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The Devil in Question

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It began at that Starbucks, you know, the one across from the other Starbucks, while I was waiting for my iced half-skim, half-soy mochaccino with extra whip. The line was long, but I was fine with it; my plan for the rest of the day was to sit on the floor in my new and very empty apartment and enjoy some blue-box mac and cheese a la hotplate. At least here, there was furniture and an ample supply of toilet paper.

I was kind of zoning out, thinking about all of the things I needed to buy, and wondering if Faith had really taken Robin on the "Irish dive bar tour" of Boston she'd been promising him for months. They still had time before he started his new job as assistant principal at the arts high school. Meanwhile, I was pounding the pavement back in LA, trying to figure out what I was good at besides slaying. Working as a part-time security guard at the mall was not promising to be a stepping stone to a brighter future.

Six months had passed since Sunnydale had done its final swan dive, sacrificing itself, and many of my close friends, to prevent yet another apocalypse, this one starring a colossal infestation of exceptionally ugly vampire-type monsters that were supposedly under the control of the First Evil, a noncorporeal but manipulative total jerkface of a mystical entity. Spike, who had been going through some major life changes, had sacrificed himself in a literal blaze of glory, which I hope had helped resolve some of his re-ensouled vampire issues on his way out. He deserved that much.

"Bucky?" called the barista. I guessed that was supposed to be me.  With great intensity, and many threatening hand motions, and, most importantly, my favorite jacket draped over a chair, I had been staking out the solitary unoccupied table left on the patio, and I knew I needed to nab it permanently before it got claimed by a stroller brigade, a gaggle of clueless tourists, or worse.  Even a jacket talisman would not ensure my safety for long. At the counter, I collided with a tall, attractive bald guy who was almost certainly, but could not possibly be Robin Wood, who reached for the tall cup with "Bucky" written on it in green sharpie.

"Robin? I thought you were in Boston with Faith! And why are you stealing my coffee?"

The guy looked at me intensely, and wrinkled his brow in a confused and very un-Robin-like way. "I don't know any Robin." He seemed surprised to be holding the drink.

I silently ran through a list of possible explanations:  Possession? Was this a shape shifter of some sort? Or had he been vamped?  I had been pretty lax about patrolling since the last apocalypse, and resolved to work the local cemetery as soon as I had gotten myself a decent pair of low-heeled boots. I didn't know the terrain well enough to be comfortable in my three-inch block heels.

Another possibility came to mind, one that made my guts shrivel -- the First Evil? I touched his shoulder. He flinched. Corporeal, thank goodness.

"I'm sorry, but you look exactly like my friend Robin." I pointed from him to the mochaccino and back. "Bucky?"

"No. I'm Amenadiel." He didn't offer to shake hands. His delivery was oddly formal, and I almost expected him to follow with, "...and I'll be your server tonight," but nope. Definitely not from around here, though.

"Good name," I said, afraid I'd get it wrong if I tried to repeat it.  "I'm Buffy. And that's probably my coffee."

He looked down, and again seemed almost surprised to still be holding the mochaccino. "Oh, right. Sorry, I thought he said 'Buddy,' which is what he called me when I placed my order."

"An understandable mistake." I took the coffee out of his hand, and rushed to grab my table outside. He followed me out, and sat down at my table without asking. I had a sneaking suspicion that the nice, shiny bubble of normal that I'd been working on for the past couple of months was about to pop, in a major way.

Amena... guy leaned forward in his chair. It was creepy how like Robin he was--same dark skin, gentle eyes, tasteful facial hair, attractively broad shoulders, and vague air of silent judgement. "Are you, by any chance, the Buffy that they call the Slayer?"

"Yup. Busted. I guess they , whoever they are, neglected to mention that I'm retired."

---

To put it mildly, my day was not made. I needed a good long vacation from all things icky, deadly, or non-human. Okay, I might categorize puppies, and possibly goldfish, as tolerable non-humans, so not all non-humans. Still, most importantly, I was ready for a very long, if not permanent, hiatus from major slayage. I'd made sure that there were teams of trained slayers at the ready to handle anything that might crop up, and my enthusiasm for pitching in was, at best, extremely limited.

Amena... whoosie blinked his big, brown Robin-y eyes at me. "I was hoping to ask you for a favor."

"Of course you were." 

"Are you trying to dissuade me from asking?"

"Huh?" What a bizarre question. But maybe I was. I took a long pull of the sweet, sweet coffee. The sugar and caffeine hit my bloodstream hard, and I rallied, took a deep breath, and decided to at least hear the guy out. What did he know about Slayers, and how did he know it? I wanted the deets. "As I said, I'm retired. Mostly. But maybe can I help you? And then you can go away?" 

Amena... whatever looked around at the crowded patio, and wrinkled his eyebrows like he was working out a math problem in his head. There wasn't an empty chair in the place, and at the table nearest ours, three shaggy-banged Justin Bieber wannabes were yelling, "More cowbell!" at each other and cracking themselves up.

"Let's go somewhere quieter," he said.

"Okay, I know of a nice park a few blocks from here. It's this way." At least I could get him into a less populated area from which I could politely flee. Or kick his ass. I took us on a shortcut through an alley, and dropped a few paces behind so I could observe him. Slayer 101.  

I have a pretty good sense of smell, which isn't a Slayeriffic thing, more like an acquired skill from hanging out with one too many sniffy vampires. And as Amenadiel walked ahead of me, I realized he didn't have Robin's standard bouquet: Brut aftershave and clean laundry. Instead, I was picking up a combination of warm honey and almost-rain. Maybe it's called petrichor, although that might actually be the name of a particularly slimy worm-demon I've seen once or twice. It was still familiar, though.

Oh. 

With a jolt of nostalgia and pain and longing so overwhelming it nearly made me stop breathing, I remembered the lingering aroma of the air in heaven after an angel has been nearby. Not a confusingly-named vampire ex, but the real, celestial, deal. That realization came courtesy of some pretty extreme research--score one for having died.

Before I could really process this, Amenadiel abruptly turned around and picked me up like a sack of groceries, and we were airborne. His wings were enormous--their span must have been twice as wide as he was tall--and covered with luminous silvery-gray feathers. Stunned (and thirsty), I watched as the ground fell away, and the dark, spreading stain on the sidewalk from my spilled coffee disappeared in the distance.

Retirement postponed, for now. I hoped this would be one of those cute miniature apocalypses, the kind that are done in a couple of hours. 

***

We lit on a quiet hilltop where we could see the lights of LA sparkling in the distance. There was a nice outcropping of rock at the edge of the hill, and Amenadiel gestured for me to sit there. His ginormous wings had completely winked out of existence as soon as we landed. Angels are weird.

"Thanks for squashing that demon uprising," Amenadiel said. "You saved us a lot of trouble. Rebellions crop up in Hell periodically, and it's always a trial to get them under control. Lucy and I are here on Earth to recover any demons that might have escaped before you sealed the passage."

"You mean the Hellmouth?"

"Is that what you call it? Hell… Mouth?"  Amenadiel furrowed his brow, and pointed at his own mouth.

"Normally, Lucy would return to Hell immediately after such a battle. But now we are faced with the need for an alternate entrance so Lucy can resume supervisory duties at the earliest opportunity. We don't want more corporeal demons causing trouble on Earth."

Who was this Lucy? Why did she need to be in Hell?

I crossed my arms and tried to look as immovable as possible. "Sorry, we're not opening that sucker back up."

Sunnydale had been absolutely swarming with demons. If anything, we needed to pour concrete over the giant crater where it used to be, string the perimeter with barbed wire, sprinkle the whole thing with mothballs, and post armed guards around it. Or big, scowly bouncers. Or both.

The guy looked pretty sad about this news, and I took pity on him. "Don't worry, there's another Hellmouth in Cleveland. That's the next closest one I know about. My team will keep an eye on things in LA, so you don't have to worry about any issues around here."

"Cleveland? What do you say, Lucy?" Amenadiel was talking to someone standing just past my left shoulder. I turned around to see who it was, acutely aware that we were practically sitting on the edge of a cliff. My ongoing research has also established, quite conclusively, that I personally lack the power of flight. 

The individual called "Lucy" was a tall, lanky, dark-haired guy , with angular features and a very square chin covered in a day or two of growth, which made him look kind of predatory and wolfish. I was pretty sure he hadn't been there fifteen seconds earlier. Maybe there had been a flash of pure-white wing for a split-second, but nothing marred the cut of his very sharp and expensive-looking jacket.  I wondered if angels used credit cards. This guy clearly did not buy off the rack.

"Cleveland? How boring."

He slouched, in a tall-guy kind of way, hands in pockets, and looked from Amenadiel to me. Up close, I saw that this angel was wearing guyliner, which was, to be perfectly honest, not a bad look for him. 

"Who cares if it's boring?" I said. "You're not going there for the scenery." 

The guy raised his eyebrows and grinned a megawatt grin, displaying violently perfect teeth. "Well, hello there!" His drawling British accent brought me, painfully, back to certain weeks of brutal "education" inflicted on me by every representative of the Watcher's Council who was not Rupert Giles. I clenched my jaw hard, and wished I'd remembered to put my sunglasses in my purse.

"Lucy" held out a long-fingered, well-manicured hand. "You must be the Slayer! I'm so pleased to make your acquaintance! I hope my brother here hasn't offended you in any way. And if he did, I'm sure he's very sorry." An accusatory tone crept into his voice.

"Hi, I'm Buffy. Summers. The retired vampire slayer."

"Retired? Congratulations! You must be so pleased. I confess I'm a bit envious."

His eyes swept over me in a not exactly businesslike way. "I'm sorry, Miss Summers," he said, "I was so distracted by your loveliness that I forgot to introduce myself. The name is Lucifer. Morningstar. I'm the Devil. Yes, that one."

After this, he took what was obviously a very practiced pause. His obsidian-dark eyes didn't blink, and I might have thought he was trying to stare me down, except the smile was genuine and open, and caused an unexpected rush of warmth through parts of me that I hadn't thought about for many months.

So "Lucy" was short for Lucifer ? Zowie. Double zowie. Was this for real? I tried to recall anything relevant from the lore I'd been forced to study in high school. Giles had provided the Cliff notes version of his backstory: Lucifer was an angel who fought with God, lost, and ended up in Hell, and now punished the souls of the guilty after they died. That was everything I could remember, which seemed weird, given the fanatical detail we could usually find about any random bug-demon or historical vampire pervert. Either the entire body of arcane Watchers' literature was completely uninterested in the Devil, or certain books had been deliberately suppressed. 

Still, I didn't doubt for a second that I was actually talking to the Devil. I'd met famous baddies before; they tend not to live up to their press. Take Dracula, for example: Not as cool as you would expect. Disappointingly douchey, if I'm being honest. On the other hand, Lucifer's sheer charisma was undeniably supernatural. No other being I'd encountered on Earth had a sex-magnet aura like that. Every time he looked at me, I got the urge to undress him, and the way he lowered his eyelids and slowly ran the tip of his tongue over his lower lip seemed to be inviting shenanigans. I had to bite the inside of my cheek to distract myself from some very inconvenient feelings. 

About bad guys: they all make you feel things. After several years of slaying, I had learned to recognize my own physical responses to the presence of malevolent energy. Angelus, the sadistic vampire that came out to play whenever my ex, Angel, lost his soul, could make my skin crawl with a look. Being in the same room as the nasty, misogynist ex-preacher Caleb, who'd colluded with the First Evil during the last apocalypse, casually murdered dozens of potential slayers, and poked out my friend Xander's eye, made my pupils contract and my fingertips go numb.  Being near the Devil, surprisingly, did not cause any tingling in that particular Slayer-sense, though I had other senses that were definitely tingling.

But just because I didn't feel any actual evil didn't mean it wasn't there. These two were obviously no boy scouts--they'd fricking kidnapped me. And that irresistible-hotness thing was a distraction. I needed to keep my head on straight. I needed to get home before anything bad could happen.

The irritating fact remained that we were standing on a hilltop nowhere near a road or even a well-marked path back to Van Nuys. I wasn't gonna get anywhere until someone, most usefully, a wing-having someone, decided to give me a lift. 

"Well, uh, you two, I'm honored to make your acquaintance, but I don't think there's much I can do for you besides give directions. If I'm not home soon, my little sister is going to worry. So if you could just… "

"Of course," Lucifer said, "We can bring you home, no trouble at all." 

"Great. Thanks. You are welcome to hang in LA as long as you want before heading to Cleveland. I mean, like, the tacos here are really good, so before you go, you should definitely… have tacos."

Amenadiel looked unimpressed, and seemed about to say something dismissive, when Lucifer cut him off.

"Tacos would be marvelous, don't you think, Amenadiel? Do you have any specific recommendations, darling?"

I started listing off a few of my favorites, and Lucifer approached me, closer than I expected, and looked me in the face very intently. My head swam, and I self-consciously wondered if my eye makeup was smeared. 

"After my brother so rudely abducted you, you've been very helpful." He shot a brief glare at his...brother? "I'd like to return the favor. So what would you like to do now? Is there anything you truly want?"

He half-smiled enigmatically, and his eyes were full of questions, as if I was a puzzle to be solved. Being able to finally tell him was a tremendous relief, like dropping something heavy.

"You know, I really wanted that mochaccino."

 

Chapter Text

For the second time that day, I had been picked up and carried like so much angelic baggage. This was gonna be the strangest coffee date ever.

We landed in the alley behind a Starbucks in Beverly Hills. People there had frostier hair than in Van Nuys, and they had chihuahuas who wore jewelry. Everyone in the place, except me, appeared to be talking to someone who wasn’t there.

I was crouched on the floor below the last free table, shoving a folded paper napkin under one table leg to keep it from wobbling, when the Devil returned with a gigantic frozen drink for me, and a venti, black, for him. 

He set down my tall, whipped-cream-topped plastic cup and waited for me to scramble to my feet. Once I'd gathered myself, he sat with his back to the room and his long legs stretched into the aisle, the better to show off his very snazzy shoes. Out of habit, I scanned the area over his shoulder for any possible threats, but aside from a rogue chinchilla dangerously eyeing a little girl’s chocolate croissant, the coast was clear. 

Still, my nerves were not calm. I needed more info. How powerful was this guy, and how dangerous? I didn’t want to pussyfoot around the obvious: me Slayer, him Devil. Were we supposed to be enemies? 

"So, what’s your deal? Aren’t you evil?" 

His mouth tightened and he gave a tiny, indignant snort.. "Millennia of propaganda would certainly have you think so." 

Lucifer took a silver flask out of his pocket, poured some kind of booze into his cup, sipped, and frowned. Even the Devil doesn’t like coffee as burnt as Starbuck's. Why do people drink black coffee, anyway? I'll take mine frosty and syrupy, please.

He spoke quickly, as if he were reading IKEA instructions, or reciting the disclaimers at the end of a Cialis ad. "I led a rebellion against my dad, whom you call God, and he cast me into Hell, where I am lord and king. I punish evil souls there." I guessed he’d had this conversation at least a thousand times. Multiple thousands, even.

"Uh huh. Punish evil. That doesn’t answer my question. See, my thing is protecting people here on Earth. What I really want to know is: Are you going to hurt anyone?"

"I save my wrath for those who deserve it."

"And who decides that?" 

"Why, I do, of course. Look, it’s not a hobby. I didn’t ask for the job, I was forced into it. Someone has to punish people for their misdeeds." 

"Or, let me guess, and pardon my cliche: all Hell breaks loose?" 

"Something like that." He contemplated his coffee, picked it up as if to drink it, then decided not to and put it back down.

My own drink had separated into a sweet melted layer on the bottom and an icy layer on top, covered in whipped cream. I drank it until only ice crystals and air were left and sucking on my straw caused loud slurpy sounds. I’d have to wait for the rest to melt. 

"That’s pretty heavy. Me, I just fight demons and vampires. You know, bad guys."

"Bad guys?" His fingers made sarcastic air quotes.  "Come on now, do monsters choose to be monstrous? How about demons? How can you punish a creature who is merely doing what it was made to do?"

Sticking up for monsters? Right on. From long (and sometimes embarrassing) experience confronting wildly assorted inhuman uglies, I’ve learned not to assume goodness or badness, but to wait and observe. If I give them a minute, most scary beasties will go ahead and do whatever they were gonna do, whether nasty or nice. I wasn’t sure about this Devil yet, but at least he was no species-ist. 

"Hey, some of my closest friends are not exactly human, so, seriously, no judgment. But slaying isn't punishing. Vamps are vamps. They’re like ticks wearing tacky suits. If they suck blood and they hurt people, I kill them. Their job, my job. We might as well punch time cards at the end of the day. Not a hobby for me, either." 

His prim, offended expression relaxed into a close-mouthed smile. "You’re a plucky one, aren’t you?" 

 The ice crystals floating at the top of my drink were all melted, and I drank the last of my well-diluted coffee. 

"Yeah, that’s me. Plucky."

"Tell me, Miss Summers, how did you become so world-weary at such a young age? What must someone do to become a Slayer such as yourself?"

"Oh boy, my turn for the exposition dump. Yay."

"Make it as long or as short as you like. I don’t mind long, though." He half-closed his eyes, giving me a chance to admire his exceptionally long lashes, and grinned like a twelve-year-old. 

"There used to be only one Slayer, one girl in each generation who would guard all the world from the forces of evil." I rolled my eyes as I recited the litany that had left my life in ruins. I hated it so much. "When a Slayer died, the next would be activated."

"Is the Slayer always a ‘she’?"

"Yup. I don’t know why."

"Oh, I might have an inkling. But do go on." He took a sip of his coffee, grimaced, and chased it with a swig straight out of his metal flask.

"So I’ve been a Slayer since the tenth grade, when a guy came up to me in front of my high school in LA and said he was my Watcher, and that he would be training me to slay. Slayers are naturally extra-strong and fast, that’s part of the package, so it’s not really a workout kind of training, more of an indoctrination. He taught me about the kinds of creatures I’d have to slay, and how to find and slay them. 

"Then he died, my parents split, and we moved from LA to Sunnydale for a fresh start. My second Watcher was better. Giles was... is… " I struggled for the words to describe the relationship. "uh, part life coach, part personal trainer, part Hogwarts professor, part surrogate dad. He’s very important to me."

"So these men are called Watchers because they watch you ?" 

"It’s their job. They have their own school for it and everything."

"To sum up, and please tell me if I have this wrong, a Slayer is a young human girl with mystical superpowers whose responsibility it is to put herself into harm’s way and confront vampires and demons and assorted crawlies while a grown man looks on? I understand why that would appeal to a certain element."

"Uh, I guess? Sometimes they come with."

"How gallant of them. I should expect that anyone involved in dreaming up a scheme like that has been my houseguest for a very long time." 

Lucifer wrinkled his brows and frowned. He drummed his fingers on the table distractedly, picked up his coffee, and sniffed it a couple of times before deciding once again not to drink any and setting it back on the table. I didn’t understand why he was so annoyed. I hoped I hadn’t done anything wrong.

"Lucifer, the actual scheming about this was thousands of years ago." 

"As I said: long-term houseguests."

"Really not my department. I just work here."

"We have a few things in common, don’t we?"

"How could you think that? I’m the lord of Hell, and you’re a short, self-righteous, yet rather fetching mortal."

"Um, thanks, I think?"  My face was flushed and warm. Was he checking out my boobs? I shifted my chair and cleared my throat.  "Where was I? Oh yeah. We both got stuck with jobs we didn't ask for, and we both feel responsible for covering the work. We both fight demons, although, like you said, not all demons.

"But here’s where we’re different: You’re the Devil. I was the Slayer, but now I’m just a slayer. And I don’t have to do it anymore unless I want to."

"Interesting. How were you released from your responsibilities? Was there an amnesty that freed the Slayers? Or were you replaced with a robot? I’ve heard that’s a done thing now."  

"No, I didn’t get replaced with a robot—not effectively replaced, anyway—and nobody gave me a get-out-of-jail-free card, if that’s what you mean by amnesty. But you might say I gave myself one."

"Tell me more. I might be interested in one of those cards. How did you get it? "

 "My friends and I decided that having only one Slayer at a time was a stupid idea, so we changed the rules. Now I’m just ... well, okay, I still get the most voicemail, but I’m one of many. I feel so free. It’s good."

"That's marginally better, I suppose." 

"Are you kidding? It’s the best thing that ever happened to me, ever."

"No it isn’t, darling. It’s a well-deserved modicum of justice for you in the present day, but you should have so much more than that. And where does the card come into it?"

"Oh right. You’re not from here. It’s a figure of speech, from a kid’s game."

"Must be an interesting game. And I do see your point: Only an angel can rule Hell, but  obviously, I’m not the only angel. Heaven is crawling with them."

"Totally!  I mean, that many of you guys in one place, it’s a little … much. If you know what I mean." I was babbling like a dope. This was somebody who'd known Heaven.  "And, and, and … angelic choirs are cool the first time you hear one, but um, they get kind of old. That blast of sound thing gets, well, samey-samey after awhile." 

"No doubt. The fellow has been music director since the dawn of time, and has no creativity whatsoever. So tedious.  Not that I’d know, I’m only guessing—haven’t been there since he was a rookie—but he never liked to kick anyone out, even if they had a voice like a walrus." 

Lucifer seemed to realize we’d meandered off track. He took a deep breath and changed the subject. "But you bring up an excellent point. There’s absolutely no reason Heaven couldn’t spare a few backups to give a fellow a break once in a while. After all, a well-rested Devil is an effective Devil."

It didn't seem appropriate to high-five the Devil, or I would have done it. I wondered if he’d been spiking my mochaccino but I didn’t care. 

"I feel you. So hard."

"Well, if you put it that way…" 

He arched his eyebrows, looked down at his lap, and grinned, his dark, earnest expression breaking open into pure suggestiveness. It was so incredibly not subtle that I had to laugh.

 He set his hand on my thigh and gave it a tentative squeeze, the long fingers gently pressing a spot just above my knee that connected to a nerve plexus considerably south of my brain. I would have slapped anyone else who tried it, but I put my hand on his, and where our skin touched, a warm glow spread through my body, the energy tracing paths upward and inward. My head buzzed. I wanted to ask him a million questions about Hell. Heaven had been nice, but you know: been there.

"Listen," I said. "I have nothing in my apartment but a futon, some blankets, and an air mattress. But if you wanted to come hang out, I wouldn’t say no." 

"I can do you one better. What if you come back with me to my hotel? I’ve got room service and an endless supply of clean sheets. You can stay as long as you like."

"Should I be going home with this handsome stranger just because he buys me coffee and waves his pretty wings at me?"

"No, you should come with me because you want to."

***

Lucifer was no dope. It turns out we were at this particular Starbucks because it was in the lobby of his hotel. 

His suite was enormous and white, with a plush king-sized bed, a sunken whirlpool bathtub, a completely pointless gas fireplace, and a view from the window across lots of terra cotta rooftops to a zigzag line of mountain peaks that blended into the shifting clouds at the horizon. It didn’t suck. A faint whiff of demon drew my eye to the opposite corner of the room, where a knotted pile of blankets and a couple of battered leather bags sat on the floor in an alcove just past the bathroom door. My new Devil friend had a demon roommate. I pretended not to notice.

Standing in the entry admiring this very nice room, I wondered whether going there was a bad idea. I was alone in a swanky hotel suite with the literal king of Hell. He was immensely old, immensely powerful, and immensely flirty. There aren’t too many guys that make me skittish, but he was one of them. I sat in an armchair adjacent to the sofa facing the fireplace. There were a couple of tumblers and a clear glass decanter of brown liquid on the mantle above it. 

 "If Lucifer means light bringer, does Christopher mean Chris bringer?" I think of some of the more attractive Chrises I have known. And then about what a total dork I am when I’m nervous.

He stared at me like I was nuts. "Think about what you’re saying." 

"Sorry, sometimes thoughts are hard. Buffy Summers, college dropout, at your service." 

"Nonsense. You are... most remarkable. You don’t need to be well-versed in etymology to be, well, you. Care for a drink?" 

I nodded yes, and he poured a generous slug of liquor into a tumbler and brought it to me. When our hands casually touched, I felt a pleasant fizz of electricity running up my arm. I made a mental note to tell Willow that diabolical attraction is super-fizzy. She loves factoids like that.

He sat at the end of the sofa near my chair, pushing a coffee table away with a foot to give his legs enough space to stretch out. Whatever was in the glass burned sweetly going down and drained away the tension I’d been carrying in my neck. 

"Um, how long have you been in LA?"

"This time round? Oh, perhaps a month. Or it could be a few months. I’m not sure, really."

"Maybe I can help clarify. When you left Hell, what did you see? Was it, by any chance, a boiler room? In an institutional-looking building?" 

"It might have been." 

"Were you in a high school?"

"Darling, I have no fucking idea. We were in a building of some sort, but we left immediately to carry out our work on Earth. When we tried to return to Hell, we found only a crater that could have swallowed several shopping malls, and no passage to my kingdom. "

"Okay, so you’ve been here at least half a year."

"Six months? Bugger. That means my brother will be breathing down my neck again any day now. He’s taken it upon himself to ensure that I don’t abdicate." 

"You want to up and quit? Is that wise?"

For a long moment, he stared darkly into his glass, then drained it in one gulp and refilled it.  He stayed standing.

"If you dare, imagine you’re me. And you have a fantastic hotel suite in Los Angeles , a place that beckons with its very name, and you are in the company of a most fascinating young woman, drinking good liquor and having a chat." 

"You think I'm fascinating?" I took another sip of my burn-y drink. He was doing a good job of being fake-British. It was cute, I thought, the way he said Los Angeles like "Loss Ahngel-ease ". The more time I spent with him, the more attractive he got. Not gonna lie: I was scared. Nothing wrecks my equilibrium more than reckless dating.

"Why wouldn't I? I'm very much looking forward to learning more about you." He sipped from his refilled glass.  "So imagine if an angelic spoilsport, who's also your brother who hates you, demands that you to return to the underworld, despite the convenient local entrance having been utterly destroyed, so this return journey will take you first to deepest Cleveland, and then to even deeper Hell for countless millennia.  If you’re still me, perhaps you might, I don’t know, stay here and not bother?"  

"And also, you’ve dangled the possibility of tacos."

I finished my own drink and set down the glass with a loud clunk. 

"Never underestimate the power of tacos."

"I certainly wouldn’t."

"Wise Devil." I held up a finger in the universal sign for Waitaminnit . "So, Lucifer, I would love to get together another time, but I kinda have to go home now. Please call me a cab?"

"But why? You only just got here."

"It’s been an hour and a half, and I promised my sister I’d be home tonight for Gilmore Girls. We have a standing, non-negotiable appointment. But call me later. Tacos await."  

****

Lucifer turned out to be a big fan of tacos de lengua y cabeza. Color me unsurprised. 

To give him a taste of the slaying life, I invited him to join me for a little light patrolling, because, well, maybe... maybe I was nervous about going back to his hotel, and it was a valid reason to procrastinate. I already had on my brand-new, low-yet-stylish boots, so we were ready to hit the cemetery. 

We spent a couple of hours watching the haze-obscured stars and listening to buses rumbling their way down the busy road a few blocks over while Lucifer chain-smoked unfiltered Camels and cracked wise about my tedious job. I avoided any skin-on-skin contact and reminded myself that kissing a smoker was like licking an ashtray. 

It was well after midnight when we finally saw some activity. The door to one of the big crypts inched open, just a crack, and kept inching. After several minutes, an unmistakable figure appeared in the doorway: yellow eyes, bumpy face, dusty suit. Fresh vampire.

"There’s one,"  I whispered. "Shh, I’ll get it."

"You mean that fellow doing a terrible job at sneaking out of a crypt? I’ve seen stealthier brass bands. Hey, you, over here!"

"Okay, calling for attention is also an option, especially for an easy one like this." 

The vampire grinned in the evil but clueless way vampires do before they figure out who I am, and began to make his way toward what he imagined might be dinner. It would be an absolutely unremarkable kill, something I could practically do in my sleep. 

But Lucifer seemed grossed out and irritated, like he’d seen a cockroach. 

"Wrong, wrong, wrong ! You think you can just gallivant around on Earth as if you’re supposed to be here? Be gone!"

His eyes flashed, like hot coals, or taillights. The vampire, who was at least 15 feet away, collapsed in a heap of dust. 

I blinked. Once. Twice. "Wait. What did you do?"

"Well, obviously, I sent its demon essence back to Hell. You’re welcome."

"So you can make them go poof by looking at them?"

"Their forebears absconded from my kingdom. I simply ordered them to go back there," he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"Uh huh." 

This wasn’t even exercise for him. I mean, unless you think blinking is exercise. I didn’t know if I was more awestruck or more peeved. I wasn't used to being upstaged in the slaying department.

"Um, could I please get the next one?"

"Of course. All yours." He waved his hand like a theater usher directing me to a seat, but more condescending. I glared at him but he didn’t get the hint. "What’s that look for?"

"Sh." Another vampire was sauntering toward us, a short-haired woman in a severe jacket and a pencil skirt, yellow eyes shining with malice. 

"Hey mister," she sneered.  "Can I have a cigarette? I’d really like a smoke before I kill you both."

Lucifer eyed her with distaste, and loudly stage-whispered, "Really? Really ?" 

"What can I say? Sometimes they’re scary, sometimes they’re just annoying."

I had my stake at the ready and was moving in for the kill, when I heard footfalls from behind me. About fifteen vamps stood in a semicircle, backing us against the exterior wall of the crypt we’d been using for cover. Most of them had on clean clothes, a sign that they were from an existing nest: experienced hunters, not stumbling newbies. 

A big bearded guy in a motorcycle jacket with "Los Xs" stenciled on it stood in front, obviously their leader. "We heard you were in town, Slayer. We were doing just fine without you, so why don’t you go back to wherever you came from?"

I moved into a fighting stance, knees slightly bent, ready to spring into action. "Hm. Go back to where I came from. Let me think about it. Nope. Not possible."  I hoped I sounded less nervous than I felt. 

It had been a few months since I’d done any fighting, so I was rusty, we were on unfamiliar terrain, and I had an audience. I was so out of practice that I wasn’t even equipped with quips. Slayers who can’t quip should definitely hang up their stakes. 

The biker vamp took one step toward me, and then broke into a run, covering the distance between us in a second or two. I used his own momentum against him with a kick that spun him sideways, but his buddies were closing in. I had  the leader pinned on the ground, and was about to jab him dusty, when another vampire wrapped his arm around my neck and pulled me away from Beardy Boy. I lost my balance and landed on my hip and elbow, which knocked the stake out of my hand. A third vampire kicked it out of reach. 

I flipped the neck-grabber, a smaller guy in a gray hoodie, onto his back, reached past his head to recover the stake, quickly dusted him, then pivoted to the leader, who was still stumbling to get up. I knocked his feet out from under him with a low kick to the ankles, and dusted him, too. 

"Okay, okay, nicely done. Can I kill the rest of them now? I’m ready for more drinks and chitchat." My date took one last drag on a cigarette and flicked it away, then leaned against the crypt, hands in pockets. 

" No! No whammies." I could still handle myself, dammit. 

Meanwhile, the pencil-skirted vamp was heading for Lucifer, who greeted her as if this was a cocktail party. "Hel-lo." From the way his head tilted, he was clearly checking out her ass. 

He shook another cigarette out of the pack and offered it to her. "Is this what you wanted? Here you go, don’t be shy!" She took it warily and put it between her lips. He held up a lighter for her and lit another for himself.

I watched, transfixed, as she stood beside him, not speaking, not attacking, and they both smoked. The other vampires watched too, frozen in place, as if they’d forgotten I was there. When she finished her cigarette, he touched her elbow, as if to escort her away.  

"You shouldn’t be here, darling." His voice was gentle, almost apologetic. A brief flash of red, and she was gone, poof .

"And neither should you lot."  Another flash, and they all poofed at once. Twelve more piles of dust and ash were left on the manicured grass.  

"Come, Buffy, let’s go do something fun."

The cemetery was at the end of a long gravel-paved walking trail that meandered through a landscaped park along the edge of the beach and then ran behind the fancy boutiques across from the hotel. In the daytime, it was full of dog walkers, nannies with little kids, people who work at night, the unemployed, the retired. At night, it was utterly deserted, and the only sound to be heard was the gravel crunching under our feet as we walked back toward Lucifer's hotel. I was so angry I couldn’t speak.

"Buffy, what’s wrong? I’m sorry about cutting your hunt short, but vampires are so irritating! I’ve since forbidden demons to wear human shells, but before that edict, a few bloodsucking types crept out and started to breed, using fresh cadavers as hosts. I'm afraid they've become quite a nuisance. If only the walls between Hell and Earth weren’t quite so thin, and the doors weren’t so wide open. It was most unfortunate. I’ll do my best to ensure it doesn’t happen again."

"You mean, you could have stopped it?"

"Well, though I never personally inspected the breach, I was told there was a minor infestation, and I directed my servants to mitigate the damage."

"And what steps did they take, exactly?" 

"Well, they hid a few artifacts that were effective against demons and slipped a few hints into the minds of susceptible humans, who were more than willing to spread them around. For example, when I’d visit earth, I often mentioned that the best way to evict one demon essence was with another. I recall a certain group of hairy old men, great innovators, who were extremely pleased with themselves for creating special demon-killers by putting the essence up someone’s--"

"--And were you pleased?" I shivered, remembering the vision I’d once had of the appalling violation that was the making of the First Slayer. It gave me nightmares for months.

"Of course. Less work for me." 

All the fighting and killing and destruction and loss and pain and sorrow of all of the Slayers for hundreds of generations. Jesse. Jenny Callendar. Half of the Sunnydale class of 1999. The entire town of Sunnydale, for that matter. Nikki Wood. Kendra.  Anya. The vampires who used to be people. Anyone who’d lost anyone to a vampire or demon or monster,  because the management of Hell couldn’t be bothered to lock the door? 

The blood rushed to my face, hot and angry. I stopped in the middle of the path and looked up at him, with his perfect hair and condescending attitude. Were we really that insignificant? 

My voice was shaky.  "So, in your scheme of things, I’m the cosmic cleaning lady? You just thought, 'Uh oh, a few rats and cockroaches crawled out of our infernal rec room, let’s have the mortals take care of it.'"

"Oh. You mean Slayers ." A high, defensive tone crept into his voice. "Listen, I punish the wicked in Hell. Earth, as a rule, is not my problem. At least we left instructions. If you kill demons for the mortals, it might be demon-free for a day. Enable them to kill demons themselves, and you might, you know, give them a fighting chance at surviving into old age."

"Not all of them had a chance."

A cold wave of rage tightened my throat, and my vision narrowed until I saw nothing but that smug, grinning, evidently clueless face. I needed to punch him, and did. 

He didn’t expect it, and the force knocked him to the ground. Before he could recover, I pinned him with my knee in the solar plexus and hit him, over and over, for all the people I’d lost, for the normal teenager I never got to be, for my friends left homeless, for everything I’d seen: the throats ripped out, the disembowelings, the twisted and broken and severed limbs, the faces distorted with horror, the faces blank with death.

All this earthly destruction had been caused by a few careless decisions made eons ago. By failing to lock the doors of Hell, he had left it to the human Slayers and their companions to deal with the fallout for millennia.  Like we were no more than an afterthought. 

He didn’t fight me, just lay on the ground as my fists connected over and over again with his face. I wanted to grind his bones to powder. Anyone else would have been reduced to a bloody pulp, but although each blow knocked his head a little deeper into the gravel, he didn’t have as much as a mark. 

"You can hit quite hard for a human. Please continue." 

Maybe I couldn’t hurt him, but I could make him understand that I was one in a line of women that stretched back thousands of years. We had been given a burden we’d never asked for, a curse that had ruined us all, one after another, to fix a problem he’d barely even thought about. 

For generations and generations, slayers had trained, fought, and died, but we were never more than a bandaid on a bullet wound. The only thing that really made a difference was sealing up the goddamned door. 

I hit him until my knuckles bled, until I got a stitch in my side. When I finally stopped, my hair had come undone and the strands were stuck to my face where it was wet with tears and snot. 

He reached up and touched my shoulder. "Did that help?" 

I wiped my face with my forearm, leaving dark streaks of eyeliner on my sleeve, and sat on the path beside him. He gathered himself and stood up, reached for my hand, and led me over to a bench beside a stand of palms, where we both sat, looking at the water, not each other.

"I never asked to be a Slayer. But someone had to do it."

"We thought you humans had it well in hand. And you seem to be implying that you… didn’t ."  The last word hung in the air; surprise mixed with sadness, and possibly, I hoped, shame. "You know that I never asked for my job either."

"But I hear you deserved it."  

"So the story goes. History is told by the victors, remember? I lost. Get back to me when you’ve done your thing since the creation of the universe. Or try my job. Hell is complicated and nearly endless. Even I can’t be everywhere at once. But fine, blame me for your troubles anyway. Everyone does." 

Hitting him had dulled the edge of my anger, but it wasn't gone. "You say you’re not to blame for human evil? You’re right. You’re not. But this ? Vampires and demons walking the Earth causing endless destruction and pain? You fucking let them out of Hell. That’s on you ."

My full frontal Slayer assault hadn’t left a physical mark on him, but now he crumpled like paper, slumping over, face in hands, taking slow, ragged breaths, as if trying to gather himself.  Pale dust caked the back of his dark jacket, rising and falling, each inhale and exhale matching the rhythm of the surf against the beach. I wondered where the wings had gone. After what seemed like hours, but was probably only a minute or two, he sat up and looked back out to sea.

"There’s no winning! I could always do more, always. I am to punish the wicked, and my brothers and sisters are supposed to protect the innocent, but now that’s left to me as well? Bring it on; it’s just another thing that’s all my fault."  

He lit a cigarette, took a long drag, blew smoke. Illuminated by the street lamp overhead, the hazy cloud drifted behind us, away from the water. "But you are right about this: Monsters leaping from the dark and tearing living people’s throats out isn't punishment, it's simply carnage. It has to mean something. Or why go through the motions? What’s the bloody point?"

He wasn’t talking to me but to himself, his eyes stony, mouth set in a grim line. 

"Other than the stake in my purse? You tell me." I rubbed my raw knuckles. There would be scabs in the morning, but right now they were sore and stinging.

His voice was tired, but carried an edge of authority I hadn’t heard before.  "There is no point to random demonic attacks on living humans. They’re unsanctioned. My demons have long been forbidden to rise in any form without my explicit permission. I’ll order my armies to reinforce the edict and to make examples of any who disobey."

Energy prickled over my skin while he spoke. For the first time since I’d met him, he sounded like a king.  

"That’s a start. What about the ones that are already on Earth?"

"I must find them and send them back to Hell."

"All of them?"

"Preferably. As many as possible." 

"Good plan." The muscles in my shoulders started to unknot themselves. I took a deep breath, smelling cigarette smoke and whiskey and celestial. "Time to get cracking."

"Very well. It's decided." He stood up and gave a dismayed snort at the sight of the dust and gravel all over his clothes. He reached for both my hands, and pulled me up so I was standing with him.  "And thank you! A thousand times, thank you!" 

"What are you thanking me for, again?"

The eyeliner was smudged, but his eyes shone with mischief and excitement. I was confused by the sudden shift. The king was gone; the twelve-year-old was back. 

"Buffy, don’t you see what you’ve done?" 

"What I’ve done?" 

"You’ve given me a reason to to stay!  How can my brother send me away when I’ve so much work to do on Earth?"

Chapter Text

My sister Dawn still lived with me, but had a life of her own.  At 18, she had just finished her senior year at a quiet, boring, local high school, and was planning to go to community college in the fall. She had a boyfriend and a retail job at the Gap,.

We were glad to have our own place, finally.  A dingy two-room apartment with peeling woodwork and many unexplained dents in the drywall was still better than living out of duffel bags and sleeping on sofas. We had been there for maybe a couple of weeks, so the apartment was furnished with cast-offs: a second-hand futon, a folding table, a cat-scratched sofa from Goodwill, and brick-and-board shelves to hold the paltry collection of books and effects we'd been able to grab on our way out of Sunnydale.

Our other friends had scattered: Faith was thinking about moving back to Boston; Willow had gone to live on a farm in Napa; Giles had skedaddled back to England; Xander was off building houses in San Diego. Only Robin was still living nearby, having lined up a local job, but we weren't that close anymore.  Even Andrew had moved on. He'd become involved in the reconstituted Watchers' Council, which had taken on then finding and counseling of newly activated slayers, assessing their abilities, and training those who were interested. We were all trying to hit a reset button in our lives, to find out who we might turn out to be. Now we had time—there were no more impending apocalypses. This week, anyway.

I had spent an overnight mall shift thinking very hard about what had happened with the Devil. He had promised to stick around on Earth to sweep up demons and vampires and send them back to Hell. He seemed enthusiastic at the prospect, like it was going to be a vacation.

It was late morning, after my post-shift nap, and I was at my kitchen folding table drinking diet soda and waiting for my strawberry poptarts to finish toasting. The battered door creaked open while I was fishing for a paper plate from one of the cramped cabinets in the four-foot-wide kitchen. I assumed it was Dawn coming back with groceries. 

"Did you remember to get Cheerios? I had to have poptarts for breakfast instead."

The voice that answered was NOT Dawn's. "Lovely digs. Who's your realtor, Rent-a-dump?"

It was, inevitably, the Devil.  He gave the sofa cushions an extra-careful examination before sitting down, crossing his long legs, and tilting his head in that odd, bird-like way of his. Aside from two folding chairs in the kitchen, the sofa was the only place to sit. I pivoted my folding chair a quarter-turn to face him.

"Hey, I don't remember telling you where I live. Or inviting you inside." Right then, I kind of wished he was a vampire. They have some useful quirks. For example, a vampire is physically incapable of walking in on you uninvited. Useful.

"Yes, that's true. But after we parted ways last night, I was thinking." He touched my arm. "Is your current life, living in a place like this, working low-paid jobs that involve lurking in the dark waiting for things to leap out at you, what you truly desire?"

It seemed like a leading question. Where was he heading with this? 

"Of course not," I said. "Except for the part where I'm not the singular Slayer anymore, so I don't have to be boss monster-killer. I'm trying to figure out what I want to do next. And, excuse me, how did you get in here again? I'm positive I locked the door."

He leaned forward conspiratorially. "I think you need me. And this is hard for me to admit, but I'm starting to suspect I need you, too. Professionally, that is."

"Why? You’ve made it clear you don't need me to kill things for you."

"No, but I need you to help me track them down. I understand you have connections in LA, as do I, but our circles don't overlap in the least. That means that if we join forces, we can double our ability to get things done."

"I think your math is fuzzy there. I don't wheel and deal. Sometimes I shake down demons who know things. I have a friend, well, an ex,  who has a private investigation business helping the hopeless. It’s a nice goal, but he's not terribly plugged in to the big picture. Maybe he could provide a few leads?"

"Hm. A man in the field. I like it! And I know you can handle yourself in a fight, me notwithstanding. You do hit harder than most. So, what I'm trying to say is: Buffy, I want you to help me on my new endeavor! You won't have to kill anything. Just do recon; I'll handle the rest, and keep you out of harm's way."

I tried to wrap my brain around what he was asking me. A cliche about differently sized fish in differently sized bodies of water came to mind. I was the tiniest minnow contemplating the biggest ocean imaginable.

He was still pitching. "We should get started right away. Those vampires and demons aren’t sending themselves back to Hell, are they?  And I'm sure there are plenty of beautiful places that also have nasty infestations."

"What about my sister? She can't swing the rent here on what she makes at the Gap."

"It'll be taken care of. I could also find her better accommodations than this."

"Are you trying to bribe me?"

"Shouldn't I be? Is it enough? I don't know why humans pretend not to be motivated by money when it solves so many otherwise intractable problems. If it bothers you, call it a stipend."

"You know I'm not a hooker, right?"

"Yes, I'm aware you're a Slayer, not a hooker."

"Just let me think about it."

"For how long?"

"I need to talk to my sister. I'll let you know."

"I'll await your reply. You know where to find me."

He left, his footsteps growing fainter and fainter as he walked down the hallway and then downstairs. I was waiting to hear the safety door slam when Dawn came in, bearing Cheerios, skim milk, toaster waffles, boxed mac and cheese, frozen pizza. She started putting groceries away, and had her head in the freezer when I thought I heard her say, "Who was that guy? The one I saw leaving? Is there something you're not telling me?"

"It's been a weird couple of days."

She pushed a long strand of red hair out of her eyes and turned to me, hands on hips. "Is he a vampire? Please don't date another vampire! I can't take the drama."

"Nope, he's not a vampire. Definitely not. Hates them, in fact."

"He's not a normie, though? I thought you'd sworn off demons, too."

"Not a demon. But not exactly a muggle, no."

"You're being cryptic. 'Splainy, please."

How was I supposed to explain to Dawn that I’d just met the Devil, and he’d offered me a deal? I had to keep things chill for her. The last thing she needed was another round of supernatural weirdness.

"He’s this guy who offered me a job as his, um, assistant. He wants me to help him hunt demons."

"Could that be dangerous?  Is he dangerous? Wait, is he even human? You didn't say."

"He's… um... immortal. And could probably take me in a fight, so he doesn't need a bodyguard. And he wants to help me, not hurt me."

Dawn nodded, and stroked her chin with thumb and forefinger, as if she had a beard. "Hmm. I don't see any red flags here, nope, not any. No red flags at all."

"Yeah, okay. There are red flags. And flashing red lights. And red tap dancers, and maybe a red brass band. But Dawnie, he wants to take out a huge number of demons and vampires, and trust me, he can do it. To me, that is pretty exciting. And, it was, sorta-kinda, my idea."

The sheer scale of Lucifer’s plan was gradually sinking into my brain. The Devil was offering to take on a huge, world-changing task because of me. I tried not to get too freaked out, but it was, in fact, significantly freaky.  My heart raced, blood roared in my ears, and my palms felt clammy.

"There would be travel. And he offered to cover rent while I was away. Also offered to find us a better apartment. And, crap, I think I've just talked myself into it."

Dawn set down the box of poptarts she’d been about to put away. She closed her eyes, inhaled loudly through her nose, lips pressed together like she was trying to prevent herself from speaking, and exhaled with a very long sigh. 

"Buffy, I'm a big girl, I can handle being on my own. Honest. This sounds like exactly like something you would do. You should probably do it. "

****

The next day, I phoned Lucifer. We agreed to meet, once again, at the Starbucks in his hotel lobby. 

He was waiting for me in one of the dark-purple velour chairs in the back corner of the store, drinking a Perrier. I had ordered nothing. I plunked down in the purple chair next to his.

"I get it. You don't like to be alone, do you?"

"Why do you ask?" 

"Just a sense I have. You're immortal . You don’t have to lift a pinky to make monsters go bye-bye. You don't need me to fight for you."

"Not really, no. But what's the point of seeing the world alone? We can be tourists together, see the sights! I mean, I've seen them all before, more than once, but through fresh eyes, even the oldest of old hats can become shiny and new."

"Shiny hats. Nifty."

"Listen, I don't want to pressure you. Much. But I would never, ever make you do anything you don't want to do. And if I ever ask you to, please say no. I'm not here to cause you any more pain."

“It sounds more like a vacation than a job."

"And? Would that be a bad thing?"

I'm trying to find the catch , because there must be one. Let's see. You don't eat puppies or anything, do you?"

"I’ve very little interest in the larvae of any species, and less than none in devouring them. I'd prefer to avoid the nasty little things entirely."

"Just checking."

"Buffy!"  The barista was yelling my name.

 Lucifer went up to the counter and returned with a mochaccino, which he offered to me.  He'd given my name when ordering the drink.

"Hey, you should use your own name, you know. Once you get over the whole 'scary devil' thing, I think 'Lucifer' sounds cute.”

He shook his head, skeptical. "'Lucifer' is a general conversation stopper and tends to alarm the natives. When I want people to remember me, I often go by 'The Immortal.'"

"Okay, I get there might be some baggage with 'Lucifer', yeah. But I can't call you something with a 'the' in it. That's… not gonna work. What should I call you, then, since we're friends? Furry? Well, maybe not that. Um, Morty?"

"Does this look like a 'Morty?'" He waved a hand across his body, Vanna White-style, as if presenting a prize, but didn't wait for me to answer. "For centuries, 'my Lord' was fine. But that’s no longer de rigueur, is it?"

“Out of style, too. And I am not gonna call you that, sorry. There are no Lords of California.  Just use your name. Nobody's gonna have an issue. It's the twenty-first century. Every stage name, every band name, every song title is either ironic or meta. I mean, Fifty Cent is worth way more, and everybody knows it. Snoop Dogg? Not actually a dog. Scary Spice? Not scary. I bet you could tell them exactly who you are, and they'll brush it off and assume you're joking."

"It's been a long time since I attempted that, and there are still towns in Spain that have memorials to the resulting autos de fe, not to mention the witch trials. So you'll understand my reluctance."

"Just try it."

****

To give her the skinny, we met up with Dawn at a diner that had fantastic milkshakes — strawberry for her, vanilla caramel for me, coffee with Oreo for Lucifer.

"This is my sister, Dawn. Dawn, this is Lucifer."

He held out a hand formally. "It's lovely to meet you! Pleased to make your acquaintance. Lucifer. Morningstar." There was that little practiced pause. If he hadn't been using the name, when had he practiced it?

"Lucifer! That's... cute!" She gave me a pointed look. "Cute, Buffy."

"I'm the Devil," he said, beaming.

"Sure, you are." She giggled and then stopped.  "Wait, are you really?"

"I truly am."

Dawn looked sideways at Lucifer and furrowed her brows, evaluating.  Her grin faded to a glare. Slowly and silently, she rolled her straw wrapper into a ball, and threw the balled-up straw wrapper at me. It bounced off of my jacket and onto the floor, where we all ignored it. The glaring continued.

"Buffy, why didn't you tell me? Didn't you think I'd want to know?" She crossed her arms and frowned at him. He gave her another ingratiating smile. He really was charming.

I sighed. "Oh crappety. She does believe you."

"That she does." That smug look again. "Your sister is quite perceptive."

Dawn rolled her eyes and pouted. “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here.” Her voice was an affronted growl that threatened to break into a sob. Fricking melodramatic teenagers. 

Refusing to look at me, Dawn began stacking the little rectangular jam portions into a tower on the table: marmalade, strawberry, grape, mixed berry, repeat, crowning the whole shebang with an alternating stack of sugar and Equal packets, white and blue.

"Buffy, what's really happening here? What else aren't you telling me?" She balanced a fifth sugar packet on her tower.

"Nothing except what I told you. We're going on a demon-hunting trip. Rent, for a nicer place than our current hovel-sweet-home, will be covered.  That's pretty much it. I don’t want things to be complicated for you."

Lucifer was fishing bits of cookie out of his milkshake with a very long spoon. He seemed to be enjoying it a lot. "Your sister worked very hard for a very long time. She could use some time away." 

"No kidding. She hasn't even left LA County in the past six months." She regarded Lucifer with suspicion. "So, do you have an evil plan? What does she owe you?"

"Owe me? I fear it's I who owe her. She's under no obligation at all." He inclined his head toward Dawn. "My, you two have a strong family resemblance. Your parents must be proud."

"Mom's dead," I said. "Dad's not really in the picture."

"Ah. Absent parents. I know what that's like. They only make themselves known when it's time to lay down the law or extract retribution."

"Our dad never laid down a single law that I’m aware of. He’s also never around and he never calls."

"Well, I can relate to that as well."

I was getting antsy. As I understood it, we were supposed to do something to close the deal. I took a sip of milkshake, hoping to calm the butterflies in my stomach. "So are we all good? Dawn?"

She was still scowling. "I'm not feeling so great about this. I mean, you want to work with, uh, can I call you Satan?"

"You may, but I prefer Lucifer."

"You want to work with Lucifer and it scares me. Giles' books didn’t have much to say about him, but the stories I’ve heard are less 'fluffy bunny sugar daddy' and more 'pitchfork, brimstone, smite, smite, smite.'" She banged a fist on the table for emphasis. Her tower fell sideways, sending jam and sugar packets halfway across the table. She swept them up into an unruly pile. "I'm not gonna fight about it because you've already decided. I could try to talk you out of it, but we know how well that works."

A hint of annoyance had flickered across Lucifer's face at the "smite, smite, smite," but he quickly replaced it with a friendly deal-closing grin, and shook hands with me. His fingernails were in much better shape than mine. "We have a deal then?"

He offered a hand to Dawn, who allowed a limp-wristed wiggle of a handshake that seemed to satisfy him.

"So, it's settled.  The movers will come for your things as soon as a suitable apartment is located."

Dawn snorted. "Yeah, okay. Try to find one that's closer to the Gap. I'm sick of walking three miles each way." She got up and shouldered her purse. "I'm meeting my boyfriend at the movies soon. Thanks for the milkshake, Satan."

Lucifer watched her walk away. "That went well." He could have been dead serious or completely sarcastic, but I wasn't sure which.  "And you were wrong, Buffy."

Dawn, not yet out of earshot, turned around. She rubbed her hands together and grinned like a cartoon villain. "Wrong about what? What was she wrong about? I need to know! "

 "She said that if I told you I was the Devil, you wouldn't believe me, but you recognized the truth when you heard it." He seemed awfully pleased with himself.

Dawn rolled her eyes so far back the blue parts almost disappeared. It’s amazing that they don't stick that way. "I've been Buffy’s sister my whole life, and I've seen some stuff."

I shrugged. "Maybe the Slayer’s sister isn't the best person to test it out on."

"Yeah. It takes way more than a milkshake with the Devil to freak me out."

"Like the time you summoned a musical demon who made everyone sing and wanted to marry you? That freaked you out."

Lucifer leaned back in his chair and balanced his nearly empty glass on his knee. "Oh? Now that's a story I'd like to hear. Do tell! "

“That wasn’t me! It was Xander’s fault! Anyhow, that’s not a story for today.” Dawn aimed herself toward the exit.  “Later, Satan!" 

 



Chapter Text

Lucifer and I met up to celebrate our new venture at a dive downtown. It was a smallish place with a decent top-shelf selection (as he pointed out), a jukebox full of underground rock and old punk, and a bunch of red vinyl banquettes positioned past the bar in the darker end of the room. We claimed the second-to-last booth in the back — the one not right opposite the bathrooms.

"What'll you have?" Lucifer yelled over "Burning Down the House" blaring from the jukebox.

"Surprise me."

He slipped a bill to the guy behind the bar, a skinny, surly blonde guy with a pierced nose and an impressive amount of expensive-looking ink down his wiry arms. When Lucifer walked away carrying drinks, I saw the bartender check out his ass, which was, admittedly, worth checking out. He brought rum and Diet Pepsi for me, and a glass of something amber and neat for him. Somebody turned the music down.

I didn't quite get this guy. He made every serious question into a joke or double entendre, flirted indiscriminately and with great success, and seemed to view Earth as a playground. As a rich, powerful, good-looking, well-dressed white guy with a British accent, he practically oozed privilege. Lucifer WAS the Man. People like him often have certain expectations of people like me. I didn't plan on encouraging them. 

I crossed my arms. "So. You're not really British."

He leaned forward conspiratorially. "I'm obviously not from California, am I? I've found this style of speech to be quite effective here. And you think it's sexy, don't you? You can admit it."

"I hadn't thought about it," I lied, "but I get your point. You have to be from somewhere, don't you? Um. So, what do you like to do? Any hobbies?"

He picked up his glass and drained it all at once, setting it back on the table empty. "Earth offers so many pleasures. Sex, of course. Humans are so willing. And appreciative." His eyes swept over me, head to foot, his head tilting as he looked down the length of my body, his gaze caressing my skin.

His brows knit thoughtfully. "Music is a hobby, I suppose. There's no decent music in Hell. I play piano here on Earth when I get the chance."

"I'd love to hear you play sometime."

"Perhaps. Angelic choir, it's not."

"Fine with me. Been there, heard that, etcetera, etcetera."  

"Oh?  Have you now?

Before we started THAT conversation, I said, "Your brother Amena-whatever is an interesting guy. Do you have other siblings?"

Lucifer rolled his eyes. "I have so many brothers and sisters it's impossible to keep count. Not than any of them would deign to contact me. So tell me, do you have siblings other than Dawn?" 

"No, she's my only family. She means the world to me." 

"It's clear that she does. You obviously value her opinion and look out for her interests. She's fortunate to have such a devoted guardian." 

"Uh, thanks?"  

"And have you always lived in California?"

He was making me squirmy. I had planned to be the one asking things. 

"Um. Yep. Born in LA, parents split, went to high school in Sunnydale, and you saw how that ended. Now I'm back here again." 

"I enjoy Los Angeles a great deal."

"Why do you like it so much?"

"Until recently, the city was right outside the gates and thus very convenient to Hell. It's full of humans pursuing their desires, striving and reaching. Sometimes they are impossible, or highly improbable, yet people continue to seek and to yearn. I find it so beautiful and so fascinating."

"Yeah, they come here hoping to get rich and famous. Seems pretty shallow to me."

"It's not necessarily shallow to desire recognition. One might even say it's universal. And who doesn't want to be rich? It's much preferable to the alternative."

"Point." 

"Point, indeed." He grinned, his teeth glinting in the low light. "So, what do you know of the devil? Were you raised in any particular religion? Which untruths about celestials, and, most importantly, about me, must I disabuse you of?"

"Huh? You never abused me." He appeared to think that was funny. He looked down and shook his head, smiled, and gestured for me to continue.   "… and I've never been religious. I barely know anything about you, which, now that you mention it, does seem kinda weird. Most of my knowledge of Hell comes from my Watcher, who tends to be pretty well-informed about stuff."

He raised his eyebrows. " Watcher , eh?" 

"His name is Giles. The guy who taught me how to slay. They go to school for it, study all kinds of lore on demons and vamps and good and evil, and keep the slayers on track. The Watcher organization itself pretty much sucked, but Giles is a good guy. The best, really." 

"I see," he said, frowning. "Interesting." He stared into his empty glass, as if willing it to be full again. "Care for another drink?" 

"No thanks, I'm still drinking this one."

"Okay. Sure, you are. So let me ask you another question: What do you desire, more than anything? "

His mouth quirked into a half-grin and his eyes locked onto mine, sending a pulse of sensation through me that I hadn't felt in years: a low, insistent, pleasurable thrum that said, don't hold back; you're safe. Let go. Tell me.

The room spun. There was a roaring sound in my ears and I was smacked with a wave of the worst nausea I'd ever experienced, as if my guts were macrameing themselves into plant hangers or maybe decorative wall hangings that would soon be forcefully ejected from my face. I had no choice but to flee.

I wove through the black dots that had erupted in my field of vision to make my way to the ladies room, where I heaved into the toilet again and again without even bothering to shut the stall door. When I was finished, I flushed, locked myself in the stall, and sat there shivering while the clammy sweat dried from the small of my back, my forehead, even my eyelids. I hoped I hadn't stained my clothes. 

I was there for a while, waiting to stop shaking, my vision unblurring enough to read the graffiti on the walls: "Here I sit, broken-hearted…", "Drink blood not cum", "For a good time call 666-6666", and "FL + RW TLA" scrawled inside a heart pierced with an arrow. 

When I finally emerged, the empty dispenser on the wall had a few paper towels stacked on top that were only a little grubby, so I used most of them trying to clean up, wiping off my smeared eye makeup and scrubbing the back of my neck with cold water, and cleaning a few splatters on the hem of my shirt. While rinsing my mouth at the cracked and leaky sink, I spit and cursed at the same time. My purse was still under my chair back at the banquette. 

I dashed over to where Lucifer was sitting, grabbed my purse, blurted "excuse me" before he could say anything, and rushed back to the bathroom to brush my teeth, twice, clear my head, and let my shirt dry.  At the sink again, I reapplied lipstick, took a bunch of deep breaths, and stared at myself in the mirror until my heart stopped racing. My face was pale and my eyes a little pink, but I was fairly presentable. 

When I finally returned to the table, I plunked into my seat and took a big swallow of rum and Diet Pepsi, which went right to my head. "What do I desire? I desire you to stop doing that ."

He frowned as if I was harshing his mellow. "Are you angry with me?"

"I'm not angry, but I'm a little freaked. Whatever you just did… it literally made me sick."

"How strange. That was not my intention at all. But you needn't freak. I'm deeply sorry if I caused you any distress. Most humans don't mind it."

"Yeah. Well. Afraid  I'm not most humans."

"Evidently."

"I'm a slayer. I don't have desires, I have obligations . Like, cosmically."

"Any obligation you may or may not have isn't cosmic, it's terrestrial. Trust me, I would know."

"I suppose you would. But wanting things has never been an option for me."

"Nonsense. Every human desires something."

I took another deep breath, letting it out slowly while looking down at my hands. He drained his drink, and I idly swirled the melting ice cubes in mine. His eyes flicked down to the nearly empty glasses, flicked back up, and asked wordlessly if I'd like another. I shook my head 'no'.

I couldn't look away from him. His angular, bristle-shadowed face reminded me of an expertly done charcoal sketch, all dark lines and pale planes, subtly different from every angle, changing with each shift of the light. A tentative smile played at the corners of his mouth. I had, I admit it, intrigue, fascination, desire for this strange being. 

Without intending to, I inhaled sharply, and blurted, "Could I kiss you?" 

Oh, shit. Where had that come from?

He smiled, his eyebrows arched in amusement. "And there we have it."

It was dark in the booth second-furthest from the door, and the backs of my legs below my skirt were sticking to the red vinyl seat. When I got up, it sounded like a bandaid being pulled off in the next room. I slid into his side of the booth, and his arm wrapped around my waist, the motion so natural it seemed unconscious.

His clothes and hair held a whiff of cigarette smoke, which is usually not my thing, but like the eyeliner, this worked for him. He was a foot taller than me, and I felt small and exposed in my short, sleeveless dress. He wrapped his hand around my upper arm, warming my AC-chilled skin, and pulled me toward him.

His mouth touched mine, and he was gentle and deft and insistent, parting my lips with his tongue. Warm breath against my neck, taste of whiskey and tobacco and honey. Falling into a slick, caressing embrace that promised more. Rough prickle of whiskers scraping a heated wake across my cheek, a lingering ghost of his touch. My hand on the back of his neck, pulling him closer. His hair, held in place by something weightless and soft like downy silk.

I made a mental note to ask about the hair later, because right then I couldn't speak. I wanted to cry, I wanted to expand into every dimension, I wanted to consume him. I wanted him to consume me. There was only one way it could go. Or anything might happen. We'd travel across worlds. I would fall apart alone. My head spun.

It was probably a spell, it was definitely a spell, or the devil's equivalent of one. He leaned away and smiled. Appreciative, but impersonal.

"Lovely," he said.

"Uh huh. What WAS that?"

"You asked for a kiss."

"Uh huh," I said again. Me, always with the clever comebacks. "That wasn't a kiss, it was a ticket to the sex dimension. Like, we just touched with body parts I didn't know I had."

His eyes smiled when his mouth didn't. "I often have that effect on people."

" On purpose? Because, I could see that getting inconvenient. I mean, maybe you want to brush your teeth, or buy socks, or— or— or— how do you make people stop? "

"You are pleased, hm? Anyone else would have insisted that I continue."

"And would you? Continue, I mean."

"Of course, darling."

I didn't care if it was a spell, I'd go with it.

Or not.

***

Insert a "record scratch" sound here, please.

***

When you consider the evolution of creatures on Earth, humans are not that far removed from lizards, whose lives are ruled by reflexes and smells. Especially smells. 

It only took a second or two with my face against his hair, breathing that scent, even masked with cigarettes and car exhaust and whiskey, to bring back a faint echo of a memory, but this one was a doozy: Being dragged out of Heaven.

I fought the urge to curl myself into a fetal position, remembering: the wrenching loss of that celestial bliss and comfort, falling through black murk surrounded by the voices of screeching demons and air that burned like acid, landing in a place of blistering indifference, violence, and pain. It's the closest feeling you can get to having your internal organs ripped out, except that when it's over, they are still there. More or less.

Unlike him, I had landed on Earth.

His irresistible charm was a layer of sweet froth on top of something bitter and dark. The loss still felt like an open wound to me; I couldn't imagine how it was for him.

Oh, pal, I am so, so sorry. I'm almost positive I didn't say it out loud.

Instead, I said, "Hey. Maybe we should talk about ground rules here?"

"Ground rules?"

"Yeah. Like, don't call me darling ."

"Very well. Slayer , then?"

"Don't make me into my job. Just say Buffy. Please. I'm nothing but me."

Lucifer paused and furrowed his brow like someone trying to solve a puzzle. "Buffy it is. Now, where were we?"

He leaned in for another kiss, but I backed away.

"How about you? Do you have any rules for me?"

"Rules?" He rubbed his forehead. "No, not really. Am I missing something here?"

"So what's the catch?" My voice was all squeaky.  "Because there's always a catch, some kind of payback, like forfeiting your soul, or sacrificing your puppy, or a cabbage soup diet, something…"

"There's no catch. I've already told you my views on puppies. When the time comes for me to call in favors, I'll ask. But I'd never ask for anything you're not able to give. You have my word."

I held up my little finger. "Pinky-swear?"

He blinked, peered at me for a second, then hooked his little finger around mine. "Pinky-swear." The words rose into a question that I wasn't going to answer. I wasn't ready to explain the mixed signals.

"Okay, let's finish working out the plan."

***

The plan: we would take local practice runs based on tips we'd collect in LA. After working out a tactical routine, we would start traveling further afield, first in the States, then in other countries. We agreed that we'd drop any specific agenda if something urgent came up elsewhere. 

We drank to our new venture. He was loud and cheerful, getting handsy again, touching my side, my shoulder, easing himself closer to me than necessary. I didn't mind, exactly, but before this flirtation went any further, we needed to talk. Really talk.

"... so I told Will he shouldn't bequeath his best bed to his wife, because, by all rights, that ought to go to his girlfriend. I knew very well that the second-best bed was perfectly fine , because--"

"Lucifer?"

He finished the last of his umpteenth drink. The guy sure could put it away. "Hm?"

"Could we go someplace quieter?"

***

Back at his hotel, there were fresh flowers on the coffee table and a pitcher of water and glasses on the shelf over the fireplace. I poured water, drank it, flopped onto the couch, and kicked off my shoes while Lucifer hung up his jacket.

"I'm glad to see you've made yourself at home."

He sat down beside me. Heat radiated from his body, warming my side. I wanted to relax against him, to be inside that circle of warmth, but I couldn't let myself do it. Instead, I chewed my lip and asked what I was sure was an impertinent question.

"So. Tell me about Hell. What do you do there?"

"I'm primarily in a supervisory capacity. I rarely deliver punishment myself — there are far too many sinners for me to personally attend to them all. But if a person was truly awful, I might lend a hand with the proceedings.

"People go to hell when they believe they deserve it. Most punishment is self-inflicted. Occasionally, my staff get the opportunity for creativity, but for the most part, dead mortals relive the things they feel the worst about, over and over, for eternity. It's self-perpetuating."

My mind was blown. I had thought Hell was like a torture dungeon, or like the caves that demons crawl out of, but he made it sound more like an eternal DMV.

"You know, my ex was in Hell twice, but he came back."

"Is that so? Hell is usually a soul's last stop. It's rare to get a round-trip ticket, even rarer to punch that ticket more than once. A frequent faller, eh?"

"Yeah."

Lucifer tilted his head like a curious bird. His eyes narrowed. "Is this actually what you wanted to talk about?"

I squirmed. "Um, sorta? I'm having major feelings here, and they're kind of about me, and kind of about you."

"I told you I have an effect on people."

"No, not those kinds of feelings."

" No? "

Sweat ran down my back again, sticking my dress to my skin. I hoped he didn't notice.

"I have to tell you a thing, and I'm not sure how to say it, so I'm just going to say it."

"Please, go on. You're giving it quite the build-up."

"A few years ago, I died. I was dead for months."

"Yes. I thought so. Heaven does leave a… residue ."

"When my friends brought me back, it was the worst, most horrific thing I'd ever experienced. I thought Earth was Hell."

His mouth tightened to a line. "Not an uncommon mistake. If you'd ever been to Hell, you'd know the difference immediately. On Earth, there's hope."

He got up and fetched a decanter of liquor from the side table, poured a hefty amount from it into the tumbler beside it, tossed it back, and gave himself a refill. He sat back down in the overstuffed chair perpendicular to the couch, and looked past me to the line of buildings outside, the points of mountains jagged behind them.

Sitting alone on the couch, I felt like an insignificant bug. Like nothing.

" Hope . Yeah. I wouldn't dream of comparing my experience to yours, but--"

"Don't ask me to speak of it. Don't ." When he looked back at me, holding up a raised index finger like a threat, his eyes were red and glowing, his face contorted in fury.

The temperature in the room seemed to drop thirty degrees and rise thirty degrees at the same time. Those red eyes held limitless rage. It emanated from him in waves that broke in jagged vibrations against my skin, like insanely loud music. I wasn't exactly afraid, but my vision went dim from the angry chaos swirling in the air.

"Sorry." I chose words carefully. "You don't have to say anything. I don't want to cause you more pain either."

He finished his second drink and then crushed the glass he was holding. I don't think he meant to do it; it just shattered in his hand. He seemed a little miffed about the razory shards littering the rug by his feet, but he wasn't bleeding or anything.  Annoyed, he selected a fresh tumbler from a collection of glassware arranged on the mantel over the fireplace.

"Look," he said, scowling. "You're mortal. Relax in the knowledge that you won't have eons to contemplate your losses. You'll heal, and you'll die. In that order, if things go well for you."

His eyes had returned to their usual and much less scary dark brown, but there were shadows under them that I hadn't noticed before. 

"My, that's cheery."

"That's the truth. Care for a drink?" 

"Yeah. Okay." He got a second glass from the mantel, poured a couple of fingers of liquor into it, and gave it to me.

Drinking the fiery whiskey thawed something inside me, releasing a flood of memories I'd never shared with anyone except Spike, who was dead. Whose self-immolation had closed the gate of Hell.

Fuck. I missed him so much.

"Listen," I said. "You need to hear this: When I came back, I woke up in a coffin. I had to dig myself out of my own grave. It took weeks to get the dirt and splinters out from under my nails. 

"After I crawled out of the ground all I could hear were screams and shattering glass. Streets were littered with body parts and empty cars and trash fires. A gang of roving demons had taken over Sunnydale, and they were looting houses and stores and gang-raping people. They stank of rotting meat. My friends had been trying to fend them off with nothing but broomsticks and garbage can lids.

"I'd just been resurrected, I could barely see, every part of me hurt like being squeezed in a vise, and the first thing I had to do after I stopped being dead was fight and slay like a dozen demons to keep everyone I loved from being killed then and there. I was still wearing the clothes I was buried in. Good times."

Lucifer rubbed his temples, wincing. He shook his head like he was trying to get rid of a stuck thought.

"Earth shouldn't be like that."

"I know."

He sat right beside me on the couch and took my hand in both of his. We didn't look at each other. His body pressed against mine with each breath, until, without thinking, we were inhaling and exhaling together. 

Trying hard not to ugly cry, I let my head drop onto his shoulder. He tensed in response, then relaxed. I put my arm around his waist, and he let me. We were both still.

"Let's do something about it, shall we?" he said.

"Okay."

He emptied the decanter into his replacement tumbler and ordered more from room service. I helped him drink it.

Whiskey burns going down, but leaves a sweet aftertaste.

Chapter Text

It was probably two in the morning and I was not sober. 

We'd wordlessly agreed not to talk about anything important, so I was giving Lucifer a rundown of the different ice cream places I knew about in this part of town: who had the nicest counter help, which ones would give you samples, how big the servings were, and what were the best flavors.

"I disagree. Cookie dough ice cream is NOT gross at all," I said.

"Come on, Buffy, be reasonable! Ice cream is already cold, so it oughtn't include random blobs of raw material. That's simply an abomination. Now, when I was last on Earth, back in the seventies, the worst ice cream they had was bubblegum. Long after you had finished the ice cream, you would still be chewing. It was both unpleasant and unnatural."

"Unnatural, maybe. But also? Genius. It's like the ice cream isn't really gone. You can have your ice cream, and chew it, too."

"Wrong. You can have ice cream, or you can have bubble gum, but why mix inherently incompatible things?"

"Because it's interesting?" I took a long gulp from the glass of water he'd poured me half an hour earlier.  "Bubblegum notwithstanding, I continue to assert that chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream is an unparalleled innovation.  It deserves to be praised."

The door to the suite burst open and somebody stomped in, letting the door slam loudly.

It was Lucifer's demon friend -- I could tell by the faint smell of sulfur and roses. She turned out to be a dark-skinned, smoking hot, human-female-appearing being, about my size. She was dressed in skin-baring, form-fitting black leather, which I admired, but imagined could be a little bit binding. She moved with authority, her shoulders back, taking up space, and sat down on the chair opposite the couch, her knees wide, one foot up on the coffee table, the other flat on the floor. She noticed that our whisky wasn't completely gone, smiled, and drained the rest, setting the bottle back down, empty, with a thunk .

Clearly, this demon gave no fucks about being ladylike.

She stared daggers at me, and then glared at Lucifer. "Who's this?"

"This is Buffy. She's an exceptional human of a sort currently known as a Slayer , which means that it's her job to keep Hell-spawn in line." His voice held both a laugh and a threat.  "She's going to help us send our unauthorized demons home."

"Is that so?" The demon narrowed her eyes at me and scowled.

"Yes, Maze, it's so. " He stood and formally gestured at me, and then at the demon. "Buffy, meet Mazikeen of the Lilim. Mazikeen, meet Miss Buffy Summers, Slayer."

"Hi." Mazikeen didn't get up, didn't even meet my eyes,  but wrinkled her brows and frowned, tilting her head and sniffing deeply. "Why do you smell weird?"

"Uh. Nice to meet you, too." Although she was one of the more civilized demons I'd met, she was clearly far from tame. I was tipsy and nervous, and tried very hard to make nice. "So, I saw your stuff around, and figured you'd turn up at some point. And those are some pretty cool knives!"

I indicated the weapons she had strapped at her waist, which had gorgeous filigree handles and vicious-looking curved blades that glistened darkly, even in the bland lighting of the hotel room.

"Thanks. These are Hell-forged." Without warning, she flung one at me. It traced glinting circles in the air as it whirled toward my face.

With one hand, I caught the blade by its filigree hilt. It was an interesting design. The end of the hilt had a hole in it, so you could start the knife spinning on your finger and build up momentum before releasing. I gave it a trial spin, and hurled it past the demon's ear, allowing a couple of inches of clearance so she knew that I wasn't aiming for her right now, but I definitely could. It hit the wall behind her with a really satisfying thwack , and stuck there.

She and Lucifer exchanged a surprised look. I ignored it. I'm used to being underestimated.

"That's a nice piece," I said.  "What else ya got? I'd love to check out your collection."

"You would?" Her dark eyes widened, and she seemed to be suppressing a grin. "Give me a sec. I'm about to show you the best knife collection on Earth."

"Cool. I'm a tremendous fan of sharp weapons."

She was not kidding.

The first thing she brought out was a urumi , which is like a cross between a sword and a whip, with a sharp flexible blade that unfurls when you brandish it. She snapped it open and whirled it around the room in a big arc, slicing a tidy cut in the canvas of one of the silkscreened prints on the wall. "You keep it wrapped around your waist when you're not using it," she said.

I blinked. "Holy crap. Thats… neat!"

"I've got way more." From the closet, she hauled a dark wooden box the size of a steamer chest, opened the lid, and produced a broad dagger with a blade that curved almost double on itself, like the letter "j", with a smooth raised ridge running down the center. The jeweled handle was rough and grayish, and I guessed it was made of rhino horn. "This is a jambiya ." She pantomimed jabbing the tip into something, then twisting the blade around its curved axis to drive it deeply into the target.

I blinked again, impressed. "Hot damn."

"Hold on, I'm not done." After stowing the jambiya , she took from the box a long sword with an undulating blade terminating in a cruelly sharp point. Its shape reminded me of patterns in sand on the beach, tidy and even. The metal was brightly iridescent, with multicolored ripples following the contours of the metal. It was a truly spectacular thing.

"This is a kris . It's made from a meteorite." She whipped it back and forth through the air a couple of times, thrusting and parrying. I badly wanted to hold it.

"Wow. That's the most beautiful sword I've ever seen."

"Yep. It's pretty."

She replaced the kris in the box, closed the lid, and dragged it back to the closet. I heard some shuffling and metallic banging, then she returned, brandishing a truly spectacular halberd. The pointed dagger-blade at the top glittered with menace, and the axe-head was elaborately scalloped on the back side, engraved with runes across the flat, and visibly, gleamingly sharpened on the business edge. She swept the long handle back and forth, making an audible whoosh as the metal sliced through the air.

"Whoa, chica!" I wanted to hug her. "Your collection is the bee's knees! Have you trained with all of them?"

"Wanna see?"

"Of course I do!"

She treated me to a display of her skills. With amazing finesse, she used the urumi to open a pack of cigarettes on the other side of the room. I don't smoke, but I appreciated the expertise nonetheless. She whipped the jambiya around in an exercise that demonstrated that she could plant that blade and rotate it along its curve into her chosen target with tremendous accuracy and force.

This demon could kick serious ass.

"Wow, Mazikeen, you are completely terrifying! In a good way. Maybe we could get together and spar sometime?" I hadn't had a decent sparring partner since Giles had left the country, and even when he was here, sparring with me had kind of stressed him out. I always had to hold back so I didn't hurt him.

She beamed. "Sure. Call me whenever. Wanna see my torture implements? "

"Uh, maybe another time?"

She rolled her eyes. This was obviously a disappointment. "Whatever."

From the couch, Lucifer grinned.  "I'm so tickled that the two of you are hitting it off!"

Mazikeen pointed at me with her thumb. Her expression was flat. "Okay, she doesn't suck."

***

I tiptoed back into our apartment around four in the morning. Dawn was asleep, and I was not seeing quite straight. Every time I do the liquor thing, I tell myself never again . But then I do it again. It must be the company.

I laid awake in bed for awhile, my brain too busy to let me sleep, thinking about everything that had gone down that night. So: Heaven thing: off limits. I could live with that. Demon friend: cool. I liked her. She reminded me of Faith but without the daddy issues. Lucifer brought plenty of those to make up for it, though. Having Old Testament God as a dad seemed like a pretty raw deal. If you go by the book, that God is canonically vengeful and petty -- he punished humans with floods that destroyed civilizations and earthquakes that leveled cities to the ground, and then demanded that they demonstrate love and devotion, or else he'd punish them again. Completely crazy-making.

There had been weirdness. I had tried to share something personal, touched a nerve, and he had blown me off and gotten all defensive, but then something had happened. An opening. I could feel around the edges of my awareness that Lucifer was immensely powerful -- the fire in his eyes that could snuff out vampires with a glance being the biggest tipoff --  but he was holding back. He cared what I thought, and was trying not to scare me away.

Honestly, my social network was pretty shallow, my prospects limited.  Nobody I knew in LA got me in any kind of way. They all thought I was some underemployed college dropout… well, okay, I WAS an underemployed college dropout. But I had dropped out for serious and legitimately apocalyptic reasons that would never make sense to your average dude at the bar, or even your average girlfriend in book club.

Lucifer and Maze knew who I was, knew where I'd been, what I'd done. I liked them, and they appeared to like me. So this was where I wanted to be: in league with the Devil.

****

Like most of Sunnydale, Willy, the owner of the place we used to jokingly call "Ye Olde Demon Bar," had high-tailed it to LA and opened a new place called Willy's Hideout. This, of course, would be our best and most obvious source of intel on where to find significant populations of creepy-crawlies.

Willy's Hideout was a sticky-floored dive that smelled of stale beer and cat pee. We got there early on a Thursday afternoon, before things got too busy, to have a word with the proprietor, who was wiping down the bar with a rag that smelled faintly of bleach and strongly of mildew. Lucifer made a face at the stink, and turned away from Willy, surveying the customers seated in the booths opposite the bar, and milling around the back of the room near the pool table. He ambled toward the juke box and started flipping through the selections. In a fancy Italian suit with a red satin pocket square, he was way too well-dressed for this crowd.

It was time to get re-acquainted with an old …um, acquaintance.  "Hey, Willy. How've ya been? Nice place you got here."

Willy looked just like I remembered: short, pale-skinned, dark-haired, and easy to hit. He recognized me immediately.

"Buffy. Oh, shit. Let's not make a scene here."

"I have no intention of making a scene. Why would I?  Oh, maybe you can tell me something. Since little old Sunnydale bit the dust, where are all the vampires hanging?"

"Vampires? I don't know what you're talking about." This was a transparent and pathetic lie, but as long as I'd known him, he'd always pretended that he didn't know what I wanted. It was annoying.

"Don't play games with me. Of course you know."

Lucifer had been pacing around the room, taking stock of the clientele, reading the notes and announcements tacked on a bulletin board by the door ("Need help moving? Man and van, cheap" and "Missing someone? Call Heidi -- she can help you" and "Thirsty for a good time? Call Alice", each handbill with its ragged gappy fringe of detachable phone numbers). To my surprise, he had also been listening to me talking to Willy.

Slouching casually, with hands in his pockets, the Devil turned back to face the bar and tilted his head like he was thinking about something. His eyes flashed red. A ginger-haired woman at the bar took a sip of her Long Island iced tea, gasped, and evaporated into dust, much to the disappointment and shock of her date, a thick-necked guy with a squarish head and a double-breasted power suit.  

"Does that help jog your memory?" Lucifer smiled at Willy with menacing sincerity.  "A double of the top-shelf rotgut, please."

Willy looked from Lucifer to the seat where the vampire had been sitting. "Hey! He's slaying my customers!"

"Sorry about that," I said, in a tone that implied that we weren't sorry at all.

Willy offered an abject apology to the shocked square-headed guy and poured him another shot of Jager. He drank it quickly and then vamoosed without settling his tab.

 "Hey, you need to pay for that!" Willy mumbled hopelessly. He didn't make a move to pursue. 

Willy's eyes swept over Lucifer's expensive haircut, the tailored shirt, the manicure, the cuff links. He reached for a bottle of Courvoisier, used a rag to polish grime off of the pouring spout, and filled a glass with a hefty amount of liquor, which he pushed across the bar. Lucifer eyed the glass but did not pick it up.

"Well?" I was getting impatient. "It would be a shame to lose any more customers tonight."

"Okay, fine," Willy grumped. "There's a new colony forming, like a series of nests, in a canyon in a national park outside San Diego. They're getting ready for a move east, possibly to establish another nest in Vegas."

"How many?" I asked.

"I'd say forty or fifty. Hard to know how much they've been recruiting. I hear they're planning on making a move within the next couple of weeks, though. Since the Slayer has been out of the picture, they're feeling pretty bold."

"Do you have a more specific location than 'a canyon'?"

"I might."

I was about to threaten more violence to Willy's person when Lucifer interrupted.

"So, Willy," he said, fixing the little dweeb with a crazily intense stare, "what do you really want?"

Willy looked from side to side like he was afraid of being overheard.

"Um, I want to get rid of this curse," he muttered.

Lucifer leaned toward Willy and his eyes widened. "A curse? Oh, interesting!" His voice was loud enough to carry across the entire room and probably some distance outside, too.  "Tell me more about this curse, hmm?"

Willy cringed and hunched low behind the bar. "Demons . They follow me around. I'm like a homing beacon. Do you think I like being the 'Demon Bar Guy'? I really don't."

"If you don't like demon bars, why do you keep opening them?" I asked.

"They're going to hang around me no matter what I do, so I might as well take their money. And aside from Caritas, there's not a lot of competition for their business, so I do pretty good financially."

More demon hangouts in LA? This was news to me. "Wait a minute. The place is called Carrot Top ? Not a fan, but I didn't realize that guy was a demon. Not especially surprised, though. "

"No, Caritas. It's kinda ritzy and upscale. They have karaoke."

"Karaoke. How very upscale," said Lucifer drily. He picked up his glass, swirled the liquid around, held it up to the light, and put it back down again.

"So who cursed you?" I asked.

"A vengeance demon. I broke up with his cousin, who was attacked by vampires right after I kicked him out of my apartment."

Lucifer grinned. "Ah, are there still working vengeance demons? Fantastic! Frankly, I'm pleased that at least some of my devotees are making themselves useful on Earth. They can be so wonderfully clever."

I was getting impatient. "So, Willy, could you help us out?  Where is this vampire colony hiding out? Can you recall the name of the place?"

"I'm not sure I remember."

Lucifer sighed elaborately, and laid a C-note on the bar. "Would this jog your memory?"

"Yeah, it might."

***

Lucifer took the napkin with the map drawn on it and tucked it into his jacket pocket. He squinted across the room as if he was trying to read small print on the opposite wall, and then gave a start, like he'd been bee-stung.

"Salvador? Is that you?"

I was sitting on the barstool on Lucifer's left. On his right, an older guy approached: attractive, with long, wavy salt-and-pepper hair, bright blue eyes, light-brown skin. He smiled warmly, and they shared a one-armed, awkward hug.

"Dev, good to see you! I thought you had gone."

"I thought I was going, but I was delayed."

"Delayed. I see." The guy eyed me suspiciously. "Who's your friend?"

"Sal, this is Buffy. Buffy, this is my good friend Salvador."

"Pleased to meet you," I said. His hand, when I shook it, was cold and sweaty.

I was a little confused. Dev ? Reasonable enough nickname, I suppose. Why did this guy seem so unthrilled to meet me?

Lucifer leaned toward Sal. "What are you doing here?" he whisper-shouted.

"What am I doing? I'm a patron, like everyone else."

I realized this would be a really good time to look distracted. I checked for some gum in my purse, counted the keys on my keyring. I confirmed that my wallet was still there, and still empty except for four dollars, my library card,  and a debit card for my nearly empty bank account. I fished out a mirror, checked my lipstick, and reapplied it. I was unsurprised by the fact that the room looked a lot emptier in the mirror than it did in front of me. The vamps were getting really bold.

Lucifer's voice was louder. "But in this place? Do you know what kind of place this is?"

Sal glared. "Do you know how ridiculous that question sounds, especially coming from you ?"

"Yes, well, it's not the sort of place I've known you to enjoy in the past. Unless… your interests have … evolved?"

"You might say that." Sal's eyes darted away, toward a guy at the bar with perfect hair, broad-shouldered, wearing tight jeans and a black leather jacket. The guy seemed to enjoy being checked out. I couldn't see him in my mirror.

"Sal, please don't tell me you are consorting with the clientele here."

"Why not?" Sal's face grew serious, with his brows drawing downward and his mouth tightening. There was something defiant and childlike in the way he lifted his chin, as if this was only one in a series of conversations where Lucifer was saying something that Sal didn't like. He crossed his arms and pulled away from Lucifer, whose mouth was set in a grim line. I hadn't known him for very long, but from what I'd seen, not much seemed to faze him. This did. He looked flustered, and maybe even worried.

"Because if things go as planned," he whispered as loudly as possible, " I'm going to vaporize every last one of them. You mustn't get attached."

A ripple went through the room as nearby customers overheard the obvious threat. Two snappily-dressed young guys in khakis and blue button-downs and a pale-skinned girl with frosted hair and a striped halter top made their way to the exit, glancing back over their shoulders anxiously as they race-walked away from the bar.

"Attached to what , Dev? I'm the very picture of non-attachment. Zen as can be." To me, Sal did not sound especially zen. He crossed his arms and took a half-step backward, trying to signal the end of the discussion. 

"Yes, well. It would be best if you stayed that way, darling, at least for now. You know where I'm staying if you need to reach me. Do take care."

He touched Sal on the arm, and the older man closed his eyes and seemed to sway on his feet for a split-second before recovering.

"You, too. Let me know when you're actually leaving, so we can have a real goodbye."

Lucifer didn't answer, but looked pointedly at me and then at the door. I dropped the mirror back into my purse.

"Bye!" I called to Sal. I had to rush to keep up with Lucifer's long fast strides toward the exit.

***

According to Willy's napkin-map, the vampire colony, because that's what it was, a colony, was somewhere south of Temecula in a dry riverbed that opened into a bunch of caves. It was a place with lots of dark and shade for the vampires, who disintegrate when exposed to sunlight (or similar).

If there had only been two of us, Lucifer could have flown us there, but we all agreed Maze needed to come with. That meant we would need to make the three-hour drive in an actual vehicle. I talked Lucifer out of renting a flashy convertible, because it would attract too much attention, and we ended up with a fast but practically invisible BMW SUV.

Lucifer wouldn't let anyone else drive, which was fine with me. Maybe the nice handling and the sunroof made up for the car's inherent stodginess, because he only complained about the tinted windows making it impossible to wink at other drivers. I rode in the front passenger seat and Maze sprawled across the back eating potato chips and drinking vodka straight from the bottle. As long as she wasn't driving, I was okay with this.

Between the construction and the accidents backing up traffic, it took forever to get out of LA, but finally Lucifer merged onto the 15 somewhere past Rancho Cucamonga. The road was straight and featureless.

"Buffy, this endless and stultifying drive will be a chance for us to get to know one another better. I'm sure you've got amazing secrets to tell."

"What do you want to know?"

"Hmm. How about your choice? Love, death, or monsters. Surprise me."

"I'm no good at storytelling."

"I think you've already got something in mind," Lucifer teased. "Come on, out with it."

"But it'll be long and boring."

"I'll be the judge of that. I know boring when I hear it."

I didn't see any reason to hold out on them. "Ok, then I'll start with love. I've only ever loved, um,  well... one person, I guess. I was in high school, and training with my Watcher, Giles, and slaying. Angel started lurking wherever I was. Then he started helping me, and we … well, fell in love?"

Lucifer held his hand up between us like a traffic cop. I admired his perfect manicure. Nice hands.

"OK, stop . First, this individual was called Angel ? Why?" He paused for maybe a second, frowning. "Never mind. Who could fathom the mental gyrations one might go through to arrive at a name like that? So. He stalked you, somehow won you over, and this was fine with everyone? Your family, your friends?"

"Giles didn't like it. My friend Xander hated him, but he was jealous. My mom eventually thought he was okay, but she didn't know how old he was."

"And how old was he?"

"Um… Two hundred and forty, give or take?"

"And how old were you ?"

" Sixteen ," I whispered.

"Buffy. I'm the Devil and even I think that's probably age-inappropriate."

"And how old are you ? Tell me, have you ever had an age-appropriate partner? Is that even possible?"

Maze laughed, giving me a brief unwanted view of chewed potato chips. "It's like an odometer. After a certain point, you get so old that your age flips the meter and you start over again at zero. "

He scoffed. "Now that's just silly. But we're not talking about me right now; this is about you. So tell me, how did this inappropriately named and aged individual attain such a lifespan? That's not in dog years or anything, is it?"

"No."  I felt like I was talking to Giles, or Robin, or some other grownup disapproving of my life choices. My face was getting hot.

"So what aren't you telling me, hmm?" He turned to face me, and I willed him to keep his eyes on the road because his condescending look was hurting me. Also so we wouldn't crash. We were doing at least 90.

"He was a vampire, okay?" I held up both hands, palms out. Guilty. "It's fine, it's fine, I'm bracing for the ridicule. Bring it on." I wanted to sink into the floor. I'm an adult! I saved the world, dammit!

"Ridicule? Ridicule? More like total incomprehension, along with some mild befuddlement. A vampire? Why on Dad's green Earth would you, whose job, canonically, is to kill the things, would you possibly have romantic feelings for one? Would an exterminator date a cockroach? Would a doctor date bubonic plague?"

At this point, I felt maybe an inch tall. Smaller, even. I used my tiniest voice.  "Um. He had a soul?"

"I see. No, I take that back. I don't. A vampire with a soul is like a monkey with a credit card. It has no idea what it's for, but it could still cause no end of trouble if it shows up at your dance club. And I can tell by the look on your face that that's more or less what's happened. Don't cry, dar-- Buffy."

"I'm not crying."

I was crying. I angrily blinked back embarrassing, unnecessary tears. I'd been over this plenty, with people who knew me way better than Lucifer did, and I'd processed, vented, ruminated, and analyzed it all to death.

Months and months of serious introspection had made one thing abundantly clear to me: Getting involved with Angel had always been a bad idea. And now, being reminded of that by the Devil himself made me feel like the biggest dumbass on the planet. Or the stupidest child. If I could have scrunched myself into a little ball, rolled under the seat, and stayed hidden until we got there, I would have.

"It...it made a lot of sense at the time. I was in high school. I was the Slayer. Nobody got me, not even my friends. He knew who I was. He wasn't afraid of me, and he wanted to help. I ended up protecting him more than he could protect me. And eventually, he lost his soul. Then I had to kill him." It seemed prudent to leave out the details of exactly how that soul got lost.

"So he's dead?"

"Well, no."

"Mmmhmm. He got better?"

I hugged my knees to my chin. Tears soaked into my faded Levis. "He got his soul back, but I still had to send him to Hell, to protect the world from… ugh, it's complicated."

The demon Acathla, who could have destroyed the Earth if Angel released him, would first have entered this dimension through an unguarded Hellmouth somewhere, and at 90 miles an hour, I really didn't want to get into whose fault that might have been. 

"To this day, I don't know how Angel got out of Hell, but he did."

Maze had been hanging in the backseat peanut gallery, eating chips, but she perked up at this. "Oh, that guy! "

"You knew him?" I suspected this was not a good thing.

She leaned forward toward my seat, grinning. "The vampire? Oh yeah! In Hell, we'd remember an actual vampire, because... soulless types? We don't generally see 'em. That one was kind of a tough customer, but I'm tougher, obviously. I started with scourging, worked my way up to gradual dismemberment, but eventually the red-hot flesh pinc--"

"Interesting, Maze, and well done! And yet somehow this one escaped our hospitality." Lucifer thought for a second or two, looking upward, racking his memory.  "Oh, right! Now I remember! You'd mentioned him, Buffy: the get-out-of-Hell-free card! Evidently, I gave it to him. Because I kicked him out ."

Maze angled her body between the two front seats and got right into his face. She was actively pissed off. "Why would you do that? He was a great workout. Gave me a chance to haul out the auxiliary kit, with the extra-large-"

With an emphatic shove, Lucifer encouraged her to sit back down. I was glad the car was an automatic.

"We had a history, he and I. That insufferable vampire twat--I'm sorry, he really was--ran around for decades committing evil for evil's sake: rapes and murders and assorted mayhem, bodies strewn hither and yon. It was gratuitous and revolting. Then, in the aftermath of this pointless carnage, the humans would turn around and blame me ! As if I were such an uncouth and murderous plonker.

"I should have vaporized him then, and his sidekick, William the … whatever, but I was feeling whimsical, so I tied them up and had a bit of a frolic with their women, who, I should tell you, enjoyed it very much. They were quite frisky for dead girls!"

"Yuck." I think I knew which dead girls he meant, too. Darla and Drusilla. Super yuck.

"Hey, how did I miss that ?" Maze demanded.

Lucifer just smiled at her, like the cat that ate the canary.

"Finally, I learned that some humans had already devised for him a ferociously clever form of retribution. He had a mortal soul, so rather than simply going poof when you killed him, he ended up in Hell. Brilliant and economical! I couldn't outdo such ingenious punishment, so I extended it. He'll be trapped on Earth with that soul stuffed down him, indefinitely. My Dad used a similar approach with Cain, the first murderer, and it appears to be quite effective. That is one endlessly unhappy camper. This fellow has the added bonus of knowing that he'll someday be returning to Hell so Maze can have a do-over with all her favorite toys. I'm sure he hasn't forgotten."

I felt like barfing. This had started as a story about love.

"The vampire who you saw on Earth, the one without a soul--that wasn't Angel. He called himself Angelus."

Maze smirked. "That soul sure had a lot of things to atone for. Gotta hand it to him, he was very creative."

"Ugh. I'm telling you, the being that did all those things wasn't him."

"And I'm telling you," said Maze, "that in his soul, he believed that it was."

At some level, I had always sensed this: when he left sentences unfinished or abruptly changed the subject; when hearing about some random crime on the news would make him get up and pace around the room like a caged animal; when I would make what I thought was a harmless joke, and he would look away, rub his temples like he had a headache, then disappear for days on end. 

He'd worked so hard to keep his darker impulses under wraps, but his alter ego Angelus had been, undeniably, a bloodthirsty sadist who had resented me for making him feel human, and whose sworn intention had been to drive me insane and then kill me. Angel had never told me everything he was thinking, but now the truth had been laid bare, and nothing was okay.

The despair that tore at my throat would not be relieved by any amount of crying. I had fallen into a pit full of grief and betrayal and emptiness and sorrow, whose walls were closing in on me.  The ground was about to swallow me up. Better to be back in the grave.

My face was still buried in my knees, but I heard Lucifer take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"Buffy? Buffy." His voice was gentle, like he was talking to an invalid. Or to someone grieving. "You may not believe me, but you'll be all right. I know you're sad, but I promise it's temporary. Here, this might help a little." Lucifer nudged a metal flask into my hand. The liquor in it smelled like vanilla and lighter fluid. The Devil's medicine, for sure. I drank, wincing and coughing at the afterburn. Its heat spread through my chest, relaxed my shoulders, and maybe it soothed the pain a little.

"Here, you could probably use these." Maze handed me a couple of wadded-up paper napkins, only slightly gritty with potato chip crumbs.

I handed the flask back to Lucifer, who set it in the cupholder and made a gesture indicating it would remain available if I needed it.

He touched my hand. "Dear girl, don't you understand that you're free now? In the end, he could never give you what you wanted. It was a bad bargain, but it's done now, and you can move on. Your life should be full of wonderful things. You deserve so much more. "

"I know you're right. Still feel awful."

"You know, I asked for love, death, or monsters, and you gave me all three! Well played!"

I took a deep breath and wiped my face, then brushed off a few lingering fragments of potato chip. "Gee, thanks. What do I win?"

"An all-expenses-paid trip to… remind me again where it is we're going?"

Chapter Text

We parked the "Silver Nothingburger" (Lucifer's name for it) at the edge of a dusty narrow road with a small brown sign that said, in white letters, "Park, 3 mi."

Maze and I checked out the trail head, which started as a bare path through a field of grass and disappeared into a ravine.

Lucifer stood by the car and waved. "Have a nice walk, ladies!"

I was confused. "Why drive all the way here just to wait in the car? Aren't you coming?"

"In these shoes?" He indicated his very shiny black oxfords, clearly not designed for hiking trails. "I'll do a bit of aerial recon and meet you further down the trail. Then we can regroup."

Maze's black patent platform boots didn't seem so trail-worthy either, but she didn't bat an eye. "It's cool, we need to stretch our legs anyway. Better than riding in the back seat listening to vampire boyfriend drama."

"Don't be mean. It wasn't drama, it's just what happened."

I was still smarting with shame. She and Lucifer knew and loathed the person I'd always considered the love of my life. Would they think less of me because of that? Then again, why should I care if they approved of my life choices or not? It was enough that they were here.

"Quit worrying about your ex," Maze said, with only a hint of scorn. "That's in the past. We've got vermin to find and asses to kick. What could be better?"

I'm pretty sure ice cream would be better, but she had an excellent point. I was more than ready for some nice therapeutic violence.

We followed the path to the edge of the ravine and hiked in. It was late afternoon, and the light slanted sharply, especially in the depths of the gorge where the cliff walls cast deep shadows on the ground below, darkening the many cave entrances that dotted the riverbed and the rock walls. I guessed we had ninety minutes of daylight left, which was enough to locate any vampires and then attack them in the open as they emerged from the caves into the dark.

We hiked in silence for a quarter mile or so. It was pretty but monotonous: red and brown rock walls to one side and a winding creek on the other, beige ground with occasional patches of scrubby weeds, sometimes a brown or striped snake sunning itself on a rock, or a little rodent fleeing said snake.

To break up the monotony, I blurted out a question I'd been dying to ask. "So, you and Lucifer. Are you a thing?"

Maze looked at me like I was the dumbest of dummies. "Us? Of course we're a thing. I followed him from Hell."

"But like, a thing, thing."

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"Ok, fine... Um, do you have a physical relationship with him?"

She looked at me as if I'd asked if they breathed air. "Well, yeah. We both like sex. And we're very good at it." She put a hand on my ass and squeezed. "And Buffy, anytime you wanna do it, just say the word."

"You mean, you and me?" I tried to imagine it, her mouth on mine, diamond-sharp teeth grazing my skin, those strong brown hands finding my secret places. Thinking about it made the world tilt just a little bit, sloping downhill toward something dark and inviting, like steam curling out from under a locked door.

"Sure, why not? You're cute. And I bet it would take a lot to tire you out." She looked me up and down, her dark eyes closed halfway, appraising, as if she could see right through my dusty flannel shirt and khakis.

"Uh, thanks? I'm flattered. Maybe a rain check for now?"

Maze stopped walking and pulled me close, pressing the length of her body against me. She brought her face close to mine, cheek to cheek, and exhaled a hot breath into my ear. "Just let me know."

I shivered when she pulled away. We kept walking.

"So, tell me more about Lucifer,” I said brightly, trying to change the subject. "Do you love him?"

"What kind of question is that? I follow the king of Hell." She spoke loudly and slowly, as if I was incredibly stupid and maybe a little bit deaf. "I do what he needs me to do. I'm not sure what you're getting at."

What was I getting at? I knew sex wasn't love. I remembered (fuzzily) the traumatic drunken aftermath of a one-night stand I'd thought was more. I acted like an idiot and thought my heart was broken, though in retrospect it was more embarrassment than heartbreak. Lesson learned.

And then there was whatever I'd had with Spike. As a soulless evil vampire, he'd done things to me, things that left bruises, things that lit up my nerve endings like a Christmas tree, things that made me walk funny for days afterward, things that reminded me I still had a body when everything around me seemed insubstantial and unreal.

When I'm alone, sometimes the memory of the things that he did can bring me back to myself. I imagine my hands are his hands; my thoughts are his voice in my ear, "Do as I say, Pet, you know you want to. Don't pretend to be pure, you filthy Slayer. I know what you're like." He knew. He could always find the places where my horror and anger coiled into something that felt like desire, and knew that I needed him to hold me down and let me buck and struggle until exertion and sweat and sex filled the void.

Spike had been human once, though, and had an oddly human idea of love: "I'm drowning in you," he'd once told me. It didn't seem to make a difference that he was soulless. With that kind of love, the drowning kind, you soak in it, splash around in it, and feel parched if you spend too much time coming up for air. He wanted so badly for me to feel it too, but I didn't; I couldn't.

I knew what he was feeling, though: I had loved Angel like drowning. What did that ever get me but heartbreak? I thought I'd loved my human boyfriend, my Midwestern soldier boy, Riley, who was appropriately real and kind and sweet and brave, but with him, I never, ever drowned. I never even felt saturated. I never found myself gasping for air because of him, and he never left any marks.

But Spike. He'd been inconsiderate, bratty, murderous, petty, dishonest. He'd settled for the scraps I'd thrown him in exchange for the scraps he'd thrown me, both of us barely there, unable to be who we were supposed to be: him, a harmless vampire, me, a slayer who would have preferred to stay dead. I knew I could kill him at any moment, and he knew it, too. So I let him bind me. I let him degrade me. I let him violate me, and the soulless, clueless dumbass somehow got the idea that this unholy exchange of power and fluids was love. He was wrong; it was abdication. I only stopped because of the shame.

He went to get his soul back because he wanted me to love him. Once he got it, he understood that I wasn't going to. But I kept using him, using his devotion, using his loyalty. My friends lost confidence in me, but he never did. He had sacrificed himself and the handful of dust that used to be him was now buried deep in the imploded earth that had sealed the gate of hell. If nothing else, I was grateful.

With Spike gone, I had nobody left: not Angel, not Giles, who'd each had their own problems. I desperately missed having someone in the world who I could trust without reservation. I had nobody who felt like home. Nobody who was mine.

So I got it. Maze was there for Lucifer like that. I envied him. Whether it was "love" or not was irrelevant. It was loyalty. It was presence. It was faith.

"He's fortunate to have you."

"Yes he is. Just a sec, I gotta piss." Maze took two steps off the trail and squatted. Nature-peeing is impressive to me--it's so hard not to wet your shoes.

Maze returned with her boots still dry and readjusted the laces on her form-fitting leather pants. "You know what, Buffy? Love? It's for humans. We don't do that. We play. We enjoy. We punish. We reveal."

"Reveal? Reveal what?"

"What you really want. What you want to hide. What you regret. What frightens you."

She sniffed my neck and then gave me a quizzical look.

"Hmph. You don't smell frightened, but you still smell weird. Not bad, but weird. Like all the realms mixed together."

"Really? I showered before we left."

***

As we hiked through the gully, Maze and I checked each cave entrance for signs of activity, looking for footprints, trash, disrupted vegetation, drops of blood, even pink-tinged puddles of vampire piss. Most of the caves were blind tunnels that went a few feet into the cliff wall and terminated in blank rock faces.

About half a mile in, we reached a narrow waterfall that threw circular rainbows into the mist, little flashes of Technicolor against the high red and beige cliffs. Behind the waterfall was an opening that led down a long corridor, and we crept behind the wall of water and followed it maybe a hundred yards inside. It was fucking dark in there. I panned my little pocket mag-lite back and forth to keep myself from walking into things.

In retrospect, this was a bad idea.

The cave widened out into a dimly-lit room with clear evidence of vampires -- bedrolls, piles of clothing, and oh yeah, bodies. Not dead people, though: resting vamps. Sleeping vamps. Vamps reading books by flashlight. Vamps having sex with each other. Vamps arguing.

I signaled to Maze that we needed to get out, ASAP, but we were already busted.

A woman's voice rang from the far end of the cave. "Hey! Who's there?"

Every light the vampires had been using for whatever activity flicked off at the same time. All I could see was dark, as pitch-black as the insides of my eyelids at night.

Adrenaline rushed into my veins, making the blood roar in my ears. It had been many months since I last felt it, but it was still a familiar rush: time to fight. I swept the beam of my flashlight across the room again to get my bearings.

I was able to drop a few vampires in the semi-dark, but someone quickly kicked the mag-lite out of my hand and left me fighting blind. I've trained in the dark plenty, but one hundred percent of those polled agree that fighting while being able to see is exponentially better than not. We were badly outnumbered and at least a hundred yards from the exit of the tunnel. We needed to bug out.

Maze could see better in the dark than I could, and stayed behind me, fighting off attackers as we retreated to the safety of daylight. That demon babe had moves for days.

I skedaddled as quickly as I could, keeping the wall of the cave on my right, listening for the hiss and splat of the waterfall at the exit and for the feet pounding behind me: more and more of them, closer and closer. This was, um, less than good.

After a minute or two of plain old fleeing, the vampires' footfalls began to echo as if the walls were really far away. We were in an enormous open room, but I still couldn't see the exit of the cave. No outside light was even filtering in. The footsteps slowed down and stopped each time another body entered the space, and soon I was dodging and blocking assaults from all directions. I wasn't taking much damage, but I wasn't inflicting much either.

By the repeated sounds of swish-swish-thump-crash-sizzle, Maze was doing better than I was, dusting one vamp after another. A kick to the back of my knees knocked me to the ground, and I fell on my face, hard. Another kick landed in the small of my back. I tried to roll over and regain my feet, but two or three bodies landed on top of me, punching and kicking, and an arm wrapped around my neck, squeezing my throat shut. I tried to yell for Maze to give me a hand, but couldn't get enough air to do it.

The armhold loosened enough for me to smell the garbage-breath of the vamp closest to my face. It was hissing obnoxiously, which some vamps like to do before sinking their teeth into somebody. I struggled to get out from under my attackers before anyone actually bit me. With the hand I had free, I scrabbled around for a weapon, anything, and came up with a fist-sized rock.

Good enough. I swung my arm wide and came down hard with the rock on the back of the vamp's head, which knocked its face toward mine. The vamp's bumpy feeding-face crashed into my forehead. Stars from the impact were the first lights I'd seen since the fight started. Stunned by the bashings from the rock and my skull, the hissy vamp went limp. I rolled out from under him and pushed my feet against the ground to throw off the weight of the second vamp.

I was dizzy and bleeding from landing on my face and then getting head-butted, but at least I was standing up. For a second. Someone tackled me from behind and pulled me backward, and I fell on top of another large person-shaped creature with a grip like steel. More garbage-breath, this time coming from behind my head, and I heard more of a gasp than a hiss, but it was bite-prep all the same. I jabbed the bitey vamp in the ribs with my elbow, but it didn't let go. The teeth were cold, sharp, and slimy behind my ear.

I took a breath, ignoring the stink and weighing my options.

At that moment, I saw a pair of weird red lights from across the room, kind of like the taillights of a truck. For an instant, they glowed brighter, almost white. Abruptly, I fell to the cave floor, coughing from a sudden abundance of airborne vamp-dust.

"Thanks, boss!" came Maze's voice from maybe ten feet away.

The Devil had bailed us out.

Maze's footsteps sounded like they were headed deeper into the cave, where we had first found the vampires. In a few seconds, she returned, flipping on my mag-lite and swinging it back and forth to reveal pile after pile of ash littering the ground.

"Bit of a close call, wouldn't you say?" asked Lucifer, who was trying to brush big smears of dust off of his suit.

Maze handed him the flashlight. He used it to scan for streaks of ash on his jacket and attempt to remove them. "Where were you?" she demanded.

"I got a bit held up. My brother really needed to talk to me, and I really needed to hit him."

"So, fisticuffs?" I asked.

"Indeed."

We emerged from the cave into the last of the daylight, and I saw that we were at least fifty paces away from the entrance behind the waterfall, where we'd gone in. The sun hadn't set, but the light was very low, and the bluffs cast long dark shadows that made it feel even later than it was.

Even in the dim blue twilight I could see that Lucifer's hair was messier than he liked to keep it, and he had a black eye and a fat lip, which was more than I had ever been able to inflict on him with every ounce of effort I had.

"Amenadiel didn't like your plan?" asked Maze.

"He wouldn't even let me explain, just went on and on about how I was dawdling and shirking my celestial duty and assorted other claptrap."

"So you hit him?" I asked.

"It seemed like the most productive course of action. If he wasn't going to see reason, violence was the next best option."

Following Lucifer's example, Maze brushed some invisible dust from her leather-encased thigh. "So how did you leave things? Can we stay?"

"Eventually, I got him to be quiet long enough to explain our intentions, at which point he finally allowed as how I might even have a reasonable idea, but what was he supposed to tell Dad? As if I care. Tell him I've joined the circus."

Lucifer sat on a rock and lit a cigarette, taking a long drag before continuing. He was trying to blow a smoke ring, but his swollen lip wouldn't cooperate, so he blew a smoke puff instead. "I told him I had responsibilities related to ruling Hell, and if he was truly invested in keeping order on Earth, he'd give us enough time to carry them out. Then I hit him again, which might not have been as persuasive as I'd hoped."

"Felt good, though, huh?" said Maze.

"So good. Getting hit back, less so. Still worth the minor cosmetic damage. The best part was telling him that I was staying for the good of humanity. How could he possibly call me debauched, selfish and petulant then?" He waited a half-beat. "He could not."

Maze looked thoughtful. "You're definitely petulant."

"Did we get all the vampires?" I asked.

"I don't know. We got a lot of them," Maze said. "Lucifer, did you see anything else during your, uh, aerial recon?"

"Oh yes. There were dozens more. But you needn't worry, I'll take care of them."

I crossed my arms and blew out a breath. "So. Lucifer. We just rented a car, spent half the day driving, hiked into a vampire cave, and got ambushed. I got to see Maze kick admirable amounts of vampire ass. A year ago, I would have kicked similar ass, but because I'm woefully out of practice, I was nearly concussed. After all that, you showed up and took out every standing vamp in like three seconds. Why are we here, again?"