human being on your own for over a decade, Angel. Know what I was doing ten years ago? Failing math. She shook her head vehemently. All Ive done is damage control.


I think, he said, his body closer to hers than before, youve just been trying to make do with your circumstances and not let anyone who needs you down. And I know how that goes.


Their gazes were locked, and she, unwilling to look away, reached blindly to put her mug down on a flat surface. He took it from her and set both of theirs aside without so much as blinking. He was wearing red. She liked him in red (or black or blue or grey or green or purple ormost colors, or possibly nothing at all).


Blurting out the first thing that came to mind, she said, I havent dated in almost four years.


He grinned, but looked the slightest bit bemused. I havent in longer, he replied. Why are you mentioning this now?


Well, just that, I mean, if this is going where I think it isI thought you should know. And she really hoped it was going where she thought it was, or else her skills at reading between the lines were rustier than she thought and a hole would have to open up in the floor and swallow her into the earth.


Since she had the feeling he was about to mockingly ask what she was thinking, she leaned in and pressed her lips to his, sinking into that warm feeling of their mouths moving against each other, his hands on her waist and the back of her head, both holding her steady and drawing her in. Binding like a boa constrictor. She could taste black coffee on his breath but didnt altogether care about the bitterness.


He didnt protest when she began unbuttoning his shirt, nor did she when he pulled hers over her head. For a short moment she had half a mind to suggest they relocate to the bedroom, where a spacious mattress awaited them, but there didnt seem to be enough time for any of that. There was too much going on, too many things she might miss if they paused for the thirty seconds it would take to rush to the second floor.


It was only when her back was pressed down into the cushions, his teeth against her collarbone, that she asked breathily if he had a condom.


He froze, and with a groan said, Youd think after having a kid Id remember that.


She laughed all the way up the stairs.


- - -


The face greeting her on the other side of the door gave her a start. Riley, she said, trying to quell her shock. What are you doing here?


I was in town catching up with some friends from UC Sunnydale. Thought Id stop in and say hi. So hi. He gave her a tight-lipped, slightly anxious smile. That honest face of his hadnt changed, still boyish and trusting in spite of his time spent abroad doing god knows what. Killing people, maybe. There was an untold amount of blood on his hands.


Hi, she echoed. Uhcome in.


They sat across from each other in the living room. Before she could become too preoccupied with thoughts of how many times she and Angel had had sex on the very couch where Riley was seated, she asked if he wanted anything to drink.


No thanks. An awkward silence fell. Howve things been for you these past few years? he asked.


Im seeing someone, she said at once. Weve been dating for two months now. She looked down at her hands, fingers digging at the fabric of her pants. Its the first time Ive really made a connection with anyone since Mom died.


I heard about what happened to her. Im sorry I couldnt be there for the funeral. And he obviously meant it, since Riley was one of those guys who didnt have any reason to lie. He had always said exactly what was on his mind and hadnt been able to take it when Buffy couldnt do the same.


She sighed. I wouldntve wanted you there anyway, she muttered, just loud enough for him to hear.


I dont blame you, he replied. Listen, I dont want there to be any bad blood between us. I know it was childish of me to run off on you like that, but It was his turn to sigh. Sometimes things happen for a reason, right? If I hadnt left, I would never have met my wife.


Jerking her head up, she searched that honest face for any visible signs of deception, then her gaze fell to plain band on his ring finger. Irrational jealousy and ire filled hernot because Riley had found someone who wasnt her, but because hed been able to accomplish so much with his life while she stagnated in Sunnydale.


She drew in a breath and said, Well, Im glad. While youve been off doing all the things youve dreamt of since you were ten, Ive been working fifty-two hours a week to keep me and my sister off the streets while making sure she can afford to go to college. Im only home right now because the diner I work at for my second job is closed for inspection. But really, Riley, its great that your lifes been so fulfilling.


His expression was wounded. Buffy, I didnt come here to brag or start a fight, I swear. I just wanted to see if enough time had passed that we could


What? Be friends? she demanded. You give me an ultimatum, leave to join some special forces operating overseas, then come back and tell me how glad you are that you dumped me? And after everything Ive been through, youyou expect me to be okay with that? She could only shake her head in disbelief, looking at him with unconcealed hurt and disgust.


She half expected him to clench his jaw, shout, throw something, lash out and tell her how unfair she was being, but he deflated, hanging his head. You have every right to be mad. I know I would be in your position. But Ive missed having you around, talking to you. You were a big part of my life when we were together, and then you were gone. And I know that was my fault, he added before she could interrupt, but it doesnt make it any less true.


Then Im sorry to keep your life from being even more perfect. She stood in one swift, robotic motion. I think you should leave.




Look, Riley, maybe someday when youre living in a big farmhouse in the countryside with twenty kids and a dog Ill be happy for you and well make up and send each other Christmas cards. But Im not there yet, okay? Even though I dont love you anymore, what you did still hurts. What youre doing now hurts. And I have better things to do with my time than sit here and let you feel sorry for me for not having everything you have.


Her hands balled into fists at her sides. The hot sting of tears pressed against the corners of her eyes and she blinked them away angrily. He was on his feet now too, hesitating, as though he wasnt sure whether to hug her or walk out the door.


He tore away from her furious gaze and asked, Does this guy make you happy?


Without hesitation, she answered, Yes.


He nodded. Then Im glad you finally found someone who does. He let himself out, leaving her in a state of indignant rage and upset.


The tears never came, but she found herself sniffling as she dialed a familiar number; when he picked up she made an effort to keep her voice level, though the readiness with which he agreed to come over made her think shed failed on that front. It just wasnt her day, was it?


By the time Angel arrived she had calmed a bit, the angry flush fading from her cheeks as she nibbled on mini-pretzels. She nestled into his lap and let her eyes fall shut. Without opening them she told him about Riley, past and present.


He stayed quiet until she was finished. Then: Are you unhappy with your life?


She almost laughed, but only out of hysteria. People were asking so much of her, wondering how she felt and, it seemed, what it meant for them. They all wanted a slice of regret pie. Im happy with you, she said, and Im grateful to have a sister whos always conveniently elsewhere when I need her to be.


But everything else?


It all came tumbling out of her in a rush. I hate my jobs. Both of them. I hate that Im stuck here in this little town with no way out, I hate having degrees I cant do anything with, I hate that my mom is dead and my dad hasnt talked to me since her funeral. And I hate having an ex-boyfriend whos married and gets toto do all these exciting and dangerous things while I sit here with no future.


And even that wouldnt be too bad, but you know, my two best friendsone of them is off studying law at Harvard, and the other is building his dream house for him and his fiance to move into after their wedding. Her grip on the front of his shirt tightened, vice-like. Everyone else is running marathons and Im paraplegic, or something.


For a while he held her, not saying anything. He wasnt all that talkative when he wasnt asked a question or expected to give inputwhich was fine, though sometimes frustrating.


When he finally spoke, he started off slowly, uncertainly: This isnt something I tell people, since theyre always telling me how brave I am, but I feel trapped, too, a lot of the time. There isnt much waiting for you when youre a single dad in your thirties with no college education. The only thing keeping me from being as overworked as you is the money Connors grandparents send every month. As he went on his thumb traced circles on the back of her hand, soothing, distracting her momentarily from the buzzing in her head. I respect the hell out of you for the sacrifices you make, Buffy. And no one else in your life is gonna know just how much youve given up.


He was right, of course; everyone would talk about how strong she was, how generous, but they only commented on it as one would on the weather. The skies were cloudy and Buffy was a giving soul. Before she met Angel, she hadnt known anyone who had even the slightest idea what her life was like, and while having him there with her didnt make the ugly reality of her life go away, it made it more livable.


Angel? He hummed in response. I love you. You dont have to say it back or anything, butI do. If thats all right.


He laughed. She finally opened her eyes, craning her neck to look up at him with a furrowed brow. You dont know how long Ive been waiting for you to say that. Then he kissed her, murmuring against her lips, Ive loved you almost as long as Ive known you.


Dawn came home to find the two of them lying entangled on the floor where theyd fallen from the armchair, tears of mirth rolling down their cheeks as they laughed breathlessly. She regarded the couple with wary discomfort. Are you okay?


Unable to reply, Buffy nodded before burying her face in Angels heaving chest. Looking confused and a little disturbed, Dawn backed away slowly and darted off to her room.


- - -


It was late on a Friday night when she asked him to move in with her.


Both recently showered, she breathed in the aroma of soap that still clung to his skin, her damp hair trailing over his torso while she utilized him as a makeshift pillow. She liked the smell of his soap, but it was so rare for them to stay the night at his and Connors apartment that she hardly got to appreciate this particular shower-fresh state. What started as a contented sigh became a low groan at the back of her throat.


Tired? he guessed correctly. I should drop you off at home; thatll give you more time to sleep in before work.


Un-uh, came her obstinate reply. Home doesnt have you. And shed had a long day at the shop, so getting in some quality Buffy-Angel time was a necessity for her mental health.


That got her to thinking about how living in separate places was inconvenient, and her house was closer to the high school, and


You should move in, she said at once.


If he was at all surprised by this suggestion, he didnt show it. Voice calm and measured, he asked, Shouldnt you talk this over with Dawn?


Yes. No. Probably. Buffy groaned. Shes a teenage girl. Unreasonable by nature. Theres no point in even asking.


Yeah, okay, Dawn ended up answering with a shrug.


Was she hearing right? Did her sister really say that? Her bratty, narrow-minded, contrary sister? Dawn, were talking about having two guys move into our house. One of whom is practically your arch-nemesis. And your response is yeah, okay?


Dawn, heaping a generous amount of melted butter on her toast (some of which dripped down her hand and onto her sleeve), rolled her eyes. It doesnt sound like that big a deal, Buffy. Besides, I dont hate Connor. We just like to argue. Now she was loading on dollops of thick strawberry jam, licking her fingers as she went. You know how sometimes there are people you only talk about a few things with cause thats all you have to talk about? We dont have anything to say when were not calling each other retarded. But I guess we did talk about Jim Carrey that one time


And you dont mind having him and Angel around here all the time? Here, where you sleep and practically inhale your food and dance around to boy band music in your underwear? Buffy asked, eyebrow raised suspiciously.


That. Was one time. Shooting her a frosty look, Dawn took her toast and cereal in hand and loped off to the table. To Buffy, that sounded a lot like the end of the conversation, and for once, almost impossibly, it had gone the way shed wanted it to.


She stood frozen in shock for a long moment. Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, she turned back to the refrigerator; when she opened it and gazed at its contents, enough for two, she pictured it full of leafy produce and succulent meats, stacks of yogurt and cheese, eighteen-count egg cartons, as it had been when the others were staying with them, or when their mom was alive. The fridge hadnt been full in a long time.


When she spoke to Angel again, he said Connor was slightly skepticalwhich, for him, was a good sign, since he wasnt in the habit of keeping his protestations to himself. After letting out a great whooshing breath that took with it all her anxieties, she looked at her lover with uncomprehending amazement.


So youre moving in. With me. It started to sink in as a real fact and not just a hypothetical scenario.


Though hed seemed perfectly neutral to the topic prior to now, Angel broke into a grin. Yeah, looks like it, he confirmed.


His infectious smile spread to her own mouth. You know what this means? she intoned eagerly. Well, besides seeing each other every morning and night and stressing over the inevitable bickering of the children were duty-bound to care for?




Waffles every Sunday. As an afterthought Buffy added, Potentially eating waffles naked in bed, too.


Mm. His hand found hers, fingers weaving together like yarn. The simple ring he wore on his middle finger pressed lightly into her skin and marked it with shallow lines. You really know how to make breakfast foods sound appealing.


With a coy smirk she drummed her fingers against the back of his hand, stared up at him, and said, I can make them look pretty appealing, too.


In the end they spent that first Sunday morning locked in hertheir room, all mention of breakfast forgotten till the time came that she had to rush to get ready for work. He was still lazing in bed when she finished dressing (and with the way their day had started, she wished she could do the same), and she pressed her lips to his one more time in farewell before tripping over her feet to get out the door.


She nearly spilled coffee on a customer partway into her shift, her mind still stuck on thoughts of Angel splayed out indulgently on the mattress with rumpled hair and a sinful sort of look in his eyes. She realized she could spend every morning like that: waking up to him pressed up against her and groaning quietly into her hair, rolling over to share a half-asleep kiss, giggling and making love for an inordinately long time. Then, wincing, she started to feel a reminder of their activities in the form of an aching soreness.


So all right, maybe not every morning.


- - -


Connors hair was getting long. Buffy noticed this when the teen looked across the table at her, bangs hanging like a shade over his eyes. He met her eye before looking away, focusing instead on the tabletop as he wolfed down his sandwich.


Hed been acting strange around her for a few days, and she wasnt sure if she had done something to bring this on or not. Cocking her head, she asked, Everything okay?


Yeah, he grunted around a mouthful of ham and rye.


She pulled a face. Thats disgusting, keep your mouth closed.


Rather than throwing back a snappy retort or rolling his eyes in annoyance, he went about chewing his food in silence. Once he was done he glanced up at her againjust for a secondand mumbled, I dont have to call you Mom or anything, do I?


Her eyes bulged. She was glad shed finished her coffee, as she would likely have spat it halfway across the room. As it was, she coughed, the surprise of his statement causing her lungs to forget for just a moment how to be lungs as she choked on empty air.


Why would youConnor, Im, um, Im not married to your dad, you know. She laughed uncomfortably. The seed of panic had already been planted, now taking root. She had never, in all this time, considered the possibility that if the day ever came that she and Angel did get marriedhowever unlikely it wasthat would make her a stepmother. The thought made her blanch.


You practically are, he argued. Look, dont tell him I said this or anything, but since I was a kid hes only had a few girlfriends, and he didnt seem to like any of them half as much as he liked you that first day you two met. He stood from his chair, empty plate in hand. I dunno, its weird seeing him all in love or whatever, I guess. Anyway, Im not calling you Mom, since youre barely older than Aunt Kathy and its weird either way.


Aunt Kathy? she repeated to herself, frowning. Wait, Angel has a sister?


Buffy asked her boyfriend about it later, and he stared in surprise, saying he thought hed already told her. Hed made some reference of practically everything else in his life by now, after all.


Kathy was younger than him by a decade. Where hed been the problem child (a concept Buffy was finally able to wrap her head around, having spotted traces here and there of the impertinence and hedonism that comprised his past), Kathy was the favorite with their grandparents: well-behaved, bright and promising. She was going to Princeton on scholarship, where she majored in art history and political science.


She goes home to New York in the summer, but every Christmas she flies in to visit. You can meet her then, he said. Still, its pretty far off. Youll like her, though. She gets along with everyone.


She nodded slowly. Yeah, she sounds a lot like my friend Willoh! She all but leapt out of her seat, one hand clutching her chest as though cardiac arrest had struck. Oh oh oh! Willows coming back this month! God, I cant wait to introduce youyknow, I havent even told her about you yet, so shell completely lose it when she gets here and finds out Ive settled down with a guy and not intentionally scared him off or anything.


Looking up at her in amusement, he asked, Is that what you normally do? Scare them off?


If you got set up with obnoxious losers you didnt have anything in common with, youd want a way out, too, she grumbled, then brightened. But now people cant make frownyfaces at me for being single anymore! And now I dont have to deal with awful blind dates, cause honestly, I love Willow, but her taste in guys has really gone downhill.


What Buffy didnt say was that she feared Willows ability to find guys for her had vanished in a similar manner as their friendship. They talked on the phone every so often, but the connection theyd had as teenagers wasnt quite there anymore. And it wasnt that they didnt like each otherthere just wasnt much to talk about now that Willow was out of Sunnydale and living it up at one of the most prestigious schools in the country.


And what would they do now that Willow didnt have the excuse of unsubtly trying to play the part of the wingman? Would everything revert to awkward silence? The only things they had in common now were memories, and the reminiscing could only go on for so long before it grew old. She felt herself sag a little in disappointment.


Well, Angel began, pulling her back down gently by the hand, Im glad she did such a bad job setting you up with people.


Sinking into his arms with a smile, she replied, I am, too.


- - -


The first thing she noticed was that Willow was growing her hair out again. Gone was the short bob shed sported before, her ginger locks already falling past her shoulders. More prominent, however, was the aura of gleeful contentment she radiated from her every pore, a secretive smile toying with her curving lips at any given moment. She hadnt looked this happy since Oz.


Youve changed, Buffy accused with a playful grin, holding her friend at arms length to appraise her. Did they replace my reliable old Willow with a newer model?


The redhead gasped in mock offense. Youre one to talk! Look at you, youresee, I dont even know what you are, and Im a future lawyer, I know how to say things!


Buffy laughed, inwardly pleased that someone had noted a difference in her. She liked to think things had changed at least a little. She took Willow by the hand and led her inside, away from the harsh heat. Okay, theres someone I want you to meet.


Willows eyes widened. Is this a male kind of someone? Should I be excited, or possibly frightened for my life?


Ill let you be the judge of that. Turning her gaze upward, Buffy saw a familiar shape at the top of the stairs. Connor, wheres Angel? she called.


First he was hovering by the top step, but he was down at their level in a heartbeat. Hes upstairs somewhere, the boy answered, eyes fixed on the woman next to her. He seemed interested in an extremely wrong and gross and illegal kind of way. Hi, Im


Leaving, Buffy filled in. He glared, towering over her, but she was unmoved. You promised to go with Dawn to the mall, remember?


Seeming to remember they had company, he narrowed his eyes, going pink. Okay, fine. Dawn! he shouted as he shuffled off to the next room. Move it or lose it!


Who? Willow gave her a baffled look. Buffy shook her head.


Youll find out. Wait down here a minute?


Angel was in their room, which had turned into nothing short of a warzone in her absence. Shirts were lying in organized heaps all over the bed, some hanging off the dresser or blinds, and at the moment her boyfriend was rifling through articles of clothing in the closet with feverish distress.


She leaned against the doorframe, watching the spectacle before her. Its pretty life-altering to realize your boyfriend is really a sixteen-year-old girl, she noted, watching him toss a sweater haphazardly to the floor. I dunno what to do with this newfound discovery.


It took a moment for him to respond, still half-dressed and buried in the closet. Its a stupid thing to obsess over, right? But her opinion means a lot to you, and I just wanna look like He halted his movements, the chaos briefly at a standstill.


Like what?


Like the kind of man you deserve. It was a mumble, quick and almost indecipherable, but when it reached her ear she frowned.


She walked closer, and, chastising, said, If were playing that game, I really shouldve dressed for the occasion.


He spared a short glance toward her off-the-shoulder top and worn jeans, then said dismissively, You look fine.


Angel, dont be diffall right, here, just go with this. She grabbed a shirt from the bed at random and thrust it in his direction without bothering to look at it.


His eyes narrowed in a manner not unlike his childs. Youre not even trying to be helpful.


Honey, if it were up to me, youd be naked, she told him with a tight-lipped smile. Now can you hurry up so that friend of mine youre bent on impressing doesnt have to live out the rest of her youth down there?


When he finally emerged he followed her down the stairs. If she didnt know any better shed think he was trying to hide behind her, which was a hilarious notion, considering her petite size and his six-foot, rather muscular frame. In fairness to him, though, shed never introduced him to anyone in her life but Dawn. Even Xander and Anya had yet to meet him, the reason being that she saw Anya nearly every day at work and Xander half as often when he brought his fiance dinner.


From the foot of the stairs, Willow watched in apparent fascination as they descended. Will, this is Angel, said Buffy once they reached the bottom. Angel, meet the infamous Willow.


They shook hands, and Willow said with a bright smile, Hi, its nice to meet you even though I know absolutely nothing about you and wasnt aware you existed until just now.


He looked sideways at Buffy, amused. She wanted to make sure you were surprised.


And it was clear that she was, too. Whatever Willow had expected to find upon her return to Sunnydale, a radiant Buffy with a sexy guy living in her house didnt seem to be it. Her expression deemed it a pleasant surprise, though, and that was what counted.


She addressed Buffy: On my flight here I had this whole speech planned out where I told you Im a lesbian and Ive been dating this girl since the beginning of fall term, though now Im kinda starting to doubt the lesbian part. Hi, she said again to Angel, cheery but anxious.


Buffy ignored the implications about her boyfriends looks and focused in on the rest of it. Youreoh. Oh! Thatsunexpected. But totally great, she was quick to add, hoping she didnt sound insincere.


Willow shrugged. Yeah, its pretty neat, I guess.


Understatement of the century. She had the whimsical, misty-eyed look of someone with a stolen heart. That was what Buffy had noticed about her, the fundamental change that had occurred. Maybe that was what Willow had caught onto as well. They were both girls in loveno. Women now. They werent kids at Sunnydale High anymore, but real, genuine adults with fulfilling relationships.


So who was the kid earlier? Willow asked abruptly.


Buffy and Angel shared a will-you-take-this-or-shall-I look. Buffy took a deep breath.


- - -


Hey, did I ever tell you about that weird conversation I had with Connor?


He swore under his breath as a guy in a jeep cut him off, then answered, Not that I remember. When was this?


Back in May. He was saying you and I are pretty much married and it gave him the wiggins to see you all lovesick.


He tore his gaze off the road for a short couple of seconds to ask, And youre bringing this up now because?


The rays of the late summer sun touched over her hair like a long-lost cousin. It was too beautiful a day for her to feel this forlorn, but she did anyway, the grand allure of her ever-shrinking future waving from a distance. With a deep frown she turned away, staring out the window at nothing in particular. Just remembered, I guess.


They were on the interstate and couldnt very well pull over, but Angels silence indicated he wanted to sit face-to-face and talk about her feelings, and while it was nice of him to care so much she was tired of complaining all the time and never taking action. She was tired of being stationary. What she wanted was movement, change, something entirely new and different and spectacular.


Yet there she was, still in the one-Starbucks town that was Sunnydale, and no matter how far they drove or how long they stayed away that little town still had its hooks in her, digging into her skin and refusing to let go.


Im fine, Angel, she said. You can stop looking at me like a worried mom.


She knew he wanted to say something. He always wanted to say something. But she glanced over and saw his lips pressed firmly together, his gaze on the road unwavering. Her heart sank, and all at once she wished he would speak up and tell her she was strong and beautiful and courageous and would get through all this because he believed she would.


Soaked to the bone in disappointment, she turned back to the window, biting back a sigh. Minutes passed without interruption. She could turn the radio on, but this unhappy quiet was better than false cheer.


At last he said, I know you were looking forward to this last-minute trip to see your dad, but instead youre gonna call him and reschedule because something came up.


She didnt know what he was getting at. What?


We both have nearly a week off, so Im getting off at the next exit and heading to LAX, where youll pick a flight. Whatever your first choice is, were going.


She gaped dumbly. Was he being serious? He was. He had Serious Face on and everything. The first question that came to mind was, Anywhere? Even Brazil?


Especially Brazil, he confirmed. Weve got our passports ready and nowhere else to be for a few days.


So that was why hed been so quiet. He was planning, calculating, trying to estimate how much was saved in his bank account that wasnt necessary for other expenses. Probably trying to figure out a game plan for the kids, tooand as incompetent as they sometimes acted, she felt they could handle being left to their own devices for a while, no supervision required. Dawn knew where to find the emergency fund and had the numbers for Xander and Anya and Dad and even Giles memorized. And all this just because Buffy seemed sad.


Wherever we go, she told him decisively, the first thing Im doing when we set foot in our hotel room is taking off your clothes and riding you so hard you forget your middle name.


The car swerved jerkily. He cleared his throat. Got it. Okay. Sounds fair.


She made good on her promise when they arrived in Madrid, the sheets smelling of roses and fabric softener as they fell to the bed as one being. And there was no feeling of suffocation anymore as she felt his hands on her hips, no dreadful inadequacy as her quickened breathing turned to wordless cries of approval. She was twenty-four and she had her whole life ahead of her. A life with him, maybe.


The moment they were both up for it they went at it again; this time he made a nervous request and she was quick to give it the go ahead, so in the heat of the moment he lowered his mouth and bit hard into the juncture where neck met shoulder.


Her immediate reaction was to gasp in shock, her eyes bugging as she let out a short cry. But after she got over the initial pain and surprise she hummed and urged him on, knowing hed drawn blood and would have left an impressive bruise but not presently giving a shit about any of it.


Afterward she watched him lovingly from across the pillow. What did I do before I met you? she wondered, breathless.


Had better skin, probably. She winced as his fingers grazed over the bruise.


Pffffft, skin, who needs it.


It was the middle of the day, but she hadnt slept much on the long flight and her jetlag was catching up to her. The sex had probably played a part as well. Sharing one last contented smile, she nestled into him and fell into wonderful, glorious sleep.


- - -


After several minutes of pacing, she finally stopped in front of him and, wringing her hands, blurted, Theres something I have to tell you.


His shoulders were tensed in the way they always were when he was moderately concerned. Okay, he said slowly. Is this a bad something?


A really bad something. A-a gigantically bad something. She started to smooth her hands over her skirt distractedly before making distressed noise and resuming her pacing once more. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck


Buffy wasnt especially prone to swearing, except when she was surprised, worried or flat-out pissed off. Angels eyes followed her as she repeatedly made the circuit from nightstand to doorway and back. As he opened his mouth to speak she whirled around and pointed an accusing finger at him.


You! This is your fault! You have thisthis special power or something, but instead of super speed or invisibility or, I dont know, talking to fish, you justAUGH!


The air of confusion emanating from him was so thick as to be tangible. Buffy, what are you?


Im pregnant, she snapped. Condoms and birth control be damned, your super sperm weaseled its way in and Imgod, Angel, there is a fetus in me. Do you have any idea how disgusting and terrifying that is?


Just then her mask of disbelieving fury cracked. She was wide-eyed and looked frightened, betrayed, and so, so lost. And Angel stared at her with an expression not dissimilar to the one Dawn had worn when Buffy told her Santa wasnt real.


Youre sure? How many tests? he demanded.


Eight, she said. You cant even imagine how much I had to drink to build up enough pee for that. She sank to the floor brokenly. I cant do it, Angel. I dont have the money, I dont have the time, I dont even want kids


Hey, hey, he murmured, already at her side and enveloping her with his sturdy arms, her cheek against his too-goddamn-big heart. Its okay. Youll be okay. No ones making you do this, all right?


It was only when she felt the front of his shirt grow wet that she realized she was crying. Blubbering, in fact. It was a nice shirt, really, and now it was about to be covered in snot. She sniffled. Anddyou know the kinda stuff they say about women who get abortions? she sobbed. If my mom were alive, sheshed be so ashamed, Angel. And you wont love me anymore, a-and everyones gonna think Im a terrible person. And I am.


Though he spoke softly, she could still feel the rumble of his chest as he said, No, shhh, youre not terrible, and no one whos ever known you could be ashamed of the choices youve made. Plus, it would take a lot more than this for me to stop loving you, Buffy.


But she began to protest.


Just listen. Connor is my life and I care about him more than Ive ever cared about anything on this planet. And raising my sons made me a better person than I wouldve been otherwise. No question. But I would never expect someone to raise a child they couldnt support, or to carry one to term if they didnt want to.


Im at a point in my life where I dont mind the idea of settling down and having more kids. But as someone whos already been through it once, it wouldnt bug me if I didnt get to again. I wont feel a hole in my life if that doesnt happen, and I know you wont, either. He kissed the top of her head. If youre worried about what people might think, we dont have to tell anyone. Its your choice, Buffy, and whatever decision you make Ill be behind you, a hundred percent.


She buried herself deeper into him till it felt like she could almost disappear. In a muffled half-whimper she confessed, Im so scared, Angel.


She was scared of this baby inside her, scared of the process involved in getting rid of it, scared of what this would mean for their future and absolutely petrified at the mere thought of going through this again. And whats more, she was scared of how fast this was all going and how her life was filled with Angel every moment of every day, and nine times out of ten it was the greatest thing in the universe, but the only step left for them was marriage and she just wasnt ready.


When they went to the clinic the next week, the doctor ended up telling Buffy privately, after a series of examinations, that there was no need for a procedure of any kind.


This news triggered instinctive panic. What do you mean? Why? Whats going on?


Youve miscarried, he explained. It happened early enough in the pregnancy that the tissues will probably be expelled on their own. You shouldnt need any treatment; its like having a heavy period, really. I recommend coming in for a follow-up if you


He went on for a while longer and she nodded, glad to avoid the procedure but wondering if her relief made her a bad person. Most women were devastated when they miscarried; all Buffy could do was let out a sigh that sucked all the stress and anxiety out of her body. There hadnt been anything to worry about after all. If shed waited another week the pregnancy scare would never have even happened.


And she wouldnt be filled with so much worry and apprehension over the best relationship of her life, either.


- - -


The front door opened, then shut with a shuffle and a click. Muting the television, Buffy listened with a frown, a glance at the clock telling her it was barely noon. Hello? she called.


After a moment she got her reply: Yeah, its me.


Connor? She turned off the TV and headed for the foyer, where she caught sight of him heading into the dining room. What are you doing home already?


He stopped in his tracks, halfway through the doorway. His backpack was slung loosely over one shoulder and caused his shirt to shift to one side. He said nothing, not even turning to face her.


Hands on her hips, she stood with patient authority. Well?


First he let out a tired sigh. When he turned around she clapped a hand to her mouth in shock and, after the initial horror faded a bit, hurried to him. What happened to you? she asked, looking from his black and swollen eye to the dried blood at one corner of his mouth.


He lifted his chin, defiance in his eyeseye, that is, one of them sealed shut. Jason and I got in a fight. They were gonna call home, but I said no one was there so they just made me leave, and now Im suspended for the rest of the week.


Waityou and Jason? Fighting each other? I thought you two were friends.


He said Dawn was a stupid cunt. Buffy flinched. And I know I call her worse stuff than that all the time, but its not like I mean any of it. So I told him to shut up, and he said I was just defending her because she wasputting out, he finished, censorship obvious.


So you hit him? she prompted.


No, I told him to stop being a fucking idiot, and he hit me. He scowled, crossing his arms over his chest in annoyance.


But you hit him back, right?


He looked indignant. Of course I hit him back! What do you think I am, stupid?


She smiled, her touch gentle as she pushed his bangs away from his wounded eye. Good. Come on, lets get you some ice.


As she passed through the sunlit dining room to the kitchen, it took a few beats for him to start following behind her, saying, Wait, youre not gonna lecture me?


Why would I? she questioned with a single glance over her shoulder. He hit you first, you made the creep bleed, and now you get a few days off. Anyway, she added, opening the freezer and grabbing the ice tray, Im not the one who gets to punish you.


She detected real confusion in his voice when he said, You arent?


Dumping a large handful of cubes into a dishtowel, she shot him a curious look. His expression was almost vulnerable, brow slightly furrowed and lower lip going inward just enough for him to bite down on it. Your dads the judge, jury and executioner. But Im pretty sure hell just sigh and look annoyed, then ask if you put that loser in the ER. Here, try not to press it too hard.


He held the ice against his wounded eye, still watching her. Thanks, Buffy, he said eventually. He looked like he wanted to say something else, but just shook his head and stalked off to his room.


She smiled. She didnt feel at all like a mom, but Connorhe was like family now. And if his protectiveness over Dawn was any indication, he felt the same way.


When they told the full story to Angel later on, he sighed, adopted a look of irritation, and said after a moment, Next time, hit first.




- - -


I dont think thats what you meant to write.


Its not? Dawn took the paper back and scanned over it. Whats wrong with it?


Angel tapped his finger on the word in question. The cactus is brave?


She stared at the sheet for a moment before slumping over with a groan. I hate false cognates, she wailed.


It was always entertaining to watch Angel try and fail to help Dawn become a competent Spanish speaker. The girl was barely scraping by with a C. Smiling to herself, Buffy continued on into the next room, shuffling through the mail that was mostly comprised of junk. Ad, ad, magazine subscription, ad, bill


As she reached the end of the stack, she paused, staring blankly at the white envelope. She turned it over in her hands, feeling the weight of it; one finger slid under the seal and slowly tore it open, smooth as skin under a knife. Too smooth. Her heart was drumming in her ears when she pulled out the folded paper.


Angel, she said, quietly at first, then raised her voice to repeat at a near-yell, Angel.


He sauntered into the room at far too relaxed a pace. Hands in pockets and all. Everything okay?


Do you remember what day the answering machine broke? she asked. Her voice tone was impressively calm, almost distant.


He seemed to think on this for a second. UhTuesday before last, I think? Why? Without a word she handed him the document. His eyes widened. Shit.


Whats going on? Buffy whirled around to find Dawn hovering at the dining room entrance, tentative and frightened like a wild rabbit. Something in Buffys gut began to twist and slither unpleasantly. Buffy, what is it?


Theyre taking you away, she said once she regained her voice. Youre going to live with Aunt Arlene. In Illinois.


Dawns initial reaction was of utter disbelief. Buffy expected her sister to accuse her of lying or being wrong or trying to play a trick on her. Then her jaw fell, chin quivering, and her brow knit and eyes watered and she cried out in panic, No! No, they cant do that! Im not leaving, Im not!


Heartbroken and unable to look her in the eye anymore, Buffy averted her gaze, crossing her arms over her chest. Theres nothing we can


IM NOT LEAVING! Dawn shrieked. She was furious, paralyzed, overwhelmed.


Buffy didnt know what to do. Angel had his arm around her, protecting her from the world, and he was speaking to her in hushed and reassuring tones but his words failed to register. She just stared at the tiled floor, defeated.


- - -


Being here felt like trespassing. She had this unshakable feeling that the cemetery was a home shed been given no permission to enter, and when at last she stopped in front of the proper headstone it was like standing in a strangers bedroom. She didnt belong.


When she breathed out a sigh she felt the cold snap of the breeze brush her cheek in a sharp kiss. God was paying His respects too, Mom mightve saidwith a hint of self-deprecation. Theyd never been the churchgoing sort.


Flowers were for fresh graves or lost loves. She had nothing to offer the dead soil, so it was with guilt that she said, Hey, its me.


No reply. Maybe it was her fault for waiting so long between visits. It wasnt that she had forgotten or didnt care, but it was still hard, even now, to stand here and remember the awful reality of things: that her mom was lying dead in the ground and wasnt ever coming back. It was with great effort that she swallowed back her anxious grief.


Sorry I havent swung by in a while. Ive been busy getting my life together, taking care of Dawnbut she, um, she had to leave yesterday. She failed a few classes and social services deemed me unfit and now shes with your sister. So thats it. She put on a false smile. What can ya do? It just happens. But Ive still got the guys, so the house isnt empty like it wouldve been.


I guess you dont really know who they are, though. Ive been meaning to tell you all about the stuff that happened this past year, but. Leaving that thought unfinished, she went on, I met someone. His name is Angel andhes the best thing thats ever happened to me. He takes care of me and he understands my problems and limitations, and he loves me even with all the bad and inconvenient things in my life.


He has a son. Connor. Hes Dawns ageits a long story. In spite of herself she laughed, just once, a short burst. Its like having a kid brother, except that brother is also kind of your step-son. I know, I know, totally getting into Jerry Springer territory. But things are good with them. Having Dawn leave isnt as hard. It still hurts, just less.


She sank down to her knees, reached out and laid a hand on the cool grass. No matter how long she pressed her palm to the ground, or whether her eyes were open or shut, she couldnt fool herself into thinking there was some mystical connection there. It was her, the grass, and the body. Nothing more. Still, she continued.


I was almost a mom for real. It was a fluke, dont worry. But I thought of when you were pregnant with Dawn, with morning sickness all the time and the kicking in the middle of the night, and all I could think was that it sounded sucky and painful, and I couldnt do it. And afterward I thought about how you went through that twice and raised us even with your failing marriage, and you loved us no matter what we did. And Im She choked on a sob. The tears were running hotly down her cheeks now as she cried without reservation, getting her makeup to run as they made their trails. Im glad you could be brave for us. And thatthat you kept us. And Im s-sorry for letting you down and not telling you how thankful I was every goddamn day. Her voice cracked, but after a few false starts she managed, I miss you, Mommy.


When she returned home it was dark out. Her eyes were red, lids puffy and sticky with salt, and she had the worst case of sniffles imaginableyet when Angel asked with worry if she was okay, she gave him a genuine smile. Im quitting the diner job. As of tomorrow Ill be in an exclusive relationship with the hell that is retail. And she kissed him hard, grabbing fistfuls of his sweater. He didnt complain.


- - -


Two weeks.


Why, in the name of all that was holy, did Buffy appear to be on a sexual hiatus that had already lasted two weeks? A girl could only be expected to pleasure herself for so long. Angel, though, never appeared to be in the mood, or was otherwise too tired, too busy, unwell, or whatever excuse he could come up with. It was both frustrating and a huge blow to her ego.


Was he bored with her? Had he gotten tired of their sex life already? She thought this was the fate of married couples and old people. They were young and in love, werent they?


Or maybe he wasnt. In love, that is. Maybe hed moved on and was trying to push her away slowly to make the transition easier on both of them. But no, that couldnt be righthe still embraced her fully as they slept, still made her coffee every morning, still kissed her on the lips before heading out the door and again as a greeting when she got home at night. He still did and said all those little things that had Connor making gagging noises at them.


Deciding to confront him directly, she stopped in front of him while he was in the middle of dressing for the day, fixing him with an expectant look. He had just pulled on his shirt when he saw her. Yes? he prompted, visibly bemused by her solemn expression.


Am I not attractive to you anymore? she asked bluntly.


Most men would have reacted with shock and confusion, going immediately on the defensive as they expressed vehement denial. Angel, however, let out an understanding hum. Youre upset that were not having sex, he concluded.


Her eyes narrowed. And youre not denying my accusation.


Technically it was a question, he pointed out. Anyway, I was going to break the news sooner, but




She watched as, for the first time since the day they met, he started to blush. Its a sensitive topic. Recently I



She winced. Did it hurt? Whyd you even get one?


His response was a shrug. I think Ive done enough parenting to last me a lifetime, he confessed. Anyway, it makes our lives less complicated, dont you think?


Well, yeah, but if you did it because you thought you had to


I didnt, he assured. Really. Its not a big deal. Usually reversible.


With slight hesitation, she nodded. Then he said he was feeling fine and it was probably all right for them to make up for lost time, which made her brighten considerably.


Oh, how long had it been since theyd had time for this on a weekend morning? If anything they had a propensity for rushed sessions in the shower, but now there was no pressure for either of them to be anywhere for the day, and they could go at whatever pace they wanted.


Unfortunately, right when they were really getting into ither turning over so he could push into her from behind, pressing back against him, the taste of cock lingering on her tonguethe worst sort of interruption happened. One moment she could feel sweat on the nape of her neck as he let out a groan against her shoulder, the tickle of his breath on her skin eliciting a breathless giggle, and then


Oh, fuck.


On a scale of one to really awful, having Connor walk in on them was pretty damn bad. Buffy was mortified; Angel was mortified; Connor was attempting to play it cool but definitely mortified underneath his false exterior. When they all sat at the table later that day the air was thick with embarrassment, with revulsion and horror andgod, the poor kid had probably been able to pretend until now that his dad didnt even have a sex life.


On the bright side, Buffys dignity had been mostly preserved, a significant portion of her nude body having been covered by another equally nude body. A small miracle, but shed take what she could get.


Im staying over at Lukes for the night, Connor announced quickly. His moms picking me up in ten.


Angel started to protest, but Buffy kicked him under the table. She shot Connor a good-natured smile. All right, have fun.


Before he left, he looked at the two of them one last time and gave a violent shudder, his face going just a bit green. He was old enough that the lets talk about what you saw discussion wasnt necessary, so it was better if they all pretended this never happened. Anyway, what were the chances it would happen again?


Apparently pretty high, she realized months later, when he went downstairs in the middle of the night to investigate a suspicious noise and found the adults going at it on the sofaand this time, unfortunately, he got a clear view of her getting eaten out by his dad. They couldnt look each other in the eye for a week, and the entire couch had to be cleaned twice before the teen would sit on it again.


- - -


In the space between the first and second time they traumatized Connor beyond repair, Christmas came and Buffy finally met Kathy. Oddly, in the days leading up to Kathys arrival the blonde didnt feel as anxious about meeting the prodigal child as she felt she should have been; she was confident that anyone Angel praised as highly as he did his sister would have to be extraordinary, and rather than intimidated, she felt determined. She would make Kathy love her if it was the last thing she did.


This ended up being none too difficult a task, as Kathy seemed to adore her right from the beginning.


I havent seen you in forever! Kathy squealed, hugging her brother tightly after having launched herself into his arms.


He laughed. Its only been a year, you know. They separated, and he regarded her fondly. Its good to see you.


Her grin was bright, dark umber eyes shining. There was a dimple on one cheek but not the other. Her long curls bounced as she turned with enthusiasm to the other woman. If possible, she grinned even wider. Buffy, right? She wrapped her in a friendly hug as well. Her perfume smelled of roses and honey.


Ive heard a lot about you, said Buffy, smiling at the younger woman when they parted.


This seemed to please Kathy. Yeah, me too! Im so glad I could finally meet you. Its not every day your only brother gets married.


Buffy and Angel looked at each other in confusion. Were not married, Angel said.


Youre not? Her face-splitting grin was replaced with a baffled frown. Oh. Sorry, I just thought She gestured to Buffy. You know, with the ring.


While Angel had a sudden look of comprehension, Buffy just looked down at her Claddagh curiously. Oh, this? No, its not aa ring, just a ring, she explained.


Its just that the way youre wearing it is kind of confusing, I guess. Kathy glanced at her brother. You told her how they work, didnt you?


He rubbed his neck uncomfortably. Yeah, about that


What? Buffy was utterly nonplussed. This way for taken, the other way for single, right?


Oh-ho-ho! Kathys expression was gleeful as she clapped her hands together, holding them in front of her as though praying to the gods of mischief. Oh, this is priceless. Angel, you are amazing. Not a compliment, by the way.


What did he do? asked Buffy, fiddling with her ring nervously.


Kathy gestured for her hand. Taking it in hers, she removed the Claddagh ring. All right, heres how it works. She took Buffys other hand and slid the ring onto her finger, heart pointed outward. This means youre available. She pulled it off again and flipped it around. This means youre taken. Going back to the left hand and flipping the ring again, she said, Engaged. At last she returned it to its original position, heart inward. Married.


For a moment Buffy was fascinated. Then she remembered to be annoyed, narrowing her eyes at her boyfriend. I will have words with you later, she threatened.


Kathy and Angel were full-blooded Irish: first-generation Americans on one side, second-generation on the other. Their father, according to Angel, had been a deathly serious sort, intensely Catholic and not all that forgiving. A stickler for tradition and heritage, hed made sure his son was well versed in the ways of their forefathersor, at the very least, had attempted to make him so.


When I told him I wasnt going to church, I thought hed have a heart attack, he recalled, amused. The three of them were getting into the spirit of Christmas by indulging in eggnog, to which Buffy feared shed added more whiskey than was strictly necessary. Connor had opted to go hook up his new PlayStation 2 in his room, so the fear of a minor accessing their booze was nonexistent.


They talked about life and family and things for a while. Buffy told them stories from when Dawn was a pint-sized little brat, surprised to find her stomach didnt turn with guiltand better yet, talking about her mom didnt bring fresh tears to her eyes. Nor did mention of her dad fill her with bitterness. She felt okay about a lot of things, and she noticed, watching the siblings in front of her, that they seemed to be okay, too.


That hole in her chest, the loss and wanderlust and regret, didnt seem so unmanageable anymore. She met Angels gaze and he smiled, the simple gesture giving her the same warm and liquidy feeling it had since day one.


Kathy was chatting animatedly, gesticulating as she related a tale of something that had happened in her philosophy class, and though the girl held most of her brothers attention Buffy made sure he was watching as she slid the ring off her finger, turned it so the heart pointed out, and placed it back on her left hand.


Angel stared for a long moment. His expression was dazed at first, then shifted to something indecipherable. He turned to Kathy and said something, and when he looked at Buffy again he was smiling.


- - -


Hes got such a crush on her, Buffy whispered, watching Connor and Willow from over Angels shoulder. He did get the memo that shes gay, right? And not available? And too old for him?


Her husband snickered. What are you, his mother? he teased.


As a matter of fact, I am, she said, nose upturned. Rolling her eyes at her step-sons antics, she turned her focus back to her dancing partner, settling against his chest and closing her eyes. She could hear the crickets starting to make their presence known even through the soft music; the air was thick, warm with summer and body heat, and she was so glad shed decided on a June wedding.


Footsteps approached, which at first she ignored, given the number of people who passed every minute, but when their slow and peaceful dance halted she took notice. Especially when a familiar voice asked, May I cut in?


She was shocked enough to see Riley standing before them, but her shock increased by a factor of twelve when Angel did, in fact, step aside to let the other man dance with his bride. Buffy froze at first, thinking for a minute before taking his hand and resting the other on his shoulder.


I didnt expect to see you here, she said, a bit awkwardly. You know, considering I didnt invite you.


Angel did. I met him the other day after I flew in. Nice guy, he commented in that sincere way of his. Im happy for you.


That, for whatever reason, made the tension fall out of her shoulders. Thanks. So, do I ever get to meet Mrs. Riley Finn?


She couldnt make it. Maybe the next time Im in California Ill bring her along. As an afterthought he added, Her names Sam, by the way. Youd like her; she makes fun of me for taking things too seriously.


Sounds like my kinda girl, she replied with a grin. Hey, about what happened last year


I refuse to let you apologize for that, he said stubbornly. You were right; I was being selfish and immature. I thought a lot about what you said, and by the time I finally worked up the nerve to try calling you, hehe nodded toward Angelpicked up the phone. I tried to tell him it might not be the best idea for me to show up at your wedding, but he insisted. Said it would make both of us feel better.


She hummed noncommittally. Yeah, he has this weird thing about wanting me to be happy. It sounded like a good deal, so I figured, hey, might as well marry the guy.


They continued chatting, and when the song ended she decided it was time to go make gooey eyes at her new husband again. Riley went off to rescue Willow from her pesky teenage shadow, and Buffy leaned into Angels side, his arm wrapping around her as he talked with some of his friends from work.


He pressed his lips to the top of her head and asked if she was ready to go. She glanced over at Dawn, who was swing dancing with Xander, then at Connor, who had apparently just decided Riley was the coolest guy hed ever met. And her sister had a plane to catch in the morning, and Connor had an extended stay at a friends house to look forward to, but they were both happy. The corners of Buffys eyes crinkled with contentment.


Yeah, she said softly. I think I am.