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Part 35

Xander Harris was bored.

Not screaming out loud, 'when-will-this-geometry-class-ever-end' kind of bored, but still sufficiently not diverted to be patient while Buffy retrieved her anti-social boyfriend from the kitchen.

"I say we go, and if they want to catch up after the sun sets then great," he said for the third time. A few quick steps took him to the apartment door. "Who's with me?"

"Xander, sit," Willow said sharply. "Buffy and Angel will be out in a minute, and then we're all going to try really hard to have happy faces and cheer him up."

"Then we can go out and down a few pints," Doyle added. "Paint the town red."

"Not a good color for a town full of vamps," Xander warned.

Buffy and Angel walked into the living room before Doyle could debate the point. The vampire seemed embarrassed by all the eyes that immediately focused on him, and turned to Buffy in confusion.

"Do I have something in my teeth?" he asked, leaning over to whisper in her ear.

"Hey, hey, no kissy-face in front of the kids," Xander said quickly, though a little more sharply than he intended. "We're getting bored here, guys. We've had an extra week with the Buffster, and we've spent it cleaning up her mom's house and watching Little Boy Brood do his thing. Time for a new tune."

Buffy glared at Xander as she gripped Angel's hand tightly. "I'm sorry we haven't been amusing you, Xander," she snapped. "Next time we'll try to have the family crisis in LA so we won't spoil your big shadow puppet show."

"Buffy, it's all right," Angel said soothingly, running his free hand up and down her arm. "He's right; I've been back to my old self the past few days, and in my case that's not always a good thing." He faced Xander without anger, remembering the compassion on the boy's face when he offered Angel a helping hand in his lowest moment. "I know you wanted to spend some more time with Buffy before she left; I'm sorry things got in the way."

Xander was suddenly ashamed of his outburst, especially since it had been brought on by simple boredom rather than any deep-seated feelings. At least he was pretty sure it was just boredom. Rather than delve too deeply into the recesses of his own mind and risk turning into another Angel, he chose to deal with the vampire's problems instead.

"So, what inspired the sudden visit from the Ghost of Angel Past? I mean I know you were wigged by dusting the fair, yet oh-so-freaky, Drusilla, but it can't all be about that."

Angel sat down in the wingback chair Buffy had reserved for him by virtue of threats. She settled herself on his lap and took the hand that wasn't draped around her waist into her own warm hands.

"Angel isn't ready to talk a lot about this yet," she said, squeezing his hand to show she understood.

"Oh, come on, you can give us more than that," Xander whined. "We might even be able to help." At least it would be something to do, he reflected. Not a fun thing, but something.

"It's not so much about Dru," Angel began with difficulty, forestalling Buffy's further attempts to shield him. "It's more about me, and why I made her, and why I couldn't destroy her, or any of the others I'm responsible for." He smiled grimly, certain they would not understand. "Good or bad, they were my immortality."

"Sort of like children," Willow said slowly.

Angel nodded, glancing across at Buffy's face for the courage to go on. Her hesitant smile grew brighter when she sensed why he was looking at her, and she nodded as well. He needed to talk about this, and whatever reason he had for choosing to do it to the group rather than just her, she would respect it.

"The only kind I'll ever have," he said. "I thought I could do it better than my father, and they were my big chance to prove it. Now I have to face not only what a mess I made with them, but also with my own father."

"Before the whole, you know, biting thing," Buffy added quickly.

"I was a disappointment to him, and he made sure I knew it every day of my life. And the more he showed it, the further out of my way I went to justify his opinion. Even killing him didn't end it, because then I started fighting myself."

Angel closed his eyes and sighed with something akin to relief. It was done. The worst part of the confession was over, and now he and Buffy wouldn't have to face any more questions about this. They would leave him alone to deal in his own time, and eventually he would. They would, he and Buffy both. Alone.

"Father issues?" Xander snorted. "That's what this was all about? Oh please."

Angel's eyes flew open, staring in confusion at the human who mocked his eternal struggle.

"I'm serious, Xander."

Xander stalked over to Angel and bravely waved an admonishing finger in the older man's face. "You think you're the only one who's ever had to deal with them? What, just because you were around before they invented ice cubes, you've cornered the market on dysfunctional families?" He stepped back a pace and gestured around the room. "Welcome to Dysfunction Junction, pal."

"Hey!" Cordelia yelped from the sofa. "The Chases are not dysfunctional; we can't afford to be anymore." She glanced at Doyle in embarrassment as she mumbled, "Shrinks cost too much."

"It's all right, Cordy," he said softly, patting her hand. "I never fancied myself a gigolo."

"As if." She tossed her head at the very idea.

"As I was saying," Xander continued a trifle impatiently, "we're all winners in the dud-dad sweepstakes, not just you. Look at Cordelia; her father was a crook. He gave her the boot as soon as he found out crime didn't pay quite well enough to keep the IRS off his back."

"My Dad wasn't a crook," Cordelia said defensively. "He just forgot to pay his taxes. For, umm, a few years."

"Boy, Cor, it's a good thing he didn't lose his money until after your math grade was paid for. We're talking twelve years here." Xander held up his wide-open hands. "Add two little piggies to these babies and you've got all those pesky 1040s accounted for."

"Xander," Willow said, "you're being a little harsh."

He strolled over to face his oldest friend, his mind feverishly shifting through the remembrances of many years past to support his claims. In high school it had been easier to hide the bad stuff than face it, but they were adults now, or near enough. Time to let it all hang out and see who was still around when it was over.

"Am I, Will? I'm not saying they're the only ones. My dad is an alcoholic, and that goes double for Mom. Sometimes triples, if it's been a bad day." His memory inconveniently chose that moment to serve up a score of memories of those bad days, but he forced himself to continue. "She's just a weeper, but he prefers the more pro-active side of the stereotype." Xander laughed sharply. "You know, the first four-letter word I learned was 'duck.' In fact, I'm sure in that fun little alternate reality Anya made for Cordelia..."

"Where I died!" Cordelia snapped, turning her ire on the ex-vengeance demon this time rather than Xander. "Where we all died, except Giles."

"You asked for a Buffy-less Sunnydale, and you got it. The power of the wish does not include a money-back guarantee." Anya casually shrugged her shoulders. "And it's not like you gave me money anyway."

"In that world," Xander continued in a louder voice, "I'm sure my father was the first one I used as a sippy cup after I was turned. And I bet I loved him to the last drop."

There was a brief moment of silence in the room as everyone absorbed Xander's announcement.

"You don't know that," Angel said finally. "You can't."

Xander tapped his head. "In here, in my memories, no. But in here," he tapped his chest, "we're talking a bet even Doyle wouldn't lose."

Angel looked at him carefully, seeing for the first time the pain Xander usually hid behind a mask of jokes and smiles.

"I'm sorry," the vampire said gently. "I didn't know."

Xander took a deep breath; he had just felt something very strange pass between he and Angel, and it would take some getting used to. There was a peculiar connection between them now, built not only of a common love for the girl who brought them into each other's orbit, but also of shared survival of a dark past. Suddenly he had something in common with Angel beyond mutual irritation.

It was definitely freaksome.

"Okay, so where was I?" Xander said, pushing the unexpected moment of male bonding aside for later mulling.

Much, much later mulling.

"Oh yeah, Willow," he said with relief. "Her dad doesn't qualify for any 12-step programs, he's honest, and he still shares the same mailbox with her. Sounds pretty Ozzie Nelson, huh?" Xander watched his oldest friend carefully, hoping she would someday forgive him for his revelation of things shared in confidence. "Of course he's barely said more than 'hi' to her since she told him she wasn't just a lab experiment he and the missus cooked up. In fact, I don't think I've even laid eyes on the guy since freshman year." He feigned a casual shrug. "But hey, dads are like that, right?"

Willow blushed as she looked around the room. "My dad, he...well, he means well, but I'm not exactly the daughter he and my mom planned on when they started charting her ovulation cycles." She dropped her eyes to stare at Oz's hand, tightly wrapped around her own. In a stronger voice, she continued, "I think they were thinking a little more Wall Street and a little less wolfsbane."

"Which brings us to Oz." Xander held out his hands, palms turning upwards, to display his next subject. "Oz's dad kicked him out of the house for being a werewolf. I ask you, can you get more prejudiced than that?" he appealed to his audience. "And in Sunnydale too; home of the free-range demon and land of the not-so-brave undead." Xander paused for a beat before nodding at Angel. "Present company excepted, of course."

"No, he's cool with the werewolf thing," Oz corrected him in a mild voice. "It was when I told him I wanted to be a professional musician that he made me sleep in my van." He shrugged his shoulders with characteristic aplomb. "He's an entertainment lawyer."

"O...kay," Xander continued doubtfully. "Well, our next contestant is a certain Irish half-demon, and his amazing half-father." He glanced over at Buffy and Angel, who had been observing the proceedings in silence thus far. "You can probably tell we've all been doing a lot of quality sharing the past few days. Doyle's contribution to Story Hour was his deadbeat dad."

"No protests from me on that score," Doyle agreed with a crooked smile. "The old man was a bum, plain and simple."

"And hey, I know she's not a Scooby, but Angel's good buddy Kate can't stand her Daddy Dearest either," Cordelia offered, throwing someone else's familial dysfunctions to the wolves. "Might be in the California water or something. Of course we all know that was part of what reminded Angel of...well, never mind." She shared a secret smile with Buffy as Angel watched in confusion.

"Reminded me of..." he began.

"No, it can't be our water," Willow jumped in. She knew the joke even if Angel didn't, and she wasn't sure he'd appreciate it right now. "Buffy, didn't you tell me Giles became a Watcher because his father told he had to?" she continued. "It was the family business or something. This new magic shop is probably the first thing he's gotten to do just because he wants to since college. I mean, he had to get old before he could be a grown-up; how sad is that?"

"Ooh, and Wesley; do you remember him?" Cordelia looked around the room before she continued, seeing only a few blank looks from the newest members of the gang. "He never said anything specific, but he made a few comments to me about not liking closets. He was always talking about his dad at the time, so I think he used to get locked in or something."

Doyle turned slightly in his seat and stared at her. "And just why did the subject of closets come up between you two? Who was this Wesley fellow anyway?"

"Big Watcher Geek guy," Anya explained briefly. "Cordelia thought he was sexy."

Cordelia started to protest, and then thought better of it. She patted Doyle's knee and offered him her most beguiling smile, complete with fluttering eyelashes.

"We'll talk later," she promised him.

"That we will, darlin."

Anya turned her attention to her boyfriend. "Xander, I don't think I have any father issues. Not that I remember." She frowned, trying unsuccessfully to dredge up some hint of a memory. "Of course, he's been dead for eleven hundred years, so I guess if I had any, I won by default."

"That's okay, Anya," Xander reassured her. "I'm sure you drove him to an early grave."

"Do you really think so?" She beamed at him, grateful to be included in the group therapy.

Buffy sighed and squeezed Angel's hand. "Well, my dad and I are doing better now, but I can throw a few issues on the table to cover Anya and I both."

"I'll say, Buff," Xander snorted. "In the four years since you came to Sunnydale, I've never seen your father before this week. I have, however, seen you hospitalized twice, dead once, running away from home once, graduating from high school and blowing up a public building. These are usually billed as classic 'dad' moments." He dropped on the floor at Anya's feet. "Well, actually a lot of them are also known as 'cop' moments, but that's beside the point."

"Yeah, well, we're working on the staying in touch thing."

"In any case, I think I've proved my point. Man, I should have been a lawyer." Xander looked at Angel, hoping somehow he had reached the vampire. And wondering why it mattered to him that he did.

"So Hamlet, did we poke a hole in the ghost yet?" Cordelia looked sternly at her best friend and surrogate brother. "You're not so special just because you had a lousy father. And I don't think killing him gets you any extra sympathy points either, since most of us aren't packing a spare psychotic personality to do our dirty work for us."

Willow smiled brightly. "Yeah, we lucked out. Thanks to Buffy. And you, of course."

Angel felt Buffy's hands wrapped tightly around his; he saw the friendship and concern on each of the faces in the room, and a small tingle began to circulate through his body. He would never completely reconcile himself to his failures with his family in life, and he would certainly never cast aside his guilt for the way he treated them and so many others after death. But he had a new chance now, with a family of his own. No children; that could not be helped. But he had Buffy, always Buffy, and Cordelia, and Doyle, and now he seemed to have all these other people too. People he thought were Buffy's friends alone, but who were willing to share their own pain just to make him feel one of them.

He had a family; one even his father would be proud of.

"I didn't do anything," he demurred, "but somehow I lucked out too. Thanks to Buffy." The depth of passion in his eyes when he gazed at his lover should, by all rights, have swallowed her whole.

"Okay, I know that look; they're going to go at it again, whether we're here or not. So let's do ourselves a favor and not." Cordelia leaned over to grab her purse from beside the sofa, inadvertently tilting the sofa cushion upward.

Doyle saw something small and square beneath the raised cushion and fished it out. "Hey, what's this?" he asked, tossing the little brown package in the air.

Angel froze.

* * * * *Part 36

The small box flew up in the air, carrying all eyes with it. It was Cordelia's hand that reached it first, however; she snatched it away from Doyle while it was still in mid-air.

"Oh, you've found it! My little, umm, my...box. Mine," she emphasized, casting a commanding glance at Angel as she dug her elbow into Doyle's ribs.

"Hey, watch it there, darlin," he protested.

"I'm sorry sweetie," she cooed, "I guess I'm just a little overexcited because you found my box. You know; the one we brought from LA with us?" She transferred her fiery gaze to Doyle, willing him to go along with her clever story.

"Yeah, that sure is one nice piece of cardboard," Xander teased. "I can see why you were so upset to lose it."

Doyle's startled glance met Cordelia's, and the light bulb almost visibly flipped on behind his eyes. "Oh, er, yeah, that's right; she was upset all right. Carried on something fierce about losing it, let me tell you. On and on she went about her little, umm, thingamajig."

Angel sighed; nothing was going the way he planned. When he was evil, it used to be so easy to bring his schemes to fruition, but his human soul always managed to get in the way of his sneakier instincts. Not to mention a guilty conscience that took up all the brain cells he'd used to store the memory of his hiding place. He'd been searching for that box for days.

"Cordy, Doyle, thanks for the help but it's okay." He nudged Buffy to stand up so that he could cross over to the couch and take the little package from Cordelia. "This is actually my box, though what's in it is meant for someone else."

"Angel, what's going on?" Buffy anxiously scanned his face, alert for signs of distress. He didn't look angsty, though; he seemed embarrassed more than anything.

Angel gazed down at the box, debating when and where and how to open it. He'd spent weeks wracking his brain for the right setting, imagining and discarding one scenario after another as insufficiently romantic or memorable. Not once had he imagined an audience, however; that seemed way down on the romance scale.

"This is not how I pictured this," he grumbled, not even aware he was speaking out loud.

"Pictured what, honey?"

"Yeah, let us in on the joke." Xander settled himself more comfortably against Anya's knee and waited expectantly for the punchline. "We could all use a laugh right now."

"This isn't a joke," Angel snapped.

He clenched his fingers tightly around the box, finding comfort in its solidity. It was real; nothing anyone said could take away its reality, or its meaning. No one but Buffy, and he was fairly certain what her response would be.

"Angel, man, maybe you should take a walk or something. You know, just you and Buffy. Alone." Now that Doyle understood the problem he had created, he was desperate to fix things. He had, after all, once been in this same boat himself. With any luck, he might be again one day.

"Oh, that's a good plan," Cordelia scoffed. "Ground control to Major Tommy Boy! Daylight. Vampire." She brought her hands together and pushed them upwards and outwards. "Whoosh."

Buffy was suddenly at Angel's elbow, her troubled hazel eyes fixed on his downturned face. "What is going on?" she asked quietly. "Just tell me the truth; that's all I want."

Angel glanced longingly at the door, and all that it protected and barred him from.

"I wanted to do this right," he said softly, more to himself than to Buffy. "I wanted it to be special, so that you could have one of those memories you used to talk about. The perfect moment." He heaved a sigh as he looked down at her beloved face. "But I've gone around and around, and I never figured out the right place. Everywhere that has any meaning to us has good and bad memories attached, and I wanted to put the past behind us. At least for this moment."

"Angel, you're scaring me," she said flatly. "Whatever you wanted we can still have. It's not too late."

"No, it's just in time actually." He smiled as he resigned himself to an audience, but when he looked deep into her eyes, everyone else disappeared.

"It has to be now, because this week is almost over."

Now Buffy was truly puzzled.

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Yeah, what was the deal with the 'now or never' stuff?" Cordelia broke in.

Angel tuned out Cordelia's voice, and everyone else in the room. He focused solely on Buffy, and trying to make her understand.

"Ever since I've known you, spring has been really tough on us, especially the end of May. I don't know why, but everything always falls apart right about this time every year, just like clockwork." He shivered slightly at the host of memories assaulting him. "You may be superstitious about your birthday, but for me...it's May. You die, I go to hell; you run away, I...run away. Things blow up." He paused for emphasis. "It's not a good time of year for us."

"Agreed," she said steadily. "But we're together now. I mean, yeah, my dad almost died and you've been all broken up about Dru, and...but...okay, I see what you mean."

"I wanted to change that. We're going to change that," he amended. Angel slowly peeled the paper tape off of the package and opened the cardboard box to reveal a smaller velvet jeweler's box inside.

Buffy was speechless when she saw the box lying in Angel's palm. Anya, however, was never at a loss for words.

"What is it? Let me see," she demanded, craning her neck to see around Angel's broad shoulders. "Oh," she breathed, "it's a ring, isn't it?"

"Does the word 'private' mean anything to you?" Cordelia scowled at Xander. "Harris, can't you muzzle her or something? I can't hear a thing if she keeps babbling."

"Okay, we need to leave," Willow said firmly. "Come on guys." She got up from her chair and reached for Oz's hand as he stood up beside her.

"Hey come on," Cordelia protested, remaining firmly ensconced on the sofa. "I put a lot of work into this moment. Do you have any idea how stubborn those two can be? I want to see the payoff."

"Cordelia." Doyle didn't say another word, but his eyes spoke volumes.

"Oh, all right," she conceded with a scowl. "But I better get some flowers out of this, or at least a thank-you card."

She addressed her warning to Buffy and Angel, but they paid her no heed. They had eyes only for each other, specifically for Angel's outstretched hand, still cradling the box, and Buffy's finger, now lightly touching the lid.

"Is that what I think it is?" she asked softly.

He smiled at her, that old crooked half-smile that melted her bones like taffy.

"That depends on what you think it is," he murmured.

"Okay Cryptic Guy, you were saying something about changing bad traditions?" Her fingers caressed the box, sliding over the lid and down the side to stroke his palm. "I admit; you did really well breaking my birthday cur..." She stopped short and tried to regroup. "No, not a curse. I was not going to say that. We don't break curses, of any kind. Ever."

"Not anymore," he agreed gravely, with the barest twinkle in his brown eyes. "We're past that. And now it's time for something new." His smile vanished, leaving a grave expression. "I love you, Buffy; you know that. And even though I've done my best sometimes to mess things up, you still love me."

"So we fight and try to kill each other; so what? You're not getting rid of me that easily," she whispered. "Slayers were built to take it on the chin."

"I know we're never going to have that normal life you used to want. There's always going to be bad days and apocalypses that try to mess up our plans. But I refuse to let any of that influence me anymore."

He opened up the box slowly, exposing the small platinum ring inside. At its heart was an emerald-cut diamond, flanked by two deep blue sapphires.

"I wish...I really wish I could remember some lines from all that poetry I've been reading for the past few centuries...but I can't. All I can think to say is that you are the best part of me; you're my center and I won't lose you again." He tugged the ring from its velvet prison and slipped it slowly up her third finger, after transferring her Claddagh ring to her right hand. "If you think you can tolerate a kind of brooding, but completely devoted, vampire hanging around for the rest of your life...will you marry me?"

She barely glanced at the ring once it was exposed to the light; her focus was on her beloved as he finally asked the question she had been waiting so long to hear. There were times she began to doubt they would make it this far, and times she almost wished they wouldn't. She had never planned, or expected, to love someone so much, and the depth of her feelings was sometimes frightening. But he was as necessary to her as breathing, and she was never going to willingly let him go again.

"I don't know about him," she said with a gentle caress of his cheek, "but if you're talking about that tall, dark and sexy guy who makes me so happy that I..."

The doorbell rang, loudly and insistently, before she could complete the thought.

"Oh sure; we have to leave but someone else gets to stay," Cordelia complained. "Well, we'll just see about that."

Before Doyle could grab her, Cordelia was off of the sofa and opening the door.

"If you don't mind we're having a private..." Suddenly Cordelia realized precisely who was on the other side of the threshold, and abruptly slammed the door. She leaned up against it and attempted a nervous laugh. "Ha, ha. My mistake. Wrong number. I mean, wrong door."

Willow groaned; she knew a stall tactic when she saw it. "Okay Cordy, enough is enough," she said firmly as she started pulling on Cordelia's arm. "Let whoever it is in so Buffy and Angel can get back to...what they need to get back to, and what we need to not be watching them get back to."

"Willow," Cordelia protested, plastering herself against the door. "You don't know what you're saying...and stop pulling my arm. I bruise easily you know...hey!"

The witch had at last succeeded in ousting the former cheerleader from her position as door guard. With a dramatic flourish, Willow swung open the door...and slammed it shut again a moment later.

"Cordy's right," she said breathlessly, taking up guard duty next to her old nemesis. "Wrong number."

Buffy stared at the two of them, wondering when exactly she had slipped down the rabbit hole.

"Guys, this is really amusing and all, but...well, no, it's actually more annoying than amusing, so we need to say bye-bye now."

Buffy reluctantly let go of Angel's hand and joined her friends at the door. One stern glance, promising impending pain for those who would disobey, was enough to clear her path. She opened the door, prepared to give short shrift to any door-to-door salesman who might be intruding upon her 'perfect moment.'

Instead she faced a much more immovable object.

"Buffy," Joyce said with a warm smile. "Your father and Rupert and I have something to say to you."

"Mom, now is really not the time." Buffy glanced back at Angel waiting patiently in the living room for her, and then down at the ring on her finger. "Come to think of it, maybe now is good." She stepped back and waved them inside. "You missed Angel's proposal, but you're just in time for my answer." She waited grimly for her mother's response, and she was not disappointed.

"Oh good; then we're not too late." Joyce smiled happily at Giles and Hank while her daughter glowered.

* * * * *

Part 37

"Oh good; then we're not too late."

Joyce's words hung in the still air. Uneasy, and in some cases rather angry glances passed among the Scoobies as Buffy stared at the woman who had raised her for the past 19 years, and yet didn't know her at all.

"Excuse me," the Slayer said sharply. "Just how do you define 'too late'? Because if you mean too late to see me do the smartest thing I've ever done, that would be a 'no'." She took a few measured steps towards her mother, as the temperature in the room seem to drop several degrees. "But if you mean you're not too late to keep me from spending the rest of my life with the guy that I love, that would be a very, very big misuse of the phrase."

"Buffy, don't," Angel said quietly. "Whatever she says, it's not worth fighting a war over."

He gazed at Joyce with a calm he could not have imagined even one short year ago. Once upon a time he had looked to her to be as much his family as Buffy's, hoping she would fill a void in his life that the death of his own family had created. He didn't need that from her anymore, though. He had a family again, and one she could not touch or tarnish.

"I'm not fighting," Buffy protested, hands raised in a show of innocence. "I'm making sure we all know where we stand. And where I stand," she continued, returning to his side, "is with you."

"Maybe I phrased this the wrong way," Joyce said patiently. She walked slowly into the apartment, Giles and Hank following close behind, until they reached the center of the living room. "I was trying to say I was glad we got here before you accepted Angel's proposal because..." she paused. "You are going to accept, I assume."

"Well that's a stupid question," Anya said, casting a pitying glance at Joyce.

"Anya," Xander pleaded, "later, honey; okay?"

"But..."

"Later," he said firmly. After a moment of steadfast resolution, he melted under her imperious gaze. "Please," he added with the tiniest of whines.

"I'm not the one embarrassing myself asking stupid questions, but fine. I'll be quiet." With a loud sigh to show how hard this being quiet business really was on a girl, she subsided.

"Yes Mom, I was in the middle of accepting," Buffy said. She squeezed Angel's hand as she glanced up at him. "Though I kind of wish he'd been the first to hear it."

"Doesn't matter," he murmured. "I'm thinking a little rooftop shouting is in order myself." He quirked a self-deprecating grin. "After dark, of course."

"Now that's what I wanted to talk about," Joyce jumped in. "I mean, that's what we," she gestured to Hank and Giles, "wanted to talk to you about."

"Oh no, Joyce, this was your big idea," Hank protested. "I went along with it, sure. But the idea was yours, and Buffy should know that."

"Yes, quite," Giles added. "I too can claim no credit for this plan, at least not for its inception. I only aided in the execution."

Buffy glanced from father to surrogate father, trying to decide whose betrayal hurt her more. Hank's recent ordeal with Drusilla could explain his turncoat colors, and she knew Giles had never forgotten Jenny Calender or who brought about her death. Still, she had believed the two men were willing to forgive if not forget, in the name of future harmony.

"Looks like your fellow rats jumped ship, Mom. Time to start doggie-paddling." She didn't bother to hide the bitterness from her voice; this was a blow she had not been expecting.

"Buffy," her mother reproached her. "You shouldn't speak that way about your father and Rupert. No matter what they say, they both did a great deal to help me with this."

"That's not the best way to convince me they're still using the Force for good and not evil."

"Joyce, why don't you just show her, and then tell her," Hank suggested. "She's getting the wrong idea." He sidled over to the sofa, where Cordelia had reclaimed her seat. A raised eyebrow indicated she should consider yielding her place to an older, and injured, man, but the gesture could not make a dent in her armor. He resigned himself to perching uncomfortably on the back corner.

"I found something the other day, out on the front lawn," Joyce began. She reached into her pocket, but did not withdraw her hand. "I wasn't sure what to do with it at first, so I didn't say anything to anyone. Later I talked to your dad." She glanced back at him and smiled ruefully. "I didn't exactly like what he had to say, mostly because I knew he was right."

"She's always hated that about me," Hank confided loudly.

"After we agreed on what to do, I called Rupert and he helped us put it together. I guess I should say he found us someone to put it together."

"It was nothing, really," Giles demurred. "I've kept in touch with some of Jenny's friends; they have proven a valuable resource for spells and such. One of them is a professor of anthropology at UCLA who makes jewelry on the side. Nothing too expensive, you understand, and she doesn't have a shop yet, only a stall at festivals and such." He tapped his chin and continued to muse out loud, oblivious to any and all signs of impatience in his audience. "Actually, I've been thinking of displaying some of her work at the store. She's really quite good and..."

"...and yet so very not the point right now," Cordelia finished for him. "What has she done for us lately?" The actress in her winced at the familiarity of the phrase.

"She made this. I hope it fits, but if not...well, we'll get it sized." Joyce slowly pulled her hand out of her pocket, clutching a gold ring between her thumb and forefinger. "I wanted...we wanted to give this to you Angel, before you and Buffy made any formal plans. So that you would know we weren't offering it just for her sake."

Buffy and Angel leaned closer to inspect the ring. The gold was smooth and unblemished, as though freshly minted, yet it gave off an inexplicable aura of great age. Around the crest of the ring, tiny leaves were carefully etched and darkened, forming an oval frame for the stone at its heart, a pale green stone that caught the light and refracted it back onto Joyce's hand.

"It looks like...well, sort of like..." Buffy glanced up at Angel and then over at her mother. "Don't you think it looks like..."

"The Gem of Amara," Angel agreed. He looked steadily at Joyce, showing none of the thousand emotions raging through him. "You found this after Dru died?"

She nodded, holding the ring slightly away from her body. "It was on the lawn, along with the gold necklace it fell out of. I took the stone first, and then after I talked to Hank I went back for the gold. We thought it might be better to use that metal to make the ring, just in case the magick wasn't only in the stone."

"Mr. Giles found us the jeweler, and helped her design the ring," Hank added. "She took the rest of the gold as payment, which worked out well for all of us." He glanced around the room. "What would I do with enchanted gold, I ask you?"

"Why?" Angel asked quietly, his eyes boring deep into her soul.

Joyce drew a deep breath; this was where it was going to get messy.

"I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I still think Buffy is too young to commit herself to anyone, and I still wish she would give up her Slaying, or at least cut back. And I know she won't while you two are together." She saw Buffy's mouth open and hurried to finish her thought. "But Rupert has convinced me that Buffy would be the Slayer with or without Angel, and she's probably safer with him, even if she is more active about it. And Hank has made me take another look at my little girl, who isn't quite as little as I thought."

"She's not tall," Anya said flatly. "That's why she wears high heeled shoes so much; to give the illusion of greater height. In the old days we had to stand on carriage boxes, but that looks silly unless you're wearing a long skirt...and you have a carriage."

"I've, uh, been so focused on your growing up, I guess I never noticed I had some of my own to do," Joyce admitted, not even hearing Anya's running commentary. "Somehow I thought I was supposed to be past that age, but apparently not."

"It's a never-ending battle," Angel said softly. "And it's the hardest thing in the world to keep on doing. You change your opinions, your beliefs, your priorities; lose old friends, and old ideals along the way, and it's still not enough. In the end you have to be willing to give up all that you are, so that you can start becoming a fraction of what you're meant to be."

She pursed her lips and stared at the vampire silently for a moment. "So what you're telling me is that this is not going to end anytime soon."

A disarming smile flickered across his pale face, giving Joyce a glimpse of the beauty her daughter found in this man's soul.

"Sorry. Two and a half centuries and I'm still waiting for the butterfly moment."

Joyce sighed, sounding eerily like her daughter to Angel's slightly biased ears.

"Not what I wanted to hear," she said.

"Mom, you're really okay with Angel and I being together?" Buffy didn't like to disturb this unexpected rapprochement between her mother and her lover, but there were details as yet to be nailed down. "I mean...that's what the whole ring thing is about, right?"

"Yes, that is what it's about." Joyce returned her focus to her daughter. "I always wanted the best for you, honey. I wanted you to be happy and fulfilled, and I still do. I just pictured it coming to you from your family and your career instead of..."

"My family and my career." Buffy squeezed Angel's hand again and smiled to soften her next words. "It's still the same picture, Mom; it's just me in it instead of a you-clone."

"At any rate, I can't change much about the situation. This is what you want, and I have to respect that. But at least I can make it a little easier." Joyce nodded at the ring. "This won't solve the many differences between you, and maybe you don't want them solved; I've given up trying to figure out your relationship. But now I know that if you're out all night prowling around cemeteries, it's not because you can't do anything but sleep all day."

"Like that's all they do all day," Anya sniffed.

"This was very generous of you." Angel looked at her gravely. "It was generous of all of you," he included Hank and Giles with a nod, "but especially you, Joyce. Thank you."

"Yes, thank you so much," Buffy echoed fervently. "And you know that, umm, rat comment? Really, really sorry for that." She grimaced at the memory. "I guess it was just...habit."

"It's all right, honey," her father reassured her. "I've been called worse things than a rat. In fact some of them I swear your mother invented just for me."

"Hank, shush. And Angel, please take the ring." Joyce held her hand out a little stiffly, but willingly. "You can open a window and try it on your hand first, just to make sure the spell stuck."

"The spell is perfectly fine," Giles sniffed. "I read it over myself before Emma did the incantation, and it was exceedingly well-composed. And even grammatically correct, which is something you rarely find in spells these days."

"Ooh, Giles' got a girlfriend," Xander chanted. "Giles' got a...ow!" He turned to glare at Anya. "What was that for?"

She returned his gaze evenly. "That was not a well-composed incantation. It would seem to encourage romance, and yet it only creates hostility. And it is not grammatically correct."

"Thank you, Anya," Giles said with a strange feeling of gratitude.

"Hey, not to be the wet blanket of reason here, but aren't you just setting Angel up as Public Vampire Number One with this thing?" Cordelia leaned forward in her seat and gestured to the ring. "I mean Spike was certainly the eager beaver when it came to the last Gem of Amara. What's to keep every vamp in town from going on an Angel-hunt once the word gets out at Willie's?"

Buffy cast a frantic glance at Angel, nightmarish visions filtering through her mind with lightning speed. Before she could voice her fears, however, she noticed her beloved's calm smile.

"There's not really a big market for jewelry that just creates a tan line," he said. "Spike wanted the other Amara stone for the chance to be invincible. Even if anyone finds out I have this one, they won't be interested once they see I can still bleed."

"Not liking the show-and-tell aspect," Buffy grumbled, "but I guess you're right."

Angel gently squeezed Buffy's hand, and then released her as he accepted the ring from Joyce's trembling fingers. After all the nights he had agonized over the destruction of the Gem of Amara, it had at last found its way back to him. Not the whole stone, with its promise of invulnerability and vast power; he would have no use for such a stone. This was the only part of the gem he had ever regretted losing, and he regretted it for the sake of the woman standing beside him. Now, at last, he could offer her back a small portion of the life she was abandoning to be with him.

Suddenly warm fingers closed over his hand, preventing him from sliding the ring over his knuckle.

"Angel," Buffy said softly, "wait."

Go to Part 38

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