The Shock Of The Normal

Author: queen boadicea

Disclaimer: This belongs to the great and powerful Joss and the usual gang of idi…uh, geniuses

Pairing: B/A

Summary: A vision from Cordelia sends Angel racing to Sunnydale to help a dangerously deranged Slayer.


Feedback: Do your worst-it can't compare to my worst ;)

Notes: General spoilers for BtVS season six, episode "Normal Again"



Part 1

Cordelia tapped the vampire on the shoulder. "Angel. Angel. Hello? Earth to Angel? We need to talk about Wes….oh wait." Angel had learned to pick up on the strange note in Cordelia's voice that signaled the onset of a vision. Even though they no longer caused her pain, she always got a little dizzy after them.

He stood up quickly, supporting her back. "What is it, Cordy? What did you see?"

She screwed up her face as she attempted to sort out the chaotic images. "It's a room with windows set high near the ceiling…a basement I think. I can see Willow, Xander and a blonde girl I don't recognize…oh, and Buffy's little sister." Her eyes grew wide as she spotted the demonic creature in the room with them.

"They're being attacked. Some waxy-looking demon with a real hair follicle problem in a ragged coat is going after them."

"Where's Buffy? Do you see her anywhere?"

She sighed inwardly; of course he'd be more concerned about Buffy than the others. "I don't see-wait, there she is. She's…" Her voice trailed off and Angel felt a familiar dread seize him.

"What? What's happening to her?"

She lifted her gaze to his, confusion written across her face. "That's…it doesn't make any sense. She's in a corner watching the others and she's not doing anything."

Cordelia was right; that didn't make any sense. The vampire questioned her more closely. "What do you mean? Is she injured or tied up?"

Gunn walked into the room. "Hey, what up? Our favorite seer getting more Technicolor info from the PTB?" Angel waved his hand impatiently in Gunn's direction, signaling him to be quiet while he kept his gaze trained unwaveringly on Cordelia's face. "Oh, right. Mum's the word."

"She's not injured. At least, I don't see any wounds or anything. She's just sitting there while that demon is killing her friends."

Angel sank back absolutely horrified by the news. "That can't be right. Buffy would never sit idly by while her friends are in danger. Are you sure that was Buffy you saw, Cordy?"

Her temper flared. "No, it was her celebrity lookalike! Of course I'm sure, Angel. For some reason, she's opted out of the fight while this thing makes mincemeat out of her old high school buddies." Seeing his mouth open, she quickly interjected, "And don't ask me why. The PTB give me visuals not explanations. I don't know if she's under a spell or hallucinating or whatever. I only know what I saw. Buffy's friends are going to die…and she's going to let it happen."

Angel glanced outside. There was less than two hours to daylight; he was sure he could make it. "I'm on my way, Cordelia." He paused as he waited for her automatic protest. "Aren't you going to tell me not to go?"

She rolled her eyes wearily. "As if that would stop you. No, you're meant to be there, Angel. I may not get much from my visions but I got that little. Go, go. Rescue your lady fair. Or, in this case, her hapless sidekicks."

He grinned and squeezed her arm. "Thanks, Cordy. You're a real sweetheart."

She grimaced as she watched him run out the door. "Oh sure. All the guys say that. Then they never call."

Angel parked quietly outside the house on Revello Drive. It was deceptively quiet in there and he could see no signs of trouble. Not for the first time he wished that Cordy's visions came with some sort of timetable. When was this disaster supposed to occur? Within the day? The next two days? What if he was caught off guard? He wanted to use his cellphone to call his seer but he knew she'd given him all the information she had available. In the meantime, he would have to find some place secluded near Buffy's house and wait.

The day passed excruciatingly slowly and Angel felt as if the sun would never set. He'd managed to find an empty crypt that was on Buffy's rounds and silently shadowed her from a distance. He was worried about her. In the past she'd always been able to sense him but now she went about her business as if completely oblivious to his presence. Her scent was brought to him on the wind and he sniffed deeply, frowning. Her smell wasn't right. There was the usual tinge of vanilla, overlaid with a bitter odor. It was unidentifiable but under it lay something else, something familiar…

Spike. His eyes widened and a tremor of anger ran through his frame. The odor of his grandchilde was on Buffy. The peroxide vampire had been with his mate and recently, too, by the smell of it. As he crouched in the shadows, debating whether to confront her about it, he saw the vampire in question approaching her, holding a bag of groceries.

They were chatting about Xander's wedding of all things and Angel felt mild surprise. Xander Harris had been married? And Spike had been in attendance? Who paid for that wedding? He smirked at the idea of anyone voluntarily inviting Spike and decided that he'd probably just crashed the party. Then again, by the sound of it, the wedding hadn't gone through after all. Something had happened to upset it and Harris had abandoned his prospective bride at the altar.

Spike said that some people didn't know a good thing when they had it and by that Angel realized that he wasn't talking about Harris so much as Buffy. She'd dumped Spike and this was his oh-so-subtle way of taunting her for it. Then Willow and the donut boy himself showed up. Xander rebuked Spike for hovering around Buffy, and Angel watched in amusement as first Spike sneered at Xander for leaving his would-be bride and then the whelp socked Spike hard, scattering his groceries across the graveyard.

[The boy's learned to defend himself. Good for him.] Before things could get any worse, Angel saw Buffy collapse onto the ground. The bitter odor he'd noted earlier had returned, stronger than ever, and he noted with alarm that his former beloved looked disoriented, as if she were unaware of what was going on around her. Spike offered to take her to his crypt, an idea that was swiftly rejected.

"She's our friend. We'll take care of her." With that dismissal, Xander put one of Buffy's arms around his neck and helped her leave with Willow. [Great, Harris. I knew I could count on you.] The dark-haired vampire listened to Spike call out that they should put ice on her neck and watched his grandchilde disappear unhappily into the shadows.

He considered whether he should go after Spike and decided that, while the dyed menace could certainly use a good talking to (or a sound beating), Buffy's welfare was more important. Reluctantly he edged after her, following her home.

Angel easily climbed the tree outside her window and crouched in her bedroom. Cracking open the door a notch, he could hear everything from his hidden vantagepoint. Buffy related how she'd been having flashes of being in a mental institution, how a doctor kept telling her that nothing in her life was real. Her mother and father had been there and he could hear the faint longing in her voice as she related their presence. As he continued to spy on his dear Slayer, he felt the cellphone in his coat vibrate silently.

Trying to fish it out and keep an ear open to the ongoing conversation, he whispered sharply, "What?"

"And hello to you, too, gorgeous. How's everybody's favorite brooding vampire?"

"Lorne, unless you've got something useful to say, now is not the time."

"Gotcha, Angelface. While we had a dickens of a time digging through the books without Wesley's invaluable help, we did manage to get the lowdown on your Sunnydale critter. It turns out that it's a Glarghk Guhl Kashmak Nik demon."

"That's either its name or you were trying to hack up a hairball," Angel dryly responded.

"Oooh, the man made a funny! And Cordelia says you have no sense of humor. Anyhoo, the long and short of it is, our poster boy for the Hairclub for Men can inject its victims with a poison that makes them start to have powerful hallucinations. Instant schizophrenia."

He continued to listen to the murmured conversation from below stairs. "Any cure?"

"Yep. The demon produces its own antidote in the same stinger on its arm it uses to inject its victims. All you have to do is catch it."

Angel listened as Willow said in a too-bright voice that it was time for research. "Is that hard?" he asked.

"The things are wicked strong, Angel. Contrary to their smooth waxiness that looks like a baby's behind, the skin is as hard as nails. You need someone with vampire-like strength to bring 'em down. Lucky you're on the job, eh, buttercup? They like to hide out in really dark places, like caves or woodland areas."

"Thanks, Lorne. I think I know where I can find this thing. I'm on it." He slid out the window again just in time to intercept Harris as he came out the door. "Hey, Xander."

The man must have jumped two feet and yelped in fright. "What the-Angel? What are you doing here? Man, I am so not in the mood to deal with you now, Deadboy."

Angel was amused by the old nickname. Some things never changed, it seemed. "Good to see you, too, Harris. I understand you have a Glarghk Guhl Kashmak Nik to track down."

"How did you-?" Xander's eyes narrowed and he looked back to the house. Understanding of where Angel had sprung from came over him and his fists clenched in anger. "Still lurking around Buffy, huh? Look, she's got enough to deal with having Spike on that front. She doesn't need any exes taking up the slack."

Angel's lips thinned when Xander mentioned the other vampire. But he couldn't tell if the man knew of Buffy's affair with Spike or not. Judging by his contemptuous but relaxed attitude when encountering Spike in the graveyard earlier, he assumed not. Either way, he decided not to mention his knowledge of Buffy's and Spike's involvement. "Relax, Xander. I'm not here to renew things with Buffy. Cordelia got a vision; I'm here to help."

"Well, we've got things under control here so you can…wait a minute, did you say Cordelia got a vision?"

Angel started walking to the car as he sketched Xander in on some of the things happening in L.A. "Cordy gets visions from the Powers That Be. They let her know about demons and the people who need rescuing. Then the L.A. team and I get on it."

"So that's why you're here? Cordy saw this Gargle Gaggle demon in a vision?"

Angel nodded. "And if Cordelia saw it, that means I'm supposed to help. Don't worry, Harris. I'm not here to start anything with Buffy again. From what I saw earlier, she's in good hands with you and the others."

"Yeah. I guess."

The morose note in Xander's voice didn't escape Angel's notice. Casually the vampire continued, "I heard you were going to get married. What happened?"

Xander snapped, "I really don't want to discuss that with you, okay? It's none of your business."

"Did you go over it with your friends? It's good to talk things out with people that care for you. I get that now. It's what I've got in L.A."

Xander shot an angry glance at Angel's face but detected no sarcasm there. He didn't know what to say. That vision of himself in the future had shaken his self-confidence to the core. He badly wanted to discuss this with someone and he'd been really low on male buddies since Riley and Giles left. Still, it wasn't as if he and Angel had ever been close…

"…and it wasn't real, I know that. Anya said it was all smoke and mirrors, you know, the demon messing with my head. But it was just like all the things I've seen with my own folks: the fights, the screaming, the hostile teens with major bugs up their butts, the drunken useless father, the bitter mother with a chip on her shoulder the size of Texas. Fun for the whole family."

[Wow, guess Xander really needed to talk.] Once the floodgates were opened, he couldn't get the man to shut up. Angel kept an eye out for their quarry while talking to the agitated man beside him. "You wouldn't do any of those things, Xander."

"I know-I think. But it was so bad; how could I tell Anya about it? Or the others? I don't even know how it ended. The reel just cut off, like an old film in a really ancient crappy school projector."

"You saw yourself killing her."

The calm statement floored Xander. How could Angel have known that? "Yeah. That was it. How-?"

"It's one of the reasons I left Buffy. I could feel Angelus beneath the skin, getting close to the surface, whenever I was near her. After Jenny Calendar, it was just too risky. Being around Buffy always made me fear losing control and, after Angelus appeared, I couldn't take the chance of that happening again."

"Really? She never told us that."

"I never told her. She wouldn't have believed it. Buffy was …she was always too willing to think the best of me. She'd never have believed me if I said I was afraid of murdering her. So I told her that I wanted her to have a normal life with a normal boyfriend. I wanted what was best for her. It was one reason. It just wasn't the main one."

Xander gaped at him and struggled to process this information. He'd been fiercely glad when Angel had taken off and made no bones about showing his satisfaction to the others. It was probably why Buffy had hidden Angel's return from hell from him in the first place. She wouldn't even speak of her meeting with Angel after she came back from the dead. It had been too intense, she said. It must have been painful as well. And she couldn't tell him because he hated Angel so much.

Suddenly he felt the urge to apologize. Angel had helped them out countless times, before and after he'd lost his soul. He'd even rescued Xander after Faith had tried to strangle him. Xander had never thanked him for any of it; he'd only urged Buffy to forget him and fly into the arms of the first loser that came along. Boy, was he a jackass. No wonder he'd dumped Anya at the altar.

His attempts at deep thinking were interrupted by the vampire pacing at his side. "Xander, I'm only going to say this once and, if you tell any of the others I said it, I'll deny it. You're a good man. This Anya, whoever she is, is lucky to have you. She's an ex-demon and, speaking as one who knows, finding good people who'll love you with that blot on your family crest ain't easy. You have to go back to her, tell her what you told me and beg her to take you back-on bended knees if you have to."

"But the visions-"

"-were garbage. Ignore them. You're a decent man, Harris; nobody who would stand up to Angelus to protect the woman he loves like you did could be anything less. Go to her."

"Okay." They walked in silence for a space, Xander shining his flashlight through the trees. "So why don't you do that?"

Angel blinked at the abrupt change in topic. "What are you talking about?"

"Seems to me you've got the same problems with Buffy I've got with Anya. You take off with the excuse that you're not good enough for her. But really you're all of the 'you always hurt the one you love' syndrome which we both know is a bunch of crap."

"Well, the possibility that I'll kill Buffy is a lot more likely to happen than the possibility you'll kill Anya."

Xander snorted in amused contempt. "What gives you that idea? Oh right, the fact that Buffy solidly kicked your ass the last time you tried it. Face it, Deadboy, you won't kill Buffy. You can find a way to seal your soul down tight so Angelus won't get loose. You're not scared you'll kill Buffy. You're scared of making a life with her."

Angel glared at him. "That's bullshit, Harris, and since when are you on board with me being with Buffy? You were always jealous of me back then."

Xander shrugged uncomfortably. Angel was right and he certainly hadn't given him the impression that his feelings had changed. "Let's just say that time's given me some perspective and, like I said just now, you and me are in the same boat. We both got super women we don't exactly deserve trying to love us. We're just letting stupid macho worry get in the way.

"Tell you what. You try working it out with Buffy and I'll give it a go with Anya. What do you say?"

The offer was really tempting and Angel was stumped as to what he should say. But Xander was waiting for an answer and something told him the boy wouldn't be content with a brush-off. Suddenly he heard something in the bushes and stiffened. "Hold that thought, Xander."

"Wait a minute. You're not getting away with-" His comment was cut short as the demon they were searching for came leaping out of the dense foliage.

"GRRRRRRRAAARRRGGGH!" Damn, this thing was ugly, with its blank shiny eyes, misshapen head and ragged coat. The bitter odor he'd smelled on Buffy was a thousand times stronger, making the vampire's lip curl. He swung hard at the creature, connecting with its jaw. Its head swung around but it punched back easily; the blow barely seemed to have phased it.

Xander lifted his tranquilizer gun and shot the monster in the chest. It roared from the pain and charged again. "Xander! Shoot it again!" The monster seemed to realize the human represented a threat as well and turned to attack the brunette Scooby. Angel grabbed it around the neck and tried to keep it from assaulting his partner. [That's the trouble about working with mere humans. You're always worrying about them getting their tender little skins and fragile bones damaged.]

Just moments after the irritated thought came to him, he watched in disbelief as Xander tripped over a tree root. Somehow the bumbling Scooby managed to shoot the creature once more. But the monster barely appeared to feel the tranks and Angel lost patience and twisted its neck. The creature slumped in his grasp as Xander staggered up. "I certainly altered his reality!" Angel winced at his feeble attempt at humor and hauled the beast onto his back. He tossed his keys to Xander.

"Pop open the trunk when we get back to the car, okay? I don't want to drag this thing through the streets."

After chaining the creature in Buffy's basement, Angel didn't really need to stay. But something told him his mission wasn't over yet. The events in Cordelia's vision had taken place in the basement. When the crisis came, Angel wanted to be sure he was there to help.

He stood outside the house and waited until all the lights in the house had been turned off. Then he climbed up the tree outside her window and slid through the open frame.

The vampire crouched by her bedside and watched his beloved sleep. He could do nothing but stare at her and recall all the times in the past he would commit this very same action. The bond between them had been so strong in those years that his proximity would be enough to send every nerve in her body tingling. They had always remained hyper-aware of each other and surely now she would feel his presence and awaken.

But she remained asleep and, scanning her face in the dim light of the window, he sorrowed at the other obvious changes in her. There were deep hollows under her closed eyes and he just knew that if they were open, he'd see the wretched look that had haunted him after his one brief meeting with her in the past six months. Her eyes twitched restlessly beneath those lids as if she was dreaming but the night visions were evidently giving her no peace of mind.

"Angel." Her voice was soft but clear and he stiffened. Had she sensed him? No, she was still asleep. She murmured his name again and he realized she was dreaming. Did she dream of him still? He dreamed of her, on occasion. But they were nothing like the prophetic visions they used to share and he knew they had no significance other than to remind him of what he had lost. He never mentioned them, either to Willow when she placed one of her infrequent calls to him or his crew. They would only have worried that he was sliding back into old patterns.

"Angel, please don't leave me." The words came out with a stifled sob and he felt a constriction inside his chest at the pain in those few words. This was merely a nightmare, a repetition of their breakup. But he couldn't help taking one of those small hands in his own.

"I'm here, Buffy. I'm right beside you." It was a mistake to do this, one he was bound to regret later. But Cordelia's vision had sent him here to help Buffy in her hour of need, and he was sure that didn't mean merely a vicious fight to protect her friends.

"I don't want to lose you. But he…telling me…I have to let you go. Let the others go." Angel frowned. Willow was working frantically to extract an antidote but it would take time. He decided to keep speaking to her, hoping to draw out whatever was plaguing his beloved.

"Who keeps telling you? Talk to me, I'm listening." She tossed restlessly in the bed and he went still, wondering if she would awaken. Her hand tightened on his but she settled down when he squeezed back reassuringly.

Her voice began to mumble slightly. His vampiric hearing picked it up but he could make no sense of anything. "Doctors…mom…she'll stay if I get rid…I don't have…Dawn's not…mom and dad…want to keep…want to get normal…no such things as vampires…"

Now that was alarming. Whatever was afflicting Buffy, it was apparently trying to convince her that vampires didn't exist. This had to be the work of an enemy, someone who thought to put the Slayer out of action with a mental assault rather than a physical one.

If she forgot about vampires she would forget about him, and that thought pained him more than he would have believed possible. He wanted Buffy to get on with her life; that's why he'd left her. But he didn't want her to force him from her mind entirely. After all, he'd never forgotten her. That's why he'd rushed to her side so swiftly when he'd heard she was alive.

Her breathing quickened and he released her hand, preparing to slide through the window and disappear, when her eyes flew open and met his. For a long moment, there was nothing but silence in the darkened room and then she whispered, "Angel?"

He stood there, debating whether to speak and it seemed to alarm her. She sat up in bed, her hair falling over her ears and he said the first thing that came into his mind. "Buffy. Have you-have you cut your hair?"

She blinked and the dazed blank look in her eyes appeared to sharpen. "Angel? Are you…what did you say?"

He gestured feebly. "Your hair-you've cut it. It-it looks nice." Oh boy. That was smooth. It was the first time he'd seen her in months and he was talking about her hair? He must have mumbled something to this effect because she smiled at him. It was a ghost of a smile, a pale imitation of the bright expressions that always used to light up her face, but it was a smile nonetheless.

"Angel. It is you." She stared at him as if drinking in the sight of his form near the window. Then clouds drifted across her face and she drew her knees up, rocking herself back and forth in the bed. "No. No, it's not him. It's not him. He isn't real. None of this is real."

He drew near her and touched her hand again, distressed to find it now shockingly cold. "Buffy, it is me. It's Angel."

She shook her head violently and her muttering grew louder. "No, the doctor said this is a fantasy. I got upset that dad left so I made up a father figure with Giles. And then I was sorry to leave all my school friends behind so I invented new ones along with a new boyfriend. That's all you are-a figment of my diseased brain."

She tangled her hands in her hair, tugging at the strands, while banging her head against the headboard. He caught hold of her skull, afraid that she would really hurt herself. "Buffy, I'm real. I don't know how I can prove it to you but I am real."

"Then why are you here? You disappeared out of my life and now you're suddenly back when it seems I might be getting better? That's way too much of the convenient. It's just another trick to pull me back. I don't have vampires for boyfriends, witches for gal pals and Keys for sisters. That's just stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid…." The words turned into a droning litany and he could tell that he was losing her.

"Buffy, concentrate! Tell me how this happened." He spoke sharply; he hoped the brisk no- nonsense tone would help to anchor her.

The chanting stopped and she squinted as if trying to gather her wits. "How this happened." She giggled foolishly and then shrugged. "If you ask the doc, he'd say it started when dad left me. Classic abandonment issues, that's his phrase. My dad left me, you left, then Parker, Riley and Giles. I started having sex with bad boy Spike because he wouldn't leave me. Get it? Pretty simple when you look at it like that."

Rage and sorrow tore through Angel when she mentioned Spike. Part of him had hoped it wasn't true, that she hadn't really slept with that dyed asswipe. But here was the truth from Buffy's own lips. Still, there was such a forlorn note to it all as if she'd merely been running from some deeper internal pain that had afflicted her for years. And he had helped to wound her.

[Forget about Spike. Stick to the here and now. That's what she needs not a jealous fit about your pestilent grandchilde.] "I'm not talking about the doctors. I'm talking about how you suddenly came to see us as a delusion. There's an outside influence involved-someone who wants you to think that nothing around you is real. Do you understand that?"

She remained silent for a long while as if she hadn't really heard the question. Then she began speaking slowly and haltingly. "There are a trio of guys. I-I think they fancy themselves supervillains or something. They have comic book and sci-fi fetishes and they've been playing with my mind. Last night I was tracking them, and a demon attacked me. It stuck me with a long thin pokey thing out of its arm."

"A waxy looking demon with a bald head?"

Her head shot up and she stared at him. "How did you know?"

He smiled at her surprise. "Cordelia. She had a vision; that's why I'm here. She's a seer, remember? I told you about this when we met last year. Xander and I tracked the demon earlier. We caught it and Willow's preparing the antidote as we speak."

Her eyes clouded over again and her mouth twisted unpleasantly. "Which proves zip. If you're part of my delusion, of course you'd know. And Cordelia being a seer? That's even crazier. She isn't any more real than you are." She tried twisting away from him and he clutched her even tighter.

Damn, how was he going to win this? She was floating in and out of lucidity and her denial was going to get her friends killed. "Buffy, Buffy, please. You have to stay strong."

She gave a wild laugh and one elbow came up to jab him hard in the ribs. He gritted his teeth against the pain but his grip loosened enough for her to wriggle out of his grasp. She scrambled off the bed and stood beside it.

"Yeah, that's what you all say. 'Buffy's the strong one. She can take anything.' So I get yanked out of Heaven back to this hellhole-excuse me, Hellmouth-and find myself saddled with all sorts of burdens that I shouldn't have to deal with! I have to pay bills, manage my klepto sister, keep house, take out garbage, buy clothes, hold down a job and somehow, somehow, deal with a demon population and three adolescent nerds who want me dead. And I'm expected to stay strong!" Her last words came out in a hiss of real fury and she glared at him, her breath coming way too quickly.

"How can this be real? How can this be anything that I want? I want to be a real girl with a normal life. I want my parents, my mom and dad. I tried, I tried really hard to deal, but my support group, my so-called friends, hurt me so badly and now they're falling apart and leaving me to pick up the pieces. Xander, the normal one, leaves his fiancée when a demon shows at their wedding, Willow's barely holding it together with her cold-turkey program since she got off the magic, the dyed vampire I was banging hips with keeps pestering me even after I broke up with him and my little sister's giving me grief at every turn.

"And now…now my one true love who walked off and abandoned me shows up to tell me to be strong. Talk about irony." She sat down hard on the floor as the adrenaline provided by her anger left her suddenly. "My doctor says I created you out of all the boys I ever loved to make up for losing them and then you left because deep down I feel I don't deserve love.

"Why should you care about me? I got chucked out of Heaven because I wasn't good enough. So even God doesn't want me." Angel couldn't restrain a shiver as she spoke. Those last words were eerily reminiscent of what Darla had said to him when she came back. "No matter how good a boy you are, God doesn't want you. But I still do." That hadn't been any comfort to him because he'd known her return was a trick to weaken him.

But here was Buffy, wallowing in self-pity because she felt abandoned on all sides. And- Heaven? He had thought she was in Hell. That's what Willow had told him when she'd boasted about getting Buffy back. He should have known when he saw her last year. She'd seemed so profoundly unhappy. She hadn't behaved at all like someone who'd been rescued from a hell dimension and now he knew why.

Did the others realize this as well? If so, why hadn't anyone told him? Though it seemed as if he'd been left out of the know on a lot of things. No wonder she was so miserable.

"I do care about you. That's why I'm here. I care about you-and I love you."

She stared at the floor and sighed. "That's nice. Spike says he loves me, too."

He glared at her casual dismissal and coupling of him with Spike. "Spike's got an obsession about Slayers. Believe me, I know."

She nodded without looking up. "Yeah, he made that pretty clear after the first time I screwed him. But I felt so wrong and kept going back to him because he made the emptiness go away…at least for a little while."

He slid off the bed and sat on the floor beside her. "If you felt that way, why didn't you ever tell me? You could have picked up the phone and called."

"So could you. I figured if you didn't, then you didn't care. After all, you were the one who left." She leaned her head against his shoulder and her voice became distant and dreamy. "You know, even if this is a delusion, it's better than any other I've had recently. In the morning I'll wake up and you'll be gone and it's back to the doctors asking stupid questions, the nurses with their pills and the orderlies with their bed checks. This may be only another trip to Bizarro World but I'll take it." She closed her eyes and he could almost feel her drifting away from him.

He jostled her roughly. "This isn't a dream, Buffy. None of this is. You've had a hard time and I'm sorry I haven't been here for you. You have to believe in this, believe in yourself, or your friends will be the ones to suffer." There was no response and he spoke hurriedly to her. "If I'm still here tomorrow, will that convince you this is all real?"

She raised her head and stared at him again. He could sense her sudden upsurge of hope and behind it the deeply hidden terror of being hurt again. "Maybe." But her expression closed off once more. "But all that means is that you'll leave later. I know how this scenario works. Hope, romance, love, abandonment. The Buffy special. Film at 11."

"Love, I never meant to abandon you. I left you to gain a better life."

"Didn't work, did it?" was the flat response. "Maybe it's time to try something new." She stood up and swayed slightly as if tiredness were catching up with her. "See you in my dreams, Angel."

She tottered back to the bed and threw herself down ungracefully onto the mattress. He tucked himself in behind her. "Goodnight, Buffy." There was no response from her and the tenseness of her muscles meant she was still wide-awake. He began massaging her back in slow circles and gradually felt the tightness loosen and vanish. In mere minutes, she was putty under his hands and he heard her breathing slow and flatten into steady rhythm as she drifted off.

Angel lay there wakefully for many more hours, cradling the blonde Slayer in his arms.


Part 2

Dawn wondered how Buffy was this morning. She'd been far off and spacy ever since…she didn't really like to think it, much less say it. But there was no ducking the truth. Buffy had been dead and it had changed her. Many days, her younger sister had wondered if Willow had really done the right thing by bringing her back. Then she'd hate herself for thinking that and mercilessly stomp on the idea.

[I'm glad Buffy's back. If she weren't, I'd be stuck with Dad and have to share him with his new wife.] Of course that was a completely selfish reason for wanting her sister back but she couldn't help it. She wouldn't be sorry for having Buffy back...even if her sister was having trouble coping.

Lately Dawn had taken to waking early. It was distressing to get up and not find Buffy in the house so she would pop into her sister's bedroom to see that she was there. Not that she was checking on her older sister or anything. It was just more reassuring to know that her big sis was still around the place.

[Face it. You're worried that she's going to die on patrol or bail the way she did that summer after she sent Angel to hell.] She hesitated outside Buffy's door, chewing her lower lip. Yep, that was the big worry. Getting Buffy back hadn't made Dawn any less afraid of what was out there in the world. If anything, it made her more nervous than ever.

That's why she often begged for Buffy to take her out on patrol. She accepted that Buffy couldn't protect her always. Why couldn't she share this with her sister? That might bring peace of mind to both of them.

Resolving to bring up the topic another time when she felt Buffy might be in the mood, Dawn rapped at the door. "Hey, Buff. Time to wake up and smell the breakfast. I'm making your favorite-pre-packaged cereal." No answer and she was certain Buffy hadn't gotten up before her. Had her sister gone out again last night after that demon had poisoned her?

She pushed open the door only to have it pulled open on the other side. She stumbled forward and found herself staring into a broad masculine chest. "Dawn?" came the soft voice. "Shhh. Keep it down. Your sister had a rough night."

She blinked and gazed up at the last face she ever thought she'd see. "Angel? What are you doing here? I mean, when did you show up? Did you and Buffy boink?"

He clapped his hand over her mouth before she could babble out any more questions and gently eased the door shut behind him. When they were standing safely in the hallway, he removed his hand and said, "Cordelia had a vision, last night and no, not that it's any of your business."

She looked at the door shut behind him and unconsciously lowered her voice. "Cordelia had a vision? What, she, like, sees things in her head now?"

He smiled at her avid curiosity as he tried to explain. "That's pretty much it. She saw a vision of you and Buffy's friends being attacked by a demon and she sent me down here to investigate."

Her face twisted into a sullen pout, an expression that reminded him eerily of her older sister. "Oh. So you're just here to help and then you'll take off again, huh?"

He shifted his feet at the hostile accusatory tone in her voice. "Well, I have to. I have work back in L.A."

She shrugged in typical teenage fashion. "Figures. That's what Riley did, too."

Angel's eyes narrowed at the mention of Buffy's old boyfriend. "The commando? What does he have to do with it?"

She gazed shrewdly at his face while she debated how much to tell him. She'd once thought that Angel leaving Buffy had been the best thing for her sister. She didn't understand how Buffy could have been in love with someone who made her so miserable all the time.

But she had seen that the happiness Buffy apparently got from Riley was just a put-on she copped to make her friends feel better. She used to get a special expression when she thought of Angel that made her appear to glow on the inside. She never looked that way with Riley. Ever after she'd started dating the soldier, Dawn had sometimes heard her crying Angel's name in her sleep.

And now here was Angel, back again, and still jealous about Riley. Dawn shrugged again, staring at Buffy's door. "Riley showed up a couple of weeks ago. He was in town to get a demon, too, and he needed Buffy's help. He kinda failed to mention that he was married. I know Buffy never loved him but she was really upset that his life turned out so well while hers was so crappy. He used her to find the demon, then he and his wife-who basically was Buffylite, if you ask me-took off in a chopper. Buffy was pissed about it but she never said anything. She never does. You know what she's like."

Buffy hadn't loved Riley? He hadn't known that. She had stated rather emphatically that she did when she came to warn him about Faith's arrival in L.A. But it seemed she had wanted to hurt him and she'd succeeded. "Oh. So Finn just left again," was his only comment.

"Yep. Just like you're gonna do, I'll bet. Good thing Spike's hanging around. He's been really helpful while Riley's been off playing demon killer in the jungle."

Oh yeah, that struck a nerve. She saw Angel's face take on a decidedly grim look and then he turned back to the door. "I-I have to check on Buffy, Dawn. I promised her I'd be there when she woke up."

"Really? Well, that would be a first," was the teenager's tart reply and she turned around, her hair swinging behind her as she ran down the stairs.

He mused about Dawn's parting words as he lay down beside Buffy again. It seemed she wasn't the only one who'd disapproved of his walking away into the fog. Dawn was only a kid, though. She couldn't understand the complexities of adult relationships. Still, he'd spent a large part of the night thinking about where he stood in Buffy's life.

He'd never forgotten his golden-haired Slayer. He was honest about that. Having her in his arms made him feel-right with the universe. It was as if everything came together and made sense. Two warriors being together, loving together and fighting the good fight. Buffy loved all of him, good and bad, in a way the others at A.I. never did or understood. Would it be so terrible for him to keep himself in her life, especially seeing how badly off she was without him?

He remembered what Xander had said to him last night. The man made a lot of sense. It wasn't easy making a life with demons, even ex-demons, but the former donut carrier of the Scooby gang was willing to try. Why should he prove any less up to the task than a mere mortal?

His train of thought stopped as he felt her stir in his arms. She rolled over, curling into him, her arm moving over his. He was absolutely still as he felt her breath on his lips. She was so close, close enough to kiss and the temptation to do so was overwhelming. Just as he was debating the wisdom of remaining in his current position, her eyelids parted and hazel orbs stared into his own dark gaze.

"Angel." Her voice was calm as if this were nothing more than she expected and her fingers reached up to caress one cool cheekbone opposite her own. His eyes were locked onto hers and, for what seemed like an age, neither of them moved or spoke. "You're still here."

"Yes, beloved." The word escaped him easily and he felt no wish to call it back. She was his beloved, the beauty both he and Angelus laid claim to. If he thought he could ever confess it without fear of frightening her, he would tell Buffy just how much his demon thought her the perfect partner to itself-a capable, powerful warrior. Why else had he never been able to kill her when his worser half had re-emerged?

"Then I'm not dreaming. This world is real." He nodded as her hand slipped down and touched his chest. It wasn't a sensual touch at all. She was checking for the lack of a heartbeat and was absurdly reassured that there was none to be felt under her warm palm. After a moment she sighed and pulled away from him. "I should go see to Dawn."

"That's not necessary. She came in to check on you."

Her eyes widened in embarrassment. "She did? Then she saw you, didn't she?"

He nodded and glanced at the bedroom door. He could detect Dawn's unique scent. She was hovering at the door, spying on her sister. "Yes, and she's listening in now. I think she's worried about you." There was a sharp squeak and he heard her footsteps scurrying off.

Buffy scowled and rushed towards the door. "Dawn! What did I tell you about listening at doors!"

An indignant shout came from downstairs. "I was just going downstairs to make breakfast! Give me a break!"

She banged the door shut and looked at Angel. "So what happens now?"

Angel stood up and faced Buffy. She was lucid enough for the moment. Anger seemed a good way to keep her focused. He could only hope that Willow had the antidote ready for her. "We should see what Willow's managed to accomplish."

Buffy shook her head as she stepped closer to him. "That's not what I-"

Suddenly the door swung open again as Willow walked in, cradling a mug in her gloved hands. "Hey, Buffy, I've got-Angel! What are you doing here?"

He smiled ruefully at the red-haired woman. He was genuinely glad to see the wicca again. The circumstances were certainly happier than the last time they'd met. She had brought his beloved back from the grave. True, Buffy didn't seem too happy for it but he couldn't regret having her back in the world. "Guess I should get used to that reaction. I thought Xander might have told you about me."

"Oh, he did. He just didn't tell me you'd be…here here. I thought you'd help him find the demon and then take off the way you do, not that you'd be of the here in Buffy's bedroom," she finished lamely.

Buffy's eyes swung between the two of them. "That's right. You mentioned something about helping Xander last night," she mused. Then her accusing gaze fixed on Willow. "How come you didn't tell me he was here?"

Angel jumped in to defend the redhead. "I told them not to tell you, Buffy. I honestly didn't want you to see me. I-I thought it would make you too upset."

"Then why did I wake up and find you in my room? Why did you stay?" Buffy wasn't sure whether to be angry or not. Why was Angel here? Was it just because of Cordelia's visions? The vampire himself seemed a little uncertain and Willow hovered near the door, wondering if she should leave.

"I just wanted to watch you, Buffy. I didn't think it would do any harm. You weren't supposed to wake up or find out I was here. But you were so troubled; you kept moaning in your sleep. Then when you woke and looked at me…I just couldn't leave you."

They gazed at each other and the air seemed to vibrate with unspoken longing. To Willow, it was just like being in the past. When Buffy and Angel got together, it was as if nothing else existed in the world but themselves. Being with them was like intruding on a private moment; it felt more intimate than the frankest sexual discussion by Anya.

"Uh, guys? The reason I came was because I got the antidote here." She held up the ceramic cup in her small hand. "Buffy, you should drink this while it's warm." She thrust the cup into Buffy's hand and silently edged out of the room, glancing back at the two of them.

Buffy held the cup for a moment as if disinclined to drink it and Angel frowned. "Buffy, what is it? You heard what Willow said."

"I know. It's just…" She bit her lip and stared into the cup as if trying to find answers. "I don't remember much about last night, Angel. But things don't seem any clearer this morning. I mean, things are supposed to seem better in the daylight, right? But they don't. My life is still this unreal jumble and you're still the undead boyfriend I can't have. I drink this and the world goes back to being a meaningless mess. In that other world, I'm insane but at least they're trying to make me better."

"They're trying to make you better here, too. Didn't you see how concerned Willow was? How much she wanted to help you?"

Her eyes became fixed in a glassy stare. "Willow? The witch who dragged me out of Heaven? Yeah, she's a help, all right. She's trying to keep me here in this hellhole. Why? Why does everybody want me here so badly when they're all going away? Why does anybody want me?"

Her hand was dipping imperceptibly lower and he jumped forward, grasping the cup before it could spill. "They want you because they're your friends. They care about you. Buffy, I can't say this enough."

"Sure, they care. They're all about the caring and sharing and humping and dumping. My friends are such a comfort." The acrid odor of the demon was back and Buffy's pupils had shrunk to tiny pinpoints.

Angel put down the cup on her nightstand and grabbed her, but she sagged in his grip. She would have fallen if he hadn't held her up. "Buffy! Buffy! Please! Stay with me!"

"Buffy? Honey, what is it? Can you hear me?" Joyce Summers was stroking Buffy's hair and staring worriedly into her daughter's eyes. The psychotic flashes weren't going away in spite of the doctor's reassurances.

Buffy murmured, "Angel?"

Joyce frowned and glanced at the doctor. "I remember Angel. She kept babbling about him in the beginning. He was that vampire boyfriend of hers, wasn't he?"

The doctor nodded. "That's right. You told me she'd been seeing some dropout before she left Hemery. What was his name?" He flipped through his papers.

"Pike. You said Angel was a replacement for him," Joyce offered.

"In almost every detail. Bad boy in leather," was the doctor's reply.

Joyce scowled at his description. "Yes. I never liked him."

The doctor moved closer and critically examined the crumpled blonde woman on the bed. "And when you all moved out of L.A., Buffy lost touch with him."

Hank Summers spoke up then. "Thank god. It was one of good things about leaving L.A. But I thought she was seeing that Spike character. Wasn't he another vampire? Why can't she get away from them?"

Just then Buffy blinked and refocused on her mother. "Mom? Dad?" There was her mother, looking exactly as she had when she was alive-all radiant and glowing although her face was slightly creased in worry.

Joyce smiled at her. "Yes, sweetie. It's us. Are you with Angel?" She nodded while struggling to reorient herself. She was in this place again, perched on the bed. Angel was gone and her anxious parents were talking, trying to convince her to stay with them. Did she want to? Was this really what she wanted?

She had her mom and dad here. That was of the good. But everyone else was gone. They insisted on her throwing out everything else in her life.

"Buffy? Buffy! Please! Come back to me." She blinked and she was in bed again. Only this time, it was Angel holding her. "Buffy, talk to me." He couldn't tell if he was getting through to her or not. "You told me once that fighting was hard and that it's everyday."

"I'm tired of fighting," she whispered, letting her head droop.

"Then they want you to give up in that world. They want you to give in."

Was that what they were asking of her-to give in? It sounded so tempting to Buffy…and so very comforting. "Ye-no. They want me to be strong."

"Then why is it all about letting go?" he demanded. "Doesn't that sound too convenient, too easy? You wouldn't let me do it." She knew what he meant-that magical Christmas when it had snowed in California, saving him from death by sunlight. Angel continued, "Fighting is hard. But you convinced me not to let go, to hang on. So we'll try. We'll both try. You have people who love you, who care about you. No one here is asking you to let go of the love your parents have for you or the love you feel for them. You carry that inside even if they're not with you."

She wasn't answering but he could tell she was listening to him. "If these people are asking you to put aside all the good your friends have done for you, then something's wrong with them. Fight, Buffy! Fight for yourself. Fight for me."

"For you? Why? You're not here. You'll disappear like you've always done. It's ridiculous that you're even here now. Next thing you know Giles will come strolling through that door, too." Buffy's eyes became dull again.

"Buffy, please!" He shook her but she didn't respond. He contemplated simply pouring the drink down her throat but he didn't want her to choke.

"Angel, what's the matter? I heard shouting." Willow ran back in and stared in shock at the limp body of the Slayer cradled in his arms.

He started patting Buffy's face. "I can't get through to her, Willow. She won't listen to me."

She crouched by his side and rested her hand on Buffy's forehead. "Oh goddess. She's burning up. Buffy? Can you hear me?"

She didn't move only continued to stare sightlessly at the ceiling. Willow glanced worriedly at Angel, panic beginning to appear on her pale face. "Keep talking to her, Angel. Maybe it'll help."

He stared helplessly at her, wondering if that were true. All at once he was reminded of that time she was afflicted with the demon blood that made her hear everybody's thoughts but his own. He had saved her then and he became fiercely resolved not to give her up now without a struggle.

"Buffy, listen to me. I love you. I've always loved you. In 250 years I've never loved another woman like I've loved you. We've both been through so much and circumstances seem against us and yet we always wind up back together.

"I've got some crazy things going on in L.A. but the moment I heard you were in trouble I came back here. Why? Because no matter how good things get for me, nothing's complete unless you're in my life. Nothing makes sense if you're not here with me. If you stay for me, Buffy, then I'll stay for you. I don't care how hard things get, how many apocalypses are thrown at us. If we love each other, we can find a way to make it work."

For several long seconds there was no response. Then a spark deep within Buffy's eyes flickered and they fastened on Angel again. "Angel? My mom and dad…they keep telling me to be strong."

"You are strong, beloved." Sensing her imminent surrender, he carefully reached up and brought the mug to her lips. She began sipping, her eyes never leaving his, grimacing slightly at the awful taste. She shuddered as the last mouthful went down her throat and then lay quietly.

The wicca and the vampire sat tensely, waiting for some response. And then Buffy's eyes moved towards her redheaded friend. "Willow?"

"Yes, Buffy?"

The blonde woman smiled faintly. "I'm really hungry. Is there any breakfast in the making?" Willow's breath rushed out of her and she hugged her friend as best she could. Buffy's arm came up to grab her. With Angel's massive arms in the way, the three-way hug was a little awkward yet welcome, all the same.

Dawn peeked in the door and was confused but happy to see all three together. "Uh, guys? Is everything okay or does Buffy still have demon juice cooking her brain?" Willow pulled back to show the Slayer safely held in the circle of Angel's embrace.

"I'm all good to go here, Dawn." Then she frowned as something occurred to her.

"What is it?" Dawn asked in response to her worried look.

"We've still got a demon in the basement, don't we?" The other three glanced at each other as they all remembered the bald-headed monster downstairs. Buffy sighed and scrambled up. "Well, first I kill it 'cause, Slayer, that's my job. Then we'll have breakfast."

Willow stood up, grinning, and poked Dawn in the arm. "Come on, Dawnie. Let's go whip up some pancakes and breakfast flakes." The two ran downstairs, their voices rising in audible relief.

Buffy and Angel stood awkwardly for a few moments before quietly following them. "I've got a weapons chest downstairs. Xander made it for me for my birthday. There ought to be something suitably sharp and pointy to deal with Captain Picard."

"Mind if I join you? I won't interfere, I just want to watch your back."

As they strolled down the stairs, Buffy halted and Angel bumped into her as they confronted a familiar figure standing in the hallway. "Spike."

The flatly spoken syllable caused the blonde vampire to smirk in her direction. "Morning, Slayer. Back in the land of the sane, are we? Glad to see-" His voice cut off and he glared as he caught sight of Angel's large body behind Buffy. "What the hell is the poofter doing here?"

"I could ask you that same question, Spike. I thought I made it clear where we stood last night," Buffy replied coldly. Now that she was back in the clear light of day, she was amazed at how small Spike looked.

It wasn't just size exactly. It was in terms of sheer insignificance. All the time she'd been with him, he'd carped on how wrong she was, how deficient, how she liked rolling in the dirt. He'd never made her feel strong, powerful or protected. Just a few small words with Angel and she had remembered everything that made her feel good about herself-both as a woman and a Slayer.

Spike sensed the change in her attitude and bristled at the implications. "What? You think he can just blow back into town and everything will be back to the way it was? Forget it. You've moved on, Buffy. You know it and I know it."

He stepped closer and his voice dropped, becoming low and insinuating. "Come on, Slayer. You know you've never had it so good as me."

"No, Spike. I had better. I almost forgot that. But he reminded me." She stepped down boldly invading his space. "He came here to help me and he succeeded. In all the time I was with you, you never did that. You always went on about how wrong I was. You tried to make me feel pathetic, worthless and weak. Because of that stupid message, I nearly chose to stay insane. But if I'm better now, it's thanks to him. So you can just drag away your useless carcass.

"You're not wanted here."

The blonde vampire's face never lost its cocky sneer. "You're only saying that because the giant poof's standing here. But I'm betting he'd take off soon enough if he knew what you've been up to."

"I already know, Spike." The low statement caused both blondes to stare at him. Buffy turned pale as she caught sight of Angel's face. But he didn't look angry-at least not with her. "From what she says, she ended the ugly little affair. Not that I blame her for it. She was probably hurting and unhappy when she took up with you. Funny how being with you didn't make her feel any better."

"Oh, great! All it takes is for the soulful nancy boy to show up and all's right with the world, is it? You know what he'll be like, Buffy. He'll get all remorseful and take off again and it'll be just you and me again, luv." He grabbed Buffy roughly and tried to kiss her. He didn't care if Angel was back; Buffy was his and he was determined to prove it the only way he knew how.

She brought her leg up in a swift jab and kneed him solidly in the balls. As he yelped and stumbled back, he groused, "Fuckin' hell! Save the rough stuff for when we're alone, Slayer! No need to bring it on with an audience." He straightened up and reached for her again.

She idly slapped away his hand and then shoved him so that he tripped and fell hard onto the floor. "Spike, you're being really stupid, even for you. You're acting like I broke up with you because of Angel. Fact is, I dumped you before I ever knew he was coming back." She paused and then finished, "And he is back, Spike. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a demon to kill."

The woman walked past him, head held high, and Angel followed her. Neither graced the fallen vampire with so much as another look.

Spike scrambled up off the floor, another snappy retort already forming on his lips, when he caught sight of Willow and Dawn staring at him from the living room. Shock and disgust were mingled in their eyes and he knew they must have caught at least part of the conversation. "Uh, morning, ladies."

"Spike, get out." The cold order came from Dawn. Willow didn't speak but the hostility in her expression was very clear.

Uh oh, the Nibblet was pissed at him. Spike tried to smooth things over. He genuinely liked Dawn and he wanted to remain in her good graces. "Look, Dawn, your sister and I have been going through some things-"

"And it sounds like she's finished, at least on her end. How about getting the message and leaving?"

"Come on, it's not like I forced her or anything!"

The redhead spoke up at last. "No? 'Cause it didn't look that way just now. She said it's over, so it's over. No means no, Spike, even here in America. Now get lost. We've got breakfast to fix." Willow tossed him his blanket and pulled open the front door.

Spike hesitated but the women's gazes remained implacable. He covered himself with the material but couldn't resist one last parting shot. "You people are really begging to get your throats ripped out, you know that? One happy sex session-"

The last of his words were cut off as Willow slammed the door behind him. She locked the door and turned to Dawn. "I know I swore off the magic but if I can't get hold of Tara, I'm throwing up the de-invite spell again. I don't want Spike coming back here." She cast an uncertain eye at Dawn. She knew the teenager was still antsy about her using magic again and she had promised the others she would stay away from it. But she knew just how dangerous Spike could get and she didn't want to take any chances of his reappearance at the house now that Buffy was finally getting on an even keel.

"No arguments in this corner." An unhappy expression appeared on Dawn's face as she thought about the ugly scene that had just played out. "Willow, how long do you think Buffy and Spike were…?" Her voice trailed away as she remembered all the nights Buffy came in with bruises and scratches on her body and evasive stories about a run-in with a demon.

"I-I don't know, Dawnie. We'll just have to wait for Buffy to tell us."

"It's-she was lying to us and keeping secrets and it was just so wrong! How could she do that to us?"

Willow reached out to Dawn. The teenager was getting mad again and the wicca sensed a major tantrum in the offing. "Dawn, you heard what Buffy and Angel said. She was hurting and Spike took advantage. She was probably ashamed and was afraid we'd be all of the judgy-sorta like what you're being now."

The teenager chewed her lip for a moment and then admitted to herself that she was being judgy. "She still shouldn't have lied to us," she mumbled.

Willow raised her eyebrows and replied, "And what should she have said exactly? 'Hey, guys, I'm having hot skanky sex with Spike. Pass the butter?' Face it, Dawn. This wasn't something she felt she could talk to anybody about."

"Not even you?" Dawn asked.

Willow's eyes became haunted, as she guessed exactly why Buffy wouldn't have mentioned it to her. "Especially not me. If she was shacking up with Spike because she felt so lousy, then she wouldn't have wanted to talk to the reason for the lousiness, now would she?"

"I guess not." Dawn paused while she considered something. "Didn't Buffy say she was going downstairs to kill that demon?"

Willow wondered what she was getting at. "Yeah."

The teenager cocked her head as she listened. "Well, they've been down there awhile now. Just how long does it take to run a demon through the guts with a sword anyway?"

The two females looked at each other and their eyes widened as they both came to the same conclusion. "You don't think they're-"

"No way, Dawnie. They wouldn't."

They hesitated and then both of them ran for the basement stairs. "Buffy! Angel!"


Part 3

Buffy hefted the sword and approached the demon. Part of her balked at killing a creature while it was helplessly chained up. But this was no time to be noble. Somebody had sicced this thing on her as if it was a pitbull and she had a pretty good notion who the culprits were. Too bad the thing didn't seem to speak; she would have liked to know the whereabouts of her tormentors.

Angel stepped silently behind her and then paused. There was another demon's odor permeating the place and his lip curled as he recognized it. It was Spike again. His scent lay all over the basement. He crossed over to the furnace where it seemed to be strongest.

Buffy noticed his absorption. "Angel? What's up? Why the bloodhound imitation?"

He growled, "Spike," and pulled back the furnace. To Buffy's amazement, she could see a long tunnel leading from behind the furnace into the darkness.

"Wh-where did this come from?" She peered into it. The floor the passage was smooth and well worn as if used often. But who could have-?

All of a sudden, certain things clicked into place. Coming across Spike emerging from the basement holding her baby pictures. Spike's mysterious appearance in her bedroom when he'd led her to Riley's den of shame.

Her grip on her sword tightened unconsciously. "That shit. I don't believe it. He's been using this to sneak into the house."

From above the two heard shouts of "Buffy! Angel!" just before footsteps came pelting down the stairs.

"Where are they?" cried Dawn.

"I don't see them. There's only one way out of here, isn't there?" Willow asked uncertainly.

"Guess again." Buffy stepped forward from behind the furnace and beckoned to the startled girls.

"Wow, how long do you think Spike was using that thing?" Dawn murmured as she and Willow walked out the door.

"Buffy's not sure. According to Angel's sniffy-sense, about a year, maybe longer."

"Ewhttp://www. That is so of the creepy. Do you think Buffy'll kill him this time if she gets to his crypt?" The teenager wasn't sure how she felt about that. She disliked Spike intensely now that she knew how badly he'd made Buffy feel. But Spike had told her Buffy had led him on…kinda. So now she was really ambivalent in her feelings towards him. Still, the idea that he'd had a secret passage into the home she thought of as hers was more than a little squirm inducing.

"I don't know," was Willow's unhappy reply. "I mean, Spike was the helpy one when we needed him and it was good that he had a quick non-sunshiney way into the house. But Buffy says this started way back before they got involved so there's definitely hintage of stalker 'tude all mixed up in this underground lair business."

Any further conversation was cut off as Xander pulled up to drive the ladies to school. "Good morning, girls! How's my witchy one and Key gal doing on this splendiferous day?"

The females gave the man in the car decidedly suspicious looks. "Okay, who are you and what did you do with depresso-Xander?" Willow demanded.

"Yeah, aren't you still broken up over doing the Anya ditch at your non-wedding?" Dawn chimed in.

"That is over. As of today, you are seeing the new, improved, newly-committed Xander of the Xander-and-Anya show." Xander beamed at the two passengers as he pulled out from the sidewalk.

Dawn squealed in delight. "Xander and Anya? Does that mean you're back together again?"

He nodded his head vigorously. "You are correct, oh Shiny-Haired One. Last night after I helped Angel chain up the demon world's answer to Mr. Clean, I decided to take his advice and beg Anya to take me back."

"And then what happened?" Willow was certain the reconciliation was neither as smooth nor as easy as Xander made it sound. Her suspicion was confirmed when she caught sight in the rear view mirror of Xander grimacing.

"Well, after throwing some things at me and yelling for several minutes about how irresponsible and cruel I was, we made up and agreed to give it another try. I told her that I was afraid I'd turn out like my dad and maybe I'd jumped the gun in the marriage thing. We're taking it slow this time out but we're definitely gonna get hitched, you betcha." (Actually, "made up" was a mild way of describing the hot sex the two had engaged in as a way of relieving their pent-up frustrations. But the two with him didn't need to know that.)

Dawn clapped her hands and lunged forward, grabbing Xander's neck from the back seat. The impulsive gesture caused the car to swerve dangerously. "Dawn!" Willow shouted. "We want Xander to live to see his wedding. A car crash would really be not of the good for that."

The teenager slouched back in her seat. "Sorry." Then she bounced up again, too psyched to stay still. "This is so cool. Buffy and Angel get themselves together at the same time as you and Anya. The only thing that could be better would be a double wedding." She stopped to consider. "Is it possible for vampires to get married?"

Xander's face broke out into a wide grin. "So Deadboy decided to take his own advice, huh? Good for him. Wasn't sure he'd go through with it."

Willow glanced at the brunette in the driver's seat. "What do you mean? I thought you'd be really upset about Buffy getting back with Angel."

Xander shrugged as he paused at a stoplight. "Me and Deadboy had a little man-to-vampire chat last night about our respective exes. He gave me the idea to go hash things out with Miss Vengeance Demon, class of 900. I told him to try again with Buffy seeing as they had similar problems. Glad to see things worked out for him."

"I think he still has to figure out a way to be with Buffy and carry on in L.A. first. Not to mention dealing with Spike," Dawn muttered.

Xander chuckled at that last statement. "Yeah, Nacho Boy ain't gonna be too pleased that Angel came back and robbed him of any chance with Buffy. I'd love to see his face when he finds out."

"He already found out. He showed up this morning-ow!" Dawn jumped as Willow pinched her on the thigh.

Xander craned his neck behind to stare at the teenager. "Spike showed up and ow? What happen, did Buffy hit him again?"

"Something like that," Willow cut in while directing a meaningful look at Dawn. She didn't want the teenager tattling to Xander about the exact nature of the three-way conversation they'd unwittingly overheard. That was for Buffy and Angel to do.

The subjects of their concern were rapidly moving through the tunnel. Buffy had picked up a discarded flashlight from the basement to light their way. After dispatching the Glarghk, Angel had decided to accompany her to confront Spike. He didn't want to stop her from killing Spike, oh no. He just wanted the privilege of kicking Spike's pale ass around the place first.

The Slayer and vampire met an obstacle, however, when they came to a fork in the tunnels. Watching Angel's head bob back and forth between them, Buffy found herself envying his keen vampiric senses.

"So which way, Sergeant McGruff?" At his blank look, she explained, "Cartoon TV dog in a detective coat. Warns kids to stay clear of bullies and drug dealers."

"Right." He shrugged off his bafflement and stepped back in frustration. "I'm not sure. His scent is equally strong in both directions."

"Fine. I go right, you go left. We'll meet back at the house." She pulled away slowly. One short hour with Angel and she felt as if all the torn edges of her soul were knitting together again. She was oddly terrified of losing their newly regained closeness.

Angel knew what was going through her mind. He spoke softly, putting every bit of feeling for her into his words. "It's all right, Buffy. You're not getting rid of me that easily."

She flashed him a 24-carat smile and he swore his undead heart lurched in his chest. "I'm holding you to that, lover."

Somehow he found himself standing close to her. He couldn't recall having moved. But there she was, her diminutive framed poised just in front of his taller one. Her face was tilted up to his. In spite of the flash, it was dark in the passage but still he could make out her soft hazel eyes glowing at him.

Then his lips were pressed over hers. He'd meant the kiss to be tender and reassuring but it wouldn't remain that way. She arched up against his body, her hands grasping at his shoulders. She clutched him hard, in a way that would have left bruising marks on another man, and he found himself cupping her tiny ass in his hands.

He caught her up in his arms and slammed her against the tunnel wall. She cried out as she wound her legs around his waist and he stopped in consternation. "Buffy? Are you okay? Did I hurt you?"

She shook her head hard. "No! But I-I think…we'd better stop, Angel." Her breath was coming hard and he could smell the beginnings of arousal seeping from between her legs. He wanted to keep those firm little legs wrapped around his ass and bury himself inside her. Feeling his emotions careen from concern to lust in ten seconds flat caused him to take a firm grip on himself. Damn, he'd sworn he wouldn't do this. Gritting his teeth, he agonizingly extricated himself from her embrace.

"Y-you're right. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done this. We should…"

"-Remove the temptation. Gotcha." She snatched up the flashlight from where she'd dropped it and ran down the right corridor as if her life depended on it.

"Remove the temptation." For a moment, the words hung eerily in the air, reminding him of another time when he'd lost his mind and screwed her on a kitchen table. He squeezed his eyes shut and took unneeded deep breaths as he strove to resist the urge to run after her down that passage.

Buffy wanted nothing more than to turn back and finish what they'd started. But having sex in a tunnel wasn't really a good idea. Any vampire could come across them and take them by surprise.

[What are you talking about? According to Angel, only Spike ever uses this tunnel and would you mind his seeing you?] Hell yes! Then again, maybe not. If anything would convince Spike that it was over between them, it would be seeing her fucking Angel like an animal and screaming his name while her fingers traced that tattoo.

The raunchiness of the thought shocked her for a moment. Then the idea of screwing Angel into the ground re-asserted itself. With a naughty little smirk, she continued on her jaunt to find Spike. Maybe she wouldn't kill him. Maybe she'd just let him get a good whiff of Angel's body all over her own.

Angel followed his grandchilde's steadily stronger odor and found himself going up a tall ladder. Bracing himself for anything, he cautiously lifted up a trapdoor into what appeared to be another basement.

The souled vampire wandered around, sniffing intently. Yes, Spike's distinctive aroma was here but it was overlaid with the odors of various herbs and spices. Wondering if he's stumbled into someone's kitchen storage area, he tensed as a woman with obviously dyed blonde hair came bounding into sight.

"Now where'd I put that-hey! Who are you and what you doing in my shop?" She glared at him and snatched up a glass jar of wormwood, obviously prepared to throw it at him.

He cast up his hands in a placating gesture. "Relax. I'm not here to steal. I'm Angel. I was just investigating a possible break-in." Okay, that was a touch feeble but it was the truth.

Before he could elaborate, the woman set down the jar with a thunk. "You're Angel? Buffy's Angel? Oh my god. I'm so glad to see you!" She ran up to him and flung her arms around his neck and began planting breathless kisses all over his face.

"Whoa! Hold on there, miss. I think there's been a mistake somewhere." Who was this woman and what the hell was wrong with her? The next moment his sensitive nose caught Xander's scent. Well, if he made the logical conclusion, this woman must be Anya. But why was she sticking to him like wallpaper in a blatant but misplaced show of affection?"

"Oh no, there isn't. Xander came to me last night. He told me all about your little talk with him and how you made him come back to me. Are you together with Buffy again? And, by that I mean, have you had sex with her? No, I guess not because then you'd be Angelus and you're not, otherwise the killing would have started by now. Wow, I knew you were of the tall, dark, handsome and sexy variety but you're really hot-even more so than Xander. Don't tell him I said that, though. Oh, thank you thank you thank you thank you for bringing me my Xander!" With that she began kissing him again.

"You're-welcome." Angel removed her arms from his neck with some difficulty. Gee, this woman was really enthusiastic and straightforward in her comments. He could see why Xander had fallen for her. She was like a more manic version of Cordelia. Judging by her roots showing through her hair she was also a brunette turned bottle blonde. [Wonder what that's all about?]

She pulled back to look at him and then recalled his previous words. "Wait a sec. Did you say something earlier about a break-in? Have I been robbed?"

"I'm not sure but I think so." He outlined the morning's events that Xander couldn't have known about, starting with the early morning confrontation with Spike and moving to the hidden tunnel in Buffy's house and concluding with tracking Spike's scent to her shop.

"So you think Spike's been coming and going in my store through this tunnel? Why? And why haven't I seen it?"

Angel's answer was blunt. "Knowing Spike, he's probably been stealing from you. He was certainly stealing things from Buffy."

Anya gaped. Then her expression grew murderous. "I knew it! I knew something was wrong." She scrabbled among some haphazardly piled boxes. "I was accusing our suppliers of shortchanging us or I thought that rats were getting into the goods. But I've been constantly running out on some low-end items and I didn't know why." She pulled up a box and shook it. He heard the meager contents rattling like peas and she gripped the container in a fury.

Angel read the box with justifiable confusion. "Bulghur wheat? What would Spike want with that?"

"Giles used to complain how Spike would only take his blood if it had Weetabix sprinkled on top. Guess he found a more elegant substitute." She threw the almost emptied box into a corner and began stalking up and down the tiny space. "That asshole! That rotten little sneak thief! If the rules didn't prevent me, I'd take such vengeance on his miserable hide."

Vengeance? Oh right, Xander had said she was an ex-demon. But she was talking as if she still possessed her powers. Suspicious, Angel concentrated on her, honing the powers that Darla had painstakingly striven to teach him over two centuries ago. The same talent that had enabled him to pick up on Dru's untapped potential as a seer as well as her virginity allowed him to see past Anya's human veneer. "You're a demon."

The quiet words drew her up short and she paled. "What? No, no, I'm not. What gave you that idea? Just because I was babbling about vengeance doesn't mean I'm a demon. It was just an old knee-jerk reaction to a pitiful shit I'd like to see hung up by his toenails. Hahahahahahaha!"

"Anya, I know these things. You can't fool me," was his calm reply.

Her face crumpled. "Don't tell Xander, please? I-I don't think he'd handle it well if he knew I was into vengeance again. We just started having sex again and our relationship simply couldn't take that kind of strain."

He blinked at her choice of words then gave her a soothing smile. "I won't tell him, Anya. But he's bound to find out sooner or later and the idea that you've gone back to killing people won't sit well with him. Remember how worried you were a moment ago that I might be Angelus and not Angel?"

"Oh yes, but that's different. Angelus had a habit of going after Buffy's friends and acquaintances. I'm only killing strangers-nobody Buffy or Xander knows." At his incredulous stare, she weakly murmured, "I guess that wouldn't make any difference to him if he knew, huh?"

"Very little, if I know Harris," was the dry rejoinder.

She appeared to undergo an inner struggle and when she spoke again, it was with a new resolve. "Fine. I'll give up vengeance-but only after one final wish," glaring at the castoff box of bulghur wheat. "Just to go out in a blaze of glory. And it doesn't even have to be a human!" she finished desperately.

Angel raised an eyebrow. "Did you have someone specific in mind?" he smirked.

She gazed at him expectantly. When he remained silent, she rolled her eyes in exasperation. "You have to make a wish, dumbass. Otherwise, it doesn't work."

[Dumbass? Oh yeah, that's Cordelia all over again.] "Oh me? Um, I'm not sure what to wish for."

"Since Spike is probably going to be hanging around bothering you and Buffy, you could wish to have him flayed. Or have his intestines dragged out through his nose. Or have his entire body burst into flames. Or have him turned inside out or eviscerated. Or…"

"Right, I think I get the picture," Angel interjected. And he'd thought Angelus was a twisted, sadistic example of demonhood. It was true that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. "How about I simply wish that he not interfere in my life, Buffy's and the lives of the rest of her gang?"

Anya scowled. "That's really mild. This is what I get from the Scourge of Europe?"

"Former Scourge of Europe," Angel corrected.

"Whatever." She waved her hands dismissively. So the wish was on the tame side. She was known among Vengeance demons both for her cruelty and her inventiveness. She'd find some way to twist this wish to her advantage. Spike would pay dearly for stealing from her and the seeds of an idea were forming in her mind.

Buffy came up through the small hole into an enclosure she knew all too well. This was Spike's basement. This was where she'd found the head and torso mannequin he'd outfitted with a blonde wig and her favorite blue sweater. He'd turned it into a kind of shrine with articles of her underwear and those stolen baby pictures. She shuddered and looked around her a bit more.

He'd tidied it up quite a bit with items he'd found in the city dump. There were some mismatched throw rugs, a battered ornate lamp or two-even a small sofa. Surprisingly, there were also a fair amount of books neatly lined up in a couple of discarded bookshelves against the wall.

She rose up through to the upper space, her entire body on alert. But there was no sign of him. Evidently, he hadn't gotten in from his ejection at her place. [The tunnel must be a faster route than the sewers.]

She was tempted to sit down and wait but concluded she'd wasted enough of her time with Spike. If she hurried, she could make it back home, change her clothes and get a later shift at the Doublemeat Palace. The tunnel wasn't going anywhere and neither was Spike, considering how much time and effort he'd put into making the place so homey. She could deal with him later. Turning on her heel, she pondered on whether she could get Xander to come fill up Spike's pathway to her house with a stout brick wall.

She grinned to herself. That's right; a Slayer with friends was a force to be reckoned with.

Willow had met up with Tara at school and explained all about Buffy's and Angel's renewed romance and the need to bind Angel's demon. Tara thought the spell could be easily done. She was profoundly moved, both by Willow's refusal to perform the ritual herself and her implicit belief that Tara was up for the task. She thought there was hope for Willow yet.

While they set up the articles for the ritual at Buffy's house, Anya was laying her own plans. The dyed vampire had come into the Magic Box, pissed and suffering at Buffy's rejection of him. "Hey, I need a thing."

She plastered a big fake smile on her face. "So. What's your pleasure?"

Spike sighed. "Fresh out of pleasure. That's why I'm here. I need something. Numbing spell maybe. Got something that'll dull the ache a bit?"

Ah. He was talking about getting the big dump from Buffy. She nodded and walked back behind the counter. "Actually, yes. Giles left a couple of supplies here, and I think…this might help." She bent over and began rummaging in the cabinet under the cash register while continuing to mutter under her breath.

"Eases the hurt, makes the sun shine a little brighter…even makes boring people seem more interesting. Ah here."

She produced a bottle of whiskey and put it down on the counter with a solid thud.

Spike grinned. Oh yeah, that was the stuff.

"So the de-invite's been put up?" Buffy asked.

Tara was decisive in her reply. "Yep. Spike can't get in here now even through that tunnel." She smiled at the others and then went upstairs to prepare the space.

Xander snorted. "That's good. If you're casting the magic mojo to tie down Angel's soul, the last thing we'd want is an interruption from that loser of the hair dye brigade."

The Slayer grinned at Xander's description. She didn't realize how much she'd missed this; all of them banding together against a common foe-well, a common annoyance, anyway. She'd been shutting her friends out too much lately. She'd have to see about fixing that.

"Xander, you remember what I told you about the tunnels?"

The brunette nodded while hefting a hammer from his tool belt. "Yes, ma'am. Tomorrow morning I'll schedule a couple of crews to get down there and set up walls four feet thick with fast-drying cement. I'll tell them it's to prevent water leakage."

"Maybe we can find a way to keep him from the Magic Box as well. I noticed that the space there is too large to be filled up with any wall. I'd like Anya to feel some peace of mind." This thoughtful comment came from Angel.

Xander glanced at the vampire, eyebrows raised. "Wow, sounds like you and Anya really hit it off.

Angel's return look was a studied attempt at innocence. "What can I say, Harris? The woman's got a thing for brunettes."

The other man hotly retorted, "Don't get any ideas, Angel. She's a one-man woman."

"Can't fault her tastes, though," Buffy quipped then winked at Angel. Dawn was delighted. Her sister looked more animated and livelier than she had in months. She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen Buffy look happy.

[And that's what having Angel around does for her. I wonder what it'll be like having him as a brother-in-law?] The giddy notion caused Dawn's mind to race as she considered the possibilities. Spike had taught her things like gin rummy and how to pick locks. But Angel had helped her with her history lessons, listened patiently to her woes and treated her problems as if they were important not stupid kid stuff. One of the reasons she'd clung to Spike was that he reminded her a little of Angel. But none of those memories were real. Now she could make new actual memories with Angel and she couldn't wait.

"Well, if you two are finished discussing my girlfriend, I'm going home to set up the house for her. I plan on getting lucky tonight." Xander picked up his coat and headed for the door.

Buffy smiled in Angel's direction. "Maybe we both will." Seeing the look of shock on Angel's face, she giggled and ran upstairs to join Tara. Her sister raced up to join her.

Dawn avidly watched as Tara set up the enchanted circle around Buffy and Angel in her sister's bedroom. The blonde wicca turned to her and said, "Dawn, you'll have to go."

"No fair! Why do I have to leave just when things are getting interesting?" she whined.

The wicca pushed her firmly out the door. "The spell requires the presence of the two to be joined and the spellcaster only. Any other person's energy would confuse the elements called upon."

"Okay, fine," Dawn groused as the door was shut in her face. She stomped downstairs into the yard and peered up at Buffy's bedroom window. As if anticipating this move, the curtains were drawn. All she could see now were vague shadows created by candlelight.

"Fine. Be that way," she muttered. She picked up some loose stones and began viciously throwing them about the darkened lawn. It was dangerous for her to be out at night but she was feeling rebellious. Besides, there was a Slayer, wicca and Master vampire within shouting range. Where was the danger?

She threw one rock extra hard and was surprised to hear a sharp cracking noise. Moving over to a nearby tree, she peered in surprise at the wreckage. It looked like she'd hit one of those tacky garden gnomes some people bought as ornaments for their yards. [But Mom always hated those. Where did this ugly thing come from?] Looking closer, her eyes widened as she caught sight of something within the debris.

"Willow, you won't believe what I found!" she crowed as she ran into the house.

"Sshh! Dawn, keep it down." Willow pointed in emphasis to the upper rooms. The teenager could hear Tara's voice rising and falling in a steady cadence. Immediately she lowered her voice.

"I found this inside a garden gnome outside on the lawn."

Willow's face was eloquent in its bafflement. "Garden gnome? We don't have those. I always thought them kinda creepy."

"I know. I think this guy was planted to hide this." She held out her find to Willow and the redhead's eyes widened.

Dawn was sure she knew what this gizmo was. "It's a camera, isn't it? One of those mini spy cams you see in the movies?"

Willow nodded while turning the device over in her hands. "Looks like it to me."

"So someone's been spying on Buffy? Anybody want to bet that it's Spike?" Dawn frowned at the device and wondered if she should warn Buffy about this. No, her sister was in the midst of the ritual; she couldn't be disturbed.

Willow was less certain about that conclusion than Dawn. "I don't think so, Dawnie. This is too high-tech for Spike. He prefers the old-fashioned methods of stalking, lurking, looking through other people's windows and creeping through the bushes. It's cheaper and much more creature-of-the-nighty behavior than playing I Spy."

Dawn was forced to agree. "So-if it isn't Spike, then who could it be?" They exchanged looks and got their second brilliant flash of the day. "The Nerd Herd!"

"Of course!" Willow enthused. "This is exactly the sort of geeky techno bushwa those guys would go in for." She raced for her laptop and began keying in certain commands while fiddling with the camera. "Dawn, I think Xander may have left some fiber-optics wire around the last time he was setting up our cable."

"I'm on it."

Several moments later, the table was strewn with brightly colored wires attached to the camera. The laptop computer had been jury-rigged alongside the contraption. "Should have something once I get tapped into the fiber-optic network. We're gonna use the feedback relay to get their system routed into our system." She glanced apologetically at Dawn. "This could take awhile."

The teenager shrugged, her eyes glued to the computer screen. "I can wait. This is way better than geography homework."

Anya smiled tightly at Spike but she was hard-put to hold onto her patience-and her interest. The drug she'd put in the whiskey was intended specifically for vampires but maybe the alcohol was slowing the effects. Spike had consumed two-thirds of the bottle's contents while rambling on incoherently about Buffy but he still showed no signs of passing out.

He cupped her face and muttered drunken nothings about how much he admired her. "I was always going above and beyond. I saved the Scoobies how many times? And I can't stand the lot of you!"

She faked an unhappy pout. "Really?"

He hastened to cover himself. "Not you, luv. You're the only one of them I wouldn't bite if I had the chance. I have nothing but respect for a woman who is forthright. Drusilla was always straightforward. Didn't have a single buggering clue about what was going on in front of her, but she was straight about it. That's a virtue."

He smiled up at her, blinking almost sleepily. When he started kissing her, it was all she could do to respond with any kind of enthusiasm. [Ick. He tastes of booze and cigarettes. Concentrate. Just close your eyes and think of Xander-and that stolen bulghur wheat.]

The thought of the purloined goods spurred her on to grab Spike. He mistook her aggression for ardor and returned the favor with interest. "You know I'm only doing this because I'm lonely and drunk and you…smell really good," she finished in a lame attempt at a compliment.

"He pulled back to smirk at her. "See. Forthright." He started pushing piles of stuff off the table onto the floor and she wanted to yell at him for his callous disregard for her merchandise. [That's right. My merchandise, my store. First he steals, now this. You are going to pay, mister.]

But her indignation flared into consternation as he began pulling jerkily at his clothes and trying to push her onto the table. [Oh crap. I so do not want to do this.] This was taking vengeance too far. She was going to have to cut this short, drugs or no drugs.

Back at the Summers home, Willow gazed at her screen in growing frustration. "Darn. The technology's pretty sophisticated, lots of booby traps and firewall stuff."

Dawn peered over her shoulder at the screen showing concentric white circles on a dark background. "But can you get a location?"

Willow tapped at more keys. "Hang on a sec." She peered at the windows opening up. "There are more cameras."

"More than one?"

"Yep." She brought up several images and the two girls sat back, stunned. "Oh my god. The Doublemeat Palace? The Bronze?" Willow gasped as she recognized another image. "My classes at UC Sunnydale! And I think that's one of Xander's construction sites."

"How many are there?"

"More," she replied in a grim tone. "A lot more. I'm just having a harder time pinpointing them."

At that exact moment, a red light coupled with an alarm began flashing at the Trio's secret headquarters. "Ack!" Warren yelled as he raced with the others to their computers. "Shut it down! Shut it all down!"

Andrew fumbled at his computer. "I'm trying, I can't find…" he whined.

Jonathan hissed at him. "Here, dorkface," as he reached towards Andrew's computer keyboard.

"I'll get it myself," he retorted.

Warren snapped at the pair of them. Honestly, they were like children sometimes. "Guys, we have to…oh holy crap."

The three would-be supervillains froze staring at the scene unfolding on the screen.

Willow shook her head. "Drat. I think I must have tripped some internal sensor. The feeds are shutting down. Wait. There's one still up." Then she gaped in horror.

Dawn looked over her shoulder to see what had caught her attention. "Oh, wow. Is-is that Spike and-Anya?!?" Dawn squeaked.

Willow tried to cover the teenager's eyes but Dawn batted her hand away. "Oh no. What is she doing? I thought Xander said she was back with him?"

"Guess she decided to take a whirl on the Spike machine just for kicks," Dawn mumbled. She couldn't believe it. What was Anya thinking? All at once, she was glad that Xander had gone home. She didn't know what he would have done if he had seen this.

"Hey, guys. Whacha lookin' at?" Willow and Dawn jumped guiltily as Buffy's voice came from the stairs. Noting their expressions she raised her eyebrows. "What? You guys looking at a porn site or something?"

"Might as well be." Dawn pointed at the screen.

Buffy and Angel leaned over and stared in amazement at the scene unfolding before them. Spike was wrestling in a clumsy manner with a half-undressed Anya atop the Magic Box table and it was clear what they were doing.

"Oh no. Poor Xander," Buffy whispered. The vampire with her was bewildered. The woman he'd seen this morning had been ecstatic about being with Xander again. Why would she do this?

Angel cocked his head at the screen and then looked at all the wires littering the table. "Willow, what is all this? How did you get this picture?"

She jerked her head away from the antics portrayed on the monitor. "Oh, that. Dawnie was fooling around outside and she found this camera hidden in a garden gnome and first we thought that Spike was responsible but now we believe it's the geek squad who's been bothering Buffy and I think we were right because we found all these hidden cams set all over the place…and then we saw this."

Buffy was barely able to keep up with this rapid sputtering. But at least it was a distraction from what was happening at the Magic Box. Then her eyes narrowed as she considered something. "So they've been spying on me, huh? And can you trace the signal back to where it came from?"

Willow tapped the keyboard in frustration. "I tried. But I must have tripped some alarm because all the feeds started shutting down."

Angel gestured at the screen. "So how come this one is still up?" They all looked at each other as light bulbs went on simultaneously.

"They're watching this," Buffy breathed.

"Of course, they'd have to be! We're talking about adolescent boys who never got laid. This would be like free porn to them! They'd think this was really hot stuff." Willow crowed. Then she blushed beet red as the others stared. "I mean…nerds."

Angel nodded sharply. "Willow, start tracing this feed back to the source. When you got it, Buffy and I can track these guys down."

Buffy smirked at him. "You and me? I don't think that's necessary, Angel. We're talking three jerks and their fancy toys. Just how dangerous can they get?"

"These three jerks are the ones who set that Glarghk Guhl Kashmak Nik demon on you. I don't think it would be a good idea to underestimate them."

She glared at him while he met her gaze calmly. Then she sighed. "Okay. Willow, you do the tracking thing." She glanced at the screen and frowned. "Uh, people? Where'd they go?"

The others directed their attention back to the Magic Shop window. The couple in the Magic Box was gone.

"Damn! What happened!" Warren yelled.

"I don't get it," Andrew said. "One minute that Spike is going like Superman on top of Lois Lane, the next he just slumps off the table."

Warren swiveled the camera where it was hidden inside of skull around the Magic Box. Anya had heaved Spike up, grumbling all the time about his weight, while simultaneously trying to re-arrange her clothes. Then she had staggered with him out the door, closed up shop and hadn't returned. He slapped the keyboard in frustration.

Jonathan's head jerked up. "Hey, guys? When did the alarm stop going off?" The others glanced around. They had been so absorbed in the hot sex they'd been sure was in the making that they hadn't noticed the eerie silence. Warren glanced at his computer again and belatedly shut down the Magic Box feed.

"Do you think they traced us?" Andrew mumbled.

"I'm not sure," Warren replied as he fiddled with his motherboard. Damn, they had way too much stuff here simply to pack up and go in a hurry. But it might have to be done. "We shouldn't take any chances though. Pick up all the major talismans, charms, tech equipment and the maps and get ready to move out."

"Are you sure? They were going to show that Xena Warrior Princess episode tonight-you know, the one where she and Gabrielle are in that Norse myth fantasy and she kisses her right on-"

"We can order it on DVD! Now pick up your shit, Andrew, and move your ass!" Warren snapped. The boys jumped to gather their various pieces of equipment when a smooth voice coming from the doorway interrupted them.

Buffy threw the Trio a sweet smile. "Hello, boys. Somebody call for the movers?"

Anya was pissed as she hurried Spike along. Thanks to the drugs in his system, he was moving, albeit sluggishly, and obeying her commands. But his mind kept wandering and he would either break into song or try to grope clumsily at her breasts. She wished that it were possible simply to teleport him to his crypt but her powers didn't work that way. She couldn't transport anybody with her when she teleported, unfortunately. So she had to settle for walking.

"God, why would anybody want to live in a graveyard anyway? You don't hang out with other vampires; you could squat in an abandoned building somewhere. But, oh no, Mr. Big Bad has to maintain his silly image." She finally managed to wrest the crypt door open and half-dragged, half-pulled his sorry butt inside the edifice.

He staggered and fell onto the floor, giggling like a loon. "'S not an image. Images are for posers. I'm the real deal."

"Sure you are." She squinted into the darkened depths of the crypt, wondering when her surprise "guest" was going to make his appearance.

"Too straight. I'm the Big…Bad." He hiccuped and tried staggering to his feet.

"Well, let's see how bad you are after he gets through with you."

Something about Anya's tone finally broke through Spike's muddled brain. She wasn't maudlin, flattering and sympathetic like she'd been earlier. There was an icy menace in her voice and her eyes were cold and unfriendly. After glaring at him, she glanced away and then straightened as her friend showed up.

Spike turned his bleary eyes towards her. "Wh-whassat? Wha's goin' on?"

Anya didn't bother answering him as the Glarghk Guhl Kashmak Nik came charging out of the depths. The beast wasn't the same as the one Buffy had killed, of course. But Anya was easily able to find another, thanks to her contacts in the demon world. And what was sauce for the goose was definitely sauce for the gander.

If Spike had been more alert, he might have been able to fight the creature handily. But he had almost a full bottle of whiskey in his system and the drugs Anya had doped him with had taken full effect. He never even saw the monster before the demon jabbed him in neck with his stinger.

"OOOOWWWWW! SHIT!" Spike screamed and then completely collapsed on the ground.

Anya smiled cruelly at his motionless body. "That's what you get for stealing from me." She backed away as the Glarghk Guhl Kashmak Nik advanced on her. She wasn't worried; she was a powerful demon herself, easily able to outmaneuver the thing. It would probably make its way into the sewers or the woods after leaving Spike's crypt. Mentally, she made a note to have Buffy come and kill it if she wanted. No point in having that beast wandering around. She didn't want to take the chance of a crazed Slayer killing her dear Xander now that they were a couple again.

Without sparing another glance at the now-whimpering member of the undead, she swung open the crypt door and took a deep breath of the night air. Ah, life was good. And if Xander was up waiting for her, it was going to get even better. She gave a huge grin and teleported to Xander's apartment complex.

"So, Buffy, how did things go with the meek little geeks?" Willow and Dawn sat on Buffy's bed while she regaled them with the tale of how she'd defeated Warren and his crew.

"They tried going for some weapons, but I was too fast for them. I punched out Warren because I figured he was the greater threat. Then I knocked the other two guys's heads together like coconuts. I dumped them outside for Angel to watch over and then I called the police."

Dawn asked, "What did you tell them?"

Buffy smirked to the others. "I told them there was a group of criminals who'd been spying on people. I think that counts as illegal trespass although they didn't do it at any private residences so they might not get it to stick. But they had maps and detailed plans of all the crimes they were going to commit as well as that diamond heist they pulled. I figure that's enough to nail them to the wall.

"When I came out again, they'd all come to and Angel was standing over them with his gameface on. I don't know what he said to them but they were practically wetting themselves. They had on blubbery faces and said they'd confess about Katrina if only he wouldn't hurt them. It was so cool. I haven't seen Angel threaten anybody in ages. I think he really enjoyed himself. The police showed up soon after that and Angel and I skedaddled so we wouldn't have to answer awkwardy questions."

"Where's Angel now? I thought you guys did the spell. Don't you want to try boinking now?"

Buffy raised an eyebrow. "Angel's at the mansion at Crawford Street. He has to call the people back in LA. He's been here way longer than they thought he would. So he's being all of the reassuring and letting them know that he's going to be coming back to wrap things up-only he's going to be making a life for himself here in Sunnydale, too."

Dawn grinned, "That is so great. So when are you two going to boink? I'd have thought after all this time, you'd be getting on with it."

"If we do 'get on with it' as you put it, Dawn, we're not going to be telling you. That's-"

"I know, I know. None of my business. I'm not a kid anymore, Buffy. It's not like I couldn't figure up what you were doing with Riley all those times you sent me over to Xander and Anya's place." Her brows wrinkled up as she recalled those two. "Where do you think Anya is now? I mean, she and Spike disappeared together. Do you think they're having sex somewhere else?"

"Maybe they decided to go someplace more comfortable," Willow ventured.

"Naw. Spike wasn't one to care about comfort when he was-" Buffy stopped talking abruptly when she realized what she was about to say.

Willow bit her lip before saying what was on her mind. "Buffy? D-do you want to talk about it? Because Dawnie and me…we don't really understand."

Buffy so didn't want to have this conversation. Not now and maybe not ever. But her little sister and her best friend were staring at her with reproachful and baffled stares. "Guys…I don't really know what to tell you. Spike found out he could hit me and told me I came back wrong."

Willow's eyes widened and she instinctively reached out to grasp Buffy's hand. "Wrong? What did he mean?"

"I don't know. But he kept going on about how you all wouldn't understand what was happening to me and he seemed the only one to get my situation. I was feeling so dead inside like I was dying a little more everyday. Being…with him made the creepy numbness go away. But it didn't really help and I-I had to stop. I told him it was killing me and that I couldn't love him. So I ended it."

"How long was it going on?" Dawn didn't mean to sound so harsh but she couldn't keep the accusing note out of her voice.

Buffy cast her mind back while avoiding Dawn's stare. "Just about three months."

Dawn couldn't believe it. Three months? Buffy had been screwing Spike for three months and she hadn't guessed. None of them had. "Why didn't you tell us?"

The look of shock from her sister told her everything. "Would you have really wanted to hear all that, Dawn? How awful I felt being back here? How everything felt harsh and loud and ugly? I felt resentment because you were keeping me stuck in this world and then guilt for feeling the resentment and then resentment for feeling the guilt. Welcome to the Buffyworld of rollercoaster emotions."

Dawn swallowed. "Me? You think I was keeping you here?"

"I don't mean to blame you, Dawn. But every time I tried dealing with a problem, you were making some demand, getting into trouble or throwing a tantrum. You lied to me about going out on Halloween, you were stealing, I tried explaining to you about Katrina and you twisted it into being about you. And let's not get into the birthday fiasco. That's two of my birthdays you spoiled in a row. I'm really hoping you don't make a habit of it." Buffy smiled at Dawn in an attempt to soften the criticism.

"Well, you should have told me about my being a Key."

"Right. Because telling you you weren't real would have gone down real well. As I recall, you slit your wrists and pulled one of your Screaming Mimi acts when you did find out. So I was of the right in not telling you."

"Well, keeping secrets doesn't work too well, does it?" Dawn tartly replied.

"Not with a little snoop like you around, no." Buffy shot back. She rose and began pointedly preparing ready for bed. "Now I think if the 'Judging of Buffy' show is over, I'd like to get some sleep. I was a little low on it last night thanks to the Glarghk whatsis. Good night."

Willow jumped up and caught at her arm. "Buffy, we're not judgy. Only-won't you please tell us what's happening in the future? I'm so sorry you felt this way and I know it's my fault. There probably wasn't anything I could have done to fix this but I still would have wanted to know."

"So you could-what? Blame yourself like you're doing now? That's exactly why I was in non-share mode, Willow. I dumped on Spike because I didn't care how he felt about my pain. I didn't care about his either. I used him and that was wrong. But it was better than hurting my friends."

The redhead thought this over. It made a twisty kind of sense. She still cringed when she thought of Buffy doing anything with Spike like what she'd seen on the camera in the Magic Box. But Buffy was trying to protect them just like she always did. She smiled uncertainly at the small blonde woman when she realized this.

"Okay, Buffy. But you don't have to shield us from things. We've been through some really tough times together. We're strong. We can take it."

"Yeah. Hey, speaking of Spike again, where do you think he and Anya went?"

Buffy gave a helpless shrug. "I don't know and it's not something we should interfere with. We could wind up wrecking things between Anya and Xander. Since Anya doesn't like to keep her mouth shut, she'll probably spill the beans about it to us anyway."

"Right, it's not like she can keep her mouth shut about sex, anyway." Dawn noticed their uncomfortable looks. "What? I'm just saying."

Spike stirred and opened his eyes blearily. What the fuck had happened? His memory was decidedly fuzzy and he didn't get what was going on. Where was he?

"Oh, look. I think he's coming, too."

"William? Are you all right, my darling?" Damn, that voice. It was a woman's voice, not Buffy's, but somehow familiar. He shook his head and almost instantly regretted it. Nausea welled up in his throat and he dropped his head towards the floor, vomiting up the contents of his stomach on the rug.

"Oh, my goodness," one woman said in clear distaste.

"Told you a bucket should have been procured. I could tell he was unwell judging by that green color around his gills," someone else muttered.

"Quick, fetch one of the servants to clean this before it stains!" Servants? What the fuck was going on? He raised his head with difficulty and stared at the people around him.

Bleedin' hell. He knew this lot. They were his old friends and comrades from England. Well, not friends, exactly, after the awful things they'd said about his poetry. But there they all were, staring at him in various stages of shock and concern.

"I say, old man, are you feeling better? Would you like a bromo or something of that sort?" That was Oscar Willertson. He was kneeling by Spike's side, careful to avoid the puke on the floor.

He shoved the man aside roughly. "No, I don't want a soddin' bromo. What are you wankers doing here? For that matter, where's here?"

A woman in a pale dress came into view, her dark eyes resting on his face. "William, why are you talking in that strange fashion? Don't you know where you are?"

"No, I bloody…" His voice trailed away as his eyes lit on her. Cecily. It was Cecily looking exactly as she did at that fateful party where she had rejected him over a century ago.

He started up and stared about him wildly. It was the same party. Here were a few of the people who'd made him feel like the complete prat after one of his poems had been read aloud. They'd all laughed at him except for Cecily. No, she'd done far worse. She'd humiliated him and rejected his proposal of marriage.

This wasn't right. He wasn't supposed to be here. He wasn't William the Bloody Awful Poet any longer. He was William the Bloody, terror of the demon world and humans alike. Well, he was before he got this chip implanted. But this wasn't real. It couldn't be.

He tried figuring out what was happening to him, why he was here in this place. Was it a time travelling spell? Yeah, that had to be it. But except for the odd concern about his health, no one seemed to think anything about him was out of the ordinary. Shouldn't they be commenting on his hair, his clothes…?

He glanced down at himself and his eyes widened. He wasn't dressed in his usual black-on- black gear. He had on the beige suit he'd been wearing the night Drusilla had met him in the alley. "Shit. What am I wearing? What is this crap?"

"Goodness gracious! Such language! Cecily, did he perhaps hit his head when he fell, do you think?" one of the other men asked.

"Mirror," he croaked. He staggered upright and the others backed away to give him room. "I-I need to see a mirror."

Someone-Algernon Masters, if he remembered correctly-replied, "Well, there's one in the drawing room. But why on earth do you need a mirror?"

The question went unanswered as he wobbled uncertainly in the direction of the drawing room. He found the long oval mirror that stood upright in its posts and stared aghast at the sight that greeted him.

There it was-his reflection, as he hadn't seen it in over 120 years. He reached out tentatively to stroke the surface and the bespectacled sandy blonde in the shiny surface copied the movement. He drew a deep breath to steady himself. Then he blinked and breathed again. And again.

He needed to breathe. He tried holding his breath and shortly felt the blood beating in his ears and the nausea returning as he grew lightheaded and dizzy. He placed his hand on his chest over his undead heart and felt it throbbing under his hand.

Shit. He had a heartbeat and breath. He was human again. Human after 120 years as a dead thing. His mind whirled with the thought as he continued sightlessly gazing at the mirror. The next moment, Cecily joined him as she came to stand behind him.

"William, I fear you're not quite well. Unless this fascination with your appearance is revealing a vanity of which I'm heretofore unaware." She simpered in a truly sickening fashion and he tamped down the urge to smack her.

"I have to get out of here. Something's off."

She gasped in alarm as she threw her arms around him. "William, sweet William. You shouldn't move about too quickly. You're liable to be ill again and I'll start to think you regretted your proposal." She finished this sentence in an arch manner, casting her eyes down and glancing up at him through the lashes.

"Proposal? You mean the proposal you rejected?" His voice was harsh in its accusation. Part of him was scolding him for indulging in this fantasy, spell or whatever it was. But, in spite of over a century of bloodshed and mayhem, the wounded sensitive poet in him that had never really died relished the chance to attack this girl for her cruelty.

Her luminous eyes widened as she stared at him in disbelief. "Rejected? William, you're delirious. I accepted your proposal. You were so ecstatic at my acquiescence that you kissed me. And then you fainted."

"Fainted?!? That's tosh, woman, I've never fainted in my life." Spike drew himself out of her embrace. He had to get away from her, get away from all these people. Someone had done this to him and whoever it was would pay. No one screwed with William the Bloody and walked away laughing.

She trailed after him, "William, please! You're not well and I don't want to see you hurt or risk your fainting away in the street." When he continued to ignore her, she cried out, "William, I love you!"

In spite of himself, he halted and turned back to her. "You-what? What did you say?"

She beamed and ran up to him. "I love you, William and I've agreed to be yours." Abruptly her manner became brisk and businesslike. "Now we'll have to tell Mama and Papa, of course. How long an engagement do you wish? I would prefer a year but we can shorten it if you like."

He stared in stupefaction. Cecily loved him. She'd accepted his proposal of marriage. At the flare of joy that surged in his chest, he found himself automatically reaching for her before pulling back. No, that couldn't be. This had all happened over a century ago and Cecily was dust along with all these people. He had to find out the spellcaster responsible and get them to reverse this.

He staggered away again as Cecily tried to restrain him. Finally, he responded to her pleas by turning back to her. With a cold sneer on his face, he replied, "Frankly, my dear Cecily, I don't give a toss." And with that he walked away and left her with her pretty little mouth open.

He almost stumbled again when he reached the door. He blinked his eyes against the bright sunlight outside. Damn, just how long had he been out? How could it be morning already?

He peered at the daylight outside and felt his heart flutter in fear. He was a vampire. The deadly beams would kill him. No wait, they couldn't. Whoever had cast the spell had made him human once more. The rays of light outside couldn't touch him. With renewed confidence, he flung open the door and stepped into waiting day.

In Sunnydale, the vampire known as William the Bloody opened his crypt door and walked into the sunshine. He blithely advanced for several feet without noticing how his hair and then his clothes caught on fire. In moments, he was a burning pyre and seconds later, he collapsed into dust.

Anya had been carefully watching him from close by. She should have been at the Magic Box greeting the early customers but she couldn't resist seeing the results of Angel's wish. Briefly her features shifted into their demonic purple wrinkles as she spoke.

"Wish granted."


Part 4

[Right. I can do this. It's no big deal. No big deal! You're going to be with the man you love, the man you kept loving for over four years after he left. You're saying that's no big deal?]

Buffy stood before the mansion on Crawford Street and wondered what kept her from going inside. She yearned for Angel in a way she couldn't have imagined a week ago. She thought she'd buried all feeling for him, that he no longer had the power to touch her. But a few brief moments with him and she wondered how she could ever have endured being alive as she had all the years of his absence.

He'd come flying to her rescue while she was in the grip of a powerful delusion. She'd wished that this world be nothing more than a terrible nightmare from which she might awaken and he'd pulled her back into it-to be with him. He was the only one who could have convinced her to stay here.

She loved him; he loved her. Where was the problem?

Well, there was always the chance that the spell hadn't worked and therefore Angelus might return. Yeah, that was big obstacle number one right there. Then there was the matter of his making a place for himself here in Sunnydale. Spike had managed to wedge himself into the life of the Scoobies by force of habit. But Angel had been out of the loop for almost five years. This was going to be awkward, no doubt about it.

But it wasn't just that and she knew it. She'd come here to have sex with him; that was pretty much the long and short of it. What if he was disappointed in her? What if he no longer found her attractive? The abortive pouncing in the tunnel was convincing proof that he still wanted her but mindless lust and positive attraction were two different things.

Her mind drifted back to the binding spell. Tara had decided the simplest solution to the problem was to give their two souls into each other's keeping. It wasn't as if they were exchanging their life forces or anything; it simply bound them to each other.

Tara had warned them that, while this was a simple ritual, it was not a casual undertaking. People who made such a commitment weren't like a marrying couple who could divorce if things went sour. They were eternally linked to each other. If Angel became a soulless being again through sorcerous interference, Buffy would be tied to him still. If she had to kill him, the psychic backlash would probably destroy her as well.

Buffy had thought there was something deeply romantic in the idea of having Angel's soul under her charge. But Angel had been horrified at the implications. He had refused to go through with it, fearing the loss of Buffy's life if anything should go wrong. Buffy had pointed out that, as long as his soul could be lost, she would always be in danger. Angelus had a fixation about her that was no less than Spike's. He'd come for her no matter what.

With that argument, Angel had reluctantly allowed Tara to proceed. The blonde wicca's instructions that they strip had met with such shocked stares that she giggled until she turned red in the face. The explanation that it was only a joke had been a vast relief. Then she'd told them to hold hands and repeat the words she spoke.

Buffy hadn't understood the language. The Latin phrases rolling off Angel's tongue had a caressing, almost erotic, quality to them and she couldn't help blushing even though the words were probably innocent of any such meaning. But she had felt a distinct tingling all over her skin and featherweight brushing at the edges of her mind, almost as if something were trying to force its way into her. The sensation was gone before she could really lay hold of it.

Now she stood before Angel's mansion with a very different tingling running through her and a fluttery feeling in her stomach to match.

"Are you coming inside or do you intend to stand here all night?" The amused voice came from behind her and she whirled around in a combat stance. Damn, the demon venom must have affected her more than she thought if she missed Angel's presence behind her…that, or she was simply too absorbed in thoughts of the handsome vampire she loved.

He was handsome, too. He was wearing a beige shirt under his leather duster instead of his usual all-black attire. It hung loosely on his broad chest and barely hinted at the robust frame hidden under it. He was also carrying a bag of groceries in his right arm and grinned at her obvious surprise. He came up to her and encircled her with his other arm and they shared a brief but passionate kiss. When they parted, Angel gazed down at her and his expression was more serious. "Buffy, were you coming in-or did you change your mind?"

"No! Definitely not of the changing. See me, resolute Buffy. I-I was just thinking and considering and…thinking," she finished, smiling feebly. Searching for a way to change the subject, she asked, "What's in the bag?"

"Just a few things to eat. I thought you might get hungry. I also had to pick up some supplies from Willy's."

"That's good. I was too jumpy to eat earlier and I'm probably gonna get mucho hungry later. Got to keep my strength up." Realizing what the statement implied, she flushed and snatched the bag out of his arm to cover her slip. "Open the door and I'll carry this in."

"I've got a better idea." He shoved the door open and picked her up, groceries and all, and carried her over the threshold.

Buffy giggled, kicking her feet slightly. "Aren't you of the chivalry? That's so sweet. You are my big teddy bear vamp."

Angel growled at the description. "One thing I've never been is a 'teddy bear.' "

She smirked at his indignant expression. "Well, I'm planning on cuddling up with you later so don't knock it, fella." She searched his suddenly shadowed face. "Hey, Angel. Lighten up. This is supposed to be a happy occasion."

"That's what's worrying me. I couldn't bear it if…something went wrong." Both of them automatically recalled when Angelus made his reappearance in Sunnydale and the lengths Buffy had gone to stop him. Determined not to let those memories ruin the mood, she buried her face in the crook of his neck and sniffed hard, inhaling his unique scent. She placed a light kiss on his throat and felt him growl again, the primal sound vibrating against her lips.

"That's why I wanted to do this here. Plenty of chains to keep you tied down if Angelus comes back. But he won't. I have utter faith in Tara's witchy abilities." She spoke with absolute confidence and Angel marveled at the change in her. In the space of a single day, she seemed to have recovered all her spirits and force of will.

He could see there were shadows within her; time and circumstances had changed her from the innocent, sunny girl he'd first seen on the steps of Hemery. But they had only deepened and strengthened her character. She understood the world was no longer the simple black-and- white she'd believed in so blindly. The maturity of this woman made the teenage girl he'd once known seem a pale, vapid silly thing by comparison.

He set her down and placed the bag on a nearby table. "None of these things are immediately perishable except the blood but I'll let it sit awhile so it can warm up a bit." She turned from her and silently noted the changes in the mansion.

There were candles lit everywhere, though set well away from the thick curtains covering the windows. He'd obviously had a fair bit of cleaning done since she couldn't see a speck of dust anywhere. There were new sheets on the bed as well. [Satin, I think. Wow, that'll feel so good against the skin. Not as good as his skin, though.] She grinned at the stray thought, wondering if he could tell where her mind was going.

He detected the sudden spike in her arousal and his nostrils flared slightly. He used her absorption to stare unabashedly at her. Buffy was wearing an orange blouse that hugged her curves. She was a trifle smaller than he remembered; her hard life had taken its toll on her physically. But she was still Buffy. Nothing could change that or the way he felt about her.

Buffy could feel his stare caressing her back and decided she couldn't stand another minute apart. She walked towards him and ran her hands under the coat and up his shirt. "So."

"So," he responded. He drew her closer, inhaling her aroma. The scent of vanilla, so long absent from his unlife, filled his senses and it was all he could to keep from tearing her clothes off her body right then. He pressed her close and settled for a kiss instead.

The kiss was shy, almost tentative, at first. Just a brief brushing of the lips and he pulled back almost at once. Then he returned, cupping her head and tilting it slightly for a better angle. His tongue came out and flicked at her pouting lips, pushing down and causing them to part.

A delicious odor came from her mouth and he sucked it into his. He didn't breathe but, when he caught breath from her, it almost felt as if he did. A simple kiss from Buffy made him more alive than the most ardent embraces from Darla. Banishing his dead Sire from his mind, he sucked harder and this time her tongue came with it.

Angel brushed her tongue with his own and then flicked along the surface, following it back to her mouth. Buffy moaned into that cold cavern and pulled at his shoulders. She wanted to draw Angel into her and was frustrated by all the clothing in the way. He seemed determined to take his time even though the spell needed the sex act. It was both the completion of the ritual and the test that it had actually worked.

She slid her hands under the duster again and this time yanked up the shirt so that her hot hands came in contact with his skin. Angel groaned softly as he experienced her on his bare flesh and he caught a touch of her impatience. He shrugged off his duster so that it fell in a pool of leather at his feet and gathered her tiny frame to his own.

Self-control was rapidly leaving them both as Buffy arched into his caress. He could feel her nipples, already taut with desire, rubbing against his chest, the accelerating pulse causing them to throb like twin hearts. [No bra. That's good. I'm not in the mood to fuss with straps tonight.]

She rubbed her thighs against him, sighing as she felt the straining erection trapped in his tight slacks. Maybe they were tight because of the erection. She grinned at the thought, then whined as his lips left her own.

His tongue traced a slow journey over her chin. He paused briefly at her throat and brushed his human teeth over the skin, causing the pulse to jump under the blunt edges. Unconsciously he pulled the scar that still lay there between his teeth and relished the tiny tremor rippling through her body.

[My mark from my teeth. She's mine. Does she remember that?] Suddenly Angel wanted her to scream, to be on fire for him. He yearned for Buffy to be his again. He wanted to stamp every part of her with his touch. He wanted to remove any trace in her mind of the men who had come after him.

Because part of him mourned the thought of the others that had followed. A major part of him hated Spike and what he'd done. The thought of his grandchilde made him growl and he sucked a pebbly nub harshly through her blouse into his mouth.

Buffy cried out and arched into him. The abrupt roughness of the gesture startled her but she was fiercely glad. He wasn't holding back any more. She wound her fingers in the soft strands of his hair and tugged him onto her. If he had needed to breathe, he would have been in trouble for her grip left him no space to draw back. Instead he sucked harder as he pulled almost to the point of pain.

The whimpering from above his head told him the other was going unsatisfied and he switched his attentions to the neglected nub. He sucked and then rubbed his cheek over the tiny target. Swirling his fingers outside the blouse, he teased her by flicking the nipple back and forth until her body was twisting, desperate for more pressure, more sensation-just more.

"Angel. I want to feel you. Please." Ah, a little begging-always nice. Finally, he took pity on her. He swept his hand under the material and caught the nipple between his fingers. Angel was immediately rewarded by her passionate moan as her hands found their way to his back and clutched at him.

He continued the manipulation of the tender flesh before she pulled out of his grasp. He growled in disappointment at the action; why the hell was she backing away? Then his eyes widened as she drew off her blouse.

The small perky breasts were covered in goose pimples from the slightly chill air of the mansion. Inwardly he cursed himself. He should have lit a fire. [Wait, I thought that's what we were doing?]

Buffy kicked off the flat shoes then let her hands drift down over her breasts and hover tantalizingly at the top of her pants. Two could play at teasing. She'd show him not to mess with a Slayer. She began swaying from side to side as she leisurely unzipped the pants, stepping out of them as they landed on the floor.

He let his eyes travel down as the zipper revealed the small thatch of chestnut brown pubic hair underneath. The smell of her arousal became that much stronger without the clothes in the way and he growled again, reaching for her.

She let him catch her and then began unbuttoning his shirt, rubbing her tits on every bit of his chest as it was revealed. "Buffy," he groaned. "I can't wait much longer."

"Then get these pants off, mister," she retorted. Obeying her, he threw off the shirt and unzipped the slacks. He paused, ignoring her snort, as he danced around with the pants around his ankles while he belatedly removed his shoes.

He finally managed to discard the intrusive clothing and straightened up before her. Her eyes ran over the muscular body and she was so stunned she nearly forgot to breathe.

Those wide shoulders. The muscles that rippled casually under the skin whenever he moved. As her eyes drifted lower, they landed on the sign of his arousal and her breath left her with a whoosh. [How could I have fit that inside me? How could I have forgotten all this to be with Spike?] The fleeting thought of that pest was depressing along with the memories of the times she'd wasted with him. But she ruthlessly shoved them aside; she was with Angel now.

Here was the man of her dreams, the lover she never completely forgot no matter how many others came her way. No wonder Riley had despaired of capturing her heart. No wonder Spike never stood a chance. She ran to him again and pulled his face down towards hers.

He scooped up that deceptively diminutive body, molding it to his. His cool tongue darted between her lips as he reacquainted himself with her mouth. He teased her tongue, darting little licks behind her teeth and across the sensitive soft upper palate. The fingers of one hand swept lightly across her arm and down her back.

He loved her back. He loved the way it twitched under his fingers. It felt supple as if it had a life of its own. He knew the nerves in the human back were far and few between but he could have sworn that Buffy could feel him wherever he touched her there.

She returned his kiss with as much fervor as he showed her. Her tongue traced his lips and wrestled with his. She felt his growl before she heard it. The delightful animalistic sound vibrated against the tips of her breasts. Hard ridges were pressing against her forehead and she opened her eyes to meet Angel's yellowed gaze. "Sorry, Buffy," he whispered as he forced his face back to its human planes.

She scowled and grabbed his face between his hands. "Don't be. I know who you are."

He shook his head as he tried to explain, "No, I just lost control…"

She craned her head forward and nipped at his neck. She knew what this did to vampires. Spike had demonstrated it often enough. He hissed and it was almost as if a pulse jumped beneath her teeth. "Let go, Angel. I love all of you, demon and man. I'm making no distinctions here. It's you, whether it's your golden eyes or your brown ones, fangy or not. I know it's you. You don't have to hide from me."

That silken whisper was nearly his undoing. Buffy was no longer an innocent schoolgirl and she was determined to prove it. She pulled him towards the bed with a final fierce kiss and lay back on the sheets. She drew up her legs and grasped her knees. "See anything you like?" she murmured with a sensual stare.

He knelt before her, absolute rapt by the sight. In the light, every part of her seemed to shimmer and glow. Her pussy was wide open before him, glistening with moisture. "You're so gorgeous, my beloved," he whispered. "Do you have any idea how beautiful you are now, all bathed in candlelight?"

Her eyes widened and she felt tears sting at them. Spike had never sounded like that, so revering and hungry at once. He'd made her feel used, soiled and dirty. You belong in the darkness with me. She steeled herself against the ugly recollection. Being here with Angel was a thousand times better.

She didn't trust herself to speak. She merely stretched out her hands towards him.

No vampire could resist that invitation and Angel was no exception. He lunged towards her and covered her tiny body with his own. She arched against him, that massive erection throbbing along her belly. But he paused; he wanted to savor all of her. He wanted to stretch this night out forever. Does forever work for you?

The kisses darted across her lips and over her face, never lingering in any one place. He nipped at her ear with one pointed fang and drew a tiny bead of blood. She whimpered as he suckled the tiny lobe. Suddenly she wanted to taste him, too. She drew his face back to hers and bit his lower lip. Angel stiffened in surprise; this wasn't something he'd expected. Then he moaned as she sucked his blood into her mouth.

He knew a little vampire blood wasn't enough to turn any human, though he'd heard of quite a few mortals who developed a taste for it. But he hadn't known her drawing it would be so much of a turn-on. He growled again, louder than before, and let his hands drift lower over her straining body.

His broad hands cupped the tiny breasts and rolled the tight acorns between his fingers. She gasped and cried out urgently every time he tweaked them and her hips were bobbing under his own with each pull. She was getting wetter, if that were possible, and he was certain she was soaking the sheets. The satin would be reeking of her scent for days…not that he minded. He was going to need that reminder of her throughout the long days spent in her absence.

Buffy reached down and clasped his erection in one firm dainty hand. As he drew in an unneeded breath, she started a deliberate stroking all along his length. She timed it with the undulating of her own hips as if he were already inside her. One arm wound around his neck as she pulled his head down for a delicate whisper.

"Angel. I want you. I thought about you all last night. I had such dreams. I thought of ripping off your clothes and throwing you onto the floor of the tunnel. I sat on top of you and you shoved that cock in hard, right where I wanted it. Your body was stretched out under me and I could feel every vein, every inch of you as you slid into me. I could feel you inside, fucking me. I was grabbing your hips and slamming myself down on you until you howled. You bit me and nipped my breasts. You dug your fingers in my ass while I rode you like a horse. Fuck me, Angel. Fuck me now."

Jesus, was that Buffy saying those things? He drew back to stare at her. Her eyelids stood shadowed at half-mast, the hazel glow of her eyes drawing him into their depths. She stopped the movement of her hand and he yelped as she suddenly squeezed his balls.

"Buffy!" She laughed soundlessly and spread her legs wide. She reached down and rubbed at her own cunt. Then she smeared the slick juice on his lips.

His features shifted at the ripe odor. Angel may have been willing to hold back but Angelus had been too long without and he wouldn't brook any more delay.

Buffy sensed his surrender to the moment but she still gasped at the first lunge. He halted, afraid he had hurt her, but she shook her head, mutely urging him onwards. He withdrew and then gave a longer, deeper thrust.

"Ooooh yes. More, Angel. Deeper. You can't hurt me. I want you, I want it all. Give it to me," she hissed from between clenched teeth. Who was he to disoblige a lady? He grinned and retreated again. The next thrust was harder and faster and she mewled. Her back arched so that her pebbled nubs rasped his chest.

He pushed her knees up towards her ears. He knew from experience that this would deepen the penetration and, sure enough…yes, her answering cry this time was more like a wail and she grabbed at his waist. "Again…oh, that was…do that again, Angel!"

"Like this?" He wriggled his ass, causing his cock to dart around in circles inside her. She panted wildly, clawing at his shoulders. That tickling sensation she'd felt earlier returned- and brought something with it. [She likes that, does she?]

[Yes, she does. Would he like it if I…] She clenched her inner muscles tightly as he pulled out again and she heard him gasp. Buffy's heart sang with triumph at that abrupt inhalation. [Nice to know I can make a vampire do that.]


Buffy and Angel stared at each other in shock even as they unconsciously continued their movements. [Angel? I-is that you?]

[Yes, beloved. How?]

The thought occurred simultaneously to the both of them. The bond. It had to be. A myriad of emotions, too chaotic for actual thought, flew through them and finally settled on fear, confusion, wonder…and utter delight.

For she could feel his excitement, his desire and knew he felt hers, too. The idle thought that she wanted him to pinch her nipple came to her and he immediately responded, squeezing the tiny peak until she whimpered with pleasure.

[Yes, just like that, Angel.]

[Again, Buffy? Why don't you…?]

[You like it when I…?]

[YESSSSS. Just that way…so good…so wet…you smell…]

[This is…Heaven.]

[Not yet.]

He angled his hips and thrust again, a swift lunge that seemed to pierce to her very center. The sharp pleasure careened into his mind even before he heard her scream. His back awoke with delicious pain as she raked it with her nails and he felt her surprise as she sensed his enjoyment of the animal act.

He set up an even deliberate rhythm as he pressed his hard shaft in the moist passage. She rocked up her hips as she matched his every stroke. He could feel her enjoyment as his heavy balls slapped the crack of her ass repeatedly, a steady accompaniment to the slick noises of his cock.

[Mineminemineminemineminemine.] The thought was selfish but he couldn't help it. Angelus was claiming his mate again and he was helpless before his other half's possessive nature. Yet he felt no outrage from her; if anything there was triumph and an equally powerful demand.

[Mine, too. You, you're the one. The others…never touched…ooh, there again. More. MINE.] Her legs locked tightly around his back, her ankles crossing over each other. She was assuming a position he'd practiced with women in the East, one guaranteed to squeeze the penis with each thrust. Oh god.

She glimpsed it in his mind, the memories of countless past sexual encounters. There was shame there, yes, that she should see such things. But she felt his undeniable satisfaction, too. She pushed her jealousy aside and plundered his mind ruthlessly, even as his body explored hers.

[Let me try…] Suiting the action to the thought, she flipped him over. All at once, Angel was on his back, staring up at her as she reared over him. She drew herself up slowly, holding his eyes, and then slammed her body back down. The rigid column filled every bit of her; it was as if she could feel every ridge of flesh as he fitted himself to her.

Angel shouted at the pressure and grabbed at her. Those firm little buttocks were cupped in his hands as she began an inexorable rhythm over his cock. She rested her hands on his shoulders, angled herself forward until her breasts hovered just inches above his waiting lips. She could feel the frustration building in his mind as he strained upwards towards those nipples.

[Want something, lover?]

[Don't toy with me, woman.] A mental growl rumbled through her mind and a silent giggle answered him by way of response. Then she gasped as he roughly drew her down. His lips grasped and pulled at those pink peaks and Buffy cried out as his fangs came into play. The needle-like points grazed her flesh but she wasn't afraid and he knew it.

He couldn't believe she found his demonic side appealing. But time with Spike had taught her a few things about her own nature. There was nothing wrong with a bit of roughness as long as both parties were in agreement. And she was in tune with Angel in a way she'd never have thought possible.

They rocked together, their motions becoming wilder and more ferocious with every passing moment. She was riding on a tidal wave of emotion as both Angel and Angelus surged through her mind. The demon was howling to take possession of her again, to brand her once more, and she was perfectly willing to let him. She bounced on his cock, her head flung back, as she gave herself over to their mutual passion.

Her heartbeat was deafening. Like thunder, he could hear it everywhere-beating in her chest, calling to him. The tide was coursing over her body, leaving her chest reddened, gleaming in the light as sweat trickled down her flesh. He could see the pulse throbbing in her neck as his eyes fastened onto that fair column.

There was a madwoman clawing at his chest; tiny scratches of blood were being left wherever she touched. Her passage was fluttering around his length, as tight as the first time he'd made love to her. Another plunge and they both cried out at once. [Oh, that's so good. Harder, baby, harder!]

And was that last thought hers or his? He didn't know nor care anymore. His mate was reaching out to him. Her zeal matched his and he abandoned all attempts to hold his more savage half at bay.

Angel turned her over again. His buttocks clenched under her hands as he dove repeatedly into her body. It was a brutal pace, one that would have broken a weaker woman but not his Slayer. That cold cock which brought searing heat with it was bringing her closer with each thrust. He reached between their bodies, pinching and twisting her clit in time with his movements.

[Angel! Yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesdontstopmorethereharderplease] She felt Angelus's desire and without thinking swept her hair from the right side of her neck. There it was, his mark, slightly faded from the years, but laid upon her skin still. He buried his nose in her neck and licked at the ridged flesh.

[PLEASE!] The demand was clear and he hesitated no longer. As her excitement wound higher, he broke the skin and began to drink.

To Buffy, the bite opened the floodgates. Her climax swept through her body and she screamed, bombarded with his bliss and her own: his pleasure and his demon's threatening to swamp what was left of her mind. There was his love for her, so clear and bright, she could feel it like the lost warmth of Heaven. There was the untamed demon exhilarated at meeting its match.

"AAAAAANNNNGELLLL!!!" Her willowy body arched under his as her cunt spasmed around his cock. He shuddered at that heated pressure and came deep inside her, growling into her neck. And coupled with his joy was her passion; it flew across his mind like a white-hot flame.

He didn't want to draw away; her heart was pounding, pumping the life-giving nectar across his tongue. He shivered again at that blissful taste. Shutting his eyes, he continued to drink.

She was as sweet as he remembered. He could have bitten her that night she turned seventeen, but he had kept his demonic urges firmly under control. Only her virgin blood had been spilt that night. He could recall with perfect clarity caressing her body after she fell asleep and secretly dipping his fingers into her cunt to taste the remnants of blood that lay there. He hadn't dared do it while she was awake for fear of disgusting her.

Then he remembered the night she'd offered herself to save his existence. He hadn't wanted to, but he'd been weakened by his illness and Angelus had awoken. No, he wouldn't make that excuse; that was the coward's way out. He'd wanted to taste her, all right-had wanted it for months. He simply hadn't been able to resist the temptation.

Now the offer was mutual: blood given and taken as an act of love. His demon cried out in savage glee as he took another long pull.

Her ecstasy swept across his mind again as he did so, mingling with his. There was joy there and the same willingness to give her life for his as she had nearly done so long ago. It was that last thought that decided him. He wouldn't kill her. She was too dear to him and he'd only just gotten her back. He wouldn't risk her life in this foolish way, not for a fuck! He groaned in his mind and pulled away from her throat, ignoring his demon's howl of protest.

But Buffy was no fool. She knew her limits. She'd been hurt too often throughout her time as an active Slayer not to know the difference between a mild injury and a life-threatening one. She was in no danger from him. She reached out with her mind and her hands. Grabbing his shoulders, she pulled him back towards the fresh wound.

He was still joined to her by his cock. At the forceful gesture, he hardened within her at once and he felt her shock at the renewed stirring. [Yeah, baby. That's right. Forget about Spike. You're with Angelus now and I'm ready to go allll night.]

She smirked at that masculine boast and waggled her eyebrows. [Uh huh. Well, forget Darla. You're with a Slayer now and I'll fuck you into the ground.] Her brief laugh was cut short as he graced her with a ravenous bloody kiss. She swept her tongue across his fangs and licked the sharp points. [Thought you were going for the neck.]

[Thought I'd take a detour.] He nibbled at her lips, pricking them slightly and drawing in the trickle of liquid that appeared. [Mmmmmm. So good. Better than Darla.] Unbidden, the memory of his last sexual bout with his Sire rose in his mind and he felt the woman underneath him stiffen.

[Darla? You were with Darla?] Her jealous rage tore at him as she scrambled away from his body. Her eyes narrowed, she delved into his mind. He flinched and tried to hide away his thoughts but the bond was too new for him to shield himself. His defenses were stripped bare as the events of the past two years played out before her.

His descent into the darkness as the bastards at Wolfram & Hart played with his mind. His wonder and suspicion at Darla's return as a human. Failing to save her as he was forced to watch her turned in front of him by Drusilla.

Buffy looked on, buffeted by a storm of emotions, as he tangled with human and demonic enemies alike battling Wolfram & Hart. His night of violent passion with Darla. Darla, nine months later, pregnant and furious at him for causing her condition. The baby.

She knew Angel's joy and love as he cradled the miraculous bundle of life he and his Sire had brought into the world. She smelled baby skin and saw Connor's lovely blue eyes, his darling chubby little hands and feet.

She saw Holtz and knew fear as he looked into those empty gray eyes stripped of everything except the cold desire for vengeance. She watched helplessly as the fiend carried the baby into the mouth of the Quortorth.

[Oh Angel. My god. I'm so sorry. I never knew.] She stretched out with her mind to comfort him. She tried to convey her compassion and sorrow for him with thought and touch as she wound her arms tightly around his body.

He'd almost forgotten about Connor in his heedless rush to help Buffy. That may have been part of the reason he'd stormed over to Sunnydale when Cordelia told him about her vision. The pain of his loss was still too raw and fresh. He had wanted to run away.

He had held himself in as he always did. Cordelia had forced him to talk about it but underneath the slight relief brought by the conversation was the impatience he always towards her for making him open up, for demanding that he share, for goodness sakes. Cordelia was a good woman but sometimes she was more like the annoying older sister he'd never had than a true friend.

But here was Buffy opening her heart and mind to him without reservation, in spite of what had happened with Darla. He crushed her in his arms and burst out weeping.

It poured out of him, his grief seemingly neverending. She closed her eyes and simply let it wash over her, making no attempt to stem the flow. Finally, the storm ended as his tears slowed to a trickle. His sobs ceased and the anguish was followed by the inevitable embarrassment for his unusual display. [Right. Men aren't supposed to cry, are they, Angel? I don't care. I certainly won't tell if you don't.] The soothing murmur of her reflection brushed against his tender psyche and his answering smile was full of gratitude.

Buffy nuzzled the short strands of his hair and planted a tender kiss on his brow. Neither of them was now in the mood for lovemaking. But this new closeness wasn't something they were willing to let go. They lay silently in each other's embrace until her stomach gave a little rumble. He looked up at her small giggle. "Sorry. Guess that's a real mood breaker, huh?"

"More so than visions of somebody else's ex?" he replied.

She grimaced at his wry comment. "I hope you're as forgiving when you go over my nasty one-on-ones with Spike. At least you got a baby out of you and Darla. All I got were ugly bumps and bruises and one seriously battered ego."

In Angel's mind's eye crawled Buffy's horrid memories of screwing Spike in all the uncomfortable corners of Sunnydale. A vicious growl rumbled out of him and he knew that his ridges had reappeared. "That sick little bastard. I'll kill him when I find him."

Privately Buffy thought that some of Angel's anger was well deserved. But none of it was for her; she could tell even without the warmth and protective rage flowing from him. "Look, Angel. I agree that rolling around with Deadboy Jr. was really of the idiotic. We were two dumb blondes-what do you expect?" The feeble joke didn't lighten the scowl on his face and she dropped the attempt at humor.

"I was wrong to sleep with Spike. But it was my idea as much as his. There wasn't any forcing involved and he'll probably rub that in your face if you go after him."

"I don't care what he says or what excuses he tries to make. You were mine and he knew it. If he went after you, I'm betting a large part of it was scoring off me."

"Well, aren't you with the big ego? Don't you think most of it was because of me?" she retorted.

He made an effort to rein in his temper. She didn't know Spike like he did…though if their minds remained joined like this, she might find out a lot more about his grandchilde than she ever wanted to know. She picked up on an errant thought and blanched.

"He told me he got off on killing Slayers but I didn't know about that. He had sex with Drusilla with her body nearby?"

"Forget it, Buffy. He was young and it was his first big trophy kill. He was always trying to impress Drusilla back then. See, she's mad and her mind's always wandering. She chose Spike because she wanted a playmate not out of true love. But she always preferred me to him and that drove him crazy. He killed Slayers as a way of proving himself better than me."

"So…you never killed a Slayer?"

He couldn't resist the complacent satisfaction following that question. "I always thought of myself as the best. There was no need to prove myself. Only people with tiny little egos need to do that-and they have to do it repeatedly. That's why Spike had to keep killing Slayers over and over and over again. It was the only way to show himself as the better demon. That, and keep Drusilla interested in him."

"Huh. Didn't work in the long run, did it? Remember when he came back to Sunnydale all emotional and weepy? Willow told me later Drusilla had left him…for a Chaos demon."

Angel stared for a moment and then burst out laughing. Buffy was treated to the sight of said demon in his mind and she joined him in laughter. "Eeeeewwwww! That's a Chaos demon? I can't believe she dumped him for that!"

He chuckled again. "Yeah, they don't win any prizes in the demon world either, not with their tendency to drip slime everywhere they go. But what happened after that? Spike said he was going to go hunt down Drusilla, tie her up, torture her a little and win her back. How did that turn out?"

She got a thoughtful expression as she considered the last time she'd seen Drusilla. "Well, he came back to Sunnydale very conspicuous in his lack of Drusilla so I'm guessing the Spike- and-Loony reunion didn't go as planned. Then she showed up again and he tried to use her to show his love for me. He threatened to stake her."

"He threatened to stake his Sire? Always a sign of devotion in my book. Didn't think the boy had it in him." She shrugged it off even as warmth spread through her. Angel had staked Darla to protect her. Spike had never gone that far no matter how often he boasted of his love.

"He didn't do it, though. When I was totally unimpressed with his offer, he switched around and said he'd set her loose so she could chow down on me. He couldn't make up his mind what he wanted to do. No wonder he wound up getting dissed by three women that night."

Angel's eyebrows shot up. "Three women? There was someone else involved?"

"Yeah. He was banging hips with Harmony, a Cordelia knockoff-turned-vampire."

A picture of the blonde ditz popped into his mind and he chuckled again. "Oh, yeah. I remember her from when she showed up in L.A. She didn't mention sleeping with Spike. Honestly, I never would have pegged her as his type. Imagine Spike sleeping with a Cordelia- wannabe. The horror, the horror."

"It couldn't have helped his tiny little ego to have her leave him. You'd have thought it'd be the other way around." A brief replay of the scene was exchanged and Angel dissolved into helpless laughter again over Harmony's lame exit line and Buffy's decisive sock to the jaw.

"Three rejections in one night! Poor Spike; I'm surprised Harris let him live it down."

Buffy grinned again and then sighed happily as she stretched out beside her lover. "This is so nice. It's much better than I thought it would be."

"You were afraid?"

"N-no. Not afraid exactly. It's just…it's been so long and we've both been through so much. We've turned into different people. I wasn't sure we'd…click again." She glanced at his handsome face, his gaze turned intently on hers. "It's so good to be able to lie here and talk afterwards. I didn't think we'd ever be able to do this."

"Post-coital cuddling? Yeah, it's great, all right."

Buffy caught another flash and her eyes widened. "Wait, we did do this before?"

Uh oh. This was something he was even more eager to hide than the Darla debacle. "Buffy, please try to understand…"

"Understand what? You were human…and you gave it up? And you never told me-not even when we met last year! Angel, how could you do that without consulting me?"

Angel kept his eyes shut while he tried to marshal his thoughts. No good. It looked as if he and Buffy would never be able to lie to each other again. He opened his eyes to confront her angry stare. "Don't worry, Angel. I'm not going to go digging in your mind again. But I do want an explanation. Don't you think I deserve one?"

"You certainly do, Buffy. It-it's just we had this conversation before and you were upset then, too. I just hoped you'd never have to know about it." He drew in an unneeded breath and let her into his mind. She saw it all-his all-too-brief venture into the sunlight, the meeting in the downstairs part of his old office followed by the passionate lovemaking on the kitchen table.

[We made love on a table? Damn, I thought only people in soap operas did that.] She glanced downwards at Angel and saw the evidence of his arousal at the memory. She sent a mental glare his way. [Oh, you can just forget about that, mister. I want to know the rest of this story.]

And there it was: Angel leaving with Doyle to confront the same Mohra demon he'd considered vanquished. The pain from his injuries as the beast thoroughly beat him to a pulp and his decision to give up his humanity to protect her life.

That was her Angel, for sure. Always making the big sacrifices. He picked up on that and gently replied, "Buffy, I don't regret what I did. If I had to choose again whether to stay human or be a vampire to save you, there would be no hesitation. You're more important than any human existence I might have."

Tears stung her eyes again, as she was overcome with the love flowing from her sweetheart. "Angel, I understand. I just think it was a crummy thing to do without telling me first. And I'm not on board with the idea it was the right thing to do. We could have worked it out somehow. You don't have to be a superhero to save the world. Look at Xander and Giles. Look at Wesley, Mr. Screams-Like-A-Girl."

"Hey! Don't knock Wesley; he's changed a lot since you knew him." The defense of his former boss was automatic. The next moment recollection of Wesley's treachery came back to him and a heavy scowl settled over his face.

Buffy kissed his forehead. "Angel, Wesley did a truly heinous thing to you and I know you're hurting right now. But I got a feeling there's more to this story than a botched prophecy. As soon as you get back to L.A., you've got to go see him and hash this out." At his unyielding expression, she amended, "Would you like me to go with you? If we're going to be together, I'm going to be coming up to L.A. sooner or later. Might as well do it before things get any worse."

"I'll have to think about it, Buffy."

Sensing his reluctance to pursue the matter, she decided to drop it. At that moment, her stomach rumbled again, louder than before. She smiled at him. "And on that note, I'd say it's time to eat. What have you got in that bag?"



Part 5

"So you two can hear each other's thoughts? That is so freaky!" Dawn couldn't believe what her sister had told her. After Buffy had come home early in the morning, wearing an I-got- laid-last-night expression that she'd witnessed all too often on Xander's face, she had plied her older sister for details. Buffy had been naturally disinclined to share about the screwing. But she had told about the new mind-reading thing she had going with Angel.

"Yeah, it's gonna to take some getting used to. Tara tells me with a little practice we can shut each other out of our minds and then we won't be hearing each other all the time."

"I dunno. It sounds kinda romantic…being joined to each other like that. Guess it means you're not only soulmates but mindmates, too."

Buffy screwed up her nose. "I don't think that's a word, Dawnie."

"You know what I mean."

"Guess I do. But just because we're sharing thoughts doesn't mean we're always going to be agreeing with each other. We're gonna butt heads plenty, you can bet on that."

"How do you think Spike's gonna take it?"

Buffy's blank stare told Dawn she hadn't thought about Spike-probably for hours. Then her expression firmed. "I doubt he's going to be on board the Angel-and-Buffy express train. But if he tries to get in the way, I will stake his sorry ass. He can take as many potshots at me that he wants but he'd better stay away from my man."

Dawn mumbled around her cold cereal. "I haven't seen him since Willow and me kicked him out of the house. Think we should be worried?"

"Maybe. Spike isn't the kind to take this lying down. But the de-invite spell is up here and Angel says if I live at the mansion for long enough, Spike won't be able to get in unless I invite him."

"How long is 'long enough?' I was never clear on that."

Buffy considered. "He says people living in motels aren't safe from vamps and most of them only stay a weekend. So I guess it would have to be longer-maybe a week. If Spike doesn't show up before then, I might sneak around to his crypt and check in on him myself. Oh drat, I won't be able to use the tunnels though. I told Xander to have it cemented shut."

She eyed her younger sister and impulsively said, "Dawn, would you like to stay over at Janice's tonight?"

"Would I!" Dawn crowed. Then she peered at Buffy suspiciously. "Wait, is this so you and Angel can boink again?"

"No, so we can do it without your complaining about the noise or barging in on us without knocking the way you do." Buffy smiled at her younger sister.

"Well, if I can stay at Janice's, you two can screw your brains out. Literally. Hey, do you guys share thoughts when you're…"

"Dawn, if you don't hurry, you'll be late for school." Buffy stared pointedly at the wall clock and they heard Xander's car honking outside.

"Okay, fine. Treat me like I'm a little kid, why don't you?" Dawn grumbled as she snatched up her bag and headed outside.

Anya was happy. Business was good, even great. Sure, she missed Giles sometimes. She didn't miss his tendency to interfere with buying things through the mail or his constant corrections of her customer manners but just his quiet steady overall presence. He was the only one of the Scoobies who got her references to various demons or who understood the importance of money. He also showed a great deal more patience with her than the others did.

She thought Angel would make a good substitute for him, though. After all, he managed to combine do-gooding with making money. He was a demon, too. If anyone could understand the hardship of being a demon trying to make it in the mortal world, it would be Angel. That put him a notch above Giles. Maybe she could even find a willing ear to listen to her stories about her glory days as a Vengeance demon. The others tended to get antsy whenever she got into the subject.

Plus, she had her lovely, sexy Xander back. He'd left her early this morning, claiming that he had to get going on building that cement wall to lock out Chips Ahoy. She'd almost blurted out that it wouldn't be necessary before remembering that she couldn't tell him why it wasn't necessary.

She grinned as she thought about the outcome of her wish for Angel. Yep, she'd done good there. You'd think she'd be a little rusty after two years out of the game but, nope. It had been just like riding a bicycle. You never really forgot.

Maybe she was being hasty about giving up the vengeance gig. Still, she had promised Angel she would. Well, no, she hadn't exactly promised. But she had more or less stated it. She didn't think he'd rat on her if she went back on her word. But he'd made it clear that she couldn't maintain the vengeance and keep Xander's love.

But surely if Xander loved her as much as he said, he'd accept her no matter what? That's what Buffy did with Angel. Why should Xander be any different or harder to please? [Because Angel isn't killing humans any more, that's why. So don't use that excuse.]

Anya scowled at that inner voice. "Goodness, it's just a few human lives. Cheating boyfriends and husbands and the like. They've definitely got it coming."

"Who's got it coming, Anya?"

She yelped and nearly knocked over an expensive urn she was dusting. "Geez! Way to give me a heart attack." Then she did a double take. "Angel? How did you…?" Her head swiveled between him and the bright sunlight that lay outside.

"I found another tunnel that leads from my mansion to the one under your store. It's got a lot of access points, Anya. I'm surprised Spike was the only one using them."

"Well, most demons stay away from the Slayer and her friends. Spike being the stupid exception, of course."

He glanced around the store and belatedly remembered why he'd come. "There was something else I needed to talk to you about, Anya. Remember those guys I told you about- the ones who sent that Glarghk demon after Buffy?"

"What about them? Honestly, I don't know what they're playing at with their delusions of grandeur and idiotic comic book obsessions. None of the demons around here have even heard of them. Bunch of silly little wannabes, if you ask me."

"Well, I think you should know that these silly little wannabes placed cameras in various places concerning Buffy-including here in the Magic Box." Angel wandered over to the table where he'd seen Anya and Spike and started turning slowly around the store.

"Cameras? There are cameras in here? Terrific! First Spike invades, now I've got little pervs playing voyeur."

"They're not going to be playing Peeping Toms any more. Buffy and I tracked them to their secret hiding place and had them arrested."

"Well, that's a relief." She thought for a minute as her eyes darted around the space. "How did you find out about these cameras, anyway?"

Angel paused while he considered how much to tell Anya. He could see no benefit in keeping this a secret from her. She was bound to find out what the others knew. Besides, he wanted an explanation for what he'd seen.

"Dawn found a hidden camera in a garden gnome and Willow traced the feeds through to places all around Sunnydale. We saw something-interesting in here between you and Spike." Angel mentally calculated the angle of the scene between Spike and Anya and peered in the opposite direction. He couldn't see anything except a bunch of store items on a shelf. Hmmmm….

"Me and…" Her face flamed as she realized what he meant. "Oh THAT! Look, it wasn't what you think. I wasn't having sex with Spike. I was just getting him drunk and then he tried to have sex with me. But it was all part of the plan to get vengeance on him. You know, for your wish."

"My wish involved your rolling around on a table with Spike?" Angel raised his eyebrows in disbelief.

"No! I had to drug him to make him slow and helpless and I put the drugs in a bottle of whiskey. He lapped it up like a happy little drunk and never knew!" She was so giddy she actually bounced a little.

"Ah. But the rolling…"

"Well, he got a little frisky from whiskey but then the drugs kicked in. I managed to get his sorry ass back to his crypt. But I didn't have sex with him, I swear!"

Angel eyed her briefly and then nodded. "I believe you, Anya. And the girls at the house didn't mention anything to Xander so he won't know either. I'll give them the heads up. It'll be a relief to them. Ah, there it is," he muttered as he picked up a facsimile of a human skull off the shelf.

She walked over to him as he peered into the eye sockets. "What? What did you find?"

He dug into a socket and pulled out what had caught his attention. A small round shiny object lay in his palm and he closed his fist around it until it crunched. "One of the cameras." He brushed off the remains of the camera into a nearby garbage can. "So you said the drugs were part of a vengeance wish. What happened to him after you left him at the crypt?"

"Well, I managed to get hold of another one of those Glarghk demons you told me about. It injected Spike with its voodoo venom and Spike decided to take a walk in the sun." She smiled beatifically at his shocked expression.

"You mean Spike is dead? Really dead?"

"As a doornail. Though I've never understood what's so dead about doornails as opposed to doorstops or lamps or boots," she rambled on in a distracted tone. Except for the vengeance aspect, the demise of Spike had already lost interest for her.

Angel considered the matter. His pesky grandchilde was gone for good. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. He'd had some great times with Spike when he'd been soulless. That their relationship went south was due more to Drusilla's obsession with her Sire than any real personality differences between them. Of course, once he'd lost his soul that had been a different story.

Still, he'd always thought Spike would go out fighting or that he'd be the one to take the Big Bad permanently out of the world. There was a strange lack of-what would be the word Cordelia would use?-closure in having Spike dead this way.

Then again, he couldn't harm Buffy any more and that was what mattered. The method of his passing was immaterial. Or was it?

He gave Anya a pointed stare and she shifted uncomfortably. "What? What is it?"

"You're still a demon."

Darn. She'd hoped he would ignore that. "Well, it's an important decision. I don't want to rush into anything."

He trained a darkly ironic glance on her. "Unlike the decision to become a demon again? From what Xander told me, he left you standing at the altar just a short while ago. Now, here you are, just a little over a week later, and you're a demon again. Just how much time did you take after that disappointment before throwing your humanity away?"

Her temper flared at the accusation. "You're a fine one to talk, bub! I've been around for over 11 centuries. I've never crossed paths with you but I heard the stories. Darla was a whore when she met you so I doubt her offer to make you a vampire included anything more than a trip to a cheap inn. Just how long did you take to decide being a walking corpse was better than living?"

Angel appeared unfazed by her anger. "We never made it to an inn. That's how I know how hasty your decision must have been. Anya, is hurting anonymous men so much more important to you than Xander's happiness? Because, if the answer is yes, then you don't deserve him."

Dammit, he was making her feel guilty. Why was she feeling guilty? One of the perks of being a demon meant that she was supposed to be above petty human emotions. That's why she took D'Hoffryn up so quickly on his offer after Xander left her at the altar. Being a monster meant she wouldn't have to deal with these stupid mortal feelings.

But she'd still suffered. Becoming non-human hadn't made the feelings go away. Hurting men hadn't changed that. Keeping the store running and making money hadn't changed that. Nothing had made her feel better-except getting Xander back. And, according to Angel, she would lose him if she continued in her vengeful ways. But he didn't realize all the consequences of his request.

She sighed heavily and leaned back against the counter. "Look, Angel, it's not that simple. You obviously don't know everything about the vengeance gig. If I become human again, every wish I've recently made will be reversed." She bent a meaningful stare on him when he opened his mouth to protest.

Ah. He understood. "You mean Spike would return."

She nodded. "That's right. He wouldn't remember any of it…being drugged, getting killed. But he'd still be around and I don't think you or Buffy would want that. Spike can get nasty when he's riled."

Angel frowned as he considered the situation. Anya was right. He knew Spike of old. The dyed menace simply wouldn't accept defeat and skulk off. He'd try to hurt Angel-and Buffy with him. He'd use any means to pry them apart. He might even resort to violence if necessary. He wouldn't dare attack Angel directly; he was too afraid of Buffy to do that. But he had enough clout in Sunnydale to sic one demon after another on him. Spike had problems bringing his schemes to fruition, mainly due to impulse control issues. But he would keep making the attempt until he succeeded-or Buffy staked him.

This was something he would need to discuss with Buffy. Finally he lifted his head and stared at Anya. Something in his face must have relieved her anxieties because she beamed at him. "So it's settled? I stay a Vengeance demon?"

"Anya, you told me 'recent' wishes would be reversed. I'm assuming that not all your wishes would be. Otherwise all the men you slaughtered over 1100 years would have magically sprung back to life when you regained your humanity that first time. So how recent would the wish have to be?"

Her brow furrowed as she comprehended his meaning. "Well, I've never reversed any of my wishes even when the women begged me to, so I'm really not sure." Seeing his unwavering stare, she dropped her head and muttered, "One week. If an entire week elapses after the wishes are made, then they won't be reversed when I regain my humanity, okay?"

He did a short count in his head. He'd made his wish only two mornings ago. That meant another five days had to elapse. He struggled against his desire to be rid of his troublesome grandchilde once and for all and the probable killings Anyanka would commit if she were allowed to continue in her present course. With Spike's chip firmly in place, he couldn't kill human beings. He was no danger to them. But Anyanka could and would kill people. In the end, there was only one moral decision to be made.

"I'm sorry, Anya. I can't allow you to stay this way even another day."

Why was he being so difficult about this? What was a short working week compared to years of unending bliss with Buffy? What was wrong with the man? "But, Angel, it's only another five days!"

"Five days in which you'll be granting wishes to angry, bitter women who'll want their men dead-or worse." Angel's tone meant he wasn't going to yield and Anya couldn't stand it.

"What if I say no? You can't make me change and you don't know how to rid me of my powers." She lifted her chin defiantly and glared at him. She could be just as stubborn as he. Hell, he was male, she was female. He was only 250-odd years old. She was over a millenium. No way was she backing down in front of a child.

Angel's voice got very quiet as he returned her stare. "If you don't, I'll tell Xander about your return to demonhood. I'll also tell him what I saw taking place in the Magic Box. He may buy your story that it went no further than a quick grope. He may not. Are you willing to take that chance?"

Her face turned white. "You wouldn't."

"Try me."

The tension in the store was almost palpable as the two demons faced off. Anya was the first to break. "You-you bastard! God, no wonder I've been granting wishes to women. Men are complete shits!"

Angel resisted the urge to sag with relief. Instead he tried to soothe the wounded feelings of the woman with him. "That's not true, Anya, and you know it. I'm not being selfish here. I'm a champion for the Powers That Be. That means I try to protect human beings whenever I can. If it's a case of a demon's happiness-even my own-above human life, then it's the human lives I place first. I've made too many mistakes in the past to backslide now. Please. You know this is the right thing to do."

Briefly the memory of those lawyers he'd locked in a basement with his Sire and mad Childe came back to him. If he ever got up the courage, he might share that shameful deed with the others in Buffy's group. It would be a long time before he could do so; it was not one of his prouder moments.

Anya didn't say another word. She stomped back behind the counter and rustled inside a large jar of unsold chicken's feet. She pulled out a shiny pendant and threw it at him. "Here. Take it."

He handled the bauble uncertainly. "What am I supposed to do with this?"

"Smash it. It's my power center. When it's destroyed, my power goes with it. I'll be dull ole human me again."

He smiled gently at the disgruntled description. "I doubt you could ever be dull, Anya…with or without your powers. But I can't do this." He handed the jewelry back to her.

She gaped at him. What was his problem now? "Why not? It's really easy. You just pick up a heavy object-"

"That's not what I meant. I can't do this because I shouldn't. It's not my right. This is your decision. So you should do it."

"Oh, swell! You bully me into doing this and then place the action all on my shoulders. Typical male posturing!" she huffed. She snatched the pendant back, picked up a large jade paperweight and brought it down on the stone with all her strength. There was a bright flare of green light and a decisive tinkling sound. She lifted the green object in her hand to reveal several shards on the countertop. "There. Satisfied?"

He eyed her with that unnerving penetrating stare and then nodded. "Very. You did the right thing, Anya. You're a good woman."

Anya blinked. In all her years as a Vengeance demon, no one had ever told her that…not Halfrek, not D'Hoffryn, not even Xander. She sniffed without looking at him and began sweeping the bits of her broken power into a dustpan. "Thanks. You're not bad for a murderous fiend yourself.

"Thanks. I think." Angel turned to head back through the tunnel.

Anya glanced at his retreating form and then called out to him. "Wait!" He looked back. "Get Buffy to give you some heavy blankets from her house and store them in the training room. If you ever want to come in the front way, you could use some of them to travel back and forth from your car."

He gave her a genuine smile and she felt the same wobbling of the knees that she had when she'd kissed him in the basement. God, he really was a handsome stud. No wonder Buffy fell for him. "Thanks, Anya. I'll remember that."

She waved him away and then turned to greet another customer. The woman was eyeing a very expensive amulet and Anya could smell a sale in the air. In spite of her lack of demonic status now, she understood that human life came loaded with a lot of perks. [I wonder what Xander will think of those velvet handcuffs I bought from that catalog…?]

Bloody hell. What was that taste in his mouth? Spike blinked and tried to lift up his head. That was too much for his aching cranium to take and the pounding that hovered at the edges of his consciousness slammed into him full force. He groaned at the pain and dropped his head back onto the floor, taking unnecessary breaths in an effort to banish the nausea.

Once the urge to purge had passed, he raised his head more slowly this time, pausing at every twinge brought on by his efforts. He was in his crypt, he could ascertain that much…and by the stale, cottony interior of his mouth, he'd evidently been making a lost weekend of it. He looked around and tried to understand.

He'd been drinking…it seemed. But where was the booze? Where were the empties scattered around? Those had been a frequent sight in the summer following Buffy's death. In between tending Dawn and fighting demons, he'd taken to drowning his sorrows again and again in whatever liquorish libations he'd been able to lay his hands on.

He seized on the thought of Buffy. If he'd been drinking again, it would be because of her. She was the only reason he'd be depressed enough to get pissed. She'd broken up with him. He recalled that all too clearly. That had been at least two weeks ago. Then…Angel had returned.

His eyes narrowed at that memory and he growled angrily. The mighty poof shows up and the Big Bad gets shoved out of the picture. Well, no, he'd been dumped before that so no blame to the nancy boy. He'd wanted to ease the pain and then…then what?

Once again, liquor hadn't been the culprit otherwise there'd be evidence. Right, there was some sort of mystery going on here; he just needed to figure out what it was. Later. His head hurt way too much for him to think about it now.

All his fuzzy thinking did was lead him back to Buffy. She was the cause of this, whatever it was. As for Angel-well, unless his curse had been magically reversed, he wouldn't still be around, now would he? He'd just take a quick peek around at Buffy's house and see where the land lay.

Spike squinted out the windows and flinched away from the bright light. Shit, it was daylight out. He could still take the tunnels, though.

A short trip downstairs revealed the Slayer's telltale odor. Spike grinned in triumph. She'd been to see him and recently, too, by the smell of it. Then he sniffed harder and frowned. It wasn't just Buffy's scent-he could smell his grandsire in evidence. Not his presence but his scent mingled with Buffy's. The unmistakable musk of arousal-both Angel's and Buffy's- were together. Sod it, had the two been shagging down here? No, the smell wasn't that of completion but hinted at sex play cut short.

He growled in anger again and headed for the tunnel-only to be met with a solid wall that extended from the floor to the ceiling. This was quick-drying cement and a few minutes thumping it did nothing more than create a few fist-shaped dents and jar his arms all the way up to his shoulders. He was cut off.

That bitch had done this to him. Somehow she'd found out about his entry into her home; this was her way of keeping him out. Suddenly the thought occurred to him that he might have been walled into his crypt. He raced back upstairs but a quick check revealed the door was left untouched. He kicked himself for worrying. It had been stupid; the windows had been left unobstructed. If Buffy had wanted to kill him, she would do the quick humane thing and stake him while he lay unconscious not wall him up to starve.

So the softhearted little bint had cut off access to his tunnels but left him intact? That definitely hinted that she still cared for him-or maybe thought him still helpless and therefore not to be harmed. But she was crazy if she thought a cement wall would stop him. He'd just wait until nightfall and go to her house. Whether she was with Angel or not was immaterial. He'd find a way to wreck any newfound happiness they had with each other. And if Angelus had reappeared, he'd stake the bastard and worm his way back into Buffy's heart afterwards.

An icy smile flickered over his face and he patted his pockets for the first of what would probably be quite a few cigarettes. It was a long way 'til night.


Part 6

"You're quitting?" Ms. Ross didn't look surprised so much as a little hurt. Other employees came and went with depressing regularity but Ms. Summers had seemed one of those determined to stick it out until she made manager. True, Buffy had a streak of individuality that sat ill with Doublemeat Palace policies. But after the petite blonde woman had revealed her knowledge of the DMP's company secret and her intention to keep that secret, Ms. Ross had been certain the girl intended to stay under their roof.

Buffy smiled radiantly though every instinct was screaming at her to reconsider. The last thing she wanted was to join the ranks of the unemployed. But she'd had a long hard talk with Angel last night. Flipping burgers for a living wasn't going to meet expenses, no matter how many double shifts she pulled. He thought hiring her as an employee of A.I. and having her work in her own capacity as a fellow warrior for the PTB would be more than enough to pay the bills.

It sounded like a great idea-on the surface. Still she remembered her one botched attempt to get paid to be a fighter. Could she really balance her Slayer duties, make money, take care of her little sister and keep her fragile new relationship with Angel intact?

One look at his face and she knew her answer. Of course she could make this work. It would be a struggle to juggle the different aspects of her new life. But what about the Slayer gig wasn't? Now that she had the missing part of herself, he would make it all worthwhile.

"I'm afraid so, Ms. Ross. I've gotten a better offer somewhere else."

"It's those McDonald's people, isn't it? As if a manic redheaded clown is any way to sell food," the other woman replied with a scowl.

"It's nothing like that. In fact, I've decided to quit the food industry altogether. I'm going into protection instead."

The fair-headed manager's eyebrows shot up almost to her hairline. "You're joining the mob?"

"No! I'm going into the security business. You know, providing protection for people's homes, their families, that kind of dealie."

Ms. Ross eyed the other woman up and down. Buffy knew what she was thinking; her petite size meant people were always underestimating her abilities as a fighter. "Oh. Well, good luck with that. As for the DMP secret…"

"It dies with me! My lips are totally zipped. I doubt the people I'll be working for will care about what goes into processed meats. It was good working for you, Ms. Ross. Thanks for giving me a chance." Buffy stood up and extended her hand to the woman behind the desk.

Ms. Ross shook it with a decisive, no-nonsense briskness that Buffy suspected had been drilled into her in some seminar about practicing managerial skills. "Thank you, Ms. Summers, for making the Doublemeat Palace part of your working experience." She sat back down with a barely audible sigh and began rummaging through some papers on her desk.

[I can't believe she actually said that.] Buffy shook her head slightly as she exited the building. The sun was shining brightly in the streets. Then again, when did it not in good ole Sunnydale? But today it seemed a particularly happy omen of things to come. She thought for a brief moment. She had all the rest of the day ahead of her. She could go home and do some housekeeping…or she could go see Angel.

Yeah, like there was any choice. Buffy grinned and began trotting briskly towards the mansion on Crawford Street.

Angel straightened up and turned slowly. He could sense Buffy even before he heard her thoughts. [Hello, lover.]

[Hello, studmuffin.] She felt his dissatisfaction with that nickname; it sounded just a little too cutesy for him. [Okay, how about teddy bear vamp?]

He scowled. [Even worse. I can't have it getting around that somebody thinks of me as a kid's toy. Couldn't you come up with something more…manly?]

[Oooh, look who's got the big ego. How about-tiger? Or stallion? Or King Kong?] A psychic giggle followed that one and he sent back an image of himself butt naked atop the Empire State building, beating his chest while clutching a satin-draped Buffy in one hand.

Buffy pushed open the mansion door and flew at him, laughing. "Wow, like that isn't a totally obvious male symbol right there. You with this great big phallic thingy between your legs."

"Hey, it's a better image than a teddy bear," he retorted. She stopped and took a moment to appreciate the sight before her. He was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt and plain jeans; evidently he'd been disinclined to dress up. Shit, she didn't care. The man could have worn a burlap sack and still have looked sexy as hell.

She wound her legs around his waist as she kissed him; she didn't want to wait again. He could smell her arousal, sharp and inviting. He growled and she growled back. He was startled at the sound but relished the sweet buzzing against his lips. He pulled back and tugged at her legs and Buffy reluctantly moved away. "Buffy, I've got something to show you."

"I've seen it, mister. But I wouldn't mind another look."

He snorted at the sexy images in her mind. "No, not that. I meant this." She deliberately withheld from probing his thoughts as he led her towards another room. She blinked as she saw the changes he'd had made. The room looked like an almost exact duplicate of her room in the Summers house. But when she looked closer she realized that there were many differences. The furniture was placed in the same positions but there were no personal touches. There was no Mr. Gordo on the bed and no personal items laid out on the dressing table. There were no posters and the floor was bare.

"I know it's not perfect but I hope you like it." She turned back to him and saw the anxious look on his face. He'd done this? Nobody else had gone to such lengths to please her. Spike certainly hadn't done it. She sent a wave of love and assurance at him.

"I-it's wonderful, Angel. I don't know what to say. How did you get all this done in one afternoon?"

Angel shuffled his feet and looked sheepish. "It wasn't in one afternoon. I had it set up after I came back from hell. I-I kept hoping that somehow we could make it work and I wanted you to have someplace you'd feel comfortable."

"That's so sweet, Angel. You are my teddy bear vamp." She fluttered her eyelashes at his piqued expression and cooed, "So can I try out my bed now?"

He scooped her up and placed her on the bedsheet. She sniffed appreciatively; he'd even washed them. In fact, everything in the room looked as if it had been scrubbed until it shone.

He lay down on the bed beside her and began slow, deep kisses that took her breath away. [Mmmm. I'll never get tired of that. You have the best mouth.]

[So do you, Buffy.] He cupped her face and ran his tongue along her lower lip and then caught it gently between his teeth. He nibbled on the plump flesh as she sighed and ran her hands up and down his back.

It was beyond wonderful, the chance to be with her like this without worrying about his demonic half. Angelus was still there but firmly tied down where he couldn't get loose and endanger innocent lives. But here with Buffy, he could let the beast out to play-at least a little bit.

Buffy was drifting on a cloud. She could see Angel's intentions for her floating through his mind. Some of the wilder ones were so powerful she got wet just thinking about them.

Angel scented her increased arousal-and something else. A faint familiar odor that had been emanating from her grew subtly stronger and he knew what it was. She was menstruating. She'd only started this morning and he knew if he looked now there would be only the barest of trickles. But he didn't care. He growled and placed his hand between her legs.

At the abrupt change in pressure, Buffy gasped and tilted her hips. [The blood? It's a turn- on?]

He grinned wolfishly and a swift flash let her know all the times he'd restrained himself from attacking her on patrol when she'd had her period. Her first Watcher Merrick had indicated how her cramps could lead her to vampires. Apparently the reverse was true as well.

[Well, if it's a taste you want, drink away, lover.] She grinned back and tugged at his shirt. [Okay if I tear this?]

[Be my guest.] She ripped at the tee and it came apart with a satisfying tearing sound. [Savage little thing, aren't you?]

[Who're you calling little?] Buffy was still facing Angel on her side. She liked this position; it allowed her a lot of leeway. She leaned forward and nibbled at one of his nipples. He took in a swift unneeded breath as her little teeth bit at his nub. She lapped at it and followed his lead when Angel rolled over, dragging her weight on top of him.

She bobbed her head back and forth between the two nipples. God, he tasted great. He had a cinnamon flavor and a sort of smoky taste, almost like a ham.

[A ham?] An amused chuckle wafted into her mind. She smirked back as she tried to sort out the strange flavor of his skin.

A smoked ham with spices: cloves, cinnamon, and maybe a hint of-grease? Oh wait, that was his hair gel. And underneath it all, a thing indefinable, something that was uniquely Angel. Spike had tasted of ashes like the cigarettes he was constantly smoking. Being with Spike, she never forgot that she was grappling with a dead thing. Having crawled out of a grave, she often felt as if she was dead herself. But Angel felt alive. He made her feel alive. It didn't matter that there wasn't a heartbeat. She could almost imagine one.

"Thump, thump. Thump, thump."

"It feels pretty amazing." The memory of a heartbeat…it rose up around her and she sank deeper into his mind as he dredged up the recollection. She closed her eyes and let her imagination run wild. Now she could almost feel it pounding away beneath her breasts.

"Angel," she breathed. He closed his eyes as well and joined her in the past. It wasn't real; none of it was real anymore. But for this brief space of time, it didn't matter. Time folded in on itself and they were taken back to that day.

"And peanut butter, preferably crunchy."

"Got it!" Angel mumbled around a crunchy mouthful as he carried the armload of food from the fridge back to the bed. He jumped in, the foodstuffs tumbling around his naked form.

"A perfect yum." She giggled at the abundance of comestibles. "This is a dream. You're human for about a minute and already there's cookie dough fudge mint chip in the fridge." She opened a package of strawberries.

He took a big scoop of the ice cream and closed his eyes, savoring the taste. "God, I love food."

"Food is good," she agreed, smiling.

He kissed her, relishing the taste of strawberries on her tongue. Mmmmm. This was great. Add a new flavor to his rapidly growing list of favorites. He asked her, "Why didn't you ever tell me about chocolate and peanut butter?"

"Well, I figured if your vamp tastebuds couldn't really savor it, then it would only hurt you to know. By the way, I'm over the whole needing-to-be-mature thing. That time you just spent in the kitchen…that was enough time apart."

"Too much." She leaned in for a deep kiss that Angel returned. Unnoticed, the spoon he'd dipped into the ice cream began dripping onto his bare chest and he jumped from the chilly sensation. "Okay. Mortal coordination leaves something to be desired," as he grimaced at the droplets.

She stopped him from moving. "Wrong. It's just right." She bent over, lapping up the cold treat from his warm chest and he laughed out loud, giddy with the sensation. Having fun in bed: that was something he'd never thought he could have with any mortal woman, especially Buffy. He clasped her in his arms as she rolled on top of him.

Their lips met in a languid kiss and he could taste the ice cream, a strange chill on her otherwise warm lips. He pushed his tongue in farther as he chased that flavor and she parted her lips, allowing him entry. He belatedly remembered to shove the edibles onto the floor [don't want to roll around in crumbs now, do we?] and let her weight come to rest on his erection.

They both gasped and then stayed still for a moment to enjoy the moment. Without his vampiric senses, he couldn't smell her arousal or hear her heartbeat or the rush of the blood in her veins. But he knew the warmth of her flesh against his own and the hammering of his own heart as she began to rock over his erection.

[Protection. We need…protection. We should get that, condoms and…oh shit.] Cautious thoughts and concerns of safety flew right out of his mind as she changed the rocking to a slow swivel. He brushed his hands over her thighs, up her ass to grasp her tiny waist. She increased her pace until he thought he'd explode from the friction.

"Buffy, shit, you're killing me," he gasped.

"Uh uh. No dying yet." She changed her movements again to an undulation of her hips as her back bowed and the tips of her breasts came down and swept up his body from his stomach to his chest. He could feel twin trails of heat left in their wake as she completed the movement and reversed it.

Abruptly, he flipped her onto her side so that they lay facing each other in the bed. He wanted to taste what was touching him. He kissed her lovingly around the plump flesh of her right breast while she grabbed at his arms and tried to maneuver the nipple into his mouth.

"That's…oh please, Angel," she panted hard in yearning as his tongue came out, brushing the sensitive skin everywhere except the taut peak aching for the attention. He knew he was driving her crazy but he wanted to delay the moment of completion. With every passing second, her arousal was increasing; it would be all the greater when she finally came. He caressed her belly with his long fingers and it quivered under his touch. He sank one knuckle into her bellybutton and heard her gasp again. "Angel!"

He paused but it wasn't pain that prompted the call. He was close to her center but not close enough. She couldn't bear the waiting any longer and grabbed his lower hand, dragging it downward. He smirked; she was much stronger than he was now but he could still put up a struggle if he wanted to.

He didn't want to.

Angel tangled his fingers leisurely in her pubic hairs and brushed his thumb over the cushiony button nestled in her folds. She arched up against him and he could feel a trembling working its way through her body. She threw one lithe leg over his upper one in an attempt to drag him closer.

Finally he grasped her nipple with his lips, suckling it hard until it welled up, bruised, within his mouth. The teasing touches around her lower lips were prolonged and subtle. He touched the labia-nice and moist. He introduced his finger into her cunt for brief moments, drawing it out before she could get more than a taste of what he planned.

She was panting loudly, bucking her hips as she tried to press herself onto his hand. He grabbed both breasts together as he attempted to lick the two nipples at once. Her breasts were small so the act was easily accomplished. [No, not small. Perfect. She's perfect.]

The panting had advanced to a high keening as he began pumping two fingers into her in the same rhythm as his licking tongue. "No! I want you in me!"

Angel lifted his head from her breasts to whisper, "I am in you."

She shook her head and nearly wept. "Not what I-"

"I know," he answered and bent to his task again. She was so close and her juices were oozing all over his hand as he increased his pace. His thumb brushed around her clit in a final pass and he bit down on one nipple.

Her pussy clamped around his hand in a vise while her body went rigid. Her back bent and the rippling passed through her as she came in a wordless wail. She fell onto her back and he lifted his head, marveling at the flush all over her chest and belly and the delicate sheen of sweat that covered her.

Buffy lay there bonelessly as she tried blinking away the stars in her vision. She only gradually became aware of his tongue tracing a path down her collarbone as he licked away the salty droplets coursing down her skin.

He dragged his tongue across his mark on her skin and felt her quiver. Before she could seize on the excitement that always followed any contact in that special place, he continued on his downward path. Swift licks to her nipples were followed by wet tracings along her ribs and over her stomach. A dip into that sensitive navel-he was beginning to enjoy the way her breath caught and her tummy leapt whenever she was touched there-and then his chin was scraped by the coarse lower hairs.

"Mghgh." Huh, never heard a woman make THAT noise before. The strangled gargle was repeated again as the adept tongue flicked at her clit once more. She tasted sweet and salty at once, a flavor he was determined to explore. His tongue repeated the same motions his hand had made, flexing inside her passage with limberness his stiffer fingers couldn't duplicate.

"Aaaaangggel…oh god…more…tongue…fuck me…ooh." Angel made his tongue rigid and thrust into her waiting folds. He parted the outer lips with his fingers and took a deeper taste, returning to suck at the tiny button above.

Buffy's head tossed on the pillows as her hands clawed at the sheets. Her hips were grinding against his face; the fleeting thought came to him that he might have trouble breathing now that he actually had to. The moist folds pulsed against his tongue and the minute tenseness in her body warned him of the upcoming orgasm.

The flood came across his tongue as her scream tore the air. Buffy's back bent and he held onto her thrashing buttocks with both hands. Before she could recover completely, he crawled over her prone form and sank into her waiting cunt.

She was wide open, her previous orgasms leaving her gloriously slick, and he slid into her in one smooth motion. He settled between her thighs and they paused for a moment as she enjoyed the warm-blooded male in her embrace.

Thump, thump, thump, thump. There was his heart throbbing against her own. God, would she ever get used to that sound? He started sliding in and out, calling her name with every push. She moaned and raised her hips to meet him.

She'd thought he would speed up but the pace he set was unhurried. He kissed her, lingering on her mouth and cupped her breasts or her buttock, drawing her up towards him. All the while, he continued that languid rhythm as if determined to remain joined to her. She came again and again, crying out softly into his shoulder.

Damn. They'd made love throughout the afternoon and she'd cum no less than seven times. She'd lost track of his orgasms; they had blended so seamlessly with hers. Buffy shuddered and came back to the present and the vampire in bed with her.

Sometime during the reminiscing, Angel had shifted down between her legs and was busily licking cum and blood from her cunt. She gasped and her hips snapped up at one particularly swift sweep of his tongue on her clit. He probed her inner cavern almost ruthlessly in quest of the thick clotted blood that lay there. Buffy squealed at how deeply that tongue seemed to go. She grabbed Angel's head and held him against her swollen labia.

"Gaaah! Angel!" He hummed and continued lapping her as she quivered in another blinding orgasm into his mouth. She gulped for breath as he slid up beside her.

They lay in each other's embrace as he sniffed at her hair and rubbed his chin in the glossy strands. It was like being in a warm nest, one he never wanted to leave. After a moment, a stray thought occurred to him. "Which do you think is better? Vamp Angel or human Angel?" His voice sounded teasing but she could hear the curiosity behind the question.

She tightened her arms around him. She didn't even take time to consider her answer. "They're both you, Angel. And I love all of you. It's silly to make comparisons. You know I've fantasized about your becoming human. I think I told you that before," wrinkling her nose at him. "But if there's one thing I've learned it's that life's too short for you to wait for things to get better. You can't keep putting things on hold. I have you here and now and that makes me happy. Whether you become human doesn't matter. It's a beautiful dream and one precious day we had. I'll settle for that."

She snuggled against his chest and then her head shot up. "Hey! What does 'Shanshu' mean?"


Spike strode through the night with discontent and anger peeling off him in waves. Demons who encountered him were either quickly dispatched or had the sense to go scurrying in the other direction. Normally, he would have chased after them but tonight he was on a mission.

He'd been to the Slayer's house but no one was home. The house was dark and empty and attempts to sneak in found him bouncing off an invisible barrier. One of the witches must have set it up, probably Tara. Where was Buffy? And Dawn? Where was everybody?

He swung around to Janice's house and, sure enough, he could see the Little Bit through one of the windows. She and her girlfriend were watching the telly while her schoolbooks were scattered around and laughing their heads off at the antics on the screen. How the girl ever expected to do homework with that kind of distraction was beyond him. Briefly he thought of pounding on the door and demanding to know where Buffy was but after that scene at the house a few days ago he doubted Dawn would be forthcoming with the information.

Then he decided to take a little side trip to the Magic Box. Anya looked up as he entered the store. "Spike! What do you want? I'm just about to close up."

Spike was in no mood for small talk; he just got straight to the point. "The Slayer. Have you seen her?"

"God, Spike. Are you still after her? She's really not interested any more and this obsession you have with her is getting sad and old. Why don't you go back to South America and see if you can find Drusilla?"

Spike glowered at her. "Fine talk coming from somebody who's been left at the altar. I'm beginning to see why the whelp ditched you."

"That's not what you said-" Too late Anya remembered that Spike would have no recollection of that particular speech. His memory of that night and his subsequent death by sunlight would have been completely wiped from his memory.

"Not what I said when? What are you talking about?" Spike detected a sudden nervousness in Anya as well as a hint of fear. What did she have to be afraid of? Did she know something about his mysterious amnesia?

"Nothing. I haven't seen Buffy in some time. I've been too busy having orgasms with Xander." She couldn't resist rubbing his face in that. She wasn't going to let him score off her about her abandonment at the altar. Hopefully, it would steer him away from asking about her little slip-up.

Apparently it worked. "Since when? I thought the pup had kicked you to the curb along with any hopes of matrimony. It's not like he's got the women beating down his door now, innit?"

"Xander and I have gotten together again. Nobody let you know because, well, nobody cared enough about you to fill you in. Now if you'll excuse me, Spike, it's quitting time." She shut the register with a decisive snap and came out from behind the counter with an aerosol spray bottle aimed rather pointedly in his direction.

Spike eyed it warily. "What's that for?"

Anya smiled at him with a sweet grin that Xander had learned to know meant trouble. "Pest spray." With that she gave him a spritz.

The bleached blonde blinked and then yelped in pain as the droplets landed on his skin. Shit, it was holy water! "Soddin' hell, woman! What'd you do that for?"

"Because I'm closing up and you won't leave! Get lost, Spike! Go play kitty poker with your friends or hustle somebody at pool for money. Just get out and leave honest workers to their well-earned rest."

Spike stood his ground for a moment; he was damned if he was going to run from some human female. But Anya raised the spray menacingly and he backed away out the door. She lowered the anti-theft gate and locked up and sauntered off without so much as a backward glance.

The vampire considered following her for a moment but if what she said was true, she was surely heading for Droopy's place and he didn't see what new information he could learn there. She'd probably do nothing but prattle on about the orgasms Xander was giving her ad nauseam anyway.

And when did she get back together with Xander anyway? Just how long had he been passed out? Where the hell was Buffy?

In the end, Buffy and Angel didn't spend all day in bed. Nearly. Almost. Okay, five, six hours tops. Angel had taken a break to talk to Cordelia when the seer had called demanding to know when he was coming back to L.A. She'd been forced to admit that there had been no visions or anything needing his help. When he'd told her about Buffy's recovery and the fact that she would be helping the A.I. group, the seer had been less than pleased.

Cordelia had snidely asked whether he had forgotten about Connor's abduction or Wesley's part in the business. Angel had given her a few short answers that, no, he hadn't forgotten and she could cut the attitude about Buffy. His beloved was back in his life and Cordelia could help or she could walk. She had rapped out that she was the vision girl; he couldn't get rid of her. To which Angel had countered that they could always put Lorne on the payroll and use his unique abilities instead.

That had appeared to settle things. Cordelia was not happy that Hurricane Buffy would be re- entering their lives but she had backed down in the face of Angel's ultimatum. She would find a way to work with that mousy blonde if it killed her. Anyway, Angel had indicated that Buffy would still be tied mostly to the Hellmouth. She would come to L.A. only when and if visions indicated they needed her skills…and maybe the occasional weekend. With that, Cordelia had to be satisfied.

After that, they had made love a few more times. It was as if they had been literally starved for each other and now couldn't get enough of what they'd been missing. They explored the bond as well, finding that they could project their thoughts from about three blocks away; they would have to ask Tara about whether it would stretch any farther as time went by.

Angel had helpfully packed some weapons in the trunk of his car so they hadn't needed to swing by her place. With just him and a bag of weapons, she felt there was nothing she couldn't handle. She couldn't remember the last time she actually felt excited about patrolling.

[This is so great, Angel! Maybe we can talk all the way between L.A. to Sunnydale. Think of what we'd save in phone bills.] Buffy enthused as they patrolled one of the outer cemeteries.

Angel snorted at that practical comment. [Actually, I was thinking how it would make it easy for us to find each other in case of an emergency or one of Cordy's visions…]

[Or warn each other about danger. Vamps at eight o'clock!] Buffy dropped her bag, swiveled and caught the nearest vamp with one stretched-out leg and followed it up by a swift staking. The other five faltered when they realized she wasn't easy prey and that hesitation was their undoing. Angel growled and whipped out two stakes. The vampire attacking him managed a hard punch to Angel's head. The souled vamp shook it off and ducked under the clumsy roundhouse swing that came after it.

The other four had been reduced to two and the pair faltered and began retreating as Slayer and Master Vampire advanced on them. One of them gulped audibly and rested his yellow eyes on Angel's menacing form. "Hey, dude! What do you think you're doing? Aren't you a vampire?"

"Oh, you're one of the bright ones, aren't ya?" Buffy quipped. "I'm betting you were the top minion in your class." The vampire snarled and lunged at her only to be dispatched in a flurry of blows and kicks he never saw coming.

The remaining bloodsucker squealed and turned to run. Angel flung his stake at it and watched it dissolve into dust. Buffy watched him critically and then said, "You know that stake's gone now, don't you?"

"Got some more." He whipped open his long duster and she saw them: four lines of stakes neatly set up in small holders in the lining.

"Oh, so that's why you wear that! I knew there had to be a practical reason for it," Buffy laughingly replied.

"Why did you think I wore it?"

She shrugged as she continued patrolling. "I don't know. Vampires all seem to have this thing about leather. I thought it was just an evil villainy type look they went in for. Spike certainly seems to wear it to death. At least your coat fits."

"That's because I made sure mine fit when I got it," came the dry reply.

"And I'm betting you paid for it and didn't steal it off somebody's rapidly cooling corpse either," Buffy muttered. The whole affair with Spike was beginning to assume an air of unreality. How could she have done that? How could she have had demeaning, soul-dirtying sex with somebody who'd bragged about killing two Slayers and equated murdering such women with screwing them? Had she been out of her mind?

She shuddered and Angel sensed her change in mood even before he saw her thought. He grabbed her arm and swung her around to face him. "Buffy, don't do this to yourself."

"Why not? It was…it was beyond stupid what I did with him, Angel. I fucked him and I enjoyed it. I let him treat me like shit and kept coming back for more. He betrayed me and my friends again and again but because he did a few good things courtesy of a government chip in his head, I let him worm his way into me and then he shows just how evil he can be. And I didn't stake him when I had the chance, even after he nearly unleashed a horde of demon beasties on Sunnydale."

"Demon beasties?" Okay, he hadn't heard that story.

She really didn't want to let him know the details of that one. But since it had led to her breakup with the dyed doofus, she thought it might be good to sketch in the background story. "It started when Riley came to town…"

Angel stayed quiet throughout the entire narration. So Spike had once again been up to his old tricks. But holding them for a friend? That excuse was really weak; Spike must have been off his game to resort to that lie. Buffy should have staked him for that stunt.

"You see! I'm weak and stupid. The old Buffy would have killed him. Why don't I?"

"You might still get the chance. He's probably up by now and looking for you. What will you do when you see him?"

Instantly Buffy's thoughts sank into confusion. Angel could sense the deep conflict that raged within her. Spike had hurt her. Spike had helped her. He had stayed to help her friends even when she was dead, when she wasn't around to be impressed by her efforts. He hadn't been part of the wacky magic that pulled her out of heaven, so he'd fought the good fight with no promise of reward from her.

Yet he was still a soulless demon. His behavior with Buffy more than proved it. His so-called love was dark and twisted without an ounce of selflessness in it. Spike was also a danger; there was no doubt about that. Even with his chip he still managed to find a way to endanger the entire populace of Sunnydale. If Angel had known about that, he wouldn't have been so quick to have Anya revert to being a human. Compared to destroying a whole town, how much damage could she have done?

Angel was drawn out of his musings in time to see Buffy gaping at him. "Anya was a demon again? And you made a wish in front of her? Angel, that was crazy! How could you do something like that without telling me?"

He raised his eyebrows at her and couldn't resist a sharp retort. "Committing an evil deed with a demon? Lot of that going around lately." He instantly regretted his words when he saw her flinch. "Buffy, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I was just…"

"No, no, Angel. You're right. It's just what I was saying a moment ago. Sleeping with Spike was dumb. At least you tried to get rid of him. It's more than I did." She sighed. "Too bad she's human now. I guess that means that Spike's once more on the prowl."

"Look on the bright side. We had an entire day free from his presence."

She grinned at him. "True. And since his crypt is all the way on the other side of town, I doubt we'll be running into him tonight. Do you want to split up and meet back at the mansion? Or we could go to my house. Dawn's staying with a friend."

The sly note in her voice and the naughty images that accompanied it caused Angel to become instantly erect. "Miss Summers, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?"

The film reference was evidently lost on her but the blatant come-on was not. She grabbed his shoulders and kissed him hard. At that exact moment, a little old lady came toddling out from behind a large stone crypt and stopped in shock. "Oh my goodness gracious!"

The two broke apart with the embarrassment of teenagers caught making out. [Oh great. Where did she spring from?] Buffy thought with annoyance.

Angel became preternaturally still as he looked at the woman. At first glance, she appeared to be a harmless lady in a beige short-length coat with a Peter Pan collar. She was clutching a small purse in white-gloved hands and proceeded to scold the two of them.

"Shame on you! What are young people coming to these days? Making whoopee in a graveyard, you ought to be asha-"

Buffy wasn't impressed. "Save it." She pulled out a sword from her bag and walked closer to the woman. Her spidey sense had been going off ever since the old lady showed up. Something wasn't right.

The woman backed up towards the crypt, her eyes widening in fear. "What are you doing? Are you crazy? Help! Somebody help me!"

The blonde woman confronting her paused a moment. Would a demon be screaming for help? But what sensible old lady would be in a graveyard at this time of night?

[None, that's who. It's a shapeshifter, Buffy.] Angel had encountered many shapeshifters in his life. They often assumed human forms in order to blend seamlessly into human society. Many of them were harmless and simply wanted to live peaceably without harassment. But this one had the scent of freshly spilled human blood on its person. As the two edged nearer in a flanking position, the demon abruptly revealed itself.

The image of an old granny wavered and disappeared as the creature grew to almost 11 feet tall. It had a craggy skin that was orange-yellow in color and four large burly arms-each one of which was holding a large wicked-looking sword.

[Scimitar. When they're curved like that along one edge, they're called…]

[Honey, you're really old and very smart. I get that. But could we save the history lesson for later?] Buffy grabbed a two-edged sword out of her bag and tossed one to Angel.

[Okay, here's some really useful advice. Buffy, you have to get it in the lower torso. It has three hearts down there and we have to stab or destroy all three of them.]

[Got it.] Buffy concentrated her moves on that part of the creature's body and the fight was on. In spite of its big size, the creature was amazingly agile and the two found they had a real fight on their hands.

The creature was baffled. The girl was small but looked tasty. The man was a vampire; its sense had detected that much and quickly dismissed him. No good for eating. Perhaps he had interrupted the bloodsucker before it could make a meal of the girl. If he had realized the vampire's undead status, it would have waited until it finished drinking its victim and then eaten the remains. Coming upon them so suddenly had forced the bloodrat to break off its attack.

But why was it fighting side by side with the girl? For that matter, why was the girl fighting- with swords, no less? What the fuck was going on?

The creature retreated briefly after one of its scimitars had been knocked from his hand. He held up the other three. "Whoa! Time out here, buddy!"

"What's the matter? Want a breather because you're losing?"

The monster scowled at Buffy's taunt and looked at Angel. "There's no reason for us to fight. I got no beef with vampires. You want to drink the girl, be my guest. Just let me have the leftovers, okay?"

Angel and Buffy looked at each other and burst out laughing. That was not the reaction the creature had been expecting. "What's so funny? She not your type?"

Angel smirked. "God, that is such a funny joke-the first 10,000 times I heard it. She's not exactly a type, buddy. She's the Slayer."

The beast's body color paled to a sickening cream orange tone. "T-the S-Slayer?" His eyes darted between them and then the surrounding grounds as it considered making its escape. "Shit. I didn't know." Then something appeared to come to its attention. "Hey, if she's the Slayer, why're you fighting with her? Why was she kissing you?"

Buffy suddenly looked bored. "You know, that's a long and complex story and I really don't want to get into it with you. So where were we? Oh yeah. Kicking your ass!" She lunged forward with her sword and stabbed at the monster's torso.

In spite of its bafflement, the creature was prepared for her attack. Two blades came up to block her assault while the third busied itself keeping Angel at bay. Angel feinted and managed to lop off the swinging arm. The monster bellowed with the pain, the loud sound causing Buffy to wince reflexively. She barely avoided the two blades windmilling towards her head and sank her sword into the demon's lower torso.

The creature staggered but didn't fall. As Angel followed with another stab in the appropriate place, the monster realized that it was going to lose the battle and, most likely, its life. He backhanded Buffy hard, sending her flying through the air. The resulting flare in his mind caught Angel completely by surprise. [Buffy!]

[I'm okay, love. Watch out!] Angel shook off the psychic pain but not quickly enough. The two scimitars stabbed him viciously, one in his heart and the other in his abdomen. In spite of the agony, Angel managed to skewer the beast in the last heart he could hear pumping in its stomach. The monster crashed to the ground with a gurgling moan and lay still after a final dying shudder.

Buffy ran up to him, Angel's distress roaring through her mind. She could barely see straight because of it; how bad was it for him? "Angel?"

"Buffy." The word was only a whisper on his lips. He rested his weight on the sword clutched in his hand. The other hand was pressed to his heart; she could see the blood pouring out of it onto the ground.

"It's going to be okay. Are there bandages in the bag?"

[No. Didn't… should have packed…there wasn't time…] The thought wavered in and out of coherency and, as if in slow motion, she watched him crumple onto the ground.

She half-carried, half-walked Angel to his car. She was stronger than he and could have hefted him easily but she was afraid of tearing open his wounds even further. So she supported his weight as best she could as he staggered along beside her. She slid him into the passenger side of the car and nearly ripped the driver side door off its hinges in her haste to get the door open.

"Angel? Angel! Where are the keys? You have to move your arms so I can find them." She tugged at his coat but he was slumping in the seat and the slickness of the blood-coated leather was making it difficult for her to find the object of her search.

In a dreamily sluggish movement, he shifted back his arms and she pawed around the inside of his coat. Choking back a cry of triumph, she yanked out the keys and drove back to his mansion.

She had bandages and other medical supplies at home. But he would heal without them. The healing process, however, would be much more prolonged without blood and that she didn't have since they'd barred Spike from their doorstep. Dawn had raided the fridge and thrown out all the remaining blood bags before learning that Angel was going to be a permanent fixture in their lives and Buffy hadn't had the chance to replace them. But there was blood at the mansion. It was closer at any rate.

The pain of Angel's wounds was lessening somewhat as Buffy hustled him through the door. It was mainly the blood loss that made it difficult for him to stay conscious; he could have handled the pain. Buffy's anxiety, however, was beating at his mind like a storm. He latched onto that tenaciously. Both her mind and her touch helped to anchor him.

Buffy hated to place him on the brand new bedsheets but there was no help for it. She was damned if she'd have him on the floor. He was paler than usual as he clenched both hands over the wounds in his chest and torso. "Angel, I'm going to take your coat and shirt off, okay?" She received a silent assent in her mind.

She made him lean up to remove the coat but the shirt was beyond saving. She ripped it off and threw the shreds onto the floor. [Dammit, lover. Are you going to keep ripping my clothes like that?]

Humor. That was a good sign. It meant the pain wasn't so bad-or he was being macho and trying to hide how awful it was. He grimaced at that second thought and didn't bother refuting it. She hesitated as she looked at him. He was still wearing his pants and shoes. She didn't really need to remove them to feed him but the blood had trailed down his front to soak the top of his pants. If they dried on him, they would be all the harder to remove in the morning.

[Go on. Take 'em off. Just try not to rip these.] Right. She could do this. It wasn't as if she hadn't seen him naked before. In a brisk fashion, she pulled off the footwear and gently unzipped his jeans. She tossed them aside as well and ran to the fridge to get the blood bags.

[Thank goodness he got the fridge up and running. Now all I have to do is get this into naked Angel. Ack! No! Do not think of Angel nudity! Think of something else…like naked Spike.]

Oh yeah, that did the trick. Strange how that cold body she'd been all over just a few short weeks ago only served to repel her now. [That's your self-esteem talking. Keep listening and you won't fall back into old habits. That and the sexy, tall, dark, studly…damn.]

So much for keeping improper thoughts at bay. She brought the cold blood out of the fridge and decided to think about the injuries she was trying to minister to instead. Angel was lying very much as she'd left him, blood oozing out of his motionless body onto the sheets. He was so still that she felt a momentary fear and gently probed his mind. [Angel?]

[Here, love.] His mind was astonishingly calm considering the pain he must still be feeling and a slight brushing of his thoughts told her why. He was meditating, a habit he'd picked up in Asia on his long directionless wanderings after he'd regained his soul. Giles had tried to teach her that but she'd been too impatient to learn.

Silently she marveled at the depth of Angel's mind as he effortlessly elevated himself above his physical being. He had existed for so long and seen and learned so much. She was a swoony little schoolgirl by comparison.

[Never, Buffy. You're not a child anymore. You're a wonderful…powerful, gorgeous human…being. Never…forget that.] It was too much of an effort for him to concentrate on her and his meditation at the same time and she let her mind pull away from his.

She sank down beside him holding the blood she'd poured into a cup. "Angel, you have to sit up to drink. Just hold still; let me do the work." She pulled his up broad frame, grasping him around the shoulders. He wanted to help but she wouldn't let him.

She raised the cup to his lips and made sure he drank every drop. When that bag was finished, she ripped open the others into the cup and repeated the process. All too soon, the small supply was finished. She glanced down at his torso even as her mind cringed away from the torn flesh marring the perfection of his body. Yes, the wounds were closing albeit more slowly than she would have liked. She didn't like this; he was too vulnerable this way. Demons and other vampires could get to him in the mansion. For the first time, she wished she had brought him to her house.

[Is there anything else I can do?] A quicksilver flash ran through his mind and her eyes narrowed. He was trying to hide something from her; she could tell. [Angel, what is it?]

[Nothing. Buffy, this is enough.]

But she reached out and grasped at the fleeting phantom. [Slayer blood? That'll help?]

[Don't even think about it.] Angel was adamant. He knew the rumors about the healing powers of her blood. There was more to it than the aphrodisiac qualities Spike had once crowed about to Drusilla. Because Slayers mended so quickly after injuries that would kill regular human beings, the ability of their blood to heal wounded vampires had become legendary among his kind.

But that's all they were: stories and myths. That her blood had healed him the last time had been a specific cure for a very specific poison. He didn't want her getting the idea in her head that the fluid in her veins was some magical cure-all. Otherwise she would be using herself all the time to help him.

[Let me be the judge of that.] Her inner voice brooked no disapproval and he could sense her intention even before she moved. He tried to squirm out of her grip but she tightened her hold and pushed him back onto the sheets.

Angel was stronger from the blood but no stronger than she was. With one hand she held him down on the mattress while she peeled off her top.

His eyes widened as her form was revealed. [Buffy? Shit, wha-what do you think you're doing?] She was wearing a small bra with tiny yellow flowers printed all over it. She didn't like the way her breasts swung up and down; they tended to throw her off balance when she was fighting. But now she wished she'd dispensed with it. She reached around and unfastened the front snap.

He drew in a non-existent breath as the sweet breasts he'd been caressing only hours earlier sprang into view. She tossed the plain bra onto the floor beside his discarded clothing. Angel moaned as she pressed her warm body against his. "Angel. Please. This isn't a sick obsession with me. You need to get better and quickly, too. Believe me, if we were at home and had blood, I'd feed you the plasma until you got a blood belly. Please. Drink me."

[God, no, Buffy. I've always been weak; don't tempt me like this.] She sighed. Tempting him was exactly what she wanted to do. Remembering his earlier reaction, she stood up from his body and quickly stripped down to nothing.

He had his head turned towards the wall away from her. But in a sudden movement he got up and lunged towards the door. She jumped him before he got two feet and he groaned as he fell onto his tender stomach. "Dammit, Angel! You're still too weak. What were you gonna do? Charge into the night naked? Now get back onto the bed!"

She pushed off the bloody sheets before she set him to rest this time and lay down beside his prone body. He was still trying to resist her but his control faltered as she reached between her legs. Remembering his reaction from before, she brought up fingers red with menstrual residue and rubbed it on her scar.

His ridges instantly formed at the smell and he unconsciously leaned closer before he shrank away from her. "Buffy, please…"

She didn't know if he was begging her to stop or continue. She didn't care in either case. She grasped his head and brought it down towards her neck.

Angel paused there for endless moments before she felt his cool tongue come out and lick at the drying blood. She could feel his erection prodding her thigh as he began the dreamy lapping. His hands were caressing her breasts once more and she moaned at the manipulation from his cool fingers. "Angel? You don't need to…this isn't for me."

He pressed a swift kiss to her lips. "I know, love. I don't want this to hurt." Before she could protest, he returned to nibbling at her throat. Buffy couldn't restrain herself from gasping and rubbing her body against him. His mind had withdrawn to some distant place, as if what he was doing was instinctual.

Was this how he had taken his victims? Seducing them into bed and biting them in the throes of ecstasy? Buffy wasn't sure she wanted to know and she was finding it difficult to think anyway as he turned her over and began suckling her breasts. He was lifting her up and brushing his hands down her back, touching her on every spot on her body she liked to be touched and leaving trails of heat everywhere.

She was panting and her hips bucking hard by the time he descended to her rounded belly. He was pressing tender kisses all around the soft mound and she thought she would pass out from the intensity of feeling radiating from her center. She wound her hands in the short strands of his hair and pushed it with a complete lack of subtlety in the direction of that glorious sensation.

Angel rested his nose in the nest of her pubic hairs for a moment. The thought came to him that it would be nice to kiss and lick the bare flesh under it. [Well, I can always shave for you if you'd like.] The very thought caused him to harden further, if that was even possible.

Finally he pressed himself between those firm thighs of hers. He didn't bother with tenderness this time. Her blood smell was so much stronger than it had been this morning and the urge to taste her was overwhelming. Angel dove into her, nuzzling and sweeping his tongue everywhere, as he tried to sate his hunger. He couldn't get enough purchase this way so he sat back on his heels and raised her thighs into the air.

Buffy gasped at this new position. Her head was pressed helplessly into the mattress while her legs were clamped around his head. Every time he thrust his tongue inside, her body shuddered and her hips jerked hard. But she couldn't twist away from his hands and he wouldn't let her go. She cried out again while his tongue stroked every hidden crevice.

Angel's head was swimming with the bombardment of stimuli. Every time Buffy came, a gush of blood would spill out with her juices, bathing his mouth and filling his nose. Her heartbeat was pounding in rhythm with the pulsing folds of flesh around his tongue; he couldn't get enough of this. But her cunt simply didn't have enough to soothe him and his bloodlust was growing.

He was also frustrated as hell since his erection hadn't been taken care of. Hearing his thought, Buffy wriggled her legs. "Angel, stop. Fuck me. I want you. Please, you have to."

He shook his head and sucked hard on her clit in response. She screamed, cumming again. There was little blood this time and she knew it as soon as he did. With a sharp wrench, she pulled her legs out of his arms and sat up in front of him. She sank onto his throbbing erection and a sigh rose from both of them.

It was a leisurely pace at first. Buffy was hyper aware of Angel's condition. Glancing down she saw the wounds were even closer to being healed than they had been earlier. But the flesh was still raw and pink; she could see blood seeping out slightly. Shutting her eyes against the sight, she bared her throat again. "Angel, drink."

She wasn't at home. She wasn't at the Bronze. He'd trolled the cemeteries along her usual route. He'd ducked back to his crypt just in case she'd had a change of heart and come to visit. He'd even beat up a few demons. No Slayer. There was only one last place he could think of where she might be.

If Angel had been in Buffy's life for any length of time, she might have gone to the mansion. He kept telling himself that couldn't have happened. The poof's soul still had that little happiness clause attached, didn't it? He couldn't be with Buffy, could he? Maybe she had taken off to L.A. with him. But no, she wouldn't have left Dawnie behind.

He crept up to the mansion and tried the door. No locks. Bloody careless of the poof but he probably thought no demon would dare strike at Angelus. Well, most demons wouldn't. But most demons weren't William the Bloody.

He heard them before he saw them. He knew all too well the noises Buffy made during sex and there was no mistaking these for anything else. He heard the wild pounding of a single heartbeat slamming against the human ribcage. Then he saw her-face up on the bed, her legs spread while that massive frame he'd seen naked more times than he cared to remember was thrusting between her supple thighs. Even if he hadn't smelled his grandsire, there was no mistaking that tattoo.

By the odor, they'd been at this for some time, hours at least, and showed no signs of stopping. Her screams were echoing off the walls as she locked her legs around her lover and ground her hips against his body. "AAAANNNNGGELLLL! God! More, don't stop! Harder! HARDER!"

Spike could also smell blood; it seemed to be coming mostly from the clothes that lay on the floor. His eyes narrowed. That was his grandsire's scent all over those torn rags. He could also smell it faintly coming from the bloodsucker in the bed. What the fuck…had there been a fight? Then why were they shagging? And why was Buffy calling the poofster's name like she'd found a new religion?

The brunette vampire sat back on his heels, dragging Buffy's body up with him. Spike's nostrils flared as her arousal drifted towards him again. Now he could smell another blood odor-Buffy's. He was drinking from her. The Slayer's head was flung back, her face flushed, mouth wide open as another scream was ripped from her very being. The bastard was using her as a blood chalice and the bitch was letting him. She was getting off on it.

He saw the other demon pull his head from Buffy's neck and give her a blood-smeared kiss on the lips. He couldn't tell what she was doing with her mouth from behind but it was clear the taste of her own plasma didn't upset the girl. He pinched a nipple hard and Buffy's legs clenched around his back. Spike's nose picked up his grandsire's release as his cock pumped hard into the Slayer's willing cunt.

They fell back upon the bed but in mere seconds, he was moving into her again as he pressed his head once more into the crook of her neck. Buffy wound her fingers in his hair, holding him close, as another orgasmic wail mingled with his grunts.

"Angel! IloveyouIloveyouIloveyouIloveyouIloveyou. Ahhh!" He couldn't believe it. She'd never said that to him, not once in all the times she'd stormed into his crypt and thrown herself at him. She'd never let him drink from her either. There had been scrapes and bruises from their sessions together but she never lost her head enough even during sex to allow him a single bite.

Buffy had no concept of how much time had passed. Once Angel had bitten her again, the orgasms tumbled endlessly over her, pushing her and her vampire lover over the brink again and again. She couldn't even tell if he was still biting her. They had changed positions so often when the bite couldn't have been possible.

This was no longer about healing or even lust. The Slayer and her vampire were caught in a cycle of ecstasy and she didn't care when he released her from it. Their lovemaking had passed from a tentative coupling to frantic fucking as his shaft slammed into her pussy. His cool cock had a kind of heat that she couldn't get enough of. He reached down and added a relentless finger to the fleshy button over her moist folds and stroked it until she squealed.

She opened her eyes to lick and nibble at his ear while he drank from her. His thoughts were in a jumbled mess as his passions warred between draining her and denying his need. And beneath all that, the fire that was Angelus clamoring for more of her body, her blood. [Sweet…delicious…mine…hot…hot cunt…hot thighs…Slayer blood…Buffy heat…my mate…MINE!]

[Yes, Angel. I'm yours…you're…Spike?]

He was too caught up in what he was doing to register that for the moment. He could feel strength and power returning to him with each sip of her precious blood. Now he understood what Spike had been babbling about all those years ago.

But the stray thought of his grandchilde at last seeped into his consciousness. She was thinking about Spike? How dare she? He lifted his head, his mouth smeared with her blood, and snarled in anger.

[No! Spike! He's here!]

Spike heard the furious growling and saw the fear on Buffy's face and completely misunderstood. This had to be Angelus with Buffy; he had no idea what her sex with Angel had been like but he had witnessed the violence of Angelus' fucks in the past and this was what he was seeing now. His grandsire's evil alter ego had returned and was attacking his Buffy. Snatching a stake from his coat, he charged with vampiric speed towards the couple on the bed.

Buffy kicked Angel off just as Spike came swooping down upon them. The blow with the stake just missed her lover as Spike thrust it hard into the bed where he had lain. "Get out of here, Buffy! I'll deal with this ponce!"

Angel growled at him, completely uncaring that he was stark naked in front of his grandchilde. "Coming to the rescue, Spike? Forget it; the role of the champion's been filled and you ain't it."

"You're not getting your teeth into my Slayer, Angelus," Spike snarled even though he knew it was too late. He'd seen Buffy's neck torn open anew in the same spot where Angel had once marked her and, underneath his rage, his demon was howling in betrayal. How could she let Angelus do that to her when she'd never graced him with the same gift?

Angel danced out of reach. He was full of Slayer blood and that made him more powerful than ever. But Spike was running on a kind of berserker rage, jealousy and hatred of his grandsire fueling him. He closed with Angel and they began grappling and rolling on the floor.

"She's mine, Angelus. Just ask her. She's been sleeping with me all the time you've been playing hero in L.A," Spike taunted him.

"It's Angel, Spike. And she was never yours. That's my mark and my Slayer." Angel lay under Spike, clutching the blonde's wrist, as the blonde vampire tried pushing the stake he held closer to his target. In spite of his assist from Slayer blood, Angel saw the stake coming inexorably closer to his chest.

Spike paused minutely as he searched the furious yellow eyes of the demon under him. Angel? How could it be? Surely he'd lost his soul…

He never finished the thought. His expression changed from one of puzzlement to complete shock and both he and Angel stared down at the wooden point protruding from his chest. He craned his neck back to look at the naked Slayer looking down at him.

"Buffy?" Whatever Spike had to say was completely lost. Seconds later, his ashes rained down on his prone grandsire.

Angel lay there for another moment before Buffy mutely reached down and pulled him to his feet. He knew the confusion running through her mind although he felt none of the same concern. In spite of his earlier dissatisfaction at learning the nature of Spike's death from Anya, this new demise brought him no pleasure. Buffy was feeling guilty and cold assurances that she'd done the right thing wouldn't help her now.

"I-I don't know what to…Angel, I had to. I was hoping I wouldn't have to…that sounds awful, doesn't it? I didn't love him but he was good to Dawn, to us. He was in love with me and I led him on…"

"I know, love. If he'd tried to hurt you, I would have done the same. You were protecting me. It's not the first time you've done that and it won't be the last. I'm just sorry it was so hard for you."

She shook her head and hugged him tightly. She didn't notice or care about the ashes coating his body that were now getting on hers. "It wasn't hard, exactly. I didn't think; I just acted. And he thought he was protecting me. He thought you were Angelus. Maybe if somebody had told him, this wouldn't have happened."

"Because he would have been so accepting of the fact that I'd returned?" Angel replied in a wry voice. "Spike and I were going to have a confrontation over you sooner or later. I'm just thankful you were here to protect me."

She tilted her head up to his. "That's right. Me the champion. Guess that makes me the knight in shining armor, huh?"

He searched her eyes. She was spun by what had happened; there was no doubt about that. But she wasn't going to let it overwhelm her.

Angel smirked and bent his lips towards hers. "My hero," he whispered before he claimed her lips in a kiss.


Part 7

Buffy didn’t want to stay at the mansion that night and Angel didn’t blame her. They silently packed the bare essentials of clothing and set out for her home.

Buffy deliberately tried to keep from thinking about Spike’s final demise. He was dead; there was no point in dwelling on it. She would tell her friends about it, although she meant to hide the racier details. She wasn’t sure how Dawn would handle the news. She knew Dawn had had a bit of a crush on Spike at one time; her sister might not be as thrilled about this as everybody else would be. Luckily she was still at Janice’s and would stay there until late Sunday.

Pushing it from her mind, she turned back to the problem of Angel’s son. Angel was going to have to face Wesley and she wanted to be there. His thoughts always turned ugly when he thought of the former Watcher. Angelus seemed much closer to the surface then and she didn’t want his nastier half beating on Wes no matter how much he deserved it. She just wanted to hear Wesley’s side because she honestly didn’t understand why he would do such a thing.

[I’ll ask him that when I see him.] She glanced at Angel’s still profile. To many others he appeared the essence of calm but she knew better. Even without the bond, she knew how angry and hurt he was at Wesley’s treachery. Maybe she should talk to the former Watcher alone first.

He shot her a quick glance. [No, Buffy, it’s okay. Wesley and I need to sort this out otherwise we’ll never be able to work with each other again. That is, if I even want him to.]

Any further conversation was cut short as they pulled up in front of the house. Buffy darted a quick eye at the sky. The heavens were lightening imperceptibly in the east; they’d cut it really close. As they ran to the doorstep, it was flung open by a very distraught Willow.

"Guys! Where have you been? Cordelia kept calling us. She said she tried ringing Angel on his cell but there was no answer and then she said you probably turned if off AGAIN and you so need to move into the 21st century and learn how to use modern technology. I wanted to send someone to the mansion and then I thought you guys might be busy and I didn’t want to interrupt, in case you both were, you know—"

Buffy interrupted before this could get out of hand. "Willow! Relax. What’s the big news?

Willow took a deep breath. "They found Wesley."

That news drove everything else clean out of Buffy’s mind. She forgot all about Angel’s recent injuries and Spike’s death as Willow filled her in on Cordelia’s message. Wesley had been discovered with his throat cut. An anonymous female had called 911 and reported his whereabouts. The slash had nearly severed his windpipe. The doctors proclaimed him extremely lucky; either the blood loss or the fluid flowing into his breathing tubes should have killed him.

Lorne had told Angel that Wesley had seen Holtz twice behind Angel’s back. He hadn’t said anything about Wesley turning the baby over to the former demon hunter. Angel had made that assumption on his own. This was beginning to look less and less like a bargain with Holtz and more like a simple kidnapping.

Angel listened to Cordelia’s explanation over the phone. Fred and Gunn had searched Wesley’s apartment and found the papers with Wesley’s notes on them. Many of them were written in some godforsaken language that none of them knew how to read but a few had been painfully clear. "The Father Will Kill the Son" had been scrawled in large letters; Wesley had believed that Angel would kill Connor. That’s why he took the baby.

Angel glanced out the window as he listened to Cordelia’s rambling explanation. Thanks to the encroaching dawn, he wouldn’t be able to make it to L.A. until later that night but that was all right. He wanted the entire day to think about what he was going to say to his former friend when he met him again.

Willow drew Buffy aside while Angel continued his low conversation with his seer. "Buffy, Tara and I have been thinking about a way to get Connor back and we think we’ve got a solution."

"I’m all ears," Buffy murmured. She didn’t know why she bothered; Angel would read her mind and know whatever she knew in a minute.

"It’s risky. But we couldn’t think of anything else and we’ll have to talk to the L.A. people—especially Wesley. Though I don’t know if he’ll be talky with his throat all sliced and all but maybe he can write. And we’ll need his help because we’ve got to plan this just right…"

"Willow, I’m sure all this is leading someplace. How about you just give me the short short version?" Buffy didn’t mean to sound impatient but she knew how important this was to Angel.

Willow blurted out, "Temporal fold."

"Tempura what?" Buffy replied.

"Temporal fold. Tara makes one—just an itsy bitsy one, I swear!—that takes you back in time to before Connor was taken and you come forward here into the present with him. There should be a spatial fold too so you can commute between here and L.A. without having to grab a cab to get back here to Sunnydale." The explanation tumbled out of the redhead and she paused a little to catch her breath.

Buffy wasn’t so certain this was such a good idea. "But won’t it cause one of those temporal paradoxy thingies they’re always babbling about on those sci fi shows?"

"Well, that’s where it gets a little tricky. That’s why we need to consult with everybody at A.I. and learn exactly what their movements were the night Connor was kidnapped."

"Temporal folds aren’t to be indulged in lightly." The quiet voice came over Willow’s shoulder and she jumped. Angel had evidently finished his conversation with Cordelia and ghosted silently to her side; she hadn’t noticed his presence.

"We know. We have to let everybody involved think Connor has actually been kidnapped so they behave exactly as they have in this timeline. Otherwise we might end up throwing things seriously out of whack."

"And how do we do that?" Buffy asked.

Willow waved her over to the couch and picked up a small bundle. Buffy bent over it and recoiled slightly. Nestled in the folds of the blanket lay what looked like an figure made out of dirt with leaves and twigs plastered on its top. She could make out the humanoid shape of head, belly, arms and legs. Other than that it looked shapeless and sorta off-putting.

"Ooookay. I’ll bite. What’s that supposed to be?"

"What you’re looking at is the beginnings of a homunculus." Willow jiggled the figure as if she expected it to start wriggling at her touch.

[A man-shaped creature that can mimic the human form given the proper ingredients.] Willow’s brow creased as she sensed the communication between Slayer and vampire. She couldn’t hear what was going on between the two but Tara had filled her in on the nature of the bond.

When Buffy turned to her again, the redhead raised her eyebrows. "Well? Angel give you the what’s what?"

"Yeah. If I’m guessing right, this is supposed to take baby Connor’s place. Hate to say it, Will, but I think Wesley is going to notice a few things are off."

"Like I said, Buffy, this is the beginnings of a homunculus. I’m going to add some blood from Angel since he’s part of Connor and a glamour to make it look like Connor. A small spell to mask the odor and it’ll look and act just like a real baby. For the short time that Wesley had the kid, it should be enough to fool him."

"It won’t fool me," Angel countered. "No spell will keep me from knowing the difference between my son and that—fake," he gestured at the clayey lump in Willow’s arms.

"I know that. That’s why we have to talk to Wesley and the others so we can keep you from seeing it."

Buffy leaned back from the mud baby. "Right, Willow. I’m liking this plan. There’s just one thing. Who’s going to take this time safari?"

The redhead stared at her. "I thought that was obvious, Buffy. You’re the one going. You’re the only one with the speed to pull this off without anybody catching you. And if you run into a demon or other, you can totally whale on him."

"Why can’t I go?" Angel demanded. It seemed he should be the logical one to rescue his son. "If I detect—I mean, if my past self detects Buffy’s scent or heartbeat anywhere near the hotel, he’ll get suspicious. He’ll know something’s up."

Willow raised her eyebrows. "And if somebody sees you or senses you on the premises? How will you explain being split in two places? A lost twin brother showing up out of the blue?"

Thinking of Holtz’s reappearance in his life, Angel muttered, "Stranger things have happened."

"Well, some of them are gonna start unhappening," Willow responded. "But first we need to get in touch with your friends."

Angel spent a few hours in constant back-and-forth communication between L.A. and Sunnydale. Cordelia’s input wasn’t needed at all since she’d been on vacation with her boyfriend Groo at the time of the abduction. Angel had made the decision to call Dawn and let her in on what was happening; he was certain she’d want to know about their plan. Buffy had been about to veto it automatically. Then she paused and wondered why. It was the knee-jerk response to protect her sister from all things dangerous like magic. She had thought Dawn would still be wiggy about it after what Willow had nearly killed her after an evening spent at Rack’s den.

But Dawn wasn’t going to be making this trip and she had forgiven Willow for that particular slip. So why was she eager to protect Dawn from this? Was she afraid of the disappointment if it didn’t work? The disappointment would be far greater for Angel than Dawn. So the call was made and Dawn eagerly dumped the rest of her weekend with her friend with the excuse of a "family emergency."

The plan was for Buffy to materialize in the tunnels under the hotel, make her way to Wesley’s car, switch the babies and head back to that same spot. She only had to memorize and chant a spell that would return her to the exact same place. Angel carefully outlined to Buffy the layout of the hotel so she wouldn’t be confused.

The only missing part of the puzzle was Wesley. He was still in critical condition and hadn’t regained consciousness from his attack. They couldn’t talk to him at all.

Buffy frowned as she paced up and down in the living room. She had informed every one of the Scoobies what she intended to do. Even though his help wasn’t actively needed, Xander had insisted on being present. Anya had remained, too. After nearly losing her fiancé, she was reluctant to let Xander too long out of her sight.

Dawn peered at the little dirt man lying on the couch. "So how does Buffy make the switch between Connor and the Play-Doh kid here?"

"Maybe she’s the one who slits Wesley’s throat and takes the kid from him," Anya inserted brightly.

Buffy scowled at her. "I don’t think so, Anya. The last human I cut with a knife was Faith; I’m not repeating the experience if I can help it. Besides, whoever did the slice-and-dice on Wesley gave the baby to Holtz. I wouldn’t do that."

Willow tapped her foot and tried to puzzle out the series of events. "We know Angel met Wesley in the hotel after Wesley attacked Lorne. So the baby has to be the real Connor then, otherwise Angel would know. Buffy can’t be anywhere in the hotel because Angel would sense her."

"So the only person I can really get close to is Wesley." Buffy huffed in exasperation and plopped down on the couch, ignoring the way the fake wobbled as she did so. She looked at Angel as she tried to figure things out. "Do you think Wesley took his car or a cab to take the baby?"

"He wouldn’t have taken a cab. He couldn’t have counted on it getting to the hotel in time. He would have taken his car."

"Well, describe it to me. Maybe I can, I don’t know, hide nearby and do the switcheroo when he gets to his car."

Xander didn’t see how that could possibly work. "How will you do that? You’d have to be super fast to dash in, switch the babies and get away before Weasley Wesley spots you. Any thoughts on that?"

Tara looked up from where she was assembling the enchanted circle. "Well, w-we could give Buffy a spell so she could open up Wesley’s car and get in before he brings in the baby. Then all she has to do is wait until he brings Connor and make the switch then. She can get out, back to the hotel and chant the return spell—hopefully before anybody sees her."

"Another spell? I don’t know about this, Tara. You and Willow are the spellcasters here. I say one wrong line and I could end up turning Connor into a frog. And I still have to avoid having Wesley see me."

"You could use a hand of glory—and an invisibility cloak. I got one in an old batch of orders. I could never sell it because it’s awkward to use and it shimmers slightly every time somebody moves in it so it’s really only good for people who are standing still." Anya gave the news in a calm tone and then noticed everybody staring at her. "What? What did I say now? I’m not talking about sex so what’s with the looks?"

"You have a hand of glory and an invisibility cloak and you’re only mentioning it now?" Willow glared at her.

The ex-demon shrugged. "You never asked. Besides it didn’t exactly come up in conversation."

"Sex doesn’t usually come up in conversation but you never miss a chance to inject it into the flow," the redheaded wicca shot back.

Before Anya could retort, Buffy raised her voice. "Excuse me for asking but what exactly is a hand of glory?"

"It’s the severed right hand of a man who’s been hanged for murder. When it’s specially treated with herbs and the fat of a murdered or stillborn baby, it can be used for sending people to sleep or opening any lock. You can use it to pop open the car door and bingo! One kidnapped baby-to-go." Anya beamed smugly at the disgusted faces surrounding her.

Xander shuddered exaggeratedly. "Do I even want to know how you know about that?"

Willow nodded as she put together a new plan. "That could work. All Buffy has to do is light a candle, place it in the palm of the hand, recite a short rhyme and hold it near the car door lock. It’s an easy one, too. It’s more like a kid’s nursery rhyme than anything else. That’ll spring the lock open in a jiff."

"I’ll just get over to the Magic Box and pick them up." Anya bounced out of her seat.

Angel intercepted her before she could get to the doorway. "Anya, why don’t you take the tunnel under Buffy’s house? It’s a much shorter route and you don’t have to worry about running into any demons on the way."

She beamed at him. "That is a great idea. Good looks and brains, too." She ignored Xander’s piqued expression and called for her boyfriend. "Coming, sweetie?"

"Be right there with you, honeybun." Xander was puzzled. Since when was Anya so eager to help unless she was somehow directly involved? And giving away items from the Magic Box without being asked first? Something was up.

On the way there, he couldn’t help asking. "Okay, what’s the deal here, An? Why the charity act all of a sudden?"

"What do you mean? I’m just trying to help Angel get his baby back." She ran to the basement shelves and began shoving aside boxes to search for the needed items.

"Uh huh. Is that all there is to it?" She located the hand of glory and absently tucked it under one arm and Xander’s mouth went dry. It was a revolting thing, no doubt about it. It was withered and brown and looked over a hundred years old. When was the last time someone got hung for murder, anyway?

"Well, it’ll be nice to have a baby around. I can get to hold it and feed it and rub its little belly. I heard babies like that. It’ll be good practice for when we get one of our own."

Xander gulped and babbled, "Anya, I thought we discussed this. We just recently recovered from the train wreck that was our non-wedding. Don’t you think we should wait before picking out cribs?"

"Xander, I told you before. Don’t stress yourself over this. Babies take time to make and they really ruin a woman’s figure. I’d like to keep myself at a size 6 for awhile longer before getting unsightly stretch marks." She brought up her hands, her fingers clenched together. "Aha! Got it!"

"Got what?" He couldn’t see anything in her hands at all. "Wait, is that the cloak of invisibility? Why can’t I see it?"

She rolled her eyes at him. "Because it’s invisible, silly. That’s another reason I couldn’t sell it. It’s really easy to lose. If it falls off, you’ve got a dickens of a time finding it again. But you can see it a little. Watch." She waved her two hands up and down and Xander saw it, a wavering, rainbow-colored rippling effect in the air before it vanished into nothingness again.

"Well, then, I guess we’re good to go. One hand of death and invisi-cloak coming right up."

"That’s hand of glory, Xander."

"Tell that to the guy who lost it."

Everything was in readiness. Because the fake-baby spell would last only a few short hours, they waited as long as possible before implementing it. A small circle was set up in the living room and Buffy stood within it wrapped in the invisibility cloak. The hood was down, leaving her head bare, so it that it appeared to float weirdly in mid-air.

Finally Tara completed the spell after adding Angel’s blood to the mud figure. Before everyone's fascinated eyes, the dark earthy figure turned a fleshy pink. The bluntly formed arms and legs metamorphosed into dimply curved limbs ending in adorable baby hands and feet. The empty eye sockets became filled with limpid blue eyes. Baby clothes even appeared on the figure. Buffy didn’t know how they managed that last bit and Tara couldn’t explain the magical mechanics involved without making her dizzy.

Tara smiled proudly at the finished creation and placed it in Buffy’s arms. "W-what do you think, Buffy? Does he pass the mommy test?"

Buffy blinked back what felt suspiciously like tears as she cradled the squirming figure. Her rational side kept telling her this was nothing more than a magical creation, a thing without life. There was only a pale life force that would peter out and disappear in a few short hours leaving nothing but the inanimate dirt clod it actually was.

But it looked and felt so much like a real baby. It even had that milky, caramel-sweet new baby smell. The blue eyes stared at her and it cooed as it reached up towards the small blonde woman holding it tight. If the real Connor were anything like this, she would lose her heart completely.

Angel had left her to gain a normal life and ended up with everything she couldn’t seem to have: a splendid home, a well-paying job and a baby. It didn’t seem fair even if having a baby hadn’t made things easier for Angel. But if everything went according to plan, she would soon have Connor back with his daddy.

[And what then? What role will I play in his life? From what he tells me, Cordelia was playing the mommy for baby Connor. Human babies are a lot like baby ducks. They do that thing—what’s it called? Oh yeah, imprinting—on people. What if he doesn’t like me? What if Cordelia doesn’t want to share? Angel’ll want Connor in L.A. where he can watch over him. When will I get to be with him? Do I even know how to take care of a baby?]

Angel heard her mental distress and sent comforting thoughts her way. [Don’t worry, Buffy. Humans are a lot more resilient than ducklings. Otherwise no baby could ever be put up for adoption; they’d want their real mothers and fathers too much. Connor will love you just as much as his daddy does. I intend to have you as much in his life as possible.]

She gave him a grateful smile and glanced outside. The last rays of day were sinking into the west; it was time to get going. For the sake of ease, they had set her departure to coincide as much as possible with Wesley’s last known exit from the hotel. Just before they could activate the spell, Angel pulled out his cellphone and tossed it to her. "Here, Buffy. Take this. If you run into trouble there, you might need it."

"Who would I call? I’m not supposed to be there, remember, Angel?"

"Just in case. You never know; you might have to get in contact with someone. Besides, I always have trouble with the damn things."

She blew him a swift kiss as he silently wished her luck. Wrapped securely in the cloak, she chanted the spell and vanished from their sight.

The air twisted in front of her and Buffy experienced a severe sense of vertigo. She staggered and nearly dropped the bundle she was holding. When her vision cleared, she found herself in the lobby of the Hyperion.

[Crap! Tara screwed up. I’m supposed to be in the tunnels. Oh well, could be worse, I suppose. I could have wound up in the floor instead of on top of it.] Brushing off the ugly picture that accompanied that thought, she took a long look around the space and resisted the urge to whistle. [Will you look at this place? Angel told me it was big, but wow! Me and Dawn have definitely got to come here for a weekend soon.]

She spun around as the door opened and tensed as Wesley came in. Angel had told her about Wesley’s lifestyle changes but the alterations in her ex-Watcher’s appearance still shocked her. He was dressed much more casually than when she’d known him. [What happened to the suit and ties?]

He also had a harried look on his face as if he hadn’t slept well in days. She saw him give a furtive glance around and then quickly begin packing some baby things into a bag. Buffy’s gaze zeroed in on the bassinet nearby. That must be Connor in that little crib. Surely it couldn’t hurt to take a small peek…

"What are you doing?" Both the girl and the former Watcher froze at that voice and Buffy stared at the figure on the staircase. A green-faced, red-eyed demon was curiously eyeing Wesley. This had to be Lorne then…and he wasn’t talking to her because he couldn’t see her.

Buffy relaxed, trying to breathe quietly, as she listened to Wesley lie about his intention of taking the baby for a night with him and the demon rambling distractedly about Angel’s odd behavior and disappearance. [That’s right. He went to see that lawyer woman, Lilah Morgan. That’s when he met that Sahjhan creep.]

She looked on in shock as she saw Wesley—Mr. Weasley Wyndham-Pryce—attack and knock out the demon when Lorne figured out his plan. [Will you look at that? Wesley’s learned to fight since he left our small burg. Won’t Xander be impressed.] She shook off her stupefaction. If she remembered the sequence of events, Lorne would be lying unconscious behind the lobby desk when Angel had his last conversation with Wesley. That meant she had to get out of here while Wesley was still in his office.

Buffy dashed outside with the bogus baby in her arms. She scanned the street for the Wesley’s vehicle, nodding with approval when she saw the serviceable model. [That’s Wesley’s car? Nice wheels. I guess the detective demon business really pays off.] She held the hand of glory in front of her, lit the candle and softly chanted.

"Hand of glory, hear me speak. Entry to this space I seek. Ope the lock without the key. So I say, so mote it be."

There was a solid ‘chunk’ and then the door swung open. She grasped the handle and swung herself in, nervously waiting for the ex-Watcher’s arrival.

Wesley opened the other passenger side door and placed Connor inside the baby seat. Buffy watched in dismay as he tied down the infant with firm tugs into the miniature enclosure. How was she going to undo the elaborate ties, remove Connor and replace it with the Claymation lookalike without Wesley seeing?

As Wesley drove, she began slowly undoing the straps, praying that the car wouldn’t swerve, that he wouldn’t glance in the rearview mirror at an inopportune moment, that the real baby wouldn’t cry. When the straps were at last undone, she took a deep breath to steady herself. [Okay, just one smooth motion, Buffy. You can do this.]

She glanced at the man in the front seat. He was evidently too tense and watchful of pursuers to notice any untoward activity in the back seat. With only a bit of fumbling she removed Connor and stashed him under the cloak. The other went into the baby seat. She couldn’t imitate Wesley’s precise crisscrossing of the straps; hopefully he’d be too worried about other things to notice.

She shrank back in the corner as Wesley stopped the car and removed the homunculus. She watched him disappear into his house and then she eased open the car door.

This was it. She could run or walk back to the hotel and recite the spell. But…she wanted to know what had befallen the ex-Watcher. His part of the story was a mystery and she wanted to be able to tell Angel whatever she could learn.

As she paused indecisively, she saw Wesley return with the false child; evidently he hadn’t noticed the switch. Then a red-haired woman came staggering across the park. Wesley pulled out a gun and spoke in a low menacing tone. "That’s close enough."

[Since when does Wesley carry a gun? Why didn’t Angel mention that? And who the hell is that?]

The woman was clutching her arm as if it was broken and her face sported a massive black eye and bruised jaw. Buffy felt something was off, though. She couldn’t put her finger on it but she instinctively knew this woman wasn’t to be trusted. As she came closer, Wesley relaxed slightly as he took in her beaten appearance. "Justine?"

"He’s everything you said. It’s true." The mysterious figure came closer and Buffy’s vague sense of worry escalated into screaming alarms. The woman continued, moaning from the pain of her injuries. "He didn’t keep his word. He took everybody and he went after the baby."

Ah, that explained it. This must be one of Holtz’s little groupies. But it would take more than a few bruises to cause a fanatic to switch sides. Buffy opened her mouth to cry out a warning when she saw the woman get too close to Wesley.

The knife was out before either Buffy or Wesley could move and it cut across his flesh in one quick swipe as Justine shoved him out of her way. The unseen blonde could only watch as the other woman snatched up her prize and drove off in the car.

Wesley clutched his throat, his arm extended uselessly after the fleeing getaway vehicle. He collapsed onto the ground and Buffy heard the blood gurgling out of his neck. If she left now, Wesley would bleed to death; there was no way he could survive this. She jiggled Connor as the baby began to fuss and moved next to the unconscious man. Pressing one hand firmly over wound, she attempted to staunch the blood while she figured out what to do.

Of course! The cellphone! She laid Connor down on the ground nearby and fumbled inside the cloak for the cell. Anya was right about these things; they were more trouble than they were worth. She couldn’t see her hands while it was inside and she didn’t dare remove it lest somebody walk by and see her next to Wesley’s body.

"Hello? There’s an injured man in the park here. His throat’s been slashed and he’s losing a lot of blood. You have to get here right away." She could still see the blood flowing around her fingers. That was good; flowing blood meant pumping heart and pumping heart meant the wiry Englishman was still alive—at least for the moment. Buffy stayed with him until she heard sirens wailing in the distance. Then she picked up the baby and drew the cloak tightly around her once more as she made her escape.

The others kicked their heels as they waited in the Summers living room. Anya had gotten the bright idea that the baby would need baby things and had headed out with Xander. Xander, being Xander, had stopped on the way back to pick up a pizza for everybody except Angel. Dawn munched absently on her leftover crust and stared once more at the empty circle on the living room floor. "How much longer is this going to take?"

"Relax, Dawn. Time is traveling in the past in synchronous motion with the present. If it’s taking her twenty minutes to do this there, then that’s how long it will take here," Willow tried to be patient in her explanation. Dawn had been fidgety ever since she arrived. She had pouted when Tara explained that it was safer to use the spell for only one person. It wasn’t as if the invisibility cloak could cover two people, anyway.

The novelty of having a baby around had lost its appeal for Anya. She was bored and wanted to go home to have orgasms with Xander. "But it’s been over an hour. How long does it take to snatch a baby from one incompetent ex-Watcher like this Wesley is supposed to be?"

"He’s not incompetent any more, Anya," Angel replied. He forgot just how much out of touch the people in Sunnydale were. That was all going to change if they were going to be working together. So he tried passing the time by catching up with the others and filling them on things in L.A.

He marveled at the changes in Buffy’s friends and family. Willow had changed a great deal from the stammering, shy wicca he’d known. There was confidence in her moves and an unmistakable aura of power about her. The quiet blonde who was her lover also radiated a quiet strength though she was much less sure of herself. She was almost like what Willow had been like when he’d first met the redhead five years ago.

Xander was the group’s heart and secret strength. The youth had felt dissatisfaction at being the only member of the Scoobies without supernatural abilities or knowledge. But Xander didn’t realize how much he gave to the others with his ability to lighten the darkest moments with his humor, his smile and his unshakable loyalty. He’d taken one of the worst beatings of his life from Spike and survived a relationship with Cordelia Chase to find love with the ex-demon perched by his side. The man was a hell of a lot tougher than he knew.

Anya—well, there was no deep mystery to her. She was a lot like Spike in some ways. Hurt by love, she’d tossed aside her humanity in one moment of foolishness. But she’d never really dealt with that original pain. She’d just spent 11 centuries helping other woman as broken-hearted as she get revenge on their males.

In a sense, she had perpetrated her original attack on her cheating boyfriend over and over again. He remembered how one of his childer, Penn, had done that. Vengeance never solved anything for people; it just kept the hatred and pain alive. Then when Xander had left her, she’d once more cast off her life as a human. She really needed to learn new coping skills if she was ever going to make it in the human world.

He found it difficult to believe that Dawn was merely magical energy in a mortal package. She was too much a typical teenager. She both yearned for attention and resented intrusion. Struggling to find her way in the world and dealing with being a magical tool and surrounded by extraordinary characters—it couldn’t be easy for her. The others would support her as much as they could but they were all busy making their way as adults in the world. They wouldn’t be able to spend as much time with her as she would like. He hoped he could provide the attention she craved. After all, if he had his way, he was going to be playing a far larger role in her life very soon.

He missed Giles. Buffy’s Watcher and Angel had shared many quiet hours in the library researching demons and prophecies, exchanging notes about Angel’s past and the little bit of human history he’d managed to witness. He knew that Giles had occasionally experienced loneliness surrounded by so many youngsters impatient with or indifferent to the past. Giles had often welcomed Angel’s company as a refreshing change from the irritating gabble of the others.

But the murder of Jenny Calendar had changed all that. The relationship between him and the other man had taken a severe blow from which it would never recover. He could never make amends for that. But Angel wanted Giles to know how much he had always respected him for watching over Buffy. The Watcher had probably given up a lot of his life to take charge of a willful, disobedient girl who had been nothing but a stranger to him when he first met her. He had done a masterful job. He would be proud of Buffy. Privately Angel wished that Giles were still here to see how well Buffy was handling the latest trials in her life.

How much like Giles was Wesley? Not a lot. Wesley had relaxed a lot of his original stuffiness but he still had a tendency to rely too heavily on books for information. In the end, he hadn’t trusted Angel. He hadn’t even trusted the other members of his team. He had let his fear of Angelus dictate his actions.

Buffy would have trusted him. She would have bullied the others into trusting him as well…or done the proper thing and killed him. It would have been a painful task for his beloved but she would have done it. Kidnapping an innocent child would have been a last resort for her.

Before he could harbor any more thoughts about Wesley, the circle lit up and Buffy abruptly reappeared. There was no puff of smoke or other cheesy effect. One moment the circle was empty; the next, it contained his darling Buffy—and one fussy, blue-eyed bundle. The others leapt up and began a chorus of welcomes and questions.

The petite woman staggered a little and grimaced at Tara. "Ooh, head rush. Warn me about that next time, will you? It’s worse than jet lag."

The blonde wicca spread her hands in apology. "Oh, d-did you experience some dizziness? Sorry, I didn’t expect that. I’ve never done this kind of spell before."

"So I gathered," Buffy said in a dry tone. "You goofed up. I found myself in the lobby instead of the tunnels."

"R-really? That wasn’t supposed to happen. Sorry."

Buffy flashed her a quick grin. "It’s no big. Anyway, I got our precious little package."

Dawn bounded up to her. "Can I hold him, Buffy? Please? You wouldn’t let me touch the other one. I mean, it wasn’t here long enough. But I want to hold this one."

"In a minute, Dawn. I think somebody else here deserves the privilege first."

Angel hadn’t said a thing since her return but all his thoughts and emotions came churning through the bond. Without another word, she placed the baby in his arms. He cradled the small bundle and stared deeply into his son’s bright blue gaze. "Hey, Connor. Remember me? It’s your daddy."

The baby reached up with one chubby fist and wrapped his little fingers around one of Angel’s. He smiled and burbled in the irresistible way of all human babies. Immediately all the women in the room crowded around, oohing and aahing over the tiny tot.

Buffy pushed her way gently to her lover’s side and gazed down into Connor’s face. "You would have been proud of him, Angel. He was as good as gold. He never cried out, not even after Wesley was attacked."

Angel lifted his head and looked sharply at her. "Who did it? Did you see him?"

"Her. It was a redheaded woman. Wesley called her Justine. I think she’s one of Holtz’s people. She didn’t mention Holtz’s name but she talked about how he took everyone after the baby. That was right before she slit Wesley’s throat."

"Wow, sounds like this Holtz was one tough hombre. Good thing you don’t have to deal with him any more." Xander commented.

"True. But the rest of his gang is still out there including this Justine. We’re probably going to have to deal with them sooner or later. Crazies don’t necessarily drift off just because their leader deserts them," Angel replied absently. At the moment, he couldn’t really bring himself to care. He had his son back. Holtz and his new team of vamp hunters could go to hell as far as he was concerned.

Anya peered down at the baby and stifled a yawn. The charm of the little nipper wore off quickly since it didn’t seem inclined to do anything interesting. She tugged on Xander’s arm, drawing him towards the door. "Come on, Xander. Take me home and we can get to making babies of our own."

"Anya, I thought I told you—!"

"I’m just teasing, Xander! Honestly, can’t you take a joke?"

Willow walked Tara to the door. "Thanks for helping, sweetie. It was really nice of you."

"It was nothing. I mean, not that it was nothing. It was a really big something. I was just glad to help. Did you see how happy Angel looked when he saw Connor?"

Willow looked back at the others, their heads tilted over the tiny miracle in Angel’s arms. "Yeah. He’s a lucky man. They’re all lucky."

Tara hesitated and then leaned in for a quick kiss on Willow’s cheek. "Maybe we’ll be lucky that way too, someday." Before the astonished redhead could ask her what she meant, she opened the door and darted into the cool night air.

Dawn could do only so many silly faces over a baby. So she piped up with an obvious question. "What happens now? Do we set up a crib in Buffy’s room?"

Buffy and Angel lifted their heads and stared at each other. A crib with a baby in it. That would be so wonderful. Buffy could see all the plans he’d been making for the baby. [Whoa, Angel. Slow down! Why don’t you enjoy these moments? Babyhood and childhood go by so fast. Don’t be pushing the child into college before he’s even taken his first steps. Let him spend the night here. We have someplace to go in the morning.]

[The morning?] She could sense his apprehension with that idea.

[Angel, we’ve wasted enough time. We need to see Wesley soon and get this over with. We can simply put you in the trunk and throw a blanket over you. Spike used to do it all the time.]

Dawn’s eyes darted between the two of them. "What are you saying? It’s not polite to talk in front of people like that, you know. Is it about Connor? I should know these things!"

Buffy smiled at her inquisitive sister. "Connor’s staying here tonight, Dawn. I don’t think we should be carrying him back and forth so much in one night. We can make the journey to L.A. tomorrow morning. Angel and I have—an appointment to make."

"This is about Wesley, isn’t it? You think he’ll be up to explaining what happened?"

Buffy shrugged. She wasn’t sure she’d like what Wesley had to say but knew they all needed to hear it. "We’ll see, Dawn. Did you get anything to eat?"

"Xander ordered in pizza. Anchovies, pineapple and mushrooms."

Angel grimaced at the description. "Fish, fruit and fungus on one surface. That’s California for you. I’m going to put Connor to bed." He paused. "I just realized. We don’t have any baby things for him here, do we?"

Buffy looked at Dawn. "Guess you should have gotten that instead of pizza, huh?"

"Actually, we did. It was Anya’s idea. She kept on talking about the baby. You should have seen Xander. He was so nervous, I thought he was going to faint," the teenager replied.

"Great. Since you want to hold Connor, you can see if he needs feeding and changing." Angel placed the baby in Dawn’s arms and the teenager’s face took on an expression of alarm.

"Me? But I’ve never…come on, Buffy! Shouldn’t you be doing this? I mean, you used to help mom with me?"

"Dawn, you told me once you were old enough to be a babysitter. So baby-sit. You can start by checking his diapers."

Dawn grimaced and then brightened as something occurred to her. "If I can baby-sit, do I get paid?"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Did Anya ever get paid for watching you? Did Spike?"

"I’m not a baby!"

The smug expression on Buffy’s face didn’t escape Angel’s notice. "Well, you are only two years old."

Dawn scowled. "That’s low, Buffy."

"But all too true." She lifted the baby out of her sister’s arms and looked over at Angel. He’d returned to his contemplation of his only child and he was bathing her in waves of affection for Connor. [Let’s get this little guy ready for nappy time, shall we?]

Angel stood aside and watched Buffy ready the bed. There really wasn’t much room for her, an oversized vampire and one baby on that small bed. But he was reluctant to spend any time away from either of them. She took off her clothes self-consciously and changed into a pink cotton nightie and panties. She didn’t feel it would be right to be naked with a baby in the bed with them.

Angel however had nothing more than the clothes he stood up in so he merely discarded his shoes and crawled into bed beside them. In the dark, still space, he was acutely aware of his son’s breath and Buffy’s presence. He could smell her special vanilla fragrance permeating every corner of the room.


[Yes, darling?]

[We’ll make this work, right?]

He smiled; the words were so reminiscent of the time when he’d been briefly human. [Sure we will. We’ve faced monsters, demons and apocalypses. How hard can raising a baby be compared to all that?]

Her mental giggle tickled at his mind. [You’ve obviously never seen Dawn in the midst of one of her tantrums.] There was a brief silence. [Angel?]


[Do you think I’ll have a baby with you someday? I mean, one of my own with you—after you Shanshu?] There was wistfulness and hope commingled with that thought. The idea of seeing Buffy pregnant with his child was unbearably enticing. Then he pushed the notion firmly aside.

[I don’t know, Buffy. I don’t even know when that will happen. Remember what you just said about living for the present. You’ll be Connor’s mommy. The fact that you didn’t give birth to him will make no difference to me.]

[Thank you. You’re very sweet.]

[You too. Goodnight, Buffy.]

[Goodnight, Angel.]

He waited and then raised his voice slightly. "Goodnight, Dawn."

There was a scurrying noise in the hallway and then she called out, "I was just going to brush my teeth!"

Buffy opened her mouth to yell and then decided against it. No sense in waking the baby. She nestled closer to him, sniffing his curly, soft hair and drifted off to sleep. Once again, Angel lay awake many hours into the night, watching over his two loves.


Part 8

It was hard to think. There wasn’t blackness around him exactly. It was more like shifting patterns of gray. There were voices and faces floating just out of tangible reach. But whenever he tried to get close to them, they shifted away in a tantalizing fashion. If he tried to relax and ignore them, the phantasms came back like an annoying child that kept pestering you when you were engaged in important work.

The faces were supposed to mean something. Wesley knew that much. There was a woman, a redheaded woman. [Willow? No, not Willow. Left her behind in…Sunnydale? That was it, Sunnydale. So where am I?]

There was a thread of guilt and fear, too. The baby kept crying and wouldn’t stop. [Baby…baby…Connor.] That was the key to it all. Connor. And with that, he remembered.

Connor. He’d taken Connor from Angel. Angel was going to kill his child and he had kidnapped the child. Then Justine had met him and tricked him. She cut his throat. The memory caused him to take a rasping breath and he became aware of the hazy pain centered in his neck. Wesley’s eyes fluttered open and he blearily took note of his surroundings.

White. White walls. White sheets. White light that stung painfully at his sensory-deprived eyesight so that he shut his eyes again tightly. But not before the woman seated in the room with him noticed.

"Oh, look who’s awake." The nurse drifted to his side and appraised him with a cool professional eye. "Are you lucid, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce? You have visitors, if you’re up to seeing them. Just blink once if you do; I’ll tell them not to stay long."

Visitors? There were people waiting? He couldn’t believe it, not after what he’d done. But perhaps they didn’t know. He stared at the woman and blinked.

She smiled and walked outside. He could detect the low murmurs of voices but one stood out in particular. Fred…that was it. He’d recognized that country twang anywhere. He heard her approaching his bed and a cool hand fell upon his brow. "Wesley? Can you hear me? It’s Fred. We-we were so worried about you."

He could hear the hesitancy in her voice. He didn’t answer her. He didn’t know what to say. She must know by now. They all had to know what he’d done. Lorne would have told them; he would have told Angel. Oh god. What was he going to tell Angel about the loss of his son to the fanatical Holtz?

"Wesley, I know you’re awake so it’s no use playin’ possum. You’re gonna have to face the music sometime." Fred’s voice was uncharacteristically stern and inwardly Wesley quailed. He couldn’t bear to lose the respect of this woman. More than the loss of trust from the others, he feared Fred’s anger the most. But he couldn’t hide forever.

He opened his eyes and met the warm gaze of the Texan standing over him. "That’s much better. You had us all worried for awhile there. We’re just lucky someone found you in time." She paused but of course he couldn’t answer her and she obviously didn’t expect a response.

"Wesley, we found the notes you left. I don’t know how you could have thought that about Angel, but I think we figured out how you were kinda misled. Those a-holes at Wolfram & Hart had been spiking Angel’s blood with Connor’s and it made him all Hannibal Lectorish for a bit. But he’s off the baby sauce and he’s just fine now. If you’d trusted us, we could have told you that and saved you from making a big mistake.

"But—well, things have been happening that you obviously don’t know about and, well…" Her voice trailed off and she glanced at the hospital door as if expecting somebody. "I think I’ve said enough, Wesley. There’s a coupla people here who want to talk to ya." She stepped outside and murmured in low tones with somebody just out of his visual range.

In spite of his weariness, Wesley couldn’t help but feel a faint curiosity. A "couple" of people? He could guess who one of them who would be and the dread of Angel’s rage rose up to frighten him for a moment before he decided it was too much effort to bother. Angel would be beyond angry at Wesley and who could blame him? If the vampire wanted to kill him for what he’d done, the ex-Watcher was in no position to put up a fight.

When he opened his eyes again, he beheld the last person he expected to see. Buffy Summers, his first Slayer from Sunnydale, stood before him, her arms crossed in the familiar gesture he recognized from one of their many previous standoffs. She looked even sterner than Fred but there was a hint of a smile twitching around her lips. Why? Why was she smiling? Why was she even here?

"Wesley, you’re in trouble, you know that? But we’re willing to forgive you. Though I’m thinking that maybe you should stay away from the major prophecies from now on." She turned her head toward the door and Angel stepped in.

He moved in characteristic silence to the bed and set the blanket he was holding in his hands gently on Wesley’s stomach. "Hey, Wes. Somebody wants to say hello."

The blanket twisted and wiggled and a baby’s head wobbled, turning to look him in the face. Wesley lifted one shaking hand to touch the infant cheek closest to him. "Hhhhhnnnhhh." It was a mere aspiration of sound, not a word at all really. He couldn’t have spoken even if he’d been able.

Buffy crouched by his side and protectively covered the baby’s head with one delicate hand. "We got him back, Wesley. You’re kinda tired and the nurse said we couldn’t stay too long so we can’t give you all the details. Let’s just say we had magical help and a hell of a lot of luck."

Connor flapped his hands up and down and laughed as if Wesley was the funniest thing he’d ever seen and the ex-Watcher's eyes teared up. Angel’s little boy was back when he’d thought him irretrievably lost. He stared at the child, unable to face either adult. He wanted to beg for forgiveness; he wanted to explain. He wanted to do—he didn’t know what. There was no excusing what he did. But the baby had been returned and that was a start.

Angel picked up the child and cradled him in his arms again. "Wesley, I don’t know why this happened. But I know you’ll explain when you can. Your office will be waiting for you when you’re better. Just don’t keep us waiting too long."

Wesley closed his eyes again. Maybe he could muster up strength to signal for pen and paper. However, when he re-opened them, Angel was gone. Buffy smiled at him and then dropped a quick kiss on his forehead.

"Get better soon, Wes. We’re all going to be taking turns babysitting and you’re not getting out of it that easy." She hesitated and then whispered, "And I think Connor missed his uncle Wesley." She gave his hand a quick squeeze and walked slowly out the hospital door.

The ex-Watcher wanted to call them back. The quiet of the hospital room was lonely and he would have liked being with Connor just a little longer. But because of a miracle, he would have plenty of chances in the future. He would just have to wait. But not too long.



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