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Safe Harbor

by Gem

Disclaimer: Not my characters, just borrowing them from Joss to give them a little happiness for a change (without time out in the penalty box).
Rating: It's probably PG, but I'll say PG13 to err on the side of caution.


Spoilers: Take it all the way up to "Heroes," then make a sharp left to the Land of Wishful Thinking.


Authorís Note: Sequel to "Taking Chances" and "Fallout". Just a little therapy fic because I really didn't like the way Buffy spent her birthday this year, or should I say with whom. Parts of it may be a little dark, considering it's a wedding fic, but whoever said weddings were all sunshine and daffodils never had to wear a bridesmaid's dress (complete with crinoline) and carry a parasol.


Part One

Willow cautiously entered the old stone mansion on Crawford Street, glancing over her shoulder at every sound. The house had been known as "the" haunted house in Sunnydale when she was a little girl, and given that her most recent memory involved Angel being on his deathbed, she was even more on edge.

"Buffy," she called out quietly, "are you here?" She couldnít bring herself to raise her voice, for fear of what she might draw out of the shadows.

What emerged from the shadows was her best friend, dressed in hot pink workout clothes and carrying a sports bottle. In the light of such cheerful modernity, Willow knew any self-respecting spooks would flee for their lack of life.

"Hey Will, good to see you." Buffy took a drink of the water as she curled up on the sofa and motioned Willow to join her. "Fill me in on the haps. Iíve almost missed this place the past few weeks."

"Not much new to report. Demons were all predictably demony, but we dealt. How was LA?" Willow settled on the sofa next to Buffy. "Did you guys ever actually leave Angelís apartment?" She grinned at Buffyís blushing response.

"We got out a little. And it was great, all of it, but Iím not going into details. Some things are private." She smiled at the memory of those very special moments, too long delayed.

"Enough said." Willow waved away any potential confidences there were some things she had no desire to know about her best friend, and this would be at the top of the list. "We missed you, Xander and I. I mean, I understand why you wanted to be alone with Angel, but we missed you. Break just wasnít the same without you."

Buffy laid her hand lightly on Willowís arm. "I know and Iím sorry. I missed you guys too, and maybe it seems dumb, since weíre getting married, but I just didnít want to be apart from Angel one minute more. He had a case, so I worked with him." She jumped up from the sofa and began to stride around the room, almost spilling her water with her enthusiastic gesturing. "Will, it was great. Itís a lot like what I do, but we get paid for it. I am so going to love my new life."

Willow felt a twinge of envy when she looked at Buffyís glowing face. She wanted Buffy to be happy, of course she did, but she wanted her to be happy in Sunnydale. And Willow wanted to be happy with Oz right along with Buffy being happy with Angel.

"When...when are you moving?" It was a hard question to ask, but Willow and Xander had resolved to be mature about Buffyís new plans. It wasnít like they had a choice, anyway.

Buffyís energetic pacing ground to a halt as she turned to stare at Willow. "Didnít I tell you?" She sounded surprised. "I thought for sure...well, anyway, not till the end of spring semester. Itís too late to transfer to UCLA and I didnít want to lose a whole term.

"Willow visibly brightened at the news. "So youíll be staying in the dorm until May? Thatís great, roomie." She quickly began to mentally unpack Buffy's bags back into their room.

"No, you donít understand." Buffy smiled gently. "Iím staying, but Angel found us an apartment. That way we can be together whenever he doesnít have to work, and we have a home base in case of severe hellmouth-outbreaks in the future."

"But what about your momís house? Canít you just stay with her?" Willow scrambled for a solution that involved as little change from the status quo as possible, but the look on Buffyís face told her she was going to have to try elsewhere.

"Mom is already working on being the mother-in-law from hell." Buffy shook her head sadly as she walked over to the fire. "I guess she doesnít want to be unprepared for the big day." She stared into the flames, trying to lose herself in their hypnotic dance.

"I thought she was okay with everything now." Willow walked over to lay a gentle hand on Buffyís shoulder. "I know she didnít like the whole Angel idea at first but..."

"She doesnít like the Angel idea, the baby idea, the LA idea, any of it." Buffy tried to mask the hurt in her voice, but she could tell Willow wasnít fooled. "You name it sheís against it. I wonít stay in the house with her the way things stand. Thereís enough negative energy from the hellmouth Iím not going to subject my kid to grandma dearest until she calms down. And Iím definitely not leaving Angel in the house with her and my trunk full of spare stakes right now. No way."

"So is she going to, you know, behave, on Wednesday?" As maid-of-honor, Willow figured she better know if the mother-of-the-bride was going to be wearing a corsage or a crossbow.

"She will behave," Buffy replied grimly. "The only question now is if my dad can make it. He went up to Vancouver on business and heís been snowed in for two days now. He called last night to say he might not get back in time." This time she didnít try to hide her disappointment Willow knew the score there. It wasnít like it was the first time for her dad to let her down, and it wouldnít be the last.

"Iím sorry, Buffy, I didnít know. Do you think heís trying to avoid, umm, that is not exactly avoid but..." Willow wanted to find a delicate way to pose her question, but it wasnít happening.

"He likes Angel." Buffy smiled, remembering how surprisingly well the two men had gotten along. "We went out to dinner the night we told Dad, and they really hit it off. I mean Dad still thinks I'm too young to get married, and he went a little ballistic at first about the whole baby thing, but once they talked it was cool. But as usual he had this business deal, and even though he said he'd be back...well, I'm not holding my breath." She resolutely pushed away the pain from all the broken promises. There was only one man whose promises counted now, and she knew she could trust him with her life.

"But who will give you away? Giles?" It seemed like the perfect solution to Willow, actually better than her real father would have been. In the over three years she had known Buffy, she'd never even seen Mr. Summers. He had almost no contact with his daughter, whereas Giles had been there every step of the way since he met Buffy.

Buffy shook her head, drawing away from the fire to walk around the room. "I thought about it, and I talked to Angel, but I decided to walk by myself. If you think about it, it was an old custom when Angel was young. I mean, no one is giving me to Angel, no one even wants me to give myself to him. So I'm going solo."

"I can't believe this all really happening," Willow marveled. "It's just so...freaky." She realized an instant later that the bride might not appreciate such a description of her wedding plans, and hastened to amend her careless words. "Freaky in a good way, of course. Nice freaky."

"Why do I have the feeling my ears should be burning?" said a voice from the doorway. "That is, if I had any circulation," Angel finished as he walked into the Great Hall.

"Just because you hear the word 'freaky,' don't automatically assume you're the focal point of the conversation," Buffy teased as she stepped into his welcoming arms. "I have a lot of freaky people in my life, you know. You're just the most important one." She pulled his head down for a kiss, and did much too thorough a job of it for Willow's comfort.

"Umm guys, not really a spectator sport," she protested weakly, waving her hand. She sighed in relief when they reluctantly parted lips. "And about the freaky comment, Angel, I actually meant the idea of Buffy getting married and the whole having a baby thing. After all that you guys have been through, it just seems so...suburban."

"We could use a little suburban after all the curses and prophecies," Buffy replied wryly. She rested her head on Angel's chest and held him firmly in her arms. "All I ever wanted was for us to have a nice, normal life together. And maybe the demon-hunting will make it a little less than normal, but as long as we're together it's close enough for me."

"Amen," Angel added fervently. To Willow's surprise, he didn't even start to smolder, let alone burst into flames.

"So how was Giles?" Buffy asked, turning her attention back to the love of her life. "Full of doom and gloom, or did he actually have some answers?" She tipped her head back to look intently into Angelís dark eyes, trying to read her future in their depths. "Does he know how, or why?"

"We know how, sweetheart," Angel replied with a slightly smug smile. He still couldnít get over the thrill it gave him to know he had a part in this creation, this miracle. "But as for why..." his smile faded, "he thinks he has an idea. He wants to talk to both of us later tonight. After patrol."

"Then you are still patrolling," Willow said quickly. "I thought you said..."

"That I was quitting for now," Buffy finished for her. She lightly kissed Angel on his jaw, then slid out of his arms to rejoin Willow on the sofa. "I am, I have. Angel is going with Giles," she looked over at Angel, "who better take extremely good care of you." She turned back to Willow. "Iím research-girl now, go figure."

Angel sat down on the arm of the sofa next to Buffy and slid his arm around her shoulders. She leaned into the embrace, while her heart gave an extra little thump from his proximity.

"But youíre such a good fighter," Willow protested, leaning forward to emphasize her point. "Youíre so strong why would you quit before you have to? I mean later, sure, when you get real big and you canít see your feet and...Iíll be quiet now." She leaned back against the sofa, both embarrassed and overwhelmed by the image of a hugely pregnant Buffy.

"Will, Iím strong because Iím the Slayer, but our baby...I wonít take a chance with her." Buffy took hold of Angelís hand as it lay on her shoulder. "Itís one thing to risk my life, I do it all the time and I can handle it. But this baby is special. We still donít know why she survived time being turned back, and maybe that means sheís meant to survive no matter what, but I wonít risk it. The Oracles canít fix this if I mess it up."


************

Buffy was nervously pacing the Great Hall by the time Giles and Angel returned from patrol. It was much harder than she had imagined it would be to send Angel out in her place, and she hadn't stopped worrying since he left. She tried tai chi, she tried reading a fashion magazine, and she even tried working on the partially knitted baby blanket Cordelia had given her as a joke. Nothing took her mind off Angel and the danger he faced for her sake. She was almost dizzy with relief when she finally heard Angel's heavy step outside the door.

"Hey, what's with the greeting?" Angel asked a moment later as he involuntarily fell back from the force of impact.

She slapped her hands down on his chest again, forcing his back to the wall once more. "Buy a cell phone, dammit! You were supposed to be back two hours ago." She turned her back to him and crossed her arms, waiting for an apology.

Angel glanced helplessly at Giles before answering. "Buffy, you, of all people, know it's not an exact science. We got home as soon as we could. I'm sorry if you worried."

She whirled around to glare at him. "Worry? Of course I worried, you big jerk. You're doing my job. How am I supposed to live if anything happens to you because you're doing my job?" Her anger dissolved abruptly, leading her into the shelter of his arms.

"And how do you think I felt every time you faced Dru or Spike, knowing I created them?" he whispered in her ear as he held her. "No one knows better than we do how unpredictable the future is, but I promise I'll be careful."

"And you'll buy a cell phone?"

"And I'll buy a cell phone," he echoed. "Now can we talk to Giles so he can go home and we can go to bed?" He realized from the slight flush on Buffy's cheeks that his words might be misinterpreted, or perhaps interpreted a little too well. "I mean, you need your rest," he added quickly.

"Yes, well, in the interests of Buffy's need for sleep," Giles said dryly, "perhaps we'd best make this quick. Please, both of you, take a seat."

Buffy and Angel sat side by side, and hand in hand, on the sofa. Giles pulled a book from his satchel and searched for the correct page as he began to pace in full lecture mode.

"As you know, I've been searching through all my books, and calling in quite a few favors, ever since you first announced your, umm, condition, Buffy. It simply does not make any sense it isn't even possible. Therefore, there must be a greater reason than the addition of one more life to the universe."

"Seems like a pretty big reason to me," Angel said quietly. He looked over at his lover, at long last by his side again. "We see death every night. To be a part of the creation of life instead of its destruction...don't knock the power, Giles."

"I don't take it lightly, Angel." Giles was a little insulted that Angel impugned his sensitivity, as though he couldn't understand because he'd never experienced it. "But it defies all known laws, at least the ones known to the Watcher's Council. So I did what I do best I researched. Eventually, I came up with an answer."

"And that is?" Buffy was getting impatient. She loved her former Watcher dearly, almost as a second father. At times, however, his need to 'set the scene' drove her insane.

Giles looked at the fire, at the door, anywhere but at them. At last he forced himself to confront them directly. They needed, and deserved, the truth.

"She is a Slayer. The first of a long line of Slayers, actually. Her power will be even greater than yours, Buffy, because she is a Slayer by birthright and by blood."

Angel glanced at Buffy, but she seemed to have withdrawn into herself. The pleading look in his eyes when he turned to Giles wrenched the Watcher's heart.

"You're sure?" Angel asked softly. "She really is going to be a Slayer?"

"I'm sure." Giles addressed his answer as much to Buffy as to Angel. "We checked every volume we could think of, and then it finally came to me. I looked in the Codex and there it was."

"And we all know the Codex never lies," Buffy whispered bitterly, looking up at last. She could remember, in painstaking detail, the last prophecy wrung from the Codex. It ended in her face down in a pool of water. Somewhere in its pages there might also lie the details of her child's death.

Angel slid his arm around her shoulder as Giles continued. In the back of her mind she registered his presence, but she couldn't allow herself to feel comforted by the gesture yet.

"And there shall be a Slayer born to vampire," Giles read, "Slayer in lineage and destiny. Her powers shall be greater for the mingling of blood and fate, and all those of her house shall carry her strength into battle." He closed the book and looked up at his silent audience of two. "There is a bit more about her descendants, but it all gets rather bloody, so...well, you know what to expect. No need to dwell."

Buffy uttered a short, sharp laugh. "No need to dwell," she repeated in amazement. She stared at Giles as though sheíd never seen him before. "Giles, you just told us we've been given this incredible gift so we can create more Warriors for the cause. Sorry, make that more cannon fodder. No need to dwell!"

"Buffy," Angel began, until his lover turned her angry gaze upon him.

"Don't you dare try to downplay this! You're as upset as I am, and don't try to deny it just to make me feel better. If anything it's worse for you. You can't cut out now when I do."

Buffy's words and the resulting look of pain on Angel's face confused Giles. "Cut out? I don't understand."

When Buffy replied, she spoke more to Angel than to Giles. "I know, I've always known, even though we never talked about it. But you can't leave her just to be with me. She's going to need you, and so will all the rest. You can't desert them."

"Buffy, I can't." Angel's voice was hoarse with desolation. "You can't ask this of me. I know I have to be there for our child that's not even a question. But all the others who come after her?"

Angel gripped her shoulders with unwitting intensity as visions of his long and lonely future paraded before him. He saw the brief decades of family unity he had gloried in imagining dwarfed by an endless expanse of solitude. Once more consigned to watching, and guarding, and losing, in a never-ending stretch to infinity.

"Youíre asking me to watch them all slip away, generation after generation, century after century. My wife, my daughter, my granddaughter, all lost while I stay behind. How many times will I have to relive losing you by losing them?"

She slid her arms around him and pulled his head down into her neck. He clung to her as a lifeline, but nothing could erase the images in his mind. He had known loneliness and isolation before, but to experience them again after such brief bliss was more than his human soul would bear.

"Baby, I'm so sorry," she murmured, stroking his back and shoulders. "I thought I was giving you this wonderful gift. Immortality like regular people get. I never thought..." her voice dwindled away as she, too, imagined his eternity of service and sacrifice to the Powers That Be.

He lifted his head to stare at her in astonishment. "Buffy, don't ever apologize for this." The one guiding force in his life, his love for her, pulled him from his anguished introspection. "Spending my life with you, like regular people, is the most wonderful thing I can imagine. I just...I don't think I can do it century after century without you. I never thought...you know I never planned to go on without..."

"There's no other way," she replied softly. She looked steadily into his eyes, willing him all her strength. "I'm not planning on going anywhere for a while, but eventually I will die. You have to stay to help her, and the ones that come after her. They are all our children, in a way." She gently stroked his face, brushing away the tear that slowly slipped down his cheek in mute protest of his fate.

"I know." He said it so softly Buffy herself could barely hear, but his sorrow rang loud and clear.

"I know it's not much comfort," Giles said, breaking the hushed silence, "but at least you know she will be able to survive in your world, Buffy. If she were to be a 'normal' child, she would have a much more difficult time as the daughter of a Slayer."

Angel's dark sense of humor reasserted itself, with difficulty. "And the fact that she's a Slayer with a vampire for a father will make it so much easier, right?" He withdrew slightly from Buffy as he leaned back on the sofa, but kept one arm securely wrapped around his lifeline.

Buffy's memory suddenly dredged up a nit worth picking. "Giles, the book said she, I mean this future Slayer, is supposed to be 'born of vampire.' But Angel was human when she was conceived. How do you know this is about us?" She glanced anxiously at Angel, seeking affirmation in his dark eyes.

"She's right." Angel nodded eagerly and gripped her shoulder even harder. "Maybe it's not..."

"How many vampires do you think become involved with Slayers?" Giles kept his tone gentle, but it didn't soften the blow to their hopes. "Involved, that is, in an amorous fashion, and of sufficient duration for the Slayer to give birth. I would say the odds of this prophecy involving anyone else are astronomical. I'm very sorry I know you didn't want this for your child, Buffy. And I'm even sorrier I didn't realize what this would mean to you, Angel."

"I just wanted her to have a normal life. Was that so much to ask?" Buffy looked around the Great Hall, with its lack of mirrors and heavily draped doorways. "I wanted her to have all the chances we never got, like long life and sleeping without a weapon under her pillow." She drew a shuddering sigh as she forced herself to regain her equilibrium. "Well, so much for suburban, huh honey?"

Angel smiled gamely at her, trying to match her fighting spirit. Her strength always amazed him, but he knew what it cost her. The least he could do was support her.

"Giles is right, she's safer with us is she's one of us." Angel pushed the images of his eventual fate far back into the recesses of his mind, and concentrated on the immediate future. "Now we know why she survived the temporal shift, and we know she'll be able to protect herself when she gets older. That's not all bad news."

"You even know she is a she. Should make painting the nursery easier." Giles tried to enter into the game, finding a silver lining in the nearest funnel cloud. "I am willing to help with that, by the way. Not that I know anything about paint or such, but how hard can it be?" His smile had an endearing trace of desperation in it that wrung genuine amusement from his beleaguered companions.

"Okay, now we're back to suburban." Buffy stood up and stretched. "On that reassuring, and somewhat tedious, note, I'm going to go to bed. We only have two days to get this place ready for a wedding. Well, three if you actually think we'll get anything done on Wednesday. But it's going to take a lot of work."

"My friend offered to do a ritual cleansing before she officiates at the wedding." Giles slid the Codex into his satchel as he spoke. "Would you be interested?" He looked up at Buffy and Angel in time to see them share an uneasy glance.

"Exactly how much of a deep clean would that be?" Buffy finally asked. "Willow is doing the burning sage routine to purify, but nothing too heavy duty. I mean, when the groom has an actual inner demon, and so do one or two of the guests, it's kind of a fine line between spiritual peace and Drano for the soul."

"Umm, yes, well, I see your point," Giles stammered. "Perhaps you'd best let the ceremony itself purge any emotional old ghosts. Symbolism rather than witchcraft for a change."

Angel rose from the sofa to stoke the fire. "That's kind of the reason we wanted to have it here. We want to create one good memory in this old place before we leave it behind. I don't think witchcraft can help with that."


*********

Later that night, as they lay intertwined in their bed, Buffy couldn't stop worrying about Angel's state of mind regarding their child's future, and his own.

"Angel, honey, are you awake?" she whispered in the darkness. A reassuring squeeze around her shoulders was the only response.

"Angel, we need to talk about this," she tried again.

Angel sighed and shifted slightly, pulling Buffy still closer to him. "There's nothing left to say. You're right I can't bail when you die. I've known that since we found out about the baby." He was silent for a moment. "I just didn't think...I don't want to spend eternity without you."

She ran her hand gently over his chest, tracing a pattern he eventually recognized as the claddagh symbol from the ring he gave her so long ago.

"Maybe I could come back as a ghost and haunt you," she offered at length. She tipped back her head and propped her chin on his chest. "That way we'd never be apart."

"Don't!" he said sharply. "Stop talking about this like it's make-believe, or some fairytale where we get to write our own ending. It's not." He sat up, dislodging Buffy from her comfortable sprawl across him. "Sometimes it's going to be hard, more than we can bear, but we don't have a choice. You taught me that. We'll just get through it, together, for as long as we can."

Buffy sat up as well, glaring at his barely visible form as the moonlight filtered through a crack between the drawn shades and across the foot of the bed. "Well thank you for making our life together sound like a term in Alcatraz. I can't tell you how flattering that is to hear three days before our wedding. It's a real warm fuzzy.

"Angel reached out to her, but she slid back out of arm's length. "Sweetheart, I'm sorry," he said. "I...this whole thing has made me realize one day...you'll be gone. And I'll still be here."

The quiet pain in his voice tore at her heart. She slid back to his side and wrapped her arms around him tightly. "I'm here now," she whispered. "I know we should have talked about this stuff before what would happen when nature takes its course, I mean. I don't like to think of it either, but it's one of the differences between us we have to face. One day I won't be here and you will. And it will be a long time before we can be together again. But I have to believe that someday it will happen. After all we've been through, I can't believe a few years is all we get."

Angel had to smile, though Buffy couldn't appreciate it in the half-light. "After all that fate has thrown at us, at you, you still believe the world is fair." She never ceased to surprise, and delight, him.

"This week," she said, running a lingering hand down his face and throat. "Check with me next week and all bets could be off."

**********

Buffy was having the most beautiful dream.

She and Angel were floating down a long aisle, skimming just above the surface of the red carpet. She could dimly perceive faces on either side of them, but suddenly all the faces turned into daisies. She turned to ask Angel why, and realized they were no longer in an aisle, but in a great field of flowers. Angel reached out to her and drew her down onto the grass beside him. He slowly slid his hand down her neck to the top of her...

Angel's yelp of pain yanked her from the depths of slumber. She rolled out of bed and reached for the stake in the nightstand in one fluid movement, then she suddenly realized it was daylight. Daylight, when only kamikaze vampires roamed the streets of perpetually sunny Sunnydale.

"Angel, what's wrong?" She first looked where she had last seen him, lying next to her. When her still-sleepy mind processed his absence, she glanced around the room and realized he was standing to the side of the windows, pulling a drapery cord to adjust a recalcitrant drape.

"Oops," she mumbled, hurrying to assist him. "Sorry, I guess I forgot to pull them all the way over again." Standing directly in front of the window, she stood on tiptoe to haul the curtain over the offending sunlight. Mission accomplished, she slid into Angel's waiting arms. "Scout's honor, I will make it a habit to check before we got to bed. Forgive me?"

He clung to her while he forced his mind to ignore the pain of his scorched foot. "Nothing to forgive," he replied a trifle breathlessly. "I've been doing this for two hundred years I should have checked myself." He dropped a light kiss on the top of her head before leading her back to the bed. "It was just an accident."

She looked at him closely, noting the way he avoided meeting her eyes. Not satisfied with what she saw, she pushed him down on the bed and stood over him, with her hands on her hips.

"It was this type of accident that made you bail less than a year ago. No fudging for the sake of my feelings how freaked are you?"

"Buffy, I'm fine. I'm just a little nervous about tonight, okay?" His dark eyes were troubled, but at least now they were fixed squarely on her hazel ones. "I woke up the morning of my wedding with my foot on fire from the sunlight and it kind of surprised me. I'm sorry I woke you when I yelled. So sue me."

"Hey, easy big guy." She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder to soothe him. "I guess I'm a little nervous too, but it was kind of dťjŗ vu all over again, you know?

Angel slid his arms around her waist and pulled her over to stand between his legs. "We're both a little on edge today. Part of it is just normal wedding day jitters, I'm sure."

"And the other part?" she asked wryly. "Normal slayer marries vampire jitters?"

"We have a lot of differences," he admitted. "That's why I left last year. I thought we were too different, and it wasn't fair to make you live in my world just because I couldn't live in yours." He ran his hand softly through a lock of her blonde hair and down the back of her neck.

"And you swear you're over that spectacular bit of stupid self-sacrifice?" Buffy tried to keep her tone light, but there was an underlying note of fear that her lover clearly heard.

"I swear." He kissed her to seal his promise. "We probably should have talked about this a little earlier than today, but things have moved so fast. And I guess I was a little leery of bringing it up. Old ghosts, you know."

She stroked his cheek, enjoying the feel of fine bone beneath cool skin. "No ghosts allowed today," she whispered before she replaced her hand with her lips.

He smiled and turned his head to meet her questing mouth. Bodies and minds in perfect unity, they melted back onto the bed. The rest of the world faded away as...the telephone rang.

"Mmm, let the machine get it," Buffy murmured, trailing kisses down Angel's throat.

He flipped them both over so he was pinning her to the bed with the weight of his body. "No machine," Angel whispered in her ear before he nipped at it.

She giggled and retaliated by tickling his ribs. "Then let it ring." She wound her leg around his to secure him to her, lest he develop any silly notions of duty before pleasure.

"Duty before pleasure, love," he echoed her thoughts. With deep regret, he pulled free from his beloved and reached for the cell phone on the nightstand.

"Damn, I hate it when you read my mind," she said with a pout. "It's not fair, you know." She sat up next to Angel on the edge of the bed, twining her arm through his and resting her head on his shoulder.

"I didnít read you mumbled." Angel turned his attention to the phone. "Hello. Oh, it's you. Is everything okay? You're coming down when? And who did you say...a rogue what? Okay, well now I've heard everything. What do you mean there's more? No...just...just get here when you can...Yeah, Buffy's classes start on Monday so I'll be back then." He glanced at Buffy's head on his shoulder, and felt the warmth of her body pressed up against his own. "If absolutely necessary," he amended. "We'll see you this afternoon...ish. I understand."

"That was Cordelia," he said. "She will be here this afternoon, and she's bringing Wesley with her." He grinned in anticipation of Buffy's reaction. She and her former Watcher had not parted on the best of terms.

Buffy's reaction did not disappoint.

"Wyndham-Price? Wesley Wyndham-Price? Our Wesley?" Buffy kept repeating the name, hoping Angel would stop her and correct her. To her dismay, he did neither.

"You're sure? Wesley?" she repeated, yet again.

"Okay, this was amusing the first four or five times," he said at last, "but the fun has faded. You know exactly which Wesley, and if you want to know why, you'll have to ask her. I just have an uneasy feeling this visit is not a coincidence."

"Not much in our lives is," Buffy replied with a scowl. She looked around for her robe, but settled for one of Angel's shirts, which was dangling from the bedpost. She slid it on and buttoned a few strategic buttons as Angel lounged back on the bed.

"So, what are you up to on your last morning of freedom?" Angel tugged at the hem of the shirt, obviously hoping to delay whatever plans she might have made.

Buffy stepped back to stand just out of reach. "Down, boy," she said with mock severity, waggling a finger at him. "I have to go see someone, but I'll be back by twelve. Willow is coming over and we're going to finish decorating the garden for the ceremony. What are you going to do?"

"You mean besides dream of you?" He smiled lazily at her from the pillow. One hand reached out for her again, trying to entice her to make his dreams a reality.

"Angel."

He sat up abruptly, teasing smile gone for the moment. "I am going to get everything ready in the mansion for the reception tonight...and for a little birthday party this afternoon." He laughed softly at the surprised look on her face. "Did you think I forgot?"

"Well, you never said...," she stammered. "And with all the other plans...you don't have to do anything." She kept her head cast down to shyly contemplate her feet, until Angel's arms were around her and his voice whispered in her ear.

"And how many decades would I have to pay for that one?" He laughed again when she smacked his chest in feigned annoyance. "Sweetheart, you do not survive in the company of women for two centuries without learning how to navigate the delicate terrain of birthdays."

She scowled at him for a moment to punish him for the comment about other women, and then she relented with a kiss that left them both a little weak in the knees. Buffy finally pulled herself away when she noticed Angel was guiding them back to the safe haven of the bed.

"I really have to go," she said firmly, fending him off with one hand while she held her now unbuttoned shirt closed with the other.

He stopped clowning around and regarded her seriously. "Give her my best," he said in the low steady voice that made her feel so safe and loved.

She smiled in wonder, and lightly touched his cheek. "I will." She turned to go into the bathroom, but paused in the doorway to look back at him. "And I didnít mumble anything that time, so you must have read my mind."

"I know you." It was a simple statement of fact, which spoke volumes to her.


**********

Buffy hesitantly entered the hospital room, glancing around at the pictures on the walls and the flowers on the nightstand, anywhere but at the occupant of the bed. Eventually she knew she could no longer put it off, and she slowly approached the bed.

"Hey," she said softly, reaching out a hand to rest on Faith's arm. "I'm sorry I haven't come before now."

There was no answer, of course she didn't expect one. Faith's condition had stabilized to some extent she no longer needed life support. She was still in a coma, though, and the doctors were unsure if the situation would ever reverse itself. They also couldn't say it wouldn't.

"Giles told me where to find you," Buffy continued, pulling a chair up next to the bed. She sat down, leaving her one hand touching Faith, trying to bridge the distance between them. "It's a nice place," she said as she looked around the room again, "you know, for a hospital. Well, the sign says it's a nursing home, but that sounds too old for you. Or maybe, is this the Old Slayers Home we talked about? Funny if it was and you beat me here."

She took a deep breath and tried to calm her racing heart. An early childhood trauma had instilled the fear of God in her when it came to hospitals, and they scared her to this day. She needed to settle things with Faith, though, before she left Sunnydale and the past behind her tonight.

"I guess you're wondering why I came after all this time." She stared at Faith for a moment, searching for any sign of awareness. Faith continued to breathe, but that was the extent of her participation in the conversation.

"Okay, well, since you kind of can't ask me, I'll just tell you. Angel and I are getting married. Tonight, actually. He says hi, by the way. And...we're having a baby." She held up her hand as though Faith needed to be hushed. "I know, I know, it's impossible, more than you know actually, but there it is. Try not to laugh when you picture me holding a baby bottle in one hand and a stake in the other." Buffy laughed herself at the image, but she became unnerved by the sound in the otherwise quiet room.

"I wanted to tell you, even though I know you probably can't hear me, because I think in some way you care. It's taken a long time for me to come to terms with what you did. You betrayed me, and you used Angel to do it. When that didn't work, you tried to take him out just to hurt me. And you did it in the most painful way you could find."

Buffy felt a wave of anger wash over her as she remembered sitting by Angel's side as he tried to fight the poison in his system. She remembered wiping his brow and praying for him and telling him she loved him, knowing all the while that none of it would help.

Faith's arm moved ever so slightly under her hand. Buffy knew it was just a muscle spasm, but it served to bring her back to the present.

"I hated you for a long time for what you did, and I guess I'm still angry, but I understand better now. You have always been in so much pain, and you just wanted someone to make it better. You got it into your head that Angel and I were supposed to do it. You saw what we had, what we held onto despite all the problems, and it made you angry because you couldn't get it for yourself, and we couldn't give it to you."

Buffy couldn't sit still any longer she stood up and began to wander around the room as she spoke. She didn't notice Faith's arm twitch again at the loss of pressure.

"I'm sorry you had a rough childhood, Faith, I really am. The past month I've started to realize what that means, because I've been thinking about my own child and how I would feel if she had your kind of life." Buffy laughed a little sadly. "Actually, the past few days I've been thinking about it even more, since we found out my baby is a Slayer. Yup, you got it, she's going into the family business. And if it weren't for Angel, I'd be terrified what might happen to her when I'm not around any longer."

She came to rest in front of the window and pulled the shade so she could look out into the courtyard. Her forehead pressed to the glass, she watched the nurses wheeling patients out to sit in the sun. It all looked so peaceful and serene. It was hard to believe violence could flourish in such a calm world, yet behind her lay mute testimony to its existence.

"I guess the Mayor gave you something we couldn't, or maybe he was just a means to an end. I don't know. All I do know is that I need to forgive you because I don't want to keep you with me any more. At least not the way I have been."

She turned to face Faith, wishing there would be some sign of life from her old friend and enemy. "I will always remember the times you saved my life, but I can't hold onto those memories thinking they were the only real you. I've been pretending the change in you was just some temporary aberration, and that if we could only have gotten through to you...But I think Angel called it." She brushed the tears from her cheek with an impatient hand. "You got a taste for killing, and I don't know if we could ever have gotten you back. I think it was always a part of you, and being the Slayer let you use it. When I saw it in you it scared me, because I didn't want to see it in me, or in Angel. But I don't."

She sighed and sat down on the bed. This time she took Faith's hand in her own. "We're not alike, we never were. I pretended we were because I wanted someone who understood me perfectly. I wanted someone who knew exactly what it was like to be me. Before I was the Slayer, I was just like everybody else, and I wanted to be again, and you were going to help me. Except I'm not like everybody else. I'm me, and you're you, and Angel is Angel, and no matter how well either of you understands me you don't live in my skin. And that's good. I realized I like the differences."

"I also finally put together something about forgiveness, too. You canít forgive people unless you accept them as is, good and bad. No matter what people think, Angel and I never had any romantic illusions about each other. We always accepted that the other had a dark side, but we loved each other anyway. That's why we can always forgive each other, without question."

Buffy leaned over and dropped a light kiss on Faith's forehead. "I wish you well, I really do. I forgive you too, if it means anything. For Angel it's always meant a lot, but like I said, we're all different people." She stood up and crossed to the door. "You taught me a lot, Faith, and I don't think I ever thanked you for some of it because I so didn't like your methods. Some of us reach out to others when we're in pain, and some of us just lash out. Maybe, if you come back, you could give the first way a try."

Buffy walked out the door with a much lighter heart than she had brought with her. The past was being laid to rest piece by piece today, and the next step was waiting for her back at the mansion. More importantly, Angel was waiting for her back at the mansion.

She never noticed the single tear that slipped out from between Faith's closed lashes and slid down her cheek.


**********

Buffy arrived back at the mansion a little earlier than planned, and discovered her home in chaos. Xander and Anya were fighting over the placement of a giant banner that read "Happy Birthday Buffy," Cordelia was directing Wesley to do six different things at once and Giles was trying to help Willow with a spell, except that Willow didnít seem to appreciate the help.

"Giles, youíre going to get burned by the sage if you donít step back!" Willow finally yelled at the surprised Watcher. Giles stepped back in confusion, bumping into Buffy as she tried to slip in unnoticed.

"Oh dear, Iím sorry Buffy," he quickly apologized. "Buffy, youíre early! Weíre not ready yet."

"Go away or youíll ruin your surprise," Cordelia offered helpfully. "It was supposed to be a surprise, right?" She shooed Wesley towards the garden with a basket of flowers, then turned to contemplate her old friend. "Youíre going to need some major work to look bride-y. What do you do to your hair to get it to stick up like that?"

Buffyís hand flew to her hair before she could stop it. Inwardly cursing herself, and Cordelia, she asked about Angelís whereabouts.

"Up here," called a voice from the stairs. "Youíre early. Did it go okay?" He hurried down the stairs to join her in the Great Hall, seemingly oblivious to the confusion that surrounded them.

"It was fine," she assured him, tipping her head up for a kiss. When they finished she kept her hand on the back of his neck, holding his head down so she could whisper to him.

"The nurses had a few interesting things to tell me, by the way. All about Faithís mysterious Ďbrother-in-lawí whoís been paying her hospital bills. A very tall dark and gorgeous brother-in-law who only checks up on her at night. Wonder who that could be?" She smiled mischievously at him, daring him to deny it.

"She needed help," he said simply. "You would have done it if you could."

Buffy looked at him for a long moment before replying. It hadn't surprised to learn of Angel's generosity, but it had touched her more than she could tell him. After all Faith did to him, there was still no question of forgiveness or aid. She knew he would have done it for Faith regardless, but the way he referred to himself at the hospital told her that his first thought was to do it in her place. What Buffy could not do, he would in her name, because they were one.

"I'm not so sure," she responded at last. "I think you're nicer than I am, which should bother me, but it doesn't. Kind of gives me something to shoot for, you know?"

"Now there's an interesting concept. Vampire role models. Never thought you'd make the grade, kid."

Buffy released Angel and spun around to see who had addressed them. He might not have been the last person she expected to see on her wedding day, but he was close.

"Whistler," she breathed, while Angel smiled in relief.

"I wasn't sure you'd get the message." Angel walked over to shake Whistler's hand, leaving his beloved in considerable confusion.

"You knew he was coming? You invited him?" She joined the two men in the doorway, trying not to attract the attention of her friends. Whistler's visits usually presaged disaster, and just because he was here at Angel's invitation didn't mean the world wasn't on the brink. Again.

"Meet my mysterious best man."

"You know kid," Whistler said, "I think I've seen you smile more in the past two minutes than I did in the whole year I was training you. She must be good for you."

Buffy brightened at the compliment. "He smiles, he laughs, he even dances. He's a whole new vampire."

Angel slid his arm around her waist and nuzzled the top of her head. "All thanks to you, sweetheart." He returned his attention to Whistler as Buffy wrapped her arms around him and settled in. "You're cutting it kind of close, you know. The ceremony starts just a little after sundown. As soon as all the guests can get here, I mean."

"Hey, I got your message, but I had a few things to wrap up first. I also had to pay a visit to the boys upstairs, to see if there were any messages to pass along. You know, congratulations, mazeltov, Niagara Falls or Bust...stuff like that."

"And were there?" Buffy was back to feeling uneasy.

Whistler being Whistler, he chose to ignore her question for the moment. He walked a few steps away to get a better view of the Great Hall. "Nice place you've got here. A little Bela Lugosi meets Frank Lloyd Wright, but it works for you."

"Thanks. We're moving tomorrow."

Whistler looked quickly at Angel. "Termites?"

"Worse. Bad memories, a lot of them." Angel glanced around the high stone walls, trying to remember practice sessions and post-slayage naps instead of the usual blood and tears this place brought to mind. "We're getting married in the garden and having the reception here to replace some of them, but they'll never be completely purged."

"We want a fresh start." Buffy's memories weren't much different than Angel's in substance, if not in specifics. The mansion meant Angel to her, but it also meant Angelus. Accepting all that he was did not mean sleeping with the ghosts of his ex-lovers as well as him.

"Not much of a place to raise a kid anyway." Whistler took off his precious fedora and brushed an imaginary speck of dust from it while he covertly watched Buffy's expression.

"You told him?" The glare she turned on Angel did not bode well for the wedding night.

"He didn't have to. The Powers told me." Whistler gave up his pretence of disinterest and looked squarely at Buffy. "Since I brought you two together, they keep me updated on you. You know, in case you need a hand."

"Or a sword," Buffy said bitterly. She hadnít seen Whistler since that terrible night, and suddenly the memories were painfully fresh. She felt Angel's warning squeeze on her waist, but she ignored it. "You could have told me. You knew Willow was going to succeed and you didn't say anything."

"Buffy..."

"Hey, kid, I wasn't the one who was supposed to tell you. It doesn't matter any more anyway. It's all water under the bridge now. You're getting married."

"No thanks to you. I sent him to hell!" Buffy's voice was rising and she was starting to attract attention, but she didn't care. In the back of her mind she felt Angel's presence by her side, but she couldn't reconcile it with the memories assaulting her. She broke free from Angel's loving restraint to advance on Whistler. "He spent centuries there, being tortured, because you didn't warn me. If I'd known..."

"It's over, kid." Whistler's voice was compassionate, but firm. "You've gone over it again and again in your head and it never changes. Why? Because it's over. Yelling at me won't change it either. You got him back, so move on."

"He's right, Buffy. We have what we always wanted now. Let it go." Angel knew she was still too wound up to touch, so he just stood beside her. His dark eyes regarded her tenderly, reminding her of all they had gained from their failures.

"And what about our daughter? I'm still a little pissed at my mother for calling my dad a bastard in front of me, and he was being one at the time. What if she asks questions about us someday and I have to tell her I sent her daddy to hell?" Buffy's voice broke as she whispered her deep-set fear.

"Like that one is going to come up in casual conversation," Whistler scoffed. "Of course, I suppose it could wind up in the sex talk..."

"She's a Slayer she'll understand," Angel replied patiently, ignoring Whistler completely. This time he did put his arms around her and held her tightly, trying not to picture the scene she was painting. He knew their child would forgive Buffy, but he was not so sure how she would feel about how he earned his place in hell.

"But..."

"What do you mean 'she's a Slayer'?"

Buffy and Angel tore their impassioned gazes away from each other to stare at Whistler as he repeated his question.

"What do you mean 'she's a Slayer'? What moron told you that?"

********

"I tell you, you miss one staff meeting," Whistler continued. "Seriously, who's the moron?"

The Slayerettes formed a semi-circle behind Buffy and Angel when they heard Whistlerís words. Only Giles knew precisely what was being discussed, but when one of them was in need of moral support, they all came running.

"I, sir," Giles said with a sniff, "am the moron. And who might you be?"

"Nameís Whistler," Angel said tensely, glancing quickly at Buffy. "Heís a demon, but a useful one. Usually."

"Hey, donít blame me if you guys got the wrong info." Whistler waved his hands, symbolically pushing away any responsibility. "All I know is what Iíve been told. So where did you get the idea these kids are having a little Slayer?" He turned to look at Giles, meeting the Watcherís eyes with genuine curiosity.

"A Slayer? You didn't tell me. You didn't tell any of us."

"Willow, not now. I'm sorry." Buffy concentrated fiercely on Whistler and Giles, forcing herself to ignore her best friend's hurt expression.

"The Pagamon Codex," Giles answered Whistler. "It is only the most complete listing of Slayer prophecy known to..."

"Man," Whistler interrupted. "Iíve heard of it. Actually, I think I know the prophecy youíre talking about too. ĎMingling of blood and fate,í am I right?"

"Thatís the one." Buffy looked grim. Giles had let her read the remainder of the prophecy when Angel wasnít around, so she would know what he would face after she was gone. It wasnít a pretty picture.

"Well that explains why you've got two Watchers on call instead of one. Boy, the Council must really have their panties in a twist over this one. So why are you so sure this is right baby?"

"Come on," Angel protested. "How many Slayer-vampire couples do you think are out there?"

"As far as I know, you two are it. But that doesnít mean this is the right kid. How do you know there wonít be a little sister in a few years? Hell, there may be two of them, or four. You two make rabbits look lazy. You could have enough for a basketball team by the time youíre done. Or maybe this is it."

"Will you quit it with the cryptic crap!" Buffy marched over to stand nose to nose with Whistler. "What do you know?" Her tone was low and controlled, but the warning was unmistakable.

Whistler held up in hands in mock surrender. "All I know is that this kid was meant to get you back together. Maybe sheís a Slayer, maybe sheís not. Maybe sheís not even a she. You donít get to know that yet. You just have to take your chances and see what happens next. Of course I realize thatís an alien concept to you two, but you donít have much choice this time."

"We take our chances all the time," Buffy protested. "Thatís about all we do." She turned away from him and returned to Angelís side.

"No," Whistler replied slowly, "you take chances when you fight, but when it comes to each other you spend all your time trying to twist Fate to fit your mood. And let me tell you, the Powers are kind of fed up with it. This is your last shot, so donít blow it.

"

"I am so sick of hearing about the Powers," she fumed. "They mess up our lives all the time, and then pretend itís all our fault."

"Theyíve been trying to put you two together for centuries and youíre the ones whoíve screwed it up. They thought they finally had all the bugs worked out when I pulled Angel out of that New York gutter a few years ago. But no, you kids have to decide Fate is against you just because your friends and family are. So you break up and you get back together and you break up and you get back together, until you make a yo-yo look stable."

"How could they have been trying to put us together for centuries? Buffy was born less than two decades ago." Angel gestured to the birthday banner Xander and Anya had at last succeeded in hanging over the fireplace.

Whistler looked at it with interest. "Hey, happy birthday kid."

"Stuff it. What did you mean?" Buffy was rapidly losing her fragile hold on her temper. The last thing she needed on her wedding day was an evasive demon.

"Look, you really donít need the back story. Letís just start with the part where you met in this life. Love at first sight, blah, blah, blah, star-crossed lovers, the whole nine yards. Now, I will admit the Powers threw a few character tests at you which may have been...misinterpreted, and made you think you werenít supposed to be together."

"You mean like Dead Boy turning psycho killer?" Xander wasnít sure who this guy was, but he seemed to know an awful lot about Buffy and Angelís history and it wasnít making Buffy happy. If he continued down certain strands of history it wasnít going to make Xander happy either.

"Yeah, well, believe it or not, that wasnít unexpected." Whistler took a step back when he saw the fury on Buffyís face.

"It was to us," she said tightly.

"I just mean we had to get Angel together with Acathla somehow, so he could do a little time in the big house. If you think he has guilt now, picture him without a few centuries of torture and penance."

"I donít believe this. You knew exactly what was going to happen, from the moment you met me, and you let it." Angel stared at the man he thought he knew the man he asked to be his best man as thanks for introducing him to Buffy and thereby saving his life. "You let me hurt her, and kill people, so that you could set up some elaborate scenario to send me to hell, and then you made Buffy be the one to actually send me."

"I was helping you fulfill your destiny. A destiny you seem hell bent on avoiding, no pun intended. Whatís with all this Ďleaving for her own goodí crap? You are the sappiest demon I have ever met, and let me tell you, I have met some doozies."

"Youíre not getting an argument from me on that one," Buffy said.

"Youíre not much more help, sweetie." He glared at her. "If he does something dumb like leave, youíre supposed to go after him. But you missed your cue, so they went to Plan B. You think the Gem of Amara just happened to turn up in Sunnydale? Guess again, toots. It should have wiped out the whole Ďcanít walk in the sunlightí argument, but you blew it. You didnít bring it yourself, so he thought you didnít care and he destroyed it to remove the temptation of coming back to you. Fine, Plan C. A little demon brew to make you lose your inhibitions and you should go after him, right? But you didnít!"

Whistler took a deep breath and regarded his captive audience. Buffy and Angel were staring at each other in shock as they each processed a whole new perspective on their convoluted history. Giles had withdrawn to quietly confer with Wesley in the corner, while the remainder of the Slayerettes sprawled on the sofas and the floor for story hour.

"And you!" he said sharply, turning to Angel. "We finally pry you out of the Bat Cave by scaring you, and we get her off her ass by making her mad. We bring you together and you get what youíve always wanted: her and a pulse." He leaned forward and spoke very slowly. "It was supposed to be the end of the story! Happily ever after time, give or take a few hundred demons. But no. You give it up because you still canít believe you wonít hurt her, and you want some sort of freaking guarantee of long life. Welcome back to the human race, pal it ainít happening."

"Well, kiddos, this is the last chance. Somehow somebody figured youíd screw up the mortality gig, so they planned ahead. Even Martyr Man here wouldn't think it was better for you to be a single mom, especially in your line of work."

"So she's not a Slayer, or you just won't tell us?" Buffy asked slowly. "Or do you actually not know?"

"Yes," Whistler replied, but not until he backed up several steps. He neatly avoided Buffy's lunge by ducking behind Giles, who had rejoined the group. Whistler peeked over Giles' shoulder, but the look on Buffy's face, and Angel's, prevented him from exposing any more of himself.

"It's like I'm talking to myself," he said, visibly amazed. "Nobody gets to know this kind of stuff. Just because you're the Chosen One does not get you special privileges. You take your chances like the rest of humanity and deal with whatever comes up. Now can we do this birthday party stuff so we can get on with the wedding, and then the reception? I understand my friend Angel brought some very fine Scotch from LA, and I could really use a belt right about now."

************

Despite the rocky start, Buffy could not remember ever having a better birthday party. It was filled with good friends and lighthearted fun, and yet she couldn't wait for it to be over. It seemed to take forever for the hands on Angel's old carriage clock to wind themselves around to six, but at last it was time for everyone to start changing into their wedding clothes.

Joyce Summers arrived a few minutes later, full of apologies for missing the birthday party. She became much more tight-lipped when Giles asked her about her absent ex-husband.

"He's not coming," she replied shortly, and refused to elaborate. There was no need for anyone to know she'd been delayed by their marathon telephone argument, which somehow devolved to a raking up of every past sin for the last 20 years. Today her only daughter was getting married, to a man Joyce had always distrusted, and Hank Summers couldn't be bothered to show up. End of story.

Buffy was disappointed, but not surprised by her mother's news. She was, however, surprised by Joyce's determination to be cheerful about this event she so dreaded. Her mother fussed over her dress and the flowers like the mothers in the movies, without one word about Angel or the horrible mistake she felt Buffy was making. If Buffy had more time, she might have questioned her mother about this mood swing, but before she knew it, it was seven o'clock.

Show time.

Her mother went down first, on Giles' arm. Cordelia and Anya had already taken their seats, leaving Buffy was left alone with

Willow."Thank you, Will." Buffy hugged her best friend tightly, feeling the threat of tears in the corners of her eyes. "I couldn't have gotten through the past few years without you."

Willow held her just as fiercely as she tried to remember the words to every protective spell she'd ever learned. "I love you, you know. I wouldn't put up with monsters for just anybody." She grabbed a tissue and dabbed at Buffy's eyes. "Stop crying," she scolded fondly.

Buffy laughed as she took the tissue. "I love you too. You're the best friend I've ever had. And I'm sorry I didn't tell you about the baby, you know, following in my footsteps. It was just too much to..."

"Buffy, it's okay. I was a little hurt, but I know you would have told me soon. There's been a lot going on lately, that's all."

"You can say that again."

Willow stepped back and proudly surveyed her. "You look beautiful. Angel is going to flip."

"I can't believe it's real." Buffy didn't say any more, but Willow could hear years of hope and dreams, and loss, in the short sentence. After all this time, Buffy and Angel were on the verge of getting exactly what they wanted, and it seemed impossible it would actually come true.

"Hey, sometimes things really do work out in the end." She gave Buffy one final hug, then straightened the short bridal train. "Karma owes you both big time, so I think you need to march down those stairs and start collecting."

"Will..."

Willow pointed to her chin. "Resolve face. March."

She vanished through the doorway and Buffy was alone for just a moment. She looked at herself in the mirror and thought of the way she had pictured her wedding day when she was a little girl. It wasn't supposed to be in a gothic mansion, or in January, or on a weeknight for that matter. Kids were supposed to be in the distant future, not on the agenda for the fall.

And the man she was meeting in front of the altar was not supposed to be so gentle, or loyal, or romantic. He wasn't supposed to be a fierce warrior, or quite such an accomplished lover, or such a scholar. He wasn't supposed to love her so much, or forgive her so much, or trust her with his life quite so completely. She was supposed to love him, but not with every fiber of her being, every breath that passed her lips, every beat of her heart.

And yet somehow, some way, here they both were. And she was keeping him waiting. She picked up her skirt and ran for the stairs.

**************

Angel stood at the foot of the flower-draped staircase, waiting for the first glimpse of his bride. If he had any breath to lose, or a heartbeat to skip, the sight of Buffy in her wedding dress would have done it.

It was the palest pink imaginable, almost cream, which brought out the flush in her cheeks and brightened the gold in her flowing hair. A simple wreath of flowers adorned her head, reminding Angel of the girls in his youth on May Day. What truly awed him, though, was the look of pure happiness in her eyes. It resonated from her almost as strongly as his own joy.

She took his arm when she reached the bottom of the stairs. "Hey, I thought we were going to meet outside," she said softly.

He smiled, unable to believe she was really speaking to him. For all his sins, despite the many times and ways he had hurt her, she still gave herself to him without reservation. Nothing in his long life would ever humble him so much as this moment in time.

"Angel, are you okay?" Worry clouded her features as she released his arm to touch his cheek. "You look so strange."

He caught her hand in his and kissed her palm, then tucked it firmly into the crook of his arm. "I'm fine," he reassured her. "And I'm sorry I messed up the plans, but I just couldn't wait a minute longer to see you." He gazed silently at her for a moment longer. "You look...incredible," he whispered at last.

"You stand there in a tux and you think I look incredible?" Buffy shook her head as she laughed softly. "It really has been too long since you looked in a mirror."

"Your eyes are my mirror."

"Then they should tell you that you're beautiful too, inside and out. And they should show two people who are going to be together forever, in this life or the next, no matter how long it take to put things right." She still worried about him facing life without her, but all she could do was promise they would someday be reunited. She wasn't going to let the Powers That Be off the hook for that one.

He looked deep into her eyes. "Shall we get started on that forever thing then?" he asked quietly.

"Please." She stood on tiptoe for one final kiss as a single woman, drew a deep breath, and took the first step towards happily ever after.

*********

The ceremony had a strange dreamlike quality. When she thought about it later, all Buffy could remember clearly was the steady glow in Angel's eyes, the certainty in his voice as he repeated his vows, and the feel of her hand in his when he slid her wedding band on her finger. She knew her friends read a few poems, and she was sure the words Giles' friend spoke during the ceremony were beautiful, but all that mattered were the feelings she was receiving. After all the fights and tears and heartache, there was nothing but goodwill and loving wishes filling the old garden. It even radiated from some most unexpected sources. Beyond that, the details hardly mattered.

Buffy came back to herself when she felt Angel's arms slip around her and his mouth close over hers in a tender kiss. She clung to him, proud and humbled to have the right to do so.

"I love you," she whispered. Then she grinned and threw back her head to yell it for all to hear. "I love you!"

"No more whispering," he agreed with a smile and another kiss. "I love you." His voice was not quite in her decibel category, but there wasn't a guest who missed his declaration.

"Umm, guys," Willow said hesitantly, "could you finish this after the ceremony? You still need to walk back down the aisle." She resumed her spot on the makeshift altar to the accompaniment of Xander's "Hear, hear!"

After a brief blessing, and many congratulations, they took a last walk down the old garden path to the mansion. Buffy couldn't help remembering the Christmas morning that she and Angel had walked this same path back from the hilltop just beyond the garden walls. It had been snowing then and just before dawn, as opposed to this unusually balmy January night, but the same scent of miracles lingered in the air.

She was just about to step into the house when she felt Angel sweep her up in his arms.

"I know it's old fashioned," he said hastily, "and I know this won't actually be our home, but..." He looked anxiously at his bride, fearful of damaging a pride as fierce as his own.

She laid her hand lightly over his mouth. "Hush. I think it's sweet." She wound her arms around his neck as he crossed the threshold. "Definitely old fashioned, but sweet."

Before Angel could reply, Joyce followed them into the house. "Could I have a word with you two?" she asked quietly. She looked over her shoulder at the guests streaming in, then shook her head. "No, wait, I want to do this right."

"Uh oh." Buffy quickly shed her blissful glow as Angel set her on her feet. "Mom, do you really think this is the time..." she began.

"Honey, please," Joyce beseeched her, "trust me."

Angel and Buffy exchanged wary glances, but neither of them could summon the nerve to crush Joyce. At least, not yet.

When all the guests had assembled in the Great Hall, and the general stampede on the buffet table had begun, Joyce stood on a chair and tapped a crystal goblet with a fork to call for attention.

"Excuse me," she said loudly, "could I have just a moment, please? I was going to say something to my daughter, and my new son-in-law, in private, but I think I really want everyone to hear." She stepped down from the chair and approached Buffy and Angel, who stood in front of the fireplace.

"I haven't been very pleased with this relationship in the past," she began. "There were a lot of reasons, some of which I can't go into," she nodded at a few of her friends that had been invited, "but most of us know what they were."

Angel looked at the floor while Buffy held on to her temper with every bit of control she could muster. She gripped his hand with bruising strength, taking comfort in his cool steady presence by her side.

"I still think most of them are valid," Joyce continued in the face of her daughter's rage, "but one of them was...well, I was very wrong." She looked directly at Angel. "I once told you I knew you cared about my daughter. At the time, I thought that's all it was. I thought I was being generous phrasing it that way, actually. I was wrong." She glanced over her shoulder at her rapt audience. "The last few weeks I've been a bit of a monster. You can ask either of them they'll tell you how awful I've been." She faced Angel again, meeting his eyes without guilt or anger for the first time.

"The truth is, the night you told me you were getting married, I realized how much you love my daughter, and how much Buffy loves you. It's been right there in front of my nose for a few years now, but I chose not to see it because it complicated my baby's life. You're going to realize how very hard you'll fight to prevent that sort of stuff." She laughed ruefully. "But some things are meant to be. Fate, I guess. No matter what pulled you two apart, no matter who tried to come between you, the bond was always there. It made me mad as hell that night, but now I choose to be grateful for it."

She took a few steps closer to the couple, until she was close enough to kiss an astonished Angel on the cheek. "You're a fighter, just like she is. Use that strength to tell off anyone who tries to say you're not made for each other. Even me."

"Thank you, Joyce," Angel replied in a low voice. He returned her kiss, the stepped back to give Buffy room to hug her mother.

"I love you, Mom," she said fervently, squeezing her mother tightly. When she released Joyce, she took Angel's hand again and pulled him out on the Ďdance floorí. She slipped her arms around his neck, but he gently pushed them away.

"Wait, thereís something I want to say too." He looked around at their guests, who paused once more on the point of getting food to do homage to romance. "Iím sorry," he apologized, "but this day isnít ever going to happen again, so Iím not going to waste it."

"Bloody hell!" Spike glared at his sire. He had only attended this little shindig because of the free booze, and because Harmony, whose carnal favors he hoped to regain, wanted to go. Now he was going to have to pay for his pleasures before he even received them.

"Spike!" Angel snapped. Spike grimaced, but made a locking gesture over his mouth. Sensing the outburst was at an end, for now, Angel returned his attention to his bride.

"There's a sonnet I'd like to recite, from a collection that means something special to the both of us."

"Because thou hast the power and own'st the grace
To look through and behind this mask of me
(Against which, years have beat thus blanchingly
With their rains,) and behold my soul's true face,
The dim and weary witness of life's race, -
Because thou hast the faith and love to see,
Through that same soul's..."

Angel paused to clear the huskiness from his voice. When he resumed, Buffyís voice kept pace with his.

"Through that same soul's distracting lethargy,
The patient angel waiting for a place
In the new Heavens, - because nor sin nor woe
Nor God's infliction, nor death's neighborhood,
Nor all which others viewing, turn to go,
Nor all which makes me tired of all, self-viewed, -
Nothing repels thee...Dearest, teach me so
To pour out gratitude, as thou dost, good!"

"That was beautiful, Angel." Buffy couldn't help smiling at the surprise on Angel's face. "What? You knew I read the book," she teased.

"Read, yes," he agreed. "Memorized, no." Once again, he marveled at how he could know someone like the insides of his own heart, and still be amazed by her.

"Great bleedin' poof," Spike grumbled. He glanced at Harmony by his side. "I suppose youíll be wanting all of that romantic mumbo jumbo now too?"

She didnít answer him with words, only the gentle tilt of her head and the flutter of eyelashes.

Spike grinned evilly. "There once was a man from Nantucket..."

Giles knocked over the dessert tray in his haste to silence Spike. Buffy ignored the resulting confusion and nodded to Xander to start the music. This time, when she held her arms up to Angel, he pulled her in tightly and didn't let go.

Xander and Spike began to fight over who got to pick the CDs to be played, leaving Oz to actually control the music. Buffy looked over at one point and sighed happily at the sight of Oz in deep, and apparently friendly, conversation with Willow.

Cordelia tried to teach Wesley to dance "like a normal person," while Giles alternated between his Wiccan Justice of the Peace friend and Joyce.

Harmony gossiped with Jonathan, who was utterly unaware of her pulseless condition and thus thrilled to be noticed by one of the "cool crowd." Angel made a mental note to caution the boy before he left the party, lest Harmony make him quite literally cool.

Whistler and Willie tried to one-up each other with their favorite demon stories over Angelís twelve-year-old scotch, until Anya drank them both under the table and bested every tale.

Buffy had hoped for a final word with Giles, and her chance came when he cut in on she and Angel during a slow dance.

"I suppose this is my cue to dance with the mother of the bride." Angel looked over at Joyce, chatting with a few relatives in front of the fire. "Fortunately, I think I stand a better chance of coming out of it alive than we used to believe." He kissed Buffy's hand in parting, then left her to Giles.

"May I?" Giles held out his arms.

"I'd be delighted, kind sir," she said with a curtsy.

Giles was a better dancer than Buffy had supposed. For a minute or two they just danced quietly, while Giles arranged his thoughts.

"You look...very lovely tonight, Buffy," he said at last. "And very happy."

"I am," she replied. "Happy, I mean. I don't know about the other."

"Trust me," Giles assured her dryly. The music sped up and he suddenly grabbed her hand and spun her out onto the floor, then reeled her back in.

"Why Rupert Giles," she laughed as she collided with his chest, "you can even fast dance. Who'd have ever believed it?"

Giles suddenly sobered. There were things that needed to be said, and he could feel precious time slipping away.

"Who would have ever believed you and Angel would find your happy ending?"

"Me, most of the time." She still swayed to the music, but Buffy's mind was clearly focused on the conversation. "Or maybe I just always believed we needed to find it. It's the only way for either of us."

"I know that now. If at times I was less than sympathetic or supportive, please forgive..."

"There's nothing to forgive." She removed her hand from his shoulder and held it up in front of his face to halt his instinctive protest. "Giles, you've been great all through this. I know how hard it was for you to deal with Angel when he came back, but you did it for my sake, and that meant the world to me. And you were always there to talk to when I couldn't confide in anyone else." She paused, unsure of how he would react to what she really wanted to say. Finally, she took Whistler's advice to heart and made a leap of faith.

"You've been a terrific dad."

"Buffy, I...I am deeply touched," Giles stammered. "You have indeed become like a daughter to me as well, but I didn't realize...I'm touched," he repeated.

"And you didn't even have to pay for the wedding."

"Quite." He grinned wryly at her attempt at levity.

Giles felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned his head to see Angel standing patiently next to them.

"Excuse me, can I have my wife back now?" Angel grinned at Buffy as he took Giles' place. "God, I love saying that word. Wife."

"Good, because that one better become a staple in your vocabulary when your work involves rescuing damsels in distress. You know, 'I'm sorry, my wife doesn't let me date,' or 'I'm sorry, I don't think my wife would approve of where you're touching me.' Otherwise..."

"As if," he scoffed, then whisked her across the dance floor.

Buffy and Angel danced and talked, and danced and kissed, long after the music ended and the last guest had gone. Finally, when the first pale streaks of dawn shot into the sky, Buffy slid out of Angel's embrace and took him by the hand. With perfect silent communication, they moved as one to the stairs, and the bridal chamber that lay beyond.

************

Buffy woke up slowly, many hours later. She yawned and stretched, then snuggled deeper into the hollow of Angel's shoulder created just for her. It was, she drowsily reflected, the day after her birthday. She had no wounds to nurse, no lover to chase after, and no apocalypse on the five-day forecast to prevent. It was the most perfect day after her birthday she could imagine.

There was, however, one more thing she wanted to check in the interests of preserving this state of affairs. She reluctantly disentangled herself from her sleeping mate and padded over to the windows.

She smiled in quiet satisfaction as she touched the rough edge of a Velcro strip. It hadn't been easy to glue the strips so they wouldn't show along the length of the curtain. Finding the time to do it on her wedding day had also been a challenge, but she persevered. Even if they were leaving this place tonight, she wanted everything to be just right today.

"Hey," Angel called softly from the bed, "I thought the point was to wake up in each other's arms the morning after your birthday. I seem to be alone here." He slid over to the far edge of the bed and patted the empty space next to him.

"Don't worry. I'm coming back. I always will."

She made one final, infinitesimal adjustment to the curtains and hurried back to her impatient spouse. She knew the future awaited them on the other side of the glass. It might be scary sometimes, and they would have their share of difficulties in it. There would be laughter, and tears, and a lot of fights and a lot of making up. The past few years had taught them it couldn't be avoided or averted, so they would need to meet it head on and together.

But not quite yet.

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curved point, - what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think! In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Beloved, - where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

The End

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