When The Bough Breaks

S J Smith (Laughnfx@yahoo.com)

Disclaimer: Mr. Whedon, Mr. Greenwalt, Mutant Enemy, et. al., own the characters. I just followed through with the story idea to what I thought might be the conclusion.

Timeline: BtVS season 6/Angel season 3

Synopsis: Saw that preview for the November 19, 2001 episode with Angel, Fred and the baby and Holtz with the crossbow. The words "This changes everything" came on and that inspired this story.

Distribution: BA_Fluff list, Fanfiction.net. Let me know if you think you want it. I'm sure we can work something out.

Feedback: Please. Thanks.

Rating: NC 17 for violence

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Fred shifted her weight from one foot to the other, peering out from under her wet hair at the house in front of her. She repeated the address aloud, as if to confirm it with someone, though there was really no one to hear. Adjusting her grip on the bundle in her arms, she walked hesitantly up the sidewalk and onto the porch.

Golden light spilled through the glass windows, in contrast to the cold rain she'd walked through as she knocked tentatively on the door and stepped back, almost afraid of her action. The baby in the crook of her arm mewled and Fred jiggled him gently, making soothing noises. She could hear voices inside now, questioning who might be hear at this hour and feel the vibrations of someone approaching the door through her feet. She saw a face appear in the window and smiled tentatively, feeling like her cheeks would crack.

The door swung open and a pretty redhead, not as pretty as Cordelia, but still cute, stood in the opening, her expression going from hopeful to downcast. "Oh," she said, looking around the porch. "Um, hi?"

She looked a little familiar, Fred thought, then realized who she must be. She remembered, right after Angel'd brought her from Pylea, a redhead had been waiting for him on the couch of the Hyperion. She bit her lip, trying to remember the name. It had all been so sudden, the girl and Angel sweeping into Wesley's office with Cordelia and Wesley following tentatively, leaving her with Gunn. And then they'd all come out, minutes or seconds or hours later, Angel not saying a word, just vanishing upstairs and Cordelia saying good bye, thank you for coming to tell us woodenly to the redhead who's name was, "Willow?"

"Uh, yes? Do I know you?" she asked, confused.

"Well, you're not Buffy, Buffy's blond, they all said she's blond and I saw you back at the hotel." Fred realized she was babbling and wasn't sure she'd be able to stop it this time. "I-I'm Fred." She lifted the baby in her arms to show Willow. "A-Angel, he sent me." She sniffed hard. "He told me to find Buffy."

"He did? Come in. I'm sorry, I should've realized, I mean, you look wet and cold. And your baby," Willow said, ushering her into the house. She made a face. "You're soaked. How'd you get here from L.A.?"

"Bus," Fred said, standing hesitantly in the foyer as Willow closed the door behind her. A fireplace glowed warmly to her left, stairs climbed the wall in front of her and a dining room lurked on her right. A brunette girl appeared on the stairs, almost like magic, stopping when she saw Fred. "We had to get away quick and hide," she said, eyeing the girl. She probably wasn't any danger but....

"Come on in," Willow said, gesturing towards the living room. She motioned to Fred to take a seat and Fred shook her head, still watching the girl.

"I'll get everything wet," she said.

"It'll dry," Willow said. "The baby must be cold."

The brunette crept to the living room, her hands behind her back, her long hair swinging in a pair of braids. "I can get a blanket," she said.

"Thanks, Dawn." Willow smiled, though Fred thought it held a hint of pain. "Would you tell Buffy she has a visitor?" She and the girl exchanged glances. "That might get her downstairs."

"Oh, sure," Dawn huffed softly. "She's been locked in her room all night." But she ran back up the stairs, leaving them alone.

"We have milk, if your baby's hungry," Willow said, twisting her hands together.

"He's not my baby," Fred said gently.

Two sets of feet clattered down the stairs and Dawn and a young woman stepped into the room, her dark blond hair pulled severely back from her face. Fred could see the strain in her eyes, the faint lines at the corners of her mouth. She recognized pain, if she could see nothing else in this one. The brunette loped into the room with the blanket but the other reminded Fred of a wild animal on the prowl.

"I brought two blankets," Dawn said, holding out an afghan of gold, reddish orange and green and another in purple and white. "One for the baby."

"Thanks, Dawnie," Willow said softly. "D-do you want me to take him?"

Fred handed over the damp child to Willow, who made a face at the wet fabric. "Maybe we should get you cleaned up in the bathroom," she said. "Is that okay?"

Fred didn't really want to let the baby out of her sight. Angel had entrusted her with his son but he surely trusted these people, since he'd sent her to them. "I-it's okay," she said, though she watched Willow, Dawn following close behind, the purple afghan still in her hands, chattering. When they disappeared, Fred turned her attention to the young woman remaining. "They described you but it's not like meeting you face to face," she said. "You have to be Buffy." She offered a hand.

"I have to be," Buffy echoed, shaking Fred's hand, giving her a quick once-over. "You're cold," she said.

"It's wet out there and I had to walk from the bus station. I didn't know it'd be that far, or I would've found some sort of covering." She offered Buffy a hesitant smile. "I was a little rushed. Oh, I'm Fred."

Buffy nodded once, almost tiredly. Her head came up suddenly in recognition. "Fred? Angel's Fred?"

"Well, not Angel's Fred, not really, my Fred, and I'm doing it again," Fred said. She glanced around. "Where did they take the baby?"

"Probably the bathroom," Buffy said. She motioned with her head. "Come on." Leading Fred down a hall, she paused outside an open door. The small room was crowded with two women and the baby, lying naked on a towel while Willow carefully rubbed him with a washcloth.

Dawn noticed them and grinned. "He's cute," she said. "What's his name?"

"He doesn't have one," Fred said. "His parents, well, they didn't get to name him."

"He's not your baby?" Buffy asked sharply.

"No." Fred shook her head then dropped it, shivering. "I, I was there when he was born. He was in danger. A lot of danger." She looked at the child, reaching out to touch the curl of pale hair on the baby's scalp.

"What kind of danger?" Buffy asked, her attention unwavering. Kind of like Angel's gaze, Fred thought, though somehow even more intense.

She tried to smile but it trembled off her mouth. "I, you might want to sit down, Buffy," she said. "I mean, it's a weird story, like a lot of things, I mean, I've heard you have all sorts of weird stories of your own but this one. Well, I'm not sure I believe it, either."

"Do you think he's hungry? We can maybe rig some sort of bottle for him," Willow said. "And I could use your help, Dawnie." She gathered up the newborn, wrapping him first in a towel and then in the afghan.

"Aw, just when it might've gotten good," Dawn said.

"Dawn," Buffy said, her voice tight.

"I'm going." Dawn flounced past them, after the redhead. Buffy watched her to make sure she'd gone then turned back to Fred.

"All right. What sort of danger is the baby in? And how'd you know to come to me? I mean, baby's aren't really my thing." She folded her arms and leaned against the wall.

"Can I?" Fred made a motion towards the bathroom, the towels and Buffy nodded, reaching inside a cabinet to pull out a large bath towel.

Fred took it and scrubbed at her wet hair, anything to avoid those pain-filled eyes. "I-I have something to tell you," she said, wrapping her hair in the towel efficiently. "And I need you to be strong. He-he told me you were strong." She reached towards Buffy's wrist and the woman flinched slightly.

"Who told you?" she asked, her voice low.

"Angel." Fred smiled as Buffy sucked in a breath.

"He, he's okay?"

Fred sighed, looking towards the doorway that Willow and Dawn had gone through. She flicked her eyes at Buffy, keeping her in the corner of her vision. "He told me to come here, that you're the only one who could protect the baby."

"Why me?" Buffy asked. Her hands were knotting into fists, her knuckles turning white.

"Because you're strong. You'll do what's right. I was with him, we were trying to escape that vampire hunter, and Angel gave me all of his money and his son-"

"His what?" Buffy interrupted breathlessly.

"His son. The baby is his. Human." She waited. "Are you okay?"

"His son? His baby?" Buffy shook her head once, her eyes wide. "Angel's a vampire. A vampire can't have children. And Angel can't even do that, that, he can't do that! He can't because, because if he does, he loses his soul."

"I know. That's what Cordelia said, when I was in love with Angel."

Buffy blinked, focusing on Fred again. "You what?"

"It's not important, Buffy," Fred said, making an abbreviated gesture with her hands. "What is important is that Angel's the father of this baby. Darla's the mother."

"Darla?" Her face scrunched up, her eyes tracking to the side, accessing memories. She licked her lips. "Darla? As in, the vampire who made him? That Darla? But she's dead. He killed her for me."

"An evil law firm brought her back to drive Angel crazy. But it didn't work. He realized after he had sex with her that he had things to do, people to help. But the baby is theirs."

Buffy's hand flailed behind her and she fell against the wall, slumping forward, her head bowed. "Angel's son," she said, her voice reedy and thin. "With Darla. Oh, God." She dragged her hands over her hair. "Oh God, oh God."

"Buffy?" Fred moved in front of her. She laid her hands on Buffy's shoulders. "Darla didn't want the baby. She tried to get rid of him. But something kept it from happening. She couldn't abort him and he couldn't be killed. And when she had him, she ran and left us with the baby."

Buffy stared at her, blinking rapidly. Fred said, "The vampire hunter was after Angel. Angel and Darla killed his family, a long time ago and he managed to stay alive, magic, I guess. Anyway, he hunted Darla and killed her again. Angel managed to escape him and found us. Well, we ran. But the vampire hunter, he picked us off one by one." She turned away from Buffy, her hands twisting together nervously. She didn't want to think about it but Buffy had to know what happened. "Angel and I were the only ones left running and Holtz, that's the vampire hunter, found us. He swooped down, like a big bird of prey. Angel gave me his son and his money and told me to come to Sunnydale and find you. That you'd protect his baby." She fell back from the anguished expression in Buffy's eyes. "I'm not good at telling stories," she said. "But that's what happened. That's what Angel told me to do." She raised her eyes to Buffy's again. "Find you."

"No."

"He said," Fred took a deep, shaky breath. "Angel said to tell you, he wished it was yours. He said," her mouth quivered and she bit her lip in an attempt to control it. "He said to give you this." She reached into her pocket, finding the chain that Angel'd pulled out of his pocket and took Buffy's hand. Turning it up, Fred let the chain unfurl, the pendant bouncing a little on the end, twirling. Fred set it in Buffy's palm and slowly dropped the chain on top of it. "He said he'd never forget."

"No." Buffy's hand closed involuntarily on the silver ring, with its symbols of heart, crown and hands. "No."

"Angel made me run with his baby," Fred said raggedly. "He told me to get out of there, he'd keep Holtz busy. He'd make sure we were safe. I didn't want to leave him alone, but he insisted. He made me leave him alone. I don't know if he's alive or...or...."

"He's gone," Buffy whispered, her voice hollow. "I know." A weird little smile flickered on her face. "I...I felt him, earlier. I wasn't sure, but I knew it was bad. I just didn't," she swiped at her eyes impatiently. "I didn't know for sure. It's been so long since," her voice trailed off and her slender shoulders shuddered.

"Hey, we got the baby to eat," Dawn said joyfully, bouncing into the hall. Both Fred and Buffy startled at her voice and Dawn froze. "What's, what's wrong?"

"Angel." Buffy's voice was weary, tired beyond exhaustion, pained beyond agony. "Angel's gone."

"Gone?" Dawn tried to get a handle on the word. "You mean, he's in L.A., right?"

Buffy shook her head slowly. "He's dead, Dawn. I-I felt him go. I just didn't know it. I didn't know that he'd left me."

"Buffy," Dawn moaned and ran to her sister, wrapping her arms around Buffy's shoulders. The woman sank in on herself, letting her sister cry though her eyes stayed dry.

Willow appeared with the baby, who started crying along with Dawn. "Wh-what is it?" she asked, looking from the pair to Fred and back again, her expressive face showing her fear. She jiggled the baby, trying to stop his wails. "What's happened? Please, please tell me what happened."

Buffy's voice seemed to come from far away, a strange, ghastly smile on her mouth as she whispered, "Angel's dead."

* * *
Cordelia unlocked the door to her apartment with shaking hands. "Dennis?" she whispered. "Is it safe?"

The door swung open silently and she crept through, hearing it shut behind her. The locks clicked, bolting her in. Cordelia sagged, nearly falling to the floor. Dennis swooshed around her, ruffling her hair. She thought she could feel his concern. "I'm moving," she said and forced herself to limp to the couch. She nearly fell onto it, crying out in pain. Her ribs ached and her left knee neither bent easily nor supported her weight. Her left shoulder throbbed with every breath. Cordelia dropped her head onto the back of the couch and panted.

"Home," she whispered.

A glass of water swam into view, along with a bottle of aspirin. Cordelia took the aspirin, managing to pry the lid off. She popped a couple in her mouth, washing it down with the water. It hurt to swallow. "Oh, God," she mumbled. Forcing herself across the couch, she checked her answering machine. No messages. She sank back into the cushions, wrapping her arms around herself. Dennis brought in the comforter off her bed and draped it around her. "T-thanks, Dennis," she said through chattering teeth.

It was too much. First, Darla, and the proof beyond everything that Angel had been trying to lose his soul. Then the baby. A human baby, from a pair of vampires. Cordelia never claimed to know theology but surely there was something in the Bible about vampires not being able to breed. Then the baby being born and...the vampire hunter.

She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to blot out the memories of running. The man seemed to follow them like a bloodhound, no matter what they did to throw him off the track. He took out Wesley first. Cordelia still heard the anguish in Angel's voice as he chose between one friend and the rest of them. "Run," he said, "keep running." And they did, until Holtz picked off Gunn. Gunn shouted at them to get away, to go and they obeyed him. Cordelia's last sight of her friend was him standing, one arm hanging loose and wrecked, the other coiled up, balancing the crossbow. Then they'd run around a corner and that was it. No more Gunn.

Cordelia wiped at her eyes ineffectually. She'd been the next to fall, hit in the ribs by that creep, the stock of his crossbow punching in under her defenses so she dropped like a rock. Angel hesitated and she waved at him, grabbing hard for Holtz's ankles. He'd kicked her in the shoulder but she'd at least bought Angel and Fred a little more time, time to try to get the baby to safety. Surely they'd made it. Fred was with Angel and the baby; well, to protect them, he'd die-

No. Stop that.

Pulling the comforter tighter around herself, Cordelia let the tears come. She couldn't go back to the hotel, all those bodies. She didn't even know who might've killed them, or even who they were. She could only guess that they had something to do with the baby.

God, the baby. "Why'd you have to do it, Angel?" she asked the air, pounding her fist into the arm of the couch. "Why'd you want to sleep with Darla of all people?" Her friends might all be dead because of Angel's son. Biting back a sob, Cordelia reached for her telephone, groaning. She managed to snag the cord at the base and hauled it to her, swearing when the whole thing fell onto her. Fumbling for the receiver, she laid it on her leg and punched in the number to Wesley's cell phone.

"Please," she whispered. "Please pick up, Wes. Please." She counted the rings, two, three, four. "Please, please, Wesley. Answer your phone."

Something clicked and Cordelia could hear something. "Wesley? God, Wesley, is it you? Say something!"

A moan answered her, then, slowly, muzzily; she could hear Wesley's voice. "Cordelia?"

"You're alive, Wesley. Alive!"

"Is that what this is? I think I'd rather be dead."

"Where are you?" Cordelia asked.

"No, no." She heard the sounds of stumbling, metal clanging and panting. "I-I'm fine, Cordelia," Wesley said then groaned. "Maybe not."

"I can come get you," Cordelia said.

"No, I believe I can hire a cab," Wesley said tentatively. "Yes. I do have money."

"Don't go to the hotel, Wes." She hesitated. "Do you need a hospital? Don't go all British on me if you need a hospital."

"I think," there was another crashing sound in the background, "that mightn't be a bad idea," Wesley said, his voice starting to fade.

"Can you call yourself? Wesley? Don't you leave me, Wesley! I'm hanging up. You call for help. I'll call you back, Wesley. You can do this, right?"

"Y-yes." His voice firmed up a little. "I can call for help." She heard him moving slowly. "I need to find an address," he said.

"Wesley? Keep talking to me. And let me know where you are. I'll call for help, too, as soon as you let me know where you are."

"Cordelia? Are the others safe?" Even through the pain in his voice, she could hear his concern. She hated the idea of telling him she didn't know, but it was the only thing she could do.

"I'm going to find out as soon as you get an ambulance," Cordelia promised. "Are you near a sign? Do you know where you are?"

Wesley gasped and panted. Finally, he said, "I'm at the corner of, of, damn it, my glasses are cracked." A pause. "Fourth and West Vineland," he said.

"All right, Wesley. I'm going to call for an ambulance for you." And maybe one for herself, Cordelia thought. She wasn't sure her knee would support her enough for her to get to the emergency room on her own. But she needed to try to find Gunn and Angel. "Don't move. I'll call you back, all right? Wesley?"

"I'm here, Cordelia," he said faintly.

"All right. Stay there. I'm hanging up now." She did so, quickly punching in nine one-one on her telephone. It rang through and soon she spoke with an operator, telling the man who answered about her friend and where to find him. Breaking that connection, she called Wesley back. "Come on, answer," she muttered, picking at the bedspread impatiently.

"H'lo?" Wesley's voice seemed even more slurred. "Cordelia?"

"Wesley, they're coming for you. I got through." She brushed at her eyes, willing back the tears that threatened to fall. "I'm gonna stay on the line with you, okay?"

"No." His voice gained strength. "No, Cordelia. You must attempt to find Gunn, Angel and Fred. They are in need of assistance, too."

She couldn't argue that. "All right, Wesley," she said reluctantly. "Bye."

"Good bye."

Cordelia broke the connection and frowned, trying to remember Gunn's number. It was programmed into the telephone at the hotel. She closed her eyes, in hopes that it would remind her and finally, the number popped into her head. She quickly punched it in, mentally crossing her fingers.

The ring started almost instantly and she nearly jumped, startled that the connection was made. "Pick up, Gunn, come on," she said, nearly under her breath. "Where are you?"

"Hello?" a strange voice said.

"Hello?" Cordelia winced at the speaker's loud, unfamiliar voice. "Uh, I'm trying to reach Charles Gunn?"

"Would you describe him to me?"

"Uh, wearing a fleece vest over a long-sleeved t-shirt and cargo pants? Oh, and he's African American. Who's this?"

"This is E.M.T. Mollenhour," the voice said.

"E.M.T.? Did you find Gunn? How is he?" She clutched the receiver tighter.

"Who am I speaking to?" Mollenhour asked.

"Cordelia Chase. I'm a friend of his. Tell me how he is. He isn't...please tell me he's okay."

"He's on his way to Fish Memorial Hospital with an e.t.a. of five minutes. He's currently unconscious."

"Fish Memorial," Cordelia said, committing the name to memory. "Thank you. I'll be there as soon as I can." She broke the connection. She had to sit quietly for a few minutes. Gunn was unconscious but someone was taking care of him. Wesley would be safe soon. That left Fred and the baby...and Angel. Cordelia bit her lip as she pressed the numbers for Angel's cell phone.

It rang twice then clicked, as if someone picked it up. "Thank God, Angel," Cordelia said, nearly crying.

"The party you are trying to reach is unavailable at this time. Please try again later."

Cordelia stared at the wall in front of her as the message played a second time. The receiver slipped from her nerveless hand, dropping from her lap onto the floor. "No," she said then more forcefully, "No! He's, he's broken his telephone. That's it." She threw off the comforter and managed to lever herself to her feet. "Dennis, please get my spare car keys," she said. "I've got to get to the hospital. Gunn needs me."

Dennis whisked around, dropping the keys into her outstretched hand. She carefully limped to the door as the ghost replaced the telephone receiver into the cradle. The telephone shrilled, the shock nearly sending her to the floor. Dennis somehow managed to grab her, reminding Cordelia of how fast Angel had always moved, when a vision would hit. She pushed that thought out of her mind. "The phone, Dennis," she said, managing to brace herself on the wall.

Dennis handed her the receiver and she asked, "Angel?"

"Cordelia?"

"Fred!" She nearly slid down the wall in relief. "Fred, are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm...we're fine, Cordelia. We're someplace safe." Fred's voice sounded hesitant and frightened.

"Good. Where are you, Fred?" Cordelia sighed loudly, some of the pressure inside her released with the good news.

"I'm in Sunnydale."

"Huh?" Cordelia frowned, not following that at all. "Sunnydale?"

"Yes, with Buffy and Willow and Dawn. Angel said," her voice broke off abruptly.

"Angel?" Cordelia clutched the receiver so tightly it felt as if it were melting into her hand. "What about Angel, Fred?"

"He," Fred sniffled, "he gave me the baby, Cordy," she said. "He gave me the baby and told me to take him someplace safe. To Buffy."

"But, but he's there with you, too," Cordelia said, trying to turn that idea over in her mind. Angel, run from an enemy? It didn't make sense.

There was a long pause.

"Fred?"

"No," she said softly.

"No? No what, Fred?"

"Angel isn't here with us. He-he told me to run, keep the baby safe. He gave me his money and told me to come to Sunnydale, to find Buffy." There was another little pause. "I found her," Fred said, her voice a little dazed.

Cordelia found she was holding the receiver with both hands, as if it might somehow squirm out of her grip. "And Angel? Fred, where's Angel?"

Fred's breath hitched. "Buffy, she said she knew," she said, so softly Cordelia almost didn't hear the words. "She said, Angel's gone."

She reared back, cracking her head against the wall. The pain flashed through her but she almost didn't notice. Her heart was squeezing so tight, she wasn't sure she could breathe. "Buffy said what?" she asked, hearing how squeaky her voice was, like she couldn't get any air into her lungs.

Fred was openly crying now. "She said Angel died, Cordy. She said she felt it, felt him leave us."

"No," Cordelia said. Her jaw ached from the way her teeth were clenched. "No, he didn't leave. He wouldn't leave us. He would never leave us." She pounded on her thigh, ignoring the shock pain that rippled from her fist hitting her leg. "He'd never leave!"

Fred's sobs were her only answer.

"Fred, she's wrong," Cordelia said, swallowing hard. "He's still here, somewhere. She's just, Buffy's wrong!" She did slide down the wall now, crumpling into a heap. The receiver slipped from her hands again and Cordelia buried her face in her hands. From far away, she felt Dennis drape the comforter around her shoulders, stroking her hair as she cried.

* * *
The house sat under dripping trees, only a little ways off the street. He studied it carefully from his hiding spot, in the shadows of the hedges of yet another house. It had been strange, using magic to track the girl and the child in this peculiar, modern world, but he had managed. And now, he could get his revenge.

Holtz had studied the house. There seemed only one entry to the casual viewer but he'd spotted an open window on the second floor. He'd counted the shadows of four people inside, one of them the girl who'd been with Angelus. Holtz patted the stock of his crossbow with pleasure. It had been rewarding to finally face the vampire again. To know that now, he could have his complete vengeance on the two who had destroyed him and his family, so many years ago.

It had been worth the wait to destroy Darla, whom he'd found, picking through a filthy alleyway. She'd gone down easily, a crossbow bolt tearing through her heart. It had been Angelus and his pack of enthralled humans who'd led him on a merry chase.

It had all been for not. First one of the men fell, then the other. Finally, Holtz had taken out one of the women; leaving only Angelus, with a child and a human girl to hamper him, weigh him down. On his own, Holtz had no doubt the renowned vampire would have escaped him, but Angelus had hesitated, attempted to protect the two remaining in his care. No matter. In the end, it had been a duel between himself and the vampire. And he was the one remaining standing.

The vampire had choked out something before turning to dust, his eyes surprisingly full of longing, a longing Holtz didn't quite understand. Angelus had said something, almost the way a religious man might lift his voice in prayer. A look of utter sorrow, then peace crossed the vampire's visage, then his body collapsed into a pile of dust. Holtz smiled in remembrance. Now, two remained, the chit and the child.

He waited with the patience of a predator for the excitement inside the house to die down, as it surely would. The girl who'd led him here had entered and he'd heard voices rising, then finally falling. More of Angelus and Darla's brood, he'd wager. No matter, he could take them all. He touched the bolts remaining in the quiver; the great knife strapped to his thigh and adjusted his cape against the weather. It would do no good to allow the crossbow to get wet. The string would stretch out of shape and the weapon would be useless. He didn't fancy facing four vampires or enthralled humans for that matter with just a knife, no matter how big it was.

Time passed, the rain slacking off. A brisk wind blew against him, causing him to shudder but it also chased away the overhanging clouds. The sky lightened in the east, heralding the dawn. Holtz smiled faintly, watching as golden sunlight spilled through the trees and started for the house. Now was the time to attack.

He crept around to the back of the building. On his scouting earlier, he'd discovered a doorway, leading into the ground. He carefully checked it, realizing it was some sort of burrow and cautiously opened the door. Steps led down into the darkness and he made his way down, pulling the door to behind him. It wouldn't do to alert his prey before he had a chance to make at least one kill. Creeping along through the slightly musty room, he spotted another set of stairs, leading up. He climbed them, setting his feet on each step so as to make as little sound as possible. Finally, after what seemed an interminable amount of time, he reached the doorway at the top of the stairs.

Holtz pressed his ear against the wood, listening carefully. He could hear little sound in the immediate area and took that as a good sign. Still, he waited a short time longer, making sure. He'd waited this long for his vengeance and there was nothing to stop him from wreaking it now. Pushing the door open, Holtz peered around it. The area was bright and cheerful, with sunlight flowing through it. He frowned slightly, wondering that a vampire wouldn't have wanted the windows curtained. He stepped into the room, closing the door behind him and making his way further into the house. Soft sounds came from the ceiling, leading him to believe the four in the house were on the second floor. Slowly, he reconnoitered the downstairs, just to verify that no one remained on the same level as he. When that had been done, he set a bolt in his crossbow and started up the stairs.

Voices floated down, speaking in soft, ragged tones. He couldn't quite understand them, they weren't clear enough for him to make out. Still, he had no doubt they discussed the vanquishing of his long-time foes. Smiling grimly, Holtz continued up the stairs, moving as quietly as he could in this strange place. He passed an unusual type of painting on the wall, of two women and a younger girl, all smiling sweetly. Holtz paused to study them, wondering what hold Angelus had on them. Had he killed the elder of the trio, obviously the mother, to get at the daughters? Had he turned the daughters and taught them to feed on their mother's blood? His hand clenched involuntarily on the stock of his crossbow and he forced himself to calm. Angelus was gone, never to wreak his own particular havoc on the world. His mate was dust, to be swept to the four corners of the world by wind. Neither would ever harm another living being. That was his reward. And soon, the strange new world he found himself in would be rid of this nest of vampires.

He gained the hallway at the top of the stairs. There were doors along it, two closed, one open but dark and another, only partially closed, with a light gleaming through it. Holtz made his way slowly, straining his ears to catch the sounds from that room.

"...can't believe this," a voice said brokenly. "I can't believe he's gone. I mean, I felt it. I felt it, Will, but I still can't deal."

"I know," a second voice said, sorrowful but warm, comforting.

"It's worse than the prom," the first voice said, growing more agitated. Holtz saw a shadow pass the doorway, knowing the speaker was pacing. "It's worse than when he left me. God, I always thought, even though he was gone, he'd be there, you know? If I really needed him, he'd be there! And-and now." There was a sob. "There's a baby, and it's his. And-and Darla's alive? And then dead again and the baby is hers. Hers and his, Will. What is that supposed to mean?"

"I don't know," the second voice said soothingly. "B-but Angel sent Fred and the baby here for a reason. I mean, you're the one person he'd trust with his child. That has to mean something, right?"

"It means he's gone, Will. He's gone and this time, he isn't coming back. Ever." The speaker made a sound, almost like a broken laugh. "Angel came to me when Mom died. He sat with me all night, out in the cemetery. And then, when I came back, we met and we talked. And I told him everything I couldn't tell any of you. And he understood. He's been there, Will, he knew what it was like. And he promised we'd keep in touch."
Holtz managed to reach the doorway, peering inside. He could see a slim figure, hair hanging loose, another one sitting on a bed, staring at the first. The standing figure's hands waved in the air, as if to pull answers from it directly. "It hurts so much," she said brokenly, her shoulders slumping, her head bowing forward.

"I know," the other one said. "But we can get through this, right? We have to go on, you have to go on, for Angel's sake."

"Or not." Holtz kicked the door open, the crossbow pointed at the girl's back.

She turned slowly, her wide eyes narrowing down, the tears on her face drying. "You," she said.

"You sound very distraught about the loss of Angelus," Holtz said, edging into the room. "Ah, ah, stay there, little one. It'll be harder on your friend if you move."

"Stay still, Willow," the girl said.

"I can help," the redhead insisted.

"No. This is my fight."

"My, you sound very determined. Almost as determined as Angelus," Holtz said, trying to goad her into moving. "But he's dust now, littering a street in that strange city." He smiled, seeing how she flinched at his words. "Does that hurt you, child? Was he perhaps your sire?"

"No," the girl said. Her chin tilted up, her eyes flinty. "Angel was my lover."

"Lover? How you cling to your old lives, you vampires."

"I'm not a vampire," the girl said. "Maybe you've heard of me in that weird place you come from. I'm the Slayer, Buffy Summers."

"Buffy Summers," Holtz said musingly. "It was you he called to, just before he turned to dust. Such a tragedy for him, dying with your name on his lips."

Tears flashed in her eyes and she swallowed again. "What do you want?" she asked.

"Surely you know what I want." When she didn't answer, didn't move, Holtz went on. "I want the child. The get of those two fiends."

"Angel's baby?" Her expression softened for an instant, then returned to its former, hardened state. "No."

"I think I make the request, child," Holtz said silkily. "I am the one with a weapon pointed at you. And I've taken out two vampires and three humans already this evening. More wouldn't matter to me."

The redhead moved and he snarled at her. "Stay still, child. Or face the consequences."

"Will," Buffy said sharply. She took a deep breath. "Tell you what. You and me. A battle. Winner gets the baby."

"You'd make a wager with your life?" Holtz asked. "I think I already hold the cards."

"I won't let you take his baby without a fight. And you don't want that. Not that way. If you win the fight, we'll let you go free, with the baby. If I win, you go away. And you never, ever come after the baby again."

"Done, child."

Buffy smiled harshly. "Just what I wanted to hear." Somehow, she flung herself forward before Holtz even knew she moved. Her hands caught the crossbow. He pulled the trigger and the bolt ripped into her, though not her chest, where it had been pointed, but across her arm. She hissed but yanked the weapon away, flinging it to the redhead.

Bleeding, she faced him, her hands curled into fists, a strange tilt to her mouth. Holtz drew the blade from his hip, angling its length and width at her, the light from the strange lantern on her desk reflecting off the steel and into her eyes. She blinked and he lunged forward, swinging the blade up and down at her. She ghosted out of the weapon's path, blocking his blow on her forearm. She punched into his stomach, winding him. Holtz gasped and she struck him with an uppercut, flinging him back into the wall.

"Will! Get Dawn and the baby and get out of here!" Buffy shouted, closing in.

Holtz kicked her thigh, knocking her back as the redhead darted from the room. "By magic, I can track that child anywhere," he said.

"Gotta get past me, first," Buffy replied grimly, stepping into his path.

"Why do you fight me, child? A Slayer stands on the side of good. And that child was spawned of two hell-beasts. It deserves to die." Holtz flashed the weapon at her but she'd learned that trick.

"He's human."

"A child born of hell." Holtz feinted to the right and sliced back. Buffy caught the edge of the blade on her forearm and grunted in pain. "Its death will belong to me."

"No." Buffy launched herself into the air, spinning and lashing out with a foot. Holtz took the blow on his chin, flying back into the wall again. He could almost hear the other girl shouting to get out of the house, now to someone. He shook his head to clear it, forcing himself back into the battle.

"Yes. You know the child should never have been born. Think of the damage demon-spawn can do in this world. You know I'm right, child. Give me the baby." He stabbed with his knife. She caught the blade between her two hands and shoved it back at him, thumping him in the chest hard. Holtz felt something give way under the blow and gasped in agony.

"He deserves a chance." Buffy stalked him, her fists only slightly raised, her head lowered. "And I'm gonna give it to him."

Holtz reached into his pocket, removing what he'd secreted there. "A present, child." He flung the dust at her face. "The remains of your lover!" Whirling, he dashed from the room as she tried to wipe her eyes clean. He pounded down the stairs, after the others. He could hear Buffy following behind him, though her steps weren't as sure yet. He knew he'd never be able to best a Slayer but if he could kill the child before she recovered, his duty would be complete.

He tore outside the house, seeing the trio of women standing on the grass. He recognized the chit, who shrieked in fear at the sight of him. She bolted like a rabbit, leaving the redhead and another girl behind.

"Go, Dawn!" the redhead shouted, shoving at the girl.

"I'm staying!" the brunette cried, clutching the bundle closer to herself.

Holtz smiled, crab-stepping forward, his blade reaching out in front of him. Not for nothing, the duels he'd fought in the past. "The child is of the devil. Put it down and step away, you will not be harmed."

"Willow, do something!" the child yelped.

"Illumine," the redhead said, flicking both hands at Holtz. Fireballs streaked towards him and he rolled to the ground, staring in disbelief.

"Witchcraft!"

"Dawnie, get the baby out of here," Willow said through gritted teeth. Her hands reached out for Holtz again and he prepared to duck.

Someone grabbed him by the collar and hauled him upright, spinning him around. Holtz stared into the enraged face of the Slayer, dust from the vampire still sticking to her skin. Tears cut paths through the ash though none fell now, nothing to distract her from her appointed task. "You and me," she said, nearly a chant. "This is between you and me."

He shortened his grip on his blade and stabbed into her stomach.

Buffy looked down at the blade, then back up, an insane smile stretching her mouth. Reaching out gently, she took his head between her hands. Holtz tried to break free but her grip was too tight. With a howl of agony, she jerked her hands, snapping his neck.

His body going limp, the man fell to the ground. Buffy remained standing, her hands spread in front of her. "Buffy!" Dawn screamed, running for her sister as she pitched forward, onto her knees. Willow darted after her, helping Dawn lay Buffy onto the grass. Blood trickled out of the corner of Buffy's mouth.

"Dawn, go call nine one-one," Willow ordered. When Dawn hesitated, she shouted, "Now!"

With a bleat of fear, Dawn raced into the house.

"Baby?" Buffy asked, weakly.

"He thought Dawn had him," Willow said, taking Buffy's hand in her own and squeezing it. "It was a trick. We left the baby in the house. He's perfectly safe." She heard footsteps and glanced back, seeing Fred. The woman hesitated, her fist pushed up against her mouth. "It's okay, Fred," she said gently.

"B-buffy?" Fred asked, kneeling next to her, taking Buffy's other hand. "You can't go. Angel's baby needs you."

"It doesn't hurt," Buffy whispered. "Will?"

"I'm here," Willow said, stroking her friend's hair. She heard Dawn pounding onto the porch, shouting into the telephone receiver.

"My sister's been stabbed! She's bleeding! Please hurry!"

"Buffy," Willow said, leaning a little closer. "I can help you. But I need to know, I mean, I won't make this decision for you. Do you want to stay?"

"Stay?" Buffy's eyes searched Willow's face.

"Stay with us," Willow said, trying to speak clearly through the tears she hadn't realized she was shedding.

"He's waiting for me, Will," Buffy said dreamily. "I can...almost see him."

"But Angel's baby," Fred said. "He needs you to take care of the baby." She squeezed Buffy's hand tightly. "He wanted you to do it, to be the baby's mother."

Her head drifted towards Fred, as if even that movement was too much. "Angel's baby," she murmured.

"Stay for him," Fred said. "He needs a mother."

"Will?" Buffy closed her eyes and opened them again, slowly, oh, so slowly.

Willow scooted in. "What is it, Buffy?"

"I need to live."

Willow blinked at her tears and patted Buffy's hand. "You will, Buffy. I promise." She spoke a soft word, feeling the magic course through her, offering healing strength to the Slayer. She took one hand from Buffy's, laying it on the knife hilt. The magic sped through the blade, knitting together the torn flesh and muscles beneath. Willow slowly withdrew it, the healing progressing behind the tip of the blade. She finally pulled the knife from its human sheath, throwing it across the lawn to clatter on the sidewalk.

Buffy gasped in pain, her eyes opening wide. Her back arched hard, raising her from the ground. The magic thrummed through her like electricity, pink sparks rising off her skin. Fred yipped in surprise though she kept hold of Buffy's hand, the magic bouncing off her and back into Buffy. Dawn came off the porch, the receiver hanging forgotten in her hand, her mouth agape.

Flopping back to the ground, Buffy keened in pain, then fell silent, shudders wracking her body. Willow leaned over her friend, pressing her forehead against Buffy's. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she whispered, her tears dropping onto Buffy's face.

Buffy's hand crept around her neck, a weak hug, but an embrace nonetheless. Dawn dropped onto her knees at Buffy's head as Willow raised herself up, carefully lifting Buffy so her head rested in her lap. "Everything's gonna be okay," Dawn said soothingly, stroking Buffy's hair. "It's gonna be all right." She kissed Buffy's forehead. "I promise."

Fred rose, slowly going into the house and fetching the baby, joining the three women on the ground as they waited for the ambulance to arrive. Buffy reached out, touching the blanket the baby was wrapped in. Fred opened it, letting Buffy see the child.

"Hey, sweetie," she whispered. "Welcome to the family."

* * *
Buffy stared at herself in the mirror, quickly twisting her mane into a knot on top of her head and fixing it in place with a pair of hair sticks. She wrinkled her nose at herself and shrugged. It really didn't matter how she looked today, of all days, but she did like being presentable. Especially with the importance of the day. Leaving her room, she trotted downstairs, heading into the dining room.

It was decorated with balloons and streamers and a banner with the words, "Happy Birthday, Liam" written on it. She checked on the cake, done in a zoo motif. The words were the same, with another cake set to the side, just for the baby. She checked the camera, noting that a fresh roll of film had been put into it and smiled. Dawn had worked herself into a frenzy for the birthday of her nephew, decorating the room and ordering the cakes, cleaning the house and making sure everything was just so. She wanted Liam's first birthday to be perfect, even though Willow had told her it wasn't likely the baby would remember anything about it.

"Maybe he won't but I will and I want to throw him a really great birthday party," Dawn said. She'd made special invitations and sent them out to everyone who knew Liam and had delightedly said, "Everyone's coming."

"Everyone?" Buffy'd asked, only a little worried.

"Well, Cordelia, Wesley, Fred and Gunn," Dawn ticked off the names, "Xander and Anya, of course, and us, well, that's an easy guess." She wrinkled her nose. "And Giles. He said he wouldn't miss the birthday of his grandson for anything."

"His grandson?" Buffy asked, arching an eyebrow.

Dawn shrugged, grinning. "His grandson. If you don't like it, talk to him. And Spike, of course."

"Of course." Buffy remembered the conversation she'd had with Spike, once everything had calmed down enough for her to deal. Spike had been the one to suggest Liam's name.

"You don't wanna name the kid 'Angel'," he said. "Want the boy to get beaten up every day? Call him 'Liam.'"

When she'd hesitated, Spike went on. "It was Angel's name. You know. Before."

Anya had been the one to find a way for Buffy to raise the baby legally. It turned out that she knew, through the Magic Box, a midwife who not only birthed human babies but sympathetic demons, as well. She managed a birth certificate for Liam, naming Buffy as his mother. Though she hated doing it, Buffy left his father's name blank. Even Spike didn't know Angel's last name when he'd been human.

All legal bases covered, Buffy turned to Giles for help on the monetary front again. "Even if you aren't here, being my Watcher, I'm still fighting for the Council. They should be able to help me support myself and my family, if I'm their Slayer." Giles had been proud of her reasoning and even more pleased to announce that the Council of Watchers agreed that Buffy should not be forced to work for a living while she was their Slayer. While the money wasn't as much as she'd hoped, it was enough to survive on.

The doorbell rang and Buffy went to answer it. Xander, Anya and Giles were outside. "Where's the birthday boy?" Xander asked, holding up a large box.

"Aunt Willow and Aunt Dawn are upstairs with him, arguing over what he's going to wear," Buffy said, gesturing. "Maybe you'd better go up there and referee, Xander. They might listen to you."

"Gotcha." He set the box in the living room and ran up the stairs, yelling, "Where's my buddy?"

"He gets like this," Anya said, not quite apologetically. She shrugged. "Maybe when we have kids of our own."

"He's getting in his practice now," Buffy said. "Just remember, once you do, you can't give them back."

"Oh, we know, we know." Anya glanced up the stairs. "I think I hear Xander yelling. If you want Liam for his party, maybe I'd better get up there and get him dressed."

"Thanks, Anya," Buffy said as she started up the staircase. Buffy turned her attention to Giles. "Hi, stranger."

"Buffy," Giles said, trying to shift the presents around in his arms. "I, er, seem to be in a bit of a dilemma."

Buffy took the top two from him, leading him into the living room and setting the presents with the others. She plucked the rests from Giles' arms. "Did you buy out F.A.O. Schwartz?" she asked, surveying the pile.

"N-no," Giles said, shoving his glasses up on his nose. "Well, almost." He hugged her affectionately. "How are you, Buffy?"

She pulled back a little. "Good. I mean," she tucked a strand of hair that slipped down to tickle her neck behind her ear. "It hasn't been all coming up roses, but we're managing, the four of us."

"D-does Tara ever attempt contact?"

Buffy shook her head sadly. "I think that bridge got washed away. I haven't seen her since the night she left. Willow's okay, though. No more magic fits. And it's a little hard, but since she had to heal me, I don't think she's done anything witchy except when we needed it for slaying."

"And Dawn?"

"She's been good. I think Liam's been as good for her as for me." Buffy twisted her hand in the air. "He gives her something else to think about besides me or her."

Giles smiled. "I'm glad to hear it." He lifted his head as footsteps sounded on the stairs. "Here he comes."

Anya carried Liam down the stairs, resplendent in the bright blue outfit with the bright yellow sun stitched onto it. She swooped across the room, frowning at Giles. "How clean are your hands?" she asked.

"Just give me that child," Giles said, holding out his arms.

"Who knows what germs you may have brought from England," Anya groused but handed Liam over. The brown-haired baby stared at Giles, a faint frown on his face.

"Good lord, Buffy. He has your eyes," Giles said.

She grinned. "Everyone says that," she said, peering at the baby. "I don't see it, myself. And how could he, anyway? I mean, he's not really mine."

"I can see Angel in him, as well," Giles said. He chucked Liam under the chin. The baby gave him a level stare. "What a good little man you are," he said.

"He is good, isn't he?" Willow asked, coming up and giving Giles a one-armed hug. "It's good to see you, 'Grandpa.'"

"Willow. How are you, my dear?"

"Doing okay." She smiled sweetly at him. "Dawnie's made the honor roll this year at school, though."

"It's nothing," Dawn said, rolling her eyes though obviously pleased by the praise.

"So, Cordy and her gang are coming, too?" Xander asked, rubbing his hands together. "Can't hardly wait."

Buffy pointed. "Anya, make sure he's good. I'm not sure if Cordy's dating that Gunn guy or not, but he's big and I don't want to have to defend your husband again."

"I'm good, I'm good," Xander said.

"If you're so good, why don't you help me get some drinks from the kitchen?" Willow asked. "Who wants what?" She took the orders and led Xander off, leaving Anya to coo at Liam.

"You're so lucky, Buffy. That midwife and I were talking about babies the last time she came into the Magic Box," Anya said, as she tickled Liam's bare foot. "She told me that some women go through over twelve hours of childbirth. And you didn't have any pain."

Buffy dropped her head, remembering. "Yeah," she said, thinking she wouldn't exactly say the same.

Giles must have sensed her mood. "No child comes without pain of some sort, Anya," he said as the doorbell rang.

"I guess," Anya said as Dawn chirped, "I'll get it!" and darted to the door. She pulled it open, waving a hand. "Hey, Spike."

"Little bit," Spike said, bobbing his head. He entered the house, carrying something under his arm. "Rupert. Buffy. Everyone."

"Hello, Spike," Giles said.

"Hey, Spike." Buffy smiled a little self-consciously.

Spike didn't quite look at her. "Got something for the kid," he said, offering her the box. "Ain't much."

"Thank you. I-we appreciate it," Buffy said, setting the box with the others. "Will and Xander are getting drinks. Do you want something?"

"I'm fine," Spike said, rocking on his heels. He studied the baby in Giles' arms and his eyebrows raised. "Looks like he's gotten bigger since two days ago. What've you been feedin' him?"

"Regular old food," Buffy said, shrugging. Liam twisted around, spotting her. He reached for her and she took him from Giles, settling him on her hip. He clutched the shoulder of her blouse in his hand and looked warily at the others around them.

The doorbell chimed again. "I'll get it," Buffy said, moving past her friends. She pulled open the door. "You're late, Cordy," she said, "or are you still making entrances?"

"Uh, I'm not Cordy."

Buffy stared up at him in surprise, clutching Liam closer. He struggled against her grip, protesting how tight it was. "A-angel?" she whispered, not quite believing her eyes.

"Hey." His crooked smile flashed at her, the way it had in so many of her dreams. "I'm not too late, am I?"

Buffy covered her mouth with her free hand, biting her tongue to keep from screaming. It was a dream, just another dream, except he was reaching out to touch her shoulder, to keep her from falling. Someone plucked Liam from her and she flung herself into Angel's arms, holding on tightly. If it was a dream, she still wasn't letting go. Not this time.

"I told you you'd get a big welcome," someone said behind Angel and Cordelia appeared, jiggling Liam. "He wanted to surprise you, Buffy. I told him he could give you a heart attack doing that, but he insisted."

"Oh, God," Buffy said, pulling back just far enough to look up at Angel. "You're really here?"

"Yeah," he said, stroking the loose strand of hair out of her face. "I'm here."

The party passed as a blur for Buffy. She vaguely remembered singing for Liam and helping him open his gifts. She thought there might've been cake and a lot of laughter, and her family, her whole family, rejoicing in the return of one of their own. She did remember watching Angel, holding his son, the look of unimaginable joy on his face. And finally, things grew quiet, people left, hugging and kissing and promising to stay in touch and Willow and Dawn went to clean the kitchen, leaving her alone with her baby and his father.

Angel watched Liam sleep on the couch, carefully tracing one of his large fingers down the toddler's arm. "He's amazing, isn't he?" he asked softly.

"Pretty amazing," Buffy said, drawing close, leaning over the back. "Not quite as amazing as you, though. Or maybe just as amazing as you." She dropped her elbows on the back of it, cocking her head to the side to look at Liam. "I...felt you go. But this..." She waved her hand in a tiny circle. "How?"

"There was a scroll," Angel said quietly, leaning his shoulder against the back of the couch. He tilted his eyes towards her. "Wesley translated it once. It had prophecies, about the vampire with a soul. It's a long story, Buffy, but the scroll had the ability to bring me back, after I was dead."

She froze, thinking of her own experience. "Did you...are you happy to be back?" she asked carefully.

Angel smiled slightly, looking down at his son. "Yeah. I missed this." He took one of her hands, pulling it to his lips gently and kissing it. "I missed all of it. It wasn't like your death, Buffy. It was more like limbo, like I was waiting for something. Like I had things I had to do, yet. And I couldn't do them there. So when I came back, well, first I was a little disoriented, but it didn't take long to get into the swing of things."

"How long?" Buffy asked quietly.

"A month." Angel met her eyes unflinchingly. "I didn't want to worry you and I told the others not to let you know. They were afraid if something went wrong, you'd blame them anyway, so they didn't tell you about their plans to bring me back. Not until it worked." He gave her a wry smile. "It did."

"And you thought Liam's party would be the best time to just show up?" Buffy asked then realized how it sounded. "Not that I'm angry or anything, I mean, I'm glad you're back but Angel, what does this all mean?"

He rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb and tugged it carefully to rest on his chest. "It means I'm back. And this time, I want it all."

Buffy frowned then realized what she felt; the steady beat of Angel's heart beneath her hand. "Angel?" she whispered, shooting her eyes up to his.

"I'm alive." Angel smiled at her wonderment. "I'm alive, Buffy."

"Alive," she breathed, suddenly dizzy. "Alive?"

"The magic brought me back human, the same way it did Darla. But she wanted to be a vampire again. I don't. I want..." Angel dropped his eyes to his son. "Everything I want is right here with me, right now."

"Everything?" Buffy repeated.

He raised his face to hers, his voice steady. "If you'll have me."

Buffy smiled softly, leaning in to kiss Angel softly on his warm lips. Warm. Human. His heart jumped under her hand. "Yes," she said, pressing her forehead against his.

Liam opened his eyes, making a curious sound. He struggled to sit up, grunting. Buffy wrinkled her nose.

"Is he okay?" Angel asked, worried.

"Of course he is," Buffy said. "Pick him up, let's go."

"Go?"

"Sure. You said you want everything, right? Well, that includes diaper changing. And it's high time you learn how." She backed away from the couch, beckoning.

"Diapers? Don't men just give horsy rides?" Angel asked, lifting Liam.

"Not in this century," Buffy said. "And after that, maybe you can read Liam a bedtime story."

"That's more my style," Angel said hopefully, following Buffy as she started up the stairs. "I don't think I'm up to diapers yet. I just started living again, a month ago."

Buffy grinned, taking his free arm. "Then you have a lot of time to make up for." She led him up the stairs, thinking it was a fair trade. She could do without heaven now. With Angel, with Liam, their families combined, they'd find it here.

Together.