Disclaimer:  Not mine, never mine.  The characters that is; the story is mine.  But the characters in said story...well, those are the property of a whole bunch of companies and franchises and incorporated people, starting with Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy.  Where the legal trail ends, only the PTB's know for sure; I just know I'm nowhere in line.  If I were, I'd have already sued them for character assassination.

Spoilers:  Basically where the 2 timelines finally met up, which was at "Lies My Parents Told Me"/ "Orpheus."  I took one or two (necessary) liberties w/the last part of "Orpheus," however.

Rating:  PG-13

Author's Note:  They call a road a 'dead end' if it only has one outlet.  But that's the point – there's always at least one way out.

Many thanks to my new beta-reader, Seersha, for her help with this story, and an apology to her for any last minute tinkering that may result in typos (those are my bad, not hers).  Also, please pardon any incidental Spuffiness; it is to a purpose bent.

Dead End

Part 1 By Gem

"Four days, Xander.   Four days."  Buffy's fingers curled into tightened fists as she anxiously paced her living room floor.  "Where could she have gone that she couldn't find a phone for four whole days?"

The First was slaying slayers both day and night, minions of darkness were everywhere, even places Buffy knew no one else would believe, and yet Willow felt it was okay to take off with no explanation and only a quick promise to be back as soon as possible.  As soon as possible – Buffy felt a nervous laugh bubble up within her at the idea.  As though any of this were possible...except that it was.

"Buff, you've got to get a grip.  I'd feel better if Willow was home too, but we're just going to have to trust her."

Xander's voice was gentle, but Buffy could hear the underlying thread of panic in his words.  He wasn't just worried about Willow; he was worried about her.  He thought she was going to lose it, do something stupid out of fear, the way he thought she'd done too many times before when faced with loss.  Poor Xander, she thought; he desperately wanted to keep her balanced on that pretty white pedestal he'd mentally built the first day they met, but she kept on slipping up and acting human on him, even though she knew how that scared him. 

Unfortunately, his was not the only expectation she had to meet, and some people preferred her on the tarnished side of iconhood.  The trick was to keep each side seeing what it wanted, or needed, to see.

For now, though, Xander was the issue.  With effort, she calmed herself enough to calm him as well, forcing her feet to stop their restless prowling even if her mind never did.

"I do trust her.  I know she can look out for herself, at least when things are normal.  But things are so very not normal these days," she stressed.  "We have no idea what the First will try next, and even though she knows to be careful, she doesn't know what to be careful about.  None of us do.  That's why we need to stick together."

Xander grimaced as Buffy's words called to mind yet another unresolved issue between them.

"You mean all for one and one for all, even the one who'd happily kill us all?"

Buffy huffed impatiently; this was an all too familiar, and fruitless, argument.  "He has a soul now, Xander.  He won't hurt us."

"Yeah, just like he didn't hurt those people we dug out of that basement.  And who knows what he did before we found out about that little spree."

"The First..."

"...made him do it," Xander finished sharply.  "Yeah, I remember the excuse.  Well you know what?  He seems to be the only one the First made kill anyone.  Even Willow, who's been known to try her hand at an apocalypse or two, could resist, but not our Spikey.  And why is that, Buffy?  Could it be that he enjoyed it?"

She could feel hot words clawing at the back of her throat, clamoring for release.  She had so many things she wanted to tell Xander, things she was sure would make him understand and maybe, finally, make him stop doubting her judgment.  But she couldn't say any of them.  Not now.  Not yet. 

"Xander," she sighed in frustration, "can we stick to worrying about Willow and save the Buffy-bashing for later?"

"I'm not bashing you, Buffy," Xander said quickly. 

"Yeah, you kind of are.  You have to trust me, even if you don't understand why you should.  Can you do that for me?"

"That depends.  Can you do that for Willow?"

Buffy opened her mouth to answer, but suddenly found she had none.  With a growl, she threw herself on the sofa beside Xander.

"I hate it when you do that," she sulked.

"You mean when I'm right?"  He patted her knee.  "Yeah, that always seems to frustrate women.  I'm still not sure why."

She smiled sourly at him.  "And the wonder of it is that you're still single."

* * * * *

The Belvedere moved swiftly through the gathering darkness, if not precisely silently.  Verbal skirmishes had wafted through the open windows and into the night from the moment they had closed the last car door.  At first Angel had tried to referee, with little success.  Then he tried to ignore the tension; that idea worked even less. 

All he wanted was a little quiet time to search his memory yet again for any trace of the past weeks.  Some memory of Angelus, any memory, would help; everything between his shaman-induced dream-come-true and waking up in a cell watching Faith fighting off Connor was still one giant void.  He never thought he'd welcome, even beg to remember what that animal had done, but the not knowing was driving him crazy.

"Are we there yet?"

And speaking of the scenic route to la-la land...Angel gritted his teeth and counted to ten, trying not to remember that ten was only slightly more than the number of times one of them had posed that question in the last hour.

"No, not yet" he answered, allowing the edge in his voice to grow more noticeable with each succeeding reply.  Not that it seemed to do any good, but he could dream.  "We're about 5 minutes closer than the last time you asked, which was, gee, five minutes ago.  But no, we're not there yet."

"Jeeze, bite my head off, will you," Faith grumbled, sinking back down to sulk in the corner of the convertible's wide rear bench seat.

"I'm sorry, Faith, but..."

"Find a new question and maybe he won't growl again," Willow suggested over his instinctive apology.  She didn't bother to turn and see how well Faith took her advice; she was under no illusions that the slayer was any more housebroken than she'd ever been.

"I didn't growl," Angel growled.

"Hey, not all of us are looking forward to get back to hellmouth sweet hellmouth, you know.  Some of us want to know when to start being..."

"A bitch?" Willow asked, innocence all but dripping from her voice.  "Too late."

"Listen Sabrina," Faith warned, leaning forward over the tall back of the front seat.  "If you want to start..."

"Faith," Angel said sharply.

"Something you can't finish," Willow countered airily.

"Willow." 

"Oh sweetie, don't make promises you can't keep."  Faith's voice dropped to a low purr.  "I've learned things you've never even dreamed...or maybe you have."

"Okay," Angel broke in hastily.  "That's about as far as I want that line of conversation to go."  He glanced over his shoulder.  "Not in front of Fred," he reminded Faith, nodding his head at the young brunette huddled in the opposite corner of the back seat.

"I don't mind," Fred assured him.  "I think dream interpretation is fascinating.  Unless of course you're looking at them from a Freudian perspective, in which case everything relates to sex.  That can get a little tiresome," she admitted.

Faith sighed noisily, but slid back into her own corner of the car without further comment.  Fred really didn't need any more encouragement and, more importantly, when Angel got that certain tone in his voice, even a slayer knew better than push his buttons.

"I don't understand why you wanted them both in the same car, Angel.  You know they don't get along; it was just asking for trouble." 

Slayers knew, but apparently Seers thought they had all sorts of button-pushing privileges.  Luckily for Cordelia, though, she couldn't reach past her abdomen to score a direct hit.

"I'm sorry the car is so crowded, Cordy," Angel answered.  He glanced at her in the rearview mirror, forcing a half-hearted smile.  "Do you need us to make another stop so you can get out and stretch?" 

After just a few days of Cordelia's attitude, Faith would have welcomed the chance to knock the Seer down a few pegs...or perhaps a staircase.  Still, she wasn't surprised that Angel tried to shrug it off; since the moment Cordy had announced her pregnancy he had been writing her lack of sensitivity off to hormones, though Faith tried to tell him that by that argument she must have been born pregnant.  This was Angel, though, and Faith knew he would be supportive even if it killed him.

Which, unfortunately for Angel, it would not.

"I'm fine," Cordelia answered sharply, disrupting Faith's thoughts.  "I wish everyone would stop treating me like a three-year-old with a hand grenade."  A moment later the Seer regretted her indulgence as she watched the commiserating glances slide from one person to the other.  "I just don't understand why everyone had to come along, like it's a field trip or something," she explained, trying to sound more puzzled than peeved. 

"But we're a team," Fred answered.  She was bewildered by Cordy's attitude, Cordy who had always emphasized their need for unity.  "I know some things have happened lately," her eyes carefully avoided Cordelia's distended abdomen, "but we're still family, right?  We stick together no matter what."

"With the three of us jammed in this seat, I don't think we have any option but to stick together," Faith said, wriggling in her small corner of the car.

"Yeah, in what universe is it considered a good idea to pack so many of us in one car?" Cordelia asked Angel.  "Couldn't someone," she sneaked a sidelong look at Faith, "have gone with the guys?  You know; if she absolutely, positively had to come with us."

"Who?" Willow asked practically.  She turned around in her seat again to smile at Cordelia.  She too was making an effort to bow to Mother Nature, though not quite so low as Angel.  "You needed the shock absorbers in Angel's car, Fred didn't want to go with Gunn and Wesley in the same car and..."

"And Faith and Willow are here as insurance," Angel finished heavily. 

"No we're not," Faith and Willow protested at the same time.  They shared a quick surprised look, and then Willow continued their mutual thought.  "Angel, you're fine.  Angelus is gone, and he can't get out again.  Ever."  She pursed her lips for an instant and then amended her comment.  "At least, if you get your booster incantation every six months or so he can't.  That sanctuary spell works, I promise."

"And hey, third time's a charm, right?" Faith offered. 

"Actually that's not always..." Willow began.

"Willow," Angel said, too absorbed in his own troubled thoughts to realize he was interrupting her.  "I appreciate how hard you and Lorne worked on that spell; I really do."  He darted a quick glance at her, hoping to telegraph his sincerity with his eyes as well as his words.  "It's not that I don't trust it, or you.  But every time Angelus gets out...it just takes a while before I can really feel...secure...again." 

"Hey Angel, if anyone gets that, I do."  Faith leaned forward again, resting her hand lightly on his broad shoulder.  "But we're here to help you, and knowing it can never happen again has just got to make things a little easier, doesn't it?  I know I'd like that kind of guarantee."

"Wouldn't we all?"  Cordelia flashed a sugary sweet smile at the slayer.  "Tell me again why we didn't just drop you off at some nice state pen on the way to Sunnydale?"

"And again with the territory we've already covered," Angel said under his breath.  In a louder, but deliberately mild tone, he continued, "Until we can find a spell that will let us break her back into prison without anyone remembering she was gone, we're keeping her with us.  She doesn't deserve to be punished for saving the world from Angelus."

"She had help, you know." 

"You could help me too, Glinda," Faith suggested.  She ignored Cordelia's snort of protest; she knew perfectly well Willow wasn't the one the Seer had been referring to, but it was always fun to yank her chain.  "If you're so all powerful and all, should be a piece of cake to make people forget my bright and shining face wasn't under their noses the whole time."

Willow smiled serenely at Faith, reminding herself that this was only a temporary alliance.  Soon Faith would become Angel's problem again, not hers.  Or possibly the world would end.  Either way she wouldn't have to make nice for long.

"You have no idea what kind of power I can access, Faith.  But I'm not manipulating peoples' minds just for you.  Sorry."  She glanced anxiously at Angel, suddenly concerned he would be hurt by her refusal.  Faith's dubiously sensitive feelings were one thing, but Angel did matter to her.  "I really am sorry, Angel.  It's just too dangerous."

"We'll figure something out, Faith," Angel promised.  "I owe you a lot more than that."

The slayer smiled at him in the mirror, or at least she smiled at where he should have been in the mirror.  Every time he spoke in that reassuring 'big brother' tone she whispered another silent thanks that she could no longer hear any trace of Angelus in his voice. 

"Relax, big guy.  We're just working our way towards even, but it's a long road."

"Welcome to Sunnydale."

"That about says it," Angel agreed ruefully.  "Even I won't live long enough to feel like I've broke even here."

"No, the sign," Fred explained, pointing out the back window.  "It said: 'Welcome to Sunnydale'."

"We're home," Cordelia said softly, rubbing her swollen abdomen.

"Home," Willow echoed, thinking of all that lay ahead of them in Sunnydale.  Betrayals, machinations, ugly confrontations and almost certainly bloodshed.  And then they had to deal with The First.

"Umm, Angel," the witch began hesitantly, "before we actually get to Buffy's house, there's some things I probably ought to warn you about." 

"Things?"

She bit her lip.  Buffy was going to kill her for interfering; she knew that.  It didn't matter that it was for the Slayer's own good, or even that it was ultimately for the good of the world.  It only mattered that Willow had taken a step away from Buffy's largely unshared plan, and broken a major rule of the girl code at the same time, by asking her friend's ex for help.  And if she wanted to prevent open demon warfare in the living room, privacy was also a dead, or rather undead, issue. 

The only question now was what she wanted to be the first sin listed in her Crimes Against the Sisterhood. 

"Yeah," she answered, decision made.  "Things like...Spike.  And Buffy.  Which is to say Spike and Buffy."

* * * * *

"You're not going to sit here all night again waiting for a phone call from the witch, are you?"

Buffy glanced up from the magazine she was pretending to read.  Spike was standing before her dressed for patrol and practically vibrating with impatience.

"I didn't sit here all night last night," she said carefully.  "I just happened to go out on my own, after you'd left."  The same way she'd planned to patrol tonight if she could slip away, though her odds weren't looking so good at the moment.

A scowl flickered across the vampire's face, an expression so fleeting that once she might have not even noticed it.

"What'd you want to do that for?" he asked, both tone and lower lip now demonstrating the faintest of pouts.  "You know you shouldn't go out on your own, what with The First being out and about too.  You need me with you, to protect you."

She knew she shouldn't, but the words sprang out of her mouth before she could stop them.  "Protect me?"

"The only thing Buffy really needs to be protected from is you."  Xander stalked into the living room.  "And I do mean 'thing'."

"Xander," Buffy sighed, preparing for battle once again.  Any further protests, however, were wiped out by the sound of the front door opening.  All of the resident slayers-in-training were upstairs, Giles was on the road gathering more, Dawn was staying (against Buffy's better judgment) at a friend's house for the night, Anya had gone home and Andrew never left the house.   Xander and Spike, of course, were in the living room with her, which left...

"Willow?"

"Hey," Willow called out in return.  "I'm home.  And, umm..."

She stepped into the living room just as Buffy and Xander were trying to meet her in the foyer, causing a collision in the archway.

"I've brought guests," Willow finished weakly, wincing as she saw Buffy staring up at Angel in bemusement from the unexpected shelter of his arms.

"Buffy." 

It took all his strength, but Angel moved his hands from his back to her arms and gently pushed her away from him. 

"It's good to see you." 

Despite his polite words his eyes were very dark and shuttered, revealing nothing of his true feelings about being there.  It wasn't hard to mask what he wasn't even sure of himself.

"Angel," Buffy breathed in return.  It was always hard seeing him again, especially unexpectedly, and these days she deserved extra style points if she could acknowledge the effect he still had on her without calling attention to it.  "It's, umm, surprising to see you.  Not bad surprise type of surprise, but..."

"No, that would be Faith," Xander said flatly, stepping away from the dark-haired slayer he had crashed into.  "Aren't you supposed to be busy carving a forklift out of a soup spoon or something these days?"

She smiled slowly at him as she drawled, "I never was much good in shop class."

Buffy suddenly became aware of her old nemesis' presence, as well as the company she was keeping.  She could feel her spine straightening as every muscle poised for attack, though she didn't allow herself to question what they would really be fighting for.

"The 'class' part is probably what tripped you up, Faith."

Angel closed his eyes and rubbed his thumb and forefinger fretfully over his brow.  "And so it begins," he murmured to no one in particular.

"Well, well.  Isn't this the cozy little homecoming?" 

Spike's voice was sharp, and very close to Buffy.  Angel opened his eyes to find his childe standing directly behind the Slayer, one hand possessively clenching her shoulder.

"Nice of you to drop in on me and the missus, but you really should have called first."

"Spike," Buffy said quickly, "not now."  She chewed on her lower lip, trying to find a way to soften the meaning of Spike's words without arousing his jealousy.  Unfortunately, nothing was springing to mind.

"I'll be damned," Faith said, sounding almost as stunned as Angel felt.  "Little Wendy the Witch was right."  Without conscious thought, the dark-haired slayer moved closer to Angel in a show of solidarity.

"Red been singing my praises to strangers now?"

Faith's brow wrinkled in confusion.  "Oh we're hardly strangers, Bleach Boy."  Suddenly she realized why he didn't remember her, and she felt a flash of pity for the girl she'd always envied.  "But better men than you have made the same mistake."

Buffy felt events spinning rapidly out of her control, a situation she could no longer tolerate.  "What is going on here?" she snapped at Willow.  "You disappear for four days without a word and then you come back with Angel and Faith in tow?  What were you thinking?"

"I went to LA," Willow began.

"May I say the 'duh' here, or do you want the honors, Buff?"  Xander leaned against the archway and crossed his arms over his chest, trying to appear casual as he awaited Willow's explanation.  He was an adult now, and Angel wasn't the only one who could play Mr. Cool these days, even if he did have the best body temp for it.

"They...needed me," Willow said evasively, stealing a quick glance at Angel's guarded face.  "They needed my help and then after I helped them I thought maybe they could help us.  You know, with The First.  And they all agreed, so..."

"All?" Buffy asked quickly, looking from Angel to Faith in confusion.  Two hardly seemed like an 'all' to her.

"All," Angel agreed quietly, nodding at Faith. 

The slayer moved quickly to the front door and opened it up, raising her finger to her lips to form a shrill whistle.  She started to turn back to the living room, the faintest trace of her old mocking smile on her lips, when a pounding sound on the staircase made her snap her head in that direction.

* * * * *

Faith stared at the eight girls crowding into the hallway, her mind telling her she knew none of them, while her slayer senses were tingling with a half-remembered feeling.

"What's up, B?  Running a boarding house to make ends meet?  Or wait, this is California; is it a commune?"

"Faith, meet your successors."  Buffy waved a hand at the girls.  "Girls, this is Faith, the, umm, other Slayer."

"Gee, thanks for the intro."  She held up her thumb and forefinger, the tips poised just millimeters apart.  "Little short on the warm, but definitely fuzzy."

Buffy smiled sourly at Faith; now was no time to indulge anyone's finer feelings, least of all Faith's.  "Assuming they all survive the battle with the First, these girls will be the ones to take over after you and I figure out ways to die and stay that way."

"No shit?"  Faith looked inexplicably pleased.  "I'll be damned – I crashed a family reunion."

"Just part of one."  Buffy glanced up the empty staircase.  "The rest of them must be asleep already."

"I love it," Faith crowed.  "Buffy the Vampire Slaying Den Mother.  Joyce must be so proud."  Her face changed the instant the words left her mouth, even before she saw the blow reflected in Buffy's wide hazel eyes.  "Oh god, B, I'm sorry.  I forgot your about mom...you know, that she was..."

"Dead?" Buffy said flatly.

Though Faith's last encounter with Joyce had been fairly antagonistic, what with all the bondage and threats of violence, deep down the slayer had actually liked Buffy's mother.  When Angel told her that Joyce had died, Faith was surprised to find herself trying to remember prayers her own mother had beaten out of her years before.

"I am so sorry," she repeated.

"Sounds more like jealousy to me, pet," Spike purred.  Faith might have been a stranger to him, but he knew her well from what the others had let slip, and he knew what buttons to push.  "Not every mum would rather cut off her hand than have the likes of you hanging off it."

"Spike, that's enough!"

The vampire was startled, and then angry, when he realized the censure had come in stereo, and from the two people he least wanted on the same wavelength.  But before he could frame a blistering retort to his sire that ignored Buffy's participation in the reprimand, Kennedy had joined in the apparent 'let's humiliate Spike because he's here' conspiracy.

She had broken free from the SIT pack in the hallway to greet her girlfriend, passing by the strange slayer without a second glance.  But she could not ignore the call of her blood so easily.

"Who's he?"  Kennedy jerked her head at Angel as she skidded to a halt just before she reached Willow's side.  "I'm getting a feeling," her forehead wrinkled, "...he's a vampire."

"Another one?" Annabelle backed up a few steps closer to the stairs and peered at Angel in confusion.  This house seemed to have more resident vampires than the cemetery.

Molly appealed to Willow as the voice of reason in tumultuous times.  "Does she invite them all home instead of killing them?"

"Or is it only the guys?" Rona guessed.  "Because...and pardon me for pointing this out...that's just sad."

Xander was seriously enjoying the sight of Spike's teeth tearing at his own skin for a change; in fact he was having so much fun that if he were Angel he'd be really worried about the state of his soul by now. 

"Ladies, ladies; this isn't just a vampire."  He smiled broadly at Spike, though he waved his hand in Angel's direction.  "This is the vampire.  Buffy's vampire."

"Oh," breathed Annabelle, moving a little closer to the action again.  "So this is Angel." 

"We've heard all about you," Amanda explained, thinking of Dawn's countless stories of her big sister's ill-fated romance.

"Not quite all," Kennedy corrected, as she looked Angel up and down.  Giving a final nod of approval when she was done, she added, "But this explains a lot."

"You should feel flattered."  Rona waved her index finger at the vampire.  "Cause you are so not her type."

Xander broke out in open laughter at that point, though it quickly became a choking gasp for air as Wesley ushered Cordelia through the front door.

"Good evening all," Wesley said formally, stepping back to allow the rest of the A.I. team filtered in the doorway.  "Sorry to drop in unannounced."

* * * * *

Buffy stared as stranger after stranger trooped into her house.  From what Angel had told her the last time he was in Sunnydale, she knew the young black man must be Gunn.  And the green-skinned demon had to be the Lorne Willow mentioned after her first trip to LA two years ago.  And the girl with the brown hair must be Fred; Willow had mentioned her too.  But the teenage boy was completely unfamiliar, and as for the other two...Buffy could no longer claim to know them either, so much had they changed.

Even if Wesley hadn't been sent to replace Giles, and even if he hadn't been a stuffed shirt in the best Quentin Travers tradition, Buffy still would have had a problem seeing him as "a guy" when they first met.  His position as her Watcher automatically placed him somewhere between teachers and parents on the list of people who thought they had the right to tell her what to do...like that was ever a turn on. 

But this Wesley, this scruffy, slightly dangerous looking man was a world away from the gangly bundle of nerves that she remembered.  This was a Wesley who might have actually given Angel a run for his money in her wayward youth.

Well, okay, so probably not, she silently admitted a moment later, but at least he would have shown up on the radar.

"Holy hormones, Batman," Xander yelped, interrupting her bemused inventory of the new and improved Mr. Wyndham-Pryce. 

Showing up on radar would not be a problem for Cordelia, Buffy reflected guiltily when she saw what, or rather who, had prompted Xander's comment.  Finding a radar screen to fit the former Queen C, on the other hand...now that would be a challenge. 

"Okay, either Cordy finally found a sugar daddy who's actually made of sugar, or she's pregnant."  Xander pointed in amazement at his ex-girlfriend's distended abdomen.  "How did that happen?"

Forget 'how;' Buffy wanted to know 'when.'   She barely had time to shower these days; how did Cordy manage to fit sex into the schedule?  Then, surveying Wesley, the young man she assumed to be Gunn, the strange boy, and the green-skinned demon, the word 'who' suddenly blotted out all other logistical questions.

"I just knew you weren't paying attention to anything but Buffy's legs in Biology, Harris."  Cordelia moved slowly towards the living room, searching for a place to sit down.  "Though I'm still not sure how you could tell them apart from the frog's."

"Meow," Kennedy murmured into Willow's ear.

"You have no idea," Willow whispered back.

Xander tried to recover his equilibrium in the face of Cordelia's stomach.  "So who's the poor son of a...lucky dog who's out buying cigars?"

"We don't know exact..." Angel began, but Connor interrupted him before he could finish.

"It's my child."  He eyed his father defiantly, daring him to object.

"Connor," his father sighed, right on cue, "we've been over this.  There's no way it could be yours, at least not if it's...human.  There hasn't been enough time."

"Do you really think I'd believe you over Cordy?"  Connor turned his back on Angel, making a great show of helping Cordelia to sit down on the sofa.

"Did I actually need to know this kid's name?" Xander asked Willow.  "Cause I'm guessing Angel's not going to let him live long anyway."

"This is Connor," Angel said, allowing only the slightest hesitation to show in his voice.  But his eyes, locked on Buffy's, were a completely different story.  "He's my son."

* * * * *

"Your son?"  Buffy stared blankly at Angel as two words never meant to coexist arranged and rearranged themselves in her head.  "As in 'Buffy, you know that vampires can't...'?  That kind of son?"

She wasn't going to hit him.  Even if it would feel really, really good to knock that guilty look out of his eyes and right down his throat, she wasn't going to hit him.

Yet.

"Connor, this is Buffy.  Buffy Summers," Angel said hastily.  "And Xander Harris...and I'm afraid I don't know any of these girls, but..."

"Angel's gonna be a grandpa?" 

Xander couldn't help his outburst, or the laugh rising in his throat.  The latter died a quick death, however, under the combined glares of Buffy and Angel.  Suddenly he found himself wishing Andrew still had that ray gun that made the target invisible.

Willow, as always, tried to spread oil on the troubled waters, if only to save Xander from himself.  "Umm, guys," she said, turning to the SITs, "these are some friends of Angel's...and, well, we know some of them too.  Like Wesley...he used to be Buffy's Watcher for a little..."

Buffy had no use for the social amenities at the moment; her sole focus was Angel, the Angel she thought she knew.  "You've had a son the whole time I've known you and yet you..."  she stopped, unable to continue until her voice came down to a range more than just dogs could hear.

"No; Connor was only born about a year ago."  Angel raised his hand in the air, knowing his audience well.  "And the first one who says he's big for his age won't have to worry about aging much more themselves." 

"Touchy," Xander murmured.

"He was raised in a hell dimen...you see there's this prophe...it's a long story."  Angel gave it up before he got in too deep.  "Sometime, when we're alone," he made a point of looking straight at Buffy and ignoring the vampire standing directly behind her, "I'll explain it all to you."

"Oh don't bother."  She took a few more steps backward, not even noticing the way Spike's hand was digging into her shoulder in an effort to keep her still.  "It means nothing to me; why should it?" 

Her voice was too high and strained; even she could hear that.  She had to get control of herself before any more damage was done.  Too much depended on her playing her part, no matter what the fates, or Angel, threw at her.

"Buffy, I..."

His eyes, those damn dark, penetrating eyes that could look further down into her soul than she even knew there was to go...she had to get away from those eyes before she said something stupid and totally humiliated herself.

"Is she the one?" Connor broke in.  "The one who sent you to hell?"

Or someone else could do the humiliating for her; that was also a possibility.  Buffy shot Angel a dirty look, her eyebrows rising so high on her forehead they were in danger of disappearing into her hairline.  Angel flushed as best he could, given his limited circulation, and tried to cut his son off at the pass.

"Uh, Connor, not right..."

"Wesley said we were coming to help one of your old girlfriends," Connor continued over his father's strangled injunction, "and you said one of them sent you to hell for a hundred years.  So is this her?"

"You told him about that?" Buffy asked Angel in a biting whisper.

"It's not exactly a well-kept secret, Buffy."  Cordelia shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.  This pregnancy was going on way too long; the results had better be worth all the nuisance.  "Angelus was out of control so you sent him to hell.  Of course when we had the same problem, Wesley decided to send for Faith instead."  She sighed.  "I guess he figured one good apocalypse deserves another."

Given the complications of Angelus' return, and Angel's continuing memory loss for the same time frame, the A.I. team had all agreed before they left LA that the demon's name would not be dropped until after the Sunnydale situation was settled.  Faith could only assume Cordelia's hormones were misfiring again, causing the Seer a memory lapse of her own on a subject only discussed five, or possibly twelve, times in the past day.

"Speaking of the big 'bang, you're dead'," Faith said quickly in an effort to shift attention to things non-Angelus, "where were you guys when the lights went out?  I couldn't believe it when Wes said you didn't even check in when the sun checked out."

Buffy turned away so no one would see the dull red glow washing over her cheeks, or the misery in her eyes.  She had wanted to help, she had wanted to so badly it hurt, but she couldn't risk everything unless she knew she was really absolutely necessary; the stakes were too high.  If Angel had only called, she would have dropped everything...she was sure she would have.  But he hadn't, so she forced herself to watch an apocalypse long-distance, trusting him to take care of it.  Now it turned out Angel hadn't even been Angel, and Faith had been the one called to save both him and the universe.

"Hey, we avert an apocalypse every week," Xander protested, covering for the strange silence that had overtaken Buffy.  "Or at least it seems like it.  But nobody gets 'em all."

"Certainly not you, Xander."

"Love you too, Cor."  He caught the flash of jealousy in Connor's eyes.  "In a purely platonic sort of way."

"Platonic means you like her," Willow reminded him gently.

"Okay, so not platonic.  But nothing for him to run crying to Daddy about either." 

Buffy's back teeth were grinding slowly against each other as she fought for control of both herself and the situation.  "Can we go back to the part where Angelus got loose and you sent for..."  She changed tack abruptly as another thought pounded into her overwrought brain.  "Wait...how did Angelus get loose?"

"That is the question, isn't it, luv?" Spike mused.  "Papa Bear's soul doesn't head for the big bad woods without a little help." 

His remark sounded offhanded, but the eyes he focused on Buffy were narrow with suspicion. He couldn't help but notice the flush in her usually pale cheeks, and he didn't think it had much to do with the anger she should be feeling.

"We set him free," Wesley answered before Angel had a chance to, "with the help of a mystic.  He possessed information that we needed, knowledge to defeat a demon and avert the apocalypse.  We had no choice."

"There's always a choice," Buffy snapped, the charge directed more at herself than Wesley.

Angel smiled painfully at her.  "You know better than anyone that isn't true."

"I can't believe this."  Buffy threw her hands in the air, wishing she could be throwing them all out the door with the same gesture.  "You people are crazy enough to set Angelus free and think you can contain him...you don't even ask for my opinion, let alone my help...and then you think you're the number one answer to my demon problems?  What color is the sky in your world?"

"Black," Cordelia snapped.  "That was the problem.  God, Buffy, you see news reports about the sun being blotted out and you need an invitation to help?"  She shook her head in disbelief.  "You know we were going to skywrite one...but you need sunlight for that!"

"We didn't need her," Connor said with a sneer for the small blonde girl whom his father was watching so intently.  "Dad killed the..."

He stopped when he realized what he had inadvertently called his father, but Gunn jumped in with his own defense before Angel could recover from his surprise.

"Hey, we got things back under control," Gunn protested.  "Took a little doing, and some heavy hitting from the out-of-town ringers, but we managed."

"And now we want to help you," Fred added.  "Like Willow helped us."

Once more Willow became the focus of Buffy's frustration.  "I can't believe you didn't tell me what they'd done, Will.  How long did you know? "

Willow looked flustered, but her voice remained calm as she answered the unspoken charge.  "Not until just before I left.  Fred called and told me what was wrong, so I got my stuff together and took off."

"Without saying a word," Buffy added sharply.

"There wasn't time.  Angelus needed to be contained, and I didn't want to waste the time explaining why you shouldn't come along."

Buffy crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her heel impatiently.  "Tell me now."

The answer came from an unexpected source.

"I didn't want you there," said Angel quietly.  "I told the others before we began not to call you."

This was not the version Faith had heard, and she opened her mouth to add Wesley's reasoning for the choice of slayers; it gave her a warm glow to be considered the trustworthy one for a change.  But one look at Angel's set face kept Faith silent. 

Buffy, meanwhile, struggled to accept a rejection she should have welcomed.  Putting all her hurt and fear into one bewildered syllable, she asked, "Why?"

Angel met her eyes steadily, though inwardly he flinched at the pain he could see his words had inflicted.  "You already killed me once.  That was more than should ever have been asked of you."

"So very Angel."  Spike flashed what was intended to be a mocking grin, but came out more as a grimace.  "Always thinking of others."

"Could someone be thinking of me for a change?" Cordelia complained.  "I really could use a bathroom, and a bed for the night."  She rubbed her abdomen, taking care to catch Connor's eye and draw it down to follow her movements. 

Angel moved abruptly, backing up towards the door.  "We'll be at the mansion tonight."  He glanced around the living room and hallway, both overflowing with people.  "It looks like you're already filled to capacity here."

"And then some," Xander agreed.  "You have no idea what the line for the bathroom is like in the morning."

"The mansion?" Cordelia asked incredulously.  "As in that oversized pile of Art Deco rubble Angelus called a home?  What about electricity and running water?"

"They're still turned on.  So is the fridge, and there are plenty of blankets and things to make up the bedrooms.  It may be a little dusty, but it's habitable." 

Angel was a little hurt by her lack of faith in his plans, and more than a little embarrassed to admit he had been spending money keeping up a place he no longer lived in.  He'd had his reasons, but they were nothing he wanted to discuss or defend at the moment.

Reason number one blanched as Angel's words sunk in.  The mansion; they were going to the mansion.  They were going to the mansion before she had time to clean things up.

"Umm, tell you what," Buffy said quickly.  "You can all stay here for a little while and Cordelia can get some rest after the long car trip.  And you can, you know, get some food and stretch and all that stuff."  She slipped past Angel in the foyer and reached for the knob on the front door as she continued to babble nervously.  "I'm just going to run out and get some...food.  For breakfast.  You can all come to breakfast tomorrow, right?"

"I'm thinking 'no' for Flambe Boy," Xander suggested.

"Oh yeah, good point," Buffy agreed breathlessly, not even really hearing Xander's comment.  "Well, I'll just be going now."

Angel frowned at the anxious tone in her voice.  He hadn't seen her in a very long time, but he would swear he could still tell when she was hiding something from him.

"Buffy, wait," he said, decision made.  "I'll come with..."

He was speaking to a closed door.

* * * * *

Buffy hurried down the front steps and up the walkway towards the street, moving as quickly as she dared without actually running.  They would hear running, at least the ones with super-powers would, and they would be suspicious.  She couldn't afford that over something so simple.

"Buffy, wait."

She swallowed a groan as she heard Angel's voice coming from the porch.  Why couldn't he have just stayed in LA?  He was safe there, relatively speaking, and she was safer here with him there.  But no, he had to come charging in on his white...ish black convertible...and save the day, whether she wanted him to or not.

"Angel," she sighed, turning around at the end of the walkway, "go inside; stay with your friends.  I'll be right back."

"Back from where?" he asked as he hurried down the steps.  "Not the store; I could tell that was a lie."

She placed a hand on each hip and glared at him, regretting the moonlight because it hid her expression from him.  And his from her.

"Aren't you sweet, driving two hours just to call me a liar.  But considering the price of gasoline, shouldn't you have just said it with flowers?"

He was standing beside her, alone in the moonlight, and all he wanted was to reach out and catch the stray lock of blonde hair that was drifting across her forehead.  Instead he clenched his hands into fists and hid them behind his coat, hoping he could keep them there.

"You can't lie to me any better than I could ever lie to you.  I won't say we haven't tried," he shrugged, "but no dice."

Buffy blew an impatient sigh between her teeth.  It was no use to lie to him; he was right about that.  But if she gave up her dignity and confessed to this one small weakness, there was a chance she could keep the rest of her secrets to herself and still get them all out alive.

"Fine.  You want to know the awful truth, I'll tell you.  I'm going to the mansion to get some stuff."

"Stuff?"

"My stuff," she explained.  "I've...been, umm, keeping some things there."  She kept her face carefully turned away from his; even in this light she was sure her cheeks must be as bright as Rudolph's nose.  "It gets a little crowded here sometimes...most of the time...and I figured you wouldn't mind if I used your place as sort of a retreat.  I mean you said..."

"No, I," he cleared his throat, "I don't mind.  That's why I, well, that's why I left things like the electricity on."

"I just didn't want anyone...any of the others...to see," she added.  Emboldened by Angel's lost composure, she allowed herself to face him again.  "It's kind of my secret getaway, and I thought if they knew they'd tell the others, like Xander or Willow or...it just wouldn't be the same if they knew."

"Buffy, it's okay; I understand.  But you don't need to get your things out of there.  You can put them in my old room.  There's a chest...you remember that old wooden I kept the extra blankets...you, uh, know the one I mean."

She nodded, working as hard as he to keep the memories at bay.  The nights they curled up together under those blankets for a post-patrol catnap.  The chill winter afternoons they sprawled out on them in front of the fire, Angel pretending to read as she pretended to study.  If she could truly forget any of those moments, she wouldn't need to go to the mansion in the first place.

"Anyway, whatever doesn't fit in the chest you can just pile up in the corners; I'll make sure to keep everyone out.  I can even stay in another room myself if you want."

"No," she said quickly.  "That's okay.  I mean it's perfect.  You stay in the room and I'll move my stuff in there right now.  It won't take long; a lot of it is already...umm, it won't take long," she promised.

"Take however long you need.  I'll keep them busy until you get back."

He turned to walk back to the house, fighting the urge to go with her.  She didn't want his company for this errand; that much was clear.  If he forced the issue he would only drive her deeper into herself; he had to take things slowly even though every nerve in his body screamed in protest.

"Angel, wait."

He turned around quickly, hoping she would ask for his company.  They had so much to talk about, and all too soon the fight with the First Evil would have to take precedence over everything.  Tonight might be all they had.

"Please go back to LA."  Even by the fickle light of the moon Buffy could see the shock on Angel's pale face, and the hurt, but it only made her spit the rest out faster.  "Don't stay here.  Tonight, that's fine, but tomorrow night you should go home."

Home.  She had once thought of Sunnydale as his home and begged him not to leave; now she couldn't seem to wait to get rid of him.  Angel reminded himself it had been his choice to leave; he tried to put aside the pain her rejection inflicted because he had, in a sense, earned it.  But despite his silent self-chastising, a little tang of bitterness still crept into his reply. 

"What's wrong?  Afraid the town isn't big enough for both me and your newest boy toy?"

She was caught; trapped between a lie that would hurt him and a truth that could get him...all of them...killed.  Again, she had to settle for a partial truth to divert attention.

"I'm afraid of the First," she confessed.  "What it will do to you.  The last time it was here, you were the target.  It wanted Angelus free or you dead, and I can't let either of those things happen."

"It won't free Angelus; it can't.  And I'm not about to let it kill me either."

She didn't even hear him promise Angelus' absence; her attention was caught in the past, on a hilltop one Christmas morning just before dawn.  She'd almost lost him that day; she would have lost him if his vaunted PTB's hadn't intervened.  But she couldn't count on them helping anymore; she couldn't count on anyone anymore.  Everything...Angel, her friends, the SITs, the whole world...was in her hands, and hers alone.

"You might not have a choice, except for this one.  Leave, while there's still time."  Her voice dropped to a whisper.  "Be safe."

"With you here...all of you...still fighting?  You really expect me to put saving my own skin first?"

"I want you to."

He shook his head.  "I can't.  Not even for you."

"Dammit, Angel!"

"No."

It was no use; she'd known that from the start.  It was part of the reason she never sent for him, even the times it felt like the First would indeed win.  If she never told him about the fight, she wouldn't have to deal with whether or not she should accept his help.  And then at least he would be safe; at least one person she loved would be safe.  Except now he wouldn't be, because there was no way to undo what Willow had set in motion when she told him about the First.

From here on out, it was strictly damage control.

"Fine," she snapped.  "Stay.  Die.  Just don't come crying to me about it afterwards."

He smiled at her; the old, sad, half-smile that never failed to tear off a piece of her heart.  "I'll try to remember that."

She spun on her heel and stalked off, not bothering to see if he went inside.  Of course he would go inside, to his friends and his family.  To her friends and family.  Let them all enjoy each other's company for as long as they could; that was why she was here after all.  To make sure everyone else got a life.

* * * * *

Angel moved slowly up the paved walkway, lost in his thoughts.  He had known this would be a difficult trip, given all the different personalities forced to coexist and cooperate.  And the distance he and Buffy had allowed to grow between them, a distance that precluded his knowledge of her relationship with Spike and her knowledge of Connor's existence, was only making things more difficult.

It wasn't that Buffy had been unwelcoming that surprised him; he hadn't exactly been the soul of understanding himself when she'd butted into his life and lectured him about Faith a few years ago.  And he didn't blame her for being angry about Connor; the day she had a child with another man was the day he'd find a shrink who took vampire patients.  It wasn't even the way she'd snapped at her friends that disturbed him, because he'd done the same thing himself in the past, out of pain and fear.  That was actually what bothered him – the pain and fear he sensed beneath her rather chill exterior. 

He had been prepared for Buffy to be cold and distant; at least that's what he'd told himself.  She had been very much so the last time he'd seen her, in that little cottage by the shore, and her life since then had left little time for healing. But no matter how many times he'd told himself to expect the worst, he'd never believed it was true.  She was always the strong one; he couldn't imagine a Buffy who let herself remain trapped in bitterness and regret.  Her place was in the sunlight, and he'd never really doubted that she would find her way there eventually.

Instead it seemed the place she'd found was one far removed from those she loved, and she kept them away with the same cold determination she'd used against him the last time he saw her.  And when the mask slipped, somehow it only made things worse.  The loneliness, and abject fear of loneliness, that he saw in her eyes broke his heart all over again.

"She's over you, you know."

Angel's head snapped up, his keen eyes discerning Spike's lounging shape in the shadowy recesses of the porch.

"Oh she may get a bit flustered around you," the blond vampire drawled as he came out into full view, "but that's just because she doesn't want to get into the old can of worms with an apocalypse just around the corner.  I'm the one for her, the only one she needs, and she knows it."

"Does she?  Didn't sound like it to me."  Angel stopped in his tracks, before he got close enough to break Spike's neck.  "I'm the one she's trying to get out of harm's way, not you.  I'm thinking you're just cannon fodder."

Spike shoved down the mocking voice in his head that had been expressing the same thought since the moment he'd heard her beg Angel to go back to LA.  "She needs me," he said stoutly.  "I'm the one she can depend on; I'm the one she trusts with her life.  You're just dead weight, mate."

"Spike, Spike.  Still with the delusions of competence."  Angel shook his head, feigning a pity he couldn't begin to feel.  "Dru might have needed a keeper, but not even she was crazy enough to trust you."

"Just ask her so-called friends," Spike boasted.  Here at least he felt secure in his argument.  "Every time they've tried to make her choose between them and me, she's picked me.  Sooner or later you'll try to, and then you'll see.  She picks me every time, because I'm the only one she needs."

Angel forced his jaw to unclench, forced his hands to stay flat and not curl into fists, forced his voice to be calm.  It wasn't nearly as satisfying as forcing a section of the porch railing through Spike's scrawny chest, but he had no choice.  His hands were tied until he got a better idea from Buffy just what the hell was going on between her and his unruly childe.

"You know how it is in a time of crisis, Spike.  Every now and then you need to let your hair down and have a good laugh."  He smiled grimly.  "I know I've always thought of you as a big joke."

"Then do me a favor mate and die laughing."

"You first."

One of them had to move, Spike realized; they couldn't still be standing there squabbling like schoolboys when Buffy returned.  But even in the dim moonlight, he could see that his sire had no intention of walking away, physically or metaphorically.  Which in one way was perfect, since Spike wanted to be the one to go after Buffy.  One snag with that plan, however:  he didn't dare leave his sire alone with all the Scoobies. 

It's not like they were all about the Angel-worship, he reflected, especially Xander.  But even after all the things Spike had done for them, after all the times he'd saved their worthless necks without so much as a nibble, he knew they still trusted him even less than the guy who tried to send them all to hell.  More than likely the only reason Red had brought his sire here was to 'rescue' Buffy from him, like Spike would let that happen without a fight. 

So instead of chasing down his slayer, Spike opened the front door and slipped inside the house, leaving his sire brooding on the doorstep.  Trying to make himself look all deep and thoughtful, Spike silently jeered. Angel or Angelus, he was always the drama queen.

* * * * *

Buffy gathered her things quickly, piling them into the large wooden chest with more of an eye towards speed than order.  Most of them she didn't have far to move; she had left the majority of her creature comforts in the Great Hall and Angel's bedroom where she spent the most time.  Not that she still thought of it as Angel's room, of course; she had been careful from the beginning to discipline herself to say "the bedroom," as though it was now the only one instead of one of six.  But somehow tonight, having seen Angel again and now standing in the rooms where he had spent so much of his last year in Sunnydale, she couldn't separate him from these surroundings anymore.

Memories, it seemed, were nine-tenths of possession.

Mr. Gordo was settled into the sleeve of Angel's old leather jacket, and laid to rest over a box of carefully hoarded photographs and several small leather-bound journals.  Next to the box was a short stack of CDs, though she had left her old boombox on the dresser in case Angel wanted to play anything of his own.  She almost wished she could leave the CDs out too, to help him block out the noise of so many squabbling humans under the same roof.  But he'd always possessed an uncanny knack for gauging her mood by her musical tastes; he saw patterns even she didn't always pick up on until he mentioned them.  The collection she maintained at the mansion would be revealing in the extreme, and she couldn't afford to let him in even an inch.

The odds and ends of clothing she kept at the mansion she would pile on top, to cover everything.  If anyone did open the chest, they would think her clothes had been left there from years before; relicts of a time when her life and Angel's had crossed.  The few shirts he had left when he moved, she forced herself to leave in the closet.  She didn't want to look like she was hoarding his things...and she didn't want to destroy the faint scent that still clung to them.  She would just have to take her chances that he left them when he went back to LA.

Now she just needed to grab the books she had left next to the couch in front of the fireplace and slip them in the corners of the chest, and then she would be done.  No need to reveal that she still pored over her old college textbooks and imagined what her future might have been.  And there was certainly no reason to let anyone see the worn but well-loved book of sonnets Angel had given her for her eighteenth birthday, least of all Angel. 

A sound in the Great Hall caught her ears and she hurried out to investigate, after reaching deep into the chest to retrieve Mr. Pointy.  She dropped the hand that held Kendra's favorite stake to her side, however, when she realized who was standing by the empty fireplace.

"Angel," she said flatly.

* * * * *

To Be Continued