For Ages Six Months And Up.
The lettering on the box was in a cheery yellow; the photograph showed a young man and women in the background, blurry and out of focus, but clearly beaming at the plump, happy baby in the front. The baby was scooting little plastic trinkets along multicolored rings, smiling beatifically in the way makers of baby food, formula and diapers like to pretend babies smile all the time.
Angel, father of two, knew better.
He was standing in the middle of KayBee Toys, feeling like the lone still figure in a mall packed with shoppers taking advantage of the post-Thanksgiving sales. All around him, other parents jostled and grabbed. Space Station Barbie appeared to be selling well, as did some sort of robot-bug creatures that reminded Angel vaguely of Velga demons.
Grace was a few years yet from wanting a Barbie, or for that matter robot bugs. She was still mostly interested in things that made noise or could be chewed. But they meant to give her a big first Christmas; Cordelia wanted them to go Christmas-tree shopping in a few days, wanted to have a party where everyone made ornaments.
("Wish we had a tree," Fred had said wistfully, and though nobody seemed to pay much attention at the time, Wesley had showed up at the hotel later that night with a little dime-store tree, papery green "needles" and blinking white lights. Cordelia had set it on the counter as though it were something precious and dear. Angel had sat by her in the pale lights until late that night, wrapping the humble few things they could buy the baby -- necessities, mostly, teething rings and bibs -- in the Sunday comics. They would open them the next day, pretending surprise and delight, so Connor would have a good first Christmas --)
Connor had been taken when he was almost five months old. Almost exactly the age Grace was now.
In all objective criteria, his two children could not have been more different: Connor was a boy, Grace a girl. Connor had been as bald as an egg, and Grace had a thick shock of dark hair that stood up in the back, to Cordelia's dismay and Angel's amusement. Connor had been sensitive to light and sound, quick to cry and slow to soothe; Grace was the most placid of babies, a sound sleeper, happy to amuse herself for long stretches of time.
Connor was an accident, both in his parents' intent and in the workings of the universe at large -- an aberration born to lifeless creatures who loathed one another, created for a greater purpose that was still unknown. Grace was planned and hoped-for, a healthy, normal baby born to two human beings, man and wife, created for no purpose except to live and be loved..
So there was no logical reason at all to think that what had happened to Connor would happen to Grace. None at all.
And yet Angel could feel his heart speed up and his breath catch just at reading those words: Ages Six Months And Up.
"What's that for?"
Angel glanced over at his son -- the young man who demanded to be known as Stephen -- who was staring at the toy as though it were something very strange and suspect. Given the creatures Stephen encountered on a regular basis, this was saying something. "It's not for anything in particular," Angel said. "It's just for fun. Babies like bright colors, moving things." You loved your mobile, Angel wanted to say. But he had learned long ago that such reminiscence meant little to Stephen.
Stephen shook his head in disbelief. "So kids don't need anything in this store. And this is what people spend hundreds of dollars on?"
"That's Christmas," Angel said.
"It's stupid," Stephen said. His voice was half teenage surliness, half something much more adult and condemning. Angel still knew few details of Stephen's childhood under Holtz's stern hand, but he could well imagine that fun and games and toys had played little part in it.
Although he knew it was false, sometimes Angel thought he had two sons -- one a noisy, boisterous, beautiful baby named Connor who had died very long ago. Stephen -- he was someone else. Angel could not count the hours he had spent looking into Stephen's eyes, trying to catch some glimpse of the baby he had lost, of the boundless love he had once seen there.
Stephen did not consider Angel his true father, and he never would. Angel had accepted that long ago and tried to be content with what relationship they had been able to establish: cooperation, friendliness, even some level of trust. Angel still had nightmares about what Stephen had done to him -- in the box, in the water, there was nothing to do but remember, and being trapped in his memories had proved to be little different than what he'd endured in hell. When Stephen had learned the truth, he had relented in his rage against Angel; however, sometimes Angel wondered whether anything but guilt kept Stephen at his side. His son clung to his past, clung to the name that still sounded so strange to say. Angel had hoped that some of the terrible gap in his heart would be healed through Grace's birth -- his second chance to be a father, to get it right this time.
But instead, sometimes Angel felt as though Grace's arrival had made it a thousand times worse.
Stephen shifted his weight from foot to foot. "You know, Grace needs new clothes. She's going up a size."
"I know. We'll get her some of those too."
"Blankets, maybe." Stephen's brow was furrowed as he tried to think of things his baby sister might need -- objects that could serve a purpose, gifts he would understand. "And shoes."
"How about you get her some shoes, okay?" Angel suggested. "They can be from you." Stephen smiled at that, a broad, unrestrained grin that was reserved for his sister.
To Angel's surprise, Stephen accepted Grace as his sister immediately and completely; he lavished affection and attention on the baby, revealed gentleness Angel hadn't realized his son had. He knew he should be grateful, for both Grace's and Stephen's sakes, but instead he could only look at Stephen's loving expression and think of what might have been.
All these toys. Walls and walls of them, floor to ceiling, bright colors and shining plastic. Connor had toys, little stuffed animals, a snowglobe that spun. The childhood Stephen had been given didn't even let him understand toys. The childhood Stephen had lost, that Angel had lost --
"We're leaving." Angel turned and hurried out of the store, overcome with the need to be far away from all those other parents, all those perfect smiling babies. He pushed his way through the crowd, earning a few angry stares; he didn't care. Was Stephen keeping up with him? It almost didn't matter. The boy would probably consider Angel's absence a relief.
But Stephen did come after him, stumbling into the mall corridor a few moments after Angel did. Stephen's face betrayed his curiosity about Angel's behavior, but Angel knew from experience that Stephen would not ask. "Are we going home?" was all Stephen said.
"Maybe. I don't know. We're not doing any more shopping." What exactly they would do didn't instantly spring to mind. Angel sat down heavily on a nearby bench.
"Cordy's gonna want to know why we didn't get the shopping done." Stephen had marginally more interest in Cordelia than he had in Angel. And in this situation he was quite right; Cordelia was ready to go into gift-wrapping mode, and she would demand a reason for Angel's coming back empty-handed.
Also -- perhaps Stephen wasn't aware of this, but Angel certainly was -- matters had been somewhat strained between Angel and Cordelia of late. He knew that his fears for Grace made him distant; it seemed impossible to concentrate on the here and now, on Cordelia and on Grace, when the past loomed up like this, so much more powerful in his new, fragile, mortal state than it had ever been before. And Cordelia, in turn, was sometimes awkward around him. Yet, strangely for her, she hadn't asked about it.
Maybe she'd blow it off if he and Stephen came back without the shopping done. But maybe she would ask, and then he would have to lie to her, something he hated to do. Angel told Cordelia almost everything, these days; he'd learned the hard way that it paid off in the long run. But this -- he didn't want to talk about it, didn't even want to say it out loud. Admitting that he was afraid for Grace meant admitting that it could all happen again. That there was no way, no matter how careful he was, that he could be absolutely sure Grace was safe.
("Sleep tight," he'd said, playing it casual, trying not to show that he worried about letting Connor go away for the night. His son was a tiny bundle in Wesley's arms, going out the door into darkness --)
His cell phone chirped, breaking his reverie. He tried not to groan; it would either be Gunn reporting a new case or Cordelia with an errand, and in neither case was Angel eager to hear it. "Yeah?"
To his surprise, the voice on the other end said, "Angel?" A woman's voice. Soft. Forever familiar.
Say something back, jackass. "Buffy. Are you okay?" As Angel said her name, Stephen raised an eyebrow. So, he'd listened when Angel told him those chapters of the story. That was a first.
"What? Yeah, I'm fine." Buffy sounded odd, but perhaps that was only the connection. "I'm, um, I'm actually on Melrose."
Angel held his other hand over his free ear, the better to drown out the busy shoppers around him and concentrate on her voice. For a moment, he regretted the loss of his vampiric hearing. "You're in Los Angeles."
"No wonder you're a private detective," Buffy said with a lilt that took the sting out of the words. "Visiting Dawn?" he said. He remembered something about Dawn moving down here, something Buffy had said during her visit the previous summer, not long before Grace was born.
"Yeah. Doing Christmas here, maybe." She hesitated. "Are you all right? You sound a little weird."
"I'm fine," Angel said. "You caught me at a -- weird moment, I guess." She didn't sound much better, but he didn't mention it specifically. "What about you?"
"I'm -- " The obvious next word was "good," and that was what she meant to say, Angel could tell. But the word didn't come out. The silence stretched out, and then he heard a faint sniffling gulp -- stifled tears.
"Hey," he said gently. "Buffy? Are you okay?" Stephen bounced on his heels impatiently.
"I am," Buffy insisted. "I really am. Things are just confusing right now."
And this will make it a lot better, Angel thought. All he said was, "Can I help?"
"Yeah. I mean, no -- not with -- what I mean is, I do have some supernatural weirdness I want to run by you."
"Seems like old times," Angel said, and was rewarded with a weak chuckle. "Okay, then, let's --" Go to the hotel? To his house? Neither seemed appropriate. "Let's get something to eat."
"You eating," Buffy said. "Okay, I see the novelty value."
"Hang on," Angel said. He covered the receiver with one hand. "Do you mind going back to the hotel without me?"
"Nope," Stephen said. "Are you going out with your ex-girlfriend?"
"She's the slayer," Angel reminded him. "This is slayer business," he added, before remembering that this might not be strictly true.
"We should ask Cordy first," Stephen said.
"It's gonna be fine by Cordy," Angel said. That, too, might not be strictly true; however, he was sure Cordelia's annoyance could only be slight. He spoke into the phone again. "We're set. Where should we eat?"
"Depends. Where are you?"
"The mall," he said. It was a straightforward answer, but he couldn't resent it when she burst out laughing.
Angel had known, from the first moment Whistler revealed her to him, that he was destined to meet Buffy for some great and important purpose. Eight years, 14 near-apocalyptic events, one night of sex, two escapes of his demonic inner self, a half-dozen breakups and one immeasurably long stint in hell later, they were sitting in a Ruby Tuesday, peering together at the specialty-drinks menu.
I have to reconsider this entire "fate" thing, Angel thought.
The waitress wandered over to them, and Buffy set the drinks menu down with a shrug. "I'd just like a whiskey. Neat."
Angel was caught slightly off-guard by that, then realized he'd been expecting her to order the same sort of thing Cordelia would've -- something frothy and extravagant and fun. He enjoyed teasing her about it; not many jokes to make about whiskey. His order, on the other hand -- "I'll have a Bloody Mary. Don't say anything."
As the waitress left them, Buffy kept staring at him, biting her lip in an ill-disguised attempt not to laugh. Angel shifted in his seat. "Sometimes I just want something red and viscous."
"Bet you go through a lot of ketchup."
"Too thick. So, what's this weirdness you were going to run by me?"
As Buffy pulled up her backpack and began fishing out whatever it was she'd brought -- apparently, it wouldn't cause undue comment in a restaurant -- Angel took a couple of moments to look at her. She had altered more, from girl to woman, than most did; she was neither more nor less beautiful than she had ever been, just different. He saw that she had gained a little weight since the summer, and she looked by far the better for it. However, he had learned that it was unwise to pay this particular compliment to a 21st-century woman.
But there was something else about her now -- a strange energy, something that was both troubling and exciting her. Did this connect to whatever she was going to show him?
"And here we go." She set it on the table with a heavy thunk. "Apparently you can use this to go traveling through dimensions. Giles -- Giles kinda set me on it because it's drawn to your interdimensional frequent fliers and the previously dead. Both of which I am, but seeing as how you have centuries of deadness on me, plus you go to other dimensions the way other people go to the grocery store --"
"A Wernoth crystal," Angel said as he took it in his hands. He felt the faint hum in the crystal, smiled fondly. "Where did Giles get this? These are hard to come by."
"You know it?" Buffy looked both relieved and vaguely let down. "So much for the big mystery."
"I've seen them. They're really rare, though; humans almost never get their hands on these, or don't know what to do with them when they do."
"Giles knows what it does," Buffy said. Was she a little defensive? Angel looked up at her as she continued. "He knows that you use them to travel through dimensions. He just needs to know exactly where this one would take you."
"I'm afraid Giles is out of luck," Angel said. He gave a quick, absent smile to the waitress as she dropped off their drinks. "That's what makes a Wernoth crystal different than the others you can use to travel through dimensions."
"Not getting something here," Buffy said.
"Other crystals are attuned to various dimensions," Angel explained. "But a Wernoth -- there's no directing it. See the flaws at the center? They bend your path, change your course. A crystal like this -- it's like a surfboard or something. Sends you flying off through realities for a thrill ride."
"You're kidding. What if you went to a hell dimension? Sorry -- not trying to bring up bad memories."
"It's okay." In truth, her words did send an unpleasant jolt through him, but Angel shoved it aside. "If you went to a place you didn't want to be, you'd just use it again immediately. The danger is part of the appeal, Buffy. If you use one of these things, you accept the risk of going someplace you hate. You might end up someplace terrific. You'll probably do both, before too long. But the main enjoyment of it is hurling yourself into the dimensions. Flying off, destination unknown."
Buffy tapped her fingers on the table. "I've been trying to focus in on this thing for weeks," she said. "Each time, it seemed like it was sending me something different. Not stuff that was -- stuff that might have been. That kinda makes sense now."
"Why did Giles need to know?" Angel said. "Curiosity?"
Giles' name made her duck her head. "No, he -- no. I mean, they caught a demon with this thing, and they were scared it might be part of some master plan. Demon invasion, yadda yadda. But I guess your celestial surfboard isn't a big part of the evil warlord arsenal, right?"
"Right. They're too unpredictable to be used tactically. Giles can tell the Council that they have nothing to fear."
"Seems scary." Buffy was staring at the deep gold crystal, perhaps as a means of avoiding Angel's eyes. "I mean, if you used something like this -- could you ever get back home? Or are you just lost forever?"
"You'd get home again," Angel said. "They work in rings. Cycles. No cycle of journeys would ever be the same as any other, but yeah, you'll always come back to the beginning."
"So I get to tell the Council that they were freaking out because some demon decided it was time to hang ten," Buffy sighed.
"Beats an apocalypse," Angel suggested.
"I guess," Buffy said.
The pause that stretched out from this comment seemed unusually long to Angel; not talkative by nature, he appreciated comfortable silences, but this wasn't one. Something was weighing on Buffy, something that both troubled and excited her. He profoundly hoped it had nothing to do with himself.
Finally, Buffy said, "So -- how's Cordy?"
"Good," he said. "She's going to take a couple of classes at UCLA next semester. Psychology and something called the 19th Century Novel. She's excited about it. Halfway through the syllabus already."
"College," Buffy said, her face wistful. Angel wanted to ask why she'd never returned to UC Sunnydale -- he remembered her good test scores, her genuine desire to do more with her education than she'd been able to in high school -- but it seemed impolitic to ask.
Instead, he said, "How was Giles? I bet it was good to see him again."
"Oh," she said, as if startled. Her cheeks were pink. "Giles. Giles is -- just fine. Same ol' Giles."
Giles, Angel thought. He turned the memory of the man over in his mind, looked at Buffy. For one moment, his old understanding of her emotions, her unspoken words, flashed back to him, as sharp and as true as ever. He remembered seeing her so disquieted, so eager and uncertain all at once. That energy she had when she spoke about Giles -- Angel recalled it from the days when it had been something they shared for one another. Did that mean -- could that mean --
The waitress saved either of them from having to continue in that particular vein when she deposited the chicken fingers on their table. Angel began munching on his immediately, and he smiled when he saw Buffy shaking her head at him. "What?"
"I guess if you go 250 years without solid food, you appreciate it more when you get it," she said.
"I'm lucky I get a lot of exercise," Angel said, dipping his chicken in the tangy sauce again.
And it was just at that moment -- just when he might have thought himself safe -- that Buffy said, "Angel, do you ever think about what happened to us?"
Damn, Angel thought. The full reality of his situation -- a married man, not carrying out the errands his wife had sent him to do, but instead talking over old times with his ex -- was now upon him. But even as he finished chewing, thought about his answer, he realized that Buffy was totally calm. She was less ill-at-ease now than she had been when they were discussing Giles. It's okay, he told himself. We can talk about this. "Yeah," he said. "Of course."
"Things are good for you now --"
"Yeah, they are."
"-- and I'm glad. I mean it, Angel. Really, really glad." She smiled at him, her lips quirked in that not-quite-begrudging way he remembered so well. "You deserve it."
"No, I don't," Angel said. "But I'm grateful."
"For me, they're -- well, they're better," she said. "And I know it's a good thing that we moved on." Angel nodded, encouraging her to continue. "But sometimes it just seems like a waste, you know? All that pain and frustration and crying --"
"I guess that's how you remember it," Angel said. He felt unaccountably hurt; hadn't he realized this a long time ago? But still. "But that's not what I see when I look back. I try to remember the good times. Talking in your room and drinking coffee at the Bronze. Making out in the graveyards."
Buffy smiled a little, easing some of the sting. "I remember those times too, Angel. But all that stuff we felt -- the good and the bad -- doesn't it seem like it should have been for something? I just can't stand the idea that I gave up so much for nothing."
She was looking at the crystal again, and, Angel realized, thinking of Giles. He felt a twinge of something he recognize as pure male possessiveness, but mostly he felt relief. At long last, what Buffy wanted from him was something he could give her.
"We didn't give it up for nothing," he said. "We gave it up for this. For the lives we've got now."
"I'm just so far from anyplace I thought I would end up."
"Listen, I didn't expect to end up married to Cordelia Chase, either," he said. To his relief, Buffy smiled. "If you'd asked me back in 1998 if this is what I wanted my life to be like, I would've said no. And I would have been dead wrong."
"You couldn't resist. I didn't get the future I thought I was going to get, no. I didn't end up with you." He could remember his old daydreams -- visions of Buffy in white satin and a veil, of a church that married them but included no one else in the world. Beautiful and sad and so far away. "But I got a future that is -- so much better than I ever dreamed. Sometimes the unexpected is the best thing of all, you know?"
"Maybe," Buffy said. She was thinking about something. Deciding something. Angel still recognized that in her -- that whip-crack change in her eyes, the way she seized an idea, pounced on it like a cat. She was smiling again. "I guess maybe it is."
Giles, you lucky bastard, Angel thought.
Buffy began munching on the chicken fingers herself, and Angel wondered if the subject was closed. But then she said, "You remember how Spike once said that you and me would never be friends?" Angel nodded. "Spike was right about a lot of things. But, you know, it's a major relief to find out that in this one area he was totally full of shit."
"You're just now figuring that out?"
They laughed together for the first time in far too long.
Buffy waved cheerfully from her car as she drove away after dropping Angel off. Angel waved after her, surprised to feel the broad smile on his face, to see it mirrored on her own. Friends, he thought, first in disbelief and then in satisfaction. Friends. He thought he'd lost her forever and had endured the loss -- but now, he had her back. It was different than before, and better than before, not least because their friendship could actually last.
Angel was still smiling as he went through the door. Nobody was behind the desk; apparently Gunn had gone home to spend some quality time with his new roommate, Dennis. (Cordy thought it would be only fair to Dennis to make sure the tenant after her was a friend who understood dead people.) But the ground floor wasn't deserted; Stephen stepped in from the courtyard, an oversized sweatshirt over his clothes to protect him from the L.A. version of winter. The way it hung on him made him look younger, Angel thought. "You're back," Stephen said. "Cordy's mad."
Stephen looked worried, in what Angel recognized as man-to-man solidarity when faced with the prospect of a mysteriously angry female. It wasn't exactly a son's concern, but it seemed genuine -- which was why Angel had to grin. Stephen frowned, confused. "She'll be okay," Angel reassured him. "Did you get dinner?"
"Pizza," Stephen said with a faint smile. The rest of this dimension might still be confusing to him, Angel thought, but the kid knows his junk food. "You should go to her."
"Right." Angel glanced up the stairs, then patted his son on the back. "Thanks for the heads-up." The only response was a one-shoulder shrug.
Angel went up to the rooms that he and Cordelia had adapted into their apartment; when he went through the door, he looked at the home he shared with Cordy as though he'd never set foot in it before. The past few months, he realized, he'd been remembering these rooms as they had been in 2002 -- cracks in the walls and soot on the floor, a wreckage with an abandoned crib in the center. But now everything about the rooms hit him anew -- the golden-yellow paint that brightened the walls (and memories of him and Cordy, painting together and making a mess of it), a framed sketch Angel had done of Cordelia during her fifth month of pregnancy (and memories of her laughing so often during the posing sessions that he never did get the mouth quite right), the soft white drapes that covered the windows but still let in the sunlight (and memories of his first day of humanity, when Cordelia had thrown open all the windows and made love to him while the sun streamed in and bathed their bodies in light.) Home. Angel felt a deep wave of gratitude to his wife, for her, and realized how much, in these past months of introspection and worry, he had missed their closeness.
He stepped gingerly over the baby toys scattered around the floor and made his way to where Grace herself was sound asleep in her little swing, rocking back and forth so that her chubby legs waggled. Angel wanted to lean down and kiss her, but he didn't trust himself to match the swing's tempo. Head-butting the baby was probably a bad idea.
"There you are," Cordelia's voice floated from the kitchen As she walked in, she wasn't looking at him, but frowning down at her copy of Madame Bovary. She was wearing old jeans and an older sweatshirt, but in Angel's opinion she wore them well. "Okay, explain this to me, ye olde guy from another century. She's doing it with this guy in a carriage, right? Isn't that kinda cramped?"
"No more than a Plymouth," Angel said, remembering one of the possibilities for Grace's conception.
The desired result of this comment was Cordelia's half-embarrassed, half-wicked smile -- one of his favorite expressions. Instead she just looked uneasy. "No back seat in a carriage."
"Nope," Angel said. He stepped a little closer to her, brushed his forefinger along the top of her book to push it down. "You had to sit upright. At least, the man did. The lady in question had to be a little more -- flexible."
That should have tipped her off to his good mood -- and his hopes for the evening -- but instead she kept staring down at the book as though transfixed. Angel suspected that something besides Flaubert was behind this, and realized Stephen's instincts had been accurate. "Cordy? You okay?"
"Sure," she said, sitting down in a chair she rarely used. Normally they sat on the sofa together, but this seat didn't let Angel get too close. This meant trouble, Angel suspected. And he was sure of it when she said, "Stephen said you had dinner with Buffy."
"Yeah," Angel said. "She was in town investigating this Wernoth crystal. I gave her the background on it." Probably Cordelia was hurt that Angel hadn't asked her along. Might be a good policy, in future, for ex-girlfriend dinners.
Cordelia glanced up from the book just for a moment. "Anything apocalypsey I oughta worry about?"
"It turned out to be no big deal. But it was good to see her. And you'll never believe this," Angel added, kneeling down to look at Grace, still rocking back and forth like a metronome. "She didn't say anything, I mean in so many words, but I think there's something going on with her and Giles."
"Something -- going on?" Cordy let the book drop. She was staring down at him very strangely.
"Maybe not yet. But something's up. I don't know if there's real dating -- do you even say dating, when you've known somebody that long? We didn't." An idea struck Angel, as well as his disbelief that he'd never thought of it before. "I never really took you out on a first date, did I? Opening doors and paying for drinks and all that. We should get Stephen to babysit one night and go on a date. Movies and dinner, the works. Might even get you a corsage."
Cordelia didn't seem as entertained by the idea. She was blinking at him, and Angel realized there were tears in her eyes. "Cordy? What's wrong?"
"Buffy's with Giles," Cordelia said. "And you don't care."
Angel's first, confused thought was that he was being accused of insensitivity. "I care," he said earnestly. "I want them both to be happy --"
Cordelia shook her head. "I know, I know," she whispered. "You really don't care that she's with somebody else."
Realization finally dawned. "Cordy -- you can't have thought -- after all this time --"
"I don't know," Cordelia choked out. From his place on the floor, Angel put his hands on her feet -- it was the only way of touching her from where he sat. "I didn't think about you two for so long, but this summer -- after you saw her, it was like you changed. You were shut off all the time, and I told myself, okay, it's Angel, he goes into total dork isolation mode sometimes, but I kept thinking, you know, the guy shanshued and you never asked him if he wanted something else and maybe he did and maybe he's trapped and now he's seen Buffy again and --"
"Hey," Angel cut her off, took her hands, pulled her down to the floor with him. They knelt facing each other, just a few inches from the baby in her swing. "None of that is true, okay? None of it. I love you."
"I know," Cordelia said, wiping at her cheeks. "I know you do. But you and Buffy -- you were so -- I mean, you came back from hell for her. You gave up your first crack at being human for her. You loved her so much."
"Yeah, I did," Angel said. "And you're still the love of my life."
He brushed his thumbs across her cheeks, felt her damp eyelashes brush against his fingertips. Slowly, he leaned in and brushed his lips against hers, almost too gently to be a kiss. But she kissed him back forcefully, and he opened his mouth for her, following her lead. They were slow and thorough, the way they used to kiss in the very beginning, when they were so new to each other that every touch was a blessing.
Finally she let him go and peered searchingly into his eyes. "Okay, then, Mr. Broody, if you haven't been pining away for someone of the slayer persuasion, what have you been so weird about?"
"Connor," Angel said. He didn't use that name much anymore; he knew Cordelia would understand everything he meant by saying it. "I thought having Grace would make the memories easier, somehow. But it hasn't. I get scared for her, and I remember being scared for Connor, and --"
"Oh, Angel." She cupped his face in her hands. "Why didn't you just tell me?"
"I don't like to think about it," he confessed.
"How long has this been going on? Since this summer?"
Angel nodded. He could feel his old reticence kicking up -- the almost physical urge not to talk about it -- but it was time, past time, and he'd have to get through it. He folded Cordelia against his chest; it might be easier if he could just concentrate on holding her, on the way she felt in his arms. "When you were in your last couple of months -- the shape of your body -- it reminded me of Darla." She tensed slightly; Angel didn't blame her. "And when Darla went into labor -- Cordy, I had these nightmares of you bleeding and hurting and taking a stake and --"
"Shhhh," Cordelia whispered. "I'm fine. It was all fine."
The delivery room had been cozy and comfortable, a place so modern that it had furnishings designed to make it look just like a home. Angel had been jubilant enough in his happiness and relief to joke about how absurd this was, at least if you remembered an era when babies really were born at home. "I thought it was over, after that. That I was done being scared. But as soon as I saw Grace, I started remembering Connor again. I tell myself it doesn't do any good, but I can't help it. I'm sorry. I ought to be able to deal with this by now."
"You are dealing," Cordelia said, winding her arms around his waist. "But you don't have to deal alone, okay?"
"Okay." They held each other for a long time; the only sound in the room was the click-click of Grace's swing, their own breathing. Angel felt her heart beating against his palms, took a moment to appreciate the beating of his own. He kissed Cordelia's cheek, nuzzled the side of her jaw, and for a few precious moments he was at last able to live in the here and now. The very good here and now.
"All right," Cordelia said briskly, with one of her getting-down-to-business nods. "Not everybody in this room had dinner with their ex. So I hereby appoint you to find me something to eat."
Food. Hmmm. There were some eggs in the fridge -- maybe an omelet -- Angel's reverie was broken by Cordelia taking back up her copy of Madame Bovary. The teasing light he loved was back in her eyes. "So, these clothes you guys used to wear? Massively unattractive. Nothing turns a woman off like men in knickers."
"These days," Angel said, heading into the kitchen. "Back in the 1790s, though, you could get women to swoon by flexing your calf muscles."
Cordelia laughed out loud. "What good did it do you if they did? I mean, the dresses looked better than the eight-lords-a-leaping gear the menfolk had, but the women were totally buried in all those corsets and petticoats."
"It was sexy," Angel insisted. He took out the eggs and cheese and peppers, preparing to cook his wife's dinner. "When you saw somebody with all those clothes on, you wondered what it would be like to take them off."
"I'll have to start wearing more clothes then."
He smiled. "Don't you dare."
Cordelia was grinning broadly now. "And before, when you were talking about getting frisky in the carriages, and the ladies being flexible? Are we talking merely limber or, you know, Plastic Man?"
"I tell you what," Angel said. "Why don't I just show you later on?"
"Sounds like a plan."