Whose Shanshu

Author: Queen Boadicea (queenboadiceaoftheiceni@yahoo.com)
Spoiler Warning: Seasons seven of BtVS and four of AtS
Summary: After Sunnydale is destroyed, Buffy tries to piece her life together. Can Angel help? And where does Spike fit in?
Disclaimer: This belongs to Joss Whedon and the usual gang of idi…uh, geniuses. I don’t own the other franchises either. If I was that rich, you think I’d be writing this stuff?
Pairing: Buffy/Angel
Feedback: Do your worst—it can’t compare to my worst ;)
Extended passages in Italics indicate dreams, mindscapes or diary entries [thoughts]


Part 1

Buffy stood for a moment, contemplating the enormous crater where once a bustling town had stood. She thought about all the years she had spent here: slaying, shopping, partying, attending classes, making friends, losing loved ones.

Spike. She’d told him she loved him in his last moments. She’d seen something like hope shining in his pale blue eyes before reality set in. Spike was never one to lie, either to himself or to others. Well, he could lie to others when it suited his purpose. Like the First he had an uncanny way of ferreting out the truth in people’s hearts and using it to manipulate them.

But otherwise he cut through the bullshit much as Anya had done. So right after her declaration the hope had died away. "No, you don’t," he’d said softly. "But thanks for saying it anyways."

No, she didn’t love Spike. Not the way he’d wanted, the way he’d striven for for the better part of two years. She loved him like she’d once loved Xander, Willow and Giles and the fact that she thought of her connection with them in the past tense was deeply hurtful. It hinted at something hard and unyielding in her nature that she’d spoken of when Spike had stayed in that house with her.

[Well, that’s gonna change, starting right now.] It was one thing to push her friends aside when the battle required it. Now that the fight was over, maybe they could use the time to rest, heal up and re-connect.

"Yo, B. I was asking. Where do we go now?" Faith’s voice finally penetrated Buffy’s introspection. The others were milling around or crashing in the back of the bus. The Potentials—no, they were Slayers now—were eager to get on the road if only to get away from this place. Why shouldn’t they be? Sunnydale hadn’t been home for most of them and now it was just a gigantic pit.

"Well, Giles said there’s a Hellmouth in Cleveland, so I’m thinking that’s our next stop." She climbed back into the bus while Faith groused behind her.

"Damn. I was hoping for something a little livelier. I’ve been through Cleveland. It’s total Snoozeville."

Buffy couldn’t believe what she was hearing. "Faith, we just fought a mega battle and lost lives, people we cared about, and you haven’t had enough excitement? What are you, on steroids or something?"

"Come on, B! We saved the world! I say we take a little time to wind down and then we party and Cleveland is not a party town," the dark-haired woman replied with a cheeky grin. The blonde Slayer snorted and plopped down in one of the few empty seats left.

"So where are we going? Does anybody have a plan?" That came from Vi, one of the surviving Slayers.

"You mean a plan for after the town went all kaflooey on us? See, we didn’t exactly know that was gonna happen so we were going shopping at one of Sunnydale’s better malls but I guess that’s no longer part of the tour," Xander pointed out.

"Some of us need to get to the hospital first." Faith waved at Robin Wood and other girls sporting various injuries. "But after that I know a guy in L.A. who owns a hotel. Bet he’d let us shack up there for a while."

Xander eyed Faith suspiciously. "Is that ‘shack up’ as in sleep or in the more Biblical sense that you’re used to because I’m not going there, Faith."

"Do you have a constant porno flick running in your head, X-man? This guy’s a friend and this place is the kick. He’ll let us stay there without paying or nothing."

"We talking ex-boyfriend here, Faith? So not into dealing with that kind of drama now," Dawn murmured while stifling a big yawn.

"Who is he, Donald Trump?" one of the other girls asked.

"No such luck, to both those statements. But he was totally on my wish list, right, B?"

"What do you mean, Faith?" The exhaustion afflicting the others was catching up to Buffy and she wished Faith would just get to the point.

"He’s a mutual friend—and part of the reason I hated your guts back in the day. He was one of the great things you had that I didn’t."

Buffy stared at her blankly. "Faith, I’m really not up for guessing games right now. How about just spilling the beans and telling us who he is already?"

Faith frowned at the continued look of incomprehension on the other’s fact. "You really don’t get it, do you? Man, B, I knew you and Angel hadn’t been together for a long while but I didn’t think you’d put him out of your mind completely. You tellin’ me you forgot him? What happened to that whole Romeo-and-Juliet thing you had going on?"

"Angel? You’re talking about Deadboy? He’s got a hotel and we’ve been holed up in a house with only one toilet? We got gypped!" Xander said, thumping his fist on the seat in mock indignation.

"Wait a minute. You never mentioned anything about Angel owning a hotel, Faith," Buffy accused.

The other woman shrugged it off. "Yeah, well, you and me got caught up in other things, B. Like you punching me out to protect your newest undead boytoy, Spike."

Willow was quick to speak in Buffy’s defense. "Spike and Buffy weren’t together, Faith."

"Is that why she spent last night sleeping with him?" Vi replied with raised eyebrows. "I saw her go down to the basement and she didn’t come back up for ages," she said to the others.

"Buffy was sleeping with Spike?" Kennedy asked, her gaze shifting between her redheaded lover and the blonde Slayer.

"No, I wasn’t. I haven’t been sleeping with him. Well, not in the sex kind of way. Faith was in my room and there was no place else to sleep and this is none of your business anyway. I thought we were trying to decide where to head out next. You said Angel had a hotel." Buffy was eager to change the subject. She didn’t know how much of her affair with Spike Andrew and the other Slayers knew but she certainly wasn’t going to argue about it in front of so many listening ears.

"I swear Deadboy gets all the breaks. A mansion in Sunnydale and a hotel in Los Angeles. Next we’re probably gonna hear that he’s got a castle in Italy somewhere," Xander grumbled.

"Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that. Why didn’t you guys stay at the mansion? There was plenty more room there," Faith mused.

"Mansion? What mansion? What are you people talking about?" This came from another Slayer—Buffy couldn’t place her name at the moment.

Buffy squirmed under the accusing and baffled stares from the others. "Uh, you know the mansion wasn’t mine. It wasn’t as if I could break into it any time I liked. It’s been boarded up for years! And the plumbing probably wasn’t working either."

"You could have contacted the big A and let him know. I’m sure he’d have no beef about you using his old place, B." Faith was beginning to feel that something was off about this whole business. Okay, B and the Souled One hadn’t been together in awhile. But why would she fail to take advantage of such an obvious hideout? Come to think of it, why hadn’t Faith herself mentioned it the whole time she was in SunnyD? The brunette rubbed her head as she tried to think through the question.

"Faith raises a valid point, Buffy," Giles replied as he carefully started up the bus. "Why were we at your house with its constantly breaking furniture, mounting bills and limited space when we could have used Angel’s vacated mansion? It would have been far more practical in terms of living quarters for the girls."

"I-I—come on, Giles! That place held way too many bad memories. You wouldn’t have wanted to stay there, not after what…happened to you there." She didn’t specify about Angelus’s torture of Giles; she thought that was something he wouldn’t want to get into in front of the others. However, his objections came from an entirely different angle.

"Are you seriously trying to make me believe that you kept us out of that place out of deference to my feelings? Because recent behavior from you has suggested otherwise." Giles’s incredulous tone didn’t quite cover the frostiness in his voice and the others shifted uncomfortably. Xander, Willow and even Faith understood to what he was referring. The other Slayers merely looked puzzled or indifferent, depending on their mood.

Buffy snapped, "Don’t even go there, Giles. You haven’t exactly been Up Front Guy so don’t start pointing the finger."

Before Giles could retort, Faith sighed and slumped in her seat. "Whatever, B. Look, I don’t know what your deal is with Angel. But if you’re so over him that you miss obvious clues about him, then you won’t have any problems going to his place. So let’s just stow the pride and hurt feelings and get to L.A., all right? Because right now I could use a hot bath and a warm bed—not necessarily in that order."

There was a chorus of agreeing murmurs from the other passengers and Buffy shrugged. "Fine. It looks like we’re going to L.A."

Faith walked over to Giles and said, "I’ve got the address, Giles. Just follow these directions and we’ll be five by five."

Angel sat quietly in his office as he waited for the others to join him. Gunn, Fred and Lorne had been busily packing up what few belongings they had left after Jasmine’s followers had destroyed their possessions. He’d been able to salvage a locked box that had proven too well hidden for the violent hands of the Jasmine Brigade but most of his things had been ruined beyond retrieval. Evidently the Transcendent One’s so-called benevolence hadn’t extended to those who exerted enough free will to leave the fold.

It didn’t matter. Angel had learned to get by on far less than what he was carrying with him now. After all, he’d existed for almost eighty years in ditches, alleys, sewers and in the shadows on the periphery of human existence. He would survive; they all would.

And they were getting the niftiest consolation prize—the unlimited resources of Wolfram & Hart. Part of him balked at taking anything from his erstwhile enemy. This was bound to lead them down dark paths. Of course, they’d all had to wrestle with their personal demons in the past few years and he thought, all in all, that they had emerged the stronger for it. Heck, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t tangled with Wolfram & Hart in the past. He’d stood up to the worst they could throw at him and come out victorious. This time he was in charge because, according to Lilah Morgan, the good guys had won.

Yet he couldn’t help the nagging feeling that he was being subtly manipulated. He’d already been enticed to join by information about Sunnydale dangled in front of his nose by that bitch Lilah. Yes, she was definitely a fly in the ointment. Being around her made his skin crawl. She wasn’t a vampire, demon or zombie and the inability to categorize her, not to mention the whole otherworldly vibe she kept giving off, caused his senses to scream whenever he was near her. But she was part of the package and, like it or not, he was going to have to learn to deal with her.

[But maybe you don’t have to. She is dead, after all. It wouldn’t exactly be a crime to kill her, would it?] Now there was an appealing notion. But killing her simply because her presence was distasteful was rather childish. He wasn’t even sure if he could. She was already dead after all and he didn’t know what it would take to dispose of her completely.

Dismissing the troublesome Miss Morgan, he hefted the solid box and ran his fingers across the ornate carvings on its lid. This box contained his most precious memories: his diaries he had assiduously kept even through years of privation and loneliness, pictures of Buffy he had drawn in his idle hours, his Claddagh ring and hers miraculously found after he came back from hell and other assorted items.

Giving in to impulse, he fished out the old-fashioned key and carefully opened the box. Lying on top were sketches of Cordelia. He grimaced when he saw them, remembering the state of his feelings when he drew them. Now that he had breathing space to consider, the feelings of love that he thought he’d possessed for Cordelia didn’t seem all that real in the cold light of day. Yes, he was sorry for her condition. But, before she’d come back, had he really been in love or had all that babbling about kyerumption from Fred turned his head? When he searched his feelings for Cordelia, all he could discern was ordinary friendship. It was powerful, true, and he would fight to the death for her. But she’d been all too willing to throw him aside for others, something that had irritated more than wounded him.

This wasn’t amorous, passionate love that he felt for his seer. It paled in comparison to what he felt for Buffy. As if the thought had summoned her image, the next picture was of his golden Slayer and his hand trembled as he touched it. She was depicted draped naked on his bed, the likeness drawn when she’d fallen asleep after their exhausting lovemaking on the forgotten day.

His fingers caressed the lines as if they were the curves of her body. He could remember every sigh, word, glance and touch she’d given him as if it were yesterday and his heart twisted hard inside his chest.

It had been a jolt seeing her again in Sunnydale. By now he was so used to suppressing all the sharp emotions seeing her engendered that he’d done so almost as a reflex. He thought that might mean he was finally getting over her. But learning that she’d been with Spike had been a bitter pill to swallow.

[That shitty grandchilde of mine. Always taking my sloppy seconds. I should have dusted him the first time he got us run out of town.] Well, maybe he wasn’t as over her as he thought. Still, if she didn’t survive the First’s attack then he wouldn’t have to worry about seeing the two of them together.

He shook his head, appalled at his own callousness. Since when had he become so cavalier about Buffy’s welfare? He should have stayed there in Sunnydale with her or at least put up a stronger protest about leaving. Why had he allowed himself to be run off so easily?

Had his mind been messed with? He’d seen how often the Sunnydale residents had been blind to the strange and supernatural in their midst. At the time he had dismissed it as the typical human response to things they didn’t understand. But knowing people in L.A. who were quick to believe in the mystical he couldn’t help but wonder if something else had been at work clouding the thoughts of the small-town denizens.

Well, idle speculation wasn’t going to help. They had to prepare for fighting on their front if Buffy failed. Speaking of which, shouldn’t there have been a sign of the outcome before now?

Just then his ears picked up the sounds of people talking on the sidewalk and he snapped the box shut, locking it again. The next moment a crowd of teenage girls came staggering into the lobby and paused to look around the space in amazement. None of them noticed the closed office door to their right.

"Goddamn, will you look at this? This place must be huge. I wonder how many rooms it’s got," one of the teenagers murmured.

A boy with oddly dyed hair shuffled in and goggled with them. "This is fantastic. I wouldn’t have minded being tied up in a place like this." He sat on the dove gray circular loveseat and ran his fingers dreamily over the soft fabric.

"My stomach hurts," Vi complained.

"Yeah, mine too. It feels like I’m cramping but it ain’t that time of month," Dominique replied, rubbing at her belly and grimacing.

Angel tensed ever so slightly. These girls were giving him an electric tingle, the same kind he got when he was near Buffy or Faith and he could recall sensing the same when he’d fought Kendra. Who were these females?

A young woman he knew all too well entered next and plopped onto one of the red couches. "Oh, wow. A soft seat feels so good after that bus ride. I’d forgotten how much it hurt to ride those things. I swear that one we picked didn’t have a single shock absorber left." Dawn glanced around the space, taking it in for the first time. "Hey. Cool."

"Once you’ve seen it as often as I have, the thrill is gone."

He recognized that voice and opened his office door. "Faith."

"Hey, big guy. I was wondering where you’d been hiding." To his surprise Faith came up to him and gave him a warm hug. Since she wasn’t the hugging type, he was taken aback until she whispered in his ear, "Hold that pose, Angel."

The other girls gaped to see Faith being so intimate with a stranger. Who was this tall, good-looking, well-built man? Was this the mysterious Angel she’d mentioned on the bus?

Buffy came in moments later and saw them embracing. She stiffened in consternation and the next instant Faith parted from Angel and turned around. "Hey, B. Was I right about this place or what? Doesn’t it just kick ass?"

"Kick ass? Not a bad idea," Buffy muttered.

Angel ignored her to question Faith. "So how’d the apocalypse go on your end?"

"We totaled a town. You?"

"Ended world peace."

She grinned at the return sally. "Wicked cool."

Buffy was irked beyond reason at their easy camaraderie. In order to distract herself, she pretended to check out the green floors and spacious red staircases. So she was the first to notice a tall, black man and a chattering brunette girl who was way too skinny even by California standards descending the stairs. They were holding boxes and carrying on an argument that was evidently the source of some grievance.

"I’m telling you, I don’t care how much money they throwin’ at us. I’m not living in some muckety-muck condo in Bel Aire! I’m from downtown, Fred. I gotta keep it real. What are my homeboys gonna think about me moving into some swanky neighborhood I couldn’t afford in a million years?"

"When was the last time you saw your homeboys, bro?" Fred retorted. She stopped short when she saw all the people in the lobby. "Oh my god! Faith, is that you? You survived!"

"That I did, girlfriend." Without another word, the skinny brunette squealed and ran down the stairs, throwing her free arm around Faith. The dark-haired Slayer patted her awkwardly on the back. "Hey, don’t go gushing all over me. It’s embarrassing."

"Oh, this is so great! I mean, it’s so good to see you and to know that you didn’t die. Can I take it the apocalypse was averted and we shouldn’t expect a whole load of demons coming our way? I really wasn’t looking forward to another fight with some Supreme Being not with what we’ve had to deal with here. Not that we didn’t want to fight, it’s just that things have finally started coming together for us and…" She stopped short when she realized that everyone was staring. She waved feebly at the gathered assemblage and said, "Hi, everybody. I’m Winifred Burkle but everybody calls me Fred."

The black man flashed a quick grin that had many of the girls making unconscious gestures to straighten their hair and clothing. "Yeah, and I’m Charles Gunn and, in case he hasn’t introduced himself, the tall dark silent guy over there is Angel."

"Hi, Angel." A chorus of welcome came from the girls. Buffy didn’t miss the appreciative looks the other Slayers were giving Angel and a fresh wave of jealousy swept over her. Last night she’d seen him all too briefly to do more than trade a few short words with him. Now that she could look at leisure, she saw the striking handsome man she’d fallen in love with.

[Why did you give him up again? Oh right, the cookie dough speech. What the f…? COOKIE DOUGH?!? That’s the excuse you brushed him off with? Girl, you are a moron.] The treacherous thought zipped across her mind before she could shut it off.

"Hi, Angel. I hope we didn’t come at a bad time," Willow said softly. Fred squealed again and hugged Willow who hugged her back just as enthusiastically. They parted to see another brunette staring at Fred jealously. "Oh, Fred. This is Kennedy. She’s the one I told you about."

"Hi, pleased to met you." Fred stuck out her hand which was taken rather unenthusiastically by the other woman. Then she stepped back and looked around at the other girls. "So what is going on? You guys won out against the big evil Angel mentioned?"

"The First," Buffy replied. "After the town went Titanic, Faith thought this might be a good place to stay. Just for awhile," she amended hastily. "Giles says there’s a Hellmouth in Cleveland and there are Slayers being activated all over the world. We have to get in touch with all of them somehow."

"Faith. Am I to take it by your arrival that all went well in Sunnydale?"

The measured English voice brought everyone’s attention back to the stairs and Buffy blinked in confusion and then astonishment. Underneath all the scruffiness lurked the face of one ex-Watcher, Mr. Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. "Wesley? Is that you?"

"In the flesh, as it were." One hand rose unconsciously to trace the scar running like a snake from one side of his throat to the other.

"Didn’t I tell you he was hot now, B?" Faith joked as she nudged her arm.

"Why didn’t anybody wake me? We arrive here and everybody piles out and leaves me on the bus." Xander complained. He took in the room as well as the strangers standing inside it. "Nice digs. Is that genuine oak paneling?"

"Who are—?" Wesley’s eyes widened as he noted the eyepatch over Xander’s left socket. "Good Lord. Xander Harris? What happened to your eye?"

"Arrgh, matey. That be a long and grim story, a tale of eyeless brigands and rogue priests." Xander dropped the pirate brogue. "Speaking of unfamiliar faces, is that you, Wesley? Gotta say the stubbly look is not attractive."

"Speak for yourself, Xander," one of the other Slayers muttered.

"Okay, before everybody’s hormones go raging out of control, we should all get settled in. That is, if it’s five by five with you, Angel." Faith turned towards the vampire, her eyebrows raised, as she waited for his approval.

"You want to stay here? I suppose it’s all right seeing as we’re moving out."

"You are?" Faith cast her eye around and for the first time noticed all the boxes, few though they were, scattered in the lobby. "So you are. Where you going if you don’t mind my asking?"

"Wolfram & Hart," Fred answered when Angel remained silent. "It’s this evil law firm. But they totally caved in after the last apocalypse and gave us their branch here in Los Angeles. You should see this place! It’s huge, even bigger…"

"Been there. Done that," Faith replied in a flat tone. Then she rounded on the vampire. "Are you nuts, Angel? These are the same people who put a hit on you!"

Buffy didn’t miss the chance to jump in. "How could we possibly forget, Faith? You’re the one they hired to do it."

"Who’s Wolfram & Hart? Did we just walk into the middle of something?" Andrew griped. "I gotta tell you, I’m not up for another round of fighting. I just want to relax in a nice warm bath and maybe watch some TV. Hey, does this place have cable?" he asked the bald black man.

"Forget that, Junior. We only got TVs recently. The big guy believes most TV shows are nothing but junk."

"Oh my god! What kind of den of evil have I walked into?" Andrew said in mock horror. At least it sounded as if he was kidding.

Giles was the last to enter, grumbling under his breath. "You wouldn’t believe the conversation I just had with a police officer on the legality of parking the school bus. I had to tell him that we were refugees from the vanished town just to avoid a ticket!" His breath caught as he had his first sight of the spacious lobby. "Is this Angel’s place? Faith told me it was capacious but I had no idea of its true grandeur. What is it, Art Deco?" He gazed about the immediate vicinity in rapt delight and met the eye of the brooding vampire.

"Giles. It’s good to see you."

"Angel. Likewise." The greeting between the two men was cool. Things between them would never be what it once was after Jenny’s death but at least they’d managed to reach an understanding if not great friendship.

Giles turned to the others. "Have all the introductions been made?"

Faith was still visibly upset at the bombshell Fred had dropped. "You can say that, Giles. Although I think we’ve landed in the proverbial hornet’s nest."

"Am I missing something?" Quickly Faith filled him in, introducing him to the unknowns in their midst and telling him of Angel’s intended move.

Giles was cautious in his response as he contemplated the bizarre notion of Angel working in a law firm. "Wolfram & Hart? Mention of them is made in the Watchers Diaries. As they pose a more human threat, the Council decided to err on the side of caution and not interfere unduly with their machinations."

Angel couldn’t let Faith have the only word on the subject. "It’s not as bad as she’s making it sound, Giles. We haven’t sold out. They lost; we won. Since a great Beast killed all of their previous personnel, they turned the reins over to us. We’re in charge there now."

"Mr. Giles, Wolfram & Hart possesses quite a few resources that might interest you. We have a Watcher who managed to elude the destruction of the Watchers Council. They also have a library," Wesley informed him.

At the word "library" an excited gleam, such as Buffy hadn’t seen in Giles’s eyes in months, appeared. "A library, do you say?"

Wesley nodded. "There are also vaults containing masses of information on innumerable demons, parallel dimensions as well as prophecies, artifacts and magical items of some significance and power. There’s more information stored there than you could peruse in one lifetime. Perhaps you’d care to look over the facilities at your convenience."

"I’d very much appreciate that, Wesley." The two Englishmen exchanged smiles and Buffy felt inexplicably left out. On the drive down, Giles had been understandably tired and saved most of his energy for driving. But she had noticed him comforting Xander and Wood in his quiet British way when he’d let Faith take the wheel. Didn’t anybody remember that she’d also lost somebody? And why wouldn’t Angel look at her?

"Man, it begins. Get two eggheads together and they’ll keep you up all night talking," Faith muttered as she stomped upstairs. She nearly bumped into a figure clad in a shiny, purple suit with a red shirt.

"Those fiends! They destroyed all my Streisand CDs! Honestly, can you believe those barbarians? Well, hello, Faith. It’s good to see you again. How were things in the boonies?" The demon with red eyes and green skin embraced the dark-haired Slayer until she struggled to escape.

"Why does everybody want to hug me? Did I sprout Raggedy Ann red yarn hair or something? And what’s this about people destroying your stuff?"

"Long story, Slaygal, and I’m not sure now’s the time to tell it." The demon peered down the staircase at the startled gathering. "Hello, what have we here? Is anybody going to introduce me to all these lovely ladies and gentlemen?"

"Shit, it’s a demon. Should we be worried?" Kennedy murmured, her eyes scanning the room for a weapon.

Angel darted in front of the girls, his arms spread in a protective gesture. "Relax, guys. This is Lorne. He’s a friend from Pylea."

"Yeah, I was held as a slave there for five years. But they recently abolished slavery so it’s not so bad as it once was," Fred informed them in a cheery tone.

Buffy shook her head tiredly. She was hungry and weary to death and she didn’t want any more explanations or introductions. She clapped her hands sharply to draw everybody’s attention. "Okay, people. We’ve done the hello thing and we’re shortly going to say goodbye, judging by the looks of it. Thanks for letting us park here, Angel. But you have to know we’re not staying."

The vampire didn’t reply. He merely nodded sharply. He went back into the office and returned bearing a wooden box. "Come on, everybody. Time to clear out."

Lorne, Wesley, Gunn and Fred looked uncertain. Now that the moment of parting had actually arrived, they were all curiously reluctant to go. Right then, Faith realized someone was missing. "Hey, Angel. Where’s Cordelia? She still shaking off Angelus’s last attack?"

Angelus? What did he have to do with this? Buffy didn’t miss the flash of sorrow in Angel’s eyes, quickly vanishing, at the mention of Cordelia’s name. "Things took a turn for the worse while you were gone, Faith. Cordy’s in a coma," he replied, no hint of emotion in his voice.

Willow was genuinely shocked. "Coma? How’d that happen? The last time I saw her, it was just a flesh wound and she was on the mend although kinda thirsty. How did she wind up in a coma?"

"Like Buffy said, you guys have to settle in and it’s a really long story, Willow. We’re going to set up things at Wolfram & Hart. You can check in with us when you’re less tired." Angel reached into his pocket and handed Faith a bundle of keys. "Here are the keys to the place. You’ll be able to figure out what goes where. If you want to use the pool, get the water cleaned first."

"There’s a pool?" Dawn interrupted, taking a real interest in the conversation for the first time.

Angel nodded but continued his speech to Faith. "Treat her with respect, Faith. She’s a grand old dame but she wears her age well." He picked up a large blanket lying unnoticed next to the lobby door. He draped it over himself and plunged into the sunlight.

The recently created Slayers had been filled in on Angel’s vampiric status on the trip down but it was still surprising to see him braving the sun. "Hey, how’s he gonna get to this Wolfram & Hart place in the middle of the afternoon? Won’t he burn up on the way?" Andrew asked.

"I’m thinking that limo with the tinted windows will make a fabulous sunblock," Faith replied. At that, everybody crowded to the lobby doors and goggled as the A.I. team crowded into an obviously very expensive limousine parked at the curb. The meager belongings the Fang Gang possessed were shoved into the trunk and three minutes later it pulled away sedately into the L.A. traffic.

Faith was the first to lose interest. "Right, people. Show’s over. I don’t know what you’re doing but I’m taking a shower and crashing. You guys come up and I’ll show you your rooms."

"How about you, honey? You want to share a shower?" Kennedy asked with a wink as she and Willow pulled away from the front doors.

Willow blushed and murmured, "Nah. You shower while I sleep. That Slayer-power-to-the-world spell totally drained me. Gonna recharge my batteries and shower later."

Colleen stopped clutching herself about the waist and beamed. "Hey, my stomach feels a whole lot better for some reason."

"I know. Weird, huh?" another Slayer commented. "One moment, wicked cramps. The next, zilch."

"Must have been PMS or something," Kennedy ventured.

"No such luck, ladies. That was your Slayerness kicking in," Faith smirked. "That’s an early warning system that tells you vamps and other assorted nasties are in the area."

"Are you telling me that now we’re Slayers we’re gonna get those pains every time a bloodsucker is around?" Colleen demanded. "Like being a woman isn’t hard enough! Who thought up this screwy system in the first place?"

Faith shrugged. "The people who thought girls make better Slayers than guys, I suppose." The other females wandered off, loudly debating this questionable method of vampire detection and the idiots who’d curse a woman to feel this kind of pain more than once a month.

It wasn’t until everyone else left the lobby that Buffy realized Angel hadn’t spoken to her once.

It took awhile for everybody to get settled. Some of the girls wanted to sleep; others went to the mini fridge and raided it for the little food that was left. The Sunnydale refugees had had the choice of taking rooms that had been lived in and were littered with detritus or opening rooms so long unused the dust was thick on the furniture. No one wanted the recently vacated rooms of Angel and crew; for some reason the furnishings and belongings had been totally trashed.

But Buffy couldn’t sleep. It was the middle of the afternoon, for goodness sakes! True, she was mostly a night person but that didn’t mean she should be sleeping the day away. That didn’t prevent her from lying in bed, wide-awake, staring at the ceiling.

With a grunt, she sat up and eased into her shoes again. She was too wired to sleep. A little activity might do her good. Maybe she could start by exploring the hotel. She walked down the hall and opened one of the unlocked doors.

Buffy stared at the damage around her in the vacated room. It looked as if a mob had come through it. She carefully picked her way through the debris. In the opened closet, she found the remains of several slashed shirts, slacks and shoes and she could tell by the uniform darkness of the material that it had been Angel’s room. Backing up, her foot knocked something that rolled with a clatter across the floor. Buffy bent, picked up the object and frowned, turning it over and over in her hands.

It was a baby rattle. It was a small thing in delicate powder blue that had miraculously escaped the damage to the rest of the room. Who had had a baby and why was this in Angel’s room?

She shook off the question and tossed the rattle into the closet, slamming it shut. Whatever was going on here was Angel’s drama; she wasn’t going to get sucked into it. Buffy exited the room and shut the door without looking back. Their relationship lay in ruins, like his room, like all of Sunnydale. Angel was part of her past. From now on, she was looking forward.

"Hey, B. Find anything interesting?"

Buffy resisted the impulse to jump and picked Faith out of the shadows at the end of the hallway. She wasn’t ready to share her private pain over Angel. Not that there was any pain. Buffy was a totally pain-free zone where Angel was concerned. She managed a smile and shrugged indifferently. "Scrap. Whoever went through this place pretty much trashed it. Think it was because of that apocalypse you talked about?"

"Nope. That never really made it here. I understand the place got a little shook up when Red was restoring Angel’s soul but it couldn’t have caused the slash-and-tear damage I saw. Musta been something else. Maybe he’ll tell me when he calls."

The blonde Slayer didn’t respond. She decided to head back to her room. Faith jogged beside her and pulled her by the arm. "Wait a sec. I was kinda fussing over Robin in the bus before we took him to the hospital so I didn’t get the chance to tell you what went down here. We can see if those girls left anything in the fridge while we catch up."

Unwillingly Buffy allowed herself to be dragged off by Faith. She didn’t know why she wanted to listen. Faith would only tell her about Angel and she wanted to avoid that. Yet she found himself seated at the lobby desk while the brunette Slayer rummaged through the mini fridge.

"Not much here. Some old vegetables…at least I think they were vegetables. Once. Kinda ripe and funky now. You think those girls could have thrown them out." She wrinkled her nose and dumped the sodden, stinky mess in the garbage. "There’s some yogurt and ooh, hey!" She pulled out a pint of ice cream jammed into the back of the freezer and scraped off the accumulated ice on it. "Somebody left cookie dough fudge mint chip ice cream in here. Lucky us."

Cookie dough…? Buffy stared at the container Faith was triumphantly waving. Did Angel leave that for her? It wasn’t possible. Her speech to him about cookie dough had been only last night. He wouldn’t have had time to run out and get a tub of this stuff…and why would he? Was it a message of some sort?

No, this container was heavily frosted over; Faith had had to brush off the ice crystals on the top before she could read it. That meant it had been sitting here for some time. So no secret message then. Buffy pushed down the irrational feeling of disappointment.

Faith dumped some in a bowl for Buffy but contented herself with eating her share right out of the carton. They ate a few mouthfuls in silence before either of them spoke. "You wanna go first, B, or should I?"

"Well, you seem to know what’s what about this place so why don’t you start."

"First idea I got that something’s wrong—besides the sun going out like a bad lightbulb—was when I got attacked in prison by this chick with this really weird knife. And it wasn’t one of those stupid homemade jobs like you make in the prison workshop either. It looked really professional and she said it was nothing personal, like she’d been hired to do it. Guess one of those blind Bringers must have snuck it to her."

Buffy didn’t answer. A pang of guilt stung her. She should have contacted Faith and let her know the danger threatening the Slayer line. But she’d honestly forgotten about the brunette Slayer. There had been too much else going on in Sunnydale.

"Then Wesley comes and tells me Angelus is on the loose and I’m the only one who can get him back. I bust myself out of jail and then we hunt down Angelus."

"How did you find him?"

Faith’s mouth opened and then closed as she considered. Now that she thought about it, she wasn’t sure how she’d managed to track Angel’s evil alter ego. She was a Slayer but picking one particular vampire out of a crowd had never been her thing. There was missing element to this story, something important…

After a moment she dismissed it. Maybe she’d gotten a hunch or just followed a lead. "Got lucky, I guess. Anyhow, turns out Angelus is in cahoots with this huge Goliath rock Beast. This bad boy was the one responsible for pulling the sunblock over Los Angeles. You should have seen it, B. It was total chaos here—vampires and demons running around during high noon. Speaking of which, how come you weren’t here helping out? I know things were rough in SunnyD but they sure could have used your help here cleaning up the streets."

"Faith, I thought that if the others needed my help, they would contact me." The excuse sounded feeble to Buffy’s ears and Faith was quick to call her on it.

"Bullshit. You didn’t come because you didn’t want to see Angel again any more than you had to. Too bad you didn’t keep in touch. Then you might have heard Angelus was back in the picture."

"Well, Angel could have kept in touch with me. I’m sure him or one of his people could have called."

"Did you call him for help when he brought you that magic necklace?"

"He didn’t come until somebody else told him there was trouble in little Sunnydale. Otherwise, I don’t think he would have bothered," Buffy shot back. She struggled to get her temper under control. She and Faith were getting into an argument and that was the last thing she wanted. "Anyway, that’s water under the bridge. What happened with you and Rockzilla?"

Faith looked down into the container as if too embarrassed to continue. "About Rocky…I’m tellin’ you, Buff…"

"What? What about him?"

"He was—he was too much for me. He was over ten feet tall and built like a prison guard tower. It was like punching a cement wall every time I attacked him and he swatted me around that place like I was nothing."

She swallowed as she remembered the creature’s dismissive words to her. That had been worse than the beating—being made to feel small, helpless and worthless like nothing she did would ever matter or be good enough. It had been why the Mayor’s praise and unconditional support, even with his twisted agenda, had been so sweet. He had provided the approval she had sought so desperately and never found elsewhere.

Buffy heard the insecurity. Faith put up a good act as a tough girl; it wasn’t every day she let anyone see her vulnerable side and she fumbled with words to reassure her. "Don’t be so hard on yourself. I went toe to toe with a god who kept mopping the floor with me. The only way I won that chick fight was by using a really big hammer."

"A hammer, huh? Maybe I should have brought one of those with me when I went up against the Thing," Faith joked.

Buffy prompted her when it seemed she wasn’t going to continue. "What happened after that? It didn’t kill you and it sounds like it could have."

"Angelus happened, if you can believe it. Seems he wasn’t much of a team player and he came up from behind and stabbed it with this ugly dagger that was made out of Rocky’s bones."

"Ugh. High on the ick factor."

"You’re telling me. And when Rocky blew up, the sun came back like that." The brunette snapped her fingers for emphasis.

"So Angelus brought back the sun?"

"Yep." The other woman kicked up her heels and put them on the table and dug out another scoop of ice cream. "He was really surprised; guess he didn’t realize kayoing the rockpile would do that. A lot of vampires must have been caught outside when ole Sol made its reappearance."

"Yeah. Major dustage all over Los Angeles, I’ll bet."

The other woman chewed, swallowed her ice cream and resumed her story. "I was banged up pretty bad—too bad to go after Angelus. But I heal fast thanks to Slayer power and then Wesley and me took off to track down tall, dark and vicious again. Wes comes up with this master plan to trick Angelus into biting me while I’ve got this magic juice pumping through my veins."

"Magic juice?"

"A wacky drug the underground calls Orpheus, other of some Greek myth or other. Wesley didn’t have time to get into the details. He just said that if a vampire bit a human who was on this stuff, said vamp would go into a coma. ‘Course, the human goes under, too, which made the whole thing kinda dicey. But the Brit thought I could handle it. Still, it was kinda touch and go there for awhile, B."

"Angel—Angelus bit you?" Buffy scanned Faith’s neck. She didn’t see any telltale trace of a scar on the other woman and felt an absurd sense of relief. She still bore Angel’s mark from when Faith had poisoned him and she had touched it often in the early days after his departure from her. Buffy saw it as a mark of belonging, strange as it sounded, and the thought that Faith might have been similarly branded caused a renewal of the jealousy she’d experienced in the lobby when she caught the two of them hugging.

Faith sensed Buffy’s antagonism but couldn’t figure out what was causing it. Shrugging it off, she continued. "B, I was actually reliving parts of Angel’s life. Seeing him come to America, watching him try to help people." She remembered the little puppy and smirked. Okay, it hadn’t always been people…

"Really? I thought Angel was all people-avoidy after he got his soul."

"Well, he couldn’t have lived in total iso, could he? He was a vampire with a soul not a prisoner in solitary. It wasn’t that he didn’t like people, B. He…he just didn’t trust himself around them. I could see the temptation he felt every time anyone with a heartbeat got too close: the heat from their bodies, the bloodlust, the whole I-wanna-tear-your-throat-out-and-use-your-jugular-like-a-straw vibe. It was hell for him, B. You have no idea." Faith scowled at a private memory and dug viciously into the tub of ice cream as if she wanted to hurt someone on Angel’s behalf.

Buffy swirled her spoon around in the now melted remains of her ice cream. She wanted to shout out questions. Had Angel gone through memories of her? Their time together? Their one act of lovemaking on her 17th birthday? Their private conversations? "So…how far did you get in his memories?"

Faith knew what lay behind the question and took pity on the young woman with her. "I didn’t get to the whole drama that was your romance, if that’s what you’re thinking. I only got up to Angel while he was still in his skulking-in-the-alleys part of his existence. It was really gross. He was dressed in these filthy clothes and sported bad Eighties hair and eating…well, you really don’t want to know that part." She shuddered in exaggerated revulsion and slurped up another spoonful of ice cream, chewing a frozen bit of cookie dough. "Angelus was really pissed watching the souled one going through the wringer like that."

"Wait, you and Angelus were going through this? I thought it was just you reliving Angel’s memories."

"See, that’s the thing. The demon was inside him this whole time, watching what Angel was doing, pretty much helpless to do anything except run commentary. Just because he got a soul doesn’t mean his demon disappeared, B. But I guess you know that, don’t ya?" Faith finished the frozen treat, scraping the bottom for nonexistent remains before setting it on the table with disappointed sigh.

"What Angelus and me didn’t know was that Red was trying to shove Angel’s soul back into his carcass. So while Angelus is sharing this inner trip down memory lane with me, Soul Boy suddenly kicks in and he and Angelus start throwing down. It was this total bizarre clash of the Titans. But the big A won out over the Scrooge."

Buffy smirked. "I think you mean Scourge."

"Nope. Me Marley’s Ghost, him Scrooge." She rubbed the side of her neck absently. "It was right about then that I collapsed. I’d been bleeding from the neck and I guess I was dying. But while Angel was fighting his bad boy self to a standstill, he kept talking to me, telling me not to give up. So I didn’t. We both woke up at the same time, pretty much."

"So it all ended happily ever after."

Faith shrugged again and stared sightlessly into the darkness, frowning. "Angel and I didn’t get to talking much after he woke up—I got the impression there was more badness going on here in L.A. than a great big pile of walking rock and the sun going out. When I get in touch with Angel I’m gonna get the lowdown on what I missed when I was in little SunnyD."

Faith turned to her fellow Slayer. "Your turn to spill, B. What went down in the underground after the rest of us got out? We didn’t think you were gonna make it until you did a flying Wallenda onto the top of the bus. What happened to make the town cave in?"

"It was that medallion Angel gave me. You saw what it did. It started shooting off rays of light and the cavern started to shake. I-I think it released a massive amount of energy and Spike was right at the middle of it. It was supposed to be for a champion, you see, somebody with more than human strength and—and a soul."

"So you gave it to Spike rather than sacrifice Angel. Good choice. It would have been too bad to get rid of a real champion. Angel would have been missed."

"That’s not why I did it, Faith," Buffy countered sharply. She wasn’t going to let any one think she’d made Spike play the role of a sacrificial lamb. "Angel wasn’t sure what the thing was supposed to do, only that it was powerful and unpredictable and Spike figured no one else could wear it. So he asked me to give it to him."

"Then Spike gets the title of champion because he says so? Wonder if he would have done it if he knew it meant he’d be killed because of it."

"He knew what was happening to him, Faith. He could have taken that thing off but he didn’t. He gave his life to save the world. That makes him a champion."

"Champion. Sacrifice. You say potato. I say pre-processed fries." Faith stood up and stretched, silently signaling the conversation was at an end. She frowned as she watched Buffy trudge up the stairs. Nobody who reamed Buffy’s friends, punched her and ran out when they needed help won the title of champion in her book. A champion fought the good fight because it was the right thing to do not to impress a girl.

Buffy’s feelings were seriously twisted up over this Spike guy and Faith wanted to set her straight. She’d seen Angel’s face when Buffy walked into the Hyperion. He was still crazy over the blonde Slayer; she could see that as clear as day.

She wondered if he knew about Buffy’s sick deal with the bleached wonder. Faith hadn’t been in Sunnydale long enough to get a sense of what was going on there, although a few hints dropped by Willow, Xander, Dawn and that chatty fake blonde Anya had told her a few things.

But Faith had been witness to the love Angel and Buffy had for each other. Could all that have changed in the short time she’d been in prison—because of Spike?

Watching Buffy walk back up the stairs, she decided on a plan. The seeds of an idea, vague and half-formed, were coming together in Faith’s mind as she thought of helping the vampire who’d never given up on her no matter what.

Faith was gonna play matchmaker.


Part 2

The first thing Buffy noticed when she awoke was the odd silence. She stared around in confusion. She was in a comfortable but rather impersonally decorated room and she was assailed with the momentary disorientation that always hit when you woke up in a strange place.

Then she remembered. Sunnydale. Everything she’d ever known, her home for the last seven years, was reduced to a meaningless sinkhole. She sucked in her breath and thought that she might break out bawling. The next moment, the feeling passed as she forcibly struggled to relax.

She tried to assess her next move. [No money. No credit cards. No possessions except a few weapons, the school bus and the clothes on your back. What are you gonna do now?]

They were going to Cleveland. That was the plan, anyway. Without money, they might not get far but she was sure they could figure out something. Her little band of Scoobies had faced worse than unemployment and homelessness in the past; they’d get through this.

The inner pep talk wasn’t entirely convincing but it was enough to propel her out of bed. She went to the window and pulled back the curtain.

Daytime. Damn, had she slept the whole night away? She rubbed her eyes and grimaced. She had never been a morning person…and there was no food in the house. She shucked on her clothes and shuddered again. She needed new things. They all did and there was no way they could afford it.

She opened the door to be met with other girls stumbling around in various states of dress and undress. Then Dominique tilted up her head and sniffed like a hound on the scent. "Does anybody else smell…bacon?"

The others stopped and began sniffing, too. Then somebody looked over the balcony. "Oh my god!"

There were men coming into the lobby. They were bearing bags of food and one man was pushing what was clearly a dessert cart loaded with breakfast stuffs. He smiled cheerily at the females hanging over the balcony. "Morning, ladies. Somebody order breakfast?"

There was a breathless hush. Then twenty-odd females charged down the stairs. Buffy gaped and then ran after them. "Hold on! Wait a minute! Who are you guys and who sent you?"

The man with the breakfast cart waved out the other men after they set down the bags of groceries. He held up his hand. "Is there a woman named Faith here?"

"That would be me. Whacha got for me, stud?" The brunette Slayer leaned against the bottom of the banister and smiled appraisingly at him.

The young man, a shy-looking blond, blushed and stammered, "T-This order came from W&H and they’ve been paid for. I was told to tell you from someone called Angel."

Giles came out in clothes rumpled from sleep and peered blearily over the balcony. "What’s all the blasted racket? It’s too early in the morning—" He put on his glasses and stared wide-eyed at the cart. "Goodness. Are those scones?"

"What’s up, G-man? I hear the chatter of little birds only it ain’t coming from outside." Xander scratched at his wrinkled pants and yawned mightily. He followed Giles’ stare. "All right! Who ordered in?" Without another word he pelted downstairs and made a beeline for the food.

The Slayers were lifting the trays from the cart, crying out in joy at the stacks of pancakes, waffles, eggs, cereal and various other breakfast stuffs. Faith grinned and snatched up a hot, covered bowl of waffles before it could be taken. Juggling the plate from one hand to the other, she said, "Angel sent this? Good for him. There was barely anything left in the fridge last night. This should tide us over for awhile."

"I’m thinking a long while," Buffy muttered. There were no less than fifteen bags of goods lying on the floor ready to be put away. Dammit, she’d told Angel they were only here for a few days! This much food looked like it had been bought for a siege.

Andrew dug into a bowl of cereal and munched between pawing through the bags. "Oh, look! They brought Twinkies!" The other Slayers clambered around him and began sorting through the bag’s contents. Faith lingered a moment to chat with the delivery boy whose fascinated gaze told just how pleased he was with the brunette cutie talking to him.

"Faith," Buffy hissed. When the other woman ignored her, she grabbed her arm pulling her back from the hunky blond.

"Thanks, sweetie, but I’m taken." Faith waved goodbye to the boy before turning to the irritated blonde Slayer. "What’s up, B? You hungry ‘cause I think there’s still plenty of food left." She leaned over the cart and snatched up a strawberry, popping it into her mouth and emitting an "mmmm" of pleasure.

"We can’t accept this stuff, Faith."

The other woman stared at her in surprise and then her eyes narrowed. "What? Why the hell not?"

"It’s—we didn’t ask for this. It puts us under an obligation. We don’t need anything from Angel."

The brunette looked her up and down. "B, we need a ton of stuff. We need a place to stay while we get our feet under us. We need food, clothes and a way to get Dawn back into school. If Angel wants to be generous with the handouts, I ain’t saying no. I’ve taken a hell of a lot more from him than that." She paused and then said with quiet emphasis. "Besides, that message from Angel was for me not you. You want to stand here and go hungry, that’s your deal."

She turned away from her and picked up two more containers. Balancing them precariously, she plopped down on the gray circular seat in the lobby. Giles was busily loading English breakfast morsels onto a paper plate. He’d witnessed the confrontation between the two women but wisely held his peace. He began to edge towards the stairs when Buffy cornered him.

"Giles, you know I’m right."

He sighed; he felt that breakfast was going to be delayed. "No, actually, I don’t know any such thing."

"Only yesterday you said there’s a Hellmouth in Cleveland. We should be making tracks not playing Susie Homemaker in the Bates Motel!"

"On an empty stomach?" He realized how petulant this sounded and motioned her towards the vacated office. He sensed she wanted a private conversation and Giles wanted someplace to sit down and consume his breakfast.

"Buffy, I have to agree with Faith. We do require a great deal in the way of supplies. Plus, we’d be showing up at Cleveland blind and unknowing of the circumstances."

"We’d manage. We can make our own way. We always have," Buffy argued.

"Really? On what money? In Sunnydale, I was paid by the Council. I was thoroughly briefed on you and your circumstances. We had resources, you had a home…all your friends did. Now we are essentially homeless and adrift. When we get to Cleveland, what do you expect us to do? Walk up to the nearest stranger and say, ‘Hullo, we’re new in town. Could you point us to the Hellmouth, please? Thanks ever so for your assistance.’ " He sniffed at the absurdity and dug into his plate.

"No need to be snarky, Giles. It’s way too early for that kind of ‘tude," she grumbled as she perched on the edge of the desk. "It’s…I don’t want to take anything from Angel. I’m trying to keep my distance from him. That’s a whole can of worms and other assorted fishbait I don’t want to open. Taking stuff like this makes me feel like I have to pay him back somehow."

Giles polished off a scone and reached for another, smearing it with butter before taking a nibble. "I don’t think Angel is that petty, Buffy. Although I’m beginning to have my doubts about you," he said with a pointed look. "At any rate, he’s keeping his distance. I noticed that he barely had two words for you yesterday. So what makes you think this is some sort of ploy to put you under an obligation?"

Buffy bit her lip. That was the problem; she didn’t really feel as if Angel was trying to get to her. It was just the opposite. It was more like he was trying to buy her off: talking only to Faith, giving Faith the message about the food, buying them things instead of giving her attention. That’s it—Angel was ignoring her and Buffy had to admit it was a little upsetting.

She made a visible effort to get her temper under control. With a tight smile at Giles, she said, "You’re right. I’m being Sensitive Buffy and there’s no need for that because Angel obviously doesn’t care. I mean, he cares but in a totally distant giving-to-the-poor kind of way. I’m surprised he doesn’t simply write us a check."

Giles patted his lips with a napkin and burped genteelly. "I wouldn’t say no to some hard cash right now. And, as I recall, you had no qualms in accepting money from me to pay your household expenses."

"That was different! You were trying to help…and you’re my Watcher. It was okay."

"And it’s not with Angel because he’s your ex-lover and this business of purchasing things seems cold and formal compared to the warmth of your previous relationship."

"Yes! No! I’m not even thinking about getting warm and cozy with him again. That’s not what I’m saying here."

"I understand." He picked up the empty plates. "I felt the exchange of monies kept us at a distance, too. You relied on me for services and yet pushed me and your friends aside when you truly needed help. It’s why I left. So I suppose we’ll be leaving here soon as well."

Buffy cringed at the reminder of her cold behavior towards her Watcher and friends after she was resurrected. "I’m not sure how that proves my point."

"Or if you have one."

She glared at him. "Ha ha, Giles. Fine. We’ll accept Angel’s help while he’s being Distancy Guy which is okay by me. Just as long as everybody remembers this is not permanent. We’re not staying."

Faith opened the door without knocking. "Hey, B. Me and the girls were wondering what we should be doing today. I gotta admit, I thought I’d be sleeping the sleep of the dead. But now I’m rested, I’m charged up from my carbo intake and I’m raring to go. What say we take the girls out and hit the streets?"

Buffy opened her mouth to protest and then reconsidered. Why not? They had steam to burn off and a few hours on the town might do the trick. "Sure. I’m liking that plan." She called out to the women still milling around in the lobby. "Just make sure you throw your stuff in the garbage before you leave!" Then something occurred to her. "Hey, Faith. Do you know when the garbage gets picked up here?"

The brunette was clueless. "No idea. I wasn’t here long enough to get involved in garbage detail. I’ll pick up the phone and call Angel."

"Wait a sec, we don’t have to call Angel. This is a hotel. Maybe there’s a garbage chute or big dumpster we can put our trash in." Now that she knew Angel was trying to avoid her, Buffy was determined to keep as far away from him as possible. Two could play at that game.

"B, don’t sweat it. I’ll do the Q&A with Angel. There’s no need for you to get into things." Faith waved her hand casually in Buffy’s direction and dialed up information. "Hello. I need the number for Wolfram & Hart…" She paused and snatched up a discarded pen, scribbling the number on her hand. "Uh huh. 555-8457. Got it."

Buffy looked at Faith’s back. The other Slayer talked as if she felt no awkwardness in having Buffy there while holding a conversation. Well, why should she? Faith was only asking about garbage day. "Right. Maybe I should see if there’s gas in the school bus."

Faith nodded absently in reply and then her face lit up. "Hey, Angel! Yeah, we got the food. Thanks a bunch for the eats. You’ve got no idea what Slayers eat like. These girls pack it away like truck drivers, I’m telling ya. Course, I remember how B used to get after slaying." She winked at Buffy and then proceeded with the conversation. "You settling in alright? How’s the cheerleader? Just the same, huh? Any chance the others could see her? I would but we were never close."

Buffy edged out of the room and closed the door—not that Faith seemed to notice. [Hey, why don’t I just take the girls and run? Faith seems all caught up with my ex-boyfriend. She wouldn’t exactly miss me.] That was a mean-spirited thought and Buffy squelched it immediately. They were here for the duration. She would just have to make the best of things.

"Why should we go anywhere? I want to explore the hotel," Dawn said to a round of agreement from the others.

"What’s to explore? There’s rooms, rooms and more rooms. There is an overabundance of roominess." Sometimes Buffy thought her sister argued just for the sake of arguing. She ignored the fact that she’d done a little exploring herself.

"Angel said there was a pool…"

"A pool in serious need of cleaning. Unless you want to get covered in algae," Buffy pointed out.

"So we call a cleaner!"

"And how do we pay for it?" Buffy crossed her arms and dared Dawn to answer that one.

The teenage girl fidgeted as she rapidly went through their options. "Well…we can call Angel. If he’s willing to pay for food, he can pay for pool cleaning."

That was precisely what Buffy was trying to avoid. "No, we won’t. Otherwise we’ll be calling on Angel for every little thing. We don’t need to use the pool, Dawn, and Angel’s all caught up in his shiny new career so let’s save the phone calls for emergencies. So who’s up for that tour?"

Molly sighed in exaggerated pique. "What’s the point of touring L.A. when you can’t buy anything? We’d just be driving around all day."

Faith leaned out of the office just then. "Hey, Xander. Angel wants to talk to you. It’s about something you and Red might be interested in."

"Me and Willow? Why not the Buffster? Doesn’t he want to talk to her?"

"Nah. He doesn’t think she’ll be interested. It’s about your old squeeze."

"My old—?" A look of comprehension spread over Xander’s features. "Sure, I’ll take it. Coming, Wills?"

Willow got up and followed him into the office and they shut the door behind them. The other females and Giles turned to look at Buffy who smiled in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. "So where does everybody want to go?"

Buffy strode through the streets of Los Angeles in a complete funk. None of the Slayers or Dawn had wanted to go with her and she wasn’t interest in going anywhere with Andrew. Even though Giles had expressed a faint interest, he had refused to let her drive the bus. He evidently hadn’t grown any more confident of her driving skills. It was a moot point, anyway. The school bus was practically out of gas.

So she decided a walk in the sunshine, maybe along the beach, would clear her head. [That’s what I need. A good long walk to plan the rest of my life.]

What to do with her time, that was the problem. It was like Faith said—she wasn’t the Chosen One any longer. She could lead an ordinary life if she wanted. But an ordinary life as what? She hadn’t exactly demonstrated a talent for any job skill. The idea of being a police officer had been presented to her in the old Sunnydale high but after being attacked by a female cop the idea had zero appeal.

And what about Angel? He had been distant and standoffish with her ever since she showed and that was fine by her. The less contact she had with her ex-boyfriend, the better. It wasn’t as if she was staying in L.A. for long. She was hitting the road, going to Cleveland and all points beyond.

[Yeah, that’s right. Road trip! Xander took one and now it’s my turn. I’m gonna show Dawnie the world just like I promised last year.]

[But won’t Dawn need to go back to school? She started skipping her classes when the new Sunnydale High closed up shop. She can’t just make do on the little she’s learned.]

[How are we gonna afford classes? In case you didn’t notice, all our possessions and stuff went south when Sunnydale did. What do we use as collateral for a loan—the school bus?]

[So talk to your father. He’s in L.A.—well, he might be. Find him and make him start paying for his little girl. Goodness knows you haven’t been doing such a good job of it, Miss Doublemeat loser. We’re still on square one, do not pass Go, do not collect $200 or any dollars. We’re broke, broker than broke and, unless we get jobs, we’re stuck, stranded and homeless just like Giles said.]

[Well, we can’t get jobs. Most of the girls are underage.]

[And once again at square one. Maybe Angel could give us jobs.]

[No! We’re not going to go knocking on Angel’s door for employment. Angel can’t even be bothered to talk to me. He’s more interested in dealing with Faith. I’m not hanging around to witness their drama. We’re leaving and that’s it!]

[Fine. You got any money ‘cause all this walking’s making me hungry.]

[Forget it. Let’s head back to the hotel. We’ve got food there, remember?] She concentrated on the beach. It was so lovely here: the sun glinting on the waves, the happy smiling people who hadn’t a care in the world. Buffy unconsciously rubbed her arms as the wind picked up. Passing by an open archway, she swayed, suddenly dizzy. She swung towards the flowered arch as if expecting to see—what?

That was majorly weird. She had half expected to see Angel come striding out from under the arch. She shut her eyes, trying to dispel the sensation. [That was stupid. It’s broad daylight. There was no way Angel could be here. What am I thinking?]

Yet the image had been so strong. She had experienced the weird feeling that it was about to happen—or had happened before. But she had never seen Angel in daylight except in her dreams. Shrugging off the odd moment, she turned and continued strolling faster down the walkway.

Night had fallen by the time she made her way back. She’d taken her stakes with her on the off chance she’d meet a vampire but there hadn’t been a single flash of pointy fangs. Everywhere she looked were cheerful people who had no idea of the monsters lying in wait out there. Okay, maybe that was an exaggeration. She was in Los Angeles, after all, the home of the deal. But she’d never appreciated what a human deal it could be.

She’d lived in this place before being hastily removed to Sunnydale and Buffy had forgotten how bustling this town could be in terms of sheer ordinary humanity. Burning down the school gym at Hemery had meant more than the loss of social standing. [Well, as far as being Destructo Girl goes, I’ve definitely topped myself.]

She ambled into the hotel. "Hello, I’m back!" She saw Andrew walking up the stairs, munching on a chocolate cupcake. "Hey, there."

He peered at her, the half-eaten snack clutched in one hand. "Did you just get back? You missed the others."

"What are you talking about?"

He took another bite from the cupcake and began talking with his mouth full. "Well, Faith got antsy and asked if any of the Pot—oops, Slayers—gotta get used to saying that. Anyway, she wanted to know if any of them wanted to go patrolling with her. A couple of them were too tired and just wanted to sleep and Rona’s still on the wounded list. I was watching Stargate: SG-1 but I got hungry so I nipped down to get something to eat. So Vi, Kennedy, Dawn and the others went out with Faith…"

He didn’t get any further because Buffy started yelling. "She took Dawn out slaying? Without telling me first?"

Andrew shrank back from her. "Don’t kill the messenger, okay? I told her you’d be pissed but she said Dawn’s a grown woman, she could make her own decisions. I think Dawn was happy she was being taken seriously so they just took off. But they left me behind to tell you." He paused and eyed Buffy fearfully. "Are you gonna hit me?"

"No, but I may strangle Faith." She stood there fuming. "Did they give any idea where they were headed?"

Andrew shrugged while he stuffed the rest of the cupcake in his mouth. "I dunno."

Any help he’d managed to give against the First was rapidly being forgotten as Buffy found herself resisting the urge to smack him. She spoke with an exaggerated calm she was certainly far from feeling. "Fine. I’ll tell Giles I’m looking for them."

Andrew called after her as she walked to the stairs. "Uh, Mr. Giles isn’t here either. He took that Wesley guy up on his offer and decided tonight was a good night to tour Wolfram & Hart. Xander and Willow went with him because they wanted to see that woman who’s in a coma."

"This is crazy! One night in this town and everybody decides to go running off without one word to anybody else."

"That’s not true. They told me. They just…didn’t tell you ‘cause you were out and all," he finished in a barely audible mumble.

She took a deep breath and counted silently to ten. And then ten again. Finally she gazed at Andrew who was starting to look distinctly nervous. "Okay. I’ll start with what I know. You got an address for Wolfram & Hart?"

Giles felt like a very small kid in a very large candy store. After getting clearance from Angel, he’d been allowed to look at the volumes stowed away by the ex-Watcher, Mr. Rutherford Sirk, who’d come to work for the law firm. Mr. Sirk was also sporting a rather prominent bruise under his jaw, a matter he absolutely refused to discuss.

The vaults had also proved fascinating as well. Here was the largest collection of fact, trivia, prophecies and magical arcana that he’d ever seen. He thought it might even rival the massive libraries of the vanished Council headquarters in London.

"And you’re saying that this is just the Los Angeles branch? Where are the other branches located?"

"There’s one in New York, Chicago, Boston, all the major cities here and abroad. We also have a few in other dimensions."

"Other dimensions, did you say?" Giles was a little distracted. He saw a rather large book of reality-shifting Whejos demons that he was certain was an original and his hands just twitched to get hold of it.

"I’m not sure what Mr. Angel has told you. But Wolfram & Hart has long been conducting their affairs on other worlds. We do brisk business here and elsewhere." Mr. Sirk saw his interest. "Ah, I see you’ve noted one of our most recent additions. We’re very proud of it. If you wish to look…" He held up a pair of gloves, the kind Giles had often seen antiquarians use when handling old and fragile papers. They prevented books from being soiled or ruined by the oils secreted from live human skin.

He was sorely tempted. But he’d heard tales of Wolfram & Hart from the Watchers Council and other sources. These people were dangerous and dealt with brutal creatures, both of the human and non-human variety. They were a source of great evil in the world and all the more so because most people were ignorant of what truly went on behind their gleaming doors.

But, surely with Angel in charge, their agenda had changed. Would it hurt to look? Mr. Sirk saw his hesitation. "Perhaps you would consider coming to work here with us, Mr. Giles. There are so few Watchers left in the world. As Watcher to the last guardian of the Sunnydale Hellmouth, the Slayer who came back from the dead twice, your aid would be invaluable."

Giles watched the man carefully, torn in his decision. Mr. Sirk’s face was bland, his expression noncommittal, as he waited for his answer. There was the Hellmouth in Cleveland to worry about but, as he’d told Buffy, they had precious little to go on besides that bit of knowledge. He was sure W&H would prove a most valuable resource on that front if he took advantage of this opportunity.

Just then the man’s cellphone rang. He lifted it out and listened without speaking to the voice at the other end. A slight frown marred his countenance and then he held out the phone to Giles. "It’s for you."

"For me?" Who could possibly be calling him? Was it Buffy? Had something happened back at the hotel? He lifted the small device to his ear. "Hello? This is Mr. Giles."

Buffy strode into the front atrium of Wolfram & Hart and hesitated, awed by the sight that confronted her. The space extended sideways and upwards, past where her eye could see, and everywhere she looked there were people rushing about, talking in low murmurs as if in a library, many clutching briefcases or sheets of paper. They all looked so busy and purposeful as if they knew where they had to go and what they had to do when they got there. She felt like a deadbeat standing in line at the Unemployment Office.

At first she had wanted to go out slaying. She had cherished the absurd idea that she might run into Faith and the other girls. Of course, that was unlikely, L.A. being such a huge city. Then she had thought that maybe she could go out slaying just for the hell of it.

But that idea hadn’t really appealed either. Slaying had become all she knew, pretty much the whole reason for existing back in Sunnydale, and something inside rebelled at the thought that now she was finally free she couldn’t think of anything else to do with her spare moments. There was more to Buffy Summers than Slayer skills.

Then what was she doing here, tracking down her Watcher? Was she going to make demands of him? He wasn’t a child who needed to account to her for every bit of his time. So what did she want from him? From any of them? That was the trouble with living in peacetime. You had to figure out what to do with yourself.

"Can I help you, miss?" A burly security guard had approached to stand in front of her. A watchful gaze was fixed on her and his hands hovered casually over the baton at his side.

"Uh, I’m looking for a Mr. Giles, Rupert Giles. Could you tell me where he is?"

"I don’t know any Rupert Giles, miss. If you’ll kindly go to the information desk, they can check and see if he’s on the premises."

"Oh, right." She shuffled over and saw a small brunette woman sitting behind the desk talking animatedly over the phone.

The woman ignored her to place a few more calls before hanging up. "May I help you?"

"I was told Mr. Giles was here. It’s Buffy Summers. He’s my… I was hoping to talk to him."

The other woman straightened when she gave her name. "Buffy Summers? You’re Buffy Summers?" The brunette looked her up and down. "You’re a lot smaller than I thought you’d be." Then she became flustered. "I’m sorry. I meant no disrespect."

"That’s okay. I get that a lot." That was different. She’d never encountered anything like the reverence this woman was giving her. The receptionist snatched up the phone and dialed a number, never taking her eyes off the small blond.

"I have a Ms. Buffy Summers here. She’s looking for Mr. Rupert Giles." There was a short pause while she smiled ingratiatingly in Buffy’s direction. "Oh, he’s already on his way down? That’s good. She’s here in the front lobby." She hung up and folded her hands. "He’ll be here shortly."

Buffy shuffled while trying to avoid the woman’s gaze. The lady acted as if she was in the presence of a celebrity and Buffy didn’t know how to handle that. She noted absently that the receptionist was wearing gold jewelry and what looked like a very costly blouse with matching jacket and skirt. [Silk. She’s wearing silk and she’s only a receptionist. Geez, these people must be swimming in dough.]

Angel had hit the jackpot and she was the poor ex washing up on his doorstep. She hadn’t felt this pathetic since Riley had blown into town with his perfect life and perfect wife. She was relieved when Giles came off the elevator.

"Buffy! Am I glad to see you! We’ve got terrible problems on our hands."

"I know. And I want to know what you’re doing about it…and why you’re doing it here." She folded her arms in the face of her Watcher’s baffled stare.

"How do you know already? I didn’t mention it on the phone." He glanced at the receptionist who shrugged helplessly.

"I didn’t tell her anything, Mr. Giles. Ms. Summers arrived only a few minutes ago. I can’t imagine what you two have to say to each other."

"Let’s keep it that way," Buffy muttered. "Giles, could we talk outside?"

"Very well. But we should get Willow down here and Xander. I’m afraid the problem is rather urgent and it concerns her."

"You got that right." Buffy shuffled away from the receptionist and lowered her voice. "They’re out there on the streets all by themselves and I don’t know where they are."

Giles unconsciously began to whisper as well. "Yes, that’s it exactly though I still don’t know how you found out. I only received the message a few minutes ago."

She frowned. "You did? I thought you’d been here for awhile. That’s the impression I got from the Lord of the Ring Dings."

"From whom?" Even after years of interaction with her, Buffy’s speech was still sometimes hard to follow and Giles wondered if they were talking about the same thing.

"Andrew. I come back to the hotel and everybody’s done a Copperfield. Then he tells me you’re here and Faith took Dawn out slaying only he doesn’t know where and I’m thinking ‘What, nobody could leave a message?’ only you did leave a message, except it was with Andrew of all people, and I have to get new cellphones so we can all keep in touch. We’ve just got to keep each other in the loop here!"

"Is that what you’re talking about? Faith and Dawn are patrolling?"

"Yeah. What were you talking about?"

"I was referring to the other Slayers."

"That was kinda where I was going. They’ve got the other Slayers with them. I thought they’d want to wave bye bye to the whole Slayer gig for awhile but one day away from Sunnydale and they all get a joneses for the stakeage."

"Ah, you meant Vi and the other girls. I’m not worried about them. They have proven more than adequate to the challenge. No, they aren’t the ones I’m concerned about." He paused as Willow and Xander came out of the elevator.

"…so then he showed me these cool amulets that can cause any vampire within a distance of one mile to glow like a streetlight and I’m trying to play it cool but inside I’m thinking ‘Awesome!’ and then I tell him about a spell to create artificial daylight and he goes ‘Fantastic! Is it applicable on a wide radius?’ and I say ‘Totally’ and then…" Willow stopped when she saw Buffy and Giles waiting. "Oh, hey. What’s up, guys?"

"Problems, I’m afraid. Perhaps we should discuss this in private. It seems the spell to activate all the Slayers all around the world has had unforeseen consequences."

Willow was surprised and then fearful. "What? Goddess, I knew it. I screwed up. I didn’t have a lot of time to research this and I wasn’t sure what the consequences would be but I just knew there would be a snag somewhere. What is it?"

"Buffy thinks we should discuss this in private and I concur." When they walked outside, he turned to Xander and Willow and asked, "By the way, how was Cordelia?"

"Sleepy," Xander quipped. At everybody’s looks, his smile faltered. "She was…she was in this room with all this equipment hooked up to her. She was breathing and she was alive. Other than that…" He looked at the floor for a moment as if seeking answers from his shoes before glancing up again. "They don’t know when she’ll wake up. Deadboy gave us this weird story about how she became part demon and Higher Being, if you can believe it."

"Wow. Guess your record for demon girlfriends remains unbroken, then," Buffy smirked.

"Hey, she wasn’t a demon when I was going out with her!"

Willow muttered, "There are some who might disagree. Just ask Marcy."

Xander thought he could say a few things about destroying the world but he let it slide. "Past grievances aside, she was a Higher Being. Only she got sent back from whatever trip she took over the rainbow and, when she did, she was pregnant."

"Goodness. Cordelia Chase was pregnant?" Giles had been expecting an off-kilter explanation about Cordelia’s condition but he hadn’t thought it would involve that condition.

Willow took up the story. "Yep. You could have knocked us over with an industrial-strength feather when Angel told us. He doesn’t know who the dad was but the thing that came out of Cordelia was this full-grown woman and the birth was so hard, Cordelia wound up in a coma."

Buffy was equally thrown by the news and she wondered if there was more behind this story than Angel was telling. Remembering what Angel was like, that was probably the case. "I knew birth could have complications like Siamese twins or webby feet. Not seeing coma or oversized babies anywhere on the list."

Willow explained, "Her offspring only looked like a woman. It was actually a demon from another dimension who tried to take over the world with love."

"Who knew that was the secret to world domination? Demon tries to take over the world—not with magic or statues or demony weapons but with love! Guess the Beatles were right on the money about this one," Xander added.

The redhead mused out loud about her conversation with Angel. "I was thinking I could help. Since this coma is magical in origin, the people here asked for my wicca wonder. But they’ve already got lots of people working on this so I told them I’d give it some thought."

Buffy got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. " ‘Give it some thought?’ As in working-for-these-people give it some thought?"

"Only to help Cordelia," Willow replied, her tone defensive.

"How about you, Giles? They make you a job offer you couldn’t refuse?" Buffy demanded.

The ex-Watcher made a show of cleaning his glasses. "Pardon? Ah, well. Not exactly. There were some polite murmurs made about wanting Watchers but they’ve got two on board now. I hardly see the need for my services. Could we push off now?"

Buffy refused to budge. "Xander? Do they want you on board, too?"

The brown-eyed man shrugged. "No. Guess they have don’t much use for a one-eyed construction worker."

There was something off about his manner and he sounded way too casual. "But…they did offer you something, didn’t they?"

"Not exactly." Seeing the skepticism in her hazel eyes, he muttered, "They said they can give me a new eye."

She was stunned in the face of such an announcement. "They…really? They can do that?"

He shrugged again as if it were of no importance. "So they say. But I asked Santa once for a set of Daredevil pajamas and I never got those so I’m not holding my breath."

This was not good. Willow, Xander and Giles were looking shifty and Buffy couldn’t help but feel that this town, this firm, was slyly sucking them all in. They had to get away from this place—the quicker the better.

They stepped outside and waited at the bus stop. Buffy dug in her pockets. "Giles? Do you have any money? I’m kinda tapped out here."

"Don’t worry about that, Mr. Giles. We have it all covered." Another guard was standing behind them and pulled out his cell. He murmured a few short words and then closed the cover. "A limo should be here shortly to convey you to the hotel."

"No thanks. We can take the bus. It’s not like we didn’t come here on one." Buffy grabbed Giles and began pulling him away.

"Buffy!" He struggled out of her grip and rubbed his arm. "I see no reason why we can’t take the limo. It’s roomy and extremely comfy."

"Yeah and it’s got a TV, one of those gizmos that’s installed in the roof of the car." Xander spread his hands to indicate the size of the thing.

Willow sighed in contentment. "And these lovely little chocolate mints in silver paper."

"You’ve all been in the limo? Hello, didn’t anybody hear what Faith said yesterday? These people are evil! They tried to kill Angel!"

"And this makes them evil how?"

She glared at Xander. "Will you grow up, Xander? These people can’t be trusted and you’re getting dazzled by TVs, comfy chairs and minty chocolates. It’s the old ‘Hey, kid, get in my car and I’ll give you candy’ routine and you guys are falling for it!"

Giles did his best to placate her. "Buffy, would you please control yourself? It was simply a limo ride."

"Besides, Angel trusts them. And they made him leader. Gotta think that’s a really big carrot," Willow pointed out.

"It’s the size of the stick that’s worrying me. Before you decide to work for the American version of the Watchers Council, think for a minute. You’ll never have any privacy with those people breathing down your necks."

"Yes and I’m certain we’ll get plenty of privacy on a public conveyance," Giles answered dryly. Just then the bus pulled up. He sighed and fished in his pockets for the fare.

Buffy’s jaw dropped as she saw a thick wad of bills in his wallet. "Giles, where did you get all that money?"

He was obviously embarrassed but waited until they were seated before answering. "Angel was kind enough to give me a little pin money. He’s aware of our impoverished status and he had quite a bit of money left from his defunct business at Angel Investigations."

Great. Angel was giving them a hotel, food and now money. They were sinking deeper in debt to him with every passing hour and Buffy was getting fed up with it. But there seemed little she could do. "Whatever. Let’s just get back to the hotel. We’ve obviously got things to talk about."

They walked into the Hyperion to see Andrew cradling the phone. He looked up at their entrance and signaled frantically for them to come over. "Hi? Look, I’m telling you, this isn’t Angel Investigations! Yes, this was their headquarters. Yes, this is the right number but they’re not here any more. No, we don’t handle the strange and unusual. Well, actually we do but we’re not the ones you’re looking for!"

He hung up the phone only to have it screech again. He dashed out from behind the counter. "Guys, you gotta help. The phone’s been ringing off the hook and they’re all asking for this Angel Investigations and I don’t know what to tell ‘em. Nobody ever trained me to be secretary boy." He rolled his eyes as the phone continued to ring.

"Oh, they must be calling for Angel’s assistance. Perhaps we should answer them?" Giles looked uncertainly at the others.

Buffy thought for a moment before a slow grin formed on her face. "I’ve got a better idea." She reached around on the desk until she found the answering machine. Pressing the button for recording messages, she cleared her throat. "Hello. You have reached the former offices of Angel Investigations. We are no longer here but we can be reached at our new place of business, Wolfram & Hart. Our number is 555-8457. Bye!" She set the machine down and beamed at the others. "Tada! Problem solved. Now speaking of real problems, let’s talk about a wandering sister."

"Somebody call for the Junior Watcher?" Dawn strolled in with Faith, Kennedy and the other AWOL Slayers. They were splattered in pinkish-blue goo.

"Dawn! Where were you? I was worried. I thought something might have happened to you." Buffy didn’t want to start off a conversation by yelling at her sister but the feeling that the situation was spiraling out of control was wearing on her nerves.

"Chill, B. Dawnie and me were okay. We had the other girls with us and we could handle ourselves if things got sticky. Except that they kinda did." She grimaced and held up one of the few swords they were able to retrieve.

A bit of the demon glop fell to the lobby floor and Andrew yelped. "Hey, be careful! You’ll get that stuff on the rug and you know it’s gonna be hell to get out."

What was with these people? Was Buffy the only one to remember the temporary nature of their situation? "What do you care, Andrew? We’re not going to be here long enough for it to matter."

"Oh. Right." The thought seemed to depress him and he retreated to slouch behind the counter.

Buffy said, "Guys, Giles says we’ve got a problem…"

"Can it wait?" Kennedy said plaintively. "Faith wasn’t the only one hit with demon bilge and I want to clean this stuff off before it hardens."

Buffy looked at the other girls, all of them covered with ugly drippings, and relented. "Okay. But be down here in half an hour."

Buffy had pushed Giles to tell her the news but the Englishman had been adamant about waiting for the others. Once all the women were gathered he settled down on the lobby couches and began.

"As you all know, Willow cast a spell to activate all the Slayers in the world. That means that all over the world young girls, very young girls, have received the power of the Slayer."

"That was a good thing, right?" Vi looked uncertain and the next words by Giles confirmed Willow’s earlier misgivings.

"Not entirely. They have also acquired the Slayer’s unique magical energy signature. All demonic creatures can sense a Slayer. They may not know what it means but it does mark the girl as being different from others, a creature of magic and power."

Dawn was the first one to get it. "You mean there are six year olds out there who have demons coming after them?"

"That’s correct. These girls have power but neither knowledge, Watchers to instill discipline, training, idea of what they’re up against nor even that such monsters exist."

"But they have power. They have strength beyond that of other girls…and they can run really fast, too!" Buffy realized she was clutching at straws as the other people in the room stared at her.

Giles spoke with severity; surely Buffy of all people should realize that brute strength was not enough. "There are creatures who hunt in packs, Buffy. They may attack the girl in her home, while she’s sleeping. They will tear through anyone who seeks to protect her. And superior strength means nothing when you’re dealing with a creature that can be killed only with a certain kind of sword."

"Or by screaming really loud like you did with the Gentlemen," Willow murmured. Then she sighed, "It looks like I messed up big time."

"No, Willow. You didn’t mess up. It was a brilliant plan, the best. We all got super strength when we needed it." Kennedy patted her on the back.

"Yeah. Go girl power! You gave the world girls stuffed chock full of sugar, spice and everything nice and a big heaping spoonful of Chemical X. None of us saw the bad here," Xander told her.

Willow wasn’t comforted. "I’ve got to take it back, don’t I?"

There was stunned silence. Then a chorus of protests rang around the lobby. All the girls were still riding on a Slayer high. Even though they could all go back to normal lives, none of them wanted to give up the magical force that bound them together.

Giles raised his voice to be heard over the commotion. "There’s no need for Willow to deprive all of you of your newfound strengths. There may be a way simply for her to take the powers from the other girls out there, the ones who have had this burden unexpectedly dropped upon them."

"But what if we do it while they’re in the middle of a fight? Let’s not do anything without thinking, okay?"

"That can’t be helped, Buffy. The people at Wolfram & Hart have already targeted many girls in the world and I’m rather anxious to keep these children from becoming unwitting pawns in their hands."

Buffy’s eyes narrowed at the mention of the law firm. "How do the people of Wolfram & Hart know anything about this?"

"They have ancient magicks at their beck and call. They have known about Slayers for centuries, almost as long as the Watchers Council. Like the demons, they have only ever been able to find Slayers after they’ve been activated. Now they’re aware of them all. I was informed that there are two in Sri Lanka who will doubtless be attacked by Mungen demons by the next nightfall."

This was bad news. "So what do we do?"

He stood, a determined expression on his face. "Willow must start working on a spell to remove this power from these girls. Since some of them may already have been targeted, we have to travel and get to them before they are assaulted."

"We’re going to Sri Lanka? That’s so cool," Andrew enthused. Then he paused. "Where’s Sri Lanka exactly?"

"You’re not going anywhere, Andrew," Giles replied in a stern voice. "Buffy and I will be going. I speak a smattering of Ceylonese and Buffy can handle the demons."

Xander was quick to point out the flaw in this idea. "How are you going to get there? I’m thinking this is gonna cost more than bus fare, G-man."

"A simple teleportation spell will take us any place in the world we want to go."

"Uh, Giles. I don’t think that’s such a good plan. It’s really hard on the spellcaster and even harder on anybody traveling with them. The last time I did that Buffy and Dawn kinda fainted." Willow whispered to Kennedy, "That was during my wanna-wreck-the-world phase."

"You won’t be casting that spell. I have one given to me by Wolfram & Hart. It’s something they use when in dire need of instantaneous travel."

"Again with Wolfram & Hart! Those people are seriously getting on my nerves, Giles. We’re here one day and we’re taking food, limo rides, info and now magic flying carpets from them! They’re not giving this stuff away for free. They want something from us, count on it."

Faith had filled all of the Slayers in on her previous association with Wolfram & Hart. But Kennedy was having a hard time reconciling that image with the generosity they’d been shown. "So what do they want from us? I haven’t heard them ask for anything."

Willow was reluctant to tell her girlfriend the tempting offer she’d been given. Giles merely commented, "Well, there have been offers. But nothing’s settled yet."

"That’s right, Buffster. We can all just leave tomorrow and go back to our new lives of raging poverty." Xander scanned the downcast faces of the others and shrugged. "I’m just saying."

Buffy decided to counter the pessimism before it got out of hand. "We’re not going to be poor, Xander. We’ll figure a way out of this."

Dawn hated to add to Xander’s negative outlook but facts were facts. "How, Buffy? Most of us are too young to work and you can’t support us all. You had trouble keeping the house going when it was just the two of us."

"My family has money," Kennedy offered. Buffy inwardly shuddered at the offhand comment. The woman was just trying to be helpful but she didn’t know which was worse: getting money from Angel, taking favors from Wolfram & Hart or accepting charity from Kennedy.

"Uh, honey? Do they know you’re gay? ‘Cause I’m thinking showing up with your girlfriend and a lot of needy teenagers in tow—not the best way to come out," Willow murmured.

This was apparently a subject that hadn’t come up between the two women before now. "They—well, they don’t know exactly. I mean, I’ve never told them. But I never hit it off with any of the boys I was introduced to at the parties so I don’t think it’ll come as a complete shock."

"As riveting as this story of money, orientation and parental issues is, we still have small Slayers out there to rescue. Willow, start with the reversal spell. As soon as you’re done, Buffy and I are headed to Sri Lanka."

Giles stood up slowly and Buffy noted how tiredly he seemed to move these days. [Giles is getting old. I guess the Watcher gig is finally taking its toll.] She was oddly guilty about that. Being her Watcher meant that Giles had had to take more onto himself than other Watchers did. However, she seemed to recall a young Wesley panting hard after one of Faith’s workouts. She smirked at the memory and went to retrieve her scythe.

Willow laid it down on the floor and created a large circle, one big enough to hold all the Sunnydale Slayers. "Okay, this may feel a little funny—like bugs-crawling-over-the-skin funny—but you’ve all got to stay in the circle no matter what. You step outside it, you lose the Slayer juice like all the other girls out there."

Buffy stood crowded shoulder to shoulder with Molly. Willow was right; the spell did create a weird tingle all over her skin. However, it was the way the redhead sagged to floor and giggled like a loon afterwards that really worried her. But Kennedy assured her it was to be expected and Buffy reluctantly let it go.

"So how does this transporty deal go? You’re not gonna shake a gourd and dance again, are you?"

Giles held up the piece of paper with the spell written on it and frowned at her tone. She smiled, as impervious to his Watcher glare as ever. "We don’t do anything. We stand in a circle poured from green sand and I chant the spell."

Dawn watched the two of them and called out, "Good luck!"

Buffy held up the scythe. By unspoken consent, the weapon was considered to be hers. No one else even thought of using it in battle. She raised an eyebrow as if to say, "Luck? Who needs luck?" Moments later there was a brief flash of light and both Watcher and Slayer disappeared.

Dawn turned to the others and said, "Hey, what say we call Angel and see about getting that pool cleaned?"


Part 3

Angel had tactfully withdrawn and left the redhead and one-eyed man alone with Cordelia. He had secretly hoped that Buffy herself would join them but she and the cheerleader had never been close. Besides, she probably hadn’t wanted to be near him.

He idly stroked Cordelia’s hair. He’d heard how fingernails and hair continued to grow even in a coma. It would be nice to see Cordelia’s hair long again and its natural brunette color. Privately, he’d thought the blonde streaks unattractive and wondered what had happened to her once keen sense of fashion and personal style. He made a mental note to tell the W&H people to trim her nails but to leave the hair alone except for washing.

He wondered what Cordelia would make of all of these new changes. Would she have warned him about the apocalypse in Sunnydale if she had been conscious—and not evil? Maybe she would have given them all a good talking-to about this move to Wolfram & Hart.

"Cordy, they say hearing is the last sense to go in comatose people. I’m hoping that’s true." He sat by the bed and clasped her hand.

"Things have really gotten mixed up with us. They’re no longer so black and white—not that they ever were. Remember when Lindsey came and helped us? Now Wolfram & Hart is working for us. Gotta think they’ve got something up their collective sleeves. But it’s still a pretty great offer.

"But we’ve all lost so much. Gunn and Fred are pretty much split. Killing a man changed things between them. I could have told them that but neither of them asked. They just went off half-cocked and committed a murder. I get the feeling that if you had been there, you’d have talked them out of it." Then again, Cordelia had raised no objections to his going after Holtz and killing him because he’d kidnapped Connor.

Connor. There was another sore point. Nobody remembered him. A casual mention of his name produced nothing but blank stares and incomprehension from his crew. By the odd affair that was magic, only Lilah, he and whatever dark sorcerer had conjured the new lifestyle for his son could recall him. That meant he couldn’t talk about Connor to anyone who mattered in his life.

He glanced down at the recumbent body of his seer. If Cordelia ever awoke, would she remember Connor? And what would she remember—the sweet little boy and teenager she knew? Would she remember screwing him and bearing his demonic get? How much would she recall of what the demon inhabiting her body had done in her name? Would she still be evil or the good woman he once knew?

Damn, Cordelia had suffered more than any of them and none of it was her doing. She’d been robbed of a normal existence by coming to work for him and had a whole year of life and her mind snatched from her through no fault nor choice of her own. A cold rage at the unfairness of it all washed over him.

"Bye, Cordy. I’ll come see you again soon."

"I thought I’d find you here." The detested voice came from behind him and Angel went preternaturally still. "It’s touching to see you spending time with Sleeping Beauty here but I told you she’s being given the best of care. No need for you to worry yourself." Lilah came closer, the heels from her expensive Prada shoes clicking on the cold floor. "I thought you might like to know your Slayer girl—"

She didn’t get any further. With lightning speed, Angel grabbed her by the throat and slammed her against the nearest wall, her feet dangling inches off the floor. His eyes were wide and unblinking and flickering with yellow. He spoke in a level voice that was all the more terrifying for its eerie detachment. "Lilah, you’ve got teams working on Cordelia. That means there’s absolutely no reason for you to be in here ever. You come in while I’m here or I find that you’ve so much as set foot in this room and I’ll rip you up into so many tiny pieces even Wolfram & Hart can’t put you back together again. Got it?"

The woman’s gaze was terrified and she nodded fractionally, at least as much as she could with his hand around her neck. Lilah may have been dead but that didn’t mean she wasn’t afraid of non-existence. Her undead status, whatever it was, kept her out of the bowels of a hell that was surely waiting for her and she preferred it that way.

When he set her back on the floor (hmm, he’d actually seen a slight tear in the red line around her throat as if her head was parting from her shoulders), she straightened her clothes and smirked. "Well, now that the requisite display of testosterone is over, I guess you’ll want to know what your Buffy is up to."

She was trying to manipulate him again. He could still read her emotions like a book; her being dead hadn’t changed that. The superior, smug smile didn’t fool him either. He knew just how scared she’d been a moment ago. He grabbed her by the arm and propelled her towards the door. "I wasn’t kidding, Lilah. Stay out of this room." He shoved her out ungently and shut the door behind her.

She shrugged. "Fine. Your loss. I’ll just tell her you weren’t interested." There lay a fine opportunity to sow discord between Angel and his Slayer. Perhaps in time she could actually have them working on opposite sides. The senior partners would be pleased if she could pull that off.

The spell dissipated and Buffy and Giles swayed in the backlash of the powerful enchantment. She was the first to recover, winding her arm around his waist and easing him to the floor. "Willow! Dawn! Anybody! Giles needs help." She looked up and did a double take as she stared at her surroundings. They weren’t in the hotel. The room was spacious and looked like an office. "Giles. I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more."

Giles lay on the carpet with his eyes closed, his face an alarming clayey color. He spoke faintly, "What? Buffy, please. That journey was quite enervating and I’m not in the mood for humor."

"Giles, we’re not at the hotel. I think our flying carpet ride took a left turn somewhere."

He opened his eyes blearily and flinched from the bright light in the ceiling before glancing around the space. "Where…? Goodness, I recognize this place. This is one of the Wolfram & Hart offices."

"Wolfram & Hart? I’ve had enough of those people for one day. Sheesh, they’re turning into one of those awful relatives that show up uninvited on your doorstep and just won’t leave!"

"Actually, since you keep making the visits, you’re the ‘awful relatives.’ But that’s okay; feel free to stay as long as you like." The words were spoken by a kindly looking bespectacled man in a white coat who appeared from around a corner in the large office. He knelt beside Mr. Giles and began examining him in a brisk, professional manner. "Are there any cuts, contusions, injuries of any sort? Were bones broken?"

Buffy bristled at his casual handling of Giles. "Excuse me, who are you and what gives you the right to play doctor with my Watcher?"

"I am a doctor—Dr. Pedersen. I’m one of the many Wolfram & Hart keep on call. Since they deal with…unusual clients, they’ve found it necessary to have highly trained medical personnel working on the premises around the clock."

"One of the hazards of working with demons, I’m sure," Buffy replied with a grim smile.

"You would know," Dr. Pedersen returned smoothly. He examined Giles’s eyes with a small light, noting the responses of the pupils. "I understand you’ve had a stressful journey. Are there injuries?"

"No," she conceded, never taking her eyes off the man for a moment. "The first—trip took a lot out of him and he must have been confused, otherwise we wouldn’t have wound up back here."

"I wasn’t that confused, Buffy, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t speak about me as if I weren’t here." Giles batted away the man’s hands in irritation and struggled to stand up. "I don’t think our landing in Wolfram & Hart was any kind of accident nor is this man’s timely appearance a coincidence."

"You’re correct, Mr. Giles." Lilah Morgan stood in the open doorway, her scarf carefully in place. Her altered state of being wasn’t something she preferred everybody to know. She was vain and the idea of being thought of as a "zombie lady" didn’t appeal. She was sure people among the lower staff were already trading jokes about her around the water cooler.

"Who are you?" This woman had barely spoken but Buffy disliked her already.

"Excuse me. Where are my manners? I’m Lilah Morgan." The name didn’t produce a flicker of recognition in the blonde woman’s eyes and Lilah was stung. Hadn’t Angel thought her worthy enough to be mentioned? Still, the woman’s ignorance of her association with the souled vampire might prove useful.

Buffy ignored the extended hand and edged closer to Giles in an unconsciously protective gesture. "Nice to meet you. Mind telling us how we wound up in Legal Eagle Central instead of back at the hotel?"

"Entirely our doing, as Mr. Giles has surmised. We wanted to learn the results of your sojourn to Sri Lanka." Inwardly Lilah was fuming. She’d hoped that Mr. Giles would make the trip to Sri Lanka alone. The urgency of the situation apparently hadn’t been enough to cause him to fly off alone in haste. Instead he had recruited his Slayer to accompany him.

"There’s always email. As you can see, Giles and me are kinda tired and not up for the chatty so why don’t we send you a letter from the road? Bye!" Buffy brushed past her, still supporting her Watcher.

"Don’t you even want to know how Angel is doing?" Lilah raised her voice slightly to Buffy’s back.

The Slayer’s reply was cool. "Not particularly."

"Just as well, I suppose," Lilah responded in a musing tone. "I went to tell him you might be in possible danger in Sri Lanka but he wasn’t interested. Too busy worrying over Cordelia, I suppose."

"Cordelia?" Buffy couldn’t help the wavering uncertainty in her voice.

"Um hm. The prom queen’s still dead to the world but it’s amazing the care he’s shown her. A fabulous room with a view, grooming, new flowers every day—he even takes time out to talk to her. Warms my heart to see a man showing that kind of devotion." Lilah sighed as if the thought was just too touching.

Giles’s lips thinned. He could hear the insincerity in this woman’s voice and knew she was getting in a dig at his Slayer. He wasn’t sure what her game was but he intended to put a stop to it.

"I’m sure Angel will be glad to hear the news of Buffy’s arrival here. I certainly don’t think he’ll appreciate hearing that you kept such information from him." He paused a moment to let that threat sink in. "And you’ll be pleased to know those two girls are safe. The demons have been dispatched."

"Until the next bunch goes after them." Lilah sat behind the desk and steepled her fingers. She wasn’t willing to concede defeat just yet. "I’m surprised you didn’t bring the girls with you. Those Slayers could use Angel’s protection as well as the skilled training from a proper Watcher such as yourself."

"They are, alas, no longer Slayers," Giles replied and was gratified to see something like shock and concern surface in the woman’s eyes before the professional shield lowered itself again.

"Not Slayers? What are you saying?"

"Consult your seers. Check your crystal balls or whatever you use to track Slayers. You will find none left in the world save those at the hotel. Good night to you, Ms. Morgan." He inclined his head and swept from the room without sparing a glance at the now furious woman behind him.

Buffy waited until they were safely down the corridor before whispering to Giles. "Not that I don’t appreciate the kick in the ass you just gave her, Giles, but do you think that was smart letting her know there aren’t any more activated Slayers out there?"

"Undoubtedly, she would have discovered it soon enough on her own. You heard what she said about my bringing those two girls back here. That was the reason our trip was intercepted. I’m sure Wolfram & Hart would like nothing better than to sink their claws into young, naïve, impressionable girls and mold them in their own image. We have made that impossible for them. I just took the opportunity to rub her face in the bad news personally."

She gaped at the Ripper-like glint in his green eyes and then giggled. "Giles, you are evil."

"I have my moments," was the dry response.

She chewed her lip as she considered Lilah’s other announcement. Angel hadn’t said anything about a relationship with Cordelia when he was in Sunnydale. Of course, he hadn’t been there long. All he did was give her the magical medallion and get a little huffy over Spike. Come to think of it, he’d taken the news of her involvement with Spike rather well—a little too well. Was that it? He was involved with Cordelia so he no longer cared about Buffy? The thought was painful and she was so depressed by it that this time she raised no objections as the limo was brought around again.

She was uncharacteristically silent all the way back to the hotel. Giles was aware of her depression and the probable cause but he was no more willing to speak than she was. He merely wanted to sleep for the next two days. However, he struggled to provide some comfort to the despondent blond as they trudged into the hotel. "You shouldn’t listen to anything that woman says, Buffy, unless you take it with a very large grain of salt."

"How about a salt lick?" she murmured with a smile. Then she sighed. Without looking at him, she said, "I don’t see that it’s important. We just came through an apocalypse. It makes ex-boyfriends seem not that big a dealie."

Buffy pushed open the hotel doors and frowned. "I’ve been thinking. Now that this isn’t a public building or the headquarters of the Justice League, maybe we should start locking the front doors. We don’t want just anybody walking in here."

"Why? As you said, we’re not going to be here for long so why should we bother?"

"I-I know. It’s just we’ve got Slayers under the roof. We don’t want to make it too much of the easy for demons to come strolling in." She glanced warily around the lobby. There was no way she was ever going to think of this place as home. Having that law firm in the same city was almost as bad as living on the Hellmouth.

She looked back to see Giles leaning against the doorframe. His eyes were shut and he was breathing a little more heavily than she liked. "Giles?"

He heard the concern in her voice and opened his eyes to smile reassuringly at her. "Don’t worry about me. I’ll just take the elevator instead of the stairs. Should save some wear and tear on the old legs."

"You’re not old, Giles. You’re just…a little worn around the edges. We all are."

"A lovely euphemism, I’m sure."

She watched the rounded back as he trudged away from her and wondered whether it would be such a bad thing for him to work at Wolfram & Hart. [They would probably give him a cushy desk job poring over old books. He’d love that. It would put him out of danger. The same would be true for Willow and Xander. They’re probably just turning down those deals because they don’t want to leave me.]

She sat down on the bottom step of the grand staircase and decided to think. She was doing a lot of that lately. That was the great thing about slaying; it took your mind off things. After her resurrection, she had desperately tried to keep from thinking how badly her life sucked. Whenever things had gotten too heavy or she couldn’t bear to come back to the horror of daily toil that was home, she would sneak off to Spike’s for a quick one. God, that had been stupid. It would have been better to curl up with a good book.

She remembered times when she had gone to see Angel after slaying. The mansion might have a fire lit in the fireplace and he would gather her close and read to her from one of his many books. Occasionally she would have him read one of the foreign ones. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t understand the language; she just loved to hear his low, husky voice.

Buffy smiled to herself as she recalled teasing him. "Fire? In sunny California? Yeah, that’s so good for warming you up against the blistering heat."

"I can’t really feel the heat or cold, Buffy. I just like the way it looks. And the way you look by firelight."

"Aren’t you sweet. I’m just the luckiest girl in the world to have such a mushy boyfriend."

He growled and kissed her hard until she couldn’t breathe and her head swam. She pulled back, her face flushed from more than the fire. "Does that feel mushy to you?"

She did her best to appear questioning as if the effort had left her unimpressed. "Um. I’m not sure. You’ll have to kiss me again."

He had laid the book aside and repeated the kiss, this time drawing it out and nipping lightly at her upper and lower lips. She couldn’t really recall if there had been any more reading that night.

"Buffy? Oooooh, Buffy? Are you in there? What happened on the overseas trip? Did you bring back any souvenirs?" Buffy blinked and was abruptly back in the hotel, staring into her sister’s inquisitive gaze. "That’s better. Are you okay? You and Giles didn’t get hurt, did you?"

"Huh? No, no, we were fine although Giles got a little woozy from the traveling. But we were shanghaied on the return trip by those Wolfram & Hart bastards." She frowned at the memory and then sniffed. Dawn smelled funny. She smelled like—chlorine? "Dawn? Why do you smell like pool water?"

The girl jerked up and looked guilty. "What? What are you talking about?"

Buffy eyed her sister narrowly. Now that she concentrated the smell was really strong, impossible to miss. "You were in the pool, weren’t you? How did you get it clean?"

"I wasn’t in the pool. I just took a shower. Your brain must be fried from the trip." Dawn flipped her hair and Buffy flinched from the droplets.

"Nice try. I think I’ll look at the pool myself and see if all the green muck is still there."

"No! I mean, it’s late and you didn’t tell me how your trip went. What did you and Giles do?"

"I’ll tell you…after I’ve gotten a look at that pool."

Dawn threw up her hands. "Okay. You win. After you left, I called Angel and he sent somebody to clean up the water. But you should have seen the others! They were so happy. They acted just like kids. I-I think they’re all gonna miss this place when we go."

"Miss it? They’ve only been here for two days!" Buffy pulled herself up short and ran her hands through her hair. Dawn was right. The girls needed to relax. She needed to relax. "You know what? I think I could use a dip, too."

"Really?" Sometimes Dawn thought she’d never understand her wacky older sister. "Fine. Go. Come out when you see you’re getting pruny."

"Yes, Mom," Buffy replied in mocking tones. She pelted upstairs to grab a towel from her room. It was a good thing there were a few clean ones left.

She dove under the surface again and again. She didn’t play or frolic around in the water. Somehow she felt as if her frolicking days were over. But it was soothing like those meditation exercises Giles had taught her. In the still, soundless medium of the clean waters, it was as if the rest of the world vanished and time ceased to have any meaning.

"Forever. Isn’t that the whole point?" The whispered words seemed to drift past her ears like a secret caress and her eyes widened. She shot to the top of the pool and scanned the entire area, almost expecting to see Angel kneeling by the poolside. But the place was empty except for herself.

In spite of this reassurance, she shivered. Maybe the hotel was haunted. It certainly had the look. [Like life isn’t spooky enough.] Suddenly the swim was no longer as relaxing as it had been. Drying herself off quickly, she put on her clothes and exited the pool area. She made a mental note to have it drained when they left.

Buffy tossed and turned restlessly in the bed. She couldn’t get comfortable but she was too weary to get up. Every time she tried to drift off, she would hear a voice, almost familiar, and sense a presence as if someone were in the room with her. Finally, she grew too tired to keep her eyes open and fell into an exhausted slumber.

There were cool hands drifting over her body, the thumbs circling her nipples until they stood upright, aching and sensitive. She moaned, a low deep animal sound, and arched her back into the hands cupping her breasts. She panted softly, not opening her eyes yet. Who was this? Was it…Spike? Strange—the name had almost no meaning and dropped into the dark pit of her mind, leaving no echo.

"Leannen." She gasped and her eyes flew open meeting the dark gaze of the man above her. The lips pulled back in the familiar gentle smile and she drew her hands over his lean hips. He was completely naked, his body covering every inch of her own.

"Angel. It’s you." She knew she should be asking questions but couldn’t bring herself to do so. There was an incredible feeling of peace in the depths of her soul. She lacked even the fear of disturbing it.

"Beloved. I’ve missed you. I dream about you…and our forgotten day."

"Our forgotten…?" What was he talking about? She could remember every moment she’d ever spent with her Angel—even their last moments together in vanished Sunnydale.

"It doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you all about it. Someday. If you ask." Before she could question him further, he pressed his cool lips over hers. She forgot all her questions and parted her lips, inviting entry.

His tongue flickered in the open space, teasing in its rapid explorations of her teeth and the palate behind them. Her warm tongue came out to play, tangling and playing with his. His lips withdrew to the point of her jaw, winding along the jawline over and down her chin. He planted a trail of sweet kisses along her throat, darting his tongue into the little hollow at the base of it until she gasped repeatedly, clutching the short hairs on his head, and held him tightly.

She whimpered as his fingers left her breasts to clasp her shoulders. He drew her close and crushed her against his larger frame. He returned to her mouth and she reveled in the deep kisses, his tongue probing and exploring every inch of her mouth. It seemed memory hadn’t been as thorough as she thought because she had forgotten how good this was, how wonderful it felt.

Her hands swept over his shoulders; she could feel the faint trace of his tattoo under her fingers. The muscles under broad shoulders rippled under her caresses even as she continued her explorations down to his waist and gripped him, her fingers sinking into his flesh.

The silken skin, the constant whispered words of love filling the air…there was a brief flicker of light and she opened her eyes in confusion to see lightning going past the drawn curtains. Was it raining outside? She could hear the faint patter of water against the windows, a murmuring backdrop to Angel’s voice.

He moved back from her slightly and she mourned the loss of his skin against hers. A large hand swept down her neck in erratic circles over her chest to rest on her stomach. "He should have been yours," he said and she could hear the intense melancholy in his voice.

"Who? Angel, I don’t understand," Buffy replied. She wanted more than anything to remove that sadness from his face; at the same time she was baffled because she knew she wasn’t the source of it. Something else was troubling her Angel and she longed to penetrate the mystery.

He looked at her for a long time, his hand pressing against the flesh of her belly. "Connor. Paradise lost," he whispered.

"Connor? Who’s Connor? Angel, what’s going on? What are you trying to tell me?" He was leaving her again. She knew it and the certainty filled her with despair.

"Buffy, I love you. Forever. Buffy, remember…" He pulled back from her and she cried out in despair as she sat up, futilely reaching for him. His image wavered like smoke and her hands drifted through him as he disappeared.

"Buffy? Buffy, wake up!" Dawn was sitting on the edge of her bed and shaking her sister lightly. Buffy blinked and jerked up, casting her eyes wildly around the room. She sagged in disappointment back onto the bed and met the gaze of her confused sister. "Buffy, are you okay? You looked like you were having a nightmare."

"No, no nightmare." [At least not the beginning of it. Wow! Naked Angel. When’s the last time I dreamed about that?]

"There’s another surprise waiting downstairs. Angel had them sent early this morning. I had a long talk with him when I was discussing icky pool scum and I guess he thought this would be a great surprise. The girls are tearing through them and you’d better come if you want your share." She bounced off the bed and hurried out, a small bag Buffy just noticed dangling from her hands.

"Share of what? What’s going on?" Buffy dressed as well as she could, depressed at putting on the same clothes three days in a row. They were definitely going to need new… She headed towards the stairs and halted, shocked, at the spectacle that greeted her.

There were bags of clothes all over the lobby. Twenty-odd excited teenagers were sorting through them, holding up different items and snatching articles of clothing from each other. "I want that one," Molly demanded as she pointed to a pink hat one of the others held.

"I hate to tell you this, Moll. But you do not look pretty in pink," Rona snorted. Her newfound Slayer healing had kicked in and she had fully recovered from her injuries. She was sizing up a black jumper, peering at it critically. Rona’s choices in clothes tended to be on the dumpy practical side and this one apparently met with her approval since she set it aside and watched like a hawk for any who would dare take it from her.

Andrew held up a Star Trek T-shirt and squealed with delight. "Oh my god! It’s got Captain Archer on it! This is so great!" He scrabbled through another bag and called out, "Does anybody see something with Babylon 5 or Star Wars logos on ‘em?"

"B. Check it out. Is this me or what?"

Buffy looked up to see Faith strutting before her in a tight new pair of leather pants. They were paired with a sporty midriff-baring low-cut top of fire engine red. The whole ensemble was completed with a leather jacket with zippers going up the arms.

"Gotta hand it to the man. He knows what a woman likes," she purred as she ran her fingers up the leather arms. "Mmmmm. Feels like butter. Wanna touch it?" She held out her arm teasingly and Buffy’s answering smile held more than a trace of irritation.

"It’s great, Faith. If there’s anything Angel knows, it’s leather." The dark-haired woman smirked at her and then turned to leave. She was halfway to the Hyperion lobby doors before Buffy called out to her. "Hey, where are you going? Did you forget you’re still wanted, Faith? What if the cops see you?"

"Damn. Almost forgot about that." Except for the slaying last night, Faith hadn’t really stepped forth past the Hyperion doors.

Willow piped up, "Ooh, I can make you a glamour. It’ll make you look like somebody else. The only snag is I have to stay close by you otherwise it’ll fade out."

"No shit? Can you make me look like Lucy Lawless?" Faith grinned.

Dawn pirouetted in a golden brown skirt that flared out from her legs before coming to rest. "I don’t think looking like a celebrity is a good idea in Los Angeles, Faith. You’ll have people stopping you on the streets every ten seconds."

"Good thinking, Dawnie. You’ve got a smart sister there, Buff."

Buffy didn’t let the compliment to her sibling deter her from her question. "You still didn’t tell me where you were going. I want to be able to get in touch with you if there’s trouble."

"I’m gonna drop in on Robin, see how he’s making out. Then I figure I’d nip up to that law firm and thank Angel personally…for the clothes. Catch ya later, B!"

Again there was that irrational sense of possessiveness. Buffy may have been dreaming about Angel but Faith seemed closer to him than she was. The problem was what was she going to do about it?

Ducking the question, she saw a blue dress and a matching pair of shoes she was sure were her size. "Can I see those?"


Okay, maybe the tinted windows meant he could move about freely in the capacious building. But Angel still felt restrained. There really wasn’t much for him to do here. He wasn’t meant for the executive lifestyle. Perhaps he could handle clients who wanted more aggressive help such as he used to provide from the Hyperion. Otherwise, what exactly would he be doing at Wolfram & Hart?

This did not bode well for his future here. He’d been here less than two days and already he was getting itchy feet. However, the others very much wanted to stay. Gunn was excited at the idea of being selected as some kind of guardian although he was vague about the details. Wesley was poring through the vaults, muttering over the various prophecies he’d uncovered. Lorne was planning a world tour or making plans to cut an album with Tom Jones—he wasn’t sure which. Fred kept on chattering to Angel about the various advances in medicines and physics she had seen in their labs. He didn’t understand the technical jargon and hearing her burble on about it made his head hurt. But she was obviously happy as a clam. That left Angel as the odd man out.

They had found their niche here at Wolfram & Hart. That was no reason for him to spoil their happiness. If they truly were at home, then he would leave them to it. Perhaps he was the only one who should consider going… But no, that would leave Cordelia in the hands of Wolfram & Hart and he was unwilling to abandon her now that he’d gotten her back.

Thinking of his seer, Angel decided to see her again. But how entertaining was it to see someone in a coma? There was a kind of relief in talking freely to her without having her chime in with her usual snippy comments. However, even that palled after awhile. Still, it couldn’t hurt to pop in on her every now and again, keep these W&H people on their toes. If they ever got the notion Angel was neglecting Cordelia, who knew what they’d do to her?

Willow and Faith sauntered into the lobby. Faith looked a lot more confident than she felt. This place was intimidating and meant to be so but she wasn’t going to let it rattle her. "Buddy, can you tell me where the big man is?"

"Big man?" the security guard replied, his bland tone indicating neither surprise nor comprehension.

"Angel, vamp with a soul, stands about yea high," she mimed mockingly, her hand hovering about six inches over her head.

The receptionist answered her. "Mr. Angel is currently ensconced with Ms. Chase and is taking no visitors."

"That’s okay. I’m not exactly a visitor. I’m an old friend from way back. Could you let him know I’m here?"

"Faith, you’re wearing a different face, remember?" Willow whispered. The redhead waved at the receptionist. "Hi, Sandra. We’d really like to talk to Angel."

The woman’s tone changed when she spoke to Willow. In a single moment, she began completely deferential. "Of course, Ms. Rosenberg. Just a moment," the woman replied. Moments later, the two women found themselves being whisked up in the silent elevator.

Faith noted the dimensions of the sick room and grudgingly admitted the W&H people seemed to be treating Cordelia right. The room was impressively large albeit sparsely decorated. [Of course. Not much reason for the terminally sleepy to have furniture.] Angel sat beside Cordelia, reading quietly to her from a copy of Emma Bovary, and Faith became aware that they were probably intruding. "Are we interrupting?"

He looked up and frowned. Standing in the doorway were Willow and some other woman he didn’t recognize. She smelled like Faith but she was a stranger to him. "Willow? Who’s your friend?"

"Who’s…? Oh, I forgot to turn it off." She snapped her fingers and the other woman’s face blurred to reveal the more familiar features of Faith. "Just a little trick to keep her out of the cop’s clutches."

Angel raised one eyebrow at the easy display of magic. "Good trick."

Just then Faith realized the sun was pouring through the windows and falling onto his body. "Shit! Angel, get out of there!" She rushed forward and grabbed at his hands, trying to pull him up.

He struggled against her grip. "It’s all right, Faith. The windows are necro-tempered so I can stay in here."


"Sunproofed so Angel doesn’t go ‘poof’ in the daylight. Sorry, guess I forgot to mention it," Willow apologized.

Of course; stupid of her. He had to have been sitting here for some time. "Oh. Shoulda realized." She pulled back to look at him critically.

He noticed her intent gaze. "What? Is there something in my hair?"

"Just admiring the view. You look good in the sun. Stay there long enough you might catch a tan."

"Not likely." He closed the book gently and rested it on his chair as he stood up.

Faith flipped through it idly before setting it on the stand beside the bed. "Hate to tell you this, Angel, but from what I heard about this chick, I’m thinking Vogue magazine would be more her speed."

"Maybe. But I’m not going to read ‘The Ten Best Ways of Pleasing a Man in Bed’ even for Cordelia," he deadpanned.

Both women sniggered at the notion of Angel talking about women wearing garters. Willow pointed out, "That’s more a Cosmopolitan thing, actually."

"Anyhow, I just wanted to thank you for the cool threads." Faith hooked her thumbs in the pockets and held the jacket away from her body, twirling around for his inspection. "You like?"

"It’s very…you, Faith. I thought you might like it."

"I’m an easy gal to please." She stood by Cordelia and surveyed her without speaking for a minute. "So, Angel. I just gotta know. What’s with you and the society princess?"

Angel’s face grew stiff and unreadable and Faith knew she was treading on dangerous ground. Nevertheless, she plowed on, bent on getting the truth. "I’m just wondering whether you two are good friends or if it’s something else. I never really knew her back in the ‘Dale and she and I didn’t—well, she didn’t really want to talk to me when Wesley busted me from stir."

That was an understatement. Thanks to Faith’s attempts to kill Angel, his decision to rehabilitate her and Cordelia’s subsequent flight out of town because of that decision, the former rich girl and the Mayor’s turncoat Slayer had remained permanently hostile to one another.

Willow thought it was best to avoid this subject. "Faith, I’m not sure that’s any of our business."

"Cordelia and I…it’s complicated, Faith."

"No, it really isn’t, Angel. Do you love her? That’s an easy question that you either answer ‘yes or no.’ Not exactly a brain-buster."

"No, I mean, the situation’s complicated."

"What, you mean whether it’s okay to love her while she’s in a coma? I’m not asking about sex, Angel. I’m talking about love."

"I know what you meant, Faith. It’s just the word ‘love’ covers a lot of ground. There’s platonic love, fraternal love, paternal love and amorous love, to name a few. The Greeks had a name for all of them."

"Okay, Greek tongue aside, I just want to know if it’s the hot, sweaty, pounding, forever kind of love you and B had."

"No. Love like that comes only once in a lifetime. It’s not likely you can repeat it."

"So it’s not the grand love you had with Buffy," Willow probed cautiously. She decided she was interested in joining this conversation after all. Willow had spotted the recognizable tenderness flicker in Angel’s eyes at the mention of Buffy’s name. The next moment, it disappeared so quickly she wondered if she had imagined it.

"Cordelia’s…changed a lot, Willow. You’d hardly recognize her if she were awake." He moved closer to the bed as if to draw strength from his silent seer. "She became really kind. She was so good to Fred after she came back from Pylea. Fred was a nervous wreck, terrified of stepping out of doors, scared of her own shadow. It was Cordelia who convinced her to go with her for a little girl’s night out.

"Oh, she took her shopping, I suppose," Willow said with a dismissive gesture.

"She took her to a karaoke bar. It used to be run by my friend Lorne only we kept trashing it." A brief flash of amusement lit up the vampire’s face as he thought of how many wonderful hours he’d spent in Caritas.

Willow’s eyebrows shot halfway up to her hairline. "Oh. Well, that’s definitely…different. You’re right; that’s not the Cordelia I remember. So did you and her get to have hot smoochies like you did with Buffy?"

"Hot…no, we’ve never really kissed." Well, there was that time they were possessed by the spirits of dead lovers but he didn’t think that counted. The tiny part of him that had been aware of what was happening had been highly embarrassed instead of turned on. He had wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. His subsequent consternation on seeing Cordelia embrace Groo when they returned from the ballet had been more out of resentment than jealousy.

"No kissing? Not even when the two of you did the dirty deed? Gotta tell ya, I thought you’d be more romantic than that, Angel. Oh wait, could you have sex? I remember that as being a big no-no." Faith’s gaze flicked between him and the woman on the bed.

Angel did nothing to correct Faith’s assumption. He wasn’t about to bring up Darla. "We never had sex, Faith. Look, Willow was right. This isn’t any of your business." He was feeling curiously defensive as both women bent their penetrating stares on him.

"But you at least got to second base, right?" Faith mimed groping at someone’s tits and Angel gritted his teeth. The vampire’s pained silence told the Slayer all she needed to know.

"Let me get this straight. You never kissed this woman, you weren’t copping feels and you never banged her—not even once. Wow, this is a flaming, sticky little romance, ain’t it, Red? Makes me long for Internet sex," Faith smirked as she traded glances with the other woman.

"Faith, there’s more to love than the merely physical," Angel said, an edge of irritation in his voice.

"Gotcha, big man. I know you and B had to stay away from the horizontal mambo after you got your soul back ‘cause of that pesky no-happiness clause thing. But that didn’t stop the two of you from getting some quality groping and you’re telling me there was none of that with you and the cheerleader. I just don’t get it. Where’s the love?"

"It’s…it’s… There were so many things getting in the way." He realized how feeble this sounded. But how could he explain about Cordelia and Groo? Or evil Cordelia and Connor? Come to think of it, why would Cordelia take Groo if she were in love with Angel? She’d never really explained that and Groo hadn’t been around to give his version of their affair. The big man had mysteriously disappeared while Angel had been underwater and no one had seen him since then.

Angel wasn’t even sure if Cordelia loved him. She had wanted to tell him something important that night at the beach but she never made it and he had had to make an impromptu ocean voyage. Afterwards, when he’d asked her if they had been in love, she had said yes. But she was evil by then; nothing she said in those days could be trusted.

"So you’re in love by rumor?" Willow quipped. She giggled at the embarrassed look on Angel’s face. Then the redhead tipped her head on the side as she considered. "And how do you feel about Buffy now?"

That was the 64-million-dollar question, wasn’t it? "Buffy and I have been apart for more than four years, Willow. She’s…moved on without me and that’s just what I wanted for her."

"Is it, Angel?" Willow insisted. "You wanted her to have a normal life. But she’s never gonna have that. She died and she came back from the dead. Twice! Her city sank into a crater! This is so outside the world of normal that it’s practically in another zip code! When are you going to realize that this normal life scenario you’ve got painted in your head for her is just crap? At least Spike…" She stopped talking, appalled, when she realized she’d almost spilled the beans about the bleached blonde vampire.

He’d hoped to avoid mentioning Spike. But it seemed inevitable. "It’s all right, Willow. You don’t have to hide anything from me. I know Buffy was with Spike."

Willow was surprised Angel could state it so calmly. "Y-you knew? When did you find out?"

"When I gave Buffy the amulet. I could…smell Spike on her." It was all he could do to state that without spitting in disgust.

"No, she wasn’t sleeping with Spike then. That was last year before…" Willow gulped and shrank in the face of Angel’s and Faith’s shocked expressions.

"Before he got his soul? Buffy slept with Spike when he was still soulless?" Of course, that’s what he had assumed when he first detected his hated grandchilde’s odor on Buffy. But, while the news of Spike’s soul had been disturbing, he had consoled himself with the idea that Buffy had merely been conforming to type when she screwed him. Now he had to adjust all over again to the thought that Buffy had been rolling around with a soulless beast.

Faith’s eyes narrowed at the news. "She did? That is seriously messed up. Damn, B must have gone off the deep end." She stomped over to the chair and threw herself down in it with a snort of disgust.

Willow asked, "Angel, is that why you and Buffy aren’t doing the talky thing? You think she’s in love with Spike?"

"Buffy and I didn’t really get to discuss it much before I left Sunnydale but I’m betting that’s a really complicated story, too."

Willow watched him carefully, trying to read behind his carefully chosen words. "What did Buffy tell you about Spike, Angel? Exactly?"

"She said…he was in her heart."

"Did she say that she loved him?"

Angel silently recited the Japanese alphabet in his mind before speaking again. "No. I did ask…but she said no. Which doesn’t mean anything," he added, seeing that she was about to interrupt. "She may have simply tried to spare my feelings." God, he really didn’t want to talk about this. The very idea of Buffy with Spike was agonizing and he didn’t want anybody grilling him about it, especially Buffy’s best friend.

"She still loves you," the redhead said quietly and the words caused his head to snap towards her.

"How…how do you know that?"

"Yeah, I’d be kinda interested in hearing that myself, Red." Faith leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. There was a story behind that statement and she didn’t want to miss a single word.

"We were having a conversation last year. It was about someone else and Buffy said she loved you. She loved you more than she would ever love anybody in this life."

He seized on that word. "Aha! Loved! As in past tense, Willow. You see? She’s moved on, just as I said," he pointed out to her. He couldn’t let himself hope. The disappointment of it would kill him. He looked desperately at Cordelia as if trying to anchor himself to her by sheer force of will.

"More than anybody else in this life! That’s what she said. She couldn’t have just flip flopped and decided only a few months later, ‘Oh, I’m in love with Spike’ ‘Oh, I’m suddenly crazy about dyed hair and stolen leather coats’ ‘Oh, he’s got a soul now just like Angel so he’s definitely the one for me.’ " Willow’s voice dripped with contempt at the sheer idiocy of the idea.

Then her eyes lit up. "Is that the problem? You think his soul is permanently glued in so you think he’s a better fit for Buffy than you? ‘Cause it’s not an issue. When I stuck your soul back in the last time, I yanked out that clause. You can lose your soul by sorcery or witchcraft but not from the happy." She finished in triumph and looked to see what impression her news made.

"It’s not about what I can do for Buffy, Willow. Like I said, love for us was more than the sex. Otherwise our relationship would have ended when I came back from hell. It’s what Buffy feels. If she loves Spike, then learning my soul is a permanent fixture won’t make any difference to her. After all, having a soul didn’t help Riley, did it?" he added.

"She never loved Riley. She loved you. That’s what broke up that unhappy scenario. That and the vamp whore business," Willow finished with a mutter. She’d been appalled by the news, drawn from an unhappy Buffy, about the final end of her affair with Riley although privately she hadn’t been surprised. She’d seen right from the beginning how the muy macho soldier had had problems with Buffy’s lingering love for Angel. Willow had just hoped for the best—just like everybody else.

Vamp whores? He hadn’t known about that. Never mind; they weren’t discussing Finn. This was all about the souled wannabe, Spike, and he tried to stay calm. Willow knew Buffy better than anybody. But he was sure she didn’t know everything there was to know about Buffy and Spike. Buffy would have hidden things about being with Spike just as she hid Angel’s presence from her friends after he returned from hell.

He had to discourage the redhead from raising any false hopes. "Willow, have you ever heard of mayflies?"

Faith screwed up her face as she tried to follow this abrupt change in topic. "Huh? Okay, somebody jumped the track ‘cause I thought we were talking about love, here."

Angel ignored Faith to stare at Willow as he tried to make his point. "They’re insects. They’re born, live, eat, mate and die all in the space of 24 hours. A single day. That’s an incredible short span of time for humans, Willow. But for the mayfly it’s an entire life—a whole life of living, loving and creating life. In the space of this entire conversation we’ve had, a mayfly would have passed through puberty to adulthood and begun seeking a mate."

Willow was shocked at the callous comparison. "Are—are you trying to say that Buffy’s a mayfly? That’s all she was to you?"

"I’m not talking about how I see her. I’m talking about humans in general and human behavior in particular. I’ve been around a long time, Willow. I’ve seen what passes for human love. I know how ephemeral it can be. Buffy may have loved me once. She doesn’t love me any longer."

"That’s bullshit!" Faith knew she was getting unreasonably worked up about this. But somehow the love between Buffy and Angel had seemed like the one beautiful shining constant in the life she’d had, a life where nothing and no one else was true, faithful or trustworthy. Now here was Angel dissing Buffy’s feelings and comparing her to a fucking fruitfly.

"Look, I’m telling you, Angel, B couldn’t love Spike. Not the way she loved you. That soul of his—he must have got it at a soul bargain basement store for $0.99 ‘cause it didn’t make him any different from the asshole I met when he was soulless. If B fell for him because of that, she’s a hell of a lot stupider than I took her for."

"Love isn’t brains, Faith." He remembered who’d told him that and his jaw clenched.

"Angel, Buffy meant what she said. She still loves you; just give her the chance."

"When did she say that, Willow? Do you remember?"

Willow cast her mind back frantically. "I-I think it was back in October."

Angel smiled sadly at her. "Seven months ago. A lifetime." He paused; maybe he should tell them about the cookie dough speech, about how Buffy thought she wasn’t ready to have a relationship. No, Buffy had said something about "maybe" during that conversation and Willow would see that as a sign of hope. Hope with Buffy was a luxury he simply couldn’t afford. He turned pointedly to Cordelia and let his fingers trail over her face.

Faith couldn’t believe him. Buffy’s whole happiness lay in his hands and he was going to forget her like she never existed. She wanted to hit him so hard he’d bleed. "You didn’t answer Red’s question."

"I think I have, Faith." His answer was chilly; he wouldn’t turn nor look at either of them.

"No, you didn’t, Angel. How do you feel about Buffy now?" Willow wished she could cast a truth spell right now so she could force it out of the taciturn creature determined to avoid confronting either her or his feelings.

Angel turned and gave her a piercing stare out of his dark eyes. "Tell me something, Willow. Do you still love Oz?"

"Oz? No, not the way I once did. I loved him like crazy once upon a time and he’ll always be special to me. But Tara came along and I saw what true love really is. I loved her with everything that I am. I did things for her, to her, that I’m not proud of. But that shows you just how mixed-up love can make you. Does loving Cordelia make you that crazy, Angel?"

"No and thank God for that. Craziness is not a good state of mind for me, Willow. Cordelia keeps me level and sane. I appreciate that. I love her for it."

Faith snorted at the tame description. "Big whoop. So does doing chin ups in the prison yard. Come on, Red. Let’s get out of here. Even I know repression when I see it." She stood up and turned to leave. "Angel, you let Buffy go and she dove off a tower and died. I wasn’t there for that but I’m thinking that musta cut pretty deep. You probably wish with all your soul that you coulda been there for her."

She paused and her voice when she spoke again was low and steely. "If she dies again and you’re not around for it, then you deserve to lose her."

She stomped out of the room without looking to see if Willow was behind her. The wicca waited and then touched Angel lightly on the sleeve. "Angel, I’ve got only one thing to add to that. You come around for all the big moments in Buffy’s life. But loving someone is about being there for the small, non-important times, too. Don’t be there for Buffy’s death. Be there for her life. Remember what you said. Love like that only comes once in a lifetime. Don’t be so quick to chuck it out the window." She waited and then bent over Cordelia’s still figure. "Goodbye, Cordelia. See you soon."

Angel didn’t say another word as she left the room. He stood like a statue for several drawn-out moments. Then he sat by the bed, the novel lying neglected by his side.



Part 4

Buffy didn’t know what to make of it. Faith came storming back into the Hyperion angrier than Buffy had ever seen her. When the blonde Slayer tried to find out what was wrong, Faith snapped at her, saying her ex-boyfriend was a stupid jerk who needed to have his head smacked into a wall. Willow was hardly any more making with the information; neither of them would tell her what the problem was.

"I’m tellin’ ya, B. I’ve got to get out of here and kill something. I’d go find a man to screw but I’m kinda attached to Robin now and he’s still on the sick list."

Willow couldn’t help but grin at Faith’s wistful tone. "Oh, so it’s serious between the two of you, then?"

"What? Hell no! It’s just…" She paced up and down the lobby, fishing inside her jacket for a cigarette. She lit one, took a deep drag and puffed it into the air. She was trying to buy time to think of something flip to say and blow off Willow about the injured principal. Then she remembered her recent conversation with Angel. No way was she buying into the denial crap. She was gonna come clean even if he couldn’t be bothered.

"I like Robin. I mean, really like him, Red. He’s like Xander is. The whole decent, good boy act that ain’t an act, ya know? He wants to get to know me past the sex. If I’d been a better person when I popped Xander’s cherry, I might have kept him around instead of tossing him out the door afterwards. Speaking of which, where is Xander?"

"I’m up here. I saw all those women fighting over clothes and decided to steer clear. The last thing I wanted was to get caught up in that whole Planet of the Apes scenario." Xander leaned against the upper banister and peered nervously around. "Is the coast clear?"

"Very clear, oh brave fetcher of donuts. Get your fine ass down here," Faith teased.

"I’ll have you know it’s been a long time since anybody sent me to fetch donuts. I don’t go out now for anything less than pizza," Xander said with mock dignity. He came down the stairs and sank down on the lobby couch next to Faith. "I heard you went to see Wood today. He doing all right?"

"Yeah, him and the other Slayers. The hospital gave us problems about insurance and things like that, but I go there today and find that they’ve switched their rooms, given them the best kind of care and all the expenses are being taken care of. Guess who we have to thank for that?"

"Those Wolfram creeps again, the oh-so-evil ones I’ve been warned about? They’re giving food and now medical help? Those bastards!"

"Not them, smart-ass. Angel! He’s arranged to have Robin and all the injured Slayers taken care of. Pretty decent of him, if you ask me. I don’t think the Peroxide Princess would have been so giving. Am I right here, B?

Buffy scowled at Faith. "Maybe if he’d had as much money as Angel—"

"—he would have spent it all on you," Faith said in an indifferent tone.

Buffy figured that was probably true but she wasn’t going to admit it to Faith. She decided to change the subject. "What about Giles? I haven’t seen him all afternoon."

"He’s still resting from the questing. I took him up breakfast since he’s still too tired to move. I think he’s just enjoying being pampered. Taken care of, I mean, ‘cause the other kind, not my type of thing. It wasn’t even Anya’s thing."

"Not for want of trying, I’ll bet," Faith snickered and Buffy snorted at the outraged look on his face.

Then Xander grew very quiet. "I miss her, you know."

The other three women fell silent and Faith squeezed his shoulder awkwardly. "She seemed really crazy about you, X-man. She used to talk about you a lot when you weren’t around to hear it."

"It’s weird. I woke up this morning thinking she was going to be there which was crazy ‘cause we haven’t been like that for months. I just thought I’d hear her voice and she wasn’t…" His voice wobbled out of control and he sucked in his breath hard and sank his head into his hands.

There was a sniffling noise and they all looked up to see Andrew lurking uncertainly near the lobby desk. His face was wet and he rubbed hastily at it when he saw them all staring. "I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I was getting some ice cream and I overheard you all and I was thinking about the last time I saw her. I thought she’d be one of the survivors, you know? She barely knew me and I knew she didn’t like me. None of you do but she saved me. I don’t get it. She saved me after I killed my best friend and I don’t know why." His lip trembled and he began sobbing brokenly.

Buffy saw something like rage pass over Xander’s face and then vanish almost as quickly. "It’s okay, Andrew. I think she’d be glad to know how you felt."

"She was so cool. We had a wheelchair fight when we went to the hospital to get supplies and she was kinda nice. She really liked humanity; she just had to be tough like Xena so she couldn’t say it."

"That’s my girl. Hard on the outside, soft on the inside," Xander said almost to himself.

Andrew sniffled, "Just like an Oreo cookie."

Willow had never liked Anya but she had to concede her basic decency. "She and I didn’t always get along but she cared about Xander. She helped take care of Dawnie, too, after you…left that summer."

"Died, Willow. I didn’t leave; I died. I wish you guys would say it and get over it. It’s so hard having to pretend, like I just took a vacation or something." Buffy didn’t mean to sound so harsh; goodness knows they were all hurting over their individual wounds. But she felt that now was as good a time as any to face the various truths in their lives.

Before anyone could reply, the phone rang, jarringly loud in the open space. The answering machine clicked on, directing the caller to W&H. Faith sprang up before the machine could complete the message and snatched up the phone.

"Faith! Don’t bother. It’s probably somebody with demon-related troubles. Let the folks at W&H handle it. We’re temporarily out of the demon ass-kicking game, remember?"

Faith held her hand over the receiver. "Uh uh, B. I told you. I’m wound up and I’m looking to pound demon flesh here." She spoke into the phone to the unseen caller. "Hello? No, this ain’t A.I. but maybe we can help. Well, I don’t know if I can help unless you tell me, so what’s the sitch?" She listened for a moment and then grabbed a pen and paper pad off the desk and started scribbling furiously. "Uh huh. A nest. How many? HOW big? Shit, why didn’t anybody notice anything before now? Only at night…" She wrote faster as she tried to keep up with the man on the other end of the phone. "Okay, we’re on the case. What do we charge? Mmm, $300 per monster."

She stopped speaking as the person on the other end burst out in protest. "Hey, buddy! We’re the ones risking our lives here! If you think you can get better and cheaper, look through the Yellow Pages." There was a pause. Then she added, "Yeah, we take Visa. What’s your name and number and where’s the address?"

She hung up and turned to the others as she held up the piece of paper. "Woohoo! We got our first case! Want to go kill some big ass demons?"

This was the last thing Buffy wanted to get involved in right now. But if there was money involved… "What kind of demons we talking here?"

"According to the guy pissing his pants on the other end, they’re 11 feet tall with six arms, kinda purplish, with razor spines down the back and this bluish-purplish hair growing all over their bodies except on their stomachs. He says he’s seen three of them coming in and out of this abandoned lot next to his apartment and disappearing into the ground at night."

"They hurt anybody?" Xander asked. "I’m wondering how something like that walks around and leaves this guy alive as a witness."

"He’s not sure if they’re killing people. But first all the rats, stray cats and dogs in the neighborhood disappeared and then they started coming back with these big heavy sacks and I’m betting they’re not shoes from the local Payless."

Buffy frowned, her lips pursed in concentration. "I don’t recognize them. Let’s go talk to Giles; see if he knows anything."

The Watcher was still laid up although starting to feel rather restless. There was a TV but nothing was on that he cared to watch. There were no books on the premises either. All of Angel’s had been taken with him or ripped apart in whatever catastrophe had befallen the hotel. He made a mental note to ask him about this; he sensed that an intriguing tale lay hidden here, perhaps part of the apocalypse taking place here in Los Angeles that Faith had vaguely hinted at back in Sunnydale. There was an abrupt knock at the door, ending his musings. "Come in?"

He looked up as Buffy entered. "Giles, I know you’re still wobbly because of our little trip. But I need some old-fashioned Watcher info here."

"What is it, then?"

Swiftly she recounted the phone call and the description of the demons. "Got any clues? Faith’s twitchin’ for a beating and she’s sharpening her sword as we speak. Any idea what we’re up against?"

Giles’s forehead wrinkled in thought before he gave up, shrugging. "Buffy, I’m flattered that you think me an endless repository of demonic lore but I must confess I’m stumped by the description. I haven’t the foggiest idea what those creatures could be."

"So they could be friendly demons or unfriendly ones. We don’t even know if they’re hurting people. Maybe we should wait until we find out."

"I say not." Faith stood in the doorway. She’d switched to her new leather gear and held up her sword. "I put in a call to Wesley. He says these are Blechen demons. Nasty beasties. They basically eat anything with meat in the neighborhood. Now that all the four-legged vermin are gone, they’ve probably moved up to humans. He said their hides are wicked tough like armor and they’re Terminator strong. Sounds like a job for Slayers." She twirled the sword and grinned at Buffy.

"So we’re after exterminator Terminators who’re eating their way up the food chain. No rest for the wicked. So much for coming to Los Angeles to rest up."

She got up from the bed with a sigh and Giles called after her. "Do be careful, Buffy."

She paused and smiled at him. She couldn’t remember the last time he’d said that with the same mixture of concern and respect as if, whatever she would face, he knew she could handle it. "Don’t worry, Giles. I’ve got Faith, renegade Slayer extraordinaire, with me. What could go wrong?"

"I heard that, Buffy! My god, that is the ultimate jinx! You and Willow told me that." Xander waggled his finger in admonishment as the blonde and brunette Slayers stepped into the hallway.

"What’s a jinx?" Dawn said as she peeked out of her hotel room. She was wearing an amber-colored blouse, one of the new acquisitions Angel had thoughtfully sent. It was hers, thank God, and not one of Buffy’s that she had pilfered.

"B and me are going out for some quality slayage. We’re waiting a few hours until nightfall then we’re hitting the road. Don’t wait up for us, cutie." Faith winked at Dawn and hoisted her sword easily over one soldier. She and Buffy headed towards the stairs.

"Wait! Are you sure you don’t need any company? ‘Cause I can swing with the best of them. Faith, tell Buffy!" Dawn called as she prepared to duck back in and get her crossbow.

"Naw, Dawnie. I took you out last night. This time it’s B’s turn. Don’t want her to think I’m monopolizing you." Faith didn’t really want anybody else’s company tonight. More of that foggy plan she’d been working in her head was coming together and they needed privacy for this one.

The lot was dark, too dark, and Buffy swore under her breath again as she nearly tripped on some unidentifiable piece of debris. "Did we have to come here now? This guy said they only came out at night. We could have gone after them in the daylight."

"Yeah, but we don’t know if they’ve got sunlight allergies like vamps or if they simply hide to keep people from seeing ‘em. Besides, one more night and some poor soul might wind up demon chow. Don’t think I could live with that. Could you, B?"

Buffy grumbled under her breath as her foot slipped in a sticky mess on the ground. Her eyesight tended to be better than most people’s but she still felt at a disadvantage. She nearly bumped into Faith as she stopped near a rusty manhole cover. "What? Did you see something?"

"No, but I’m sure smelling something." The next moment the stench hit Buffy too and it was all she could do not to gag. It was sewage nastiness. She remembered that odor all too well from her times with Angel. Dirty water, garbage heedlessly washed into the pipes and who knew what else—all leant their special parts to the powerful putridness.

Then they heard a faint crunching coming from beneath them and a high-pitched squeal. Oh god, was that—a baby? Faith hefted her sword, pulled up the cover and plunged into the darkness with Buffy right behind her. They crept quietly through the strengthening light and rounded a corner. Both women halted as they took in the sight before them.

At least ten large demons were crouched on the floor of a cavernous space. The rotten food odor was much stronger here and Buffy quickly took in the sight of piles of bones, bits of meat and gristle still clinging to them, littering the floor. The orange-colored monsters looked up at the sight of the two women and froze. A bag lying next to one of them let out a squeal. One of the demons thumped it hard, almost absently, and the noise abruptly ceased.

Faith lifted her sword and yelled, "C’mon, uglies! Feeding time is over!"

The demons stood up and bolted en masse for the other end of the cavern, one of them snatching up the heavy bag that continued to move albeit rather sluggishly. Buffy shouted to Faith, "Wait! Faith, there are too many of them!"

The brunette Slayer continued pelting after them, ignoring Buffy’s cries. The blonde woman rolled her eyes and was about to take off after her when her foot knocked against one of the bones. She glanced down and squinted as she took in the details in the dim overhead lights. By the fair amount of meat clinging to the skull, this had been chewed on fairly recently, possibly even tonight. But there was no way it came from a human head. Weren’t these things supposed to be feeding on people? And why had ten large demons run away when faced with two small human girls? They were also orange when Faith had said they would be purple…

She took off again as she heard Faith yell and cursed herself for hesitating. The mystery could be solved later after she rescued her reckless sister Slayer. She came into a cavern to see Faith brandishing a sword while the demons…cowered against the far wall? One of them had thrown up his arms—only four of them, Buffy noted, instead of the six mentioned—and was frantically trying to ward her off while rumbling at her.

"Faith! Faith, will you listen a minute?" Buffy grabbed her arm and was almost decked for her trouble when Faith swung around and threw a punch.

"Sorry, B. Didn’t realize that was you there," she smirked. "What’s the problem?"

"Oh, lots of things. I don’t think these demons are our guys."

"How ya figure? Did you see the bones back there? That looked like the scene with the crazed rabbit in that Monty Python movie."

Disbelief swept over Buffy’s face. "You watch Monty Python?"

"Why not? It had swordplay and horny virgins. Plus I thought John Cleese cute. He kinda reminded me of Giles."

"Okay, not going there. But back to the demons again. These guys are orange, not purple, and they’re kinda low in the required amount of arms. See? Only four, not six. I’m thinking we’re barking up the wrong sewer here."

"So what? Demons are demons and these are eating people." She lifted her sword and advanced again and the demons cringed away.

Buffy dragged her back again. Something was off and Buffy wanted to get out of the sewer and away from the stink. Her skin was tingling and her gut seizing up from the presence of so many demons although she was sensing something else as well. "So if they’re the crawling people eaters we were warned about, how come they’re so scared of us? Have any of them even tried to throw a punch?"

"Maybe they know we’re Slayers."

"They outnumber us five to one! Even cowardly beasties would think those are pretty good odds."

"The odds just got better," said a familiar voice behind her. Buffy whirled around and her breath caught.

It was Angel, looming larger than life in the cavern. Even though the beasts were taller than he by at least at foot, he still managed to cut an impressive figure. It had been he she’d been sensing not the Oompa-Loompas. Gunn and Wesley were with him and all three men were suitably armed with axes and swords. He smiled at Faith. "Am I too late to join the party?"

"Nope, although I don’t think they appreciate the gate crashing. Hey, Wes, how ya doing?"

Wesley didn’t look at either of the two women. He peered at the demons and frowned, lowering his axe slightly. "Faith. Good to see you again so soon. Are these the creatures you mentioned on the phone?"

"Faith, you didn’t tell me they were coming!" Buffy said, a warning note clear in her voice.

"I didn’t? Must have slipped my mind. Hey, I thought we could use the backup," Faith said, shrugging.

Buffy didn’t like the sound of this. "You told me there were only three demons. Didn’t you think we could handle them?"

"Three? The boss told us there were ten of these ugly suckers." Gunn gestured at the demons that still hadn’t moved but had taken to grunting amongst themselves.

Wesley protested, "That’s what Faith told me."

Faith brushed off the error. "Three, ten. The guy on the other end of the phone wasn’t too clear. Besides, I didn’t think you’d mind the help and I thought Angel might like to get out of those stuffy W&H offices, remember why he got in this business in the first place. It’s all about fighting the good fight, ain’t it, Angel?"

"I’m not sure that’s the case here, Faith. These aren’t Blechen demons," Wesley said as he rested his axe on the floor of the cavern.

"Okay, I was getting that they weren’t our target. What do you want from me, I was going on a phone-in description! But so what? Those bones back there say they ain’t vegetarians."

"No, they’re not. These are Suggaroth demons. They belong to a different species altogether. They’ll fight with other demons for their food and they are carnivorous. But they’re shy and tend to avoid humans, preferring to live on the outskirts of our existence. Our flesh is too rank to eat and, when we join in force, we’re entirely too dangerous in terms of sheer numbers. Frankly, I can’t understand how this mistake occurred."

"I’m thinking a lot of mistakes have been made tonight." Without another word, Buffy strode up to the demon clutching the bag she’d seen earlier and wrested it from his grasp. The demon gave a gargle that was undeniably meant to be protest but one menacing swing of her scythe and he subsided. She pulled open the bag’s drawstrings and emptied out the contents. The still, battered carcass of a piglet fell onto the floor.

She looked up at the fidgeting demon she had taken the prize from. "Oops. Slight miscommunications in the phone lines, guys. Sorry to have bothered you."

She held up the bag and he snatched it from her. A barrage of unintelligible grunts and snorts came from him, as he made what were no doubt insulting comments about her intelligence. Buffy gave a halfhearted grin and backed slowly out of the space. The others left with her as the offended Suggaroth picked up the pig’s body and stuffed it back into the sack.

"Does anybody else think that was majorly embarrassing?" Gunn demanded as the five exited the sewer hole again.

Buffy looked at Faith with a level stare. "Yep. Let’s just go our separate ways and never mention it again."

"Look on the bright side, guys. For the first time in awhile, we’re not going home with demon ick on our clothes. That’s gotta be a plus. I’d have hated to get my new threads messed up." It was a pathetic attempt to save face and Faith knew it. This night couldn’t have turned out any worse in her opinion. Angel and Buffy still weren’t speaking to each other; her plan to reunite them while fighting had been a total bust.

"Did you get ‘em?" They all looked towards the man who scampered down the incline leading to the sewer entrance.

"You the guy who gave me the 411 over the phone?" Faith called out to him.

"Huh? Oh yeah, me. I’m the one. Mr. Robert Smith. So did you get ‘em?"

"You sorta screwed up the description, Bob. These weren’t the guys we were lookin’ for." Faith narrowed her eyes and subtly nudged Buffy. The blonde Slayer gave her a nod and raised her scythe. This guy was giving off seriously twisted vibes; both women knew he wasn’t what he was pretending to be.

"Oh? But you did kill ‘em, right? ‘Cause these guys are big, mean, scary bastards. They were carrying a baby in here earlier tonight."

"Not a baby, mister. It was a pig," Buffy countered, still watching him carefully. "No harm, no foul. Just pig. We let ‘em go."

"They’re not dead? But they’re demons! They’re dangerous. I can’t have them living next to me."

"So what if they’re demons? So are you," Angel replied. He had stepped to the side to give himself plenty of swinging room and his fellow fighters had unconsciously spread themselves apart as well.

"Holy shit, this guy’s a demon? What was all that crap on the phone?" Gunn demanded even as his axe came up.

"That crap was employing you people to do a job and you couldn’t be bothered. I hate having those things living in the neighborhood. They’re vermin, eating practically everything in sight! They breed like fucking rabbits and the smell drives away all the human meals. I hire you guys to clean them out and I get excuses instead of results. This is what I get for dealing with humans. Stupid, useless humans!" The final words emerged as a growl and both the man’s clothes and his skin ripped as his false human visage came away to reveal a towering, purple-skinned demon with large spines poking out of its back and six limbs, each ending in razor-sharp talons.

"Now that’s a Blechen," Wesley said with calm satisfaction. The demon charged them and the battle was engaged. The A.I. team performed like a well-oiled machine as the men alternately stabbed and whacked at the beast. Gunn displayed an unusual ferocity as he jabbed and swung with an almost feline grace. Angel noted it and, in the corner of his mind not occupied with the fight, he was worried.

However, the two Slayers were like poetry in motion. Buffy performed gravity-defying flips while Faith ran rings around the creature, making one vicious jab after another into the Blechen’s hide, darting around its legs as it made futile swings at her with its claws.

But the skin was like armor and even their combined efforts were making no discernable dent in it. However, the beast was imperceptibly slowing in its movements. They couldn’t hurt it but they were wearing it down. Finally Buffy grabbed one of the spines and hoisted herself onto its back. Steadying herself in spite of its vigorous attempts to dislodge her, she drove the stake part of her scythe into its eye.

The beast roared, a guttural sound that spiraled up and out of control, causing all the other fighters to flinch. He flung up one arm and hooked the Slayer riding him with one clutch of his claws. Buffy flew from his back to land sprawling as the demon came crashing onto the ground. Neither combatant moved.

"Buffy!" Angel ran over to where his golden-haired Slayer lay motionless, her back twisted, on some broken pieces of wood from discarded furniture.

Buffy stirred slightly as he knelt beside her, her hazel eyes focusing with difficulty on his face. "Did-did I get him?"

"Yes. I think you did." He glanced up to see Faith yank the weapon out of the demon’s eye socket and give it a critical kick. The creature neither spoke nor twitched and he directed his anxious gaze back to the tiny woman lying on the ground.

"Yay. We bad." She tried to move only to subside with a hiss of pain. "Ow!"

"Don’t try to move, Buffy. Let me look you over first." He probed her body as gently and clinically as he could. He detected no heavy scent of blood either inside or out. She didn’t appear to have broken bones but every time she tried to get up she cried out in misery.

"Is she all right, Angel?" Wesley said softly. He detected the worry in the large vampire’s posture.

"I’m not sure. She may have a back injury. I don’t think anything’s broken. It could only be a sprain. Still, it’s not a good idea to move her."

"I can’t stay here all night. Give me a minute and this Slayergal’ll be up on her feet in no time," Buffy said with asperity. It was majorly upsetting to have Angel so close, to have him touching her so intimately yet with a doctor’s impersonal concern. She wanted to push him away before he noticed how excited his mere presence was making her.

He ignored her. "Give me the axe and my sword," Angel said to Faith. She handed him the instruments wordlessly and Angel shucked off his coat. He inserted the weapons into the sleeves and pulled out his belt to fasten the loose bottom hem of his coat to the rigid poles formed by their hafts.

Faith couldn’t figure out what he was up to. "What are you doing, Angel?"

Wesley looked critically at Angel’s contraption before nodding in approval. "He’s creating a makeshift travois. We can use it to carry Buffy to the car. Hopefully, we can get her back to the hotel without harming her unduly."

The vampire eased Buffy’s slight form onto the device and both he and Gunn carried her carefully to the car. One glance over her shoulder and Faith snickered. "Guess Mr. Smith was right. Those Suggaroth do eat everything."

Gunn looked behind and laughed. The orange-colored demons had come outside, attracted either by the noise of the fight or the smell of the deceased Blechen lying on the ground. One of them sniffed delicately at his hide then grabbed one arm and began dragging him back toward the sewer.

"Well, that’s one demon I don’t have to worry about burying," Gunn said in relief. Then he added, "I can’t believe that guy chose to call himself Bob Smith! Is that obvious or what?"


Dawn was sitting in the lobby, idly swinging her legs and reading a magazine Willow had swiped from that law firm place. She had overheard her and Kennedy discussing it in the lobby where they thought she couldn’t hear. Xander had accidentally spilled the beans and Kennedy was upset her lover hadn’t told her. Willow had told Kennedy she was only thinking about taking their offer but even Dawn had heard the excitement in her voice.

She didn’t know much about this place but Faith thought these people were creeps and Dawn was inclined to take her opinion about it. Dawn couldn’t help a small feeling of resentment. She had what passed for a family, miraculously most of them still alive, and already some people were planning on taking off. [Save the world and lose a family. It’s not fair.]

Xander came down the steps and shuffled in to sit beside her. "Hey, Dawnie. Whacha reading?"

She flipped the pages to show him. " ‘Hot New Fashions for the Summer.’ "

"Yowzah! Those don’t leave much to the imagination, don’t they? That red number reminds me of something Anya wore once."

She glanced at the picture, frowning. "I don’t remember seeing Anya in a two-piece red bikini."

"Well, this wasn’t a bikini, actually. It was a…" His voice trailed off as he realized Dawn was staring at him with barely concealed curiosity on her face. "Now that I think of it, it was definitely a bikini. She just never got a chance to wear it. She was saving it for summer. This summer. She just showed it to me once and asked me what I thought and thought kinda flew out the window. But it was absolutely, positively a bikini for bikini-shaped purposes."

"Uh huh." She smirked and shut the magazine, tossing it to the side. "So are you gonna work for these Wolfram people? Faith thinks they’re bad news."

"I’m of Faith’s mind. Besides, they haven’t offered me a job. Just a repair job. A patch repair job, if you know what I mean." He tapped his eyepatch significantly and Dawn’s eyes widened.

"Can they do that? That would be great! What’s the catch?"

"They said no catch. It’s just that I’m a friend of Angel’s so they’d do it for nothing."

"You’re a friend of Angel’s? Where’d they get that idea? This whole thing is fishy. It’s fishy with tartar sauce on it. Don’t fall for it, Xander."

"I’m not. I’m thinking maybe I could do consulting work for a construction company. With all the experience I’ve had, I’m thinking it shouldn’t be too hard to get somebody to hire me. No law firm handouts for me."

"That’s even better. Yay Xander. Where would you work?"

He shrugged in an offhand fashion. "Cleveland is as good a place to go as any. How about you? Want to come with?"

"Buffy thinks I should go back to school. I don’t see why. What could I learn at school that Giles couldn’t teach me? He says he’s gonna teach me French, Spanish and maybe German since I’m so good at picking up foreign languages."

"That’s great, Grasshopper. But knowledge of foreign languages in what field? Are you gonna be a diplomat? A secretary? A counselor for the demonically challenged? Inquiring minds want to know!"

"I was thinking I could be a Watcher. The world will still have Slayers and they’ll need somebody to train them. Who better than somebody who grew up with a Slayer? With Giles we could start a whole new Watchers Council, make it even better than it was."

"You want to lock yourself up in a library all day going over musty books? What are you, crazy? There’s a big, beautiful non-demonic world out there and you get to see it with both eyes and you want to strain those peepers with book scannage? You’ll wind up wearing glasses like Giles."

"That’s stupid. You, Willow and Buffy went looking through books all throughout high school and I don’t see you guys in specs."

"Ah, but we rounded out our book larnin’ with other wholesome, healthy activities: sleeping in class, killing the occasional demon, piggin’ out on lunchmeats and trying to guess what was in the noodle surprise. It was a full life, I’m telling you." Xander sighed dramatically. "High school. God, how I miss it."

A most unladylike snort greeted this statement. "Who are you trying to kid, Xander? You hated it. I heard you say so often enough so don’t deny it."

"Only the enforced learning part."

The lobby doors swinging open interrupted their conversation and they jumped as Faith and Wesley came rushing in. "Whoa! Doesn’t anybody knock? We so need a key for that door," Xander complained.

"Stow it, X-man. Dawnie, move. We need the couch." Faith shooed her off and grabbed the magazine.

Dawn hustled off even as she began firing questions at them. "What? What’s the problem? Where’s Buffy and why is Wesley here? Oh my god!"

The last cry came as Gunn and Angel entered bearing Buffy on the carrier. With infinite tenderness, they lowered her to the couch. Dawn and Xander surged forward to see her, a task made somewhat difficult because of Angel’s wide frame as he crouched beside her.

"She’s fine, Dawnie. Well, not walking fine. That demon we tangled with gave her quite a hit. But you should see the other guy," Faith joked as she attempted to relieve their fears.

"I’m okay. Angel, will you stop hovering?" Buffy immediately regretted her harsh words as Angel straightened and moved away, his face once more an unreadable mask. "I’m sorry. My back is just one big owwie and it’s making Buffy more cranky than usual."

He nodded but made no move to approach her again. He directed his next words to Faith. "She should be fine in a little while. As I said, no bones are broken. But until she can move without pain, she shouldn’t get up from that couch. She could make any injuries that much worse."

Wesley carefully eased the weapons out of the arms of the coat and admired the scythe as he held it up to the light. "What an extraordinary weapon. I would love to hear the story behind this. I haven’t heard anything about your battle."

She grinned up at him. "Well, if I’m stuck on this couch I’ll have plenty of time to bore you with the details."

Wesley sat on another couch. "No better time than the present, I’d say."

Angel was torn between warring emotions. He wanted to get as far away from Buffy as possible. He had no doubt that Faith had orchestrated tonight’s fiasco and he had no desire to make things worse by drawing out the confrontation between Buffy and himself. However, touching Buffy, inhaling her scent had been sore trials to his determination to keep her at arm’s-length. He had heard her heartbeat speed up in her chest whenever he was near. But that could be anger at his interference and meddling.

"He’s in my heart." He still could hear the words said in her soft, delicate voice and see the tenderness in her gaze—no longer for him but for his demon grandchilde. A burning sensation rose behind his eyes and he didn’t know if it was tears of grief or anger. He could sense his demon, stirred by the violence of battle, growling angrily in his mind over the thought of any other vampire touching his mate.

But Buffy wasn’t his any longer. She had made that plain and he must honor her desires. He glanced over to the couch and heard her relating the details of the final battle to Wesley. During the conversation, others had come down the stairs and joined in the discussion. Soon all the Slayers had joined them, chiming in with their viewpoints about the stirring climactic fight with an army of Ubervamps. When Buffy came to Spike’s part in the finale, he could hear her voice falter as everyone in the room fell silent.

"He—the energy was tearing through him. Ripping him apart, really. And he told me to go. He said he could feel his soul and that it kinda stung." The light words, so dismissive and typical of his grandchilde, caused a ripple of laughter throughout the room and Angel realized they were all hearing this story for the first time. "Then I ran out and started jumping from one rooftop to the other as the whole town caved in. Whatever magic blast was going out from that medallion really packed a wallop. The whole town collapsed. All we could see from where we were was dust. There wasn’t even rubble."

"Not even a Flintstone, either," Xander said. "The whole town of Bedrock gone in one fell swoop."

Wesley sought out the vampire standing in grave stillness near the doors. "Ah. Good thing you didn’t wear it, Angel. We would have lost you."

Faith asked, "You guys knew about the amulet?"

"As much as Angel did. We weren’t aware of what it would do, per se. There really wasn’t any time to research before he left for Sunnydale. I was frankly surprised to see him back so quickly. I was certain, whatever peril was on hand, his presence would be needed."

"Not this time, Wes. I was strictly the delivery boy," Angel replied without a hint of disappointment in his voice.

Gunn looked up from where he was polishing his axe. "That’s a switch. I thought the role of ‘champion’ was permanently tattooed on your forehead."

"God knows there’s plenty of space," Xander added.

Dawn let out a high-pitched giggle that turned into a loud laugh and several of the girls joined in, too. A fleeting smile twitched on Angel’s countenance but otherwise he made no other acknowledgement of Xander’s joke.

Buffy craned her neck, trying to see how Angel took the quip made at his expense but the angle of the couch was all wrong for it. Making an internal catalogue of her injuries, she sat up on the couch to stare at him. Immediately he stepped forward, at her side in an instant. "Buffy, I told you not to move."

"It’s okay, Angel. See?" She stood, grimacing only slightly. "No back to the House of Pain for Buffy."

She spun around to demonstrate and was assailed by a flare of agony shooting through her back. She gasped at the unexpected pang, staggered and fell. Moving with the vampiric speed only he was capable of, he caught her before she could hit the floor. "It’s all right. I’ve got you," he whispered.

She clutched him automatically as those strong arms that she had clung to more times than she could remember wound around her back and held her upright. Dark fathomless eyes stared into hers, unnamable emotions flaming behind them. For several seconds she stood motionless in his embrace, lost in his gaze. Her heart pounded in her chest and it was all she could do to breathe.

Then he set her gently back on the couch and moved away again. "I told you. You’re not ready to move yet. Give it a couple of hours." He walked towards the door and called over his shoulder. "You guys coming?"

Gunn was reluctant to leave the presence of so many girls even if they were underage. That Rona girl was a definite cutie. Give her a couple of years and she’d make one damn fine woman. But Angel was going to take off whether they were with him or not and Gunn didn’t want to spend the night in the hotel.

He’d grown to love the grand oversized place. He felt he’d earned the right to call it home after fighting so many people who’d tried to make it their personal arena. But it held too many memories of him and Fred and staying the night without her would be just too lonely. He sighed and hefted his axe. "C’mon, Wes. Time to hit the road."

Faith made a last-ditch attempt to get them to communicate. "Aw, guys, you just can’t leave. You haven’t told us about the way the fight went on your end. I’m bettin’ that’s a riproarin’ tale of carnage and good old-fashioned mayhem. Me and the girls want to hear all about your manly acts of bravery."

"Maybe another time, Faith. It’s late and some of us got work in the morning. Ciao, ladies!" Gunn waved goodbye to the sound of general groans of disappointment from the girls.

"Make sure you tell us before we leave! This isn’t something I want to get in an email. I want thick, meaty juicy details that I can sink my teeth into and I want ‘em face to face!" Faith called after their retreating backs. She turned to see Xander’s amused gaze bent upon her. "What?"

"Thick, meaty, juicy details? Are we talking about an apocalypse or a heavy date?" Xander asked her. "Be careful what you answer. There are young ladies present."

"They can handle it," she said. She eyed Buffy who had become uncharacteristically silent. "Hey, B. You feelin’ okay?"

"I’m five by five." Faith was surprised to hear the blonde Slayer use her favorite phrase but Buffy was too worn out to notice. Angel had barely spoken to her in the car. He’d insisted on driving and neither of the two men with him nor Faith had dared to take control of the wheel from him. From there he hadn’t looked towards the backseat once. He only spoke to direct comments to Faith as to whether Buffy was adequately tied down with the jury-rigged knots he’d fashioned from the seatbelts.

Just now, he couldn’t get away from her fast enough. He couldn’t even bear to touch her. It had hurt more than she could imagine having him so close and yet so far from her. Nothing she had felt for Spike could compare to it. Even his death hadn’t opened this gaping hole in her heart. Buffy stiffened, ignoring the flash of pain the action brought to her back, as she realized what this meant.

She still loved Angel. Time, distance, world-ending disasters hadn’t changed that. But it was all too clear his feelings had altered. And it was the affair with Spike that had seen to it.

"Hey, Buffy. Angel left his coat. Should we call him back for it?"

"Let’s worry about that tomorrow, Dawn." [Hell, it won’t be the first coat he’s left with me.]


Part 5

"So what happened on patrol tonight?" Dawn chattered as she bustled around her sister. After the others left, she had gone upstairs and gotten pillows and blankets to make Buffy comfortable. No amount of protest or threats from her sister could make her take her up the stairs to her room. Angel had said that Buffy wasn’t to be moved and Dawn was sure he knew best. Dawn could remember lots of times she’d seen Buffy carefully removing bandages after getting in from patrol and hiding them from their mother. She was certain that Angel had been responsible for a lot of the patch-ups.

"Well, the guy who called Faith to kill the demons turned out to be a total liar and a demon himself. So I killed him and left his remains to be snack food for the other demons he sicced us on."

"Oh. So we didn’t get paid, huh?"

"What?" Buffy’s eyes widened at Dawn’s disappointed tone.

"Well, from what Faith told me about when Angel was running this place, this was a business and I was thinking you could start up here with the demon-hunting and maybe make money. Did you know they even have a website? You could become demon busters just like Angel used to be and I could be a Watcher."

"Go into demon hunting for hire? What part of tonight’s fiasco did you miss? Besides, I tried that back in Sunnydale and the bank loan manager was so Frosty the Snowman about it, I got a chill."

"Yeah, but those demons got away."

"You had to bring that up," Buffy said wryly. She shifted on the couch as she tried to get comfortable.

Dawn hovered uncertainly for a moment. "So what’s up with you and Angel?"

"What? Nothing’s up. There is no up there. It’s all downhill, Dawn." Buffy was doing her best to be nonchalant but she could tell Dawn wasn’t buying it.

"How come he doesn’t talk to you unless he absolutely has to? What happened between the two of you when he came to Sunnydale? Does he know about you and Spike?"

Why the hell did her sister have to be so inquiry about everything? "You know, I’m thinking of changing your name to Curious George. You don’t talk to people so much as interrogate them."

Dawn wasn’t going to be put off. "Answer the question."

Buffy decided to seize on the question that would cause the least debate. "Nothing happened when he came to Sunnydale. He came, I sliced Caleb like a piece of sushi and then he gave me the info and magical amulet. I sent him back here. End of story."

"So why’s he Mr. Freeze? You could ice skate whenever the two of you are together now. Is it because of Spike? Did he find out? Does he…hate you because of that?"

That was Buffy’s very fear. But she had to reassure her sister; she wasn’t sure why. "No. He doesn’t hate me. He just doesn’t understand about Spike."

"And so say all of us," Dawn said with a narrow look. "And don’t give me the ‘he’s got a soul’ bit ‘cause I’ve heard it. Soul or no soul, Spike was still zoning in on you. Souled-chipless Spike not much different from the unsouled-chipped variety."

Buffy’s lips tightened but she forged on. "What part of Spike giving up his life to save the world did you not get, Dawn? Anyway, I didn’t really get to explain everything that had gone on in my life since the last time Angel and me saw each other. We had an enemy to fight and…Angel and I made our peace. He doesn’t get Spike but he doesn’t have to. It’s all in the past anyway."

"So you’d really choose Angel over Spike then?"

"I’m not choosing anyone," Buffy countered. "I told Angel that I’m not finished being ‘me’ yet. Until I figure out who that Buffy is, the last thing I’m going to do is rush into some guy’s arms. That’s a mistake I’ve made way too often in the past. I need to heal, Dawn. We all do. Angel can’t help me with that."

"Fine. I get it. It’s just…I think he’s hurting. He’s got the same sad look he always used to get around you and just the other night, before you went swimming, you were wearing your Angel face."

"My Angel face?"

"You know what I’m talking about! You always used to get this moony, swoony look whenever you thought about Angel. Even when you were with Riley, I’d see that look. I always called it your ‘Angel face.’ "

Buffy’s look was knowing as she smirked at her younger sister. "I remember. As I seem to recall, you always made these stupid gagging noises whenever you saw it."

"Hey, you were so wound up in him it was like you couldn’t see straight. I wondered why you didn’t walk into walls, you were so dippy."

Buffy smiled only to have the expression fade away. "That was a long time ago, Dawnie. A lot can happen in three years."

Dawn sniffed and plopped down on the edge of the couch. "I’ll say. Spike decides he’s crazy about you and totally forgets his skank girlfriend Drusilla whom he slummed around with for almost 120 years. You swing from Angel to Parker to Riley to Spike like you’re some sort of band groupie. I guess Angel’s the only one to remain faithful. Makes me sorry I had to dust Justin," she added with a sigh.

"Justin didn’t have a soul. He probably would have just ripped your throat out."

Dawn grinned. Buffy was so easy to tease sometimes. She was like the world’s best straight man. "Just kidding. It’s just I saw the way you were with Angel. He made you happy even though you seemed unhappy. You were never like that with Spike. You were obsessed with him in a way that was mundo unhealthy and I’ve got the scar to prove it." Dawn pointed up at the faint white line above her right eyebrow from where Spike had hit her with a cot on one of his rampages. "But he didn’t give you the Buffy happies that Angel did even after he picked up that soul."

"Dawn, you know relationships are complicated and I told you I’m not about that right now. We’re getting out of here in a few days and headed to Cleveland so it’s not important anyway."

"Oh. Guess that’s fair." Dawn looked around the open space. When she thought about it clearly, she could see how making a home here wasn’t really possible. Angel couldn’t keep paying their way forever and footing the bills on the place would be a nightmare for Buffy. Maintaining the house in Sunnydale had been a big strain as it was. Plus, many of the Slayers were talking about returning to their own homes, seeing if they could fight evil in their own hometowns. The sheer size of the empty hotel would make it kinda lonely.

But she considered Los Angeles as being her first home. They had lived here before being shipped off to Sunnydale. [Correction. Buffy had lived here. That part of your life is fictional, remember?]

So Cleveland would be a place to build a real life and new memories…and, hopefully, it wouldn’t sink into the ground like their last place. Maybe, if they were lucky, they could find someplace with a pool. She sighed again and looked at where her sister lay on the couch.

"I’ll tell the others we need to get packing, then. I just wish…" She cut herself off and looked almost frightened.

"What do you wish, Dawnie?"

"Nothing. If there’s one thing I learned from Sunnydale, it’s never say the ‘w’ word." Dawn stood and ran up the stairs.

Buffy relaxed into the sofa with a sigh. God, that had to have been the worst part of living in Sunnydale. It robbed you of even the hope of making things better. Good riddance to it. Well, she couldn’t be that blasé about it. It had been her home for seven long years and there were good and bad memories associated with it. Meeting Giles, Xander and Willow, loving Angel…

She snuggled back into the couch and realized with a start that she was still lying on Angel’s coat. She briefly considered pushing it off but decided it was too much trouble. Besides, she liked having it there. It was almost like being in Angel’s arms again.

She could still recall how it felt to have him hold her only scant minutes ago. The feel of his hands on her skin just now and the tender look in his eyes before he pulled away had roused all the old feelings in her, strong as ever. The memory made her sigh and pull the arms of the coat up and around her. She could smell his hair gel, a woody, musky scent that was his skin and the faint clean odor of Ivory soap. No scented bars for Angel. She smiled and brushed her cheek tenderly against one lapel.

She thought about what Dawn had said. Was that really true about Angel hurting? He’d been jealous back in Sunnydale… But what about Cordelia? Just where did she fit into things?

[This is crazy. Cookie dough, remember? Gotta do a lot of baking. Away from here, preferably. We’ll leave tomorrow if Giles is better.] She sighed again. If she kept doing that, she was going to use up all the air in the room.

Angel stood near the window, smiling at her. She didn’t recognize the room at all. It was wide, empty save for the two of them, and the window ran from one end to the other. He was standing in the sunlight pouring in through the enormous pane. She should have been terrified but she felt oddly calm as if she knew the sunlight wouldn’t hurt him. Besides, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t seen him in sunlight before now.

Wait. When had she seen him in daylight? A faint memory tickled at the edges of her mind. Something forgotten yet mourned like the loss of a loved one teased her…

Her train of thought was interrupted as he walked up to her. "I like your coat."

She glanced down and saw she was still wearing his leather coat. "It’s yours, actually."

A flicker of sadness came into his eyes. "Not for much longer."

"What do you mean?"

"Time’s running out." It was true. It was getting darker outside. The shadows in the room were getting longer, far too quickly for actual nightfall, and a sense of dread was gathering with them. There was a flare of lightning and rain began lashing at the windows.

"What’s happening? Angel, please talk to me."

"I would. But you don’t ask. Does it even matter? Believe me, it’s what I wanted for you."

"What is? Angel, you’re being Cryptic Guy again. I thought we were past all that crap."

"I wanted you to have sunlight, a family and children. I wanted somebody to give you those things. Now you can have it." He pressed the blue rattle into her hand. She clutched it in confusion. What did this mean?

A faint smile lit up his face as he read the confusion on hers. "You don’t see very well, do you? Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out. When the time comes, you’ll have everything you need to make the choice."

"Choice? What choice? Angel, talk to me, dammit!" He didn’t answer. Angel’s figure blurred and when it cleared, he was no longer Angel. Spike stood in front of her.

"I don’t believe it. I’m gone less than a week and you’re back in the arms of the Brow again. You’ve got to be one of the most fickle birds ever."

"Oh, I think Drusilla could give me a run for my money in that department," she retorted. Buffy backed up from him in irritation. Where had Angel gone? They had things to discuss. She’d pretty much finished whatever she had to say to Spike. He had no messages for her—nothing new at any rate.

"That’s just bloody terrific! I run all the way around the world for you, get this damned soul for you, give up my existence to avert a damned apocalypse and it’s still not enough! You’re a fucking bitch, you know that?"

"Look who’s talking. You can be bitchy, too, Tiny. I mean, please. Going on about lifts?" She snorted, wondering what the girls would have thought if she’d relayed Spike’s conversation with her in the basement.

"If you can’t see all I’ve done for you, then you don’t deserve me."

Now she was no longer in the wide room. They were in the temple where she fought Caleb. The First’s rogue priest reared up before her, dark blood pouring from his eyes. "Are you ready to finish this, bitch?"

"No, actually I had something else penned on my calendar. But I can squeeze you in." Buffy wasn’t really interested in this conversation. This battle had taken place already. She knew the outcome and her movements were mechanical, almost rote. She scanned the room for Angel and, to her consternation, she didn’t see him anywhere. Why the Caleb-clone seemed uninterested in Angel’s whereabouts was puzzling. The vampire was a formidable fighter and had already knocked him down once.

It was as if he sensed her worry. "Looking for your undead boyfriend, slut? There he is!" His hand shot out to point and Buffy’s eyes followed it. She saw Spike, frozen and bitter, standing on the stairs. His blue eyes locked with hers and she could see the anguish and hatred burning in them.

Spike was here? He was watching her? Why didn’t he help? The distraction proved effective. The scythe was wrested out of her grip. The preacher whirled and embedded it in her stomach before she could move.

It was as if the life drained completely out of her. Unable to move or even breathe, Buffy saw the floor coming up at her in slow motion. The preacher raised the scythe above her head and grinned. "Time’s up." Then he brought it down towards her head.

Buffy awoke, shivering in the aftermath of that nightmare. The first part had been maddeningly enigmatic but the end had been all too clear and something that had escaped her attention came rushing back to her.

Spike talking to her in the basement: "I also used my heightened vampire eyeballs to watch you kissing him."

"Where’s the trinket? The pretty necklace your sweetie-bear gave you. The one with all the power. I believe it’s mine now. Someone with a soul, but more than human… Angel meant to wear it, that means I’m the qualified party."

In between those two moments with Angel, she’d been fighting Caleb again…and Spike had stood there and watched. The bastard. She shivered again, this time with barely controlled anger. God, even on the eve of the biggest fight in her life, Spike couldn’t rise above his petty jealousy. Why hadn’t she remembered this before?

[Maybe ‘cause you had your head so far up Spike’s ass by then you couldn’t see daylight? Faith was right. He deserved to wear that magic amulet. If Angel had, he’d be toast and the world would have lost a true champion.]

[But Spike came through in the end! He saved the day. Whatever he was feeling when I fought Caleb…it didn’t mean anything! He died for the world.]

[So what? So did you; so did Anya. I don’t remember either of you standing on the sidelines while loved ones were fighting. Why do you keep cutting him so much slack? Is it because of that precious soul you kept on waving in everybody’s face? Having a soul doesn’t automatically make people good. Look at Faith when she was the Mayor’s bitch.]

She wanted to have a witty comeback for that. But none came to mind. She could have been killed that night and he would have stood there and watched it happen—all because he was jealous of Angel.

Conflicting voices warred in her mind as she tried to make excuses for Spike. She seized on all the good he’d done—staying to protect her sister, fighting alongside her friends, getting a soul…for her. All of it for her. Had any of it been to make himself a better man or simply to mold himself over into the image of the man she wanted? Had he been trying to make himself a copy of Angel?

No, he despised Angel too much for that. She could still recall his sneering speech about Angel when Faith showed up again in Sunnydale. Yeah, he definitely had issues where her former lover was concerned. Issues so bad he’d try to make himself into an Angel-clone to win her?

This was getting to be a pain. She’d dreamed of two vampire ex-boyfriends two nights in a row. Who’d show up next? Riley? It was this hotel; that was the problem. It had been Angel’s and the association was causing her mind to spew up this old boyfriend spillage. The sooner they were out of here, the better. She sagged back onto the sofa and willed herself to return to sleep.

She was roused by whispers and feet thumping down the stairs. She kept her eyes closed and lay without moving or otherwise indicating she was awake. "Sshh. Be quiet," Willow whispered.

"I am quiet. You’re the one who can’t stop yapping." That came from Faith.

"So who’s making breakfast today?" Kennedy asked.

Andrew answered, "I am. I don’t think I can take another of Dawn’s quesadilla surprises." He had discovered the enormous kitchen in the basement and had nearly swooned at seeing all the massive stoves and cooking surfaces he could use for food preparation.

"Well, at least they’re not burnt like the stuff Anya and Buffy made. I can still remember that ‘Cajun’ mess Anya made at the house. Honestly, I don’t know how Xander could stand her cooking. What did he eat when she was still living with him?"

"Dawnie, hush. Xander might hear you."

"It’s okay, Willow. He sleeps like a log, like a very dozy log. He won’t wake up unless there’s an earthquake or somebody lights a fire under the bed," Dawn snorted.

Kennedy said, "We should be quiet. Buffy might wake up." Okay, that was surprising coming from her. Buffy hadn’t thought she was really the caring sort.

"She’s a heavy sleeper, too. Nights are always hard on her," Dawn replied with a note of sympathy.

Faith whispered, "They’re hard on all of us. You should have seen the size of that Blecch last night, Dawnie. Big sucker but Buffy jumped on him and staked him good."

"I would have seen him if you’d let me go with you," Dawn groused.

"Did you guys see Angel when he hugged her? I thought they were gonna kiss right there," Willow said and Buffy could hear the wistfulness in her voice.

Dawn’s answer showed her obvious bafflement. "Kiss? Buffy won’t kiss him. She wants to get away from him. You should have heard her after you all left. She said she had a talk with Angel when he came to Sunnydale and he made his peace with her but he didn’t ‘get’ her and Spike. She doesn’t seem to care that he’s in pain. She just wants to get out of Los Angeles and as far away from him as possible."

"None of us get that, Dawn. And nobody’s really explained that soul business either. Was he trying to be an Angel 2.0 version or something?" Faith muttered.

"A 2.0 version is supposed to be an improvement over the original," Willow replied in superior tones.

Kennedy snapped, "Well, Spike failed that test then. Buffy didn’t hear that ‘traitors’ speech he gave when he came back and found her gone. If she’d seen him beating up on Faith—"

"—she probably would have given him a medal. Oh, wait. She did," Faith commented with a snort. "She called him a champion. Can you believe that? Just because he died and Angel didn’t. Guess the fact that she’s died twice is why she thinks she’s so much better than me."

"She doesn’t think she’s better than you, Faith," Willow protested. "Buffy got over that a long time ago."

"Yeah, I guess banging hips with the soulless undead’s gotta take you down a peg or two," the brunette said.

Buffy could feel her ears burning with that last remark. Faith obviously still thought Buffy hated her and she had to admit she hadn’t done much to get rid of that impression. Other than the ice cream midnight raid, she and Faith hadn’t exactly done what could be called "bonding." It was kinda low bringing up her deal with Spike, though.

"She still loves Angel. She told me so," Willow said.

This was news to Dawn. "She did? When did she say that? Why didn’t anybody tell me?"

"This was when Anya killed all those frat boys with that giant spider." Willow said this as if it explained everything. "This was before you and Andrew showed up, Faith. Buffy said she loved Angel more than she would love anything in this world. Then she stuck a sword through his chest." Willow’s voice got sad and wondering as if she couldn’t imagine the pain it must have cost Buffy to do such a thing.

"So she told you she was still in love with Angel. And Angel’s still in love with her," Dawn mused.

This time Willow spoke hesitantly as if she were unsure of her ground. "We-we don’t know that for sure, Dawnie. Faith and I saw Angel yesterday. He was reading to Cordelia and he seemed pretty attached to her."

"Yeah, he gave us this weird speech about horseflies…"

"That’s mayflies, Faith."

"Whatever, Red. He said that humans are fickle and Buffy’s no better than the rest of them ‘cause she traded him in for that second stringer, Spike."

Buffy did her best to breathe evenly and slowly so they’d have no clue as to her wakeful status. God, that hurt. Angel thought she was fickle? How about him? He was mooning over Cordelia, of all the people! Couldn’t he have chosen a better replacement for her than her bitchy, high school rival?

There was a gulping sound and then Dawn told Faith in a nagging tone not to drink the milk from the carton. Dawn continued, "I’m thinking Buffy would never have looked twice at Spike when he came back if it hadn’t been for that soul. But do you really think she fell for him because of that?"

Faith belched before speaking again. "Why not? Lots of guys get themselves cars to make themselves look cool and get chicks. Other guys see that shit works so they go out and get themselves hot cars, too."

"I don’t think a soul’s a fashion accessory like a car, Faith," Dawn ventured.

Willow giggled. "Oh, yeah. I remember when Xander got his uncle Rory to lend him his ’57 Chevy Bel Aire and he picked up that girl. Funny, he never drove it after that."

"I don’t remember another girl. But I remember that car," and Buffy could hear the insinuating note in Faith’s voice. "Sweet little ride. Not as nice as he was, though."

"Ooookay. That is so not appropriate breakfast conversation."

"What breakfast, Willow?" Kennedy pointed out. "We’re still waking for Emeril Agasse downstairs to whip up the chow. I think I’ll just skip it and get myself some cornflakes."

"Speaking of breakfast, you should have seen the spread in the employee lounge at Wolfram & Hart. They had muffins, grapes, strawberries, different jams and jellies and bagels and all this other great stuff."

The enthusiasm in Willow’s voice was hard to miss and Kennedy evidently didn’t care for it. "Sounds like a real incentive to join up, all right."

"I said I was thinking about it, Kennedy. But I don’t think I’ll join. Maybe I’ll just cast one spell to see what’s wrong with Cordelia."

Dawn asked, "What is wrong with Cordelia? Did Angel tell you? I’m thinking it’s kinda bizarre how one minute she’s okay and the next she’s in a coma. That is so soap opera-y. At least there was a reason Faith wound up in a hospital bed."

Willow said, "He told me she was on another plane of existence or spirit dimension or something and when she came back she had a bun in the oven, gave birth and hello coma, goodbye consciousness. Other than that, he was none too clear."

That wasn’t news to Buffy. [That’s my Angel. Witness last night’s starring role in my dream.]

"Really? Last time Red and I saw him, we didn’t get into that. We were too busy with the Cordelia vs. Buffy debate," Faith added.

Dawn spoke up eagerly. "And…? What did Angel say about Cordelia?"

Buffy held her breath. What had Angel said about Cordelia? And why the hell should she care?

Willow replied reluctantly, "He said he loved her. She kept him sane and I guess that’s good for him."

"He made it sound as appealing as taking cod liver oil. ‘Drink it! It’s good for you!’ " Faith said in a mock nagging voice. "He says he never even kissed her. I’m asking ya, people, what kind of love is that? And every time Red asked him how he felt about Buffy, he kept ducking the question. I think he’s still mad for B; he just doesn’t want to get hurt because she’s crazy over Spike. Who can blame him? I say if Buffy is dumb enough to take that second-rate wannabe over Angel, then screw her. Leave Angel with Dead Woman Sleeping."

"Faith, that’s just mean," Willow chided. "If Angel and Buffy have both moved on, then that’s their choice. We can’t make it for them."

"But Cordelia’s in a coma and, even before then, Angel was never making with the passion—not like he did with Buffy," Faith insisted. "And Spike bit the big one along with the rest of Sunnydale. Why shouldn’t they give each other another chance?"

Willow asked, "Are you seriously suggesting Angel should dump a woman he might love simply because she’s non compos mentis? What kind of loyalty would that show? What kind of love? How would you feel if you got into a horrible disfiguring accident…"

She faltered slightly and Buffy didn’t have to see her face to know she was thinking about Xander. Then she continued, her voice firmer. "How would you feel if you got into a nasty accident and were less than what you were and the man who claimed to love you bailed?"

"I-I suppose you’re right. So points to him for loyalty, I guess," Faith conceded grudgingly.

Willow was quick to play devil’s advocate. "But you might have a point. Angel didn’t say he was in love with Cordelia and Buffy didn’t say she was in love with Spike. I’m sensing serious fence sitting on the parts of those two."

"Soup’s on!" Andrew called out. The others shushed him. "Oh right. Buffy. You know, I found something that’s like a dining hall. If we could get in one long table and some chairs, we could all eat there instead of dropping food in this place or carrying things up to our rooms. It could be like a high school cafeteria."

"Some of us are trying to get away from high school, Andrew," Dawn pointed out. "And you remember what Buffy said. She wants us out of here so you can forget about ordering in new furniture."

"I keep forgetting. But why do we have to go? I-I don’t think I’m much of a fighter. All the best science fiction conventions are in New York or California, anyway. Do any of you want to go to Cleveland?"

Kennedy replied, "Now that the Hellmouth’s closed, a lot of the girls want to go home to their families. We’re low on traveling money but maybe that Angel will come through for us."

"Kennedy, we can’t keep hitting on Angel for cash. He’s not made of the stuff," Willow protested.

"Are you kidding, Red? With Wolfram & Hart behind him, he could print his own money," Faith said. "So, Andy. What are we having this morning?"

"I made Western omelets. There’s also bacon and blueberry muffins. They’ll take about 8-10 minutes so you’ll just have to be patient. All good things come to those who wait."

"Muffins?" Dawn said in a longing voice. "Ooey, gooey muffins? Oh, I can’t remember the last time I had blueberry muffins that didn’t come out of a box."

The sounds dropped to low murmurs as they all ran out and then there was silence. Buffy lay still for quite a bit longer, thoughts whirling wildly in her head about the conversation she’d overheard. A faint scent of cooked food reached her and her stomach rumbled slightly. Deciding that there was no further point to playing possum, she threw back the covers and sat up.

She was hungry with a Slayer’s ravenous appetite and she decided to fuel up before she faced the day. Where had the others gone? Following the odor of cooking food, she descended to a lower floor and heard the rattle of pans and plates.

Faith complained, "Man, this place is gloomy. You’d think a kitchen would have windows for ventilation."

"That’s what the ventilation ducts are for, Faith." That came from Kennedy and there was the scrape of a chair as someone sat down.

Dawn whined, "It’s way awkward sitting here. These tables are too high."

"That’s because they’re made for the cooking and not for the eating. Maybe we should take these up to our rooms," Willow suggested. She scraped her chair back and then she saw Buffy standing in the open doorway. "Buffy! Hey, we would have woken you up but you looked so peaceful and we figured you needed the rest more than the food. D-do you want some eggs?"

There was a ‘ping’ from the stove and Andrew rushed forward, clad in an apron and oven mitts. "Muffins are done, people." He gingerly removed them from the pan and set them on a plate he’d found in the cabinets. "Now just let them cool for two minutes…Faith!" He yelled as the woman snatched up a warm treat and threw it from one hand to another in an effort to get it to cool.

"Sorry, Andy. I’m just a slave to your cooking. Hey, if Robin and me don’t work out, would you consider marrying me? I’d really love coming home to this kind of food after a long night of slaying. Whaddaya say?" She winked at him and he turned beet red.

"Y-you’re not exactly my type," he muttered and colored even more when everybody snickered.

"Damn! You must be losing your touch, Faith," Willow said with an innocent smile.

"Tell that to Robin," Faith shot back. She pushed the breakfast tray towards Buffy. "You’re looking better this morning, B. Got anything planned for after breakfast?"

"I’m going to see if Giles is better. Like I said, we need to make a trail to Cleveland. Kennedy, what are your plans?"

"Me?" Kennedy was surprised. She and Buffy did not get along. They had been at loggerheads ever since she’d shown up at the Summers house on Revello Drive and she wasn’t sure why the blond would even consider her feelings. "Well, Willow was going to take me out. She doesn’t really know the city so we thought we’d make it a short walk."

"No, I’m talking about the rest of your life. Giles, Dawn and me are definitely headed Eastward Ho. What are you and the other Slayers going to do when we go?"

Kennedy opened and shut her mouth but couldn’t seem to come up with an answer. Before she could formulate one, Willow said, "I’d like to come with you, Buffy. Giles wants to start a new Watchers Council and he thinks I could help."

"I thought you were taking those lawyers up on their offer," Buffy said cautiously. She didn’t want to push Willow into it one way or the other. But she was elated that her best girlfriend might be willing to continue working by her side. She missed the closeness she’d had with Willow. It was almost like the ache she felt whenever she was around Angel and couldn’t… No! She wasn’t going to think about Angel now. This was about the future—and that meant no Angel.

"I thought over what you said about them, Buffy. Faith told me about what they hired her to do to Angel and how they turned on her when she wouldn’t help. She told me about them working with demons and other things. I couldn’t be with those people; they’d push me over to the dark side and then it’d be veiny and dark-eyed Willow all over again." The redhead shuddered and stared at her plate while Kennedy sympathetically rubbed her on the back.

"If that’s what you want to do, then I’m coming with," Kennedy said firmly.

Willow was touched by this show of devotion but she was unsure about it. "Really? I’m not asking you to come. I know you’ll probably want to get back to your folks and I wouldn’t want you to make some kind of sacrifice for me…"

Kennedy leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the lips, stopping the incipient babble in its tracks. "Hey, I just got you. I’m not letting you get away that easily. Kite string, remember? We’re pretty much attached."

Dawn mouthed the words "kite string?" at Buffy. The blond shrugged. She was damned if she knew what it meant. "Then I guess it’s only a matter of telling Giles and we’re on our way." Buffy sighed and picked at her congealing eggs.

"What about Angel’s coat?" Dawn piped up.

"What about it?" Her sister asked the darnedest questions sometimes.

"You still have Angel’s coat. Are you gonna give it back to him?" Dawn pointed out and Buffy could feel the curious stares of the others.

"Yeah. I can do that. It should give Giles time to pack all our stuff. We can use that fun money Angel gave him for gas for our trip."

Andrew whined, "But why do we have to leave Los Angeles? Can’t we make a go of things here?"

"I don’t think you could stay here, Andrew. Not here here in the hotel anyway ‘cause it’s way too big and most of those rooms aren’t clean and there might even be rats," Dawn replied, wrinkling her nose at the thought.

"Rats?" Andrew said in a quavering tone, his voice raising and getting squeaky at the end of the word. His eyes darted around the kitchen and he shuffled close to the table as if one of the rodents had made an impromptu appearance.

Buffy snorted. "Andrew, don’t tell me you’re scared of rats. You used to summon demons!"

"Demons are one thing. I know how to deal with them. But rats are nasty with their beady eyes and skinny, hairless tails. They’ll crawl on you when you’re sleeping. If you’ve ever had some bully take one of those things and drop them down the back of your shirt, then you’d…" He trailed off and muttered, "I-I don’t suppose that’s ever happened to any of you."

"Nope. Can’t say that it ever has. But, if it’s any consolation, I got turned into a rat once, courtesy of a spell by Amy," Buffy told him with a sunny smile.

Andrew was wide-eyed at this intelligence. "Really? That’s so freaky. What was it like?"

"I remember being hungry mostly and having this weird craving for cheese that lasted for days afterwards." Buffy finished the last of her bacon and eggs and scooped up two of the muffins. "I’m heading out."

Willow stood up, too. "Buffy, can I come with you? I think I’ve come up with a way to help Cordelia. I can go into her mind the same way I did with you and find out what’s going on in there. Then maybe I can bring her out of it."

"You think Queen C will listen to you?"

Willow tilted up her chin in an unconscious gesture of defiance. "Oh please. I’ve got more power in one of my pinkies than she’s had in her entire life. Besides, she wasn’t queen of anything except one stupid little school that sank into the dirt along with the rest of Sunnydale. That’s what I’ll tell her if she tries pulling any of that hoity toity attitude with me."

Buffy grinned at the return of Willow’s Resolve Face. She had certainly changed a lot from the girl who had been pushed around in high school. Just let Cordelia try messing with her. [That’s right, Angel. My girlfriend can beat up your girlfriend and I so didn’t mean that the way it sounded.]

Buffy agonized over what she should wear. Thanks to Angel’s generosity there were plenty of clothes for her to choose from. But she didn’t want Angel to think she was dressing for him. No sir. That didn’t mean she had to look all rumpled and dirty, did it? That blue dress with the matching shoes should do nicely.

She looked at her hair critically in the mirror and grimaced. It certainly wasn’t looking its best. She’d been so worried about the upcoming apocalypse maintaining her hair had taken a backseat. The hair dye she used to give it that healthy blonde color and shimmer had long since faded. Without it, she was a rather drab shade of dark blond and it really didn’t flatter her.

Buffy sighed and decided to pin it back and tie it in a chignon. That way, there would be less of it to see. [Too bad I’m not a hat weary type of girl. I could pull an Audrey Hepburn and look stylish, kooky and mysterious all at once.] She picked up the leather coat and held it up to her nostrils. While it provided a perfect excuse to see Angel again, a part of her didn’t want to let it go. It was the only thing she had left of him.

She blinked away the incipient sting of tears and recalled her dream from last night. That baby blue rattle…it was important, it had to be, or dream-Angel would never have made such a fuss about it. Getting an idea, she ran to his room.


This time Willow and Buffy were ushered into Wolfram & Hart’s inner sanctum without question nor ceremony. Willow had warned Buffy that the law firm possessed mind readers so she would have to raise a screen to keep them from hearing their thoughts. She was certain she could keep them out of their minds but it would require a bit of concentration.

Buffy had wondered why it would be necessary until Willow pointed out that keeping Cordelia here might be the hold they had on Angel. Of course, they probably wouldn’t have come right out and told him that; he’d be unlikely to respond well to threats. But if they kept dangling the hope that they held the cure for her mysterious sleep, it might be enough incentive to tie him permanently to their apron strings. Therefore they might not relish the idea of Willow freeing Cordelia on her own.

Willow pressed the elevator button for the upper floor. "So what are you gonna say when you meet Angel?" [Buffy, I’ll let him know what’s happening and have him guard the door, okay?]

[Won’t they be suspicious about all three of us taking up so much time?] "I don’t know yet. Haven’t got past the you-left-your-coat-with-me-last-night speech." Buffy shifted the said garment to one arm and brushed her fingers across the sleek material in an unconscious caress.

The two women kept up a stream of light, inconsequential babble as the elevator took them to their destination. [Maybe you could have an argument. A really loud one. That would keep away most people…and anybody who came to eavesdrop wouldn’t pay any attention to what I’d be doing.]

[And what will you be doing exactly?]

[Same thing I did with you. I’ll be chanting, meditating and going into Cordelia’s mind. To the observer who’s all casual-y it’ll look like I’m just sitting there staring at her.]

The elevator stopped and Willow directed another thought to her blonde friend. [I’ll contact Angel in his mind now and let him know what we’re planning.]

[You’re going into Angel’s mind? Great. First Faith does it and now you. I guess I’m the only one not to know the deep dark secret that is Mr. Broody. Wait, I thought vampires couldn’t get their minds read. I know; I tried when those mouthless demons tainted me with their ooky blood.]

[I’m not going into his mind. I’m just going to send him messages the way I did with Spike. It’ll be easy.]

The elevator pulled up to Cordelia’s floor and Willow sent her mind out. To her disappointment, Angel was nowhere in the immediate vicinity. "That’s weird."

"What is?" Buffy didn’t see anything particularly unusual. It was just a long featureless corridor with closed doors on both sides.

"Angel told me he was going to look in on Cordelia every day around this time. Guess he’s running late."

"He does have a gadzillion dollar business to run. Maybe directing evil takes up a lot of time."

Willow wanted to debate the evil part but she was on a mission so she dismissed it. "I’ll just go in and stay with Cordelia, keep her company. You can go look for Angel." She walked down the corridor and around the corner only to see a security guard posted in front of the door. Okay, this was new. "Uh, hi? Can I go in?"

The tall man was sporting a microphone in his ear and listening intently to whoever was on the other end. "Yes? Yes, she’s here. Ms. Rosenberg. I’m sorry. Mr. Angel isn’t allowing Ms. Chase any visitors today."

"What? Why? She and I are best friends. We used to go to high school together." Well, they’re being best friends wasn’t strictly true but this guy didn’t need to know that.

"I’m sorry. There are to be no visitors besides Mr. Angel." The man’s voice was flat without a trace of menace but his unyielding stance was clear.

"But I was just here yesterday! When did this happen?" The guard shrugged and made no other comment.

Willow looked deep into his eyes, speaking very carefully. "You’ve gotten your orders mixed up. Angel would never bar one of his oldest friends from seeing another of his oldest friends. You’re going to let me inside and forget that I’m there. Got it?"

During her recitation, the man’s face had grown imperceptibly slacker until he blinked and stood aside from the door. [Go Jedi mind trick. Wouldn’t Andrew be impressed.] He pressed a keypad that Willow only then noticed. She quickly memorized the code and moved forward as the door opened. Then she paused. "Are there any security cameras in that room?"

He spoke slowly as if having trouble understanding her question. "Yeah, there’s a camera. But she’s a veggie and the guy watching is a total spaz. He’ll probably spend most of his time reading one of his Hustler magazines and nipping out for donuts instead of doing his job."

"Good. You just hang out here like a good boy scout and don’t think about me. Okay?" she finished brightly. The man blinked again and turned to stand staring sightlessly at the opposite wall.

Willow chanted a quick spell to freeze the image on the camera and stepped inside. Magic and technology did not work well together and the camera would either short out soon, setting off an alarm, or else the screen would go blank alerting Mr. Hustler-and-Donuts. She would just have to work quickly and hope that Cordelia proved less stubborn than Buffy.

Willow staggered as a young man with immaculately pressed hair bumped into her. "Hey!"

"Hey, yourself." He peered at her. "Are you in this scene?"

"Scene? What scene?"

"If you’re not in this scene, you should get off the premises. This is a closed set." The man’s glare became more pronounced as he looked her up and down. Evidently he disapproved of her appearance in general and her presence in particular.

A sense of déjà vu overtook her as she recalled her dream about the First Slayer when she’d been harassed about her part in Death of a Salesman. "Um, I need to see Cordelia Chase. I’m a friend of hers."

Now the man—whose nametag read Louis—smirked. "Let me guess. You’re an old high school buddy from out of town."

"Yeah! That’s right. How did you know?" She scanned the space around her and now she could see she was on some sort of stage set. She could see a prop wall and glimpse several pieces of what looked like dining room furniture just to her right. There was a small army of people bustling about, calling for light changes, coffee and arguments about the script.

The man rolled his eyes and sighed in exaggerated patience. "Everybody’s a friend of Cordelia Chase. You don’t know how many pathetic fans claiming to be old high school buddies or sweethearts or long-lost relatives I’ve had to run out of this place. I’ve even gotten a few people saying they used to teach her classes. Can you believe it?"

"But I really am an old friend! Tell her it’s Willow Rosenberg. I used to sit behind her in class with Xander Harris."

"Whatever. You can’t see Ms. Chase. She has a scene in five minutes…"

"Shut up, Louis." Willow commanded. She had no idea if her wicca powers worked inside Cordelia’s mind but she was getting tired of this guy and she was willing to risk it.

Louis’s mouth worked but no sound came out. He tried speaking again and a look of panic appeared on his face. He grabbed his throat and made an attempt to shout with the exact same result. Willow waved her hand and said, "Tell me where Cordelia Chase’s dressing room is."

He made one last-ditch effort to speak and then pointed dumbly off to her right. Willow beamed at him and led him gently over to a foldout metal chair. "Thank you. You’ve been helpful. Now go to sleep."

Louis slumped over, his clipboard clattering to the floor. Gentle snores came out of his mouth. Willow snatched up the discarded clipboard and proceeded off in the direction he’d given her. "Gee, that was neat. Obi Wan’s got nothing on me."

Even with the determination to keep to the right, she still had to dodge a whole bunch of people. Unlike Louis, many of them were too busy to notice her. A few who did merely glanced at the clipboard and then ignored her as if it gave her automatic clearance. Evidently once you got this far onto the set, everybody just assumed you belonged.

Finally, she reached her goal. A door with the words "Cordelia Chase" in large, impressive letters and a big gold star stood before her and she reached out to turn the handle. Finding it locked, she chanted a few more words and the door swung open.

Cordelia was reclining backward in a plush leather seat, her eyes closed, while a frowsy woman in an apron fussed around her face. "Ms. Chase, I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to work on someone like you. Such a flawless complexion, such perfectly styled hair… I hardly have to do any work at all. It makes me wonder why you need my services."

"Oh, sweetie. I’d be lost without you," Cordelia responded in an airy tone as she fluttered her hand. Neither woman appeared to have noticed Willow’s entrance.

The redhead cleared her throat and glanced at the woman’s nametag. "Nora, would you go now? Ms. Chase is just fine and the other actors need you."

Nora blinked and frowned. "Who are you? I don’t remember having seen you before."

Willow grinned feebly and waved her clipboard. "I’m new. Just got hired this morning. Ms. Chase has a scene in less than two minutes so I think you’re done here."

Nora shrugged and dusted her hands off. "Very well. Goodbye, Ms. Chase. See you for the next scene change." She left and Willow shut the door behind her.

Cordelia hadn’t moved when Willow spoke and that surprised her. Didn’t the former cheerleader recognize her voice? Willow noted that she didn’t appear that much different from when she’d last seen her. [Guess Cordelia thinks she’s too perfect to change.] "Cordelia? It’s me, Willow. Get up. You have to get out of here."

The brunette woman opened her eyes and sat up. "Excuse me? Of course I have to get out of here. My scene’s coming up. I hope Chester’s got his lines straight. Honestly, that man needs so much prompting it makes me wonder if he can even read the cue cards. Maybe he’s dyslexic…" she mused.

"Cordelia, you have to listen to me. I’ve come to get you out of here. You’re not really on some sound set in Los Angeles. You’re trapped inside your own mind."

"What the hell are you talking about, trapped inside my mind? Is this some script change I haven’t been told about?"

"Cordelia, don’t you remember me? It’s Willow from back in high school." Willow moved closer to the woman, upset to realize there was no spark of recognition in her eyes.

The brunette woman raised one carefully sculpted eyebrow and leaned back in the chair. "Oh great. One of my ole high school loser chums dropped by to pay a visit. Shit, what the hell are those guards being paid for? Security!"

"No! Listen to me, Cordelia. You’re not some actress type playing on a sitcom—"

"You’re damn right I’m not! I’m CORDELIA CHASE and you’re on the set of ‘Cordy!’ What does that tell you, missy?"

"Cordy? You mean the sitcom is named after you?" Willow couldn’t help it. She let out a choked giggle and then started laughing. "I don’t know why I’m surprised; that is so typical of you! And to think Angel said you’d changed!"

"Angel? What did he say about—" The brunette’s mouth snapped shut but not before Willow caught the slip.

"You remember Angel? You remember Angel from high school but you don’t remember me?" She stepped closer to Cordelia, her eyes narrowing in suspicion. "You do know who I am, don’t you? You’re just pretending so you can stay stuck in this pretend, make-believe idiot world you’ve built up for yourself, aren’t you?"

Cordelia’s expression went from hunted to feral to innocent all in the blink of an eye. "I don’t know what you’re talking about. For all I know, this is just some wacky rehearsal for a new scene I’m supposed to be doing." She turned back to the mirror and pretended to smooth away a non-existent smear of lipstick.

Willow marched up to her. "This isn’t real, Cordelia, and you know it. How come no one’s come in here? You were supposed to be on the set minutes ago and no one’s called for you. What does that tell you?"

The feral expression appeared once more and Willow thought she saw an ugly flicker in the other woman’s eyes. "It tells me that those jerk guards are sleeping on the job. It tells me this joke has gone beyond ha-ha funny and straight into La La Land. Now get out of here, Rosenberg, before security gets here and you’ll be in real trouble."

"How do you know my name is Rosenberg?"

The brunette flicked her a startled glance. "What?"

"I never said my last name is Rosenberg. How do you know that if you don’t remember me?"

There was a long silence. Then the brunette gave the redhead a bored look from the mirror’s surface. "You just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you, witch?"

Her voice deepened to a basso profundo and then she sprang out of her seat and smacked Willow hard across the room. "You thwarted me once, witch. You won’t do it again."

Willow flew across the room to crash into a small table in the corner. She slid to the floor, dazed and hurting, as the other stalked up to her. "I owe you some serious payback for returning Angel’s pesky little soul," she growled. "Having him back nearly ruined my plans. Not that it mattered in the end." She grabbed the stunned redhead and hauled her up by her blouse. "Angel tried to stop the birth of my child and failed. All you did was delay the inevitable."

She ([Not Cordelia! Not Cordelia!] was the witch’s frantic thought) tossed her hard against the door so that it cracked with the impact. Willow scrambled to her feet and threw up her hands. A streak of dark fire flew from them and enveloped the false creature near her. Not-Cordelia screamed and Willow felt the echo of pain rippling through the space around her. Appalled, she stopped her attack.

The thing wearing Cordelia’s face reeled and managed a sickly grin. "That’s right, witch. We’re in Cordelia’s mind. I may not have control of her body any more—the pregnancy took a lot out of both of us—but her mind’s still very much alive. You’ll hurt her if you try any of your tricks in here. I, on the other hand, have pretty much carte blanche to do whatever I want."

"If that’s the case, why this elaborate ‘adored actress’ business? Why do you need it?"

"It keeps her happy and sedated while I rebuild my strength. Most of the time she even forgets who her friends used to be. She doesn’t remember you, Willow, except as a mousy, unimportant little computer geek. And if I say so, that’s all you are." The creature made a gesture and abruptly they were back in Sunnydale High.

Willow stared around and then looked down at herself in dismay. Her hair hung long over her shoulders and her clothes were a loudly colored sweater with horizontal stripes and a blue jumper. She hadn’t dressed like this in years. She looked around frantically and saw the other students bustling past her.

"Oh Willow. So nice to see you’ve discovered the softer side of Sears." She jerked up her head and saw the Cordelia Chase of old: Queen C, confident and sneering just as she used to be. Something inside of Willow wilted and she wanted to scurry under a bench somewhere.

Then she realized. This was what the creature wanted. She had confronted Cordelia in her little fantasy and with a few words torn it to shreds. So the monster wearing Cordy’s face had thrust her into the memory of a time when she had been powerless, unsure and weak and Cordelia had been on top of the world. Well, forget that. She straightened up and stared Cordelia in the eye. "Fuck you, bitch."

The other woman faltered. "What? What did you say?"

"I said fuck you. I kicked your ass when I stuck Angel’s soul back in. You tried a mini earthquake, you tried the Great and Powerful Oz crap and I still won. You’re not Cordelia Chase and, even if you were, you wouldn’t impress. She had to have the role of Higher Being handed to her. I seized power all on my own."

"And look where that got you," the beast hissed. Evidently the monster wouldn’t keep up the charade once Willow saw through it. "Your friends hated you! Your best friend tried to kill you. Your lover died and you couldn’t save her or bring her back. What good is your power, witch?"

"Just ask all the Slayers I empowered, asshole." Willow stepped up to the thing and slugged it hard in the jaw. Maybe she didn’t have Buffy’s Slayer strength but she had the element of surprise and the monster staggered. Willow took advantage of the momentary respite and ran.

How did the creature know about what she’d done? Well, she had done a lot of talking in front of Cordelia when she’d been here with Xander the other day. The thing must have been taking notes.

That monster wasn’t Cordelia but it had Cordelia somewhere in its clutches. What had it said? That fake acting set kept Cordelia entertained. [Entertained and oh-so-satisfied with herself, I’ll bet. It’s meant to keep Cordy quiet so she won’t wake up.]

Willow paused and tried to think of a plan .The creature had kept Cordy amused so she wouldn’t question the reality around her and wake up. What if Willow removed that complacency?

She smiled to herself, closed her eyes and concentrated. The next moment she saw Cordelia with a really bad case of the frizzies being dragged down the hallway by a pair of math geeks. "No! No! I don’t wanna go! There’s been some mistake, honest!"

Willow ran in after her. "Hi, Randall. Hi, Lewis."

The two guys looked up from behind their taped glasses and grinned, nearly blinding her with the light gleaming off their braces. "H-h-h-i, W-w-wil-low," Randy stuttered.

"Hey, Willow. I just got this new computer program. It has 24 levels of proficiency and it learns at twice the speed of—"

"Not now, Lewis. I’m looking to talk to a friend of mine." She had spotted Cordelia in the corner. The prom queen was trying to fend off a guy who was showing her his latest Batman comic and another girl who was offering her a cup of soymilk. At the same time, she was tearfully begging people for a comb and mirror. "Hi, Cordelia!"

The former May queen gazed up at her and her eyes widened. "Oh thank god, Willow! You have got to get me away from these freaks! Look what they did to my hair!"

"Your hair is gonna be fine, Cordelia. Although I can’t say the same for the rest of you if you stay cooped up here."

"I’ve been trying to get out of here! Do you think I want to spend my lunch period with a bunch of geeks and losers like you?"

Willow’s lips thinned. She’d almost forgotten what a bitch the brunette used to be. "That wasn’t the ‘here’ I was talking about, Cordelia. You know this isn’t real, none of this." She waved her hand vaguely in the direction of the entire room.

"Of course I know that! These people are all lost in their own stupid little worlds of comic books and Dungeons & Dragons and all the rest of that fantasy crap. They probably wouldn’t know Gucci loafers if someone hit them over the head with them!" The girl with the soymilk finally came up with a comb and Cordelia snatched it from her without a single word of thanks and began pulling hard at her frizzled locks.

[Oh, these people are lost in a fantasy world, Miss-I’ve-Got-My-Own-Sitcom?] Willow yanked the comb from her hand and held it behind her back. "I’m not talking about this room, Cordelia. I’m talking about this whole Back to the Future scenario. This isn’t real! Your brain’s been hijacked and you’re being held prisoner in it. Watch." Willow focused her mind again and her tacky clothes disappeared to be replaced by the stylish tight aquamarine top and forest green pants she’d put on just this morning.

Cordelia’s eyes widened as she took in the change. "Wow. That’s really…something. Is that Anne Klein? You’re finally joining the cool set."

"These clothes aren’t real either. They’re just a construct, like this room, like these students, like your hair and, if you don’t snap out of it, you dumb frizzy-haired cow, you’re going to be stuck here forever!"

Cordelia’s mouth dropped open. "What did you call me?"

Willow backed up, holding the comb tauntingly in front of her. "You heard me. I called you a dumb. Frizzy-haired. Cow. Whaddaya gonna do about it?" She smirked and waggled the comb.

"I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do about it. I’m gonna call the principal and have you slapped in detention for the rest of your natural life, Rosenberg!"

Willow frowned. Damn, that was not the response she was looking for. She had to get Cordelia to snap out of this and that meant no running for outside help. "What are you gonna tell him? That I called you names? You pathetic little crybaby. You’re just as fake as the rest of this place. The Cordelia I knew wouldn’t hide behind geeks and bad hair. She wouldn’t want to stay stuck in high school just because she was popular there. She wouldn’t let some monster into her mind and trap her in an imaginary wonderland, no matter how comfy. She’d…"

Right then Willow heard it—a vibrating, guttural growl that echoed faintly from down the hall. The beast was hunting for her and, if it found her, she would have no recourse but to fight and thereby injure Cordelia in the process.

"Cordelia, I’d love to debate real versus unreal issues but we’ve got bigger problems right now."

"Oh, really, Willow? Like, say, a trip to the principal’s office?"

"You step outside that door and you’re the one who’s gonna be on a permanent trip," Willow muttered. She scanned the room. Except for the windows there were no other exits. She shrugged. [So what? It’s not as if this place was real.]

She grabbed the windowsill and yanked it upright and then peered down. The ground wasn’t too far; they should be able to make it. She looked back into the room. "Okay, Cordelia. I’m going fir…"

Cordelia Chase was gone.


Part 6

Angel and Gunn were sparring in the gymnasium. Angel had to admit that Wolfram & Hart certainly kept their facility well equipped. There was every conceivable kind of weapon in their storerooms. Many he had seen but there was an even greater amount that he hadn’t.

But right now the weapons weren’t really his first concern. It was Gunn. The former gangbanger had never had much in the way of finesse with weapons. His method was to charge in swinging and hack and slash until his opponent was down. He liked special weapons but he wasn’t picky about them. He also didn’t have a particular beef against vampires. Gunn detested them and other demons but he’d learned to make distinctions and hatred usually was never a motivating factor when he fought.

Now he fought with a slinky grace and barely controlled viciousness that hadn’t been there previously. He was watching for openings and his fight lacked the usual genial banter he brought to it. If Angel didn’t know better, he’d swear that Gunn was actually trying to kill him.

After one particularly close swing, the vampire backed up and threw up one hand. "Hey, fella! Take it easy. Time out, okay?"

"What’s the matter, Angel? Want to stop because I’m kicking your pale ass?" The quip sounded jocular but there was a subtle edge underneath it that Angel didn’t missed.

He eyed the black man narrowly. "What’s happened to you, Gunn?"

"Whachu talkin’ about?" Gunn spun the sword he was holding and Angel noted the deceptively casual arc of the weapon. It stopped abruptly, pointed at the vampire, and Angel tensed.

"You’ve changed since we took Wolfram & Hart up on their offer."

"I haven’t changed. Still the same old smokin’ Gunn." The man grinned at his own joke but the vampire didn’t smile in return.

"No, you’re not. Your scent’s changed. It’s different from what it was before."

The black man shrugged. "You tryin’ to tell me I smell? ‘Cause after the workout we’ve had, that’s kind of a given."

The vampire shook his head, wondering if the man was being deliberately obtuse. "No. It’s no longer a merely human smell like Wesley’s. It’s—off somehow."

The black man frowned. "You sayin’ I ain’t human no more?"

"Not entirely. It’s a basic human smell but it also smells like magic and something else I can’t put my finger on. All I know is that it’s not the same. You’re not the same. You fight differently, move differently. What happened when you went off with that Lacey Shepherd?"

"I told you. She showed me around, said they got grander plans for me. But I never saw those plans. She never told me anything."

Angel kept his eyes fastened on the man. Gunn was starting to pace up and down and the change in his movements was even more marked than it had been. He was like an animal brought to bay, one that might turn and strike at any moment.

"Something else must have happened, Gunn. Lilah gave me an amulet to help Buffy. That was the bait she used to win me over. Fred is giddy over her new lab and all the shiny toys that go with it. Lorne is thrilled at the idea that he might actually get to meet Tony Bennett and Wesley’s been practically living in the vaults since he came on board. But you haven’t said one word about what it is Wolfram & Hart gave to make you cave in."

"I didn’t cave in, Angel. I just saw what a great opportunity it is for me here."

"Doing what? You’re just the muscle. They can hire demons stronger than you any day of the week." That was a deliberate taunt and Gunn rose to the bait.

"Yeah, well, you’re just muscle, too. Never seen you demonstrate much in the way of brains, Angel. You knew Cordy the longest out of any of us and you took months to figure out that something else was living in her skin. I been in the demons fighting gig a helluva lot longer than you and Wes together and yet they made you boss and then him. From what I’m seeing, I don’t know what made the two of you more qualified than me to be leader. Now I got the chance to be more than I was and you can’t handle it. What’s the matter? ‘Fraid I’ll outshine you?"

The man was getting angrier by the moment and Angel knew the breaking point was near. "What chance? How are you more than what you were? What did they do to you, Gunn? They change you like those vampires changed Alanna?"

The memory of his dead sister was evidently still a deeply sore point. "I’m tellin’ you, nothing happened!" Gunn’s words erupted in a snarl and he launched himself at Angel again. But the vampire anticipated this and he disarmed Gunn in a few deft moves. He was still stronger than any human and he pinned Gunn to the mat and twisted his arm behind him.

"Gunn! Stop it! This isn’t you!"

"The hell it isn’t! Let me up, you vampire bastard!"

There was more than mere rage behind the statement and Angel twisted harder. Gunn’s otherworldly smell was increasing with his anger and he was bucking up and down harder than he should have been able to given his position. "Did they do something to Fred?"

"Fred?" The man relaxed fractionally but Angel didn’t ease up on his grip.

"She smelled different when she came back from being with Knox Webster. It could have been just the chemicals from that lab she was in but maybe they altered her, too."

"No, they wouldn’t have done that to Fred. They need her just like she is." In spite of his certainty, Angel could hear a trace of doubt in the big man’s voice.

"What are you talking about, Gunn? They gave Lindsey a hand they took from one of their old employees. They brought Lilah and Holland Manners back from the dead just so they could keep them on the payroll. You think they’d keep their mitts off Fred if they thought they could make her better somehow?"

"They wouldn’t…Fred would have said…I would have known. If she was different, I would have known it!" The big man began struggling again and Angel bent his arm up even farther. A normal human would have been howling in pain by now. He might put down Gunn’s resistance to macho toughness. But he sensed no pain in the former street thug and there should have been.

"How would you have known it, Gunn? Tell me. If what they did to you was so harmless, you wouldn’t be scared to tell me about it."

The man under him shuddered and then mumbled, "I don’t know."

"There must have been something."

The silence dragged on for painful moments. Then Gunn whispered, "There was a cat."

Angel prompted him when there nothing more seemed forthcoming. "A cat? What kind of cat?"

"A big ole jungle cat. A black panther which was kinda obvious when you think about it. Lacey took me to the white room. I didn’t know that’s where she was taking me, I swear! I said I wasn’t ready, that they had the wrong guy, and I tried to hit the other buttons to take me down. The last thing I wanted was to meet whatever replaced that scary demony girl in the mary janes."

Angel released Gunn at last and let him sit up. Gunn sighed and rubbed his face wearily. "The elevator faded and that Lacey bitch disappeared. Then I was in the white room and I thought I was alone at first. Then I heard this mean growling that was coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. If I still had hair on my head, it would have been standing straight up."

He leapt up and began pacing again as he tried to explain what happened next. "Then this panther comes out of nowhere and I think I’ve been literally thrown to the lions. But it just crouched on the floor and stared at me. Then…" He shook his head as he tried to get a handle on the experience.

"What? What happened?"

"I-that’s the freaky thing! I’m not sure. I could feel the thing pushing at my mind. Not like it was reading it but trying to get inside it. And suddenly I was seeing myself from the panther’s view like we’d switched places, ya know? I could hear my own heartbeat loud in my ears and a rushing sound like water only I knew it wasn’t. Then the panther disappeared and I was alone. But, man, I’m tellin’ you, Angel, that doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s like I got no words for what really went down in there. I’m not even sure myself what happened."

The look on the other man’s face was a conflict of terror and primal desire. "I know I was changed and that I liked it—maybe too much. But I didn’t feel all demony inside. I didn’t have this urge to go out and start ripping out people’s throats or nothing. When I came out of the elevator, everything was sharper, brighter, louder but in a good way like these hidden veils in the world had been torn away. I could see everything clear for the first time in my life. I was waiting for someone to say I looked different. But all Fred said was that I looked taller."

He glanced down at Angel who hadn’t moved from the mat since he’d held Gunn down there. "You say I’m different. So all I’m asking is—is this a good thing or a bad thing?"

"It’s a Wolfram & Hart thing. Lindsey decided to get out while he could and the worst he got was another man’s hand." Angel’s eyes narrowed. He sensed someone approaching. A familiar presence, one he was getting too well reacquainted with in the last few days, was getting closer…

"Maybe we should get in touch with him, see how that evil hand thing is working out for him then. ‘Cause I’m thinking I got a lot more than a human body part running around inside me."

"That’s a picture I so don’t want to touch." Buffy’s amused voice came from the gymnasium door and Gunn smiled. He looked at Buffy with an appraising glance, his head slightly tilted to the side. Buffy noticed his intense stare and raised her eyebrows in inquiry. "Something I said?"

"Naw. You looking good in that blue dress, is all. If you weren’t Angel’s girl, I might think about making a play."

"I’m not Angel’s—"

"She’s not my—"

Buffy and Angel spoke simultaneously. They traded glances and then almost as quickly looked away.

"Well, I’m gonna go check up on Wesley and the others. I wanna see if I can pry his nose outta those books for two minutes. The man needs to relax. He keeps mumbling on about Angel’s Shan—"

"Gunn." The warning was unmistakable and Gunn stopped, confused, as his gaze swung between the tense vampire and the suddenly watchful Slayer paused in the doorway. He sensed the situation had become volatile and decided it would be a good idea to vamoose before the shit hit the fan.

Buffy closed the door and locked it. "What was that he was saying about you? Shan what?"

"Nothing." He came to his feet in one smooth, graceful movement, far too fluid for any human to manage, and walked over to the bench, scooping up his shirt. He was hyper-aware of Buffy’s gaze trained between his shoulderblades and he wanted to give himself a moment to regroup.

He was wearing a thin wife-beater that clung to his back and his usual black slacks. He’d chosen to fight barefoot and Buffy unconsciously licked her lips as she eyed the griffin faintly visible under his shirt. [It’s almost too bad he doesn’t sweat. I wouldn’t mind seeing the water dripping off his…]

She jerked her mind away from those thoughts. She was being bad Buffy again and she desperately summoned in her mind the cookie speech she’d given him. Suddenly she realized that sunlight was pouring through the windows set high in the walls and Angel had carelessly walked through a patch of it to reach the bench. "Angel! The sun!"

"What?" He glanced up at the windows. "Oh yeah. I can’t believe I’ve gotten used to it so quickly."

"Used to it? Are—are you…?" She walked closer to him. No, there was the often-felt tightness in her gut that heralded a demon’s presence. He was still a vampire. But how could he be standing in the sun?

"The windows have been specially treated. I can stand in sunlight without being burned. And they’re 30% more efficient in circulating heat or some such thing," he concluded, shrugging.

"Oh." She couldn’t believe it. Angel standing in the sun—in a wide room practically bare except for a few scattered weapons that he put away into their stands. The picture was so much like her dream that she stood transfixed, assailed by a dizzying sense of familiarity.

"What are you doing here, Buffy?" The words came coolly from the vampire and she refocused on him to see his shirt was now carefully buttoned up. She took deep breaths as she tried to maintain her composure.

She smoothed her hand down her dress. "I wanted to thank you for the clothes. And you left your coat at the hotel. I thought you’d like to have it back before I left."

He stood and took it from her outstretched arms, managing not to touch her as he did so. "Thanks." Then he asked, "How’s Faith? She didn’t look the worse for wear last night but I just wanted to make sure."

"Faith? She’s okay. You know Faith. You can stab her, put her in a coma, throw her in jail—somehow she always comes out of the corner swinging."

"Yeah. She’s a tough little Slayer." There was more than a hint of fondness and pride in his voice and Buffy was subtly hurt. He hadn’t asked about her condition although he’d certainly fussed enough over her when she was laid up on that couch.

"She’s tough all right." There was an awkward pause. "Speaking of tough gals, how’s Cordelia?"

"The same." There was nothing more forthcoming and his voice revealed nothing, love, hate nor indifference, and Buffy suddenly wanted to scream at him. She had mentioned she was leaving and he had made no comment other than to ask after Faith. Didn’t he care about her at all? Had her business with Spike actually made him hate her?

She marveled at the calmness in her own voice when she spoke again. "Willow told me…about the demon pregnancy. Guess it wasn’t the future Cordelia planned for herself."

"No, it wasn’t." There was a trace of hoarseness in his voice and she could see the guilt in his eyes deepen. For some reason he felt responsible for what had happened to Cordelia and the implications were disturbing.

All at once she remembered the other matter that had brought her and she blurted out, "Who’s Connor?"

The reaction was more than she could have expected. His pale face got even more ashen and his eyes darkened until they were almost black. "Connor?"

"Is there an echo in here? Connor. Who is he?"

"There’s no one called Connor." The mask was back in place but she wasn’t fooled. His last comment had been leading to say the least.

"But there was a Connor, I’m betting. Who was he? What did he have to do with this?" She dug into her purse and brought up the blue rattle. She held it in front of Angel’s eyes and waited for a response.

The vampire stared at the toy and he reached out to touch it with one finger. "Where did you find this?" he said in a near whisper. "And how did you hear that name?"

"In your room. I’m thinking it was your room judging by the black-on-black motif on the shreds of clothing I found. I also had a dream—make that two dreams. You remember my dreams, don’t you, Angel? The wacky ones with the SurroundSound, memories of things past and previews of things to come. They’ve made a comeback in a big way and you were starring in both of them. That’s when you mentioned Connor."

"I-I thought it was all gone, every bit of it." He continued to stare at the rattle as if mesmerized. She held it out to him and he took it mutely, handling it with exquisite care, his large hands dwarfing the tiny toy.

"What was all gone? Is this…?" She could hardly get the words out and she swallowed hard. "Was Connor Cordelia’s baby, too?"

The shock on his face was almost comical. "Cordelia’s baby? No! Her baby—well, Willow and Xander must have told you all about hers." The sadness was back in his voice and his fists clenched at the memory of his seer’s pain.

"Yeah. But I’m asking about this one."

The silence was long as Angel stared into space. Just when she thought he wasn’t going to answer her question, he gave a long drawn-out sigh. "He was Darla’s baby."

"Darla? Darla, your Sire? That Darla? But you staked her almost six years ago. Not the sorta thing I’d forget, Angel, seeing as I was there."

"She—the people of Wolfram & Hart brought her back…as a human. It was done to torment me, drive me over the edge." His eyes darkened almost imperceptibly with remembered grief and anger. "She was dying from the disease that had been killing her over 500 years ago and they expected me to turn her to keep her alive. I couldn’t do it, Buffy. It would have been a betrayal of everything I’d been trying to achieve with my existence. But they wouldn’t leave her alone. One of them—a bastard called Lindsey McDonald—got Drusilla to turn her. She did it in front of me." The last sentence emerged as a dry whisper.

"Oh god. Angel, I’m so sorry. That must have been awful." When had this happened? Why hadn’t he come to her? "Why didn’t you ever say anything?"

He shrugged wearily and then got up and started to pace, unconsciously mimicking Gunn’s earlier movement. "I left you to pursue your own life, Buffy. That meant I didn’t want to unload my problems on you. Your mother was ill then and I didn’t want to burden you with difficulties you couldn’t fix."

"You knew Mom was ill? I thought you only knew after she died."

"Willow…she kept in touch with me. She told me about some of the things that were going on in your life. Evidently she didn’t tell me everything," he muttered and she knew he was thinking about Spike. She decided to steer clear of that topic for the moment.

"About the baby…you said it was Darla’s. Did she have it when she was human?"

"Well, this is where the story turns kinda weird."

"Like it was normal before now?"

He grinned faintly but with no humor behind it. "Darla became a vampire and went on a rampage. I went even farther off the edge and when Darla came to me, I lost it completely. I attacked her and—we had sex." The word didn’t even begin to describe the wild and vicious couplings they’d engaged in that night. He’d had deep scratches all over his body for several minutes afterwards and Darla hadn’t fared much better. It may not have quite equaled the ferocity of the sex they’d had when he was soulless but it had come close.

"You had sex—with Darla. Angel, did you…I mean, your soul! How could you take that kind of a risk?"

"I was cold, so cold inside. It was complete and utter despair, worse than anything I’d ever felt. I’d fired my crew because I could feel myself spinning out of control and I was terrified about what I’d do to them when I finally snapped. Without them, I completely lost my connection to humanity. So, yes, sex with Darla seemed like a very appealing notion."

His voice was bitter with a fine edge of sarcasm she rarely heard in it. Well, who was she to throw stones? She could definitely relate, what with her vile, twisted deal with Spike last year. She grimaced at the thought and patted the bench beside her. "Angel. Please. Sit down. I’m thinking long story, lots of time. Take a load off."

He stopped and approached the bench and sat down. She noted he kept his distance but decided not to let it bother her. Now was not the time for her personal angst. "So what happened? Darla gave you a happy and Angelus…"

"—didn’t show. Darla was understandably upset about that," he commented with a wry smile. Upset didn’t really cover it. She’d been shocked to the core and he could almost laugh when he recalled the disappointment in her eyes that sex with her hadn’t achieved what it did with Buffy.

"Oh. So the sex really didn’t…no happy then?" Her voice was meek, wondering and just a little prideful.

He heard the unstated question. "Sex alone doesn’t make people happy, Buffy. You know that."

Was he talking about Spike again? Maybe not; he had to have known about her mortal boyfriends after his departure. And he was right: she knew better than anyone how much sex a person could have and still feel like crap afterwards.

"Been there, got that. So what happened after the make-out with Darla?"

He pulled himself together and told her. After the Darla debacle, the rest of the story was surprisingly easy to relate: Darla’s angry return, miraculously pregnant; the baby; Holtz; Wesley’s betrayal; his son’s reappearance as a bitter, hostile, murderous teenager; his many attempts to reach the boy, always resulting in failure and defeat; the final agonizing decision to let Connor go forever.

"Buffy, I know parents have to let their children go sometime. But I thought I’d see his childhood, his first steps, his first baby tooth and send him into college. Instead all I had were a few precious moments of infancy and now I can never see him again. Wolfram & Hart performed magic to erase all knowledge of him from our lives and ours from his. Nobody remembers him except me and that Lilah."

He thought of seeing Connor in the bosom of his perfect new family. "He’s got a whole new existence. He’s happy and I know I should be happy for him. He has everything I ever wanted for him and all I had to do was sacrifice my place in his life."

His voice choked off in a sob and he buried his face in his hands. Buffy leaned on him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. She struggled hard against her own tears; this was Angel’s grief not her own. He wept silently and she let his pain wash through her, making meaningless noises of comfort.

He had lost so much more than she ever realized. She had lost loved ones, too. But she could always go to her friends to help ease her pain. Angel didn’t have that option. "Have you talked to the others about this?"

"I tried. I just got tired of seeing those blank looks on their faces and hearing ‘Who’s Connor?’ whenever I did. Wesley doesn’t even remember that he got that scar on his throat because of Justine. He thinks it was in fight with a Grelnik."

He raised his head and sat clutching his hands together as he remembered his bitter confrontation with Wesley in the hospital. He whispered, "Maybe they’re better off not remembering. Connor wasn’t what you’d called a model kid. He made a lot of bad moves and some of those mistakes really hurt my people."

"I think that’s what you’d call being a teenager, Angel. Goodness knows my Mom and Dad wouldn’t give me Daughter of the Year Award."

"That’s not true, Buffy. Your mother loved you. She wanted the best for you." Angel recalled Joyce’s last meeting with him before he left Sunnydale and Buffy for good. He’d never told Buffy about that; she would never have understood Joyce’s noble intentions and she would have hated her mother for it. He didn’t want that, not for his Slayer.

"I guess. But when she learned I was the Slayer—let’s say she was not of the understanding about it."

"I can relate. I certainly was less than understanding when Connor slept with Cordelia." He delivered the bombshell as calmly as if discussing the stock report and her head shot up.

"What? Cordelia and Connor? How could she…I mean, didn’t you tell me she was changing his diapers? Angel, that was ewwww. Major ewwww!"

He smiled grimly; goodness knows he hadn’t felt like smiling when he’d seen it. "He knew that. But he was lonely, hormonal, and male—that all adds up to a lot of stupidity. Maybe it runs in the family."

"Okay, I get why he did it. But why did Cordelia do it? Was she lonely, too? And even if she was, that’s still kinda sick."

"Cordelia wasn’t lonely. She was…well, she wasn’t quite Cordelia. She was evil."

"No news there. I could have told you that in high school."

This time he managed a dry chuckle and she was absurdly pleased that she could make him laugh. She had lived for the times when she could lighten his habitual gloom back in Sunnydale.

"No, that’s not what I meant. I’m talking about true evil. When she came back from wherever she had been, something hitched a ride in her body. It was an entity called the Master and it was controlling the Beast. It led to having the sun go out over Los Angeles."

"It called itself the Master? These evil types aren’t much for the original, are they? The First, the Master…I’m surprised they don’t use names like the Boss or something."

"I think Bruce Springsteen’s taken that one."

A swift smile flashed across her face and then she sobered. "So this Master took over Cordelia’s body and made her sleep with Connor?" Then something clicked. "Oh my god. He was the father of her baby!"

He nodded. "That’s why I lied to Willow and Xander and said I didn’t know who it was. They didn’t know about Connor any more than anyone else did and…I couldn’t bring myself to tell them. If I can’t discuss it with my people, how could I tell folks I’d barely spoken with for years?"

"D-didn’t Willow know about Connor?"

"No. That was between me and my people in Los Angeles. I didn’t want her to tell you about him and I wasn’t sure she could keep that kind of a secret. In any case, Connor was special. His birth was miraculous, foretold in prophecies. But to me, he was just my baby boy and I wanted to keep him to myself. It was selfish, I know, but that’s how I felt."

"I understand." And she did, she really did. But part of her felt cheated. Angel had left her with the notion of giving her a normal life and here he had everything she didn’t—a home, a job in fancy offices probably with a real high paycheck to go with it. He’d even had a child! What did she have? A busload of wannabe-Slayers, a bratty teenaged sister, a cool weapon and a town collapsed into a crater. The only other possessions she had now were the ones Angel gave her.

[Gee, Buffy, self-involved much?] Her thoughts were derailed when Angel brought up her chin and gazed into her eyes. "It’s your turn."

"M-my turn?" She knew what he wanted; she was just stalling for time.

"You’ve got things you need to tell me, Buffy. I’d very much like to hear them. You’re leaving soon. What’s the harm?"

That was true. She was going to be leaving and yet she never felt less like doing so. She chewed her lip and sighed. "You remember when you heard I was back among the living?" He nodded silently. "Well, when I met you, there was more to it than that. I-I’d been in heaven."

"Heaven? Willow told me…"

"She was wrong." Even now, after all this time, there was a tinge of bitterness whenever she thought of her lost paradise. "She didn’t check it out; none of them did. Big demerits for the wicca."

He’d known it, too. "I knew something was different about you. Your scent had changed." It wasn’t just her altered scent. She’d also looked haggard and worn as if she weren’t sleeping nor eating well.

She drew back to look at him uncertainly. "Really? That vampire smelly thing again? Still not liking that, Angel."

She continued in a thoughtful voice. "It wasn’t even news to me—the wrongness, you know? I’d felt it all along. It’s part of the reason I slept with Spike. It made the pain go away at least for a bit. H-he said I came back wrong ‘cause he was able to hit me without his chip baking his brain. He started hitting me, one thing led to another…" She trailed off. He didn’t need to know the rest. It was an eerie counterpart to his session with Darla.

"Why didn’t you say something when I saw you?"

"It was the look in your eyes. You pitied me like I was one of your cases and all of a sudden I hated you. I wanted love. I wanted you to stay because you cared about me not because I was some magical basket case. I wanted to have the one person I loved more than anything in the world be with me and you couldn’t give me anything but pity. I couldn’t stand that."

There was a long pause. "You’re right. I did feel pity. But more than anything else I wanted to take you in my arms and never let you go. But there was always the old problem—"

"I know. Closeness brings smoochies and, before you know it, there’s soul lossage and much badness. I wasn’t asking for that. I’d given up on that when Riley left. Not sex per se; I’m not saying I was sworn to celibacy. I-I just wanted Angel cuddles."

"I remember some cuddling that night," Angel replied. Indeed. They had been engaged in some hot and heavy clinches before common sense had erected its unwelcome head. He’d gotten away from her as quickly as he could while there was still time. He had cut it rather close to dawn, all the same.

"Could—would it be okay if I got some now?" Her voice was small and timid as if she thought the idea would repel him. He didn’t speak. He only wrapped her in his arms and held her close.

Angel closed his eyes, reveling in the sensory symphony that was his Slayer. Her unique scent of vanilla, now with an otherworldly tang beneath it. Her hazel eyes that shifted color with her every mood. The flush of her skin highlighted by the dress he’d bought for her. The soft sea-swell murmur of her heartbeat. He could spend eternity listing the ways and glory that were Buffy Summers and he understood what James had been rambling on about in Marseilles over two centuries ago.

All right, she wasn’t his any more but he could dream, couldn’t he? He wondered if he should tell her what Willow had said about his soul being bound. No, there was no point. Soon she would depart for the wilds of Cleveland in order to be cookies or some such nonsense. When she talked like that, it made the speech he gave in Sunnydale about moving on seem lofty and poetic by comparison.

Buffy didn’t want this moment to end. Too often in the past, impending doom, disasters and patrolling had cut their time with each other short. Now she had leisure and he had a building full of people to handle his dirty work. At last they had time for themselves—and she had to go to be cookies. Damn, those might have been the last words she’d ever said to him and she couldn’t come up with something better than baked goods?

His gentle voice interrupted her musings. "What else was there? I’m sure there’s a whole other story between your return from Heaven and…Spike. What about the rest of your friends? And I’d love to hear about these other girls."

She sighed. "Like I said, the world was too much and there was the stupidity with Spike. Willow was overdoing it with the magicks. Things got really bad for her…"

It was a long story, all right. It took all his self-control not to interrupt especially when she touched on Spike and his spanking new soul. She tried to remain offhanded in her narration but he heard the underlying confusion and affection in her voice whenever she spoke of his grandchilde. She brushed over parts of the tale with him and he was certain many embarrassing moments were being deliberately omitted. He didn’t know whether it was because she didn’t care for Spike or because she was once again sparing his feelings.

Buffy wound down from her recitation with a feeling of almost physical exhaustion and genuine relief. It felt good to talk about her recent past with Angel. She knew he was upset about Spike but he had manfully refrained from any cutting comments about him and for that she was grateful.

She lifted her head with a sigh and abruptly recalled their surroundings. She narrowed her eyes and decided there was a problem that needed to be addressed. "Now that we’re all caught up, could you tell me what you’re doing here?"

"Hmmm, what?" He was still recovering from her closeness and the question didn’t immediately register.

"I want to know what you’re doing here at Wolfram & Hart. These people have been nothing but trouble for you and here you are getting into bed with them which isn’t the analogy I was going for but I’m thinking it fits because sooner or later they’re gonna wind up screwing you."

"You’re right. It’s just…they gave Connor his new life."

"And you’re afraid if you bail, they’ll take it from him," she prompted.

"Well, I hadn’t considered that. It’s just that now I owe them."

"Screw that," she stated. He was startled by her bluntness but she had to let him know just what he was in for. "Angel, when Giles and I went to Sri Lanka yesterday…"

"You went to Sri Lanka?"

"Yes. Didn’t that creepy Lilah tell you?"

"No. She failed to mention it." Wait, now that he thought about it, Lilah had said something about Buffy but he’d been so caught up in worry over Cordelia he hadn’t wanted to listen. He wasn’t certain how to tell this to Buffy however. They had established a newfound tenderness and he was loath to break it with discussing his feelings for his seer.

"Huh. I’d thought Giles would have scared her into it. Anyway, we went to Sri Lanka to help these girls who’d gotten put on a demon hit list on account of being made Slayers overnight. We saved them but when we used this teleporty spell to get back, we wound up in this dump." She swung her arm indicating the W&H building.

The implication was too clear for Angel to ignore. "You’re saying Wolfram & Hart brought you here instead of the hotel. Why?"

"Giles’s guess is that they wanted to get their hooks into some fresh Slayer meat. Lilah was expecting him to bring the girls back with us. But we had Willow remove all the Slayer mojo from all the other girls in the world."

"So there are no more Slayers except you and Faith?"

"And the ones at the hotel. They’re gonna go back home and I’m hoping we can keep them safe from the Wolfram & Hart goons though I don’t know how we’re gonna manage it. Some come from way across the globe and watching them after that—kinda tricky. Especially with no more Watchers."

"All the more reason for me to stay at the helm of Wolfram & Hart. If I leave they’ll be able to find these girls and I won’t know about it. But if I stay…"

"Keep your friends close, your enemies closer, that sort of thing. Good plan. But they’re keeping you close, too, Angel. It’s not going to work out for you and your friends, not in the long run. Lie down with dogs, wake up with ringworm. Even if these people aren’t evil evil, they’re lawyers. What are you going to do with them anyway? Draw up briefs?"

Trust Buffy to get to the heart of his inner turmoil. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t asked himself these questions. But hearing them out loud made his new attachment to these people even more ridiculous. "You’re right. They need to get out of here."

She blinked. Well, she hadn’t expected him to give in so quickly. "I’m right? Well, sure, I’m right. Uh, but now that I think about it, what’s the alternative?"

He smiled and she was surprised to see a sign of enthusiasm in his eyes. "Your girls need Watchers. We’ve got one. Maybe Wesley can get it right starting from scratch with these girls. He’s certainly learned a lot in the years he’s been gone from Sunnydale."

"He can’t teach them all if some of them are hitting the road." She was going along with him, prodding him for answers.

He didn’t disappoint. "There’s another Watcher in Wolfram & Hart. He defected before the Watchers Council was destroyed. If he managed to escape…"

"…then there must be others," she concluded. "Do you think Wesley’ll be able to find them?"

"He can try. He can always use magic if need be."

"Willow will definitely be on board with that. What about the rest of your crew?"

"Gunn has…special abilities. He’ll be an excellent guardian for some of the girls if he doesn’t mind travelling. Fred has a great future in physics. I know Wolfram & Hart held out a sweet deal for her. But I’m thinking with her brains she could get work anywhere."

"Do you think she’d mind teaching in Cleveland?" Buffy replied. Then she realized what she’d said. "I’m sorry, Angel. That just slipped out. Of course, your people might not want to go to Cleveland. Fred certainly wasn’t of the happy that we might be bringing trouble onto your doorstep. They might not want to have anything to do with us at all."

"You’re right." He slumped. He remembered how easily everyone on his team had rolled over and joined the W&H sharks. Lorne thought this a terrific opportunity to meet celebrities. He wasn’t that vital a member of the team, being a bit of a lightweight in the fighting department. But Angel thought of him as a friend nonetheless and leaving him with the law firm didn’t sit right. Would the others even consider leaving with so many enticing goodies offered to them especially since they came in the appealing form of surrender from a supposedly beaten enemy?

Buffy hadn’t overlooked Angel’s earlier statement. "Angel. You said the others needed to get out of here. What about you? These lawyers have wanted you from the beginning, one way or the other. Don’t you think you should get out from under before it’s too late?"

He closed his eyes, unable to meet hers. "I-I can’t, Buffy."

"Is it because of Cordelia? Willow said…I overheard her talking and she said you and Cordelia have a thing." She couldn’t bring herself to say love. He might confirm it and she didn’t really want to know.

"I do. But it’s not… Things got confused and I’m not sure what she really feels for me and I have to resolve that."

"I can understand the confusion, what with her being evil and all. But are you saying you’ll wait around until she finishes playing Snow White and gives you her answer? Angel, that could be years!"

"I’ve got the time," he pointed out gently.

Of course. He did indeed have the time and she could just picture it now: Angel and Cordelia locked together in a little room while the years passed them by, neither changing, neither moving. Just the watcher and the watchee. God, the image sucked.

Then she remembered. "Angel. It might not take that long."

He gazed at her in puzzlement. "What do you mean?"


Damn damn damn damn damn. She’d come in here just to get Cordelia. All she’d had to do with Buffy was follow a retread of Life’s Greatest Hits and hadn’t that become boring after awhile as she watched Buffy reliving the moment Dawn was brought home, Buffy stepping over inappropriately placed graves, Buffy pillowing Dawn to death. Yawn.

But she’d take that any day over the roller coaster ride Cordelia was putting her through. Since Willow had lost her at the school, she’d had to chase Cordelia through endless malls, the Bronze, the school cafeteria and, disgustingly enough, through the backseats of several cars where Queen C had made out with various boys. [I never knew she was involved with Larry. Did she know he was gay?]

And always on their tail was the Beast. Every time Cordelia got too comfortable, Willow would try to shake her out of it. Then the Beast would appear to frighten Cordelia away. The wicca was sick of it.

She caught Cordelia’s sleeve. She didn’t just grab it; she tore it off the shoulder. Cordelia stared at the ruined sleeve in shock before hissing, "Willow Rosenberg, you are going to pay for that! That shirt was Prada!"

"I keep telling you, that shirt isn’t real. It’s a damn phony and I will prove it if I have to rip up every scrap of clothing you’ve got! In fact, I think that’s just what I’ll do!" She turned to march off towards Cordelia’s home. She didn’t really know where it was. But every time Cordelia had wanted to shift, the mental landscape had adapted itself to her desires. If she wanted to keep Willow from touching her things, she’d have to put herself in that picture to stop her.

Sure enough, they found themselves at Cordelia’s house as she ran to the stairs and yelled, "Daddy!"

A tall man with a silver streak artfully waved through his hair came sauntering down the stairs. He was tastefully dressed from head to toe and he was giving off the "handsome older man" vibes Willow had once gotten from Giles. But there was no accompanying warmth and personal interest with Mr. Chase. He was all poise, attitude and glamour. He was like the male version of Cordelia. And wasn’t that an icky thought?

"Daddy! Call the police! This, this, lunatic is going to slash my clothes!"

"It’s all right, pumpkin. I’ll take care of it. You go upstairs and count your shoes, okay?" Cordelia smiled gratefully at him and, with one last glare at Willow, skipped upstairs.

[Pumpkin? He calls her pumpkin? And counting shoes…what kind of lame activity is that?] The idle musings distracted Willow from the man standing before her. Then Mr. Chase pivoted towards her. One leg shot out and kicked her hard in the ribs. Willow let out a choked scream and she heard—no, make that felt—her ribs break. She fell to the ground, coughing for breath, as she clutched her side.

"I knew she’d come back here sooner or later. Where else would the great Queen C feel more comfortable than in the bosom of her family? Granted, Daddy dearest wasn’t home a lot and he gave her more things than love. But we both know Cordelia Chase never cared as much for people as she did for herself—and her possessions, of course."

Willow gasped,"Y-you’re lying. Cordelia’s changed. Angel said…so. He couldn’t keep…working with her if she…hadn’t."

"Angel said so. Angel said so," the creature replied mockingly. "Angel doesn’t care for Cordelia. He used her for her visions then tried to kill her when she became pregnant. He even turned on her just because she slept with his son!"

"W-what?" Angel had a son? And Cordelia had slept with him? Was this some bizarre lie the creature was concocting to trick her? It didn’t make any sense; surely a lie should have been a hell of a lot more plausible than this malarkey she was being handed. She struggled to rise and the monster backhanded her into an expensive glass table. The impact caused it to shatter into a million pieces and Willow fell onto the broken shards, screaming as one punctured her hand.

"Daddy? What’s going on? What’s all the—oh my god! Daddy, what are you doing!?" Cordelia stood on the stairs, shock and confusion on her face, as she witnessed the bizarre tableau.

"It’s all right, princess. Go back upstairs. Daddy’s handling this."

"Okay, I know I wanted to kick Rosenberg’s ass but this is crazy!"

"I said I’d handle this! Now go back upstairs!" The creature snarled. The Mr. Chase-façade was flickering with its anger; Willow didn’t think it could hold on to the pretense for much longer. Maybe it wouldn’t have to. If it killed her, she’d vanish and Cordelia would go back to her sleep-giving little Fantasy Island she’d built up in her head.

These weren’t real injuries; she was almost certain of that. But it was hard to convince her mind when the agony was so great. How had the creature gotten so strong? The last time it had attacked Willow physically, she’d been able to shake it off. Now she could barely breathe from the wrenching pain.

The thing must have read her confusion. He leaned down closer to her and whispered, "You’re getting weaker, witch. All the time you’ve spent futilely chasing the pom pom girl here has tired you. You can’t convince her when she doesn’t want to be convinced. This is the world she wants. Give it up or I will kill you."

Willow gritted her teeth as she pulled the splinter of glass from her hand. She tried to speak, a difficult task given the tearing pain in her ribs. "Cord…elia! Listen…to me! This thing is keeping you prisoner. It’s got you trapped. If you let it…you’ll never wake up! You’ll never go back to the people who love you!"

"Don’t listen to her, pumpkin! I’m your father. I love you! I don’t want you to leave me!"

Cordelia gaped at him and then set her arms akimbo on her hips. "You don’t want me to leave? Well, that’s a switch! Most of the time, Mom and I never see you, you’re so busy jetting across the world on one business trip or other. And why do you need to take so many trips, anyway? Hello? Ever hear of e-mail and conference calls?"

She came down off the stairs and stared between him and the redhead lying among the shards of glass. "You’re not my father," she stated in a flat voice.


"Don’t call me that!" she spat. "You’re not my father and, even if you were, you didn’t give me love. I got that elsewhere. No thanks to you. So I’m not going to stand here and watch you make a punching bag of my friend."

[Friend? Cordelia thinks I’m a friend?] Willow blinked as Cordelia walked calmly over to her. Before she could reach the wicca, the thing grabbed her by the hair and tugged hard, hissing, "Don’t touch her or I’ll rip your head right off your shoulders!"

Cordelia’s eyes widened and then her hand shot out and smacked the creature across its face. The monster staggered back as Queen C rose to her full height. "Do. Not. Touch. The. Hair."

The monster must have realized its mistake because it cringed. "I’m sorry, princess. I didn’t mean to hurt you."

Cordelia lifted one high-heeled shoe and kicked the creature squarely between the legs. "DO. NOT. TOUCH. THE HAIR!"

The monster bawled and doubled over, clutching at its private parts. "I was only trying to help. That creature is a dangerous witch! She wants to hurt you!" Willow could have sworn she heard tears in its voice.

"She hasn’t hurt me. She’s ripped one of my clothes but she hasn’t hurt me. You, on the other hand, have messed with my hair and nobody touches the do except me and my stylist. If you were my real father, you’d know that."

She swiveled on her heel, paying the creature no further mind, and knelt beside Willow. "Gee, those cuts look awful. Are you going to be okay?"

"I-I think so. If we can get out of here…in time," Willow wheezed.

"What do I have to do?"

"J-just hold…on." She stretched out one bloody hand and Cordelia stared at it in trepidation.

"Ewww. You’re really bleeding and I just had my nails done."


"Sorry. I’m only kidding."

The monster roared and rolled to its feet again. "No! You can’t leave. Even if you do, I’ll still be here, Cordelia, lodged in your mind like a cancer, just waiting for another chance to get free and when I do…"

"Spare me." Cordelia gave a disgusted sigh and picked up a Henry Moore statuette from amongst the scattered shards of glass. She raised it and brought it down with one decisive blow on the creature’s head. It slumped to the floor and didn’t move. Cordelia didn’t stop, however. She repeatedly and methodically bludgeoned the monster until its brains were nothing but a messy pulp on the floor.

Willow gulped. She didn’t think she’d ever seen such a deliberate act of violence in her life. Of course, she’d cold-bloodedly murdered Warren but there was something clinical and detached in the way Cordelia dispatched this monster. It was almost as if she was squishing a bug.

The monster shimmered and then vanished leaving not so much as a smear. The former May queen tossed the bronze statuette aside and turned back to Willow. The wicca was puzzled to see there was no blood on her clothes. Cordelia followed her glance downwards. "Oh, like I’m going to get blood on my Donna Karan top." She knelt down and grasped Willow by the hand.

Willow blinked and straightened up in her chair. She automatically looked down and checked herself. There were no cuts on her hands. She took an experimental breath, almost expecting to feel pain lancing through her sides. Nothing.

There was a low moan and then a cough from the bed and she got up, wobbling slightly, and made her way to the prone figure. "Cordelia?"

The brunette woman in the bed coughed again and then began to gag. Too late, Willow realized that she hadn’t allowed for what might happen when Cordelia woke up with a tube stuffed down her throat. The machines near her began to beep alarmingly as her heartrate sped up.

"Cordelia. It’s okay! Just relax." The woman on the bed began to thrash and Willow was worried she would hurt herself. She concentrated and focused her will in forcing the other woman to lie still. Then she began, as gingerly as possible, to disconnect Cordelia from the various IV drips and tubes running in and out of her body.

Finally, Willow managed to remove all the medical apparatus. She glanced at the camera she had tampered with earlier. Surely disconnecting the life support machines would set off alarms somewhere inside the building and Willow wasn’t sure how to maintain the illusion of their continued function. The camera had been simple enough; these weren’t. She had to get Cordelia up and moving as quickly as possible. "Cordelia, I know it must hurt to talk. But you have to try. Are you okay?"

Cordelia coughed a few more times and croaked, "No, I’m not okay. I woke up with a tube down my throat. Hey! Will you stop that? What did I say about not touching the hair?"

Willow had grasped her head and was staring her deeply in the eyes. That final pummeling of the Not-Cordelia had been very convincing but she had to make sure it wasn’t another trick scenario the creature had set up to make her think she had succeeded.

Cordelia shoved at the redhead. To say she was pissed would be describing her state of mind lightly. First Willow was chasing her. Then she was attacked by a hair-pulling monster running around in her mind. Now she was apparently playing the role of a marionette. God, life could suck sometimes.

Satisfied, the wicca let go and watched as the woman struggled to sit up. Cordelia swayed, her muscles weak from her long bed confinement, and Willow put her arm around her shoulders.

"Thanks, Willow," Cordelia murmured. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. No damage. I am hunky and dory. How about you?"

Cordelia felt her hair and then sniffed her fingers. "Mmm. They got my brand of shampoo right, so that’s a plus." Then she looked down at what she was wearing. "Oh my god! What’s with the goth wear? This is what they stick a sick woman in?"

Willow sighed with relief. This was the woman she knew and remembered from high school. "Welcome back, Cordelia."

The other woman’s outraged glance softened. "Thanks for bringing me back."

The door came open and Buffy and Angel walked in. "Buffy, what’s so important that you couldn’t tell me…" He halted, stunned at the tableau that greeted him. "Cordelia?"

"Angel. Hi. Wanna fill me in on what’s going on and why I’m wearing Madonna’s old wardrobe?"


Part 7

"Angel, I know this is a happy happy joy joy moment, but we really need to make tracks."

"What’s the hurry?" Cordelia snapped. God, two minutes back in Angel’s life and Buffy was already acting as if she owned him.

"We’re stuck in Wolfram & Hart, that’s what’s the hurry," Buffy replied. She really wasn’t intimidated by Cordelia Chase any more. Well, not by much. Still, it was majorly offensive the way Angel kept hovering over her, acting like he couldn’t bear to let her out of his sight for even a moment. That was probably the case and the knowledge depressed her even more than the notion of his being cozy with Faith.

"That’s where we are? I thought we were in some fancy shmancy hospital." Cordelia looked around at the elaborate display of machines surrounding her. "What the hell are we doing in this place?"

"We have to get the others out of here, too," Buffy added to Angel. "Any idea how we can get in touch with Lorne, Wesley, Gunn and Fred right away?"

"What are they doing here? For that matter, what am I doing here?" Cordelia demanded. She didn’t want to stay here. But she wanted answers about what Buffy was doing back in Angel’s world when she was sure they’d gotten rid of her for good.

Willow knew getting the stubborn woman to move would be difficult, given her weakened condition, and offered a suggestion. "Wait. We don’t need to hustle Cordelia out of here. The W&H people had her here until she recovered, right? Well, there’s no reason to make them think her recovery isn’t all their doing. So we just walk out of here with Cordelia saying ‘Great job, people. She’s all better, thanks to you. We’ll just be going and get her back to the hotel so she can get back to familiar surroundings where she’ll be all comfy.’ What are they gonna do? Keep her against her will?"

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Wow, the old Willow babble. I really missed that—only not."

"She’s right. For all Wolfram & Hart know, Cordelia woke up on her own." Angel put his arm under Cordelia’s and none too subtly tried to get her up.

Cordelia directed a meaningful gaze downwards. "Not that I don’t appreciate the assist, Angel. But I’m sorta lacking in the footwear department. Don’t you think sharp eyes are gonna spot me walking out of here barefoot?"

He grinned at her, an expression at once sheepish and smug. "Got that covered." He let her rest and ran to a closet set near the door. Angel drew out a plain, simple white gown, pants and long light overcoat handing from a hanger along with flat white shoes. "Do you remember this?"

"Sure. It’s what I was wearing when I went to meet you at the beach."

Curiosity and anguish flashed in Buffy’s eyes. "You were meeting Cordelia at the beach?"

"It’s not important, Buffy." Angel didn’t want to relate that story right now. At the time he’d been certain that he and his seer were madly in love. Well, not madly. As Fred had told him, it wasn’t a good idea for him to get too happy and he hadn’t been. That should have been the tip-off right there that his feelings for Cordelia weren’t what they should have been.

"Not important? I get all dressed up and leave Groo to go walking around in the sand at night which incidentally is not as romantic as people make it sound what with the cold ocean spray and the sand getting in your shoes…" She halted as she thought of something. "Hey, you mentioned Lorne, Wesley, Gunn and Fred. Where’s Groo? Did Wolfram & Hart get him, too?"

"Who’s Groo?" Buffy and Willow asked simultaneously.

"Another long story having to do with a side trip to Pylea," Angel answered.

Willow recalled that word. "Right. That’s where Fred was held as a slave. Is this Groo from Pylea?"

"Yes, Willow. But these are stories best told away from Wolfram & Hart." Angel stood up, exasperated beyond belief. Now that Buffy had re-impressed on his mind just how dangerous it was for them to be here, he was itching to get away. He pulled out his cellphone and began dialing the different departments his team was working in.

Cordelia gaped at him. "I don’t believe it. Since when do you use a cellphone except under threat of direct torture?"

"Since I felt the need to keep in touch with everybody," Angel snapped. Buffy and Willow were standing next to the open door and he could hear Willow muttering what sounded like a spell for sleepiness. He had recognized the dead-eyed oblivion in the guard’s stare and silently congratulated the wicca on her handiwork. But he guessed it was wearing off and that only fueled his impatience.

He finished the calls and glanced up to see Buffy and Willow looking towards him for instruction. "Are we good to go here?" Buffy said, flicking a glance between him and Cordelia who was wriggling into her shoes.

"Give me a moment. I’m so wobbly I can barely stand up. I’m like one of those newborn zebras you see on the Discovery channel," Cordelia said. She scooped up the white garment and stood, leaning heavily on Angel. Buffy noted the possessive posture but said nothing. Together all four of them made their slow way out of the room.

They were beginning to think themselves home free when Lilah Morgan rounded the corner. The woman’s eyes flashed over the quartet in a second, lingering a fraction longer on Willow, and Buffy had the uneasy feeling the woman knew everything that had transpired, from the telepathy she and the wicca shared to the supernatural awakening of the seer.

"Cordelia Chase. So nice to see you up and about. Enjoy your nap?"

Cordelia chose to ignore the question with the regal hauteur only she was capable of. "Lilah. That’s a really ugly shade of makeup. Pale and chalky do nothing for your complexion."

The woman raised one artfully plucked eyebrow. "My complexion? She’s kidding me, right, Angel? She has to know why I’m a whiter shade of pale, doesn’t she?"

In a flash, Angel understood. All Lilah knew was that Cordelia had been in a mysterious coma. She didn’t know about the evil entity that had taken up residence in Cordelia’s body and he was damned if he was going to tell her in front of his seer, fresh as she was from her sickbed.

"She doesn’t remember, Lilah. She’s still a little under the weather and suffering from post-traumatic amnesia."

"Then don’t you think she should stay here? Our physicians give the best of care, Angel. You must know that," Lilah purred as she came closer.

Buffy’s dislike of the female lawyer had returned in full force. "Look, Lily—"

"That’s Lilah."

"Whatever. My friend wants to be surrounded by familiar, happy things and she ain’t getting it here. So we’ll just be going. We’ll call you, okay?" She shouldered her way none too gently past the woman. Unfortunately, she pushed just a little too hard and the scarf around Lilah’s neck slipped, exposing the long red scar around her throat. She yanked the scarf back in place but not before the others saw it.

Cordelia wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Ewww. What is that?"

"Nothing," Lilah responded stiffly. "A little souvenir from my brief sojourn with the Angel Investigations crew."

Buffy raised her eyebrows and glanced at her former lover. "Angel? Did you do that? I’m not shocked, you understand. I’ve only met this woman twice but I can totally get the urge to slice and dice her. I’m just wondering if that scar goes all the way around—"

"—and what’s holding her head on," Willow added, her wide-eyed glance riveted on the concealing neckwear.

"Angel didn’t kill me, sweetie. It was little Miss Chase here."

"Cordelia?" Angel searched his memories even as he tried to keep hold of his increasingly frantic seer. Angelus recalled finding Lilah dead in the hotel but had been baffled as to who or what had actually killed her. True, Cordelia had been evil then. That still didn’t explain why she would kill Lilah Morgan.

"Angel, what is she talking about? Will somebody please tell me what’s going on?" Cordelia demanded, her voice becoming high and shrill.

"As I said, it’s a long story and there are parts even I’m not sure about, seeing as I was Angelus for part of it," Angel said. He was getting irritated in spite of his determination to keep calm.

"ANGELUS!?" Cordelia’s voice shot up an octave. People getting out of the elevator froze and then scattered like the wind, shooting nervous glances at Angel as they fled.

"Oh dear. She really doesn’t remember, does she?" Lilah smiled in bland amusement as she enjoyed Cordelia’s evident dismay.

"No, she doesn’t. I don’t remember it, either. We’ve got no one’s word for it but yours, Lilah. You can understand if it’s less than convincing." He swung away from her and clasped Cordelia tighter as if shielding her from the dead woman. "Cordelia, let’s go. As I said, it’s—"

"I know, I know. I get it. It’s a long story. Just get me home, Angel," Cordelia replied in a weary tone. They made it to the basement with no further incident. The rest of the crew had already gathered and, as soon as they saw Angel approaching them, became vocal in protest against their unwilling withdrawal.

"Is this important? I was looking at another interpretation of the Aberjian…"

"I was just testing out this kickass mace I found…"

"They have this gadget that allows you to penetrate into other dimensions without spells…!"

"I’ll have you know I was arranging an appointment with Mel Tormé…"

But all the comments stopped when they caught sight of Cordelia. They surged forward and bombarded her and Angel with questions. Angel waved them off, saying they needed to get back to the hotel.

Cordelia pointed out the difficulty with that plan. "Angel, it’s daylight outside. How are you going to get back? Do we stick you in the trunk? And there are eight of us. I’m thinking even with you riding as cargo, that’s gonna be a really tight squeeze."

He shrugged, pulling out his car keys. "Not really. Wolfram & Hart gave me cars with the same kind of necro-tempered windows as their offices. We can take two of those."

The former prom queen raised her eyebrows in inquiry. "Cars? As in plural? How many are we talking here?"

The embarrassed grimace on Angel’s face spoke volumes. "According to Lilah…twelve."

"Twelve? You have twelve cars now? Tell me again why we’re leaving!" Cordelia demanded.

Cordelia didn’t know why she should feel so tired. She just got out of a coma; shouldn’t she be all resty from it? But she was out of sorts and cranky. Getting back to the hotel and finding it full of hyper teenage girls didn’t improve her temper.

Finally she was perched on a bed, sipping tea, in one of the hotel rooms surrounded by the assorted members of Angel Investigations. Now Angel was sitting in Cordelia’s old room relating the story of Connor to her and the other members of his team. The task wasn’t made any easier by Cordelia’s astonishment and the disbelief from the others.

"That’s amazing," Fred breathed.

"Amazing? Try freaky as all get out. I don’t like the idea that someone’s been messing around with my memories especially if it’s these W&H dudes who are supposed to be working for us," Gunn grumbled.

"All of our memories have been tampered with and none of us, except Angel of course, remembers anything about Connor. It’s like this whole other reality has been created, like a parallel universe. The reality of the quantum mechanics involved for such a thing is staggering. How could it have been done? Does that mean that all the monsters and demons this Connor killed are alive again or have only memories been affected?" Fred rambled. She was torn between shock and rabid scientific interest and started muttering under her breath about various formulae.

Cordelia tried to focus on the more important aspects of the story. "So you’re saying I came back only it wasn’t really me and I…I had sex…" God, it was just too awful to contemplate. She took another gulp of tea. "And I gave birth to a demonic child called Jasmine. Well, it’s official. I am never having children again as long as I live. I get pregnant twice and both times it’s with demon babies. I’m definitely cursed to lead a childless life."

Fred protested the gloomy statement. "That’s not true, Cordy! Even if it is, children aren’t always that much of a blessing, are they?" She glanced for confirmation at Angel who flinched slightly at the tactless comment.

Cordelia stared at him as she sifted through the details of his story. "And you’re saying your son, this Connor, has gone on to a better life? A better life as in the house, mom, dad, siblings, not the afterlife."

"That’s right, Cordelia," Angel explained, a wealth of resignation behind his tone. It was just as he’d feared. Cordelia didn’t remember a single thing about Connor—not Darla’s reentry into Angel Investigations, his birth, Holtz’s mad pursuit of the boy. It was all gone from her mind as if the child had never existed.

Cordelia rubbed her temples; this whole thing was starting to give her a migraine. "That mysterious place I was supposed to have been—I don’t remember it at all. Did you guys try to bring me back?"

"We searched high and low, Cordy," Fred answered. "We found this magical talisman but all it said was that you were in a beautiful place. I-I guess that it was kinda vague when you think about it." She trailed off unhappily.

Angel added, "I was afraid Connor might have done something to you."

"Me? Why would Connor hate me? According to you, you were the one who killed his dad. Well, that surrogate, wannabe, bastard dad Holtz turned out to be. Ugh. A guy like that makes deadbeat dads look like Santa Claus by comparison." She sniffed and smoothed out an imaginary wrinkle in her bed sheets.

"I didn’t kill Holtz, Cordelia. Connor just thought I did."

"I know, I know. That’s what I meant. So why did you think he’d done something to me? You said I was playing his mommy. I was changing his diapers, for Pete’s sake!" She made a face at the thought then took another sip of tea.

"You disappeared at the same time I did. We thought he might have hurt you to punish me. Connor wasn’t exactly stable in his final days."

"This is one wild tale, Angelcakes. But he’s telling the truth, Cordy. I’m reading him and I can see this little Angel Jr. running through his life like a black line through a Chanel jacket. It’s genuine. There was a little nipper here and his name was Connor." Lorne sat down helplessly on a nearby ottoman and fervently wished for a drink. What he wouldn’t give for a decent Seabreeze right about now.

The ex-Watcher fingered the scar in his throat. "So I didn’t get this in a fight with a demon but from this Justine woman?" Wesley tried to find the inconsistency between his altered memories and the truth. "Angel, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. This tale is fantastical yet you claim that it’s true. But the boy is gone and Darla is dust—again. Even with Lorne’s corroboration, it’s a bit much to swallow."

The vampire spread his hands helplessly. "I know. Except for me and Lilah, of course, no one else remembers the truth. Whatever spell Wolfram & Hart used wiped everybody else’s memory clean." He frowned and thought for a moment. Of course, Buffy did have a dream about Connor…

It was as if Cordelia read his mind. "Okay. What about Buffy? What was she doing on Wolfram & Hart’s stomping grounds? Where does she fit into this delightful tale of unsafe sex and teenaged rebellion? I’m pretty sure she wasn’t here for any of this. She certainly wasn’t here for diaper duty."

Angel quickly sketched in the details of W&H’s information about Sunnydale, Spike’s soul and the connection between the two to the destruction of Cordelia’s hometown. Angel wasn’t certain how she would take the total annihilation of her birthplace but she was bound to hear the truth sooner or later and he’d learned she got really testy when she found out she’d been lied to.

"Spike got a soul? So didn’t see that coming. But he’s gone now so you’re back to being the one and only souled vampire on the map." She didn’t say anything about Sunnydale and, frankly, Cordelia was thrilled the town was demolished. It had been the scene of so many failures, humiliations and mistakes in her life. Most of the time she operated on a kind of deliberate denial about her time there and refused to mention it to anybody. Now the site of all her disappointments and crushing defeats was gone for good.

Cordelia hid her grin behind her teacup, finished drinking and leaned back in bed. "Sunnydale disappeared, Buffy became homeless and, let me guess. Having nowhere else to go like, say, the entire rest of the continental United States, she decided to pay her old boyfriend a visit and park her little keister here in our happy home, knowing you wouldn’t have the heart to turn her away."

"Actually, Buffy didn’t want to come here. It was Faith’s idea," Angel replied in a stiff tone and Cordelia’s eyes widened.

"Faith’s here, too? The little psycho is back? Why didn’t somebody warn me?"

Wesley objected to the description. "She’s most assuredly not a psycho, Cordelia. She helped to bring in Angelus. Her aid was invaluable both here and in Sunnydale."

"She’s not the only one, Cordy. There are lots of girls here. They’re all Slayers and they all helped to defeat this ultimate evil called the First," Fred replied. "What kind of name is that for the bane of all mankind, anyway? The First…not exactly a name to inspire terror, is it?"

"That’s beside the point, Fred. How soon do we send them on their way and take back the hotel again? And, if they’ve messed up the rooms, I’m not cleaning it up. I just got out of a coma and I’m taking it easy." Cordelia crossed her arms and lifted her chin defiantly.

This was where things were going to get tricky. "That’s the thing I wanted to talk to you all about. I’ve been thinking about the offer from Wolfram & Hart and I’ve come to the conclusion that we can’t stay there. It’s too dangerous and all the more so because the danger is of a more subtle kind. We think we’re in charge but we have literally hundreds of people working for us doing things behind closed doors that we’ll be completely unaware of." Angel turned to the Englishman who was still turning over the improbable news of his treachery. "Wesley, how do you feel about taking another crack at being a Watcher?"

Wesley frowned at the question. "You mean with Faith? I think she’s far past the point of needing or even wanting my guidance."

"No, I’m talking about these other girls. Buffy and I think there must be other Watchers left in the world. Perhaps there are Watchers in training, much like these girls were potential Slayers before they became actual ones. Some of them are heading back to their respective homes. They’ll need Watchers to train them."

Wesley’s eyes gleamed. The prospect of being a Watcher again, of doing what he had trained his whole life for, held an undeniable allure. It was a much better opportunity than whatever Wolfram & Hart had to offer. "Yes, you’re right. Giles and I can coordinate our efforts. There are secluded corners of the world, places even Wolfram & Hart may not know about, that Watchers retreat to in times of danger. If we can get even a handful of them, they could help train these girls. But, Angel, training a Slayer is usually a one-to-one proposition. There may not be enough Watchers left to help them."

"Then you educate Watchers. Gunn, you could help the girls train. Think you’re up to the task?"

"Training a lot of pretty girls…that’s a hardship I think I can handle," the large man replied, grinning.

"Angelmuffin, I don’t mean to sound like a party pooper here. But I never really signed on for this gig. I just sorta got pulled into the whole do-gooding business because…well, tell the truth, I’m not sure how I got caught on this merry-go-round except that you people kept trashing my club and I had nowhere else to go. I don’t see that I’m really needed here anyway now that you’ve got Cordykins back in action," Lorne said.

Gunn hated to be the one to burst the empath’s bubble but he thought Lorne was forgetting a few things. "Lorne, you can read people. Wolfram & Hart know this; that’s why they want you with them. Remember Vegas? You really think W&H are taking you simply ‘cause you got a nice tenor?"

"Well, I thought my dashing good looks featured somewhere in the equation," Lorne quipped. Then he deflated. "No. You’re right, Gunn. I stay with those bastards and it’s only a matter of time before they stick another hose in my skull and siphon off my brains. Count me in, Angel."

"What about me? I-I’ve never been a great fighter and you should see the wonderful things they’re doing in those labs! They’re making strides in physics that you wouldn’t believe. It’s so incredible, all the neat gadgets they’ve got for doing surgery, hi-tech espionage…"

"Hi-tech what? Wolfram & Hart, leading manufacturers of toys for Big Brother. Fred, do you hear yourself?" Cordelia demanded.

"Well, we are an investigative agency. I thought that would be the sorta thing we’d be interested in." Fred couldn’t help but feel a little defensive. All these great plans of Angel’s didn’t seem to pertain to her and she was feeling very much on the outside.

"We won’t be investigating much if we stay with the W&H people. Fact, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to be doing for them. I mean, I know they working for us. But they’re still lawyers and we not. So can any of you think of a good reason why we should stay?" Gunn asked. He looked around at everybody’s faces and noted the confusion on each one.

Wes mused, "He’s right. Why did we even consider dealing with these people?"

Cordelia puffed out her lips dramatically. "Ever think you guys were under a spell? Something meant to manipulate your minds, maybe?"

"How could they…" Fred trailed off as Angel met her eyes. "Oh, right. Manipulating minds with a spell. Guess that’s right up their alley."

"Oooookay. I’m willing to go along with the idea that W&H has put the collective whammy on our craniums. But now that we’ve broken free, what do we do with them? The company has still been turned over to Angel Investigations. It’s effectively in your name, Angel. Any thoughts as to what to do with a multizillion dollar industry devoted to evil?" The demon from Pylea crossed his arms and trained his red eyes on Angel as he awaited his answer.

The vampire had been considering this ever since he and Buffy had discussed W&H and their probable plans for the Slayers. He smiled slowly and spoke to Cordelia. "Cordy, do you think David Nabbitt would be interested in acquiring another business?"

Buffy tucked the last of her clothes into the bag. She wished she had proper luggage but she guessed that was the least of her problems. All she could think about was her lover [Ex-lover! Ex-lover!] getting cozy with Cordelia in the next room. He’d ridden with her instead of Buffy back to the hotel and she bit her lip, squeezing back tears for the umpteenth time. He’d rushed to the aid of Cordelia without so much as another glance in her direction.

Buffy didn’t know why she should have expected anything else. Cordelia had always been after Angel in school and now it seemed she had him. Why not? The former May Queen was beautiful, poised, regal, full-bodied from her pregnancy, partly demon and had been by Angel’s side for years, sharing in his pain, battles and triumphs. She probably knew him better than Buffy ever would. With her demonhood, she had more in common with him than Buffy did.

Buffy knew she was tainted. She came back from Heaven wrong. Spike knew it and Angel could smell it. Cordelia had gotten seriously messed up on her return trip from wherever she’d been, too. She’d slept with Angel’s son, which had to have been a major blow.

But that hadn’t been her fault. She was blameless. Buffy wasn’t. She had knowingly slept with a soulless beast, a creature both Angel and Angelus hated with a passion. He’d never forgive her for that. She was soiled beyond measure in his eyes.

From what she had overheard from Faith and Willow this morning, this thing he had with his seer wasn’t a relationship filled with the UST and teenaged romance that he’d shared with her. No, Cordelia’s and Angel’s love was a pure one based on mutual respect, friendship and trust. That was a much more mature and adult relationship than what he’d had with her.

It made sense for Angel to love Cordelia. Buffy was a Slayer; he was a vampire. Loving her had to be one of the dumbest things for him to do. Just like Willow said, Cordelia would keep Angel sane. She was the better choice.

She splashed water on her face over the bathroom sink and stared blindly into the mirror. For the first time, she understood why Angel had let her go all those years ago. He’d wanted a better life for her. Now it was time for her to make the same sacrifice and bow graciously out of the picture. It hurt to lose Angel to her Sunnydale competitor but if it made him happy, then so be it. After all, wanting to see the ones you loved happy was the real sign of true love. Nothing else mattered.

[Oh god, you’re being noble. I think I’m going to be sick. Hey, what about the happiness clause? Still an issue here and the prom queen is tempting toothy death if she does the beast with two backs with Angel. Maybe he’ll go all "grrrr" and rip her throat out.]

[Where were you when Faith was talking? There’s no sex involved and if there is… well, I guess Angel is willing to risk it with her and not me.]

[Ouch. That sucks.]

[Uber sucks.]

Taking a deep breath and checking the mirror one last time to see there were no signs of tears, she went out to see if the others were ready to leave. She inched past Cordelia’s door. Buffy wasn’t interested in running into Angel and the seer again if she could help it. Then she inwardly cursed her bad luck as Wesley opened the door. "Ah, Buffy. Did you wish to speak to Cordelia?"

She managed a faint smile. "No. I mean, not especially. I just wondered if you were all done catching up with her."

He quietly closed the door behind them, leaving the two of them in the hallway. "Indeed we have. Angel had quite the tale to tell."

"I’ll bet." She searched Wesley’s eyes and her own softened. "H-how are you taking it, Wes?"

He strode down the hall as she walked alongside him. "Taking it? Oh, you mean the knowledge that Angel has a son which is unprecedented, that the child was foretold in prophecies which was unheard of and that against all reason I betrayed my friend by kidnapping the boy and had him taken from me in turn into a hell dimension. Considering all that’s happened to us, I’m taking it rather well, thanks for asking." He smiled at her surprise over his devil-may-care attitude.

She gaped at him and then giggled. "Wow, Wes. You really have changed. You’ve gotten that stick out of your butt."

He chuckled dryly. "Yes, it made walking rather difficult. However, it was far more difficult trying to walk in leather pants, I assure you."

She blinked. "Leather pants? You were in leather pants?" She laughed at the image that popped into her mind.

"Rather. They chafed like the very devil. I don’t know how Angelus managed to wear them especially in such a hot climate as California."

"Oh well, vampires don’t sweat, you see. Plus he probably thought it went with that whole bad-boy-creature-of-the-night look."

"Naturally. You can’t be truly evil unless you’re wearing tons of dead cowhide. There’s a rule about it in the Watchers Diaries, I believe."

"How did the evil beasties ever manage to project bad-assness without leather?"

"I believe many of them go with human skin."

"Oh. And ew." They grinned at each other and then Buffy paused as she considered her next question. "Did Angel tell you what he’s got planned?"

"You’ll be pleased to know that we no longer will be working for Wolfram & Hart." They leaned on the balcony and watched the girls milling around in the lobby. Some of them were eating and others had paired off, cementing their new friendships. Lorne had told the girls about his special abilities and had coaxed some to sing their favorite songs a cappella.

To everybody’s delight, Robin Wood had recovered much more quickly than anyone had expected and come back from the hospital along with the other previously injured Slayers. Faith had jumped him the moment he walked through the Hyperion doors and pulled him forcibly into her hotel room. She joked this would be the first time she’d had sex with a guy in anything classier than a motel. That had been hours ago and they hadn’t emerged since then.

Having regained his strength, Giles had taken some of the girls to the training room. He hadn’t really wanted to, but they had insisted. He was, however, able to leave most of the actual work to Gunn who’d been happy to lead the girls in some aggressive physical therapy.

Willow came out of her room, her expression pensive, and nearly bumped into Wesley and Buffy. "Oh, hey. Hi again. What’s up with Cordelia? She all caught up with everything? Any chance she’ll clue us in?"

"I don’t think so, Willow. A lot of what happened to Cordelia—ugly and not fun. She won’t be in share mode for a long time, if ever." Buffy knew the story, thanks to Angel, but she was willing to respect Cordelia’s wishes and keep it to herself.

Wesley decided to steer conversation in another direction. "Angel and the rest of us have formulated a plan to help the girls. We’d like to get all of them together and see what they think. I hope they’ll be amenable to the idea he’s laid out."

When nothing else was forthcoming, Buffy grimaced. "Don’t tell me. We have to wait until we get everybody together. Boy, we so need cellphones."

"Buffy, you can’t give a bunch of teenagers cellphones. They’ll spend all their time talking to their boyfriends." She paused. "Or girlfriends. I saw the way some of them were looking at each other in the bus."

"Really? I didn’t notice anything!" Buffy said in indignation when Willow giggled.

"You didn’t notice anything with me, either." That was Buffy: sweet girl but not too bright.

The blonde Slayer pouted and then grinned. "You played it pretty close to the chest."

"I played it pretty close to Tara’s chest, too," Willow murmured and smiled when Buffy turned red and Wesley got an air of avid interest in the turn the conversation had taken. "So how is Cordelia?"

"Good question," Wesley replied and turned to look back at her door.

Angel’s gloomy expression was annoying Cordelia. All right, they were talking about the King of Brood here. But Angel had been lightening up quite a bit, thanks to her constant care and guidance, and Cordelia hated to see him reverting to his old ways. She was willing to bet that the return of a certain mousy blonde Slayer had something to do with that and she was determined to nip this latest misery party in the bud.

"Angel, what’s up with you? Why are you the one in a funk? I’m the one who got her body hijacked by the Prince of Darkness."

"I’m sorry, Cordy. It’s just…it was hard seeing you lying like that, not knowing if you’d ever come out of it. It’s why I kept you at Wolfram & Hart. I was hoping they’d be able to perform a miracle."

She patted him on the hand, mentally cursing herself for her lack of sensitivity. Angel wasn’t brooding over Buffy. He was concerned over her queenly self. She shouldn’t have doubted him. "That’s sweet, Angel. You could have just asked Willow, you know."

"You weren’t in a coma when she was here. Then she went back to Sunnydale, Jasmine was born and put us all under a spell. By the time we snapped out of it, it was chaos and more chaos. And then Lilah told me about the danger in Sunnydale…"

"And you couldn’t get Willow to help because she was needed elsewhere and you didn’t know if she’d survive yet another bout of Sunnydale madness. Believe me, I understand. I was there when the Mayor became a snake, remember?" Her gaze fell on the vampire’s face and noted the sadness hadn’t really lifted. "What’s really got you so bothered, Angel? You got me back. Is it Connor?"

"Connor? No, not really. You said it yourself. Better that he have a happy life elsewhere than dead. That’s probably what would have happened if he’d stayed with me."

"So? If it’s Buffy…"

"Not Buffy," he replied too quickly. "She’s not staying. She’s leaving for Cleveland. She’ll be out of our lives soon and we probably won’t meet each other again in the foreseeable future. It’s something else, something that—almost happened over a year ago."

"You mean the meeting at the beach."

"That’s right. You told me—well, the Master told me, that you loved me but you couldn’t accept the things Angelus had done."

"Darn right. There may have been something else in my bod but he got that right on the money." Cordelia shuddered at the thought. She’d managed to get a peek at some of the old texts Giles had back in Sunnydale. The things she'd read about Angelus made her stomach clench and she recalled how she’d promised long ago to stake Angelus if he ever reappeared.

"So you don’t really love me," he stated flatly.

"What? Of course I do. It’s your nasty evil twin I can’t stand."

"Angelus is part of me, Cordelia. The demon didn’t take a holiday just because I got a soul. He’s there in every harsh action I take, every hard decision that I make, every cruel word that I long to say sometimes and never do. I have it in me to be dangerous, Cordelia. Everybody does. I’ve seen a lot during over two centuries on Earth and I know what humans are capable of. Add a demon to the mix and what you get is demonic passion informed by human cruelty. Angelus doesn’t go away just because you don’t like having him around."

"What are you trying to tell me, Angel? That Angelus is lurking around the corner waiting to sink his fangs into a vein? Nice pep talk for a woman who’s just gotten out of her sickbed," Cordelia tilted her chin and flashed Angel an indignant look.

"I’m trying to tell you love is about accepting a person for all that they are—good and bad." Angel braced himself for what he was going to say next. "So I don’t think you’re in love with me. And I know I’m not in love with you."

She gaped, her mouth hanging open like a fish. "What do you mean—of course you are! That’s why you came to meet me on the beach!"

"I thought I was. Lorne told me about knowing how I truly felt about you and Fred kept going on about kyerumption. I looked at you and saw what a good woman you were and what fine qualities you had and I thought ‘Why not?’ I’m going to be around forever and I was tired of being lonely just like you were when you took up with Groo. So I was going to settle."

He leaned closer to the woman and looked her straight in the eye. He had to convince Cordelia that he was serious otherwise she would try to talk him into this and he couldn’t stand a renewal of her nagging pep talks. "But I wasn’t afraid of losing my soul. I should have been but I wasn’t. That was the overwhelming concern with Buffy and that fear never existed with you."

"You think I can’t make you happy? Well, it’s not as if we’ve ever really tried, you know!"

"Cordelia, I don’t want to try. That’s just it. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking ever since you went into this coma. I enjoyed Darla. She was the epitome of bliss to me once. When we were together during the reign of terror we spread across Europe, no other woman compared to her in terms of sheer cruelty and invention in bed. And believe me, there were plenty of others. But I never loved her. That was proven when she tried to get me to lose my soul and failed.

"Remember Rebecca Lowell? Sweet, desperate, frightened actress who wanted to pursue the L.A. dream of being young forever? She drugged me and I lost my head—and my hold over Angelus. But that wasn’t true happiness either. That’s why it wore off and I got my soul back.

"With Jasmine I knew pure and absolute love. You weren’t here for that but she affected almost everyone she met in the same way. It was like a drug: the bliss, contentment, the sheer unadulterated joy you felt whenever she was near. When she left your presence, the pain was like withdrawal, it was so bad. But I never lost my soul over her either.

"You, Wesley, Fred and Gunn all said you loved me once. But it’s not the kind of love you’re looking for. I’m sorry if I ever led you on to believe that my feelings were more than mere friendship. But that’s the truth. I love you. I’m just not in love with you."

The woman on the bed had remained ominously silent throughout his explanation. "It’s her, isn’t?"

He didn’t pretend to misunderstand. "It’s not Buffy, Cordelia."

"Oh no? Everything was fine and you and I were actually getting someplace. She shows up and suddenly you’re backing away like I’ve got the damn plague! You say you’re not in love with me but you’re not willing to give it a chance? If it isn’t her, then what’s the real problem?" Her voice quavered as she considered the probable reason for his rejection. "I-is it because of Connor? I couldn’t help that, Angel! I wasn’t in control!"

"I know that, Cordelia, and I would no more blame you for that than you would blame me for Angelus. But without the others pushing me into something I didn’t feel and didn’t want, I could see clearly. I’m not in love with you."

"What about me? I’m in love with you, Angel! I came out to the beach to tell you so! And I doubt you came all that way just to say ‘Sorry, Cordelia, this isn’t going to work. I’ll call you.’ There was definitely something between us."

"There still is. It’s just not what you wanted. Cordelia, you were still with Groo when you thought you were in love with me! You said you loved him in Pylea. Remember?" He recalled that all too clearly. He’d nearly gotten the crap beaten out of him by the big lummox and then Cordelia had run up to the other man and declared her love. It had been humiliating, to say the least.

Cordelia evidently remembered it, too, and scrambled to cover for herself. "It wasn’t really love with Groo. He knew it and he told me so before I went to meet you. He was just so much like you, you know? He had that tall, dark, muscular salty goodness going for him plus the whole heroic vibe and I think it was like that thing they talk about in psychology class, transmission…"


"Whatever. But it was you I wanted underneath it all. I even felt it back in high school when all you could do was drool over Little Miss Freakozoid."

"Don’t talk about her like that," he growled.

She seized on his sudden ire. "See! One mention of her and you get hot under the collar."

"At least she gets me hot," he sniped back.

She gaped at his unexpected swipe. "Well, listen to Mr. Bitch! Nice to know you’re willing to go to bat for her but not someone who’s fought by your side—"

"—for three years? You and Buffy are pretty much neck and neck in that department, Cordelia. I have gone to bat for you, as you say. I tried to get the visions to stop when I thought they were killing you. I fought the Voca to save you when you were crazy in the hospital. We’ve helped each other—you and the rest of the team—countless times. So don’t say I’m not here for you. We help each other because that’s what family does and we’re family. But that’s it."

The two of them faced each other and then Angel wheeled to leave the room. Cordelia started up in a panic. "Where are you going?"

"We’ve got plans to make regarding all those new Slayers and the future. I want my team together on this. We’re going to need you down in the lobby. If you can’t walk, you can take the elevator. But I expect to see you downstairs when we’ve all gathered together."

Cordelia stared at the door after his departure, absolutely fuming. She’d gone through hell and back for this vampire and now he was trying to blow her off. This was all Buffy’s fault; she just knew it. She struggled to her feet, cursing her clumsiness, and went to her wardrobe. If she was going to confront the Resurrection Queen, she was going to look her best.

It took a couple of hours before all the stragglers came in. Many of the girls were giddy over Lorne’s predictions for them and rethinking their decisions to go back to their homes. Angel was talking softly to Chow Ann in halting Cantonese and the Asian woman was practically glued to his side. She kept hugging herself around the waist and squirming from the discomfort his presence engendered but she wouldn’t back away, much to the amusement of the other Slayers.

He looked up as Robin Wood came down the stairs with a very smug-looking Faith in tow. The former principal of Sunnydale High gave the vampire a narrow stare but said nothing. Angel hoped that Faith had explained his status to the man; the last thing he desired was getting into a vicious confrontation with someone who had proven a valuable ally to Buffy.

He scanned the room. "Is everybody here?"

Faith replied, "We’re still waiting for the princess to show, but, yeah, I think that’s everybody, big guy."

That might be for the best. He was hyper-aware of Buffy’s presence and it might be good to keep Cordelia away from her for the time being. He cleared his throat. "Well, we can get started without her. I know you’ve all gone through a rough time. But the important thing is you all survived it. However, you’ve been wondering where you’ll go from there. My team specializes in helping people. We’ve got a fully qualified Watcher and strong fighters working for us. You’ve got people with strength but no real training…"

"Hey! We had training! I helped train them," Kennedy protested.

Rona replied, "Yeah, for six months. I coulda used a lot more than that. We all could have," gesturing to the whole room.

"I don’t just mean combat skills. I’m talking about Slayer training, a background of lore and knowledge that dates back for centuries. I’m talking about what Giles gave to Buffy. We’ll need fighters to go around the globe and find the remaining Watchers who are left. That’s where you ladies come in. We know the Bringers targeted them as well so they may still be in danger. You’ll be needed in the fight."

He leaned forward and spoke quietly in an effort not to frighten them. "You closed the Sunnydale Hellmouth. But you didn’t stop evil. The First still exists."

The calm statement was met with a flurry of protests and denials from almost everyone. Buffy was the quickest of all to counter it. "Angel, you weren’t there. But we did a total smackdown on this First. Its entire army was wiped out by the magic doohickey charm you gave me. We slayed its ass but good."

"Did you, Buffy?" Wesley interjected. "This thing is eons old and, from what Angel tells me, non-corporeal. You destroyed its army in Sunnydale, that much is true. But the evil can always go to ground and try again. It is patient, relentless, ageless, it has eternity to plan and it can always recruit more agents—human and otherwise. You thwarted its efforts this time but it will still have its minions out there, hunting down the forces of good."

Angel added, "Look at what Wolfram & Hart nearly tricked you into doing."

Buffy sat down hard on a lobby couch. She’d been kidding herself, hadn’t she? Of course evil never died or went away. There was the Hellmouth in Cleveland as proof, wasn’t there? She sighed heavily. "So what are you saying?"

"Let the girls stay here with us. We can train them; we can protect them. If some want to go back to their homes, they can. Only we should set up a system wherein they can check in with us so we know all’s well with them." Angel smiled at a group of girls who stared back uncertainly. These youngsters were mostly foreign with limited English verbal skills. He, Giles and Wesley had been able to communicate with them and outline a plan for shipping them back to their many ports of call.

"What of Wolfram & Hart, Angel?" This came from Giles. While he didn’t truly regret the idea of leaving the temptations of the law firm behind him, he couldn’t help but regret the loss of the knowledge contained in their vaults and storerooms.

"We have an old friend named David Nabbitt," Angel began.

"David Nabbitt? The one who created all those Attack of the Clones games?" Andrew squealed. "He’s, like, a god! How do you guys know him?"

"He was one of our clients. He’d be happy to take Wolfram & Hart off our hands. I spoke to him over the phone and he’s prepared to settle handsomely for it. With the money he’s given us, we could easily start over our operations again here. There would be plenty of money to aid you get a fresh start as well, Giles," Angel added. The older Watcher graced him with a smile and he nodded without speaking, acknowledging Angel’s generosity.

"Can I stay here, too? Pleeeease?" Andrew whined.

Gunn gazed at him narrowly. He hadn’t talked to this boy much. He had "nerd" written all over him; half the time Gunn didn’t understand a word he was saying. "That depends. What can you do?"

"Well, um, I-I’m a really good cook. I could, like, cook for you all and have hot meals waiting when you come in from a hard night of…slaying," he finished lamely to a loud snort from Faith.

"He’s right, Gunn. Andrew is a fantabulous cook. He can make a funnel cake like nobody’s business," Buffy chimed in.

Angel shrugged. The boy seemed harmless enough and, if he could cook, that would free the vampire up for fighting with his crew. "All right. He can stay." Andrew breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe if he hung around he could meet Mr. Nabbitt.

"What about me and Buffy?" Dawn piped up. Angel hadn’t said anything about Buffy or her plans. He was still treating her sister with the same distance and pretending to be cool whenever she was near but Dawn wasn’t fooled. All this avoidy business meant the vampire was protecting his heart and who could blame him?

"You’re going to Cleveland. Giles informs me there’s a Hellmouth there. As soon as you’re all settled, we can relay information back and forth. There’s no reason for you to stay out of touch." The vampire knew the girl was unhappy with this turn of events but there was no point in encouraging her in any fantasies if her sister was determined to leave.

"Oh. Well, we can always come visit, can’t we?" she pleaded. "Just for a weekend?"

He steadfastly refused to look at Buffy as he replied, "I don’t see any problem with that."

"As long as you clean up after yourselves. It’s not like we’ve got maid service here." A serene voice came from the elevator. All heads turned to behold the vision that stood in the opened doors.

Cordelia may never have made it as an actress but she knew how to make an entrance. After discarding at least six different outfits, she’d settled on a casual, deceptively simple-looking long dress of off white. Her breasts had swelled impressively with her late pregnancy and the snugness of the dress would make them all the more prominent.

She hadn’t taken much notice of Buffy since she awoke but she could tell the Slayer of Sunnydale was looking less than her best. The wear and tear of constant slayage had obviously caught up with the dyed blond; let’s see how she looked contrasted with her own carefully crafted beauty.

Angel raised an eyebrow at her attire but said nothing. Other men in the room were more appreciative. "Hey, Cordy! Looking good. Let me introduce you to all the girls." Gunn turned towards the crowd. "Ladies and gents, this is Cordelia Chase, our resident seer. She gets visions from the Powers That Be."

"The Powers That Be what?" Leslie asked. She was a 16-year-old Slayer (something she pointed out defensively to anybody who called her a "kid") and rather unsure of herself. Cordelia Chase was a bit awe-inspiring and Leslie felt rather cowed by her presence.

"They’re the ones that we serve. They give Cordelia visions and tell her about future events or people that we’re meant to save," Wesley explained.

Dominique stared wide-eyed at the brunette in the white dress. "You get psychic visions? That’s terrific!"

Cordelia shrugged as if it was no great matter. "Well, it is now that the bone-crushing pain I used to get with them is gone. Who are you, by the way?" she asked brightly.

The round of introductions was made again and Buffy got up to retreat to the kitchen. She was hungry. All right, she wasn’t so much hungry as rather depressed. Cordelia was the center of attention again much as she had been back in Sunnydale; Buffy was sure her presence wouldn’t be missed. She walked into the empty kitchen and leaned her head against the cold surface of the refrigerator with a sigh.

A heavy weight settled in her stomach and she spoke without opening her eyes. "Hello, Angel."

"Buffy." He said her name in the old way as if it were more than a mere word but held the embodiment of all his dreams. She could feel a trembling starting up in her legs and making its way over her spine. She stiffened her back and steeled herself against it.

She opened her eyes to find Angel staring at her in concern. "Are you all right?"

"I’m fine. Better than fine. For the first time since Sunnydale collapsed there’s light at the end of the tunnel instead of…more tunnel," she finished awkwardly.

"I just wanted to see that you’re okay."

"I’m peachy with a side of keen." The silence stretched between them to the point where it became uncomfortable. "Angel."

"Yes?" She was trying to tell him goodbye and he didn’t want to hear it now that he’d come to a decision about where his heart truly lay. But he couldn’t pressure her in any way. [Cookies. Got to remember that she’s trying to be cookies.] That speech really stuck in his craw and he forced himself to listen patiently.

"I-I want to tell you that I’m happy for you and Cordelia."

"Huh? What?" That was definitely not what he’d been expecting.

"I heard Willow and Faith talking. They didn’t know I was listening and they mentioned how you felt about Cordelia."

"Buffy, I—"

She held up a hand. "No. Let me finish." If she didn’t get this out now, she’d burst out crying in front of him. Sure enough, she could feel the pressure of tears rising up to choke her voice and she began to speak rapidly.

"She’s good for you. And I’m not. It’s not just the soul thing although that’s a big part. She took care of you, shared in all the problems that I couldn’t, kept you in touch with your humanity and I’m betting she made you laugh a lot and drew you out of your thick Angel shell. You’ve changed and I can see the changes. They look good on you."

Buffy swallowed past the thick lump in her throat and forged on. "I on the other hand have taken a really bad turn for the worse. I did things that were stupid, things that I’m so not proud of, and I’m not just talking about banging hips with Spike. I ignored my friends, neglected my sister, turned on my Watcher and couldn’t connect to all those girls up there who needed a competent leader. I came back from Heaven wrong, twisted and sick…"

She gulped and turned her face from him. It was too hard to speak while looking into those dark eyes that seemed to penetrate to the depths of her soul. The emotional pain had increased to the point of a physical ache in her chest and she couldn’t finish the rest of her carefully prepared speech. "You and me—we were doomed from the start. Me Slayer, you vampire. That was a disaster waiting to happen but I wouldn’t turn away. I never even told you how sorry I am for sending you to hell.

"What I’m trying to say is I hope you two w-will be happy together. Just not too happy, okay?" She managed a watery smile then drew a deep breath and tried to brush past him. He reached out and grasped her elbow and she trembled as a flare of heat ran up her arm. She didn’t know what he had to say; she only knew she was going to break down completely if she didn’t get away from him right now.

"Buffy, I’m not in love with Cordelia."

"You—what? What did you say?" Wide hazel eyes stared incredulously into his face. The bright shimmer of unshed tears lay in them and he saw right to the heart of her sacrifice.

"I’m not in love with Cordelia. I thought I was. I hoped I was. I thought it could soothe the ache in my heart, the one that’s been there ever since I left Sunnydale. I convinced myself that you’d moved on and that it was time for me to do so as well. Cordelia was there—safe, dependable and convenient—and everyone acted like it was such a good match. I started thinking about compatibility instead of following my heart because I was certain I couldn't have my soul’s desire again."

"Soul’s…desire?" Her voice was quavering again and he marveled how this seasoned warrior could show such vulnerability.

"Only one woman in 240-odd years has ever touched me the way you have, Buffy. You see all the parts of me and you’re unafraid and accepting. I remember the time I took you to the ice skating rink and you touched my ridges." He drew nearer to her, lost in the memory. "I was so ashamed of what I was and you didn’t care. You said you didn’t even notice.

"I’ve done things I’m not proud of, Buffy. I’ve betrayed my friends, locked my Sire and mad Childe in a room and turned a bunch of lawyers into their all-you-can-eat buffet and I’ve turned my back on humans in need. I’m not the champion everybody thinks I am. I’m just a dead man with a demon inside him. The only time I could hope to be more was when you loved me.

"And if I’ve kept my distance from you these last few days it’s because I knew I had to let you go. Somehow Sunnydale was never far enough away. I could always cling to the frail hope that I’d make my way back to you again. But Cleveland means that you’ll finally be free of my shadow and that it need never taint your life. You can make yourself into…cookies," he finished. Boy, that was a rotten ending to a great speech.

"I’ll never be cookies," she blurted out. "I was talking as if I was gonna be finished baking someday but the fact is people are never finished, are they? We just keep growing and changing and sometimes we change into a thing we don’t like but that’s never the end of us. We just keep growing, growing up, growing old…"

"Or not," he murmured softly.

"Or not," she echoed. "What I’m trying to say is that cookies or not, I’m still Buffy Summers…just not the Buffy Summers you fell in love with," she said in a miserable voice.

She spoke with a self-loathing he’d never expected to find in her. Even after what he’d told her of his shameful exploits since they’d parted in Sunnydale over four years ago, she still took the fault upon herself.

He embraced her and whispered, "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove. O no! It is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken. It is the star to every wandering bark, whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. Love’s not Time’s fool though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come: Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ nor no man ever loved."

Her eyes widened with each line and she remained breathlessly still until the final words were spoken. "That was…wow. That was Shakespeare, wasn’t it?"

"You recognize the sonnet?"

"Um, no. It just had that Shakespeare-y sound to it. D-do you really feel that way about me?"

"Forever. I love you, Buffy Summers." His eyes sought hers in the dim cavernous lighting of the kitchen and saw her cheeks wet with tears.

"I love you, Angel," she whispered and he sealed the words with a kiss.

How long they stood there they weren’t certain. Time and space seemed to vanish as the kiss deepened and they swayed together. The moment was broken when Angel heard a commotion upstairs and lifted his head sharply. He sniffed and growled faintly when he perceived a well-known odor. The next moment, his forehead creased in confusion. "It can’t be…" he muttered.

She stared, baffled by his sudden shift in mood. "Angel, what is it?"

"I’m not sure," he admitted. Then he glanced down at her. "Do you feel like facing the others now?"

She hesitated and looked at their clasped hands. "But…what about us? We’re still going to Cleveland, you know."

"But, like Dawn said, you can always come down for a weekend or two."

"That might be awhile. We’ve got lives to get back and Cleveland isn’t exactly close."

"One thousand nine hundred fifty-three miles to be exact." He smiled sheepishly at her surprise. "I, uh, checked."

"Oh. That is far. But, hey, Giles got a teleporty spell from Wolfram & Hart. You might see us so often, you’ll get sick of us," she teased.

"Not gonna happen." The feeling of familiarity from upstairs was growing stronger and he could no longer shake off his unease. "Buffy, I think we should rejoin the others. Something’s happening up there."

"A happy something or a danger something because I left my scythe in my other bag," she quipped.

He didn’t reply. He merely stalked off, his gait shifting to that of a predator, and Buffy padded soundlessly after him. It was just like old times when the two of them would fight together and now her Slayer senses were reaching out to find the intruder. Odd, she wasn’t detecting anything, and by the time they made it to the lobby she was beginning to wonder if Angel hadn’t been mistaken.

They walked in on a roomful of chattering people and one outraged seer. Buffy wondered what had gotten under Cordelia’s collar this time. "Cordelia, what is it? What’s going on?"

The brunette turned around and pointed one angry finger at the person in their midst. "That’s what’s going on!" The crowd parted and both Angel and Buffy stiffened.



Part 8

Cordelia was beyond upset. The seer hadn’t missed Buffy’s sly exit nor Angel’s equally unobtrusive departure after her. Typical Buffy; no one was paying attention to her so she scampered off to sulk.

The seer had debated going after them to spoil their little meeting but she didn’t care to walk in on them kissing and knew Angel would smell her if she tried to eavesdrop. While she was turning over the idea of simply demanding Angel’s presence to talk to these irritating Slayer-wannabes, Spike had shown up.

Everyone upstairs had frozen in shock when the bleached blond had appeared in the Hyperion doors. There had been stunned silence then everyone had burst out talking at once. Xander was disgruntled that the damned vampire couldn’t stay dead and the other Slayers had withdrawn from him and then paused in puzzlement when there hadn’t been any accompanying distress from his presence. Dawn had approached him without her usual exuberance and poked him with a finger, subsequently announcing to everyone that he was solid enough and couldn’t be the First.

Spike looked considerably the worse for wear. His customary leather duster was gone and he was dressed in smelly, filthy clothes that had seen better days. He had severe abrasions and cuts all over his face and arms and his knuckles were torn and oozing blood. He’d been curiously unresponsive to all their questions until Dawn noticed something odd.

"Spike? Did you just come from the outside? And you’re all covered in wounds and they don’t look as if they’re healing. Do you need blood?"

At that his face twisted up in his customary smirk and he replied, "I won’t be needing blood again, Nibblet, ‘less it’s for a transfusion." He extended his arm to her. "Feel. Tell me if anything’s different."

She pressed her fingers gingerly along his skin and her eyes widened in shock. "You’re…warm. Oh my god! He’s warm!" she told the others.

"He’s what?" Giles came forward, his eyes running over the vampire. He reached out and grasped the forearm in wary, clinical curiosity, ignoring Spike’s attempts to twist away. "Good Lord. He’s got a pulse."

"He’s human?" Fred asked.

"Shanshu," Wesley muttered.

That’s when Cordelia lost it. "Oh no, it can’t be. Not for him. Wesley, there has got to be a mistake!"

"Shan-what? What the hell’s the prom bint going on about?" Spike demanded. He was annoyed. He’d come here hoping Angel’s agency would have answers for him and in the sneaking hope that the Slayer would be here. After all, where else would she be likely to head after her old town went into the dust but back to her old honey? But the woman was nowhere to be seen.

Then she showed up holding hands with the damned poof. Both of them looked less than thrilled to see him. And now the tarted-up Cordelia was blithering on about some Shanshu whatsis.

Cordelia’s pose of studied calm had vanished completely. "Wesley, this isn’t right! You know it. I know it! There’s no way this gift would be given to that, that…jerk!"

"This jerk saved the world, you addlepated bint, so show some respect!" Spike snapped. He was feeling more than a little brassed off what with all the distrust and the Slayer’s attitude. The poof had sniffed in his direction and confirmed to everyone that he was indeed human. Buffy had frowned worriedly into Angel’s face but hadn’t approached Spike at all. It wasn’t the warm greeting he’d hoped for from her.

"What are you talking about, Cordelia? What do you mean by Shanshu?" Giles was no less bewildered than anyone else by this extraordinary turn of events. He could have seen China with his glasses by now with all the furious cleaning he was giving them.

"Ah, well, that’s a long story." Wesley paused and made an internal struggle. "Never mind. I’ll give you the abridged version. About three years ago, Angel came into the possession of the scrolls of Aberjian…"

Giles interrupted, "The Aberjian scrolls? They’re supposed to be a myth!"

"They most emphatically are not. I managed to translate them," Wesley corrected. "They read that in the end of days, the vampire with a soul after several apocalypses, the coming darkness, a few plagues and fiends unleashed on the world, would become human. It would be his reward for the works he performed in the service of good. We had always assumed that vampire would be Angel."

Buffy was astounded and infuriated in almost equal measure. She rounded on the vampire once again standing on the outskirts of the small company. "Angel, you were going to be human? You knew this for three years and you never told me?"

"The prophecies were vague and unclear, Buffy. They never mentioned a timetable. For all I knew, I might not have achieved humanity until long after you were dead." He bent his eyes to hers and added in low tones, "I didn’t want you to get your hopes up."

"I-I get that," she whispered back. Angel had thought he might be human. It would have been all her dearest wishes come true. Only now it looked like the prize had been granted to another. Why wasn’t he more upset about it?

Her thoughts were interrupted by Cordelia’s continued rant. "Okay, Wesley, I am now officially pissed off! Angel has been fighting for the Powers That Be for the last four years. He has risked life and limb more times than I can count. He’s the one who faced the darkness, he’s the one who’s been fighting monsters every night…"

Spike interrupted, "Hey, I’ve been fighting monsters, too, you know!"

"Oh please. Just a few years ago, you were one of the monsters," Cordelia scoffed. "I can still remember the time you stuck Angel full of hot pokers, you asshole!"

"You stuck Angel with hot pokers?" Buffy asked, her eyes narrowing.

Spike was quick to defend himself. "That was back when I was still evil. You know, pre-soul. The big poof had the Gem of Amara, which was rightfully mine since I got it first, and I wanted to get it back. Besides, that’s nothing compared to the nastiness we used to get up to back in the day, right, Angelus?" His lips curled up in a sneer. Angel’s eyes narrowed but he made no answer to Spike’s accusation.

"Guess poking your ex-boyfriend with implements of torture wouldn’t be the sort of thing Spike would mention if he wanted to convince you he was all goody goody, is it, Buffy? God, you really know how to pick your friends, don’t you?" Cordelia said with a toss of her head.

"He is a friend, Cordelia. If it weren’t for him, you wouldn’t be here. None of us would." Buffy wasn’t really interested in defending Spike; she just didn’t want to take any flack from Cordelia.

Damn it, why the hell did Spike have to come back? Apparently, his knack for messing things up hadn’t changed with his transition to humanity and she wished that he were still dead. The next moment, she kicked herself mentally for such an uncharitable thought and tried to stifle her exasperation.

"So I’ve been rewarded with humanity, eh? Guess saving the world trumps beating up mere demons any day of the week." Spike smirked and leaned back on the couch. The arrogant attitude was spoiled by his wince as several wounds in his back protested the contact with the hard material. "Oy, could I get a little medical attention here? Some food would be nice, too, if you’ve got it."

"Um, medical attention? Right. Would anyone…" Giles’s voice trailed off and several of the people nearby grimaced and backed away. Nobody really wanted to touch the former vampire and their distaste was plain.

Gunn said, "Don’t look at me. I kill vamps. I don’t heal ‘em except when they’re Angel."

"I’m not a vamp anymore. What are you, stupid?" Spike shot back.

"You’re the one who came here instead of checking into a hospital, jackass," Cordelia replied. "Which makes you stupid and ugly. You can forget about me helping you, Mr. Tortures-My-Boss-with-Pokers."

Spike looked towards Buffy who was still contemplating Angel with a sad expression. "How about it, Slayer? It’s the least you could do."

Buffy’s answering gaze was confused, withdrawn and strangely angry. He couldn’t sense her emotions the way he once had but he knew she really didn’t want to get close to him. Angel must have sensed it, too. "I’ll do it, Spike."

"The hell you will, poof!" Spike surged up from the couch only to be met with Angel’s large hand on his chest.

"Sit down," Angel said and accompanied the command with a solid push. Spike was merely human now and the shove sent him sprawling back onto the couch in an undignified heap. He squawked and then covered it up with a scowl.

"Buffy, I’m not letting this wanker touch me! Why won’t you do it?" he begged in a voice that sounded treacherously close to a whine.

She visibly struggled with a sense of gratitude and the old feeling of annoyance. Angel solved the dilemma. "Buffy, I’ve got plenty of experience bandaging wounds. Why don’t you go to the kitchen and warm up some food?"

She jumped up with alacrity, glad to have the chance to retreat and regroup. "Will do."

Spike couldn’t believe it as he saw her race out of the room. The Slayer acted as if she couldn’t wait to get away from him and Angel was responsible for it. The vampire got out a bunch of medical supplies and gestured for Spike to follow him. "Come on, Spike. Let’s get you upstairs and bandaged up."

"Look, I’m not exactly in the best shape to move. Why can’t I stay here?"

"Hey, you came all the way from Sunnydale. A few more steps won’t kill you," Cordelia pointed out. "Besides, if Angel has to bandage you up, we really don’t want to see any more of your scrawny body."

"Too bad, ducks. You could probably use the thrill," Spike sneered.

"What thrill? You’ve got sunken cheeks, a bony ass and skinny legs." She listed his defects on her fingers as the other girls began to snicker. "I’ve seen plucked chickens that looked more attractive than you. Not to mention the fact that you smell. What, couldn’t find a shower between here and Sunnydale?"

Spike opened his mouth to make another crack and Angel clamped down on his shoulder hard, changing his retort to a yelp of pain. "Ow! Watch it, you clumsy berk! That hurt!"

"God, Spike, you’re such a whiner. You sound just the way you did when Drusilla and I got together," Angel tsked tsked.

"Angel, let me take care of him," Dawn offered. Little as she liked Spike after his attempted rape of her sister the year previously, she had come to a grudging acceptance of him during his recent stay at her home. She sensed that Angel and Spike might come to blows if they were left alone together and figured she might as well play peacemaker. Besides, she had a feeling Buffy and Angel needed to talk.

Angel eyed her reluctantly and an understanding seemed to pass between the two of them. He handed her the gauze and bandages and she whispered, "Go talk to Buffy."

Spike couldn’t make out what was said and he cursed his loss of vampiric hearing. However, he could guess Dawn’s meaning when the dark-haired poof walked off after Buffy. He wanted to go after them and hear what they had to say but one look at Dawn’s tight-lipped face and he decided against it. Reluctantly he allowed himself to be dragged upstairs.

Buffy opened the cabinets. She really didn’t know what Spike would want in way of solid food. He had munched on buffalo wings and other assorted sundries when at her house but she hadn’t noticed any particular favorites. Deciding that it didn’t really matter, she pulled down a can of tomato soup. She had it dumped into a pot and slowly coming to a boil on the stove when she picked up Angel’s presence once more.

"Will you look at us? Down here in a gloomy underground passage twice in less than an hour. Not quite the same as our sewer talks but really close." She was attempting for humor but knew the effort was falling flat.

"Buffy, I really couldn’t tell you about the Shanshu. I heard the prophecy over three years ago and most of the time, I never even thought about it. It’s not the reason why I fight. I gave up hope of getting a reward a long time ago. I’m pretty sure that when Spike was being incinerated, he wasn’t expecting this prize, either."

"Probably not. Don’t think any of us saw this coming." She paused as she searched his impassive face. "You must be so disappointed."

"Oddly enough, no," he replied. He sensed her surprise and elaborated. "It’s not that humanity wouldn’t be a wonderful gift. It would. But the only reason I even considered how great it would be was if I could share it with you. But this is even better."

"Better? How is this better? Spike has his soul for less than a year. Then bang! One apocalypse and near-death experience later, he gets humanity! Actually, it’s a death experience ‘cause I’m pretty sure he died. I mean no one could have survived a whole town dropping on their head. Then again he did get up from having a piano fall on him…" she rambled.

Angel’s sensitive nose detected that the soup was on the verge of burning from Buffy’s lack of attention. He turned off the stove. "I’m talking about you, Buffy. You told me Spike is in your heart. If you feel anything for him, then this is your chance for that normal life."

"Are you joking, Angel? What ‘Return of the Peroxide Prodigal’ scene were you watching? I barely spoke to Spike. I’m pissed as hell that he’s come back now that everything between us was finally getting sorted out." She snatched up the pot and dumped the soup into a bowl, ignoring the careless splashes that landed on the clean surfaces.

"You and I barely spoke to each other when we met up again," he reminded her.

"I-I know. I was going for ‘Cool Buffy who doesn’t care that she’s in the room with the love of her life’ and you were being ‘Aloof mysterious Angel trying to do the noble thing.’ You know, the usual crap."

"But he’s human now and I’m still—"

"You’re still Angel. Did you hear me just now? The love of my life? If humanity were all I cared about, I’d still be with Riley. Do you honestly think I cherished hopes and dreams of a future with Spike? I only ever had those about you." Her voice became soft and she unthinkingly moved nearer. "As far as I’m concerned nothing has changed. You’ll be here, I’ll be in Cleveland. We’ll commute, we’ll write, we’ll trade e-mails and I’ll come down here to Los Angeles…"

"Or I’ll go east to Cleveland," he amended.

"Sure. What’s 2000 miles between friends?" she whispered. He pulled her closer until her body was flush against his. He bent his head and brushed his lips against hers. Her mouth fell open and the kiss turned fervent. He licked at her delicate, plump lower lip and sucked it into his mouth. He cupped her heart-shaped ass and staggered with her weight as they stumbled and crashed into the refrigerator door.

Buffy wound her firm legs around his ass, never breaking the kiss for a moment. Then he careened back and pressed her against the chilly surface on the table. Briefly he recalled the last time they’d made love on a table; he hoped the metal material would enable this one to weather the experience intact.

God, he was here and he wanted her. It wouldn’t be like her first time: all serious and tentative because of his fear of hurting her. She wanted tenderness, yes, but most importantly she wanted him, his cock hard and cold thrusting inside her. She fell back on the table, panting in eagerness, her breath loud in the echoing space.

Then, as he placed his hands on her thighs preparing to push up her skirt, she recalled the danger. "Angel, we can’t."

He lifted his head from her neck where he’d been planting feverish kisses. "We can, Buffy. It’s okay."

"Your soul…"

"—is bound. Willow fixed it the last time she was here."

"She did?" Why hadn’t Willow said anything? Oh right. Apocalypse in Sunnydale. News at 11. They’d had more important things to handle and Willow might have felt that she didn’t need the distraction. Nevertheless, she was going to have a serious talk with that crazy redhead when she got the chance. After the sex.

Buffy panted and moaned as Angel’s hands caressed her inner thighs. His fingers came closer to her center and drew back without actually touching it. He was obviously bent on keeping her hanging and she groaned with impatience. He peeled aside the silken panties he’d provided for her (and wrapped in a separate package marked for her alone when he’d sent the Care package for all the Slayers) and blew in tantalizing puffs all along the labia until she was trembling in want.

"Aaaaanggelll." She was wriggling on the cold surface and trying to nudge her hips closer to her fingers. She ran her hands under his shirt and across the broad chest. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t a racing heart under her fingers nor the sheen of gathering sweat on his brow. The nipples jumped and stiffened when she pinched them and a soft, answering growl let her know exactly how aroused he was. That and the bulge she could feel when she ran her shoe across his pants front.

Her arousal shot up and he could scent it, thick, heavy and musky. It mingled with the tomato smell and gave it an intriguing overlay. He rubbed her lightly through her panties until she mewled, her hips bucking up hard against his hand.

Buffy couldn’t wait. It had been five long years and there were others upstairs who might intrude at any moment. Perhaps in the future there would be time for a long, drawn-out lovemaking but they were too desperate for each other to wait now.

She tugged hurriedly at his shirt. In her haste a few buttons popped off and clattered to the floor. Angel growled at the show of eagerness and ripped off her panties in one fierce tug. She heard the tear of the material and felt the slight burn as it whipped across her thighs. She grinned and then fumbled at his pants belt.

The cold zipper parted in a purr of unfastening teeth and the slightly warmed air of the kitchen caressed his cock. He couldn’t remember ever having been this hard before; his cock sprang loose already quivering with a thin line of precum oozing down its length. "Buffy, I can’t wait," he whispered in a hoarse voice.

She was shaking, so eager was she to have him inside her. "Me neither. Hurry, before they send a search party after us." She positioned herself more securely on the table and opened her legs wide.

She hadn’t taken time to remove her dress but that didn’t matter. He could scent her skin and hear the pounding of her heart. Plump lips mashed against his, their tongues caressing each other. He palmed her breasts, rubbing the sensitive nipples through the fabric. She mewled wordlessly; his touch was great, the large fingers tweaking and pulling just the way she liked. So caught up was she in the spasms of pleasure from this simple action, she barely registered the shift in his weight. She broke their kiss with a gasp as he entered her.

[So big! Shit, I’d forgotten.] He sensed her slight pain even before she moaned and he stopped in dismay. Cursing himself, he began to withdraw when she clamped her thighs around him. "No. Don’t stop."

"Buffy, you’re not ready. We should take more time…"

"Time later. We’re kinda pressed for it now. Please, Angel. I’ve waited so long. Make love to me," she whispered.

He gritted his teeth and nudged forward cautiously. Buffy bit her lip, shoving the pain aside. She flexed her muscles and concentrated on opening herself as wide as she could. The pain was even now easing and she sighed as the cold length pressed farther inside.

Angel was trying to hold back; he truly was. But when her arousal flew higher and powerful Slayer muscles gripped him, he thought restraint might be impossible. A subtle change in her position and she gasped again, her eyes widening. "Ooh, Angel. That felt… more!"

He withdrew and she moaned as the action caused his cock to pull against her clit. The return thrust was harder, sinking deeper within her. "God, Buffy. You’re so tight," he gritted out. "I’d nearly…forgotten. Everything…I wanted. I love you, Buffy!"

"Love you, Angel. Faster!" Her body was shuddering as she bent and arched against the table. He grabbed her ass and began thrusting in earnest. They were riding on a tidal wave of desire, her legs wound around his butt as it flexed with the rhythm of his movements.

Her nails were digging into his back and the faint blood smell from her fingers was driving away his self-control. He growled, the noise subterranean and bestial, echoing around the space, and Buffy’s eyes lit on the ridged brows and amber eyes as human features gave way to the demon beneath.

The thrusts were coming harder and faster and she bucked up and down, caught between the firm body above and the unyielding surface below. She was being stuffed full, her lover brought home to her, as he crushed his form against hers again and again.

"So good. I wanted this, wanted you," she gasped. "More, harder. Oh god, Angel!" His back was flexing, the muscles straining under her hands and she dug in her nails to urge him to a faster pace. The pain prodded him just as she’d hoped and his balls drummed in a rhythmic beat against her ass, the sound mingling with the grunts, growls and high-pitched squeals as the lovers sped towards the inevitable finish.

He yearned to kiss her but keeping their lips pressed together proved too difficult. He’d longed for her for years and to have her here was more than he could stand. Given his choice he would have made love to her for hours, holding back his orgasm so he could focus on her pleasure. But there was the promise of the future and the constraint of the present. He abandoned himself to the moment and shoved his hand between them to pinch the cushy button.

Her back bent again, nearly lifting him from the floor. The climax was violent, whipping through her frame and causing her to cry out sharply before his hand clapped over her mouth. His hips continued moving against her and she shuddered again as lesser contractions followed.

He called her name as his orgasm caught up with him at last. Angel shot hard within her hot little hole; she could feel his cum splashing inside her, farther than she would have through possible. She sighed with happiness and then kissed him frantically over every inch of his cool face.

She pulled back and he was startled to see tears on her face. "Buffy. What is it? Did I hurt you?"

"No, no. It’s just—it was a little too much. It’s been so long since… Was it like this before? I thought I remembered everything about that night. But five years is a long time between lovemaking. It was just a little overwhelmy, you know?"

A smile lit up his face. "I know. I never forgot how it was with you, Buffy. I never thought I’d be with you again like this and all I had were memories. But I gotta admit, this was better."

"Way better." She sat up with a sigh and he moved back from her. Her hair and clothes were a mess and she knew it; she’d better make some attempt to fix herself before she went upstairs.

He sensed her hesitation and guessed the cause. "Buffy, I can take Spike his soup if you prefer. You don’t have to talk to him."

"No, I have to see him again, Angel. I owe him an explanation…and a goodbye. We were never…I mean, he was never what you are. We never got to couplehood no matter how often I was with him. He was more of a dirty little secret and a big mistake. But he helped when he didn’t have to. I feel like I owe him."

"He probably thinks so, too. Did you hear what he said up there?" Angel pointed out. He wasn’t happy at the idea of Buffy having one last chat with Spike. But he knew better than to try to talk her out of it.

Her reply was firm in its dismissal. "I know. But he’s already got humanity. That’s a really big prize. He doesn’t get to have me as well. No matter what he thinks."

"Just so long as he knows that," Angel growled under his breath.

She gave him a lingering kiss and picked up the congealing bowl of soup. She grimaced at the thick skin that lay on top. "Great. This soup’s stone cold. You got a microwave around here? We could warm this up in a jiffy."

"We could set it back on the stove. It should be hot again in another five minutes." He gave her a meaningful leer that she returned as she dumped the contents of the bowl back into the pot.

"You’re on, buddy. But if this soup burns, it’ll be your fault."

"Ouch! Be careful, Bit! That stuff really stings." Spike winced again as Dawn dabbed hydrogen peroxide on some of his larger cuts.

She sniffed even though she lightened her touch a fraction. "Angel was right. You are a whiner. Besides, why should this stuff hurt so much? Can’t be that much different than the crap you put in your hair," she remarked as she perused the bottle.

"Different kind of peroxide, pet. Where the hell’s that damned sister of yours? How long does it take to slap something into a microwave anyway?"

"She and Angel probably have a few things to sort out," Dawn replied. She smiled knowingly. "I think they’re getting back together again."

Spike was furious at the comment even as his broken heart cried out at the loss. "Bloody hell. I get burned up and buried in the mother of all apocalypses and she goes running to the soddin' poof like it meant nothing to her! I should have known he’d sink his claws into her again after I saw them kissing in that temple!"

Dawn frowned. "You saw them kissing? Buffy didn’t mention kissing Angel." A piece of gauze for a laceration on his back hung unnoticed from her fingers as she listened to his rant.

"Oh, she didn’t, did she? Guess she didn’t want to spill about getting in a liplock with her old honey when there were serious problems on the horizon, say, the end of the world as we know it? Pretty sneaky of her, if you ask me."

"Nobody did," she said in a bored voice. "Besides, you didn’t mention seeing Angel when you got back either."

"Well, weren’t any of my business, really. I figured the fact that she sliced up that preacher like an onion after he punched out the giant poof was more to the point. You should have seen that big wanker go flying across the room. Champion, my ass," he concluded, snorting.

The younger Summers girl continued dabbing Spike’s cuts while she spoke in a musing tone. "You saw Angel get knocked unconscious. And then Buffy was fighting Caleb?" Dawn was piecing together something in her mind and she didn’t like where her thoughts were headed.

"That’s right. You would have been proud of her, Dawn. She sliced him up good and proper. Guess she didn’t need the Brow’s help after all." He smirked at the thought of Angel lying like a heap of potatoes while a big fight was raging nearby. Maybe he could point that out to the Slayer when he saw her again.

"And where were you all that time?"

He missed the too-casual note in her voice and continued on with his gleeful recitation. "Me? I was watching in a corner. Peaches and the Slayer never twigged to me seeing as they were too busy getting cozy when they should have been fighting." He yelped as Dawn pressed hard against the wound in his back.

"You were watching my sister fighting for her life and you didn’t help? You shit!" she hissed. She clutched the bottle in a fury as Spike belatedly realized his mistake.

"No, Bit, you got it all wrong. See, I heard your sister say fighting that religious maniac was something she had to do by herself. So I couldn’t interfere. It was a noble, quest-type thing, you know. The sort of thing a hero’s got to do alone, no outside parties allowed."

"But you saw Angel get knocked out! This guy was serious bad news and you were just standing there watching because you were pissed at Buffy being with Angel again!"

"That’s not true, Nib—"

"Don’t call me that again, Spike. Ever." Dawn’s voice had gone flat and cold and she backed away from Spike as if he’d turned into a disgusting piece of slime.

"How do you know I didn’t help? I never said I didn’t lend an assist," he backpedaled. Dawn was brassed off at him and he tried to salvage the situation as best he could.

"You just said—"

"Look, I didn’t want to make your sister look weak or nothing. I’ve been helping her all this year; why would I bail on her now?"

Dawn hesitated and he knew he was winning her over. Then a cool voice came from behind his back. "Because Dawn was right. You were too damned jealous of Angel to help."

He swung around to see Buffy standing in the doorway. Damn. Without vampire senses, he hadn’t even known she was there. She stepped inside and closed the door. "I fought Caleb twice that night and you were watching both times even after he did his Lazarus deal and I might have been killed. You’re a real sport, Spike. Dawn, are you about finished with him?"

"Oh yeah. I am so finished." Dawn flung down the gauze and threw the bottle of peroxide at him. The liquid splashed onto some of his open cuts and he yelled in pain as she stomped past him. She slammed the door and the Slayer and former vampire were left staring at each other.

"Buffy, you have to understand. I would have jumped in if I’d thought…"

"Save it, Spike. Not really interested. No use holding a grudge over past apocalypses." She flipped her hand and set the bowl on the nightstand. "Tomato soup served fresh right from the can. Eat it while it’s lukewarm."

He swirled a spoon in the liquid as he played for time. Buffy’s gaze wasn’t angry, as he might have expected. It was more cool and calculating. She looked more like someone trying to solve a math problem than a woman confronting an ex-lover. He knew what she was going to say next and he intended to change things if he could.

"Right. I guess none of that’s important any more. The important thing is that the world’s saved and I got my reward for it." He paused to let that statement take effect. He’d helped to save the world. A little gratitude from her was the least that he deserved.

Her face didn’t show the slightest flicker of emotion. Instead she heaved a sigh and looked at her nails as if she were bored with the subject already. "Yeah. You’re human now. Give any thought between Sunnydale Crater and here about what you’re going to do next?"

"Well, uh, guess I got to get an identity. I thought Peaches might help set that up for me. He was always one to live in style and looks like he’s done well for himself with this place. He’s probably got lots of dosh stashed away someplace. He can afford to set me up with proper I.D.—driver’s licenses, birth certificate, credit cards, that sort of thing."

She nodded absently and flicked a piece of imaginary dirt from an index fingernail. "Sounds like a plan. Good luck with that." She stood up to leave and he called after her in alarm.

"Hang on a tick! What about… You staying here to help Peaches fight the good fight and all? I may be human but I can still kick ass with the best of them and I’m betting evil didn’t take holiday just because one town got leveled. We’re still gonna need to keep fighting together, Slayer."

"You and I aren’t going to be fighting together, Spike. I’ve already made my plans and, frankly, they didn’t include you seeing as we all thought you bit the big one along with the town. Angel’s decided to keep fighting here. I’m going to be leaving with Giles, Xander, Willow and Dawn. We have a life to make and we need to do it far from here."

That was the first good news he’d heard since he got here. "So you and Peaches aren’t together, then?"

"We’re very much together, Spike. Angel and I have made—arrangements to keep in touch once I go." Her voice softened and got dreamy as she recalled what had just taken place in the kitchen. A lust-filled smile flitted around her face and Spike’s expression darkened when he saw it.

"You think it’s that easy, Slayer? A little slap and tickle and all’s daisies and daffodils again? I know the bloody poof. I swung with him for almost 100 years. He’ll get all guilty over his awful past and dump you again faster than you can say ‘soul issues.’ He’s not the one for you and you know it." He edged closer to her and his voice became gentle and insinuating. "He hasn’t been there for you for the last four years. He can’t be trusted to stick by you like I can."

Buffy wasn’t impressed. She had anticipated any argument Spike could make and steeled herself against them. "Don’t flatter yourself, Spike. If all I wanted from somebody was blind loyalty, I’d get a dog. Angel is in love with me and I’m in love with him. I don’t think I ever really stopped, no matter what mistakes I made."

Spike bristled at her dismissal of their liaisons as mistakes. "There was more than that going on between us, Slayer, and you know it. Don’t think you can just brush it off now like it was a mere one-night stand."

"Oh please, Spike! That time I spent rolling around with you in dirty alleyways and other disgusting places was the worst year of my life. If all that meant love, then you’d still be with Drusilla. Or Harmony," she pointed out sweetly and saw his embarrassment at her mention of his dimwitted, vapid ex.

"But you said you loved me! You can’t deny that!" he shot back in a desperate attempt to hold her.

"And you said I didn’t. I thought about that and you were right. You were dying, Spike, and I wanted to throw you a bone. The awfulness of the moment, the fact that you were taking one for the team…hell, if it had been Giles, Xander, Dawn or Willow, I would have said it to them, too."

She got a studied expression as she sorted out what was going through her mind at that fateful moment. "It was more a kind of goodbye than a great passion suddenly busting loose. Honestly, it was only a little over a year ago that you tried to rape me and you thought I’d swing around and feel a mad love for you?" She shook her head as if the very idea was ridiculous.

God, it was awful how rational and indifferent she was. Even the mention of his aborted assault on her didn’t have any passion in it. She was more placid and at ease in his presence than she’d ever been and he longed to shake her until her teeth rattled to get some kind of reaction from her. Anger, scorn, contempt—any heated emotion, even a negative one, would be preferred over this bland indifference.

"You wouldn’t be saying this if Peaches weren’t around," he ground out.

"Weren’t you listening or is your humanity giving you problems with your hearing? Even if Angel were out of the picture it wouldn’t change how I feel about him. I’m in love with him. I’m not in love with you." She stated the words with exaggerated care as if to a slow-witted child.

"Then what happens to me then? What am I supposed to do now?"

Damn it, he was starting to whine again and Buffy was getting fed up with it. "You talked about fighting. Stay here with Angel and fight."

"Stay here with the bloody poofster? Not soddin’ likely," he snorted in contempt.

"Then why did you come here?" she countered. "You said you were coming to Angel for help. What were you going to do? Bum a few dollars off him and then split? Real class, Spike."

"I thought this would be the first place you’d leg it to. I came here to see you, luv, not go over old times with the damned Brow. He’s a crushing bore and always has been even before he got his soul. I’m not interested—"

"—in fighting evil unless I’m involved," she finished. "I see that now, Spike. Even back in Sunnydale, you wouldn’t help unless you thought you could win me back and that’s what all your efforts meant, right?"

"I’d hardly call getting myself toasted and buried under tons of rubble a good plan for a romance, Buffy."

"Nobody could ever accuse you of making good plans. Like you said, you’re not one of the world’s great thinkers. Pretty much any plan you ever made blew up in your face. In a way, it’s too bad you didn’t stay dead. You would have at least gone out as a hero. I could have mourned you instead of having a pointless discussion about me and Angel."

Buffy and Angel. She said that as if it was a given like fish and chips. His jaw clenched. "What if I stay here and help out the great poof? What then?"

"That’s entirely up to you. But don’t do it ‘cause you think it’ll win brownie points with me." She stared at his crestfallen face. She didn’t really want to hurt Spike. After all, he had sacrificed so much for her sake. But she wasn’t going to cherish a false feeling of beholdenness to him either.

"I’m glad you’re human, Spike. Really I am. But you told me once you weren’t holding on to dreams of building us a little crypt for two." She paused and shuddered when she thought about the implications of that statement. "And now that I think about it, that is major icksome. But you’ve got a whole new life ahead of you."

"Which doesn’t include you, apparently," he muttered.

"No, it doesn’t. Enjoy your humanity, Spike." She made to leave and he darted in front of her, desperate for any last bit of contact.

Seeing the sudden wariness on her face, he held up his hands and spoke in a cajoling voice. "Look, you can at least tell me where you’re going. Nothing wrong about keeping in touch, is there?"

"As long as it’s not literal." She sighed and scrunched up her nose as she thought. "I don’t know exactly where I’ll be settling. I’ll let Angel know. If you stay here with him, you’re bound to find out." She shoved him away from the door.

He wavered for a moment and then darted after her. Even now, knowing that all hope was lost, he couldn’t stay away from Buffy. He halted when he saw her talking outside his room with Dawn. The younger woman flung him a look of poisonous rage and he stopped as they made their way downstairs.

Maybe it was better to keep his distance for a bit. Besides, he didn’t believe Buffy for one moment when she said she didn’t know where she was headed. It shouldn’t be too hard to wheedle an address out of one of the others…

Buffy for her part decided to put him out of her mind. As far as she was concerned, the Spike issue was more than settled. She turned her attention to a certain brunette Slayer instead. "So, Faith. Any idea where you’ll be going?"

"I can’t stay here, B. Much as I’d like helping the Big A kick ass and take no names, I’m still wanted by the L.A.P.D. They’re bound to spot me sooner or later. I can’t drag that mess onto Angel’s doorstep."

"Then where’ll you go?" Dawn asked. She’d noticed Spike hovering in the background. But he hadn’t come near since he saw her with Buffy and she was determined to keep things that way. Pointedly ignoring him, she concentrated on Faith’s answer.

"Well, me and Robin are gonna make tracks to New York."

The former principal of Sunnydale High draped his arm around Faith as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "That’s right. I’ve got friends and family there. They’d be more than happy to take Faith in, seeing as she’s a Slayer like my mother was." Robin’s voice softened at the remembrance of his mother and Faith squeezed his arm in sympathy.

Dawn was surprised at the unspoken declaration. "They knew your mom was a Slayer?"

"That’s right. She was a kind of unofficial protector for our whole community. She didn’t see any point in hiding what she was or keeping people ignorant of what she did. And when we had to go into hiding to escape certain demons, she needed to let people know what she was hiding us from. She didn’t want them facing what was out there blind."

"Sounds like good thinkin’ to me," Gunn threw in. "I wouldn’t have minded having your mom on my team back in the day."

Robin’s glance was appraising. What he saw of Gunn evidently met with his approval. "She wouldn’t have minded having you around either, Gunn. You look like the kind who can hold your own in a demon fight."

Faith chimed in, "You got that right, Robin. Gunn can kick ass with best of ‘em. Ain’t that right?"

Robin and Gunn looked at each other and then drew apart to a little corner. The women watched in amusement as the two began talking and pulling up their clothes, showing various scars from previous battles.

"Damn, I’m probably never going to see him again until we pull out of here. Guys really like to talk about their fighting, don’t they, B?" Faith mused.

Buffy replied while winking at Dawn. "Oh, I don’t know, Faith. I recall a certain Slayer talking about how she got naked with a preacher after one of her demon scuffles."

"You had sex with a preacher?" Dawn squealed, causing several heads near them to swivel.

"No! It wasn’t like that. Buffy’s telling the story all wrong," Faith protested and then proceeded to outline to Dawn exactly what had happened.

Buffy tuned her out. She’d heard this story before and wasn’t interested in a repeat. She looked up as Kennedy came racing from the garden. The brunette brushed what looked suspiciously like tears from her eyes as she pelted upstairs to her room. Moments later, Willow came out and stared unhappily after her departing girlfriend.

Buffy drew her friend aside. "What is it, Will? Kennedy looked major upset." She didn’t want to interfere in a lover’s quarrel but she wanted to be here for her friend.

"Uh, Kennedy and I had a talk. It was long overdue, really. I’d been thinking and I decided that we should go our separate ways. She was kinda the rebound girl for me like Riley was the rebound guy for you. Only we were so caught up with the magic thing, the wannabe Slayers arriving by the boatload daily, the horrendous doom on the horizon and the First Whatsis playing with us that I sorta lost my head. I was just telling her that it wasn’t going to work out." Willow hung her head and sighed.

"Oh. So…it’s over between the two of you then?"

"Yep. All that’s left now is the crying and the packing. I’m gonna miss her. She was kinda fun sometimes. In an annoying bratty kind of way."

"But she was a really solidy and down-to-earthy type. I-I thought for sure you two were going to be a real couple." Buffy ventured. She hadn’t really liked Kennedy. She was just making the soothing noises that she knew was required of her as a girlfriend. Willow needed her support right now and that’s what mattered.

"Naw. That was never really in the cards. It was too soon after Tara and I should have waited." She sagged and Buffy put her arm around her in a silent show of friendship.

Things wrapped up surprisingly quickly after that. The bus was loaded with food, medical supplies and their clothes. Goodbyes were said and promises made about keeping in touch. Angel drew Buffy aside and gave her a small red velvet box. "This is for you, Buffy."

She glanced at it uncertainly. "What is it?"

"Open it." There was such tenderness and reassurance in his voice. She felt nervous anyway; she wasn’t sure why. Angel hadn’t given her a gift like this since her…

She opened the box and her breath caught when she saw its content. "Angel, this is—I mean, it looks just like the one…" She shot a swift glance to his watchful face. "It is, isn’t it? How did you find it?"

"When I came back from hell, I think it came with me. I don’t know how it was but somehow it made the journey." He lifted the Claddagh ring from the velvet interior. The hands, heart and crown were blurred as if they’d been exposed to intense heat. It had merged them all into one indistinguishable mass. He held it out to her and she slipped it onto her left ring finger, the heart pointed out.

Quick to note the disappointed look on his face, she stretched up on her toes and kissed him lightly on the lips. "I’ll turn it the other way when I’ve been baking a little longer. Remember?"

His answering grin was full of relief and he kissed her hard. She clung to him swaying, her lithe form molded to his larger frame. The sweet ache of want bloomed in her breasts again and she pulled away from him, panting.

"Don’t take too long, okay? I’ll be counting the nights."

"I-I’ll keep in touch. I love you, Angel."

"I love you, Buffy."


Part 9

Dawn had wanted to travel to Cleveland via magic but the others had been dead set against the idea especially Giles. They simply had too many things to transport and the trip would have been hell on the merely human in their group. The school bus peeled away from the Hyperion amidst a chorus of calls, hooting and hollering from the two groups.

Xander slumped back in his seat. "Man, I’m gonna miss that place. That swimming pool was even larger than the one we had back in the old Sunnydale High."

Buffy twisted in her seat and stared back at Xander where he sat behind her. "When did you go swimming?"

"When the rest of you were asleep. Deadboy didn’t provide any swim things in his Clothing-Palooza and the idea of swimming in my dirty grungy clothes was too shudder-worthy. So I had to go in commando style."

"You were swimming naked? Ooh, I would have liked to have seen that." Dawn licked her lips in appreciation while Buffy and Willow traded secretive glances.

"I thought the red Speedo was kinda hot," Willow murmured and the teenager’s head swiveled to look at the blond and redhead seated in front of her.

"Speedo? What Speedo? What are you talking about?" she demanded.

Buffy told her, "Oh, it was at the old Sunnydale High school. Xander was posing as a member of the swim team so he could find out what was turning the swim team members into Creatures of the Black Lagoon."

"Cordelia was so impressed because she was dating a member of the Sunnydale swim team, I thought she would cream her panties right there," the redhead finished.

"Willow! That’s hardly appropriate talk for sensitive ears," Buffy chided.

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. I’ve heard much worse than that from Anya."

"I was talking about my ears actually," Buffy responded.

Xander perked up at Willow’s offhanded comment. "Cordelia was impressed, was she? Wish I’d known about that. Maybe I could have strutted my manly stuff and gotten more out of her than closet smoochies."

It had been a short trip to the airport. By mutual consent, they all decided it would be simply too long a trip by a bus with no decent shock absorbers. That had been a week ago and they felt as if they were finally settling in to their satisfaction.

At first it had been a hassle getting into school in Cleveland given the lack of I.D. and proper school records. Then Giles had managed to get in touch with the few remaining members of the Watchers Council. Strings were pulled, obstacles were overcome and decent school manuscripts were rustled up as if by magic. When Willow and Buffy demanded to know how it had been done, Giles merely smiled and told them he had his ways.

Dawn had slid back into the swim of things at her new school with amazing ease. It seemed the hardship of the Sunnydale Hellmouth had forced her to mature quickly; homework was undertaken with minimum fuss. She was even starting to make friends although Buffy and Giles ruthlessly screened any new boyfriends.

As things turned out, Angel’s generous offer wasn’t needed. There were far more Watchers left in the world than Giles had hoped and they had pooled their resources. The many centuries the Watchers Council had been in existence had allowed them to acquire much in the way of monetary wealth. Their private resources proved to be a marvelous boon in helping him set up headquarters in Cleveland. A building previously used for storage was found and, with the help of a construction team Xander put together, it was being converted into a passable structure for learning, studying and sparring practice.

Buffy, however, refused to take another penny from Giles. She wanted to earn her own way and she was already deeply in Giles’s debt in more ways than one. She had managed to land a job as a martial arts and street fighting instructor. Her years of slaying made her more than capable in this respect.

She’d finally managed to track down her father. Hank Summers had heard about the destruction of Sunnydale; it had made national news. Nothing drew media attention like the total annihilation of a town, it seemed. He’d been frantic to learn what had happened to his little girls. Finding out they were alive and well had caused a storm of belated but welcome parental feeling and responsibility. Wrangling monthly financial support for Dawn had proven child’s play.

She kept in touch with Angel. She’d been worried the long distance would make it impossible for them to maintain a relationship. But the first time he’d appeared in the magic circle Willow had set up in the new Council basement dispelled any such doubts. They had smiled at each other and then he’d swept her into his arms for a melting kiss.

The others had discreetly withdrawn as their passion spiraled higher. Dawn had agreed to sleep over with one of her new friends for the weekend; she had stated there was no way she was staying in the apartment while Buffy and Angel kept her up all night with their screaming.

He’d wanted to talk to her about his nights. He’d wanted to discuss her life and the lives of her friends. Somehow seeing her standing there had driven all such thoughts out of his head.

She had agonized for hours over what to wear and finally picked out the dress she’d worn to the prom. Frantic alterations had shortened the hem until it hung just above her dimpled knees and tightened the waist enough to accentuate her petite breasts. Angel didn’t know about any of that; all he knew was that the most beautiful woman in the world was standing before him.

He kissed her, dwelling only on her sweet lips for the moment. Arousal drifted up to his nose and he rumbled deep in his chest at the scent of it. At moments like these, he was glad he wasn’t human. He would have missed the sound of her quickening heartbeat and the powerful aroma of her lust along with the other signs of her desire that only non-human creatures like he could have known.

His pants got tighter and she knew it at once. She wriggled against him and the action made him even stiffer. He was in danger of screwing her right there and that was not what he had planned. Reluctantly he drew away from her, noting the changes in her body. The pouting lips were kiss-swollen and she breathed hard from the brief contact. He lingered on the heaving breasts before he dragged his eyes away.

He remembered the bouquet he was holding. "These are for you," he whispered.

"Huh? Oh, thank you. These are nice. They’re so yellow and very pretty," she babbled. She stuck her nose in the bunch of yellow roses and baby’s breath he’d brought for her and sniffed dutifully. "They’re very aromy, too."

"I was hoping we could go out on a date tonight. Unless you’re busy."

"Hmmm. Let me check my calendar," she responded teasingly. "Yep. It looks like I’m free for the evening."

"Good." He wound his arm around her, drawing her close. "You know any good places to dine in Cleveland?"

There were lots of choice spots in Cleveland. She had taken time out to find them because she wanted to show him the city whenever he came to visit. She had been tireless in tracking down the special places that might cater to humans and one of, ahem, his kind. To her surprise there were quite a few restaurants off the beaten track that specialized in vampire dining. So eating out with Angel hadn’t been a problem.

Having Angel eat her out wasn’t a problem either. That was why she was currently naked in bed, sweat dripping off her body, her feet planted on both sides of the vampire who was licking her pussy with expertise and abandon.

"GOD! More! Don’t stop!" Her hips ground hard against his mouth as his tongue lashed her clitoris before diving once again between her quivering folds. Her head thrust back into the pillow, her body undulating and driving her cunt to meet the probing tongue. Short, soft strands of his hair tickled her fingers as she pulled him tighter against her.

Not needing to breathe was a definite asset as he swept around the plush padding, lapping at every juicy secretion. He lifted one leg over his shoulder for better access and she moaned at the increase in sensation brought from the altered position. One final sweep and hard suck at her clit from his lips and she came, screaming his name, as she exploded all over his tongue.

That wicked tongue continued to lap at her, getting up every drop. She was always so wet and juicy; she had whispered over dessert that he had only to look at her a certain way and she got all damp. He had barely managed to tip the waiter before grabbing her by the hand and dragging her out of the place.

On the drive home, they had parked in three different places so he could eat, lick and finger her to orgasm. Buffy had cum no less than four times tonight. After that she had lost count. And he had yet to fuck her.

Renewed sexual yearning was spiking its way along her nerves as he continued to lick her. She wasn’t certain she could take much more but she craved feeling his cock deep inside her. "Angel, love. Please."

He drew up alongside her and began plunging his fingers in a studied rhythm into her pussy. His passionate kiss exposed her to savor of her own juices and she sucked his tongue avidly. When he drew back, he murmured, "Please? What do you want, Buffy?"

"I want you." Oh, heaven. Lust had caught her in its grip again and her hips twisted in perfect rhythm with the digits exploring her. She cried out as he found her G-spot and stroked it relentlessly.

"Want me how? Say it, Buffy. I want to hear you say it." His dark, burning stare pinned her to the mattress. It was almost too hard to breathe let alone speak but she forced the words past her lips.

"Fuck me. Please fuck me, Angel."

His features shifted to their demonic form and back again almost too quickly for her to see. He moved over her with preternatural speed and entered her at once.

She sobbed with joy and rolled her hips up to meet him in the timeless way of women with their men. Angel had gone to such lengths to please her; now she wanted to please him. She closed her eyes and concentrated, clenching him hard with inner muscles toned from years of slaying. A startled gasp followed by a groan told her how well she had succeeded.

"Buffy, god, Buffy. Missed you. I love you. BuffyBuffyBuffy…" The words faltered and then gathered strength as they drove as one and parted only to seal themselves together again.

He kept the pace slow, pausing whenever he sensed she was close to cumming. He meant to spin out the lovemaking with her; he wanted to make these hours last. Tomorrow night he would depart to Los Angeles again and he wanted to carry away the sight of her face, the sound of her voice, her delicious scent, the taste of her pussy, the smell of her sweat. He wanted a thousand memories from this weekend and that meant taking his time.

The cold cock pistoned hard inside her, plumbing her to the very depths. But it wasn’t hard nor fast enough and he kept stopping, dammit! She nearly wept when he paused again, ducking his head to worry the tight nips stabbing him in the chest.

The weight of his tongue massaging and teasing the crinkled flesh was nearly enough to make her cum right then, her body had become so sensitive. Buffy clutched his head to her, panting, as the sucks became more demanding, drawing the flesh between teeth that had turned pointed.

He growled against the teat. Would she notice if he bit her there? She was so lost in sensation he doubted it. But he had his eyes on another prize. Without warning, he pulled out of her and flipped her over.

"NO! Angel, please!" She wanted to hit him for keeping her hanging like this. Her whole body hurt from the prolonged stimulation without the release she so desperately craved. Then she whimpered in relief as that huge cock entered her from behind.

He circled her waist and pulled her straining body up against his. She was shaking so much with unfulfilled desire, she could barely stay against him on her own. "Yes, Angel. More, harder, please. Don’t make me wait. I can’t take it." She ground against him shamelessly as she chased the orgasm that hung elusively out of her reach.

His movements became faster as she urged him with her voice and clenching pussy. Tight, she was so tight, and his cock was clamped like a vise whenever he slid out so that he shouted and growled into her ear. They called to each other, begging for release and at the same time desirous for more. He grabbed the bouncing tits, scratched down her quivering belly with blunt nails and swirled his finger around her clit again and again. He avoided direct pressure, preferring to keep her dancing on the edge.

She bounced up and down on the cool cock, her heart pounding, her cunt flexing around his hard driving shaft. He groaned at the sensation and stared with gleaming eyes at her neck. Her head had fallen back, exposing the long throat and the faded scar on the right side of her neck. Drawn irresistibly to that mark, he licked his fangs and bit into the pulsing vein.

Buffy screamed as the long-awaited orgasm swelled and crashed into her. Her eyes flew open and her body arched, caught between fangs and cock. Massive jolts accompanied by flares of heat flew over her skin. Another protracted pull and she wailed, her fingers digging into his thighs as Buffy desperately sought to anchor herself. It was as if she were flying, away from her body, away from the earth.

She was heat, summer, paradise and liquid flame. The seismic spasms from her pussy matched the throbbing heart until he thought he would pass out from the sensory onslaught. He clutched her trembling body to his as he fed, the heart speeding the flow across his tongue.

The Slayer moaned and quivered from the pull of those fangs. Had it ever been this good? Sex with Spike had never had this intensity, this power to make her scream, weep and cum all at once. The giving of her virginity on her 17th birthday faded in comparison to this passion. Her whole being felt alive, connected in an unbroken line from his fangs to her aching vagina. She let her head fall back onto his shoulder, content to let him draw more sensation from her.

It came to her befuddled mind that Angel was still hard, thrusting away in her, and her toes curled when another wave of pleasure began building in her body.

He was aware of the subtle changes that signaled her renewed desire. A glance down her trembling form showed her sex flush hadn’t faded. Her nipples were getting taut again, her breath hitching in her chest. Her blood hadn’t cooled his ardor, merely fanned it, and these signs spurred him on again. He clenched her tighter and removed his fangs as he began fucking her ferociously.

The blonde woman’s body shook, in danger of losing the cock lancing her right up to her cervix. A paroxysm of sensation shot through her whenever it happened and she cried out in harsh joy at each sharp pang. She twisted her head back and sought in vain to capture his lips. It was difficult given her position and the violence of his thrusts. But she clutched his head to hers in a bruising kiss, smearing her own blood across her teeth.

"More," she gritted. "Fuck me, love. Don’t stop. Drink me, fuck me, devour me." She swirled her tongue around the fangs and allowed one to graze the surface. A slight pressure and her tongue opened up, oozing a trickle of blood into his mouth.

How could he resist her when she looked and sounded like this? The enticing taste from her tongue reminded him of the real treat that lay uncovered. He wrenched away from her lips and sealed his mouth to the open wound on her neck. She was too good; he couldn’t keep away from the delights her body offered. He sipped her and moaned, the vibrations running through her neck and over her whole being.

There were no fangs this time, only persistent gulps, and to the woman in his embrace it was the same as when he’d lapped her pussy. She didn’t know why; the sensations were wholly different. But the effect was the same.

This time the orgasm was more prolonged, the effect passing through her like a slow ripple rather than a riptide. She held his head to her throat as her incoherent pleas accompanied his sucks. Her satiny folds fluttered around him again in one continuous convulsion and his seed shot out of him. The delayed spasm caused him to cum hard and long so the stream overflowed and ran down her thighs and his.

They fell back against the headboard, both panting hard even though only one of them needed the air. Buffy felt boneless and weightless as if she were just one gooey puddle on the sheets. Seeing that she was helpless to move, Angel gathered her around the waist and dragged her away from the enormous wet spot they’d produced.

Gradually she settled back into her skin and snuggled next to him. "Mmmmmm."

"Same here." He licked at her wound, sealing it. Her soft moans accompanied the gestures, the pleasure from his mouth winding its way through her afterglow.

There was an extended silence. It was comfortable and easy rather than strained. She ran her nails lightly around one of his dark brown nipples and kissed the broad chest wherever she could reach. She rested her head on his upper body and peered upward at him. "Angel?"

"Mmmm? What?"

"You’re warmer now. Do all vampires get warmer when they feed?"

He didn’t really want to discuss vampire nature right now. But he remembered what he’d said to Cordelia. Buffy loved all of him and her question was prompted by curiosity not revulsion. So he decided to satisfy her. "Uh, yes. Most blood does that if it’s taken right from the source."

"Huh. Never knew that. Do vampires like getting warmer or do they prefer being cold-blooded?"

"We absorb so much from humans when we feed: their fear, sweat, and warmth. It’s a big thrill for vampires. We like the beating of the racing heart, too. Sometimes we like to chase our prey and let them get all hot and bothered."

"I remember that. I saw this one vamp get all gloaty over this guy he’d chased into an alley. Fortunately, I dusted him before he got his hot spicy beverage. But I was thinking. Do all humans get turned on from the biting? When I was in Sunnydale—I found this vampire version of a crackhouse." She hesitated. This was getting into the area of old boyfriends. But Angel didn’t know about Riley’s sick deal and she wasn’t going to tell him.

His eyes narrowed slightly. "Is that when you found out that Finn guy was getting himself chewed on by vampire whores?"

Crap! Her head shot up and she stared at him, angry and guilty at once and wondering why she should feel that way. "H-how did you know? Who told you?"

"Willow let it slip when she was visiting Cordelia. She didn’t think I heard her but I did. Is that why you broke up with him?"

"Technically, he broke up with me. He left me because he said I didn’t need him enough. Then Giles left because I needed him too much. The only guy who seemed to accept me for what I was…" Okay, that was trailing into forbidden territory and she didn’t want to mention Spike.

He understood; by mutual consent neither of them dwelled on the Spike mess. Angel cast about in his mind for a way to change the subject. "Darla didn’t want to be around me either when I got my soul. She drove me off the first time it happened. When I tried to come back to her, she was furious because I couldn’t muster up the urge to kill anyone except criminals. I had to leave her again; it was impossible for us to be together."

"Then why was she sniffing around after you in Sunnydale?"

He shifted a little, seeking a more comfortable position in the bed as he formulated a response. "I was hers. She created me; I was her Childe. Even though she hated what I’d become, she couldn’t leave me alone. She’d come to me, trying to get me back into the Master’s court, wanting me to rejoin her. We didn’t love each other but we’d shared a history. She just couldn’t let it go."

"I can so relate," Buffy murmured. "That’s why I thought being with you was a bad idea. I thought you were of the past and I had to move on no matter what my heart really felt."

"And I thought I had to let you go so you could be happy." He embraced her and closed his eyes, contenting himself with only a hug for the moment.

She squirmed closer and then said, "You know, I’m kinda hungry again. We ran out of the restaurant before eating dessert. Okay if I get something to eat?"

"Go right ahead." He lay still in bed as she got up and let his eyes wander in appreciation over her nude body while she shrugged on a robe and ran out to the kitchen. Now that they weren’t wrapped up in each other, he took the opportunity to look over her furnishings.

Nice, very nice. The furniture was tasteful without being too expensive and he recognized the handmade look of some of the chairs and tables—probably Xander’s work. Buffy kept herself surrounded by quality solid wood furniture and he wondered if it was an unconscious choice or a reflection of how she could use any of it in a fight against vampires.

The question went unanswered as she came back into the bedroom bearing a tub of ice cream and a bowl. The robe had come strategically undone and her breasts and fur-covered mons played peek-a-boo as she walked to the bed. He licked his lips over the display.

She plopped down beside him and handed him the bowl. "Want to take the first taste?"

He took the dish from her in puzzlement. "Buffy, you know I don’t eat."

"I know you don’t need to eat, Mr. Broody. But Spike ate human food all the time when he still had his fangs. I know it doesn’t give you nutritional goodness like a dose of plasma. But how do you know you won’t like it until you try? Just one small taste. Please, Angel? For me?" she pleaded. She pried off the lid and that’s when he saw the contents.

"Cookie Dough Fudge Mint Chip? W-why did you pick that out?"

She looked down into the sugar-laden confection and shrugged. "You know, I’m not really sure. Faith found a tub in the Hyperion mini fridge and we shared some quality girl talk while eating. I guess I wanted another taste. Why?"

"No reason." This was a trifle weird but he dismissed it as a freaky coincidence. The next moment he forgot all about the strangeness as Buffy climbed on top of him and set the bowl aside. "What are you doing? I thought I was going to get ice cream."

She grinned and held up the spoon. "Yep. I just changed my mind about how you’re going to eat it." She dug the spoon into the treat and lifted off a tiny bit. She dripped it onto one breast and shivered dramatically. "Oooh. Tingles."

"Buffy," he whispered. His eyes followed the stream as it warmed to her body heat and dripped down the slope of her tit to the nipple. The aureole crinkled with contact and the nipple went taut immediately. He leaned up and lapped it off her and she moaned, leaning forward into his mouth.

The nipple was sucked hard and his tongue probed the rough surface, chasing every bit of ice cream. The taste was just how he remembered it: sweet, slightly chewy with the tang that was mint and the dark rich taste of the chocolate. On her skin, mingled with the contrast of salt sweat, it tasted even better.

She shivered, sighing from the warmth of his tongue and the cold cream together. She’d been right; her blood had heated his flesh. Even if the effect was only temporary, she relished the unusual sensation of his warmed skin against hers. Then she pushed him back and dripped more onto her other breast.

As things progressed, the ice cream softened, making it easier to pull up bigger scoops. The bed became a mess as her robe was discarded and the cream was placed on other spots on her body. At one point, he dropped some into her navel and dug his tongue in, pushing it in and out in imitation of what he’d like to do with another part of his body.

His cock was erect and had been since she straddled him. But it was her turn to tease and she wouldn’t let him enter her yet. However, her arousal was strong in his nostrils and he knew she was as keen to take this to the next level as he was. Getting an idea, he placed her on her hands and knees and dropped the ice cream in a long trail from her shoulder blades to the delta of her back. He positioned himself behind her and let his dick slip between her legs. On the pretense of licking off the delicious treat, he allowed the cockhead to brush her clitoris.

Buffy gasped. His cock against her button sent electric sparks shooting through her and her cunt clenched automatically. His tongue swept down her back and lingered in the small vee at its base. She could hear the lapping noises as once again the bulging head between her legs teased her clit. Without thinking she began to nudge her buttocks back, seeking that sensation again.

He continued the game, stroking her clit harder and longer each time until her hips were twisting, striving to draw out the contact. "Aaaangeell," she whined.

"Mmmm. What is it, Buffy?" The tongue flickered in short darts along her side, pursuing stray drops of ice cream. His tongue had cooled slightly but her wanting had not. She caught his cock between her thighs in another pass and he groaned at the pressure against his shaft.

"Please…make love to me," she gasped. She rubbed her butt against his belly. The invitation was clear and what vampire could resist an invitation? However, this time he wanted to fuck her face to face. He turned her over again and kissed her, mint and fudge passing from his tongue to hers. She could feel the pulsing cock squashed between their bellies, its heat just a promise of things to come. Moaning against his lips, she spread her legs wide, wriggling until her coarse hairs scraped aggravatingly against him.

He was going to fuck her again and she didn’t know which was better, the actuality or the anticipation. The warmed head slipped into her and the difference in his temperature was extreme enough to draw her attention away from her own needs.

It wasn’t better nor worse that his coolness, only different, and she concentrated on exploring that distinction. His whole body was hot; was this what she felt like to him? True, there was no pulse, no thrum of a beating heart, no sweat slicking beneath her hands. But he was otherwise the same: his wide back, the firm muscles shifting under the skin, the powerful buttocks that drove his length into her again and again.

He licked up the left side of her neck, the smooth untouched side. She wasn’t satisfied with that; he could tell by the harsh whimpers and the attempts to direct him to the closed wound. He spread his fingers into the neglected remains of the ice cream lying by the side of the bed and smeared it on her neck. Before she cold react to the chill, he gave the ice cream-smeared scar a flick with his tongue and re-opened it.

"YES!!" Buffy cried. Her hips banged against his with the renewal of his blood-fueled passion. "So good. Never this good with…anyone. I love you I love you I love you," she chanted. They were screwing each other hard and the bed creaked with each violent bounce of the springs. Limbs entwined, her breasts pressed against his massive chest, and he could hear that heartbeat, familiar in every stage of arousal, filling his ears until it became his whole world.

She gripped his buttocks, Slayer strength pulling him aside her and she gave a cry with each plunge, each squeeze against her clit. The pace quickened with the heavy, swollen balls providing their own pressure on her ass. She squirmed, forcing her neck to his lips and he mouthed the wound, drawing in the last traces of ice cream with her blood.

The giving gesture completed the experience. His entire body went rigid within the sweet circle of her flesh. Cum spurted within her no longer cold but warm as she. It wasn’t humanity but it was so close he could almost swear his heart was beating in his chest. He pulled away from her neck with a shudder, gulping for air he hadn’t needed save for one day in over two centuries. "Buffy, I love you," he gasped, burying his head against her breasts.

The withdrawal of his fangs provoked her spasms, in turn drawing another from him. They both lay completely spent, neither willing to move in spite of their awkward position. Buffy was dizzy, spent and lightheaded from the protracted sex. Blinking, she tried to adjust her vision and come back to the room and vampire in her arms. There was a rumbling against her body, causing her tits to vibrate, and she realized it was coming from him. She stroked his head and giggled as the noise grew audibly louder. "I didn’t know vampires purred."

"That’s because it only happens when we’re very very happy."

His fingers brushed her neck and her giggles turned to an "mmmm" of contentment. "Good thing your soul is bound then."

"No argument there." He drew his weight off her so she’d be more comfortable. Breath, warmth, ice cream—it was almost like their lost day and he smiled at the memory as he nestled close to her side.

"So what do you want to do tomorrow?" she whispered making trails with her fingers over his skin again.

He pretended to think while he reciprocated the gesture. "Since I can’t leave here, I was thinking more of the same as tonight."

"I’d better stock up on more ice cream then." She draped her arm across his middle and asked, "So did you enjoy it?"

"What? The ice cream? Definitely. Ice cream a la Buffy is a real hit."

His words were answered by a sleepy giggle followed by a yawn. "Oh, I’m so sleepy. But I still want…"

"What? You couldn’t possibly…"

She giggled at the insinuation. "No, no. I’m spent. Pleasantly numb even. You?"

He was struck by the abrupt sense of déjà vu. God, it was the same conversation, almost word for word, and his throat closed up. Did she somehow remember their lost day? How was that possible?

His silence drew her attention and she lifted her head. The still expression on his face was kinda puzzling, considering what they’d just finished doing. "Angel? Hello? Was it something I said? What’s going on in there?" She reached out a finger and stroked down his nose.

He made an attempt to smile. "I was just thinking about you. I didn’t hear. What did you say?"

"I just wanted to stay awake so this day can keep happening."

"Sleep. We’ll make another one like it tomorrow." He did his best to keep his tone light as he held a non-existent breath to hear what she would say next.

"Good. Tomorrow I want to try other foodstuffs. Maybe chocolate with peanut butter next time. Preferably crunchy." The words were a drowsy murmur and Buffy missed Angel’s shocked reaction.

"Crunchy peanut butter?" he whispered.

He wanted to jostle her awake and demand what she meant by that. But he was too afraid of her answer. Could she have remembered anything of that day? He was almost certain she didn’t; she would have been furious with him for keeping her in the dark. She would have demanded answers. At the very least she would have insisted on an explanation and a detailed account of their lost day.

The urge for honesty warred with the ever-present desire to keep her from pain. What good would it do to tell her about a long-lost day of paradise, a day she couldn’t even remember? She would be angry with him for throwing away their only chance of happiness. She would point to Spike’s Shanshu and tell him how it never would have happened if Angel had claimed the rightful prize. He knew in his head all the arguments she would make. And the end would be the same.

He would still be a vampire. She would still be a Slayer. Telling her would accomplish nothing except to spoil the joy of their reunion. He closed his eyes and pushed away the arguing voices in his mind. They were making a new future for themselves. There was no point in dwelling on the past.

The rest of the weekend passed in much the same way. Angel hid his knowledge about the forgotten day and managed to shove it aside completely. The remaining time was a miniature slice of heaven.

They set up an established routine, trading off visits back and forth. Dawn had insisted on coming with Buffy once on the Magic Express. The journey had made her violently sick and she swore there was no way she was doing that again except for dire emergencies. Willow had also come back to Los Angeles to catch up on things with Fred. Naturally, the redhead weathered the journey much better than anyone else besides Buffy and Angel.

On Angel’s latest trip, they spent the day in bed, pausing only to take showers or eat. They talked about everything that was happening on their respective fronts.

Willow had her magic firmly under control. Because of that, Giles offered a position in the new Watchers Council. They had often used sorcerers to help with the arcane and mystical; he said someone of her power and expertise would be a great asset. The paycheck he held out was a pretty good incentive, too. She spent a lot of time with him and the new trainees they were carefully grooming for their roles as future Watchers. Buffy thought that a new romance was developing between Willow and Clarissa, a blonde grad student from Poughkeepsie. But Buffy hadn’t said a thing to either of them about it yet. She was content to let things progress on their own—and then surprise Willow one day by asking for the details. [That’ll teach Willow to think I’m clueless.]

The Slayers under Gunn’s training and Wesley’s tutelage had turned into a very capable fighting force. Angel had started up the A.I. business again and used the money plus the funds originally set aside for Connor’s future to send them all back to school. Fred had started up a relationship with David Nabbitt, a development that surprised no one. Lorne abandoned the idea of opening a new club; he wasn’t exactly optimistic that any new venue of entertainment would last given his association with the good guys. He contented himself with listening to A.I. clients sing and lamented the lack of truly decent singing voices for the side of good.

In spite of Buffy’s worry, the former vampire had stayed away from her. However, Spike was having trouble adjusting to being human. He insisted on putting himself in the line of fire and groused endlessly whenever he was laid up from his wounds. He was all too depressingly human without an ounce of strength nor leftover vampire stamina. He also found to his dismay that, seeing how much he loved human food, he now required extra exercise to keep down his weight. Buffy laughed when Angel recounted how he had caught Spike weighing himself on a bathroom scale and crying out in shock to see that he’d gained ten pounds.

Angel heard occasionally from Faith. She had managed to take things with Robin Wood into a solid love affair, much to her own surprise. She was offhand and breezy about it but he could hear the tenderness underneath her tough-girl act whenever she spoke about the former principal. The dark-haired ex-convict had come a long way and no one was prouder of it than Angel.

He was conspicuous in his lack of mentioning Connor and Buffy hesitated to ask. She realized that the teenager’s history was one of nothing but badness. So she asked Angel what he had been like as a baby. A kind and gentle love entered her lover’s eyes, such as she’d never seen before, as he spoke of the darling bundle of joy that had been his baby boy. He rhapsodized about his son’s blue eyes and sweet-smelling body. He told Buffy how the boy had been unafraid of his demon face, breaking out into babyish giggling whenever he saw it.

Buffy heard the ache and longing in Angel’s voice and wondered if she’d made a mistake getting him to talk about it. But after he went over the wonderful first days of the baby’s life, he thanked her for her insistence. He knew he might never get another chance at a family and it eased his heart to have someone know just how much his baby had meant to him.

"It wasn’t the future I’d envisioned for him, Buffy. But what parent ever has their child turn out exactly how they want? If your kid winds up happy, that’s the most any parent can ask for and that’s what I got."

"So you’re finally getting it, huh?"

What was she talking about now? "Getting what?"

Her face was smug and sad at the same time as she unknowingly went over Willow’s theme when the redhead had confronted him over Cordelia’s comatose body. "You had this idea for me about a normal life with the husband, 2.3 kids and the garage with two cars. You had all these plans for Connor that never came true—at least not the way you wanted. Life is what happens when you’re making other plans. If you’d only seen that, then we could have avoided years of heartbreak."

"Maybe. But think about what other things in our lives wouldn’t have happened. If I’d stayed with you in Sunnydale, Cordelia would be vampire food. Wesley might still be struggling along trying to make a name for himself as a demon hunter. I wouldn’t have rescued Fred and we certainly wouldn’t have saved the humans in Pylea from slavery."

She leaned up on one elbow and looked down at him. "Or we might have gone to Pylea together to escape Glory. I’m not saying we should have run away together to live in blissful coziness. I’m just saying we could have found a way to be together and still fought evil. Slayer and souled vampire. Buffy and Angel."

His eyes were stricken as he recalled her fate against Glory. "I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I should have been…"

"No, that’s not what I meant. You might have been with me and I still could have died. We’ll never know. I never blamed you for not being with me. If anything, I should have called you when things got rough. Who knows, you might have helped. I was just too stubborn to ask."

A sigh came from the vampire as he embraced her and stroked her silken hair. "Then there’s no point in dwelling on what might have been, Buffy. That’s no better than making extravagant plans for a future that might not come true," he pointed out.

The man had a point. And she didn’t want to make it sound as if she was still angry with him for leaving her. She cuddled closer to him and sighed plaintively. "So I guess by that logic we should just live for the present."

"There’s nothing wrong with making plans. We just have to be flexible about them, that’s all."

"Uh huh. Speaking of plans, what do you want to do when I come to visit you next time?"

"Let’s let that be a surprise, shall we?" He waggled his eyebrows at her and she got wet at the thought of what exactly he might have planned. His nose twitched as her excitement caught his attention and gold flickered in his eyes. When his hand moved to cup her breast, he was rewarded by her female moan, the yielding mound swelling into his palm.

The heat from their recent lovemaking bout had cooled and she was itching for more action. However, he peered out the window and frowned. It was almost nightfall; soon he would have to leave her. "I hate to cut this short, Buffy. But I have to get back soon."

Buffy gave a pout, hoping to change his mind, but his mind was made up. "Most lovers have to clear out at daybreak. You’ve got to be one of the few who have to take off at night."

He pulled away with a sad smile of regret. "I guess so. Wesley read about this prophecy almost three years ago and he’s very sure about it."

"And Wesley’s never wrong, is he?" she muttered.

He didn’t miss the sarcastic note. But he had questioned Wesley about this and the Watcher had been adamant. He came across it when he was reading the Aberjian scrolls. The Beast of Amalfi was due to rise in Reseda in 2003. "He’s cross-referenced, checked and double checked and even called on Giles. He’s dead sure about this and so am I. I trust him."

She sighed and sat up, reaching for her clothes. "I’m beginning to wish I’d talked Faith into staying in Cleveland with me. I could have left her as backup and come with you."

"I have my team and whole army of Slayers with me, Buffy. I’ll be all right." He knew she was unhappy about this and darted a swift kiss to her nose to pacify her. She wrinkled it and smiled back at him.

"Okay. It’s just Wesley called this thing the Harpoon of Death and that sounds kinda scary."

"That’s Harbinger of Death, love. And these things are always coming up with pretentious names for themselves. Don’t forget I was once called the Scourge of Europe."

"Yeah, but you deserved the title."

He grinned but made no attempt to refute her odd praise. He shucked on the last of his clothes and took her by the hand.

There were lingering slow, deep kisses between her apartment and the new Council headquarters. Because of that, they cut things a little too close for his liking. Angel stood in the circle of green sand and waved goodbye to her. She reluctantly let him go and watched as the light flared, leaving an empty circle where her lover had stood.


Part 10

That night torrential rains poured down on Cleveland. Buffy cut her patrolling short; even demons didn’t care to come out during the wet. Most humans stayed home in bad weather and that meant that Happy Meals on two legs were in scant supply. She turned on the radio to hear the weather in California. Since leaving Angel to make her life in Cleveland, she had become obsessive in keeping up with the news on the western coast. To her surprise, it was raining hard in California, too.

"Okay. Not of the usual," she mumbled. "Wonder how Angel’s doing against the Beast of Armani?" She toyed with the idea of calling and leaving a message and then discarded it. Angel would leave her an email when he got in or he would call. Whenever either of them faced anything out of the usual, they made a point of calling the other for support, backup, lore and weapons. They were determined to keep each other informed of any new developments in their lives.

Buffy pulled the covers up to her neck and stared through the rain-spattered window. She shoved aside her mounting uneasiness and tried to sleep.

Rain. It pelted down on the vampire and Slayer as they raced back to his apartment. Buffy shivered but not from the cold as Angel touched her wet skin searching for the wound he could smell under her clothes. She’d nearly lost him tonight and she was terrified that it might happen again. He whispered for the first time how much he loved her in spite of his better judgment and she drew him close, ignoring his feeble protest…

The water from the sprinklers sprayed them both as Angelus sneered at her inability to strike him down. She knew she had to. This was no longer the man she loved. But the dark eyes, now without a shred of human feeling, the sneering lips, the tall, powerful frame—these all belonged to Angel. How could he have disappeared completely? How could she kill him?

Angel held a blonde woman, extorting her not to give up. They were swaying together in the shower, both fully clothed, as Angel urged her to wake. Wait a minute; she knew this woman. It was that cop—what was her name?—Kate Locksley. What was wrong with her and what was Angel doing with her?

Apparently she had tried to commit suicide and Angel had prevented it. He had miraculously entered her home even though she’d never invited him in…

The lightning flashed as Angel woke up beside the exhausted Darla, harsh breaths dragging from his body. He staggered onto the balcony followed by his watchful, gloating Sire. Buffy knew what this meant; Angel had risked his soul in Darla’s arms and now Angelus would return. The rainfall lashed his body as Darla told him it would only hurt for a minute only to recoil in baffled outrage when Angel, not Angelus, stared her in the eyes…

Darla lay in the alley, completely spent. Her labor pains were horrific but the child wouldn’t come and she knew what she had to do. Before Angel could stop her, she plunged the stake into her own heart. Angel watched aghast as his Sire’s remains washed away in the pouring rain, a tiny naked baby born amidst her ashes…

A vicious beast the size of a small truck, six baleful eyes trained in different directions on the fighters attacking him, had crawled from a massive sunken hole in the ground into what looked like a public park. The constant downpour made the ground slippery and fighting precarious. The brunette vampire was fighting alongside the smaller human with bleached hair; each darted in successive movements to distract the beast so someone could get in a killing blow. Spike yelled jeering taunts and lunged for an apparent opening. But he slipped in the thick mud and, in a blur of movement, a forked tail smacked him hard into a nearby tree.

Angel leaped over the tail and ran to check on his grandchilde. The blow had been powerful, enough to crack the tree trunk, and Spike wasn’t moving. The monster pinned Gunn beneath a massive paw and Buffy heard bones crack as it brought its massive weight to bear. Angel spun from his grandchilde to stab the creature through the offending foot. The monster stepped off Gunn with a roar and slashed Angel across the chest. The vampire staggered and went down, the driving deluge washing over his motionless body…

"ANGEL!" Buffy screamed and jerked upright in bed, her heart banging in terror. She automatically reached across the mattress. But Angel wasn’t there, of course; he had left hours ago. She jumped from the bed absently noting that the rain had finally stopped.

She grabbed her phone and dialed the A.I. number. Holding it in shaking hands, she waited impatiently for someone to pick up on the other end. "Hello, you have reached Angel—"

"Cordelia, is that you? I need to speak to Angel! Is he all right?"

"—the helpless. Please leave your name and number at the sound of the beep. If this is an emergency, please beep us at 917-555-2192."

"Dammit!" It was only an answering machine. She didn’t want to leave a message, something told her the nightmare was more than just a bad dream brought on from too many buffalo wings and she needed to contact Angel or one of the others right away. She left a message anyway urging anyone to call. Then she dialed the emergency number.

On the first ring, a harried English voice answered. "Hello, this is Angel Investigations."

"Wesley? It’s Buffy. Did something happen to Angel? Please tell me; I need to know."

"Buffy? Angel, he’s—he’s been seriously injured. How did you know?"

"I had a dream, Wesley, one of my prophety dreams. It was the Beast, wasn’t it? It was huge, had six eyes, ugly like it hit a wall face first."

"Yes, you’re absolutely right. We managed to take it out with a flame-thrower, courtesy of Wolfram & Hart’s storage facilities. But Angel was grievously wounded in the battle. We’re getting him back to the hotel as fast as we can."

"I’m coming there." Even as she spoke, Buffy pulled out her overnight bag. She always kept it stocked with medical supplies, a change of clothes and a small cache of weapons. Seven years as a warrior had taught her the meaning of being battle ready.

"I don’t know if you’re needed here. We have specialists here at the hotel now. They’re more than competent to handle things." Wesley wasn’t certain how Buffy’s presence would help and she might just get in the way.

"Wesley, I had that dream for a reason. I’m supposed to be there and I’m coming."

"Very well. Just don’t expect us to devote too much time for you. We have other injured here."

"I understand." Buffy hung up and dialed her number at work. Since she was never ill she had plenty of sick time coming up. It looked like she was going to need it.

The teleportation spell dissipated and the first person she saw was Fred. The lanky brunette darted forward and clasped Buffy’s hand. The Slayer’s heart sank. Fred was normally very affectionate but this gesture coming at such a time couldn’t mean anything good.

"Buffy, you have to hurry. It’s getting worse. The doctors did all they could and Wesley and the others have been going through the books but they haven’t found anything so far. Angel’s been calling for you," she babbled, leading the Slayer from the banquet room to the hotel lobby.

"How is he?"

Fred didn’t answer, only gave her a look of mingled terror and sympathy. Buffy wrenched out of her hand and took off at a dead run for the lobby. Cordelia, Andrew and Wesley were in his office looking through the books. A number of the other Slayers were gathered in the lobby also reading through various texts. Buffy ran to the side of the prone vampire lying on the couch and sank down beside him.

The wound in his chest had been bandaged but it clearly wasn’t helping. His skin had turned a dark, ugly blackened color as if he’d been burnt and the poison was spreading. She could see it marching inexorably across his skin like a dark stain even as she watched. There was a fine sheen of sweat across the vampire’s skin and he trembled and groaned from the pain.

"Angel? It’s Buffy. Can you hear me?" Her voice lowered to a whisper and she waited anxiously for a reply. The vampire muttered an incoherent phrase under his breath and his eyes fluttered but didn’t open; she wasn’t sure if he’d heard her.

"Angel, please. Open your eyes. Look at me." The black tide crept up his throat and the vampire drew a wheezing futile breath. Then his eyes opened and he stared at her.

"B-Buffy? Is that—are you really here?" His voice was grating, the smooth tenor changed to a rasp as he tried to speak.

She squeezed his hand. "Yes, Angel. Don’t try to talk, Just save your strength, okay? You’re going to be fine." She looked up and glared at the Watcher who’d appeared to stand mutely by her side. She dared him to contradict her, even though there was no sign of hope in his bleak expression.

"S-spike?" She frowned uncertainly. Why was Angel asking about him?

Fred replied, "Spike was injured in the fight. The Beast broke one of his legs and cracked a couple of ribs. We got him and Gunn taken to the Wolfram & Hart facilities. They’re in critical condition but it looks like they’ll survive. Gunn heals a lot faster these days; he should be out soon. Not so sure about Spike though."

"You hear that, Angel? Spike’s going to be fine and so are you."

The vampire grimaced as if trying to summon his strength. "S-shan…shu. Human…ity. Choose…Spike."

Now she understood what he meant. "No, Angel, no! Do you hear me? You’re the one I want and you’re going to be okay. You’re not palming me off to Spike like a secondhand car! Wesley, why is he here? Why isn’t he with Spike and Gunn?"

The Watcher’s face was grim. "The demon specialists found nothing in Wolfram & Hart’s records about this poison or what could combat it and the venom is obviously spreading too quickly. We thought we should bring him here where he could be comfortable, at least."

"That’s not good enough!" she yelled and saw the Watcher flinch from the verbal assault.

Angel’s hand tightened and he whispered, "It’ll be fine, Buffy. Don’t grieve. I love you. Always."

She managed a tremulous smile. "I know that, silly." The black crawled over his jaw and her mouth went dry. It was getting worse; there was no stopping it. Even she could see that. "Angel, you’re the only one. You always have been. I’m not taking Spike as some sort of consolation prize."

His mouth worked as he strained to speak but the dark-haired vampire didn’t answer. Perhaps he couldn’t. The inky flow advanced to his eyebrows and his eyes opened wide.

There was the faintest whisper such as a blown curtain might have made against skin or of dust being swept across the floor. Then his eyes closed and his body dissolved into powder, the ashes drifting through Buffy’s hands. She stared in shock at the human-shaped pile of cinders as the blanket collapsed around a man no longer there.

She cried out once, a harsh choked whisper that seemed to push against the jagged edges of her throat. Then her hands scrabbled uselessly in the ashes, desperate to gather up what was left of her lover.

She didn’t really know what happened after that. For several minutes she had refused to move from the couch, incapable of believing that the worst had happened. Someone—it may have been Cordelia—had finally pulled her from it and brought her to her bed. She had lain there motionless ever since, refusing to eat, her lover’s ashes staining her hands.

Willow, Xander and Dawn had arrived as soon as someone remembered to call them. Giles was out on a search-and-rescue mission in Spain; it would take some time for him to arrive by more conventional methods. This was the situation when Spike returned to the hotel.

Too impatient to wait, he had nagged the W&H staff until they released him and he hailed a taxi. Hobbling in on crutches, he noted the eerie silence and drawn faces. "’ere, what’s all this then? No hugs for the returning hero?" he joked only to note the stiff, tense faces confronting him everywhere. "What?"

Dawn stepped from behind the lobby desk. She wore a dark blue dress in straight, severe lines though no more so than her face. "Spike?" She stared at him for a moment. Then her face crumpled and she burst into tears.

"Nib—Dawn. What is it? Tell me what’s wrong." Terror seized him and he hobbled forward, heedless of the pain the incautious movement brought him. "It-it isn’t Buffy, is it, pet? Tell me, please!"

She barely managed to speak around her sobs. "Buffy, sh-she was here when it happened. She’s upstairs." She apparently couldn’t say anything more. Collapsing on the couch, she hugged herself tightly and gave herself over to her grief.

Spike was torn between tending to the girl’s obvious distress and seeing what was upstairs. If Buffy was upstairs, that meant she was all right. Or perhaps Dawn was talking about her body. But if she’d been injured or killed in Cleveland, why would her body be here? If not, why would she have come here so soon after her last visit with Angel?

Cordelia solved the matter for him. She stepped out of the office, excitement and hope on her face. "Dawn, I’ve got an idea!" Then she saw Spike and stopped short. "Oh, hey. That was quick. Chalk one up for modern medicine. She tell you what happened?"

"Not ‘zackly. What’s gone on since I got laid up?"

She stared at him without speaking for a long moment. Cordelia and Spike had never gotten along. From day one they’d done nothing but argue with and snipe at one another, providing a source of unending entertainment to the others. But she really couldn’t see the point of hating him now.

Silently gesturing for him to step into the office, she closed the door behind them and spoke without preamble. "Angel’s dead. The Beast of Amalfi poisoned him with his claws. Buffy managed to get here but she couldn’t do anything. None of us could. S-she saw him die."

"So Buffy’s alive then?" That was Spike’s first concern. He saw the anger and hostility gathering in Cordelia’s eyes and continued in a rare moment of gentleness. "I understand about Angel, really I do. I’m just thinkin’ this must be a real blow for the Slayer, is all. Can I see her?"

"That’s not a good idea. She’s not really interested in doing the talky thing with us and we’re her friends." She opened the door and walked out to Dawn. Clearly the little meeting was over.

Spike’s lips thinned. He understood the implication behind her blunt statement, of course. No one really considered him a friend to Buffy. Well, keeping himself away from her whenever she visited Angel didn’t really change that opinion in their eyes. Sod them. He wasn’t going to stay away now just ‘cause the fashion slave told him to.

Spike took the elevator to the second floor as he contemplated all that had occurred since he took his place as a member of Angel Investigations. For the first few weeks he had reveled in his humanity, taunting Angel with his inability to enjoy sunshine. However, the reality of being human had begun to pall. He got stomachaches when he overate, pounding hangovers that took hours to dissipate instead of minutes and injuries that took too long to heal.

Angel had Buffy. He had her and happiness and, though he never bragged to Spike about any of it, the bliss on his grandsire’s face was just too much to take. Spike absented himself from the hotel whenever Buffy came and did his best to avoid the poof after one of his trips to Cleveland. Spike simply couldn’t stand seeing the wanker so happy over the woman he’d tried so hard to get and failed.

Now Angel was gone but Spike didn’t kid himself that now he had a chance with Buffy. A lover’s ghost was even more impossible to compete with than the living article. Buffy had held on to her love for Angel during the four years of their separation. A little thing like death would make no difference to her.

He hesitated before her door and then knocked on it tentatively. There was no answer but he opened it anyway. The tiny body of the golden-haired Slayer lay passively on the bed. She didn’t move nor speak when he entered.

"Buffy, I heard the news." No reaction. He cleared his throat and sat awkwardly on the bed, his plastered leg sticking out in front of him. "Nobody called the hospital; I just heard it from the prom queen downstairs. I-I know how you must feel."

She still didn’t move and she wouldn’t meet his eyes. "Him and me, we didn’t always see eye to eye. But he was family, you know? Dru was always insane. I only tended to her. It wasn’t as if she and I connected on some deep spiritual level. Darla was a flipping bore and we couldn’t stand each other. But Angelus and I had good times. And Angel…right, I’m not saying him and me understood each other. Couldn’t see why a soul kept him from lightening up and enjoying himself. But he loved you. We had that in common so I know what he felt for you. He wanted you happy, Slayer. He wouldn’t want to see you like this."

There was still no response and Spike was running out of things to say. He’d never been in the habit of comforting anybody over death before especially when he used to be in the habit of causing it. "I’m not saying you should get up and start dancing jigs or nothing. It’s just there’s other people counting on you."

"No, there aren’t." The voice was eerie in its flat calm and Spike’s eyes shot to her face. But Buffy hadn’t moved at all and she continued training her lifeless gaze on the ceiling.

"What? Sure, there are. Dawn—"

"Dawn’s fine. She’s practically a woman and my dad’s taking care of her. Willow, Xander or Giles would do that if he didn’t. She doesn’t need me. And there are tons of Slayers now. No longer bearing the weight of the world on my shoulders. There was only one person who needed me and he’s—" Her voice choked off and she took a deep shuddering breath before lapsing into silence again.

"Maybe Dawn doesn’t need you. But she loves you, pet. They all do and it kills them to see you suffer like this." He wanted to add how much it was tearing him up inside to see her in pain but he didn’t think she’d care about that.

"I’m not gonna play happy Buffy just to keep them from worrying. That’s what I did last year and look how rotten that turned out." He winced. He knew what she meant. The ugliness of their sex romps hung between them like a nasty odor; she never felt there was any joy in them and he’d given up trying to change her mind about it. All she had to do was compare what they did to what he’d had with Harmony and that put an end to that argument.

"Spike, I’m in mourning. If you don’t get that, then get out." She brought her hands up to her face and sniffed them dreamily. He saw the dark residue of dust coating them and his stomach churned. That was his grandsire on her hands; he would have bet his newfound humanity on it.

"Shit, luv. You need to wash up and pronto."

He made to touch her and she stiffened. Her eyes shot towards him and a flare of white-hot rage burned in them. "Don’t you dare," she warned, her voice a low, menacing hiss.

"Why? Whacha gonna do about it, Slayer?" he taunted. If he could get her angry that might shake her out of the depression she was spiraling into. Her next words dispelled that notion.

"You’re only human now and you just got off the sick list. You touch me, I’ll scream ‘rape’ and we’ll see what one of the others does to you." Her smile was vicious and without a trace of pity. "I believe Dawn said something once about setting you on fire."

He got up from the bed and backed away, cursing the inelegance of his movements. "Dammit, Buffy. You act like you’re the only one to have lost somebody. He was my family. He was practically the only bit of it I got left. And the others lost him, too. Gunn, the prom queen, Twiggy—they’re all hurting over him and all you can do is wallow in self-pitying stink."

"Don’t pretend you care about the others, Spike. I know you. You don’t really give a crap about anybody but yourself and you certainly didn’t like Angel. Oh, wait. He was the poof to you, right?"

"I gotta think it’s the grief talkin’ here, Slayer ‘cause you know me better than that. What Angel and me had got nothing to do with like or dislike. We were family. We were blood, the way you and the Nibblet are. If you don’t get that, then you’re bloody stupid."

"Says the guy who thought the Buffybot was a good idea." The anger seemed to leave Buffy all at once. She was simply too drained to keep up this argument. "Spike, just go away. I don’t want to talk to you. You don’t give a piss about Angel. So piss off." She rolled over and turned her back towards him.

Whatever he was going to say as a rebuttal was lost as the hotel door swung open behind him. "Buffy, I thought you—" Cordelia stopped speaking as she saw Spike. The seer’s eyes narrowed and she snapped at him, "I told you to stay away from her."

"Right. Like that’s gonna cut any ice with me." Brushing past her, he took the elevator and hobbled into the garden. He needed a smoke and time to cool down. He didn’t hold any great hope of being allowed back into Buffy’s room any time soon. But that was the great thing about being human—no pesky de-invite spells could hold him out. He just hoped Buffy would be in a better mood when he saw her next.

Now that the girls were in Buffy’s room, they hesitated to talk to her. Never one to mince words, Cordelia spoke up first. "Buffy. We’ve got some good news."

The Slayer didn’t move and Cordelia forged on. "It’s about Darla. You remember her, right? Of course you do. Well, those people at Wolfram & Hart brought her back from the dead even though she’d been gone almost four years. So I contacted Nabbitt and he went through the W&H files and guess what? They still have the ritual on file. We know Willow can handle the magic so no problem there. Then we rustle up five vampires and we can get Angel back." She beamed at the other women who continued to stare at the still figure on the bed.

The blonde women didn’t move for a moment. Then she sat up slowly and directed her eyes towards Cordelia. "No."

The brunette seer was taken aback. "No? What do you mean, no?"

"I mean no. Angel is dead. He’s probably in heaven. I’m not bringing him back from that." She didn’t elaborate; she didn’t need to.

Willow went pale. The wicca understood Buffy’s denial. She had never discussed her feelings about heaven and somehow the redhead couldn’t bring herself to speak of it knowing what a painful subject it must be. But now she had a chance to help her best friend. She simply couldn’t sit by and see Buffy in such agony of spirit.

"B-Buffy, I know how you must feel about this. I haven’t done anything yet and I won’t if that’s your last word on it. But what if I cast a spell to see where Angel’s soul is? The last time h-he…he went to hell. What if he’s suffering there now? Would you really leave him there? And could we just take it for granted that he isn’t there?"

Dawn stepped forward. "Buffy, she’s right. Maybe they should have made sure about you before they brought you back. But heaven wouldn’t exactly be of the likely for someone like Angel. H-he was a demon, after all. He could be in hell again. We don’t know for sure and only Willow can really find out."

Doubt flickered in Buffy’s eyes for a moment. Then all feeling faded away. "Have you guys even considered that it might not work?"

Cordelia darted a meaningful glance at Willow. "Well, I was going to go ahead and try without telling you first. I didn’t want you to sink deeper into depression if we tried this and Willow failed."

"But we pointed out that’s what we did with Dawn when I brought you back and we figured that you really would want to know. We didn’t want to treat you like a kid," Willow added.

"Goodness knows I didn’t appreciate it," Dawn muttered.

Buffy visibly struggled with the implications of this statement. Her voice was low when she replied, "Willow, make sure of your facts. Make damned sure. If Angel is in heaven, then he’s got his reward. Don’t make him go through what I did.’

The women hovered, uncertain what to say now that the main news was over. Cordelia solved the problem by sniffing dramatically and then wrinkling her nose. "You know, you should really consider getting up and taking a shower. If we do get Angel back, you don’t want him to see you all grungy and smelly, do you?"

Buffy flushed and looked down self-consciously at her grimy hands. The remainder of Angel’s ashes had been put into an urn locked away in the safe but the ashes coating her hands made her feel as if she were still close to him in a small way.

The others left quietly and Buffy made preparations for showering. How long had she been in here? Grief had seriously screwed up her sense of time. It must have been a few weeks; Spike had been badly hurt on the same night Angel had gotten killed and you didn’t get up from injuries like that in two days.

Her clothes were ripe and crinkled. She really must look and smell pretty awful. Buffy concentrated on the minutiae of grooming and cleansing, trying not to think about this ritual Cordelia had proposed. Was it possible? What if it failed? She didn’t think she could take the crushing disappointment for that. But would it be any worse than the pain she was feeling now?

She ran the shower as cold as she could stand it and crouched on the bathtub floor. Shutting her eyes, Buffy let the water cascade over her body. It was almost like Angel’s touch and she withstood it until her teeth began to chatter and her skin was numb all over. When she finally turned off the spigot with trembling hands, she was so frozen she could scarcely stand up.

[Numb. So numb. But numbness is good. Better than pain.] What should she do now? The urge for violent physical activity was her next impulse. But she wasn’t really needed for patrolling with so many Slayers on call. Besides, in her current state of mind, she was running the serious risk of getting killed.

That was a dangerous thought but it held a dark appeal. It had been there, in one form or another, all during the year after she’d been resurrected. It had lain under her filthy gropings with Spike. There was also the notion that her death would reunite her with Angel.

She stood shivering, naked, in front of the bathroom mirror and tried to pull herself back from embracing suicide. Spike had said once that all Slayers had a death wish. He may have been blowing smoke out of his ass at the time but he wouldn’t be far from the truth right now.

There was another option, something she should have done before…

Buffy stood in Angel’s hotel room. It was just as he had left it. Apparently no one had had the heart to throw out his things yet. Perhaps they were waiting for her to do it. She opened the closet and held his leather coat to her nose. One of her dreams came unbidden to her mind and she recalled what her dream-Angel had said: The coat wouldn’t be his for much longer. He’d wanted her to have the gift of sunlight and children and knew he couldn’t give them to her.

Her dreams had been a warning, a presentiment of danger, only she couldn’t see it. Maybe she should have sung for Lorne. Maybe she should have talked to someone about the dreams. But she had wanted to get away from Angel, make a life for herself away from him. Yeah, that had turned out swell, hadn’t it?

[I should have been here. I was afraid, I knew something was going to go wrong and I wasn’t here for him!] Sinking to the floor, she clutched the coat harder and began sobbing brokenly. The crying jag went on and on, the harsh tears wrenching out of her. The love of Angel and fierce weeping always seemed to go hand in hand. It had baffled Riley and Xander that a man she loved could make her feel so happy and miserable at the same time. Now the happiness seemed only a distant memory while the suffering became an enemy that haunted her door and would never leave.

The weeping seemed to last forever but it could only have been a few minutes at most. She lay spent and trembling in its aftermath. [Well, that didn’t make me feel any better. What’s next on the agenda? Hysteria sounds pretty good. Let’s try that.] She wanted nothing better than to crawl into his bed holding his coat. But she’d just stopped doing that in her room. She had a mission here and she had to see it through.

Buffy lifted her head wearily and scrubbed at her eyes. As she gathered up the coat, she heard a clink as something metallic fell out of one of the pockets. She bent down and picked up an ornate key from the floor.

What was this for? The key was heavy and old-fashioned looking as if it were meant for a special lock. But she hadn’t seen anything that would match a key like this. She turned it over and over in her fingers and then began searching the room.

There wasn’t much to look through. Angel had led a Spartan existence. Other than his many books, the clothes in his closet and a few antiques he’d picked up on his many wanderings, there didn’t seem to be much here. The key didn’t fit any of his drawers and there was little in them, anyway.

She hung the coat back in the closet and kicked one of the walls in frustration. The next moment, she drew back and kicked it again. The wood had an odd hollow sound to it that didn’t match the rest of the solidly built 70-odd-year-old hotel. She began rapping the paneling next to the wardrobe and listening carefully all around it.

It took her at least another 15 minutes to figure out there was an empty space where there should have been solid wood. Probing around the interior revealed a secret panel fitted into the rest of the small walk-in space. If she hadn’t been searching she would never have seen it. She drew it up and found a secret enclosure.

Buffy drew out the fancy wooden box and ran her hand over the intricate carvings. It was old; she could see that at a glance. The wood featured elegant carvings of men and women kissing and holding hands. She had never seen anything like it and the smoothness of the edges indicated a great deal of loving handling. This had belonged to her Angel and obviously held something cherished and intensely private. Otherwise she was sure she would have seen it before now.

She bit her lip as she twirled the key in her hands. It didn’t seem right that she should open this. No one had given her permission and the key had fallen into her possession by accident. But she desperately wanted to know what this might contain. So much of Angel’s past was a mystery to her and she couldn’t help but feel that this box contained a great part of him that lay waiting to be discovered. Buffy took a deep breath and inserted the key.


Wesley ran over the ingredients necessary. "We’ve got the big cage and the chains."

"Check," replied Gunn.

"And it asks for five without life and soul," Wesley added.

"It’s too bad Spike isn’t still a soulless demon; he would have been useful for this," Cordelia chimed in as she loaded up some weapons.

"I would have had no objections to that plan," Xander remarked with a grin.

Gunn hefted his axe and tossed it into his van. "Looks like we going vamp hunting. Everybody gets a trank gun and we travel in pairs. Shouldn’t take too long to round up five bloodsuckers."

Rona looked at her trank gun critically as she checked to see that it was properly loaded. "This has gotta be a switch. I’ve never tried taking one of the vamps alive before now."

Gunn passed out the last of the weapons and gave the Slayers a final warning. "Yeah. It’s gonna be tricky. Any one of them put up too much of a fight, kill it or let it go. This is strictly a search-and-retrieve mission, ladies. We don’t want anybody getting killed over this."

Andrew called out, "I’m riding shotgun!" and the others groaned. In spite of his initial resistance to fighting, Andrew had taken to the role of fighter with more enthusiasm than was healthy. He reminded Cordelia a little of Xander in his early days.

"There’s one thing I don’t get," Vi complained. "It’s doing this ritual in a cemetery or tomb. Why couldn’t we do it back at the hotel?"

Wesley explained as if lecturing in a hall. "The vampires and the dead bodies are key components. The vampires ensure that it's the body and spirit of a dead vampire that we raise instead of some other creature. The corpses will act as a template for the resurrected being. If we did it someplace else where there were no dead human body parts around, the thing summoned wouldn’t have a working model to build itself from. It wouldn’t look remotely human, more like a deformed stillbirth, and would be savage and violent. Chances are we would have to kill it at once to keep it from ripping us to pieces."

Vi gulped. "Okay. Consider everything explained."

"Shouldn’t we have brought Buffy along?" Xander asked. "I mean, this does concern her, doesn’t it?"

"I went to her room but she wasn’t there. I checked Angel’s room and that was empty, too. I really didn’t want to scour a hotel full of 100-odd rooms just to see where she might be hiding." Cordelia clutched her sword and peered through the van windshield. At moments like this, she wished she were in another profession. She honestly didn’t know what they’d say if a cop pulled them over and demanded to know what they were doing with all the concealed weapons. Gunn had told her he’d traveled around in his souped-up van for years hunting vampires with his posse and the cops had never accosted them. Of course, Gunn had lived in an area where crime was high and the police patrolling really low so that wasn’t a comfort.

They stopped at the first cemetery and everybody piled out. "Everybody remember where we parked!" Andrew said happily and then yelped as Xander whacked him on the back of the head.

"Louder. I don’t think the vamps heard you, Trekboy," the one-eyed man growled.

"Uh, we want them to hear us, Xander. We’re trying to attract them, remember?" Rona pointed out.

"Yeah. Right," Xander huffed. "Maybe we should let Andy here be the target like all those Enterprise ensigns who kept getting killed when they landed on those alien planets," he added with a sharky grin.

Andrew shrank away and muttered something about idiots not appreciating the finer parts of science fiction.


Buffy realized the box held a lot of items to sift through and she didn’t want to be interrupted. So she lugged the box to one of the higher floors and forced open a door to an unused room. The place was coated with dust and the electricity wasn’t working but she’d had the foresight to carry up some candles with her.

In the feeble light, she had taken out the sketches of Cordelia and herself. The pictures of the seer were detailed and quite accurate. But they were headshots only without anything particularly revealing about them. The sketches of herself were quite another matter.

There were pictures of her in Sunnydale. She could tell they were from years ago, when her hairstyle and clothing were quite different. They were in a variety of different poses and locales; Angel must have been watching her from a distance for a long time.

There were pictures of her when she was asleep. Had Angelus drawn these or Angel? She wasn’t sure. She seemed so incredibly defenseless in these pictures. She recalled vividly how Angelus had left one by her bedside and her hand shook a little as she dropped it onto the pile.

There were other pictures that were simply baffling. Drawings of her while she was naked draped on a bed—but it wasn’t the hotel bed. She didn’t recognize the furnishings at all. One of them was of her on a table. Well, they got up to some pretty wild stuff but she didn’t recall doing it on a tiny table that obviously couldn’t bear the weight. What the hell was this all about?

The baby blue rattle was tucked in there as well. And there were several diaries all written into with Angel’s neat, elegant script. Her hands lingered over them, brushing the covers with her fingertips. The diaries were all in different covers, indicating writings that had taken place over long periods of time.

Picking one out at random she read, "They’ve been fighting again. It’s not always about her but she thinks it is. The pain and urge to blame herself are in her delicate hazel eyes and I can’t bear it. I want to reach through her window and tell her it’ll be all right. But I know that things are about to get harder for her. My ears pick up the whispers of divorce from her parents when her merely human ears can’t hear it. They will leave Los Angeles when that happens. I must make plans to travel with her."

She paused, her mouth open in shock. Angel had been watching her back in Los Angeles? He’d never told her that. And she thought Spike was the master of being the nasty little stalker.

[Well, that’s probably why he never told you. You were annoyed by his Cryptic Guy routine in Sunnydale. You would have been totally creeped out to know that he was eyeballing you in Los Angeles.] He knew about her parents getting a divorce, too. She wished he had talked to her; she would have appreciated a kind voice at the time.

What about when he left her? He’d assigned himself as her protector but he decided to leave her. What had prompted that decision? Scrabbling among the diaries for the appropriate date, she skimmed through various entries until her mother’s name caught her eye.

"Joyce came to see me today. She doesn’t know about my being a vampire. I guess Buffy didn’t tell her everything about me. But she does know that I’m an older man and she sees me as being a threat to her daughter’s future happiness. It was strange listening to Mrs. Summers. She has Buffy’s fire, her eyes, her voice and something of her mannerisms. I can’t help but see Buffy’s possible future in her. If I stay with Buffy, she’ll never have a child, a husband who loves her or a life in the sun. All I can give her is darkness. I’ve said this to myself before now but one look into Buffy’s eyes and all my objections simply melt away. But Buffy’s future self stood before me and rebuked me in the form of her mother and I can’t ignore the truth any longer. For Buffy’s sake I must leave. I’ll stay to help her fight the Mayor; she’ll need me for that battle. But after that I will go and I must do so without looking back. If I see her eyes, my resolve will fail and I can’t let that happen."

So that was it. Her mother had gone to see Angel behind her back and driven the man she loved away. Scalding tears of futile anger at her dead mother welled up in Buffy’s eyes even as she struggled to understand and forgive both her misguided parent and her willful lover. No wonder Angel had simply turned around and left without a backward glance. He had made it look so easy as if leaving her meant nothing. But it must have cost him every ounce of strength to do so.

"It’s such a struggle being in Los Angeles. Sometimes I find myself fighting the apathy and urge to bury myself in the shadows the way I did for almost 80 years. On the one hand, it’s the perfect place to disappear and remake yourself. But it’s too close to Sunnydale. Maybe I should have gone to New York. But I can’t bear to be too far away from Buffy. Part of me is still clinging to her and I can feel her life force even though I can’t see her. It’s a torment but also a comfort. I just know that if she were ever in real danger, somehow she would call out to me across the bond we share and I would fly to her side."

And the bond was still there after years of separation. Hadn’t she felt her lover’s danger even across 2,000 miles and come to his aid? But she had been too late and her vision swam with tears again. Why hadn’t she been given a warning earlier when it would have counted? Why hadn’t Cordelia seen anything? What the hell good were these Powers when they couldn’t be bothered to protect their own champions?

It was all so damned unfair. She’d gotten her life together and gotten Angel back against incredible odds only to have him snatched away after only a brief span of happiness. Was she being punished? Was he?

She flipped through more pages, hoping to find a scrap of comfort within the bound covers. Coming upon an entry for a past Thanksgiving, she began reading. Moments into the passage, she frowned in puzzlement and then her eyes widened, dumbfounded, as she read about a magical day of ice cream and sunlight…


"Is this really okay?" Dominique scanned her surroundings making sure to stay well away from the snarling, snapping creatures surrounding the cage.

"Positive," Willow replied with a greater serenity than she actually felt. The spell to locate Angel’s soul had been successful—more so than she had liked. The brief glimpse she’d caught of that hell dimension had shaken her to her core. There weren’t flames and brimstone; those would have been too much of a cliché. It was Angel being tormented by the howling of his victims, by visions of Buffy’s twisted, mangled body, by her being torn apart or attacked by demons, by her in the arms of Spike laughing at him. The visions had been chaotic and brief but Willow had seen enough to know how much they would have tortured Angel’s spirit.

She mentioned nothing of that to the others. She only insisted on the imperative of rescuing him as quickly as possible.

Cordelia sighed. "Let’s get this show on the road then." God, she hated being in cemeteries. They were such a vivid reminder of the many nights she’d spent hanging out with Xander and the other Scoobies while hunting some beasty or other. She’d been almost glad when she and Xander broke up; it had meant no more hanging with him and his friends so they could do Buffy’s job for her.

Now here she was, trying to resurrect her former boss and why? So he could rejoin the never-ending, tiresome, thankless fight against evil. She could totally relate to Buffy’s wish that Angel be allowed to rest in peace. Then she recalled Spike and her resolution hardened.

[There’s nothing in those stupid prophecies to say only one vampire can get the Shanshu, right? And Angel was drawn to that scroll like bees to nectar or pollen or whatever. They had to be referring to him! Why should Sparky get all the breaks?] She held up the braziers and chanted the words dutifully as Willow began intoning the spell.

The wicca read, "Five are without breath…"

"Yet they live," Cordelia and Wesley stated.

"Five are without time…"

"Yet they live."

[Man, this is gonna be a long stretch. And Wills says there’s Latin after this. Ho boy.] Xander stifled a yawn. He had seen enough magical ceremonies to last a lifetime; he knew how they could drag on. He listened with half an ear as the redhead’s voice rose in strength and urgency. Then he heard the howl of the chained vampires accompanied by a violent rush of wind that knocked him to the ground. The next moment an eerie stillness settled over the cemetery.

"Crap! What was that? Willow, was that supposed to happen?" He picked himself up and ran back to the others.

Willow and the rest were lying on the ground in various states of confusion. The redhead was the first to recover and he helped her up. Then she stumbled over to the cage and peered into it. "Oh no! He’s not here!"

Cordelia sat up, wincing at the pain in her butt. She had been propelled over a small headstone and fallen hard on her back; she was lucky she hadn’t broken a heel. "What? What do you mean he’s not here? I saw the light flashing and the vamps are all dust. How could he not be here?"

Willow gestured at the cage. "See for yourself. Big cage, total vacancy. Angel was a no-show."

Groans of disappointment came from all sides as they surged forward to confirm for themselves. The cage was indeed empty and the inevitable questions began.

"Are you sure that was the right spell from Wolfram & Hart, Cordelia?" Wesley asked.

"Of course I’m sure! And we all saw and felt something happen," the seer snapped in return.

Willow murmured, "She’s right. There was a definite release of magical energy. I could feel it gathering and then washing through me. There just wasn’t any payoff."

Dawn frowned and kicked the offending cage. "So the first time’s a bust. I say we round up another quintet of the undead and try again."

Willow sagged against the metal bars wearily. "No can do, Dawnie. I’m too pooped to party. If I try again right now, it would really lay me out flat—or kill me. Besides my concentration’s so shot, I might make a really bad mistake and get something else in that cage."

"So it was all for nothing," Rona said, throwing down her trank gun in disgust.

"Well, it’s like Dawn said. Let me rest up and I can try again tomorrow night."

Xander shrugged. "Sure, we can do that, Wills. It’s not like Deadboy’s going any place." He raised his eyebrows in the direction of Cordelia’s angry glare. "What? It’s the truth."

The ride back to the hotel was made in depressing silence. Even Xander didn’t have the heart to make his usual quips. Giles met them at the hotel door. He had been a trifle disgruntled that no one had met him at the airport but he sobered upon seeing their disheartened expressions.

Buffy still hadn’t made a reappearance and they were all worried. Spike cursed once again his lack of vampiric senses. In the old days before he regained his humanity he would have been able to find her in minutes. Now he was as lost as the rest of them. Some days humanity really sucked.

They asked Willow to do a locator spell but she flatly refused. "I’m still woozy, guys. Besides, she doesn’t want to be found and I can totally relate. And I’m not in any hurry to give her the news. Are you?"

"What news, Willow?" Buffy was standing on the balcony staring down at them. They all looked up at an absolute loss for words. "Oh, I get it. Project Rescue Angel didn’t go so well, huh?"

Willow searched her eyes uncertainly. Her friend was wearing a leather coat that was way too big for her and the wicca didn’t need to be told who the original owner was. Her voice held a weird calm that hadn’t been there earlier. Did the blonde really understand what had happened or was she in some sort of denial? "We tried, Buffy, we really did. It didn’t work but we can always try again tomorrow."

Buffy descended the staircase, balancing a wooden box under one arm. "No. No trying again. I-I'm grateful that you all want to do this but I don’t think it’s meant to work."

"What do you mean by that, Buffy?" Giles asked. He too was wary of Buffy’s detachment. He had expected rage or grief; this placid demeanor of hers was uncharacteristic and unnerving.

"I-I came across something of Angel’s. He kept diaries. I mean, a lot of diaries. This guy had a serious thing for the daily scribbling. He-he wrote about a special day, a day he and I shared a long time ago. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you, Cordelia?" She eyed Cordelia pointedly.

All eyes turned towards the brunette seer and she wavered between embarrassment and dismissal. "Yeah. I guess I do."

"Well, would somebody clue me in ‘cause I’m still on the last chapter," Xander complained.

Cordelia sighed and sat down on the circular sofa. "I guess it doesn’t matter now. Angel was human for one day. He thought he could live a normal life—with Buffy."

"What? When did this happen?" Spike demanded.

Willow added. "Buffy, you never mentioned it to me." She was surprised and hurt. She thought that Buffy and she had finished keeping secrets from each other.

"That’s because I didn’t remember it. Angel tried fighting this Mohair demon only he was too weak in his human form. He was afraid that I would take chances to save him and get other people hurt."

That wasn’t news to Xander. He’d always disliked Buffy’s favoritism of Angel. Of course, her behavior with regards to Spike was much worse. "Well, for once, Deadboy was right on the money. I seem to recall a certain neck-biting incident that put our Slayergal in the hospital."

Buffy ignored him. "He was human for only one day. Then he asked these mysterious Powers to take it back. Nobody remembered about it except for him. I only found out just now because I found his box." Buffy tapped the article with her finger.

Cordelia added what little she knew. "I only knew because he told Doyle and Doyle told me."

"Who’s Doyle?" Leslie asked. She looked at the other Slayers who wore expressions of equal confusion. They all felt as if they were coming in on the final episode of a long-running soap opera and everybody else knew the names, relationship and interplay of the characters while they were still struggling with the cast listing.

"He was the seer before me. He’s the one who gave me my visions back when they nearly killed me. Some guys give flowers; this one gave powers. Go figure," Cordelia grimaced.

"So Angel was human. Then he gave it back. Oh!" Willow’s eyes widened as the implications caught her attention.

Buffy smiled sadly at her. Willow understood even if the others were a little slow to catch on. "That’s right. I’m thinking that was Angel’s chance for humanity. He gave it up so he doesn’t get another shot."

"No, Buffy, you don’t know that!" Cordelia protested. "I’m the link to the Powers That Be, not you."

"They didn’t warn you about what would happen to Angel, did they? They didn’t warn me until it was too late." Buffy brushed her hand over the box she held. She could feel tears pricking behind her eyes again but her voice was resigned. "I-I think these Powers meant Angel to die. We can’t bring him back; they won’t allow it."

She sank onto one of the red lobby sofas and Dawn sat down beside her. "Are you sure, Buffy? Like Willow said, she can try again tomorrow."

"She can keep trying until she’s blue in the face. I don’t think it’ll work, Dawn," was Buffy’s gentle reply.

Willow spoken tentatively. "Maybe we should just wait a little; see what happens. It took awhile to work with you, Buffy."

"I had to claw my way out of my own grave. Not fun but explains the delayed arrival. What does Angel have to get out of? His jar?" She stood up again, startling the others with her abrupt motion. "Angel is gone. I have to accept that. We have to accept that." She turned to look at Cordelia, Wesley, Gunn and Fred and her gaze held mingled sympathy and acceptance.

"I know it’s going to be hard on you all. But you’re going to have to get through this without him." [Just as I will.] She darted forward and kissed Cordelia on the cheek. The brunette seer’s eyes widened at the unexpected gesture and she responded with an awkward hug.

Buffy straightened and ran her eyes over the entire assembly. "I’m going home now. I’m taking the green sand express. You don’t have to come with me, Dawn," she added as her sister began to speak. "In fact, I’d prefer it if you didn’t. I’d like a little alone time."

Her sister was worried about her; Buffy could see it in the anxious eyes trained on her. She gave her a hug and whispered into her ear. "Stay here and pack up Angel’s things. You can bring them all back with you. Don’t worry. I won’t do anything stupid."

Dawn blinked back tears and hugged her hard. "I’m holding you to that. ‘Cause if you do I’m telling."

She kept her goodbyes to the others short and sweet. Buffy wasn’t one for long farewells and she wanted to get away from them quickly.

In spite of her calm behavior, she had hoped—no, make that prayed—that Willow would succeed and bring Angel back to her. But there really was no chance of that happening. These Powers, whoever they were, didn’t give a rat’s ass about their Chosen champions. She was doomed to go through her life miserable and alone.

The spell complete, Buffy found herself back in the new Council basement. The box was laid lovingly down on the floor as she knelt beside it. She rested her forehead on the lid and drew a ragged breath…and then another. Silent tears trickled down over the polished wood as it bore witness to her anguish.

"B-buffy?" The sibilant sound seemed to drift through the space and Buffy’s head snapped up. She reached automatically for weapons only to realize with disgust that she had left them behind in her haste to return home. She stood up, her fists clenched, as her eyes darted around the darkened space.

"Who’s there? I’m warning you, I am so not in the mood for games. If you don’t drag yourself out right now where I can see you—"

"Buffy." This time the utterance was stronger and coming from the far corner. She knew that voice and her heart began pounding against her ribcage as she slowly walked and then ran to the naked figure she could make out crouched on the floor.

"Angel? Oh my god. ANGEL!" She fell to her knees beside him, clasping the man who lay shaking against the wall. He started at her touch and then reciprocated with a hug. Buffy gripped him as if terrified of letting him go. It took several moments for her to register the condition of the man in her embrace. It was Angel, warm, breathing—and human.

"B-buffy? Are you…" His voice was hoarse and he coughed in his effort to speak.

"Yes, Angel? Am I what?"

"Are you cookies yet?"

The question was foolish and she responded the only way she could—by giggling and then laughing hard. Tears ran down her cheeks again and she kissed him frantically all over his face. She pulled back to whisper, "I am. Cookies now and forever."

"Good." He leaned his head against hers. "Do you have any? I’m really hungry."

Another hysterical giggle was his answer. She knew she should be calling one of the others but somehow she couldn’t make herself do anything so sensible. I’ll see what I can find." The blonde woman stood up, bearing his weight, and belatedly remembered the coat she was wearing. She eased it off and draped it around his shoulders. "Here. It’s yours again."

His smile was wavering but genuine in the dim light and her heart soared at the sight. She didn’t know why he was here and not in Los Angeles but she would ask no questions and make no objections. Not now. They had been blessed and Angel had received his reward at last.

Time to find those cookies.


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