RATING: R, for violence and sexual situations
SPOILER WARNINGS: Everything up to and including mid season three
SUMMARY: When a new evil strikes, Buffy and the scoobies must team up with an unlikely ally to release a reluctant champion from the clutches of hell. (Now doesn't that sound good?)
DISCLAIMER: Contrary to public opinion I am NOT Joss. And, oh yeah, they're all his.

Chapter One / Chapter Two / Chapter Three / Chapter Four / Chapter Five / Chapter Six / Chapter Seven / Chapter Eight / Chapter Nine / Chapter Ten / Chapter Eleven / Chapter Twelve / Chapter Thirteen / Chapter Fourteen / Chapter Fifteen / Chapter Sixteen / Chapter Seventeen / Epilogue


By Fic Reader
Chapter One

She stood there, with her back to him, unable to move. Her breath seemed too quick and shallow in her own ears, her eyes wide and wild as cold sweat trickled down her face.

His cool hands rested lightly on her forearms, restraining her without using the least bit of force.

"Do you love me?" He whispered in her ear, his cool breath sending shivers up and down her spine.

"Y-yes," she stuttered. She felt her knees begin to buckle as his gentle touch on her arms became a death grip, sharp nails digging bloody half moons in her soft skin.

"Do you trust me?" He demanded, his voice hissing in the tell tale sign that his face had changed.

Her mind screamed out like the trapped animal that she was. Her heart beat a panicked rhythm in her ears as the stench of blood on his breath hit her face. She could feel the rush of blood running through her body, well aware that he could too.

"Yes," she said even as her mind screamed out denial, every fiber of her being shrieking with terror.

She closed her eyes at the sound of his soft chuckle, unwilling to meet her death head on. She shuddered once as his fangs buried, with the slowest of motions, into her skin.

Buffy awoke with a start. For a painfully long, disorienting moment she had no idea where she was.

"Damn!" She muttered as she realized she was in her own bed in her very own room. "Why can't I have nice dreams about Freddy Kruger slashing my throat out like a nice, normal person?" She demanded of no one in particular. No one in particular, after a great deal of thought, decided not to answer that.

"Damn!" She cursed again, putting a great deal more emphasis to it this time, as she glanced over at her clock radio. Four more hours of night left for her to toss and turn in. She shuddered at the thought.

"Might as well get some work done," she muttered as she climbed out of bed. She dressed quickly, hiding stakes, holy water and other vampire nasties in various places along her clothes. As an after thought she reached for the long sword her Watcher had given her, securing it firmly against her back. Giles would be so proud, she told herself, making a small unhappy face at the thought. She shrugged, the night was already shot for her, might as well give someone a happy. She contemplated that unselfish thought as she silently climbed out her window.

Buffy glanced up at the steel gray skies. Her Slayer instincts told her dawn would come in a little more than an hour, the gray cloaked sky was just a sneak preview of the light show the rising sun had to offer.

She sighed with regret, shifting the heavy sword digging at her back, three hours worth of patrolling and not a vamp in sight. It's true what they say, she thought, no good deed goes unpunished. All she wanted to do was release a little penned up hostility, couldn't the vamps just give her that?

Reaching one of her favorite graveyards, pausing only to contemplate her own mental health at actually HAVING a favorite graveyard, she heard the familiar sounds of a scuffle.

"Well finally," she murmured, edging cautiously forward. She rounded several inconveniently placed tombstones, and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw what they revealed.

Well what do you know, she thought, they started without me. She moved with feline grace closer, to gawk at what the Slayer handbook would easily consider a miracle. Someone was fighting her battles for her.

A black cloaked and hooded figure was systematically hacking away at four, very unhappy, vampires. The Slayer in her watched with appreciation the lightning speed in which the stranger turned the vamps into something a vacuum cleaner could handle.

The stranger twirled with cat-like grace, his cloak whipping at his attackers' faces, momentarily blinding them. A stake appeared from nowhere to plunge itself efficiently into a cold vampire heart. The vamp stared at his chest with disbelief, to Buffy that moment always seemed to last forever. The vamp exploded into a cloud of ash, as Buffy sighed ruefully. Nothing lasted forever.

The Slayer tore her attention from the ash floating away in the wind, back to the Stranger who had easily decapitated a bloodsucker's head with a single, swift motion. The body crumbled to dust before it even hit the ground

Buffy eyed the evil looking blade in the stranger's hands enviously, now why couldn't Giles let her play with something like that?

The Slayer leaned on a headstone, watching what proved to be great entertainment, and wondered absently how in the world anyone could see anything with that hood over their face. She twisted a blond lock of hair between her fingers, grimacing as the two remaining vamps decided to work together against their attacker.

You should have tried that when there were four of you, the petite blonde mused. Nevertheless a stake slipped into her grip with a flick of the wrist, just in case. An enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine, she remembered reading that somewhere. It seemed to ring true in this case as well. She advanced with a stake in hand as the two vamps attacked the stranger from opposite sides, rushing at him with intent to kill. She was still too far to help but close enough to truly be awed as the dark figure leaped through the air over a stunned vamp's head, twisting to decapitate it from behind, even as another hand flew to stake his unfortunate blood brother. The two vamps crumbled to dust before the acrobat's feet ever touched the ground.

Buffy's heels skidded to a stop with shock. No one could do that. God knows she couldn't do that. Hell, she thought, not even Xena could do that.

"Where have you been all my life?" She wondered softly. The cloaked figure whirled in her direction. With a sudden pang of fear Buffy realized that no one could have possibly heard her from so far away.

The cloaked figure charged at her, his evil looking sword brandishing wildly as the distance between them grew impossibly shorter.

Buffy tensed into a fighter's crouch, her mind spinning franticly. Why would anyone so intent on killing vampires want to attack her?

"Very impressive fighting you did back there." She complimented with a slightly exaggerated drawl to her tone. Going on a Cordelia attack tactic seemed ridiculous, but with the way this guy fought she was willing to try it. Throwing her most radiant smile into the mix, she stood there awaiting a response.

The stranger skidded to a stop. "Human?" He demanded, with a heavily accented voice.

"Huh? Oh, you mean me. Yeah, I'm human," she said proudly. It was sure good to be human.

The figure stopped as if considering something, then pressed forward. "Good. Cirta be proud when I kill human."

Buffy's green eyes bulged with surprise as the vicious blade she had been eyeing before came rushing at her. She narrowly ducked the blow, wincing at the shrieking rush, as the sharp blade sliced cleanly through the air.

"Wait," she panted, stepping back. This didn't have to get ugly, "human- good. Vampire- bad." She tried, then ducked again as the blade came much too close for comfort to her neck. "Oh, hell!" She cursed, "I knew you were too good to be true."

With a quick twist she pulled out the long sword that had been digging at her back the entire night. It was considerably slimmer than her attacker's blade, but she felt confident it would hold its own. "I really didn't want to have to do this," she told him as she wiggled her sword threateningly.

The stranger swung his sword at her in response. She pounced cleanly to the side and deflected his blow with her own blade. The shock was incredible, she felt the tremor reaching all the way to her shoulder blades.

As she peered down she discovered her magnificent sword had been reduced to something the size of a butter knife.

"You broke my sword!" She accused. "Giles is gonna kill me." She moved fast at that point, reminding herself that she actually wanted Giles to get to her first. She ducked and rolled behind a headstone, pulling out a small dagger from her calf-high boots. She lunged to the side of the headstone just as the ferocious sword clashed against the pale stone, emitting an impressive display of sparks. A chunk of rock dropped unceremoniously to the ground.

Beautiful, the Slayer thought sarcastically, it can cut through rock. She lunged again, this time with intent to hurt. She slid to the ground, wincing as small rocks and pebbles dug into her stomach and breasts, driving her dagger home she smiled as it embedded itself in the stranger's calf with a satisfying clang.

Clang? That wasn't the right sound. She rolled quickly to her feet, taking her wrinkled dagger with her. This was beginning to become disturbing. She moved to a fighter's crouch unsure as to what to do next, on impulse she grabbed a vile of holy water and smashed it against her attacker's body. There was no effect.

"I didn't really think you were a vampire, but it was worth a try," Buffy muttered as she backed up slowly. Running was not an option, she had known that as soon as she'd seen this guy move.

Her mind reeled as it offered and dismissed tactics with lightning speed, all the while edging away from the slowly advancing threat.

She absently noted that the sun had finally risen, her attention fully on her attacker. She frowned, the stranger had stopped moving, and suddenly he twisted to face the rising sun. With a gut-wrenching scream, he burst into flames.

Buffy froze, too stunned to think about moving. Somewhere in the back of her mind she noted that the flames had even consumed the sword she had coveted a half-hour earlier.

"Nice exit," she finally said as she began to make her way home.

"There she is!" Willow cried out from out of her boyfriend's embrace, motioning towards Buffy. The entire group was standing together, chattering on the neatly trimmed lawn of the Sunnydale high school. Willow in Oz's arms, and Cordelia in Xander's.

"More like there she isn't," Xander replied, noting the dark circles under her eyes. "What happened to you?"

Buffy looked at them with a pang of jealousy, they all seemed so happy. Willow and her budding relationship with Oz, and Xander... Well his and Cordelia's disturbing fixation with utility closets seemed to make him a happy man these days. She was happy for her friends, it's just that seeing them with their significant others made her loss so much more pronounced.

"Was it that dream again?" Willow asked sympathetically.

"No, well yeah that too, but..."

"Dream? What dream?" Scott asked as he snaked his arm around Buffy's slender waist from behind. "It wasn't about me, was it?" His eyebrows wiggled suggestively.

Buffy's body tensed in response. A touch as intimate as a hug from someone who wasn't HIM felt alien. Scott's face dropped, obviously feeling the rejection. As he started to lift his arm away Buffy stopped him with a forced smile. "Only the good parts," she lied. This relationship wasn't working, she realized that from the beginning. Scott was nice, sweet and funny, but he just wasn't HIM. She would make it work, though. She was the Slayer, she reminded herself, that meant she could do that sort of thing.

Buffy raised her eyes with new resolve to meet Willow's. The observant redhead hadn't missed the dark shadow passing over her best friend's face, experience had taught her exactly what that shadow meant.

"Giles wanted me to tell you to meet him at the library. Something about overdue books." Xander added, noting the question in Scott's face.

Buffy rolled her eyes at the clumsy attempt, but played along, "sure. Will, you want to come with?"

Torn for a moment between her boyfriend and her best friend, the redhead nodded without much enthusiasm. Making a small, over dramatic face, Buffy conceded, "why don't you come with us, Oz?"

Buffy had to laugh as the happy glow returned to Willow's face. That girl was so easy to please.

"Come on, Cordy. We're going with them," Xander told her.

Cordelia ripped her attention from the early morning rays that were warming her face, "what? Why?"

"Because I asked you nicely," he answered blithely, completely ignoring the fact that he hadn't asked her at all, "and that doesn't happen very often."

She wordlessly conceded, allowing him to manually drag her into the school building.

Scott watched as the diverse group of teens disappeared in the shadows of the open front doors, musing, like many before him, how much like a gaping, hungry mouth they looked. "Strange people," he muttered to himself, somewhat hurt that no one thought to invite him along. He absently shrugged it off and walked to class.

Giles shifted uncomfortably in his seat, "what exactly did he say, Buffy?" He asked for the third time.

"Was this before or after he tried to kill me?" She asked sarcastically.

"He said something after?" The librarian asked, intrigued. Catching her dirty look he coughed, failing miserably to cover up his embarrassment.

She sighed dramatically, but yielded just the same, "after I told him he threw nice punches he asked if I was human."

"In those words?" Giles demanded.

"Well, no. It was more like 'human?'" She attempted to imitate the stranger's accent, much to Xander's amusement.

"So this guy was German?" Xander asked cheerfully. They all ignored him, but he was used to that.

"Then he said something about Cirta being happy about him killing me. Conversation was sort of moot from there on."

"Interesting..." The librarian mused.

"Giles, the guy nearly killed me! He wastes four vamps in the blink of an eye, goes on to attack me, breaks my sword. Then bursts to flame when the sun comes up, and all you can say is 'interesting'?"

The librarian stared at her, the Slayer's outburst catching him by surprise. "Yes, of course you're right I apo..." His eyes narrowed suddenly. "You broke my sword?" He demanded, "Buffy, that was an antique!"

"Well she was trying to stay alive at the time," Willow said, jumping to her friend's defense.

Giles eyed his charge sourly, but let the matter drop. "I'll look up this Cirta character and see what I can find."

"I've got some free time during fifth period, so I'll scope the net," Willow told him. She glanced sideways at her boyfriend's eggplant colored hair, "you'll help?"

The multi colored head bobbed up and down in agreement. Willow beamed.

"Good, it's settled then. We meet here after school." They all nodded their agreements as they made their way to class.

"What are we going to do?" Cordelia asked Xander.

"What we always do, Pinky, get the donuts."

She eyed him coolly. "Great, not only are you people going to get me killed, I'm gonna get fat in the process."

Buffy smiled at them fondly as she watched them leave, then turned to Giles. "I had that dream again," she told him when the room had emptied out.

He looked at her with sympathy in his eyes, "do you want to talk about it?"

She shook her head. She'd told him only the sketchiest of details, but nothing of the way the dream made her feel. "I wanted to know if you found something, some prophecy?"

He shook his head sadly, "sometimes your dreams are just that- dreams."

The Slayer's shoulders drooped with disappointment, "I'd better get to class, then. You know, before Snyder decides to put me on detention just because, or something like that."

Giles nodded his agreement and watched with haunted eyes as his crestfallen Slayer left the room.

Buffy pushed open the library's swinging doors. Her mood had brightened up considerably during the last several hours, her history teacher had called on her in class and she'd blurted out a semi-correct response, not to mention she'd managed to turn in a math assignment on time. Things were definitely looking up. One look at the group of people sitting by the great mahogany table made things flop back down again.

"What's wrong?" She demanded, her body tensing involuntarily. She lovingly fondled the stake buried in her sleeve. Not much of a chance for vamps in broad daylight, she mused, but then again not many things could survive a nice, sharpened stake.

"Buffy, sit down." Giles said motioning to a pulled up chair.

She obeyed, peering at her friends' faces. Under closer observation it seemed that Xander and Cordy were as clueless as she was. The pretty redhead who called herself Buffy's best friend stubbornly avoided her eyes. Oh god, she thought, if Willow can't look at me it has to be bad.

"Am I gonna die again?" She asked bluntly. The effect was like sticking a pin in a highly inflated balloon. Suddenly the quiet room burst into sound as Willow and Oz almost fell over each other to assure her that she was firmly among the living, while Xander was loudly proclaiming his objections at being left in the dark just because he wasn't a computer geek. Cordy, however, decided that the best course of action was to nibble quietly on a jelly donut. At this point Buffy fervently agreed with her as she grabbed one for herself before the May Queen could munch them all up.

"That's enough!" The quiet librarian snapped, the seriousness of his voice pushing them back into the awaiting arms of a dark, gloomy mood. "Buffy, Willow and I ran across something when we looked up Cirta's name." He rushed on ignoring the question in her eyes, "we couldn't find any mention of her in any of the Watchers' diaries."

"So that would mean that either she's very old or very new," Cordelia interrupted, obviously very pleased at her newfound logic.

"Or that she's got a very different name she's hiding under," Xander argued, unable to resist proving his girlfriend wrong.

"Actually she doesn't," Giles began, ignoring the beaming Cordelia on general principal.

"But you have found her eventually," Buffy murmured. "This morning you didn't even know that she was a 'she'." Buffy knotted her fist into a hard white ball, what did it matter how they got their information? There was something that Giles was deliberately not telling her. Something big.

"Yes, we have. Apparently Cirta existed before the Watchers, before the slayer." The Watcher looked deep into his Slayer's eyes, wanting her to be very much aware of the gravity of the situation. "She was created in a time when there was no man, only chaos. A time when demons walked the earth." Buffy stared at him, his words hypnotizing her into a trance where no one existed, but her and her watcher. "She ruled them all, Buffy. She was in many respects the Devil incarnate."

"What happened?"

Giles shook his head, "the book I found wasn't that clear. It only says that eventually, when mankind came along, they somehow joined together with demons to defeat her."

"I take it she wasn't a very nice ruler," Xander murmured.

Buffy's eyes narrowed with suspicion, "if this she-devil existed before the Watchers, how come they have a book on her?"

Giles exchanged a guilty look with Willow, "this isn't Watcher lore," the redhead said as gently as she could. "It's demon lore."

The Slayer's green eyes widened, "HE gave it to you."

Willow nodded briefly and went back to staring at Giles. There was more to this, Buffy could feel it. "So she's back and she wants to have it all again, yadda, yadda, yadda. Cut to the chase."

"It's not that simple," Giles told her softly. "She wants it all this time, and that means no humans."

Buffy almost choked on that one, "she's out to kill the entire human race?"

"She's already begun doing just that. I've been getting reports from European and Asian watchers, apparently that black cloaked man you met last night has several hundred twin brothers all over the world, they've been busy wiping out whole sections of the continent. They're the ones who are preparing for the day of Cirta's return."

Xander's eyes widened, "for once Sunnydale is the last to hear about a coming evil."

Buffy paled visibly, the thought of something she couldn't beat multiplied by several hundred had shaken her to the core. "So how do I stop this thing?"

Giles and Willow exchanged another look. Here comes the clincher, Buffy thought.

"You can't." Willow said flatly. "You're not the one who's supposed to fight her."

"How long has this killing humans spree been going on?" Xander asked suddenly.

"A little over four months," Willow replied, looking him straight in the eyes.

A horrible suspicion flooded Buffy's mind even as Giles began explaining, peering over at Xander she knew he was thinking the same. Oh god, she thought, I can't ever win. "There's a prophecy in these books, Buffy. As clear as I've ever seen one. It tells all about this situation, all about how to beat it."

"All about HIM!" Buffy suddenly lashed out, "this started when I sent HIM to hell. Tell me that's just a coincidence, Giles! Tell me!"

The Watcher shook his head, "I can't do that Buffy. It is related to him, but so is the way to stop this." He rushed on, afraid his Slayer would fall apart before his eyes. Wishing more than anything that he could spare her this, "the prophecy, it speaks of the return of the Angelic One."

"Read it to me." She said flatly.

Giles raised his eyes to meet hers in an attempt to read what she really wanted, but they were unfathomable. "What?"

"I said read it to me!"

"It's in ancient Latin."

"Then translate it. Read it now!"

Another look passed between the Watcher and the Hacker, and then he was Buffy's. "In the age of innocence no longer found, the age where two fight evil- no longer one. She shall rise. It will be the fallen angel who shall set her free," Giles paused to look at her, and swallowed hard. "On the day he shall be sent to hell by his love's own hand, that day shall mark her rising. Her success or fall depends on the fallen one, for as long as he remains in hell humanity has no champion." He stopped reading, his eyes searching his Slayer's for any sign of emotion, "it goes on babbling about humanity, mentioning Angel a few times as the savior, others as the spawn of hell."

"That's our Angel," Xander murmured, "you gotta love him."

"Shut up, Xander!" Cordelia snapped. Surprisingly he did as he was told.

"It clearly says Angel will have to be let out of hell for humanity to survive this." Giles said directly to Buffy. He sighed ruefully as he noted her glazed eyes, the girl was a million miles away.

"So you're gonna trust a book written by a demon, given to you by a demon to spring a demon out of hell?" Xander demanded, jumping to his feet with fury.

"No, I'm not, Xander. That's why I contacted the council, they confirmed this prophecy. This is real."

"Angel gave you this book?" Cordelia asked softly, a horrible thought flashing through her mind. "Wouldn't that have meant that he'd have read it first? That he'd known that he was going to be sent to hell by Buffy?"

That question managed to cut through even Buffy's trance. She stared at Giles, dreading his answer. "No, he wouldn't," he said firmly, speaking directly to his young charge rather than to the girl who had asked the question. "I researched with him many times, before," he left that hanging, "he couldn't read Latin."

"That doesn't mean you can give him a 'get out of hell' free card." Xander yelled, his hate for the dark vampire shining through every word. "He deserved what he got."

"You foolish boy!" Xander gasped as the quiet, tweed clad librarian suddenly became a stranger to him, suddenly realizing he had gone too far. "Do you think for one moment I would let him out if I thought there was another way? Do you think I wouldn't like to run him through myself the moment he steps out of hell?" The teen's dark eyes met the Watcher's gray, and tried to flinch away. "After what he did to all of us, after what he did to Jenny, I'd love nothing more than to kill him myself. To make him suffer like I've suffered, to watch him die a thousand times over." They all stared at him with shock, watching him transform from Rupert to Ripper, and back again. "But humanity is worth more than my own desires." He said quietly, with near perfect control.

Buffy stood, suddenly unable to breathe right in the stale library. She needed fresh air, she needed space, and she needed to get out of the library and into the sun right now. "Buffy?" Willow called after her softly.

She turned to face them, her friends. The ones who had kept her sane throughout those long shattering weeks since her lover had gone. "It was supposed to have lasted forever," she told them quietly, unsure herself as to what 'it' meant exactly.

They watched the library doors swing silently after her. "I guess even forever has to end sometime," Cordelia mused philosophically. They all stared at her. "What? I can be deep!"

* * *
Chapter Two

Buffy leaned against the school's brick wall for support. Her chest heaved, gasping for air as her face tilted up directly at the high, afternoon sun.

The sound of her own grating lungs was in her ears, and a myriad of dancing colors played behind her closed eyelids. Her mind reeled, forcing out any thought but one: Angel.

His name played over and over in her mind; the way she had whispered it with reverence the night he told her that he loved her, the way Giles had hissed it with contempt ever since Jenny died. The way she had screamed it with ecstasy the night they had...


The Slayer jumped, whipping her eyes open. "God, Will! You scared me!" She snapped at the timid hacker.

"I'm sorry. I wanted to see how you were doing."

"Oh, I'm just peachy!" The Slayer retorted, peeking over at her best friend she decided it was a safe a place as any to dump her frustrations. "Why him, Will? Why should HE be so important?" To anyone but me, that is, "why should the world literally rise or fall depending on his being there?" Her voice was now as plaintive as a child's, her eyes wide as if seeking the simplest of answers.

Willow shook her head, there were no simple answers. "I don't know. We should have suspected something when we realized the demon Acathala depended on him to open the Hellmouth, but we really had no way of knowing." Chalk it up to a divine joke, the clever hacker thought bitterly. A man's work is never done, not even after he's tossed into hell by the woman who loves him.

Buffy sighed like the sound of her soul tearing apart, "I think about him in there, Will. I think about the centuries he spent in torment."

"It's been four months, Buffy," the pretty redhead reminded her gently.

Blond hair flew from side to side, as the tiny Slayer shook her head violently, "no. Time passes differently in there. A few days out here is like a person's lifetime in hell."

Willow gasped, her face becoming deathly pale, "then that would mean four months is like..." She left it hanging seeing her friend's eyes snap shut with remembered pain.

"I thought it would last forever," Buffy whispered through clenched teeth.

"What would?" Willow asked as gently as she could.

"Everything!" The Slayer began pacing restlessly. "Our love. His life." She stopped abruptly before the already dizzy hacker, "our hell."

Willow began to wring her hands nervously, her silky hair effectively hiding her face like a curtain. Oh God, the Slayer thought, there's more.

"Buffy, there's more." Willow said hesitantly, missing Buffy's almost amused expression as she rolled her eyes heavenward searching for the propagator of the huge joke being played on her.

"Yeah, I kind of figured that." Willow stared at her with almost caricature question marks in her eyes. "Never mind. Go on."

The pretty hacker stared at her long and hard, "we have no idea as to how to get him out," she finally blurted, leaving Buffy to choke a bit on that one.

Buffy's mind suddenly conjured up the image of a capsized boat. So much for smooth sailing, she thought miserably. She shook her head to clear away the metaphor, "but the book," she finally managed to sputter. "Giles said it was so clear."

Willow nodded ruefully, "it was, as far as to what we're supposed to do. It doesn't say anything as to how we're supposed to go about doing it." She winced at the remembered frustration she and Giles endured as that little revelation popped up. Talk about hell in hardcover.

"But there's always the net, and..."

Willow shook her head, "I've been searching the net for the past two months, ever since you came back and told us what happened. There was nothing about a person being brought back from hell."

"But they're always being brought back in the movies," Buffy argued lamely. "That's got to be based on something."

A smile flashed briefly on Willow's lips at her friend's warped reasoning, she did hit close to the truth, however. "It is. It's based on demons being summoned. He had a human soul when he was," she floundered for a moment, "sent." She finally said.

"It's alright, you can say it. When I sent him to hell." She raised her hands quickly to ward off the hacker's denials, "I've dealt with it, Will. So what happens now?"

"Now it's Giles' turn. He's just started his research so it should take awhile." She peered into the Slayer's green eyes sympathetically, "something will come up, Buffy, it always does."

"Yeah," she murmured sarcastically, "that's what I'm afraid of."

Willow smiled as she pulled her friend into an embrace, only to be joined a moment later by another set of arms.

"Xander!" Willow protested loudly, as his bear hug combined with the Slayer's threatened to choke the life out of her.

"I saw group hug potential, and couldn't resist," he explained as he pulled the two girls into an even tighter embrace.

"More like copping a feel potential and your hormones couldn't resist," Cordelia informed him from not very far away.

A quick peek over Xander's shoulder showed the gang was all there. Buffy wondered idly how long they had been standing there, but found, to her surprise, that she didn't mind even if they had heard the entire conversation. Secrets were a long lost thing among these people whom she considered to be her best friends. Even Cordelia.

"Since we're all here," Buffy said as cheerfully as she could after gently disentangling Willow and herself from Xander's bear hug, "we might as well go Bronzing." She glanced up at the early evening skies, "I'd say we got about three hours before it opens."

Giles frowned, but that was expected. "Bronzing? Buffy, I don't think..."

"Oh, no mister." Buffy said as she wiggled a parental finger in front of the librarian's face. "No Bronzing for you. Not until you finish all your school work."

The Watcher smiled at her weak attempt at humor, as always amazed by the resiliency of her soul. "I meant that I would need help. Willow and Oz to swim the net..."

"Surf." Oz corrected absently.

"You and Xander to help read the books," he went on, ignoring Oz's computer speak. "Cordelia to," he floundered, looking at the May Queen's expectant face, "to bring refreshments." Her expression darkened as she muttered something about librarians and their ungrateful ways.

"What language are the books?" The Slayer asked patiently.

"Well some are in Gaelic, others in Greek, and..." He sighed with resignation, already aware this was a loosing battle.

Buffy smiled winsomely, "well there you go then. All languages neither I nor research boy can read. As for net-swimming, somehow after two months I doubt Will and Oz will be able to come up with anything new."

The librarian turned to slowly face the redheaded hacker, his complexion pallid. "You've been searching for two months?" He demanded.

To their overall surprise she lifted her chin defiantly, "call it a personal project," she said quietly, daring him to challenge her.

He blinked at her unexpected resolve, "and you found nothing?" He asked, deciding maturely to confront her on the issue on another, less sensitive day.

She shook her head as Buffy went on blithely, "as for refreshments, there's always the donuts Xander and Cordy got from before." She paused to look at the pretty brunette, "you did leave him some strawberry jelly ones, didn't you?"

"Nope," Cordelia said spitefully, "I finished them all up." With her little revenge all played out, she turned to leave in a huff.

Buffy shrugged as she looked at the forlorn librarian, "sorry Giles. Good luck on the research, though."

The Bronze was packed to the brim that night, being the only decent place to hang in all of Sunnydale that was no great surprise. What was a surprise, however, was Oz's ability to get them in free of charge.

"The band has certain advantages," he said cryptically when asked how he managed to accomplish that particular half miracle. It was rumored that the Bronze owner didn't even let himself in for free.

They found themselves a nice semi-private booth for Cordelia's benefit, in case any of her friends decided to show up. "It's not that I'm embarrassed to be seen with you," she told Xander. "It's just that I don't want to be not embarrassed just right now." Buffy chuckled softly to herself. By the time Xander's mind would finish working that sentence out, Cordy would probably give him another impossibility to mull over.

Xander had gotten the last laugh, however. He had managed to drag Cordy out onto the dance floor, where she was bravely teaching him how to move in what she referred to as "normal human being dance". From Buffy's point of view she was having little to no success, as Xander's arms and legs waved about like something from a National Geographic mating ritual flick.

Willow was chattering happily to a half-zonked Buffy and a very interested Oz about the latest pagan sites she'd found on the net. The band, which was currently making the most noise at the Bronze, although in Buffy's opinion Cordelia's yelling at Xander came a very close second, abruptly stopped playing once they'd finished their song. Oz excused himself and walked up to center stage.

"What's he doing?" Willow wondered aloud.

Buffy rolled her eyes. The girl couldn't possibly be that naive, this was the exact same scene as in every sixties teen movie ever made. "I don't know, Will." She said, unwilling to ruin her friend's surprise. If Willow didn't watch the right kind of movies, that was her problem.

Oz turned his back to the awaiting crowd, explaining to the band exactly what he wanted from them. They weren't the 'Dingoes', but they'd do.

"Willow," he turned back to the crowd, his eyes straining to view his love, "this is for you," he said as he began to pluck at his guitar.

Willow's lips formed a bewildered O, and Buffy choked back a laugh. Elvis would have been so proud, she thought, wiping away at a mock tear.

Sitting by my monitor / Thinking about nothing else but you / Dunno if it's right or wrong / Knowing there's nothing else I can do.

"It's really very," monitor? "Good." Buffy whispered over to Willow. The redheaded hacker paid her no mind, as she watched her boyfriend with stars in her eyes.

The sweat on my face / mingling softly with my tears / I know I should have told you / about my hopes and dreams and fears.

Buffy sighed and averted her eyes, refusing to look at the love-struck hacker. "It's like staring at the damn sun," she muttered to herself. Her breath suddenly caught in her throat as her eyes beheld someone she thought she'd never see again.

"I'm going out for some fresh air," she told her otherwise occupied friend.

"Ah-hum, fine Buffy," her otherwise occupied friend replied, obviously not hearing a word of what was said to her.

Buffy made her way through the Bronze crowd through the Club's back door and out into a dimly lit alley. She savored the cool air on her bare arms for a moment, allowing the beautiful evening to cleanse her body of all the tension she'd been in for much too long. Once that was done she promptly delivered a vicious back kick straight into the groin of the man standing behind her.

She spun around to face him as he rolled to his feet, a pained expression on his pale, delicate features. "What are you doing here, Spike?" She demanded, a stake already at hand.

"Now is that any way to greet an old friend?" He chided her gently, eyeing her approach warily.

"No, but then again you don't fit that category anyway." She delivered another kick, which sent him sprawling. Still, other than lift himself from the asphalt he made no other move.

He watched her carefully, wondering for a moment how she managed to hide stakes and other various artifacts in her outrageously tight outfit. It's a Slayer thing, he concluded. He shook his head, clearing it of disturbing thoughts before he'd find himself on the wrong end of a stake. "I've got some news for you, pet."

She didn't seem to hear him, "you promised you'd stay away, Spike." She said, grabbing him by his shirt collar. "You said you'd take Dru and never come back."

Spike had to fight back a throaty laugh. She'd been the Vampire Slayer for this long and she still believed promises made by a demon? "It's important, ducks." He tried again as she pinned him to the wall, her knee viciously connecting with his groin. He groaned, she was having a little too much fun with that particular area of his body. "It has to do with Cirta."

She seemed oblivious, too far-gone in her own violence to listen to him. "This time you're going down, Spike," she hissed at him hatefully. Her hand moving with lightning speed, fully intending to kill.

He ducked with a yelp, the stake shattering against the wall where his chest should have been. With a growl he punched her stomach, unwilling to remain the scapegoat to her frustrations any longer. He moved a safe distance away from her as she doubled over with pain, only to tense back into a fighting stance with a fresh stake in her hand.

Where did she keep those things? One had to wonder. She advanced towards him slowly, her eyes promising murder as she raised the stake. "This has to do with Angel!" He yelled at her, playing his one Trump card.

He heaved out an unneeded sigh of relief as the Slayer stopped dead in her tracks. "If you're lying to me..." She began menacingly.

He raised his hands with his palms to her in the universal symbol that he was unarmed, "this is too bloody important for me to lie about, Slayer."

She looked at him, wondering why a century old vamp would want to look like Billy Idol. She leaned against the ally wall, occupying herself by tapping her fingernails against the sharp end of her stake. "Then why don't you tell me all about it," she almost purred, keeping a wary eye on him the entire time.

"I'd rather talk to your Watcher, luv."

The murderous look leaped back to her eyes, "I don't give a damn what you'd rather be doing. You talk to me!"

"What luv, don't you trust me?" He asked mockingly, unwittingly echoing her dream.

His pale face lost even more color as she lunged at him with unstoppable speed, he swallowed hard as the stake leveled with his unbeating heart. "Only as far as I can throw you," she said sweetly. "Luv," she added in the most insulting tone she could muster.

He pushed her away with a snarl, well aware he was able to do it only because she allowed him to. "Damn it, Slayer," he snapped, "this is too bloody important for stupid games."

She seemed unruffled, "yeah, you said that already. Tell me about it."

He looked around cautiously, the moon playing wild shadows against his platinum hair. The alley was satisfyingly empty. He slid down to a more comfortable position on his haunches, and rested his elbows on his knees. From his new position he looked up at Buffy urging her to do the same. She sighed mournfully as she perched herself against the opposite wall, this was going to take a while. So much for Bronzing.

"This Cirta chick, your Watcher told you she's for offing humanity?" He asked bluntly, trying to assess the depth of her knowledge.

Buffy shrugged indifferently, "so what's it to you?"

He smiled savagely, the girl was obviously aware of what was going on. Maybe this wouldn't be as hard as he thought. "Normally not much," he answered truthfully. Sure he liked humans in general, and they made for good meals, but in times of need he wasn't one to be picky. He could live off some animal if need be. "Only she's got a thing for vampires as well."

He frowned as he watched one delicate eyebrow arch in amusement, "that so? Now why would anyone have a thing for vampires?"

"Well how should I bloody well know what goes on in a demon's psyche?" He demanded, loosing his temper. This time both eyebrows shot up, "other then my own," he amended. "Look pet, all I know is that the last time she was here, a few vampires and humans got together and managed to put her out of business." Her eyes were unreadable. "So now she's out to get the bloody lot of us," he went on, trying to get a reaction out of her.

"Fine," she conceded, staring deep into his feral eyes. "So what do you want?"

His eyes widened in disbelief, "have you not been listening?" He grated. "Was I talking to the walls here?"

He stopped as she rose to her feet, "you have nothing new to say to me, Spike." She told him as she deliberately turned her back to him.

"I can tell you about Angel," he called after her.

She stopped as he knew she would, "what about Angel?" She asked with flat, even tones, still refusing to face him.

He could see the tension in her back as she awaited his response, "I know how to get him back," he told her quietly.

"Oh good, Buffy, you're back." Giles said with a perfunctory glance her way. He leaped from his chair as his mind digested what it had just seen, "Spike!" The librarian gasped.

"It's so nice to be remembered," the tall blond vampire told Buffy in conversational tones.

"Shut up!" She snapped at him as she pushed him further into the library. "He knows how to get Angel out of hell."

"What? How? Why?" The librarian fumbled, edging to keep the desk between him and the ruthless demon.

"See ducks, I told you I wanted to talk to you both together. Now I have to tell the whole bloody story all over again."

"I told you to shut up!" Buffy said as she shoved him towards a chair.

He twisted to face her, his demon rising to the occasion. "And I told you this was too important to play games!" He snarled at her, making very sure his fangs were clearly in her line of vision.

"Fine," she said sullenly, "I'll play nice." His face reverted back to its human facade making Buffy wonder if there were any ugly vampires.

"That's all I ask," he said pleasantly, sitting down across from the very agitated Watcher. "As for your 'what's' and 'why's'," he said, looking directly at Giles, "I think you already know the answer to those." The man stared at him, helplessly clueless. "Bloody hell, man! Remember Cirta?" He held out a hand to ward off the librarian's questions, "you people aren't the only ones with knowledge, you know. When someone who isn't the Slayer starts offing us, we like to know what's going on."

Giles nodded, having regained his wits he sat down warily across from the vampire, "that only leaves the 'how'." He said coolly.

Spike nodded, reaching for his inside pocket he pulled out several folded sheets of paper, "tell me what you think," he said intently.

Buffy and Spike stared at the librarian as he read through the papers, taking his own sweet time at it. She wondered how anyone could stay so focused, as each minute increased the tension in the quiet room. Finally Giles raised his head stare at Spike with awe.

"Where did you get this?"

"From a friend. Is it for real?" The librarian nodded. "Right then," he said, rising to his feet, "Dru and I'll be here tomorrow night, and we'll all bust the Slayer's ex out of hell." They stared at him, their mouths' agape. "What?" He asked as he reached the swinging double doors, "you didn't think I'd let you wankers have all the fun, did you?"

* * *
Chapter Three

The Watcher and the Slayer sat lost in their own relative thoughts, watching as the double doors swung cleanly behind the long gone vampire.

The Slayer finally broke the tense silence, "is it for real, Giles?"

He looked at her carefully, taking in her round eyes and the pout of her lip. She looked like a little girl again. His little girl, "it looks that way." She rose to her feet in one fluid, graceful motion. The little girl clearing way for the Slayer, Giles thought sadly.

"Good," she said, her tone decisive and in control, "then lets do this now."

"N-now?" He repeated hoping she didn't really say that. "You want us to get Angel out of hell right now?"

She nodded enthusiastically as she reached for the slips of paper Spike had left behind. "You don't really want to wait for Spike and Dru, do you?" She glanced at the papers and put them back with disgust, yet another language she couldn't understand. Was it so much to ask for something to be written in English?

He shook his head, "Buffy, this will require a lot of preparation. There's no way I can do this right now. Besides, this ritual requires the participation of a demon and a witch," among others, he left unsaid.

"So?" She floundered, aching to get her way, "I can hunt us down a demon in an hour, and Willow's a witch, sort of. What else do you need?"

"Buffy, Willow can levitate pencils, that doesn't make her a witch," he said, thankful that the girl and her fragile ego weren't here to hear that. "Besides there's more to it."

Buffy groaned mournfully, why did there always have to be more? "What?" She asked, her voice already defeated.

"We don't know what Angel will be like when we set him free," he said as gently as he could. He had hoped to avoid the issue, but he realized he wouldn't be able to protect his Slayer from this for much longer.

"What do you mean?" She asked cautiously, "he was Angel when he went in." My Angel, she left unsaid.

"Buffy, that curse, it was a human one..." He struggled, trying to find the right words.

"You're saying that they could have broken the curse, that he could be Angelus again," she said bluntly. "That's assuming that he hasn't lost his mind entirely during the torturing."

He gawked at her, speechless. He knew on some level that she'd given this some thought, but her calculated analysis had stunned him. "Anyway you look at it we'll probably need Spike in order to restrain him."

Her eyebrows shot up, "I could do that."

The librarian shook his weary head. This day had been going on for much too long, he somehow doubted that the next would prove to be any better. "No Buffy, there's something else you'll be doing," he warded off her questions with a raised hand. "Not now. I still have to figure some of this out."

"See, I told you she'd be here," Xander said as he burst into the room. "You owe me a double fudge, double chocolate ice cream bar," he called out to Cordelia.

"Fine give yourself sugar poisoning, see if I care." The brunette looked at Buffy with narrowed eyes, "just can't keep away from your watcher, can you?" She looked at them a bit more closely, their serious mood seeping in through her self-centered shell, "whoa, who died?"

The room lay in a hushed silence as the four teens tried to grasp what the Watcher had just told them.

"It's all coming together like it did before," Willow finally murmured. They all stared at her. "Demons and humans joining up to beat a common enemy," she explained, seeing their bewildered expressions.

"I'm just not sure we can trust our own personal demons," Oz said. "How do we know they won't turn on us as soon as Angel's loose? How do we know they're not working together with Cirta, waiting to dust Angel as soon as he's free?"

"Yep," Xander mumbled, "there's a whole lot of trust in this room."

"Well for one thing," Giles answered admiring the boy's quick mind, "if they're not in cohort with Cirta then they wouldn't have anything to gain by attacking us. It would just bring their deaths much closer."

"And Spike is not one for dying," Buffy added then frowned, "well being more dead."

Giles decided to ignore that, "and if they are, then they've got no reason to help us with Angel." He paused to look at the young faces, "I'm afraid that until this is all played out Buffy and I will just have to trust them."

They stared at him. "Buffy and you?" Xander demanded, "you're trying to cut us out!"

The room exploded into sound as each teen voiced his or her objections. Giles leaped to his feet, the chair he'd been sitting on crashing to the floor. That managed to effectively quiet the room. "...sick of those jelly donuts," Cordelia finished lamely, thus sealing the room with silence.

"This is not up for debate!" He snapped, "there is no need for you to endanger yourselves..." He stopped suddenly, looking at them as if he was seeing them for the very first time. For a single, bright moment he wasn't seeing their familiar faces, but the figures they represented. The Witch, the Werewolf, the Iron-Willed Beauty, and the Friend. Above them all stood the Slayer, her immortality shining through the faces of all the girls who had died playing the part. The strong aura their friendship emitted was almost blinding. He gasped as the image vanished, knowing he would never see anything as beautiful again.


He looked down at their worried faces, he smiled briefly wondering what he must have looked like staring at them with his mouth agape like that. "You can all come," he told them softly.

They exchanged worried glances. "Nice mood swing," Xander complimented him, "it wouldn't happen to be that time of the month, would it?"

"Go home," he told them, "rest. It'll be a trying day tomorrow."

"He couldn't have settled for saying goodnight, could he?" Xander muttered under his breath as they all rose to leave.

"Giles, are you all right?" Buffy asked him gently when her friends had left.

He looked at her, his eyes wide with wonder, "I'm fine. I just get the feeling we're not alone in this particular fight."

She stared at him, "whoa, Giles, don't get all X-Files on me here."

He chuckled, although he hadn't the foggiest idea what she said, "go home, Buffy. Sleep well."

"Yeah," she muttered, pushing her way through the swinging doors, "like that's an option."

Buffy tiptoed into her house, shutting the door quietly behind her. After the day she'd had the last person she wanted to deal with was her...

"Buffy?" Drat!

"Hi mom," she said as cheerfully as she could, wincing at the false sound of her own voice. Oh yeah, mom couldn't see through that one, no siree.

"How did your slaying go?" She said, noting her daughter's scuffed apparel.

"I didn't go slaying, I went Bronzing. Tomorrow I'm slaying."

"Oh." Joyce looked at her daughter closely. Something seemed a bit off, "honey, is there anything wrong? You can tell me."

Buffy cursed silently. Here's one for the developmental experts, she thought, how does one tell her mother that she's going to bust her ex out of hell tomorrow night. With the good help of the school librarian and four close friends, not to mention a demon and a murderous psychopathic witch. She shook her head, till they figure that one out, she'll just have to wing it. "No, I'm fine mom, I guess the Bronze kind of wore me out."

Joyce raised a delicate eyebrow identical to her daughter's, as Buffy told her of recent Bronze developments. "So he actually got up and sang to her?" Joyce asked dreamily.

Buffy nodded. "It was sweet, in a weird computer love sort of way. Willow went nuts for it."

"I should hope so."

"Mom, I should get to bed. It's getting late and it's gonna be a long day tomorrow," she almost kicked herself as her mother gazed at her suspiciously.

"Why? What's tomorrow?"

"Giles is teaching me all about the history of demonology," she lied. Just because her mother knew about the slaying gig didn't mean she had to know everything. Besides, her mom seemed to visibly relax every time Giles's name was slipped into a conversation. The Slayer smiled, Giles had that effect on people.

Joyce sighed mournfully, she and her daughter did not spend nearly enough mother-daughter moments as she would have liked. Of course for that to happen she would have to quit her job and get Buffy to drop out of school. Somehow she doubted Doctor Spock would approve. She smiled lovingly at her daughter, "goodnight sweetheart."

"Mom?" Buffy suddenly called out in a very young voice, "would you come and tuck me in?"

Joyce beamed. The things that mother's live for, she thought.


Angel whimpered from his fetal position in the shadows. Screams of the tormented filling his ears, the stench of the damned in his nose, and the taste of his own blood in his mouth.

They had left him alone to heal for a time, confident that his memories would serve as much of a torment as the physical ones they had inflicted on him. They were right. It was the quiet moments that his own personal demon, his private tormenter would appear. Full of vivid memories that time could not dim. All the murders and atrocities he had committed flashed before his eyes, playing themselves out with agonizing detail.

It was times as these that he awaited blessed insanity, but it would never come. "Insanity doesn't exist in hell," someone had shrieked his way centuries ago, "it's a game for the angels to play." He closed his eyes tighter with remembered grief, that much was true. He had played a wild game with insanity, the same insanity that eluded him now. His mind was as clear now as the day he had arrived.

He whimpered again as his memories unveiled one by one, bringing him to the one that he dreaded the most.

"Close your eyes," she whispered, her hand reaching to caress his cheek.

He did, there was nothing else he could do. He gasped at the remembered pain of her sword sliding through his body, his eyes snapping open at the memory.

"Our sleeping Angel just woke up," a harsh voice rumbled. Angel curled himself into a tight ball, his arms wrapping around his legs. He knew what would come now.

A claw traveled down his naked flesh, gently almost sensually claiming his body for its own delights.

"You're flying out of here soon, my little Angel," the voice whispered near his ear. Angel's body tensed, hope was a thing that did exist in hell. They fed it to him everyday, only to smash it in his face at whim.

The claw's owner laughed roughly at the reaction, twisting his body around suddenly. Angel allowed the motion to carry him, landing flat on his back naked and exposed. Experience had taught him that fighting was pointless and would only result in prolonged agony.

The demon was pale and beautiful, his features as delicate as a child's. His masculine body pale and smooth, almost angelic if not for his hideously deformed hands. Angel watched with muted horror as those hands, more like claws, he thought, connected with his body. He bit back a moan of revulsion as they caressed him like a lover.

He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, they had raped his body, broken him too many times to count. They had driven him to the edges of insanity and sat back to watch him pull himself together. What was pain to a man in hell? It would come and go and continue for an eternity.

The claws ran down his body leaving bloodied streaks behind. He fought back a wave of nausea as the nails scraped down his chest, digging into his stomach and down to the more delicate flesh below. He bit back a scream, it would only serve to send the demon into a frenzy.

"Open your eyes, Angel!" The demon snarled. Angel did, indifferently. Pain would come and go, but he would remain forever in hell.

The face that welcomed him was gut wrenchingly familiar. Large luminous eyes greeted him, blinking away errant wisps of blond hair which halloed her face like a crown. "I love you, Angel," she whispered like the sound of a thousand hearts breaking.

His heart broke free of the restrictions of his mind, "Buffy, I..." His eyes widened with horror as his beloved's face shifted back to the demon's.

"I love you, Angel," the demon spat contemptuously. "I have a little present for your lady love," he said, gripping Angel's head between his claws.

Angel's gaze was mesmerized to the soulless, unblinking eyes, trapped beyond hope of escape. His jaw clenched as the claws pushed down on his temples, the nails digging into his scull. A roar of triumph sounded in his mind, and a scream raged unbidden from his lips as his demon broke free.

"No!" The man within him raged, unwilling to lose control. The demon bellowed in answer as in that moment of resistance demon and man merged into one.


Buffy awoke with a start. Her hands balled into angry white fists as she pounded her frustrations against the mattress. Finally, her rage spent, she wiped the cold sweat off her quivering brow.

She glanced at her clock radio and groaned, "this is getting old," she muttered. She peered outside her window at the uninviting night and snorted derisively, "forget it!" She said, curling up to a pillow and pretending it was her lover.

"So tonight is the big night," Xander said, anxious for conversation.

"Yeah, although Giles refuses to tell me what I'm supposed to be doing," she looked at her two friends. Oz and Cordelia were busy someplace else and it was just the three of them. If I close my eyes and pretend real hard everything will be like it used to. She almost had to laugh at how pitiful she sounded in her own mind. Under closer observation one of her friends was stubbornly avoiding looking at her.

"Will, do you know what I'm supposed to be doing tonight?" The Slayer asked patiently.

"Me? No! I don't know. I'm of the unknowing. I really don't know. Know what?" Willow babbled nervously.

Buffy sighed, dropping the cat and mouse routine. If Willow didn't want to tell her there must be a good reason, "never mind."

Soft lips brushed against her head, and Buffy's body tensed up. I have really got to learn how to control that, she thought. "So," Scott said conversationally, "you doing anything special tonight?"

Buffy shot Xander a dirty look as he almost choked on his soft drink. "Tonight?" Buffy asked regretfully, "yeah, tonight Will and I have that thing. Remember that thing, Will?" She said, nudging the redhead.

"Yeah, that thing. You know how things are, when you got to do that thing, that thing has to get," she thought for a moment, "done," she finished lamely.

"Oh." Scott looked at her with disappointment in his eyes, "look Buffy, why don't you call me when you don't have to do any," he paused, a bit over-dramatically in Buffy's opinion, "thing."

"Want to talk about it?" Willow asked sympathetically as the three friends watched him leave.

The blonde shook her head, "no. I just want to get this day over with. I would've stayed home only I'd probably drive myself insane."

"So you come here to shower insanity on your friends," Xander shook his head with mock gratitude only to receive a nasty poke in the ribs. "Hey, that hurt," he objected.

"Then learn how to stay on a slayer's good side," she replied piously.

The day passed in agonizingly slow motion, driving Buffy nuts with every ticking minute. Finally the last bell to ring for the day did so and she was free. She marched purposefully to the library, meeting her friends along the way. They walked with a firm, silent gate that could easily start a gang war.

Giles raised startled eyes as the five teens burst into his library together, "well what do you know," Spike muttered, "it's the bloody Power Rangers."

Buffy met him head on, "keep THAT away from us," she motioned towards a black clad Drusilla standing in the shadows.

Spike's eyes narrowed, but he held his tongue. "Right then, we'd better get a move on if we want to get anything done today. Chop, chop people." They stared at him, "would you stop doing that?" He demanded, "the novelty of the staring thing wore off somewhere around yesterday."

Giles was first to shake himself, "right! Well, we won't perform the ritual in here. It'll have to be where hell opened last time and that means the mansion."

Spike nodded, and helped the librarian gather his tools. Cordelia stared at the two vampires in wonder, "do they hold beauty pageants when they do the double sucking thing?" She mused aloud.

Spike gave her a feral grin, showing a hint of fang, "would you sign up if we did, luv?"

She gasped, truly caught of guard, then gasped again in thinly veiled rage as Xander made a lame attempt at hero. "You stay away from my girlfriend," Xander demanded stepping between the two.

Spike laughed uproariously and with a sudden, wild motion lunged at the boy, pinning him to a bookshelf. "You know," he said pleasantly, his game face firmly stating that he was anything but, "hating you was probably the only thing Angel and his demon had in common, well that and obsessing over the Slayer," he amended. "Looking at you now, I really do see why."

"Put him down." A cool voice from behind demanded. Spike turned, dropping the frightened boy unceremoniously to the floor. The Slayer stood with a stake firmly clutched in her hand. He rolled his eyes, this again. "Try that again, and I'll make sure you fit in an ash tray." She said coldly. He nodded, that was fair enough. She had promised to play nice so he should do the same. He shrugged and went on piling books for the librarian.

"It's still light out so we'll go through the tunnels," Spike told them once they had finished gathering all their things.

Buffy stared up at the skies only to be met with the library ceiling. Dark tunnels with two vampires to lead them, could this possibly get any worse? Some slayer sense told her it probably would.

The eased into the tunnels, generously allowing Buffy to be the buffer between the two vampires and the humans. Wasn't that nice of them? She thought cynically as she eyed Drusilla. The crazed vampire was subdued and hadn't said a thing since they first met, but she still managed to give Buffy the creeps.

She eyed the vampire highway, as Angel used to call it, taking in her surroundings as best she could. Her senses told her that there were vampires not far away, but they seemed to steer clear of their group in general. She looked at Spike more appreciatively this time, well aware that this was his doing. The vamp's handier then a cross, that thought seemed to amuse her for some reason. Her amusement evaporated when they reached the mansion. Too much had happened here, the memories were still too fresh.

Buffy eyed the statue of Acathala, noting the sword embedded in the solid rock, the sword that had pierced her lover's body to get there. "It must have been hard for you," a voice said, startling her out of her reverie.

She turned in surprise, "it's even harder right now, Spike." She told him, wondering why he cared. "Not knowing who will come out." On second thought she didn't care why he asked, it was good to drop a little frustration from her own shoulders and onto someone else's for a change. If it was Spike's, then all the better.

He frowned in confusion, "who will..." He repeated, then the horrible realization dawned on him. "Bloody hell, Slayer!" He spluttered startling their already tense group, "he was your Angel when you sent him to hell!" He looked at her appraisingly with newfound respect, "they say us vampire's are ruthless, but that's nothing compared to what someone without a personal demon can do."

She glared at him with disgust and stalked away, leaving him to reevaluate his prejudices concerning the living.

"It's done," Giles called to her motioning at the great pentagram Willow and he had created out of black candles and chalk, and other things Buffy was quite sure she wanted no knowledge of. They all stepped inside carefully, Spike gently leading Drusilla. Buffy shook her head, love manifested itself in the strangest of places, who was she to judge?

The simple act of being led into the pentagram seemed to shake the insane vampire from her reverie. She stared at Buffy with baleful eyes, "she's the one who took my Angel away," she whined to Spike in a little girl voice that grated on Buffy's nerves. "I want to kill her, Spike. Let Princess kill her."

"Hush, luv."

"Kill her with my nails, I will," she confided to Spike with a secret smile. "Just like I did the other one, the dark one."

Buffy tensed, she was talking about Kendra.

"Hush," he said lamely, hoping the Slayer wasn't the sensitive type.

"Shut her up, Spike!" Buffy grated. Apparently she was.

Giles waited patiently till Drusilla quieted down then turned to Buffy with a sword in his hand. "Buffy, in order for us to create the energies we need for this to work, we need you to recreate exactly what happened between you and Angel."

She flushed, "how much of what happened between me and Angel?"

The Watcher coughed uncomfortably, "just the last two or three minutes, before he was..."

"Hell bound," Cordelia finished brightly.

"Yes, thank you. Those were exactly not the words I was looking for," the Watcher muttered.

Buffy nodded, holding the sword, watching them take their positions within the pentagram. Willow, Giles and Drusilla chanted in a strangely melodic language as Spike, Xander, Cordelia and Oz waved burning incense around. We make a pretty good team, she thought to herself, well we would if it weren't for the vampire thing. She sneaked a peek at Drusilla, and the insane killer thing.

She felt a bit silly holding her sword, so she brandished it nastily at the stone demon. Take that, you bad Acathala, you. This was going to be easier than she thought, just wave the sword around. Listen to the singing. Inhale some hopefully very legal herbs and roots and poof! Here comes Angel. They should have tried doing this months ago.

The shadowy figure that lunged at her would have killed her instantly if he hadn't been, well, shadowy. She nearly dropped her sword as she recognized the beautiful features, "Angel," she whispered. He lunged at her again, she instinctively raised her sword to meet his and her jaw dropped when they passed right through each other. Of course, she thought, this is just an illusion to get the old energies stirring. She took a deeper look at the face of the man she loved, her energies were definitely stirring.

She lunged and parried, every swipe of her sword making the specter more visible, more real, more Angel.

She gasped as she realized her sword was hitting something real, something that could very well kill her. She knocked the sword out of his hand, slashing it in the process, jumped and kicked with blinding force sending him sprawling before the stone statue. She raised her sword for that final stroke before he could move to attack her again, but something happened. He clutched at his gut, his eyes burning golden for an instant as he gasped with pain.

She paused, staring at him with unsure eyes. "Buffy?" He asked, looking up at her with trust. "What's going on?" He rose to his feet on shaky legs, "where are we? I don't remember."

She relaxed her hold on her sword, somewhere in the back of her mind a voice screamed illusion, but her heart ignored it, willing to believe the charade, "Angel?" She whispered, unwilling to have her hopes shattered once again.

He touched her arm, eyeing a non-existent wound, "you're hurt." Her heart fell. This wasn't real.

He pulled her into an embrace, "Buffy, I feel like I haven't seen you in months." She closed her eyes hard, knowing what she'd see behind his back. "Everything is so muddled. I..."

The hellmouth began to slowly open through Acathala, as she pulled away from him, "what's happening?" His confusion and love for her evident in his eyes.

"Sshh," she whispered, "don't worry about it." Something in her mind snapped. No! She wailed silently, I can't go through this again. She kissed him once, tenderly, proving her love for him through that kiss, as the hellmouth grew steadily behind him. "I love you." She told him, wanting him to know that more than anything."

"I love you."

"Close your eyes," she told him, awed by the way he complied without hesitation. She kissed him again, a whimper escaping her lips at what she had to do. Her fist tightened on her sword, and with a swift gesture she ran him through. His eyes snapped open with shock, his arm stretched out for her to hold him.

She watched as her love was engulfed in the shimmering energies, his expression filled with pain and confusion, "Buffy?"

Then it was over, he was gone and she was crying. The tears in her eyes blinded her as they reflected the light. Light? She raised her head quickly as the hellmouth opened again, this time the pulsating energies pushing something out.

Then it was truly over and a dirty, naked man lay curled up on the floor. She rushed to him with hope in her heart, "Angel?"

"Buffy, stop!" Giles snapped the command like a general.

She obeyed, staring at him with confusion. "Go on, luv." She heard Spike murmur to Drusilla, "you can go see your Angel now, Dru."

Her Angel? "We need to know who he is," Giles explained, his eyes kept firmly on the hesitant Drusilla. "She can tell us that."

Buffy whirled to face the cajoling Spike, apparently they had it all worked out. "Go on, princess. Tell me if he's your Angel."

She reached out delicate fingers, her sharp nails easily cutting away through dirt and crusted blood to make contact with his flesh. He stirred lightly as she closed her eyes. She lifted her hand abruptly, cleaning it on the dark hem of her gown with disgust on her face.

"Well, luv?" Spike asked expectantly.

"He's not my Angel anymore," she said soberly, something closely resembling sanity returning to her eyes. The Slayer's heart leaped with joy. Then the dark vampiress looked straight at Buffy and her heart fell again. An evil grin spread across her exquisite features, "he's not hers, either. Not anymore."

"I don't understand, ducks. What does that mean?"

The moment of sanity was fleeting, however, "I miss my Angel." She explained to Spike, "my dolls miss him too, especially Mrs. Edith."

He groaned, "it's no use." He told the stunned group, "she's like one of her bloody dolls when she gets like this." He eyed his fallen sire, "I'll come and see him tomorrow. Alone," he added when he saw the looks on their faces, "you better keep dear old dad there under lock and key till then. Just in case."

He turned and gently led the babbling Drusilla out of the mansion, "he was all pretty then," she told him, "a real gentleman. My dolls liked him too. Do you like my dolls, Spike? They whisper in my ear..."

* * *
Chapter Four

The first thing to hit his senses was the stench of burning flesh. Pain was the second.

His eyes snapped open, his vision swimming momentarily. He swallowed hard, fighting down the nausea, as stars danced across liquid skies before settling down to become the dark heavens as he knew them. As his vision slowly cleared he caught a glimpse of a dark valley stretched far beneath him. He shifted, his eyes trying to focus on the city lights engulfed in the shadowy vale below.

A sudden bout of pain overwhelmed him, spreading like wild fire from his burning back. His body arched in a desperate attempt to escape, only to find itself unable. He twisted his head to the side, his jaw dropping in a silent scream as his eyes locked unto the bloodied, rusty nail protruding from the palm of his hand.

His body bucked uncontrollably, small moans and gasps escaping from his lips. He could feel wounds opening in his hands and feet, the scent of his own blood filtering through his crimson haze of pain.

His body finally slumped with defeat as he realized he was nailed where he was, only to arch again in a flash of burning pain. His mouth snapped open again in a failed attempt to scream, as he finally grasped he was nailed to a cross.

* * *

Buffy wiped the damp sweat off her brow, her hand coming back with brown flakes of dried blood. It's not like it wasn't expected, she reminded herself as she took into account the last several hours.

Angel hadn't stirred since Drusilla had touched him so Xander deemed it safe for Willow, Cordelia and him to leave. Too many non-Slayer people around an injured vampire is not of the good, he claimed as he ushered the girls out of the mansion. Besides, Buffy had heard him mutter, I don't think some of us are ready to see Angel in full-Monty. Oz had elected to stay claiming he had nothing against Monty.

Ten minutes later the convulsions started. Buffy swallowed hard at the memory of Angel's limbs flailing uncontrollably, knocking Giles off his feet in the process. Terrified that he would hurt himself she lunged at the wounded vampire, straddling his chest as she tried to grab hold of his hands.

That had only managed to send him into a wild frenzy. His features contorted with agony, mouth gaping in a silent scream. His body arched, sending her crashing to the floor.

Her fingers went for her brow again, she had landed badly, she recalled. That was probably when she'd been hurt.

Finally between the three of them they'd managed to restrain the vampire long enough for Giles to sedate him. Panting and exhausted, each tended quickly to their own injuries, in the end Oz was cradling his arm and Giles was sporting what was about to become a spectacular bruise below his cheek. Buffy herself felt something, which she suspected was not quite sweat, dripping down her face. They caught their breath for a moment, standing around the unconscious vampire.

"Grab a sponge and some bandages," Giles said shortly. Apparently their moment was up, "clean him up. If you see any deep wounds, tell me."

The teenagers nodded submissively, treating the injured was definitely adult turf. "Buffy, if this is too much for you..." Giles started, his features openly expressing his concern.

She shook her head stubbornly, "I'm fine. Let's worry about him for now,"she said more roughly then she intended. The Watcher nodded and turned before she could witness the hurt spreading across his features.

As she began to clean her lover's wounded body, she had soon come to realize how much she had overestimated her own abilities. Each wound overlapped another, claw marks and bite marks ran across each other. Cuts so deep they revealed bone met with old scars that hadn't properly healed. She cleaned his body as gently as she could, rubbing away dirt and crusted blood, breathing hard to control the nausea that threatened to overtake her.

"Buffy..." Giles said as gently as he could.

"I'm fine!" She grated between clenched teeth. She went on cleaning and bandaging although every wound was an accusation, every scar screamed out blame. Guilt lanced though her body like a sword though her lover's gut. This is my fault, she thought, I did this to him. Tears rushed to her eyes mocking her attempt to blink them away, yet she went on bandaging burns and lacerations as if the mere act was a kind of penance.


She whirled towards her Watcher, her face a mask of agony, "I said I was fine, damn it!" She shouted, blinding tears flowing freely down her face.

"It's over," the Watcher said kindly. "We did everything we could, now he needs time to heal."

She wiped the tears from her eyes with an impatient hand. "Oh," she said sheepishly as she glanced down. Angel was wrapped up in clean bandages from head to toe, an IV unit full of blood had been attached to his arm.

"Go home, Buffy. Get some sleep."

She looked up with surprise to meet her Watcher's determined gray eyes, "what? No, I can't do that," she pleaded, almost begged. "He needs me to be with him."

"He needs blood and care, both of which I can supply," Giles said as gently as he could, but she could hear the steely note that had crept into his voice. He was done arguing with her. "Take Oz home and get some sleep."

"Giles, I..."

"That's enough, Buffy." The steely note rang hard this time, "you're worn out and exhausted and frankly no good to anyone this way. Go home, you can come back tomorrow."

The Slayer nodded, defeated. On the way out she gave her Watcher one last pleading look, "he's not in any pain, is he Giles? You've drugged him enough?"

He smiled at her reassuringly as he settled himself in for the night, "with the amount I've given him he's dreaming of little pink elephants floating through purple fields. Trust me he's fine."

Buffy smiled back as she tried to figure out exactly what that meant.

The ride home with Oz was quiet, each teen lost in thought. Although he dismissed his injury as nothing, she couldn't miss the way he favored his right arm. She grimaced, that was her fault too in a way.

As he pulled up to her driveway she thanked him, hoping he understood how much his help meant to her.

"Buffy, Angel's a vampire," he said quietly as she was about to get out of his van.

She peered at him in confusion, "this I know," she replied hesitantly. Was he trying to say that Angel didn't deserve her care because of what he was? She fervently hoped not. Beating up her best friend's boyfriend was not high on her to-do list.

"What I mean is," the quiet boy said thoughtfully, "he'll heal. That's what vampires do - they live forever and they heal. When you look at his wounds you keep thinking he's human, you got to remember he's not."

She gave him the brightest smile she possibly could, she knew there was a reason she liked him. "Thanks, Oz," she murmured, pouring her heart into those two words. Of course Angel would heal. She felt as though a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders, even the Sunnydale night seemed to be a more inviting place. Almost smiling she walked home thinking of pink elephants and purple fields.

* * *

Angel slumped on his restraints, the nails tearing into his skin and the cross slowly burning his back. The pain had become a foggy haze now as he gave in to it, let it carry him away in defeat. Before, he still thought he could fight it, had tried screaming against the atrocities being committed against his body Not even that small salvation had been allowed. His time in hell had stolen away his ability to cry out in pain, to let the world know of his misery.

He had broken down at that point, focusing on the need to shout out his agony. It would be all right then, his mind reasoned irrationally, already lost in a world all it's own, if he could just scream everything would be all right. But he couldn't and it had finally defeated him.

He hung from the nails, his chin resting against his chest. He stared with unseeing eyes at the city spread below him. Dark night skies became a soft, warm glow where electric lights kissed the heavens. He watched uncaring, from his cliff above the vale, the city of the living as he hung crucified above them. Somewhere, in a dark corner of his mind he knew he recognized the city. Even the night sky with its ever-changing stars looked familiar, but that didn't matter. Nothing mattered except screaming.

* * *

"I should have stayed and helped," Willow fretted as she examined Oz's bruise for the third time that morning.

Buffy smiled and shook her head, "you would have just gotten yourself hurt too. Besides, we managed." She felt surprisingly refreshed that morning. After two hours worth of sleep and a slightly disturbing Walt Disney type dream of little pink elephants, she felt she could take on the world.

"Hey," Cordelia said, "did you know there was an earthquake last night?" They stared at her, "nothing big, but it was around the time we did our little hell opening thing."

"Speaking of which, how's our personal hell-spawn doing?" Xander asked gruffly.

Buffy peered at him sharply, her friend's mixed concern and hate almost bounced off his voice. She shrugged, "I don't know. Other than turning him into the first vampire-mummy in existence there wasn't much else we could do. We bandaged him up, Xander," she added pointedly as she noted her friend's confused expression.

"He's a vampire, Buffy," Oz reminded her softly.

"He'll heal," she replied with almost mantra-like conviction.

* * *

Something was happening. There was a slight difference in the night, an insignificant change in the air that came just before the birth of something new. It had even managed to finally seep through his tortured mind.

He looked up, his head swaying slightly, his eyes narrowing in an attempt to understand the change. Then it hit him - the skies were no longer an inky black. A steely gray cloak had engulfed the heavens with the subtlety of predawn. The air turned cooler, sweeter as the unfulfilled promise of a new day became a reality.

He gasped with understanding as tears of hope filled his eyes. After all this time, all this pain, he would see the sun rise and then he would die.

* * *

"He's crying," Buffy whispered, horror smeared across her delicate features, "Giles, he's crying!"

Giles glanced up, the previous night had taken its toll on the unflappable Watcher. His blood shot eyes and the day old bristles created an image of a middle-aged hooligan. Combined with the mussed hair and the bruise that had developed into an interesting shade of purple there was very little reminder of yesterday's stuffy librarian. "Buffy, it's probably just a reaction to the morpheme." He murmured, trying to comfort his agitated Slayer. "I promise you, he can't feel a thing."

She shook her head stubbornly, blond locks flying, "then why is he crying?" She demanded, "Angel never cries." Not even when a sword had buried itself in his body with the force of his lover's hand.

The Watcher finally rose, his body stiff from an uncomfortable night. He examined the tears running down the ravaged face. Hurt, you bastard! His mind demanded, writhe in agony forever for what you did! He sighed in a failed attempt to banish the unclean thought. "I'll up the dose, Buffy," he finally said. Sometimes he really hated his job.

The Slayer nodded her consent as she visibly relaxed. "Giles," she started hesitantly, "I just wanted to thank you. I know how hard this must be for you and..."

"I'm not doing this for you," he said gruffly. His back was to her as his hands worked over her lover's still form, but the tension in his shoulders was evidence enough of his distress. "Or for him," he added after a time, "I'm doing this because other people shouldn't have to suffer for our mistakes."

She nodded, fully aware that he couldn't see her. He blamed himself, she realized, for the way he had treated Jenny. For denying her his knowledge as she searched for Angel's cure. She sighed, the mansion's air had suddenly become stale, almost oppressive. She felt as though she could hardly breathe. "I'd better go out and patrol," she muttered lamely. "Cirta's minions, they're probably still out there."

She turned to leave, not even sure that the man she had come to love as a father even heard her. "Be careful, Buffy," he whispered when she was already out the door. She tried to smile, but her expression was more of a grimace at the thought of Giles tending to the man he hated most in the world.

She hunted the night like the predator she was, silent and deadly. Her eyes scanned the dark familiar streets, watching, waiting for her prey. It was her own personal bloodlust, the good kind, Giles had once told her. But she wasn't so sure. When the need to kill rose in her, the overwhelming desire to see her enemies' blood flow, she could be as merciless as any demon she had ever come across. They say us vampire's are ruthless, but that's nothing compared to what someone without a personal demon can do. She shuddered at the memory of Spike's words, sometimes she felt she was no better then the demons she slew.

A sound caught her attention, nothing more then a leaf crackling in the night, but it was enough to call on the huntress' instincts. She ducked into an alley, her feet soundless on the pavement as she dropped into a fighter's crouch within a shadowy pool of darkness.

The purposeful sound of boots against the pavement was unmistakable now, the sound too quiet and sinister to belong to an innocent. She smiled as her body tensed, waiting to pounce. Someone was going to die tonight, the knowledge burned in her blood making her heart beat faster with excitement.

She leaped and rolled as she felt herself knocking into something hard. She landed on her feet, her small fists raising seemingly out of their own will to ready themselves for the next attack.

The dark shape she had hit twisted and landed on his feet, his long, dark leather coat concealing his features for a moment, then blew away to reveal a beautiful, pale and extremely pissed off face.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Slayer?" Spike demanded.

She could see the ill-concealed rage in his eyes, vivid in the pale light of the moon "Going hunting, Spike?" She asked pleasantly, a hint of steel running through her voice.

He was undaunted. His body emanated power, his legs slightly spread and firmly braced against the sidewalk, his coat rippling lightly in the wind. He stood as if he owned the world. "Actually, yes," he said, his voice betraying his impatience. "Not what you're thinking though."

She smiled, subconsciously mimicking Angelus' confident smirk, "really?" She purred, allowing her sarcasm to seep off her voice. Behind Spike, in the dark, she could barely make out shapes. Human shapes. So Spike brought an entourage, she thought, half-surprised they didn't attack her yet.

"Yes, really." She could sense the waves of impatience rolling off him. "What are you doing here? I thought you'd be nursing Peaches back to health." Fear suddenly took hold of his voice, "he's all right, isn't he?"

She grinned sweetly, the violence in her eyes untouched, "Angel's fine. Nice to know you care, though. I'll be sure to give him your best as soon as he's up and around." She took a step closer, a stake sliding smoothly into her hand. She could see the shapes behind the pale vampire shift and undulate, their distress evident. Nevertheless, without bothering to look back he raised a commanding hand, stopping them from moving forward.

"Just hold on and think about this, pet," he took a step back away from her. "I helped you, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember," she slid forward, her body poised to strike. "Angel's out of hell, we've got our own prophecy. As far as I can tell, I don't need you anymore."

"Like hell you don't," he rumbled. Moving so fast he was no more than a blur in her eyes, he pushed her to the side, dropping them both to the ground as a blade cleaved the air neatly between them.

She was on her feet in an instant, gaping as a dozen of Spike's minions burst from the shadows, weapons in hand, to rush past her and face her attacker. She whirled to watch a familiar black cloaked figure slice his way through Spike's vampires.

"Go for the eyes!" Spike barked, his body moving swiftly. Already two of his cronies had been dusted and another had been knocked unconscious after sailing into a brick wall, his sword landing on the pavement with a steely clang.

She stood undecided for a moment, then shrugged, a familiar enemy she could handle. These black cloaked things were something else altogether. She'd deal with Spike later, preferably when they weren't fighting a common enemy.

She raced to the unconscious vampire, grabbed his sword and jumped into the fray. She ducked under a vampire, wincing as a knife plunged through his shoulder spraying blood into her face. She spit, the metallic taste rancid in her mouth. She ducked under the wounded vampire as he staggered back clutching his arm, and found herself directly in front of the cloaked figure.

For the first time she noticed a dim red glow within the cloak's hood where eyes should have been. For a moment she couldn't take her eyes off the glow, it seemed to grow and pulse almost like a beating heart. Everything slowed down, suddenly, time stretched out as she watched bemused a sword being raised against her. They have swords that can cut through rocks, she thought sluggishly.

"Protect the Slayer!" She heard Spike cry from behind her. Those were three little words she never thought she'd hear from him, somewhere in the back of her mind she was almost amused.

She watched the sword swing towards her, awed by the way the sleek blade reflected the moonlight, almost unable to rip her gaze away. The blade arched slowly, almost casually in a killing blow towards her neck.

Finally the need to survive saved her, her arms moved with a will of their own to raise her own sword. She deflected the blow a hair's width from her neck, wincing as the sparks seared her skin and tremors ran down to her shoulders. But her sword held its own.

Fine workmanship, her mind noted as she struggled to push the sword off her neck. Suddenly there was no more resistance as the figure dropped his weapon and frantically began clutching at his face.

She leaped back, confused as she watched the figure tear off his hood to pull at the dagger embedded in its eye. "You were saying something about not needing me pet?" Spike snickered. She ignored him, far too caught up in her attacker's actions.

He pulled at the dagger, blocking their view of his face in the process. It slid out of his face with a wet, slithering sound to gleam slightly in the moonlight like a dark accusation. He raised his face to the moon, his knees buckling beneath him as his voice tore out in a beseeching wail.

Buffy gasped, "get away from him!" She managed to yell out as she turned to run. She dropped to the ground as she heard the blast behind her, feeling the fire blaze above her body as the figure exploded into flames.

"Wow," she heard Spike mutter beside her as he raised himself from the pavement. "They die hard, those little buggers."

She lifted herself slowly, dusting herself off and checking for injuries in the process. Other than a slight ache in her arms that was already fading she was fine. More than that - she was lucky, again. Spike's goons weren't - five were severely injured and another four were now dust in the wind. She heard Spike rumble curses as he took stock of his bedraggled crew.

"Go home and rest," he told them. "Feed from the reserves," he added catching the evil gleam in the Slayer's eyes.

She nodded and turned to walk away, muttering to herself. Spike would get to live another night. After a few steps she felt him walk beside her, "where do you think you're you going?" She demanded.

"I told you I was going to see Daddy dearest tonight."

"Fine," she muttered sullenly. It would have felt so good to plunge a stake through his heart, but it just didn't seem right after what he'd done. "Why did you tell them to protect me?" She asked suddenly.

He shrugged, "because whatever Angel-cake is going to be like when he wakes up, I'd bet a pint of beer he's going to be equally peeved if he finds you six feet under."

She nodded, that made sense. Angel had to save the world somehow, and being peeved was not an emotion anyone would want the world's savior to experience. "Always an agenda with you, Spike," she muttered.

He peered at her in surprise, moonlight glinting off his sharp features, "I just saved your bloody neck, luv. What's with the bitchy attitude?"

She turned on him, her eyes a flash of green in the night, "because this is all your fault!"

"My fault?" He demanded, "how is this my fault?"

"If you hadn't drudged up that stupid Judge demon, Angel and I would have never been almost killed and then we would never have..." She stopped, blushing furiously. She spun around, turning her back on the stunned vampire and marched away. His laughter, like clear crystal shimmering through the night, stopped her cold.

"You have got to be kidding!" He chortled, half-choking on his own humor. "I have been accused of many things, pet, most of them true," he added ruefully, "but I have never been responsible for shagging I wasn't involved in. Hell," he laughed, "sometimes I couldn't be held responsible for shagging I was involved in."

She blushed even harder, knowing what he said was true. "Besides," he added on a more serious note, "it was just a matter of time with you two. Knowing soul-boy, he probably wouldn't have gotten his rocks off somewhere else while he was waiting for you to mature." He rolled his eyes at the night sky, "virgins," he muttered, "never did see what all the fuss was about them. Give me a nice willing experienced body any day. How long did he go without, six months? A year?"

"Eighty years," she murmured so softly that no one human could have possibly heard her. Unfortunately her companion didn't fit that category.

"Eighty bloody years?!" He spluttered, his eyes widening in disbelief, "no wonder he walked around depressed all the time. You should have ran a stake through his heart to put him out of his misery."

A smile began to worm its way across her face, "yeah, I get it, Spike."

"Eighty years," he shook his head. "After a week of celibacy, I start looking at poodles funny."

"I said I get it, Spike," A full-blown smile had smeared itself across her face.

"Farm animals run away with terror..."

She was laughing uncontrollably now, "shut up, Spike."

He grinned wickedly to himself as they walked side by side to the mansion. She fervently hoped they wouldn't be running into any unfortunate poodles.



"Annoying busty cheerleaders with perky attitudes."


"Principal Snyder."

She thought for a moment, "I'll get back to you."

Giles raised his head as Buffy and Spike burst in the mansion. Xander and Willow stared at them in surprise, "what're you talking about?"

"Just hammering out the last few quirks in our alliance," the platinum blond replied blithely. "We're figuring out who I'm allowed to eat for being such a good demon and getting to fight with the Slayer," he explained at their confused looks. "So far we've narrowed it down to people who hum Britney Spears songs, principal Snyder and Politicians."

"Buffy!" Giles rose, outraged.

"That's not true!" She objected with a grin, "I never agreed to the Politicians." She glanced over at the annoying vampire beside her. He was frozen in place, his face a mask of concentration. "Spike?"

"I smell blood," he muttered.

"Maybe that's because this whole place is packed up with so many transfusions, we could open up our own blood bank," Xander noted.

"No, you stupid wanker," Spike growled, his face changing as his demon came forth. He crossed the room to Angel's tightly bandaged body before any of them could make a move. "Flowing blood," he hissed.

A nail as sharp as whetted steel flashed against the clean bandages across Angel's chest, slicing through them as though they were nothing more flimsy than silk. Fresh blood oozed slowly out of the wound below. They watched mystified, unable to move, as Spike dipped his finger in the blood. Bringing it to his mouth he licked it clean.

"Can somebody say eww?" Xander muttered breaking the spell.

Spike spun to face Giles, his human mask completely gone as his golden eyes glowed with rage. Buffy felt fear rise up in her throat. Something was happening, something she didn't understand, or didn't want to understand.

"Did you know Watcher?" The pale demon demanded, "did you know?"

"I-I suspected," Giles stuttered as the enraged demon advanced on him with murder in his eyes, "but I couldn't know for sure."

"Giles, what's happening?" Buffy asked, her voice rasping out of her throat in a fear filled whisper.

"Tell her, Watcher!" Spike growled, his fist closing over the librarian's neck. "Tell your Slayer what you've been keeping from her."

She knew this was wrong, she knew she had to get Giles away from Spike, but her limbs refused to move. For a moment there was silence as Spike glared into the Watcher's pallid face. "Tell me!" She finally cried out, her voice shattering the quiet into a million shards of heartache.

"He's dying, Buffy," Giles choked out. "His body isn't healing properly. He's bleeding to death and there's nothing I can do about it."

"No," she moaned.

Spike turned, pushing the Watcher away with contempt, he strode past the stunned Slayer, "deal's off, pet!" He muttered.

The Watcher and his Slayer gazed at each other, betrayal etched in their eyes. She should have helped him with Spike, should have done something. "Why didn't you tell me, Giles?" Her voice came out in a hoarse whisper.

"I wasn't sure until now."

She nodded sensing the truth in his words and gazed over at her fallen lover. The blood hadn't stopped oozing from his wound and had stained his chest crimson, a bloody reminder of a different wound. She couldn't stay there, she couldn't stay and watch this shell of her lover crumble into dust.

"I need..." She started, but she couldn't form what she needed into words. She turned her back on her friends, ignoring their pain and worry, she ran out of the mansion hoping the night would whisk her away.

"Buffy!" She heard Giles call, but she kept on running, unable to stop even if she wanted to.

Willow and Xander looked at each other sadly as the broken Watcher gazed out into the night. "Help me bandage him up," Willow told him quietly.

Xander rumbled, but did as he was told, "Did you know that flowing blood smelled any different than stand-still blood?" He asked the preoccupied hacker. "Well, I didn't," he muttered, ignoring Willow's dirty look.

* * *
Chapter Five

She ran blindly, her tears a liquid shield against the darkness of the night. She didn't know where she was going, nor did she care as long as it was away from the mansion. As long is it was away from her Watcher and her friends and anyone else who had ever loved and trusted her. She felt as though she was crumbling inside, falling hopelessly apart at the seams. Witnesses were the last things she needed.

The night air burned through her lungs, searing her throat. Panting and gasping she came to a halt, catching her breath against a cool brick wall. Her cheeks blazed with exertion as her chest heaved. She looked around grimacing; her feet had led her to Angel's apartment. After all this time she still came here whenever she felt troubled.

Sniffing hard she blinked back the tears. She needed a distraction, needed to hurt something, maybe even herself. Looking around frantically she found what she was looking for. A dark grin creased her face.

"Not my best appearance ever," she murmured to herself as she stepped into the Bronze, "but it'll do."

She walked inside with the confident stride of one who knew how to draw attention. She slowly made her way to the dance floor, her hips swaying in time with the music. Flashing lights and smoke blinded her as she moved, pressing her way through hot undulating bodies. She took a deep breath, inhaling smoke and sweat and cheap cologne. The hard music beat a steady rhythm that echoed in her chest.

She began to dance, rocking gently at first then gaining momentum as the music whisked her away. She kept her eyes open, to a stranger it would seem a subtle defiance to flashing neon lights and stinging smoke. To her it was fear of what she would see should she keep them closed.

She moved wildly, erratically, uncaring of those that bumped into her along the way. Indifferent to bodies grinding up against her, she moved with her eyes wide open, her mind concentrating on nothing but the music, the dance, the heat. Reaching for a place where senses were dulled and thoughts were nonexistent, she lost herself to the music.

Bodies pressed up closer against her, some hot and damp with sweat, others cooler, dry as a grave, all sensing her weakness, predators to her distress. She barely felt the hands as they began to caress her waist, too far gone to notice the thighs as they rubbed against her body. She kept on moving in time with the music as the hands climbed up to her breasts and the thighs pushed forcefully against her hips from behind.

A hand snaked around her wrist pulling her roughly out of the heated throng. She allowed herself to be pulled dumbly, like a lost child, her vision wavering as dark shapes loomed from the lights and smoke. They leered at her, beckoning her to rejoin them, become one with the dancing mass of those who wished to loose themselves to the music.

But the hand held strong pulling her through bodies that stank of sweat and smoke and alcohol, ignoring her need to loose herself, defying her wishes to be dulled into nothing. She was finally pushed into a side booth and got a look at the body attached to the hand still holding on to her own.

"Spike," she hissed.

"You look like crap, pet," he observed as he sat down opposite her.

Her eyes narrowed dangerously, "they didn't seem to think so," she said, motioning towards the undulating throng.

He dared a glance and choked out a harsh bark of a laugh, "they," he purred, forcing her to look back at the dancing mass, "are made up of teenage boys and fledgling vampires. They couldn't care less if you were Miss bloody America or a scratching-post as long as they can rub up against you."

She could feel the anger begin to boil up inside her and shook her head, this wasn't why she came here, "fine," she muttered as she began to rise from her seat. "Then they won't mind if I'll join them." He grabbed her hand and pulled her back to a sitting position as he pinned it to the table. "Spike," she started to hiss a warning.

He didn't let go of her hand, "usually I wouldn't mind letting a Slayer with a death wish have her own way," he hissed in her face, glaring into her eyes, denying her any means of escape. "But special circumstances demand different approaches." She tried pulling her hand from his grasp, grappling with him as he held strong, "stop it!" He growled as they shook an ashtray hard enough to earn the attention of the people sitting in the next booth. "And start acting like a Slayer!"

That got her attention. Her eyes widened with outrage, "don't you dare tell me how to do my job," she hissed.

"Then do it!" He demanded. "Get pissed off and bossy and bloodthirsty. Go and kick some ass!"

She choked out a short bark of a laugh, "whose ass, huh Spike? Whose ass would like me to kick?" The people in the next booth were definitely staring. "The demons who did that to Angel? They're in hell and even I have my limits." They had also begun whispering. Well let them, Buffy thought, they'd be dead soon anyway. They all would. "Or how about that cloaked guy thing? It took a dozen of us to bring him down and there're many more where he came from. Or how about Cirta herself, wherever she's at." Anger and frustration were rolling off her in waves, but he was unimpressed. "Tell me whose ass to kick, Spike."

He shook his head, opened his mouth as he started to say something when a polite cough interrupted him. "Hello, Buffy," Scott said acidly as two blond heads turned toward him with surprise. "I'm not intruding, am I?"

She groaned inwardly, the guy had such unbelievably lousy timing. Then she noticed her hand was still in Spike's and groaned again in growing consternation. She tried to pull herself free, but to her alarm he wouldn't budge. Oh shit, she thought as she saw the slow, wicked smile spread across Spike's sharp feature's, the son of a bitch was going to have fun with this.

"Actually, you sort of were, mate," Spike drawled, calmly ignoring the seething Slayer. "See, Buffy and I were having a private conversation. Right, luv?" His cool hand began to fondle hers, the slender fingers caressing her suggestively. She swallowed, at a loss for words. Spike gave her a great big encouraging smile as her mind gibbered for something to say.

"You know, Buffy," Scott said, his voice trembling slightly, "if this was the 'thing' you've been doing the past few nights, you could have just told me and I'd have left you alone."

Spike chuckled quietly as Buffy finally freed herself of his hand to rise to her feet with rage. This night was just too much, she thought as she recounted the past few hours. She'd almost been killed and to save herself she joined forces with a bunch of vampires. She struck a deal with Satan, as she lovingly referred to Spike these days, she'd learned that the love of her life would die and now it was being implied that she was doing Spike. After all she'd been through she didn't need this kind of aggravation.

"How dare you?" She demanded, her voice hoarse with emotion. "Who the hell do you think you are to talk to me like that?" Scott took a startled step back. She'd been subdued in all the weeks he'd tried to get close to her, he knew that, but he didn't know how much more than her usual self. With her eyes flashing and her fists clenched she was a force of nature, a being to be reckoned with. "I don't owe you any explanations!" Her voice climbed an octave. Those who weren't already staring with amusement turned their heads to look.

Scott shuffled his feet uncomfortably, "look, Buffy," he started, imploringly.

She shook her head, she wasn't about to look at anything, and as far as she was concerned she'd seen enough. "It's over, Scott," she said coolly, quietly, acknowledging his discomfort. "There was never really anything there to begin with." He swallowed hard, obviously speechless he turned to leave.

"See you around mate," Spike called at the boy's receding back. "Now there's the Slayer I've come to know and intensely dislike," he said as Buffy slowly turned to glare at him. "Come on," he said, grabbing at her hand again, "let's get out of here. People seem to be staring for some strange reason." Chuckling at his own joke he dragged her out of the nightclub.

* * *

The skies turned a light gray as dawn slowly spread across the heavens. The city below was nearly indistinguishable from the valley it stretched across as electric lights dimmed with reverence to the new day.

Between it all, hanging perilously between hope and despair, the crucified man awaited his death. An awareness he had never experienced before overcame him as he watched the birth of day. He listened with wonder as the earth sang glory to the rising sun, he watched the heavens blush in preparation with awe.

The wind blew coolly across his wounded body, bringing with it a freshness that he had never noticed before. His head raised proudly to watch the sun rise, his eyes shining with acceptance and relief, his features stretched with ecstasy.

To an onlooker he would look much like a different man that died nearly two millennia ago. But there could never be onlookers on that particular cliff and the earth and heavens accepted him for what he was.

He could feel his skin begin to crawl and sizzle as the great golden orb breached the horizon. He laughed, his joy joining with nature's acceptance.

He fell suddenly, the nails he had fought against earlier relented without reason or purpose. He landed on his hands and knees, the soft grass lovingly cushioning his fall.

He closed his eyes as his hands stretched towards the sun, his knees on the ground in silent prayer for the love of God to engulf him. Everything seemed to have stopped, the world was holding its breath as it awaited the burst of golden warmth to streak its skies.

Another breeze rushed past him, this time it brought with it stench and decay like a message from the grave. He opened his eyes in confusion. He could sense the earth's quiet distress, something was wrong, unnatural somehow.

A scream pierced his mind suddenly. A scream of pain and confusion so deep it pushed aside any other emotion. He clasped his bleeding hands to his ears, shut his eyes tight and curled in on himself as he tried to block the earth's pain-filled shriek. But it was to no avail, it surrounded him, drove its agony into him with unstoppable force.

His eyes snapped open forcibly with the natural instinct to understand. At first he couldn't see a thing, then he saw it with a clearness that made him gasp with trepidation. The sun was disappearing so completely as though a giant hand was pushing it back down. The sky was reverting back to its previous darkness, even as it screamed its defiance.

"Do you want to die?" A voice roared in his mind, so powerful he could barely make out the words. "Do you really WANT to die?"

He raised his eyes even though the effort made his head spin. Yes! His mind screamed although his mouth refused to voice the words. Oh my God let me die! He begged soundlessly.

The sky darkened back into inky night, the stars glowing protest as they revealed themselves. The voice in his mind radiated dark amusement, as it spoke, "you were never really given a choice, Angelus. Live!"

His body arched as it began to react to the command.

* * *

Buffy planted her feet firmly on the ground bringing them both to a skidding halt. "Alright, chuckles. What do you want?"

Spike rolled his eyes, inhaling needlessly with exasperation. "Why do all of our conversations start off the same way?"

She grinned mirthlessly, pale skin stretching over tired features, "kind of tells you something, doesn't it?" She said wearily. She was tired, so tired. And there was somewhere else she needed to be, she realized that now. Although he wouldn't even know she was there.

"Yeah," he nodded, "that you don't trust me. You keep forgetting that we're in this together."

"Really? And I was so sure I'd heard that our deal was off."

He grinned, "shall we say it's back on again, and leave it at that?"

She raised her head. Dawn was coming soon, bringing with it a sudden sense of urgency. She needed to be with him now. She turned to leave, her mind focused on her task. She would hold her lover's hand till it crumbled to dust in her own.

Spike was suddenly in her face, his hands clutching at her shoulders, shaking her. "This isn't over!" He cried, his face inches from hers, "Angel's dying, but that doesn't mean we all have to go with him!"

"There's nothing I can do, Spike!" She yelled back.

He stopped shaking her, but his hands still gripped her shoulders, "there is," he said quietly. "There're," he hesitated for a moment, "people," he finally said. "They want to help. They need to talk to you."

She caught the slight hitch in his voice, "people?" She asked, hoping he wouldn't reply. She was so tired, tired of death and danger and secrets.

His eyes suddenly found the tops of his shoes unbearably interesting, "elders," he muttered. "Vampire elders."

She opened her mouth, tried to say something, anything, but nothing other than a throaty chuckle escaped her lips. Vampires, she thought, and they wanted to see her, to help her. Yeah, and Principal Snyder was just moments away from naming her valedictorian. How stupid did he think she was?

He peered into her face, trying to gauge her reactions, "they have as much of an interest in this as the rest of us, pet," he said lamely. "Nobody really wants to die."

She snickered, there were times in her life that she would have gladly died. If only so that she wouldn't have to kill. "Forget it," she said flatly. "It's bad enough that I cut a deal with you, I have no intention to start bringing in any more," she paused for a moment, trying to decide exactly what he was, "help," she finally said. "From now on I fight alone." She looked him directly in the eyes, making sure he caught the seriousness of her mood. "I don't want your help," she said coolly, evenly, "I don't want any more vampire help, whatever age they may be. When Angel dies," she swallowed hard trying to erase the taste those words left in her mouth, "I fight. Alone."

His arms flailed with exasperation, "Then you die alone, you silly tart!" He yelled, "how can you bloody well fight when you don't even know what you're up against?" He demanded. "These people, they can help you."

"Only they're not people. They're vampires and elders to top it off. How old are they, Spike? Were they front row center when Jesus got nailed to a cross? Did they write a patent to the first wheel?" Her voice rose, her tone more demanding, "were they there when fire was discovered?" Her tirade was blowing out of control, "were they born after man came down from the trees," her eyes flashed, "or are they half ape?" Her fists clenched, raised as if to hit something, preferably something blond.

His eyes narrowed as his nostrils flared. His mouth opened to deliver a scalding retort, but he never got the chance. Softly, subtly, as if she were ashamed to do so, the ground shook under their feet. The vampire and the Slayer stared at each other in stunned amazement. "Bloody fitting that there should be a hell mouth in southern California." Spike muttered once the light tremor stopped. "This place is already hell enough. I hate earthquakes."

Earthquake. There'd been an earthquake before. "Oh my God, Angel!" Buffy gasped as she began to run.

* * *

His body trembled uncontrollably, his hands clawing at the ground. The earth shrieked around him, her pain mirroring his own. In his mind a scream echoed, banging against the walls of his brain, demanding to be released. His mouth gaped open like a bleeding wound, but not a sound came out.

"Can you feel it?" A voice cried in his mind, its ecstasy enough to drive him begging for insanity, "can you feel life burning through your veins?" He felt it, with every fiber of his being he felt it. His skin burned like living flame, his blood boiling through his body.

"Live, Angelus!" The voice commanded, and he could not disobey. Too far lost to pain to resist, fistfuls of ravaged earth and grass clenched in his hands, he thrashed and twisted like a creature insane.

* * *

She ran harder than she ever had in her life. Her lungs breathed fire and her side burned as though a knife had sliced through it. It only made her run faster, holding her side like a woman bleeding to death, gasping like the damned she had only one thought in mind. If Angel were dead she would soon follow.

She didn't notice the figure running beside her, didn't care that he was keeping up with her only by sheer force of will. "Buffy, wait!" He called out to her. But even had she heard him she would never have waited. She had waited too long, wasted too much time.

The mansion loomed ahead like an icon of doom, dark and full of secrets in the steely gray skies of false dawn.

The scream echoed around her as she reached the stairs, bringing her to a skidding halt. Spike slammed into her an instant later sending them both tumbling against the stairs.

They stayed where they were for a long moment, listening helplessly as the sound of pure agony rolled off into the night and died gently as though it had never existed at all.

"Angel," Buffy moaned. She was too late and her lover had died. Somehow she managed to rise up and walk to the door, somewhere she found the strength to twist the knob and push it open. Ashes to ashes, she thought, dust to dust.

She looked over at the cot and stared helplessly at the trembling, bewildered vampire as he raised his head. He looked around slowly, his features betraying his horror. His hair a dark halo over his pale haunted face, "is this real?" He whispered, his voice hoarse from disuse.

They gaped at him speechless, lost to shock. "Yes," Willow finally replied, her voice quivering with awe.

His features crumbled, slowly he curled in on himself as soft whimpers escaped his mouth.

That was enough to pull Buffy out of her stupor. With three quick strides she was by her lover's side, her arms reaching to embrace him.

"Buffy!" Giles snapped.

But she was done waiting. She had waited much too long. If he was Angelus then she would die anyway because she didn't have the strength to fight him again. If he was Angel, she had betrayed him enough. With that thought in mind her arms closed around the suffering man, pulling him into her warm embrace.

She rocked him gently, as she would a weeping child. As he slowly surrendered to exhaustion in the comfort of her arms she vowed to herself that she would never betray him again. For once the world would have to fend for itself.

"How did this happen?" Spike whispered, unable to take his eyes off the couple.

"I don't know," Giles replied, his face a mask of conflicting emotion. "I wish I did."

* * *
Chapter Six

He awoke slowly, a strange lethargy clinging to him relentlessly. He moved carefully, his body tensely awaiting the expected pain that never came. He sat up, a dizziness overtaking him for a moment, forcing him to slow down. He raised his head as soon as he felt steady enough to do so, and was startled to see a small blonde figure draped across a chair beside him.

"Buffy?" He murmured. The figure stirred slightly in her sleep, strands of golden hair falling across her cheek, tickling the long, dark lashes. Is this real? He wondered. He remembered waking, before. People staring down at him, then leaving quietly. He shook his head trying to sort fragments of memory from dream, the effort making his head spin.

He rose to his feet, tenderly testing his body, but still no pain came. Other than the strange fog in his mind and an irritating chafing against his skin he felt perfectly fine.

He smiled, the expression slightly odd across his pale features, there was one thing he could take care of. With a few quick motions he tore away at the bandages wrapped around his body, wincing slightly at the dried blood splattered across everything, mute evidence of near fatal wounds. He rubbed away at the bits clinging to him, brown flakes dropping away to expose unblemished pale skin.

Silently he walked across the room, flexing his stiff muscles, relishing in the feel of a healthy body. A small pile of clothes rested on a chair in a corner of the room, suddenly very aware of his nudity he tied a pair of sweatpants to his waist.

He could feel something pulling at him from outside, calling to him with the sweet voice of memory. Fire crackled in the hearth, emitting a soft inviting glow that beckoned him to stay. He ignored the golden warmth as the pull grew harder, more demanding.

He moved toward the garden, the fog in his mind making all conscious thought impossible. His body led the way surely, although it had been uncountable centuries since he had last walked these halls.

He saw her picking roses in the garden, her pale dress mingling curiously with her skin in the wan moonlight, making her seem sensuously nude. Her dark hair was elaborately made around her face, framing her delicate features with a startling clash of black against white.

For a moment memory mixed with reality. He saw her as she once was; innocent and lovely, fresh and full of life. Then a breeze brought the cloying stench of death to his senses and reality planted itself firmly in his bewildered mind.

"Drusilla..." He murmured, his voice gruff and unsteady.

She turned toward him allowing him to see the true difference between memory and reality; all light of sanity was gone from her eyes. "Angel," she whispered, her little-girl voice grating against his tender nerves. She eyed him appreciatively, taking in his smooth bare chest and the flimsy cloth covering him from waist down. "Not my Angel anymore," she murmured sadly.

"Was I ever?" He asked. The haze in his mind was beyond his control now, and he felt as though he was moving in a dream. The moon's silvery light drew an ethereal quality, painting the world in unrelenting shades of black and white. Her skin seemed to glow in that light, her face a masterpiece of creation spoiled only by the dark light of madness beaming in her eyes.

She giggled sweetly and brought a rose to her lips, sniffing at it coyly. "You were always my Angel. Even when you thought I was yours and made me scream out your name..."

"When you were human?"

She nodded, "and later when your heart reeked of the Slayer," her voice took a hard edge, her fingers callously crushing the delicate rose. "You were such a bad daddy and even then you were mine. Every time you wouldn't kill me, every time you wouldn't let that nasty Slayer kill me." She looked at him sadly, her fingers reaching up to touch him, "but you're not mine anymore. You're hers."

She had cut herself from the rose's thorns. Her fingers were bloody, a disgusting dark contrast against the chalky whiteness of her skin, but he let her touch him anyway. "Whose am I, Dru?" His voice was deceptively patient.

She looked at him as if she could see right through him and giggled, her fingers tracing a bloody signature on his pale chest. "Do you know why the Slayer brought you out of hell?" She asked, completely ignoring his question.

He took a deep, unnecessary breath. A small flame of anger began to smolder in his gut. Inhaling deeply again to control that flame he shook his head.

The dark vampiress glanced around as if afraid of eavesdroppers. He bravely resisted an urge to break her neck. "You're supposed to save the world," she confided. "Or destroy it." Then she laughed, no longer a little girl's laugh, a laugh full of malicious hate. "The moon sings to me. She tells me you don't know who you are. How can you do anything if you don't even know who you are?"

The small flame in his gut rose to a full-blown inferno, he could feel his face changing even as he took a menacing step toward his insane childe. "What are you talking about, Dru?" He demanded.

"Impotent!" She screeched at him, "all that power, all that rage and still you're impotent!"

He lost control, grabbing her roughly by the waist he pinned her against his body, "am I impotent, Drusilla?" He snarled, pushing against her, forcing her to feel him, to acknowledge him. His hand wrapped around the nape of her neck, a dark warning to the ease with which he could end her life. She paused only to laugh in his face before sinking her fangs into his lips. Realizing he was fooled he dug his claws into her cool skin, pulling her away from him.

She broke away with a soft growl, her demon marring her perfect features, "so powerful, and so impotent," she moaned, his blood dripping from her lips, staining her chin crimson.

"I think you'd better leave now, Dru," A calm, hard voice said from behind them. Buffy stood leaning against the door, subtly toying with a sharp stake, her eyes as hard as flint.

The vampiress backed away with a snarl, fear evident on her demonic face, "sometimes, when the moon would hide from me and the nights were dark," she whispered in a child's voice, her eyes never leaving the Slayer. "I could hear you screaming in hell." Only then she risked a glance at her Sire, "It used to make me want to laugh," She told him as she disappeared into the night.

"Are you all right?" Buffy asked softly. Angel snarled, his lip had already healed, but the blood dripping down his demonic features made him seem like an insane beast in the darkness. She waited as his anger slowly drained and his face reverted back to its human facade.

He watched her leaning against the doorway, her lithe body filled with catlike grace, firelight from inside made her hair blaze like a golden halo. "You're hurt," she said, reaching up delicate fingers to his lips.

For a single moment memory and reality mixed in his tortured brain. He could see his lover's face clearly in the soft moonlight, and just as clearly he could see a demon's face, lovely and perfect, sneering at him with contempt. He instinctively recoiled from her, "don't touch me!" He gasped, the words flying out of his mouth beyond his control, fear shining in his eyes.

"I'm sorry," she choked, the words holding more meaning than she could ever explain. "You slept through the entire day, and when I woke up and couldn't find you after you nearly," for the first time she noticed his bare chest, marked only by his childe's blood and her eyes narrowed with confusion, "died," she finished lamely. "Angel, what happened to your wounds?"

You don't know who you are. He brought a trembling hand to his lips, wiping away at the drying blood. How can you do anything if you don't even know who you are? "Is it true?" He asked. "Did you bring me back so I could fight some evil?"

She flinched as though he had struck her a blow, "damn Drusilla!" She muttered. "It's not like that," she explained lamely, "it was just this weird coincidence where we had one part of the key and Spike had the other part. I guess we needed some sort of mutual crises to come together and..."

He ran a shaking hand through his soft, dark hair, "I think I need to be alone now, Buffy."

She reached out for him instinctively, "Angel, I..."

"Please, Buffy!"

She nodded weakly, her hand dropping lamely beside her, "I'll come see you later tonight," she promised. He nodded as she disappeared into the night, a distracted gesture of a man with too much on his mind.

Confusion eddied around him when she left, slivers of memory cutting at him with jagged edges of truth. A bullwhip gleefully biting into his skin, implemented by an insanely laughing demon. Can you feel it? Claws tearing across his body with the abandon of a lover. I love you, Angel.

He sank to his knees on callously discarded rose petals, his hands clasped against his ears, his eyes tightly shut, trying to blot out his senses, trying to shut the memories out. Hellfire burning away his skin, the stench of brimstone boring into every crevice and pore in his body, choking him, suffocating him. Hanging on a cross as the early light of dawn gently burned his awareness away. How can you do anything if you don't even know who you are?

"Stop!" He screamed. The night carried his voice away, accepting his madness as it echoed into nothing. "Please stop," he begged, his hands dropping to the ground to support his trembling body.

The fog slowly seeped out of his mind, illusive memories clearing way to reality as in a sudden moment of absolute clarity he understood what he had to do.

He's all right, he's just in shock, Buffy murmured to herself as she headed towards the library. Don't touch me. The bitter taste that left in her mouth refused to go away. Did he hate her? Was it so bad that he couldn't stand the mere sight of her? She shook her head trying to dispel the distracting thoughts and tried to concentrate on something more immediate. Those wounds should have taken several months to heal at best, yet they were gone as though they had never existed. And he hadn't even answered her question about them. She shook her head again, she was getting nowhere on her own, she definitely needed to talk this over with Giles.

"Where is Giles?" She asked as she stepped into the library. Her friends were lounging around, talking quietly and reading books. Or in Xander's case eating too many donuts.

"He said he was going home to get some sleep," Cordelia replied, looking up from the book she was reading. "All this time I thought he lived here."

"He does," Xander chuckled, wiping powdered sugar off his nose, "but sometimes he needs some 'me' time away from his books." He peered up at Buffy, "what are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to be with hell-boy."

Buffy winced at the term but said nothing, "he had a little visit from Dru and it shook him up. He said he needed some alone time," she said, trying to make it sound casual.

They stared at her.

"What?" She demanded, as the silence in the dimly lit library became too oppressive.

Cordelia glared at her and Buffy steeled herself, the May-Queen's sharp tongue was not a pleasant thing. "I think what we're trying to say is: 'And you let him?!'"

"Well I couldn't very well force myself on him!" The Slayer retorted without thinking.

"No," Oz agreed quietly as Buffy flushed a bright red, "that would definitely be of the bad."

Cordelia took a deep breath and Buffy winced, the pretty brunette was not through, "what if he goes psycho again?" She demanded, her voice shrilly grating on Buffy's nerves. "What if he starts after you again?" Her soft brown eyes widened as another, more hideous possibility suddenly occurred to her, "what if he starts after me again?" She cried, her voice climbing several octaves.

"Then we kill him," Xander stated coolly, "prophecy or no prophecy."

Buffy's eyes narrowed dangerously, "hold on rebel without a clue," she said acidly, her eyes flashing bright anger. "Angel's fine. He's just adjusting, that's all."

"To what," Xander challenged, "life in the fast lane? An all you can eat Sunnydale till the Slayer says stop?"

Willow gasped, "Xander, stop it. We're not going to get anywhere this way."

They were both beyond reason, though, "were you always this jealous of him?" Buffy asked softly as her friend glared at her. "Because you've hated him even before he gave you reason too."

He barked a tense laugh, "yeah, all I ever wanted was my own personalized tombstone."

"That can always be arranged," Spike said smoothly, an amused expression on his face.

"You know," Xander said wearily, "this place has really been loosing its charm as Slayer headquarters lately."

"I'm just glad he didn't bring miss psycho killer along," Buffy muttered.

Spike's eyes flashed with annoyance, "lay off Dru, Slayer. She's more of a woman than you'll ever be," his eyes narrowed at Buffy's audible snort. "She's rad, bad..."

"And completely mad," Buffy added, a malicious grin spreading across her face.

"Really," Xander asked, a grin plastered on his face. "And all this time I thought she was slutty, smutty and totally nutty."

"Ooh, can I play?" Cordelia squealed as everyone but the seething vampire giggled around her, the tension that had engulfed them thankfully broken.

"Lazy, hazy and a whole lot of crazy," Oz contributed. "Well I do write songs, you know," he added depreciatingly as they grinned at him.

"Oh, I got one," Willow squeaked. "A snore, a bore and a total who..."

"Willow!" Buffy gasped, her eyes shocked.

"Well she is," Willow muttered sullenly.

Spike's eyes flashed, "that's right, kiddies," he snarled, his nostrils flaring. "Piss off the bad ass vampire. Think about that next time you walk into a dark alley at night." He turned his back on the giggling teens with disgust and stomped off out of the library, smacking into his sire in the process. "Of course it'd be you," Spike growled, his hand rubbing his cheek where it impacted roughly with Angel's shoulder. "The Slayer's laughing it up over there."

"I came to see you," Angel said softly, his eyes darting nervously around the room.

"Were you now?" Spike drawled, contempt and curiosity battling for dominance across his features.

Buffy watched the two vampires standing at the library doors. One dark and tall, his expression a heart wrenching mix of pleading and distress. The other paler, shorter, slimmer, his confident smirk enough to make anyone break into a cold sweat. The contrast between them was intoxicating.

"I need you," the dark vampire whispered, his arm leaning on the doorway for support, "to tell me who I am." His voice was almost soundless, his stance filled with despair. Buffy ached to rush over to him, to support him, but he had asked her not to touch him and he had not come here for her.

Spike's eyes narrowed, "what're you talking about..."

With catlike grace the dark vampire lunged at his childe, all semblance of weakness gone. "Blood runs true," Angel hissed as he grabbed the pale vampire by the shoulders, shaking him like a rag doll. His eyes glimmered golden, but his face kept its human mask, "I need you to tell me who I am!"

With a quick twist Spike freed himself from the older vampire's grasp, "why should I?" He demanded, his face inhuman as he lost himself to rage.

Angel grabbed him again, this time his hold was unbreakable. He dragged his resisting child so close their faces nearly touched. "Because I am your sire," he hissed.

Spike stopped struggling, but managed to laugh in his sire's face, "and here I thought the in thing to do these days was to stake your sire in the back. I'd be happy to do that," he growled just as menacingly as Angel.

Angel pushed his childe away as he grimaced with remembered pain, "then do it because you need me sane." He muttered, all at once reverting back to weakness.

"He's gone nuts," Xander whispered.

Spike seemed to have the same idea, "you're loosing it," he assessed as he looked the older vampire over.

Angel ran a trembling hand through his unkempt hair. He tried to chuckle, but a sob filtered through instead, "tell me I haven't already."

"Your conscience getting to you, Peaches?" Spike asked with false sympathy. "Remembering the merry old time you had as a bad ass and it hurts you down deep? Tell me, what was hell like? Repent much?"

The dark vampire's eyes narrowed dangerously, his lips curled as a snarl rolled from deep within his chest, "oh, it was a real divine comedy," acid dripped from his words. Willow gasped, her lips forming a startled O as she seemed to realize something, then thought better of it and clamped her mouth shut. "You are going to do this for me, Spike. One way or another I'll find out what I need to know."

"I'm not afraid of you anymore! I'm not some cripple you can stake in a heartbeat!"

A wicked smile spread across beautiful pale features, "no, but Dru is."

Spike's eyes widened with disbelief, as for a single solitary moment the only sound in the library was the soft purr of neon lights. "The guy still knows how to brighten up a room," Xander noted to no one in particular.

"You bloody wanker, you wouldn't," Spike said, the tone of his voice indicating he wasn't entirely sure.

"Not if I didn't have to."

Sire and childe glared into each other's eyes, lost in a battle of wills. Finally the younger vampire turned his head away, "then let's do this already," he muttered. Angel nodded, visibly relaxing as he began to unbutton his shirt. "What are you doing?" Spike demanded suspiciously.

"You always were a sloppy eater. I don't plan on letting you destroy what little wardrobe I have left."

Buffy gasped. Sloppy eater? "What's happening?" She demanded, her voice coming out shriller than she intended.

Spike cast an almost amused glance at his sire, "didn't you ever tell her about this?"

Angel shook his head. "Never saw any reason too." His shirt had come off, revealing to the relieved Slayer a pale torso cleansed of all bloodstains.

"Of course you didn't, you old Poof." Spike said contemptuously, his confidence returning, as he seemed to gain some semblance of control. "You were always too busy brooding in the dark, pretending to be something you weren't, to look back at the prettier side of what you were." Angel's eyes flickered with annoyance, but he said nothing.

"And you," Spike turned to the Slayer, humor in his eyes, a sly smirk on his face, "you should really find out as much as you can about who you're so dedicated on destroying. After all, there's more to us then just killing and feeding."

"I'll have to keep that in mind," Buffy murmured, her attention clearly elsewhere.

Spike's glance followed the direction of her look, his eyes skimming over his sire's perfect torso with little surprise, "show off," he muttered. "There's a special bond between sire and childe," he lectured, his voice ripping the teenagers' attention away from the walking miracle. "A bond made of blood and trust. Do you trust me, Angel?"

Buffy swallowed hard, a cold sweat breaking across her body in reaction to Spike's words. Angel crossed his arms across his chest, his legs firmly braced against the polished hardwood table, a true icon of power, "I trust the world to end if you go too far. I trust that you'll writhe in agony in hell if you kill me. So yes, I trust you."

The pale vampire nodded as if expecting nothing less, "that bond allows for certain things, certain truths," he continued smoothly. "In other words, pet," Buffy shuddered as the pale vampire's eyes bore straight into hers, "he's allowing me to see right into his bloody heart. A true honor," he added cynically.

"Can we get on with this?" Angel demanded impatiently.

"Of course," Spike replied calmly, as in one swift motion he lunged at the dark vampire, his face changing only a moment before sinking his fangs deep into his sire's neck.

Buffy gasped with horror. A slender trickle of blood wound its way slowly down Angel's spine, a startling crimson on pale skin. Spike's hands snaked around Angel's body, pulling him closer into his bloody embrace. She could see the slight caressing motion as a hand entwined itself in the soft, dark hair.

The pair twisted, caught together in a drunken dance, yet somehow still graceful as they crushed against each other. Angel's head lifted, his neck fully exposed, his eyes closed and his lips parted in what could have been either torment or pleasure. Buffy could clearly see his fingers clawing at the material of Spike's shirt, ripping long tracks along the pale vampire's back.

A groan rippled across the hushed room, filled with intense desires and emotions that a singular few could understand. The hand across the dark vampire's back drew harder, clawed at pale skin as it demanded more then what simple contact would allow.

There was only the minute warning of golden eyes, flashing for a moment before fangs sank into a pale neck, dark hair mingling intimately with blond. Their bodies both shuddered a moment, shocked at the unexpected violation then pushed even closer together. Hands tearing at soft flesh, hips grinding together with the full force of masculine passion, they moved as one single, undulating body.

Buffy felt hot sweat form on her face, her breath grew heavier, more strained as she watched the vampires move. In a small corner of her mind she wondered what her friends were thinking, how shocked they must be by the vampires' actions, but she was unable to tear her eyes off the pair. Not even to spare a glance their way.

Spike's shirt was in tatters, hanging on his body seemingly by sheer will, blood slightly staining the pale patches of visible skin. Soft suckling sounds broke the tense silence, betraying any illusion of humanity. Spike's knees buckled suddenly, unable to support him under the strain. For a moment it seemed that Angel could hold them both, his more massive girth built for the challenge. Then they toppled, slowly falling, still intimately joined together.

They landed almost gently on their shoulders, clinging to each other a moment before rolling on the floor in a primal contest for dominance. They seemed almost equal in strength for an instant, but the older, more massive vampire finally gained the advantage.

He sprawled over his slimmer childe, his body denying any means of escape as his hips undulated against Spike's body. A slow steady flush crept across Buffy's face, her mind helplessly envisioning herself in Spike's place, her body at once both repulsed and excited by the notion.

Spike's hands drowned in Angel's thick hair, pushing down in open invitation. His legs wrapped around Angel's hips in an almost feminine gesture. Buffy felt her breath catch in her throat as her body began to tremble. I shouldn't want him like this, she thought even as her body reacted involuntarily to the blatant sexual energies, I shouldn't be attracted to the demon in him.

They held still for a moment, a sudden contrast to their frenzied motions, then as one they broke apart, rolling away from each other to gasp for unneeded breath on the floor.

The room was quiet, filled only with the artificial sound of purring neon lights. "Man," Xander muttered, his voice slightly shaking, "I will never look at necking the same way again."

* * *
Chapter Seven

Spike sprawled on the floor, his chest heaving as he gulped unnecessary air, "I've never felt anything like that," he breathed. "It was like nothing I've ever tasted before."

Angel, seemingly already recovered, paused from buttoning his shirt, his trembling hands and a dark stain on his collar silent witnesses to his own inner turmoil. He reached out his hand towards the younger vampire. Wordlessly, with a look of near reverence, Spike clasped it with his own and allowed himself to be helped to his feet.

"What did it taste like?" Buffy asked, more of a need to break the oppressive silence then out of any real interest.

"Were you not listening?" Spike's eyes never left his sire, a newfound respect shining in them. "I just said I never tasted anything like it." He fingered his tattered shirt, "and you said I was the sloppy eater," he said wryly. There was no blame in his voice, only a friendly camaraderie that seemed to flow naturally between them. They were friends before, Buffy thought, the nature of their friendship suddenly a wonder to her.

"Maybe it was because Angel's a man," Willow suggested hesitantly. "And you've probably never, um," she floundered, "tasted a man before."

Spike finally tore his adoring gaze away from his sire to snicker at the timid redhead. "Little girl, I'm a century old amoral vampire. I've TASTED men, women and a full myriad of interesting things in between." He rolled his eyes as the girl took a step back into the protective embrace of her boyfriend. "Now would somebody who knows what they're talking about please talk?"

"What did it feel like?" Angel asked quietly. His stance was calm, his stained shirt the only evidence that something had happened.

"Alive," Spike replied, awe bouncing off his voice. "Raw and powerful, like a Slayer's only more earthy." Buffy swallowed hard, forcefully turning her mind away from the thought of how Spike would know that. "Older then anything I've ever felt before," he went on, "what you'd feel like if you'd lived a hundred times your lifetime." His time in hell, Buffy thought. How old was he now? "But somehow still alive." He said the last with a childish sort of wonder.

"Can you tell me who I am?" Angel asked intently, his dark eyes boring into his childe's.

Spike shook his head, "I'm sorry, mate. I couldn't even begin to guess. You're a bit like the way you used to be, before, when you still had a spine. Only this time your soul was still there," he made a face even as Buffy breathed her relief. Of course his soul was still there. She tried to glare at Xander, but he wasn't looking her way. "It's almost like you're everything rolled up into one," he shook his head again. "I don't know who you are."

Angel nodded, his gaze falling to the floor, his shoulders slumped with defeat. Wordlessly he turned and walked towards the swinging wooden doors. "Angel!" Buffy called out after him. She didn't know what to say, but she knew she couldn't let him leave like this. He didn't even pause at the sound of her voice as he left the library.

They stood in stunned silence for a moment as the heartbroken Slayer blinked back her tears. "You can't let him run around like this!" Xander finally spluttered, "he's out of his mind, you don't know what he might do out there." Buffy shook her head helplessly, the words choking in her throat.

Spike nodded, "Hell has just frozen over." They stared at him and he sighed, "you've been living on the hell-mouth for too long, kiddies. What I mean is I agree with the idiot child over there." Xander flushed, but kept his mouth shut. "I could feel the madness in him, pet," he told Buffy. "It's different then it was before, after you gave him his happy, but he isn't in full control."

"But his soul..." She started.

"Is in there with a mind that's out of control and a demon howling for blood," Spike shook his head, "all mixed together somehow. He can't be left alone." Buffy nodded lamely and went after the pale vampire into the cool night.

"I could have told her that," Xander muttered as the Slayer and vampire left.

"And it would have been just as effective," his girlfriend patronized.

"How do you know which way he went?" Buffy demanded after a few minutes of following Spike at a brisk walk.

"I don't," he replied.

"Then where are we going?"

"To see the elders."

Buffy stopped in her tracks, allowing the pale vampire to continue a few more paces, "excuse me?"

Spike turned slowly, "to see the elders," he repeated, annunciating each word. "I have no intention on chaperoning a who-knows-how-old vampire."

She stared at him, "but all the stuff that you said..."

"Which is exactly the reason why we're going to see the elders."

"But you said he couldn't be left alone!"

He rolled his eyes, "why me?" He asked the moon. It glowed on, ignoring him entirely. "Try to keep up with the story line, luv. I exaggerated."


He breathed deeply and closed his eyes, calling on every bit of patience his demon had to offer. It didn't. "Because," he grated, "I didn't feel like explaining myself to your yapping friends." He held up his hand to cut off any more questions. "I met with Dru after she saw Angel. She told me he wasn't right in the head." A delicate eyebrow lifted questioningly. "Well not in so many words," he added reluctantly, "but I got the general idea. Anyway, that's why I went to see you in the first place, pet, to tell you that this has gone on long enough. We need to bring in some more help."

She thought about it, about Angel's reactions, his mood swings. "If this is a trap," she started.

He groaned, "do we REALLY need to go through this again, Slayer?"

She shook her head, "lead the way." He gave her a feral grin that almost made her wish she had staked him that first night outside the Bronze.

They walked to the outskirts of town where Spike's car was waiting, parked in the shadows.

"You're kidding," Buffy said, eyeing the filthy vehicle suspiciously, "we walked all this way for THIS?"

He shrugged as he creaked open the rusty door, "can't park it in the city. Officials keep calling it a hazard of some kind and tow it away."

"Gee, I wonder why," she muttered balefully, glaring at the blackened windshield. "Clean much?" She asked, kicking a half-empty vodka bottle out from under her feet.

He sighed, this was going to be a long ride.

"Spike," she said after several long moments of silence, "that thing you did with Angel tonight. Did you guys do that before?"

He risked a glance her way, noting how young and fragile she looked in the darkness, "we're vampires, pet." He said as if that explained everything. After several moments of silence he realized she was expecting more than that as an answer. "He's my sire," he finally added.

"Think you can speak in longer sentences?" She asked irritably, "four words or more should do fine."

"Didn't you two ever talk?" He retorted, "or did you just mumble around each other's tongues?"

Her green eyes narrowed dangerously, "oh yeah, we talked," she replied acidly. "About saving the world, keeping ourselves and others nice and safe, from you among other things. You know the usual couple lovey-dovey stuff. Guess we just never found the time to reminisce."

He laughed, much to her chagrin, "yeah right, the Poof probably never liked to talk about his past, would ruin his image as the Slayer's pet vampire." Buffy bit back a growl, the platinum haired vampire had an annoying talent of cutting straight to the truth. "I will tell you this, though," Spike added, his voice suddenly filled with memories. "He was different then, not like you knew him after his soul flew away."

"Different how?" She asked, suddenly filled with curiosity.

"He wasn't bleeding mad, for starters," Spike replied quickly, reminding Buffy that he too had suffered when Angel had changed. "He also wasn't as power hungry. Knew how to relax, enjoy the little things in life. A good show in London, a carriage ride around Paris at night, a nice all-you-can-eat brothel in Amsterdam." He sighed reflectively, "those were the days. We cut through Europe like we owned it, but then he had to go and eat a Gypsy." His pale face clouded at the memory, "I told him not to, you know. I said: 'Angelus, leave the bloody Gypsies alone, they're bad for you.' What with all that magic and warped beliefs, who knew what they could be carrying." His voice turned strangely parental, reminding her slightly of her mother telling her to go do her homework or Giles saying she ought to be patroling. The thought evoked a smile out of the Slayer despite his words. "But did he listen? Oh no, Angelus always knew better than everyone else. I thought he was dead till that night at the high school. Nearly killed poor Dru, it did."

"Really?" Buffy asked, biting back the humor in her voice at the last second. He seemed to catch it anyway and looked at her, searching for signs of mockery in her features. "Watch the rode!" She hissed as the car swerved dangerously close to the gutter.

"Yes, really," he said once the car moved more securely on the dark, beaten track. "She was never the same after he was gone. That night, when the mob nearly killed her in Prague, I always thought she did it on purpose. She killed a hooker in the middle of a street full of people," he said, catching her curious look, "didn't even try to run away. I found her half dead and bleeding, they beat her so bad it took her a full year to walk again." His face changed as his demon awakened at the memory, "they probably left her thinking she was dead, the bloody bastards," he hissed through sharp, angry fangs, "she was never the same, though. Lost her will to live." He chanced a quick look at the hushed Slayer, "she loved him, you know."

Yes, I know, Buffy thought. Despite all he ever did to her she probably loved him more than she could ever love you. She still does. "How old are the elders?" She asked quickly, needing to change the subject.

He laughed, his face shifting back to his human mask. "Well them being called elders in a race that's supposed to live forever is a bit of a hint," he said as Buffy swallowed nervously. "I'll put it to you this way, luv. Remember the master?" She nodded, her face clouding at the memory. She still had nightmares about him. "Well, when he wasn't even a glint on his sire's fangs they were still known as the elders. Helpful enough?" She nodded, cold sweat breaking out at the thought of ageless demons wanting to see her.

"Any special thing I'm supposed to know or do when I see them?" She asked casually, relieved to hear that her voice wasn't quaking.

He nodded, his sly smile bright against the car's inky darkness, "you know that thing that you insist on doing whenever there're vampires around?"

"You mean Slaying?"

"Yeah that. Well don't," he said flatly.

"I seriously hate you," she told him dryly. His only reply was a bright smile.

He stopped the car a few minutes later. Buffy looked around noting the dark, bleak woods surrounding them. "This isn't gonna be one of those oops-I-ran-out-of-gas situations, is it?" She asked suspiciously.

He glared at her, "I'm not here to satisfy your fantasies, luv. Although," he looked her up and down suggestively, "when this is all over, who knows?"

A stake appeared as if by magic in her hand, "I'd love to see you try," she purred, her fingers caressing the stake lightly, seductively. "Then I might finally be able to stick this were it belongs."

His eyes narrowed, glinting sparks of repressed violence, "we walk a bit from here," he said roughly, turning brusquely to lead the way without waiting to see if she followed. She chuckled to herself then scrambled after the irritated vampire before he disappeared from her sight completely.

They walked in silence for several minutes, a nervousness building in Buffy's gut. She was a city girl at heart; concrete, cars and pollution made her feel at home. The unfamiliar woods seemed sinister, filled with strange sounds and a gaping darkness. Branches snagged at her clothes, jutting roots reached to trip her feet and once she thought she saw a pair of eyes glimmering in the forest's depth. She turned her head to look, but it was gone. A kind of panic began to claw at her and she found herself biting down on her lips to keep from screaming. She locked her eyes on Spike's back, his confident strides slightly reassuring her, and kept moving through the forest and through her fears.

He finally stopped at the edge of a clearing, she could see campfires pushing away the darkness just over Spike's shoulders, dark undecipherable figures sat huddled near those fires. He glanced down at himself and frowned. His tattered shirt clung to his body with mere will power and dried blood speckled the cloth. "This won't do," he muttered, discarding the offending material, leaving him standing half-naked in the darkness.

Buffy took in his slender form, trying not to stare. His frame was lean and sleek, the body of an acrobat. His smooth, pale chest seemed silken in the moonlight, muscles rippled as he moved holding promises of both power and tenderness. Light scratches marred his perfection across his back, in Buffy's eyes they were a lover's mark branding him to his sire.

With a confidence innate to his nature he stepped out into the clearing, immediately commanding the attention of all saw him. "Who goes there?" A harsh voice demanded. Buffy hung back, waiting to see how this would turn out.

"Use your eyes, you bloody twit!" Spike's annoyed response floated through the darkness.

"I said, who goes there," the voice rasped, a tell tale sign of words slithering through sharp fangs.

The faint sounds of a scuffle sounded, the nauseating pounding of flesh against bone, "they're waiting for me," Spike said pleasantly. "And they're not really known as a patient lot. So why don't you play your little soldier games later and go fetch me a clean shirt so I can go and see them properly." A strangled, outraged groan sounded and then the wet slap of flesh against bloodied flesh. Buffy swallowed hard, thankful her eyes hadn't adjusted to the scant light just yet. "That's a good bloke," Spike encouraged as the figure scuttled off.

Several moments later the figure returned grunting meaningless apologies and handed Spike a dark cloth. Spike sniffed at it disdainfully, "not exactly Versace, but it'll do. Come along, pet," he said as he began walking into the clearing, pulling the shirt over his head.

She scrambled after him, intensely feeling many pairs of vampire eyes boring into them, their undead aura making the delicate hairs on the nape of her neck stand on end. She swallowed down her nervousness and stayed close to Spike, subconsciously imitating his confident gate and his proud stance.

Vampires thrive on fear, Angel had once explained to her. If you show them you're not afraid you're already one step ahead. One step isn't bad, she thought, although two-three or several thousand would probably be a hell of a lot better. There were too many vampires here, she could sense them all around her. The knowledge that should they attack she would be virtually helpless kept her off her usual balance.

They crossed the clearing, reaching a natural rock wall, its top lost amid trees and night skies. He headed towards a small opening in the rock guarded by two fierce-looking vampires. "Spike," one of them grunted by way of acknowledgment, stepping aside to let them pass.

"Nice to be recognized," Spike muttered. "I had to teach one of your more cheeky fledglings some manners."

The guard sighed ruefully, "children today," he said thoughtfully, "they've got no respect for their elders. I hope you didn't hurt him too bad, though, we might need him later."

Spike shrugged, "should be up and about in a week or so. In the meantime his aches and pains will give him something to think about." Buffy heard the guard's approving grunt as they stepped into the crevice.

The crevice opened up to a long twisting corridor. Hallways gaped at their sides as they walked, some dark with gritty stone floors, others well lit, soft luxurious carpeting offering an open invitation. Spike passed them as though they never existed, choosing the long, spiraling corridor instead. Torchlight flickered brightly at regular intervals between heavy tapestries. "This isn't just a temporary camp, is it?" Buffy asked shrewdly, her eyes skimming across the magnificent works of art as she walked. Knights fought bravely against hideous beasts while ladies swooned gently across fields of silk and gold.

"No, it's not," he replied.

"Then what's to stop me from coming here when this is all over and..."

"Torch the place down?" He completed dryly. She nodded although his back was to her. It was a stupid question, she knew that. One of those 'I know you're the killer, I'm alone and defenseless, but I'm still going to tell you I know you're the killer' type of cheap horror movie questions. But Spike was bright enough to have reached her conclusions on his own. "I wanted to blind fold you," he told her. "But they asked me not to. They said it was a matter of trust. They were very insistent about that."

Trust, she mused. There were far too many vampires aching for her trust lately.

"They also said they wanted you to feel welcome," Spike went on.

That was just too much. She nearly laughed out loud at that. Her nerves were hypersensitive as it was at the proximity of so many vampires in one closed space. Vampire niceties were not going to change anything. "Won't you step into my parlor? Said the spider to the fly," she murmured.

He stopped to look at her, torchlight playing wild shadows across his pale, sharp features, his deep eyes unfathomable. "They just want to talk, pet," he said. It was as close to comfort as she would get from him.

They moved on, Buffy slowly stroking the soothingly smooth wood of the stake tucked snuggly in her sleeve as she walked. She didn't really expect to use it, but its familiar weight was a source of comfort.

Spike finally stopped before a closed wooden door, "Ready?" He asked.

"No, not really," she replied. He pushed the door open. "Great to see that that matters somehow," she muttered.

The room was large, though not intimidatingly so, a roaring fire filled the hearth, its colors playfully gleaming off the bright tapestries on the walls. The carpeting was lush, inviting bare feet to walk across its soft surface. A library, such as Giles would have been proud to own, rested against the far wall. A dark haired man leaned against the library, his attention riveted to the book in his hands. Several others lounged around the room talking softly or reading. No one seemed to have noticed their arrival.

Spike cleared his throat politely, immediately earning him the attention of six pairs of eyes. "Ah, William," the man leaning against the library said delightedly, his voice heavily laced with an alien accent. He closed his book with a dusty thump and set it on a shelf.

Spike bowed unselfconsciously bringing a surprised smirk to Buffy's lips. Spike was not the sort to bow down to anyone without feeling even the slightest discomfort. No matter how well he hid it. "I bring you Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," he said formally.

Buffy immediately squared her shoulders and lifted a defiant chin, she would bow down to no one. Especially if they had vampire in their title. She could feel her skin prickle as the elders watched her silently. "I thought she'd be bigger," the raven haired one finally said.

"Yeah, I kind of get that a lot," Buffy replied awkwardly.

 "Thank you William, you have done us a great service today," a pale woman sitting near the hearth said softly, her soft blonde hair gleaming in the firelight. Her voice was resonant, floating about the room with the strange accent of a forgotten language. "You may leave now."

Spike's eyes widened with surprise, "leave? But I..."

"Return to Sunnydale," the dark haired elder said softly. This was a man who didn't need to shout or order to get his way, his soft-spoken words were enough of a command. Buffy could feel the power emanating from him, from all of them. More powerful than the master had ever been, but different. The sense of awful malevolence that she had always associated with him didn't exist here. Her knees began to tremble. "Tend to your maddened lover," there was no reproach in his voice, but Spike winced all the same. "We will see that the Slayer returns safely."

Spike nodded and quickly left the room, leaving Buffy standing vulnerable and alone with the six vampire elders. She had hated Spike before, had attempted to kill him more than once. But she had never ached to see him a pile of dust at her feet as much as she did at that moment. "Sit, child," the pale woman said gently, "make yourself comfortable."

"That's not really likely to happen," Buffy replied, putting on a bold front. Never let them see you sweat, that way you're one step ahead. "I'd rather stand, thank you." The power radiating off them was incredible, it made the master seem like a fledgling. The pale woman nodded with supplication. She seemed young, a woman in her early twenties, but Buffy was enough of a veteran not to fall for that. After all, she had missed her boyfriend's bicentennial on account of not having been born. "You wanted to see me," she stated, hoping to speed things along.

The dark elder nodded, seeming to catch her mood, "there are things you must know so you may be able to destroy the impending evil."

A few things clicked in Buffy's mind, things she would have guessed long before had she not been distracted. That bleached blond little shit, she thought irritably, ignoring her own status as a not-entirely-natural-blonde. He was in league with these people from the very start. "You're the ones who gave Spike the way to get Angel out of hell," she said with wonder.

The elders shared a knowing look, "she is brighter than she looks," one commented dryly. Buffy's hand fondled her stake gently.

"Yes," the dark elder, which seemed to be their leader confirmed, "the coming of the Evil One holds great threat to all our lives. We had no choice but to be involved."

"The Evil One?"

"You know her as Cirta, the one who existed before man." Buffy nodded and he went on. "She was also known as the mother of the demon race and she ruled them all with an iron fist."

Although she was basically familiar with the outline of the story, Buffy couldn't help but shudder. "What happened?" She found herself asking, a child drawn to a bedtime story.

"In due time man came," the elder continued, his deep blue eyes dancing with amusement at her question. "And with them, as demon and human blood mingled, the lesser of the demon race. The vampires, the werewolves, half-demons, lesser monsters and nameless creatures which have become extinct over the ages. They were abhorrent in her eyes, an abomination. She made them into slaves, servants to her every whim, to be destroyed or spared at her wish. Eventually the humans and lesser demons rose up to destroy her."

The bitterness in his voice made Buffy tremble, "did you see it happen?"

This time his amusement couldn't be contained in his eyes alone, "ah, child," he laughed out loud, "how aged we must seem to you." He shook his head at the flustered Slayer, "this was long before our time. Long enough in fact to be forgotten by most races of man and demon."

Buffy inhaled deeply, trying to will away the flush that had spread across her face at the elder's ringing laughter. "I take it they weren't able to destroy her, seeing as she's still our problem," she said coldly. She was NOT about to make friends with a group of ancient vampires, no matter how nice they were to her.

He shook his head, "no. Even as a group they lacked the power. Instead they came together to lock her under the most powerful curse that had ever been used."

"So the lock broke?"

The elder seemed uncomfortable suddenly, "a series of events occurred, the hell-mouth breaking open, a righteous soul passing through. These events lessened the curse."

Buffy could feel the ever present guilt grab hold of her heart, "but she's not free yet."

"No, but she will be. With the single act of freeing the demon Angelus from hell all restraints have nearly been lifted."

Buffy shook her head, "I don't understand. Then why would you want to free Angel if that's what breaks the curse?"

The pale woman gently touched her dark companion's shoulder, "he must be the one to destroy her completely," she said softly, easing the young Slayer into the bitter truth. "Had we not broken her curse her minions alone would have torn the earth apart."

"How could they walk around while she's still," she floundered, "locked," she said lamely.

The dark elder spoke, his blue eyes serious, "when Angelus was sent to hell a certain amount of her power returned, certain parts of the curse became void. Her minions are nothing but animated demon corpses without a brain between them. They have the power to live a single night with the strength of a lifetime. She has an endless number of them at her disposal and together they have the power to rend the fabric of our lives apart."

"Then how's Angel supposed to stop her once she's freed?"

The elders shared an uncomfortable look, wrenching a horrible suspicion into Buffy's mind. "She wants him, Buffy," the dark elder finally said. "She wants him as her own, as her equal," as her lover. "When she has him, that will free her completely."

"Well she can't have him," Buffy heard the hysteria hovering over the edges of her voice.

The elder ignored her, "when she has him," he said firmly, "only then will he be able to destroy her."

"She can't have him!" She yelled, her panic ringing true.

"She will have him when you lie to him." Buffy's breath caught in her throat. "When you tell him you don't love him, that you could never love him. It will tear him apart and then she shall have him."

Lie to him, betray him. But she had sworn never again. Righteous anger engulfed her, filled her with its familiar strength. "Who do you think you are?" She demanded, her voice trembling slightly. Her body moved unconsciously to her battle stance, although they hadn't threatened her. Her eyes flashed green fire, "who the hell do you think you are to tell me to do this?" She screamed, her rage an undeniable force.

A meaningful look passed between the elders, a question asked and answered, a decision made. "We are Watchers," the dark elder finally said.

* * *
Chapter Eight

We are Watchers. Buffy felt as though someone had pulled the plug on her emotions as all the anger seeped out to be replaced by confusion. Her mind reeled in mental summersaults in a futile attempt to keep up. How could they possibly be Watchers? She'd met Watchers and they had a tendency of being stuffy middle-aged British men with a disturbing affinity for tweed. By a stretch of her imagination she could probably believe that there were black Watchers, maybe even women Watchers. And who knew, the council might even keep non-tweed wearing Watchers on the sidelines just to keep things interesting. But demon Watchers? That was pushing things a bit too far. She would bet her life that the council had a strict policy against something like that. Then again, she could have betted her life that she was the only Slayer in her generation. "Huh?" She finally managed to utter. Over all she was quite proud of her reaction.

The elders watched her carefully, assessing her emotions and reactions, "did you know that nothing in this world has true immortality?" The dark vampire asked.

She stared at him, "try signaling before taking sharp conversational turns," she said acidly. "You lost me."

A shadow of a smile flickered across his pale face and was gone before Buffy could even be sure it was there in the first place. His blue eyes, however, glimmered with humor, "point taken. However, if you bear with me for a bit I'm sure things will become clearer." Yeah, I doubt that, Buffy thought. If anything she had never felt so confused in her life. "Nothing is truly immortal," he repeated, "not man, not the earth, not even demons, although they claim to be. What happens to a body whose demon dies, Slayer? What happens to all the power suffused in its once living cells?" She shook her head wordlessly, a terrible suspicion crawling through her bewildered brain. The dark elder crossed the room with feline grace, not quite invading Buffy's personal space, but way too close for comfort. "Does it die?" He hissed, "does it become a walking, soulless corpse? A ghoul? Or does it get its soul back and live happily ever after?"

Cold sweat began to drip down Buffy's spine, her throat clenched with dry fear as she stared at the elder with wide-eyed horror. "Gerrico!" The cry sounded like a command. The dark elder immediately tensed as the pale woman strode over with a warrior's gate. "Stop it, you're scaring the child," she said more softly.

Gerrico nodded, "I apologize," he said smoothly. "I wanted you to be aware of the questions we have been trying to answer over time." So much time, he left unsaid.

"Your demon's died?" The Slayer asked with wonder, searching Gerrico's face for an answer. He nodded. "Your soul, is it..."

"Not as far as I can tell," he replied gruffly turning away from her toward the fireplace.

She shook her head, this day was just too shock filled for her fragile state of mind. Confusion always linked its way back to anger in her mind, and although her reason knew it was stupid, her mouth already formed a verbal assault. "So your demon dies and you're thinking what to do with all the time you have left and come up with Watcher?" Her body tensed awaiting a violent reaction at her distrust, "I don't think so."

Gerrico smiled, "it wasn't quite that simple. But first you must consider; is a demon incapable of love? Is a man with a soul instantly devoid of evil? Where is the line drawn between a soul and a mind?" Buffy swallowed hard thinking of Spike's tenderness towards Drusilla and human abominations she had the misfortune to encounter. "Nothing is completely black or white, Slayer. We live in a world of gray and it is that world we ache to preserve."

"But Watchers?"

A look passed between Gerrico and the pale woman, one of hurtful memories and absolute trust. "Go ahead, Gammina," Gerrico conceded. "You tell it better anyway."

Gammina nodded and as she moved away from the fire Buffy noticed that her pale hair was a near white, drawing a veil of age over her otherwise youthful features. "A long time after our demons died we wandered, searching for a purpose. Most died along the way, unable to live without the powerful emotions and cruel reason that the demon had to offer." Buffy sensed rather then heard the faint rush of longing in Gammina's voice. "Few joined us, the idea of a lonely life terrifying them into instant trust. In time we became a family of sorts, avoiding both vampires and mankind, for we truly belonged to neither."

Gammina's pale features gleamed in the firelight, her beauty magnified with golden shadows. Buffy pushed down a pang of jealousy, she was beautiful and would remain so for the rest of her life. "It was pure chance that Anna stumbled along our way, beaten and dying, a little girl whose family had been killed by vampires."

"And you saved her," Buffy stated firmly, starting to understand where this was going.

Gerrico nodded, "and you can't help wondering why. How can a soulless being feel compassion? Why would a former demon help save a child of a race he once slaughtered?" His voice was tinged with unfathomable sadness, an old loss. "The answer, like most things is simpler than it appears. Life, in all its forms, is a precious thing. Especially to ones such as ourselves."

Buffy nodded, willing to accept. "And so we helped her," Gammina went on as though Gerrico's interruption had never occurred. "And we watched as wounds she had no chance of surviving healed quickly, as her body grew stronger than it should have."

"She was a Slayer," Buffy said softly, her own protective instincts awakened for a child Slayer that had long since died.

"She was a Slayer," Gammina confirmed. Gerrico turned away from them unwilling or unable to listen to the rest of the story. "They were nothing more than a myth back then, a story used to scare fledgling vampires at the break of dawn. But there were female children whose blood was infused with power, and there were vampire hunters who set out to find those children believing that drinking from them would make them strong." Gammina shook her head sadly, "We had always believed that that was what happened to Anna and her family. How the child managed to survive is still a mystery."

"They died quickly back then, some never survived the first week after they were called." Gerrico said, suppressed sorrow sliding off his voice. "Some never even realized they had been called before they died."

Buffy suppressed a shudder, thinking how easily that could have happened to her, had the Watcher's council never approached her. "She hated vampires with a vengeance, every one of them a direct reminder to those who had murdered her family. Yet she stayed with us after she healed, despite her knowing what we were, what we used to be," a soft smile played upon Gammina's delicate lips. "She was a true creature of contradiction. We did what we could for her, we taught her to fight, to kill, and to become the woman of power she was destined to be. We researched for her, becoming the first Watchers in history." Ironic much? Buffy thought looking at the former demons. "She became the most formidable Slayer in history, the demons she slew never standing a chance against a force such as her. She died shortly after her first grandchild was born, her family all around her."

Gerrico turned to stare at the flames, his blue eyes lost in memories. He loved her, Buffy realized with a flash of insight. "How long ago was this?" She asked.

"Nearly two millennia ago," Gammina replied softly. She glanced over at the hurting elder with compassion in her eyes, "her death pains him still."

They stood in respectful silence for several moments while Buffy's mind churned over the implications of a Slayer raised by former demons. Then a single frightening thought banished away all others. "Does Giles know?" She demanded, her voice sounding shrill in the hushed room.

Gammina shook her head, "very few of the council know of our existence. At first Anna's daughters and their families became the first human Watchers, despite her wishes," her eyes gentled at the memory. "They were quite possibly as stubborn as she was. Later, as the bloodline dwindled, we found it necessary to pull apart from the council, remaining in contact with few of its high-ranking members." She shook her head, her white-blonde hair gleaming brightly, "the irony of fighting demons while led by ones such as ourselves was too great for some to accept."

"So you've remained in contact from afar," Buffy said, trying not to think about Giles and what this information would do to him. "Helping only when you found it necessary, which would of course, explain what you're doing in a camp full of vampires with their demons firmly intact."

"It was the lesser of two evils," Gerrico said dangerously, his eyes flashing blue fire. Be careful of this one, Buffy's mind demanded. "This way we also gained a place in vampire society, guiding their actions as well as the council's in preparation for this day."

"You knew this day was coming?" Buffy accused.

Gerrico nodded, "Angelus' name was written in the skies long before he had even been born. It has always been his destiny to free the Evil One, destroying her is a different matter altogether."

"He must choose to destroy her," Gammina chimed in, drawing Buffy's attention away from the elder's hypnotic blue eyes. "Of his own free will. But he must also have the power to do it and that can come only of Cirta herself."

"At the present his will is fragile, worn away by grief and trauma. She aches to empower him, to corrupt him, to make him her own. She must be allowed to do so, it is the only way he will be able to gain the power he needs for her destruction."

Buffy's will seemed to crumble away to dust under the force of the elder's gazes, "I can't," she whispered.

"But he will grow stronger," Gerrico boomed on regardless of her small protest. "His love for you will sustain him, bringing death to us all. That is why he must believe in your unlove for him, he must fall into Cirta's embrace while he is at his weakest."

"I can't," her voice couldn't even carry across the room.

"You must betray him or the world will become what it once was and all will be lost."

"I can't!" Her cry echoed through the room stunning them all into momentary silence.

"But you will," Gammina stated firmly, coldly, all traces of her former compassion evaporated as though it had never existed. "You are the Slayer. It is not WHAT you are, it is WHO you are. That choice was made long ago. You are defined by it as easily as it is defined by you. This betrayal is a part of that choice that you have made as you condemned your lover to hell."

She shook her head wildly, blindly, golden locks flailing about her pale face. She needed direction, she needed to talk to Giles. The thought of her Watcher brought cold fear into her heart. He gave his adult life to the council, finding out that it was led by demons from the start could destroy him, "Giles, my Watcher," she started.

"Telling your Watcher of this is your choice to make," Gerrico said indifferently. "Keep in mind, however, that he too is needed to guide us through these times."

"I need time to think about this," she gasped, struggling to control her jumbled thoughts.

Gammina nodded, compassion returning to her eyes, erasing all traces of her former callousness. "Choose quickly, Slayer. Time is slipping away for all of us. Someone will be waiting outside to take you back to Sunnydale."

Buffy nodded, realizing she was dismissed. With her shoulders slumped and her spirit crushed she made her way out the room.


Angel paced the mansion restlessly. His impatient body moved with feline grace as he crossed the dimly lit room for the umpteenth time that evening. Thoughts raced through his feverish mind, fragments of memory and illusion as he tried to dismiss what his body demanded, what his mind cried out for, what his soul ached.

The taste of Spike's blood was still on his lips, tantalizing him, seducing him all the more. He hadn't even thought of taking his childe's blood, but the feel of Spike's mouth on his neck, the pressure of Spike's body against his own and the sight of his smooth, pale neck just begging to be plundered was more then he could handle. And, of course, there were the memories. It wasn't the first time they had done something like that, although the last time was lost in ancient memory.

He continued pacing, his body moving with deadly grace as he tried to shrug away temptation. He didn't want Spike's blood, he'd had enough of that. He wanted someone else's. Someone living.

"You cannot dismiss what you are!" The voice sounded in the confines of his mind. He froze, his foot stopping in mid pace giving him the appearance of a startled ballet dancer. "You are a demon, take pride in that!"

Angel snarled, his shock won over by rage at the intrusion into his mind. "Who are you?" He demanded, his face slipping into that of a demon.

The voice sounded amused, though no less commanding, "you know me Angelus!" It boomed, "I was the earth shuddering at the day of your birth and I was the sky weeping at the sight of your death. I watched you walk the earth and writhe in hell. I am yours as you are mine!"

The dark vampire shook his head in denial as his eyes sought out a physical threat. His fists clenched as his body tensed, a soft deadly growl oozed out of his throat promising a painful death to the one who dared to do this.

"I dare, Angelus!" The voice cried out with ecstasy. "You are mine and I dare! I dare to grant you power!" The voice rose to an unbearable crescendo. "I dare to give you the world!" Angel dropped to his knees, his eyes and mouth clenched tightly shut, his hands clasped against his ears in a futile attempt to block out the deafening roar from his mind. "And all I want in return is you!"

Blood began to drip through his fingers, his eyes felt as though they would burst. "No!" He grated through lips wounded by his own fangs. He had no reason to object other than for objection's sake. He would not submit to anyone like this, the demon in him refused it as well as the man.

He could feel a flicker of annoyance at his renunciation, "I gave you life!" The voice cried out, "And now I give you power!"

He could feel his blood begin to boil as power coursed its way through his veins. His elbows connected with the floor effectively curling him up into a defensive shell as an incessant fire burned through his body. "CAN YOU FEEL IT?" The voice rose higher into the realms of insanity as Angel screamed out his agony. "CAN YOU FEEL THE POWER?"

The sky engulfed him, he could feel it tearing into him, demanding him even as the earth pulled him back down, claiming him as its own. He was torn, caught in a tug of war between two divine entities that could rip him to shreds. He shrieked with fear, a wounded animal unable to control his reactions. "YOU HAVE THE POWER. COMMAND THEM AND THEY SHALL BE YOURS!"

"Enough!" He cried out. Thunder roared furiously and the ground shook, but the tug of war on his mind stopped. A slow, feral smile spread across his pallid features. Tentatively he reached out his mind towards the heavens and laughed as thunder crashed about him in reward. Somewhere in the distance windows shattered and car alarms wailed. He reached towards the earth and felt it shudder with expectant lust under his touch.

With a cry that would have sent a brave man crashing fearfully to his knees he took them both at once. Power flowed through him with a force that would have torn a lesser man apart. His skin glowed as sky and earth submitted to his will, allowing him to do with them as he pleased. With a wild snarl he ran out the mansion into the sudden downpour of the Sunnydale night.

The hunter roamed the dark streets of the Sunnydale night, his golden, predatory eyes glimmering in the harsh electric lights. Hard rain cooled his feverish body, the violent downpour embracing him with an ethereal veil of silvery illusion.

The hunter moved with deadly grace, rain sliding off him as though it was nonexistent. His senses were attuned with the night, as befitting a creature of darkness such as he, searching, aching for a victim.

His body slid into a crouch as a familiar scent hit his senses, his fingers curling into lethal claws. He recognized that scent for what it was; weakness and fear, a human knowing it was threatened on the most primal of senses, a sentient mind regressing instinctively into prey. A snarl escaped the hunter's taut lips, a vibrant eagerness sizzling through his body at the prospect of attacking, of giving chase, of the first lethal lunge that would end a life at his hands.

He started to run, his eagerness for the kill, the taste of warm blood overcoming caution. A harsh electric light caught his golden eyes, exposing the animalistic frenzy hidden within the hunter's soul. He passed a corner and froze, his face lifting slightly, as he tasted the night air. There was another hunter out this night, a challenging snarl escaped his lips at the thought of his prey being snatched away from him.

The consenting growl soothed away the tension in his hard body. An almost soft smile played across the hunter's lips. He knew this other hunter and was gladdened for he would not need to hunt alone this night.

They moved as one, although they could not see each other in the rain, silent predators hunting a weakened prey. Between the two of them there would be no chase this night, but that was also for the best, as the demand for the taste of blood grew fiercer in the dark hunter's heightened awareness.

Through the silvery veil of rain he could see his prey, old and defeated yet living nonetheless. The hunters lunged as one, an unspoken thought guiding their actions, moving them like choreographed dancers in the complex ballet of life and death.

They attacked from either side, their victim moaned once with denial before succumbing to the hunters' superior strength. Locked firmly by the two predators, pressed against them from either side as the rain slithered down their bodies, he understood in a primitive part of his mind that he was already lost. To an outside observer they would look in the distance like a single body undulating madly in their bloody, deadly orgy. The two hunters latched on to their victim's throat, pale hair mingling lecherously with dark as a human life played the buffer in their wicked passions.

Their dying prey snapped his eyes open to look death in the face. In a single moment of clarity as the blood drained from his body through twin wounds he looked upon the face of his destruction and cried out with awe at the golden, animalistic eyes that stared back. In that moment all the legends and myths of his childhood came floating back and he wept as he became a believer.

None of that mattered to the hunter as the life-blood of another filled his mouth and coursed through his veins. It was stale and tepid, the blood of an old man, but it was filled with the sweet compensation of life and terror. And the long forgotten closeness of his brother to the hunt was worth the imperfect prey. He could feel the strong pulse weakening under his ministrations, fluttering slower before coming to a dead halt.

Only then did the lifeless corpse drop to the ground in a discarded heap of wasted life. The hunters gazed at each other, the hard rain plastering their hair to their heads, their clothes to their bodies. It cleaned the blood smeared across their faces, wiped away all evidence of a crime. There was still ferocious exultation in the golden, demonic eyes, an unnatural ecstasy of a life taken for the simple pleasure of another.

White lightning blazed fiercely above their heads, to be followed moments later by crashing thunder. The pale hunter blinked, blinded momentarily by nature's pyrotechnics, then frowned irritably as he looked upon the horrified face of his former brother to the hunt.

"Oh my God," Angel whispered, his sickened human eyes locked unto the lifeless corpse at his feet. He took an involuntary step back, his head shaking in futile attempt to deny what he had done. "Oh my God!"

Spike shook his head with disgust, his face slipping back into his human mask as he watched his revolted sire. "There is no God here!" He hissed through clenched teeth.

"No!" Angel cried, his feet moving back, instinctively seeking escape. He tripped over a pile of garbage and fell with a crash on the wet refuse, still unable to take his eyes off the murdered victim.

"Yes!" Spike growled. "This is what you are, accept that!"

The dark vampire shook his head in denial, violently forcing himself to look into the face of his angered childe. The rain weakened into a soft drizzle, bouncing happily off the vampires. "I can't accept it." He looked back at the lifeless body, his face contorted with nausea, "not this!"

"You're still as pathetic as you used to be!" Spike accused watching the play of emotions across his sire's face. "Just get out of here, you old poof!"

"What about...?" Angel nudged his head towards their victim.

"We were never here," Spike instructed. "The Slayer will stake my ass for this if she finds out."

"Buffy..." Another wave of panic rushed through Angel's expressive features.

Spike rolled his eyes, "tell her what you want, mate. As for me, I was never here." He walked away muttering in disgruntlement as the telltale sounds of retching echoed in his sharp ears.


Buffy stared listlessly out the car window watching the rain, her head banging slightly against the glass at every bump in the road. Her driver had turned out to be a tight-lipped middle-aged vampire that kept a wary distance from her by keeping the glass between the front seat and the back firmly shut.

More than anything in the world she ached to tell Giles about what she had learned. She wanted him to listen carefully as he poured her some hot tea from that thermos he always carried around, and fed her those moldy biscuits he liked so much. Crumpets, she mentally corrected herself, smiling softly at the thought of the indignant expression on his imagined face at her crude error. Most of all she wanted him to open up one of his musty old tomes and find a solution to her problems, preferably one that allowed her to beat the crap out of a certain Evil One, a.k.a. Cirta.

But she couldn't tell him anything, the thought of the hurt she would see in his intelligent gray eyes cut her to the quick. Was it a betrayal to deny someone information that would hurt them? She mused, chewing thoughtfully on a lock of golden hair. The problem, well one of them anyway, was that not telling Giles immediately excluded telling anyone else. Xander was too prejudiced against vampires to even consider trusting the elders, and Willow, while open minded, would blanch at the thought of taking such a tremendous risk as betraying Angel.

She shook her head firmly, betraying Angel was not even an option. She had already made that decision. The question was could she really trust the elders. Her mouth chewed her hair enthusiastically as she considered that idea. She was forcefully pulled out of her reverie by a particularly nasty bump in the road that sent her nose banging against the cold car window. She frowned as she rubbed her nose, glaring at the offending window for a moment before realizing they were in midtown Sunnydale.

As she got her bearings a slow smile spread across her face, the answer to most of her questions was right under her nose, so to speak. "Stop here!" The car skidded to a stop on screeching tires, the driver eager to let her out of the car and hopefully his life.

Buffy glanced at the sky as she stepped out of the car straight into a puddle, deliberately ignoring the way the driver pushed the pedal to the metal as soon as she banged the car door shut. Dawn was still a good hour away, Willie will not be a happy camper. With that thought in mind she deliberately walked into Willie's bar.

Willie glanced up indifferently as she walked inside, the drink he was pouring neatly slipped from his hands to spill on his foot as his brain registered the sight of her. "Slayer!" The little man cried with mock enthusiasm, "would you look at that, it's the Slayer!"

Buffy glanced around as most of the bar's more questionable occupants shuffled out the dimly lit place. "Looks like I'm Miss Popularity tonight," she deadpanned.

The short bartender was not amused, "I thought we'd agreed you'd stay away during business hours, kid," he said irritably.

"This is important!"

"So is keeping my business running on the off-chance the world keeps on turning tomorrow!" She opened her mouth to deliver a blistering retort, but he held his hand up signaling her to wait till the last of his demonic customers filed out the bar.

"Aren't you ever worried one of them will turn on you?" She asked with real interest as her eyes locked to the retreating back of a particularly nasty looking demon.

He shrugged, "even baddies need a place to do their drinking, kid," he replied. "A place where everybody knows your name," his eyes took on a slightly dreamy look.

"And they're always glad you came," she snickered. I wonder if anyone ever shouts out 'Norm' in here, she thought. "Do you know what's been going on?" She inquired when the bar finally emptied out.

Willie shook his head, "didn't really try to find out. All I know is it's something really bad that's got the scary things shaking." The little man shook his head ruefully, "when the scary things get scared you know things are really getting scary." He frowned, trying to make sense of his own twisted logic, "so to speak," he finally added lamely.

Buffy nodded, "yeah, I know all about that." She gave him a hard look, "believe me, it's better not knowing about this one. I need to ask you about something else, though. The elders, tell me what you know about them."

Surprised eyebrows lifted as Willie considered her question, "the vampire elders are in this?" He asked with a shudder. "Now there's a group of people I wouldn't want to run into in a dark alley at night."

"Why not?"

"This is Sunnydale," he reminded her. "And besides," he said blandly, "I'm not that fond of dark allies." He smiled as she grimaced, "maybe it's better not to be in the know sometimes, especially if people that powerful are involved," he said thoughtfully. "I don't know much about them," he admitted, "they're kind of an aloof bunch, tend to stay away from the common trash that comes in here. I know they're well respected, though. And feared too," he added as an afterthought. "I think most vampires would rather kiss the break of dawn then face off with one of those guys."

People, Buffy corrected mentally, there are also women in that 'aloof bunch'. "Do they have a lot of control?" She asked.

The small man nodded enthusiastically, "the story goes that they once forced an entire renegade clan to stake themselves." He paused as Buffy whistled respectfully through her teeth. "In the sun," he added dryly. "You don't get much opposition after a story like that." Buffy fidgeted, aching to ask the question she really wanted an answer to. Willie watched her for several sympathetic moments, "go ahead, kid. I'm not gonna tell anybody." He shrugged at her skeptical look, "hey, we all want to live," he explained.

Buffy sighed with resignation, "can they be trusted?" She finally asked.

The little bartender seemed genuinely surprised, "with that much power at their fingertips, what reason would they have to lie?" He asked.

She thought about that, "manipulation?" She suggested.

His hand waved dismissively, "manipulation's for the weak," he replied. "With that much power you can just take what you want. No fuss no muss."

Buffy frowned, yet more things she had to think about, "thanks Willie," she muttered as she turned to leave. "Sorry about the customers," she tossed as an afterthought.

"Hey, kid!" He called as she reached the door, "I heard you got Angel out of hell. How is he?"

Buffy froze, she hadn't expected the little snitch to know about that. This was bad, this was very bad, it meant Angel might not be as safe as she thought he was if the wrong people knew he had returned. Despite her fears she saw real concern in Willie's face. "I don't know," she replied truthfully.

The little man nodded in sympathy, "good luck, kid," he muttered as the petite blonde Slayer left his bar.

The rain had slowed into a tickling drizzle leaving feather-light kisses on her skin. It was only then that her mind registered the obvious, "since when does it rain in Sunnydale in the fall?" She asked out loud. Shaking her head with wonder she made her way to school through the early morning light.

* * *
Chapter Nine

"Cordelia was right," Buffy muttered quietly as she walked into the library, "he does live here." A slow, almost tender smile crept unbidden across her lips as she watched the sleeping librarian. He had fallen asleep in the midst of research, as the ancient book currently being used as a pillow testified. His glasses hung precariously from one ear, threatening to fall off at any given moment. Gently she reached out to retrieve them before disaster occurred.

"Buffy?" Giles blinked as he gazed at his ward through bleary eyes.

"We've got to work on my stealth-mode," Buffy said with a forced smile as she handed her Watcher his glasses, "if I can't steal glasses from a Watcher then I definitely need some training in that department."

"Yes quite," the Watcher murmured, obviously still groggy from sleep. He suddenly jumped in his chair as memories hit him, "Angel! Did you and Spike find him?"

"Somebody's in the know," she replied as she shook her head.

"Willow called and told me what happened. I wish I could have been here to see it," he sighed regretfully. "After that your mother called. I had to lie and tell her that you were sleeping over at Willow's after some lengthy research. She was not a happy woman." He gave her a stern look, "try to keep me in the know, so to speak, Buffy. With that storm raging last night you really had me worried."

A delicate eyebrow rose humorously, "I went after Angel with Spike and you were worried about a little rain? Contradiction much?"

He gave her the familiar resigned look he usually did when she abused the English language, "it wasn't a regular storm, Buffy. It felt all wrong. Besides," he added as he ran a weary hand through his graying hair, "the bloody thing kept me up half the night. Finally I just gave up on sleep altogether and came here."

"Find anything interesting?" Buffy asked as she motioned towards the slept on book.

"Nothing terribly exciting," Giles admitted as he guiltily smoothed out the rumpled cheek-shaped pages. "There was one passage that seemed relevant, but I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Something to do with power."

"Really?" Buffy asked as disinterestedly as she could. "What did it say?"

Giles shrugged as he finally gave up on the book and moved on to clean his glasses. "Something about power and corruption," he thought for a moment as his hands meticulously cleaned the glistening lenses. It's almost like meditation for him, Buffy suddenly realized as the Watcher began reciting. "And she shall empower him with the strength above all others, for it is known that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." He shook his head in frustration, "absolute gibberish is what I say," he muttered.

She felt the delicate hairs on the back of her neck rise as shivers ran up and down her spine. It all fit together in a kind of horrible logic that made her want to scream. She needed to tell him about the elders, keeping him in the dark left her all alone. She couldn't do this alone. "Giles," she began hesitantly. This will destroy him, she thought miserably.

"I still say it's your fault," Cordelia's shrill voice came floating down the empty hall.

"How is it my fault?" Xander asked, his voice hovering somewhere between humor and weariness.

The argument had obviously been going on for some time and was merely reaching its high point as the unlikely pair burst into the library. "Not just your fault," the may queen replied acidly, "all of you. It's all your fault." She motioned towards the startled Watcher and Slayer as if it were the most natural thing in the world for them all to be at the school slightly after dawn. On second thought, Buffy thought irritably, it wasn't really that rare either. "It's unnatural that every time something falls out of the sky it happens to land on me!"

"It didn't really fall out of the sky," Xander corrected demurely.

"I don't care where it fell out of," Cordelia grated through clenched teeth. "It still managed to land on me! It's a curse, it has to be a curse. There's no other explanation. I hang out with you people and I get cursed!"

"Your hair's wet," Buffy observed helpfully as the pretty brunette opened her mouth to deliver another blistering accusation.

Xander winced as Cordelia slowly turned towards the Slayer, her eyes narrowed and flaming as if she had received a deadly insult. "Gee, you think?" She said bitingly. "See, somehow I managed to miss it when that tree I was walking under decided to rain on me." The cheerleader's dripping hair made her mascara run giving her the appearance of an extremely annoyed clown. One look at Cordelia's face, however, deemed it best not to mention that. With a huff she retrieved a small facial towel from her bag and stormed out of the library. "I still say it's a curse," came floating back from the hallway through the swinging doors.

"Well she's a regular Miss Congeniality this morning," Buffy said brightly. "What's her issue?"

"Beauty sleep," Xander shrugged helplessly, "or rather lack thereof. Damn storm kept both of us up half the night. She called me and we talked till dawn," he added as they stared at him. "You two have very dirty minds. That's usually my field of expertise."

"Trust him, it really is," Willow murmured as she walked haggardly into the library. "I just saw Cordelia dripping down the hallway saying something about a curse and things falling on her." The tired redhead looked up at the Watcher, "is it anything important?"

"Not to us anyway," Buffy muttered, ignoring the dirty look Xander threw her way. "You're looking a bit un-Willowy, Will," she said, noting the dark circles under her friend's eyes.

The pretty hacker sighed and slumped into a nearby chair, "stupid storm kept me up."

"Half the night?" Buffy offered.

"I wish," Willow snorted, "try the whole night. After the earthquake I couldn't get back to sleep."

They stared at her, "earthquake?" Giles finally spluttered.

Willow nodded, lost in her own fatigue and oblivious to their shock, "yeah, a real doozie too."

The Watcher reached for his glasses, "I knew that storm felt unnatural," he muttered as he fiercely cleaned the unoffending lenses.

"You think Angel had something to do with this?" Buffy asked quietly.

"Let's see," Xander said, sarcasm dripping off his voice, "a kick-ass thunder storm in the middle of autumn in a place were you have to pray for some rain around wintertime. And oh yeah, another earthquake. Nope, just Mother Nature back to her old tricks, no Angel intervention there."

"See, I knew this had something to do with you people," Cordelia muttered sourly as she pushed her way through the library's swinging doors. Her face and hair had returned to their usual perfection, but there was still a dangerous glint in her eyes.

"There's more," Willow said, a yawn escaping her lips. "After I accepted the fact that I wasn't about to fall back to asleep, I slipped into the city coroner's web site."

"Eeww, morbid much?" Cordelia complained.

"I didn't know the coroner had an open web-site."

A slow flush crept up the timid hacker's face, "well not exactly a web-site per say, more like encrypted files with a state of the art security system," she couldn't hide the pride in her voice. "Well, it was a long night and I got bored," she explained as her friends stared at her. "Anyway," she went on quickly, "they found a homeless guy's body last night," she raised her pallid face to look the Slayer straight in the face. "He had two sets of bite marks on his neck."

"Looks like Angel had himself a little party last night," Xander grated brusquely.

"Two different sets of bite marks," Willow emphasized.

"So he invited a friend?"

"Spike was with you last night?" Giles asked, looking at his suddenly pale Slayer. With her jaws clenched tight and her muscles aching to strike, Buffy slowly nodded her head. "So if it was Angel that only leaves Drusilla."

Willow shook her head, "according to the report the marks were large and roughly the same size. Women generally have smaller teeth then men. It wasn't Dru." She gave Buffy a comforting look, "it was probably a couple of rogue vampires who couldn't help themselves."

"When the cat's away," Xander murmured.

"I don't like this," Giles said shaking his head, "if it was just a random vampire attack then that means Spike is loosing control over his clan." He looked his shaken Slayer in the face, "which in turn means that any deal you've made with him is deemed worthless. You need to talk to Spike, head this off before it goes any further."

"Yeah," Buffy agreed mechanically, her thoughts an uncontrollable whirlwind in her head, "I'll talk to Spike." Right before I make sure he fits in an ashtray, she thought wickedly.

Xander shook his head, "I'm still not convinced it wasn't Angel, I mean with the earthquake last night we know something happened that had to do with him."

"It could have just been the storm," Willow offered, barely suppressing another yawn.

"Which really brings up my curse," Cordelia threw in.

"I mean how many vampires have you seen around Angel besides Spike and Drusilla?" Willow went on, completely ignoring the irritated brunette.

"Hello people, what about my curse?"

"Yeah," Xander conceded, "I guess that's logical."

Cordelia turned on him, her eyes promising violence. No one ignored her and got away with it, "what," she said acidly, "you're a Vulcan now?"

He gave her an impudent grin and she flushed realizing she'd been duped, "live long and prosper," he replied automatically.


"Never mind."

"I think that on that note you should all get to class," Giles said rolling his eyes at the entire exchange.

"We still have plenty of time," Xander objected.

"Nevertheless," the Watcher replied.

"Come on Xander," Buffy said lightly, "lets leave Giles alone so he can bond with his books."

"Oh God," Willow moaned, "classes! I can't deal with classes. Thinking hurts."

"Now you know how I feel most of the time, Will," Xander said sympathetically as he put his arm around his friend's shoulders, half supporting her.

The tired hacker yawned as she rose to her feet, "I have no idea how I'm going to get through this day," she complained as they all left the Watcher to his books.

Willow's sentiment was apparently wide spread, Buffy discovered as the empty school began to teem with life. Pallid and lethargic students made their weary way to class to face irritated and bleary-eyed teachers. Finally, around mid-day the teaching staff had managed to corner Principal Snyder into giving them all the rest of the day off.

"What are you going to do today, Will?" Buffy asked her friend as they stepped out of the school and into the sunshine. Most of the evidence of yesterday's storm had dried up in the warm Sunnydale climate, but stooped trees and the occasional shattered window spoke volumes of the violence they had suffered.

"Home. Sleep," the tired hacker replied.

Buffy smiled, what one sleepless night will do to some people. "I meant after, when you've started to talk in full sentences again."

Willow tried to pout in response, then sighed miserably as she found herself too tired to do so, "Oz is playing at the Bronze tonight. Feel up to it?"

Let's see, Buffy pondered gravely, a night of fun with her friends, hmm. "Sounds like a plan," she replied quickly. "Are you going to make it home okay?" She gave Willow a concerned look as the redhead nearly collided with a tree.

"Yeah, I'll be fine," she said, glaring at the offending form of vegetation. "I'll talk to you later tonight. Bye."

Buffy muttered her good-byes as she watched her friend shuffle drunkenly down the sidewalk. She considered following the hacker for a bit, then decided against it. It was still morning and besides the occasional tree bumping Willow would be fine. What was she going to do then? Her mother, like most of Sunnydale, was most likely either home or on her way there and was probably, as Giles had put it, not a happy woman. She could, of course, check the mansion to see if Angel was there. She weighed the matter carefully, but as always, save once, in the tug of war between Angel and the world the dark vampire came on top.

With a new bounce to her gait the small Slayer made her way to her former lover.


The stench of brimstone assaulted his senses bringing him instinctively to his knees on red-hot stone and burning coal. Terror-filled shivers ran down his spine, he'd been here before, suffered here before, and he knew what to expect. The stone beneath his body grew hotter, mingling the reek of smoldering flesh with the horrible brimstone smell.

He heard the shuffle of small feet, smelled the scent of burning flesh that was not his own. His body tensed and his head dropped, his eyes preferring to focus on his own smoldering skin, his mind favoring his own pain over that of the small creature that loomed above him, the creature that was once a human child. A child that he had destroyed in more ways than he could ever hope to atone for.

"You did this to me, Angelus!" Came the near unintelligible hiss. "Look at what you did to me!"

A whimper escaped his lips.


The mansion was dark when she stepped inside, a grim contradiction to the bright day outside. It took her eyes but a moment to adjust to the darkness, a moment filled with anxious thoughts. What if he was here? What could she say to him? Should she accuse him of last night's murder? And if he was guilty what could she do about it? Nothing, she concluded. She could do absolutely nothing. She had made a promise she intended to keep, regardless of how difficult he would make it for her to do so.

"Angel?" She asked, her voice barely above a whisper, her heart drumming a frenzied beat in her ears. I'm being ridiculous, she thought, I've got to get a hold of myself. With a deep breath she straightened her back and squared her shoulders, "Angel?" She called out confidently, deliberately ignoring the way her voice was shaking. The quiet mansion offered no reply. He wasn't here, her shoulders slumped with disappointment. She turned to leave but stopped dead in her tracks as a muffled moan demanded her attention. She held her breath and cocked her head to listen. There were definitely sounds and they were coming from the bedroom.

Throwing dignity to the wind she tiptoed quietly towards the bedroom and with a feather-light touch pushed open the heavy wooden door, praying it wouldn't creak.

It creaked.

She froze, mentally cursing all makers of creaky doors, reflecting briefly on their birth, heritage and cleanliness habits. A moment passed and then, as they generally do, another. Finally she felt secure enough, and dizzy enough, to resume breathing. Slowly she poked her head in through the doorway and once again gave up on breathing.

He slept, and while he slept he truly portrayed the creature after which he had been named. His human mask glowed with ethereal beauty in the scant light that managed to filter through the dark curtains, his pale torso a work of art even the old renaissance masters would have been proud of. She watched his eerily still chest with detached fascination, her eyes roaming her former lover's body with abandon. Her fingers ached to touch him, her lips parting to meet his, to claim him as her own. But he wasn't, not anymore. She pushed back a sniffle as she morbidly came to term with that piece of truth.

Lost in her own self-pity she almost missed the soft whimper that escaped his lips. Her eyes narrowed in thought, under closer inspection he didn't really look all that calm for a man asleep. His eyelids fluttered madly and his fingers clawed lightly at the bedspread. He was having a nightmare and it had obviously been going on for some time as the tangled covers around his waist, victims of an ongoing war, mutely testified.

She considered waking him, saving him from his mind-terrors and dream-monsters, but decided against it. Some battles needed to be fought alone. If things got out of hand, she'd be here. Determined, she sat on the edge of the bed and watched.


There were more now, clinging to him, touching him, demanding he acknowledge them in death, for he never did in life.

"Look at me!" They howled, their fingers clawing at him, grabbing for what was theirs.

Anxiously, the vile taste of terror in his mouth, he tried to pull away, preferring the pits of hell to the faces of his victims. They would not let him go, he knew that, although he had to try. In here, in this place where past sins were transformed into present acts of vengeance there would be no escape.

They closed on him, a mass of faces he was responsible for, a sea of people whose life ended at his whim. Most had begged, but he had no mercy for them. Others had tried to bargain, argue, but he had laughed in their faces. Then there were the rare few that had died quietly, those had been a mystery to him. He had always wondered, in a clinically detached sort of way, what they had been thinking in those last few moments of precious life.

And now, those who had screamed, who had begged, who had argued and fought, who had gone gently into that good night, all of them were closing in on him. They moaned and hissed, they clawed at his body as they drew closer bringing the stench of the grave hideously near. He couldn't move, couldn't lift a finger as they swarmed over him, covering him in a horrible blanket of damaged humanity. He could restrain himself no longer and with the claustrophobic strength inherent to all men he screamed like the damned.


She held him in her arms, rocking him like a wounded child, cooing meaningless words comfortingly. Her resolve to leave him to his inner demons had broken during the first few moments of his terrified scream. Immediately she rushed to his side, cradling him as she would an infant. Her hands stroked him gently as she rocked back and forth in response to his trembling body. It felt so good, so right.

She didn't even realize she had been kissing him until he looked up at her with those deep, fathomless eyes.

She immediately jumped to her feet, her eyes wide with shock at what she had just done. "I came by to see how you were," she croaked. He stared at her, his eyes dark and mysterious holding no accusation but no acceptance either. "I brought you some food and more cloths," she motioned towards the floor. His eyes followed the direction she was pointing at then flickered back to her face. "Only I left the bag in the other room," she explained once she realized there was nothing on the floor. Wordlessly he pushed back the covers and rose to his feet with fluid grace. "Because I thought that you might be hungry and you might need some fresh cloths. Not that your old ones aren't okay or anything," she babbled as she took in his pale form, nude from the waist up.

He took a step towards her, his body strong and capable. He suddenly reminded her of a big cat out on the prowl. What would that make me? She wondered as she subconsciously took a step back. He moved towards her again and she felt cold sweat begin to drip down her back as her heart beat crazily. She looked up into his eyes and saw a strange fire burning there, a fire at once both alien and familiar. He wanted her, she realized, with a hunger that wasn't quite human. She instinctively stepped back, her body trembling uncontrollably, and collided with the wall.

He looked down at her for a moment, watching her chest rise and fall with her unsteady breathing, watching her face glisten with sweaty fear and anticipation. Watching her eyes dart nervously as she thought of a way to escape, savoring the moment before taking that final feline step that trapped her entirely.

"Angel, I," she stuttered, suddenly very aware of his bare chest only a hairsbreadth from her own. She didn't know what she wanted to say, and he never gave her a chance to find out. With a smooth sweep he covered her mouth with his, enjoying the shocked tremors that ran through her body.

It took her but a moment to respond. Her lips, hungering for his, parted of their own accord. Her body rejoiced as she felt his tongue slip through, exploring her depths, touching, tasting, savoring her essence. Their kiss deepened as hungry mouths devoured one another, their gentle kiss turning into a battle of wills and passions too strong to be denied.

Shivers ran up and down her spine as his strong hands closed on her slender waist, lifting her without breaking their kiss. Instinctively she wrapped her legs around his hips even as her fingers tangled in his hair, fiercely pulling him even closer.

Hot sweat burned down her body, drenching her as she undulated against him, uncomfortable in her suddenly constricting clothes. She could feel the lust rise in her body like a tidal wave, stronger than she had ever experienced before. She wanted him here and now and be damned everything else. She moaned with sudden loss as he suddenly withdrew his mouth from hers, then gasped with trepidation as his lips locked on her neck.

She froze, her glazed eyes staring unseeing at the far wall as his blunt teeth grazed gently down her neck to the base of her throat. Her back arched wildly as danger sent new shivers down her body and promptly knocked her skull against the wall.

The pain cleared her lust-filled mind just in time to see him tearing through her blouse, his mouth fastening on her lace-covered breast. "Angel," she moaned as her mind clouded over again, "Angel, we can't." She cried out as his lips found her sensitive nipple, "the curse!"

He stopped to look up at her darkly, his deep, passionate eyes mirroring his emotions, "there is no curse," he growled. He could feel the slightest twitches of anger awakening in him, she of all people should have been able to understand.

She looked down into his deep, dark eyes as his words slowly registered in her fog filled mind. If there was no curse there was no soul, if there was no soul there was nothing left but the monster she remembered. Burning sweat turned cold as the icy gauntlet of fear gripped her heart. "What are you?" She choked.

The dark lust in his eyes turned to cold hurt and then to icy anger as he savagely pushed her off him to land unceremoniously on the floor. In a sudden flash of insight she suddenly understood, it all came together with an almost audible click. He's not my Angel anymore, the dark vampiress had said. It's almost like he's everything rolled up into one, her consort told them all. It all came together, the storm, the murder, the power, the corruption and most of all the confusion. She looked up at her lover as she lay crumpled on the floor and her heart shattered as she watched him turn his back to her, close himself from her. It was too late. "Get out," he said quietly, not even bothering to turn back to look at her.

He couldn't look at her, couldn't bear to see her face. What are you? She had asked as hellfire exploded in his mind. It all came back to him; the sword, the pain, the overwhelming confusion. And she had lied to him; don't worry about it, she said as hell's vortex erupted behind his back; I love you, she had whispered only moments before plunging a sword into his body. His face changed, his human mask slipping as righteous fury overtook him. What are you? She asked as if he were a monster, an abomination. Was he an abomination in her eyes when he held out his hand to her from within the vortex? Confusion in his eyes, pleading in his outstretched arm, was he merely a means to an end? What are you? She had refused to take his hand then, why should now be any different?

"Angel, please," she said brokenly, her voice barely above a whisper. "I love..."

He turned on her, anger gleaming from his golden eyes, "get out before I rip your bloody throat out!" he cried, his voice hissing through his fangs.

She stared at him in shock, taking in his demonic features and the hate etched on his disfigured face. With a despairing cry she clutched her torn blouse to her body and ran out of the mansion into the warm sunlight, where he could never follow.

His hands clenched into fists, his claws digging bloody half moons into the palms of his hands, his body trembling with tension. He listened to her run till she disappeared from earshot entirely. A roar escaped his lips as he listened to the quiet in vain, he loved her and hated her so much it nearly destroyed them both.

"And so you finally understand," the maniacal voice from within his mind cried gleefully. "You have finally come to realize the truth."

He couldn't deal with this now, it was just too much. "Leave me alone!" He howled like a wounded beast, his demonic visage contorting wildly with every word. "Just leave me the hell alone!"

A rushing sound began to form in the confines of his mind, growing stronger, angrier with every passing moment. "LEAVE YOU ALONE?" The harsh voice demanded, "I WILL NEVER LEAVE YOU ALONE!" His eyes clamped shut and his hands pressed against his ears but he knew nothing could stop the dark winds of fury blowing through his mind. With a despairing wail he dropped to his knees. "YOUR NAME WAS WRITTEN IN THE STARS SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME. YOU WERE MINE BEFORE YOU WERE EVER BORN!"

"No," he moaned, but he could not deny the truth he heard in the fanatical voice.


"Dear God, No!" He cried, unwilling to accept the horrible truth.

"YOU THINK YOUR BEAUTY COINCIDENTAL? AN ACCIDENT OF BIRTH?" his tormentor pushed on relentlessly, exposing all that he was, tearing him apart ruthlessly. "YOU THINK YOUR MIND A GIFT OF CHANCE? YOU ARE MY DOING! MY CREATION AND MY REWARD!"

"I am my own man!" He screamed, although he knew it was useless, although he knew it would probably cost him his life. Maybe it was all true and he was indeed the product of a warped imagination, but in the end his life was what he had made it out to be, the choices he had made throughout his long and sinful existence. That was truer now then ever before.


He let out no more then a single despondent cry as the now familiar rush of burning power engulfed him, transformed him, corrupted all that he was.

She ran blindly, her fingers clutching the torn material of her blouse to her body as if that single desperate act could ward away the pain. It couldn't. Nothing could.

More than anything she wanted to run home, curl up in a little ball on her safe familiar bed and cry herself to sleep. Even that small comfort
was denied her as events more important then her own needs and wishes were taking place.

She slowed her run to a slow walk and took stock of herself. Her shirt was torn in the front, her face was wet with tears and her hair felt like it had been slept on. With a miserable sigh she recalled the Kleenex, mirror and bobby pins in her purse, which was now conveniently located on the floor in Angel's bedroom. With a shudder she steered her mind clear of Angel's bedroom, she couldn't go there just yet. Especially if she was going to do what needed to be done.

With a resolved sigh she ran her fingers through her hair, wiped her face with the hem of her shirt and tied it as best she could around her body. Not exactly Versace, she thought as she surveyed herself, but it'll do.

Slowly, hesitantly, moved by a power far greater then herself, she made her way to the factory.

The guards weren't much of a challenge, too shocked and worn by day to offer much resistance. Spike really needed to get himself better lackeys, especially if he was about to get daytime visits from the likes of her. The dark vampiress was quite another matter altogether.

"Spike!" Buffy called out as the crazed Drusilla lashed out at her. She ducked and rolled, kicking Drusilla's feet from under her in the process. "Spike!"

"In my home!" Drusilla screeched, her demonic features contorted with rage. "The Slayer is in my home!" With fluid grace she rose off the floor and lunged at the irritated Slayer.

With calculated ease Buffy side stepped the charging vampiress. She quickly jumped around to face the enraged Drusilla only to receive a hard fist in her face. Enough was enough! With a very vampire-like snarl Buffy whipped out a stake, "Spike!" She yelled, "unless you want to vacuum your girlfriend, get yourself out here!"

"No need to yell, Slayer," Spike said calmly from the balcony to her side. Both Buffy and Drusilla whipped around to face him. With dignified grace he slowly made his way down, "you could have just knocked, you know." He pointed out as he wrapped his arms around his maddened lover from behind. She seemed to visibly relax in his embrace, easing from a lethal killer into a contented kitten in his arms. "Had yourself some fun, luv?" He whispered in her ear as he placed soft kisses on his lover's jaw.

"Nasty Slayer woke me up," Drusilla reported sullenly, glaring at Buffy with undisguised malice. "I want to punish her, Spike. Let princess punish her."

Buffy rolled her eyes, "we need to talk, Spike."

He gave her an impudent grin, "that's usually my line, pet. Dru does have a point though. You can't just barge into people's homes in the dead of day and expect them to..."

He was playing games with her! Buffy felt her fist tighten on her stake as she fought to remain calm, "we need to talk now!" She grated through clenched teeth.

Spike looked her up and down noting her disheveled appearance and the deadly weapon in her hand. Nodding once he let go of his lover and led the tightly wound Slayer into a back room. "That wasn't very smart, Slayer," he started as soon as he closed the door.

She lunged at him, pinning him to the wall and planting a knee against his gut as he groaned in pain. "I don't care why that man died last night!" She hissed in the surprised vampire's face.

"Well that makes my job a lot easier," Spike gasped. The knee in his gut pressed deeper.

"I don't even care who killed him!"

"If only all Slayers thought like you." He silently wondered if it was possible to be staked by a knee. He sincerely hoped he wasn't about to find out.

"But if anyone else shows up with so much as a bite mark I'm going to hold you personally responsible!"

"I knew it was too good to be true," Spike murmured, then breathed with relief as the blonde Slayer abruptly let him go.

"The only reason I'm not staking you right now is that I need you to do something for me."

Spike turned to glare at her, a condescending smirk on his lips, then taking a good look he thought better of it. "What the hell happened to you?"

She ignored him, "I need you to go to the Elders. Tell them I need to talk to them as soon as possible."

He frowned, a concerned look creeping on his pale features, "what's going on?"

She went on ignoring him. "On second thought tell them one of them will be enough. I don't need to see all of them."

That was it! His patience snapped as easily as a twig. "Did you rehearse that little speech all the way down here, pet?" His face, still human but intensely angry was mere inches from hers, "you can't just kick your way in here and order me around. I am not your errand boy!"

"That's right," she agreed as sweetly as she could. "You're theirs." Silently rejoicing over the shock on his face she turned to leave. Now she could cry in peace.

* * *
Chapter Ten

Stupid vampire.

Willow Rosenberg rotated irritably on her barstool as she vehemently chewed on her straw. Stupid vampire, she thought spitefully, I hope he sits on a stake. Hard, she added as an afterthought as she nibbled on her unoffending straw, shredding it to pieces. She was not an especially malicious person, nor was she particularly violent, but after the conversation she had had with Buffy an hour ago the angry hacker was ready to tear a certain dark vampire apart.

Although the Slayer was obviously on the verge of tears, not the first today Willow suspected, she had firmly denied that anything was wrong and had adamantly refused when the concerned hacker insisted that she come over.

"I'm fine, Will," Buffy had nearly shouted at her worried friend over the phone. "Go to the Bronze. Have fun." It was not so much a request as a command.

Yeah, have fun. Willow snorted, like that was a possibility. Like she wouldn't end up sitting alone, listening to her boyfriend play the guitar on stage and wonder what Angel did now. It had to be Angel, no one else had the capability of tormenting Buffy quite like he did. The straw gave a final satisfying crunch as she bit down hard on it. Pensively, she peered down at the distorted teeth-marked plastic and noticed that she'd managed to finish her drink sometime between straw molesting and mental Angel bashing. The bartender had disappeared somewhere, so with a resigned sigh she went on abusing her straw.

It wasn't that she had something personal against Angel, not when he had his soul firmly anchored to his body, that is. She'd even managed to put the whole grabbing and threatening of life incident back at the school all those months ago behind her. Although she still woke up with a cold sweat frantically checking her neck for bite marks at times. But that was just part of normal life on the hell mouth, it was something she'd learned to live with.

No, it was her friends being hurt that she couldn't tolerate. Pointedly her best friend. She had been forced to watch as Buffy struggled between hope and despair, her pain gleaming from her eyes even when she smiled or laughed. It was unbearable to witness at times. Surrendering to another wave of anger the timid hacker broke her straw in half. She was definitely going to be needing another drink soon, preferably one with a straw. Where was that bartender?

Besides which, she mused, not that she was prejudiced or anything, but humans and vampires simply did not mix. Unless they wanted to make more vampires and less humans, she corrected herself.

Forcing herself to relax to the Dingo's music she looked around. The Bronze was teaming with life, full of rested teens whose biological clocks went awry from too many hours of sleep during the day. Almost like they're already getting ready to become vampires, she thought. Then quickly shook her head. Bad Willow, she chided herself, bad negative, self-destructive thoughts. Forcibly turning her thoughts away from death, she concentrated on the life filled teenagers undulating on the dance floor.

In fact, she noticed with a little frown, there were quite a lot of people on the dance floor. Aside from herself and the band everyone was on the dance floor. Missing were groups of lounging teens talking about nothing in particular, gone were the pool players and non-dancing wallflowers. In fact she even spotted her missing bartender shaking it up with the best of them. Her frown deepened as her mind finally registered what her ears had been listening to.

He'll come to your room at night/ to watch you while you're sleeping/ You'll give it all up without a fight/ and all the while you'll think you are dreaming.

Now that wasn't the Dingo's usual lyrics, Willow thought as she glanced at the stage. They usually went with pseudo deep stuff ranging between an ode to a watermelon at worst and boy meets girl, boy gets heart crushed by girl, boy meets another girl who motorcycles away towards the sunset with first girl, running over boy in the process at best. This was a bit on the creepy side.

Make love to the demon/ claw at the devil/ he'll torment you till you scream out his name.

Willow's jaw dropped, this was hitting way too close to home.

Love him or hate him/ it's all the same. / How can you love an angel that's turned your life to living hell?

"I've often wondered the same thing myself," a silken voice behind her murmured. Willow swallowed hard as the tiny hairs on the nape of her neck stood on end. "Looks like boyfriend's got himself a different muse."

Oh God, Willow's mind gibbered, he's right behind me, oh God. In a flash of hyperawareness drawn by fear she felt Angel's presence in every cell in her body, they all tingled with their need to bolt. Was this how Buffy felt every time she came across a vampire? Somehow Willow doubted it, this was nauseating and Buffy never looked like she was about to throw up when she was dusting vamps. Pull yourself together, the timid hacker ordered herself as her mind quickly ran over her options. Sadly she concluded that running was not one of them, he was just too close, he'd grab her before she made two steps. "Buffy's not here," she said as coolly as she could, trying to retain the last vestiges of anger, which was quickly falling apart into blind panic.

"I'm not here for Buffy," the dark, smooth voice replied, gliding over her senses, pulling at her will. She wouldn't turn to face him, as long as he was behind her he was still human in her mind. "I'm here for you, Willow."

Make love to the devil/ cry out for a saint.

She could feel his hands slowly rotating her barstool so she turned to face him. The tiny hairs at the back of her neck were nearly prickling her with their need to escape. Traitors, she thought resentfully, and lifting her chin she resolved not to cry and whimper like a frightened little girl. No matter what he did to her. Oblivious to her plight Devon went on singing as her boyfriend played the guitar.

Don't try to regret it/ it's far too late.

"M-me? Why m-me?" She stuttered. Her resolve to be brave had somehow skipped her voice.

Angel smiled at her, a streak of light caught on his fang illuminating it in the otherwise dim light. He drew closer, his eyes twin pools of darkness, a glimmering threat to trap those who ventured too near. His fingers lifted to brush her cheek. She flinched as his touch burned her with its coolness. "You gave me my soul back, Willow." Fascinated she watched his tongue roll over her name, shocked at the shivers that ran through her body by his single touch. His fingers traced her jaw down to her chin leaving a trail of electrified cells behind. "There's a special bond between you and me."
Nope, no bond, her mind blubbered. I'm completely bond free. No bonds here. He smiled playfully as if he could read her mind, his fingers gently glided from her chin down to her neck, a cool touch that made her want to scream for mercy.

But there was no mercy in the darkness of his eyes or the wicked sensuousness of his lips. There was no hope of denial as his fingers paused at the hollow at the base of her throat.

With a desperate attempt she latched on to the one thing she could think of, the one thing that had been bothering her for a full day, "you're lying!" She choked, her breath catching on her words.

His fingers paused on her throat, but never broke contact as a dark eyebrow arched in amusement, "how so?"

Ignoring the fever/ denying the pain.

"That comment you made," her breath was coming in short gasps now making her dizzy and lightheaded. "That thing you said about the divine prophecy," her thoughts were wild and erratic now as blind panic threatened to overtake her. "Back in the library with Spike. You knew what you were saying, that weak act you pulled, you just wanted to get your own way!"

He smiled, a wicked sort of expression, "ah, sweet, twisted Willow," he breathed, "with a mind like yours, what a vampire you would have made." Her breath came in ragged huffs as cold sweat dripped its way down her spin. "You're mine, Willow," he purred.

You'll worship him blindly/ but never say his name.

No, I'm not! Her mind screamed, but the words refused to escape her lips. Caught, like a deer in headlights, her skin burned with cold fire as his fingers made their way down to her breast. "You know it in your heart," he whispered. Her back arched slightly, instinctively, innocently pushing her breast into his electric touch even as the scream in her mind grew louder. His smile grew wider, the promise of deadly fangs fulfilled. "I know you can feel it, Willow." Her breath was coming in short gasps and a darkness began to swim against the edges of her vision. She was hyperventilating, but she couldn't stop it as the scream in her head grew to a deafening crescendo. A slightly metallic, artificial crescendo that seemed to come from somewhere outside her petrified mind.

In a flash Oz was there, his lips forming an inhuman snarl even as eyes, too animalistic to be human, glinted danger. "She's mine!" He growled, his voice holding an unspoken challenge.

Angel's satisfied smile faded, his eyes glinting golden annoyance at the interruption. "Go away, little boy!" He commanded.

"Mine!" The young wolf snarled savagely, his fangs elongating, demanding blood.

For a moment they stood, vampire facing wolf in the mystical battle that had ever existed between these magical creatures. Golden eyes met dark ones, assessing, evaluating. Suddenly something snapped in the dark vampire's mind, a kind of horror spread across his features as dark human eyes begged denial. "Oh God," he murmured. All around on the dance floor people began dropping like flies, falling in unconscious heaps of young humanity.

"Go. Now," Oz snarled at him, his body trembling with the sheer effort of keeping himself under control.

"I'm sorry," Angel murmured softly, desolately, the expression of pure agony on his beautiful face almost too much for a human heart to bear. For a moment it seemed to Willow as though he would reach out to her, like a drowning man trying to pull the remnants of his soul from hell. But the self-recrimination in his eyes told her different.

Willow watched him leave, her mind still frozen in terror. Then, suddenly Oz was in her face, his concerned features entirely human as he shook her. "Will? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," she said dazedly, "I think I'll just faint for a bit." Her last thought before she finally succumbed to the darkness that had threatened to engulf her was that someone should really move Oz's electric guitar away from the microphone. That metallic scream was simply unbearable.

Fainting was really not all it was cracked up to be, Willow decided as she slowly came to full consciousness. Especially if you're coming to gasping and coughing over something foul-smelling with all your friends hovering over you.

"It's working!" Cordelia's shrill voice cut through Willow's foggy reverie eliciting a dull ache in the young hacker's skull. Beautiful, a headache, she thought miserably, chalk another one up for staying conscious. "She's coming around."

"Of course she is," Giles' voice sounded slightly smug.

"Well excuse me Mister smelling salts. What, you're waiting around for a lady in distress with that stuff?"

Willow groaned and rose weakly. Then again, she thought as Oz rushed to her side, there were the idiotic conversations that would fly right over an unconscious person's head. Maybe there was something to be said for passing out after all.

Or maybe not. "Will, are you okay?" Oz asked softly. The love and concern in his eyes said it all.

"Ah-hum," she groaned back. She was fine, it was the room that kept spinning around. Someone should really look into that.

"I'll take that as a 'yeah, but would someone please stop the banging in my skull' kind of ah-hum." Xander's voice was as upbeat as always, but Willow sensed the uncharacteristic note of concern running through it.

"That will pass in a few moments," Giles promised. Yeah, Willow agreed sullenly, easy for you to say. You don't have a mister Woody Woodpecker setting up camp in your brain. "In the meantime why don't you tell us what happened?"

Let's see, the young redhead thought; people danced, Angel came on to me, Oz went wolf and Angel ran away. Yep, that's about it. Oh God, she groaned, how was she going to explain that? This night was going to leave them with some serious repercussions.

"It was all a blur," Oz was saying, "I could see and hear everything that was going on, but I didn't care. I was playing a song I'd never heard before, watching everyone dance to it and I didn't want to do anything else." He shook his head, "disturbing."

"Did it feel like some sort of artificial substance?" Giles asked delicately.

Oz shook his head, "if it was, I don't know how it could have hit all of us like it did. Besides, it's like nothing I've ever known before."

Willow's ears perked up. Drugs? Were they talking about drugs? Did her sweet musician of a boyfriend just admit to experiencing drugs? She tried glaring at Oz, but gave up due to the fact that she was seeing two of him at the moment. There were definitely going to be repercussions.

"I saw Angel talking to Willow," Oz went on, his voice slightly hollow. "And I just didn't care enough to do anything about it." Willow's eyes widened in panic, don't tell them, she tried to signal her usually attentive boyfriend, they can't know about this before I've figured it out. I've got to make a diversion, she thought irrationally. Unable to think of anything she squeaked. No one noticed.

"But when Angel touched her," no, no, no, no! "Everything snapped. I lost it." Why couldn't her sweet, bright and extremly laconic boyfriend have kept his mouth shut just this once? Willow tried delivering a deadly look his way, then thought better of it. Something was wrong. His features were as calm as ever, but there was definitely something wrong. Then it hit her so hard she nearly lost consciousness again. He had almost changed into a wolf and the full moon was over two weeks away. For the second time tonight she felt like driving a stake into Angel herself. Just the thought of the dark vampire sent dangerous tingles down the trail he had created on her body. She felt as though she was going to throw up.

Outside Willow's complex mind the room exploded into sound. "Angel touched... He, Willow? Touched? He did what?" Xander spluttered, his pallid face contorted with shock. Great verbal skills, Willow thought spitefully, why don't you try simpler sentences next time. She immediately felt the guilt run through her, she shouldn't be thinking of her friends that way.

"It wasn't like that," she tried to explain, defend herself. Oh yes it was, the tiny voice of honesty in her mind murmured insistently, it was exactly like that. Her skin tingled where Angel had touched her just in case she'd forgotten.

"Why don't we all settle down and think this through," Giles suggested. His features seemed calm, but Willow couldn't help noticing the way he steadfastly refused to meet her eyes.

Cordelia had watched this entire exchange in uncharacteristic silence as her mind mulled over the facts. "Angel touched Willow?" She finally murmured to herself, "welcome to La La land people, where things have finally gone insane."

Willow couldn't help but glare at her. Was it so inconceivable that Angel could find her attractive? Wait, what was she thinking? She didn't even want Angel to find her attractive. "It wasn't like that," she said weakly.

"He's dead!" Xander raved, "he's really dead! And I'm not just talking about going halfway with him, I mean really dead, all the way dead. Dust up the vacuum cleaner dead..."

"Yeah, dead. We get it Xander," Willow said irritably, why would he never shut up? She felt another pang of guilt. He was worried about her, really worried and here she was badmouthing him, well bad thinking him anyway. She didn't doubt that he loved her, even if it was in his own special 'never notice you till someone else did' kind of way. It was just the way he expressed that love that drove her crazy.

Xander shook his head stubbornly, "he's going to die, Will. If Buffy doesn't stake him I will."

Buffy! All this and she hadn't even thought of her best friend. Willow groaned with self-disgust.

"Angel had no right to do that, to touch you, " Xander went on, oblivious as always.

"Did he hurt you?" A cool voice from behind demanded. Willow swallowed hard as panic began to flutter through her body. Buffy moved to face her in the suddenly hushed room, her red rimmed eyes flashing and her oversized flannel shirt flowing behind her. "Are you okay?"

"Yes!" Willow nearly shouted, "it wasn't like that!" She immediately regretted her tone, Buffy seemed taken aback, hurt almost. She thinks I'm blaming her, Willow thought suddenly. She opened her mouth, tried to obliterate the harshness of her tone but someone beat her to it.

"This is your fault. If you'd have dusted him when you were supposed to none of this would have happened," Xander hissed coldly. They all stared at him in open-mouthed shock, Xander's cruelty robbing them of any possible reaction.

"I... No!" Buffy shook her head warding off the horrible accusations, but her expression revealed her agreement.

"That's enough!" Giles thundered and Willow breathed relief. "What Angel does is not your fault, Buffy."

"Well isn't this a dreary sort of party," Spike said from the doorway, commanding everyone's attention. "What's daddy gone and done now?"

"None of your business, Spike," Buffy replied almost without thought, her attention seemed to be directed inward.

He laughed wickedly, "I do have my sources, you know. Funny, I always thought that if Angel ever got sick of you he'd go after the big brunette over there. Looks like he managed to develop himself some taste after all."

Willow felt the flush travel down her body even as she watched Cordelia pale with the insult. The angry brunette's mouth opened to deliver a blistering retort, which she never got the opportunity to deliver. A hard fist sent the pale vampire flying out the library doors. An angry Slayer hurried to follow.

"Well?" Buffy asked as she peered down at the dazed vampire leaning against the locker he had landed on.

"One of them is going to meet you at the old Sunnydale church." Spike said irritably. "Did you really have to throw me this hard?"

"Yes, I did," she replied blithely. "When?"

"Now." Spike answered as he picked himself off the floor, "I wouldn't keep them waiting," he advised as he turned to leave. With slightly childish satisfaction she noted he had developed himself a slight limp.

The old Sunnydale church stood neglected at the edge of town. The few weddings and many funerals having found themselves alternatives to the aging building that seemed to stand outside of time somehow. It still retained its commanding sense of presence, however. The high ceilings and cold marble floor proudly stated that this indeed was the house of God.

Buffy's heels clicked loudly as she slowly walked up the rows of empty benches. She had never liked churches, had never been drawn to the promise of God's favor when she was younger, and didn't believe in it now when she grew older. When she was a child her mother had insisted on taking her to church every Sunday, later on, after a good deal of whimpering and wheedling on Buffy's part, that habit had been broken. The painted glass windows, filled with religious scenes she could barely recall, were dark, unimpressive, illuminated only by stars and a juvenile moon.

She passed by the confessionals and stopped. Had she ever confessed as a child? She couldn't remember. Memory and imagination merged to distort reality. If she did, what sins could she have possibly confessed to? Her childhood innocence seemed even more emphasized by her present day sins. She had betrayed, destroyed, and lied and her arrogance had allowed others to be hurt and killed. In a flash of misery she recalled the faces of her friends, of those who had died and those that lived and suffered. "Bless me father, for I have sinned," she murmured to the empty church, at the wooden confessionals.

"What sins could you have possibly made, child?" A sympathetic voice behind her asked softly.

Buffy froze and slowly turned.

* * *
Chapter Eleven

"What would you possibly need to atone for?" Gerrico asked.

Buffy shook her head to dispel her astonishment, somehow he had snuk up on her. The naked power rolling off him in waves was enough to bring her to her knees, yet somehow he had managed to sneak up on her. "Not a thing," she replied hastily, her confidence was shaken. She didn't need to be baring her soul as well. "Ironic much?" she asked, motioning at her surroundings.

"I like churches," Gerrico admitted with a startlingly sheepish smile. He started walking slowly towards the altar, obviously expecting Buffy to follow. "They calm me, give me a sense of comfort, give me something to believe in."

She couldn't stop the bout of half-hysterical laughter that flew from her lips, "a religious demon?" She asked incredulously.

"Creatures such as myself cannot afford to live a secular life. We are believers by the very essence of what we are, religion fills a cardinal role in that. Anyone of us who says different is either dim-witted or dishonest. After all how can one believe he is the Devil's spawn without acknowledging the existence of a God?" He looked at her then, with compassion that touched her heart and soul, "don't you believe in anything?" He asked.

She thought about it, God had disappointed her so often she barely took the time to ponder His existence, yet she was undeniably His tool. She wielded holy artefacts, taking their power for granted, destroyed creatures that claimed to have been touched by the Devil. She had been to hell and back and never once considered the possibility of a heaven. Organised religion, she concluded, just wasn't her thing. "I guess you could say I'm a non-practising atheist," she finally said.

He smiled at her warmly, "yes," he said, "I suppose an unorthodox religion would suit you the most." He stopped before a marble statue of a crucified Jesus, alone in his agony, suffering for the sins of the world. "I met him once."

"You met Jesus Christ," she couldn't drown out the note of disbelief in her voice. Just how old was this man?

She was rewarded with a gentle smile for her troubles, "to be honest I sought him out. My demon had recently died and I was," he paused in thought, his eyes clouding at the dusty memories, "troubled. They said he was the child of God and I felt that God owed me some answers at that particular time. When I finally caught up with him he simply looked me over with the kindest eyes I'd ever seen. I forget their color," Gerrico said with a soft smile, his eyes staring unseeing at the cold marble statue. "I only remember the compassion in his eyes. It had been so long since anyone who knew what I was looked at me that way. He told me how lucky I was."

"Lucky?" Buffy murmured in surprise.

Gerrico nodded, "that's what I said. Then he told me how absolutely free I was, no devil to guide me, no soul to hinder me. I believe there was a note of envy in his voice." Maybe he knew his fate even then, Buffy wondered. The expression on Gerrico's face revealed nothing, however. "I was almost anticipating my expected freedom. My future was a bit unclear till then," Gerrico explained delicately at Buffy's questioning expression. "I had nothing to look forward to. A souled being has love, a family, friends. A demon has," he coughed uncomfortably, "other things. A lack of a sense of purpose tends to be very destructive, many of my kind have fallen before this deadly ailment." A dark cloud seemed to pass over him. How many of his friends have died because they had nothing to live for? Buffy could only wonder. "As I was saying, my future seemed a bit brighter, I suddenly found myself with options I hadn't considered. Then he looked at me again, his eyes bore straight into my heart and my mind and he told me to beware my choices, to select wisely for the consequences may follow me throughout life." Gerrico shook his head with awe, "I always wondered if he knew how accurate he was. I asked him then if he was truly the child of God. He laughed as though I had made some clever jest. 'Knowest thou not', he said, 'we are all God's children. No matter the troubles we go to deny it.'" Gerrico fondly patted the marble statue, his hand showing no signs of burning as he touched the marble crucifix, "never could give a straight answer, could you?"

Buffy swallowed hard as he turned his gaze to her face, his expression a patient questioning. He wanted to know why she had sent for him. She thought of Angel, of Willow and the words seemed to stick in her throat. "I, um," she choked, still the words refused to come. She needed time, she needed to straighten out her jumbled thoughts. "Tell me about Anna," she finally blurted.

He gave her a quizzical look, but said nothing as he walked over to an old wooden bench. Panic rose inside her as for a moment she thought he would refuse, but then the wood creaked under his weight and his hand tapped the bench in open invitation. "Anna," he breathed as she sat sown beside him. "My Anna was a waif of a child when I first laid eyes on her. Broken and bleeding she was, victim of a brutal vampire attack, sole survivor of her entire family. To this day I cannot begin to guess how she had escaped," the note of pride that had crept into his voice did not go unnoticed. He loved her, Buffy decided, a soulless former demon loving a Slayer. Weirder things have happened, most of them to her. "She healed and grew and came into her own."

"And you fell in love with her," Buffy blurted then bit her lips, she hadn't meant to say that.

The dark man seemed unfazed however, his blue eyes danced with amusement, "I fell in love with her from the first moment I saw her, a child and all. I merely came to terms with that years later when she made me face the facts." He smiled in memory, "she was beautiful, filled with power that beamed from her soul. She carried her birthright with pride as piece by insignificant piece we discovered her heritage, helped her come to her full strength. She killed hundreds of the creatures she so despised before they learned to beware her, we traveled from village to village ridding them of their tormentors. It was a happy time, she gave us a purpose and we gave her a family." He sighed, "it was around that time that I discovered that love existed not only in the soul and that heartache was every bit as painful."

"She didn't love you back?" Buffy asked, sympathy filling her heart.

"Oh no," Gerrico laughed, there was no trace of bitterness in his voice, "I never intended to give her a chance to find out. A woman-child loving a creature who should be dust along with her buried ancestors? The thought was nauseating. I began to avoid her, taking steps never to be alone with her. It actually worked rather well for a couple of days," Gerrico shook his head ruefully. "She confronted me rather forcefully, I remember. She demanded to know what was wrong and why I was treating her this way, she had tears in her eyes and all the while she had me pinned up against a wall with her knee. I told her how I felt and said that I would understand if she never wanted to see me again. That's when she started to laugh. She called me an idiot, I recall, or something in that nature, said she knew for the longest time and was waiting for me to figure it out. That's when she threw her arms around me and kissed me, being pinned to the wall my options were rather limited, but I probably would have cooperated anyway."

"So you were together?" Buffy asked, her mind couldn't help compare her situation to that of the ancient man beside her, a man who looked no older than Angel. Had none of this have happened would Angel have sat down many years into the future reminiscing about a dead Slayer he once loved? Somehow she doubted it, sharing feelings and memories had never been one of Angel's stronger points, at least the Angel she knew and loved.

Gerrico nodded, "but it wasn't right. I knew it even if she didn't. She was young, vibrant, she deserved to walk in the sun with her consort, to marry before her God, to bear her husband's children. I could offer her none of that and as happy as we were together that thought was eating away at my being and at our love. In the end, after a particularly vicious argument she got up and left." He ran a trembling hand through his dark hair, the memory still paining him. "She sent us word every now and again that she was all right, but she actually came back nearly a year later big with child. She had obviously done my bidding and found someone else, but I was crushed. Then she put my hand on her distended belly and I felt her unborn child kick and saw the love in her eyes as she begged me to love our child."

"Your child?" Buffy started, "she found some sort of magic?" A wild, unreasonable hope began to worm its way inside her soul. Were such things possible?

Gerrico shook his head, "no magic. The very earthly way, in fact. She didn't care about walking in the sun or marrying in a church, her life was too uncommon for that. I should have realized that from the start."

"She wanted a child," Buffy murmured with understanding.

"Our child. It didn't matter who the biological father was, it was going to be our child. She gifted me with a family." Gerrico shook his head with amazement, "four daughters she bore me, all of different fathers. All as stubborn and willful as their mother, all became Watchers despite her wishes. Their families were the true founders of the Watcher's Council, the knowledge they collected invaluable. In the end it was they who kept me sane during the long days after her death, them and the knowledge that she lived and died surrounded by love."

"So that's how you stayed in contact with the Council?" Buffy asked, unwilling to let go of the last strands of Gerrico's story.

Gerrico nodded, "After a time the tolerance we grew to expect was worn thin, we couldn't escape the hard truth of what we were. It was deemed wisest to remain in contact with merely key members of the Council and steer clear of the awareness of the others. Any other solution would have deemed implications too complex, consequences too disturbing to confront. It proved to be a satisfactory solution for all sides and was kept till the early days of the nineteenth century."

"What happened?"

"A plague," Gerrico replied shortly, "the Council lost over three quarters of its members. We've had no contact within the organization since."

Buffy nodded with sympathy, this happened over a century ago and he was still mourning. With a sigh she realized it was her turn to share, but somehow the hovering spirit of an ancient Slayer seemed to make things easier. "I saw Angel," she said slowly, her words flowing carefully from her lips. "I understand what's happened to him. His soul and his demon have been merged together somehow, he can't find his balance between them."

"And the Evil One is distorting the balance even further," Gerrico muttered with understanding.

"It's destroying him," the words came faster now, rushing as her heart begged for help, "driving him insane. Making him do things he would never do." He killed a man, he hurt Willow, he hates me.

"Then the fate of the world hangs with a madman." The elder peered into the young Slayer's face, his blue eyes serious and certain, "there is no alternative," he said softly. "You know what you must do?"

Soberly, although her heart was shattering, Buffy nodded, "I'm going to lie to him."

She had it all worked out in her head by the time she had reached home. She'd keep it brief and to the point; a simple 'I don't love you anymore' compounded with a slightly more difficult 'I don't think we should see each other again' and that would be it. No muss, no fuss. Her emotions gave a slightly distressed whimper, but she simply squashed them, buried them, concentrating instead on the task at hand. She wouldn't go into the long, involved 'why', she'd deftly skip the 'can we try again', she'd keep it short and sweet and most importantly bearable.

Yep, the more she thought about it, the surer she became it could be done. Her heart gave a little flutter and was once again squished under the weight of responsibility.

Then she saw him, hands in his pockets, shoulders slightly slumped under the sheer weight of his sins, both real and imagined. He was waiting for her like he used to, pacing soundlessly from her window to the front door, anxiously awaiting her.

He looked up at her and his eyes were much the same as she remembered, dark, miserable and filled with love for her. "Buffy," he murmured, seemingly at a loss for words.

Yeah, I know the feeling, she thought wryly. All the things she wanted to say to him, all the thought out formulas had popped from her head as though they had never existed. "What are you doing here?" She asked gruffly, wincing slightly at the harsh sound of her voice.

He mistook her harshness, "I-I can't go in," he assured her, "that un-invite spell is still binding. I came because I needed to talk to you, needed to explain."

Her heart went out to him, the loneliness of his stance, the beauty of his face, it all called out to her. Then she remembered the way he had treated her just this morning, what he had done to Willow, her own responsibilities and her heart hardened. "I don't think there's anything left for us to talk about."

He seemed taken aback, humbled somehow as if he had not expected this, "please, Buffy," he begged, "things are happening to me that I can't control." He ran a trembling hand through his soft, dark hair, his eyes pleading understanding, "all this power. I can feel it running through me, burning." His eyes locked unto hers, "I've done things to you, to Willow because I could and she wanted me to. She's trying to control me, Buffy!" His voice rose passionately and suddenly Buffy feared what would happen if her mother chose to look out the window to see what all the noise was about.

"Let's go somewhere and talk," she said, her voice placating, but he was too far-gone in his own inner turmoil.

"And I can't stop her," he said, his eyes darting nervously as if afraid his tormentor would appear from behind a neighbor's bush to smite him down. "You've got to help me stop her."

It was no use, Buffy realized, she'd have to face him here and now, ready or not. "I can't help you," she said coldly, her eyes refusing to meet his. "There's nothing I can do for you anymore."

His eyes widened with shocked disappointment, a horrible look of betrayal spread across his features, "Buffy please!" He whispered intently, "I love you!'

This was it, this was her chance. Her eyes lifted to meet his and held, "I don't love you," she said although her heart was crumbling to dust within her body. "Not anymore." He stared at her blankly, standing like a figure of despair, "goodbye Angel," she said and turned as quickly as she could so he wouldn't see the tears in her eyes.

When she turned back a moment later there was nothing but emptiness where her lover had been.

She walked heavily up the stairs to her room, her body feeling leaden, her heart a hollow emptiness. There were still several more hours of night left and she fully intended to make good use of them, to succumb to a blissful and hopefully dreamless sleep. The note from Willow on her bed had meant postponing even that small comfort. With a sigh she sprawled on the bed and picked up her phone.

"I'm sorry!" She spluttered as soon as her redheaded friend had picked up the phone.

"I don't blame you!" Willow replied almost as quickly, "what Xander said, it wasn't true. I don't even think he meant it, he was just being Xander. Not the best Xander he can be, but still Xander."

"No," Buffy said, shaking her head instinctively, "he was right, it was my fault. I should have protected you, all of you. It's what I do."

"You can't save everybody," Willow said gently, "what happened to Miss Calendar wasn't your fault."

Buffy sighed ruefully, as usual Willow had cut to the heart of the matter. Someone had died because she didn't live up to her responsibilities and her greatest fear was that it would happen again. "He hurt you, Will," her voice was small, pitifully childlike.

"He didn't hurt me," the timid hacker objected. "Everyone blew the whole thing out of proportion. Nothing really happened," that was a lie they were both comfortable to accept. "Besides," she went on quickly, "as soon as Angel realized what was happening he just freaked out and left. He even apologized. Maybe he's going to be all right after all."

Buffy's shattered heart gave an extra little snap, "I don't know, Will," she replied shortly.

"Everything will be alright," Willow assured her. "Do you want me to come over?"

"No, Will, I'll be fine." Something suddenly occurred to her, "could you do me a favor, though?"


"Check out a plague for me. Early in the nineteenth century. Wiped out most of the Watcher's Council. Find out what you can about it."

"Just call me plague girl. No, wait, on second thought don't. Expecting to find anything?"

"No, not really, just curious." Buffy replied, relieved that she heard no trace of suspicion in her friend's voice. "Goodnight, Will."

Putting the phone down Buffy sank deeper into her soft bed, forcibly pushing all thoughts out of her head, she slipped into a well-deserved sleep.


She lightly swayed to the soft music as it played in her ears. His arms, strong and cool, were wrapped around her slender waist with the gentle touch of a man who knew his own strength. Her cheek pressed against his chest listening to the eerie stillness of his heart. She looked up into his eyes with adoration and her heart filled with warmth at the loving glow she saw within them.

"I love you," he whispered.

Her eyes brimmed with tears at his words, blurring her vision. "I love you too," she choked. He seemed to glow in her tear filled vision.

He broke away from her with a soft, tender smile, "take my hand," he said, reaching out for her.

The glow around him seemed to grow brighter, stronger. Confused, she blinked away the tears, but it refused to go away.

"Take my hand," he said, his voice growing stronger, commanding.

But the light disturbed her, growing like a cancerous disease behind him, swirling, undulating foully. His chest was bleeding, she suddenly noticed, the cold, steely sword lay embedded in his body. "Angel?" She whispered, her confused distress in her voice.

His eyes widened with righteous indignation and still the light behind him grew, swelling into an angry vortex. "I loved you through hellfire and brimstone and all you had to do was take my hand. Take it!" He reached out for her and this time he could not be refused.

He pulled her close, ignoring the sword still embedded in his body. She shuddered as she felt the hilt press against her, the cold dampness seeping through her blouse.

"Promise to never sacrifice me again," he moaned as the sword dug deeper into him, "promise me!"

She shook her head, tears suffocating her, "I already have."

She had a clear view of the betrayal in his eyes as he twisted, pushing her with unbreakable force into the hungering vortex that should have taken him. She screamed as hellfire engulfed her with its desecrating flames and the souls of the damned laughed, pulling her even deeper.


She went on screaming as soft arms engulfed her, rocking her gently. Gradually her screaming subsided into tears as she finally released her anguish in her mother's tender embrace.

"All right," Joyce said gently once the worst of it was over. "Are you going to tell me what's going on?"

Buffy sniffed loudly, her mind a jumbled kaleidoscope of swirling thoughts and emotions. What's going on? Where should she start? In a moment of clarity within the confusion she decided not to start at all. "Nothing," she lied, giving her mother a reassuring half smile, "I just had the weirdest nightmare. Sears was having this huge halter-top sale and none of the ATM's would work, so..."

 "I don't accept that, Buffy." Joyce said coolly, her eyes peering into her daughter's face.


"I've seen you this past week. I've seen the dark circles under your eyes, and I've heard you crying in your room when you thought I wasn't around. Buffy. tell me what's going on."

"I can't," the facade broke. Distressed, Buffy tossed off her covers and climbed out of bed to stare out the dark window at the uninviting night beyond. "Please mom, it's just too much."

"That's exactly why you need to tell me. I can't," shaken by the fear in her voice Buffy turned to look at her mother, "it can't be like last year. I can't not know what's going on with you and then have you disappear." Her voice rose, her emotions taking over. "If it's the end of the world I'd rather you told me then not know what's going on with you again!"

"Mom," Buffy said soberly, taking her mother's hands in hers, "it's the end of the world. Again." Joyce stared at her with numb shock then slowly began to laugh, after a stunned moment Buffy joined her. "It does take the edge off when I say it like that," she admitted once they've calmed down, "sort of like the Rolling Stone's last performance, again."

"All right," Joyce said, surprisingly calm, "how is it the end of the world?"

"Well," Buffy replied blithely, if her mother was going to be so infuriatingly composed she figured she might as well take her chances. "I wouldn't exactly put it in the end of the world category, it's more of a hell on earth situation with an added bonus of death and destruction to go around. Remember Angel?" She added quickly as her mother's eyes narrowed dangerously.

"He's the one you had..."

"That's right!" Buffy cut her off quickly, a dark flush rising in her face. Hearing her mother say the 's' word in relation to her was more than she could handle at the moment. "He's back," she said simply.

"Did he hurt you?"

The question was so innocently direct it nearly brought tears to Buffy's eyes. Anyone else would have asked how he came back or even why, but her mother's first concern was for her child. In an irrational moment all she wanted to do was fling her arms around her mother's neck and cry out 'yes! He hurt me mommy!' and have mommy fix everything. But things didn't work that way anymore, and they hadn't for the longest time. "No, he didn't," she lied sadly. "He's not like he was before, he's changed," boy, was that an understatement. "He didn't come back on his own. We brought him back, Giles and me." And her kindergarten teacher always said she wouldn't share, here she was sharing blame like a good girl. "We had to," she went on quickly as twin eyebrows rose furiously. "There's this threat only he can answer to, it'll destroy the world if we let it."

"And that, I suppose, is the hell on earth you were talking about?" Buffy held her breath as she nodded. She searched her mother's eyes and found what she was looking for. There was the love and compassion she had grown to expect and finally, for the first time since Joyce had found out about her daughter's calling, acceptance. "How can I help?"

Relieved, Buffy let out her breath explosively, "just be with me tonight?" She asked in a small, fragile voice. Joyce nodded and with a contented sigh Buffy settled for sleep in her mother's arms.

* * *
Chapter Twelve

She had woken up surprisingly relaxed late that morning. After a satisfyingly huge breakfast, armed with a note from her mother as to why Buffy was late for school that day, she made her way to her second period class. After a longer then expected pit stop at Snyder's office to deposit said note she was finally ready to face the day.

"Buffy!" Willow cried with artificial joviality from her seat by the snack machine, "look Xander, it's Buffy. Isn't it great to see Buffy?"

"Hey, Buff," Xander sounded as glib as usual, but to Buffy's attuned senses the thin note of tension in his voice was glaringly obvious. "You missed out on everything you never wanted to know about the insides of frogs and other fun filled facts this morning, you lucky dog you. Where've you been?"

She shrugged casually, maybe they'd just be able to gloss over what happened last night. After all, what was one more elephant in the room? One look at Willow's disapproving expression, though, said she'd have none of that. "Mom let me sleep in this morning, but I would've managed to get to science class on time if Snyder hadn't shot off at the mouth for so long. He even started to recycle threats and insults, I think he called me a degenerate miscreant at least twice, and I'm pretty sure he mentioned suspension more then once."

"Buffy," Willow started off, a scowl had begun to form on her pretty face.

"Is it just me or does that guy look more and more like a ghoul every day?" Xander asked, neatly deflecting Willow's pure intentions. Buffy sighed with relief, Xander didn't feel like talking about last night any more than she did. "Maybe you should ask Giles's permission to slay him? We don't want evil walking around free to do as it pleases, do we?" The usual merry twinkle in the boy's eyes was marred. By guilt, Buffy wondered, or was it accusation still?

"Xander!" Willow's scowl had matured into a full-fledged frown, which was now focused entirely on the innocent-eyed boy beside her.

"You could always ask him " Buffy replied blandly, "get him to look at you disapprovingly. He likes that. So, Will," Buffy went on quickly as the pretty redhead's eyes slowly narrowed to glare at her dangerously, "how's Oz doing?"

"He'll be fine, thanks," Willow replied from between clenched teeth. "He's got the wolf's surprise appearance thing to work on, but Giles is looking into that. Other then that we still need to hammer some things out," Buffy swallowed hard at her friend's choice of words, an angry Willow was not a pleasant Willow. "But I think we're going to be okay once we've talked," she looked at her two friends pointedly. Buffy was innocently examining her nails and Xander had bent down to take a closer look at his shoelace. "That's it!" Willow fumed, they both stared at her innocently. "You two need to talk, now!"

Buffy rose to her feet, "look, Will, I got to get my notes before third period, so maybe we could do the talking thing later?" Why did Willow insist on rehashing this delicate issue? So what if there was an elephant in the room? They could just tuck it neatly under the hideous carpeting and no one would be wiser. They didn't have to work on all their problems, did they?

"You, sit!" Willow commanded, her resolve face firmly in place. With a dejected groan Buffy obeyed, Xander concealed his smirk under a well-placed hand. "And you," she pointed at Xander, whose smirk suddenly evaporated, "are going to apologize for what you said last night." Her tone lightened slightly, but was still commanding. "You are going to work this through," she informed them, "I'm not going to let you two walk around like this. Now remember people, use 'I' statements only; 'I feel', 'I think'. And we communicate with our mouths, not with our hands," this was directed at Buffy whose face flushed slightly. Was all this really necessary? But Willow's eyes were pleading and her expression seemed to say 'no matter what he says don't hit him, you're bigger then he is'. The pretty redhead turned to leave, "you may talk now," she informed them as she strode proudly away.
Her two slack-jawed friends watched her go, then couldn't help but chuckle, "she would have made a great kindergarten teacher," Xander said.

"I was sort of thinking tyrant."

The boy frowned in thought, "mine was really both," he said. "She ruled that playground with an iron fist." They both laughed shortly, politely, after which an uncomfortable silence prevailed. "Buffy," Xander started quietly, awkwardly, "last night, after I finally got around to calm down and get at that huge foot I had lodged in my mouth, I realized just what I'd said to you." He shook his head guiltily, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said those things, I shouldn't have blamed you for what Angel did. We all knew the risks when we set him free."

"You were upset," Buffy interjected. Her friend was obviously suffering for this, he was sorry, she was sorry, they could just let it go at that. "It's okay, I know you didn't mean it."

A pair of serious brown eyes lifted to look at her and Buffy miserably realized they were not going to let it go at that. "See, that's the thing, I did mean it. Not the blaming you part," he added hurriedly.

"The Angel must die part," she said softly. So Xander hated Angel, that wasn't new. Then why did her shattered heart ache so much? "Look, Xander," she said intensely, then lowered her voice to a harsh whisper as students passing by began to stare, "you don't know everything, you can't understand everything that's going on with him."

"What don't I understand?" There was an aching bitterness in his voice, but no accusation. He didn't lie when he said he didn't blame her. "That he came out of hell torn apart? That he's being manipulated by some nasty force that's healed him and done God knows what else to him? That he knows the only reason we got him out of hell in the first place is to save our asses from aforementioned nasty force? Oh I understand, I understand that he's got so much pressure coming at him from so many angles he's flying apart at the seems. Trust me, I understand perfectly."

Buffy's jaw dropped, when did Xander become Mister Perceptive? "Then why," she began.

"That's exactly why," he hissed back. "He's going out of his mind with the pressure and so far he's vented it on Willow and some kids back at the Bronze, but who knows what he's capable of? Buffy, he has no place in this world anymore, he's insane and he hurts people. That's why."

Buffy shuddered despite herself as she found herself missing her immature, obstinate and witty friend. This new, serious Xander was disconcerting. "He's supposed to save the world," she said softly, lamely.

"Only nobody has any idea how, and so far he's doing a pretty nifty job of just the opposite," Xander countered. He sighed wearily, suddenly looking like a man much older then his tender age of seventeen, "look Buffy, I've given this a lot of thought, all last night actually."

"And what have you come up with?"

"Nothing," he admitted. "It's a catch twenty-two, if we kill him the world ends, if we let him live he could end the world all by himself. The only solution is getting him under control, stabilize him somehow," he shrugged and Buffy winced internally. Too late for that, she thought morbidly. "Maybe we should get him a therapist." He grinned and suddenly he was back to being immature old Xander, "you think we could find one that specializes in recently released from hell undead?"

"I'll look it up in the yellow pages," she replied dryly. "Are we okay, Xander?" She asked, her heart in her voice.

He gave her a glowing smile, and she breathed her relief, Xander was never one to hold grudges, not towards the living, anyway. "I'm your bosom buddy," he chortled, then looked her over suggestively, "I'm buddy to your bosom. Ouch!" He cried out as she elbowed him none too delicately.

"Hey, I said words people," Willow chastised them from across the hall. Had she been eavesdropping? Buffy couldn't help but wonder, Willow's face was innocent as always, though. She looked around at the empty hallways and gave Buffy a guilty look, "looks like you're missing third period as well. We might as well go hide out in the library before Snyder gives you a rerun of his recycled threats."

"Don't forget the insults," Buffy reminded her, "he wouldn't by the Snyder we all know and try to avoid without the insults. It's okay, Will, I wanted to see Giles this morning anyway. See if he's made any progress on the Cirta Angel thing yet."

Willow nodded as they all walked together towards the library, "oh, I almost forgot, I checked out that plague thing for you last night," she said.

"Ebola's in again?" Xander joked. "Why didn't anyone tell me? See now I have to take my bacteria proof suit to the dry cleaners, and it's always ages before they return that thing."

They ignored him. "Thing is," Willow continued, "it wasn't a plague." She swallowed hard and Buffy felt the familiar tightening in her gut. Something was very wrong. "It was Angelus," Willow finally blurted out, "him and his clan. They killed over three hundred people in one night."

The knot at the pit of her stomach grew instantly into a fist, and she felt the gall rising in her throat, "Angel?" She managed to say weakly, "are you sure?" Her stomach was churning insanely and she felt like she was about to vomit.

The pretty hacker nodded slowly, her face mirroring her concern at the Slayer's reaction. "I checked it several times, give or take a century either way, that was the only time a large number of Watchers died at about the same time." She gave her friend a puzzled look, "this happened a long time ago, Buffy. This was Angelus not Angel, he's changed since then."

"More then once," Xander muttered quietly to himself. "Say Buff, you're looking kind of green there, are you okay?"

Oh God, he'd lied to her! She shook her head slightly, but even that small motion was enough to send her nausea raging, "h-how?" She croaked.

Willow had stopped walking and was staring at her friend with worried eyes, "burning, biting, running people through with pointy things, I don't know, this happened nearly a hundred years ago! Buffy what's going on?"

"Oh God!" She managed before clasping her hand to her mouth and trotting off towards the bathroom.

Willow gave her one startled look and started after her, "go to the library," she told Xander. "Don't tell Giles," she added as an afterthought.

Willow was greeted by the uninviting sounds of retching as she stepped into the girl's bathroom. Gently she held Buffy's hair back as the Slayer surrendered to another fit. "Oh God, Will," Buffy panted.

"Wash your face," Willow instructed as she turned on a faucet, "breath."

Dazedly Buffy obeyed, she splashed cold water on her face and took several deep breaths, but that did little to calm the storm that was crashing through her. "I've made a mistake, Will," tears began flowing freely down her face. "I've made a horrible mistake and now I've lost him for nothing."

"Who have you lost?" Willow asked gently, but the Slayer was lost in a hell all her own.

"He lied to me, and I was stupid enough to believe it and now I've lost him," Buffy leaned on the sink, her arms trembling and suddenly Willow feared she would fall over, just topple to the floor and loose herself to her inner demons.

"Buffy," she said gently, her arms embracing the Slayer's slender shoulders. It was a comforting gesture, soft and light, but ready to catch the tiny Slayer should she fall. "Who lied to you?" She hoped the compassion in her voice didn't fall on deaf ears. "Who did you loose?"

"Angel," Buffy moaned, and for a moment Willow wasn't sure to which question the Slayer had answered. "I l-lied to him," she sniffed loudly, "I t-told him t-that I didn't l-love him anymore."

Willow's jaw dropped, "why did you do that?" She asked, straining to keep the shock out of her voice. This only brought on a fresh bout of tears forcing the hacker to ignore her own needs. She hugged her friend, rocking her, soothing her as her emotions raged on.

Finally the storm subsided, "I can't tell you, Will," Buffy whispered, her eyes pleading her friend to bear with her. Even if the plague part was a lie she was fairly sure that some of what Gerrico said was true, and if it was she owed Giles the effort of finding out before she confessed everything.

The two girls stood there watching each other, one silently pleading holding her breath in anticipation, the other thinking quietly to herself. There was a secret between them now, an impregnable wall that pushed them away from each other, put a strain on their friendship. Willow could refuse, they both knew, she could go to Giles with what was obviously important information and together they could get the truth out of her. Willow shook her head as she made her decision, their friendship meant more then that, it meant trust. "What now?" She asked, putting herself in Buffy's hands.

Buffy let out an explosive sigh of relief, "now we have to do this without Angel," she replied. Her voice was still shaky, but it was returning to its normal self.

"Like they did before," Willow said slowly, understanding dawning. Buffy nodded and they smiled at each other hesitantly, Buffy through her tears, Willow through her hesitation. Their friendship had suffered some blows but had survived, now they both moved warily. Willow sighed and tossed a lock of coppery hair behind one shoulder. "I guess it's research time."

Buffy's smile widened, "like that's not your favorite time."

"We all shine where we can," Willow replied piously, "not all of us can kill demons with our bare hands, some of us have to do it with aerodynamic pencils." They both laughed, relief washing over them, cleansing them.

"What do we tell Giles?" Buffy asked, turning serious again. How were they going to explain this change of heart without dealing with all the questions?

Willow shrugged, "we tell him we're looking at alternatives. We'll call it plan B."

Buffy let out a half hysterical giggle, which she could barely put a stop to as the worry in Willow's eyes registered. "And plan A is what exactly?"

Willow shrugged again, "we let him figure it out, he's been struggling with it for over a week. I should think he'd be happy for some alternatives just about now." She looked at her friend critically, "he'll never believe that everything's alright if you step out of this bathroom looking like this, though." She handed her friend a tissue as Buffy went to work on the war zone that was her face.

Buffy slammed her book shut with disgust, "sorry guys," she murmured quietly as her friends jumped at the sound. They each gave her their own personal version of a disgruntled look and went back to their reading. Buffy sighed miserably to herself, they'd been at it for several hours and other then the sketchy details they already knew there was nothing new about Cirta and the curse that had locked her up in the first place. At least Giles hadn't put up a fight when the two girls told him of their idea, he even seemed slightly relieved. Was it because this way Angel wouldn't have to be involved? Buffy couldn't help wonder, or was not finding any new information on how Angel was supposed to destroy Cirta that was finally getting to him? Either way after only the fewest of questions he sat down to help.

Xander was another matter, however. He had listened quietly as the two girls explained themselves and had then watched with growing consternation as they each did their best to avoid him. Finally he managed to corner Buffy in the stacks as she was looking for more relevant books between the dusty tomes. "All right," he had asked irritably, "what's with the 'we've got no one to depend on but ourselves' attitude, little Miss Lone Ranger?"

She looked up at him innocently from the books she was examining, "what do you mean?"

He looked down at her pointedly, "let's see. First you're all 'Angel's got to save the world and we've got to figure out how he's going to do it'." He mimicked the last in a high pitched voice, purposely ignoring the way Buffy's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Now you've got us looking for ways of destroying this Cirta chick without involving dead-boy. And, oh yeah, you manage to turn an interesting shade of green in between. Not your best color, by the way."

"Thanks," she said dryly, "I'll keep that in mind. Look," she said as she lifted the impressive pile of books she managed to collect, "you said it yourself, it's a catch twenty two. Damned if we do and damned if we don't. Can't eat the cake and leave it whole. A bird in the..."

"Yeah, okay. Enough with the cliches already."

She gave him an impudent grin, "point is we've got to look at our options. All of them, okay?"

"Okay," he muttered, still not entirely convinced. "Say, little lady," he said blithely, attempting to lighten the mood, "can I give you a hand with that," he motioned at the pile of books she carried.

Her eyebrows lifted questioningly, but she decided to play along. "Why thank you, kind sir," she drawled, depositing her entire load into his arms. She suppressed a laugh as he nearly toppled under the weight, "speaking of complexions," she said as she turned to leave, "that shade of chalk-white," she shook her head in mock seriousness, "not your best color."

Buffy shook her head ruefully, things had seemed hopeful then, but now, several dozens of books and a great deal of dust later, she felt like throwing in the towel. The problem was most relevant books seemed to know what they were talking about, but after the first few enticing paragraphs explaining why the humans and lesser demons came together to defeat the Evil One, they generally degenerated into absolute gibberish. Several went so far as to mention the curse, but none could offer any details. Frustration was a bitterly tangible thing as she peered across the growing pile of discarded books.

At least Oz and Cordelia had joined them at some point. While a soft smile and a gentle kiss had greeted Oz, a very eager Xander ushered Cordelia, after several long moments of pretending to read a dusty book, up into the stacks. But to be fair, Buffy admitted grudgingly to herself, they had returned to the books not long after, Xander with his hair mussed and a silly grin welded to his face. Cordelia, as perfect as always with a challenging, almost defiant look in her eyes. Well, Buffy thought, whatever worked for them.

"Ooh, I think I found something!" Cordelia suddenly announced. Five pairs of tired eyes waited expectantly. "Yep, I definitely found something," she went on without lifting her eyes from her book. "It has everything about the curse in here," her voice almost bounced with excitement. "It even tells how, oh. Oh!"

"What is it, Cordelia?" Giles asked as he reached to take the book from the suddenly pallid girl.

"Oh no," Cordelia murmured as the Watcher began to read quietly to himself. She stared at her friends, her eyes wide and more terrified then Buffy had ever seen them, "we can't do this!" She choked, "this is not a plan B. Plan B involves living to tell all about how plan A wouldn't do what it was supposed to. This plan B won't work that way." She gestured wildly at the book the librarian was trying to read, "i-it has a lot of very bad things to say about plan B. I really think we should be sticking to plan A, just gloss right over plan B. We'd be happier that way, and with a much stronger pulse, believe me."

Giles looked at the book in his hands with wonder, "I didn't even know I had this," he murmured wonderingly to himself. "It's an authentic translation of a first hand account of someone who actually witnessed the cursing. This person was truly there, he saw it all come to be."

"Care to share," Xander inquired a bit pointedly. He had his arms wrapped around his agitated girlfriend, who was still shaking her head and staring at the offending book in Giles's hands as if it had just bitten her. "What does it say?"

"Oh yes, quite. I merely wished to be sure you all comprehended the significance of this artifact," Giles said defensively. "And when we finally understood the task which befell upon us and our responsibility to see it through," Giles read as they glared at him impatiently. "We at last came together to fulfill our purpose. We gathered, demon and humankind alike, in the greatest square, in the greatest of all cities built by the slaves called man. As one we spoke the curse that would lock Evil forever from our lives, and as we spoke the condemning words she destroyed us still. A full half fell at the start, both man and demon, their wills crushed beyond repair. Another quarter went mad to sights and sounds only they could see and hear. But the rest of us spoke on, our wills free as our bodies had never been, our hearts, beating or still, demanded retribution. For on this day either she or we would perish." Giles stopped reading, his face pale and his hands trembling slightly, "I believe Cordelia is right, this solution is unacceptable."

"That's it?" Willow asked, her voice oddly hollow, "that's all it says?"

The distressed librarian shook his head, "there's more, but there's really no point to reading this since we won't be using it."

"I think we should know what we're up against, Giles," Buffy said quietly. "Whatever we end up doing we should know what she's capable of, just how strong she is."

Reluctantly Giles nodded, but he paused to take a deep, soothing breath before reading on. "We were left with naught but a quarter of those who had started, but our hearts held strong even as those we knew died around us. We spoke on, our lips never faltering, the words rising clearly from our throats, for the simplest of errors meant death for the unfortunate who wavered. As we spoke we felt her power engulfing us, lashing out at random as she weakened, but even then her terrifying minions cut through our ranks as though we were nothing more substantial then air. I am shamed, for I could bear no longer to stand among the rebels, and I fled still speaking the words lest I too perish. And as I watched from a hill above the great city, my mouth still furiously spitting dread words, the city burned with flames that reached the clouds, bringing to all that lived within a fiery death. Yes, only I, a coward by nature, remained to spread the tale amongst the lesser cities of man and minor demons that they were, at last, truly free."

"We can't do this," Oz said, his quiet voice shattering the silence that had engulfed the room. He had been quiet since he joined them, well quieter than usual, but now his voice reflected what was on all of their minds. "We can't subject anyone to this."

"He's right," Willow admitted, exchanging a long look with the pale Slayer. "We've got to find another way."

"Um, excuse me," Cordelia chimed in, the evidence of her ordeal still carved across her features, "do you mind if we get back to plan A now?"

Giles opened his mouth, but the Englishman's reply died on his lips as the earthquake hit.

* * *
Chapter Thirteen

"It's happening," Drusilla moaned softly.

Annoyed, Spike growled quietly to himself. He loved Drusilla, he really did, and at times he even thought he would die for her if necessary, God knows he'd killed for her. But sometimes his dark princess reminded him of the irritating little blonde girl from the movie Poltergeist, and those were the times he thought he could stake her himself or at least strangle her. Of course staking her was completely out of the question, the mere thought of her dust made him break into a cold sweat, but strangling her, now there was an interesting idea. "What's that, love?" he asked patiently as he pondered that thought.

She may have answered, or at least tried, but as the ground began to tremble violently beneath his feet, her reply was lost on him. He tried to keep his balance, but the floor beneath him seemed to have a mind of its own, landing him on his backside with his dignity in shambles. A loud creaking caught his attention, pulling him out of his shocked daze. Unnecessary air caught in his throat as he watched a crack the size of a grown man race across the factory's ceiling, even as its twin climbed up a wall towards an inevitable meeting. "Dru!" He cried out, his eyes darting around furiously. She was standing right behind him, the oddest expression smeared across her porcelain face, and all the while the ground beneath her feet was bucking madly. "Drusilla, we've got to get out of here," his own voice sounded like a stranger's, hoarse and terrified as he struggled to scream over the earth's roaring thunder.

Somehow he made it to his feet, someway he managed to pull the maddened Drusilla with him as he ran out of the crumbling factory. Irrationally, while he ran like mad, as the ground beneath him shook itself free of any restraints it might have ever had, his boyhood religious studies came rushing back. Sodom and Gomorrah, his mind gibbered, don't look back. And even in his terror he could find the irony in the comparison; Lot, the righteous, had been spared by the will of God, by whose will would a demon be spared? So he ran like a creature insane, his hand clamped over his lover's, his feet struggling to keep their balance and the rumbling sound of the crashing factory in his ears.

Inevitably he stumbled and fell on his hands and knees, pulling Drusilla down with him. A roaring cloud of dust engulfed him, blinding him, forcing him to lay still on the treacherous earth and cling to his lover's hand like a lifeline. "Bloody hell!" He panted when he finally realized the earth had stopped moving and it was him that was shaking. The rumble of the ruined factory had deteriorated into a strange gagging sound, almost a cackle of sorts. A sound, he finally grasped as the dust began to clear, that was coming from the prone woman lying beside him. Concerned he rushed to her side, "Dru? Pet?" He murmured, his hands grabbing at her slender shoulders, shaking her involuntarily. "Moppet, talk to me, love." She blinked and looked up at him, the strange sounds still coming from her mouth. It was only then that he recognized that she was laughing. They had nearly been buried alive, well undead anyway, under the pile of rubble that had once been their home and the silly tart was laughing! With a disgusted grunt he pushed her away from him. Staking her had never seemed so appealing.

"Ring around the rosy," Drusilla sang as he turned away from her.

His jaws clenched tightly together as he strained to keep his temper in check, "Dru, love." He began patiently, "do you know what just happened?"

"Pockets full of posies," she sang on, but her eyes had a distant look in them, the look of a seer. Despite her madness, though sometimes Spike suspected it was because of it no matter what Angelus said, she could still see things others couldn't. And those things often tore at her fragile mind.

"Please, Dru," He begged. He got down on his knees on the ground beside her, his hands gripping her shoulders again, though gently this time, "if you know, love, I need you to tell me."

She looked up at him, the rare glow of lucidity shining in her eyes, "it's finally happened, Spike," she whispered, choking on the words. "He gave himself to her. Mind, body," she paused as her features suddenly became distressed, "and soul," she breathed desperately. "The Slayer told him she didn't want him anymore," her slender body began to tremble, "she's changed him. It's nearly complete."

Spike's eyes widened with shock, his nerves were hanging by a wire holding the capacity to snap, spiral out of control at the slightest provocation. This was something he definitely didn't need to hear, "why?" He managed to spit out through his tightly clenched teeth.

But her moment of sanity was over, "ashes, ashes," she sang as crystalline tears streamed delicately down her dust-covered face, creating rivers of mud along her cheeks. The river Styx, Spike thought grimly, then shook his head in anger. Will these death metaphors never go away? "They all fall down."

His mind full of questions, his body aching with repressed terror, and his demon screaming for Slayer blood, Spike embraced his weeping princess as he tried to figure out what he would do next.

"Is everyone all right?" Giles asked as he crawled from under the table he had taken cover under. The lights were flickering wanly, trying to gain some semblance of control, but inevitably surrendering to the darkness.

"Well, I definitely felt that one," Xander grumbled as he lifted himself from off Cordelia. Unhesitating, he leaped to cover her with his own body as soon as the earthquake started. The cheerleader for once said nothing, she simply climbed to her feet and brushed the dust and rubble off her clothes, but her eyes held an oddly bemused look in them as if she had realized something for the first time.

"We're fine," Willow said as she Oz and Buffy crawled out and began dusting themselves off. "Too bad we can't say the same about the electricity," the darkness was gaining an unnerving stronghold in the odd battle between natural darkness and artificial lights.

"Looks like Richter's going to have to get himself a bigger set of scales," Buffy mumbled as she examined a particularly nasty tear in her shirtsleeve. Oh well, she thought unhappily, another expensive article of clothing bites the dust, so to speak. "This place is a mess," she said as she peered at the damaged library.

The bookshelves had toppled one on top of the other in a domino formation, leaving precious books in a state of disarray. But most disturbing was the wide crack in the floor where the Hellmouth had once opened. Other than that a bit of plaster had fallen off the high ceiling and from the walls, but the structure in itself seemed mostly intact.

As if on cue the lights had finally surrendered, plunging them in absolute darkness. No one spoke as six sets of eyes frantically tried to adjust themselves to the darkness. A moment later a lighter flickered creating a comforting aura around Oz's hand. "Here," he said, handing Willow his lighter, then, after a few seconds of fishing in his pockets he retrieved three more of the same and handed them to the others.

"Boy scout much? For someone who doesn't smoke you're a handy person to have around," Buffy said as Giles took another lighter and went off in search of candles.

Oz shrugged, "I carry these around for the concerts." He waved his lighter around from side to side above his head at their blank looks, "it helps get the audience in the right mood. Makes them think we play better then we do."

Xander shook his head and smiled, "the secret to musical success," he said, "props."

"Never said we were successful," Oz replied, his features never shifting from their stoic expression. "I guess plan A just got nixed," he said quietly as Giles returned with a few candles. They stared at him.

"Unless plan A happened to be hiding in the stacks just now or is seriously afraid of the dark," Xander finally said, pointing at the piles of ravaged books, "I really don't see the connection."

"Every time there was an earthquake it had something to do with Angel," Oz explained, as his eyes sought out his guitar. Finally he located it lying upside-down beneath a chair, "all the other earthquakes were relatively small compared to this one, but the changes in Angel were pretty big." His eyes clouded over as he discovered that several of his guitar strings had been torn, and a fresh scratch ran up the instrument's neck. "This one was pretty big. I'm only guessing here, but I figure reasoning with Angel is pretty much hopeless at this point." He strummed the remaining strings experimentally, then, pleased at the sound, he played out a strange little three stringed tune.

"No!" Cordelia was the first to react. She clutched on to Xander's hand instinctively, he seemed surprised, but not entirely displeased with their sudden closeness. "No, no, no, no, no! You can't know that, we're in southern California, earthquakes happen here all the time. You can't just give up on plan A like that, for all we know this has nothing to do with Angel."

Willow and Buffy exchanged knowing looks, this had everything to do with Angel and Oz was probably right. "Buffy," Willow began quietly.

Buffy understood what Willow was trying to say, she had to tell them about Angel. They had a right to know what was going on, "I," she began, but she couldn't, not just yet. They had all been forced into this situation because of her naivete, and it was up to her to figure out exactly what the situation was. "I'll go see Angel," her voice was hollow, empty of emotion, "I'll see if it's really true."

Unhappy concern marred Willow's pretty face, but true to her word she said nothing. Giles, however, had his own reservations, "no, Buffy," the Watcher objected, "if he's given himself to Cirta then it'll be too dangerous for you to be anywhere near him. He won't be in his right mind."

"And I'd really hate to see him in his wrong mind," Xander murmured.

"I'll be fine. We need to know what's going on to figure out what we're going to do next, you know that." Her voice was convincingly calm, but her mind was racing hysterically. There was no question as to whether Angel had given himself or not, and it was all her fault. She had betrayed him, again. "I'll be careful, mom," she said with a forced smile. "How's about you do something constructive in the meantime and clean up this room. You really have let this place go lately."

"Buffy," Giles began warningly.

"Or you could research the curse some more," she suggested glibly as she made her way towards the swinging doors, "if you find the right books in all this mess. Maybe you can find a loophole that won't get everybody killed." With that she quickly left, leaving a baffled Watcher and very worried teenagers behind.

They stared at the swinging doors in silence, the only sound filling the room was Oz's three stringed melody. "So it's the end of the world," Xander murmured.

"As we know it," Willow added. "Sorry," she said as they glared at her, "I couldn't help it."

"And we're all going to die," he went on. Respectful silence filled the room again, its nature so oppressive it even managed to force Oz to stop playing his damaged guitar.

"Hmm," Cordelia said sympathetically. "You think any pizza places deliver after an earthquake?"

The mansion was glowing. A pale blue nimbus of light surrounded it, mystifying it, separating it from the reality of the rest of the world. As Buffy watched slack-jawed, the light pulsed, grew then withdrew with the unfulfilled threat of malevolent power. She stood in the shadows of a half-uprooted tree, yet another victim of the earth's rebellion, her gaze mesmerized to the blatant aura of evil surrounding the structure that was her lover's in her mind.

"Well, well," Spike said as he walked up from behind her tree, looking for all the world as if he were out on an evening stroll. But his eyes were slightly wild, and the hand holding his unlit cigarette trembled violently, "funny to run into you here on a nice, quiet night like this. Say," sarcasm dripped off his voice like poison, "do you notice anything different?"

"Spike," she didn't really know what to say to him. She needed his help, that much was obvious, but after all that's happened how could she possibly ask for it?

He never gave her the chance. He turned on her, moving with whip like speed. He pinned her to the tree with murder in his golden eyes, "We nearly got killed tonight," he hissed in her face through sharp fangs. "Dru and I. I'm not very fond of being buried alive, pet," he spit the last in her face as he pressed her even harder into the tree. "So I'm going to ask you this just once. What. Did. You. Do." He annunciated each word, his body still pressing her forcefully into the rough bark, his furious demonic features a hairsbreadth from her own.

"I lied to him," she choked, "I told him I didn't love him anymore, that I couldn't help him." Why she was telling Spike what she couldn't bring herself to tell her friends was beyond her. She needed his help, but she needed theirs too.


"The elders, Gerrico, he convinced me it was the only way," with a frustrated grunt she pushed the angry vampire off her, her Slayer instincts coming to her aid where her humanity had failed. "He lied to me!" She screamed, all the penned-up rage and betrayal she had kept hidden raged out of her in a flood of emotion. "This was his own personal revenge against Angel! He'd sacrifice everything, including himself, to see Angel destroyed!"

Spike's eyes widened with shock, his face unconsciously slipping back into his human mask, "how do you know?"

"Angel killed," she caught herself here, she couldn't reveal everything, not to Spike, "people a hundred years ago. People who were important to Gerrico, so he fooled me into lying to Angel and push him straight into Cirta's arms." Did she even have arms? Buffy couldn't help wonder through her anguish.

"Damn, Slayer," Spike whistled appreciatively, "when you set your mind up to muck up the waters there's just no clean spring in sight, is there?" He brought his cigarette to his lips and made a feeble effort to light it, "what are we going to do about this?" He asked, motioning towards the glowing mansion.

"Angel," she began, as he tried to light his cigarette again and failed. His hands were trembling too much and the lighter's flame kept flickering out of existence every time it went anywhere near his mouth. "I don't know what to do about Angel. But Cirta's a different story. Oh, let me do that already!" She grabbed his lighter and held it steady till he managed to make good use of it. Bemused, she observed him visibly relax as he inhaled deeply. Maybe I should take up smoking, she wondered. Who knows, maybe I'll get lucky and that'll be the thing that kills me.

"How do you want to get rid of Cirta without Angel?" His voice seemed steadier, and his whole demeanor felt less on edge. Yep, smoking was definitely an option to consider. If she managed to survive this, that is.

"We curse her, like they did before. We lock her away and hope no one else has to deal with her ever again." Feverishly she prayed he didn't know much about her history, about the complete annihilation those who locked Cirta the first time had suffered.

But as his eyes widened and he tossed the half-smoked cigarette casually to the ground she felt her hopes crumble, "do you think I'm daft or just illiterate?" He demanded. Okay, so maybe cigarettes weren't a suitable replacement for Prozac as far as calming vampire nerves went. "Why the bloody hell did you think we got Angel out of Hell in the first place? To avoid this, you silly tart! And now you want me to join you in a fight you have no chance of surviving? Well I say find yourself another sap, love, because this one has had enough!"

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm saying I'm leaving, pet. I'm taking Dru and we're getting as far away from here as we can get, and you'd be smart to do the same." Stunned into silence she watched him turn and leave, his pale form quickly fading from sight in the dark night.

She watched the glowing mansion for a while longer, then turned to leave as well. She knew what she had to do, and she was slowly coming to terms with it. A year and a half ago she had been told she would have to die so that others may live. And though her youth had rebelled at the unfairness of it all and her heart cried out to run, she had stood her ground and did what she had to do. This time was different, this time she was promising a harsh, painful death to anyone who dared help her. And though her soul was already weeping for those who must die, she walked bravely to the library to tell those she loved that it must be so.

The streets of Sunnydale were unnaturally dark and dismal as Buffy made her way to the library. Were they this dark when she went to the mansion? She couldn't remember. In her haste to reach Angel she never noticed or thought about anything else. The earthquake had struck Sunnydale as a whole and now that she was taking the time to look, the damages were clearly abundant. The power lines were obviously damaged, but even in the darkness she could see the telltale signs of wounded houses and crippled cars. But there were no sounds of the sirens she had come to expect after a natural disaster, and there were no people. Where were all the people?

Her breath caught in her throat as the first real pangs of fear rang through her chest. She made a sharp turn and began to run home, cursing herself for her stupidity even as she ran. This was where she should have gone first. But no, she had never once given any thought to whether her mother was all right. She'd never even stopped to worry.

Breathless and furious she stopped dead in her tracks when she finally caught sight of her house. Even at a distance the roof's collapse into the house's second floor, into the bedroom floor, was clear. "Mom?" She tried to call out, but terror had deteriorated her voice into a pathetic whisper. She forcefully moved her frozen body, gaining speed as she neared the house till she was practically running to the front door. "Mom!" She yelled anxiously as she jerked open the door. The house was dark, empty and devoid of any life. She moved quickly through the rooms, wincing at the pile of debris that had reduced her bed to splinters, when she stepped into her own room.

Finally she allowed herself to breathe her relief. Her mother was obviously not there, but where was she then? And where had all the people gone for that matter? Confused, and more than a little afraid at what she might find, she resumed her trek to the high school.

The flickering lights of candles and the hushed buzz that signified the presence of a large group of people did little to calm the small Slayer's tightly wound nerves. She made her way gingerly between the small groups of people huddled together in the high school's hallway, ignoring people she knew as her confused mind demanded attention. Sunnydale's missing occupants had obviously come here, but why?

Soft arms engulfed her in a bear hug, destroying her train of thought, "oh Buffy, thank God!" Joyce Summers breathed into her daughter's cheek.

 "Mom!" Buffy choked. For a moment the two hugged, then, fueled by urgency, Buffy gently disentangled herself from her mother's embrace. "What're you doing here? What's everybody doing here?"

"Mister Giles said you were all right, that you weren't hurt," her mother blurted, too caught up in her own relief to answer any questions. "But I was sure something happened to you. When I went into your room and saw your bed it was like some sort of omen," she shook her head, tears of remembered anguish springing to her eyes, "I just ran here as fast as I could, but I couldn't find you. Mister Giles said that you were..."

"All right?" Buffy completed with a quirky half smile. She hated to see her mother worry over her, but then there were the times when it was nice to feel loved.

"I'm babbling, aren't I?" Joyce said sheepishly. She took a deep, cleansing breath to steady her nerves, "I don't know why everyone's here. I was just so anxious to find you that I never bothered asking them anything except if they saw you." A horrified expression suddenly appeared on her face, "oh God, they must think I'm horrible!"

"I think the neighbors will forgive your lousy holocaust etiquette, mom," Buffy said, suppressing a smile. "Where's Giles?"

"The library, I think," Joyce replied, her mind obviously elsewhere. "Maybe I should ask them if they need anything." Satisfied that her daughter was among the walking and talking, she was ready to turn her attentions to those who needed them.

"Great, I'll be in the library if you need me." Her friends were busy pondering over books in candlelight when she stepped through the swinging wooden doors. "What's with the new refugee look happening out there?" She asked, motioning towards the area outside the library.

They turned their attentions away from their respective tomes to stare at her gravely, "this, typically, is the only place left standing in Sunnydale within walking distance," Xander replied. "It couldn't have been the pizza place or the arcade," he mourned.

"No electricity," Oz reminded him.

"This is like something out of my worst nightmare," he complained, ignoring the laconic boy. "No wait, it's like something out of my worst nightmare's worst nightmare." They stared at him, "oh, it's just evil."

"Wait, why walking distance?"

"None of the cars would start," Cordelia replied irritably, "you want to take a guess as to how we found that out?"


"I think it has something to do with an electromagnetic wave that was released when the earthquake hit." Willow explained, completely missing the blank look on her friends' faces. "See, new cars have these complex electrical systems and an electromagnetic disruption would..."

"Um, Will?" Buffy said gently.

The redheaded hacker's blushing face was obvious even in the wan candlelight. "Well why did you ask if you don't really want to know?" She said sullenly as she retreated into her boyfriend's arms. "You're supposed to stop me when I do that," she accused him gently.

"I like it when you do that," he replied, affectionately running his fingers through her hair. Her answer to that was a soft poke in his ribs.

"Wait," Cordelia suddenly said. "If the electrical system mumbo-jumbo only lives in new cars, why wouldn't your car start?" She asked the Watcher pointedly.

"I-it was having problems lately," Giles replied uncomfortably, "I've been meaning to take it to a mechanic, but..."

"See what happens when you procrastinate mister," Buffy said with a slight smile, fully realizing she was doing the same. "Angel's not on our side anymore," she blurted, needing to get that off her chest.

"Yeah, we kind of figured that out," Xander replied. "The people who came here told us about the mansion," he explained at her questioning look. "Of course it kind of came last in a long list of things they told us. My house collapsed on top of me, everything I own in the world's been destroyed, and oh yeah, did you know the mansion on Crawford street was glowing?" He shook his head at his own dark humor, "it kind of took awhile before anyone got around to elaborate on that last part."

"Buffy," Giles began grimly, immediately catching everyone's attention, "I believe this has all happened for a reason."

Buffy groaned inwardly as her friends shifted uncomfortably. They had obviously discussed this during her absence. She hated it when they did that, it was so much harder to protest when they had all the ins and outs figured out. "What reason is that?" Buffy asked carefully.

"Do you remember the passage I read to you the other morning?" Buffy tried to think back, but so much had happened since then that it seemed so long ago. Giles began fumbling through a book at her blank look, "and she shall empower him with the strength above all others, for it is known that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," he recited. Buffy shivered slightly, the words had been disturbing yesterday, but now they were positively unnerving. "I believe that is exactly what happened." He slammed the book down on the table with an uncharacteristic show of frustration, "I don't know how I could have missed it!" He exclaimed, "I should have known what was about to happen, it was right under my nose this entire time!"

"You can't blame yourself, Giles," Willow said, moving the offending book out of the Watcher's range just in case. "Can he, Buffy?" She said pointedly.

"No, he can't," Buffy echoed hollowly.

"So there's only one way to do this, and we've got all these lucky people that are stuck here and they get to help us do it," Xander said sarcastically. "Anybody else not thinking coincidence?"

Giles shook his head, apparently in full control of his temper, "coincidence or not, we're all agreed that this is our only option?"

They all stared at Cordelia, expecting her to protest, "what?" She said indignantly, "so we're all going to die. I can live with that."

* * *
Chapter Fourteen

They'd decided to start with their classmates first. The young citizens of Sunnydale who had beaten the odds by merely staying alive. They knew the things that went bump in the night, they'd lost friends and family to those things and had bravely moved on. They were survivors through and through, young people with haunted eyes and grim expressions that bespoke the sights that no one should have to see. And they were up to this final task as well, they had to be.

"What are you nuts?" Harmony cried out when Buffy finished talking. The cafeteria burst into sound as most of its young occupants fervently agreed with her.

"I told you we shouldn't have told them the whole thing," Cordelia murmured to Xander. "The gist of it would have been fine, we could have just skipped the 'we're all going to die' bit. Some people don't take that well, you know."

Xander spared a half-amused look her way, "I think it has to do with integrity," he replied, "never really got it myself, but it sounded important."

She gave him an evil look when she realized she had just been made fun of, then drew her attention back to the rapidly heating argument.

"I'm not going to do something that's going to get me killed," Larry yelled.

"Of course not," somebody shouted from the back row, "not now that you've finally found yourself!"

Larry turned a bright red as the room burst into laughter, "you know what they say about homophobes," he retorted hotly.

Buffy rolled her eyes, this was not what she had in mind when she envisioned this assembly. Disbelief and ridicule she was prepared for, fear and resentment was expected. A discussion on Larry's lifestyle of choice was definitely not on the agenda. She raised her hand, trying to get the noisy room to notice her, "this is important!" She tried, but her voice was lost in the shouting.

"Shut up!" Buffy spun around to find Cordelia standing beside her. The room hushed immediately, caught off guard by the cheerleader's shrill voice. "Bottom line is we're all going to die here anyway. I think we all figured that out at some point. The only question is how we're going to go about doing it." Slack-jawed, Buffy stared at her along with the rest of the senior class, "well I'm not going to die with just you losers," Cordelia murmured to the stunned Slayer, "if I'm going I'm taking this whole God forsaken town with me." The mirth in her voice was apparent, but the tall brunette's eyes were flaming with barely suppressed passion.

"Cordelia Chase!" Harmony rose to her feet disdainfully, "sick of playing your twisted games with your geek of a boyfriend and his friends so you decide to drag us all in?" Buffy groaned inwardly, the vacant-eyed blonde could very well destroy everything. Maybe she wouldn't be so quick to save the stupid airhead of a girl the next time a vampire attacked, the world would only benefit.

Cordelia was undaunted though, "are we going to die like sheep?" She asked pointedly. Harmony's eyes widened slightly and she sat back down with a discouraged thump. Buffy stared at Xander questioningly, but he simply shrugged. "We've been treated like sheep our whole lives." She began to walk between the rows of her riveted peers, her confidence growing as she spoke. "Our friends have died or disappeared, and no one will tell us why. Things happen here, bad things, and no one will tell us why!" Her voice grew to a ringing crescendo, forcing everyone to listen, "we've got the only school paper in the country that has an obituary column and no one will tell us why! So I'm asking you; are we going to die like sheep?" The ringing denial that instinctively rang out of everyone's lips seemed to shake the already damaged structure. Even the passionate Cordelia seemed humbled, though not enough to be stopped. "Or are we going to go like people and take that bitch of a demon with us?"

The room burst into sound as each teenager consciously threw away the shackles of a life clouded by ignorance.

"She should have gone into politics," Xander whispered to Willow, his voice barely carrying over the clamor that filled the room.

"President Cordy," Willow mused then shuddered, "now there's a scary thought."

"Did you notice how no one argued the existence of demons?" Buffy asked Cordelia as they both began to handout the written instructions that Giles had prepared earlier to their classmates.

The brunette merely shrugged, her beautiful face showing no surprise. "I guess even denial has its limits," she replied.

Some days it was great being the Slayer. Unfortunately today wasn't one of those days. The senior class had all memorized the words of the curse and was now spreading the knowledge among their families and friends. There was a corrupt sort of innocence in the way small groups of people huddled together with their torn and dirty clothes, mumbling the words that ultimately promised them nothing but death. As Buffy roamed the school halls aimlessly, the babble of the curse she had already memorized coming at her from all sides, she finally allowed herself to feel some of the guilt she'd been repressing. After all it was her fault all this was happening, hers from the very start.

Angel should have never been allowed to go on living, once she found out what he was. Yet she went against common sense and her sacred duty and not only had she spared his life she'd also fallen in love with him. From there her list of sins only grew exponentially going from allowing an evil demon to live and take lives, on to betraying her lover and destroying him and finally allowing herself to be fooled into lying to him, to her loved ones and to herself. Could things be any worse?

"I'll never be able to learn this!" Came Harmony's pathetic whine.

"Yes you will," Willow was saying through clenched teeth, "all it takes is a little concentration."

Buffy winced in response to her friend's obvious ongoing torture. Willow was normally a very patient person, but even the little hacker had her limits.

"But it's so hard, it's almost like," the vacuous blonde thought about it, "like school!" She finally blurted.

"Which is exactly where we are," Willow replied, careful not to let her exasperation show.

"Oh yeah," Harmony replied sheepishly. "You know, Willow, I always wished I could be smart like you."

The redhead's eyes widened with surprise, "really?" She asked timidly, "that's so sweet."

Harmony nodded enthusiastically, "yeah, but you know, I had to get dates through high school so I was too busy to work on that." She sighed morosely, "maybe I should have been more like you."

"No," the fledgling witch muttered, spotting Buffy trying to quietly scurry away as she spoke, "you were just fine being yourself." She gave Buffy an 'I'm really going to have a hard time forgiving you for this one' look before returning to her thickheaded pupil.

Buffy sighed, maybe some people did have it worse then she did right now.

"Buffy!" Xander called out from the opposite side of the hallway. He closed the gap between them in a few short strides, deftly avoiding the huddled groups of mumbling people lounging on the blankets that had been spread across the floor. He made a face at the odd words coming at him from all sides, "is it okay for them all to be saying the curse like that?" He asked nervously, "I mean we're not going to be starting it off by accident or anything, right?"

Buffy shrugged, "Giles says that as long as we don't say it all together we're in the clear." She winced as someone behind her stumbled over an especially complex formula, "little chance of that happening anytime soon," she assured him.

"Your mom was looking for you," Xander said, "she wanted to know what to do about the children."

"T-the children?"

"Yeah, small people, like to watch Sesame Street and eat ice-cream. There's more to Sunnydale then just teenagers and oblivious adults, you know."

She stared at him helplessly, "I didn't really think about that," she admitted.

Xander nodded grimly, "look, Buffy, it was bad enough teaching this to my parents. I'm not going to stand in front of a group of kids and teach them how to chant this stuff."

"No, of course not."

"And you won't either," he said firmly. "I'm thinking that when the time comes we leave them here with someone who can take care of them. Someone capable."

She managed a wan smile, "you're not talking about yourself, are you?"

He smiled back mischievously, "I said someone capable. My vote's for your mom. What do you say?"

She gaped at him, her mouth opened and closed but no sound would come out. Her mother's possible death was one of the heaviest burdens she had to carry, and he was relieving her of that, just like that. "Thank you," she managed to choke out, "but you better run it by Giles first."

"Actually," Xander's boyish features broke into a bright grin, "he was the one who suggested it." Suddenly embarrassed by the tears welling up in his friend's eyes he turned to leave, "I think I'll go break the news to your mom," he said as he walked away.

She nodded mutely, overcome with emotion. She sniffed loudly as she felt her tears rising up like an unstoppable tidal wave within her, she needed to find someplace to vent before she'd break down and start to cry in the middle of the hallway. Quickly she headed towards the one place she knew no one would be, the science room. With its disgusting smells and its thick walls she could wail away and no one would be the wiser.

With the tears already spilling down her face, she swiftly yanked open the heavy door and settled herself to crying by candlelight.

"Are you at peace with what you've done?" Came the unexpected question, "your certainty seems to be slightly lacking."

She spun around, thrusting the candle in front of her as a stake leaped into her hand, "you!" She spat contemptuously.

Completely at ease, as if the furious Slayer standing before him waving the sharp end of a stake his way was nonexistent, Gerrico smoothly stepped out of the shadows. "I thought we had an understanding," he said wryly.

"Oh yeah, we had an understanding all right," her voice rose as her emotions got the better of her. "You understood you were lying to me, and I got to understand that when it was too late."

"Lying to you?" He seemed truly baffled, his deep blue eyes narrowing in his attempt to understand, "when did I lie to you, child?"

"Don't you dare 'child' me," she hissed, her hand gripping her stake so tightly the knuckles were turning white. "I know all about your plague, all about what Angel did and why you wanted revenge. Even if it's going to cost you your own life!"

The elder's face clouded for a moment, but the emotion was too complex for the agitated Slayer to comprehend, "I never lied to you," his voice was calm, but with edges sharp enough to slice through the hardest of hearts. "When I said there was a plague I meant it. He was like a plague, like a fatal disease," his blue eyes never flinched through the worst of the memories. "In one night he destroyed what had taken over a millennia to build. Not one of my Anne's true descendants lived, and all that knowledge, all that life was gone in a night."

Buffy gripped her stake tighter, reveling in the pain the wood that was biting into the palm of her hand caused. She wouldn't allow herself to be swept away by his stories, not anymore. "And you forgave him just like that," she said maliciously, her sarcasm dripping like poison from her lips.

His harsh bark of a laugh surprised her, caught her off guard, "I did no such thing. I hunted him down for years like the rabid animal that he was, but when I finally found him I discovered I was too late."

Understanding dawned in her eyes, "he'd already been cursed," she whispered, her fingers easing their grip on her weapon.

"Yes," Gerrico replied, his features revealing nothing of his thoughts, "and when I saw him wallowing in the gutter, living off guilt and rats, I realized that nothing I could ever do to him would match the pain he was already in. He was a broken shell of a man, not worthy of my time. So I left him there and tried to forget about him."

Buffy swallowed hard at the images he thrust into her mind, then shook her head violently, he was fooling her again. He was clouding her mind with stories and pulling her away from the truth, making her doubt herself and her actions. "Why should I believe you now? You're nothing but a soulless ghoul! A leech on humanity! You've been walking the earth for so long without passion or purpose that you can't even remember what it's like to be human!" She was lashing out ruthlessly, but her heart would allow for nothing less, "what you made me do, the way you've made me betray him for your own purposes is unforgivable. But you don't even understand that, do you? Love and loss are just too human of emotions for you to comprehend." Her grip was firm on her stake, and her body was poised to strike, "go away," she said coldly, "I've had enough of your stories."

The elder's eyes widened as if she had just struck him, his sensual lips pursed together as real emotion finally ranged free across his regal features. "And yet you will listen to this one!" He hissed through clenched teeth. "She bore me four daughters, my Anne, four daughters and none of my blood. And I loved them although I had no soul with which to love, and I killed for them although my lust for blood had died with my demon. And I watched them grow old and wither away. Don't tell me I don't understand loss! I have lost everything, including myself, and yet I find life worth living!"

She gaped at him, his outburst leaving her speechless as her mind reeled with what he had said. "I," she started, not knowing what to say. She never got a chance to figure it out.

"Who is this, Buffy?" Giles asked coldly. He stood in the doorway with a crossbow poised and aimed directly at the elder's chest.

The world was spinning out of control. From a distance she heard the clatter of wood on wood as her stake dropped to the floor from her suddenly numb fingers. She gripped the edge of a table tightly before her legs could give out entirely. How much had Giles heard? Her mind screamed over the frantic beating of her heart, how much did he know?

"Who is he?" Giles repeated, never taking his eyes off the elder, never easing his grip on his weapon.

Her mind reeled, there were so many answers to that question, so much destruction lying hidden within those answers. "A friend," she panted, forcing the words through her lips. She was willingly condemning herself, she realized, willingly allying herself with this creature who had lied to her. Gerrico's penetrating blue eyes softened slightly in response, but he said nothing.

"I could hear you through the door, Buffy," the Watcher's voice was hard and clipped, but his eyes wouldn't stray from the elder's face, not even to look at his charge. "I could hear you talking about betrayal and revenge," the Watcher's face flushed with his efforts to control his raging emotions, "who is he, Buffy?" He asked with inhuman calm.

Oh God, she thought as her mind frantically analyzed and rejected her options, this isn't happening. In her desperation she turned to Gerrico, her eyes pleading for the elder's help. The regal man nodded once in answer and Buffy closed her eyes, unable to face the situation head on.

"I am a Watcher," Gerrico calmly said. Buffy's eyes snapped open. No, no, no! She tried to communicate to the elder, don't tell him everything! It'll tear him apart, tear me apart. But the elder had already turned his attention towards the armed Watcher, his eyes a mystery.

"You're a demon," Giles spat contemptuously. "Do you deny that?"

A grim smile stretched across the sensual lips, "Am, was, truth is subject to the time in which it's being told." Giles's eyes narrowed and he re-aimed his crossbow directly at the elder's chest with deadly intent. He was a Watcher, a British scholar, he would not allow himself to be drowned in senseless philosophical discussions. That's what all those long-distance phone calls home were for. Gerrico raised his arms slowly in supplication, "I was a demon," he admitted, "what I am now is," he paused, gauging the Watcher's reaction, "something entirely different. I am, however, a Watcher."

"How is that possible?" The question was mingled with doubt and demand.

"It's true, Giles," Buffy said quietly. Now that the truth was almost out there was no point in obscuring it save to further her own means. She owed him more than that.

"True?" The librarian she had come to love as a father echoed her hollowly.

She nodded grimly. Her knuckles were a bright white as she gripped the edge of a table for sheer physical support. Her body was trembling, her nerves were spiraling out of control and her heart was dust in her chest, but she owed this man some answers and he would get them even if it killed her. "He was the first Watcher," she said flatly. There was no doubt in her mind that this part of Gerrico's story was indeed true, it was too farfetched not to be. "He founded the Council all those years ago. Him and a few more like him, over a millennia ago," the information spilled from her lips in a gush of knowledge.

"Demon?" Giles's eyes were frantically denying, even as his hands already acknowledged the truth, already shifting his weapon away from the unarmed elder. "Founded the Council?" His eyes turned to stare at his pale charge, "a demon Watcher?" The hysteria hovering on the edges of his voice was painfully obvious.

Buffy forcibly blinked back her tears, the man she had come to love as a father was walking on an emotional tightrope, and he desperately needed her support. "He wasn't a demon at the time, not exactly," she refused to look at Gerrico, search for his approval. He'd never told her what he was, maybe he didn't even know himself. Either way it was irrelevant to the end result, the Watcher's Council had NOT been founded by demons. Giles had to know that. "They did it for a Slayer, they helped her. Giles, listen to me!" She begged.

But he was too far-gone in his own thoughts to listen, too deep into the repercussions on his own life to hear her. "A farce," he whispered. The despair in his voice wracking more pain within her than she ever thought possible. "Everything I was led to believe in, everything my father demanded of me, they were all lies. I've devoted my life to a farce!"

"No, Giles," she cried, begging he would hear her, "you've devoted your life to me!"

He did hear her, his eyes hardened as they turned to rest on her face, "and you knew!" He hissed, the turmoil raging within him allowing for nothing less. "You knew and you lied to me!" He shook his head, a feeble attempt to shake himself free of her, free of the emotional hold she had over him. He turned away from her, unable to look at her shimmering eyes a moment longer, unable to look at her tear-stained face. He turned towards the only escape he knew, and as his hand gripped at the cold metal of the door-handle for dear life, he understood full well that he wasn't escaping her. He was escaping himself. Nearly laughing at himself for so astute an observation he nevertheless yanked the door open.

"Giles!" She cried out, tears welling in her eyes. I can't loose him too! "Please don't leave me!"

Her cry tugged at his heart, at their bond, at all they meant to each other. Helplessly he froze at the door. For a moment she thought he would relent, he would come back to her, to care for her as he always did. But his shoulders tensed and she realized the hurt was just too great this time, the betrayal ran too deep. "You have a Watcher," his voice was cold, brutal in the pain it meant to inflict. But she knew him, knew the underlying agony he was causing himself by lashing out at her, "you don't need me anymore."

"Please, Giles, I can't do this without you!" She wailed, but he walked out of the room as though she hadn't said anything at all. For a moment all she could do was gasp helplessly, broken sobs spilling from her lips beyond her control. She closed her eyes, willingly surrendering herself to a darkness that refused to take her. In the end her chest ached and her shoulders drooped with the sense of overpowering responsibility. The man who had been more of a father to her then her real one had ever been despised her, but this wasn't over, not by a long shot. Feeling ten years older the tiny Slayer forced her eyes open and bravely walked to the door, purposefully ignoring the former demon still in the room.

"I'm sorry." Gerrico's voice, as deceptively compassionate as she remembered, stayed her, but only for a moment.

"Don't be," she told him, not even bothering to look back, "you're stuck here just like the rest of us." She remembered something as she turned to leave, something he had told her not so long ago, "nothing is truly immortal," she reminded him chillingly, "just try to keep that in mind."

* * *
Chapter Fifteen

Hawaii, Xander Harris fantasized, lying on my stomach with the warm sun baking me gently as twin dark-skinned native girls rub oil into my back.

Nope, too easy.

Hawaii, he thought, still lying in the sun as a pasty faced Principle Snyder rubs oil into my back.

Still not there yet.

He shuddered a moment with disgust before forming the next mental image. A Hawaiian prison with Principle Snyder as a cellmate. That was better, now he was getting somewhere. He concentrated briefly before adding the next mental twist. And having a TV that only featured the show 'People So Horrible Even Jerry Springer Couldn't Stand Them'. He sighed unhappily as he contemplated throwing in chest hair pulling pro wrestlers into the mix.

"Xander Harris, are you listening to me?"

Nope, Xander thought as he glanced sheepishly at the face of the woman who'd been berating him for the past half-hour, can't think of anywhere I wouldn't rather be right now. "Yes, Mrs. Summers," he replied obediently.

She gave him a doubtful look, "then do you understand why I couldn't possibly go along with this ridiculous idea of yours?"

He momentarily contemplated heaving the blame unto Giles's more than capable shoulders, then thought better of it. The English man had enough on his mind with the curse to get sidetracked by a woman who had her heart set on dying with everybody else. "Yes, Mrs. Summers," he murmured, refusing to look her in the eye.

"Good," she stated firmly, "then I'll just go find my daughter and let her in on the news."

Xander swallowed hard as Joyce Summers turned to leave, he rocked agitatedly on the balls of his feet as an internal battle waged within him. Aww hell, he finally concluded, I'm gonna die anyway. What difference will a few more hours make? "Don't you think you're being a bit selfish?" He blurted, suddenly wishing he was ten years old again with the God given right to run away after ringing emotional door bells. "Um, Mrs. Summers," he hastily added. There was no need to be impolite.

She turned on him with excruciating slowness, each motion pulling on a different nerve cell, till finally he found himself on the receiving end of a glare he'd seen countless times before. Only it was usually directed at demons and it was often the last thing they were likely to see. Having the older, more practiced version focused on him was a disturbingly humbling experience. Also a very frightening one. "Excuse me?" She said coolly.

He swallowed hard again as he glanced at the angry woman looming over him. She wasn't really a big woman, only slightly taller than her deceivingly diminutive daughter, but the flashing anger in her steely gray eyes made her look like a pillar of strength. And pain. "Um," he said hesitantly. That was no good. He tried again, "er." Usually by this point he could think of something quirky to say and run away. Unfortunately, nothing quirky was coming to mind. Throwing caution to the wind he opted for honesty, "I just thought that you'd put the children first," there, that didn't sound as pitifully weak as he feared. Nope, that wasn't pitiful at all.

"Put the children..." the furious woman echoed, "Xander, they have parents!"

He stared at her with honest surprise. Didn't she realize what was about to happen? No one could possibly be that oblivious. "Their parents are going with us," he reminded her, "so are their older brothers and sisters, friends, and just about anyone who can mumble this curse thing right. When this thing's over they're going to be left all alone."

Joyce blanched, but there was no shock in her reaction, she'd realized this already, come to terms with it. "I meant that one of their parents should be left to care for them. I know we can't spare them all."

He sighed miserably, why was he always stuck with the dirty jobs? Mentally he caught up with his earlier caution, which was busily blowing in the wind, held on to it as hard as he could and tore it to shreds. No need for that useless excuse of a life preserving skill, was there? He took a deep breath, "then go ahead and pick which one of them gets to live while the rest of them die, cause I sure as hell am not going to do it!" He blurted, watching as the older woman's feature's twisted into surprise. Surprise was good, he thought, surprise wasn't anger. As long as he stayed away from anger he was fine. "And what about Buffy?" He demanded, "don't you think you owe her this?" A glance at the older woman's face instantly revealed he'd overstepped his boundaries as dangerous rage replaced bewildered surprise.

"Owe Buffy?" She echoed evenly. Yep, he'd definitely gone too far. "What do I owe Buffy?"

But there was no caution to lean back on. There was fear and blind panic, but no caution. Life was so much easier this way. "Your life, for starters." He retorted just as evenly, "she went out of her way to make sure that not only were you not hurt by what she was, but that you wouldn't find out. She didn't want you to worry because she loves you more than anything. The thought of you dying by her side was tearing her up inside, she needs you to go on living! She'll die young, she's known that for a very long time, she's learned to accept it, but she'll never be able to accept you dying with her. You owe her to let her die in peace, you owe her for all of the times she's protected you and put her own life on the line for your peace of mind." His chest heaved painfully for breath, but he was on a roll. "After this is over do what you want," he pushed on, looking at the pale woman standing shaken before him, "but at least give her this."

Joyce swallowed hard at a loss for words. She blinked, trying to process everything he'd thrown in her face. Xander sighed sympathetically, the Hellmouth was hard on the nerves. Basically he'd put Buffy's mother in a no win situation, and it was going to be impossible for her whether she chose to live or die, "just think about it," he said gently. Turning away he left the startled woman to her thoughts.

How would Joyce Summers survive in a world without her daughter? Xander pondered miserably as he roamed the school halls aimlessly. He awkwardly stepped over a small family napping on blankets in the middle of the hallway. In a sense he was taking the easy way out, he wouldn't have to exist in a world without his friends, his family. What was being done to Joyce was more of a curse than a gift. Nevertheless she would survive, he was confident in that. Buffy was a Slayer, the chosen one, and her physical abilities were those of a Slayer, but her strength of character, her firm resolve and her will to survive were her mother's. Joyce was a strong woman and she'd go on, she had to.

Xander headed towards the library, instinctively needing to be with his friends, needing their comfort, needing their food. Useless snack machines mocked him as he walked down the hall and not the first time that night he appreciated the brutal irony of his high school being the sole survivor of a building-destroying earthquake. If it were only a pizza place, he sighed, he'd find something constructive to do with all that cheese even without electricity.

"Where's Buffy?" He asked his library dwelling friends.

Cordelia pulled her gaze away from the book she'd been reading. She looked tired, he suddenly noticed, a kind of weariness that made her seem so much older than she actually was. "Don't know, don't care," she replied shortly.

"Giles went looking for her about fifteen minutes ago," Willow said haggardly without even bothering to glare at the May Queen. The bone weariness affected them all.

"Which brings us to the next question," he said as the small Slayer chose that exact moment to burst into the library. That girl had excellent timing, he thought, "where's Giles?"

"Gone," Buffy replied shortly. Her voice was calm, but the word still struck a chill in Xander's heart.

"Gone in a sense that he's out looking for pizza and will be back any second now," he tried, cheerfulness he didn't really feel force fed into his voice. He desperately hoped no one noticed the cold fear. "Or as in knocked over the head again and will be back among the conscious after this short commercial break."

No one laughed.

Buffy shook her head, "gone as in discovered something he couldn't handle and took off."

They stared at her. The simplicity of her words waging war against the image of the man they all knew.

"Giles?" Willow murmured with disbelief.

Xander was already one step ahead, "something worse than the fact that we're all going to die in a painful, fiery kind of way? Cause that didn't make him bail."

Buffy's head drooped, her shoulders sagged as her quiet resolve melted with their questions. "H-he," she stuttered, suddenly fearing their reactions. Wordlessly Willow walked up to her and rested a comforting hand on her shoulder. "The Watchers' Council wasn't founded by humans," she blurted. "One of the founders came to see me just now. Giles found out."

"When you say not human," Cordelia started slowly, her suddenly pallid face accentuating the dark circles under her eyes, "you're not talking about demons, are you?" The brunette's voice was childishly hopeful.

Buffy's gaze dropped to the floor, her quiet acknowledgment voicing what she couldn't put into words. Her eyes locked onto her feet, unable to meet their gazes, unable to face their blame.

"Oh man," Xander said. He was fairly sure he was voicing the general sentiment.

There is a kind of silence that people experience when they realize they're on their own. The kind of silence where people discover the weight of the world, the responsibility for lives other than theirs lies squarely on their shoulders. The kind of silence where people find inner strength they never knew existed, a deep resolve to stand up and fight for those they loved and for themselves.

This wasn't it.

"I don't think I can do this," Willow murmured, her voice sounding tiny and frightened in the gloomy candlelit room.

Buffy quickly moved to her friend's side, "it'll be all right, Will," she assured the trembling redhead.

"No, it won't," Cordelia said flatly.

"Why'd he come to see you?" Oz asked quietly.

Buffy's gaze fell to the floor again, her eyes focusing on the hungry crack in the marble where the Hellmouth had once opened. With a shudder she forced herself to look her friends in the eyes, "he's met me before. He wanted to tell me to stop what we were doing."

Willow's head twisted sharply to stare at her friend in disbelief, "that's why you lied to Angel!" Her eyes widened giving her the appearance of a pale, frightened child, "you believed a demon?" She choked.

"What the hell is going on?" Xander demanded, his voice rising uncontrollably.

Buffy shook her head wildly, her eyes pleading for understanding, "what he said made sense, Will," harsh tears suffocated her as she struggled to explain. "Angel was falling apart and Giles didn't have any answers. Gerrico knew everything, he had a solution to everything!"

"Who the hell is Gerrico?" Xander's voice was hoarse with repressed tension. He could feel it building inside him, flooding his muscles, balling his fists. For the first time in his young and often violent life he ached to beat something into a bloody pulp.

"And all I had to do was lie to him," Buffy whispered, tears flowing freely down her face. "If I lied to him everything would be all right."

Xander's patience broke, in three quick strides he was in the small Slayer's face. The young man, who had once been a soldier, still had the presence of mind to avoid grabbing the tiny blonde's deceptively slender shoulders as he yelled to her face. "What the hell did you do?"

"You know," Spike drawled from the doorway, "for a group of people who'd die for each other you yell an awfully bloody lot." Five heads whipped sharply to the sound of his voice. He smirked at their reactions, as he easily strolled into the room, his fingers pulling at a dented cigarette almost unconsciously.

"No smoking in the library," Willow recited weakly.

The pale vampire glanced at the timid hacker with surprise then laughed heartily, "right you are, Red," he agreed even as he lit the crumbling cigarette.

Buffy wiped her face hastily, crying in front of her friends was one thing, but falling apart in front of the annoying demon was quite another. "Weren't you supposed to be out of Sunnydale by now?" She asked harshly.

Spike took a luxurious puff on his smoke, looking her over in the process, "earthquakes are not your look, pet," he murmured, noting her disheveled appearance.

She instinctively brought a trembling hand to her head, wincing at the rough feel of her dust caked hair. "I'll try to have a makeup kit ready for the next natural disaster," she retorted hotly, angered by the wicked grin on the vampire's pale face. "What are you doing here, Spike?"

The blond vampire rolled his eyes mockingly, "if I only had a nickel," he sighed. He negligently tossed his half-finished smoke to the floor, narrowly missing a stack of books in the process. "Since none of the cars would start and I'm not really keen on trying out that new sun block nine out of ten dermatologists recommend, I'm stuck here just like the rest of you wankers," he replied. He strode further into the room, fully aware of the wild shadows the candlelight drew across his sharp features. "I figure since I'm in happy Sunny Hell anyway, I might as well find out how I can stay alive. So," he drawled, "what have you come up with?"

They stared at him.

Spike's amused features crumbled into deep disgust, "you wankers got nothing!" He accused.

"Let's give it up for the bleached blond blood-sucker," Xander murmured hoarsely. "You wanna tell him what he's won, Cordy?"

"A free one way ticket to hell," the brunette replied brusquely, "good thing you remembered to ask Angel what that was like," she congratulated the seething vampire, "no nasty surprises that way."

"So you're going to curl up and die like the sniveling little brats that you are?" Spike demanded.

"I was thinking more along the lines of standing up and dying like the sniveling little brat that I am, but yeah, basically that's more or less the plan now," Xander replied, his eyes involuntarily searching the Slayer's face for a reaction.

Buffy's eyes narrowed, "that is not the plan, Xander," she retorted vehemently. "Nothing's changed, we go on with what we talked about." Something suddenly occurred to her. If all the buildings save this one were destroyed, then, "where's Dru?" She demanded.

The blond vampire shrugged, "she's around here somewhere. Don't worry, Slayer," he added hastily as she made a move for the doors, "I brought my minions along, the ones that weren't crushed under the factory. She'll be fine."

The Slayer visibly blanched, "you brought vampires into this building?" She demanded even as she headed towards the doors at a quick run.

Spike shrugged as the others turned to follow her through the swinging doors, "I told them not to eat anybody," he cried after them. "It's like a bleeding buffet out there," he told the empty room, "who'll notice if they take a nip here and there?" With a sigh he turned to follow.

"It's pronounced oh, not ah," Harmony said to the group of vampires leering at her neck, "now you try it."

"Um, Harmony," Cordelia said as gently as she could. She wound her way towards her one time friend, carefully avoiding physical contact with any of the burly vampires crowded around the blonde girl, "what're you doing?"

"I'm taking initiative," the cheerleader replied smugly, "these new people came along, and I'm teaching them the curse." She looked worriedly up at Willow who was standing as far away from the circle of vampires as she possibly could without actually running away, "it is oh, not ah, right Willow?"

"Ah-ha," the redhead nodded weakly.

The smug smile returned to Harmony's lips, "I'm not a sheep," she said proudly.

Again with the sheep, Buffy thought bewilderedly. She made a mental note to ask Cordelia about that someday.

Spike looked sharply at the Slayer, "the curse?" He demanded, "I see you've decided to go with the suicide plan, you silly chit."

"Also known as the only plan," Xander helpfully added.

The blond vampire shook his head, "I thought your Watcher had more sense than that," he looked around the hallway, "where is the stuffy Brit, anyway?"

Cordelia rolled her eyes, "that's the question of the hour," she frowned in thought, "actually the question of the past fifteen minutes. There've been a lot of questions the past hour."

Buffy clenched her fists in an effort to remain calm, "you," she glared at the pale vampire, "get your minions into a classroom, an empty classroom," she emphasized, "and keep them there. Tell them that if any of them so much as set a fang outside the door they're all dust." A stake flipped into her hand with a negligent flick of the wrist. "That goes double for Dru," she added, glaring at the blank-eyed dark woman. "You," she motioned towards her friends, "we're going back to the library and research as much as we can." She took a deep stabilizing breath as they stared at her with surprise, "I think it's time I told you everything," she admitted. She glanced at the pale vampire she'd often wanted to strangle, "you too," she finally said.

"So," Xander drawled as Spike finally strolled into the library, "are your minions all tucked in nice and tight?"

The pale vampire's expression soured, "we're not completely out of control with blood lust, you know," he said bitterly. "We don't all go around saying 'I vant to suck your vlud,'" he mimicked a Romanian accent as best he could.

"Bad idea when you're around someone named Vlud," Oz murmured softly to Willow.

Spike ignored him, "you think we're all salivating for your throats!" He actually managed to sound offended, "well let me tell you..."

"You had to stake one of them to prove your point, didn't you?" Buffy asked dryly, cutting him off mid tirade.

"He wasn't that important," Spike replied blandly.

"Now do you think it's time you told us everything?" Cordelia asked impatiently.

Buffy nodded awkwardly. While waiting for the vampire no one had said a word to her or so much as glanced her way. In fact her friends devoted so much effort to sitting around, pretending to read and just generally mind their own business while studiously avoiding looking at her, she was almost afraid they'd hurt themselves. Now that she was once again the focus of their attention she realized being ignored was seriously underrated. There was nothing wrong with a little non-attention. She gulped as she glanced up at their expectant faces, really there wasn't.

"Buffy," Willow encouraged softly.

So the small Slayer inhaled deeply, quenched her fears as best she could and told them. She told them of how Spike had taken her to see the Elders after the blood rite, how they'd told her who they were and what they'd demanded of her. Her eyes were dark and defiant as she described her refusal, daring them, any one of them, to judge her. No one did.

She went on telling them of Angel's mercurial mood swings, skimming over most details of their encounter in the mansion and focusing on her realization. "His soul was there," she told them, "but so was his demon." The curse, however, was not. She ignored the questions in their eyes and lifted her chin surely, they would just have to trust her in this. She told them of her second encounter with the Elder named Gerrico, of what he'd told her, of how he convinced her. She told them this emotionlessly, letting them draw whatever conclusions they could, she'd already made her decision.

She'd told them how she'd done what she'd promised, how she lied to her lover. Her eyes grew distant, unable to face the sympathy or pity she may encounter in the faces of these people whom she considered friends. She explain how she found out she'd been lied to, her words laced with the anger and confusion she still felt. Had she truly been lied to?

And finally of her last encounter with Gerrico, how her world had fallen apart when Giles found out the truth. Her words were choked as she spoke, the wound too fresh, still unhealed, to ignore.

When she finished talking, her chest heaving slightly for air, she found that she still couldn't face them. Her eyes locked to the floor, desperately feeling the weight of her words resting on her shoulders, not made lighter by the slightest by the truth. Doubt began to slither its way into Buffy's heart. Should she have told them? Could they handle the truth? She felt cold sweat ooze down her back, her breath caught in her throat as the silence remained unbroken, her eyes glaring at the marble floor as her body began to tremble. And what if they'd leave like Giles did?

Wordlessly Willow walked up and embraced her shaking friend and the Slayer exhaled noisily with relief because she knew then that they were all in this together.

They sat together for a while, enjoying the easy companionship that they hadn't experienced for so long. This was the truth, they all realized, but they were all in this together.

"I get why someone would describe Angel as a plague," Xander said, deliberately ignoring the dirty look the Slayer threw his way. "But what's with the metaphors? Why couldn't he just come out with the truth?"

"Well duh," Cordelia supplied, "he was probably nervous about how little Miss Jumps to Conclusions would react." She gave the sullen Slayer a penetrating look, "I wonder why."

"So, do you believe him?" Buffy asked quietly.

Cordelia shrugged indifferently, "doesn't matter. Either way I wouldn't bet my life on a curseless Angel's love for you. Last time we did that I had to get my car Angel proofed." She shuddered at the memory, "and that wasn't the worst of it," she paused as she caught Xander's warning look, "well, we all know what happened," she finished lamely.

Yeah, Buffy thought, people died, fish got gutted. We all know what happened.

"Curseless?" Xander asked, attempting to lighten the mood, "is that even a word?"

"Since when are you Mister Grammar," the pretty brunette retorted hotly.

"So it's back to square one, then," Oz said quietly, more to head off any upcoming arguments then to really make a point, Buffy suspected.

"If square one is synchronized cursing," Xander murmured, "then I'd say we're definitely in the zip code."

"Then it's time to hit the books again," Buffy said, she didn't even realize how much she'd missed their banter till now, "see if we can find a less deadly way to win this thing." They all grumbled, but rose from their seats and did as they were told. "What's your problem?" She asked Spike. The blond vampire had been unnaturally quiet since she told them all the truth.

"They weren't demons," He replied as if that explained everything. "All that tradition, all that bloody sense of propriety," he went on at her blank look. Still she stared at him dumbly, "I bowed to the bloody wankers," he grated through clenched teeth, "and they weren't even demons." She stared at him for a moment and then began to laugh weakly. He glared at her as threateningly as he could, but that only elicited stronger peels of laughter. "Knew she wouldn't get it," he grumbled as he stalked off towards the ravaged stacks, "bloody wankers."

* * *
Chapter Sixteen

They'd been going through volume after dusty volume for hours with no luck. Sighing dejectedly, Buffy silently shut the huge tome she'd been trying to read. It was no use, the words were starting to jumble all together, looking suspiciously like a foreign tongue. Suddenly curious, Buffy turned the book to its side to reveal that that was indeed the case. She shook her head, she really needed to get some sleep. Jealously, she peered over at the slightly snoring Xander and the perfect as always Cordelia, both fast asleep for the past hour. Well, it could be worse, she thought, glancing at the increasingly agitated vampire sitting across from her. While the two teens slept peacefully he'd been casting nervous glances at the graying skies out the window, knowing full well that soon enough he'll be trapped. Got to hand it to him, though, Buffy thought, he didn't once complain or try to run away. She piously decided to ignore the fact that at this point there was really nowhere to run.

She jumped slightly as a soft hand rested gently on her shoulder. "Watcha thinking?" Willow asked quietly.

Buffy shrugged, "just how it's all coming together, how everybody's here to help." Well, almost everybody.

Willow gave her a reassuring smile, "he'll get over it, Buffy. You're too important to him for him not to."

"Yeah, I just hope it happens before," she motioned towards the books spread around the mostly burned out candles, "this does."

"This is hard for him," the redhead replied, "but you know Giles, he always pulls through." She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, "besides, it's almost morning. Nothing bad ever happens in the morning."

"Besides school," Buffy reminded her.

"And waking up early," Xander added. He yawned and sleepily scratched his tummy, "anybody got food?"

"Not to mention turning into a smoldering pile of ashes," Spike said. They stared at him. "Things that happen in the morning, right?"

"A total solar eclipse," Giles said quietly from the doorway. They gaped at him.

"Um," Xander tried, "things that happen in the morning?"

"Giles," Buffy whispered softly, reverently.

He didn't look at her. She could see the tension in his body as he moved further into the library. Had he been out all night, she wondered then shuddered at the thought. If something had happened to him that would have been her fault too.

"There's going to be a solar eclipse later on today," he told them all, "I can only assume that's when it's all going to happen."

They stared at him. "T-today?" Willow echoed.

Spike's eyes narrowed dangerously as he slammed his book shut, "how do you know?" The blond vampire demanded.

"I'm a Watcher," Giles replied, "I can read the portents in the sky. It took me awhile, but I finally looked up," he added at their blank looks.

"How do you know it's going to happen then, you bloody wanker?" Spike hissed.

"Let's see," Xander supplied sardonically, his features visibly pale, "a major earthquake, a solar eclipse. Nope, just a coincidence, nothing wrong with that picture."

"Mom!" Buffy suddenly cried out making everyone jump, "I've got to tell mom to get the kids out of here!"

"I'll do it," Willow volunteered, she glanced out the window at the rapidly brightening sky, "it's going to take the parents awhile to get the kids ready, but I'll have them out by the time the sun rises." Buffy nodded her thanks as the redhead quickly left the library.

"I'm bloody well trapped in here till this thing goes down," Spike growled, his eyes glimmering a dangerous gold.

"Yes, you are," Giles confirmed callously. "But there's something you can do about it."

The vampire and Watcher locked eyes as understanding flowed between the two sworn enemies. In the end it was the golden eyes that broke away, "I'll go teach the minions the curse," Spike said softly, his demeanor seemed cowed somehow. "Should have made brighter minions," his grumbling voice wafted through the swinging doors, "it'll probably take a lifetime just to pound the words into their thick skulls."

"Giles, I," Buffy started when the library doors stopped swinging.

He raised his hand to stop her, "Buffy, if we get through this..."

"You know," Xander cut in, "some optimism right about now wouldn't be of the bad."

"When we get through this," the librarian corrected, "I promise we'll have a nice, long discussion about the virtue of honesty, especially where your Watcher is concerned."

Buffy swallowed hard, "by discussion you mean you'll talk and I'll listen, don't you?" She asked ruefully.

"And I'll probably repeat myself several times," he deadpanned, "loudly. But right now we have more pressing issues to consider." He looked around at the serious young faces, "it's all coming together sooner than we expected." He glanced at the burnt out candles and the books scattered across the floor, "I take it you haven't managed to come up with anything new."

"If by anything new you mean something that could get us out of this in one piece then I'm rooting for a big no," Xander grumbled.

Giles nodded wearily, "I thought as much. It's probably just as well anyway." They stared at him. "Angel was the one predestined to defeat Cirta," the tired Watcher explained gently, "we can't do anymore than is humanly possible, and that would be locking her out of human consciousness for as long as we can." He peered at the shocked young faces, his determined expression discouraging any arguments. "Go, be with your families. There's nothing you can do here now."

"You are family," Buffy murmured quietly.

Touched beyond words, Giles hastily took off his glasses and concentrated on rubbing at the lenses vigorously. He could feel tears forming in his weary eyes, but quickly blinked them away unsure whether he would be weeping for himself or for the children he had come to care for.

"Buffy, your mom wants to see you before she leaves with the kids," Willow said as she stepped into the tension of the library. "What'd I miss?" She asked accusingly as she glared into her friends' troubled faces.

"Nothing, Will," Buffy replied, giving the redhead a reassuring smile, "I'll see you in a bit." She called softly as she left the sanctuary of the library to say goodbye to her mother.

Buffy glanced out the window at the sparkling blue sky for the umpteenth time that morning.

"Are you sure you didn't misread the stars, Giles?" Xander asked casually making the Slayer grit her teeth irritably. Xander had been asking that question almost as many times as she'd been glancing out the window.

"Yes, I'm absolutely sure, Xander," came the Watcher's testy reply.

"You don't have to get all snippy about it," Xander retorted, "all I'm saying is mistakes happen. I mean you've been busy watching the ground for so long looking for creepy crawlers that you probably didn't get a chance to look up at the sky too often. People do get out of practice, you know. It didn't even have to be your fault," the boy hurried on as the Watcher's gray eyes narrowed dangerously, "it could have been a celestial version of a typo."

Buffy sighed as she let Xander's voice wash over her. The ordeal of saying goodbye to her mother had left her feeling emotionally battered and in desperate need of chocolate. They'd both wept, as was expected, and told one another the truths they both needed to hear. They spoke of love and acceptance and forgiveness. They embraced with a closeness only mother and daughter can share and in the end Buffy felt her heart shatter yet again as she watched her mother leave.

"This one time," Xander was saying, "I misunderstood an entire test because I didn't flip the page over. I'm just saying things happen."

"The sky does not flip over, Xander," Giles said coolly.

Buffy wondered idly if that was what postal workers sounded like right before deteriorating into their fully understandable, and somewhat expected, killing spree. With a sigh she went back to staring at the clear blue sky.

"But space is curved," Xander argued.

With something that sounded suspiciously like a growl the reserved librarian threw his hands in the air in frustration. "I wish it would bloody well start already," he grumbled, glaring furiously at the sky as if it was purposefully mocking him.

Buffy fervently agreed with him. The waiting was becoming unbearable, driving their tension to unexplored levels. Cordelia had managed to pick a fight with just about everyone in the room while Xander busied himself by annoying those who refused to acknowledge the May Queen. Oz and Willow had fought and reconciled three times and Buffy was fairly certain that Oz wasn't even aware of at least two of the three arguments.

She sighed and stared out the window once again. "Oh, just go ahead and eclipse already," she grumbled.

"Is that even a verb?" Cordelia inquired.

Buffy glanced over at the brunette's less than innocent expression, "I am so not taking grammar lessons from you," she snapped irritably. "Why don't you go do something productive," she hurried on as the May Queen opened her mouth to deliver a scalding retort, "and keep Xander busy. I hear there's a utility closet that's just become available." She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth at the sound of the small gasp coming from her best friend. She turned around sharply to catch the furious blush creeping down the redhead's usually pale features. So that's how they made up that last time, Buffy thought to herself, I was wondering what took them so long.

"I think I've pretty much done my share around here," Cordelia's sharp voice cut smoothly through the Slayer's reverie. "What with the slaying when you ran away, and the getting Angel out of hell bit. It took me an hour to get the reek of those stinky herbs out of my hair! Not to mention my sheep speech! I'd like to see you try to get by without that."

"Um, guys?" Oz asked quietly.

"What on earth is a sheep speech?" Giles asked Xander in exasperation.

The teenager merely shrugged in reply.

"Guys." Oz tried again.

"I mean without that," the angry teen pushed on, "it'd been just us mumbling words nobody understood. How pathetic is that? Everybody would have laughed their asses off right up until we all got sucked into a fiery hell."

"As always, thanks for the lovely mental image," Xander grumbled.

"But no," Cordelia went on, her voice rising in a shrill crescendo, "this way, thanks to ME, we all get to die horribly together. And what do I get in return? No respect, no love. Where's the love, people?"

"Guys!" Oz yelled before Cordelia could catch her breath. "Um," he went on quietly as they all turned to stare at him, "it's kind of dark for noon, don't you think?"

Five heads simultaneously whipped around to stare out the window. They all looked on quietly, each lost in their own thoughts as the dark shadows outside slowly defeated the bright day.

"It has begun," Giles said solemnly, his voice a morbid affirmation to any hesitations running through his young charges' minds.

"Well, finally," Cordelia breathed shrilly, breaking them out of the strange trance that seemed to overtake them all.

Buffy shook herself out of her stupor, her mind automatically drawing on her instincts for survival. "Xander, you, Willow, Cordelia and Oz go round up everybody. Tell them it's time. Giles, you come with me to get Spike and his," she swallowed hard, "friends," she grumbled, satisfied that she managed to keep most of the hostility out of her voice. "We'd better bring stakes," she added as an afterthought.

"You know," Xander muttered as he gathered his things, "it's kind of considered impolite to threaten someone who's on your side."

Buffy shrugged as Giles gathered their weapons, "must've skipped that class in finishing school. Besides," she added, brandishing an evil looking crossbow, "it's just a threat. We're going to need all the lips we can get." She felt a slow flush creep up her face as they all stopped what they were doing to stare at her. "And I am just now realizing how bad that sounded," she muttered. "Meet us in the schoolyard as soon as you can," she said, already pushing through the swinging doors with her Watcher close at her heels.

"Now what?" Willow asked her friend quietly. Buffy simply stared at her helplessly. Everything was ready, they had the eclipse, the curse, the masses of humanity joined with demon kind to fight a common enemy. The only thing missing was the common enemy.

"Something better happen soon," Xander muttered, his feet nervously shuffling the ground, "cause I'm thinking this is kind of anticlimactic as far as fighting big evil goes."

"Not to mention hell on the nerves," Oz said quietly, his face a stoic mask as always.

"I don't know," Buffy said weakly, "I didn't really think about this part. I figured that after all the prophecies and natural disasters, finding them would kind of be the easy part." She raised her hands in supplication under the weight of her friends' expectant looks, "it's not like I thought there'd be a pillar of light or anything," to her annoyance she found herself squirming under their looks. "I mean, would a guiding presence be too much to ask for?"

"They'll be at the old churchyard."

"Something like that?" Oz asked dryly as they all spun around.

"I vote we wait for the pillar of light," Buffy snarled irritably as she glared at the calm Elder. "You've developed this nasty little habit of showing up," she fondled her stake lovingly, "mind if I take care of that for you?"

"How do you know?" Giles demanded, ignoring his charge's implied threat.

The raven haired Elder simply shrugged, "it's where she appeared all those years ago. And to Angelus, coming into power before the church would only mean that much greater a triumph. Besides," he added dryly at their appreciative looks, "the prophecies foretold of that place years ago."

The Watcher frowned at the thought of a prophecy escaping him, "what prophecies?" He demanded, "the Watcher's Council hadn't informed me of any prophecies."

A slight smile appeared on the sensual lips, vanishing before taking any real hold on the regal features, "it just did," Gerrico replied blandly, his blue eyes glimmering as the Watcher swallowed uncomfortably. He looked around at the tremulous mass of humanity separated by the thin layer of the Slayer and her friends from the dozen vampires mulling around their bleached blond leader. He nodded in satisfaction, "we'd better get this army of yours moving if you're still set on doing this."

Buffy stared at him, her eyes going wide as she took in his infuriatingly composed features, "what do you mean 'we'?"

"You didn't think I'd let you go through this alone, did you?" The Elder asked innocently.

He was having way too much fun with this, Buffy decided, "nothing is truly immortal," she reminded him coldly.

"I think it's high time I put that to the test," Gerrico replied grimly, his luminous eyes shining despite the dark reality of his words. With that he turned to aid with the Herculean task of herding the masses towards their intended destination.

Buffy's eyes followed the lithe figure till he disappeared from sight entirely among the undulating throng. She jumped slightly when a slender hand closed around her wrist. "You didn't mention he was a hottie," the cheerleader whispered urgently.

"Cordy," Buffy replied exasperatedly, "he's over two thousand years old."

A dark eyebrow raised pointedly, "two thousand, two hundred, what's a little necrophilia between old friends?" The pretty brunette hurried on as she spotted her boyfriend, leaving the mortified Slayer alone to ponder over that little tidbit of reality.

"Stop!" Buffy cried out suddenly. Behind her slight form her makeshift army stumbled to a halt, bumping into each other with disgruntled surprise.

"What is it, Buffy?" Giles asked tensely, his gray eyes nervously peering through the darkness.

"I don't know," the tiny Slayer admitted quietly. The unnatural mix of demons with humans had played havoc with her senses all through their march. Spike, a leader by nature and a vampire master by experience, had quickly deserted his post at the human army's flank by his minions' side and had come to join Buffy at the front, much to her annoyance. As a result not only did the nervous Slayer have a master vampire breathing down her neck, but his suddenly leaderless cronies had neatly immersed themselves deep within the human ranks. Spike was quick to assure her that not a single human would be harmed, but still Buffy's senses were shrieking against the unnaturalness of the situation.

"What is it, Slayer?" Spike demanded harshly from behind, "why have we stopped?"

She turned on him, her nerves standing on end, "if you'd back away from me for two seconds then maybe I could tell you!" She retorted ruthlessly as she turned away, missing the insulted expression on the pale vampire's face. She stared hard into the unforgiving darkness ahead, her eyes forcing, twisting the bleak shadows to form the shapes her other, more reliable senses were telling her were out there. Suddenly, after several long strenuous moments it happened. "That back stabbing son of a bi..."

"Easy, child," came the familiar voice from the darkness beside her.

Buffy whipped around, her fists raised to strike, "you set us up!" She hissed, a sharp stake flicking into her small fist. "I can't believe I let myself trust you again."

A tiny glimmer of annoyance flared in Gerrico's startling blue eyes, but was quickly quenched. "You did so with good cause. If you'd just let me explain..."

"Explain what?" Buffy snarled, taking a threatening step towards the unarmed elder. The shadows in the distance seemed to undulate somehow, writhe together to take on a human shape. Several human shapes. "That this is a trap? That you've brought us here to stop us with your vampire army? You've been against this all along, I should have known you wouldn't change your mind just like that!"

The elder rolled his eyes with disgust and nearly missed the lightning quick lunge the Slayer made at his unprotected chest. He ducked to the side with cat like grace, the sharp wooden stake missing his heart by a hairsbreadth, then whipped around to face his attacker, his blue eyes blazing. "You're making your army nervous, Slayer," he hissed angrily. His long fingers grabbed at her stake in a flurry of motion, "a good leader of men wouldn't do that." The long fingers casually smashed the stake to splinters as they closed into an angry fist.

The shadowy shapes grew closer, their footsteps ringing in the hushed silence, signaling the approach of dozens of people. "Buffy, I'd like you to meet my army," Gerrico said lightly, all traces of his previous rage gone from his voice. "They're here to join us."

"I-I don't understand," Buffy murmured as she took in the several dozen stony-faced vampires standing solemnly before her.

"I think I do," Spike snarled coming to stand beside the bewildered Slayer. "What, my lads weren't good enough for you, you had to bring your own?" He demanded, his eyes flashing golden in the darkness.

The elder shrugged, but the mirth returned to his blue eyes, "I'm sure they're fine, Spike. But the prophecy did say 'an army of human and demon kind stood before her'. I'd hardly call the lot you've got there an army."

"So you brought some backup," Giles muttered, understanding dawning on him even as he eyed the demon horde nervously. "They do know they're here to assist us I suppose?" He asked, as a vampire snarled his way.

"They know why there here," Gerrico assured the anxious Watcher, humor still gleaming in his eyes. "Why don't we go join them?" He suggested casually as the human army tittered uneasily.

"It's not my fault there's so few of us," Buffy heard Spike complaining to the elder as they pushed forward to greet the new addition to the vast human army. "It's the Slayer. I kept making minions and she kept dusting them. It's impossible to get anything done when you've got that going against you." She vaguely heard Gerrico's muttered sympathies as the human masses swept past her, swallowed her whole, to follow the master vampire and the former demon.

* * *
Chapter Seventeen

"So where is he?" Xander demanded his feet nervously shuffling the ground.
His girlfriend eyed his jumpy antics for several moments, "do you have to go to the bathroom or something?" She finally asked. "Cause this is really one of those times where you should have gone before we left."

"Hush!" Gerrico commanded as Xander opened his mouth to deliver a testy reply.

Buffy gazed at the Elder curiously. The calm, often infuriatingly so, demeanor was practically anything but. The usually stoic mask was replaced with something very much like fear, and even the sparkling blue eyes seemed hooded and dark. "Why'd you change your mind?" She asked softly.

"I didn't," he replied shortly, his eyes cleaving the darkness, searching for something human eyes could never see.

The Slayer mulled that over for several moments, "so you did lie to me," she stated quietly, there were no accusations this time. "You manipulated me to get us all here."

The Elder sighed ruefully as he tore his attention away from the compelling darkness to look down at the young girl by his side. "I never lied to you," he said softly, "but I always knew that this, where we are now, was a very real possibility."

Wide eyed, Buffy looked up at the Elder, mesmerized by the shadows marking the lines of his face, the ancient wisdom in the hooded eyes. "I don't understand," she whispered with a child's uncertainty.

Gerrico nodded, his attention returning to the darkness before him, "the ideal solution would have been for Angel to have been granted his power and then destroyed Cirta with it."

"No muss, no fuss," she whispered.

"But that isn't what happened," Gerrico continued, giving no indication that he even heard her. "I always knew there would be a chance for things to go wrong." The Elder shook his head warily, "there were just too many variables, too many uncertainties, too many things that could have gone wrong. There had to be an alternate solution."

"So this is plan B?" Buffy asked, then smiled ruefully in spite of herself. "God, I hate plan B. Just once I'd like to see a plan A work out."

"Up ahead, can you see it?" Spike hissed urgently, his voice echoing the fears and doubts of all that were assembled to fight.

Buffy peered into the darkness, her senses concentrating, aching to see, to hear anything, then finally there it was. There he was. "Oh God," she moaned as she gazed upon the face of her lover. His beautiful, pale features vivid even in this bleak darkness, his proud, broad shoulders bespoke of a dark might. And his stance, he stood as though he owned the world. Beside him a grim shadow undulated, twisted, splintered the night into a thousand slivers of impending evil. "Cirta," the Slayer whispered with a hitch in her voice as the shadow sensuously wrapped around Angel's powerful body, caressing him with the intimacy of a lover. God, I hate plan B, Buffy thought as her mouth filled with gall and her stomach heaved, I really do.

"Stay close together!" Gerrico commanded his voice reverberating through the churchyard, assuring every thundering heart, each sweaty brow that they were not alone. There was no mirth in his eyes, no hesitation in his stance, he radiated the authority of a man born to lead. "Don't drift apart!" And the makeshift army of mortal enemies and frightened children moved to obey.

Buffy stared helplessly at her pale lover on the hill. Even at this distance his dark eyes seemed to bore directly into her soul wanting, needing. "Slayer, snap out of it!" Spike hissed in her ear, shaking her out of her reverie.

With an effort that left her shaking she tore her gaze away and almost fell to her knees under the weight of the sudden emptiness that engulfed her. "He looks so..."

"Powerful," spike completed in an almost gentle voice. "All the more reason to take the ass down." The pale vampire dared a furious glare at the hill, showering his once beloved sire with murderous thoughts, "him and his little shadow too."

Buffy choked back a half strangled laugh, "well aren't you a regular wicked witch of the west." She took a deep breath missing the look of pure admiration coming from her former mortal enemy, "are you ready, Spike?" She asked, her luminous eyes a mystery.

He looked at her, at his enemy, his ally and always his equal. What a vampire she would have made, he thought wistfully, all that beauty, all that strength preserved forever. "I'm ready, Buffy," he said soberly, his cool hand clasping hers for a moment before letting go.

"Not to ruin a perfectly creepy moment or anything," Xander murmured nervously, "but how do we know when we're supposed to start cursing?"

On the hill, the dark angel raised his hand to point at the heavens. A crackling fork of light burned across the sky, leaving behind a reek of sulfur. Fire danced across the vision of all who watched, filling them with the fear of God.

"Empower me!" Cried out the angel on the hill with a voice that could belong to no man, "fill me so I may return thee to thy rightful place!" A cold, harsh wind began to blow throughout the churchyard, sending shivers down frail human spines. Quickly it grew into a gale, tearing through trees, turning the ground, bringing with it the stench of the grave as it chafed exposed skin like an living evil thing.

Though her eyes watered from the wind and her ears rang at each clap of thunder, Buffy forced herself to focus on the man on the hill. Something was happening to the shadow by his side, something was causing it to twist and turn violently, to elongate forcefully into a human shape. A female shape.

"Empower me so I may dispose of this rabble that dishonors you!"

"Who does he think he's calling rabble?" Came the insulted demand that Buffy immediately recognized as Cordelia's.

Lightening forked its way down from the sky to blast against the ground in a shower of deadly sparks. Deep beneath their feet, the army ranks could feel the earth groan. Rain began to wash down hard on the forces of humanity as if seeking its destruction. Pinpricks of pain coming from all sides, hunting exposed flesh, sparing no one.

And on the hill the shadow twisted still, transparent no longer as pale features formed within its dark depths, a tall slender body veiled from the world only by translucent darkness that draped from her female form like an ethereal gown.

"I'm thinking this could be that sign you were waiting for," Buffy muttered gruffly her voice nearly lost to the supernatural storm.

"Ed Esperatum, dis mortum," Gerrico called out, his voice carrying impossibly throughout the courtyard, commanding, compelling, demanding they join him.

"And the Slayer's right again," Spike smirked, an odd hitch in his voice, "who'd have thunk it?" Pointing unnecessarily at his dark sire on the hill, he joined his angry voice with the Elder's.

"Don't you just hate it when people don't let you have the last word?" Xander asked wickedly before adding his voice to the rising crescendo.

Buffy glared at him for a moment, "oh yeah," she grumbled, "this is exactly how I pictured dying." With a final breath of acceptance, she too committed herself to the words that would ultimately destroy them all.

"Bow before me!" He commanded. His stance was confident and his broad shoulders bespoke authority, and many would have submitted to his will for simple, human fear of that. But the force of his will also shook those who would have stood tall, who would bow to no man, be he angel or demon. The ground thundered with the echo of a thousand human bodies dropping to their knees, as the weakest of the rebels were broken. So he laughed, contemptuously so, because those that remained standing, those with the fire of battle in their eyes and the cursing of his new lover's body on their lips would prove most challenging. And he laughed, joyously so, because the power that flowed through him, that filled his blood with a fire unlike any he'd felt before, was finally entirely under his control. He felt the earth hum ecstatically beneath his feet, aching to do his bidding. He felt the heavens gape open wildly as a dark vortex swirled above him. He felt the pounding life surrounding him, practically begging to be dominated, to be raped under the brutal force of his will. Drunk with unwholesome power, he laughed.

Buffy cringed at the sound of her lover's laughter as it echoed through the churchyard. She flinched at the pure joy of the sound, the undeniable evil, and yet she went on mouthing the words that bound her to life. Her friends were around her, she knew that without taking her eyes off the dark angel on the hill. They weren't with the fallen.

"Bow before me!" Came the cry, and the earth shook again as simple human strength shattered before a dark god's command.

Buffy felt the strain on her mind deepen, as noxiously sweet cajoling swelled into a powerful demand. Harsh winds blew around her, tearing at her skin, but no gale, no matter how powerful, could cause her limbs to tremble like they did. With horror she realized she wanted to obey, she wanted to fall to her knees before her dark lover and accept his dominance over her mind, her soul, her body.

As if sensing her weakness, a cold, clammy hand caught hold of her own, squeezing it reassuringly. And once again the Chosen One was faced with the truth: she wasn't alone. Blindly, her mouth still mumbling words she barely understood, her face assaulted by cold, unnatural winds, she reached out and grabbed someone's hand, holding on for dear life. The result was astounding, she could feel the resolve returning to her body and the anger seeping back into her mind. Around her people swayed and fell, their lips still mouthing condemning words, but she knew that as long as she was cradled in the hands of humanity she was safe from harm.

Angel's features contorted with mirth as he watched determination return to the rebel ranks. Hands reached out blindly, seeking that fragile human bond even a strong wind could break. "Fools!" He cried out as aching backs straightened resolutely and burning lips screamed defiance. They could keep this up maybe moments longer, but no more. In the end frail human bodies and minds could never stand a chance against one such as he. In the end the ranks of humans and lesser demons would crumble and fall and that would only be the beginning. In the end he would have it all.

He glanced at the tall, dark woman beside him, a mirror image of himself. She'd given him so much and had only asked for him in return. They would have it all.

Slowly, one by one humanity faltered and crumbled to the unforgiving ground. The Slayer could feel the agony spreading through her ranks as her blazing lifeline weakened and fell into despair. They're only human, she thought as hard winds crashed ruthlessly against her tiny frame and unnaturally cold rain soaked her to the bone. What use is a mere human against a God?

With cold certainty and grim acceptance she let go of the hands clasping on to her own, separating herself with final determination from those that loved her. This was her fight, she realized bleakly as cries of anguish surrounded her, chipping away at the single voice of determination that had not yet fallen. This was her responsibility from the very beginning, it should never have come to this. This was who she was.

With slow deliberation her mouth stopped forming the words she never understood to close around a single condemning one. One she believed in and had reached on her own, a single word she would give her life to. "ENOUGH!" She cried in a ringing voice that battled fiercely against the thunder and the wind and the rain.

Immediately her gut lurched, her knees began to tremble as her disobedience took its toll and the curse and the God began to wrack havoc on her tiny, useless, human form. She screamed out voicelessly as she felt the curse tearing into her flesh, twisting her apart. Her eyes wide and unseeing as Angel ground into her mind with his own destructive glee. Then, as she begged for madness to take her away, as she gibbered for the pain to stop, as she made promises she couldn't comprehend came the glorious reply.


She was floating, drifting away on a warm comfortable breeze. Her parents had taken her to visit an aunt in the country and after awhile, sick of the loud, adult voices, she'd drifted away on her own. She'd found a patch of virgin grass and had fallen asleep with the warm, fresh scent of clean earth and grass around her. It was dark when she opened her eyes then to the suddenly unfamiliar stretch of land. She'd shivered as her light summer dress had innocently surrendered to the powerful night and she sniffed as her eyes filled with childish tears. Her father had found her, after what seemed like hours later, curled into a tiny, weeping ball rocking back and forth.

Her eyes brimmed with tears now as memories seeped through her reawakening mind along with the cold and the pain. Her parents were divorced now, and her father hadn't come looking for her in years. There was no one to cradle her in his arms, no one that could make the dark, endless night go away. There was only her, the Slayer. And she was alone.

With strength she never thought she possessed, she pushed herself to her feet taking in her surroundings. All was quiet now, the rain and the wind hushed to an almost gentle existence, the lightning nothing but a mediocre fire show high up in the sky. And the voices, for a moment she thought she had lost her hearing as the complete and total silence engulfed her. The people were still there all around her spread across the ground like a living mantle, but they were so quiet, so frozen as they stared up at her and...

"Angel!" She cried out, her voice echoing and distorting, finally drifting into nothing in the churchyard.

"You've come here to destroy me," it wasn't a question. "You've come here with your army and your words to destroy me. Again." There was terrifying contempt in his voice, and unmistakable power laced between the words.

There was no point in lying, she realized, with dark eyes that could see into her heart and read her soul she couldn't lie to him. Not anymore. "I came here to destroy Cirta," her voice sounded pitifully weak, the words fading into nothing as soon as they left her lips. "That means I have to destroy you too." She swallowed hard as he processed what she said, and all the while her mind raced. Why wasn't she dead? She'd stopped mouthing the curse and that alone by all rights should have torn her apart. What happened? Why was everyone so quiet?" She didn't dare take her eyes off the dark vampire to look around her, she'd already accepted her own responsibilities.

"She lies," a soft voice hissed behind the anxious Slayer. "She aches to kill you, lover. Her body screams vengeance for all you have done."

Tremors rushed down Buffy's spine as she finally looked upon the face of her enemy. She was beautiful, flawlessly so. With dark sable hair and eyes darker still, pale features that only matched Angel's with their intensity, a tall, yet unmistakably feminine, slender form. She could have been Angel's sister, in fact, the Slayer thought as her eyes narrowed with suspicion, it was more than that. It was as if this woman had been modeled after Angel himself, almost a mirror image of him. "That's not true," her voice felt stronger, more confident as she denied the liar's accusations. "I never wanted to hurt you."

Angel's pale features hardened with disbelief, "why should it matter?" His voice was deceptively calm, controlled, but blue fire crackling around him betrayed his inner turmoil. "You don't love me. You never loved me, anyway."

"Yes, lover," Cirta murmured as her fingers traced his neck, traveled intimately down to his shoulders and chest before settling on a clinging embrace from behind. His hand rested lightly on her pale arm, but his dark, demanding eyes never left Buffy's face.

"I've never stopped loving you!" To her disgust she found herself pleading, begging him to believe her. "I would have given my life if I thought I could have saved you then, and I'd do it now if I could."

"Enough," Cirta's arms tightened sensuously around Angel's neck, a cat demanding attention, "I bore of this, lover. Kill her. Kill them all!"

Pulling fiercely away from his lover's grasp, Angel took a violent step closer to the trembling Slayer, "I don't believe you!" He hissed, his face livid with rage, blue sparks crackling around his body as a living testament to the power he held. "I forgave you for condemning me to centuries of hell almost as soon as I realized what happened. I never blamed you for that!"

She stared at him wide-eyed, what was he saying? How could he have forgiven her for that? "But I never forgave you for not taking my hand!" She blinked, her mind a confused jumble of thoughts, memories and images all blending together to become one single, blazing moment in time where her agonized lover had thrust out his hand even as the swirling vortex claimed him as its own. "Why didn't you take my hand?"

"Because I couldn't save you!" She cried, her voice ringing through the endless night reaching to the farthest regions of her childhood nightmares, challenging them with her own kind of power. She was human, she was standing before a God, but she would hold her own to the very end. "Because I would have given my life for yours, the world for yours, all of this," she finally turned to look at the faces of her friends, of her peers, "I'd have given for you! If I could. But I couldn't, and I suffered for it, and I wanted to die for it and I went to hell for it because I thought I deserved it! Because I thought I didn't deserve life because of what I did to you, because I thought I didn't deserve love and friendship and sunshine I became you, but it wasn't enough. Nothing was enough and I couldn't redeem myself!" He stared at her as though she had gone insane, but she didn't care. Maybe she was going insane, none of this was making any sense, but this guilt and shame had been buried inside her for too long, it had to come out.

"So I went to hell!" She cried, her voice holding all the horrors she'd witnessed there, all that terrible despair. "I went to hell because you did, I walked like the dead because you did, but none of it made any difference!" It was just the two of them now, no masses of humanity at their feet awaiting death, no demonic presence shunned to the side by her own protege. It was just the two of them. "I wanted to die so badly I nearly did, but that wouldn't have made any difference either, none of it would," she was pleading now, begging for his understanding. "I would have died and the next Slayer would have been called and nothing would have changed, but I couldn't."

"You couldn't what?" He asked softly, tenderly a kind of anxiousness in his eyes.

"I couldn't die just like I couldn't let you live. I'd give everything up for you if I could, but I can't," her voice was calmer now, and she was vaguely aware that her body was trembling, that her face was flushed with tears. "Not the world, not their lives, not even my life. It's just not mine to give, none of it." She looked him in the eyes, sincerity beaming from her very soul, "I'm the Slayer, Angel. It's not what I am, it's who I am and that's the reason behind it all."

They gazed at one another in the complete silence that followed her words, each assessing, deciding, lost in each other's eyes, just as they had been countless times in the past. "Enough!" Cirta cried out, her voice shrilly shattering the silence into a thousand shards of indecision. "You listen to what this human has to say, and she would kill you still in a pathetic heartbeat if she had to."

"I would," the Slayer nodded under her lover's demanding gaze. There was no reason to lie, not anymore.

"She makes excuses for her own decisions," Cirta pushed on, her hand resting lightly on Angel's shoulder once more, making her claim. "She blames her calling for her own judgments, and you," her fingers closed around his powerful arm, forcing him to acknowledge her, "and you will forever be her victim!"

"The thing is," Buffy purred as the realization finally hit her, as the absolute certainty filled her with its formidable strength, "it's not a calling. It was never just a calling," her eyes blazed even as her back straightened. She could feel the familiar righteous indignation fill her body to the very core, returning the strength to her weary limbs. "This," she said, her voice reverberating with power she never dreamed she had, "is who I am!" A slight smile formed on her lips with the realization, this was what the Elder had been trying to tell her all along. What her whole life had been leading to, and she wouldn't change it even if she could.

She stood before them, her lover and her enemy, no long a weak human to be swiped away with the whim of a God. With her eyes blazing righteous anger and her fists clenched with hate, she was a force of nature, a being to be reckoned with. And they all knew it.

"Destroy her!" Cirta screamed, her dark eyes alive with hate and fear, "kill her now, Angelus!"

Slowly, sensuously, deliberately the dark angel turned to face the creature he owed his life to, "I don't think so."

"No," Cirta gasped, backing away from her dark lover. "It can't be, I read your mind. You hated her! You never intended to destroy me!"

Angel smiled, a wicked expression, "problem was, lover," he purred, "you only read the human side, all the doubts, the betrayals, the insecurities. You never touched the beast." His face changed, his beautiful human smile twisting into a bestial snarl, "this," he pointed at his face with hands that were claws, "was a gift to you. A parting gift from hell!"

"No!" The demon woman screamed her face a mask of terror, "I gave you everything!"

"And it still wasn't enough," Angel hissed, his eyes blazing golden fire even as his hand stretched forth to point at his one time lover, "you weren't her. The human side never loved you, and the beast," he laughed, a terrifying sound slashing through the absolute silence, "the beast would never be dominated. Never again!" With a sound like a thunderclap, power rushed from his hand, engulfing the demon woman in a blaze of glory.

"Can you feel it?" He demanded, cruelly echoing the question that had recently ruled his life. "Can you feel the power running through your veins? Burning you from the inside out?" He smiled because her agonized scream told him all he needed to know. "It's destroying you! Killing you once and for all!" Her once lovely body was engulfed in the desecrating blue flames now, twisting, and molding, folding in on itself as it surrendered to the powerful flames.

"Children!" She cried out as she crumbled to the unforgiving earth, "rise, take vengeance!" And then, crumbling to ash, she was nothing at all.

Buffy stared horrified at the charred piece of ground that was once her enemy. Her chest heaved and her hands trembled, but still she forced herself to look up at the man who had done the impossible. "What the hell did that mean?" She demanded, her voice squeaking slightly.

Angel, his face beautifully, wonderfully, deceptively human once more simply shrugged, "I don't..."

A scream cut his words short, one that was at once both familiar, yet much, much louder than she remembered. "Duck!" She managed to scream before the blast threw her to the ground with the force of a bomb. She blinked stupidly, her vision swimming and her ears ringing.

Roughly, Angel grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her to her feet, "what the hell was that?" He demanded.

She shook her head in effort to clear away the dizziness, "Cirta's minions," she gasped. "They must be," she floundered, "self-destructing," she finally gasped. "If there're any more of them anywhere near here..." Her words were cut short by several screams coming from different directions nearby.

Angel and Buffy stared at each other, their thoughts completely in synch for the first time in a long time, "oh, shit!" They agreed as they threw themselves to the ground as one.

The blast was deafening, roaring in her ears as fire swept over her body, singing her skin. In a distance, somewhere behind the roar in her mind the screaming continued. "Get everyone out of here," she shouted at the vampire by her side. "We've got to get everyone out of here!"

Angel nodded, then ducked slightly as another explosion went off from further away. "Follow me!" He hollered at the stunned masses. No one made any sign of moving, their fear of him and what they had just witnessed greater than any puny explosion. Angel's dark eyes narrowed dangerously, his body crackled with blue flames, "if you want to live," he commanded with a voice that reached them all, "follow me!" This time there was no hesitation as the masses turned to follow their dark leader.

"I'm staying at the rear," Buffy shouted as Angel began making his way out of the city, "I'll make sure everyone gets out all right." He nodded back, her only sign that he had heard her.

"Can't he do something about this?" Willow demanded, having run to Buffy as soon as it was humanly possible. "He's got all this power, can't he do something with it?"

The two girls ducked as another explosion went off much too close for comfort, "I don't know what he can do, Will," she told her wild-eyed friend. She looked back over her shoulder in hopes of catching a glimpse of her dark angel. "I don't know if he does either."

Twisting violently in an effort to make sure that everyone managed to escape the inferno, Buffy spotted a pale vampire herding his mad lover away from harm. "So how does it feel to be on the winning team for once?" She cried out above the crackling flames.

Unable to help himself, Spike stopped and pretended to ponder the answer to that. Golden fire gleamed across his wicked features, adding an air of mischief to his eyes. "Interesting, I'll have to try it again sometime," he shouted back, then turned to gently guide Drusilla out of the burning city.

Buffy glared at him, the fire in her eyes brighter than any flame, "you know that the next time I see you I'll have to kill you."

His laughter mingled with the crackling flames, making her doubt she'd heard anything at all, "I'm counting on that, Slayer," his voice wafted among the flames and the people before disappearing entirely.

* * *

She stood on a cliff overlooking the black skies of the dying city she called home. It was over, finally over, and somehow they'd managed to survive. She tried to find a sense of relief somewhere within her jumbled emotions, she tried to find the joy that should have been dancing in her soul at the thought of a victory she never deserved. But those emotions were dulled at the sight of the flames consuming everything she'd come to call her own.

A loud explosion dulled by distance boomed across the northern edge of Sunnydale. "First a high school," she murmured softly, "then a town, what next?" Grimly, she watched the golden mushroom rise up into the murky skies before slowly oozing into smoke. There goes the gas station, she thought bleakly.

"I'd suggest a small country," a familiar voice said dryly, "the loud, annoying kind who claim they don't really have any nuclear weapons. You'd have plenty to choose from."

She stared incredulously at the dark-haired man standing beside her. Had Angel just made a joke? She shook her head, recent events were finally getting to her.

Silently they watched as the town where they had met and loved crumbled to the ground. As places that stood as mute witnesses to a love that should never have been burned bright with the light of utter destruction.

"I've seen this happen too many times," Angel finally said.

"An insane demon mother set on destroying the world?" She asked. Her mind wasn't functioning properly, she knew that, after all she'd been through she was lucky it was even functioning at all. So there was really no reason, she felt, for the look he threw her way.

"Actually, I meant death and destruction," he replied then frowned as a thought suddenly occurred to him, "but ironically that too." She stared at him, was he joking? She had a feeling she didn't want to know. They watched the fires burn on for awhile, two pyromaniacs enchanted by the gleaming flames.

"This was good," he finally said. An explosion rocked the southern edge of town, its fiery blast kissing the murky heavens with a golden touch. Well there was really no reason for two gas stations in such a small town, Buffy thought. "For me," he added as gold turned too quickly to ash floating to the ground. "I finally realised a few things," he tore his eyes away from the burning town to look at her, "about myself, about you."

"About us?" She whispered, her eyes refusing to turn away from the flames, not even to look at her lover.

He nodded, although he knew she couldn't see him. "I love you, Buffy," he said simply, "and I always will. But we can't be together." She could feel her tired heart begin to crack and wearily wondered how it always found the strength to heal. Would it ever remain broken? "Not now at least," he added hastily as if sensing her pain. "I still need to figure some things out about myself." He shook his head and looked helplessly down at his hands, "all that power, I can still feel it coursing through me. It's in my blood." He forced himself to look up at her although she'd never know the difference, "I need to figure out how to control it, control myself," he corrected. He'd lived the lie of being a creature apart from his demon long enough, he wasn't about to make that separation again. The power was as much a part of him as anything else, he would just have to learn how to embrace it. "I need to go away for awhile," he said quietly, almost fearing her reaction, "somewhere where I can just disappear into the crowd without drawing any attention."

She finally turned to look at her lover, taking in his tall, elegant form, his dark, smouldering eyes and the soft sable hair. Try a GQ ad, she thought, you'll blend right in. "Try New-York," she said instead, "as long as you don't jaywalk no one will even know you're there," fat chance of that, she nearly snorted.

He smiled at her, the rarity of the sight stealing her breath away, "I'll keep that in mind," he replied.

She turned back to face the fire, forced herself to watch as the flames consumed the school, all so he wouldn't have to see the tears in her eyes. All that information, she thought, all those precious books and journals Giles would have defended with his life. All gone. The flames seemed to burn an odd crimson where the Hellmouth had once opened, but the distance and the tears made it impossible to be sure. Could the Hellmouth bleed? She certainly hoped so.

She was so wrapped up in her bleak thoughts that she didn't even feel him move from her side, didn't notice the cold emptiness where he'd been standing only moments before. His cool breath gentle on her sensitive skin was her only warning. Idly, she wondered how he'd always managed to get past her when none other of his kind could do the same, but the thought evaporated as memory struck. She'd lived through this before.

She felt his hands on her arms. Soft, so soft, no hidden threats or mysteries. "Do you love me?" He asked, his breath tickling the nape of her neck, a fresh breath of air challenging the smoke.

"Yes," she replied, her eyes never leaving the glowing embers that used to be home.

She could feel the pleasure running through him, and the smile in his voice nearly brought tears to her eyes. "Do you trust me?" He asked.

This time there would be no hesitation, no self-doubt. She knew this man, who was and will always be her lover, she knew what he was capable of. "No," she replied simply. There were no more inner battles to fight, she'd survived through them all.

The small chuckle that escaped his lips was not what she prepared for, "well then," he said, his hands tightening on her arms, but only slightly. He wouldn't hurt her, not today anyway. "We'll just have to work on that." The gentle touch of his lips on her neck drew the familiar response. Shivers ran up and down her spine even after his small touch was replaced by cool emptiness. She watched the town burn on, golden islands swallowed up by a sea of darkness, before she finally, resolutely turned her back to the shattered Hellmouth.

As she made her way towards the refugees of a town that should never have been, as she looked up at the survivors of a destruction that no one would believe, she finally felt the first few twinges of joy pull at her heart. She had won, and whatever would come now she would deal with. She was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. It was who she was.


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