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Miles to Go

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I
Lilah Morgan stood in the window of her penthouse office, arms crossed nervously in front of her chest, and watched the fire rain down from the heavens. It was eerily beautiful, but she felt inexplicably saddened by the light show.

Two names crossed her mind, almost at the same moment: Wesley and Angel. She glanced back over her shoulder at Gavin, still gagged and bound on the chair by the board table. His eyes were shut and Lilah could only assume that he had passed out from the pain of some unseen injury. Useless waste of flesh. Lilah shook her head and turned back to the scene outside. Somewhere she could hear the sound of sirens. Her cell shrieked and she jumped, her skin prickling.

"Yes," she said.

"Lilah?"

"Wesley? Are you okay?" Lilah was almost dismayed to feel the welcome rush of relief at hearing Wesley's smooth British accent.

"I'm okay. And you?"

"What is going on?"

"I don't know. It's not good," Wesley said.

Lilah surveyed the night once more and laughed mirthlessly. "Understatement."

"Yes, well, I just wanted to be sure…"

"Thanks, Wesley."

"Yes. I'll talk with you later."

"Wait," Lilah said. "Is Angel alive?"

There was a pause. Lilah's heart flipped once, twice.

"I don't know."

***

From the edge of the building, Angel had a clear view into Connor's loft. They'd thoughtfully left a light burning, illuminating their skin, tangled limbs, the smooth curve of Cordelia's breast, as much of it as could be seen before it disappeared beneath Connor's underdeveloped chest.

It was a private moment, a moment Angel wanted very much to turn away from and yet he felt rooted to the spot, his feelings a conflicted mess of longing and remorse. Hadn't Cordelia professed her love to him just hours ago? Oh, but wait, there had been a proviso. She loved him, but she'd seen what he had done as Angelus. Maimed. Tortured. Raped. Killed. She couldn't live with his past, she'd said, pressing her hand against his human face and dashing all hope for their future together.

You shouldn't have to see me like this.

Oh, I didn't even notice.

Connor, as inexperienced as he obviously was, was throwing himself into the task with gusto. Angel could see the tension in his shoulders as he held himself above Cordy, slanted toward her at the groin, pistoning forward on lean, corded arms. And Cordy, hands cradling Connor's face, beckoned him forward. Angel didn't move until, suddenly, Connor looked up and out into the night and before Angel had a chance to back into the shadows he was met with Connor's feral eyes and his small, satisfied smile.

***

Buffy sat beside Dawn's bed, comforted by her sister's quiet, deep-sleep breathing. It had taken hours to convince Dawn she needed to sleep, and another hour before the warm milk and hot bath had worked their magic. A small night-light burned in the corner of the room and Buffy was infinitely comforted by the yellowish glow it cast.

She was so tired, her eyes burned and felt gritty. Her nerves were so frayed she felt like she had ingested enough coffee to last a lifetime and just below the surface was a jitteriness she couldn't ever remember feeling, not even when Angelus was playing mind-games with her.

Something was coming. Something bad. And Buffy couldn't shake the feeling that she wasn't strong enough to fight it.

A soft rap on the door diverted her attention away from self-doubt. Willow appeared in the crack between the door and its frame, a halo of hall-light illuminating her weary eyes.

"You should see this," Willow said.

Buffy edged out of the room, closing the door softly behind her.

"What is it, Will?"

"Downstairs. On the TV."

***
"…meteorologists have been unable to explain the mysterious fire-storm which rained down on Los Angeles early this morning. Although reported injuries were minor, several hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage was done to parked vehicles, gardens and buildings."

Pictures flashed on the screen and Buffy sat down beside Xander whose mouth was gaping open in a stupified "O."

"Witnesses claim to have seen a funnel-like column of fire rising from a downtown dance bar, Sky Temple. Firefighters were called to the scene where they did find a building reduced to ashes, but the fire appeared to have burned itself out. The cause of the fire is still unknown."

The reporter appeared on the screen, sheltered under a hotel awning.

"Scientists believe this may be the remnants of an asteroid collision or perhaps a meteor shower, but can not offer any definitive proof of either."

The camera swung away from the reporter's face and into the street. What looked like gobs of fireballs, some as big as beach balls, some as small as rubber balls, whizzed through the sky, before they smashed and disintegrated on the pavement.

"We'll be updating this story as it develops," came the reporter's voice. "Colin Kent, ABC News, Los Angeles."

Xander depressed the mute button on the remote and turned to face his friends. "What was that all about?"

"It's not good. It can't be good, right?" Willow said, shaking her head.

Buffy stared at the continuing images on the screen. "I wonder if this is connected to what's been happening here?" she mused, half to herself.

"How would we know?" Xander asked, kneeling over to peer through the curtains into Sunnydale's dark night.

"I don't know," Buffy replied.

"We could call Giles," Willow suggested.

"We could."

Shrilly, the phone rang behind them.

It barely had a chance to ring again before Buffy snatched it up and said, "Hello."

***
Fred watched the fire rain down on the city from the diner where she and Charles had shared many glorious post-coital breakfasts. The waitress, who had been giving her advice about her fractured love-life, was still cowering beneath the table, paralyzed with the same fear that Fred felt, but did not show.

A scientist, Fred's fear was tinged with fascination and scholarly interest. She stood, puzzling over how this weird and decidedly supernatural phenomenon was taking place. She regarded the black sky, the comet-like fire zipping past the diner's window hitting the ground with a smack, like the sound of Charles' fist making contact with a demon's skull.

Where was the fire coming from?

Something vibrated in Fred's pocket and she reached absently for her cell.

"Hello," she said.

"Fred?"

A curious sensation danced up Fred's arms. "Wesley?" she said, dropping her voice and looking around the diner as though someone might be eavesdropping. Some of the diners were still under their tables. Some had left ages ago, making a run for their cars.

"Are you all right?" Wesley asked, his voice distant and far away.

"Wesley," Fred repeated, feeling sudden panic, a sharp twinge in her stomach.

"Where are you Fred? I'll come and get you."

"The diner. On Astoria."

"Yes, I know the place. Stay put."

Fred didn't think to ask if Wes knew where Gunn was until she'd folded her cell shut.

***

"Can I say something?"

They'd forgotten he was in the house, in the room. The phone call from Giles had rendered them speechless.

I need you to listen carefully, Buffy. Something's coming. Something bad.

Well yeah, understatement.

"No," Xander said, crossly, his growing resentment of the blonde vampire leaping past any hatred he'd ever had for the other one by a country mile.

"Maybe we should hear what he has to say," Willow said, quietly, ever the calm voice of reason.

"Thanks, Red," Spike said, moving closer to the group.

"Do you know something, Spike?" Buffy said, refusing to look him in the eye.

"I don't know."

"See," Xander said dismissively.

"It's not that I know something, exactly. It's more what I don't know."

"Oh-kay. That was very helpful, Spike," Xander said. He looked beseechingly at Willow and Buffy. "Can we just move along?"

"Wait," Buffy said, putting her hand out to caution the air in front of Xander's forearm. "What don't you know, Spike?"

Spike dropped his eyes and slid into a chair. "A demon is motivated purely by lust: For sex, for violence, for blood. When they put the chip into me, those feelings didn't go away. I still wanted those same things, just couldn't have 'em, is all."

"Do we have…" Xander started.

"Shut up," Willow hissed.

"When I went to get…" Spike suddenly stopped. He had to walk a delicate line between fact and fiction here because he hadn't gone to the demon for a soul; he'd gone to have the chip removed. That's not what he had told Buffy. He couldn't have told her the truth. It didn't matter anyway, not with what was to come.

"How could I do those horrible things, Buffy?" he said. "Not then, not before, but yesterday and the day before that?"

"I don't know, Spike," Buffy said honestly.

"Because it wasn't me. I didn't do them. I can't. I punched you, Harris, right?"

"Darn tootin'," Xander replied, rubbing his sore jaw at the memory.

"My bleedin' head was still aching an hour later. Yet I could kill all those people and not feel a thing?" Spike swung his eyes around the room. "There was other stuff going on, right? I mean, you don't even have to tell me, look at this place."

"There was other stuff going on. There is other stuff going on," Buffy confirmed.

"None of it good, I imagine."

Buffy shook her head.

"I think…." Spike paused, willing Buffy to look straight at him. When she did, he said: "I think you should call him, Buffy."

***
Wesley saw the pale oval of Fred's face from the diner window. The light show had stopped and dawn had arrived, somewhat miraculously considering the events of the night.

He watched her tip her head forward, pressing her forehead against the diner's window for the briefest second and, and then she emerged from the building. She stood for a time, staring past Wesley's car, into the pink dawn, before moving down the steps.

"Hi," she said, softly.

"Hello, Fred," Wesley said. "You're all right, then?"

She nodded, chewing delicately on her lower lip, feeling the tears rush up her throat.

"Wesley."

Before he could consider his reaction, Fred had scooted across the seat and flung her skinny arms around his neck. He felt her hot tears against his unshaven cheek and, against all reason, his crotch tightened.

Wesley uncurled his bloodless fingers from the steering wheel and rested them lightly on Fred's knobby back.

"Shhh, it's okay," he murmured.

"I'm afraid, Wes," she said.

"I know. Me too."

Fred pulled back, leaving behind a web of hair in the stubble along his chin. She reached up to free it and he caught her hand in his. Their eyes met.

"Fred," Wesley began, his mind drifting back to Gunn, a bloody and broken heap after the battle, now resting at the hotel. "I'm not sure this…"

"Don't say it, Wesley," she whispered. "I already know." Then she kissed him.

Wesley kissed her back.

***

Angel sat in his room, fingers tented under his chin, eyes focused on the curtains he had only just pulled across the brightening sky to block out the coming day. His mind was on permanent rewind: No matter how he tried, he couldn't erase the look in Connor's eyes from his memory.

So? He'd thought the question and asked the question and received an answer to the question and had that answer punctuated with the vision of his son screwing the object of his affection. It should hurt more than it did, but really, the sting had gone out of it the moment he had seen Connor's eyes.

Cordelia hadn't really betrayed him. Not at the moment she had decided to lie beneath his son. No. Cordelia's betrayal had come hours before that when she told him that she loved him, but would never be able to reconcile that love with her feelings about Angelus. That had hurt, more than Angel cared to admit.

Angel's mind stuttered to a stop once more, just at the point in the film where he knew that Connor had slipped into Cordelia's comforting warmth, and then searched out his father with his eyes.

There it was: power, triumph, awareness.

Dropping his hands, Angel stood and went to the bathroom. He stripped off his clothes and turned on the shower, let the water heat up, and stepped underneath it. He couldn't allow himself to be sidetracked by this new twist in the road. Something bad was out there and he had to figure out a way to stop it. And he'd do it alone if he had to.

***

As Giles knelt over his friend, watching the life bleed from him, he had the overwhelming feeling that there was something about this whole scenario that he should know.

Robson gurgled helplessly and Giles leaned closer.

"Down," his friend hissed with great effort and Giles flattened himself instinctively against the floor. The double-bladed axe whistled through the air above Giles' head and sank into the skull of his friend.

Giles rolled over and stood up, knocking the assassin back with a fist in his defenseless throat. Fighting with a fury he didn't know he possessed, Giles finished his opponent off quickly, rendering him temporarily unconscious and then, pulling the sword from Robson with a sickening sound, he beheaded the mysterious man.

His knees gave out then, and he pitched forward onto the hardwood floors, sliding a little in the blood that pooled there. Then, in an almost unconscious gesture, he retrieved a handkerchief from his pocket and took off his glasses. He polished each lens, folded the little square of cloth and moved forward to better look at the head which, protected by the black cowl, hadn't rolled away from the neck from which it had been severed. Giles lifted the cloth and said, "Oh, dear God."

***

Gunn regained consciousness slowly. For a long time he felt as though he were drifting up through great masses of cotton wool; each time he made himself try to come fully awake, more of the fluffy clouds would drift in front of his eyes, and he'd sink below their soft, comforting weight.

His ribs hurt, his head hurt and he knew he was alone. That couldn't be good. Oh, sure, it was good that he was waking up and it was good that when he eased his eyes around the room he knew where he was - in the room he more often than not shared with Fred at the Hyperion- but it couldn't be good that Fred wasn't here with him.

Gunn swung his legs off the bed, grabbing his aching ribs as he went. "Damn, that hurts," he muttered. Someone had thoughtfully removed his torn and bloodied shirt, but he still wore his pants and socks and he could smell himself, ripe with sweat and dried blood.

He shambled to the bathroom and twisted the knobs to start the shower. It took at least two minutes for the water to work up through the maze of pipes and come out of the showerhead at a reasonable temperature, so while he waited he reached for his cell and dialed Fred's number. His and hers cells, a gift to each other on some hokey made-up anniversary.

"The customer you are trying to reach is not within the service area," an electronic voice intoned.

"Damn," Gunn muttered again, reaching absently to test the water with his fingers. Warm enough, he thought before shucking off his pants and socks and climbing in. Fred was in trouble and he needed to find her.

***

Buffy stared dumbstruck at Spike. His suggestion, to call Angel, had come out of the blue, and she was unsure of the appropriate response.

His unwavering blue eyes never left her face. "You'll need him for this, pet," he said, quietly.

"Need who?" Dawn said, appearing at the bottom of the stairs, looking no better rested despite having actually gone to bed.

"Dawnie," Willow said, standing and moving toward the younger girl. "Are you hungry?"

"No," Dawn replied, crossly. She stepped around Willow and moved into the living room. "When are you guys going to stop treating me like a kid?" she asked with obvious annoyance.

"When you are no longer a kid," Buffy said, with a little smile.

"I am so not a kid," Dawn said.

"Come on," Xander said. "Let's go rustle up some grub. We should all eat." He started toward the kitchen and then turned back. "We should all eat except for you," he amended, looking directly a Spike.

"Don't worry, I couldn't eat another bite," Spike replied, tartly.

Buffy and Spike sat quietly for a moment and then Spike said. "You know I wouldn't suggest it, if I didn't think it was absolutely necessary."

Buffy nodded.

"I'm not at my best, love," he continued, wanting more than anything to wipe the worry from her crinkled brow, "I'm not sure how much use I'll be."

"I'm not sure I'll be of any use, either," Buffy said, quietly.

"You and Angel, together you were strong," Spike laughed bitterly. "I know that better than almost anyone else."

"It's just been a long time," Buffy said. "He's probably moved on."

Spike laughed again, a sharp, joyless sound. "Buffy," he stopped, savouring the way it felt to say her name. "He's never been anything but a thorn in my side, but he's smart and he's strong and for some unknown reason, the bloody powers seem to have chosen him."

Buffy trained her eyes on a spot past Spike's shoulder and tried to concentrate on his words.

"More than that, though, he loves you. I've known him a long time Buffy, a very long time and you need to trust me on this. Angel will never move on from you."

"Why are you telling me this, Spike?"

"Because I love you. I don't want anything to happen to you and I don't think I can protect you. You saw what I did, Buffy. What I did to those people. Whatever is out there, it's powerful and it's strong and I…" Spike's eyes wavered, filled with tears and Buffy was drawn to his throat, convulsing against the need to swallow the tears down.

"I know, Spike."

"Well, I'm not sure that you do, but be that as it may, you should call him and I wouldn't waste time deliberating about it. The phone's right there," he said, standing and moving away. "I'm going to find a closet or something. Yeah." Without a backward glance, Spike disappeared from the room in search of a dark place to sleep.

Buffy remained seated, watching the telephone like it might bare teeth and attack.

"Buffy?" Willow's voice came from behind her. "We made omelets."

"In a minute, Will, I have to make a call."

Willow appeared beside her, stroking Buffy's arm with gentle fingers. "You're going to call Angel?"

Buffy nodded.

"Well, um, I'll just make sure everyone eats all their eggs, then, okay?"

Buffy lifted her head up. "Thanks, Willow."

"No problem," Willow said with false cheer.

Buffy picked up the mobile phone, dialed the number she had committed to memory and waited.

***

For long moments after Wesley finally broke off the kiss, he and Fred sat in silence. Then, he said: "I'd better get you home."

She looked at him with horror. "No."

"Well, I can take you elsewhere, if you'd prefer," Wesley said, his mouth still burning with the stolen kiss.

"I want to go to your place," Fred said, looking him square in the eye.

The old Wesley would have mumbled an "oh dear," and stared at his feet, but instead, his brain was assaulted with a hundred erotic images. Still, she did belong to someone else, and in her eyes he was a gentleman and would conduct himself as such.

"Do you think that's wise, considering the circumstances?"

"What do you mean, it's because of the circumstances, Wesley. I can't go back to the hotel."

"What about Gunn?"

"He's all right, right? I mean, he's alive, and everything."

"He's alive," Wesley confirmed. "And everything. But he'll be worried about you, Fred."

"I'll call him," she said, crossing her slender arms across her boyish chest and facing forward. The Los Angeles day had begun and it was amazing to see the cars and people attempting to go about their daily business as though the events of last night were commonplace.

"Right then," Wesley said, moving the gearshift into drive and edging out of the diner's parking lot and into the street.

Fred closed her eyes and prayed. For herself, certainly, but for Charles, too.

***

Cordelia woke with a start. Her eyes felt grainy and her mouth tasted of skin and salt and something else she couldn't identify. She shifted slightly, and an arm snaked across her middle, dragging her closer. She turned her head to find Connor watching her with focused interest.

"Good morning, sleepy-head," he whispered.

"Good morning," she replied. Her limbs felt weighted to the bed, and the space between her legs felt moist and swollen, used. Oh God, she thought.

Connor must have sensed her sudden awareness and he hugged her closer, still. "Hey," he said, close to her ear. "No regrets."

"Oh, Connor, it's not that." But it was. It was that. And it was Angel. "I have to get up."

"Do you?"

"I do," she said, trying to keep her voice light and panic-free.

"Cordy, you're not feeling…"Connor searched for the best word. "You're not upset, are you?"

Cordy reached outside of the blanket and patted Connor's skinny forearm, exposing part of her breast as she did. Connor's eyes fell from her face to her neck to her rounded breast, its oatmeal-colored nipple puckering now under his careful scrutiny.

"No, I…" she stopped, watching with rapt fascination as Connor's mouth descended and drew her nipple into his mouth, suckling like a baby. Her mind whirled away from her, spiraling upwards with pleasure, pitching down with guilt and remorse. She slid her long fingers into his fine, silky hair and held him close. This was all wrong. And this morning, in the cold light of day, there was no way she could claim "end of the world" hysteria. Still, as her skin jumped to life under Connor's less-tentative-than-last-night-touch, Cordelia couldn't help but think of Angel's dismayed face as she'd laid out the truth about her feelings for him.

***

Fresh from the shower, Angel lay on his bed and watched the slide show that played on his ceiling. Cordelia's parted lips. Connor's skinny haunch. Cordelia's rounded buttocks. Connor's sly eyes.

Angel shook his head and closed his eyes. The view wasn't any better from here. He reached up to touch the wound in his throat. Almost healed. But Angel had to admit, if only to himself, that the encounter with the demon had scared him. The thing had been massive, unstoppable, inhumanly strong.

The phone on his bedside table rang. He wasn't sure it was worth it to pick it up, except that he wasn't sure how the others were or where they were for that matter and so he reached out and picked the receiver up said, "Hello."

"Angel?"

Of all the voices Angel had expected to hear, Buffy's was not one of them. He wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry and he was shocked into sudden silence.

"Hello? Angel?"

"I'm here."

"Are you…is everything okay?" The concern inherent in Buffy's voice made Angel's throat close, painfully.

"I'm good. You?" Angel sat up, the velvet covers drifting down his naked chest, pooling in his lap.

There was a pause. "Not so good here," Buffy said, so quietly Angel could barely hear her.

"Oh."

"Look. I'm sorry, Angel, I guess I called at a bad time. I just…"

"No. No, I'm sorry. What do you need?"

"You," Buffy replied. "I need you."

***

At Wesley's, Fred paced like a caged cat and Wesley made tea. Setting the tray down on the coffee table, Wes stood waiting for Fred to join him.

"Oh, Wesley," she said, surveying his porcelain tea service with a heart-breaking smile. "I don't want tea."

"I figured as much," Wesley said. He walked toward Fred until he was standing in front of her, so close he could see the flecks of yellow light in her eyes, the cruel white scalp along the part in her hair, her trembling fingers.

"I…." She looked up at him and then stopped. "I don't want tea," she murmured again.

Hooking a long index finger into the front of her jeans, Wesley pulled her across the inch of space that separated them and felt her hipbones click against him. "What do you want, then?" He didn't even have to ask; it seemed mean and vain, even to him, but he said the words anyway and waited for her answer.

"I don't know."

"Don't you, then?"

Snaking his palm across her flat stomach, Wes paused and then let his hand travel up the slope of ribs to the slightly larger swell of her breasts, her nipples already tight with anticipation. He heard her suck in a long breath and watched as she closed her eyes.

"Open your eyes, Fred," he said sternly.

When she did, he closed his hand over her left breast and squeezed. Wes suspected that the old schoolboy adage, "anything more than a mouthful is wasted," was meant for Winnifred Burkle.

Wesley could feel his penis struggling for space in his pants. "Decide now, Fred," he said gently.

"I want to, Wesley."

Dropping his hand to hers, Wesley led Fred back to his bedroom. The bed was a tumble of sheets, soiled from his last liaison with Lilah, but there was nothing that Wes could do about that now. He swept them to the floor and turned to face Fred. Without taking her eyes from his, Fred began to undress.

***

"I'm sorry," Angel said. "I don't know what to say."

For a long moment, Buffy said nothing.

"Are you still there?" he asked.

"I guess…I…" Buffy stopped. Suddenly Angel seemed like a complete stranger to her, not the man she loved, not the man she trusted beyond all others, not the only man to see inside her dark heart and love her just the same. How could they have gotten so far away from each other?

"It's the First Evil, Angel," she said, foregoing a long-winded explanation for the sake of brevity.

"What?"

"The First Evil. I believe you've met."

Pieces of the puzzle started to click into place for Angel. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. Giles called. They've been doing the wacky all over the globe and from what I've seen on the nightly news, LA hasn't been left off their itinerary."

"No. You're right. But what we fought tonight wasn't the First Evil."

"It's a shape shifter, though, right. Remember how it came to you?"

How could he forget? The faces of the people he had killed during his tenure as Angelus, taunting him with cruel reminders of everything he had once been, still was, truth to be told. Then, Jenny Calender. Her neck had snapped as easily as a starling's. It had felt good to kill her. A shot of pure lust had traveled up his spine to feel her slender neck break beneath his hands.

"I remember," Angel said, closing his eyes against the images.

"Giles is coming from England. The Council thinks that maybe the power will congregate here because of the Hellmouth. Spike thinks…"

Angel bristled at the mention of Spike's name. "Spike?" he managed to say through compressed lips.

Buffy felt her defensive hackles rise. Although Spike was no longer in her life in any more than a superficial way, she felt incredibly and overwhelmingly protective of him. She wasn't sure how much Angel knew about her relationship with him. Probably about as much as she knew about Angel's rumoured feelings toward Cordelia: part speculation, part dread, part sorrow.

Buffy rushed to defend her former lover. "It was Spike that said I should call you."

"And you do everything he tells you?" Angel asked hotly.

"Look, Angel, this isn't getting us anywhere. The Big Bad is coming and I think Spike has something to do with it. You don't know him anymore," Buffy said and then added to herself: you don't know me.

Angel loosened his grip on the telephone and closed his eyes. "You're right. We should pool our resources if what we're dealing with is united against us."

"Do you want to do it now or should we meet?" Buffy asked, unsure about which response would make her happier.

"When does Giles get to Sunnydale?"

"Tonight," Buffy replied.

"Well, I'll find everyone and we'll meet, okay?"

"Okay," Buffy said, quietly. "Thanks."

A small silence and Buffy couldn't be sure that Angel hadn't hung up. Then he said, "Hang tight," and Buffy was immeasurably reassured.

***
Fred's body resembled that of a twelve year old boy, quite the opposite to Lilah's lushly feminine form, yet Wesley couldn't remember that last time he had been so hard. Her hair fanned across his pillow, her pale breasts trembling under his appraising eyes, Fred said, "I guess I'm…"

"Shhh," Wesley said. "You're perfect." He trailed a finger along her throat, mimicking his own scar, and then dipped down to kiss her. His lips lingered for only a moment before descending to her chin, her neck, the miniscule slope of her breast, her puckered nipple. He heard her suck in a breath as he tongued his way down to her flat belly, and then traced the isosceles triangle of her hipbone.

He rested his chin on her pubic mound and let his eyes reach up over her slight body to find her eyes. She twitched beneath him. He let his eyes register his intent and then slid further down, reaching out for her with his tongue.

***

Angel met Gunn in the lobby and they surveyed each other with cautious gratitude. It could have been much worse.

"Where's Fred?" Angel asked.

"I was just about to ask if you knew," Gunn replied.

Angel shook his head. "Did you try her cell?"

"Yeah. Nothing. What about Cordy? Do we know where she is?"

Angel's eyes darkened. "She's safe." His answer was terse and Gunn knew better than to press the matter.

"Got a plan?" Gunn asked.

"Yeah. We need to find the others. We're going to Sunnydale."

 

II

 

Giles shook his head at Willow's offer to make tea. "A brandy perhaps?" he suggested hopefully, knowing it was unlikely that Buffy kept brandy in the house.

Willow looked at Buffy and shrugged.

"Try the cabinet by the stove, there might be some left over from…." Buffy left the sentence unfinished.

When Willow left the room Buffy turned her attention back to Giles who looked pale and exhausted and unshaven.

"You should sleep, Giles," she suggested softly.

Giles nodded. "I'm not sure that I could."

"I know the feeling."

"When do you expect the others?"

"Others? What others?" Xander said, flinging himself unto the couch like this was any normal day and they were just about to watch a movie.

Giles lifted his eyes to Buffy's.

"From LA," Buffy said.

"You called him?" Xander said with a smirk.

"I called him," Buffy said, "and I don't want to hear another thing about it."

"Whatever," Xander said.

Willow came back into the room. "I think this is cooking sherry," she said, tipping the tumbler towards Giles.

"It'll do, thanks," he said, accepting the liquid gratefully.

"So, what do we know?" Xander said.

"Let's wait, shall we?" Giles suggested. "I'd rather only explain what I don't know once."

***

"Let's split up," Gunn said, "it'll be faster."

"OK," Angel agreed. "I'll go to Wesley's. It's closer for me and it's still day. You head over to Connor's. Tell him we're going to meet with Giles and the others in Sunnydale and that we're leaving from here at sundown."

"What about Cordy?" Gunn asked.

"She's probably with Connor," Angel said without looking at Gunn. "Be careful."

***

When it was over, Fred wept in Wesley's arms.

He trailed an index finger along the steep incline of her ribs and didn't try to comfort her. What could he say that would stop her grief? He knew exactly what this betrayal felt like, had been there, done that.

He felt a moment of tenderness towards her and fleetingly, his own remorse, but then it was gone. He closed his eyes and slept.

An insistent knocking on the door woke him. Fred lay curled on her side, knees pulled up protectively to her chest. She was asleep.

As silently as possible, Wesley slid out of the bed and reaching for a pair of crumpled jeans, he dressed and headed for the door.

"Angel," he said. "What's wrong?"

"Can I come in?"

"Certainly. Come in," Wesley said, standing back to let the vampire through the door.

"Fred's here." It was a statement of fact.

Wesley arched his eyebrows and nodded.

"What are you doing, Wes?" Angel asked, quietly.

"Is that why you're here, Angel?"

"No. Of course not," Angel said.

Wesley waited.

"Buffy called me. This thing we're fighting, it's the First Evil. Giles is on his way from England and I said we would go there. We need to pool our resources. I came to see if you…" Angel stopped and looked up. Fred was standing in the door to Wesley's bedroom, her skinny arms holding a sheet around her slender frame.

"Angel," she said.

"Fred."

"Is Charles…"

"He's okay. He went to find Connor and Cordelia. I was just telling Wes…"

"I heard," Fred interrupted. "I'll come. I want to come."

"We'll need everyone I should think," Wesley said.

"Yes," Angel agreed.

"Right then," Wesley said. "I'll just throw some things together and we'll head over to the hotel."

"I have another stop," Angel said. "I'll meet you there."

At the door Angel turned to Wesley. "Be careful," he murmured.

"Of course," Wesley replied.

"No," Angel said. "I mean be careful with her."

***

Gunn couldn't be sure but he sensed that the energy in Connor's makeshift loft was electrically charged somehow. Cordelia was as nervous as a kitten and Connor was, well, self-satisfied. Gone was the easiness that had always existed between the two and in its place was something more strained, a palpable energy that crackled in the room like a jumping electrical wire.

"Who is this Buffy?" Connor asked.

"She's the Slayer," Cordelia said. "And the former love of your father's life."

Connor shrugged his skinny shoulders. "Why should we go there?"

"Look," Gunn said. "I'm not going to stand here and…"

"We should go, Connor," Cordelia said, her voice firm. "Giles will be there, right?" Cordelia said, looking to Gunn for confirmation.

"I guess. I don't know the details. Angel wants us to meet at the hotel at sundown and we'll leave from there."

"We'll be there," Cordy said, taking Gunn's arm and leading him to the door.

***

"I'm not sure, cupcake," Lorne said, nursing a nasty gash on his forehead and a Bloody Mary. "You know, I never had this much excitement in my life before I met you and that gang of yours. Well, okay, I had excitement but it was of the "Worhash demon massacres Celine Dion song" variety. Quite frankly, Angel, I'm getting too old for this," Lorne said, taking another swallow of his drink.

"Me too," Angel said wearily. "You might come in handy, though, and I would appreciate it if you'd come with us."

Lorne nodded.

"She told you, didn't she?" Lorne inquired.

"Who told me what?" Angel asked, already aware of Lorne's answer.

"Cordelia. She told you that she loved you."

Angel remained silent.

"And then…." Lorne stopped, reluctant to say more.

"And then she slept with Connor."

Lorne's eyes reflected surprise.

"Oh, don't tell me you didn't see it coming," Angel said, turning away from Lorne's pitying look. "I sure as hell should have."

"Actually, Angel, I didn't. Cordelia's aura is a little mixed up these days. But I know that her admission of her feelings didn't go quite as you might have hoped."

"Honestly, Lorne, I don't know what I hoped for."

Lorne nodded sympathetically. "Let me just throw a few things into a bag."

***

Gunn, Connor and Cordelia were sitting silently in the Hyperion's lobby when Lorne and Angel arrived. Tension flooded the room like an unexpected summer storm. Angel watched Connor throw his shoulders back and had an overwhelming urge to backhand him and send him flying across the room, but he merely nodded.

"Did you find Fred?" Gunn asked, but before Angel could answer Fred and Wesley appeared through the front doors. Gunn took a tentative step forward and then stopped. Something was different about his girl, in the way she held herself back from the others, from him. In the way she drifted around Wesley as though he had some power over her.

Gunn crossed the floor and swept Fred into his arms, hugging her against his chest. "I was so worried," he murmured into her hair.

She hugged him back. "I'm sorry, Charles. I should have called. Only Wes found me and I was just so…scared and I didn't know where you were…I'm sorry."

"It's okay as long as you're okay. You are okay, right?" He stepped back and peered down at her face.

"I'm okay," she said, not meeting his eyes.

"We should move," Wesley suggested.

"Right."

Cordelia was suddenly beside Angel.

"We need to talk," she said, quietly.

"Do we," he replied, his face unreadable.

"Yes. I think so."

"Well, now is not the time. We have to go. We're expected in Sunnydale."

***

Giles' face had lost some of its tension by the time he emptied the last of the cooking sherry. Buffy sat by the front window, replaced after the First Evil's appearance in the Summers' home, and watched for headlights to pull into the drive. Willow and Xander sat on the couch, watching muted images flick across the television screen. Spike and Dawn sat in the dining room, playing a half-hearted game of Crazy Eights. Anya paced restlessly: hall, dining room, kitchen, living room.

It was nearly eleven o'clock when Angel's car came to a stop in front of the house. For a minute nobody moved and then Angel opened his door and got out, unfolding his tall frame gracefully and heading toward the stairs to the front door.

The door opened before he could knock and Buffy stood there, her eyes opaque.

"Buffy."

"Hello."

Suddenly, Dawn flew past Buffy to land hard against Angel's chest.

"I'm so glad you came," she muttered into the soft leather of his jacket.

Angel hugged her back awkwardly, but with genuine affection.

The rest of the LA crew appeared behind Angel on the steps and Buffy stepped back, greeting each of them as they came through the door. When a lean, angry looking boy hit the threshold Angel said: "Buffy, this is my son, Connor."

The boy lifted slitted eyes and regarded Buffy with curiosity. "So. You're her?"

Buffy shrugged. "Well, I guess that depends on what 'her' means."

Connor tossed a look back at Angel and smiled.

"He means the Slayer," Angel explained quickly.

Connor passed through the door and into the hall.

In the living room, Wes and Giles were already deep in conversation. Cordelia was standing awkwardly with Willow and Xander, making small talk. Fred and Gunn stood with Lorne, waiting for introductions to be made.

Angel wasted no time.

"Charles Gunn, Winnifred Burkle, Lorne, this is Rupert Giles, Willow Rosenberg, Xander Harris, and Dawn Summers." He paused, his eyes reaching across the room to rest for a moment on hers. "And this is Buffy."

"Me, don't forget me," Anya huffed from the hall.

"Anya," Xander said. "This is Anya."

Anya smiled gratefully.

"Thanks for coming everyone," Buffy said, glancing over at Giles, clearly looking for him to take the lead.

Giles cleared his throat. "Well, yes, right. I think the first thing to do is to compare notes, see what parallels we can come up with."

"I concur," said Wesley.

"Great," said Buffy. "But can't we just assume that whatever is playing with us here was playing with you there and call it a day because I don't think that this thing is going to wait while we have our little show and tell."

"Buffy's right," Angel said, a muscle in his jaw jumping. "We don't have time to talk."

"Wait a minute," Buffy said. "Where's Spike?"

"Spike's here? Here in this house?" Angel said, his voice so low that only those closest to him could hear.

Buffy left the room, heading down the hall toward the kitchen. Angel moved quickly, entering the room only seconds after she did.

"What's going on?" he asked to her straight back. He was standing close enough that if she leaned back a fraction of an inch she would touch him.

She turned around and took a step away, to better see his face. "What do you mean? Spike's been here. You knew that."

"I didn't know that," Angel said.

"Oh. I thought you did."

"Well, I didn't," he said.

"Well, he's gone now, so your reunion will have to wait for…"

Angel held up his hand. "Shhh," he said.

Buffy closed her mouth. Her hearing was good, but she couldn't hear whatever Angel was listening to so intently. He moved past her to the back door and opened it quickly, stepping out onto the little landing. Buffy followed.

The sky was inky black and starless.

"Do you hear that?" he asked, his voice a measured whisper.

"I don't hear anything," Buffy replied, her voiced a low mumur.

"Exactly. Nothing. Not a car or a cricket or anything at all."

"What does it mean?" Buffy asked.

"Nothing good," Angel replied, finding her fingers with his and threading their hands together.

***

In the morning, Cordelia and Willow sat silently at the kitchen counter with coffee steaming in front of them. The tap at the sink dripped relentlessly and Willow found herself slowing her heartbeat to match the tink tink tink of the water hitting the aluminum sink.

"So, things are good then?" Cordelia asked suddenly causing Willow to lose her concentration and allow her heart to speed ahead of the dripping water.

Willow shook her head. Was it possible that Cordelia was still as vapid and superficial as she'd always been?

"Yes, Cordy, things are peachy here. Let's see. My girlfriend got shot and killed. I myself went all crazy and flayed Warren Mears. Remember Warren…from high school? I almost killed Giles, but I didn't. I was about to destroy the world but thankfully Xander stopped me. Buffy had an affair with Spike. Spike almost tried to rape her, but then he changed tact and went and got himself a soul…"

"Wait a minute," Cordelia interrupted, "you had a girlfriend?"

"Good morning, ladies," Xander said, breezily, hopping up onto the counter.

For a moment neither woman spoke and then they started to laugh, small hiccuping giggles that quickly escalated into huge gulping shrieks.

"What's so funny?" Xander said. "What did I say?"

Neither girl responded. Willow wiped her eyes free of laughing tears and Cordy shook her head, still unable to speak around the mouthful of laughter lodged in her throat.

Xander shrugged. "Okay. I get it. Girl stuff."

"No, not girl stuff," Cordy finally managed. "It's just…." She started to laugh again.

"Never mind," Xander said. "I don't want to know."

Willow and Cordelia exchanged a conspiratorial look and fell silent.

"There's coffee, Xander," Willow offered.

"Who made it?"

"I did," Cordy said. "Trust me. I did a lot of coffee making back in the early days of Angel Investigations."

"So, LA? It's good?"

Cordelia paused and then ducked her head, smothering a giggle behind her hand.

"Oh! I give up," Xander said, lowering himself from the counter. "Where are the others?"

"Sleeping, I guess," Willow said, as the back door opened and Dawn and Buffy came through, each carrying a brown grocery sack.

"Great food," Xander said.

"Food if you're a creature of the night maybe," Dawn said, archly.

"Ewww," Xander said.

Buffy lifted an eyebrow. "All these years we've managed to keeping the feeding habits of vampires a secret from Xander, but I guess the jig is up."

Pulling open the fridge door, Buffy started to stack the blood bags into the empty meat tray. Leaving one bag on the counter, she reached for a mug and tore into the bag, emptying the contents into it. She placed the mug into the microwave and pressed 30 seconds.

"Twenty seconds, Buffy," Cordy said from the table.

"Pardon?"

"He doesn't like it too warm," Cordy said, meeting Buffy's eyes for the first time since she had arrived.

Buffy nodded, but left the mug in the microwave until the bell dinged at 30 seconds.

"I'll be back."

***

For a full moment, Buffy stood in the hall outside her bedroom door and thought about the man sleeping on the other side, in her room, in her bed. She twisted the knob and entered the room. In the dim light, she could see Angel, beautiful in sleep. She wouldn't normally consider waking him, but he had made her promise that she wouldn't let him sleep past 10am. They needed to plan, he'd said. He didn't need the sleep.

Because the house had been full to the brim, people had had to double up and sleep wherever they could find a semi-quiet spot. Everyone was reluctant to separate and thus Xander's offer to take a few people back to his place was summarily dismissed. When it had come time to dole out the rooms and the blankets, Buffy had reluctantly met Angel's eyes.

It would be better if we didn't share a room his eyes seemed to say. But then he and Buffy had decided to take shifts patrolling and keeping watch over the others and sharing a room seemed a moot point.

Now, though, staring at the expanse of hard chest exposed to her, she wondered if she'd have any rest at all in this bed, knowing that he'd been here, his cool cheek pressed to her pillow.

"Buffy?" his voice said, cutting across the dim room and sending a slow tremor up the backs of her legs.

"Good morning," she said, trying to keep the nerves from her voice. "It's ten and I brought you something to eat."

Angel sat up, the blanket pooling in his lap, his chest glowing whitely in the room.

"Thanks," he said.

She crossed the room and handed him the mug. "Did you sleep okay?"

Nodding, he sniffed the blood she'd brought him and took a drink, unashamed of his need. "Thanks," he said again.

"It's okay," Buffy said. "I'm just going to get a change of clothes and take a quick shower," she explained unnecessarily.

Buffy moved to the closet and pulled open the door. For a moment she was disconcerted by the lack of Angel's reflection in the full-length mirror, which hung on the inside of her closet door and then the thought was comforting. She didn't need to see him to know that he was there.

"Are the others awake?" Angel asked.

Buffy selected a long-sleeved blue shirt and turned back to face Angel. He was standing beside the bed, pulling a black shirt from his duffel bag, the top button of his jeans still undone.

Buffy swallowed hard and looked at the floor. "I…" She felt the scratch at the back of her throat which inevitably meant tears would come if she didn't get out of this room immediately. She'd spent the past year closed off from all emotion except for what Spike had been able to wring from her with his cunning fingers and cruel tongue. She wasn't prepared for this, to feel this.

Angel buttoned his shirt and waited.

Buffy looked back up. "I'm sorry. I guess I didn't think this would be so difficult."

"I could bunk with Giles and Wes, if that would help," he said.

"I doubt that would make a difference, Angel," she replied, "but thanks for the offer."

She turned toward the door and was stopped by his voice.

"Buffy."

She hesitated, but did not turn to face him.

"If it's any consolation, I feel the same way," he said.

She nodded and slipped from the room.

***

"What do we know?" Angel asked joining Wes and Giles at the dining room table, which was covered with papers and books.

"Put it all together and you could write a post card," Giles said, pouring more tea into his cup.

"So, we know nothing?"

"No, not nothing," Wes said. "We know that the First Evil is the ultimate evil and is older than time itself. We know that it can take any form it likes and revels in playing with people's minds and hearts. It can't take a physical form itself, though. It's not like we will ever see it. It's energy, you see, malevolent energy with the ability to see into the darkest part of anyone it has contact with."

"So how can we fight it?" Angel asked.

"Yes, well, that we don't quite know."

"You've had experience with it, Angel. How did you fight it?"

Angel stepped around a sliver of sunlight and stood in the shadowy corner of the dining room. "I'm not sure that I did fight it," he said.

"You did, Angel," Buffy said, suddenly appearing at the door.

From across the room, Angel could smell her freshly washed hair, pulled tightly into a braid. His mouth watered and his eyes locked with hers.

"You fought it and you won. We never talked about it, but maybe you know something that you don't realize that you know."

"Buffy may be right," Giles interjected. "What did it want?"

"It wanted her," Angel said. "It wanted Buffy."

Buffy's eyes widened and she felt a wash of memory claw its way over her flesh. The hungry look in Angel's eyes, the shared dreams of lovemaking and the voices only Angel had seemed to hear.

"Of course," Wesley said, reaching for a buried text.

Buffy tore her eyes away from Angel's and said, "What of course?"

"The First Evil is as old as time, the Slayer is as old as time. You and the First Evil are old adversaries, indeed," Wesley said, flipping quickly through the thin pages of the book, trailing his finger up and down, searching.

"I don't get it," Buffy said.

Wesley held up his hand, his lips barely moving as he scanned the page.

"Yes, of course," he muttered. He flipped the page over and continued to read. "Mmmm."

Giles leaned over in an attempt to see what Wesley seemed so excited about, but gave up trying to read the upside down text, which was already written backwards anyway. A small smile played at his lips as he recalled the excitement he had felt as a young Watcher discovering a piece if relevant information. He never would have predicted that Wesley Wyndam-Pryce would be such a marvelous ex-Watcher.

"Right then," Wesley said. "Get the others." Standing with the book, he nodded toward the living room.

Buffy turned back to the kitchen where Cordelia and Willow were washing dishes and Xander was shredding paper napkins.

"Wesley wants us inside, guys. We have something," Buffy said.

"Evil is balanced with good," Wesley said, standing in the center of the room. "It's always been this way since the beginning of time." He stopped talking. "Where are Fred and Gunn?"

***

"What do you mean you want to break up?" Gunn said with disbelief.

Fred leaned back against the washing machine in the Summers' basement and sighed. "I'm sorry, Charles."

"Sorry!" he said incredulously. "You're sorry."

"Yes, I am," Fred said, her voice cracking.

"It's because of that thing with your old professor, right? Because I killed him. I did that for you, baby."

"I know that."

"But you don't see me the same anymore, right? I did a bad thing and now I'm a bad man. I get it."

"It's more complicated than that, Charles," Fred said meeting Gunn's eyes. "The world isn't black and white anymore and maybe if you had let me kill him like I wanted, we wouldn't be having this conversation, but I didn't and we are."

Gunn took a step forward. "So if it's not just about the professor…." He stopped, his eyes narrowing. "If it's more complicated than that, then this must be about English."

Fred flinched.

"You slept with him, didn't you?"

Fred shook her head. "No, Charles," she said, swallowing hard against her guilt.

"I don't believe you. I don't fucking believe you."

"Whether you believe me or not is your business," Fred said, struggling to remain calm against the burning look in Gunn's dark eyes. "I've never lied to you before."

"Well, I'd have no way of knowing that would I?" Gunn replied sarcastically.

"You'd have the girl's word then, wouldn't you?" a voice from beneath the stairs said.

Gunn whirled around, reaching for a broad sword he'd leaned against the hot water heater.

"Who's there?"

Spike emerged from the shadows, a cocky smirk plastered across his face.

"Look, I don't mean to get in the way of your rather petty squabble, but I was just trying to catch forty."

"Petty?" Fred said.

Spike arched a scarred eyebrow and said, "Look. There isn't a lot of space in this house since you lot arrived. I need to sleep."

"You're Spike."

The blonde vampire nodded. "I am indeed. And you are?"

"Gunn."

Spike snorted out a laugh and turned toward the girl expectantly.

"Fred," she said.

This time his laugh was full-bodied and unrestrained. "You're Angel's consorts, then?"

"We work for him, if that's what you mean," Fred said defensively.

"That's what I mean," Spike said, patting his leather coat for a cigarette. Locating the pack, he shook out a cigarette and began patting once more, this time for his Zippo. "You're kinda scrawny, aren't you?" he said, glancing over at Fred as he lit his smoke. "I mean, to be a fighter."

"Who you callin' scrawny?" Gunn said, taking a step toward Spike, broadsword gripped tightly in his hand.

Spike raised his hands placatingly. "No, she's just small."

"Buffy's not big and she's the Slayer," Fred muttered.

"No, she's small," Spike agreed, tapping his earlobe. "Vampire's hear really well."

"Look," Gunn ground out between gritted teeth. "We were trying to have a private conversation here. Do you think…"

"I could go? Sure," Spike said, taking a final drag of his cigarette and dropping it to the floor, where he crushed it beneath the heel of his black boot. He stepped forward until he stood mere inches from Gunn's face and whispered. "Do you think you can stop me? Do you think that sword will do you any good?"

"What?" Gunn said.

"You don't know anything."

In a flash of light, he was gone.

***

For a full moment Gunn and Fred said nothing and then the clattering of feet descending the wooden stairs to the basement roused them from their wonderment.

"Fred. Gunn. Are you guys okay?" It was Cordelia. She stood on the bottom step, her face cautious.

"We're okay," Fred said.

"Okay, then what's with the weapon?" Cordy asked, pointing in the general direction of Gunn's sword, which he held in a grip that indicated battle-readiness.

"Spike was here," Gunn said.

"Here. Here in the basement?"

"Yes."

"Where did he go?"

"Poof."

"You dusted him? Oh my God!"

"Who dusted who?" Dawn said, coming to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. "Somebody got dusted?"

"Spike," Cordelia said, confidentially.

"No," Fred said, shaking her head vehemently. "No, we didn't dust him."

"Good because Buffy would have been really pissed," Dawn said.

"Well, if you didn't dust him, where is he? He didn't go tra-la-laing out into the morning," Cordelia said.

"Aren't you listening, Cordy?" Gunn said, with exasperation. "He went poof, as in, he was here and then he was gone."

"Well," Cordy said, shrugging. "This is the Hellmouth, people do use alternative forms of transportation here."

Fred stepped around Gunn and headed for the stairs. "We should tell the others."

Gunn followed Fred up the stairs. At the top he stopped her with a firm hand on her shoulder and said: "We aren't done talking, Fred."

She turned to face him. "I am."

***

"Oh, good, there you are," Wes said as Gunn and Fred entered the room. "We'd wondered where you'd gotten to."

"I bet," Gunn said.

"We ran into Spike downstairs."

"We should call him up, he can help us," Buffy said, avoiding Angel's eyes.

"He's gone."

"We didn't dust him," Fred rushed to say, "if that's what you're thinking. He just vanished into thin air."

Giles and Wesley exchanged glances.

"Vanished?" Buffy asked.

"There. Not there," Gunn said matter-of-factly.

"These people are competent?" Buffy said, directing her question to Angel.

"If they say he disappeared then he did," Angel said firmly.

"Okay," Giles said, his authoritative voice cutting through the rising hum of disbelief in the room. "We have bigger fish to fry, so to speak, at this point. Let's address the issue of Spike and his disappearance later. Right now we have to focus on ways that the First Evil might manifest itself and how we might stop it."

"Wait a minute," Willow said. "Something Wesley said about the First Evil being able to take any form it likes and then you said," Willow took a step closer to Giles, "you said we have to focus on ways that the First Evil might manifest itself."

"What are you getting at, Willow?" Buffy asked.

"It takes the form of dead people," Angel said. "When it came to me it was in the form of all the people I had killed." When Giles' sharp eyes crossed the room to meet Angel's he had the humility to look down. "It comes to us as dead people."

"That makes sense, I guess," agreed Wesley. "Spike is technically dead."

"Mom." Dawn announced.

"Cassie."

"Jenny," Giles murmured.

"Can we hurt it if we hurt the body it's inhabiting?" Buffy asked.

"Good question," Xander said. "Because I think it's time for the hurting to start."

"We know so little," said Giles, rubbing his jaw thoughtfully.

"We know more than we did before," said Cordy. "But that doesn't explain that beast that's been wreaking havoc in LA."

"Perhaps that's just an agent of the First," Fred said, "something to distract us while the First takes out Buffy and her friends."

"Maybe," Wesley said. "Maybe not."

"Let's continue to look into it, shall we?" Giles suggested pragmatically. "Buffy. Angel. Perhaps you two should get some rest. Willow. Dawn. Lorne," Giles paused and eyed the green horned demon for a moment, "we could use the help with some research. Of course anyone else who wants to help can. The rest of you might take this opportunity to sleep or go out into the day for a bit of fresh air."

***

"Angel. Can we talk?" Cordy's long fingers wrapped possessively around Angel's forearm, stopping him in his tracks.

He turned to face her and waited.

"I…"

"Look Cordelia, whatever it is you think you have to say you don't," Angel said, wanting desperately to not have this conversation.

"Look, Angel. I thought the world was ending. I made a mistake."

"Oh, that makes it better," Angel said bitterly. "A little apocalypse makes you horny, does it?"

"That's not fair," Cordelia said.

"Yeah, well, when you live as long as I have you discover that the world isn't fair," Angel remarked, hating the self-pity in his voice.

"You weren't supposed to see. It was a private moment and I did it for Connor."

"Well, I'm sure his libido thanks you."

"Angel…"

For a moment Angel's heart wavered, teetering on the brink of forgiveness and hostility. He knew what it was like to be alone and lonely. He knew what it was like to look out in the night and not know whether or not he'd live to see another day. He knew what it was like to be afraid and to make the wrong choice. He'd had a lifetime or three to rationalize and analyze and regret. The thing was that when he looked at Cordelia now, he couldn't remember what it was about her that he had loved. Her betrayal of him had cut deep and it was altogether too human a pain to forgive.

"Cordy, I'm sorry that you feel that you've made a mistake, but the person you should be apologizing to here isn't me."

Angel twisted his lips into a small, sad smile and disappeared up the stairs.

***

Buffy was asleep on her bed. The bed he had left only a few short hours ago and Angel stood, leaning against the door for a long time watching her. In sleep, her hair unwound from its tight braid, her face was unmarred by the troubles she faced every day and was so reminiscent of the young girl he used to watch from the shadow of the tree outside that it almost broke his heart.

How often had he come to her with news of some evil lurking at the edge of her life? Angel shook his head at the memories. It was a remarkable feat that she had survived all these years, that she was still willing to fight the good fight, even though Angel could see in her eyes that she was tired. He was glad that her eyes were closed and that he didn't have to see the exhaustion in them, the sorrow.

Angel moved nearer the bed, tracing but not touching the curved line of her breast and hip and thigh over the blanket she had pulled around herself.

He took a pillow off a nearby chair and settled on the floor beside her.

He was a fool.

"Angel?"

"I'm here, Buffy."

"I'm glad."

III

 

It was easy to watch them undetected. It was easy to blend into the fringes of their lives and go unnoticed. Now that they were all together it might actually be fun to watch them destroy each other with petty jealousies and angry words. It had been a long time since it had had fun like that.

It watched. From windows, from behind chairs, from the corner of its eye, taking into account the softened feelings of one toward another, the hard edges of anger and remorse and regret.

They would not defeat it. They did not even understand IT. And it was, by far, the more cunning. Perhaps they would figure it out eventually, but not before it got what it wanted: Angel’s soul and the Slayer’s death and all the pretty carnage in between.

 

***

It was the first time in days that Buffy could remember having slept so soundly. It was late afternoon when she woke and she stretched, arching her feet and pressing her fingers up, the small of her back curving off the bed. She pushed her fingers through her hair, rubbing her scalp as she went and sighed at the self-inflicted pressure.

Just because she couldn’t hear him breathe, didn’t mean he wasn’t there and she rolled over onto her side so that she could peer down at the floor where Angel had fallen asleep. His eyes were closed, the thick fringe of his eyelashes curving against the tender hollow of skin just beneath his eyes. Buffy held her own breath and watched him. Pale as death. Without thinking, Buffy reached out a tentative finger to trace his smooth brow. Just before she was able to touch her fingertip to Angel’s smooth skin, her wrist was snatched from midair by his much stronger hand and she found herself pulled from her bed to land on top of him.

“What are you doing?” Angel asked, opening his eyes just a little.

“Nothing,” Buffy said. “I was just…”

“You wanted to touch me, didn’t you?”

Buffy blushed. “No, I…”

“Why can’t you be honest with me, Buffy?”

Buffy felt her spine stiffen. “I can be honest with you,” she said.

“If you want to feel me, then feel me,” Angel said, sliding his hands down Buffy’s sides to her hips and then moving her slightly so that their pelvises were locked together: tongue and groove.

“Angel,” Buffy said. She could feel the hard length of him pressed against her in a way that was both alarming and familiar and it was all she could do not to rock against him, mimicking what they could never have.

Angel’s hands slid up over Buffy’s buttocks and cupped them in his strong hands, pressing her down against him.

“Stop,” she whispered.

“I don’t want to stop,” he said, lifting his head up off the floor to press his lips against the long, white column of her throat. “Tell the truth, Buffy, neither do you.”

Buffy blinked. “We have to stop, Angel.” She placed her hands flat on either side of his head and tried to push up, but instead found herself quickly outmaneuvered: suddenly she was beneath him and he was positioned on top, their groins still locked together.

“I don’t want to stop,” he said again, pressing against her. “And you don’t want me to stop. Not really.”

“That’s not true, Angel. Please, get off me.”

“And if I don’t?”

Buffy watched Angel’s mouth descend toward hers with slow motioned precision. He hovered just above her and she watched with rapt attention as his tongue slipped from between his barely parted lips and traced the curve of her lower lip.

“It feels good, doesn’t it? It feels like it should,” he said, although he never once broke contact with her mouth.

Buffy closed her eyes and when she opened them she was alone. She sat up, pressing trembling fingertips to her lips. She swung her eyes toward the digital alarm clock on her bedside table. Three p.m.

It wasn’t a dream. It couldn’t be a dream. She’d felt the solid weight of Angel stretched out beneath her, on top of her. She’d felt the silken pressure of his mouth.

“Buffy?”

She started and then, seeing Angel standing at the door, hair still wet from the shower, she began to cry. If there was a part of herself she had kept locked up tight, a secret self, Angel was the key. Seeing him standing there looking like the prince from one of those stupid fairy tales they condition little girls to believe in, turned the rusty lock in Buffy’s heart and threw the doors open wide.

“Buffy?” Angel said, taking a tentative step forward.

She shook her head, cautioning him from coming any nearer. She could still feel the hum of electricity through her body, neurons bumping together hopelessly.

He ignored her plaintive look and came to sit on the edge of her bed.

“Tell me,” he said, his voice a measured whisper.

“I can’t,” she said miserably.

“Tell me.”

“I had a dream but it didn’t seem like a dream, it seemed real. I could feel,” she hesitated and dropped her eyes away from Angel’s, “I could feel you here.” She touched her trembling fingers to her lips. “You told me that I could touch you, that we could if we wanted to…” Buffy stopped and felt new tears gather in her eyes.

“Oh,” Angel said.

“Don’t you see, Angel, how smart this thing is, how tuned into what we most fear or desire it is. I was powerless. I believed in it and it was right. I didn’t want to stop.”

“I shouldn’t have come,” Angel said. “I should have known.”

“How could you?” Buffy asked, wiping her eyes with her fingers, a gesture Angel found immensely erotic.

“How could I not?” Angel replied. “What would make me think that coming to Sunnydale would be anything but a mistake?” Buffy’s face fell and Angel rushed on to say: “I don’t mean that the way it sounds, Buffy. You know I don’t.”

“I know,” Buffy conceded.

“This thing, whatever it is, does seem to understand certain truths about us and I think that if it can use that information against us, it will,” Angel said. “We’ll have to be very careful.”

“What truth does it know about us?” Buffy said, altogether aware of the plaintive tone in her voice. She sniffed unattractively.

For a time, Angel was silent, as if weighing his words, considering the outcome of the truth versus the outcome of a well-intentioned lie. He was quiet for so long that Buffy finally said, “Angel?” the familiar lilt in her voice as she uttered his name almost splitting him in two.

He looked at her, eyes shining with tears, nose slightly red from her previous crying, hands folded neatly in her blanketed lap and he was catapulted back in time. He’d been so sure that he would never feel this way again and yet the feeling was as powerful as ever. He leaned forward, curving a hand around the back of her head and drawing her forward. He kissed her. A kiss of such simple, uncomplicated feeling that he felt, actually felt, Buffy’s heart stall.

When he pulled back he said, “That’s the truth, Buffy. Our truth.”

Buffy nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Okay.”

***

“I wonder,” Spike said, feet propped up on the coffee table, mug of blood cradled in the palm of his hand, “what it’s after, ultimately?”

Dawn sat across from Spike, painting her toenails fire-engine red. “Well, you’ve been around for a lot longer than most of us, shouldn’t you have some, like, insider knowledge or something.”

Spike snorted. “Yeah, I suppose I should,” he said, “shouldn’t I?” His gaze fell on Angel’s son who was eyeing him with hostile curiousity. “Have you got something you want to say?”

Connor tipped his chin insolently. “Did you know my mother?”

Spike laughed. “Direct. I like that.” He paused to take another drink, watching Connor carefully over the rim of his mug. “I did know your mother.”

Connor slid his eyes over to Dawn, who had paused in her painting to regard Spike with amazement. “You didn’t tell me that,” she squeaked.

“There’s lots of stuff I don’t tell you, Bit,” he said with a smile. “And besides, what were the chances I was ever going to meet Peach Pit here.” Spike laughed suddenly. “Bit and Pit. Cute.”

Connor looked confused and Dawn leaned over and whispered, “I think he sometimes calls your Dad Peaches. Spike thinks he’s quite clever.”

Spike smiled indulgently. “Dawn fancies herself my confidante. Thinks she knows all about me. Thinks she knows what makes my heart tick.”

“Your heart doesn’t literally tick, Spike,” Dawn interrupted. “Even I know that.”

“Thinks she understands the truth,” Spike continued, “thinks she knows all about the dirty things I did to her sister, the ways I made her scream and moan.”

“Spike!” Dawn said, in alarm “Stop.”

“I could show you,” Spike said, putting the mug on the table and standing up. He advanced toward Dawn with deliberation. “I should show you,” he repeated, kneeling in front of Dawn, resting his hands on her knees.

“Hey,” Connor said. “Leave her alone.”

“Spike?” Dawn whispered.

Spike’s eyes focused suddenly and he sat back on his haunches. “Dawn?”

“Are you okay? You wigged out on us.”

“I’m sorry,” Spike said, standing. “I’m sorry. I need to go.”

Retrieving his cup from the table, Spike left the room.

“That guy’s an asshole,” Connor said. “Did something happen between him and your sister?”

Dawn shook her head, recapping the nail polish. “They had…a thing.”

“A thing?” Connor said.

Dawn looked at him sharply. “Are all guys totally brain dead?” she asked contemptuously. “They had a thing. Geesh.” Placing the bottle in a little basket on the floor beside her chair, she stood up and left the room.

“A thing?” Connor repeated to himself.

 

***

The kitchen smelled, for the first time in days, like cooking. Xander stood at the counter chopping green peppers and mushrooms to add to the tomato sauce that Cordelia had started out of sheer boredom. Cordelia now sat at the kitchen table, watching Xander’s back.

“Do you want to know what I think?” Xander said without turning around.

“No,” Cordelia said.

“I think…”

“I said no. As in, no I don’t want to know what you think.”

Xander twisted his head around and met Cordelia’s eyes. “You haven’t changed, have you?” he asked. “Not really. Even though you and Willow were exchanging secrets like you never did when you lived here. Even though you seem to be on the side of good.”

Cordelia smiled. “I’m all about good, Xander,” she said. “Just because I don’t want to hear your lame hypothesis doesn’t mean I’m not good.”

“Whatever,” Xander shrugged, returning his attention to the vegetables.

Cordelia moved to join him. “Tell me if you want.”

“No, thanks,” Xander said, chopping hard.

“Look, Xander. I do important work in LA. I have visions. I see things and I help Angel do the work that he does. In fact, it may not be overstating my importance to say that Angel wouldn’t even be able to do the work that he does without me.”

“That’s rich,” Xander said.

“Say what you want,” Cordelia said haughtily. “I know my place in the food chain and it’s a lot higher up than yours.”

Xander stopped chopping and swiveled to face Cordelia. “But you don’t get dirty, do you, Cordy? You’re not out in the trenches fighting face to face with the big evil, are you?”

“Look, Xander, “Cordelia said, “we all have something to give to the fight. I’m not saying that you have nothing to offer, I’m just saying that my job is slightly more,” she paused, searching for the proper word, “technical.”

“But the visions, they were given to you, right? By accident. So it’s not like you sacrificed anything to get them.”

“I make sacrifices every day,” Cordelia said quietly.

“Oh, I just bet you do,” Xander said, scooping up the chopped produce and dropping it into the simmering pot.

“Buffy isn’t the only one,” she started before Xander interrupted firmly with “Buffy is the only one, Cordelia. If you think otherwise you’re a fool.”

Cordelia crossed her arms defensively across her chest.

“Put the pasta on,” Xander ordered. “I’ll set the table.”

***

Over dinner, which was ravenously appreciated, Wesley and Giles laid out what they had gleaned from various texts and a thorough search on the Internet. Still, despite the food and the boisterous atmosphere, the tension was unmistakable.

Connor kept sliding sly eyes across the table to watch Spike, who sat with an almost full plate of spaghetti and an almost empty glass of wine. Spike, in turn was watching Buffy who was looking remarkably rested and beautiful considering the dire events of the past few days. Gunn and Fred sat on opposite sides of the table: Gunn ate his food with acute concentration, while Fred twirled her pasta absently, aiming the full fork at her mouth before dropping it listlessly. Willow and Dawn listened to Giles as he spoke, occasionally adding information they had discovered and he left out. Anya sat quietly, lamenting once more her loss of powers and her lot in life. Lorne sat, intently trying to read as much as he could from the conversation and the silences that billowed out from the unfinished sentences. Cordelia, still huffy from her argument with Xander, watched Angel watching Buffy and felt the beginnings of panic bump against the walls of her empty stomach. Xander ate with gusto.

“Look, we know something that we didn’t before,” Wesley said, drawing everyone out of their self-induced reveries. “We now know that the First can inhabit, for lack of a better word, the bodies of vampires and when they do, they have form.”

“You mean they can touch and be touched, right?” Lorne asked, swirling his Bloody Mary for emphasis.

“Yes.”

“So, then, all we need to do is to wait for them to, you know, get in a vampire and then we stake them,” Xander said, resting his eyes first on Angel and then on Spike. It was a tie between whom he’d like to see dusted first.

“I’m not sure that’s the most prudent course of action, Xander,” Giles said, stroking the stem of his wineglass. “Who’s to say that the death of the host actually means the death of the First?”

“It’s worth a shot,” Xander said.

“And then we’d be without two of our strongest allies,” Buffy said.

“They’d die for the greater good,” Xander said.

Buffy shook her head dismissively.

“I think that the importance of the information is really just a head’s up,” Wesley said. “You need to be aware of the possibility that sometimes Angel and Spike may not be who they appear.”

“Well, that’s just great,” Anya said. “As if I can keep track of who everyone is now.”

“I’m with you, sweetheart,” Lorne said, raising his glass.

“Why didn’t Spike hurt me?” Dawn said suddenly. “I mean, he could have, right?”

“I wouldn’t have though,” Spike said, reaching across the table for the bottle of red wine. “You know that, right?”

“I know that you wouldn’t hurt me, Spike,” Dawn agreed. “But that wasn’t you earlier, not the whole time.”

Everyone turned to Giles and Wes expectantly.

“Well, yes, that is interesting,” Wes said finally.

“It did hurt you in a way,” Connor offered.

“How?” Angel prodded.

“It said stuff about Buffy and Spike,” Connor said.

Angel’s eyes narrowed. “What sort of stuff?”

“Nothing,” Dawn said quickly. “Just made up stuff.”

“It didn’t seem made-up to me,” Connor said disregarding the overt discomfort in the room.

“What did it say?” Angel asked again, his eyes focused on Spike who met his glare with its twin.

“It said that it could show Dawn the stuff that he and Buffy had done together. Sex stuff,” he added, looking pointedly at Cordelia, who blushed.

Angel rose from the table, feeling the muscles in his chest bunch together, vice-like around his dead heart. “You bastard,” he said, directing his comment to Spike who stood up and regarded Angel from across the table. “I should kill you myself.”

“Come ahead, Peaches,” Spike taunted. “If you think you’ve got the bollocks.”

Buffy stood beside Angel and rested a hand on his thick forearm. “Angel,” she whispered. “Not now.”

His eyes were burning when he looked down at her. Connor’s words had only confirmed what the rumours had indicated months previous. Besides, he’d known as soon as he’d walked into the house, could smell them all over each other, although admittedly, the smell was faint and old.

“Please,” Buffy repeated.

Angel returned his gaze to Spike who was slouched in his chair, as insolent and cocky as ever. Buffy was right: Now was not the time to kill Spike for having dared to touch Buffy. That the time would come, Angel had no doubt.

“Look, as much as I’d like to see you guys fight to the death,” Xander said, “we have more important things to think about than wounded pride.”

“I agree,” Giles said. “Let’s get to it shall we?”

“What’s for dessert?” Anya asked.

***

A quick sweep through the cemetery was fruitless. Buffy shoved her stake into the back pocket of her jeans and sighed. She was full of nervous energy and could have used a few good fights as a means to release some of it.

“Anything?” Spike said, coming up behind her.

Buffy turned and shook her head. “You?”

“No.”

“OK, you being the vampire and all, what in the hell’s going on?”

Spike shrugged. “Sometimes when there’s a bigger bad in town, vamps lay low. But there’s more than that going on.”

“Yeah?”

“At the house, too.”

“Yeah,” Buffy said, dropping her eyes.

Spike stepped closer. “Look. I don’t want to cause trouble but it’s no secret how I feel about you.”

“Just by saying that you’re causing trouble, Spike,” Buffy said. “And you’re asking for something that I can’t give you.”

“But you can give it to him?” Spike asked incredulously.

“No. Of course not.”

Spike reached out and touched Buffy’s arm, in the soft curve of her elbow. His fingertips stroked up and back and Buffy felt mesmerized by the touch. “I bet he doesn’t know you like a little rough and tumble,” he whispered, close to her ear.

Buffy pulled her arm away and stepped back. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what? Don’t touch you? Don’t fuck you? Don’t make you scream my name?”

Buffy reached into her back pocket and retrieved her stake. “Just don’t,” she repeated firmly.

Spike smiled and Buffy felt a chill settle at the base of her spine, a prickly feeling that gnawed at her bones, nibbling its way up.

“You’re not safe around me,” Spike said, his voice low.

“I know,” Buffy replied.

“Yet you stand there like some action hero, impervious to harm.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Not even a little?”

“No. Not even a little.”

“Let’s just test that theory, shall we?” Spike said, advancing toward her.

 

***

Humans were so predictable, so soft and pliable, so weak. They held onto their feelings as though they had value, merit. But it knew; it knew what lay beneath the fragile surface of their skin. It knew how to burrow deep and draw the most exquisite pleasure from their pain.

Using the vampires was a stroke of genius, really. It could hardly wait to sink into her, could hardly wait to kill her as she came.

 

IV

 

Willow and Wesley sat at the dining room table, their heads pitched forward to better examine a shared text.

“Do you think?” Willow murmured.

“I don’t know really,” Wesley replied.

“What about if we cross reference with the Tartock Bibliography?” Willow suggested.

“Perhaps,” Wesley agreed.

“We’re running out of time, Wesley,” Willow said.

“I know.”

“Any luck?” Giles said, appearing at the door to the dining room, looking rumpled and exhausted.

“No, not really,” Wes said. “Is there any tea?”

“I just put the kettle on, actually,” Giles said, stepping into the room and surveying the books and papers that littered the Summers’ dining room table. “You’ve been hard at it.”

“I don’t know, Giles. I mean, we thought that if we were all together something might snap into place and it just seems to be getting more complicated by the minute,” Willow said wearily.

Giles nodded. “Well sooner or later perhaps we’ll have a breakthrough. And worse case scenario, there’s safety in numbers.”

“That’s right,” Wesley said, smiling encouragingly at Willow.

“Everyone’s just so tense,” Willow said.

“I had noticed,” Giles agreed.

“Well, under the circumstances I suppose it’s to be expected.”

The three fell silent until the kettle’s shrill whistle interrupted them and Giles retreated back into the kitchen to prepare the tea.

“Look at this,” Willow said, pointing to a passage in the Prophecies of Brithnone. “Are my translation skills really bad or does that say what I think it does?”

“Let’s have a look, shall we,” Wes said, turning the book to a more convenient angle. He began tracing the archaic language, stopping to make notes as he went. “It seems to indicate that at a time in history when there are two souled vampires, a great Evil shall rise up against humanity and Darkness shall blanket the earth.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Willow said. “Well, that’d be happening about now, don’t you think?”

“Well, we’re certainly in possession of two vampires with souls,” Wesley said shaking his head. “Whoever would have thought we’d see that?”

Giles entered the room with a tray laden with tea and mugs and a plate of digestive biscuits he’d dug out of the back of a cupboard. “Seen what?”

“Two vampires with souls,” Willow said, pouring steaming tea into a mug and handing it to Wes before beginning to pour a second cup for herself. “That’s got to mean something, right?”

The two men exchanged meaningful looks across the table.

“I suppose it must mean something, yes,” Wes said.

“Well, look, you’ve found the reference in Brithnone. Are there more?” Giles asked, pausing to take a bite of his cookie.

“We hadn’t thought to look,” Wes acknowledged.

“Let me see if there’s anyone else around,” Willow said, “and we’ll do some old-fashioned research.”

“Right then,” Giles said, reaching for another book.

***

Buffy took another step away from Spike and cautioned him with what she hoped was a menacing look.

“Here’s the thing, Buffy, your greatest weakness has always been the fact that you don’t understand your greatest strength,” Spike said, moving closer.

“Look Spike, as much as I appreciate you arm-chair quarterbacking me, this isn’t the time or the place,” Buffy said, just as her back hit something tall and solid, a large tombstone from the way its substantial bulk didn’t shift at her back.

Spike smiled, moving closer, pressing forward into her personal space. His eyes never left Buffy’s, not even when he felt the pointy end of the stake rest against his chest.

“Go on, then,” he said.

“Please, Spike,” Buffy said plaintively.

Spike stepped closer still, mashing the stake between their two bodies, before dropping his mouth against hers in a possessive and familiar kiss. He insinuated his thigh between her legs and pressed forward, felt the thrill of ownership when she didn’t struggle against him. He felt Buffy’s hands slide up his chest, felt his own arousal.

He removed his lips from hers and regretted it almost immediately. “Do you know what it’s like to love someone who doesn’t love you?” he whispered.

He paused and leaned closer, sniffing the air around her ear. “I can smell you, smell the blood and the confusion and the desire and the longing. All of it.”

“It’s not what you think,” Buffy said, inching away from Spike.

“What do you think I think?”

“I think you’re certifiable, actually,” Buffy said, using the tombstone as leverage to pull herself up and shove at Spike’s chest with both feet, sending him sailing back to land several yards away. She was on him in an instant, stake poised over his heart. “Stay down, Spike,” Buffy said firmly.

He was silent.

“I’m going to cut you some slack here because I know that sometimes you’re not quite yourself. I am, however, totally myself and I know damn well what my strengths and weaknesses are. You think I haven’t been keeping a tally? You think I don’t understand how to add and subtract? You don’t know me as well as you think, Spike.”

Spike narrowed glittering, calculating eyes and remained silent.

“You’re the transparent one,” Buffy said. “I know you think that it’s because Angel’s back that everything’s different for us. But it doesn’t have anything to do with him.”

“What sort of fool do you take me for?” Spike said, sitting up suddenly and knocking Buffy back. She scrambled to her feet quickly and Spike joined her: equals once more.

“I don’t think you’re a fool at all, but I’m not going to stand here and deconstruct our relationship,” Buffy said.

“Yours and mine or yours and his?”

“Either.”

“Well then, I guess we’re at an impasse,” Spike said, levelly.

Buffy shrugged.

“I know you have feelings for me, Buffy. Your mouth might be able to tell lies, but your body doesn’t,” Spike said.

It was Buffy’s turn to be silent.

“Sooner or later,” Spike stopped. “Never mind.”

Without another word, Spike turned and cut a trail through the tombstones toward the street and home.

Buffy stood silently and waited for her heart to stop hammering in her chest. Her mouth did lie, elaborately and with finesse, and it didn’t change the fact that her feelings for Spike were complicated and that she felt a twinge of regret watching him walk away.

***

The house on Revello Drive was dark and quiet when Buffy finally climbed the steps at shortly after 2am. Inserting her key in the lock, she rested her head against the door for a moment before turning the key and pushing the heavy door open.

She took a deep breath and stepped inside. To the right she could see a small light illuminating the dining room table and the books spilled across its surface like scattered leaves. She could make out someone’s bent elbow and when she stepped forward she saw that Dawn was asleep, head cradled in her bent arms.

Murmured voices drew her through the dining room. She stopped at the threshold just before the kitchen and listened.

“…why does it have to be one or the other?”

Cordelia’s voice.

“It doesn’t. It’s just not going to be me.”

Angel’s voice.

Buffy leaned closer.

“Maybe you wouldn’t feel that way if we weren’t here,” Cordelia said.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with Buffy,” Angel replied and Buffy could hear the tension in his voice.

“Everything has something to do with Buffy,” Cordelia replied.

Angel’s response was so quiet Buffy was unable to make out the words. And then she heard: “Go to bed, Cordelia.”

She heard the back door open and close and she heard Cordelia’s long sigh as she moved through the kitchen and down the hall to the stairs. Buffy stepped into the newly vacated room and went to the cupboard to retrieve a glass. She turned on the faucet and watched her reflection in the window over the sink. She looked tired. She felt tired. She filled her glass, turned off the tap, drank her water and set the glass on the sideboard. Turning to head back to the stairs, she was startled to find Angel standing there, calmly watching her.

“God! You scared me,” Buffy said, sucking in a quick breath.

“Sorry,” Angel said. “How was patrol?”

“Strangely dead,” Buffy said. “And I don’t mean the living-dead sort of dead, either.”

“It’s been quiet here, too.”

Buffy dropped her eyes.

“I know you heard,” Angel said.

“Not much really,” Buffy replied.

“Enough.”

Buffy looked up at him. “Enough to know that there’s something going on between you and Cordelia.”

“No. Not me and Cordelia. Connor and Cordelia,” Angel said, moving to stand beside Buffy.

“Oh.”

The silence that followed was interrupted by the refrigerator, which clicked on suddenly and filled the room with a buzzing that seeped into the empty corners of the kitchen.

“But maybe it’s unfair to blame everything on them, on the fact that they…well, you know,” Angel said finally.

“I think so.”

“Truth is, I did develop feelings for Cordelia, Buffy,” Angel said quietly.

“Oh.”

“Not unlike, I suspect, the feelings you developed for Spike.”

“I don’t have feelings for Spike,” Buffy said quickly.

Angel slanted a look toward her and said: “I can smell him all over you.”

“We had a tussle in the cemetery,” Buffy explained.

Angel shook his head. “That’s not what I mean. I can smell him and I can smell you and I don’t have any right to be pissed about it.”

Buffy turned her face to Angel’s

“I have no right to be upset, Buffy. But that doesn’t mean I’m not.”

Buffy let her eyes fall away from Angel’s face. In the corner, on the floor, was a crust of bread and incongruously, Buffy thought that the house could probably use a good cleaning. If she knew where to locate a broom, she could sweep now and ignore Angel’s hot eyes.

“Buffy,” Angel said.

“I can’t,” she replied, feeling her eyes fill with unwelcome tears.

“You can’t what?” Angel said, resting his hand on her arm and tugging her toward him.

“I don’t know how to talk to you anymore,” she said truthfully. “I don’t know how to have a conversation with you that won’t spin out of control and leave me exposed.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have known that this wouldn’t work.”

“Right.”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Best laid plans,” Buffy murmured.

“Buffy,” Angel said.

Buffy dragged the back of her hand across her eyes and looked at Angel expectantly.

“We just need to get through this, okay. There’s always going to be stuff we need to say to each other, stuff that we, for whatever reason can’t...” Angel paused. “ This is business and we’ll take care of it and then we can go on with our lives.”

“Right.”

Angel reached out and touched Buffy’s shoulder. He wanted to say more. He wanted to tell her that he had messed everything up. He wanted to tell her that he loved her, that nothing had changed; she was still the only sunlight in his life, but all he could manage was: “Okay. Get some sleep. I’ll do a quick sweep and see you later.”

***

It was almost dawn when Angel let himself back into the house. Dawn had vacated her sleeping spot at the dining room table and Wesley was turning restlessly on the couch in the front room. Angel opened the fridge and extracted a blood bag. He warmed it in the microwave before tearing the bag open with his teeth and dumping it into an abandoned mug he found on the counter.

Buffy had been right. There hadn’t been any ghosts or goblins haunting Sunnydale’s streets and that fact alone was enough to make Angel uneasy. Angel drained the last of the blood from the mug and then rinsed it out under the faucet.

“Dad?”

Angel turned to find Connor standing there, dressed and ready for the day.

“Connor. You’re up early,” Angel said.

“Couldn’t sleep. You just get back?”

Angel nodded.

“Anything?”

“No.”

“We should be worried about that, shouldn’t we?” Connor said.

“I think so,” Angel replied. “I’m gonna go get some sleep.”

“Dad.”

Angel paused in the doorway.

“We should talk about Cordy.”

“It isn’t any of my business,” Angel said without looking at his son.

“Maybe not, but we should still talk,” Connor insisted, a strange expression on his face.

Angel turned to face Connor. “When you’re older, son, you’ll understand that the heart isn’t something you can control, but neither is it the wisest organ in your body. We don’t choose who we love, we just love. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but never feel badly for having allowed yourself the feeling.”

“Do you love her?”

“Cordelia?”

“No, the Slayer,” Connor said.

Angel looked at his feet and back up at Connor who was standing there, waiting for an answer.

“I did,” Angel said, altogether aware that he had replied in the past tense.

“And Cordy?” Connor said. Angel could tell it was difficult for him to ask the question.

“No. I don’t love Cordy, Connor.”

“She loves you,” Connor replied.

“Perhaps.”

Connor shook his head, puzzled. In that moment, Angel saw him not as an angry young man or even as a sweet-smelling baby, but as a fresh-faced little boy, sitting on his knee asking the questions all little boys asked their fathers. He saw Connor as the little boy he would never be to him and it broke his heart.

“I’m going to go get some sleep,” he said.

“Yeah. Whatever,” Connor said, turning to the cupboard to root for food, the conversation and the intimacy between them already forgotten.

***

Morning proper was a bustle of activity. Lorne flipped pancakes at the stove as Willow poured juice from a container into small glasses. They were chatting like old friends who had been separated for years and had just now been reunited. Xander was arguing with Dawn about the necessity of school and Anya was flipping aimlessly through the morning edition of the newspaper.

“Round everyone up, would you?” Lorne said to Anya as he flipped another golden pancake onto the mounded platter.

“Do I look like the maid?” Anya said huffily to Willow.

Willow shrugged and returned the juice container to the frig.

“No, sweet thing, you’re just the one doing the least at the moment,” Lorne said with a smile.

“All right then,” Anya said standing and moving to the bottom of the stairs where she yelled: “Gunn! Fred! Cordelia! Buffy! Wes! Angel! Spike!” She paused. “Have I forgotten any body?”

“Connor and, um, no that’s it. But I doubt Spike and Angel will be racing to the table for pancakes,” Willow said.

“We could make them some blood syrup,” Dawn offered, stuffing her books into her backpack.

“Ewwww,” Xander said. “With a side of yuck.”

Dawn shrugged. “I’m just saying it might be good to have everyone around the table.”

Giles appeared at the door and smiled.

“Oops, we forgot Giles,” Willow said. “Morning.”

“Morning all. You’re a very chipper lot this morning,” he said, crossing the room for a mug and crossing back to access the coffee pot.

“We made tea,” Lorne said.

“No, thank you, this is just lovely,” Giles replied.

One by one the others straggled in, eyes brightening when they saw the counter laden with food.

“You can’t work on an empty stomach,” Lorne said, waving his spatula dramatically.

“True,” Giles agreed. “And we do have a lot of work to do.”

“See,” Dawn said, looking up at Xander.

“No. You are going to school while there is still school to go to,” Buffy said from the doorway.

“Geesh,” Dawn said, piling her plate with three pancakes and heading to the dining room table.

“What’s the occasion?” Buffy said, reaching for a glass of juice.

“Where I come from we call it ‘talik-toc’,” Lorne said.

“He means breakfast,” Fred translated, entering the room.

Buffy smiled. “I figured as much.”

For a moment, as the sun slanted through the kitchen window, it was easy to pretend that this was a normal suburban house in a safe and quiet Southern Californian town and not some sort of pseudo command central. The mingled voices, clattering cutlery, and sporadic laughter was both comforting and unnerving.

Xander and Dawn left amidst good-natured good-byes and then Wes said: “We have some news.”

“Good news?” Cordelia asked, pushing her pancake through a puddle of syrup.

“Well, it might be premature to say that the news is good,” Wesley said.

Willow leaned over and whispered to Cordelia, “I thought you said he wasn’t all simpering and indecisive now?”

“I heard that,” Wesley said. “I’m not indecisive. I’m cautious.”

“And, in this instance, he has every reason to be,” Giles said.

“Should we wait for Angel and Spike?”

“No. Let them sleep,” Buffy said. “What’s the what?”

“It would appear that your decision to ask us to come here was very fortuitous,” Wesley said. “Because you see, there aren’t meant to be two souled vampires, let alone two in the same place at the same time.”

“That’s that passage we read,” Willow said. “About Evil rising up and the whole quilt of darkness thing, right?”

Wes nodded. “But I made a few calls, called in some favours and it would appear that having two souled vampires is good for our side. There is a portal to the demon dimension here in Sunnydale…”

“Tell us something we don’t know,” Buffy muttered under her breath.

“…and I’m not talking about the Hellmouth. It’s another portal and from it emanates the First in all its malevolent glory.”

“Buffy,” Giles said, in a voice that made all eyes turn toward him. “When you jumped from the tower…”

“Oh my God,” Willow said. “I did this!”

“Well, not alone,” Giles said.

“You made the sacrifice to save your sister and the world and you leapt off the tower without knowing that it wouldn’t be hell you’d be going to but some place else. None of us had prepared for that possibility and so Willow’s decision to resurrect you was based on the ill-informed assumption that you were in a very bad place. Calling you back created a tear in the dimensions, a portal, and it is from there that the First comes.”

“It followed me from heaven?”

“You weren’t in heaven, Buffy,” Wesley said. “You were in limbo, we think. Had you made it all the way to heaven, Willow wouldn’t have been able to call you back. There’s no magic powerful enough to do that.”

“Limbo,” Buffy said. “I don’t understand.”

“We think that the Powers had you in a sort of holding pattern. Perhaps they were aware of the tear and knew that you’d be needed to help close it. If they had allowed you to go to heaven there’d be no hope.”

“So, what, they just kept me floating around like some human balloon?” Buffy said incredulously.

“Something like that,” Giles said.

“Do you have memories of that place?” Cordelia asked. “Because I have memories of my other-worldly place and all I can say is that they could have used a good decorator and an espresso machine.”

Wesley shot Cordelia a stern look and said, “Buffy?”

“Yes. I have memories,” she said, dropping her head into the hammock of her fingers.

“Well, I doubt you’d have them if you’d gone from the human plane altogether,” Wesley said.

“What does all this mean? And what does it have to do with our dead boys?” Gunn said from the corner where he’s been standing, silently.

“We think that if we can mend the tear, the First will be trapped here on earth and will have to take human form. In human form it can be harmed,” Giles said.

“That’s it?” Gunn said, moving toward the table. “We sew up the tear and trap the evil and kill it and call it a day? You’ve got to be kidding?”

“Well, that’s the best that we’ve got at this point,” Wes said, jaw clenched.

“How do we fix the tear?” Fred asked, seeking to calm the men down.

“Ahh, well, that’s where our vampires come in,” Giles said.

“Perhaps we should wake them,” Wes said. “This does concern them after all.”

“Indeed,” Giles said.

 

V

 

Angel wasn’t asleep when Buffy went into her room to fetch him. He was standing at her dresser staring at the crucifix hanging from the wooden jewelry tree. He didn’t look up when Buffy came into the room.

“You still have this,” he said, indicating the cross he’d given her several years before. It was the first piece of jewelry he had ever given her, though not the last, and it was meaningful to him in more ways than just the obvious.

“Yes,” she replied.

“But you don’t wear it?”

“Not very much,” she admitted.

“It occurred to me as I was sitting here that I never really gave you many tokens, things that boyfriends might give their girlfriends,” he said quietly. “For some reason it made me sad.”

“You don’t need to feel badly, Angel,” Buffy said, stepping into the room and shutting the door behind her. “You gave me plenty.”

“Did I?” he asked. “Did I really give you enough, Buffy?”

Buffy could feel the low rumble of panic work up the back of her throat. She swung her eyes from Angel’s to the rumpled bed, to the window with its tightly drawn shade, back to Angel’s patient face.

“Yes,” she said, because it was really the only answer she could give him. She knew what he wanted, but it wasn’t possible, given that nothing had changed, or was ever likely to change, between them. The kindest thing she could do was to lie, help kill the First and send him back to his life in Los Angeles. He deserved some modicum of happiness.

“It doesn’t seem possible that only four years have passed, Buffy,” he said, stepping fractionally closer. “I’ve lived a long time, but these last four years have taken forever to get through.”

Buffy swallowed back a sob. Was every single moment between them going to emotionally eviscerate her?

“I’ve never stopped,” Angel said.

Buffy closed her eyes against the inevitable words.

“I’ve never stopped loving you.”

She didn’t know why she did it, but she swept her hand around her neck, gathering her hair to one side and bared her neck for him. Her nipples ached.

Angel stepped closer and effortlessly slipped into game face, his incisors razor-sharp.

“Buffy,” he murmured before bending low and sinking his fangs into her flesh, his strong hands on her arms, pinning her intimately against him.

She can feel it: The hum of her blood racing through constricted veins. She can hear it: Her heartbeat’s stuttering rhythm in her ears. She can taste it: Her mouth gone dry.

The pressure of his mouth on hers, the sensation of him feeding, pulls something loose in her crotch and she feels her knees buckle. They fall to the bedroom floor, although somehow, despite the fact that he lands on top of her, he manages to cushion her landing. He stays married to her flesh and she feels the first ripple of her orgasm, curls her toes up tight to hold it back.

On and on. It is a seemingly unending spiral of sensation and she wishes, vaguely, that there weren’t so many clothes between them.

“Buffy?”

How can he be speaking with his lips fastened to her throat.

“Buffy?”

Are her eyes closed?

“A little help here!”

From far away she can hear clattering feet and then there is someone else beside her. She opens her eyes to muddled faces and harsh light.

“Angel?” she said.

“I’m here.”

“What happened?” Buffy reached for her throat, touching her skin gingerly searching for torn flesh, blood, but all she finds is the old wound; sealed over, forgotten, as faint as her breath.

***

Buffy sat with a glass of water and regarded the concerned faces of her friends. Angel is pacing on the far side of the room, his face etched with guilt despite having committed no crime.

“And, so, Angel was in the room when you went in?” Giles asked.

“I told you everything that happened once already,” Buffy said.

“Yes. Yes, I know you did, but this hallucination was manifest,” Giles said. “It’s terribly worrying, Buffy.”

“I got that part, actually,” Buffy replied, attempting a smile.

Angel inched closer to where Willow, Giles and Wesley sat on the coffee table. Anya and Cordelia were finishing the dishes in the kitchen. Connor and Spike were missing. Lorne, Fred and Gunn were at work in the dining room, attempting unsuccessfully to put the last pieces of the portal puzzle together.

“You said you thought there was a way Spike and I could mend the tear,” Angel said, his eyes never leaving Buffy’s face.

Giles craned his neck around to look up at the vampire. “Yes, we believe there is,” he said.

“The problem we are currently facing is the location of the portal,” Wes said. “But, yes, if we can find it, I think we know how to mend it. If you and Spike are willing.”

“You don’t have to worry about that. I’m willing. Spike won’t have a choice.”

From the dining room Lorne shouted: “Hallalujah!”

Giles and Wes exchanged a look and got up from the table, heading off in the direction of Lorne’s excited exclamation. Willow crossed the distance between her and Buffy and sat down.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m sure, Willow.”

Willow glanced up at Angel and patted Buffy’s knee. “All right then, I’m gonna…” she let the sentence dangle and moved to join the others.

Angel drifted closer, but not close enough to touch her. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“You didn’t do anything,” she replied, meaning it.

“Not this time, maybe,” Angel said looking down at his shoes.

“Angel,” Buffy said and her voice drew him back to her face. “It was different then. I did it to save your life and if I had to make the choice again I wouldn’t choose any differently.”

“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t…”

“Stop, right there,” Buffy said. “Just stop.”

She stood up, her legs wobbling from the imagined blood loss, and moved to where he was standing. “If you say that you regret what happened…”

Angel shook his head. “No, Buffy, no. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of what you did for me, what you sacrificed. Not a day that I don’t feel grateful.”

“Okay,” Buffy said.

But Angel wasn’t finished. “There’s not a day that I don’t remember how you tasted, how you felt against my mouth and under my fingers and pressed against me. It was the day I’d dreaded and hoped for with every ounce of my being from the first time I saw you. I can still taste you, Buffy. I still want you. That’s why I can’t be here. What happened upstairs, that was too close.”

Angel’s words were soft, but they cut like razors through her heart.

“Buffy,” Willow said, poking her head into the living room and immediately dropping her eyes when she saw the Slayer and the Vampire, toe to toe, and obviously involved in an intimate discussion.

“In a minute, okay,” Buffy said.

“Right,” Willow replied, ducking back into the hall.

“We need to find this portal and Spike and I need to patch it up, put an end to the First…”

“…and go back to LA. I know,” Buffy said, finishing Angel’s thoughts.

“There’s nothing else to be done,” Angel said.

Buffy nodded. They could talk and talk, but nothing was any different: not the way she felt about him, not the way he felt about her and certainly not any of the reasons that prevented them from being together. She swallowed hard, then turned and left the room.

Angel watched her departure. He watched her straight back stiffen against the knowledge that she would have to face the others. He watched her disappear into the dining room and then he followed. He joined the rest of the assembly and waited for the latest development, all the while hugging the memory of Buffy’s small breasts, and beating heart, and hot blood close to him.

***

“You’ve got to be kidding?” Buffy said.

“No, we’ve checked and double checked and triple…” Lorne said. “Well, you get the picture, doll.”

“I get the picture, but it doesn’t make sense,” Buffy said.

“Well, actually, it does make sense in a cosmic sort of way,” Giles said, resisting the temptation to remove his glasses and polish them as he delivered this crumb of Watcher-wisdom.

“But why didn’t we know?” Willow said, asking the obvious question.

 

“We can’t know everything,” Wesley said, scraping his hand over several days’ worth of stubble. “We know what we know and we stumble upon the rest.”

“So, what you’re saying is that the portal is right here, in Buffy’s house?” Cordelia said, folding and unfolding the dishtowel she’d imported from the kitchen.

“So it would seem,” Wes confirmed.

“We have seen a lot of unusual things here in the past few days,” Willow said.

“Yeah, we’ve seen St. Cordy and Willow Landers for one,” Xander muttered under his breath, earning him a glare from both girls.

“But not exclusively here,” Buffy argued, ignoring Xander’s barbed remark.

“No, but the First is powerful, more powerful than anything else you’ve had to face Buffy,” Giles said. “We must proceed very cautiously.”

“Damn it!” Buffy said, slapping her palms onto the dining room table, welcoming the sting as it traveled along her fingertips. “My own house isn’t even safe. All this time we were trying to protect this place and it was like the Harbinger’s Mecca.”

“Can we pinpoint the exact location of the portal?” Fred asked.

“Yes, I believe we can,” Wes said, looking directly at Fred for the first time since they’d arrived in Sunnydale. He allowed himself to indulge in the memory of her slender thighs, her rosebud nipples, and against all reason he felt himself harden. He sensed, rather than saw, Gunn’s black eyes boring into him and he dropped his gaze.

“If you’d lend a hand with some calculations, Fred,” Wes said to his crotch, “I’m sure we can find and open the portal in due course.”

“In the meantime, you others should get some rest,” Giles said. “There’s plenty of work to be done in the hours ahead and you’ll need your strength and your wits about you.”

Fred gave Gunn a small smile and then drew up a chair next to Wesley.

“Right,” Gunn hissed under his breath.

“Where’s Spike?” Giles asked.

“Some place dark, I suspect,” Willow said. “Want me to look downstairs?”

“No,” Angel said, perhaps too quickly. “Let me go. We need to talk anyway.”

As the others drifted off to find a quiet place to rest, Angel headed for the basement door. Pulling it open soundlessly, he started down into the gloom, anxious for this confrontation.

***

Spike tilted his head toward the sound of feet coming down the wooden basement steps. He was lying on his cot, feet crossed at the ankles, blowing smoke rings into the dank air.

“Hello, Peaches,” he said, when Angel materialized in front of him, dragging an old wooden chair behind him.

“William,” Angel replied, watching Spike flinch against the use of his much-despised human name. Spike had always prided himself on being a self-made man, a man who had reinvented himself from the human remains of William, poet and dreamer. The name “Spike” was sort of like the crown jewel of his new persona and using “William” diminished him in some way that Angel found highly amusing.

“What do you want?” Spike asked, turning back to the ceiling.

“You and I are going to have to work together to repair the tear in the portal,” Angel said, sitting on the chair.

“Whatever.”

“But after that, all bets are off.” There was no question of the implicit threat in Angel’s words.

Spike smiled. “You’re bloody predictable, do you know that?”

Angel leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. He was close enough to Spike he could have tongued the other vampire’s ear. “You’ve forgotten where you belong, Spike,” he said, evenly.

“Have I then?” Spike said, taking a final drag from his Marlborough and sitting up, dropping the butt to the cement floor and squashing it beneath his boot.

“How dare you touch her,” Angel said, the words slipping out from between tightly compressed lips.

Spike cocked a scarred eyebrow. “She was panting for it, mate. All I did was oblige the lady. You would’ve done the same, if it weren’t for you being all celibate and everything.”

Angel was on him in an instant. He wrapped huge hands around Spike’s throat and slammed him against the cinderblock wall, as easily as pinning a bug to a piece of felt. Spike’s eyes reflected nothing. For a moment the two seemed to have reached a stalemate and then Spike said: “I don’t need the air, actually.”

Angel pushed himself off the other vampire and stood, glowering, above him.

Spike righted himself and touched his fingers to his throat. He might not have needed the air, but he knew the punishing pressure of Angel’s fingers closed around his throat would leave a bruise.

“You always were an arsehole,” Spike said. “Even back in the day.”

“You will help me finish this,” Angel said, backing away from the cot. He looked at Spike once more and then shook his head dismissively. “What in the hell did she ever see in you?”

He was almost to the top of the stairs when he heard Spike’s resigned voice: “You fucking wanker, she saw you.”

***

The portal, as it turned out, was relatively easy to locate once Fred crunched some numbers into complicated equations. Willow and Lorne combined efforts to figure out a way to open the portal long enough for the two vampires to slip in. Giles and Wesley weren’t sure, but they thought that the necessary clues to stitching up the torn fabric, metaphorically speaking, would become apparent to Angel and Spike once they reached the other side. It seemed clear that they should make the journey alone.

“I should go,” Gunn said. “I could back you up, man.”

Angel shook his head. “If this doesn’t work, you’ll be needed here.”

“Doubt that,” Gunn said, risking a glance at Fred.

“Don’t ever doubt your value,” Angel said, squeezing the younger man’s shoulder.

They were all crowded into Buffy’s room. Her closet door was open and they’d removed her belongings from the shelves and rod. The monster was in the closet. Giles had been right; it was sort of ironic.

Giles offered standard words of caution, but both Angel and Spike knew that it was meaningless rhetoric. Whatever they were to face, they would face it alone. It had been a long time since they had fought side by side and they felt the weight of their lack of faith in one another. Coupled with the others’ dependence on this to go well, theirs was an onerous task.

“Ready?” Wes asked.

“Yes,” Angel said.

“Bloody right,” Spike said, clenching his fists.

There was a small, worried silence and then Wesley began to speak, intoning complicated words with too many consonants and not enough vowels. The space in the closet began to shiver and far off in the distance, they could see a prism of light, spinning like a possessed disco ball.

Buffy opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say the word closest to her lips, the two vampires stepped into the closet.

Unable to prevent the word from leaving her mouth, Buffy said, “Angel,” but it was too late. He was already gone.

 

VI

 

For Spike and Angel, it was like stepping through mist and emerging into a sepia-toned landscape. Truly, it looked as though there had been a bloodbath and all that remained was the rust-coloured spoils. They risked a quick glance at each other and moved forward, aware of the silence, and the complete lack of air.

“Just as well that other bloke didn’t come,” Spike said.

“What in the hell is this place?” Angel said.

“Purgatory. Limbo. It sure as hell isn’t Club Med,” Spike replied good-naturedly.

Angel scowled at the other vampire and moved forward, through the mist and further into the curious vista.

The ground was firm under their feet, the sky muted. Angel could feel the warning hairs on the back of his neck and kept swinging his eyes from one side to the other, looking for an enemy, waiting for a sign.

Suddenly, far ahead where the tea-stained horizon met the thin line of the ground, Angel spotted movement.

“Come on,” he said to Spike.

The two vampires trudged forward.

***

Buffy refused to leave the room. Instead, she sat on her bed and watched the closet. Somehow it didn’t seem quite as innocuous as it once had. She had no idea what might be taking place on the other side, but she imagined the worst. After all, Spike and Angel were not friends going to fight a known enemy; they were adversaries going to fight an unknown entity.

She wondered whether things would have been easier for the two vampires, or different for them, if she hadn’t wedged herself into the equation. Now that Spike possessed a soul, he had something more in common with Angel than just blood. Sadly, though, there would never be common ground between them. She knew that.

Angel had been right about one thing, though: He had no business being upset about her relationship with Spike. Buffy had no illusions about what her relationship with the blonde vampire was all about. Despite his protestations of love, despite the utter tenderness he had often shown to her, ultimately the union between them had been about power. Sometimes she had it. Sometimes he had it. Sometimes, when they came together, they’d shared a physical bond that had scorched Buffy right down to her marrow. Any feelings of affection she might have felt for him had been easy to dismiss because he’d lacked a soul. She couldn’t say that anymore.

Buffy didn’t think it was his bathroom attack that had squeezed her heart shut against him. She’d spent a lot of time considering their relationship, the sex and the times when he would just sit and listen to her, and Buffy was fairly certain that what had tipped the scales was Riley Finn.

She hadn’t expected to see him again, ever. And she certainly hadn’t expected to see him with a wife who was difficult not to like. But Riley’s sudden arrival in Sunnydale had reminded her of all the reasons why she had been unable to love him despite his decency and kindness, his farm-boy good looks. She’s turned away from Riley and Riley’s sunny disposition and had reached for the polar opposite: Spike. She couldn’t have known that he’d love her. She couldn’t have known that she’d fall into a trap with him: a pain and pleasure trap that held her solidly in its grasp.

Life was just a big suckfest, as far as Buffy was concerned. Now here she was, in her sanctuary with the proverbial monster from hell in her closet, a bunch of near-strangers in her house, and no idea what to expect next. And then, after ripping her heart out a little more, Angel would go back to LA; that is, if he even managed to make it back to Sunnydale.

Buffy flopped down on her bed and closed her eyes. It bites to be me, she thought.

***

“No thanks,” Gunn said as Cordy passed a plate of stale cookies.

“Gunn,” she said.

“Cordy, I know what you’re gonna say and I wish you wouldn’t,” he replied, eyeballing her for a fraction of a second.

“You don’t know what I was going to say, Gunn. You have no idea what I was going to say,” Cordy said, putting the plate down on the counter. “I don’t even know what I was going to say, although I was hoping for something deep, meaningful and profound.”

“Save it,” he said.

“It’s just that, we don’t know how this will go and I think it’s better if we present a united front.”

“Tell that to English,” Gunn fumed.

“Gunn,” Cordy said, sitting beside the large man at the table and resting her hand over his. “We should know by now that nothing is ever as it seems to be.”

“Bullshit. Things are always exactly what they seem to be. I pretended not to see the signs for weeks, but they were there. I know you know what I’m talking about. You did some fine sign-ignoring yourself.”

Cordy considered letting the remark pass and then decided against it.

“Angel and I may have had our moment if we’d actually managed to meet on the bluff,” Cordy said. “But that didn’t happen and when I finally got back the moment was gone.”

“He mourned for you, Cordy.”

She was silent for a moment and then asked quietly, “Did he mourn for me the way he mourned for Buffy?”

Gunn looked at his friend and saw in her eyes that she already knew the answer to her question. It would be futile to deny the truth. “No. He didn’t”

“So, see, things aren’t always what they seem,” she said, giving him a small smile.

“Things haven’t been the same between Fred and I since I killed her professor,” Gunn said.

“I know,” Cordelia said. “And I know that it’s hard to let go of someone you love, but sometimes you just don’t have a choice.”

“What, are you vision girl and platitude girl now?” Gunn said, not unkindly.

“Just worldly advice girl,” Cordy said. “Dawn should be home from school in a few minutes. Maybe I should make her a snack.”

 

***

“What do you suppose will happen to them?” Fred asked Wes. They were sitting on the Summers’ back steps, the air silent and still around them.

“I don’t know,” Wes said. He wasn’t really thinking about Spike and Angel. He was thinking about the exposed skin at Fred’s back, where her shirt lifted up from her jeans. He could see her knobby spine as it disappeared up under the cotton and he had an overwhelming desire to trace it all the way up with his fingertips.

She turned her head toward him and regarded him quizzically. She’d tied her luxurious brown hair into a long little-girl braid, but some of it had escaped and floated around her face, bracketing luminous eyes and a cupid’s bow mouth.

Wes leaned over and kissed her tentatively; kissed her as though he had never tested the weight of her breast in his hand, or nuzzled the warm space between her legs or slammed into her so hard that the bed had backed up against the wall in protest. He felt her lips surrender under his and he pressed forward with his tongue.

What was it about disaster that drove people together, he wondered? And then, he wondered, what was it about disaster that drove them apart?

But he didn’t stop kissing her.

***

“Want some company?”

It was Lorne standing at the door of her bedroom, looking immaculate in a lime-green leisure suit.

Buffy shifted on the bed and patted the space next to her. She was curious about the demon, about his closeness to Angel and the things he might know.

“It hasn’t been too long, cupcake,” Lorne said, settling beside her.

“I know,” Buffy acknowledged.

“So,” Lorne said.

“So.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Lorne said.

“Really?”

“No.”

Buffy couldn’t help the small smile that tugged at her lips. “I’m not surprised.”

Lorne plumped the pillows at his back and settled in as though he and Buffy were old friends about to embark on an afternoon of joyful reminiscence.

“Actually, now that I’ve met you, I’m a little surprised,” Lorne said.

“Why’s that?”

“Well, it’s obvious that you and broody-pants are very important to one another,” Lorne said.

“Were important,” Buffy amended. “We were important to one another.”

Lorne shook his head, a small gesture that indicated he didn’t agree. “I’ll admit, I was thrown by the whole Cordelia thing, but it’s not an exact science.”

“What do you mean?” Buffy asked, moving so that she was sitting cross-legged on the bed facing Lorne.

“When we all came back from Pylea your little Wicca friend, Willow, was waiting for Angel at the hotel to tell him about your…death,” Lorne explained. “It was like she’d snuffed out a flame. That came through loud and clear.”

Buffy nodded. She hadn’t ever really thought about how the news of her death might have affected Angel. She hadn’t bothered to put herself in his place, hadn’t thought about how she might’ve reacted if Wesley had come to her door and told her that Angel was gone from this world.

“You probably know all this, anyway,” Lorne said.

She knew some. She knew that Angel had left Los Angeles, traveling to a remote monastery to meditate and reflect and grieve in silence. That much he had told her during their brief and painful reunion when he’d found out that she was alive. What she didn’t know and what she desperately wanted to know now was when he had stopped loving her? When had he focused his affections on Cordelia?

Lorne reached over and patted Buffy’s knee. “You think he doesn’t love you, don’t you kitten?”

Buffy shrugged. “It isn’t even that, really,” she lied.

“Honey, you wear your heart any more on your sleeve and I’ll make you a matching hat.” Lorne considered his next words carefully. “Angel came back from that retreat a different man,” Lorne said, looking over at the closet. “Somehow, with you gone, he lost sight of his quest. And then, of course, all that other hokum with Darla and then the kid happened. He’s been a little distracted.”

“But not distracted enough to fall in love with Cordy,” Buffy said tersely.

“Ahh,” Lorne said. “I guess I might have had a helping hand in that whole love match.”

“You’re not responsible for Angel developing feelings for Cordy who was not, by the way, my best friend at old Sunnydale High.”

“Not responsible, irresponsible,” Lorne qualified.

Buffy looked confused.

“I have certain skills, of which I know you are aware. I’m not just talking about bringing down the house with my very ambitious version of “I Will Survive,” either,” Lorne said, smiling. “When people sing, I can read them; I can sense certain things about them.”

“See their heart’s desire?”

“Well, perhaps not quite so specific as that,” Lorne said. “When I read Angel after you died there was nothing there. The grief and sorrow he felt blotted out everything else. No hope, no feeling and that’s a harsh and rather unfortunate position for a hero to be in.”

“So, what, you planted his feelings for Cordelia?”

“No, my dear, no. I don’t have the power to plant anything. Besides, he had feelings for Cordelia, feelings that had as much to do with the loss of you and his own loneliness as anything else. I mean, he’s not human, but the guy’s got a soul.”

“And the soul makes him human,” Buffy said quietly.

“Human enough, yes,” Lorne agreed. “Look, cupcake, I’ve been around a long time and lived in a few dimensions and I can tell you this: Angel has never felt about anyone else the way he feels about you. Trust me.”

“But we can’t be together,” Buffy said, her voice so small Lorne barely heard it.

“Maybe not, but it doesn’t change the fact that he loves you. Or the fact that you love him.”

“How do you know that, I haven’t sung a note for you,” Buffy said.

“Heart. Sleeve. Remember? It’s written all over your face, sweetie” Lorne replied, swinging his long legs off the bed and standing. “I’m gonna run. I’m glad we had this little talk.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Buffy said. Buffy watched Lorne leave the room and wondered why she didn’t feel happier. Bottom line: it didn’t matter if she loved Angel until the end of her life; their destinies, though entwined, were meant to torment, not heal. There wasn’t any way of getting around the curse and there was no way Angel would ever risk releasing Angelus again.

She was screwed.

***

A ditch cut through the parched landscape, a ditch running with sweet smelling blood and Spike dropped to his knees, gathering the thick liquid in his cupped hands. “Okay, obviously not vampire hell,” he said, sipping at the robust fluid. “Human,” he said, licking his lips. “Virgin, too, if I’m not mistaken” he added.

Angel resisted the temptation to drink from the bloody brook, although his throat felt tight with need. “There’s something…”

“…familiar,” Spike said, standing beside the taller vampire. “I know.”

Spike looked down the length of the ditch as far as his keen vampire eyes could see. “It’s ridiculous for us to be just standing here,” he said. “I mean, let’s get on with it already.”

“I think we’re missing something,” Angel said, turning in a slow circle. “There!” he said, pointing across a field of scrubby grass and rocks.

Spike followed Angel’s outstretched hand and said: “Well, I’ll be damned.”

The two vampires set off in the direction of the man sitting on a high, narrow, wooden chair.

It took no time to reach him. He sat, skinny legs crossed, long, taloned fingers holding a stubby pencil, the New York Times folded to the crossword puzzle, balanced on his knee.

“What’s an eight letter word for masquerade?” he said, without lifting his eyes from the newspaper.

“Disguise,” Angel said.

“Ahh, of course,” the man said. He licked the tip of his pencil and then filled in the blocks on the paper. When he finished, he looked up at the two vampires, his eyes opaque.

“So, it’s true then.” he said, his voice melodious and somehow familiar.

Neither Spike nor Angel responded. They stood, looking up at the man on the chair with the stilt-like legs and waited for him to offer more information.

“Two souled vampires. One was enough, I thought, but two. Unheard of.”

“Right. Look, pal, we didn’t come all this way to be poked at like monkeys in a cage.” Spike said. “We’re unusual, yeah, so what of it?”

“Spike,” Angel said cautiously.

“Bloody hell,” Spike mumbled under his breath.

“It’s all right, Angel,” the man said peering down at them. “I understand your friend’s impatience. He’s a man of action.”

“Were we wrong to come here?” Angel asked.

The man peered down at his puzzle.

“Nine letter word for clumsy?”

Angel considered the clue. “Maladroit,” he said, finally.

“Good. Good.” The man wrote in the letters and then paused. “No, you weren’t wrong. In some circles you might say it was preordained. Of course, it was also never supposed to happen. I know how you came to possess your soul, Angel. What about your young friend here?”

Angel crossed his arms and glanced at Spike. He was also curious about how Spike came to have a soul.

“It’s a long story,” Spike said petulantly. “And one I’d rather not share, actually.”

“Doesn’t matter,” the strange man said. “It’s not what you went after, was it?”

Angel glanced over at Spike and then back at the man. Spike lifted his chin just a touch and met the man’s blank white eyes.

“End result is all that matters,” the man said, surveying the landscape all around him and then looking back at Angel. “You have a question?”

“Yes.”

“Ask it then.”

“Is this where the Slayer was…after she died?” Angel asked.

The man considered the vampire’s question carefully. “Yes and no,” he said ambiguously. “This is a dimension where you see what you expect to see. When your Slayer was here, she saw what she wanted to see, what made her content. It would do no good to have her agitated while we waited for the First.”

“You knew the First had escaped, then?” Spike said.

“Of course.”

“Then why wait so long?” Spike asked.

“All things in their own time,” the man replied with a smile.

“So, now what?”

“Ah, yes,” the man said, sliding his pencil into his breast shirt pocket and stuffing the newspaper beside him on the chair. He leaned forward, resting bony elbows on sharp knees. “You two are related by blood, are you not?”

“Yeah, if you buy into all that vampire hierarchy bullshit,” Spike said. “That would make Angel my grandfather.”

“Good. Good,” the man said, hook his fingers together and settling a grizzled chin on top of them.

“And you share affection for the Slayer?”

Angel and Spike exchanged a meaningful look.

“And when you found the brook of blood, you drank, Spike and Angel, you did not.”

“What of it?” Spike asked.

“You take what you want, Spike, and Angel denies himself,” the man said.

Angel dropped his eyes.

“It’s of little consequence, really,” said the man. “Just a personal observation.”

“Look,” Spike said, tapping an imaginary watch on his wrist, “time’s a wastin’. Could we move the festivities along?”

“Of course,” the man said. “Blood will close the tear. The blood of two souled vampires, added to the brook will mend the tear and trap the First on your side. It will no longer be able to straddle the line between this world and yours. Once trapped on your side, it will take form…”

“Human form?” Angel asked.

“Any form it chooses, but it will be easy to spot because instead of inhabiting the form of someone, it will duplicate the person or thing. Destroy the duplicate and you end the First, in this form anyway.”

“But if there are two, how do we know which is the evil one?”

“You’ll know,” said the man.

“How much blood?” Spike asked.

“Enough.”

“You’re not big with the full disclosure, are you mate?” Spike asked facetiously.

The man sat back and reached into his pocket for the pencil. Picking up the newspaper, he scanned the clues once more. “Eleven letter word for forewarning?”

“Premonition,” Angel said.

“Indeed.”

Ironically, there was no warning. The man was simply gone. Spike shrugged his shoulders and turned back toward the brook. Angel rubbed his thumb against the tips of his fingers and followed.

The landscape had not changed. The brook was right where they had left it, running thickly with fragrant smelling blood.

“Do you want me to do you?” Spike said, cocking his eyebrow, comically.

“Thanks, no,” Angel said. It had been a long time since he had bled himself. He drew his forefinger across his wrist and watched the thin line open. Turning his wrist over the creek, he watched as drops of crimson-black blood joined the rest of the liquid. Spike did the same.

“How much, then?” Spike asked.

“There’s something not right about this,” Angel said suddenly. The blood from his wrist was pouring from him faster than it should have. He cast blurry eyes to Spike’s wrist and noted that the same was happening to Spike: too much blood, too quickly lost.

“Spike,” Angel said, reaching out a hand to stop the flow of blood from Spike’s wrist. But before he could place his fingers over the gaping wound, he fainted. Seconds later, Spike crumpled beside him.

***

“It’s taking too long,” Willow said. She was standing in the kitchen on the phone to Xander.

“It’s only been a few hours, Will,” Xander said. “I mean, who knows what was waiting for them on the other side.”

“Exactly my point,” Willow said, her brow creasing in consternation.

“Look, those two can handle themselves and anything else that comes along,” Xander said firmly.

“I hope you’re right.”

“Want me to pick up pizza for dinner?” Xander asked.

“No, that’s all right,” Willow said. Anya and Cordelia had just entered the kitchen, laughing like best friends. “We’ll rustle something up here. Gotta run, Xan,” she said, hanging up the phone.

“What’s the what?” she asked the two girls.

“Nothing. Just waiting like everyone else. Wes and Giles and Lorne are all hunched over the books. We just got bored being in the way,” Anya said.

“You know me, Willow, research was never my long suit,” Cordelia said with a wide smile.

“I know,” Willow said. “There’s laundry. We could do that.”

“I do not enjoy domestic chores,” Anya said, her voice an octave away from a whine.

“Could be fun,” Cordelia said. “Not.”

Willow shrugged. “Suit yourself,” she said. “I’d rather keep busy.” She moved to the basement door and pulled it open. Her mouth opened and closed, a guppie searching for air.

She turned back to look at Anya and Cordelia, her eyes wide with shock and then she turned to face the person standing just a couple steps below her. It was Cordelia, smiling wide, and carrying a basket of neatly folded laundry.

***

Angel couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a splitting headache, but he had one now. A thick, venomous snake was coiled around his brain and it was squeezing and releasing, milking his gray matter of essential fluids.

He lifted a tentative hand to his temple and massaged carefully. It almost hurt to open his eyes, but he managed to spy Spike, still prone on the cracked earth a few feet away from him, through the veil of his lashes.

“Now would be your chance to kill him,” a voice beside him said.

Angel turned his head cautiously. It was a young girl, crouched on the ground a few feet away.

“Not my style,” Angel said.

The girl smiled. “No, I suppose not.”

Angel shut his eyes. Even the little bit of light he let in hurt his head.

“He loves her, too,” she said.

“What?”

“You know what I’m talking about. Spike loves the Slayer, too.”

“Spike doesn’t know how to love.”

“I believe you are mistaken. He loved Drusilla, didn’t he?”

Angel couldn’t help the short bark of laughter that escaped his lips. “Not quite the same.”

“He made great sacrifices for her,” she said, her violet eyes serious.

“Spike never made a sacrifice for anyone that wasn’t going to net a gain for him,” Angel said, quietly.

“And your feelings for the girl?”

“I suspect you don’t really need me to answer that question,” Angel said, squinting his eyes open just a little bit more.

“And for the seer?”

Angel said nothing.

“Your silence answers my questions adequately enough,” the girl said.

She inched her way closer. “I wanted to see you for myself,” she said. “You are as they said you would be.” She paused, thinking. “Replenish your blood in the brook,” she said, reaching out to touch his cheek. “Slay the dragon and win the girl.”

Angel looked at her quizzically.

“The dragon is metaphorical, of course,” the girl added.

“Of course,” Angel said. “And the girl?”

She shrugged.

“Is the tear fixed?”

The girl nodded.

“And the way home?”

“Click your heels together three times…” she paused and laughed. “Sorry. It’s where you left it.”

Angel got to his knees. The pain in his head had subsided, but he was afraid to test it by standing up.

“You must be strong,” the girl said. Her eyes had faded to a pale lilac.

“I know, champion…yada yada yada,” Angel said scornfully.

The girl shook her head. “You misunderstand, Angel. Not just physically strong, but mentally and emotionally. You must be able to do what has to be done, no matter the cost.”

“I understand,” he said, thinking to himself that this girl really did not understand how very little of value he actually had in his life.

She seemed to read his thoughts. “You have lost a great deal, it is true, but what you have lost cannot compare with what you will yet lose.”

“I get it. You’re not going to tell me anything.”

“Nothing that you don’t already know. Go back. Your foe is waiting for you.”

Angel looked at the girl. Her pale, lavender eyes grew larger and larger, until all that was left of her was a wisp of smoke and then that, too, disappeared. Angel pushed himself up off the ground and walked gingerly over to where Spike was lying, seemingly still unconscious. He reached down and shook Spike’s shoulder. The other vampire mumbled incoherently, but did not budge.

Angel reached into the brook and scooped out a large handful of blood. Tilting the vampire’s head back, he let a trickle of the life-giving liquid run into Spike’s mouth and watched as Spike’s throat closed convulsively, swallowing it down. Within seconds, Spike was awake and struggling to sit up.

“Headache?” Angel asked.

“Blinding, mate,” said Spike.

“It’ll go away.” Angel knelt down by the brook and scooped some blood into his mouth. Spike had been right; it was sweet and virginal, but now Angel could taste Spike’s blood and faintly, his own.

“Now what?” Spike asked.

“We go back.”

“How?”

Angel wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and scanned the horizon. “I guess we just wait and…”

“…and something will come to us,” Spike finished. A door had suddenly appeared, just on the other side of the brook.

“Mmmm,” Angel said. He crossed the brook in one long stride. Spike stood up to follow him.

Angel hesitated, waiting for Spike to catch up and then, together, they stepped through the door and back into Buffy’s room.

 

VII>/b>

“Cordelia?”

“Willow.”

Willow stepped back away from the open door and let the woman come the rest of the way up from the basement. She set the heavy basket of folded laundry on the table and said, “What?”

Willow couldn’t speak. She motioned across the kitchen to Anya and Cordy with her eyes and hoped that Cordelia would follow the hint.

“Laundry sucks,” Cordelia said. “And there’s so much of it. I did three loads and that was it for me. I don’t really think I need to be washing Giles’ shorts…oh my God…” Cordelia was suddenly aware of other people in the room and when she turned she found herself staring at herself.

“Pretty much, yeah,” Willow said, weakly.

“Is this a joke?” said the Cordelia who was standing beside Anya.

“Not necessarily funny,” said Anya, taking a step away.

“I’m thinking, no,” said Willow.

Suddenly, the back door opened and Wesley and Fred stepped inside the already crowded kitchen.

“Ladies,” Wes started and then stopped. He looked from one Cordelia to the other and then back to the first. “Oh,” he said.

“Yeah, we were there already,” said Anya.

“But it’s not possible for there to be two Cordelias,” said Fred, mystified.

“It’s barely possible that there’s one, actually,” said Anya.

The Cordelia standing next to Anya shot her a angry look.

The Cordelia holding the laundry basket set it down on the counter and put her hands on her hips.

“What are the chances that I would be doing laundry?” the Cordy next to Anya sniffed.

“Slim to none, really,” Willow said.

“Exactly.”

“No, Cordy does laundry, actually,” said Wesley, stepping forward, a frown worrying the corner of his mouth.

Fred nodded in agreement. “She separates and fabric softens and everything.”

“Oh,” Anya said, looking at laundry-Cordelia with new respect.

Cordelia shrugged. “Sometimes there aren’t any clients.”

The two Cordelias stood separated by the counter, waiting for someone to decide what was going on.

“Okay, we have a bit of a situation here,” Willow said.

“One of them’s not real, if that’s what you were thinking,” Spike said from the door.

“You’re back,” Wes said inanely.

Angel nodded, stepping past Spike and into the kitchen, Buffy following closely behind.

“Angel,” laundry-Cordelia said, “tell these people that I do laundry back home, all the time.”

Angel folded his arms across his chest. “It’s true.”

“What’s going on?” Anya asked. “My head hurts.”

“You don’t know the half of it, pet,” Spike said, rubbing his temples for emphasis.

“Spike and I have repaired the tear and by doing so, we’ve trapped the First here. Apparently, it takes the form of a human, sort of. It duplicates that human.”

“And it picked Cordelia?” Willow asked incredulously.

“It makes a certain wacky sort of sense,” Buffy said. “So, what do we do?”

Angel and Spike’s reappearance in Buffy’s room had been unexpected and had caught the Slayer off-guard. She’d barely had time to suck in a sigh of relief, when the two vampires had hurried from her room and headed downstairs, expecting the worst.

“We kill one,” said Spike bluntly.

 

***

Connor was waiting for Dawn outside of the side-doors at Sunnydale High. Dawn felt her heart skip a beat when she saw him, his eyes lowered to the ground watching his crossed ankles. All he needed was a cigarette and a leather jacket and Dawn thought he’d be the proverbial bad-boy. The kind of boy you couldn’t take home to Mom. Not that she could take any boy home to Mom, not anymore. Dawn took comfort in the thought that Buffy probably wouldn’t like her hanging with Connor given that he was Angel’s son.

“Hey,” she said. “What’re you doing here?”

Connor shrugged skinny shoulders. “Bored. Thought you might like some company.”

“Sure. Great.”

The two fell into a walking rhythm.

“So, you’re not real?” Connor said suddenly and without preamble.

Dawn turned her head sharply and stopped walking. “Who told you that?”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you,” Connor said.

“I’m not offended,” Dawn said. “Not exactly. I’m just surprised that you know. It’s not like we talk about it all that much around the house. Not many people know. How did you say you found out?”

“I didn’t say,” Connor said. “Cordelia told me.”

Dawn started walking again, her pace a little quicker. “How would Cordelia know?”

“She’s in touch with Willow.”

Willow wouldn’t have told Cordelia that, Dawn thought. Willow in touch with Cordelia. It didn’t seem possible. After all, hadn’t they been catching up like people who hadn’t laid eyes on each other in...forever?

“Oh,” she said out loud.

“Does it matter?” Connor asked. “Do you care that I know?”

“No, I guess it doesn’t matter,” Dawn said.

“Because I’m not real either,” Connor said, delivering the words as though they were important.

“Really?” Dawn asked sceptically.

“Well. Father and mother, vampires. How do you suppose that’s possible?”

“It isn’t, I guess,” Dawn said.

“See,” Connor said. “We’re like kindred spirits or something.”

“Or something,” Dawn agreed. She was beginning to feel uneasy about this conversation, which on the surface seemed harmless enough.

“So, what’s the deal on your sister?” Connor asked, changing the subject.

“What do you mean, the deal?”

“Is she supposed to be tough?”

Dawn stopped again and faced Connor once more, her eyes narrowing shrewdly. “Do you think you can take her?” she said.

“I can take her.”

“Pffffft,” Dawn laughed between clenched teeth.

“I can take Angel,” Connor bragged.

“Oh, please. You don’t think he lets you take him? I know Angel. I’ve seen him fight. There’s no way you could take him, not really,” Dawn said.

Connor’s face flushed bright pink. “I can take him,” he said again. “I already got what he wanted most anyway.”

Dawn shifted her knapsack from one shoulder to the other and waited. This oughta be good, she thought.

“He wanted Cordy. I got her.”

Dawn couldn’t help the laughter that erupted from her mouth. “You’re trying to tell me that Angel wanted Cordy? Like as his girlfriend?” Dawn finally managed to ask.

Connor’s face contorted angrily. “Yes.”

“I may be just a kid and I may not even be a real kid, but even I can see that the only person on the face of the earth that your father wants is my sister,” Dawn said, shaking her head. “Maybe you think you pulled one over on him. Maybe you did something to hurt him, but he’ll never love anyone the way he loves Buffy. I don’t have to know much to know that.”

Turning on her heel, Dawn walked down the sidewalk, leaving Connor standing, fists clenched and alone.

***

“Why doesn’t the evil Cordy just do something, well, evil?” Anya asked practically.

“If we kill it, that’s the end. She doesn’t want to risk that,” Angel said, sizing up the two physically perfect seers.

“Can’t we just quiz it?” Buffy asked. “You know, ask it some things that only the real Cordy would know the answers to?”

“Not so simple as that,” Wes said. “I suspect the First’s manifestation of Cordelia knows quite a lot about the real one and could adequately answer any questions it wanted.”

“I dunno,” Fred said. “This seems a little lame to me. All this bluster by a superior being and it boils down to a simple case of double or nothing?”

Angel risked a glance at Spike and saw his own doubts mirrored in Spike’s clouded blue eyes.

The Cordelia standing next to Anya put her hands on her hips and said: “This is ridiculous. I mean are we just going to let ourselves be toyed with?”

“We could get Lorne to read them,” Fred offered. “Although I sincerely doubt that would yield any worthwhile results.”

The back door opened again and Dawn entered, dropping her book bag on the floor and ignoring the people crowded into the small kitchen. She headed for the fridge and only after she’d poured herself a tall glass of milk did she survey the scene. “You guys knew there were too many Cordelia’s, right?”

“Thanks, Dawn,” Buffy said caustically. “We couldn’t have done it without you.”

Dawn gulped down the milk, set the glass in the sink and turned back with a butcher knife in her hand. Without hesitation, she plunged the knife into the heart of the Cordelia standing next to Anya. Laundry-Cordy shrieked. Buffy rushed forward, grabbing the knife from her sister’s hand and then stepping quickly back from wounded Cordy. Maggots, beetles and cockroaches poured from the wound, spilling to the floor in a writhing mass.

“Jesus, Bit,” Spike said, watching the bugs skitter across the floor.

“How did you…” Buffy asked, laying the knife on the counter. “How did you know?”

“I’m not sure,” Dawn said, suddenly mortified by her act of violence and the mess on the floor. She leaned against the counter, her heart beating wildly in her chest. “I just knew. I could just see….what was inside her.”

“Bugs,” Anya said, stepping away from the disintegrating pretend-Cordelia. “Bugs were inside her.”

“We have spray, right?” Willow asked lamely. “Bug spray.”

“I doubt we’ll need it,” Wesley said. Already the skittering masses of bugs were fading into the linoleum. “I wonder,” he said, crossing the floor to where Angel and Spike were standing: two dejected and underused heroes. “Might I have a word?” he said under his breath. He slipped into the dining room and waited for the two vampires to follow him.

“Holy Bread Pudding,” Lorne said, skidding to a stop at the threshold of the kitchen. “What went on here?”

“Some bug person was doing a pretty damn good impersonation of me,” said Cordelia, rubbing the spot where the knife would have entered her own human flesh if Dawn hadn’t had some supernatural and wacky ability to spot a fake. Cordelia pulled out a chair and sat.

“Is everyone all right?” Lorne asked, catching a few stray bugs as they faded from sight.

“We’re all right,” Fred acknowledged, joining Cordelia at the table. “Although I think I could use a stiff drink.”

“I have vodka,” Lorne said. “Why don’t I just mix us up a pitcher of martinis.”

Buffy shook her head. She wished it was as easy as mixing a cocktail. She had a feeling, though, that no amount of alcohol was going to make what was coming any easier to bear.

***

“I can’t believe that we were that easily duped,” Spike muttered spitefully.

Wesley was pacing back and forth in front of the book-laden dining room table. “There must be something we missed,” he mused.

Angel sat silently, his long fingers absently stroking the spine of one of the books. He was carefully going over the details of everything that had happened while he and Spike had been in the dimension that they’d accessed through Buffy’s bedroom closet. He’d felt it as soon as he’d entered; there was something familiar about the place, about the man on the chair, about the little girl with the violet eyes. Something smug and knowing in the way they’d addressed them. Whatever he knew eluded him.

“Angel?”

The dark vampire looked up and focused on Wesley.

“I asked if you could remember the specific words the man was looking for to fill in the puzzle. Perhaps it’s a clue.”

“Disguise. Maladroit,” Angel said.

“Premonition,” Spike offered.

“Right.”

“Odd,” Wesley said. “We’ve been approaching this all wrong.”

“Bloody right,” said Spike. “We’ve been all talk and no action. Makes things rather dull if you ask me.”

“We should know whose ass we’re going to kick before we actually start kicking,” Angel said dryly.

“You have your methods, I have mine,” Spike said, searching his pockets for a cigarette.

“We’ve been given the clues and then given a decoy and there has to be a reason for that,” Wesley said.

“There’s method in the madness, is that it then?” Spike asked taking a long weary drag off his Marlborough.

“Yes.”

“What do we know?” Wesley asked rhetorically. “We know that the First can inhabit the body of a dead person and that a vampire, technically, counts. We can’t harm it while it is in the body. We know that the First seems able to tap into our hidden fears and desires and it will use this knowledge against us, to wound us, to make us vulnerable.”

“I can vouch for that,” Spike said.

“It has the power to strike us down, quickly and efficiently,” continued Wes, “and yet it chooses to play with us. There has to be a reason for that.”

“Ego,” said Angel.

“Yes,” Wes said. “I agree.”

Spike exhaled a plume of smoke and sighed. “What next? I suppose now you’re going to tell me that its feelings will be hurt if we don’t play along.”

“To a degree, I suppose we’ve all played into its hands,” said Wes. “You and Spike and your relationship with Buffy. Me and Lilah. Connor and Cordelia and their betrayal of you, Angel. The list is endless, I should think.”

Angel stood suddenly. “The little girl said that I had something more to lose, something valuable. It wasn’t Cordy.”

“Buffy then?” Wesley asked.

Angel shook his head.

“Connor.” Wesley said. “Of course.”

“Where is Peach Pit anyway?” Spike asked.

Buffy appeared at the door and said, “Angel, you should come in here. Dawn has something to tell you.”

 

***

Night fell. Buffy stood at the front window gazing out into the eerily quiet street, wondering how this all might end. She could hear the normally pleasant sound of the dishwasher hissing in the background, a sound that symbolized the end of a meal, a clean and orderly kitchen. Wesley, Giles, Willow and Fred were gathered once more around the over-worked dining room table discounting hypotheses almost as fast as they were able to dream them up. Dawn and Xander were watching a Bollywood movie on cable, neither of them paying much attention to the singing or the martial arts. Cordelia, tired from her brush with death, was lying down. Lorne and Spike were playing a half-hearted game of Gin Rummy. Angel was out, looking for Connor.

Buffy should have gone with him, had offered strenuously, but Angel had been firm. I have to do this alone, Buffy. I have to see for myself.

It was foolhardy, Buffy knew that. But she also knew that budging Angel was about as easy as moving the Leaning Tower of Pisa into an upright position. Besides, whatever issues Angel had with his son, Buffy could claim no part.

Connor’s arrival had been as sudden and mysterious as Dawn’s and Buffy knew that given the chance she might have some wisdom to share with Angel. But she also knew that Angel wanted to keep Connor separate from her. She didn’t blame him, not really.

What she resented, truth be told, was his refusal to let her help, to accept her as back-up, not as his former lover, but as the Slayer. Because if Connor did have anything even remotely to do with the First, Angel was going to need it.

 

***

“Connor.”

“Dad.”

The two met in front of the Bronze, casually, as friends who were about to enter the establishment for a drink might meet.

“What’re you doing out here?” Angel asked.

“Nothing. Just wanted some space. Buffy’s house is too crowded. Maybe you noticed. Or maybe not, maybe you like getting cozy with the Slayer.”

Angel winced. “I’ve slept in worse places.”

“I bet.”

“So, what’s going on?”

Connor moved around Angel, his shoulders pulled back, a cocky strut marking a circular path around his father. “I fucked your girl, but you knew that didn’t you?”

Angel made no reply.

“She was willing, whatever she might tell you. Oh, I knew she wanted you really; all the girls want you, don’t they, Dad?” Connor leaned forward and whispered. “You couldn’t have had her, anyway, isn’t that right? I mean, you’re cursed.”

“I’m cursed,” Angel acknowledged with a small smile. “But Cordy wasn’t my girl.”

Connor shrugged. “Still hurts though, doesn’t it? I mean, maybe the curse wouldn’t have kicked in for her. Maybe you could have had her three ways to Sunday and Angelus would be none the wiser. I mean, that’s what happened with Darla, right?”

Connor backed up, jumped up onto a wooden crate and smiled.

Angel sighed. “Is this it? Is this all you’ve got? Some lame-assed sexual innuendo to throw in my face. I’m disappointed.”

“I figured you might be, but there’s more, Dad.”

Angel’s lips tightened into a knot at Connor’s casual use of the word ‘Dad.’

“The Slayer liked to be handcuffed to the bed, hands and ankles, spread wide open, vulnerable,” Connor started. “The things he would do to her. The things she would let him do to her. I’m not putting too fine a point on it to say, well, it was scandalous.”

Angel flinched inwardly against Connor’s cruel words but didn’t let his face reflect the damage the words were doing.

“Buffy’s a big girl and she doesn’t belong to me,” he said.

“She did though, didn’t she?” Connor said casually. “I mean, that is until you decided that it wouldn’t work out and stepped aside, paving the way for Spike to take a poke at her.”

Connor waited and then said: “He bit her. Lots of times. When she came and her blood would be sweeter, he’d bite her.”

Angel shook his head in disbelief. “Bullshit. I’d know.”

“Would you?” Connor asked, hopping from the crate. “I wonder how much you really do know. Dad. You didn’t know I wasn’t real. From the look on your face I don’t think you know it even now. Born of two vampires. Shit. How gullible is that?”

Connor stepped past Angel and continued down the street until the darkness enveloped him and he was gone.

***

Angel tried to shake the images of Buffy and Spike Connor had given him, but it was useless. If the pictures of Connor and Cordelia together had been uncomfortable, the pictures of Spike and Buffy were torturous. And, really, he’d seen Cordy and Connor first hand; shouldn’t that be worse? No. Nothing was worse than the thought of Spike’s platinum head between Buffy’s parted thighs. Angel had only the memory of the forgotten day, frail, fractured memories now, to remind him that once he had taken pleasure from Buffy, given her pleasure. There had been no manacles, no violence. It had been a night of spun gold and Angel had to work very hard not to let these new pictures of Buffy eclipse what he knew to be true.

He’d known, of course, that Spike had wedged himself into Buffy’s life, had found a way to penetrate Buffy’s heart. He hadn’t been lying when he’d told Buffy that he could smell them, a mingled smell of sex and emotion that was faint yet powerful. And he’d been truthful, too, when he’d told her that it wasn’t his business, that he didn’t have any right to be mad at her for doing exactly what he’d always wanted her to do: move on.

He blamed Spike, totally and completely, for stepping beyond the boundary of propriety. There was a line vampires should never cross. Drusilla might well be the exception to that rule. Sired by Angel, she then sired Spike and thus was within her rights to mate with either, or both when the mood struck her. Vampires were not monogamous. Well, he hadn’t been.

Then, he’d met Buffy. And everything, everything had changed. His world had tilted and Angel had been thrust forward into a world he had shunned for over a century; it couldn’t have been more daunting if he’d been shoved into a sunny spotlight. He had done it, cultivated favour with her friends, learned to blend pleasantly in the shadows of her life, opened his heart to the possibility that he wouldn’t have to be alone.

It was a façade though. Angel was beginning to think that just about everything in his life was. Shiny baubles placed in front of him, only to be snatched away. He wouldn’t deny it any longer: Angel wanted Buffy and he would have her.

 

VIII

At dawn Angel slipped into Buffy’s room and found her asleep, curled protectively around her old friend, Mr. Gordo. He stood, considering his options and realized, at the exact moment she opened her eyes, that he didn’t have any.

“Angel,” she said, her voice raspy with sleep.

“I can’t stay here any longer, Buffy,” Angel said, closing the door to Buffy’s room and moving closer to the bed. “It’s not safe.”

Buffy sat up and sighed. “Not safe for who?”

“You. Me. Spike,” Angel said. “If I stay any longer I’ll kill him. I know I will.”

“I don’t understand.”

Angel shook his head and sat on the chair beside Buffy’s bed, leaning forward to rest his forearms on his thighs. “I’ll make it simple for you,” he said, twisting his head to look at her, marveling at how she could look so beautiful first thing in the morning, all tousled hair and sleepy eyes.

“The First is playing for keeps and what they want to keep is my soul. Tried and true method of obtaining that soul is using you.”

Buffy started to speak, but Angel held up his hand and cautioned her. “Last night, Connor came to me and said horrible things about you and Spike. Things I knew and things I didn’t; things I didn’t want to know and made-up things. I don’t know. I walked back here thinking that I would have you, and the rest be damned. I’d take you back. Hell, I’d just take you and let whatever comes come.”

“Oh, Angel,” Buffy whispered.

“It’s a battle I fight every day, Buffy. If I stay here any longer, I’m going to lose.”

“But what about the First? I don’t think we can fight it without you.”

“You won’t have to,” Angel said. “It’s trapped on this side of the portal now, all we have to do is smoke it out, make it show itself in its true form, like you did years ago, and we can destroy it.”

“How are we going to do that?”

“By giving it what it wants. My soul. Your death.”

***

Around the breakfast table, Buffy and Angel told the others their plan. Giles was clearly concerned with their proposal, but he did his best to remain silent. Willow doodled absently on a sheet of folded looseleaf, trying to keep the pictures that illustrated Angel’s serious words from penetrating her brain. The spell he was asking for was difficult and dangerous and she wasn’t at all sure she’d be able to manage, even with Wesley’s considerable help.

“I think it will work,” Angel said.

“And if it doesn’t?” Giles asked meeting the vampire’s eyes for the first time.

“You’ll kill me,” Angel said.

“And Buffy?”

“It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Buffy said firmly.

“What about the rest of us?” Xander said, pushing himself off the counter and beginning to pace in front of the kitchen sink. “What if we’re not willing to risk you?”

“It’s not your choice, Xander,” Buffy said. “Besides, I don’t think we have another choice?”

“There’s always another choice,” said Willow, “but I think that in this case we’re going to have to trust Angel. He’s had more experience with the First than any of the rest of us.”

Angel shot Willow a small, thankful smile.

“Well, I guess we should prepare then,” Wesley said. “Willow, you and I should go over the particulars of the spell.”

“What do we do?” Fred asked from the corner where she’d been standing uncomfortably with Gunn glowering beside her.

“There are things we’ll need,” Willow said.

“And calculations,” Wesley said.

“Yeah, right. There’s always calculations,” Gunn said tersely.

Fred looked hard at Gunn, her eyes pleading with him. He shook his head and looked out the window.

“And what’ll we be doing?” Buffy said to Angel as the others began to vacate their chairs, heading out to fulfill their parts in this potentially dangerous act.

“You’ll be talking to Spike,” Angel said.

Buffy nodded. She rested her hand on Angel’s and smiled. “I’m not afraid,” she said.

“I know,” he said. I’m scared enough for both of us.

***

What Angel had realized when he’d spoken with Connor in the alley beside the Bronze was that the First wasn’t quite as clever as it thought it was. All those years ago, it had wanted Angel to lose himself in Buffy, thereby releasing the far more dangerous demon lurking within. Nothing had changed, not really. True, the First had found a way to yank everyone’s chains and, true, it was counting on their gullibility and weaknesses to break them down bit by bit, but Angel had realized something important in his talk with Connor.

He was vulnerable. He wasn’t impervious to pain or remorse or regret even though he’d spent the long years since he’d left Sunnydale building up a huge wall of denial. Connor’s words had hurt him; Connor’s words had been the brick thrown through Angel’s glass house. The words had hurt because they were true, of course, but they had hurt more because Angel could no longer deny his role in Buffy’s choices. He’d taken the choice away from her. Now he’d give it back.

The First wanted Angelus loose and Buffy dead. And just like all those years ago, the First knew that the way to accomplish this was to throw Buffy and Angel together, to make them consummate their relationship and then, to their way of thinking, Angelus would rear his ugly head and finish Buffy off. A simple, yet flawed plan.

Angel had decided to turn the tables on the First. They would draw it out with pretense and smote it down with strong magick and sharp swords. Buffy had seen the true face of the First all those years ago. When she would have destroyed it, it had turned the tables on her, sending her running frantically to the top of the hill to prevent him from letting the sun put an end to his miserable life. Miserable. Incredible. It made no difference. They would smoke it out and Wesley and Willow would capture it. There was no way to end it for good; the First was as much a part of this plane of reality as demons and Slayers.

The one hitch was that the First would spot a ruse and so Buffy and Angel had to make sure that their act was believable. Angel wasn’t sure he could actually do what he’d suggested; wasn’t even sure where the plan had come from, but he knew that it was their one and only shot of ending this thing and allowing everyone to get on with their lives.

So, he would make love to Buffy. He would grant himself the one thing he had wanted more than anything since the morning he’d gone to the Powers that Be and asked them to take back the day. He would have another chance to watch the skin on Buffy’s arms prickle as he trailed his fingertips from wrist bone to collar bone. One more chance to see her eyes flutter shut as he kissed a path down the valley of her breasts, to the triangle created by navel and hipbones. One more chance to slide his fingers through the silky wet folds of skin at her apex. Penetration would be smoke and mirrors, but when the pretense was over, Angel would loose the demon and sink his fangs into the scarred flesh at her throat, opening a wound he himself had made years ago, and drinking the elixir of her life’s blood. That should satisfy the First.

Angel closed his eyes and wept.

***

“Are you bloody daft?” Spike asked, leaning back against the concrete wall in the basement.

“Are you going to help or not?”

Spike shook his head in continued disbelief. “Why can’t it be me?” he asked.

“Spike,” Buffy cautioned.

“Really. At least if it’s me there’s no worries about Angelus rearing his ugly head.”

“It’s not you the First wants,” Buffy said, not unkindly.

Spike’s eyes flickered gold.

“Says who?” he said.

Buffy looked down at her hands, pushed the cuticle on her thumb back absently. When she looked up, Spike was sitting on the edge of his cot, his eyes azure once more, his face still grim.

“I’ve asked a lot from you, I know that,” Buffy said. “And I’ve given you very little, but…”

“It was enough,” Spike said quietly.

“It was never you, Spike,” Buffy said honestly.

“I know that.”

“Will you help me. Help us?”

Spike nodded.

***

Buffy showered carefully. She used the sea sponge on her skin until she tingled all over. She shaved her legs, something she hadn’t done in weeks. She lathered her hair twice and applied ten-minute conditioner. Out of the shower she applied a layer of fragrant body lotion from head to toe, blew her hair straight, applied a single coat of mascara and hesitated for just a moment before she slipped on the cross Angel had given her the first time they’d met.

She met Spike on the front porch at dusk. He gave her an approving once-over and they set off for the cemetery. For anyone watching, the scene was hardly unusual: Slayer and her consort going for their nightly patrol. In the past, patrol had often turned more personal, but tonight would be different.

Buffy’s heart hammered incessantly in her chest. Spike couldn’t help but hear it; she knew that for a fact. He confirmed it by touching her arm lightly with blunt fingers.

The cemetery was quiet, had been quiet since the First had set up shop in Sunnydale, giving credence to Spike’s assertion that when a bigger bad came to town, lesser demons tended to lay low. All the better, anyway. Nobody wanted anyone, demon or human, to get caught in the crossfire.

“So, Slayer,” Spike said, jarring Buffy from her thoughts. She stopped and waited for him to continue. “You must be loving all the extra vampire attention you’re getting these days.”

Buffy said nothing, waited uncertainly. She’d asked Spike to improvise, knew that he’d be able to come up with things all on his own that would be more hurtful, more inflammatory than any script they could have devised together.

“Angel isn’t here to woo me away, Spike,” she said. “He’s here to work and when the work is done, he’ll go home.”

“So, not tempted then?” Spike said, moving closer; close enough to touch Buffy if he’d wanted.

“No.”

He smiled; a tight, predatory smile that made Buffy’s knees wobble.

“And what about you, pet?” he said. “Are you tempted?”

“No,” Buffy said emphatically.

“Still, you smell tempted,” Spike said, taking an appreciative sniff of the air around Buffy’s pale face.

“Back off, Spike,” Buffy said. She took a step back herself and Spike followed, hands clasped behind his back as though he were delivering a lecture or a sermon.

Another step and Buffy found herself against an obstacle, a tree, judging by the bumpy texture rubbing against her shoulders and back.

Spike pressed forward. “You didn’t think I was going to make this easy did you?” he whispered close to Buffy’s ears before drawing his tongue along her jaw, one had on the tree, the other drifting down the front of her shirt, skimming the nipple which yearned for contact.

Buffy sensed the snarl before she actually heard it. Her eyes scanned the cemetery and saw him, larger than life, black coat billowing, standing between two tombstones to her left. She closed her eyes, partly in relief, partly in dismay because she knew that Angel would smell her arousal and she was ashamed.

“Get away from her Spike,” Angel said and even though he hadn’t moved a step closer, his words cut through the night air, sharp and dangerous.

Spike laughed mirthlessly. “You think you can just saunter back into town and lay claim to what I’ve had for the past two years,” he said, his eyes narrowing menacingly.

“What have you had, Spike? Really, tell me,” Angel said.

Spike’s eyes clouded over. “I’ve had her, then, haven’t I?”

Angel moved and with lightning speed he was at the tree where Buffy still stood in rapt amazement at the crackling energy coming off the two vampires. Spike turned away from her to face Angel, his long-time nemesis and grand-sire.

“You’ve had nothing, boy,” Angel said, grabbing a fistful of Spike’s leather jacket and hurling him through the air. The blonde vampire landed with a thud against, ironically, a tombstone topped with a cherubic angel.

“As for you,” he said, turning back to Buffy, his face dark and unreadable. “I’m done waiting.”

“Angel,” Buffy said, her hands fluttering futilely in front of her face before gathering, prayer-like, in front of her chin.

“I walked away. I was stupid. I know that now but we’ll never get that time back,” Angel said. “I have lots of time, I know, but I want those days, those weeks back.”

The sincerity in his voice wasn’t faked, Buffy knew that as soon as the words left his mouth. She tried to steel herself against her own inevitable response to him, but she could feel her limbs loosen, her heart speed up.

“I’ve thought of little else since I left, Buffy. I’ve replayed the decision time and again in my head and thought about all the different ways I could have changed the outcome.”

It’s only play-acting, Buffy reminded herself. It’s just a means to an end. He’ll kiss me and we’ll put on a show and we’ll trap the First and get on with our lives.

“Do you understand why I can’t go back, now?” Angel asked, his soft voice calling her back to him. He unhooked her clasped hands and she let them drop limply to her sides. Nimble fingers reached behind her and unhooked her bra. He pulled her shirt and the lacy undergarment over her head, baring her breasts to his hungry eyes.

“We can’t do this,” she said.

“We will do this,” he said, bending to kiss her softly on the mouth.

It took no more than that to ignite the fire between them. Buffy pressed her naked chest against his, the friction of the material of his coat rubbing against her sensitive skin almost driving the breath from her lungs. She opened her mouth, coaxed his tongue inside and melted against his coolness. When his hands found her breasts, she groaned out loud, causing him to pull away and regard her with concern.

She acknowledged the question in his eyes with a small nod and he dropped to his knees, pressed his face against the flat of her belly, breathed small kisses against her warm skin and tried to slow down. This would be all he had to sustain him in the coming months, he knew that, and that was only if this worked and they survived. If they did live, he would go back to Los Angeles, the taste of her on his tongue, the feel of her skin lingering on his fingertips, talc to his soul.

Buffy pulled at the material at his shoulders and wordlessly, Angel shrugged out of his coat and yanked his black silk t-shirt up and over his head, revealing a broad expanse of milky white, flawless skin. For a moment, Buffy was blinded by the memory of the first time she had ever seen Angel’s naked chest, dressing a wound in her mother’s kitchen. She’d been a kid, but she’d known even then that she was in over her head and that no matter who else came along in her life, nobody would ever be sheer perfection in quite the same way as Angel.

Angel stood then and turned Buffy to face the tree, pressing her shoulders forward so that the tree’s rough bark scraped against her knotted nipples. He slid his hands down the slope of her ribs and into the waist band of her jeans, further down into her panties, further down into the cleft between her shaking legs.

“Jesus,” he whispered when he encountered the hot, wet slickness of her. Removing his hand, he unfastened the button of her pants, yanked down the zipper and in one swift motion pulled the denim down to pool at her sneakered feet.

He leaned close, pressing her tightly against the tree and was altogether aware of the irony: he was snuggled against two of his deadliest enemies, wood and the Slayer and he’d never been harder in his life. He reached between them and released his cock and then spun Buffy around so she could see the effect she was having on him.

“This isn’t how I wanted it, Buffy,” he whispered. “I would never…”

She shook her head. “Shhh,” she said, trapping his full bottom lip between her teeth and sucking gently. He allowed himself to sink into the kiss, to push away the doubts, to accept the knowledge that they had constructed a careful plan, had made every possible adjustment, prepared for every contingency.

He felt the pull of Buffy’s hands in his hair, felt her tender nipples brush against his ribs, knew he couldn’t last much longer and didn’t even want to try. He hooked his hands underneath her thighs and hauled her up, positioning her wet entrance precisely where he could best access it and then, locking eyes with her, he bent his knees a fraction and moved into the welcoming space between her legs.

All thoughts of Buffy with anyone but him fled. None of it happened. None of it mattered. What mattered was this: Buffy and Angel, lovers again. He rocked into her, barely shifting for fear of losing control, losing contact. It didn’t matter, he could already feel her powerful inner muscles gripping and releasing his cock in tiny bursts. It took every ounce of self-control not to allow himself the same release; instead, when he knew her orgasm had waned, he slid out of her, careful not to step away from her. He stayed pressed close and when she murmured, “Do it,” against his ear, he let his human visage slip away and slid his fangs into the mark he’d left all those years ago.

She whimpered as his fangs pierced her neck and, amazingly, she pressed her pelvis closer, seeking his still throbbing erection. He closed his eyes and allowed the texture of her blood to coat his tongue, burn a trail down his throat. He reached between them and circled her clit with practiced, gentle fingers and knew immediately when she came again, could taste the difference in her sweet, sweet blood.

“I love you,” she said just seconds before Angel extracted his fangs and stepped back, letting her lifeless body slump at the base of the tree.

When he turned, he wasn’t surprised to see Connor standing there. Angel resisted the urge to reach down and cover Buffy’s nakedness with his coat. Instead, he smiled a slow, glittering smile and waited.

“Quite a show,” Connor said, clapping once, twice, three times.

“Some of my best work,” Angel said, pulling up the zipper on his pants. “I always knew I’d get another crack at her.”

Connor’s face melted away and instead it was Spike standing there, his face a mask of insolence and displeasure.

“You killed her,” Spike said.

Angel shrugged. “Well, duh. It’s what you wanted, right?”

“It’ll do.”

“And what about me? I’ll assume my work here is done.”

“I’d hardly consider that work,” Spike said knowingly.

Angel laughed derisively. “You have no idea.”

In the distance, over Spike’s shoulder, Angel could see the circle of candles in a grove of trees. He knew that Willow and Wesley would be reciting the ancient incantation in a circle created by the others. Giles would be away from the group, holding the receptacle in which the essence of the First would be trapped, if the incantation worked and if the First actually decided to show its true colours.

Spike moved closer to Angel and smiled. “So, was it worth the wait?”

“Have you ever killed a Slayer?” Angel asked and then amended, “You, not Spike.”

“I’m not so much in the business of getting my own hands dirty,” Spike said. “I like to watch.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing then. Of course, it makes it more difficult when you can’t actually take corporeal form. Hard to lock vapor around a human neck and relish the snapping of those fragile bones, really.”

“I’m plenty strong in my original form,” said Spike. “Humans are just more fun to play with this way. Like little rats waiting in their little cages for the scientists to come along.”

“Whatever,” Angel said, reaching for his shirt.

“Perhaps you’d care for a little demonstration,” Spike said.

“Not really. Places to go. People to kill,” Angel said.

Time was wasting. This showboating First Evil needed to manifest itself so that Wesley and Willow could throw their magical net over it and Giles could trap it in the Vylantich Vessel. Angel reached out to Buffy with his mind, stroked her nearly non-existent pulse and willed her to hold on.

Spike’s aura started to shimmer and suddenly, in a burst of violet light, the blonde vampire collapsed in on himself and out of the ashes a shapeless glob of energy rose. It spread out across the starless sky, crackling with malevolent energy and then it gathered itself and Angel watched as a more human form took shape.

“You were easy to fool in the end,” it croaked.

Angel cocked an eyebrow.

Across the cemetery, Angel could hear the chanting and he waited as the words took on a life of their own, drifting toward the shape-shifting mass of energy. He risked a look back at Buffy, noted her shallow breath and turned his attention back to the First.

When the transparent net of energy cloaked itself over the First, Angel was sure he could see something like surprise in its black, depthless eyes.

“You were easy to fool in the end,” Angel said, letting his human features slip back over his face. A tug from the circle and the First vanished, Angel hoped to the waiting Vylantich Vessel.

Angel wasted no time. He raced back to Buffy and gathered her in his arms, taking just long enough to wrap her in his coat. Xander was waiting behind the wheel of Angel’s black Belvedere and Angel slipped into the back seat with his precious cargo and nodded once. Xander floored the accelerator and the car shot down the narrow cemetery path to the main gates and out into the street.

***

When Buffy woke up her first inclination was to stretch her limbs and curl against the cool body she expected to be beside her. Instead, when her eyes focused it was Giles at her bedside, not Angel in it.

“You’re awake,” Giles said, setting his Styrofoam cup of tepid tea on the floor beside him and reaching out to take her hand, mindful of the intravenous tubes that were replenishing her depleted fluids.

“So it would seem,” Buffy said. Her mouth felt full of sand and she lifted her head a little, searching the bedside table for a drink.

“Here,” Giles said, offering her a cup of water, which he held to her lips.

“Thanks,” she said after several long sips. She settled back on the pillows and closed her eyes, more exhausted than she would have thought possible.

“We’ve been sitting with you in shifts,” Giles said by way of explanation.

“In shifts?” Buffy asked. “How long have I been out of it?”

Giles cleared his throat. “Three days, actually.”

Buffy struggled to a sitting position. “Three days?” she said incredulously.

“It’s been a rather taxing few weeks, Buffy,” Giles said. “You more than deserved the rest.”

“Did we get it?”

Giles smiled. “We did.”

“Well, that’s something isn’t it.”

He patted Buffy’s hand and said, “Indeed.” Giles stood and made his way to the door. “I’ll just go make a few calls and let everyone know that you’re awake. They’ll all be relieved to hear the news.”

“Giles,” Buffy said and Giles turned back to face her.

“He didn’t leave your side, Buffy. Not for an instant.”

“Okay, but I don’t see him now,” Buffy said. “This is my side and Angel’s not at it.”

Giles felt a small smile tug at his lips. “By this morning he was pretty much worn out. I insisted he go back to the house and catch a few hours of sleep. He’ll be back.”

“You guys didn’t give him a hard time,” Buffy said. “About this, I mean,” she added, touching the gauze at her throat.

“Everyone reacted pretty much as you might expect,” Giles said.

“So Xander was a jerk?”

Giles winked and left the room.

***

The sun had barely set when Angel slipped into Buffy’s hospital room. The nurse had just left, clearing away a dinner Buffy had forced herself to eat despite not being able to name a single item on the tray.

In his arms, he carried a bouquet of roses so momentous that the smell of them reached her nose long before Angel reached her bed.

“Cabbage roses,” he said, setting them on the table recently vacated by her dinner tray.

“They’re beautiful, Angel, thank you.”

Angel sat on the edge of Buffy’s bed, careful not to disturb the tubes running into her fragile arm and smiled; a crooked, blindingly beautiful smile that made Buffy’s heart knock hard against her ribs.

“So we did it,” she finally said to break the gathering tension.

“We did.”

“And now what?” Might as well get it over with.

“Cordy, Gunn and Lorne went back to LA. It’s been a few days and I’m sure there’s a pile of things to look after. Fred and Wes are going to take the scenic route home, I guess.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Buffy said.

Angel dropped his eyes. “I know,” he said to the sheets.

“You’re going back, too, aren’t you?” Buffy asked.

“I…”

“It’s okay, Angel. I knew you would be. I didn’t expect this to change anything.”

Angel looked up. His eyes were filled with such profound sorrow that Buffy was sure her heart would split from the weight of his pain.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be.”

“You took a big risk, Buffy.”

“I took that risk a million years ago, Angel. I took it the minute I opened my heart and let you in. I have no regrets about that or about what happened the other night.”

“It might have gone badly.”

“But it didn’t,” she said.

“No. It didn’t.”

Buffy touched her throat. “Does it mean anything?” she asked.

Angel shook his head, not quite understanding her question.

“Twice bitten. Does that have any significance?”

Angel made no reply.

“He never bit me, Angel. I would have never let him and he never tried. Whatever Connor told you, it wasn’t true. At least that wasn’t true.”

“You’re the first living human I’ve fed from in over a century,” Angel said finally. He lifted his hand and, peeling away the bandage on Buffy’s neck, he pressed two fingers against the damaged skin. “It’s significant.”

Buffy caught Angel’s hand in hers and turned it toward her face, kissing his palm. “What’s going to happen to us?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Angel said honestly.

For some reason, Angel’s uncertainty gave Buffy hope. She leaned forward and when her forehead touched his, she smiled. They had survived. Again. They had diverted another potential apocalypse. Again. Somewhere in all this chaos there must be a reason why they were still alive.

“Angel,” Buffy whispered.

“What?”

“Will you stay with me until I go to sleep?”

Somewhere in all this madness, Angel thought, they would find their way home. Tonight, though, Angel would allow Buffy the simple comfort of his arms around her, and he would let his chest rise and fall, mimicking the life he so desperately wanted but could never be sure he’d have. And until the woman he loved fell asleep, he would pretend that when she woke up in the morning, he would still be there.

The End