Author's Note - THANK YOU to everyone who took the time to leave me feedback. Hope you enjoy the last chapter and thanks for your input. It makes it all worth while.

CHAPTER NINE

And he said, Let me tell you a secret about a father's love,

A secret that my daddy said was just between us.

He said, Daddies don't just love their children every now and then.

It's a love without end, amen, it's a love without end, amen.

Love Without End, Amen - George Strait

"So what are you going to do with a son?"

I glanced over at Buffy with a smirk. "Isn't that the big question?"

She had surprised me by showing up in Florida a week after Giles and Willow had left, taking Gunn and Fred with them back to Pittsburgh. My friends and I had stayed in the Everglades for a few days, letting Connor recover his strength. It took longer than I would have guessed, based on how quickly I've seen him heal before. He spent the time under the watchful eye of Josephine Billie and he seemed to enjoy her company.

Giles had convinced the Pittsburgh Watchers' Council to imprison Gunn and they were working on helping him. Fred had stayed on to help puzzle out a solution. Giles called me and said he was going to fly into Miami, too fascinated by the idea of living vampiric offspring to stay away. I suggested he change that to Orlando and we'd go north just in case Wolfram and Hart decided to make another attack on us.

A week had passed, attack free. Maybe the loss of Gunn proved to Wolfram and Hart continually sending out things to kill us was too costly. I was sure they hadn't given up but they might be getting more cautious.

Giles had made arrangements to meet with us before we headed to California. He said he would come from Orlando to hook up with us away from the city just in case we were still actively being hunted. Wes chose the Ocala National Forest to hide in. It was less populated and it had springs so Faith could do a little of the swimming in the sun like she wanted. It wasn't the beach but I felt that Connor and I could do without the bad memories that might stir up.

When Giles arrived in an RV, I was stunned to see the whole Scooby Gang had come with him. Buffy, Dawn, Xander and Willow, an unlikely bunch to be camping in the woods if ever I saw one. Willow was pouting about having to leave her new girlfriend behind to defend the Cleveland Hellmouth. Later, Faith confided to me her private feelings. To hear Faith call another woman a sexual predator was odd and the fact Kennedy managed to turn everyone against Buffy and throw her out of her own house was enough to make me want to forget I had a soul.

Buffy had been quiet for the first day, spending most of the time at Alexander Springs, relaxing in the sun. I didn't push her. She needed time to herself after all she had been through. Giles and Willow had told everyone about Connor. I could only imagine what Buffy was thinking about that. Today she joined me at the picnic table in the shade of the live oaks our RV's were encamped by. For a long time, we sat in silence. One could almost hear us thinking furiously about what we'd say. 'So what are you going to do with a son?' was the first thing she had said as we watched Dawn teaching Connor how to fly a kite in the open area beyond the isolated encampment. She was fighting with it, a butterfly with psychedelic coloring and a wingspan of seven feet. Some twenty feet of tail streamed behind it. Dawn leaned back hard, trying to keep it from crashing to ground. Connor took the kite from her. It was Monday and most of the other campers were long gone. Most of our friends were trying to start a campfire to make more s'mores and hamburgers in exactly that order.

"Were you ever going to tell me about him, Angel?" That sounded less like an accusation and more like weary acceptance.

"I was but there was never time." I held up my hand and her jaw clamped shut. A giggle from the clearing drew our attention. Faith and Dawn were busy trying to wrest the butterfly kite from Connor and were tickling him to accomplish that. I hadn't even known he was ticklish. "That's not an excuse, Buffy, just ugly reality. When he was a baby, I guarded Connor so jealously I wouldn't even let my friends hold him. I wanted to tell you but I had no idea how to say it and I had to worry about Wolfram and Hart kidnapping him or Holtz killing him. Those fears took up every waking moment."

"I can't imagine how you felt when Holtz did get him." Buffy took a swig of her IBC cream soda, looking uncomfortable.

"Thanks to Wes." I looked at the fire ring where Willow was shooing the men away from the wood, having failed to set it aflame. Willow did it with a quick word. Wes was avoiding me. He felt the guilt fresh and ugly now that the spell had reversed. He almost believed I had forgiven him. I nearly believed it myself. "And I got him back as an angry teenager but as I told Fred, I never truly got him back."

Buffy slipped out of her sandals, digging her big toe in the sugar sand. "Did he really try to kill you?"

"What he did was worse. He was out to punish me, believing beyond a doubt I deserved it." I gazed up into the sunset, a glorious splash of orange, pink and slate blue. Connor's kite, well now Dawn's, rose against it. "There are many who'd agree. I failed him so badly, Buffy. Why didn't it occur to me that the streets of L.A. could be deadly to a boy?"

"Oh, let me think." She rolled her eyes at me. "Because he was out to murder you?"

I shook my head. "I should have done better. I knew Holtz had poisoned his mind but I was so caught up in having him back, pretending I could just step back into his life forgetting that to him nearly two decades had passed, that I didn't hear what he was saying. Connor didn't want me to even so much as say Holtz's name. He wanted to be called Steven. And all I could do was tell him that Holtz wasn't his father, that he was a bad man and insist on calling him Connor. I should have gone more slowly." I scrubbed a hand through my hair. This was so hard, examining all my mistakes and confessing them. But Buffy was used to hearing me admit to my weaknesses. "Maybe then I could have seen how he was playing me. Maybe it wouldn't have gotten to that stage. And later, after I threw him out like so much trash, I could have tried harder to reach him. Instead my friends nearly convinced me he was in league with the Beast, that he was a murderous monster. Then the thing with Cordelia and all that...I threw her out, too. If I hadn't, maybe there would have never been a Jasmine, Cordelia wouldn't be comatose and Connor's mind wouldn't have snapped."

Buffy looked out to where he played with her sister, now back in control of the kite. "Is he sane now?"

I watched the kite snapping in the wind. "He's recovering. He seems pretty calm. I think he likes Dawn."

"Yeah." I knew Buffy well enough to know that meant she was nervous. Her eyes went sad. "Did you love Cordy, Angel?

I got up and paced in the shadows of the oaks. I couldn't be near Buffy when I was talking about this. "I care about Cordelia but I didn't think of her as more than a sister until Fred and Lorne started with the hearts and flowers." I hung my head. "I don't know what I was thinking. It's not like the curse has gone any where."

"Yeah, about that." Buffy looked at me. Good Lord, she needed to eat something. I could barely see the girl I had fallen hopelessly in love with in the harsh tight lines of her too-thin face. She was old beyond her years. "How is it you didn't lose your soul when it came to making him?" She stabbed a finger at Connor. Faith was now wrapped around his back, her hands over his on the kite strings.

I flashed a goofy, embarrassed grin, hunching my shoulders. "Turns out it's happiness that triggers the curse, not sex. So long as I'm not completely happy, I can have sex."

"But you didn't know that when you and Darla..." Buffy's agate eyes were cold.

I turned away from her. "No, and yes, it's what you think it was."

"Why were you trying to lose your soul?" Her words were like a threnody in my ears.

I leaned against a tree. "Wolfram and Hart, the firm that's after my son, were determined to turn me back into Angelus and they almost won."

Putting her shoes back on, Buffy got up and joined me under the live oak. "Do you think that maybe your knowing what's at risk if you're happy would keep you from happiness?"

She sounded almost hopeful or was that my imagination? I couldn't read her wan face. "Given the amount of worry I've got going on, I don't see a lot of happy in my future," I said. "Not that I'm thinking that you..."

"I know," she said quickly, a hint of blush on her cheeks.

"I'll be honest, right now the only thing I'm thinking of is helping him." I gestured at Connor who was now up a tree trying to free the butterfly kite from where Dawn had sailed it. "I can't let him lose his grip on his sanity. I want him to know what it means to have a family." I started pacing again. It was time to jump into the deep end. "I was thinking of doing something along those lines but I wasn't sure if it was a good idea. It could be dangerous to those around us and it might be imposing. And I didn't want you to think I hadn't been listening to you when we last spoke. I know you wanted time alone, time for you to do your own thing. I didn't want you to get the wrong idea."

Her eyes widened a bit as she matched my pacing. "You want to bring him to Cleveland."

I nodded. "The Hellmouth would be a good place to work out his aggressions. Dawn and some of your trainees are Connor's age. This is the first time he's ever been with someone his age. It'll do him good but I wanted to talk to you and Giles and all the others before making a decision."

"I think...it wouldn't be bad to have someone there for Dawn to hang with." Buffy cast a glance over at her sister. "She misses her friends and I think she feels left out when it comes to all the new Slayers. And I wouldn't mind you being there." She added that last almost reluctantly, as if she didn't trust herself or me.

"Thank you, Buffy," I said, halting under another oak.

"We're going to be on vacation for a while longer, Angel. You don't have to make a decision about it tonight."

I smiled, looking at her. Her eyes met mine and held. It felt like the night I gave her the amulet; it felt like old times. I could almost taste her. Her lips parted just a bit but before either of us could move a squirrel dropped an acorn square on my head. Buffy giggled then totally lost it. I started laughing, too. I went and sat back down.

"You have a good point, Buffy, about taking my time. I'm in no hurry. Connor seems to be enjoying Alexander Springs," I said, picking up a little tablet off the table, looking at the inscribed list.

Buffy looked at it, almost desperate to take her mind off what just nearly happened. "What's that?"

"My list of things to talk to Connor about. There is just so much he doesn't know. I don't want to forget anything."

"He had a kid of his own already," she said, sounding slightly disappointed. "You might want to put talk about condoms on that list."

I flipped it so she could see the tablet and tapped the number one entry, 'sex talk.' "Way ahead of you but I think I'm probably the wrong person to do this talk."

"Good point." Buffy stabbed a finger Connor's way as if to say, 'you should have worn one yourself.'

I looked at her sourly as Giles came out of the RV, a Harp ale in hand. "I was thinking of asking Giles."

"Ask me what?" He turned around, walking over to us.

"To explain condoms to Connor," Buffy said for me.

Giles took a swig of beer. "I've managed to avoid having to have the bloody big talk with any of Buffy's friends. I'm not going to start now. Some things a father has to do for himself."

"It's just that I'm not sure...I, uh...know," I hedged, thankful I couldn't blush.

"What's to know?" Buffy asked.

"I...well, back when I was human they were made of sheep intestines and you had to use ribbons to tie them around..." I looked away shoving my hands in my pockets. "The modern ones, I've had no use for being a vampire."

"Guess you were wrong about that," Buffy said. "And I'm sure you'll figure it out. It's not rocket science."

"It's a type of rocket science," Giles said, struggling against the grin that threatened to overtake his face. Buffy snickered.

"You two are no help, and you," I pointed at him, "Giles, have been hanging out with Xander for too long."

"You might want to put 'swim suits are a good thing' on there." Buffy tapped the list.

"Are you referring to this morning?" I asked. They had planned to go to the spring to swim and for the first time, Connor felt well enough to go. "Because I think all the screaming drove the point home."

"I saw your son naked, Angel." Buffy shuddered. "We all did."

"Be thankful you didn't decide to go down to the springs and use the change house," Giles said with a cheeky look. "Dawn did not need to see that." Buffy pouted.

"She didn't look disappointed," I said, regretting it even before Buffy slapped me playfully. "Fine, I'll get him a swim suit. He didn't know any better. I'm sure if he had to swim in Quor-Toth suits weren't an issue. I mean, it does sound stupid, an outfit just to get wet in. The last time I went swimming, bathing suits weren't even invented.

"Great, now I'm going to be picturing you skinny dipping," Buffy said then smiled. "But that's not so bad."

"Speak for yourself," Giles said as Xander bellowed, 'the s'mores are ready." "But I think Angel could be right, Dawn seems to like Connor."

"And he likes her but unfortunately it's Faith that has him...uh, interested," I said.

Buffy snorted. "That sex talk better happen tonight."

"Very funny."

"I'd better go rescue Wesley from the Willow-Xander in-joke marathon that seems to be going on," Giles said, pointing to where Wes sat looking bored. Lorne was talking to him, too, but Wes didn't appear overly interested.

"Oh, Giles, Angel has an idea he wants to talk to you about later, about maybe joining us in Cleveland for a little while."

"I thought it might be good for Connor," I put in.

Giles smiled. "I think there's a lot we could offer your son."

"I haven't mentioned it to Wes or Lorne yet," I said, thinking Giles would be a good stabilizing influence for Connor and I knew the man would enjoy more time studying my son.

"I'll leave that to you," Giles said.

"Thanks. Just so you know, Wolfram and Hart most likely haven't given up. We could be dangerous to you," I said.

Giles snorted. "You always have been but you've also been an invaluable help."

"Mad, bad and dangerous to know," I muttered.

Giles smiled. "I never thought to apply Lady Caroline Lamb's words to you but it fits," he said then headed back to the campfire.

"Huh?" Buffy wrinkled her nose at me. "Lamb described Lord Byron that way." I replied, thinking of some Byronic poetry I wouldn't mind sharing with Buffy. Neither she nor Cordy were the poetry type but it was always easier to sit Buffy down and have her listen to a reading. Cordy never could sit silently. "Someone recently said the same of me and Connor."

She shrugged. "Giles is kinda right about it fitting."

"I know. Buffy, are you sure you're okay with this?" I asked. "I've caused enough pain to everyone involved already. I don't want to cause you any more."

"Angel, I'm a big girl. You have to let me make my own decisions for once," she said and it hurt because she was right. There was so much fire in her eyes I couldn't meet them. "I said it was okay. I want you to be able to be a good father. I had a lousy one. I know how bad it can be. I...I don't want to think what Dawn and I might be like if not for Giles." Buffy's eyes went sad. I knew she had loved her dad but he had simply given up on his family. I couldn't understand that. How could he never show up, not even after Joyce died? I would do anything for my son. She took a deep breath. "Xander messed up his own wedding because he was so afraid of turning out a violent drunk like his dad and now Anya's dead and he can't ever make it up to her."

"Thank you, Buffy. I can't tell you what it means." I sighed. "I've been such a lousy father so far."

"I don't believe that." Her voice was like a whip and I winced.

I fought back tears. "It's true. And if I wasn't screwing up enough on my own, Connor had to meet Angelus. I left it up to him to kill Angelus if something went wrong. I shouldn't have done that. He didn't need to be in that position."

"But he didn't do it."

"He held back or was held back by a spell, by Faith. I don't want to think about it. You have no idea the things I said to him as Angelus."

"That wasn't your fault, Angel." She took my hand. Her's was so warm.

"Doesn't matter. How is he supposed to forget I told him that his own mother and the man he called father killed themselves just to get away from him," I said bitterly and her face lost what little color it had. "I mocked him, told him quote 'the first woman you ever boned was the closest thing you've ever had to a mother.' No wonder Cordelia managed to convince him I was out to kill him and their child. How does he get past that?" My body trembled with rage and self-loathing. Buffy squeezed my hand.

"He will," she said. "I got over the terrible things Angelus did to me. Giles, well maybe has never really forgiven you for killing Jenny, but he was able to work with you. I know that's not exactly the same, but if you give Connor time, it might be okay."

I shook my head. "You have no idea what he said to me. There is a darkness in him, Buffy. I won't lie to you about that. He reminds me a lot of Faith. That's why I wanted help in trying to nurture him or he'll wind up just like her. I can feel it."

She leaned her head on my shoulder. Those old time feelings flooded back to me. "What did he say to you?"

"He told me that Angelus was his real father and I know he believes that. He's not entirely wrong. I was trying to become Angelus when he was conceived." I sighed, shaking a bit. "But I can't blame all our problems on me letting the others talk me into becoming Angelus."

"Willow said it was a spell."

"They found a way to induce perfect happiness in a dream state," I said and her eyes canted up at me quizzically. I shouldn't tell her. I should just keep my mouth shut but I didn't. "I dreamt that Cordelia told Connor she loved me and he accepted it. He and I had made up, acted like a real team and then I got to love Cordelia." Buffy stiffened a bit against me. "But it wasn't her that sent me over the edge. It was you, thoughts of you, crying out your name...and I only wished I didn't remember the rest."

Buffy sat up straight. We looked at each other. Was she going to act as badly as I had when I learned about Spike? A strange expression fluttered across her face, peaceful and hopeful."You still have a chance to make it right for him."

I shut my eyes, thankful for having avoided yet another confrontation. "I hope so. He blamed me, Buffy, standing there ready to kill a room full of people and himself. He said I didn't hang onto him. He believed I tried to love him but it wasn't enough. 'You let him get me.' I felt like dying myself hearing that. You can't imagine that much pain, his, mine. I watched him crumble and there was nothing I could do."

"Second chances, Angel. We only get them once," she said. "Don't give up yet." She kissed me chastely, dangerously, then got up. "S'mores sound like a good idea."

I just nodded. To continue on like this would just hurt too much so I was glad to let it go. This was a vacation. I should simply let it be just that. A loud squeal of laughter brought my gaze to the campfire. Dawn and Faith were ganging up on Connor. "What are they doing to him?"

"Looks like smearing s'mores all over his face to me." Buffy headed that way, looking up at the sky. "It's dark."

And so it was. I followed her over and extricated my son from the girls. He had a dark smear of chocolate on his cheek. His blue eyes were trouble- free. Had I ever seen that before? "What happened?"

"He's being a boy," Faith said as if that explained anything. Well, it probably did.

"I have marshmallow in my hair," he said, holding up a matted lock as evidence.

"So I see. You have to keep in mind, Connor, girls don't fight fair," I said and Buffy pinched my side. I squirmed away. "See?"

Dawn wiped her sticky hands with a paper towel. "Go put the kite away. It's getting too dark."

He wrinkled his nose. "Too bad."

"Hey, no problem." Willow gestured and several foxfires attached themselves to trees. If anyone looked, they'd probably mistake it for camp lighting. The clearing glowed a bluish-white.

"So are we just going to hang out in a swamp all the time or are we gonna do something fun?" Xander asked.

"It's a forest," Giles and Wes said together. Xander rolled his eyes.

"Fun like what?" I asked.

"We're in Florida. I'm thinking Disney World," Xander replied, sitting heavily in one of the camp chairs.

"Ooo, I wanna do that," Dawn said, with a little bounce.

"What's Disney World?" Connor asked.

"You don't know what Disney is?" Dawn looked like she thought that was impossible.

Connor shook his head.

"It's an amusement park, you know. It has rides," she said.

His brow beetled. "I don't understand."

"Come on," Xander said. "Roller coasters, thrill rides, water flumes, you get the picture."

Connor's nose wrinkled. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Buffy took my arm. "Angel, your boy is obviously fun-deprived. You have to take him to Disney World."

"I have to what?" I stared at her.

"And us, too," she added with a grin. "And to Universal Studios."

I scowled at her. "And this will cost me what?" "Are you putting a price tag on quality time with your son?" Buffy tapped her foot. Her tone was light but not her expression.

"And you can come with us once it gets dark," Willow said.

"I was thinking of something more educational, like St. Augustine," I said. "Oldest city in America. I heard the fort is interesting."

"No one wants to see an old fort, Angel-Cakes," Lorne said.

"I do," Willow said. "History is cool. We could always do Disney then go to St. Augustine."

"Very well," I relented, glad that I had that store of Wolfram and Hart money.

"Bet both him and Connor scream like sissy-girls on the Roller coasters." Faith grinned.

I ignored her and the rest of the banter about the theme parks. Connor didn't seem to understand what Xander and Dawn were trying to tell him about the rides. It served to illustrate just how little my son knew about this world. I felt even worse about abandoning him in it. I should have kept him close, despite what he had done, if for no other reason than to 'keep your enemies closer.' As they chattered gaily about what else this vacation could hold for them, I started down the dark road to my past, my mistakes bright as neon. I touched the cool fabric of the kite. Kites were such ancient toys. "I used to love playing with a kite with my baby sister," I said, suddenly overwhelmed by that memory.

Connor picked up the butterfly and handed it to me. "Go ahead. Fly it."

I took it out to the clearing and he followed me. I stared at the kite, trying to dredge up the early joy of more innocent times. I ran and it went up into the night sky, its bright colors muted in the foxfire light. It soared high and all I had to do was just tweak the strings to keep it up there. Its long tail spiraled around. Connor stopped at my side and I looked at him. He was smiling, heedless of the marshmallow in his hair and the chocolate war paint on his face. I could almost feel his happiness spilling over into me.

"You like them, don't you?" I asked and he looked back at the campfire.

"They're nice."

"They're a family," I said and his eyes met mine almost challengingly. "They were friends first, but it grew into something much more. I was thinking, if you wanted to, we could go live with them for a while."

He seemed surprised. "We're not going back home?"

"Home is where you make it, Connor. We can go back to Los Angeles if you want. I will have to go back someday. Wolfram and Hart can't go unchallenged but I thought, if it was all right with you, we could go with Dawn and Buffy and the others."

He looked up at the kite and nodded. "I'd like that."

"Good." I reached out and brushed his hair our of his eyes. Connor squirmed. "It might get a little crazy there. Cleveland is on a Hellmouth."

He shrugged. "Raised in hell. Nothing I can't handle."

I almost said I was sorry for that but I remember how upset that had made him in the past. "I know you can handle yourself. I'm not so sure you can handle living surrounded by a gang of young women...I'm not sure I can."

He smiled wildly as a breeze picked up carrying the crisp scent of pine. "Could be fun though."

"Uh-huh." Oh yes, I definitely needed to talk to the boy. The wind caught the kite and I had to jog a little closer to the tree line to get it flying right. Connor moved with me.

We both stopped dead, seeing a familiar figure there in the trees. Darla looked out at us, a soft smile on her face. I could smell her perfume on the breeze. I put a hand on Connor's shoulder, seeing him shiver. She just waved, blew a kiss to her son and faded away. He looked up at me and I gave his shoulder a squeeze.

"It'll be all right, Connor."

He nodded. "It's not really goodbye for her, and I know she'll come talk with me sometime. She's going to stay with me "

"Always." I handed him the kite's string.

Things felt oddly at peace. Darla knew her son was being cared for. We weren't a family yet but we were trying. I wasn't foolish enough to think this was the end. Wolfram and Hart had yet to be dealt with. Cordelia and Gunn still needed to be saved but this was a turning point. I could feel it. I had been given another second chance. When I had been returned from Hell, I had been given a second chance. I hadn't wasted that first second chance and I wasn't going to waste this one. I put my hand over Connor's on the reel of string and wished those problems to fly away with the kite. I knew it wasn't that easy but watching the butterfly fluttering against the night sky, I knew we were finally on the right path.

AUTHOR'S NOTE - All the places mentioned on A.I.'s journey are real. I've been to all of them but Clancy. They are all uniquely beautiful. Take an online journey with these links.

Clancy, Montana -

Deadwood, South Dakota - Deadwood Dick's - The Everglades - Alexander Springs, Florida -

And to see the medicine beadwork described on Ms. Billie's outfit and to learn more about their culture head to one of the Seminoles' official site