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In the Darkness Before Dawn

by Gem

Disclaimer: These characters are not now, nor ever have been, mine (sigh). The lyrics at the beginning and end of the story are from "Troubled Times," by Fountains of Wayne (on the "Utopia Parkway" CD).
Rating: PG13
Feedback: Always appreciated (and craved and longed for and dreamed of and...okay, the groveling is done now) The address is , if anyone cares to indulge me.
Spoilers: Everything up through "Sanctuary" (boo hiss! Shame on Buffy!). As you can tell, I took some (major!) liberties with Buffy and Angel's confrontation over Riley. I thought Angel still owed her a shot or two.
Summary: Angel awakens to find himself in the future of his dreams, but where does the dream end and reality begin?

* * * * *

Pining away every hour in your room
Rolling with the motion, waiting til it's opportune
Sitting there watching time fly past you
Why do tomorrow
What you could never do

* * * * *

Another day, another demon.

The thought drearily circled through Angel's brain as he undressed for bed. He survived another endless, empty day. Good had once more triumphed over evil and another innocent soul had been saved. But for the life of him he couldn't bring himself to care.

"Make that for the 'existence' of me," he bitterly corrected himself as he slid between the sheets. "I don't have a life. I just move from one disaster to the next. Sometimes I stop them and sometimes I'm only there in time to pick up the pieces."

Life was something he had given up for someone who no longer loved him, but who would forever hold his heart in her hands.


She was everything to him, and always would be, but now she belonged to someone else. He needed to put her out of his mind, if not his heart. But whenever there was a moment of quiet reflection such as now, whenever there was a respite from evil, the echoes of their last bitter exchange bounced off the walls of his skull until he thought he would go mad.

"Why are you taking his side?"

"Maybe because I love him and I can trust him. How could you hurt him?" She glared at him and balled her fists as though she was readying to strike him.

"Once upon a time you trusted me, but hey, nothing lasts forever. Except me, of course." He desperately hoped she couldn't see the anguish beneath his sarcasm. She didn't trust him anymore. He would not, could not, contemplate the loss of her love.

"And look what it got me. I almost died because I trusted you not to drink too much. Riley almost died because I trusted you to act like a human being, not a…"

Even now she could not complete that sentence aloud, but knowing she thought it was enough. The demon within him sang for battle, struggling for release beyond the jagged remains of his shattered heart.

"You want to talk trust? Do the words 'close your eyes' ring a bell?" He couldn't believe he was saying this. He had promised himself he would never mention this to her, because he knew how deep her guilt ran.

She dropped her eyes, at last unable to face him. If only she had shown some sign of softening before he had uttered the unforgivable. If only he could stop himself now. Instead he leaned in closer, and placed a hand beneath her chin to force her to meet his eyes.

"You sent me to hell once, sweetheart. Guess you figure it's time to book me a return ticket."

Angel groaned and buried his face in the pillow, seeking some measure of peace in unconsciousness. He knew better than to expect any from his waking hours.

* * * * *

He awoke slowly, relinquishing his dreams with great reluctance. Many times his subconscious was a battlefield for old sins to reclaim him, forcing him to confront one victim after another as though he could somehow make it up to them. Some nights, though, more peaceful visions overtook him. In the first few moments upon waking, he could almost make himself believe these stolen moments of contentment were real, and not just some imaginary communications with specters from the only part of his past he treasured.

…She came to me in my dreams again last night. Each night she comes it is like I can breathe again for the first time in centuries. She is my breath, my sunlight, and the marrow of my bones. For a taste of her love, I was sent to hell, and yet I would do it again to fly so near to heaven. At night, she is mine again, as she cannot be in the daylight. Each night I try to make us both believe this escape from reality can last forever. But eventually morning comes, and with the dawn she must leave.

Such a short time we have together; such a short time we had together. I sleep less during the day now, for it is too lonely there without her. The night, in our dreams, is a perfect world meant just for we two, and I would stay there forever if I could…

"Oh Buffy," he sighed, trying to throw his arm over his eyes to block out harsh reality. But his arm could not move freely, because there was a head resting on his shoulder.

"Mmm, watch your hand," Buffy murmured sleepily, rubbing the spot on her head where said hand had accidentally connected. She blearily opened her hazel eyes and smiled at him. "Morning," she said softly as she tipped her head up to kiss his lips.

He returned the kiss in a daze. This all felt so real, he couldn't believe it. He could literally feel her breath on his face, and the tickle of her hair sweeping across his chest. His dreams were always vivid, but never had he been able to reproduce so exactly the pressure of her lips on his, the texture of her skin beneath his hands, the swell of her belly against his…

His thoughts skidded to a halt, then scattered like quicksilver as he visually confirmed his latest addition to the fantasy.

Buffy was pregnant.

"Angel, what's wrong?" Buffy was forcefully pulled to consciousness by the stunned expression on her mate's face as he drew back from her. She slid up on the bed to sit beside him against the headboard and gently stroked his cheek. "Honey, what is it? You look like you've seen a ghost?" She quickly glanced around the room. "You didn't, did you?"

Angel tried to speak, but he couldn't seem to get enough air in his lungs. Air in his lungs, wait, no that didn't make sense. He shook his head to clear it, but the need to breathe still existed. He could feel his heart pounding louder and faster as he struggled to remember how to breathe, but the sound of that thump-thump in his chest only created more confusion and panic. His eyes grew wider as he remembered the last time he felt like this, on the day that never existed.


The frightened cry was accompanied by a none-too-gentle slap on his cheek. His mouth opened in shock and air rushed into his greedy lungs. He choked his way through several breaths while his mind frantically processed all the impossible information with which it had been presented. At last he regained mastery of his vocal cords and reflexes, just in time to prevent another slap. He caught Buffy's hand in his own and brought it to his lips for a kiss.

"It's okay, sweetheart," he murmured, rubbing his cheek against the back of her hand. "I'm sorry I scared you." He couldn't help smiling when he felt the rings on her third finger lightly scrape his jaw.

Buffy put her other hand to the side of his face and looked deep into his dark eyes. "Don't pull the 'everything's fine, Buffy' routine on me. You were scared to death a minute ago and I want to know why. God, you almost hyperventilated! What gives?"

"It was a dream," he replied hastily. "A nightmare actually, but it's over now. I just want to forget it." He slid his arms around her and pressed his face to her hair, trying to store up every nuance of scent and taste and touch before the alarm clock rang and he was ripped from this vision of paradise lost. For he had no doubt this was all some beautiful dream, more vivid than ever before, but still an illusion.

She struggled against his embrace, pulling back to look intently at him. "I don't buy it. You have dreams all the time, some of them really bad premonitions, but they've never made you forget how to breathe. Was it about the baby? Did you see something?" Her hands dropped to cover her stomach, shielding the child within as best she could.

Angel felt a wave of guilt sweep over him for causing dream-Buffy worry. Even asleep he seemed unable to do anything but hurt the love of his life. He quickly laid one hand over hers on her stomach and wrapped the other around her shoulders.

"No, no, it's nothing like that," he assured her, lightly kissing the top of her head. "I just dreamed…I dreamed we were apart. That we never got back together, and it all seemed so real I couldn't stand…it wasn't a place I want to go again, that's all." He felt strange pretending reality was the dream, and the dream reality, but if it let him stay in this halcyon world even an instant longer it was worth it.

He bent down his head, intent on capturing her lips in a sweet kiss. Instead, he caught her fingers between his teeth as she put her hand over his mouth.

"No way, lover, not until you talk to me. Something way more than a dream is bothering you and you're hiding it from me. Don't do that, Angel. No more secrets, remember?" Her face was deeply troubled, lines of distress etched across her forehead and shadows dulling the light in her eyes.

He sighed, acknowledging his respite from grim reality was at last at an end. The powers that sent him this vision were trying to gently wean him from it, and if he followed his instinct to hold on tight, he was sure horrific visions would take its place.

"I'm sorry, Buffy," he said softly, smoothing the lines from her forehead. "This is some wonderful, magical dream, but that's all it is. In a minute I'm going to wake up alone in this bed and you'll still back in Sunnydale." He didn't add the rest of the sentence, 'in someone else's bed,' because his mind still shrank from the idea.

"Angel, this is not a dream." Buffy spoke slowly but firmly, as though to a wayward child. "I am real, you are real, and this is a real baby." She removed his hand from her face and placed it back on her abdomen, shifting it just slightly so he could feel the quick movement beneath his palm.

His eyes widened when he felt the baby stir within her. He had never felt anything like this, never even allowed himself to imagine it, so how could his sleeping mind produce such a vivid impression?

"I can't believe this," he whispered. He stared at his hand for a moment as though commanding it to transmit more such sensations to his brain, and then he raised his eyes to meet hers. "This is incredible. I've never felt…oh God, why can't this be real?"

Buffy all but growled in frustration. "You are the stubbornest man I have ever known. How can I convince you?"

He shook his head helplessly. "If it was one day…but this is months. I couldn't have lost months, it's not possible."

"Angel, you are a former vamp whose heart was jump-started after two hundred years by a bleeding demon. I do not want to hear the words 'not possible' from you. Ever." Her mood was rapidly shifting from concerned to irritated. An amnesiac husband on top of hormonal overload was too much for one vampire slayer to bear, especially on a caffeine-free diet.

"You know what I mean."

Buffy sighed as his dark eyes captured hers with a full measure of his old brooding intensity. She never could resist that potent combination of consummate devotion and unutterable sorrow.

She pushed him back against the headboard so she could burrow into his shoulder for comfort. Angel obligingly draped his arm around her and held her tightly. This was more like it, he thought with a sigh of relief. Then she spoke and peace slipped from his grasp once more.

"Tell me what you do remember."

He glanced at her in apprehension. "You mean recently? Things haven't been too good lately, especially between us." It was at best an understatement, in reality closer to a lie. But this was not reality.

Buffy laced her fingers through his, staring at the platinum band on her ring finger and its mate on his larger hand. She wracked her brain for the best way to remind him of how those rings arrived on their fingers, but she was scared she would say the wrong thing and cause him more pain. Whatever made him forget the past few months must be terrible indeed, and she could not bear to add to the load.

"Why don't we start with the part where you forgot how to breathe?" she suggested. "We'll work our way back from there."

He looked away towards the open window and the curtains fluttering in the early morning breeze. In the back of his mind he was cataloguing all the small changes to his apartment which gave it that indefinable air of home it had been missing. His artwork had finally all been hung on the walls and a half-assembled crib stood in the corner of the bedroom. Bags of unpacked groceries were spread out on an unfamiliar kitchen table, and a full laundry basket rested on one of the chairs. Two bicycles rested against the cage surrounding the lift, one of them already equipped with a baby seat.

"I did forget, you know," he began slowly, not daring to look at her. "I remember being human. But it was just for a day, and then it was as though it never existed. I haven't taken a real breath since then, I haven't even dreamed about it." He unwound his hand from hers and rested it on his chest. "This feels so real. My chest feels like it's moving, and I can feel my heart beating as though I was actually alive again. Everything feels so real…but this is the world I gave up, not the one I have."

"Why?" she asked, in a small voice. "You never really told me why, just that we'd end up dead at some point. Which, by the way, kind of goes with being human. You had no right to make that kind of choice on your own."

He glanced back at her, guilt-stricken by the pain and grief in her hazel eyes. "They said you would die soon because of me," he replied softly. "The Oracles said the End of Days was coming, and if I wasn't strong enough to help you, that you would die. So I asked them to make me a vampire again, and they did, by taking back the day. I was never changed…so we never really had our day." He drew a tremulous breath and clung to her once more, shutting his mind to all the memories of that magical day's instant replay.

"But they didn't do it," she protested, staring up at him in confusion. "You went to them and asked them to change you back, and boy did I give you hell for that one, but it didn't matter because it never happened. We waited, but when you went back they said it wasn't supposed to happen that way. I mean the new way…or the old way…or, well, you know what I mean."

"In my world it did," he said simply.

"Stop saying that!" Buffy pounded her fist on his chest for emphasis. "This is your world. This is reality, like it or not." She crossed her arms, deliberately pulling away from his sheltering arm.

Angel rubbed the spot on his chest where her fist had contacted, surprised by how much it hurt. Everything was so very…tactile in this dream. It was almost as if he was really there.

"You're telling me you actually dream about me this way?" she continued angrily. "With my hair a mess and dark circles under my eyes from too much studying for finals and…and stretch marks! This is what your subconscious thinks of me?"

He took a long, hard look at her, trying to see her as she saw herself. He noted the rumpled hair and the dark circles, and took her word for the stretch marks. To him, it all added up to one thing.

"You look beautiful," he answered quietly. "You always do."

His simple compliments, and total blindness to her faults, melted her heart as always.

"Okay, this is so getting us nowhere." Buffy dropped a quick forgiving kiss on his lips before she slid out of the bed. "We need to go to the Oracles. Maybe they can convince you, since you obviously don't trust me."

"Buffy, stop."

He grabbed her arm as she moved away from the bed. She stared down at him, held in place more by the urgency in his voice than the physical restraint.

"What's wrong?"

"I trust you," he said forcefully, gripping her arm tightly enough to leave a mark. "I love you and I trust you. With my life, with my soul, with…everything that I am. Please tell me you feel the same." He gazed at her with single-minded intensity, willing her to give him the answer he needed to hear.

Buffy sat down beside him on the bed and held his face between her hands. She could feel him literally shaking with the passion of his outburst and it stunned her.

"Angel, I do. Totally. Always. What did I do to make you think I didn't?" Buffy slid her hands down his throat and chest to wrap her arms tightly around him. She buried her face in his shoulder and tried not to imagine a life where her behavior could drive him to ask such a question.

The ferocity of her embrace comforted him almost as much as her words. He didn't want to answer her, for that would bring forth an ugly alternate version of their lives he was no longer willing to live with. Whether this was a dream, or a parallel universe or the last cry for help from a troubled soul, he didn't care. Everything he ever wanted was right within the circle of his arms, and he was never letting go.

"It doesn't matter," he murmured into her hair. "None of that matters. It's over."

She kissed his neck, then pulled back to look quizzically at him. "So do you believe me now, or are you just humoring me?"

He smoothed his hand over her tangled blonde hair and touched his forehead to hers.

"I think I'm humoring me."

* * * * *

"Tell me again why we're doing this?" he grumbled as they made their way down the stairs towards the portal to the realm of the Oracles.

Buffy clutched his hand tightly for balance of more than one kind. She glanced around at the cellar beneath the abandoned post office, marveling that something so ordinary in appearance could provide the entry to a whole different dimension.

"Call it professional curiosity," she said lightly. "I hate when something freaky happens and I'm not in the know." She paused for a moment, then squeezed his hand. All traces of levity vanished from her demeanor.

"We need this," she said. "If you find out why this is happening you'll start to believe it's real. And I want to know why you would think it's not."

He stopped short, forcing her to halt as well. "Buffy, I'm not sure either of us is ready for this. I don't…I don't want to screw this up. However this happened, I don't want to change it this time and I'm afraid if we talk to the Oracles…I'm afraid, that's all." I don't want to lose this dream, his soul silently cried out.

She smiled up at him, remembering one of their first meetings when she had been searching for the Master's lair. Angel had pointed the way, but he refused to go with her. At the time she couldn't believe a man so big and self-assured could admit to being afraid. Yet he had, and she had admired him for his honesty. After all this time, and all she now knew of his immense courage, she loved him all the more for being so forthright about his greatest fear.

"You won't lose me," she assured him, reaching up to caress his cheek. "Whatever I said or did in that other time to make you think I didn't care, it wasn't true. There has never been anyone else in my life, and there never could be. You are everything to me."

"What about Riley Finn?" Even as he asked the question, he knew it wasn't fair. This Buffy never had a chance to explore a real relationship with Riley, and she shouldn't be made to answer for the remarks of the one who did.

Her brow wrinkled as she tried to recall the name. "Riley? Oh, my Psych TA. I went out with him a few times before we got back together, but there was zero sparkage, trust me."

"In this life," he finished for her with great difficulty. Angel pulled away from Buffy and began to prowl around the cellar, looking everywhere but at his beloved.

"No, there was nothing period," she said with slightly unraveling patience. "Angel, when I met you I knew you were the one. I knew in an instant there was something between us. With Riley it was just…fear, I guess. Fear of being alone, like Mom. I wanted a boyfriend so I could be a normal girl, and not end up like my mother. I mean he seems like a nice guy and all, but there are things you don't know about him. Things I never bothered to tell you because he didn't matter."

"Like him being one of the commandos?"

"How did you know that? Giles called me over break, but I didn't think it was worth the hassle of bringing up an ex. Well, more like a never-was than an ex, which made it even less worth mentioning." Buffy knew she babbling, but Angel's little bombshell frightened her. He knew things heshouldn't and suddenly his wild stories started to make a kind of sense she didn't want to face.

Angel stopped pacing and faced her, from a distance. "Giles told me, after Faith woke up from her coma and came to LA. And I met him, a few weeks ago. It was the last time I spoke to you."

"What did I say?" Buffy was very sure she didn't want to hear this part, but she sensed it was the crux of his pain. She took a few steps forward to stand directly in front of him, but she didn't touch him. It wasn't time yet.

Angel sighed heavily and looked away. "We both said some things in anger, but some of what you said…you said you loved him. And you said it more than once." He met her eyes at last, and immediately felt ashamed for his overwhelming relief when he beheld her shock.

"Angel, no," she insisted. "I don't care what I said, or how bad things got between us. I would know if I had ever felt even the beginning of something for Riley, and I never did." Her face flamed with shame as she dropped her eyes to her abdomen, wherein rested their unborn child. "If I said I did, it was only to hurt you."

"You moved on," he replied softly. With those words he gave up his hope that this was real. He could feel in his heart that the whole dream had been a means of letting go of the past. Now that he had truly forgiven her, he would wake up to the nightmare that was his reality.

Her head snapped up as she glared at him. He was the love of her life, but he used to drive her crazy with his refusal to believe his place in this world or any other was by her side. She was once again galvanized into action by his acceptance of the unacceptable.

"We are going in there now, and you are going to realize that this is the life we both chose, and it's the one we're supposed to have. Maybe that other world, or timeline, or whatever, did exist, but it's gone now. You are stuck with me, and after we get out of here you better start smiling about it. Just because I'm as big as a house doesn't mean I can't still kick your ass." She grabbed his arm and pulled him over to the ceremonial bowl Doyle had left. Pointing at the bowl, she said, "Start summoning."

* * * * *

The male Oracle was the only one present when they slipped through the other side of the portal. He seemed distracted, and the peevish whine in his voice sounded forced.

"Why have you summoned us…me?"

Angel and Buffy both noted the wince on the Oracle's face when he changed his last word. They glanced at each other in confusion, but neither had an answer.

"We brought you this rare coin." Angel dropped Buffy's hand and stepped forward to proffer the gold piece, which the Oracle accepted with scant enthusiasm.

"Money, how useful in my world." The Oracle stared at the coin in his palm for a moment before he raised his eyes to meet Angel's. "Why are you here?"

Angel was disturbed by the exhaustion in the higher being's voice. The Oracles were beyond being immortal; they were all knowing, all seeing, all-powerful…all-everything. How could such a being get tired?

"I…" he glanced back at Buffy, then continued, "we need some answers. Until this morning, I was vampire, but today I suddenly woke up human. We, I mean Buffy and I, were apart, but now we've apparently been together for months. Months I don't remember. It all seems to go back to the day you took away." Angel stepped back and clasped Buffy's hand once more.

"The day you insisted we take away," the Oracle corrected. He was stiff with indignation at the very idea he would meddle in the affairs of lesser beings without coercion.

"Then it was real?" Buffy asked quietly. She squeezed Angel's hand and moved a step closer, daring the Oracle to try and take him away again.

The Oracle's righteous wrath dissolved. He sighed, a strangely human sound, and looked at the coin in his hand. "What has been done cannot be undone, but sometimes it also cannot be redone. Not alone."

"I don't understand." Angel glanced around the chamber. "Where is the other Oracle? Your mate."

The Oracle raised his head, displaying a pain that once seemed beyond his capability to even understand, let alone feel.

"She who was my mate is gone. Taken from me. Without her…I find it hard to hold together all the strands of destiny she has woven and rewoven. Some forces are too powerful for one being alone to control, even a higher being, and so I let them go."

"What happened to her?" Buffy was suddenly drawn from contemplation of her own pain by the awareness of his. She could easily imagine what he must have been feeling, for she felt it herself when she sent Angel to hell.

"Evil forces," the Oracle said quietly. "There are greater powers of evil than can be imagined by even such as you. They work their will, and we are left to assemble the remains into an existence we can bear. Your own mate can tell you of this."

"But why wasn't I summoned to help?" Angel was horrified by this turn of events. The female Oracle had been surprisingly sympathetic to his pleas in the past, even if she didn't understand his feelings. She had been good and kind and she didn't deserve to fall victim to the forces of evil. He didn't understand why he hadn't been able to prevent it, or even allowed the chance to try.

Suddenly, he had no doubt this was real; he never could have imagined such a thing as an Oracle dying.

"It was not meant to be," the Oracle replied flatly. "Destiny cannot be avoided, at best it can be delayed. What is meant to happen will happen eventually."

"Does that mean what has happened to us is meant to be?" Buffy hated to draw the attention away from the Oracles' tragedy, but she was fighting for her future now.

"Which time?" Angel asked wryly, then winced when she slapped his arm.

"The future falls as it is meant, unless it is interfered with."

"Oh perfect. Cryptic Guy meets King o' Cryptic Guys." Buffy set her hands on her hips and stared down the Oracle. "Is this the life we were supposed to have, or not?" She held up a hand to stop his response as another thought struck her. "No, strike that. I don't care because I know this is how it's supposed to be. I just want to know if it will stay this way, or is time going to do the rubber band thingy again and put us back to square one?"

"I have not the energy to deal with the problems of mortals," the Oracle replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I will not attempt to rework the fabric of time to put you back to where you were. This is the destination for which you were always intended. I care not how you were meant to arrive, or when. You are here."

"But what about the prophecy about the End of Days? Buffy will die, you said so." More than almost anything, Angel wanted to stay in this alternate timeline with his beloved. But he didn't want it more than her life.

"I will not change the future." The steel in the higher being's voice was unmistakable. "You will live and die as mortals, when it is ordained you do so." A crafty look came over the Oracle's face. "If, however, you who were once a vampire should chance to see a large blue chaos demon with a yellow crescent on the back of its head, I would make sure to spill its blood on yourself. The aspects that demon may pass on are tremendous strength and healing abilities, much like those you once possessed."

"Swell," Buffy sighed, "more demon blood to explain at the Laundromat. I don't suppose you could just wave a magic wand or something instead?"

The Oracle did not deign to answer her, except with a glare.

Buffy threw up her hands in surrender. "I was just asking. Fine, blue demon, yellow crescent. I'll put it at the top of the 'To Kill' list."

Angel felt a wave of gratitude sweep over him as he finally accepted the reality of his new world. He did, however, still have a concern about his place in it. "So much has happened I want to feel a part of, but I don't. Why don't I remember this timeline?"

"You alone remembered the beginning, when it was nothing but a dream to others. When the dream was made reality, your mind clung to the reality which is now a dream."

Buffy had just about reached her limit with the verbally challenged. One more bit of circular logic and she was going to pull out her own version: a roundhouse kick.

"Okay, enough with the 'life is a great big pinwheel' philosophy. Just give him back his memories, or whatever you call then when someone gets put into a new past. I mean future. I mean…" she glanced up at Angel. "What do I mean again?"

The Oracle held up his hand before Angel could reply. "It is done. When you leave this dimension he will remember all of that which has been altered." He glanced at Angel. "And the woman? Would you have her remember the past as you do now?"

Buffy was about to snap at him for asking Angel instead of her, but she managed to restrain herself. She knew very well what she wanted, but she needed to know if Angel felt the same way. Even with his memories restored, he would never again be the Angel with whom she had shared her life these past six months. He would always carry the burden of that lost time, and it would forever color his perception of her. At the very least, she needed to know if they were still on the same page about the future.

Angel looked at the question from every angle, trying to imagine their life from this point on depending on his answer. Did she need the pain of remembering their estrangement, or was he being unfair to deny her the chance to feel whatever she had felt for Finn? Would a part of him always hold her responsible for things she not only never said, but also didn't even remember saying? Would she be able to live with knowing they had been said?

Most importantly, was she the child Joyce once made him believe she was, needing him to shield her and make these decisions for her? He had paid dearly for that assumption, as had Buffy.

"You'll have to ask her," he said at last. He smiled his old sad half-smile at her, giving up control once and for all. If they were to have a future, in this world or the other, it would have to be as equals. Whenever one of them tried to take charge of their relationship, disaster (usually of an apocalyptic nature) ensued.

Buffy sighed in relief and slid her hand into the crook of his arm. She faced the Oracle with steadfast determination, drawing on the strength of her bond with Angel to see her through.

"I want to remember. It's not fair to Angel to be the only one carrying the bad stuff around. And it will take both of us to make sure it never happens again."

"Done." The Oracle waved his hand once more, regally granting them their requests. He paused for a moment, then spoke to Angel in a much humbler tone. "When you came before me, before us, those many months ago, I did not understand your professions of mortal love. I did not comprehend your sorrow at the loss of your mate. I begin…I begin to, on this day."

And with that they were propelled backward through the portal and into the cellar of the abandoned post office.

* * * * *

They staggered slightly and clung to each other for balance when they arrived back in the cellar. For a few moments neither one could speak, as the promised memories flooded through their respective brains.

Buffy saw many battles, and many more stupid choices. She remembered the times she had ignored her friends and family in pursuit of a "normal" relationship. She faced the fights she barely survived because she was too distracted trying to conform to the Initiative's expectations, and Riley's. She inwardly writhed in embarrassment at the memory of sex with Riley, and her foolish protestations of love in the face of Angel's anger. She called up the look on Angel's face when she told him she trusted Riley more than him, and knew she would never see herself the same way again.

Most of Angel's memories were of a much happier nature, but they still brought home all he had come so close to losing. He saw through new eyes the night Doyle died, when Buffy held him in her arms until dawn and mingled her tears with his own. He relived the day she told him she was pregnant and he felt a swell of joy so great he feared for his soul. A part of him would always be amazed that she had been as happy as he was in that moment, given the complete rearrangement of her life that was required. Yet, miraculously, she had been. He remembered.

He looked at Buffy today and saw her in her wedding dress, coming down the aisle with eyes for him alone. He relived all the battles he once remembered fighting alone, but now knew they'd fought together. There were more battles that she once must have faced on her own, but not in this time. He had been there by her side, as was his right and duty. Every gray and lonely moment of the past six months was suddenly colored by her presence.

He raised his trembling hand from its resting-place on her back to gently stroke her hair. After all this time, and all the things that tore them apart, she was really here with him. She always would be; he knew that now.

"You didn't tell me the baby was conceived that first day," he said when at last the silence had grown too great. "When I think of what I gave up without knowing…I'm so sorry." Words failed him for a moment as he faced the enormous consequences of his actions. "I was wrong to make that decision for both of us, but I couldn't stand to be the cause of your death. I was just trying to protect you, but I guess I overstepped a little."

"It was a little overly," she agreed, "and I was pretty mad at you. You probably remember that now. Angel, you took a terrible chance…but somehow we survived, so I guess I can forgive you if you can forgive me." She caught his hand in hers and pressed it to her heart. "You didn't tell me I was so awful to you, to everyone. I can't believe you didn't try to kick my ass into line."

She blinked back her tears and smiled at him. She would be forever grateful to the fates that restored him to her time and time again. She just couldn't believe Angel was always willing to trust his heart to her one more time.

"You would have kicked right back," he admitted ruefully. "We both said some terrible things out of hurt, and I'm sorry for my part in them. I only hope…" he looked away briefly, then faced her squarely once more. "I hope you don't regret anything you lost because…" He couldn't say any more, even if he could have framed the words, because one of her hands was resting over his mouth.

"I don't have any regrets about the past six months I have lived with you." Her voice was low, but steady, as she fought to control the myriad of emotions threatening to overwhelm her. "I regret pretty much everything I just remembered about the past six months I spent without you. In fact, other than some cool Christmas presents I didn't seem to get this time around because people spent too much on our wedding gifts, I don't think that time is anything worth talking about." Buffy removed her hand from his mouth and gently stroked his face. "But I'm glad I share the memories with you."

"It will take two of us to handle them," he agreed, "but we will. And we'll make better ones to replace them."

She slid her hand down Angel's arm to take his hand. "And some day, since we're both human now, we'll get really old and we'll both forget they ever happened. I mean, it's not like you get to bring photo albums with you from alternate timelines." She tipped her head back to look up at him, a frown marring the smooth landscape of her brow. "You didn't, did you?"

He laughed, for the first time in six lonely months, and began pulling her to the stairs. It was time to go home.

"Now who would I have had to take pictures of when you weren't around?"

She frowned at him in mock severity and lightly slapped his hand. "I seem to remember a blonde lady cop who seemed awfully familiar with you and your liquid diet. Anything you need to tell me while I'm still feeling uber-guilty, and I'm more likely to forgive you?"

He held up his hands in surrender. "Honey, she was just a friend. I swear." He grinned at her, marveling at a newly rediscovered ability to tease.

"Mmmm, well, that's a phrase I better not get engraved in my memory," Buffy warned him.

He looked down at her, suddenly moved to sobriety. "The only thing you need to remember is that I love you. If you do, nothing else can ever touch us. Not really."

"No matter what I said or did, I always knew that." Her smile held the sweet glow of utter security. "It took a while for your PTBs to get the memo, but I never forgot. I swear."

As he bent his head down to steal a kiss, Angel could have sworn he heard the echoes of the female Oracle clapping her hands in delight.

* * * * *

Maybe one day soon
It'll all come out
How you dream about each other sometimes
With a memory of
How you once gave up
But you made it through the troubled times

The End