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Taking Chances

by Gem

Disclaimer: Sorry, characters are not mine (you have no idea how sorry). Strictly Joss et. al.
Spoilers: Everything up to the last five minutes of "Heroes." Frankly, I think Joss is nuts to believe any Irishman would leave a room, or plane of existence, without a few parting words. So I corrected what he neglected.
Rating: PG or PG13 I guess (itís been a while since it mattered to me)


"They lied to you, man. Itís not the same curse. You're not the same."

The words died away into a whisper as Angel was jolted into the waking world once more. He sat up with a start, wiping the sweat from his brow as he tried to clear the unbidden images from his head. Since Doyleís death last month, heíd had many dreams, but recently they all seemed to revolve around his friendís final words. What he thought he had heard couldnít be true Doyle wouldnít have kept something like that from him. And yet...he used his dying breath to say it. Why would he lie at that moment, when all was on the line with no second chances?

Angel knew he would have no peace until he discovered the truth for himself.

******

Cordelia Chase slowly sorted the mail at her desk, not really paying attention to what was written on any of the envelopes, until she came across one addressed to Francis Doyle. The tears she thought sheíd dispensed with for the day began again, just as she heard the lift from Angelís apartment start to ascend. Hastily she wiped her eyes and tried to look busy. She knew Doyleís death had hit Angel hard as well, especially since it came on the heels of the whole Buffy in LA debacle. As much as she tried to deny it, Angel had become her best friend since she moved to LA. She wanted to make things a little easier on him right now, not more difficult.

"Good, youíre here. Cordelia, can I...can we talk about Doyle? I hate to bring this up now, but those last few words he said...did you hear what I heard?"

Angel knew Cordelia was grieving as much as he, probably more so. Her relationship with Doyle had been mostly promise, with no seeming hurry to make more of it. They thought they had all the time in the world, until it ran out. Now she was left with so many regrets about wasted chances, and Angel felt selfish asking her to relive her moment of loss so that he might not waste one. But if he was right...the whole world opened up for both him and someone who meant more to him than his own life.

Cordelia sighed as she pushed away the unread mail and looked up at Angel. "Weíve been over this, Angel. He said the curse was different, but he didnít go all Giles about it. I mean he was dying, he didnít have much breath for details. Or donít you remember what thatís like?"

She regretted her words immediately, but there was no way to erase the flash of hurt she saw reflected in Angelís eyes.

"Cordelia, Iím sorry," he said a moment later. "I shouldnít have brought it up it was insensitive of me. I just want to understand..."

"For the gazillionth time, call Giles. Maybe he can explain it. Or Willow sheís the one who actually cursed you."

"You were there, though," he insisted. "What happened? Was there anything unusual, or..."

"Like I attend cursings every day! And excuse me, but unlike some people in the room, this is still my first century on earth. I wasnít there for your first blast of gypsy mojo, so how would I know if Willow put her own spin on it?" Cordelia grabbed a stack of papers and started filing them, a sure sign of the depth of her distress.

"Does she still have Jennyís disk, or the printout? Maybe I could see something you might have missed." Angel began to pace, trying to work out a plan to discover the truth while involving as few people as possible. The fewer who knew, the less chance of her finding out.

"Hello! Also old news," Cordelia said impatiently as she slammed the cabinet drawer closed, files still protruding from it. "She went off book. One minute sheís Willow speaking English, and the next sheís channeling in Romanian. The published version of that curse isnít going to be a lot of help to you without her. Iím sure she wouldnít tell Buffy if you asked her not to."

Angel glanced sharply at his assistant, whose brains were sometimes overlooked in favor of her more obvious attributes. "What makes you think..."

"Oh puh-leeze! Like there is anything you do that doesnít involve her in some way or another. I bet you even chose this building because you thought sheíd like it, not that sheíll ever live here because youíre too stubborn to admit youíre perfect for her, but...Oz!"

"Oz what?" Angel had been about to object to her all too accurate assessment of his motives when her non sequitur took him by surprise.

"Oz can help with the curse. Heís got like a photographic memory, only itís for sound. He can remember all sorts of stupid stuff heís heard for just ages. Devon said it really helped the band, except when heíd remember exactly how many times they screwed up a song, and how badly. This one time..."

"Cor," he interrupted her, as she often did to him, "how can I reach him? Willow told me he dropped out of school and left town."

"Christmas, remember? You gave me some book about Bette Davis I'll never read and I gave you that tie you hate."

Angel stared intently at the mail on Cordelia's desk. "I don't hate it," he said defensively. "I just haven't had a reason to wear it yet. And I thought you said you liked the book. She was a great actress, you know."

"Bette Davis? What about Demi Moore, pre-head shaving of course. She makes buckets of money, so she must be good." Cordelia rolled her eyes at the total cluelessness of men. "Whatever. Anyway, Iím sure he went home. Let me call Devon, heíll know."

A half-hour and several long-distance bills later, she reported success.

"Oz is staying with his aunt and uncle for the holidays, since his parents are kind of mad at him for dropping out of college when it took him an extra year to get in. I called his Aunt Maureen and theyíll be expecting you and Anya tonight."

"Why Anya? Who is Anya?" Angel was more than a little confused by Cordeliaís swift arrangements. He wasnít quite sure he was ready to change his life so drastically and so quickly.

"Vengeance demon? Reformed one, anyway. Xanderís newest attempt to replace me. You met her when she brought Vampire Willow over from the other dimension. Ring any bells yet?"

"Oh, that one. Yeah, actually I saw her the last time I was in...why do I need her?"

"Do you speak ancient Romanian? I know I donít."

"And she does?"

"Sheís eleven hundred years old," Cordelia said flatly. "She probably invented it."

"And sheíll help? Without telling...anyone?"

Cordelia felt her heart contract when she saw the fear in his eyes. He tried so hard to help people, to make everyone elseís life better, but he was afraid to help himself because he felt unworthy. Suddenly he might have a chance at happiness, and all he could think about was how it might hurt Buffy if it didnít work. All the secrecy was to protect her, not him Cordelia had no doubt of that.

"Sheís basically out for herself, but Iím sure I can explain how helping you and Buffy get back together will help her relationship with Xander. Besides, right now she probably sees you as another man who deserted his girlfriend. You are much safer if you clue her in."

*******

Anya was able to help them, but to say she was willing would be stretching the point.

"I have a life, you know," she had wailed into the phone earlier that day. "More to the point, I have a date. I can't just drop everything at a moment's notice. I have to exfoliate!"

"Welcome to my world," Cordelia sighed in reply. "Angel canít drive during the daylight, the full moon is tomorrow night and Oz is staying with the furry side of the family for the holidays. If you donít see him tonight, youíll probably interrupt some family bonding time over killing chickens tomorrow. I tell you, the hardest part of my job is scheduling."

For his part, Angel quickly came to regret Cordelia's choice of assistants. When he met Anya outside her dorm, he was greeted with "You're way too good looking. Why wasn't I ever called out on a heartbreaker like you? Oh, right, most of your dates didn't survive the dumping." Conversation went downhill from there.

She criticized his motives ("Is this really all for Buffy, or do you have some other poor deluded female stashed in the coffin back in LA?"), his character ("So, fear of commitment can outlast death? Good to know") and even his driving ("I was born before they discovered America, let alone the suburbs, but even I know 'STOP' is just a suggestion"). It was her last comment, however, that cut the

deepest."You must be awfully good in bed for Buffy to forgive you so much. Imagine what she'd forgive Xander if she knew him like I do!"

It was the longest ten minutes of Angel's life.

He could have wept with relief when they reached Aunt Maureen's door and Oz was there to greet them. They were quickly ushered to the basement so they could talk in private.

"Iíll be glad to help if I can," Oz offered as he opened up the mini-fridge, "but I may not pronounce stuff too well. Is that going to matter? I know sometimes leaning on the wrong chord can totally change the mood of a song." He gestured to the contents of the refrigerator in a silent offer of refreshment. Angel shook his head to refuse.

"I should be able to compensate for your inadequacies," Anya replied crisply. "No, not that one! The diet." She had a strong urge to relive her glory days by torturing these two runaway Romeos, but she kept her eye fixed on the prize: Xander, all to herself.

"I appreciate any help I can get," Angel interjected, glancing sharply at Anya as she popped open her soda can. "I canít tell you what it would mean to me if...well, it would change a lot for me."

"Not just for you," Oz said softly. His own break-up with Willow had been difficult, and he had learned to appreciate how much it must have cost Angel to walk away all those months ago.

"I donít know about that. I just know I need to know the truth, whatever it is."

"Enough!" Anya leapt to her feet and glared at her tormentors. "Can we cease this inane emoting? I have a date tonight and I still havenít decided what shoes to wear."

The two men glanced warily at her, and came to the mutual, if unspoken, decision that to hear is to obey when dealing with a vengeance demon (even a reformed one).

"Okay. Well, she started out in English." Oz began to pace, trying to recreate the scene in his head. "I think it began..."

"Hold it!" Anya cried out. "In the interests of safety, I think you better write all the stuff you remember in English and just say the parts that were in Romanian. We donít know what effect, if any, there might be from pronouncing the curse when you-know-who still has you-know-what." She tried to give an oblique nod of her head towards Angel, but subtlety was a human skill she wasn't having much luck acquiring.

"Iím right here, Anya," Angel said in exasperation. "And you donít have to dance around the subject. Youíre right, we have to be very careful. The last thing I want is to lose my soul again thatís what this is all about."

"Okay, then. Letís get started." She ripped a few sheets of paper off her pad and handed them to Oz, then sat down on the couch with her pen at the ready.

*******

Cordelia could scarcely believe her eyes when Buffy Summers walked into Angel's office that night. It had only been a little over a month since she'd last seen the Slayer, but somehow Buffy seemed much older now. Cordelia understood Angel's reasons for solitude and silence the past few weeks, but since Buffy supposedly did not remember their tragically brief reunion, Cordelia couldn't fathom Buffy's somber mood.

"Where is he?" Buffy asked tersely as she stood in the center of the room. She resisted the urge to look at her surroundings, to try to place her Angel among all these unfamiliar objects. She was here to get some answers, not make peace with the situation.

"So, Buffy, how was your Christmas? Any big plans for New Year's Eve?" Cordelia decided small talk was the safest way to keep the obviously angry Slayer at bay, or at least disarmed. Make that unarmed.

"Where is he?"

"Gee, my Christmas was a little lonely, thanks for asking." Cordelia replied sarcastically. "And New Year's Eve? That depends on the two men in my life: the ghost I'm living with and the vampire I work for."

Buffy felt guilty, but not enough to lose her focus. "I'm sorry your Christmas sucked, Cordy. Mine was no picnic either. Now where is said vampire? I really need some answers, and I have a feeling Cryptic Guy is the only one who knows them." Buffy advanced slightly on Cordelia, not actually intent on harm, but somehow giving that impression none the less. It certainly caused Cordelia to speedily retreat behind her nice big desk.

"He's not here. Yet. But hey, dawn's just a few hours a way, so I'm sure he'll be back by then." She suddenly remembered Oz's well deserved reputation as a man of few words, and Anya's attention span for all things not Xander. "Or not, maybe. Care for some girl-talk till he shows?"

"I'm really not in the mood to chit chat. Can you tell me where he is so I can go after him?"

"No, actually, I can't. I promised. But I can get you a cup of coffee." Cordelia took another look at her tightly wound friend. "A decaf coffee. Won't that be nice?"

Buffy sighed. She was so not in the mood to deal with Cordelia Chase today of all days. There did not appear to be any way of avoiding it, however. "Decaf would be best. Can you at least tell me why you can't tell me where he's gone?"

Cordelia considered the question as she poured the coffee. She knew Angel wanted to keep his mission a secret from Buffy, but eventually, if the news were good, he would have to tell her. Frankly, Cordelia didn't see how the news could be anything but good, since they were definitely due for a change in luck. Perhaps she could speed the lovers along this time, and save them the regrets she now faced over lost opportunities.

"He doesn't want you to know," she replied at last, handing Buffy the mug.

"Well, duh. Why else...wait, me specifically?" Buffy was confused. How would Angel even know she was looking for...oh, right, this was Angel they were talking about. He probably knew she was coming to LA before she did. There were, however, a few things she was willing to bet he knew nothing about. Yet.

"Yup. Just you."

"Unbelievable! He can walk out on me before I even arrive now!" She slammed the mug down on Cordelia's desk, sloshing coffee on a small pile of checks. Her confusion had turned to anger with a speed that left her breathless. Angel had broken her heart once too often to try the calm, cool and collected route.

"Hey, that's not fair!" Now it was Cordelia's turn to get mad. "You hit the high road way more than he's walked on you. And he only did it for your sake. And if you're going to spill stuff, do it on the bills, not our income."

Buffy began to pace while Cordelia dried off the checks. "Sure, it's always for my own good. Like it was best for me to dump me right before the prom, and then leave without even saying goodbye. And how about sneaking back into town to spy on me at Thanksgiving? That was a big help."

Cordelia put herself directly in Buffy's path, forcing her to come to a grinding halt. She went nose to nose with the Slayer, drawing on years of experience as Sunnydale High's closest thing to royalty. Queen C was back in business.

"You have no idea how hard it was for him to go back and not see you, no idea at all. And then when you came after him...he gave up everything to save you. And he has to live with the memories all alone, while you go on playing with your little college boys. So just lay off the righteous indignation you didn't earn it."

"What are you talking about?" Confusion was on the menu again, much to Buffy's dismay. Anger was much safer, and more familiar. "What did he give up? I was here for five minutes. We talked, he killed a demon, I left. End of story."

It was time for a decision. Cordelia could make up a story and let the matter drop, or she could lay the foundation for an eventual reconciliation. The Cordelia of Sunnydale years would have taken door number one, no question about it. But recent events had driven home a message about seizing the moment instead of waiting for all the planets to align. For once Cordelia felt the need to share the wealth.

"No, that was the rewrite." Cordelia waved her hand at the couch by the door. "Sit down, Buffy. I need to fill you in on a very weird day neither of us actually remembers."

"Oh, this ought to be good." With nothing else to do until Angel showed, Buffy sat down. Cordelia sat next to her at first, but after a moment she got up and began to wander around the room. If she hadn't looked so angry just a moment ago, Buffy would have thought she was trying to block a scene for a future audition.

"Okay, well, you know Black Friday, the day you came here," Cordelia began slowly.

"Trust you to date things by mall schedules," Buffy said sarcastically. "Or was that a reference to my effect on some people?"

Cordelia glared at her, and Buffy subsided. "Anyway," Cordelia continued through gritted teeth, "what you and I remember is the Reader's Digest version of the day, because we only know the do-over. Angel persuaded some Oracle people to start the day over, because he was afraid you'd get hurt some day. Well, die actually, because he was human and couldn't protect you."

"Whoa, back up the train." Now Buffy was really confused. "Angel human? Since when?"

"Well, not this time." Cordelia couldn't believe how dense Buffy was being. "He was human, thanks to the blood of the Morah demon mixing with his own. But when he tried to fight the demon, and got his butt kicked, he freaked. The demon said more were on the way, and the Oracles said you would die. Naturally, he decided only he could save you, and then only with the help of his vamp super powers. So he asked them to make him a vampire again, and they did it by erasing the day. But they had to let him remember everything that happened so he'd know how to kill the demon and stop it from happening again. Now do you get it?"

"What exactly does he remember that I don't?" Buffy couldn't believe how calm her voice sounded. It was almost like every part of her wasn't actually screaming in pain. Angel human, and sacrificing it for her sake, and she couldn't even help him by sharing the memories.

"Well, I don't know the gory details, and I don't want to, thank you very much, but you two got back together. Big time. Or should I say multiple times?" Cordelia couldn't help the last jab, but it was lost on her audience. Buffy seemed completely withdrawn from reality, as she searched her mind for one hint of a memory of these events.

"I can't believe this," Buffy said softly, tears filling her eyes. "How could he do this? To face me, remembering everything. God, I must have hurt him so much when I just walked out. And I felt so proud of myself for holding it all together, when he..." She pulled her legs up on the couch and huddled in a little ball, resting her head on her knees as she rocked slightly.

Cordelia swiftly sat down next to her and put a gentle arm around her friend's shoulder. "Buffy, you had no way of knowing. I wouldn't have known either, but Angel really needed to talk, so he told Doyle. And Doyle felt so bad he needed to share it with me."

Buffy lifted her head and hastily wiped her eyes as she smiled at Cordelia. "Thanks for telling me, Cordy. You have no idea how much this clears up for me. But now I really need to talk to Angel."

"I'm sorry, I really am. But we just have to wait. Meanwhile, you can ask me all the things about Angel you didnít get to ask the last time. Or maybe you did, but who remembers? So tell me, does Xander still talk a lot about me?"

******

"I canít believe he lied to me."

Anya was bored. That was the third time Angel had uttered the same phrase. He paced and emoted in a state of utter denial, while she and Oz just sat there and watched. Meanwhile, she had a date in an hour and she still hadnít decided on which shoes to wear. On top of all that, her sofa had gone flat.

"Okay, Iím out of here." She stood up and grabbed her purse. "You will give me a ride home now, and you will stop this babbling and go home yourself. We all have lives to lead and itís time to get on with them."

"Hey, at least you know now." Oz, as always, tried to be philosophical. "You can figure out where to go from here."

"But he lied." Angel realized he was being childish, but he couldnít seem to help himself. "I trusted him with things I couldnít tell anyone else. Well, anyone but Buffy. He was my friend."

"Get over it," Anya said sternly. "If he was your friend, then he did what he thought was best for you. Sometimes that can suck. So can wearing the wrong shoes on a big date, so take me home!"

It was Angelís turn to sigh. Eighteen-year-old girls could be as demanding, if not more so, than vengeance demons. Combine the two, and vampires beware.


*******

"Cordelia, I honestly appreciate your concern, but I don't think you should stick around once Angel shows up. We need to be alone." Buffy was tired of having to plead for quality time with her ex, but Cordy didn't seem to be getting the message.

"The concern is for him, Summers. The last time you came to visit you left him in little pieces on the floor. I'll admit it wasn't entirely your fault, but that doesn't help him now any, does it? And Doyle's not here to help me glue him back together again this time."

"I'm really sorry about your friend Doyle, but I can't do this with you here, Cord."

Cordelia leaned across the sofa to glare at her. "Do you promise not to tear him up into little Angel bits this time? I mean it, Buffy. If you're not here for good it will destroy him to see you again so soon."

Buffy looked away. There was a lot she needed to tell Angel, a lot she couldn't tell Cordelia. Where it would lead was anyone's guess.

"I came here for answers," she said at last. "Some of them you already gave me, but the rest are up to him. And when I tell him why I need to know what I need to know...I can't guarantee how he'll react."

"But you're not here on a search and destroy mission?'

"Strictly lost and found," Buffy assured her.

"Then I'll leave you alone," Cordelia promised, sketching an X across her chest. "I'll even make fresh coffee for you," she offered in a burst of good will.

"No, please!" Buffy exclaimed before she could stop herself. "I wouldn't want you to go to any trouble," she hastily amended.

Cordelia narrowed her eyes and was preparing to retort when she heard a familiar step outside the door. She turned expectantly to greet the new arrival.

Angel had recovered some of his equanimity on the drive back to LA. Anyaís take on his situation was a little unfeeling, but deserved. This was his life, and now he had to deal with it. It was possible Doyle never told him because he was supposed to remain human, and it wouldn't have mattered. But Doyle was dead, and there was no way of knowing for sure the reasons for what he did in life. Angel would just have to look back on their friendship and trust that his intentions were good.

With that thought firmly fixed in his mind, he strode into the office ready to fill Cordelia in on his findings.

"You were right about going to Sunnydale," he said as he walked in the door. "Oz and Anya were a big...Buffy." He stumbled slightly, both in word and in fact. "What are you doing here? Are you okay?" He quickly looked her over, seeing exhaustion, but no obvious injuries.

Buffy had to smile. It was so Angel, worrying about her from the word go. "Iím okay now, but we need to talk. I need some answers, in a major way."

"About what?" Angel tried desperately to think of what he might have done to hurt his beloved this time, but nothing more recent than Thanksgiving sprang to mind. She had already chastised him for that. Twice.

"Just talk to the woman." Cordelia put a hand on each of their backs and propelled them towards the lift. "She has stuff to tell you, you have stuff to tell her..." She looked sharply at Angel. "You do have stuff to tell her, right?"

He smiled gently, recognizing the concern in her voice. "Yes, I do." He looked down at Buffy's blonde head, so near to his shoulder. He could almost feel her pressing her chin into his shoulder as she clung frantically to him in their last moments together, promising over and over to never forget. The pain of that memory struck like a low blow to the stomach. How could he even consider trying to restore what once was lost, when his last attempt had caused her such agony?

"Oh no, I see 'something face' coming over you," Buffy said warningly as she looked deep into his dark eyes. "That always means you're going to retreat. Well, not this time." She grabbed his arm and towed him to the lift. Once inside, she hastily let him go, unable to bear their limited ability to touch.

For all her determination to get him alone, she seemed strangely unwilling to face him once they reached his apartment. Instead, she wandered around picking things up and putting them down, all with a faintly puzzled look on her face. Angel watched her silently, trying desperately to suppress his memories of her earlier visit.

Finally, she came to rest next to the kitchen table. "Were you ever going to tell me about the day we spent together here?"

There was no malice in her voice, just the bewildered sound of a lost child. Angel forced his attention away from the table, and the memories it aroused, but he couldnít meet her eyes.

"Cordelia told you." It wasn't a question.

"Yes, she did. Would you have?"

"I...I don't know. Maybe, if things were different. If there were some way...a way we could be together. Otherwise, why make you live with it too?"

She slowly approached him. "Because maybe it concerns me too. Because maybe I would want to remember something as important as you being human for a day. Because maybe I have a right to those memories." She stood in front of him, close enough to hold him in her arms, if she dared. If she thought she could ever let him go again. Knowing the answer to that, she made no move to touch him.

"When they told me you wouldn't remember, a part of me was grateful." He looked into her eyes at last, desperate to make her understand. "I wanted to share the memories with you, but not the pain. I've already caused you too much pain for one lifetime."

"I want to remember," she insisted. "I have a right."

"Buffy, I can tell you what happened, but I can't make you remember," he protested. He dared to lay his hands lightly on her shoulders, fighting the urge to pull her into his arms. "I don't know how to give you what you want."

"Take me to the Oracles."

He was stunned. She looked completely serious, but what she was asking..."Buffy, that's impossible."

"Why? You talked to them, why not me? What, don't they talk to women? I've got news for you pal, it's almost the twenty-first century they can't get away with that kind of attitude anymore."

"It's not that, but...what good will it do? They can't erase time again, it's been too long." He spoke with the quiet sadness of someone who'd had the same thought many times himself.

She looked away, unable to bear the pain in his beautiful brown eyes a moment longer. "I know. But they can give me my memories back. I need them to do that, Angel. I can't explain why, not yet. But I have to know."

He didn't want to expose her to the Oracles and their detached view of her daily struggles. He didn't want her to live with the memories they could restore to her, with all the attendant agony. He wanted to protect her he always wanted to protect her.

She seemed to read his thoughts, and fixed him sternly in her gaze. "Angel," she said firmly, "you can't keep doing this. I love that you want to look out for me, but sometimes I need you to just trust me instead. Believe I can take the truth."

He sighed, taking her hand in his own. "Come on. We'll need to stop at an all-night pawnshop on the way to buy a gift."

*******

The white light was blinding. Buffy shielded her eyes as she was thrust through a seemingly solid wall into the glare. She staggered slightly, then regained her footing as a voice called to her from beyond the curtain of spots shimmering before her eyes.

"Why have you come before us, Slayer?"

"And what have you brought us?"

Buffy slowly lowered her hand and focused on the two golden beings standing in front of her. They wore togas, and each one was liberally adorned with leaf tattoos. They also looked really annoyed.

Well, that made three of them.

"I'm here to get something you took from me."

The female turned away, clearly bored already. "We have no need for what is yours. You waste our time. Go away now."

Buffy took a few steps closer to the Oracles. "Hey, you're immortal, and I have a high risk job. If anyone should worry about wasted time, it's me."

"Then go live your pathetically short mortal life. It does not affect us." The female had stopped moving, but she was clearly poised for departure.

"I don't buy that." Buffy looked sharply at the male Oracle, who seemed to be paying her more attention. "If my life didn't affect you, you wouldn't have granted Angel's request to give up his humanity for me. I don't see either of you as the romantic type."

"What's done is done, and may not be undone." Now the male seemed to be retreating, while the female was growing interested.

Buffy dropped her head, wishing with all her might that they were wrong. "I know. But you still have something of mine, and I want it back."

"Why have you come here?" the female repeated.

"I want to remember the day you took from me." She looked beseechingly from one to the other. "I need to remember it, and you're the only ones who can help me."

"Ridiculous!" The male Oracle turned to leave. His mate held up a hand to halt him.

"Why?" There was no arrogance, no condescension in her voice, just gentle curiosity.

"Isn't the fact that they are my memories enough?"

The silence was her answer. Buffy drew a deep breath. "Because when you reset time, you didn't erase everything that happened. I'm pregnant."

"Impossible!" The male Oracle shouted it, while the female just breathed it, but they were equal in their disbelief.

Buffy began to pace. "Well it may be impossible, but it's true. He was human for the first time in two centuries and we weren't really thinking about precautions. I mean, we're used to worrying about demonic possession, not runaway sperm."

"But to have survived the renewal of time...this child must have some special purpose. Is he a Warrior?"

Buffy glared at the male Oracle. "She might be, for all I know. You're the omniscient ones."

"But why do you come before us? What can your memories do to change what has happened?"

This time the female Oracle joined Buffy in a look of disgust at male density. "It won't change anything," Buffy replied with thinly veiled impatience. "But I think I have a right to remember how my child was conceived. Up until today, I didn't even know who the father was. I haven't exactly been running for Miss Congeniality the last two months, and with the millenium coming in a few days...believe it or not, a time warp is kind of a comforting explanation."

"We have no time for human emotions. Accept your destiny and guard what has been given to your care." Both immortals seemed to have lost interest at this point, and after the male finished speaking they turned their respective backs on her.

Buffy darted around in front of them. "I don't really care what you have time for. Like I said, I'm the only one punching a time clock here, and I'm willing to stay until I give birth on your togas if necessary. Give me back my memories."

The female sighed and looked at her mate. When he remained uncharacteristically silent, she turned back to Buffy.

"What have you brought us?"

"Well, I wanted to go with a stuffed animal, but Angel insisted on something breakable." Buffy pulled a small Waterford crystal candy dish from her backpack and handed it to the female.

"He is wiser than you," she responded dryly, cradling the dish.

"The jelly beans were my idea. Now what about..."

There was a whoosh, and the blinding light returned. Then there was darkness.

*****

"Buffy?"

The voice that called her out of her daze this time was a familiar, and beloved, one. She opened her eyes and realized she was standing in the chamber outside the Oracles' domain, with Angel's arms wrapped tightly around her.

"Buffy, are you okay?" His voice was rapidly changing from concerned to frantic.

She shook her head to clear it. "I'm fine, a little dizzy that's all. I just need to..." She started to push herself away from the shelter of Angel's arms, then collapsed against him as the memories washed over her.

Kissing on the beach while the sunlight poured down on them. Making love on the table because they couldn't wait a moment longer, then the table breaking under their combined weight. Eating ice cream in bed. Falling asleep in Angel's arms, feeling utterly safe and loved.

Fighting the Morah demon to save Angel's life. Holding his battered body in her arms while he asked if she was okay. Clinging to him with all her might, fighting to keep these memories she was now reliving.

She remembered it all.

"Angel," she whispered, looking up at him through tear-wet lashes, "how could you stand it?"

He didn't say a word, just gently guided her head to his shoulder and held her close.

She struggled against him, unwilling to let him take it all in for her again. "How could I forget? How could you let me forget?"

"It seemed like the best way for you to go on with your life." Angel sighed and released her, sensing there would be no way to soften the blows this time.

"Without you."

"That's the way it would have been before that day. I only put things back the way they were."

"But not the way they were supposed to be," she insisted. "The Oracles told you it was meant to be, even if they weren't expecting it. How could you throw it all away?"

He flinched at the anguish in her voice. This was the moment she was never supposed to face.

"You were in danger, and I was no good to you as a human. I couldn't even protect myself, forget helping protect you."

"I see." Her voice chilled slightly. "You left me six months ago because, as a vampire, you felt you didn't fit in with my 'normal life.' Four weeks ago you left me because, as a human, you felt you didn't fit in with my 'slayer life.' I just can't seem to catch a break with you."

He tried to reply, but she wasn't ready to let him explain yet. Or maybe she just wanted to clarify exactly how much he had to explain.

"You know, with all these new memories I've got in my head, I'm still not forming a clear picture of you discussing this with me before you made your grand gesture. Now am I historically challenged, or did you make this decision alone?"

"I didn't know they would reverse time," he replied softly, not quite answering the question.

"But did we even discuss you becoming a vampire again, however they might have rigged it?" She was fighting to hold on to her anger, in favor of another waterworks display. It was difficult to do so, however, in the face of...his face.

"No," he admitted, looking steadily into her hazel eyes. "I knew you'd try to talk me out of it, but your life was at stake! I couldn't risk that. Nothing means more to me than you."

"And nothing means more to me than you." Buffy's voice softened. "But like I told you, you have to stop doing this, Angel."

"Doing what?"

"Shielding me." She placed a gentle hand on his cheek, remembering the feel of it warm against her palm. "Willow thinks it's because of the age difference, sort of a daddy thing. Giles thinks it's because you were born before the Revolution, and I don't just mean the sexual one. But I know it's more than that, because we both do it. We have ever since...ever since you came back from hell."

She tried to walk away so she couldn't see his face when she mentioned their terrible past, but he wouldn't let her go. He held fast to her arms, keeping her within the shelter of his body.

"Why is it wrong to want to protect you?"

"We're protecting each other instead of trusting each other," she said as she struggled against the tears. "We used to share all our decisions, but since you got back we've both felt so guilty about the way we hurt each other, neither of us can see straight. You spend all your time trying to make amends, while I wake up night after night wondering if Acathla would have been satisfied with the blood on the sword instead of you." She wrenched away at last, spinning to face the wall while she tried to regain some control over her emotions.

He let her go this time, too stunned by her revelations to restrain her. "Buffy, I had no idea you still..." he began.

"Still what?" She whirled around to face him, tears streaking down her cheeks. "Still felt guilty for sending the love of my life to hell for a few centuries? Surprise! I will always feel guilty for that, even though I know I can't change what I did, and I honestly don't know if there was another way. And you will always try to make up for things you couldn't help doing, even though most of the people you're trying to make it up to have been dust for centuries."

She came to him again, wrapping her arms around his unyielding figure. "Our guilt has made us prisoners, Angel. We tried so hard to protect each other, so we'd never hurt each other again, that we built a wall between us. For one night, we dropped that wall. We forgot all the pain, all the guilt, and we just loved each other. Why did it take you having a heartbeat to make that happen?"

He slid his arms around her at last, resting his chin on the top of her head. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I never meant to imply I didn't trust you, Buffy. I guess I spent too much time thinking about how I'd destroyed your trust in me."

She sighed and snuggled her face against his chest, letting the first bit of her tension drift away.

"That's my Brooding Guy. Always first on the bus for a guilt trip."

******

They were both silent on the drive back to Angel's apartment. The talk in the antechamber had cleared the air a little, but there was still so much to explain, so many memories to be shared now that she knew the truth. It was time to rebuild, but neither of them knew how to begin.

Fortunately, Cordelia had already decided to help break the ice.

Candles glowed in remote corners of Angel's living room, while soft music emanated from the CD player in the bedroom. There was a chilled bottle of sparkling water in a champagne bucket on the coffee table, silk scarves were draped on the curtain rods, and little sparks of light glanced off of the thousands of flakes of gold glitter confetti sprinkled on the carpet and furniture.

Buffy and Angel were stunned.

"It's really..." Angel was at a loss for the right descriptive phrase.

"Arabian Nights," Buffy finished for him. "Welcome to the Kasbah." She suddenly started to laugh. "You do realize you're never going to get up all the confetti, don't you?"

Angel began to laugh as well. "You're the one who wanted to meet the Oracles now you can glow like one."

It wasn't much of a joke, but their overwrought nerves didn't require much. They laughed even harder and clung to each other for support. Suddenly the laughter stopped, but the clinging did not. They gazed intently at each other, relearning features and expressions, memorizing every detail before their lips met in a kiss.

When the kiss ended, many minutes later, Angel drew back enough to allow her to breathe. Not so far he couldn't feel that breath on his face, though.

"I'm sorry I spent so much time pushing you away and building walls," he said softly, brushing a lock of hair back from her cheek. "Baby, there's something else I need to tell you, in the spirit of honesty." He was almost scared to tell her, for fear she would be angry he'd waited this long. He hated himself for his caution when he saw the fear flare in her eyes.

"Angel, wait," she said quickly, laying two fingers lightly across his mouth. "Before you say anything, I have to tell you why I came to LA."

He shook his head. "Sweetheart, it's okay. I'm not..."

"Angel, please!" She pulled away from him in her anxiety, only holding on to his hands to keep him still. "I don't blame you for being nervous after the way I let you have it back there, but I need to tell you this before I lose my nerve."

He studied her intently, then nodded and pulled her to the sofa. Once they were seated, he placed one arm firmly around her shoulders and slipped his free hand into hers.

"Go ahead."

"I needed to talk to you about something really important, something I couldn't talk to anyone else about. And it turns out you really did hold the key because of the whole Oracle thing, which I really wish I would have known about because you wouldn't believe the things I've been imagining..."

"Buffy."

She smiled apologetically. "Babbling, I know. Sorry. It was the time warp, you see. You were human, and then you weren't, but while you were we...and you would think it would have been reversed, but the Oracles said there must be a reason or a purpose, and please God don't let it be because she's a Slayer or anything because I don't want..."

"Buffy, sweetheart, what the hell are you talking about?" Angel had pulled away from her so he could face her directly, trying to make some visual, if not aural sense of her nervous ramblings.

"A baby. We're having a baby." She didn't quite dare to look at him at first, but when he didn't say anything immediately she risked a sidelong glance.

He looked only slightly less surprised than when she ran him through with a sword and sent him to hell.

"That's impossible," he whispered at last.

"Okay, I'm really tired of immortal beings telling me what is or is not possible." She jumped up and began to pace, wildly swinging her arms. "I mean, my best friend, or one of them, used to date a werewolf. The other one is currently dating a girl who watched Dick Clark ring in Y1K. I myself once spent a few hours as a rat, thanks to another friend who still is one. And you, my love, are a vampire." She stopped in front of Angel and began poking his chest to emphasize her point. "A 245-year-old vampire."

"Two hundred and forty-four this April and you know it," he countered quickly. "But I get your point. Are you sure?"

She nodded, trying to read his expression. "Positive. Both me and the blood test, actually." She saw the question forming on his lips and saved him the trouble. "There was an outbreak of hepatitis at school. Never hurts to be cautious. After all, I don't really want to be mistaken for an Oracle." She regretted her flip tone when she saw the immediate concern on his face.

"Are you okay?" He gestured towards her abdomen. "Both of you?"

"Right as rain." She felt a little guilty for her misleading explanation, but there really was no need to tell him that she found out as the result of an HIV test Riley asked her to take before they had sex. Considering her brief fling with Parker, and Parker's brief flings with the half of the female students, it was not an unreasonable request. It was not, however, one she wished to share with Angel, especially since her test results made Riley a non-issue.

"Meanwhile, I still don't know how you feel about all this." She rejoined him on the sofa, but at a distance.

He slid across the sofa, closing that distance. "Buffy, I feel...I honestly don't know how I feel. I'm in shock."

"Well try not having sex for two months and finding out you're one month pregnant," she replied indignantly. "Talk about shock...and talk about talking about things I never meant to talk about." She sank into miserable silence when she realized she had exposed the full extent of her college experiences.

"I knew about the other guy." He placed his fingertips under her chin and gently lifted her head to face him. "Spike told me. It doesn't matter. What does matter is how you feel. This is an awful lot to deal with."

"I know. And when I was thinking this was some sort of Slayer meets the Apocalypse deal...but it's not. It's you and me and the chance we never thought we'd have. I know the timing's not great, but this is our only shot at the brass ring, Angel."

"But you're so young," he protested. "I left so you could experience all the things a normal girl does at college. I wanted you to have a real life."

"And I will. We will, I hope. I'm kind of scared, and I'm not sure I'm going to be any good at this mom stuff, but I want to try. You know, this does happen to other people too. It's not some sort of freaky hellmouth special."

"You'll make a great mom." He smiled slightly, picturing it in his mind. Buffy with a child in her arms. His child. Their child. Suddenly reality intruded and spoiled his beatific vision. "But what about me? I'm still a vampire, Buffy."

"Well duh! You're still a vampire, I'm still a slayer. We still have loads of issues to work through, like that rotten overprotective streak we've both got." She looked away momentarily, then drew a deep breath and continued. "And of course we still can't have sex. But in spite of all that, I love you more than I could ever imagine loving anyone. You feel the same way, I know you do. We'll work out the details somehow."

"But..."

She waved her hand in the air majestically, brushing away any pesky real-life considerations. "No more buts. Blame it on the hormones if you like, but I'm suddenly feeling very optimistic."

"So you want..." He didn't even dare to say the words. She was offering him everything he had ever dreamed of, and nothing he had a right to ask for.

"I want you. Always you. And I want this baby. I want us all to live happily ever after together,not in the mansion, with as few extracurricular demons as possible. Now if that's too much to ask..." She started to rise from the sofa, but he grabbed her arm and pulled her down on his lap.

"I don't know why, or how, this all happened, but I won't let go of you this time. There has to be a reason for everything happening at once."

She stroked his face before leaning over to kiss him. Her lips were just millimeters away from his when his words struck her.

"What everything? And where were you earlier when Cordy wouldn't tell me? And why did you mention Oz and Anya?"

He couldn't help the grin she didn't miss a trick. "I went to Sunnydale to ask them to translate the curse for me. A friend told me I got the unleaded version this time, and I needed to be sure."

She wrinkled her brow in confusion. "Unleaded? I don't get...the clause!" She couldn't believe her ears. "You mean there's no happiness clause?"

He shook his head. "For whatever reason, the curse Willow used, the one Jenny translated, doesn't have any loopholes like the first. I'll never be human again, but I'll never be...him either." It was the pledge he never thought would be his to give. Yet somehow, miraculously, it was the truth.

"Then there's nothing standing in our way anymore. We can be together just like we were always supposed to be." The glow in her eyes was far brighter than the light from the Oracles' portal.

"What about the age difference? And we live in different cities now, one of us would have to commute. And there's also your mother. I don't think she likes me." Now that he was so close to his dream, Angel was a little scared of his success. Maybe this was, once again, too good to be true.

"Angel, I can't help the age difference," she said patiently. "You'll just have to deal with having a child bride who will eventually look old enough to be your mother. And I'm willing to transfer schools. It's not like I'm dying to raise a baby on a hellmouth. But my mom..."

He looked up at her with such hope, such boundless faith in her ability to make his world right.

She smiled weakly at him. "Just don't take it too personally if she goes a little heavy on the garlic in the New Year's Day lasagna, okay honey?"

He groaned and buried his face in her neck.

She patted him sympathetically on the shoulder. "I'll take that as a yes."

The End (of the Beginning)

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