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Buffy: Man, look at her.
Willow: Who is she?
Buffy: It doesn't say, but the entry's dated 1775.

Halloween, BtVS season 2

It didn't feel like she thought it would.

And yet...it felt exactly like it.

The contradiction made her head hurt.

She raised a hand to her cheek, wiped away another tear. She couldn't stop crying, dammit!

"Buffy?" Cool breath tickled her ear. A cool hand touched her shoulder, hesitated (why is he hesitating?), then brushed cool fingertips down her arm. "Are you okay?"

No, I'm not.

She rolled over, buried her face in his chest, because no way could she look him in the eye right now. "Sure," she lied. "I'm fine."

He gathered her close. She felt his lips on her hair.

"Then why are you crying?"

"I'm not," she insisted, even as sobs wracked her body. She burrowed further into his chest, as if she could hide inside him somehow.

"Hey, hey, what's going on?"

He sounded worried about her.

Inside her head, a small insistent voice whispered, "When did he become so weak?"

It was so screwed up.

Everything was. Especially her.

Angel sat up suddenly. He took her chin in his hand and lifted it. For a moment his face, seen through a blur of tears, swam into view. She closed her eyes. She still couldn't look at him.

"What's wrong?" he said. He cleared his throat. "Did I...? Was I too rough? Did I hurt you?"

"Not enough," she almost blurted out. Instead, she managed to stutter, "Oh, er....no. I mean, yes, but in a good way. I mean..."

"I'm sorry," he said, sounding all kinds of uncomfortable. "Really. I guess there's no way..."

He ground to a halt, cleared his throat again. "That is, it just does hurt the first time, I guess."

"For girls," he clarified, as if she might not get that part. "I meant, for girls."

And you'd know this, how? She wanted to ask, but didn't, because of course she knew how he knew. Not just because of the Talk with Mom, or Sex Ed classes with Mr Whitmore (the ones that didn't end with icky monster fights in the school basement), but in graphic, messy, surround-sound detail.

Exactly how many virgins he'd deflowered - deflowered? No one says that outside of cheesy romance novels, get out of my head, dammit! -blood on the sheets, angry fathers shouting outside the door -Your son is a scoundrel, sir, a scoundrel. I'll see him hung, or transported, see if I don't! - Mama in tears (again).

Stop laughing, you evil bitch. He made his mom cry. It's not funny!

Angel was still talking.

"...so, if I came on too strong, I'm really sorry. I guess I wasn't expecting you to be...you didn't seem..." His voice juddered to a halt again. She heard him swallow hard. "Not that I was expecting that you would be. I just meant..."

He cleared his throat a second time. "I'm saying this all wrong."

Somehow, between the beginning of his speech and the end, her tears had stopped. All she felt now was cold.

And angry. Just a little bit angry, though she wasn't sure who with.

She opened her eyes, to find him watching her. She couldn't tease out his expression. Was he scared for her, or just scared?

"You were surprised," she said. "You didn't think I'd be a..a..."

She couldn't - wouldn't use that stupid word!

"You thought I'd had sex before." Her voice came out flat this time. A flat statement of fact.

His eyes did this thing, like they wanted to look somewhere else, realised they couldn't without it looking bad so they had to stay put. But they really didn't want to.

"Yeah," he admitted, at last. "I guess I did. That's...that's how you came across."

Oh God, he thinks I'm a slut!

Like her.

He was frowning. "Don't take that the wrong way, Buffy. Please! I don't mean anything bad by it. Things are different these days, I know that. Girls aren't - " his face worked, as he tried to explain himself.

In the end, he settled on, "Girls can have sex whenever they want now, same as boys, and with whoever they want, and everyone should respect that. There's no difference between them, and it's no one else's business."

He meant it, she thought, but it sounded like he was reading out of some manual.

"Well technically, it's the State of California's business," she found herself saying, "since I'm underage."

At the look of dawning horror on his face - clearly, he'd never even thought of that - she took pity on him. "But that's just geography, right? I mean, if we drove over the state line into Nevada, we'd be legal. We could even get married."

If mom was present and gave her permission, which, sooo not gonna happen.

He still looked a little shock-y but he tried to smile at her. "How about an extended vacation - like, say, for a year? - in Las Vegas?"

"Love to," she said, "but I guess we should deal with Spike and Drusilla, and the whole Judge thing first, huh?"

He blinked, as if the reminder had snuck up and caught him by surprise. "I'd forgotten about them." He drew her close again. "You made me forget them." His lips on hers were cool and dry. "And yet..." Once again, his voice trailed off.

"And yet what?" She still felt cold inside, but a prickle of unease stirred in her belly.

Nice deflection, Buffy. Pity it couldn't last.

"You remind me of them," he said, in a wondering voice. "Spike and Dru. Something familiar. Something old. Why is that?"

She heard him inhale through his nostrils. Was he scenting her?

Eww!

She almost pushed him away, but part of her just wanted to get it over with. So she watched his face while he drew in her scent again and again, eyes closed in concentration.

Suddenly, he went rigid. His heavy brow rippled like boiling mud, and rearranged itself into bumps and ridges. Angry yellow eyes stared into hers, while his big hand grabbed the short hairs at the base of her neck and pulled her head backwards.

Throat exposed and vulnerable, she gazed up at him, caught between fear and anger, mixed with a weird excitement.

"Darla," he snarled, breath hissing through his fangs. "What the hell have you done with Buffy?"

*

"Who is he?"

The serving girl followed the direction of her gaze. "Who, that one?"

Yes, that one, you stupid girl. Who else could I have meant?

But Darla didn't say it aloud. Instead, she watched as the tall, dark haired young man with the fine pair of legs snatched a mouthful from his mug of ale mid-fight, winked at her, then threw himself back into the fray, heedless of the publican's threats to send a boy 'to fetch your father, Liam O'Connor, right this very minute. Then you'll be sorry.'

It had been some while since a man had caught her eye the way this one had. He was handsome, for sure, and well-built, with a fine mix of innocence and dissipation in his air that was most attractive to one such as she.

But there was something else -something...almost familiar about him.

She frowned in concentration, watching the muscles slide under the soiled linen of his once-fine shirt - a doting mother's handiwork, no doubt -as he threw a somewhat desperate punch that failed to find its target and sent him staggering into the heart of the melee.

No, she decided. She could not place him. But it mattered not at all.

"He’s magnificent,” she breathed.

The serving girl still stood nearby, eyes on his face, same as hers, ears open to the sound of his carefree laugh, same as hers.

"Oh, yes, God’s gift, alright," the girl said, in an aggrieved tone, and with a sullen pout on her face that made it clear she and this Liam O'Connor were old acquaintances and that their encounter had not concluded as the girl might have wished.

"Really?" Darla gave her a sly look. "I’ve never known God to be so generous."

The girl's eyes raked her up and down. Her gaze clearly said, You may dress like a lady, but you're no better than me or you would not be alone in this foul tavern without even a maid for company - and I should know since I've had the lacing of your stays this evening. Her mouth said, "As you say, madam."

Meanwhile, the publican had summoned the ostler and a couple of grooms from the stable yard. The three of them waded into the fight, wielding hefty clubs and breaking heads with abandon. Darla smelt blood and her fangs itched to descend, but she controlled herself. There were other appetites to satisfy first.

Young Liam was bound to find himself out on the street after this - hopefully not too much the worse for wear - and she must find a secluded place in which to pursue their better acquaintance.

Rising to her feet, she lifted her skirts clear of the filthy straw-covered flags and made towards the tavern door.

But a casual glance down at where fabric bunched in her fist halted her in her tracks.

This was not her dress - finest cotton, white and gold, with the delicate embroidered bodice. This was not any dress she would ever wear. The colours - a confusion of clashing shades of pink - were not a la mode, the fabric like nothing she had ever felt before, slippery and unpleasant to the touch, and the execution was wretched.

She was no seamstress, but she could have made better herself.

Her head reeled suddenly and she put a hand against the wall to steady herself. For a moment, she thought that she might faint, while ghosts of impossible things crowded her vision. Horseless conveyances that swept by outside in a screech of metal, a slim red-haired young woman dressed in what looked like boy's clothes, a boy with fine dark eyes and a longing look when he gazed on her, and a tall, older man, who hung over her shoulder while she gazed at a stranger's reflection in the mirror, and whose sly smile had a whiff of dark magic about it.

"Meet the hidden princess," the man said. "I think we found a match. Don't you?"

"Are you ill, madam? Shall I help you to your room?"

It was the serving girl again, work-roughened hand extended towards her. Not quite daring to touch. Meanwhile, the fight was winding down. Liam O'Connor and the publican were trading insults, demands for payment, and threats of reprisal.

"Leave me alone!" Darla refrained from snarling at the girl, but barely. She shook her head, attempting to clear it of this madness, before plunging out the door into the night, with the girl's cry of, "Madam, it's not safe!" ringing in her ears.

*

"I'm not Darla," Buffy said.

Even to her, it sounded like a lie.

Angel's lips parted in a snarl. His fangs gleamed in the darkness. Through the skylight window, came the sound of rain, still battering the streets as if it would never stop. There was a dank smell in the room, like wet concrete and backed-up drains.

With any luck, Buffy found herself thinking, from some weird detached place, the weather would put the kibosh on whatever Spike and Drusilla had planned with the Judge.

For now at least.

"I'm not Darla," she repeated.

Angel frowned, which made his demon face look extra-hideous. He didn't slacken his hold on her hair one bit.

"You're telling the truth. I know from your heartbeat," he said, at last. "Also, Darla's dead, and vampires don't come back from dusting."

He shook his head, and the demon was gone again. He let go of her hair, as if he'd only just realised what he was doing.

"Sorry," he muttered. "I didn't mean to hurt you." Then he winced. "Been saying that a lot, right? Yet I keep on doing it. God, I've been so stupid!"

He switched on the bedside lamp, and a soft yellow glow filled the room. The patterned lampshade cast lozenges of light and shadow on the concrete wall beside the bed, and glinted on Angel's many treasures in their glass cases.

He had a lot of cool stuff, Buffy found herself thinking, still from that detached place.

He's had centuries to collect it, the sly voice in her head that wouldn't be silenced reminded her.

Go. Away!

She shuddered a full-body shudder, and tugged the comforter up over her shoulders, while Angel stared at her, looking spooked, bordering on freaked out.

"Something's very wrong," he said. "Tell me, Buffy. Please."

She opened her mouth, but no words came. Instead, she felt her eyes welling up again.

Furious with herself, she brushed the tears away.

"I'm not Darla," she said, for a third time, as much to convince herself as to convince him. "I'm not. I'm really not."

But I was her. For a little while. And now she won't leave me alone.

*

" So, I'd ask myself... what's a lady of your station doing alone in an alley with the reputation that this one has?"

The alley smelt foul, it was true - of all kinds of human effluvium. But it was dark, and at the moment unfrequented, which suited Darla's purpose admirably.

She listened to his footsteps approaching and smiled to herself. "Maybe she's lonely."

"In that case-" Liam was nearby now, "-I'd offer myself as escort to protect you from
harm and to while away the dull hours."

Darla stifled her laughter with some difficulty. Such arrogance. It was quite refreshing.

"You're very gracious," she murmured, head modestly lowered, not yet turning to face him. Instead, she retreated further into the alley, and his footsteps pursued her - an innocent little lamb to the slaughter, despite his bravado.

"It's often been said." He spoke again, close behind her. The rough edge of desire was plain in his voice, despite his best efforts to hide it.

He wanted her. Of course he did. Galway was a small town. No doubt he'd already ruined all the local virgins he could get his hands on. Now, he was eager to move on to more challenging prey.

Well, he would find he had met his match this time. It only remained to be seen if she could make something of him hereafter.

She turned to face him, looking him straight in the eye. "Are you certain you're up to the challenge?"

For a moment, he seemed disconcerted - unused, perhaps, to such forthright speech from a woman - but he soon rallied.

"Milady," he said, with a roguish smile, which he surely expected would win her over, "you'll find that with the exception of an honest day's work, there's no challenge I'm not prepared to face."

She smiled at him, charmed despite herself, while his eyes roved from her face to where the creamy swell of her breasts strained upwards from the tight lacing of her bodice.

"Oh... but you're a pretty thing," he breathed. "Where are you from?"

She opened her mouth to reply, only for the words to die on her lips, as a shiver ran down her spine and the strange feeling of disorientation she had felt in the tavern came over her again.

Suddenly, there was a voice in her head, that somehow was still her voice.

It's cold, the voice said, in a wondering tone . Why is it so cold?

Then, in horror, Oh my God, what am I wearing?

Darla looked up from appalled contemplation of her own cleavage, the nonsense words still rattling in her ears, to find the boy Liam staring at her, mouth agape. Surely, she had not spoken aloud?

"Around," she said, quickly, in answer to his question, though it wasn't what she had meant to say. "Everywhere."

His eyes grew wide with wonder. "Never been anywhere myself," he said. "Always wanted to see the world, but..."

His voice trailed off. He gazed at her with spaniel-like adoration, as if such a thing were impossible without some angel to guide him, and that he hoped that angel was she.

The thought pleased her. It was delightful when a victim wished his fate on himself. And she could be an angel, if that was what he wanted. An angel of death, anyway.

She met his gaze and held it. His eyes locked on to hers, helpless to look away. She had him now. He would not run, not even when he felt the life draining from his body.

She took a step towards him.

What's going on? Who is that?

Suddenly, the voice in her head was back, louder this time, impossible to ignore.

What are you going to do?

Her head reeled again. Liam's face swam in and out of focus. For a moment, she found herself gazing at him with appalled recognition.

Angel?

The name almost escaped her lips, but she bit it back just in time.

Who are you? she demanded, of the invisible presence.

But she knew who she was.

Buffy. I'm Buffy. Leave him alone.

The name was nonsensical. A child's name for a child crying alone in the dark.

And yet somehow, it was her name.

Her eyes were wet. Her hands were trembling. What was happening to her?

I won't let you kill him. I won't!

"Milady?" Liam was speaking again. "You are unwell? Let me fetch help." He took a step back in the direction of the tavern.

"No, no. I am quite well, I assure you. Don't go."

Panting heavily, Darla rounded on her unwelcome guest - perhaps the voice of her non-existent conscience? Though if such a thing were possible surely the Master would have warned her?

Be quiet, damn you!

Laying a hand that wouldn't quite stop shaking on Liam's arm, she smiled up into his eyes. "You want to see the world? I could show you."

Her touch was enough to send all thoughts of leaving from his head.

"Could you, then?" he breathed, unresisting as she drew him towards her and into her arms.

Close to, he smelt of youth and vigour, and very faintly, of the farmyard. But most of all, of blood, rich and strong, pumping through veins and arteries. It called to her.

She could still sense the intruder in her head, growing more and more agitated as the moment approached. But then it exclaimed,

So that's what...oh my God, that smells... I never knew blood could smell like that!

Darla repressed a triumphant laugh. She let the tip of a finger trail down the column of the young man's throat. So enticing that even her better angel couldn't resist it.

That's not true. That's not! the panicked voice insisted, as Darla leaned in close to whisper in Liam's ear. Angel! Don't listen to her.

But it seemed that only she could hear the voice, for Liam's face remained slack and wondering.

"Things you've never seen," Darla breathed. "Things you've never even heard of."

"Sounds exciting," Liam said, the faintest note of fear in his voice, though not fear of her, which was his final mistake in this world.

" It is," she purred. "And frightening."

She glanced up at his face again, to find him now regarding her solemn-eyed, seeming stone-cold sober all of a sudden.

"I'm not afraid," he said . "Show me. Show me your world.

He knows, she thought. He wants it.

He wants it, she shouted into the dark place where the other her with the strange child's name was still wailing and gibbering and begging for her to stop, or for an angel to come and save him.

I am saving him, foolish child. Thanks to me, he will live forever.

No! the other voice insisted. You're damning him.

But she had the measure of this Buffy now. No matter how loud the voice might protest, no matter how much its weakness might infect her - make her hands tremble, make her want to tell Liam to run while he still could - it was powerless to prevent her doing her will.

Her will. No one else's.

"Close your eyes."

*

"You should have told me. "

Angel was getting dressed, dark pants, dark shirt. He had his back to her.

"I meant to," she said, sounding as dull, as grey, as she felt. "But she started to fade the minute I took the damn dress off. I haven't heard her in months. I thought I dreamt it. I thought...."

I thought I'd lose you.

"In any case," she said, "what would you have done? Ethan Rayne escaped, and when he came back, there was the whole Eyghon thing to deal with. So he got away again."

Angel turned to face her. His expression was bleak, but the hatred she'd feared to see in his eyes after her confession wasn't there.

"He hurt you, Buffy," Angel said. "That doesn't sit well with me."

"Doesn't sit well with me either." She shrugged. "But Ethan has this whole bad penny thing going, plus a big hate-on for Giles. Doubt we've seen the last of him."

"True." He was in the kitchenette. A moment later, he was back by the bed, a steaming mug of something herbal-smelling in his hand. "Here, you must still be frozen."

She took the mug off him and sipped the contents, tamping down hard on a sense of disappointment- which so was not her own -gross! - that it wasn't blood. "Thanks. Are my clothes dry yet?"

"Getting there."

Angel sat down on the bed beside her. The mattress dipped under his weight. His dark eyes were unreadable as he looked at her. She frowned.

He's always been an open book to me before. Why don't I know what he's thinking?

Because he has a soul now. What do you know about souls? You don't know him at all, do you?

And you think you do?

"What is it?" Angel said. "Is it...her again?"

Buffy winced. "That obvious, huh?"

Angel hunched his shoulders. "The thousand yard stare is kind of a giveaway."

"Oh." Buffy sipped her tea and thought about this.

"I don't understand," she said, after a moment. "Like I told you, she'd gone. I haven't heard word one from her since before the Order of Taraka hit town. Why is she back now? Did she just take a vacation, or...or what?"

Angel smiled a sad smile - which, thinking about it, were the only kind he smiled.

"Why is she back? Isn't it obvious?" He grimaced again. "I don't know how else to put this, Buffy, but you...stepped into her territory, I guess."

"We made love," he explained, off her blank look, and shrugged apologetically.

She stared at him, horror-struck. After a moment, he leaned over and took the dripping mug out of her hands. She hadn't noticed the spreading damp patch on the comforter.

"This is all my fault," he said. "I'm so, so sorry, Buffy. We shouldn't have done this. I shouldn't have done this with you. You weren't ready. And now she - " He put his head in his hands. "Dammit!" His shoulders heaved.

Was he crying?

Buffy watched him in dismay, her own eyes tearing up.

Weak, the voice in her head declared. Pathetic little boy. He hasn't changed since I dragged him out of the gutter and made a man of him.

Since you murdered him, you mean, Buffy shot back. He never had the chance to be a better person. You took that from him.

I think you mean we took that from him , don't you?

I tried to stop you, Buffy protested. I begged you not to do it.

But not hard enough, right? Maybe because you knew if you stopped me, you'd never get to meet your beloved Angel in the first place? So tell me again, the voice gloated, who killed him?

"Don't." Angel put his hand on her shoulder, the cool pressure of his grip jerking her back to reality.

Buffy jumped. "Don't what?"

"Don't listen. Don't entertain her nonsense." Off her puzzled look, he said, "If there really is a piece of the real Darla stuck in your head, Buffy, you won't hear a true word pass her lips. She exists to torture and kill. Besides, she hates you. Best is, just to ignore her."

Ooh, Darla purred, I think my dear boy's running scared. Afraid I might tell you a few things about him he doesn't want you to hear.

You already have, you stone bitch, and it hasn't changed anything. That's not who he is any more. He's good now. I love him. He loves me. And you're still a pile of dust in the stinkiest corner of the Bronze.

A mocking laugh.

So he loves you, does he? Sure he does. You go on telling yourself that until he rips out your beating heart and feasts on it. And he will. One day.

Go to hell!

Buffy opened her eyes to find Angel gazing at her in concern, while the voice in her head muttered,

Already done that, thanks to you.

"I'm trying," she said, miserably. "It's hard."

To her surprise (and relief - See? I told you), Angel drew her into his arms, bent his head to hers and kissed her on the mouth.

"Let's make it easier, then," he said. "We won't do this again - " he indicated the bed - "not until we've made damn sure she's out of your head for good."

"And," he added, "not until you're legal, okay?"

"Okay," she said, because it was better than losing him, which was what she'd been faced with yesterday, and which she'd feared being faced with again today. "I'm sorry, Angel. I am. I should have told you."

"You should," he agreed. "But don't let it get to you, Buffy. Don't let her get to you. If we control ourselves - if we don't give in to temptation - she'll fade away again, I'm sure. And there's bound to be a spell - something - to counter what Ethan did to you. We'll get Giles on it."

"You're right," she said. "There will be. In the meantime, we have Spike, Dru and the Judge to deal with. We'd better touch base with the others and see what they've managed to find out."

"Yeah," he said. "We should head out, soon as your clothes are dry."

He put his arms around her again, but his touch had become hesitant - as if he feared what it might do to her. She felt her tears well up again, and put her head down on his shoulder, not wanting him to see.

Deep inside her head the mocking laughter rang out again.

So, it hasn't changed anything, huh? Looks to me like lover boy has cold feet. Or maybe once was enough and he just doesn't wanna go there again? I don't blame him. Nothing duller than a whiny, cry-baby ex-virgin.

Part of her withered under Darla's spite, but another part just got mad.

Okay, that's enough. You've had your fun, but that's all you get, you hear me? I couldn't stop you killing him, but that was in your world. You're in my world now, bitch, and you are going down - for good this time.

Silence.

After a moment, she realised that Darla was gone.

For now, at least.

Buffy sat up. "Good riddance," she said, out loud.

"Huh?" Angel gave her a puzzled look. Then, he noticed the tears on her cheeks.

"Don't cry, Buffy." He brushed them away with a gentle swipe of his fingers. "We'll get through this."

"Sure," she said. "We'll deal. It's what we do, right?"

He tilted her face up to his again. "It is," he said, "and we will."

She hesitated a moment. Then she said, "I guess when we...we made love I reminded you of her? That's why you thought I'd done it before."

He shook his head vehemently. "No, it wasn't like that."

"What was it like, then?" she asked, then quailed slightly, because it sounded like she was fishing for compliments. So not cool.

He ducked his head a little, like he was embarrassed, which was weird, given how old he was, but also kinda cute.

"It was nice," he said, at last. "You were nice. But..."

She went still, then tried to make light of it. "But, huh? Not such a great word in that sentence. But what?"

He squirmed a little, then heaved a deep sigh and met her gaze full-on.

"You asked me if you reminded me of Darla. You didn't. But there was...something. I can't describe it. Something familiar, maybe? Like our bodies already knew each other." He squirmed some more, gave her a hangdog look. "But it was only a feeling, Buffy. An echo, nothing more."

She didn't know what her face was doing, but whatever it was, it was enough to make him pull her close and kiss her again.

"Whatever it was, it doesn't matter. I love you, Buffy. You made me so happy. Happier than I have any right to be."

"Dummy. You have every right.

But she felt better.

Told you he loved me, she said, inside her head, but there was no answer, and that suited her just fine.

She rested against him, luxuriating in his cool solidity. Okay, so they couldn't have sex again for a year or whatever, but that was a small price to pay for keeping him. And how could you miss what you'd barely had?

"Not perfectly happy, though?" she pursued, out loud. "Because of the whole Darla echo thing?"

He hugged her tight again. "Maybe, but who cares? If you ask me, perfection is overrated."