Gentle Whisper of Souls

Feedback is what inspires people to write. I really want to hear from you!! :-)
Please mail me and tell me what you think. Your opinion means a LOT! lnlypoet@yahoo.com


Buffy Summers was angry and when Buffy Summers was angry the world at large had to pay.

She leaned against the horn of her rental car, startling a procession of school children that was staring up at the massive form of Wolfram and Hart. "Move!" she yelled out the open window.

The children scattered and she gunned the engine of the sporty little Mustang, forcing it to squeal in protest as she rounded the first turn of the parking deck. It took her several seconds of swearing, beeping the horn at various people who dared walk in her way, and muttering to herself before she finally found a parking spot and when she did, she cut the engine, yanked out the keys and exited the car with a determined tilt to her chin.

She paused briefly before she shut the door to shed the outer shirt she wore, leaving her considerably cooler in a tight tank top and leather pants. She didn't know what she had been thinking when she dressed for this encounter. How could she have forgotten how hot it could be in California in May?

Without preamble, she made her way to the trunk and opened it. The demon who was lodged inside the small compartment looked almost human, except for the spattering of green scales on his forehead and neck. The parts that looked human, however, were beaten to a pulp and his blood, a putrid shade of violent green, spattered his clothing and most of the trunk.

"I'm dying!" he growled at her, making a feeble attempt to bite her by gnashing his jaws. A loud popping sound caused him to howl in pain. "Iím dying! And my jaw is broken!"

"Then stop flapping it." Buffy snapped back at him, roughly grabbing his collar and waist band to heft him from the small car.

"Angel is going to be so pissed at you." The demon stumbled for several seconds before he found his footing. "You know, most of my balance comes from my hands!" He held up his hands, which were bound tightly. "Itís not like Iím able to run. Untie me and maybe Angel wonít give you the what-for over this."

"Uhm." Buffy pretended to consider it, then shook her head. "How about no with a nice side of you wish thrown in for good measure?" Shoving him roughly in the back, she added, "Let's get this done."

It was a long walk and Buffy was incredibly irritated by the time they arrived at the elevators. She received several curious looks from the people she passed, but the expression on her face clearly indicated that she was not in the mood to field any questions.

"Which floor?" she asked when the elevator doors shut behind them.

"The top."

"Figures."

Buffy pressed the button and crossed her arms. They were still crossed when the doors opened again, revealing the bustling work environment of Wolfram and Hart. She spotted him immediately. He was in deep conversation with Wesley, but before she could say a word, Harmony appeared at the mouth of the elevator, staring at her with her mouth agape.

"Oh my god! Buffy, you look ... well, actually you look kinda ... "

Buffy held up a hand, her eyes still on Angel. He had turned toward them when Harmony shrieked her name. Gripping the battered demon by the arm, she pulled him along beside her, dodging Harmony and ignoring the people who had suddenly grown very quiet. Pausing a few feet away from Angel, she shoved the demon hard, sending him flying straight into the vampire. Angel had to drop the papers he was holding to catch him and even then, they both stumbled against the wall because of the force Buffy had used.

Calmly, she said, "The next time you want to send a spy my way, why don't you pick one who doesn't sing like a bird after three minutes of me whipping his ass."

Angel quickly righted himself and Mort, the demon, studying his injuries. "If it only took three minutes then why does he look like this?" he asked, just as calmly. But his jaw was tight and when he looked at her again, his eyes were narrowed.

Buffy shrugged. "Three minutes to sing. The rest was just for shits and giggles."

"Is that so?" Angel asked, but didn't wait for her to reply. Putting a hand on Mort's shoulder, Angel turned to Wesley. "Take him to the infirmary."

"That bitch is crazy, man," Mort said with a groan. "Crazy! Tied me up, broke my jaw, kicked me when I was down. And then she took a shot at my motherís origins. It was a complete mind fuck. Complete. Iíll never get enough therapy. Sheís insane!"

When the demon was well on his way, Angel bent to retrieve his papers and then looked at Buffy again. Her arms were crossed over her chest again and there was a fire in her eyes that he had never seen before. "You want to come into my office?"

"Oh, yes, Principal! I'd love to!"

With a nod of his head, he indicated that she should follow him. She did so, not bothering to acknowledge the whispers around her.

Angel waited for her to enter the room completely, then he slammed the door, very hard, behind her. "What the hell was that about?"

Buffy whirled on her heel and marched up to him. "What the hell were you doing in Italy?"


"What are you doing with the Immortal?"

"Since when is that your business?"

"Since when is it not?"

"Who do you think you are?"

"Who do you think you are, Buffy? And what gives you the right to beat the hell out of people who arenít hurting you?"

"Since when is that thing a person?"

There was a light tap on the door and Harmony stuck her head in. "If you two just keep shouting questions you wonít get answers."


"Get out!" Buffy and Angel both roared.

Harmony shut the door quickly and Angel turned back to Buffy. "What has happened to you?"

"You did!" Buffy shot back. "You happened to me! And you keep happening! Angel, why would you have people, no ... things watching me?"

"To make sure you're okay!" he said.

Buffy pointed at his desk. "There's a phone! Pick it up, dial the numbers. I'll tell you if I'm okay!"

"Look," Angel began, holding up his hands as if in defeat.

"No, you look." Buffy cut him off. "I'm not a little kid who needs a Watcher and even if I did, you're not exactly the person I'd want. I mean," she indicated the room at large, "you're not exactly on this side of good are you?"

"From the looks of things neither are you!" He indicated her clothing, pointing at the tattoo on her arm. "You look like you're playing dress up in a body that doesn't fit you anymore!"

"Look who's talking, Mr. I'm So Swanky In My Armani."

"You don't even sound like the same girl."

"That's because I'm not a girl. Contrary to what physical impediments you have, I am growing and evolving."

"Really? I kinda thought you were regressing into a rebellious teenager," he said. "What with all the make-up, the late night clubbing, and the fact that you've turned your back on your friends."

Buffy's eyes narrowed into slits. "Oh, I get it. Giles told you that I'm a bad, bad girl so you decided to use your extensively stupid resources to get a good look for yourself. Let me guess, you heard the version where I was overcome with jealousy at them deciding that Faith was the new It Girl and I rushed off the Italy in anger. Or possibly it was-"

"It was Giles telling me months ago that he was worried about you. That you and Dawn had separated yourself from the others. That you were shirking your duties and pulling further and further away until finally you announced that you'd gotten a job offer in Italy."

"Yes, I did."

"Funny, my sources can't seem to locate that job, Buffy."

"Well, your sources aren't that great, to be honest. Your spy? He openly lurked."

"How does the Immortal fit in?"

"Not that you deserve to know the answer to that, but he's my boss. I met him in London and he offered me a job."

"In Italy?"

"All signs point to 'duh'."

"Are you sleeping with him?"

Buffy's fury resurfaced and she felt the blood rush to her head. "You don't get to ask me that!"

"God damnit, Buffy!" Angel yelled. "Just a few months ago I was in Sunnydale helping you and things were fine between us so what the hell is this about?"

"You knew that necklace would kill Spike!" Buffy accused, wondering where that had come from. "You knew I'd give it to him and you knew it would kill him!"

Angel's mouth dropped open in disbelief. "What!?"

"You heard me!"

"Buffy," Angel began, then stopped and ran a hand through his hair. "Think what you want."

"You hated him. You hated him for being a part of my life."

"No, I hate him because he's Spike."

"And you certainly took care of him, didn't you?"

It took Angel a second to realize that she still had no clue that Spike was back. He was alive and well and probably somewhere eavesdropping. With a heavy sigh, he said, "Sit down."

"I don't want to sit down."

"Then stand there, but hear me out."

Buffy sighed and nodded her head. "Fine."

Angel searched for the right words, but stumbled every time he thought he'd found the best way to let her know about Spike. He was about to lay it all out when the door opened and the vampire in question walked in, eyes cast down at a clipboard in his hands. "Did you see Mort? Someone beat the shi-"

Spike froze when he looked up and saw her standing there. Her skin was bronze, her golden hair tumbled over her shoulders, brushing her narrow waist. The pants that clung to her like a second skin were riding low on her hips and the cut of her tank top showed a tantalising amount of skin. The sensation that he was flying hit him at once and the clipboard tumbled from his fingertips. "Buffy -"

Time stood still in that moment. Buffy's mouth was suddenly too wet, then too dry. Her ears began to ring, her skin burned, and her heart felt like it had sunk into her stomach. Spike took a step forward and Buffy took a step back, like a rehearsed dance that had no partner.

Angel watched the myriad emotion play over Buffy's face and shook his head at Spike. Clearing his throat to get her attention, Angel said, "I was trying to tell you..."

"How long?" Buffy whispered, her voice so low that both vampires leaned forward to hear. "How long!?" she half shouted when they didn't reply right away.

Angel began to speak, but Spike cut him off. "Months. I've been back for months." He smiled and started toward her again. "God, Buffy-"

But Buffy side-stepped. Her eyes met Angel's briefly, long enough for him to register the hurt there, and then she ran out the door.

Once again, the people in the foyer of Wolfram and Hart stopped what they were doing to observe Buffy. She rushed toward the elevator, but it closed before she made it. Spike shouted her name behind her and she turned, looking for any escape. Any route to avoid the pain that had rushed up to grab her by the throat.

She saw the stairwell and ran to the door, yanking it open. Her brain was screaming words at her. Betrayal. Lies. Defeat. Hurt. Pain. Agony. Why did he stay away from her? Why?

She could hear someone above her in the stairwell. She couldn't face him. Not yet. Not when the knife was still sticking into her heart, piercing her to the core. No, she had to escape. Had to get out. Away.

It felt like forever before the door appeared that indicated the parking deck. By then the betrayal had given way to bold, uninhibited anger. She drew in deep, agonizing breaths that caused her lungs to protest. She would not cry. Buffy had spent a lot of time mastering the concealment of the emotions that always burned beneath the surface. She would not let either of them see that she was anything other than furious.

Her eyes burned, reminding her that she was, after all, lying to herself about her composure. She longed to break down, to give in to the tears that were so close to brimming over. "No!" she angrily admonished herself. "The serum stops these emotions. It stops it. I wonít feel a thing. I wonít!"

She dug through her pockets as she caught her breath, and promptly dropped the keys which fell just out of reach under the car. She swore loudly, dropping on all fours to retrieve them.

That is where Spike found her when he burst through the door behind her. And a second later, that's where Angel found her as well, when he rushed from the elevator.

They said her name in unison, but she acknowledged neither. Both vampires stood their ground, watching her. After several seconds of dallying, pretending that she didnít have her keys firmly in hand, she got to her feet.

"Iím not doing this," she said quietly.

"Buffy, I didnít know-" Angel spoke first. "I didnít know that the necklace would hurt him and I had no clue that you werenít aware that he was back."

She couldnít turn to look their way. She couldnít look at Spikeís cheekbones, at his familiar duster, at the way he would likely be tilting his head as he studied her. "I- I have to go."

"You just got here," Spike told her, the tone of his voice so familar to her.

"You didnít." Buffy stared at the ground in front of her. "You didnít just get here, did you? Months? Is that what you said?"

"I did." He nodded, even though she had yet to make eye contact. "But I can explain every last bit of it, Slayer."

Her skin positively vibrated when he called her that. At once she was taken back to their time in Sunnydale. Back when things were complicated, but comfortable. Always comfortable. The bickering, the sex, the name calling, and the put downs. All of it was indelibly inked into her heart and she wore it on her sleeve for anyone who dared look close enough.

"Buffy?" Angel glanced at Spike, who looked as lost for words as he did.

Finally, Spike ignored the part of his brain that told him to keep his distance. He went to her with confidence, ignored the sound of protest that escaped her throat, and wrapped her in his arms.

"I'm sorry, luv," he murmured. "I'm so sorry."

"Why?" Buffy fought the tears, refused to show an ounce of emotion. Refused to show her weakness. "Why didn't you come and find me? Why didn't you call?"

Spike met Angel's gaze and tightened his grip. "I started to." Closing his eyes, he bent his head low, inhaling the familiar, fresh scent of her hair. "God, I've missed you."

"Spike-" His name escaped in a whisper and she wrapped her arms around him.

Spike opened his eyes and glanced at the spot where Angel had been.

The spot was empty.

***

"So, that's it?" Buffy asked. She turned to look at him, where he sat in the passenger seat of her rental car. They were still in the parking garage, sitting inches apart, but feeling like the Grand Canyon rested between them.

"That's it." Spike nodded. He had told her everything. How he came back, how he had been a ghost, how he had longed to find her. Everything. Most of all, how he had missed her.

Buffy swallowed hard. "Okay."

Spike covered her hand with his. "I thought it was best to let you get on with your life."

Buffy stared at their joined hands for several seconds before she tugged hers away. "I'm so tired of vampires deciding what's best for me."

"Fair enough," he replied. An awkward silence enveloped the car. Finally, he said, "What now?"

"I think I need to go to my hotel and take a hot shower. And sleep." Her grip on the wheel was so tight that her knuckles were turning white. She must have missed a dose of the serum. She must have. Why did the pit of her heart have such an irritating ache in it when she had made sure she was immune to all pain?

"Are you alright?" Spike put his finger under her chin and turned her to face him. "Are you staying in town a while?"

"I'm fine. This ... this will take some getting used to." Buffy turned the key in the ignition and the car purred to life. The air conditioning was a welcome relief and she breathed deeply, the cool air calming her slightly.

"You didn't answer me," Spike said. "Are you staying in town for a while?"

"I'm supposed to be seeing my dad while I'm here. So, I don't know. I may hang around a few days and meet up with him."

"Will I see you again before you fly back to Italy?"

She met his eyes and held them. "I hope so."

"Where are you staying?"

Biting her bottom lip, she shook her head. "Iíd rather not say." Noting the look on his face, she quickly added, "I need to process this. Spike, surely you understand how this feels. I mean, youíve been there with me, right?"

"Right," Spike replied, remembering the night he had walked into her house to see her descending the stairs alive and well, when she had been dead for over a hundred days. "But I didnít want to run away from you."

"Iím not running," Buffy said. "Iím driving a few blocks away, but Iíll call you and we can get together again. Thatís the best I can do."


That was enough for Spike. He gave her a small smile, then let himself out of the car. He watched as she drove away, shaking his head. It hadn't gone the way he had dreamed a million times. He had anticipated that she would rush into his arms, the world would melt away and the two of them would find themselves lost in one another.

No, it hadn't worked out properly at all.

****

Buffy drove straight to her hotel, a highly recommended establishment, and was peeling off the hot, thick, leather pants before the door had shut completely behind her. As her skin luxuriated in the crisp, cool air, she saw the flashing light on the phone, indicating a message.

She pressed the proper buttons and listened intently, expecting to hear her father's voice. Instead, it was Angel, telling her how sorry he was about everything that happened and asking her to come to his place that evening to talk and have dinner.

She slammed the phone back onto the cradle before the message finished. How the hell had he found her that quickly? Was there no safe haven to get away from the prying eyes he forced on her?

Yanking open her bag, she removed a small case that held several vials of liquid, each of them a glowing pink. She inserted the hypodermic into one of the bottles, drew out a small portion, and pinched a mound of skin on her thigh. The bliss was immediate and she leaned back against the pillows of the bed to let it wash through her.

And finally, the pain was dull, just a whisper in a soul full of disregard.

The shower that she stood under a while later was almost unbearably hot, yet she allowed the jets to pound her skin until she was convinced that the baggage of the day had been swept down the drain.

Afterwards, she had room service bring up a bottle of Cognac and sat on the balcony towelling her hair dry. Having been in Europe for so long, she had almost forgotten the small nuances of California. The eternal sunshine, the smell of the ocean on every breeze, the gulls, the yellow sunset, the sound of rushing waves in the distant.

So much came pouring back to her as she leaned against the railing of the balcony and closed her eyes. Angel and Acathla. Angel dying. Spike taking a beating from Glory to protect Dawn. Spike dying.

And somehow both had come back. Back from the dead, back from the abyss and both had chosen to stay out of her life completely. It stung. It stung more than she would have liked, but she had to acknowledge it, nonetheless.

She was stunned to find the bottle of cognac half empty when she went for more. With a hiccup, she put the stopper firmly back in place and perched on the edge of her bed. She was mentally exhausted, but physically, her body was aching for release. She wanted a fight. She wanted demons to snap beneath her thin fingers. She wanted blood.

An hour later she had deftly maneuvered through Grant Park, and lifted a grate on the edge of a thicket of trees. The sewers of California, she thought. Home to many of my fondest memories. Not.

She absently brushed her palms on her jeans as she dropped off the ladder that had granted her access to the tunnels beneath Los Angeles.

There was nothing in Europe that could compare to the disgusting aroma of these tunnels. And nothing that fit quite so nicely around her as the nostalgia of once again sloshing through familiar ground.

She smiled when she recalled the times that Willow and Xander had accompanied her on patrol in the sewers of Sunnydale. Xander's endearing commentary, Willow's fascinating facts. She remembered her first few weeks of school in Sunnydale when Jesse had been taken into the sewers and how Angel had warned her against going in.

How Xander had followed her in and how they'd almost died.

How she did die in the Master's lair and Xander had saved her life.

Xander with his missing eye. Xander blaming her, even now, for Anya. For his loss. For everything.

She thought then of Willow. Willow on the internet, Willow comforting her during the prom fiasco, after Angel had dumped her... in the sewers no less. Willow bringing her back from the dead and then shattering when she found out that Buffy had not been in Hell, but in some dimension of Heaven. And sweet, innocent Willow, standing beside her when most people would have left Sunnydale screaming after seeing what they had seen.


And Willow taking Kennedy's side when Kennedy came up against Buffy in a clash that could have killed them both if Faith had not stepped in. Buffyís hand moved instinctively to the scar on her side where Kennedyís knife had plunged through her skin. But Willow didnít comfort her that day. No, she took Kennedy and headed into the city for three months before she even called to see if Buffy had survived.

Her thoughts moved on to Giles as she sidestepped the body of a dead dog that came bobbing past her in the shallow water. She smiled sadly, recalling the band candy incident with he shared with her mother. The way he had been fired for loving her as a father would. He never denied it. Once or twice after sheíd come back from the dead he had told her with great frequency that he loved her very much.

But then he told her that she was, quite honestly, not the best role model for the new Slayers any more. 'They know too much, Buffy, about your mishaps. About Spike, Angel... Perhaps we should allow Faith to guide them for now.'

That wound had yet to heal even though it had happened months ago. But she suppressed it well enough with the serum that the Gypsies had given her. She numbed herself, made herself hard, so that only the barest flicker of emotion would rear its head from time to time, but never enough to break her resolve.

It was a nice distraction when the vampire attacked her out of nowhere. At least it erased the image of Giles from her mind and brought her firmly back into the present.

She relished every move, the tightening of her body, the quickening of her pulse. She loved the sound of contact, of cracking bones, of witless barbs bouncing forward and back. She blocked, punched, kicked, and finally a stake driven neatly through the heart.


Dust.

Blood scented dust.

The smell of home.

<<>><<>>

Angel rushed forward when the doorbell rang. He paused to straighten his clothes before he opened the door, expecting to see Buffy on the other side. He gave a loud groan when Spike brushed past him, making a great show of billowing his duster as he flopped onto the sofa.

Mumbling quietly, Angel shut the door, then turned and glared at Spike. "What?"

"Weíve made a right mess of things."

"No, youíve made a mess of things and as usual Iím going to have to clean it up." He knocked Spikeís feet off the table and sat down across from him. "Buffyís coming for dinner. Why donít you get lost?"

"Sheís coming here?" Spike sat up straighter, staring angrily across the coffee table. "Why is she coming here?"

"Because I wanted to apologize to her so I invited her to dinner."

"Oh, thatís rich!" Spike shot to his feet. "What are you going to do? Get her drunk and play on her weaknesses?"

Angel sighed and shook his head. "Iím not like you."

"Yes, you are! Youíre chock full of bad intentions! You reek of bad intentions!"

"You must have caught a whiff of yourself."

Spike glanced toward the dining room, noting the fresh flowers and the champagne that stood chilling in a silver bowl. "Whatís that then, huh? And why are the lights so dim? And what the hell is that music playing? You want to put the girl to sleep?"

Angel stood, brushing past him and making his way to the kitchen. Donning the oven mitts, he pulled the pan from the oven and sat it on the counter.

"What is that smell?"

"Roast."

Spike sniffed, then snarled. "Roast what? Possum? Skunk? It stinks."

Angel frowned and lifted the edge of the foil, gazing inside. "It does, doesnít it?"

"I think I like this idea. Sheíll come here, youíll turn her stomach, and Iíll -"

"Youíll shut up," Angel snapped. He was going to say more, but the phone gave a shrill ring and he had to be satisfied by glaring at the blond. "Hello?"

"Angel? Wesley. I think we have a problem."

"What?"

"Buffyís slaying."

"Where?"

"We lost a couple of coverts down in the sewer, but Max eluded her. And Lorne called to say that she was putting the kibosh into that monthly gathering that he goes to down on the beach. According to him, sheís killed most of their book club."

"Book club?" Angel shook his head. "Is she still there?"

"I think he was going to try to reason with her, but after seeing what she did to Mort Iíve called for backup."

"Iím on my way."

<<>><<>>

Buffy had grown bored in the sewers and made her way to the beach. For a long time she sat just out of reach of the waves that lapped at the shore, then she shucked her shoes, hiked up her pants, and waded out as far as she could without getting soaked. She had brought the remainder of the cognac with her on patrol, safely tucked in her bag, and as she paced through the waves, she drained the bottle completely. She giggled as she stumbled and almost lost her footing, then hiccuped loudly, and burst out laughing.

Anything to keep from crying, she thought as she moved further into the water. It amazed her how close to the surface those emotions were. Hadnít she spent the past few months closing herself off from everyone? Even Dawn? Not that Dawn noticed since she was always out somewhere with Diego, her newest infatuation.

Buffy was up to her mid-calves when she noted the plethora of small boats rowing ashore a small distance down the beach.

Her senses were on fire and she left the water, not bothering to dry her feet before she stuffed them back into socks and boots. Keeping to a row of dunes, she inched closer and closer to the spot where the inhabitants of the boats were forming a circle. Squinting, she watched as they lit a bonfire, and she shook in anticipation as she saw their demon faces. She quessed that there were twenty demons and as their low murmuring reached her, she assumed that they were summoning something grotesque.

She did what came naturally. Ducking low, she reached into her supply bag and pulled out the neccessary tools, then she crashed the party in true Buffy fashion. She climbed the doon, sprang into the air, and landed next to the fire on her bottom instead of her feet, sending a sand storm flying that blinded the closest demons to her.

Those were the first to die as soon as she found her footing.

Lorne, who recognized her from a photo Angel kept in a drawer, speed dialed Wesley and filled him in. When he hung up, he noted that the Slayer had wiped out most of the group and was making her way closer and closer to him. When she dispatched the Thornx demon closest to him, he held up both hands. "I work with Angel at Wolfram and Hart!" he shouted as she pulled a fresh knife from her boot. "Youíre Buffy, right? Angel has told me all about you. All about life in Sunnydale and how you live in Italy now."

Buffy noticed a pulpy orange demon turn and run toward the boats and she threw the knife in her hand, catching it in the back, not bothering to watch it fall as its scream rent the air. "Let me guess - this was a Wolfram and Hart sanctioned meet and greet?"

Lorne shook his head. "No, this was a book lovers meet and greet. We meet once a month to discuss Oprahís book club." He surveyed the demons around him. "I guess Iíll never know what they thought of ĎOne Hundred Years of Solitudeí."

"It was probably depressing as hell," Buffy replied absently. She belched loudly and followed up with a hiccup.

"Are you drunk?" Lorne asked.

"You know I think I could be." Buffy shrugged and took in the scene around her. It was hard to believe that she had killed so many in such a short span of time. But then again, she understood her power moreso than ever. Something had awakened when all the Slayers were activated. Somehow she was stronger, faster, better than sheíd ever been before. It felt good. It fed into the misery and patched the lonliness that surrounded her. "But not nearly enough."

Lorne studied her closely, mistaking the look on her face for sorrow. "Itís okay. Donít beat yourself up over it. It was an honest mistake."

"Mistake?" Buffy laughed cruelly. "The death of a demon is not a mistake. Itís a fucking symphony. Itís a religious experience. Itís an orgasm of brutality. Itís good."

"Riiiight," Lorne said, eyebrows arched. "Well, Iím surprised youíre standing at all right now. Youíre knees should be buckled, your hands clasped in prayer, and your ears ringing with the good music of death."

"Iíve still got a couple to go." Buffy eyed him through glassy eyes. "Then Iíll bask."

Lorne took a step back. "I work with Angel. Remember?"

"That doesnít rank highly on my list of good qualities. So you," Her vision had blurred and suddenly there were two demons where Lorne had stood. When she spoke again, her voice was slow, slurred, and drawling. "and your twin can just hold still and not make this harder than it has to be."

Lorne glanced behind him, expecting to see someone there, but they were alone. The Slayer was definitely intoxicated and he watched as she staggered and stumbled, patting her pockets and then her boots. He almost felt sorry for her when she stood and addressed him again. "Did you see my bottle of cognac?"

Lorne was forming a reply when a tiny red dot appeared on Buffyís neck for a split second, only to be replaced by a dart in the next moment. Her eyes widened and she made a move to pull it out, but her hand fell limply at her sides and her legs crumpled beneath her. Lorne caught her before she landed in an unceremonious heap on top of the Thornx demon and looked out at the water as three of his co-workers emerged from the surf, one of them with the tranquilizer gun slung over his shoulder.

"You do know who you just shot, right?" he asked.

"Yep," the man replied.

"I hope you donít mind unemployment." Lorne tilted his head to his right, where Angel and Spike were making their way down the beach. "Running would not make you a weak man."

The men all exchanged looks, then moved back into the water. Lorne could hear them swimming noisily to the boat that drifted a short distance off shore. Looking down at the small woman in his arms he was struck by her beauty. He could easily see the physical attributes that caused not one, but two vampires to fall madly in love with her. It was what she had upstairs that made him doubt not only her sanity, but theirs as well.

Spike and Angel both began to run when they saw Lorne on his knees cradling someone. When they were within earshot, Lorne shouted that Buffy was okay, but the realization that it was Buffy caused them both to put on a burst of speed. Angel reached them first, kneeling in the sand. "What happened?"

"Tranquilizer gun."

"You shot her!?" Spike yelled at Angel.

"Yes, Spike. I pulled an invisible gun out of my invisible ass and shot her while I was running here with you!"

"Your ass is far from invisible since it sits on your shoulders. Dickhead." Spike growled. "What the hell did you authorize that for?"

"I did not authorize anything!" Angel put his fingers on her neck, checking her pulse. "Wesley must have-"

Spike morphed into his demon visage, stomping agrily. "He signed his own death warrant! Thatís what Wesley must have done!"

Angel and Lorne both ignored him. For the first time, Angel took notice of the scene around him. Demons of various shapes and sizes had been gutted, beheaded, disemboweled, and chopped to pieces. "She did this alone?"

"She did this in about five minutes." Lorne felt her shift lightly in his arms and passed her off to Angel. "I think sheís waking up."

"She canít be. That stuff would drop an elephant for about three hours."

"Well, sheís fidgeting." Lorne pointed at her hand, which was clenching and unclenching. "Sheís really pretty and all, but I think maybe she has a few screws loose."

Spike, who had been pacing back and forth, closed the distance between himself and Lorne in three menancing strides. "Youíre fixing to have a few limbs loose if you keep talking like that."

"Sheís dangerous." Lorne stood up, brushing sand off his yellow slacks. "Thatís all Iím saying. Power like hers should be controlled."

"Thatís why they have Watchers, Mate." Spike leaned down, checking Buffyís pulse for himself.

"She doesnít have a Watcher," Angel reminded them both.

"Maybe thatís the problem," Lorne said with a sigh. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

"Sheís not corrupted!" Spike yelled.

Angel shifted her slightly as she moved her head from side to side. "Sheís had a rough day."

"Yeah," Spike agreed. "Very rough."

"Stop making excuses for her!" Lorne shouted.

"Sheís Buffy!" Angel and Spike both said at once, then glowered at each other.

"Fine," Lorne grabbed the bag he had brought with him. "I plan on being several miles away by the time she wakes up. You two werenít here when she said that killing, no murdering the way she did, was a religious orgasm!"

Angel and Spike both watched Lorne depart. "A religious orgasm?" Angel asked.

"Must be a Slayer thing." Spike felt her pulse again. "Sheís clammy."

Angel brushed the hair off her face, pressing against her forehead. "Sheís hot, too."

Buffy whimpered, then moaned. Her eyes opened, remained out of focus for several seconds, then she cried out and was limp again. "Letís get her back to the office."

Spike made a move to pull her out of Angelís arms, but the older vampire shook his head. "Iíll carry her. You drive."

"I donít want to drive." Spike moved to take her again and Angel pushed him away. "Hand her over!"

Angel struggled to get to his feet, then gave Spike a reproachful look. "Can you help me up?" When Spike shook his head, Angel added, "Sheís sick! She could be dying."

Using every foul word he could think of, he hefted Angel to his feet and followed, frowning at the way Buffy hung limply in Angelís arms. "Support her head, you idiot!" he called out, rushing to catch up. "Do you want to break her neck?"

"No, but I want to break yours. Does that count?"

They arrived at the car still bickering. Angel paused by the passenger door and cleared his throat as Spike made his way to the driverís side. They stared at one another over the top of the car. Angel sighed and said, "Spike, open my door."

"Oh, bloody hell!" Spike came around the side of the car, yanked the door opened and pompously bowed. "At your service, my lord asshat."

He waited until they were securely in the seat, then he slammed the door, causing the entire car to shake.

On the bright side, his anger caused them to arrive at Wolfram and Hart in record time.

Buffy stayed unconscious through the entire adventure, but Angel was decidedly paler and walked on slightly shaking legs as they entered the elevator, then deposited the Slayer firmly in the infirmary.

<<>><<>>

"No! No! No! Absolutely not! Why donít you shove me out the window!? Itíll save her the trouble when she wakes up! Get her out of here!"

Loud shouting reverberated through her head, pulling her through the blessed calm and making her keenly aware of the pain that was screaming through her various body parts. Her head throbbed, her neck was so stiff and swollen that it hurt to breathe, and the little patches of light she could see through her fluttering lashes caused her eyes to burn and water.

"Get her out of here!" Mort shouted again. "I was here first! Doc said peace and quiet was intergral to my recovery and -"

"Then shut up!" Spike bellowed, yanking the curtains around the demon closed. He rejoined Angel at Buffyís bedside just as the Slayer opened her eyes all the way. "Buffy?"

Buffy tried to sit up, cringed, and slowly laid back against the fluffy pillows propped against her back. "What happened?" she croaked, rubbed her throat, and accepted the water that Angel was holding in a styrofoam cup.

"Angel shot you!" Spike replied before Angel could speak.

"I did not shoot you, Buffy." Angel tried to hit Spike across the bed, but missed. He settled with pointing a finger in his direction in an attempt to be menacing instead. "You were tranquilized."

"Why?"

"Because you were out of control."

Buffy remembered the beach then and shook her head. "I was doing my job, Angel."

"You were about to kill Lorne."

"The green demon guy?" Buffy asked.

"Sheís got a thing against green demons, the racist!" shouted Mort from behind his curtain. "The evil racist little troll!"

Ignoring the outburst, Angel said, "We had to bring you here for the antidote."


She finally realized where she was. An IV had been inserted into the back of her hand and various pieces of medical equipment dotted the room. "You brought me to Wolfram and Hart."

"You had a reaction to the serum."

"Since when is it okay to shoot a Slayer for doing her job?" Buffy massaged her neck, which burned with every movement.

"That wasnít slaying ... that was a massacre." Angel put the cup of water back on the table and pressed a hand to her forehead.

Buffy turned her face away. "Where are my clothes?"

Spike, who was grinning because Buffy had pulled away from Angel, indicated a closet behind him. "In there. But you have to stay for twenty four hours."

"Like hell!" Buffy forced herself up, ignoring the ache in her throat as she did so.

"Let her go!" Mort shouted. "I have to have surgery tomorrow and I need sleep."

"How does eternal sleep sound to you, you freakiní idiot?" Buffy shouted, yanking the IV from the back of her hand.

"Ahhhh!" Mort screamed. "Are you guys holding her back? Sheís not going to stop until sheís killed me dead! Coffin dead! Cemetery dead!"

Spike shot Angel a look and inclined his head toward Mort. With a sigh, Angel moved behind the curtain and talked quietly to Mort while Spike leaned closer to Buffy, lifting her hand and gently blotting it with a washcloth. "Youíre bleeding. And now theyíll have to stick you again."

"I can not believe this day," Buffy mumbled, more to herself than anyone.

"Tell me about it," Spike agreed, squeezing her hand. "You scared me to death, Slayer."

"Well, itís not like anyone around here stays dead so I wouldnít sweat it." Buffy snapped, pulling free and tossing the washcloth aside.

Spike stood up straight and stared at her. "What the hell are you so mad at me for?"

"I donít know! Because youíre here!" she yelled. "And youíre in my way!"

Pushing him aside, Buffy yanked open the closet door and pulled her pants and shirt from the hangers. Spike jerked both items out of her hands and threw them onto the floor of the closet and slammed the door. "Youíre staying!"

"I am not!" The shout ripped from her throat and she groaned, flinching at the pain it caused. She clutched her neck for the millionth time and glared at the blond vampire. "Shit! Get out of the way!"

The doctor chose that moment to enter the room. "Well, I figured she was awake with all that shouting."

Buffy shot him a dirty look. "I wouldnít be shouting if this demon loving cult you call an employer hadnít put me in here!"

Moving closer, the doctor held out a hand. "Iím Gideon Spencer, Miss Summers."

She crossed her arms and glared at him, ignoring the fact that he had the most penetrating blue eyes she had ever seen. Or that his hair hung fashionably around his handsome face. Or that a dimple creased each cheek when he smiled at her display of anger. Clearing his throat, he withdrew his proferred hand and flipped open the clipboard her was carrying. "You had quite a bit of alcohol in your system tonight."

Angel, who had stepped from behing Mortís curtains, put his hands on his hips. "You were patrolling while you were drunk?"

"I was not drunk. I was tipsy and there is a difference."

"Have you lost your mind?" Angel asked.

"Itís not like I didnít handle the situation. What was it you called it? A massacre on the beach?"

"Youíre lucky to be alive," Gideon interjected. "The tranquilizer that was injected into you doesnít mix with alcohol well."

"It didnít mix with my neck well, either." Pressing the tender area on her throat, she grimaced. "Why does it hurt so bad?"

"The entrance area is where the most concentrated levels of the tranquilizer are released. Since your blood was so thin from the alcohol, itís safe to say that it settled there briefly before it began to circulate into your system." Consulting the chart again, he glanced back up at her. "How tall are you?"

"Five foot three."

"Do you know that youíre underweight for your height and build?"

"You can never be too rich or too thin."

"And youíre anemic, your blood sugar is low, and your white blood cells are elevated. Have you beed sick recently?"

"No."

"Hmmm, this is baffling."

"You deserve to be baffled for taking my blood without my permission." Her heart had begun to beat faster. Hadnít the gypsies told her that the injections were safe, undetectable? Hadnít they promised that there would be no ill side effects. She could not stay here and submit to more tests.

Gideon ignored her. "I know that your composite may be different than other people since youíre a Slayer, but I think you should stay here a few days, let us give you some intravenous antibiotics and then check you over again."

"She will," Angel said matter of factly.

Rolling her eyes heavenward, Buffy counted to ten, then exhaled loudly. "This is absolutely ridiculous. I am not staying."

"Buffy, you donít know whatís going on-" Angel began.

Spike interrupted. "And you donít know what kind of reaction youíll have. Or if itís even out of your system."

She wasnít in a position to bargain. If she didnít get back to the hotel and inject soon, there was no telling what would happen to her. "Tell you what," she said with mock cheer. "Iíll come back every day to have this antibiotic thing, but I really, truly can not rest at all in a place like this."

"And people canít rest with her here!" Mort cried. "Think about poor little old me! Iíll have to sleep with one eye open! Iíll need a weapon! A bodyguard! Iíll need --- are you guys holding her back? What is she doing? Why is it so quiet? Oh my god, sheís about to kill me!"

Buffy could only shake her head and glare at Angel. "You sure can pick a winner."

Gideon cleared his throat before Angel could reply. "If you go, Buffy, you will need to come back here about every six hours for a treatment."

"Fine, fine," Buffy replied absently, making her way to the closet where she grabbed her clothes off the floor. She moved into the empty bathroom and quickly dressed. When she opened the door again, the doctor was gone and Angel and Spike were standing side by side waiting for her.

Her skin felt like it had become too tight when she looked at them there. Darkness and light. Both of them wearing identical pained expressions. It tugged at her heart and that just wasnít possible.

Wordlessly, she grabbed her bag and tossed it over her shoulder. "Iíll see you later."

"Buffy?" Spike called.

She darted around the corner and out of the infirmary like she hadnít heard.

Spike glanced over at Angel. "You get the feeling that sheís hiding something?"

Angel stared after her for a long while and then he said, "We need to call Giles."

<<>><<>><<>>

Buffy made it back to her hotel before daybreak. She threw her bag into a chair and went straight for the small case that held the serum. Her hands shook as she filled the needle and inserted it into the vein where the IV had been. The relief was immediate. There was no pain, just anger, resentment, and purpose.

When she had met The Immortal she had been so swept away that one look at him made her legs weak. Of course, she hadnít known that he was evil then and when she found out, how she found out, still made her sick at her stomach. That was the first time that Alyanna had come to her, telling her the key to killing the Immortal was inside of her all the time.

The Immortal could read minds, know your thoughts before you did, force you to submit to his will. The Gypsies gave her the serum to deaden her soul, deaden her heart, make it impervious to outside interference so The Immortal would never know her mission. She had watched as he slaughtered a child and sucked the soul from the lifeless body before it had a chance to move on.

He was immortal, yes, but he had to feed on human souls to exist and little by little, he had taken particles of hers. She hadnít thought twice about leaving her friends, her duty, her place with the others. He had taken the piece of her that belonged to them, that belonged with them.

The key to killing him was to enrage him enough that he would take her soul, a soul dampened by the serum so much that it was incapable of emotion, and once it was inside of him, he would die. He would burn from the inside as his dead soul fought with hers ... a warriorís soul.

It seemed very simple when it was explained to her. Of course, now that she was taking the serum regularly, she rarely felt anything at all except for rage. It weakened the good in her and strengthened the bad. She saw the world in black and white.

Until today.

Seeing Spike there had moved her to the point of tears, but she had fought them back, kept herself together.

Glancing at the serum, she wondered if maybe she wasnít taking enough.

Because a long forgotten ache had begun to rise in her.

Swallowing hard, she filled the needle once more.

Then fell back against the bed and let it drop to the floor.

<<>><<>>

The phone rang far too early. Opening one eye, Buffy glared at it, wondering why there wasnít a law that prevented telephones from working at all until the afternoon. Grumbling, she pulled herself loose from the jumble of cover around her legs and grabbed the receiver.

"Hello?"

"Buffy?"

"Uhm," she felt her heart constrict when she heard his voice. "Giles?"

It had been so long since they had spoken that she had begun to wonder if they ever would again. They had parted ways on such bad terms that she doubted they would ever have the easy relationship they had enjoyed before, but it was still Giles and he had called her.

"Hello, Buffy," he said quietly and wondered if she could tell by his voice that his eyes had gotten incredibly misty. "How are you?"

She wanted to tell him everything in that moment. She wanted him to know that she hadnít meant the things she said, that she was not involved with the Immortal in the way he believed, that she was about to move into the final phase of her plan to kill the demon, but she couldnít. "Fine. You?"

"I canít complain. Things are going well here. The girls are all learning and doing a fine job with their training. Some of them are more devoted than others, but thatís to be expected with teenagers."

Buffy knew it was her turn to talk. She scrambled with something to say. "Thatís nice."

"How is Dawn?"

"Okay." Biting her bottom lip, Buffy listened to the silence for as long as she could. "What did you want, Giles?"

"Mostly to hear you. But also to see if you needed anything."

"No."

"Do you want to talk?"

Her jaw clenched as realization dawned on her. "Which one of them called you? Or was it a conference call that let all of you talk shit about me behind my back at once?"

"Angel called me last night. Said youíd been hospitalized and -"

"And youíre suddenly interested in what goes on in my life? I mean, other than judging my every move."

"I didnít call you to exchange harsh words again."

"I have a tendency to exchange harsh words when Iíve been kicked repeatedly while Iím down."

Giles sighed loudly on the other end of the phone. "So this is how itís to be between us? You canít get past your anger long enough to have a civilized conversation?"

"If you want conversation why donít you talk to Faith? Oh wait, you said civilized and convicted felons are seldom civil. Hmm, that leaves Willow. If she can get her head out of Kennedyís ass long enough maybe sheíll talk."

"Kennedy was killed two nights ago."

Buffy couldnít stop the snort that escaped her. "Miss Bad Ass herself was killed? I hope it was long and painful. Since youíre in the mood to talk why donít you give me every last juicy detail of it."

"Good Lord, Buffy! What are you thinking?" Giles said, his shock evidenced in his tone. "I had hoped that we could talk with one another and come to an understanding, but I can see that youíre still being unreas-"

Buffy put the phone back in its cradle and stood, running her hands through her hair as she paced across the room. It was so hard to get used to the ways that the serum affected her. How could she have said that about Kennedy? The other Slayer wasnít her favorite person, but Kennedy was dead.

And Willow? Poor Willow.

Before Buffy could feel one ounce of pain over her friendís loss, she collected the serum and retreated into the bathroom for a long shower and an end to her agony.

<<>><<>>

"Well, she hung up on Giles," Angel told Spike as he put the phone back on the hook. "He says that there has to be something more than just anger motivating her at this point. She was happy that one of the slayers was killed."

Spike put a hand to his forehead, massaging the headache that had been plaguing him most of the day. "What does he think it could be?"

"Apparently he has gotten some new information that suggests The Immortal feeds on peopleís souls. He thinks maybe Buffy has been losing bits of her soul for a while. Something similar happened to her during her Freshman year of college. A roomate of hers was taking her soul while she slept. Giles says that her behaviour is reminiscent of that."

Spike said nothing for several seconds. Then he shook his head. "Iím so tired of the word Ďsoulí that I could scream. What the bloody hell is wrong with the lot of us? Your soul, my soul, her going around getting her soul sucked on! I say you get happy, I get exorcised, she loses hers altogether and we go wreak havoc someplace."

Angel glared at him. "Your mind is terrifying."

Spike rubbed his head again. "Itís also very painful. Headache. I think itís stress."

"We have to find out whatís happening."

"We could ask Fred."

Nodding, Angel picked up the receiver and dialed Fredís extension. When she answered, he asked her to come to his office and bring along any reference material she could find about The Immortal or demons that had the power to remove pieces of a soul.

Spike and Angel both had their lunch, identical bags of plasma from the Red Cross, in his office and by the time they were finished, Fred had arrived laden with several books, three manilla folders full of documents, and a laptop.

Angel helped her relieve herself of the baggage and then she flopped into a chair next to Spike, blowing her hair out of her eyes. "I never would have thought that The Immortal would be so well documented. Or soul eating demons. I mean, I always thought that vampires held the trophy for taking human lives, but apparently soul eaters or Vespara Gorbathians, have been widely speculated to cause more-"

"Fred," Spike interrupted. "Fascinating as this is, we need to focus on The Immortal. What is he?"

"From all accounts," Fred paused, riffling through one of the folders. She pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to Spike. "He appears to be some kind of hybrid demon. Part Vespara Gorbathian, part vampire, and part warlock. Or well, he was a warlock before he became a vampire and I guess you retain a lot of what you were as a human."

Spike shot Angel a look. "Then you must have been a real dickhead as a human."

"And you were a doormat." Angel took the paper from Spike and scanned over it. "How did he become a hybrid?"

"His mother was a full blood Vespara. So before he was turned, he was already part demon."

"Thatís physically impossible." Spike picked up one of the books and thumbed through it, thinking aloud. "I couldnít go turn, say, a Bantha demon into a vampire. The breeds are distinct and separate. He canít be both. Itís either or."

"His father was a human." Fred rifled through another folder and produced a family tree. "The dad was some kind of genius scientist who was trying to invent a new breed of demons. Apparently he was a demon groupie or something. Once he found out about the different breeds of demons he was very interested. Several different theories abound that he used his own son, Gabriel, or The Immortal, as a guinea pig."

"That was how long ago?" Angel asked.

Fred scanned the papers again. "Gabriel was born in the sixteen hundreds. From the looks of things he was around twenty-five when he actually became a vampire. And the reports of his sexual escapades and prowess really start to surface in the eighteen hundreds. Apparently heís beautiful and really charismatic."

Angel and Spike exchanged a knowing glance, both clearly remembering the fact that The Immortal had seduced both Dru and Darla. At the same time.

"Anything about soul sucking?" Spike growled.

Fred nodded and opened her laptop. "Itís so neat that Mr. Giles and Willow were finally able to create a demon database. I was able to cross reference some material and found out that Vespara demons, especially the women, will take the souls from dying or dead infants before those souls can pass this plane. It makes them impervious to harm and their beauty becomes enchanting, more seductive, with each infant that it takes."

"What about the men?" Angel moved around her so he could see the laptop screen.

"Theyíll also take the souls of babies, but fully grown women seem to be the soul of choice. Most Vespara men will enchant their mortal women and remove particles through a whisper."

"A whisper?" Spike raised an eyebrow. "What the hell does that mean?"

"Itís what the Vespara calls the process of draining the soul through the body of a living person. It comes out in a whisper. The human never feels it and itís never very much of the soul, but itís enough to keep the woman entranced and the Vespara impervious to death or even pain."

"Why? Why does it need souls?" Angel glanced at the screen and then went back to his seat. "Do we know?"

"As a matter of fact, we do. I just got off the phone with Willow and she enlightened me. Sheís sending me an email attachment of the research they found about The Immortal. The basic principle is very simple. The same way a vampire needs blood to sustain immortality, a Vespara needs souls to sustain it. Human souls. That soul lasts for about three weeks and then the Vespara is drained, starved." Fred smiled triumphantly. "Get it now?"

"No, brainiac. We donít get it. How does a soul sustain anything?"

"A Vespara is drawn to humanity. Itís drawn to innocence and passion. Thatís the why behind the babies and the lovers. It lives off stolen emotion ... everything a soul feels. As long as they are given a constant supply, they canít be harmed because human emotion is quite possibly the most powerful thing in the world." Fred shrugged her slender shoulders. "It drives us to kill, to love, to betray, to lie, to hurt in ways that we think arenít possible. When a Vespara finds someone with all that in them? Theyíre set for six to eight weeks."

"Buffy has all that and more." Spike glanced at Angel. "Sheís suffered. Her soul likely screams inside of her all the time. She probably feels like she exists without reason and rhyme."

"Thatís really poetic," Angel mumbled. "How do we kill The Immortal?"

Fred frowned. "You canít."

"No one is really immortal, Fred." Angel replied. "A vampire is only immortal until you put a stake through his heart."

Spike stood up, walking toward the window and staring out at the bright sunshine. "It stands to reason that if we can walk around in the sun inside this building and not die then the same people who put this defense up should be able to bring his defense down."

Fred glanced thoughtfully at the windows. "You could be on to something there."

"What kind of mojo is on these windows? In the cars? What keeps the sun out? That same mojo could keep the soul out of him. No food. No nourishment. If the Vespara part of him is dying that leaves the vampire and then a pointy little piece of wood ought to kill him dead.." Spike was beaming, clearly proud of himself.

The corner of Angelís mouth lifted up. "You may be useful after all, Spike." To Fred, he added, "Find out what they did to make this place vampire friendly. Find out who was responsible and when you do, bring them to me."

"How will you get The Immortal here? Heís so elusive." Fred said.

"Have you met Buffy yet, Fred?" Spike asked.

Fred shook her head.

"No one, demon or not, would be able to stay away from her if she called."

<<>><<>>

Buffy was about to make her way out of the hotel when the phone rang again. She glared at it, contemplated breaking it into two pieces, and then determined that she didnít want to be kicked out of the hotel just yet. The short walk across the room felt like the last walk of a convicted felon to her. On the fourth ring she picked it up, absently massaging her leg where the latest injection seemed to be more potent than the last.

"Hello?"

"Buffy?"

"Yes."

"Itís Spike."

"I gathered that by the whole recognizing your voice thing."

"I can see that you are still just a right ray of bitter sunshine."

"Okay. What do you want?"

"You didnít come here for your treatment. The doc said you should have had two already. Every six hours and whatnot."

"I feel better. And I have an aversion to freaky doctors who work at freaky offices that have freaky infirmaries in them."

"You gave us your word."

"Yeah, sucks to be you. Hah, no pun intended."

"Buffy," Spike said gently. "Can we just get together or something? Talk? I mean, this is getting ridiculous. Youíre mad at me for coming back and not telling you, and I get that, but I want to know why youíre mad at the rest of the world."

"Youíre right. I am angry at the world." Buffy checked her watch. "But the world has a way of making it up to me every few hours like clockwork. See, the sun goes down, the uglies come out, and I get to release some agression by stomping a hole through their asses. Free therapy. And the sun is setting so I should get out there and start my session."

"Youíre slaying? After last night? Angel said -- "

Buffy chuckled, more to herself than him. "Once upon a time, a very annoying Angel told me that Los Angeles was his town. Guess what? He was just evicted."

"Buffy," Spike wearily said. He heard the click on the other end. "Slayer? Buffy? Shit."

Slamming the receiver down he glanced at Angel. "Sheís heading out to slay. And she really hates you, by the way."

Angel adjusted his duster, which he had just pulled on, and shouldered a tranquilizer gun. "Ready?"

"Have you lost your sodding mind?" Spike growled and made a move for the gun. "You wonít be shooting her."

Angel shoved him backward. "If sheís losing her soul, if she harms a human being, she wonít be able to live with that. You and I both know it. If we canít get through to her ourselves then this is our alternative."

"You saw the way it affected her. What if it kills her this time? What then?" Spike shouted.

"It wonít. Fred gave it to me. Itís just a sedative. She wonít even go under."

"And then what?"

"Then we find out if her soul is fucked up and we use her to lure The Immortal here."

"Oh, so she gets to become the bait? Is that it? We guinea pig her and then offer her up as some kind of lure?" Spike laughed sarcastically. "You really are a piece of work."

"Iím saving her from herself."

"You keep telling yourself that."

Angel threw the stake he was holding across the room where it embedded into the wall. "I have her best interest at heart. I think you have a piece of ass in mind. See, thatís the difference between you and me. Buffy was my soulmate! She was my everything and I loved her in ways that you will never begin to understand. Thatís why I *can* do this. I know her inside and out and I know that if sheís losing it, she would want to be stopped. You look at her and you see --"

"I look at her and I see everything!" Spike yelled. "I see the sun rise. I see my soul! I see goodness and purpose and more than you could ever imagine. I see the girl that I love. The girl that I loved even when I had no soul, was without conscience, and without remorse. I see the girl that looked at me and saw past the monster. And yes, I see her writhing beneath me, calling my name. MY name a million times. Not yours! Never yours! Your soulmate? You murdered your soulmate a million times before I got there! I fixed what you broke. And-"

"Guys!" Fred shouted from the doorway. She was staring back and forth from one to the other in shock.

"What?" Spike fairly screamed.

"The whole place can hear you."

"You people can fix this place so that vampires can walk around in the sun, but you canít spend some money for thicker walls? Bloody poofters," Spike snarled.

Angel stalked across the room and pulled the stake out of the wall. It promptly crumbled in his palm and he sighed. "Why is anyone still here? Itís after seven."

"Iíve got several volunteers helping me look into the whole defense theory. Weíve commissioned the shamans who performed the rituals on the windows and they should be here sometime after midnight to go over the material we have about The Immortal." She glanced from one vampire to the other. "You guys have to focus. If this Slayer is losing her soul or if sheís lost it she could be more dangerous than anything weíve ever faced. I mean, that kind of power with no moral code?"

"We know, luv," Spike replied through gritted teeth. "What the hell did you give him a sedative for?"

"Itís okay, Fred." Angel threw the stake into the trash and rifled through his desk for another one. "Weíll figure something out."

Fred gave them both a weak smile. "Just ... donít think of her as Buffy. Think of her as someone who could potentially be dangerous and stuff. Because sheís making everyone -"

"Youíre not helping." Spike told her as he walked out of the office.

Angel squeezed her hand as he passed her. "I know youíll figure out your end."

Fred watched them as they boarded the elevator.

It was going to be a long night and she wasnít even convinced that Buffy was worth the trouble. Sure, Buffy was a legendary Slayer, but anyone who could cause two creatures of the night to totally forget what was important was clearly not a very good person.

<<>><<>>

The music inside the club was vibrating. Buffy could feel it thumping in her chest as she sidled up to the bar and motioned for the bartender. He gave her a smile and leaned closer. "Whatís it gonna be?"

Buffy glanced at the bottles lining the wall. "Got stuff to forget. I want something strong."

"My name is Trevor," he told her, grabbing a bottle of Hennessey off the wall and putting a shot glass in front of her. "And this is guaranteed to lighten the load."

Buffy downed the shot and motioned for another. After downing that one, she plucked money out of her wallet and told him to leave the bottle. He complied, but informed her that heíd call her a cab later if she wanted, then he moved down the bar to help someone else.

Bottle in hand, Buffy made her way to an empty table on the edge of the dancefloor. Thirty minutes later she had drained half the bottle and was beginning to lose the edge that had been with her the entire day. She even found herself smiling at a handsome man who gave her a flirty wave from across the room.

Her smile was enough encouragement for him. He made his way through the pulsating bodies and paused across from her. "This seat taken?"

"No, itís not." Buffy kicked the chair lightly and he caught it before it could tip over. "Sit down."

"You new in town?" the man asked, settling in the chair and peeling the label on his Budweiser.

"No."

"I just havenít seen you around before."

"You think you see everyone in Los Angeles? Itís a big place."

"Thatís true," he replied, then extended his hand across the table. "Iím Derrick."

"Buffy," she said, taking his extremely cool hand in hers. "Wow, you must have poor circulation. Youíre really cold. Almost like a dead person."

Derrick smiled and she noted the tiny points on his canines. "Well, I get nervous around a beautiful girl."

"How sweet!" She forced a giggle and took several long gulps from her bottle. She relished the burn as it flooded into her system and welcomed the light headed feel that accompanied it. "What do you do for a living?"

"Oh, you know. Movie producer."

"Oh!" Buffy feigned enthusiam. "Wow. Iím an actress."

"Really?" Derrick leaned in closer and gave her a dazzling smile. "I knew you had that look about you. I could get you a role in the film."

"Is it a scary movie?" She played along, all the while noting his entire lack of a reflection in the mirror that ran the length of the wall.

"Itís a vampire movie."

Buffy gasped enthusiastically. "I love vampire movies. And you know what else?"

"What?"

Leaning so close that their noses were almost touching, she said, "Iíve never had sex with a movie producer, but Iím thinking that we could step out into the alley and have a really, really good time. I could teach you things that would make you blush."

Derrick had the temerity to look shocked. "Are you saying what I think youíre saying?"

Finishing off her bottle, Buffy stood and motioned for him. He followed along closely. She could feel his eyes on her body and added a delightful sway to her hips with every step she took. Giving the pocket of her jeans a pat to reassure herself that the stake was indeed handy, she glanced behind her. He was still there, still grinning like a lovestruck teenager. She made her way to the exit and walked a short distance down the darkened alleyway.

"How do you like it, Derrick?"

"Any way you want to give it to me," he replied, grabbing her arms and pinning her back against the wall. He leaned in close to her ear and whispered, "Youíre hot as hell."

Buffy grinned, licking her lips. He watched her tongue as it darted out and his was an exact mirror image. "Tell me more about your movie, Derrick. Would I be the heroine?"

"Iím thinking victim. You know, slow, painful death." His grin widened as he tightened his grip on her. "Maybe in an alleyway. Maybe with teeth as deep in your neck as the cock in your pu --"

"I donít do victim well," she cut him off. "You know what I could do, though?"

"What?" He caught her earlobe between his teeth and lightly nipped it.

"I could be a vampire slayer." She felt him tense and he slowly pulled back, still holding her arms. "You know, slow, painful dusting in an alleyway just like this? With my stake further in your chest than your little dick could *ever* think of going."

She watched his throat constrict as he swallowed. "A Slayer?"

Batting her eyelashes innocently she gazed up at him. Then she brought her knee up between his legs so hard that she could have sworn she heard a bone crack. He howled and fell unceremoniously, sprawling on his back. Buffy pulled the stake out and straddled his waist, making every effort to grind her pelvis into his to cause as much pain as possible. "Do you still think Iím hot, Derrick? Still think I have the look? Think you can get it up one last time?"

"Buffy!"

She stopped gyrating and glanced behind her. Angel and Spike were both standing at the mouth of the alleyway. Rolling her eyes, she stared down at Derrick. "Sorry. It would have been the ride of your life."

She brought the stake down in one fell swoop. He dusted beneath her and she settled on the ground, still on her knees. Brushing dust off her shirt and jeans, she waited for them to arrive before she glanced up at them.

"Buffy," Angel said, staring down at her. "What -"

"Were you fucking him?" Spike spat out. "Thatís what it looked like. You were fucking him!"

Buffy grinned. "Yes, my amazing crotchless pants allowed me to have sex with him while fully clothed."

"What the hell were you doing?" Angel asked her, reaching to help her up.

With a shrug, Buffy got to her feet, swayed a little, then kicked the wall lightly with each foot to rid her shoes of the excess dust. "I was fucking *with* him. It gets so boring to just stake and go. Besides, a little play never hurt anyone."

"Are you drunk again?" Angel stepped closer, sniffing the air around her.

"Just in case no one has ever mentioned it," Buffy glanced up at him. "Thatís really unsettling. Youíre like a dog. Always sniffing blood and sniffing liquor. If I see you sniff someoneís ass then all bets are off."

Laughing at her own joke, Buffy leaned back against the wall. "I missed California. The ocean, the vampires, the Slaying of the vampires. Oooh, you know what we should do? Go for a swim in the ocean."

Angel picked her bag up off the ground and handed it to her. "I donít think youíre in any shape to be swimming right now."

"Please," Buffy replied. "I can hold my liquor."

"Iím sure you can," Angel told her, putting a steadying hand on her shoulder as she stumbled and regained her footing again. "Letís go grab a bite to eat and we can all talk."

"Talk, talk, talk. Thatís all you ever want to do." She put the bag over her arm and began to walk toward the road. "Have you ever seen a night so beautiful?"

Spike and Angel followed her closely and Spike said, "Not really. A million stars out."

Buffy paused and glanced up at the heavens. She had noticed the tranquilizer gun that was dangling off Angelís shoulder and knew that he wouldnít hesitate to use it. Deciding to play along, to buy herself some time, she said, "Letís go someplace dark and just watch the sky."

"Okay," Angel told her, taking her elbow and leading her toward his car.

"Some place dark and quiet," Buffy replied. "I just want to be quiet."

Angel exchanged a look with Spike as he helped her into the passenger seat of the car. Spike nodded and slipped into the backseat, where he contented himself to watch the streetlights play in her hair.

<<>><<>>

An hour later they pulled into an overlook where the city twinkled below them and the stars glittered above like magnificent jewels. Buffy finished the last of her fries and wadded up the paper, putting them into the bag. "Fast food. The food of champions."

She grinned and stepped from the car. Angel and Spike both followed her, flanking her sides. "You like the view?" Angel asked.

"Itís perfect. I came here once. Before I was the Slayer. I sneaked out of the house to meet a boy named Tyler and he brought me here on the back of his motorcycle." She pointed to a small patch of grass beside the protective railing of the cliffs. "I got my first kiss right there on a plaid blanket that smelled like mothballs. I thought that was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me."

"How old were you?" Spike asked.

"I was fourteen. And he had just turned seventeen. He broke up with me a week later and a month after that he wrapped his bike around a telephone pole and died instantly." She seemed to realize that she was letting her guard down and shook her head. "People are disappointing that way."

"How do you like Italy?" Angel asked her.

"Itís Italy," Buffy replied. The food had killed her buzz and her head was beginning to throb. "They speak funny and eat a lot of carbs."

"Are you happy there?" He watched her closely. Her eyes had a distinct out of focus look to them. Something beyond the alcohol.

"Is anyone ever really happy?" Buffy pushed off from the hood of the car, where she had been reclining, and walked to the edge of the cliffs. "I would be happy if I could fly." She stretched her arms out to the sides and relished the feel of the wind in her hair. "Iíd never land."

"Iím sure Dawn would take exception to that." Spike joined her, instinctively moving between her and the mouth of the cliffs.

"Dawn is with a very handsome, very perfect guy named Diego. I doubt sheíd notice."

"Well, then I would take exception," Spike replied.

"You didnít seem to take exception to me not knowing you were back," Buffy answered sweetly. "Not that I can even be surprised. Like we established. People are disappointing."

Clenching his jaw, Spike stared down at her upturned face. "You got stuff inside of you that you need to let out."

"I really donít." Buffy moved away. She glanced over her shoulder at the two of them and exhaled loudly. "You guys are going to attempt to psychoanalyze me. Arenít you? Thatís your mission."

"We just want to help." Angel took a step toward her, but she held up a hand, stopping him.

"Is that tranquilizer gun you tried, and failed, to hide in the alleyway supposed to be of service in this version of helping Buffy?" She didnít wait for a reply. "Because I gotta be honest, Iím not loving the after effects of whatever that crap was and Iíd like to avoid the whole being shot thing."

"I just brought it to -"

"Save me from myself?" Buffy queried. "Thatís probably your reasoning, but itís flawed, Angel. See? Iím kinda a lost cause. You donít realize that yet, but you will. And I really hope that I donít have to see you when you do piece it together and realize it because that would kinda suck. I might actually feel something for you besides anger and resentment and I just canít have that."

"Why?" Angel replied. "Why canít you feel?"

"Itís such a bother." Buffy glanced up at the sky and watched a shooting star blaze across the horizon. "Itís such a waste of time. You spent eons brooding and thinking and feeling and in the end it didnít accomplish anything."

"I did." Angel told her. "I accomplished a lot. I learned how to love you."

With a very loud snort, Buffy crossed her arms. "You loved me so much that you left me. Left town, even. You couldnít be far enough away from me. And then Riley left. Giles left. And Spike." She looked at the blond who stood a little straighter. "You left me, too. So why should I feel anything good about any of you people when youíve been a constant, say it with me now, disappointment?"

"Life is disappointing, love." Spike moved to stand next to her. "But we take what lessons we can get and move on."

"Thatís what Iím doing. Iím moving on."

"Without your friends?" Angel asked.

"That was their choice." Buffy turned to look back out over the city. "You heard Gilesís version of events. Wanna hear mine?"

"Iíd love to." Angel sat down on the railing so he could watch her, his back to the city. Spike sat a few feet away.

"Oh, a captive audience." Running her hands through her hair, she sighed. "Where do I start?"

"What happened with you and Red?" Spike asked.

"Willow chose Kennedy."

Spike gave her an incredulous look. "You wanted to be a lesbian with Willow?"

"No, idiot," Buffy shot back. "Kennedy and I never saw eye to eye about *anything*. She hated me and I hated her. After a few weeks of grating on each otherís nerves we came to blows over something so stupid and trivial that I donít even remember what it was. But I was so mad that I kicked her ass. Faith broke it up and by then I realized that it had gone too far. I mean, Kennedy was kinda hurt. So, I turned around to get the first aid kit and Kennedy stabbed me in the back." She lifted her shirt, revealing the scar. "Willow saw the entire thing and instead of helping me or saying anything, she took Kennedy and left. For a long time. I left Italy before she came back. And if either one of you try to say that she was right to do that, this conversation ends."

"Fair enough. What happened with Giles?" Angel asked.

"He forgot every single thing I ever did that was good. He told me that I wasnít the best person to be leading these girls, the new Slayers. In an instant he took all of the glory out of what Iíve done and diminished it down to just the mistakes Iíve made. He chose to put Faith in charge and sheís done way more bad shit than me!"

"Buffy, in his defense, he thought you needed a break." Angel stated in a low voice. "He said that you were very distraught over the whole Kennedy thing and he felt like you jumping another Slayer in front of everyone was out of line."

"Yeah, but I didnít jump her. Spike, tell him how they all kicked me out of my house! My own house!"

"I have." Spike shook his head. "You see that Iím not the pansy ass defending them. If you hate them, Iíll hate them, too."

Angel smacked him hard on the back of the head. "Grow a pair!"

Spike got to his feet and hovered a second over Angel, who looked bored and made a show of yawning. Turning, Spike joined Buffy and said, "We could shove him over if we did it quick like." He moved closer to her when he noticed how pale she had become. "You okay, love?"

Buffy reached up and touched the scar on his eyebrow. "Did it hurt? When you got it?"

"Like the dickens." Spike traced the scar with his own fingertip. "Left a big scar, huh? I wouldnít know. I canít see it."

"Mine are inside. They used to hurt like the dickens, too." She brushed past them and retrieved her bag from the car, fishing a flask out of the bottom. Draining the contents, she wiped her mouth off on her sleeve and gazed at the two of them. "Is there anything else? What more do you need to know before you either shoot me or take me back to my car."

"Is your soul okay?" Angel asked her point blank. "Or has The Immortal whispered out pieces of it?"

Buffy raised her eyebrow in shock. "Apparently youíve done your homework. If you got that far then you must know the answer."

Spike felt his heart fall into the pit of his stomach. "Can we get it back?"

She looked at him through glassy eyes, her face a mask. "The question is not whether or not you can get it back. The question is why would I let you?"

<<>><<>>

Angel moved around the car and gripped her upper arms, shaking her harder than he probably should have. "Tell us! Stop playing games and tell us if your soul has been tampered with."

Buffy, who had been very cautious because of the presence of the tranquilizer gun, felt rage began to build inside of her with every rough movement he made. "Let me go!" she finally yelled, shoving him so hard that he landed on his backside near the mouth of the cliffs. "You son of a -"

"Hey!" Spike shouted, grabbing Buffy as she lunged toward Angel.

Without thinking at all, Buffy tossed him easily over her shoulder and he landed with a loud thud right next to Angel. Grabbing her bag, Buffy made a move to run, but she was tackled and sailed through the air, landing hard on her elbow and knee. She cried out, more from shock than pain, and rolled onto her side.

A shadow fell across her and she saw Angel standing there, hand extended. "Get up," he said.

She deftly kicked his feet out from under him then brought her leg down hard, catching him across the face with her boot. His face changed immediately and he grabbed her as she stumbled to her feet, pulling her back against his chest. "Stop it, Buffy!" he growled, low in her ear.

"Let go!" Buffy screamed, jerking her head backwards into his nose and mouth. He grunted loudly and released her. She spun and kicked out again, this time sending him flying toward the small patch of grass she had indicated early.

Her bag was lying near the back tire of the car and as she limped toward it, she heard a click, then felt a sharp prick in her leg. Glancing down, she saw a small dart and she reached for it. But before she could pull it free, her legs buckled.

Angel shot to his feet and pinned her back against the car before she could hit the ground. He watched her head roll backwards, her eyes close, and glanced over at Spike. "Weíre not shooting her, huh?"

"I figured sheíd kill me when she was done with you. Survival instinct and all that rot."

"Bastard," Buffy mumbled, unable to push Angel away, unable to free herself. At once her body felt like it had been thoroughly massaged. She couldnít remember ever feeling so completely at ease, so completely relaxed.

Angel held her easily, all the fight apparently gone from her body. He pinned both of her arms at her sides and held her there. "Youíre going to tell us exactly what happened with The Immortal, Buffy, and youíre going to start right now."

"Sleepy," she replied, leaning her head forward against his chest. "I want to go home."

"Not until you talk." Angel picked her up and told Spike to open the car door. He slipped her into the seat, grabbed her bag and waited for Spike to crawl into the back before he made his way to the driverís side. Once inside, he regarded her for several seconds. "How did you meet The Immortal?"

"I already told you. In London."

"What did he want from you?" Angel grabbed a napkin from the bag that Buffyís food had come in and held it to his lip, which had been cut in the fight.

Buffy glanced over at him. "Youíre bleeding."

"Yes, I am."

"Good."

"What did he want from you?" Angel said a little louder.

"He offered me a job. I already told you that, too."

"What kind of job?"

Buffy leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes. "He needed a secretary."

"Bull shit," Spike said, leaning between the two bucket seats so he could see her. "Why would he need a secretary?"

"Why does Angel need a secretary?" Buffy asked. "Because The Immortal canít do jack for himself. Thatís why."

"What did you have to do?" Angel pressed.

"You know, file his papers, balance his finances, kill his enemies."

"You killed for him," Spike snorted angrily. "What, the big bad has no balls of his own?"

"A Vespara demon is full of purity and goodness when it feeds." Buffy stared out the window, wondering how long she would feel like she was floating outside her body. "They canít kill on their own. Not even another demon. They donít have it in them unless they havenít fed on a fresh soul and then they only do it to replenish themselves. He has enemies who would do anything to kill him. I took care of that problem."

"So you were his bodyguard?"

Buffy regarded Spike over her shoulder. "What? Arenít you Angelís bodyguard? Didnít you just shoot me for your man?"

Spike narrowed his eyes, but before he could form a reply, Angel interrupted. "Did he whisper your soul?"

Buffy stopped scowling at Spike and tried to focus on Angel, who seemed to be floating in a circular pattern in front of her. "Yes. I - I know he did at least once, but I donít know if thatís all. I was never really sure if he did or if it was me building up walls against my friends. Either could be true."

Spike asked quietly. "Is that really why you cut your friends out of your life?"

"They cut me. Remember Sunnydale? They kicked me out of my own house. They chose Faith as their leader. I didnít do that."

Spike nodded. "I remember, Slayer, but I also remember that you all fought side by side afterwards. That counts for something."

"I donít care." Buffy closed her eyes again. "Iím dizzy."

"If you know that he can take your soul then why are you still around him?" Angel said.

"I canít talk about this, okay?" Putting her face in her hands, she tried hard to gain some kind of control over whatever it was in the tranquilizer gun this time that had her ready to spill her guts. "You gave me some souped up truth serum. I know you did!"

"You never could lie to me," Angel told her, laying his hand on her shoulder. "Iím not going to judge you. Iím not going to get upset. Whatever it is, we can fight it together."

Spike rolled his eyes heavenward. "Just canít keep your hands off .." he mumbled under his breath. Angel shot him a look, so Spike cleared his throat and added, "Heís right. We can help you."

Buffy turned in the seat and regarded both of them. For so long Angel had been her life, her everything. Looking at him now she could easily remember pouring her heart out to him about everything from school, to homework, to her motherís boyfriend. She could even remember what it felt like to curl into his lap and cry against his chest, his big, strong arms wrapped tightly around her. She could almost feel his lips against her ear as he whispered that he would always be there for her.

She turned her attention to Spike, wishing she could trace the cool plane of his cheek, rub her thumb over the his high cheekbone and fall asleep with his hand on her hip, the way they used to do. She remembered the way he took care of Dawn, the way he had held her wounded hands in his the night that she had clawed her way from the grave. She remembered the ecstasy in his arms, the way he knew every curve of her body. The way he held her that final night, telling her over and over again that it would be okay.

They were both her champions. Both were her salvation at different times in her life. Both would have died for her to save her a second of agony and here they were again, pleading with her, ready to fight The Immortal for her.

And she was fighting them every step of the way.

The pain was surfacing. Becoming something tangible. She needed the serum.

Swallowing hard, she took a deep breath. "Iíll tell you everything. I just need to go to my hotel room first."

"No," Angel and Spike replied together.

Her shirt felt too tight across her chest as her heart constricted painfully, flooding her with beautiful reminders of why she would trust the both of them with her life. With Dawnís life. With the fate of the world.

"Donít," she shied away when Angel reached for her again and fumbled with the door. "I- I have to get some air."

Angel locked the door, but cracked the window. When Buffy turned to look at him, there was a pleading in her eyes that had been absent since heíd seen her. For the first time since she had come to Los Angeles, the dead, vacant look was gone from her face and her eyes actually sparkled with unshed tears.

"Heís going to be able to find me if I donít stop it." Buffy said quickly, her voice cracking. "I have to stop the emotion. I have to stop the pain. Please take me to my hotel. Please! Heíll come and Iím not ready for him to come."

"What do you mean stop the pain?" Angel asked.

"You just have to trust me. I know that I havenít given you a reason to, but Angel, I know what Iím doing. Take me to the hotel and then Iíll tell you everything. I swear. But you have to take me right now." She leaned across him and started the engine, then squeezed his hand. "You can shoot me again if you need to."

The tears threatened to spill when he gently caressed her hand. "Please," she cried. "He doesnít know Iím here. He canít find unless he feels me and he feels pain."

"I think we should go," Spike said, staring at their entwined fingers.

Buffy gave him a look of gratitude as Angel put the car in reverse and began the descent into the city.

<<>><<>>

When they arrived at the hotel, they exited quickly, surrendering Angelís car to the valet. Buffy didnít wait for the elevator and instead took the stairs two at a time all the way to the tenth floor, then she fairly sprinted down the hallway. Angel and Spike stayed close to her and Spike finally took pity and opened the door when her third attempt to insert the key failed.

Making her way across the room, she grabbed another bag, then told Spike and Angel to stand closer together. Handing Spike the case that contained the serum, she turned and poured yellow powder from a leather pouch in a perfect circle around the two of them, then bowed innocently beside them. "Let our voices carry only to our own ears." She stood and stepped across the powder.

"Itís okay to talk now. He canít find me inside the circle." She seized the case that contained the serum from Spike and flipped it open. Talking quickly, she began to fill the needle with the pink liquid in the vials. "The gypsies gave it to me. The Immortal has been feeding off their babies for years and when he took a piece of me, they found me. Apparently theyíd been searching for the lost souls of their loved ones and found pieces of me inside of him. I didnít believe them at first, when they told me what he was capable of. So, they whisked me off to where he was performing his soul sucking thing on a little baby. Something happened to the baby and he took its soul right out of its mouth. It was horrible. I knew then that I would have to stop him."

Absently, she held the needle in her teeth and slipped her pants over her hips, appearing nonchalant at the fact that she wore a thong beneath. She stepped from them and thumped the syringe a couple of times to rid it of any air pocket.s

Angel and Spike were too distracted by the bruises and scabs that mottled her thighs to notice, however. Angel ran a hand through his hair and shook his head in disbelief. "Youíre shooting up?"

She calmed herself for his benefit. "It inhibits the good parts of my soul. The parts that he wants. The parts that draw him to me. Right now he thinks that he took too much of me and he feels like hell for it. If he finds out that there are still pieces of me in here, heíll know what Iíve been doing and it wonít work."

"What wonít work?" asked Spike, leaning down to examine a particularly large bruise. He swore, lightly touching the angry blue area with the tip of his finger. "Jesus, Buffy! What the hell are you doing? Look at this mess!"

"He has to completely take my soul. A soul that is basically dead, lacking human emotion, and when itís inside of him heíll be weakened. Heíll be weak enough that we can kill him, but I canít do it yet. Iím supposed to take it for four more weeks and then Iíll be completely devoid of what it takes to feed him."

"Youíre killing your soul!?" Angel yelled.

"No!" Buffy yelled back. "Itís not permanent. As soon as he dies it will come back to me. God, Iím not explaining this right. The gypsies have taken care of it, okay?"

"How do you know?" Angel was so angry that he was shaking. "Youíll have to forgive me for reminding you that the gypsies arenít exactly trustworthy people, Buffy. Remember that little clause they gave me? As if suffering wasnít enough?"

"It will work," she replied softly. "It has to work."

"If itís this easy," Spike said, "then why havenít they done it before?"

"They needed a warriorís soul. A soul that would fight for control of the demon and be strong enough to get it. See, when Iím on this serum I kinda see things in terms of demons evil, Slayer good. When my soul is inside a demon the natural thing for it to do will be to fight. I donít see good demons when Iím on this stuff." She looked from one to the other. "I donít even see past the demons in you when Iím on it."

"All the more reason for you leave it alone." Spike took the case from her and looked at the pink vials. "Fred is working on another way. A better way to stop this thing."

Buffy snatched the case from him and closed it, still clutching the filled needle in her hand. "You donít know what it feels like to wake up and not care if your friends live or die. Thatís the piece of me he took. My love for them. It was my strongest emotion the night he took it and I want that back because I can remember it. I just canít feel it."

"How long have you been taking this?" Angel demanded.

"A few weeks. I have to take it for three months before Iím ready. See, right now I have to keep taking it to dull everything, but it keeps coming back ... the emotion, the pain. I feel it trying to inch its way in because the serum hasnít had time to work. Yet."

"Itís killing you." Angel fought to control the emotion that was raging through him. Her soul. Her soul was on the line and she was willing to offer it up for the taking. "Buffy, you donít realize what it means to not have a soul. Even for a second. Letís say he takes it from you and it goes inside him. You wonít be able to kill him then because you wonít be able to do whatís right without your soul. Donít you get it? Thatís what makes you who you are. Thatís what makes you a Slayer. Itís inside of you. Right and wrong. Itís what guides you and without that youíre not going to care if he lives or dies. Youíll be an evil, heartless creature."

"No," Buffy argued. "Iíll know what I have to do and I will do it. I still know right from wrong."

"There are other ways." Spike stated as calmly as he could. "Wolfram and Hart can make it so that he canít read you or find you, Buffy. They can do things that you wouldnít believe."

"Iíve come this far and Iíll be damned if I run and hide while some creepy law firm decides how to proceed." Buffy held up the needle. "The answer is inside this serum. Look, Iíve been preparing for this for a while. Iím not going to screw this up. It makes me feel-"

"I think you like the way it makes you feel," Angel told her. "I think you like hiding behind the numbness because youíre weak. Youíre too weak to face the fact that you fucked up by letting him into your life so youíre taking the easy road out. You can rationalize it all you want, but the truth of the matter is that you arenít in control and you havenít been in control for a hell of a long time."

Buffyís face contorted with rage. "Donít you dare talk to me like that. Iím doing what I have to do to fix what happened."

"It happened because of you! And youíre a coward. You are scared of the pain. Youíre scared of facing up to Giles and explaining why you shirked your responsibilities. Youíre scared of admitting that you fell for the wrong guy again and he got the better of you." Angelís voice was so loud that Buffy visibly flinched with almost every word. "Youíre doing what you have to do to hide, Buffy. Thatís all youíre doing."

Her chin began to tremble and she turned her back to them, careful not to step outside the circle. They didnít notice that the needle had slipped into her skin or that the contents were quickly dispensed, but when she turned back to them her eyes had gone cold, hollow, and her voice had lost every ounce of passion.

"You know the way out." She held out her hand, motioning for the case that Spike held firmly in his hand. "Iíll be needing that."

Cocking his head to one side, Spike grinned in a devilish way.

Then he opened the case, turned it upside down so that the remaining vials clattered onto the carpet.

Then together, Angel and Spike stomped every last one of them until there was nothing left except a bright pink stain that faded slowly before their eyes.

<<>><<>>

It took Buffy several moments to realize what had happened. She stood, arms at her sides, jaw slack, staring at the spot on the carpet until Spike reached toward her and gently shook her. She knew he was speaking to her, but the anger she felt rang loudly in her ears, effectively drowning him out.

Wordlessly, she stepped from the circle, her rage boiling inside her. She knew that there was a stake in her bag. She could stake both of them easily. But then what, a part of her brain rationalized, youíre back at square one and at least they know what happened, they understand.

She ran her hand over her face. Spike and Angel were both talking to her now, but she effectively tuned them both out. Maybe she could call the gypsies, explain what happened. The serum regenerated in the bottles anyway. Maybe she had an empty bottle back home that had refilled itself. Yes, surely that would be okay. Glancing at her watch, she knew sheíd have a while, maybe half a day, possibly an entire day, before The Immortal would actually break through the wall she had built up. Before the serum was out of her system.

If she could just stay neutral about everything ... calm.

"Buffy," Spike said for the millionth time. "Itís okay. We can-"

"Stop saying my name," Buffy replied without inflection. She walked over to where her suitcase was opened in the corner and picked it up, tossing it on the bed where the contents poured haphazardly on the comforter. Then she slipped a pair of jeans over her slim hips and shoved her feet into a pair of thongs.

They watched as she began to pack her belongings, carelessly tossing her clothing into the case. "What are you doing?" Angel finally asked, when she headed toward the bathroom.

Whirling on her heel, Buffy marched back into the room. "I canít stay here. I have to go back to Italy and -"

"Youíre staying with me." Angel snapped the suitcase closed and picked it up. "Is this everything?"

Buffy could scarcely believe her ears. "Have you been listening to me at all? Have you heard one thing Iíve said?" She nodded toward the protective circle, quickly said the chant, and stepped inside, waiting until they followed her. "Iím pretty sure I felt him earlier when I was in the car. I think maybe he knows something is up and thatís why Iím using the circle. When Iím on the serum he canít read anything about me."

"Then why are we in this circle?" Angel asked. "You just used it, right?"

"Because Iím pissed as hell! And I donít know if I have enough serum inside me now to do jack shit! Thatís why! Because Iíd rather be safe than sorry! Because I donít know how to fight him! I explained this!"

"Explain it better," Spike growled. "Explain it all!"

"God," Buffy practically shouted. She fought to compose herself, to suppress the raw annoyance and furor that was raging inside her. "A Vespara demon always has a connection to the people whose soul it whispers. As long as Iím alive the little piece of me he took will be alive. It wonít always be strong, but itís there. It gives us a link to one another. A very bad link that lets him feel what I feel and, at times, read my mind. He can even control me if he wants to! When Iím on the serum it protects me from any outside interference and makes him think that he took all of me that he wanted. I told you this already!"

"Do it again!" Spike snapped. "Because none of it makes any sense to me."

"What do you want to know?" She crossed her arms and glared at him.

"Did you sleep with him?" Spike crossed his as well.

"Iím not answering that because itís none of your business."

"Fine." Spike shrugged. "Why are you so scared of him?"

She swallowed hard and then looked away. "You donít know what heís capable of."

Angel shook his head. "But you said that he doesnít possess what it takes to harm anyone. If he canít kill you then what-"

"Itís up here." Buffy tapped her temple with a finger. "The things he can do up here are worse than death. I want it to stop. It has to stop."

"Come to Wolfram and Hart. There are powerful spells that prevent people from using any kind of external forces to harm us there. Hell, even the sun canít hurt a vampire inside those walls." Angel indicated the room at large. "Youíre alone here and youíll be alone in Italy, but together we can fight this thing.

Buffy, who was so exhausted and tired of fighting and tired of not knowing what would happen next, chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully. Maybe she would be safe there. Maybe she could contact the gypsies again. Maybe ... "If I come there you have to promise me that you wonít bring Giles or the others into the situation."

"You have that promise," Angel replied softly. "Itís us. Only us."

"Okay, then." Buffy stepped out of the circle and finished her packing.

<<>><<>>

Angel opened the door of his apartment and stepped back, allowing Buffy to enter first. When he made a move to follow, Spike nudged him out of the way and stepped in behind Buffy. Angel caught the back of his duster and pulled him back into the hallway. "I believe you live across the hall."

Spike shrugged him off and adjusted his coat. "Protection in numbers I always say."

"Like hell." Angel motioned for him to leave, but Spike shook his head and moved across the room, setting Buffyís suitcase beside the couch. Buffy was at the window, staring down at the flickering lights of the city.

"Weíre so high up," she commented, more to herself than anyone else. The ride in the car had been silent. She had alternately chewed her fingernails and bottom lip while trying to drown out the worry that had begun to consume her. She turned to look at her two companions and attempted a weak smile. "This is a far cry from your apartment in Sunnydale, Angel, but it still doesnít compare to the mansion."

"Yeah, but here I can walk around in the sun." He put down the overnight bag he had carried for her and clasped his hands in front of him. "Wolfram and Hart own this entire building. Youíve been to the top floor, which serves as our main office. This is the twelfth floor, and if you get hungry there is a huge cafeteria on the eighth floor. I can have them prepare anything you want."

Buffy nodded and glanced around the room. There were small accents that were purely Angel. The walls were adorned with masculine paintings that depicted several scenes from the eighteenth century. She glanced at the one closest to her and saw the familiar A scrawled in one corner. "You painted these?"

He smiled almost shyly. "It gets boring here sometimes."

"Theyíre nice," Buffy said honestly.

"If you like nancy boy watercolors," Spike mumbled loud enough for them to hear. When they both looked at him, he added, "What? I know good art when I see it. Iíve seen better on the sides of trains!"

"I seem to recall you painting Angel on your punching bag, Spike," Buffy replied. "Do I even have to go there?"

Spike scowled. "Yeah, well itís not like I had a good subject."

"Must have been for you to attempt my likeness." Angel smirked.

Buffy rolled her eyes heavenward. "Can we not? I think maybe we should be concentrating on the fact that I donít have enough sacred powder for many more circles and we donít know if this place can prevent The Immortal from gaining access to me."

"How long before the serum wears off?" Angel asked.

"Oh, now youíre worried about it? You didnít seem to have a single fucking care in the world when you were stomping it into the ground, did you? Asshole."

Spike raised his scarred eyebrow. "Iíd say that itís still working."

"And youíre an asshole, too!" Buffy yelled. "I told you both everything that was happening and you destroyed my chances!"

"Your chances are not destroyed. Fred is already working on the problem." Angel responded softly. "I know youíre upset and I know that youíre emotions are going to be in turmoil when they do come back to you completely, but youíre not going to do this alone. Weíre here now and we can help."

"Then God help us all!" Buffy screamed.

Angel and Spike watched as she stormed across the room, yanked open a door and disappeared into a darkened room, slamming it behind her.

"You think she realizes thatís the broom closet?" Spike asked.

There was a loud clattering, a muffled curse, and then silence.

"Yep," Angel replied. "I think she does."

"Should we go get her?"

Shaking his head, Angel chuckled quietly. "There is a broom in there. It has a wooden handle."

"I see your point."

Several minutes went by before Buffy emerged again. She didnít make eye contact, but her cheeks were flaming red. When she spoke, her tone was calm, quiet and unwavering. "Where am I sleeping?"

"Down the hall. Second door on the left."

She picked up her overnight bag, flung it over her shoulder and left the room.

Giving them a one fingered salute as she did so.

<<>><<>>

Fred knocked on Angelís door at ten a.m. the following morning. Her hair was frizzy and her clothing, the same she had worn the night before, was disheveled. She had the distinctly wide eyed appearance of someone who had come close to overdosing on coffee. When Angel answered the door she brushed past him, pulling a handtruck with neatly packed boxes of files.

"Before you say anything," Fred said quickly, depositing the boxes next to the couch. "I need the restroom."

"Youíll have to go to go to Spikeís place," Angel replied, lifting the lid on one of the boxes. "Buffy is in the shower."

Fred gasped. "She spent the night? Here? With you?"

Angel rifled through the contents in the box, satisfied that Fred had done her homework. "It wasnít safe for her to be alone."

"Hello? Sheís a Slayer." Fred crossed her arms over her chest. "And Nina stopped by looking for you last night."

He suddenly remembered that Nina had gotten concert tickets and asked him to go. "Damn. What did you tell her?"

"I told her that you were on a very important case and we couldnít disturb you. I like her, Angel. I think you should tell her the truth."

"That was the truth. I am on a very important case and thatís all there is to it."

Fred put her hands on her narrow hips. "And it doesnít matter at all to you that Buffy is like, your greatest love?"

"Sheís a client."

"Is she paying?"

Slipping the lid back on the box, Angel glared at her. "Do you have a problem with Buffy?"

"I have a problem with what she did to Mort and I have an even bigger problem watching what she does to you and Spike."

"You donít know the whole story."

"Donít I? Cordelia told me everything. You even told me a lot of it."

"Well, if you have this kind of impression of her then I must not have told it right."

"What impression should I have? Have you seen Mort? I havenít even met her yet and I know that anyone who could do that to someone like Mort is heartless."

"She was mad at me. Thatís all it was."

"Thatís not very reassuring." Fred handed him a folder that had been stuck between two of the boxes. "Sheís got quite a reputation for herself in Europe. They call her le petit tueur."

"The small killer." Angel opened the folder and saw an illustration of Buffy in action. Her hair was flying wildly, her eyes were large and full of satisfaction, and her mouth was drawn back in a large, demented smile. In one hand she held a dagger and in the other she held what appeared to be a human child. "I donít get it."

"The demon underworld claims that she brings children to The Immortal. They claim that she takes life, demon or human, without pity or remorse. All for him."

"Buffy would never do that." Angel closed the folder and held it back out toward Fred. "I asked you to find out information about the Immortal. You turned it into-"

She wouldnít accept the folder from him. "This was the information I found, Angel. All Vespara demons have someone who gets their prey for them because they canít. According to all the information Iíve gathered, Buffy is that person."

"Weíre talking about human lives here." Angel raised his voice. "Weíre talking about a woman who values human life more than anyone Iíve ever met. Buffy would not do that!"

Spike, who had been sleeping soundly in the hallway outside Buffyís room, shambled into the living room with a blanket wrapped around him. "Good job waking the dead," he said as he surveyed the boxes.

Angel handed him the file that contained the drawing of Buffy. "Please tell Fred that this is impossible."

Spike rubbed his eyes, gave a loud, fake yawn, and opened the folder. He scanned the artwork, then flipped through the pages, scanning over the information. "Bloody hell," he mumbled, turning the pages faster. "The little killer, eh? Thatís my girl."

Angel snatched the folder and hit the other vampire on the head with it. "Fred thinks sheís been killing people!"

"Well, she hasnít been herself lately, has she? What with the soul issues." Spike pulled the blanket further around him.

"What soul issues?" Fred glanced between the two of them.

"Oh!" Spike dug around in his pocket and produced an unharmed vial of the serum. "Le petit tueur has been killing her soul with this stuff. Thought maybe you could have a go at figuring out whatís inside of it."

Fred accepted the vial and held it up to the light. "She drinks it?"

"Injects it." Spike cocked his head to one side. "Waterís stopped running. Sheíll be out and about in a second all hell bent on making us suffer."

Fred stuffed the small bottle into her pocket and clasped her hands in front of her innocently. "So maybe sheís been on this stuff and that made her become a heartless monster?"

"Sheís not-"

But they stopped talking when Buffy entered the room. She had on a pair of Snow White pajamas and was gently towelling her hair. When she saw Fred, she came across the room, put the towel over her arm and held out her hand. "You must be Fred, Iím Buffy."

Fred could not argue that Buffy was beautiful, even with her hair wet. Her skin was vibrant and had a healthy glow from the shower and her luminous eyes looked genuine as the two women shook hands. Fred felt herself smiling in return. Surely a pretty little blond girl who wore Snow White pajamas and dainty satin slippers could not be a cold blooded killer. "Itís nice to meet you," Fred replied. "God, youíre such a little thing."

"I get that a lot." Buffy went back to toweling her hair. "Willow told me a lot about you. She thinks highly of you."

"These two are the same way about you." Fred nodded at Angel and Spike. "What with the high thinking."

"What is this?" Spike had been rifling through the box that contained the files and had pulled out a small wooden cylinder.

"Oh!" Fred took it from Spike and pulled a note from her pocket. "Itís the weirdest thing. No one can open it. Harmony said that it was delivered yester and Wesley did a half translation on the note, but itís pretty sketchy."

"Looks simple enough." Buffy took the cylinder, held it in her palm, and poked it lightly. It sprang apart, revealing a key inside, which she handed to Fred. "Have you eaten yet?" Buffy asked sweetly. "Angel told me there is a cafeteria around here and Iím starved."

"Oh!" Fred nodded. "I havenít eaten since last night. Iím famished."

"Let me change and we can get something." Buffy turned around, still ignoring the two other people in the room, and went down the hallway.

"We have a problem." Fred said as calmly as she could, examining the key in her hand.

"What kind of problem?" Angel asked.

"Read the translation." She handed Angel the note.

Angel read it, then read it again. Spike rolled his eyes. "Out loud!"

Swallowing hard, Angel said, "It can only be open by someone who doesnít believe in love."

Spike cocked his head to one side. "Damn. That canít be right."

To Fred, Angel said. "Listen, Spike wasnít kidding about her using that stuff to mess with her soul. She may not be completely back to herself so keep a close eye on her."

Fred nodded. "You donít think sheís going to be tempted to treat me like Mort, right? Because Iíve seen Faith in action and I know what-"

"Donít even think that. Youíll be fine."

Hoping that he sensed her apprehension, she sunk onto the sofa and waited until Buffy was ready.

<<>><<>>

"What do you think of the food?" Fred asked, watching as Buffy gently tapped her scrambled egg with the prongs of her fork. "Is it bad?"

Buffy, who had her head propped on her hand as she surveyed the patrons of the cafeteria, realized what she was doing and laid her fork to the side. "Itís fine. Just not as hungry as I thought."

"You look like youíre a million miles away." Fred piled butter onto her pancakes, drowned them in syrup and took a big bite. "Oh my god. Yum!" she moaned, her mouth quite full.

Despite her determination to locate an easy way to escape Wolfram and Hart, Buffy found herself sidetracked by her own pancakes and followed the other girlís lead. They were soon bonding over the sticky, wonderful, goodness that was the homemade maple syrup. The conversation ranged from Fredís family, to Dawn, and then to Europe, where Buffy admitted that Italy was beautiful, but she hadnít realized how much she missed California until she had come back.

They made plans to head to In and Out Burger as soon as they could, and stood, carrying their trays toward the garbarge can. A pretty woman with soft, smooth blond hair, waved toward Fred, who suddenly looked like she had been caught doing something incredibly wrong.

Buffy heard her whispering to herself and strained her ears to hear better. "What?"

Before Fred could reply, Nina had joined them at the trash can and was smiling broadly. "Hey, Fred! I was just up at Angelís place, but he didnít answer. Is he in the office? Because he missed a great concert." Reaching into her bag, she produced a large tee-shirt. "I bought him a souvenir."

"Thatís sweet." Fred glanced at Buffy, noting the way she regarded Nina with a mixture of interest and annoyance. "This is our friend, Buffy. She lives in Italy."

"Oh." The shirt that Nina had been holding up slipped from her fingers and landed in the floor. She didnít seem to notice as she openly appraised Buffy. "Youíre - youíre Buffy? Sunnydale Buffy?"

Buffy stood a little taller, very happy that she had taken the extra time to make herself presentable. She adjusted her halter top slightly and smiled, extending her hand. "That would be me. You are?"

"Nina. Angelís girl-"

"Girl Friday," Fred announced, bending and grabbing the shirt, which she handed to Nina. "Buffy we really ought to get you back upstairs. I think Gideon wanted to have a look at you today."

Buffy was still wearing her false smile and it literally pained her to offer her hand as she mumbled, "Nice to meet you."

Nina clutched her hand, a little too hard, and replied, "You too, sweetie." To Fred, she added, "Iíll just go up and take him his present."

Buffyís gaze followed her out of the room. "Angel has a girlfriend?"

"Well -"

"Is she human?"

"Well-"

"Is she evil?"

"Not exactly."

Buffy turned to look at Fred. "What does that mean?"

"Sheís a werewolf."

"Angelís new honey is a werewolf?" Buffy shook her head, running her fingers through her hair. "I am going to go back to his place and digest."

"Are you okay?" Fred watched her with growing alarm. "Buffy, youíre really red. I mean, are you-"

Buffy exhaled loudly. "Iím going to go see the doctor now."

"Do you know the way?" Fred shouted after her.

"Yeah." Buffy threw her hand up in a wave and left the cafeteria. By the time she arrived at the elevators the food she had eaten felt heavier than bricks in her stomach. Angel had a girlfriend. A *human* girlfriend who apparently knew who she was. That made her furious. To think that Angel would share what they had.

Buffy hadnít even shared everything with Riley!

When the elevator didnít open immediately, she turned and walked down the hallway, her shoes clicking on the polished floor. Her heart was pounding in her chest, causing it to ache with a pain that she hadnít felt in months. It hurt all the way through. Leaning heavily against the glass windows that ran the length of the building, she stared down at the traffic below. She was eight stories in the air and the sun had settled high in the sky, bathing everything in a beautiful glow, but all she could see, all she could feel ... was the torment of knowing that he had moved on.

He had left her because she was a human.

But Angel found another one to take her place. Another *human*.

The irony was not lost on her. She had done the same thing with Spike, but it *hurt* and that was so foreign to her that she felt like slipping to the floor, curling into a ball, and never moving again. It rippled through her, caressing her intimately in ways that she had long forgotten, had denied could exist inside her anymore.

Swallowing hard against the bile that threatened to erupt, she took a deep breath that was meant to be calming, but it only burned her lungs.

"Buffy." Angel, who had been waylaid by Fred in the elevator, saw her standing at the end of the hallway, leaning against the window as if willing it to open and let her escape. He had not run into Nina yet, but apparently Buffy knew about her. He dreaded the conversation that had to take place with both women.

Buffy moved away from the window and into the bathroom that was directly across the hallway, effectively ignoring him. Once inside, she wet a cloth and pressed it against her face, then her neck. The nausea was instantaneous and she rushed into one of the stalls.

Angel waited at least five minutes before he went to the nearest desk, quickly scrawled Ďout of serviceí on a piece of typing paper and taped it to the door. He stuck his head in the restroom and said, "Buffy?"

"Iíll be out soon."

Something in her voice made him enter the room all the way and shut the door behind him, locking it. He paused outside the only closed stall. "Are you sick?"

"Iím okay. Just - leave me alone, okay?"

"Open the door."

"Angel-"

"Open the door, Buffy." He stepped back a little as it slowly opened and she emerged. He gasped when he saw her face. Devoid of color, her skin was shiny with beads of moisture and her eyes had taken on a hollow, sunken look. "What happened?"

"We covered that the other day." She moved to the sink and grabbed a handful of paper towels, wetting them under the faucet. "You did."

He watched as she wiped her face and rinsed her mouth. "I should have told you about Nina."

"You think Iím upset because youíre boning a girl who moonlights as a dog?" Buffy tossed the tissue toward the wastebasket, but missed, something that rarely happened. She frowned and retrieved it, trying to downplay to dizziness that swept through her as she did so. "I meant your food. I think you poisoned me which is a step up from shooting me, but a step down in originality."

"I never -"

"Shut up," Buffy said, rubbing her stomach as it recoiled angrily. "I need to call the airport."

"What? Why?"

"You canít -" Buffy shouted. "You canít expect me to stay here and watch you paw at one another. Oh, pardon the pun. You know I did tell you that you were like a dog always sniffing stuff. Itís nice to see that birds of a feather ..."

"Donít, Buffy." Angel glared at her. "Donít say things that you canít take back."

"Ooooh, did your girlfriend teach you how to get your hackles up?"

"You never had a problem with Oz and Willow."

She narrowed her eyes. "That was different."

"How?"

"Because it just was!"

"Tell me how!"

"You left me because I was a human and you couldnít give me the life you wanted me to have. Why does she get that life? Sheís human, too, for the most part. Why can you be with her, but not me?"

Angel looked away, hands on his hips. "You donít understand."

"Youíre right. I really donít. And I donít plan on waiting to find out anything else."

"You know what," Angel snapped. "This is the part where I remind you that you were with *Spike*."

"Oh, for godís sake, Angel! The difference here is that I never had a problem being with a vampire and you were the one I wanted. *You* chose to leave me. You held it against me that I was human-"

"I did not hold that against you! I wanted you to have a normal life!"

"Is that what youíre giving her? A normal life? Are you with her in the sun? Are you having sex with her? Are you thinking about HER future kids?"

"Stop." Angel held up a hand. "Just stop."

"Truth too much for you to handle?" Buffy took a step toward the door, but turned back to look at him. "Because the truth is, and always has been, that you wanted off the Hellmouth and away from me. I donít think you could handle the fact that I was stronger, better, and more important than you."

Buffy saw the fury on his face, knew that she had pushed his buttons too hard, but she continued. "So keep that in mind the next time you follow me into a room where no one can see what I do to you. After all, what good are you without your flunkies?"

<<>><<>>

Buffy stormed into Angelís apartment and thundered past Spike. He set down his glass of blood and followed Buffy into the guest room. He watched as she shoved her dirty clothes into her suitcase and grabbed the rest of her belongings.

"Now what are you on about?" he asked, handing her the pajamas that she had tossed in the corner that morning.

"Iím leaving."

"Why?"

"Angelís a prick."

"Yeah," he agreed. "Unfortunate, innit? I donít think he knows how to control it."

"I need to call a cab."

Spike picked up her suitcase. "Weíre only going across the hall. We can manage."

Throwing her arms up the air, Buffy laughed cruelly. "No, I donít have a mind of my own. Go ahead and plan my whole freaking life for me."

"Iíd love too, pet." Spike took her arm and led her from the room. "In my plan youíd have on less clothes, though."

Buffy shot him a look but allowed him to lead her out of Angelís apartment and into his. The differences in their homes were as vast as their own differences. Where Angelís place was tastefully decorated with paintings, comfortable furniture, and browns and beiges, Spikeís place was a veritable explosion of color.

She stopped just inside the door to take in the living room. A purple leather sofa held court in the middle of the room facing the floor to ceiling windows that stared down at the city. Flowers, some alive and some fake, were positioned all about the room. There was a large entertainment center with a plasma television on one of the walls and two leather recliners, pink and purple, had been set in front of it.

"What the hell is this place?" she finally asked when she found her tongue. "A demon Barbie Dreamhouse?"

"Itís mine." Spike scratched his head and tried to survey it from her perspective. He recalled vividly how much he had despised it the first time he had seen it. "I hate the place, too. They set it all up for Cordelia, but sheís still in a coma."

"Can you blame her? Iíd rather be in the hospital if this was what I had to come home to."

"No one should be as cheerful as you, pet. No one."

Ignoring him, she put her overnight bag on the couch and walked into the kitchen. It was huge, with an island and tons of expensive gadgets that would take Buffy all day to figure out. She ran her fingers along the marble counter tops and paused to examine a large coffee maker. Convinced that sheís injure herself if she attempted to brew anything in it, she walked down a short hallway and peered into a weight room.

"I plan on doing stuff with the place," Spike said, following her throughout the rooms. He moved slightly ahead of her and opened a door for her. "This is my bedroom."

"Obvious, much?"

"I just mean itís more me."

He flipped on a light and Buffy gasped. The bed was a huge four poster with heavy draperies hanging all around it. A stone fireplace took up all of one wall and the three remaining walls had been papered in the same pattern as the comforter and curtains, swirls of beiges and royal blues. Off to one side was a sitting room that held a computer desk, laptop, and two wing backed chairs.

"Wow," Buffy mumbled under her breath. "Itís so beautiful."

"The bathroom is great. Garden tub. Itís a big step up from my crypt."

"Blood money." She ran her hand over the comforter and then turned to look at him. "Thatís what paid for it all."

"Yeah, it feeds me, too."

"Youíre all pathetic."

"Itís not how you think, Buffy."

"Itís not a big, evil empire?"

"Angelís made a lot of changes."

"Yeah." Buffy openly appraised him, starting at his feet and working her way up to his face. "He certainly has."

Spike visibly bristled. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Can we not?" She brushed past him and walked back into the living room. "Whereís my room?"

"Well," Spike pointed at the sofa. "Itís the sofa or my room. Weíve got one bedroom."

"Oh, well, my day has certainly been made now."

"How much longer until that poison is out of your system?"

"Why?"

"Because one of us will have to die soon."

"Volunteering?"

"Bloody hell."

<<>><<>>

Buffy was staring at Spikeís television when her cellphone began to vibrate and make annoying sounds. On the third Ďringí she picked it up and stared at the caller I.D. "Shit."

Spike, who had been paying her more attention than the movie anyway, raised an eyebrow. "What the hell is that noise?"

"Itís supposed to be birds chirping."

"Choking more like."

"I think itís soothing."

"Soothing? Right."

Flipping open the phone, Buffy sighed. "Hey, Dawn."

"Buffy!" Dawn squealed. "Guess where I am?"

"The Leaning Tower of Pisa? Again?"

"No! Iím in London!"

"Why are you in London?"

"Giles came and got me. You should see his place. Itís so freaking huge! And the girls all have this kick ass training facility and -"

Buffy sat up straighter on the couch. "Youíre with Giles?"

"Yeah! And itís been a lot of fun. Xander has been watching way too many pirate movies. Heís got the voice down. And Willowís doing okay, but yíknow, Kennedy -"

"I can not believe that youíd do this to me again! What the hell happened to us sticking together?"

"Well, youíre way on another continent! Besides, I miss them!"

"What. Ever." Buffy exhaled loudly and ran a hand through her hair. "What do you want?"

"Donít be pissed, Buffy. Please? Look, if you donít want anyone in your life thatís okay. But Iím not like you. I miss having a family."

"Family? Is that what you think they are?" Buffy noticed Spike had put the television on mute and quickly stood, escaping to the bedroom. "Let me clue you in, dumbass, families donít vote each other off the island."

"Buffy, you donít even watch Survivor so donít go there!"

"Did they tell you to call me?"

"You werenít always this paranoid, you know?" Dawn replied. "And for your information, no one has even mentioned you since I got here. Contrary to what you may think ... they donít revolve around you anymore. Theyíve got enough to deal with."

"Oh, so now Iím someone that needs to be dealt with."

"Why are you twisting my words?"

"Why did you call?"

"I thought youíd like to know where I was and how Iím doing."

"Well, now I do. Youíre back where you belong. Have a nice life."

"Donít hang up!" Dawn shouted. "Iím sorry, okay? Iím sorry that I canít just isolate myself and have no contact with people the way you do. I just -- I had a fight with Diego and I felt so awful."

"Yeah? I had a fight with Angel, too."

"About?"

"His new girlfriend. Nina. Isnít that a dumb name?"

"Uh, Buffy? Have you ever looked at your name when you wrote it down?"

"Hello? Can we focus?"

"Whatís the big deal? Youíve had boyfriends since him."

"Yes, but sheís a werewolf."

"So?"

"So that means sheís also human which is exactly why he couldnít be with me!"

"Oh!"

"And Spike is alive."

"Andrew told me. Spike told him not to tell you and he passed that along to me. How does he look?"

"You knew and you didnít tell me?"

"Oh god, here we go again. Yes, Buffy, my purpose in life is to keep things from you and to betray you with our FRIENDS!"

"Admitting it is the first step," Buffy yelled and disconnected. "Fuck!"

Spike, who had been casually eavesdropping just outside the open door, ducked quickly as the cell phone came whizzing past his head the second he glanced into the room. It hit the wall behind him and shattered.

"Donít say a word," Buffy growled.

"Are you okay?"

"Spike." She shot him a warning look.

"That was three words. You told me not to say A word."

She sat down on the bed and put her head in her hands. "I canít keep doing this."

"Doing what?"

"Pushing. I push so hard that it aches."

"Then pull for a while." He held out his hand and waited for her to take it.

He watched her struggle, saw her hands clench into fists as she shook her head. "No."

"Come on, Slayer." He grinned at her. "It wonít be the end of the world if you knock the chip off your shoulder for two whole minutes."

"I donít need this right now."

"I think you do."

"Well, donít think! Youíll just cause problems if you try to do that!"

"You know, sooner or later youíre going to need me. You may want to remember that!"

"I donít need anyone."

"No?"

"No."

"Letís see if youíre still singing that song in a few hours when the Big Bad is on his way to get you and youíre all chock full of need."

"Wonít happen."

"Maybe youíve forgotten what kind of soul you have, but I havenít. It bleeds, pet. It bleeds passion and love and self-righteous, holier than thou bullshit, and when it wakes up, youíre going to be pushed to your knees." Spike extended his arm further. "And Iím offering you a hand right now."

Buffy stared at his hand. The last time they had joined hands, both had burst into flame. It scared her, but she wanted to feel something, anything, before she forgot how entirely. It didnít disappoint. She took his hand, pulled him toward her and wrapped her arms around him. "It hurts," she whispered.

"I know."

"I hate it."

"I know that, too. When I first got my soul I thought that it would burn me from the inside out."

She tilted her head back and looked up at him. "Thatís exactly how it feels."

"Itíll be over soon." Spike nodded toward the bed and sat down beside her. "Iíd tell you to be strong, but I donít think you need to be. Donít fight it. You need to feel."

"Iím scared." She met his gaze, imploring him not to laugh. "Iíve never been so scared in my life."

"Itís understandable." Spike squeezed her hand reassuringly. "Can I ask you something?"

"Okay."

"What does Ďthe small killerí mean to you?"

Buffy regarded him for several seconds, then stood. "Who told you that?"

"Is it true?"

"Who told you that?" she repeated a little louder.

"Fred."

"What did she say?"

Spike didnít need to ask anything else. Her reaction had given him all the answers he needed. "She said that every Vespara demon has a human who brings them sacrifices. Soul sacrifices."

"I didnít!" Buffy shouted. "I didnít do that!"

"Iím not in a position to judge you if you did."

She didnít meet his eyes. "What else did Fred say?"

"She had a research party. That girl could give the Wicca a run for her money with the research."

Buffy ran her hands through her hair as she paced the length of the room. She had suspected that she had blood on her hands, but had not been completely certain. The gypsies would neither confirm or deny that she had aided The Immortal, albeit unwillingly. He had certainly controlled her with his powers before, making her doubt things, making her do things that were so unlike her that she still shook with the memories of it all. "What did her research say about me?" she finally asked quietly.

"Just that the demon world calls you the small killer and that you brought humans to him as a sacrifice. There were drawings."

"Oh god." Leaning back against the wall, Buffy crossed her arms over her chest and closed her eyes. "I wish they had never brought me back from the dead."

"Great," Spike said, getting to his feet. "Same old tired song and dance." He changed his voice to a higher register and did a completely believable American accent. "Iím such a poor, pitiful, little Buffy that I donít want to live. Oh, woe is me. No one has suffered as I have suffered. Iím far too good to suffer so much. Oh, kill me. Let me wimp out. Oh, let me cry my big green eyes out over the misfortune of being me!"

"Shut up!" Buffy cried, pushing away from the wall and stalking across the room to stand toe to toe with him. "You donít know what itís like! I donít remember what Iíve done! I could be Ďthe small killerí for all I know!"

"So what if you are?" Spike shouted. "You canít undo it."

"And I canít live with that either. Thatís why I need that serum!"

"Oh, so we finally get at it, then!" He gripped her upper arms and shook her. "You arenít trying to stop The Immortal at all! Youíre trying to stop yourself from feeling all that shame and guilt over what youíve done. Maybe Angel was right for once in his life! You like the way it makes you feel!"

"No!" She threw his arms off her and shoved him hard. "I am trying to stop The Immortal! I am!"

"Yeah, love," Spike told her as he stumbled and righted himself. "You keep telling yourself that and you may start to believe it. I damn sure donít."

"You are nothing to me!" she yelled. "I donít care what you think!"

"Maybe you should!" he countered, stalking towards her again. "Because you can count your friends on exactly one finger right now! And thatís me! Maybe you donít give a damn what happens or whats coming, but I do. I always have and I always will!"

"You sound just like your fucking boss, Spike. Big on the sentiment, not so big on the follow through." She let her gaze was over him. "I donít know why you idiots like having a soul so much. It makes you both a couple of big, sentimental jackasses."

"You are going to push me one too many times, pet, and I wonít come back. Donít keep trying me."

"Ohhh, like, Iím so scared."

"Maybe you should be. Youíre a little off your game and I donít have a chip anymore. Remember?"

"Is that a challenge?"

"Itís a promise."

She narrowed her eyes and lunged at him, but he was ready. He caught both of her arms and spun her, using her weight as leverage as he tossed her across the room. She hit the wall with a loud crash and sprang back to her feet almost instantly. One again, he deflected her, using her own momentum to send her sailing past him again. This time she fell onto her knees, facing away from him.

Buffy stayed in that position, straining her ears to hear his movements. Just as she predicted, he came toward her and she turned, kicking his feet out from under him. He landed on his back and she straddled him, her fist pulled back to deliver a crunching blow to his face.

Spike flinched, bracing himself for the pain, but it didnít come. He met her eyes, saw the way she faltered and pushed himself up on his elbows. "Are we done yet, baby?"

In that instant, she remembered everything about him. She remembered the way he liked her to bite his earlobe, the way he trembled when she raked her nails up his back. She could see them having sex in her front yard, together in the cemetery, together in his crypt, together in darkened alleys and in the shallow waters of the ocean.

Licking her lips, she stared down at him. This was *Spike*. The same Spike who held her that final night, whispering that it would be okay. The Spike who had protected her mother and Dawn from Glory. The same Spike that she had missed for months, had longed to talk to, had thought of so often that it still ached.

When she lowered her head and kissed him, she felt him tense beneath her. Ignoring him, she sucked his bottom lip, then ran her tongue over it slowly. He growled when she moved to his earlobe and put his hands to her hips. She wondered if he realized that he was grinding up against her. Saying nothing, she pulled back, grabbed the hem of her shirt, and pulled it over her head.

Swallowing hard, Spike could only stare at her. When her hands moved to the buttons of her pants, he caught them. "What are you doing?"

"No more talking." She kissed him again and stood. With a slight smile, she toed off her shoes and slowly, sensually, unbuttoned her pants and pushed them down her thighs.

He couldnít blink, couldnít look away from her. He sat up and stared at the hand she extended toward him. "Buffy-"

"Iím ready to pull now."

He let his gaze wash over her, pausing at her breasts, roaming down the small curvature of her waist, to the apex of her thighs. "Youíre not-"

"Take my hand."

"Listen, love-" he began.

"I wonít ask again." She moved a little closer, hand still extended. "Take it."

He put his hand in hers and stood slowly, his legs shaking. She stared up at him, causing his mouth to go completely dry. Wordlessly, she untucked his shirt and pushed it up over his head. He tossed it across the room and swallowed hard as she traced his cool chest with her warm hand. Her fingers made quick work of his belt and the fastenings of his jeans, and he was stepping from them within seconds.

Naked, they stood facing one another. He watched her worry her bottom lip between her teeth, saw the small crease on her forehead, and tilted her face upwards. "Are you thinking this through?"

She smiled at him. "Iím thinking that a bed like that should be used for more than just sleeping." She moved away from him and climbed onto the bed.

He followed and Buffy watched him, his every attribute still etched firmly into her memory. He had a small scar on his abdomen, one that she had enjoyed tracing with her tongue. She stared at his firm, muscled stomach, watching the way it rippled as he moved. He was not a brawny man, but he was beautiful.

Her gaze moved lower as he neared the bed. His erection stood out proudly, straining toward her. She moved toward the edge of the bed, on her knees and gripped him, pumping him slightly as she pulled his mouth to hers.

"Mmmm," he moaned, wrapping both arms around her, cupping her round bottom. Part of him wanted to stop her, to push her away and leave. But he was so in love with her, had wanted her for so long, that he was a slave to the feelings that raged within him. A little voice in his head kept reminding him that she was tainted, that the serum had made her different, but he snuffed out the sounds and concentrated on the feel of her. He surrendered.

Buffy gasped in pleasure when he put both hands in her hair and pushed her head to the side, nipping her neck, then her ear. Moisture flooded between her legs and she closed her eyes. He knew exactly how to touch her, what she needed. In his capable hands, she knew that she would have the satisfaction, the joy, that she had been so long denied.

Spike could smell her arousal and it drove him wild. He coaxed her back on the bed, pulled her hips to the edge, and knelt between her open thighs. Without preamble, he lowered his head and ran his tongue over the source of her pleasure. She bucked upwards against his face and he used the opportunity to slide his hands beneath her hips, pulling her more firmly against him.

Buffy couldnít stop the emotion that ran through her, that surged in her veins as he manipulated her body. She rocked her hips, tugged at his hair, pleaded with him not to stop. Again and again he brought her to the edge, then held her back until she was sweating and begging him to do more, to do less, to stop and not stop all at the same time.

He grinned against her as she babbled some idle threat, then slipped two fingers inside her. That was all she needed. He felt her body begin to spasm and clench him, so he pulled free and stood, positioning himself at her entrance. He lifted her legs up his chest, letting her ankles rest on his shoulders and slowly glided all the way home.

They both cried out, both so loud and full of fire that neither heard the other. She grabbed two handfuls of the comforter as he gripped her thighs and pulled her even further toward the edge of the bed. He braced himself, feet wide, and slammed into her with everything he had.

Buffy arched her back, loving the way her breasts bounced with every thrust of his hips. It was fast, hard, and every sigh that escaped her, every moan, every breath, brought her closer to the ground, closer to her own reality instead of one that had been created for her. She *felt*.

As her second orgasm began to build, her hands sought his and he twined their fingers, as he sped up his pace. She tried to hold back, to prolong the inevitable, to feel the steely perfection of him for a while longer, but within seconds, she was screaming his name, thrashing wildly on the bed as her pleasure hit its peak and exploded inside of her.

He quickly followed her lead and they came together in unison, both too spent to realize that a shadow had fallen across the room.

Harmony stood just outside the bedroom door, unable to believe her ears.

She did not bother confronting them.

She knew the perfect person to that for her.

<<>><<>>

As Buffy lay in Spikeís bed, her heart pounding a steady percussion in her chest, realization began to work past the euphoria. He had spooned against her back, one hand around her waist. He was silent and still. Neither moved for a long while, and finally Buffy took a deep breath and rolled to face him.

They gazed into one anotherís eyes for a what seemed like an eternity. She wanted to memorize every last detail of his face because she knew that it could never happen again. It was wrong of both of them to have allowed it this time. She had a home, responsibility, and her place was with the others, if they would have her back.

"Youíre thinking it, too, huh?" he asked, his voice heavy and seductive.

"What?" she whispered.

"How wrong it was."

"Is that what youíre thinking?"

Rolling onto his back, Spike gazed up at the ceiling. "You love Angel. Always have. And you always will."

"Angel has a girlfriend."

"Oh, really?" Spike glanced over at her. "Thatís why you did this. You wanted to get back at him."

"No." Buffy pushed herself up into a sitting position and pulled her knees to her chest. "I mean, it hurts, yeah, but what happened between us has nothing to do with that. I just - I wanted to feel."

"And did you?"

"Yeah." She nodded, resting her head on her knees. "But now itís all complicated."

Spike sat up and reached for a pack of cigarettes on the end table. "Thatís the most right-headed thing youíve said in a while." He lit his smoke and took a deep drag. "Now what?"

"Are you going to tell Angel?"

He blew out the smoke and glared at her. "Itís not like he doesnít know that weíve-"

"You told him? I wondered how he found out!"

"Took a lot of guff out of him. Knocked him down a few pegs."

"Youíre cruel!"

"And what are you?" Spikeís tone was clipped, harsh. "At least Iím not guilty of using you."

Angry tears welled in her eyes and she looked away. "I wonít remind you of what you tried to do to me in my bathroom, Spike." When she looked back at him, she had regained her composure. "Wouldnít want to take some guff out of you, would we?"

"Oooh, nice one!" Spike threw the covers away and stood, snatching his pants off the floor.

"What are you doing?"

The phone rang suddenly, causing them both to start. She watched him as he yanked it off the cradle and shouted a greeting. She felt so angry. Angry with herself, at him, at Angel. She just wanted to fall into a deep unending sleep and never have to feel anything at all again. She slid off the edge of the bed, gathered her clothing, trying not to react to the way his gaze openly followed her around the room.

As she shut the door to the bathroom, she heard him telling the person on the other end of the line that heíd be there in twenty minutes. She leaned her head against the door and concentrated on fighting the urge to cry. For as much as she wanted to feel, wanted to awaken, having it start to happen was too much to handle. The lump in her throat was painful and she knew that there would be no going back from this moment. She had been using Spike. They both knew it. They both knew that there was no real justification.

She turned on the water in the shower, deciding that if she washed away any remnants of their passion it would be over and done. She stepped into her second bath of the day and began to scrub her skin until it shone bright red under the flourescent lighting. She scrubbed until the water cooled and only then did she step out.

<<>><<>>

Fred paused outside the door to Angelís office and cocked her head to one side. Someone was sobbing like a baby on the other side of the door. Fearing that it was Buffy, or even worse, Nina, Fred knocked lightly and stuck her head into the room. It was neither. Harmony sat in one of the leather armchairs, nearly hysterical, while Angel stood at the windows, gazing down at the darkened city.

"Please, Angel!" Harmony implored. "Donít kill him. Call him right now and tell him that itís a suicide mission."

Angel, who had his hands clasped behind him, said nothing. Fred walked cautiously toward Harmony and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Whatís happened?"

Harmony blew her nose loudly and gripped Fredís hand. "Please, Fred! Angelís killing Spike. He could already be dead!"

"What?" Fred pulled her hand free and moved across the room, yanking Angel around to face her. She gasped when she saw him. There was hatred etched into his features. His jaw was set, eyes sunken, and the stench of Scotch filled the air around him. "What happened?"

Angel moved to the wet bar and grabbed a fresh bottle of liquor and drained it before tossing it against the wall. "Why donít you ask Harmony?"

"Iím asking you." Fred watched as he grabbed another bottle of Scotch from under the bar and she marched across the room, yanking it out of his hand. "Where have you sent Spike?"

"On a special mission."

"Call him back right now."

"His cellphone is out of service."

"Angel-"

Harmony, who was now in a state of hysteria, cried out, "Why donít you go kill Buffy? She was in on the sex, too!"

Fredís mouth dropped open. "Buffy and Spike had sex? Again?"

"Oh, just about an hour ago," Angel said, snatching the bottle away from Fred and opening it. "Isnít that great?"

Harmony continued to sob, so Fred had shout her response. "So youíre killing Spike?"

"Iím not. If he happens to get killed tonight so be it."

"Nooo!" Harmony wailed. She rushed across the room, flinging herself at Angel. "Iíll do anything. Heís my Blondie-bear!"

"Itís not right," Fred told Angel, attempting to pull Harmony to her feet. After several attempts, she finally succeeded and held the frantic female vampire close. "You canít send him to his death over something like this."

"Watch me."

"No," Fred snapped. "You watch me!"

Going to his desk, she snatched up the phone. "I need you to track down Spike. Try his cellphone and if that doesnít work, get the Shamans to locate him. The mission has been halted. Get him back here."

"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Harmony cried, rushing from the room hell-bent on helping in the search.

Angel glared at Fred. "I could override that."

"You donít want to try!"

"Fred-"

"Angel, he didnít act alone! Maybe your real fight should be with her!"

Angel considered her words as he took several deep gulps from his bottle. Buffy knew that Spike loved her, wanted her. She abused that to get back at him, Angel, over Nina. He knew that in his gut. Just like he knew that he would choke the life out of her if he went to see her right now.

"Where is Spike?"

"Heís detained."

"Call it off. If you do this then any chance you ever had with her will die right along beside him. We both know that."

Angel stalked toward the door, but paused as he opened it. "Heís with Tanner and Jameson. Call them and tell them that theyíre to keep him away from here for the next twenty-four hours, but they arenít to harm him."

"Thank you."

"Oh, donít thank me, Fred." His hand tightened on the doorknob and he closed his eyes. "Nothing will ever be the same after this."

<<>><<>>

Buffy secured the robe that she had found in Spikeís bathroom around her waist and wandered back into the bedroom, pausing the stare at the bed. It was hard to wrap her head around the fact that she had had sex with Spike. *Spike*. Considering that she never thought she would see him again, it was still a shock to the system.

And it had been wonderful. Better than she had remembered.

She made her way around the room, picking up what remained of their clothing, straightening the bed, smoothing the comforter to erase the lines of their passion. Leaning against one of the four posters, she exhaled loudly. The laptop that sat on the desk in the sitting area caught her attention and she trudged across the room, lifting it and taking it back to the bed, where she reclined against the pillows.

Hitting the power button, Buffy waited patiently for it to boot as she replayed the conversations of the day. First, the exchange with Angel in the womenís bathroom and the entire argument with Spike. It was all stupid. Most of all, it made her feel cheap and unworthy of either of them.

She was thrilled that the wireless connection on the laptop did not require a password and within minutes she was checking her yahoo email. There were a couple of messages from Dawn, one to let her know she was sorry about their conversation and the other to tell her that she had heard from her dad and heíd been called away on business, but he hoped to make it back in time to see Buffy in Los Angeles. Faith had also sent her an email asking that Buffy recount her experience in Sunnydale with a paricularly nasty breed of demon that had been sighted in Europe.

There was a final message from Giles. He had apparently sent it only moments before and Buffy clicked the link apprehensively. It was short, brief.

Buffy,

Please call me. I have tried your hotel for several hours and I am worried about you. The Immortal has been in touch with Dawn. Nothing serious. Just asking her if you were out of the country.

Giles

*****

She contemplated calling right then, but she wanted to have time to collect herself first. The mention of The Immortal had caused a ball of anxiety to begin building in her chest and she knew that she was losing her hold on the last of the serum in her system.

She was terrified.

Typing another address into the browser, she was transported to the demon database that Willow had been working on for months. She found the new information about The Immortal and began to read.

**

The knock on the door brought her out of her reverie. Setting aside the laptop, she glanced at the clock. Where had the time gone? It was almost midnight and visitors at midnight were seldom, if ever, good things. She glanced around the room for a weapon and settled on the long handled knife that was sticking carelessly out of her slaying bag. With it clutched securely behind her back, she moved to the door.

"Who is it?"

"Angel."

She tossed the knife back into her bag and opened the door, gazing up at him. "Did something happen?"

To her surprise he brushed past her, shoving her roughly out of the way, and slammed the door behind him. "Angel?" She caught the stench of alcohol in the air and waved her hand. "You smell like a brewery. What the hell-"

He had her pinned against the wall before she could protest and pressed the entire length of his body against hers. "You let him touch you."

It wasnít a question. It was a statement and Buffy could tell by the look in his eyes that he knew the truth. "Whatíd you do? Have your spies watching me? Again? You deserved to find out if you did!"

She made an attempt to push him away, but he slammed her roughly back against the wall and tightened his grip on her arms. "Youíre hurting me!" Buffy cried.

"Oh, you havenít begun to hurt yet, Buffy." With an angry swipe of his hands, he had untied the hotel bathrobe that dwarfed her petite frame and gazed down at her nudity. "Did you like it that much?" He moved his thumb over her erect nipples. "Canít get him out of your system? Or maybe itís the rough stuff that still turns you on."

Buffy could hardly believe that this was happening. His thigh had moved between her legs, holding her a few inches off the floor and he had pinned both of her hands with his massive one. She could move him, should move him, but what would happen then? His anger was the strongest thing in the room and she had never seen him this way.

"Youíre drunk!" His free hand moved between her legs and she gasped. "Angel, stop."

"Shut up!" he growled, moving to the column of her throat. She felt the ridges on his forehead then and closed her eyes. He glanced at her face with yellowed eyes and whispered. "Donít worry. By the time weíre done youíll only bleed on the inside."

She shoved him away from her and tried to yank her robe closed, but he caught her arms and then ripped the material from her body in one savage motion. Crying out in surprise, she made an attempt to grab the remains off the floor, and found herself pulled roughly against him. "Stop it!"

"Donít!" He walked her backwards toward the bed. "Donít you dare tell me no after what you did with him."

She felt the edge of the bed behind her and stiffened, reminding him of the only thing that mattered. "Your soul."

"Donít worry," he said in a low voice. "I donít think happiness will be an issue here."

The urge to explain, to offer him something to change his mind, burned beneath her skin. "I was lonely. I - I was so stunned that he was back and -"

"Shut. The. Fuck. Up." Angel shoved her so hard that when she hit the bed the breath left her body. He watched as her breasts bounced and her legs fell open. So inviting. So beautiful. So betraying. "How could you?"

She scrambled to her knees and grabbed a pillow, clutching it to her bosom to shield her nudity. "How could *you*? What the hell are you doing?"

"You fucked Spike!" he shouted. "Spike! Right under my nose!"

"So you want to one up him?"

"No." Angel began to unbutton his shirt. "I want to remind you why you need a man and not a monster."

Buffy stared up at his demon face, hating the way her body betrayed her and tingled with need. He planned to hurt her and she seriously doubted her ability to stop him. Because he was Angel. Because the one tiny speck of her heart that still belonged to him had not let her cover it in ice. And because she wanted to feel the pain. Needed to feel it. She wanted punishment for her sins.

She watched as he removed his shirt and tossed it across the room. Her breath caught in her throat as the tattoo on his shoulder rippled over the muscle there, undulating like a loverís body.

When he turned and reached for her Buffy leaped off the edge of the bed, effectively putting it between them. She held the pillow against her and shook her head. "Angel, youíre drunk. Iím willing to let you walk out of here and pretend that this didnít happen, okay? But you are about five seconds away from crossing a line."

Wordlessly, he walked around the bed and stood before her. "Like that?" he whispered.

Taking a deep breath, Buffy attempted to sidestep him. He yanked the pillow from her grip and shoved her toward the bed. She crashed against it, her thigh hitting hard against the footboard as she toppled to the floor. Crying out in pain, she gripped her leg and turned to stare at him. "Angel, what the fuck is wrong with you?!" she cried, attempting to stand.

His open palm caught her cheek, spinning her head. She tumbled against the mattress and sank to her knees. The urge to fight him disappeared. If he wanted to kill her she would roll over and expose her throat. The thought of dying naked at her loverís hand caused her to laugh, but the sound was high pitched, foreign and then it was gone. Replaced by raw agony she had never experienced.

Angel was about to wrench her to her feet when he heard the sob escape her. He stilled his movements and leaned over her, brushing her hair away from her face. He was stunned to see the tears staining the reddened cheek he had hit. Without thinking, he kissed her temple, the offended cheek, and the anger that had propelled him began to dissipate. Seeing her like this was sobering. "Buffy?"

"It hurts," she whispered, her voice trembling with more than just pain. The tears had shocked her more than him. And now that they started, she didnít know if theyíd ever stop. She buried her face in the covers and let them come and come they did. She cried for everything, for everyone.

"Oh god. Iím sorry. Buffy, Iím so sorry."

The sobs came from somewhere deep inside of her. Someplace that had been dormant for too long. She wrapped her arms around herself, curling inward.

Angel saw her flying into hysteria and he gathered her into his arms. He placed her gently on the bed, pulling her against him.

Part of her registered the soothing words he whispered, the apologies, the promises that it would be okay, but she was unable to stop the tidal wave of emotion that ran through her, drowning out the hatred and darkness that had been suffocating her for weeks.

All the demons that she had buried beneath the surface ripped from their graves and emerged in tears; hot tears that scorched her face, scorched his chest. Just as she battled one emotion another crashed into her, burying her in her own pain. It was more than she could handle. She wanted to run. She wanted to die.

Angel was devastated by his actions. He had set out to break her, to punish her, but he hadnít realized that it would be soul wrenching for him to see the finished product. "Shhhh, itís okay."

"Donít hate me," she choked after what felt like an eternity. "Please donít hate me."

"I donít hate you. You know that."

"You should," she cried, leaning her face into his palm.

"Shhh." He rubbed her cheek, frowning when he saw the bruising. "Iím sorry I hit you. Buffy, you know that I - Iím sorry."

"Donít be."

He stared at her, drinking in her sadness. "Youíre even beautiful when you cry."

"I had a lot of practice."

"Are you okay?"

Shaking her head, Buffy drew the back of her hand across her eyes, attempting to remove the tears that still fell. "I donít think Iíll ever be okay."

"Buffy-" Angel wanted to make it right. He wanted to make her see how wonderful it could be now. He stared at her parted lips, at the curve of her neck, the swell of her breast, and captured her mouth with his, searing her with a kiss that left her breathless. His hands tangled in her hair, tilting her head to grant him access. Slowly, he pushed her back against the pillows and covered her body with his, never breaking the kiss. "I want you so much."

Buffy trembled as he slid his hand down her stomach and brushed over the hair at the apex of her thighs. He silenced her protest with another kiss and she felt herself relaxing against his touch. Sliding her legs apart, she gave him silent permission to continue. He pulled back, gazing down at her as he slipped his fingers into her. His thumb worked a steady pattern on her clit, which had begun to throb, and he put his mouth to her ear. "Donít cry."

She moved her hand to his, stilling his movements. Her body ached in protest, but she shook her head. "We canít."

"We can," he told her, giving her a soft kiss. "Iíll explain later. Trust me."

He began to massage her aching body again and she closed her eyes. He brushed several soft kisses over her eyelids, all the while whispering that it would be okay, begging her not to cry. When his mouth replaced his hand all the tension in her body was forgotten and she wrapped her fingers in his hair, urging him, pushing up against him.

She came quickly and arched off the bed. He met her halfway, kissing her as he laid her back against the sheets. When he came into her, she was ready. There was a small twinge of pain, as her body accomodated his size, but that was quickly replaced with more pleasure than she could ever remember.

Angel gazed down at her, at her cloudy eyes, at the sated look on her face. She was his. Their eyes met and held as he sped up, driving himself toward completion. He could feel her beginning to clench him and knew that it was almost over. She came again and a second later he followed her, surrendering to the need that had been racing through him from the moment she had come to Los Angeles. Spent, he collapsed on top of her, his face buried in her throat, where he listened to the sweet rush of blood in her veins.

He felt her body shaking under him and propped himself up so he could look down at her. She was crying again, covering her face with her hand. "Itís okay, baby."

"No, itís not." Buffy was stunned. She pushed him to the side and sat up, disbelief coursing through her. "Not only am I a basket case ... Iím a slut!"

"What?" Angel sat up behind her, putting a hand on her shoulder.

She leapt from the bed and tried to gather the torn robe around her. Angel watched her for several seconds, then stood, handing her his shirt. She yanked it from his hands and shoved her arms into it, pulling it tightly around her. "This isnít happening."

"Itís okay."

"Itís not okay!" she yelled. "Iíve had sex with both of you in the span of what? Four hours? Six? Oh my god."

"No, Buffy. You had sex with Spike. You made love with me."

"That was not making love! That was you male posturing all over me."

"What?" Angel shouted.

"You hit me!"

"I apologized!"

"You hit her!?" Spike suddenly shouted from the doorway. He glaced at Angelís nude body, sneered, and yanked his coat off. "Cover yourself before I laugh myself to life." He tossed his coat at Angel, who caught it, then Spike threw a punch into Angelís jaw that sent the dark haired vampire flying into the end table. "Did you hit her like that, mate?"

"Spike!" Buffy shouted, but it was too late. The fight was on. For what seemed like ages she tried to pull them apart, tried to intervene, but they were hell bent on destroying each other. The name calling was vulgar, the punches were meant to kill, and when Angel had pushed her aside for the last time, Buffy calmly made her way to her Slayer bag. She extracted a water gun, not the most high tech of her equipment, but she took aim on the two dueling vampires and pulled the trigger.

Angel and Spike both howled in pain as a burst of Holy Water hit them. They separated and turned to glare at Buffy, who glanced sadly from one to the other. "Iíd say that got your attention."

Spike stared at her, dwarfed inside Angelís shirt. "You were right. You are a slut," he shouted as he yanked off his own shirt, patting at his smoking ribcage.

Buffy swallowed hard, losing the battle with another bout of tears. Angel had pulled his pants on and his glare was rivaling Spikeís in intensity. He, too, was smoking, and the Holy Water had left his chest and sides mottled with cruel blisters.

"Iím sorry," she said softly. "I donít know what else to say."

"Why donít you get the hell out of my sight!" Spike yelled. "Both of you!"

Buffy put the water gun on the nearest table and walked slowly into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. Both vampires could hear the water running, could hear her muffled sobs. But neither moved toward the sound.

Spike angrily tossed his shirt onto the bed. "Get out of my house," he told Angel as he crossed the room and yanked open his closet.

"Itís technically mine. And youíve got exactly one hour to get your shit out of it."

Spike tugged a black shirt off of a clothes hanger and pulled it over his head. "And would Buffy be considered my shit? After all, I had her trembling in my bed long before you came along."

"I had to finish the job for you, Spike." Angel gave him a menacing smile. "How does that make you feel?"

"Probably the same way it makes you feel to know that my name had barely died on her lips before your little fella came poking around." Arching his scarred eyebrow, Spike cocked his head. "I bet she didnít even feel you."

Angel started across the room towards Spike, but Fred entered behind her, looking extremely pale and fatigued. "You both have to stop," Fred said calmly. "The Immortal is here. In Los Angeles. The Seers told me that his minions have killed two hotel workers where Buffy was staying. Itís only a matter of time before he figures out where she is. The Shamans say that the weíre protected here, but I donít know how strong theyíll be when the time comes. Theyíre exhausted already."

"Buffy!" Spike shouted.

"I heard," Buffy replied, opening the door. She didnít make eye contact with anyone. She had put the clothing on that she had worn earlier in the day and she crossed the room, picking up a pair of boots. As she slipped them on and pulled her pants over them, she added, "I need to see the weaponís supply and I need to find some place that is hallowed. Also? Do you have any scrying tools?"

"Scrying?" Spike asked.

"No time to explain," she replied, still not looking at anyone. Kneeling, she pulled several small containers from her bag and stuffed them into her pocket. She dug through the contents until she found a tan pouch that hung from a length of chain, which she put around her neck and clasped. Exhaling, she stood and nodded her head. "Iím ready."

"What is that?" Fred asked, indicating the necklace.

"Something Tara gave me before she died." Buffy fingered the length of chain, delicately caressing the leather pouch. "Itís for protection." She finally looked up, her eyes swollen and red from the tears. "Iíll need all the help I can get."

<<>><<>>

"Is she okay?" Gunn regarded Buffy from across the room as she examined the mass assortment of weapons that lined the walls and several display cases in the armory. "She seems, I dunno, uptight."

"Wouldnít you be?" Wesley rubbed his chin thoughtfully as she picked up an ancient Morgatha sword that would have broken his arm if he had attempted the same. She effortlessly swung it and it whistled loudly as it cut through the air. "She does appear to be in fine form."

"It ainít her form thatís got me worried, man. Did you see the look on her face?"

"Sheís scared."

"I heard Slayers ainít supposed to get scared." Gunn watched her put the Morgatha back onto the shelf and reach for one that was carved by a special breed of demon. Only the bravest of specific breeds could weild it without suffering. "That thing is gonna rip her hand off."

They watched as Angel rushed toward her, hell bent on taking the sword from her. The vampireís efforts were futile however as an aura surrounded Buffy, emanating from the lethal tip. "Damn," Gunn said. "So thatís what itís supposed to do?"

"Looks like," Wesley replied. He could see Angel gesturing between the sword and the Slayer, but it looked as if Buffyís mind had been made up. She slipped the special glove from her delicate looking wrist and slid it into the warrior belt that Gunn had had to cut a new hole into to make it small enough for her.

Shaking his head, Wesley turned his attention toward Spike, who was rubbing a polishing wrag back and forth along the edge of a Fegora Blade. Spikeís attention was solely given to Buffy and Angel, and Wesley watched as the wrag was severed into two pieces and Spike hissed and stuck his finger into his mouth. Spike looked at Wesley, gave him a crude gesture, and turned his back to everyone.

"Hey," Fred said, joining Wesley and Gunn near the main entrance. "She finding everything she needs?"

"Yeah," Gunn said. "Did you get the Powers approval for using the room?"

"Got it." Fred proudly displayed a piece of parchment with a red ribbon tied around it. "Hallowed walls and all!"

Wesley caught Angelís attention and motioned him over. "Whatís wrong?" Angel asked.

Giving him the parchment, Fred said, "We got the approval. But only for two hours and time started right then. We need to hurry."

Buffy, who had clearly heard the conversation, pocketed a few of the fighting stars and several stakes, then crossed the room at a brisk pace. "I need to see your magickal supplies."

******

Almost an hour passed before Buffy had all the herbs and tools handy that she would need. Tucked under her arm was a crystal ball that probably weighed more than she did and an ancient medicine bag had been added to the belt around her waist. She followed closely behind Angel, who led the way down the winding maze of assorted corridors until they stopped in front of a door that was obscured by thick green vines. The only indication Buffy had that it was actually a door was the grisly looking knob that protruded several inches, which was shaped like a hand.

"Nice," she said sarcastically. "I think you need a gardner."

Angel gave her a small smile as he pressed the parchment into the hand shaped doorknob. The hand sprang to life, gripping the paper tightly. Within seconds, the vines slid back, revealing a pristine white door that swung silently open. Dim light emanated from the room and Buffy stepped forward, gazing at the scene before her.

Somehow the door opened into the outside, but that was impossible. They were several stories in the air, yet a beautiful waterfall cascaded in the distance and the most beautiful, green grass that Buffy had ever seen grew knee high to the edge of the doorframe.

She gasped as a unicorn, tall and majestic, emerged from a thatch of trees and lowered its head to lap at the water. An eagle soared across the sky and she watched as the sun burst from behind several puffy clouds. "Wow."

"I have to stay," Angel told her, motioning her into the room. "No one is allowed in here without a staff escort. Will that be a problem?" He nodded at the crystal ball. "Will you have trouble with the spell?"

"No." She bit her bottom lip and stepped fully into the room. "You know, itís awfully sunlighty in here."

Angel stepped in behind her and shut the door. "Iíll be okay."

Buffy stared up at him, studying him closely. "I canít believe I never noticed how pale you are."

"I donít look that great in direct sunlight." Angel told her, using the exact words she had used with him one night in the cemetery.

It didnít go unnoticed by Buffy, but she simply nodded and moved closer to where the unicorn stood observing them. "Is that real? Is any of this real?"

"What is anymore?" Angel gently reached out to touch the unicorn, which walked closer to him and lowered its head for a scratch. "We donít have much time."

"I thought only virgins could touch a unicorn?" she said.

"Most people think unicorns are extinct, too."

"And that vampires donít exist."

"Or that garlic keeps us at bay. I actually like garlic."

"So does Sp-" She caught herself, and saw his eyes narrow, and trailed off. "I better get started."

Buffy seated herself beside the pond and began to pull out her tools. Angel watched her prepare the herbs, arrange the tools, and annoint the crystal ball with the thick concoction. He wanted to ask her if Willow had taught her, but he knew that whatever she was doing would require her full concentration. He knelt a few feet from her, watching her intently as she began to chant.

"Goddess, hear my plea
Bring forth the woman that I seek
Let me gaze upon her face
Bring her to this sacred place
Through this consecrated glass
Let nothing but knowledge come to pass
Allow my questions, this I plea
Bring Maria here to me"

There was a loud popping sound as a milky haze began to fill the crystal ball. Buffy leaned forward, slicing her hand and allowing several droplets of blood to fall on the shiny surface. Within seconds, the haze began to take the shape of an elderly woman. Her skin appeared to be deep bronze and was so wrinkled that it was hard to tell how old she could possibly be.

"Hello, child," the old lady said. Her voice seemed to come from every corner of the room, whipping across the valley like a strong wind.

"I hope that I didnít wake you," Buffy told her, smiling genuinely for the first time in what seemed like forever.

"No, child. I was waiting. I knew youíd call on me. Your soul is crying out loud enough for me to hear. Itís deafening.You know that He has also heard."

"I didnít want to stop taking the serum."

"It is too late to go back now. He knows that you are whole. And He will crave you now like a man undone. Youíve beaten Him and He will not forgive this."

"No, he wonít." Buffy ran her fingers through her hair and exhaled loudly. "Tell me what to do."

"Child, we gave you the serum because we knew that your soul was broken. We knew that He could take what He wanted of you and leave you hollow. But there is another way."

"Okay, not a fan of dramatic pauses."

Mariaís laughter emanated from all directions. "Your soul is strong now. Powerful and whole. You need to give it to someone else for safe keeping."

"What with the who?"

Angel stood, staring down at the crystal. "Buffy-" he said sternly.

Holding up a hand, Buffy said, "Maria, I donít like the not having a soul thing. Evil isnít my best color."

"You wonít lose your soul, child. It will be pulsing inside of you all the time, but youíll have something stronger than even His ability inside of you as well."

"What? Watered down evil? It still makes me look washed out."

"Protection." Maria coughed and cleared her throat.

"Are you sick?"

"No, child. Iím fine." The old lady dabbed at her eyes with a cloth. "I can feel their love for you. You can, too. You know that either would surrender his life for you and because they are both supernatural and their souls are strong enough to curb their impulses, they carry a magic inside that He doesnít. You already carry them inside of you. Itís time for you to let them in all the way and once theyíre there, once you trust in what they feel, your soul canít be touched by anyone but them."

"That sounds really nice, but Maria -"

"Child, my clan gave the dark one his curse. I know how powerful his soul is. Itís untouchable."

Buffy met Angelís eyes over the crystal ball. His jaw was clenched tightly as he glared at her. She swallowed hard. "What do I have to do?"

"You all have to come together. As one. You each have to trust the other."

"That will never happen."

Maria was silent for several seconds. "Merge. Share," she finally said softly. "The physical act of love is the most powerful tool in the world."

Buffyís jaw dropped somewhere around her waist. "What!? Are you telling me ... are you saying ... what the hell are you saying?"

"There is no guilt in love, Buffy." Maria wiped her eyes again. "I can tinker with both of their souls from here, once youíve ... merged together. I can place a piece of each in you because they already own a piece of you. Once The Immortal tries to break through, the three of you will attack from within you."

"I never thought that you, my mentor, would tell me to ... to ... have an orgy!" Buffy snapped. "I think youíre a pervert."

"And I think you want to live, child."

"You know what?" Buffy began to shove the supplies back into the bag. "You better NOT have told Diego to seduce my sister to protect her!"

"She is in no danger, but you are. You will die. He will suck you dry before you can say His name."

"Well, I donít really know his name now do I?"

"He knows yours, Buffy. And He knows how to destroy everything you are. I have not led you astray and I never would. You saved the future keeper of this clan and for that we will forever be in your debt. Believe in me as I believe in the power of what you and the vampires share. It will save you if you let it."

Buffy swiped the knife across her hand and dripped blood on the globe again. "All my answers now fulfilled, the connection may be free, return us to our humble lands, as I will so mote it be."

Not meeting Angelís eyes, Buffy stood and angrily stuffed the rest of her supplies away. Wordlessly, she headed back toward the door. Angel followed. "Buffy, we canít leave until our time is up."

"Great!" Buffy threw her hands in the air and then threw her bag with all her might, scaring the unicorn back into the woods. "I love being held hostage! Itís really good for my mental health!"

"We need to talk."

"Oh god. Every time you say that ..."

"Youíre trusting the clan of gypsies who cursed me?"

"Did I say that I trusted them? Right now I think theyíre a bunch of twisted, fornicating exhibitionists."

"You went to the people who cursed me for *help*. Do you not see the wrong in that?"

"No offense, Angel, but when you arenít cursed ... you kinda suck. Literally!"

"Oh great! Iíve deserved all these years of guilt, agony, and misery!"

"Duh!" Buffy could only stare at him in disbelief. "Youíd rather be killing and rampaging all over the place still?"

"Well, okay, there is that!" Angel growled. "But the little happiness clause? Thatís just dirty!"

"So was killing their princess or whatever she was. Donít mess with powerful people and they wonít mess with you."

"Did you know that they were the ones who cursed me?"

"Angel-"

"Yes or no?"

"Yes."

He turned away from her and took several angry strides back toward the water, then spun and stalked back toward her. "Arenít you going to ask me why I could make love to you and not lose my soul?"

"I figured youíd tell me eventually."

"Itís because we outsmarted them. Theyíre not that powerful, Buffy. Weíve got everything you need right here at Wolfram and Hart to beat The Immortal. You donít need crooked, dirty people -"

"Angel, Wolfram and Hart is crooked and dirty. Scoundrels!"

Shaking his head, he held up a hand to silence her. "You donít know what youíre saying."

"Neither do you!"

"Are you actually entertaining the idea of doing what she said?"

"Right now Iím thinking absolutely nothing could inspire me to touch you."

"And nothing could inspire me to watch Spike ... to actually ..."

"Whatever."

"Whatever."

Buffy gathered her bag and repacked the contents that had spilled out. She stood next to Angel, each of them glaring at the door until it finally opened. Fred was standing on the other side, all smiles, but her face fell when Angel shoved her out of the way and stalked down the hallway. Buffy sidestepped and walked in the opposite direction.

"Oh dear," Fred whispered.

~*~*~*~

"Let me make sure that I understand." Wesley removed his glasses, rubbed them absently on his shirt, and put them back on. "Buffy contacted the gypsy elder of the Romany clan who cursed you and this elder told her to ... good lord."

Gunn, who had a small grin on his face, shook his head. "Angel, man, if you donít want to do it, Iíll gladly step in."

Angel glared at Gunn for several long seconds, until the smile had faded from Gunnís face. "I just - I canít believe that sheíd turn to them."

"I canít believe that they would risk your soul," Wesley shook his head. "We have done all we can to protect it, but to urge you to make love with Buffy after what happened previously is, well, insane."

"Itís safe," Angel absently replied. "I didnít lose it."

Fred, who was thumbing frantically through a book entitled Romany Romance, drew a sharp breath and glanced up at Angel. "You cheated on Nina?"

Angel didnít meet her gaze. "I donít want to discuss it."

"But if youíve already been with Buffy, then whatís the big deal?" Gunn asked. "I mean, just do the damn thing and letís get this Immortal thing finished."

Angel stood and paced to the windows, staring outside at the darkening sky. "Why would Spike need to be involved?"

"Because he loves her." Fred flipped a page in the book and read aloud. "Love is the strongest and most powerful bond that people can share. While in the act of love, the Romany believe that the souls combine, lock together, and leave traces, or stains, that indelibly mark the lovers for eternity."

"Why canít it just be me?" Angel turned and glared at Fred as if she were the one who had suggested it.

"Maybe you arenít strong enough, Angel. Maybe all that serum that Buffy took weakened her soul, so she needs the two of you and what you both feel for her to piece it back together." Noting the look on his face, Fred threw her hands in the air. "Do you have any better suggestions? Because I donít! Every piece of information I have says that The Immortal is one of the most powerful beings on the face of the planet. Maybe he canít hurt a soul that was created using magick. Oh my god! Thatís probably it! Angel, I bet that you and Spike, both your souls, are impervious to his interference! And if he does somehow get through one ... I bet he wonít be strong enough to get through the other! Heíll starve!"

"Starve?"

"If he fights for a soul and loses, then he loses all of the reserve that he has. Where did I put the printout of Willowís database?" Fred grabbed a stack of papers and read back through them. "Here it is: The same way a vampire needs blood to sustain immortality, a Vespara needs souls to sustain it. Human souls. That soul lasts for about three weeks and then the Vespara is drained, starved. However, if a soul proves too powerful or the victim is wise to what is happening and allows their soul to war with the Vespara, and the Vespara loses, he will also lose everything that makes him immortal and can then be killed."

"How did we miss that?" Gunn asked, taking the papers and reading through them. "Thatís what Buffy was trying to do with the serum. She was gonna let him get back inside her and then let the parts of her soul that was evil or whatever fight him."

Angel, who had listened closely to the conversation, swallowed hard. "I didnít even consider that. I just - I thought that she was trying to take an easy way out."

"It couldnít have been easy, Angel, to have everything stripped out of you. I mean, she was trying to do what was right." Fred sighed and picked up the book again. "I can see if thereís another way. We can consult with the seers or try to-"

"No." Angel shook his head. "We know what has to be done."

Gunn watched as Angel crossed the room, grabbed his duster, and walked out the door. "He acts like a man condemned! Heís fixing to get a piece of a-"

"Charles!" Fred snapped.

"Iím just saying -"

Wesley removed his glasses again and exhaled loudly. "This is the part where I remind you that Spike and Angel hate one another. What if thatís the most powerful part of their souls?"

"I hate when you think like that, man. You do know that. Right?" Gunn crossed his arms. "Weíre in for a long night."

Fred tossed him a thick, leather book. "Might as well make it useful."

"I hate when you think like that, too!" he said, but he settled into an armchair and opened the book with a resigned expression on his face.

~*~*~*~*~

"Spike?" Buffy called as she knocked on the door to his apartment for the fifteenth time. "Please open the door. I know youíre in there."

"Go away, Slayer." Spike shouted. He was sitting on the sofa, a half empty bottle of whiskey in his hand.

"All my things are in there!" Buffy called. "Do I really have to break in the door?"

Spike drained the bottle and threw it, hard, into the fireplace, relishing the sound of the breaking glass. He stalked across the room and snatched the door open. "It wasnít even locked."

"Oh." She gave him a small smile. "I guess Iíll try that first next time."

He turned back toward the living room, ignoring her. Buffy shut the door and followed him, resting her hands on the back of a chair as he opened another bottle and threw the lid into the floor. She watched as he flipped the television on and took a deep, noisy drink from the bottle.

She cleared her throat and he looked at her. "What, slayer? You know where your things are. Get them and go!"

"Go where?"

"Go to hell for all I care." He took another drink and eyed her up and down, finally meeting her gaze. "Awww, are you going to cry, pet? Big green eyes getting watery on you? Go ahead. See if I care."

Buffy swallowed hard and moved to sit across from him. "I get that youíre mad at me and-"

"Mad?" Spike leaned forward. "You think Iím *mad*? Buffy, mad doesnít even scratch the surface of what I feel right now."

"Okay!" Buffy shouted. "You hate me! Join the club!"

"I donít like clubs with that many members."

"That was low."

"It was true. If you killed every person who hated you -"

"Iíd start with myself," Buffy said.

"Oh, here we go. If you want to knock yourself off, Slayer, thereís plenty of tools in my weapons chest."

Hot tears spilled over her cheeks as she stared at him. "And you wouldnít stop me?"

"Nope. Wouldnít even miss you. Probably wouldnít notice you were gone until you started to stink up the place."

She felt her chin trembling and saw him notice, but he didnít reach for her, didnít try to soothe her in any way. "Fine," she said as calmly as her cracking voice would allow and stood.

Spike watched her out of the corner of his eye as she padded toward his bedroom. "Buffy! Donít you dare!"

He shot off the sofa and grabbed her before she made it ten paces. Wrapping his arms around her, he held her firmly against his chest, her back to him. He could feel her shaking, heard her crying softly. "Iím sorry, luv. I didnít mean it."

Buffy leaned her head back against his chest and let herself cry. "You know, I thought it would change, but it didnít."

"What?"

"Ever since Sunnydale the only place I feel safe is in your arms. That night, the last night we were together in my basement. I felt like I could fight anything as long as you were with me. As long as you would be there to hold me again." She turned and looked up at him. He wiped the tears from her eyes and she caught his hand, kissing his palm. "Spike, I can handle the thought of The Immortal beating me when I face him, but I canít handle the thought of you not believing what I said to you in the Hellmouth. I do lo-"

"Donít, Buffy." Spike put his thumb over her lips to silence her. "Donít do that."

"I do!"

"You love Angel."

"I love you both!"

"And both of us love her," Angel suddenly said from the open doorway.

"God!" Spike shouted. "Iím getting a fucking deadbolt for that door."

Angel stepped fully into the room and shut the door behind him. "Did you tell him yet, Buffy?"

"Tell me what?" Spike took several steps away from Buffy, glancing back and forth between the two.

"No," Buffy replied quietly, drawing the sleeve of her shirt across her eyes. It made her seem younger, more vulnerable. To Spike, she added, "Itís nothing."

"Itís something," Angel sat down in the chair that Buffy had vacated earlier. "Please sit down. Both of you."

"This is my house! And I didnít invite you to sit!" Spike yelled. "But I am inviting you to leave."

"Sit down!" Angel shouted. His voice was so loud that the walls seemed to vibrate. "We donít have a lot of time! Two of The Immortalís minions tried to get through our security a few minutes ago. He knows that Buffy is here."

"Oh my god," Buffy whimpered and began to pace back and forth. "Iím not ready! Weíre not ready! I - I could talk to Maria again. There has to be another way!"

Angel stood, caught her and pulled her into his arms. "Itís okay. I think weíre fine. Iíve got people working to put stronger magicks on the building right now." He pushed her back so he could see her. "And I think we have to consider what Maria told you."

"Who the fuck is Maria?" Spike growled, stepping beside Buffy. "And what are you talking about?"

"Tell him," Angel said.

"No." Buffy shook her head. "This is insane! Iím not - weíre not - there is no way weíre doing that."

"Doing what!?" Spike shouted.

Angel let Buffy go and turned to face Spike. "The spell she did earlier put her in contact with the gypsies who gave her the serum. They told her that you and I together are strong enough to protect her."

"Then letís protect her."

"Thereís more to it than that," Buffy said.

"Iíll do whatever it takes," Spike replied. "Now, what do we have to do?"

Angel told him.

Buffy blushed a bright red.

All Spike could say was, "Bloody hell!"

*~*~*~*~

To the casual observer, the three people who sat side by side on the sofa appeared to be engrossed in the television. But the television was not on and each of their gazes rested in opposite directions. Buffy sat in the middle, nervously chewing her bottom lip. Now and then, Spike or Angel would reach past her, handing off their third bottle of whiskey to one another. Occasionally, they would offer it to her, but sheíd shake her head and try to pull herself into a smaller lump.

"Well," Spike finally said, putting the empty bottle on the table. "I guess thereís no time like the present."

Buffyís eyes were as round as saucers. "What? No. No, we have to, uhm, I- I think Fred needs my help."

She stood and started to step over Angelís legs, but he caught her arm. "Buffy, itíll be okay."

"We canít do this."

Standing, Angel brushed her hair off her face. "Iíve already told you how Fred explained it to me. I think it will work."

"And if it doesnít? Everything is already so complicated."

"It canít get worse, luv," Spike told her. "Look, itís not that different than you shagging us both already."

"Yeah," she snapped. "And you two tried to kill each other after that!"

"I wonít kill him." Angel squeezed her hand. "And he couldnít kill me if he tried."

"Wanna bet?" Spike growled.

"See?" Buffy cried. "You two canít handle it! You canít --- share."

"Weíll bloody well do what it takes!" Spike shouted. "You are not going to die!"

Buffy pulled her hand out of Angelís and wrapped her arms around herself. "I have to take a shower."

"Go ahead," Angel told her. "Take as much time as you need."

They watched her go, then glared at one another. Spike grabbed the empty whiskey bottles and pointed his finger at Angel. "If I catch you checking me out -"

"If you catch me checking you out then please kill me! Iíd rather not be permanently scarred!"

"Piss off!" Spike stalked to the kitchen and dumped the bottle in the trash. When he returned, Angel was lighting a fire in the fireplace. "What are you doing?"

"Setting the mood."

"Putting a bag over your head just might do it for her."

"Shut up!" Angel grabbed a couple of candles off the mantle and lit them as well. "Get a blanket. We need to make it comfortable for her."

"There is a bed, you know?"

"Do you really wanna go there, Spike?"

"Youíre right." Spike went to the bedroom and grabbed a fluffy blanket from the closet. He also grabbed an armful of pillows from the bed and paused, listening to the shower running. "You okay, pet?"

He heard her drop something, swear under her breath, and shout that she was fine in a very high pitched voice. Chuckling, he returned to the living room. "You know, Iíve seen her face down the most powerful demons on the planet, but this is the first time Iíve ever seen her so - whatís the word?"

"Awkward? Out of her element? Apprehensive?"

"I donít think sheís out of her element, mate." Spike tossed him the pillows and spread the blanket on the floor. "Got a feeling she could give us a run for our money."

"And youíd know, wouldnít you?" Angel asked as he arranged the pillows. "Listen, just because youíve been with her more than me doesnít give you the right to call the shots here."

"Oh, touchy!" Spike smoothed the blanket again and gave Angel a mocking smile. "Just follow my lead, sport. Iím sure youíll do just fine."

"I mean it, Spike."

"You just worry about yourself, peaches, and leave the rest to me."

"I think that the key to this is that we have to overcome our hatred for one another and focus solely on what we feel for her. Our animosity doesnít need to transfer over into her. The good in us needs to transfer into her."

"Wonít be a problem for me. The second I see her all spread out and ready ... you wonít even register."

"I meant what I said, Spike. Youíre not calling the shots."

"Neither are you. I think our little spitfire will be calling them and weíll be dancing through her hoops."

"Where is she?"

Spike cocked his head to one side. "You know, my shower is pretty big. What say we cancel the appointment with tense and awkward and go join her?"

"What was it you said earlier? No time like the present?"

*~*~*~

Buffy was rinsing her hair for the fourth time. Part of her felt that she was postponing the inevitable, but another, stronger part, told her that the wait was half the fun. She could envision it clearly in her head and as she soaped her chest, the fact that her hardened nipples ached to the touch wasnít lost on her. She felt excitement, fear, and most of all, desire the likes of which she had never experienced in her young life.

Both of them. At once. Hadnít she had this dream a million times? Hadnít she fantasized about it so often while patrolling that more than once she was caught off guard? What woman wouldnít want to make her fantasies a reality? It was happening for her just as soon as she shut off the water and joined them.

But ...

What happened afterwards? When she had to go back to Italy? Did she have to go back to Italy, she wondered. Maybe she could stay here. Maybe she could live with her father. Itís not like she would have a job in Italy if she killed her boss. Her scattered thoughts came back to the idea of both of them.

She imagined how wonderful it would be to wake up sandwiched between the two of them, the best of both worlds. To feel four hands on her body instead of two. Two mouths instead of one. Renewed heat flared through her and she gasped. Every inch of her skin was on fire.

Thatís when the shower door slid open and Angel stepped in. Spike followed him. Buffyís breath caught in her throat and for a split second, she wanted to protest, but the sight of the two of them, so willing to overcome their own feelings to help her, silenced the words on her lips. She was brutally aware of the way their eyes raked over her body and it sent tremors of anticipation racing up her spine.

Spike reached out first, cupping her breast in his palm. She hissed as he ducked his head and caught her nipple between his teeth. Angel trailed his thumb over her face and lowered his mouth to hers, kissing her thoroughly. His kiss left her gasping as he moved to her ear, playfully tugging on the hoop earring that dangled there.

"I love you," he whispered, his fingers tangling in her hair.

Spike stood as well and kissed her neck, her cheek, her mouth. As her tongue touched his, he lowered his hand and slipped it between her legs, gently rubbing her aching core. Angel had moved behind her and was trailing kisses along her neck and shoulders, one of his hands on her breast and the other on her backside.

Her senses were exploding inside of her. She didnít know where to concentrate, where the source of her pleasure was coming from. It came from all over, every place they touched. She moaned and Spike whispered in her ear, "You like that?"

"Oh god," she replied. "Donít stop."

"Weíre just starting," Angel whispered into her other ear.

They surrounded her and Buffy could feel both of their erections pressing against her. Closing her eyes, she reached down, taking one in each of her hands. Simultaneous hissing caused her to smile and she tightened her grip, pumping each with a firm, steady rhythm.

Spike pulled her legs further apart and slid two fingers inside her. "Youíre so wet, Slayer."

"Yeah," Buffy sighed as he massaged her slowly at first and then more insistently.

She moaned when he dropped to his knees and pulled one of her legs over his shoulder. He slowly kissed her nether lips, parting her delicate folds with his hand. She leaned her head back against Angel, who was pinching both of her nipples. He tilted her head, kissing her and she whimpered against his mouth as her orgasm began to build, then crashed into her.

Spike stood slowly, kissing a path up her trembling body. He stroked her cheek and looked up at Angel. "Go ahead."

Angelís brow furrowed slightly, but he nodded. Pulling free from her hand, he moved behind her, kissing the back of her neck. "Lean forward."

She was so short that he had to bend his legs almost painfully, but that was forgotten as he slipped into her warm, wet passage. She cried out and he stilled his movements, mindful of the fact that she may be sore, but she pushed back against him urgently and he was happy to oblige.

Spike kneeled in front of her, tangling his hands in her hair. He kissed her, sweetly at first, then more forcefully. She reached between his legs and stroked him, pulling him to his feet. Spike felt his eyes cross when she took him into her mouth. He growled, closing his eyes and flinging his head back.

Angel watched her head bobbing up and down on Spikeís thick cock and his own need forced him to drive into her harder, faster. It was the most erotic thing heíd ever witnessed in his life. Gripping her hips, he slammed against her, loving the way his hips sounded slapping against her backside. "Oh, god, Buffy," he groaned, digging his fingers into her flesh. "Thatís it, baby."

Buffy felt her inner walls beginning to tighten and she moved a hand between her legs, rubbing her clit. Angel circled his arm beneath her and took over, flicking back and forth across her with just the right about of pressure. She cried out, her release causing her legs to buckle. Angel caught her, pulling her back against him as he spilled his seed deep within her womb.

She barely regained her bearings before Spike was helping her to her feet. He kissed her, wrapping his arms tightly around her waist. She felt the cool planes of Angelís chest against her back as Spike lifted her, urging her legs around his waist. Angel reached around her, pulling her legs up higher and further apart. Spike slipped into her, bracing one palm against the shower wall and the other against the door. He slammed into her again and again and she flung her head back against Angel, who effortlessly held her suspended at just the right height for Spike to do as he pleased. Angel trailed kisses along her neck, down the slope of her shoulder.

Spike moved his hand behind her head and pulled her forward, hungrily savaging her mouth. Buffy held onto him, her fingers clutched in his hair. "Spike!"

The pulsating began anew inside Buffy. This time it was overwhelming and for a split second, she was sure that she was going to faint. She felt herself baring down against him, grinding into him, and then everything shattered and she was rocked with one powerful orgasm after another. She screamed and Spike came with a fierce cry and collapsed against her.

Angel could feel her shaking, could feel the tremors vibrating through her and he smiled as she went completely limp in his arms. Her breathing was strong, labored, and Spike stayed firmly between her legs, helping keep her upright.

They remained that way for a while, until Spike finally slipped from her. "Waterís getting cold."

"I hadnít noticed," Buffy replied lazily.

Angel chuckled and gently lowered her to her feet. She gasped as her legs threatened to buckle, but two firm sets of hands held her steadfast. "You okay?" Angel asked.

"Yeah," she replied, not looking at either of them. The realty had sunken in and she felt her cheeks beginning to flame as she became all too aware of the stickiness between her legs.

"Hey," Angel forced her to look up at him. "Itís okay."

"I - I should probably, uhm, I need to wash up."

Spike shook his head. "I always clean up my messes, pet. You know that."

Buffy watched as he soaped a washcloth and ran it over her stomach, then between her legs several times. Angel took the massaging shower head down and rinsed the soap clean.

Spike stepped out of the shower and opened a big towel for her. She stepped into it, chilled now, and he massaged her arms. "Thereís fire in the living room. Go warm up."

Buffy nodded and quickly left the bathroom, her cheeks now positively scarlette.

Spike tossed Angel a towel and took one for himself. Neither vampire spoke for several seconds. Then Angel said, "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For not making it complicated."

"I did it for her." Spike secured the towel around his waist. "Do you think that was enough to do it?"

"I donít know. Weíll have to see what she says."

Spike left the bathroom and picked up a hairbrush. He yanked it through his hair and then took it to the living room. Buffy was still wrapped in her towel and sitting dangerously close to the fireplace. "Roasting, luv?"

"Not quite yet."

"Come here," he told her, motioning for her to join him on the couch.

She made sure the towel was snug before she walked to where he sat. "Turn around. Let me get the tangles out of your hair."

Buffy grinned at him. "The last time you did this you almost yanked me bald."

"If memory serves I was incredibly pissed at you chopping it all off."

"You chopped off your hair?" Angel asked. He came from the kitchen carrying three drinks.

Buffy took a sip of hers and grimaced. "Thatís strong."

"Drink it," Spike told her, gently pulling the brush through her hair. "And yes, she did whack it all off because I told her it was beautiful."

Angel laughed and sat down next to her, taking her hand. "Thatís almost as bad as you trying to read my mind that time."

"Wasnít a long read, was it, pet?" Spike asked. "Brood, pine, brood, pine."

Buffy took one look at Angelís face and burst out laughing. "You shouldnít be so taciturn, Angel. Take Spike here, for example. Iíd never have to read his mind. I knew he loved me when he chained me and Drusilla to opposite walls and threatened to let her have me unless I confessed my love for him."

"You gave me a right good ass kicking for that."

"You deserved it. I still canít believe you thought that killing her would prove you loved me."

"You killed Dru?" Angel asked.

"No, she got away." Spike pulled the brush to the ends of Buffyís hair and started over again. "But Miss Priss here had the witches banish me from her house for it."

"Iíve been there, too." Angel nodded, he studied them closely for several seconds, then cleared his throat. "Can I ask a few things?"

Buffy glanced quickly at him, studying his expression. "Uh, okay."

"Spike, when did you fall in love with her?"

"Iíve asked myself that same question. I think it was when I had the Gem of Amarra and I saw that bloke break her heart."

"Not going there!" Buffy snapped.

"Iím just saying," Spike continued. "that seeing you in the sunlight, with your heart on your sleeve, really got to me. Thatís when you started to consume me, but I didnít actually fall completely in love with you until I came to your house with the shotgun and you were on your back steps crying because your mom was so sick."

"You were going to kill me. And I was going to let you."

"But I couldnít."

Buffy glanced up at Angel. "He still kept trying."

"Okay, okay," Spike said. "Didnít have a soul!"

Angel regarded them quietly. "What about you, Buffy? When did you fall in love with him?"

"Angel-"

"Itís okay." Angel squeezed her hand reassuringly. "I just want to understand it better."

"There was a Hell-God after Dawn. Her name was Glory and she kidnapped Spike because she thought he was my boyfriend. She tortured him. Beat him within an inch of his life, but he still wouldnít tell her that Dawn was they key. When I went to see him, he thought I was his sex robot, and told me everything. I kissed him. He took a little piece of me right then."

"Really?" Spike asked, grinning from ear to ear.

"Back up!" Angel held up a hand. "Sex robot?"

"Oh yeah, he had a nerd build him an exact replica of me for sex."

Angel howled with laughter and Spike frowned. "Itís not like she makes it sound. That robot had a purpose when Buffy died! It fooled everyone! Kept Niblet with us!"

Buffy waited for Angel to regain his composure, then said, "When I came back from Heaven he was there for me in ways that no one else could be. He understood what it was like to dig out of the grave and to not understand why I was back. He took care of me when I couldnít take care of myself."

"And you started having sex?"

Buffy nodded.

"Tell me about it," Angel said. "The first time."

"No." Buffy shook her head. "Angel, this isnít -"

"Iím not upset, Buffy. I have to understand it."

When Buffy was silent, Spike set the brush on the table and spoke in her place. He understood the need to know and come to terms with it. "I hit her one night and the zapper in my head didnít go off. I thought she came back all wrong, part demon or something. I taunted her in an alleyway. One thing led to another and we were beating the hell out of each other. Next thing I know, weíre in an old warehouse, still trying to kill each other, and she yanks her skirt up, jumps up on me, and unzips my fly. I was so stunned that I didnít believe it. Then we fell through the floor and the house comes in around us, but she didnít even know it. We stayed there all night."

"Wow." Angel stared down at his hand, how it dwarfed Buffyís. " Was it always that violent?"

"Angel-" Buffy started to speak, but he shook his head.

"Was it?"

"Most of the time."

"Did it happen a lot?" Angel asked.

"Yeah," she replied honestly. "But we shouldnít be talking-"

"You donít know what itís like for me to try to rationalize why you would hook up with Spike." Angel gave her a small smile. "I need you to make sense of it. When did you break up? When he died?"

Buffy shook her head and told him about the breakup and about Anya and the spy cam. She carefully avoided the incident in the bathroom with Spike, but he admitted it himself. He chose his words wisely, but by the time he was finished, Angelís grip on Buffyís hand was painful.

"Worst thing Iíd ever done." Spike said. "It haunted me. I just kept seeing her face, hearing her crying for me to stop. I knew right then what I had to do. If I ever wanted to be the man she needed, Iíd have to get a soul. Some kind of impulse control. I- it was the worst thing Iíd ever done ---" He trailed off and Buffy turned to face him.

"Spike." She was shocked to see the raw emotion on his face. "Itís okay."

"Itís not." Spike shook his head. "But one day it may be."

"I think going and fighting to get your soul proves what kind of man you are."

Angel said, "Did you have sex while you had the soul?"

"No," they replied in unison. "Not until earlier today or was it yesterday?" Buffy added.

"Yesterday." Angel glanced at his watch, then back at Buffy. "Do you love The Immortal?"

"No." Buffy looked scandalized.

"But you slept with him. Even though you knew what he was?"

She nodded.

"Why?" Spike asked quietly.

"Itís hard to stare death in the face when you donít have anyone to miss you. I donít want to die alone."

"You never will," Angel leaned forward and kissed her.

She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly. She didnít realize that he towel had fallen completely off until she felt Spike slide his hands along her thighs, up to cup her ass.

"Are we going there again?" Buffy asked, her nose pressing lightly against Angelís.

"Absolutely," Angel replied with a grin.

*~*~*~*~*~

*~*~*~*~*~

The dream was vivid. In it, she was running down a darkened alley and shards of glass were piercing her bare feet. Her teeth chattered and the rain that fell, blinding her and stinging her skin, was frigid. Long, sinewy arms reached for her from the darkness. She batted them away, but more than once, they caught hold of her hair, her arm, ripping pieces of scalp or skin off her battered body.

Every inch of her screamed in protest, her muscles, her limbs, even her chest had grown heavy from the strain of trying to get away from him. And in the distance, she could hear his boots crunching over the glass, drawing ever closer.

"Leave me alone!" Buffy screamed at the darkness as she tried to loosen the hand that had clutched her upper arm, pinching into her flesh and drawing blood.

"Stop running, child! Stand and be strong. Youíre ready!" came the familiar voice of Maria. She could see the old woman, her hunched back silhouetted against a full moon in the distance.

"Help me! Heís coming!" Buffy looked behind her. He was only a few feet away. "Why wonít you help me? Please!"

The Immortal reached for her, the rings on his hands glistening. "There you are."

"Donít," Buffy cried, turning her face away as he trailed his thumb over her cheek. "I know what you are. What you do."

"And yet you still think you can beat me?" His voice was barely a whisper as he leaned down and brushed his lips over her temple. "You tremble. Your fear is deafening. It pains me to see you like this."

"You do not fear him, child," Maria called.

The Immortal glanced into the distance, where Maria held her cane like it was a weapon. "Look at you, Buffy, inviting guests to our party." He made a motion with his hand and Mariaís agonized wail ripped through the night.

"Leave her alone!" Buffy screamed, dragging her nails across his face.

He looked stunned as he reached up to feel his cheek, where deep gashes were angrily dripping blood. "Well, well, well. What have we here?"

"Me," Angel spoke quietly.

"And me," Spike added, standing next to Angel.

Buffy couldnít make out their faces, but she would recognize them anywhere. Relief washed through her as they stepped forward. The Immortal turned to look at her. "What did you do?"

"I guess youíre about to find out."

He stared at her for several long seconds and then with a gush of wintery wind, he vanished.

"Child," Maria called, her form already fading. "You will face him this day. You will go alone, but youíll never really be alone again."

The scene shifted suddenly and Buffy was standing, naked and drenched in blood, in front of Acathla. The stone mouth was opening, ever wider, and she could see Spike and Angel disappearing inside ...

"Nooooooo!" Buffy screamed, fighting the tangled web that had her pinned.

"Buffy!" Spike shouted, as her cries ripped him from sleep. He grabbed one of her flailing arms and held it down.

Angel pinned the other. "Wake up! Buffy, itís a dream!"

She heard their voices and opened her eyes, her heart beating a wild symphony in her ears. They were on either side of her, watching her with matching expressions of concern. "Iím okay," she said.

"What happened?" Angel asked, pushing her hair off her cheek. He was shocked to feel how damp with sweat she was.

"He found me."

"What?" Spike exchanged worried glances with Angel.

Buffy sat up, pulling free of their grip and rubbed her palms over her face. "Itís okay. It worked. Both of you were there."

"Where?" Angel asked.

With a bewildered expression, Buffy studied his face. "Donít you remember?"

"Buffy, I wasnít asleep just now. I was watching you."

"Oh," she said in a small voice.

"Just tell us what happened," Spike demanded, giving Angel a nasty look. It was just like him, he thought, sweet words and poison tongue. Watching her sleep!

Buffy related the events in the dream and massaged her forehead, which had begun to throb. "You know, nothing like having your head broken into to make your head ache."

Spike got to his feet and walked toward his bedroom, completely unashamed of his nudity. When he returned, he had a bottle of painkiller and one of his button down shirts. He handed her both. Buffy gratefully slipped her arms in the sleeves and stood, buttoning it down the front. She took the pills and walked into the kitchen.

When Angel heard the water running, he turned his attention to Spike. "What do you think it means?"

"She says we were there. And that she hurt him. I think thatís good news."

"Why donít we remember."

"I donít get paid to have the answers. Thatís Fredís job."

"Well, whatís your job exactly?"

"Youíll be the first to know."

*~*~*~*~

Buffy was leaning her head against the cool refrigerator, still shaken by the dream, when she heard Spikeís phone ring. She put her glass in the sink and walked back into the living room, trying not to enjoy the view as Angel, still wearing nothing, folded the blankets they had slept on. He caught her watching him and winked at her. She quickly looked the other way.

It was hard to believe, and part of her still didnít, but it had actually happened. She had slept with them both, at once.

Her mouth went completely dry. She wanted to do it again. And again. And possibly keep doing it until it killed her.

"Itís for you," Spike said, walking through the doorway.

Much to her disappointment, he was dressed. She tried to keep her feelings on the matter off her face as she took the phone. "Hello?"

"Buffy?"

"Dawn?"

"Could you please tell Angel to let me and Diego in? There are freaky glow worms guarding Wolfram and Hart. One told me that Iím the Key. Hello? I havenít been the key for, like, ever!"

Buffy felt her legs turn to jelly. "Youíre here?"

"Duh!" Dawn replied. "Weíre in the parking garage. And Buffy, youíve watched Alias! You know that bad things always happen in parking garages. Let us in."

"Stay there." Buffy hung up the phone and put it on the bar.

"Whatís wrong?" Spike asked.

Buffy told them what was happening. Angel stopped her when she headed for the door. "You arenít dressed. And you arenít leaving this room until weíre sure that the building is safe." He picked up the phone, punched several numbers, and said, "Marcel, there is a young girl and boy in the parking garage. Ask the girl what her motherís name was. If she says Joyce let them in. Escort them to Spikeís place."

"Thanks." Buffy gave him a half hearted smile and went into the bedroom. She dug through her suitcase, pulled out several articles of clothing, and retreated to the bathroom.

*~*~

Angel had dressed and was making tea when Buffy entered the kitchen. He gave her an appraising look. The leather pants she wore were dark red, and her black velvet halter top had red leather straps that matched her pants. It also bared a dangerous amount of her stomach and every inch of her back.

She had pulled her hair into a ponytail and when she turned to fill her glass with water, he saw that there were several marks on her back and neck. He smiled, recalling every one of them. "You may want to rethink that outfit."

"Sorry if my clothes offend your sensitivities."

"Hey!" Angel pulled her around to face him. "All Iím saying is youíve got a few marks. Dawn may ask-"

"Sheís used to it. Iím a Slayer."

"Fine."

Buffy took a deep breath. "Iím sorry. That dream has me on edge. I just feel like somethingís going to happen."

Angel handed her a cup and kissed her forehead. "Weíre ready for it when it does."

She toyed with the tea bag, lifting it and dunking it several times. "Whereís Spike?"

"He went to get us all some food."

Buffyís stomach grumbled at the mention, reminding her how long it had been since she had eaten. She took a sip of tea and swallowed hard. Glancing up, she met Angelís gaze and held it. "About last night -"

Angel shook his head and put his hand on her shoulder. "Weíll talk when itís all over with."

"I just want to say thanks. You didnít have to do what you did. Neither one of you did. And I know how hard it must have been."

"It was very hard." Angel cocked his eyebrow playfully. "Several times if memory serves."

"Oh my god," Buffy laughed. "You actually did just go there."

The doorbell rang and Buffy put her cup down. Angel sighed. "I was about to kiss you."

Buffy stepped closer toward him and tilted her head back. "I was about to let you."

He kissed her tenderly, his lips soft and inviting. She wrapped her arms around him and he pulled her closer, his mouth savoring hers. The door opened and Spike entered, followed closely by Dawn and Diego. Buffy and Angel sprang apart, both noticing Spikeís dark scowl and the look of utter shock and dismay on Dawnís face.

"Buffy Anne Summers!" Dawn cried. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing!" Buffy snapped, moving around the bar and stalking into the living room fully. "What the hell are *you* doing? I thought I told you to stay in Italy. Itís bad enough that you went to England with Giles without telling me -"

"I did tell you!"

"After the fact!" Buffy shouted. "Does it ever penetrate your thick skull that maybe I have reasons for telling you to do what I tell you to do?"

"Does it ever penetrate your thick skull that maybe I have reasons for not doing what you tell me to do when you tell me to do stupid shit?"

"Dawn, youíre probably not safe here."

Dawn grinned from ear to ear. "Thatís why I brought the reinforcements." Beaming proudly, she flung open the door. "Ta-da!"

Giles, Willow, and Xander stood in the hallway. Each of them carried a large suitcase, and each of their gazes found Buffy and rested there. At once, Buffy remembered every harsh word she had spoken to them, every single time she had pushed them away. But there they stood, framed in the doorway like some forgiving painting, each of them staring at her with varied expressions of doubt and worry. They had come to help her.

And she wasnít worthy.

Giles stepped in first, setting his suitcase by the door. "Hello, Buffy."

Buffy could only stare at him. The hair on his head was mostly gray now and the lines on his face were more pronounced than ever. He looked so old, so tired. She had probably caused that. After a long, pregnant pause, Buffy replied, "Hey." It sounded stupid. She wanted to say more, but Xander and Willow stepped in behind Giles, shutting the door and she felt trapped. Her clothes suddenly felt like they revealed more than just her skin.

"I know youíre probably wondering why weíre here," Willow started.

Xander interrupted. "Big evilís a brewiní, Buff. Nothing like a little Scooby action to nip that in the bud. And look, Spike has snacks."

Buffy regarded him. It was impressive, she thought, how much the eye patch changed him, made him seem harder, rougher, wiping away the traces of the boy he had been. Even his voice was deeper. But the smile that tugged at his lips reminded her of cutting Chemistry to hang with him behind the gym. It felt like home.

"Say something," Dawn said. "Angel called and told Giles everything that happened."

Scandalized, Buffy spun to stare at Angel. He got the meaning and said, "Not everything."

"Yeah," Dawn replied. "He left out how you two were apparently back together and kissing."

Giles glared at Angel. "Do you really think that now is an appropriate time for such a dalliance? Given her current mental state -"

"Whoa, back up!" Buffy put her hands on her hips. "My mental state is fine!" Turning to Angel, she said, "What exactly did you tell them?"

"The truth, Buffy. They had a right to know."

"Who knows what that is anymore?" Buffy cried, throwing her hands in the air. She turned back to Giles. "Why are you here? Here of all places? This isnít your fight."

"Havenít you learned yet that where you fight is where I belong?" Giles replied gently.

"Youíre not my Watcher any more," Buffy snapped.

"You decided that, Buffy."

"No. You decided that when you kicked me out of my house and chose Faith."

Gilesí voice raised a few octaves. "You were wrong in what you were trying to get those girls to do. And you know it!"

"Oh, I was so wrong that I won! Funny to me that my idea didnít seem so lame when Faith couldnít come up with something better!"

Willow stepped between them. "Guys, come on. Sunnydale is over. We have to get past this."

"Oh please!" Buffy shouted. "Donít *you* dare tell me to get over something, Miss Iím Leaving My Friends Behind For Kennedy!"

"Yeah, well Kennedyís dead!" Willow yelled. "Are you happy?"

"Ecstatic!"

Willow swung on Buffy, but Buffy easily deflected her, catching her wrist. "Iíll let you have that one, Will, but the next one will get your ass kicked."

"Stop it!" Xander grabbed Willow, pulling her behind him. He glared at Buffy for several seconds, then said, "We came here to help you and thatís what weíre going to do! Maybe you donít want it. And maybe when itís done weíll go back to being distant aquaintances who donít write, but for right now, weíre here! Deal with it!"

"I thought you said the evil was out of her," Dawn said, examining Buffy closely. "Angel, you said she was normal."

"I am normal." Buffy brushed her hair back into her ponytail. "As normal as anyone who has been stabbed in the back repeatedly by her supposed friends."

"Who stabbed you in the back?" Willow shouted.

"Your fucking girlfriend! Literally!" Buffy pointed at a scar that ran down several inches of her back. "And you left with her!"

"You were going to kill her!" Willow yelled.

"Oh, and she wasnít trying to kill me? Funny how itís okay for her to attack me and Iím wrong for fighting back."

"Stop!" Giles suddenly bellowed, practically shaking the walls. "Iím sick of this! Weíre not rehashing another thing! Itís done! We have a task-"

"No, I have a task!" Buffy countered. "This is *my* fight!"

"Itís never just your fight!" Xander roared. "If it was *your* fight, Iíd have an eye. Anya would be alive. The Mayor would have killed you if it was *your* fight! Adam would have taken you down if it was all just *you*! Donít you stand there like you have some claim to glory, Buffy, when we were your stepping stones on the whole damn journey!"

Buffy gasped. "You blame me for everything that happened! Guess what, ass? I didnít force you to stay!"

"Thatís just it!" Willow cried. "We wanted to be there! And we want to be here! Donít you get it? Weíre all better when weíre together!"

"Until I do something you donít like and the survey says to kick me out!"

"Get over it!" Xander said. "You want an apology? You arenít getting one! You werenít thinking about anyone else. Those girls were just pieces of meat to you that you were putting up on a chopping block! They were shaken after what happened with Caleb that first time. *I* was shaken and Iíve been out there in the field a million times. You made the wrong choice."

"Maybe we all made the wrong choices," Giles spoke quietly, rubbing his forehead. "However, itís too late to change the decisions that were made. Buffy, these two extraordinary people standing here have been beside you every step of the way. You have special skills, strength, a calling. They just had a desire to keep their best friend alive. You were all *children* when you started and I stood in awe of the bond you had after the Harvest. Youíve all stumbled. Youíve all made foolish mistakes-"

"Like my demon robot boyfriend," Willow chuckled. "Oh! Bet nobody can top the whole trying to destroy the world thing?"

"Maybe Preying Mantis Lady," Xander said. "Or trying to do that love spell. Or how about getting Cordy impaled because she caught me kissing Willow?"

"Yes, all very gallant efforts to force me to commit suicide," Giles added. "The point Iím trying to make, Buffy, is that weíre not perfect. Neither are you."

"I never said I was." Buffy crossed her arms over her chest. Her heart was pounding. All she wanted to do was put the past behind her. To smile and forget that the last few months had happened at all. She wanted to go *home* again and they were her home.

"Then hop on down off the pedestal and have a group hug," Dawn suggested. "Because this drama thing? So overrated. Besides, we let you back on the island after the tribal council had spoken and you saved us all. We know that, too. Youíre the one who saved us all when Sunnydale was being demolished by Turok-hans."

"Ahem," Spike cleared his throat across the room. "I think that of the two of us, I had a bigger hand in the saving."

"You so did not!" Buffy replied. "Iím the one who was practically gutted."

"Hello? I *died*." Spike shot back.

"Hello? Try pulling the ĎI Diedí card on someone who hasnít done it twice!"

"Iíve done it twice, too!" Spike held up two fingers.

"Yeah, but I didnít come back a demon."

"You came back a nympho!"

"Ewwww!" Dawn screeched. "My ears."

"Why couldnít I have been deafened instead of blinded?" Xander asked no on in particular.

Buffy found herself chuckling, despite the traces of anger that still coursed through her. She rubbed her palm over her face and shook her head. "This is so stupid!"

"Agreed," Giles said. He reached his hand out, extending it toward Buffy. "Now if you donít mind, this Watcher has really missed his Slayer and would like to greet her properly."

Buffy took his hand and he pulled her forward, enveloping her in a strong hug. She breathed deep, relishing the familiar scent of his cologne. "Iím sorry, Giles," she whispered.

"Oh donít worry." He planted a kiss on the top of her head. "When I lecture you later about this serum you were using, the clothing you are wearing, and the fact that you allowed The Immortal into your life to begin with, I plan on making you feel worse than you do right now."

"I donít mind the clothes." Xander pulled her away from Giles and hugged her as if she were his lifeline. He held on tight, rocking her slightly. "God, I missed you, Buffy."

"I missed you, too." Buffy pulled back a little. "But I canít breathe."

"Gotcha." He let her go and smiled at her, then stepped back.

Buffy glanced at Willow, then the floor. "I didnít mean what I said about Kennedy."

Willow nodded. "Youíre lucky that I know that about you or youíd be a toad right now."

"Iím sorry that she -- you know."

"She went down fighting. Just like she wanted." Willow took Buffyís hand. "Iím sorry about everything. All of it."

Buffy embraced her, holding her close. "Will?"

"Yeah?"

"I love you."

"I love you right back."

Diego, who had remained silent through the entire confrontation, slowly stepped toward Buffy. He regarded the people around him, specifically Dawn, who was looking at him curiously. "I need to speak with you, Buffy. Alone."

Buffyís eyes widened. "Oh, Diego! Hi!" she said in a high pitched voice. "Is this about Dawnís birthday again?"

"No more pretending, Buffy. Tonight you will face him and tonight-"

The hackles on the back of Spikeís neck danced upward and he cocked his head to one side. "Who did you say you were?"

"Diego Santorio." His accent was thick.

Spike slowly pushed himself to his feet and squared his shoulders, taking several steps toward the attractive, dark haired boy who had not strayed from Dawnís side once. "And exactly who is Diego Santorio and how did he happen upon the fact that Buffy would be facing The Immortal today?"

Angel shot to his feet as well, both vampires were on Diego before he could move. "Buffy!" he shouted.

Dawn screamed when Spikeís face changed. There was total chaos in the room until Buffy leaped into the middle of the fracas and put herself between Diego and the two vampires. "Stop it!" she yelled. "Heís fine! Heís okay!" She turned and looked at Diego, straightening his shirt. "You are, right?"

"I think I need new pants," Diego replied, brushing his floppy hair back.

Buffy laughed out loud and mussed his hair. "Didnít I tell you to keep a low profile?"

Diego caught her hand and kissed her knuckles. "I have something to tell you. And I do not wish to lay this at your feet at this time, but I fear it cannot wait a moment longer."

Dawn, who had watched the exchange with a slack jaw, finally found her voice. "Okay, what the hell are you talking about?"

"Dawn," Buffy turned and looked at her little sister. "Uhm, Diego has been helping me. Heís been helping me keep you safe."

"Huh?" Dawn glanced from one to the other. "Are you with him? Like, *with* him?"

"God! No! Heís like eighteen!"

"Iím twenty seven, Buffy." Diego took Dawnís hand and held it even though she tried to pull away. "My family, the Romany, have been guarding Buffy and they spared me to guard you. My job was to report back to Buffy to keep her informed about -"

"Youíve been spying on me!?" Dawn screamed. "Buffy, you came here ready to kill Angel for doing that to you!"

"That was different." Buffy reached for her.

Dawn knocked her out of the way. "It always is with you!"

Buffy stepped out of the way as Dawn rushed past her, out the front door. "Well, donít just stand there, Diego. Go. Spy. I give you my blessing. And youíre going to explain to me why youíre twenty seven with my kid sister all of a sudden if Iím not dead later!"

"Iíll go to her in a moment. I have news."

"What news?"

"I would rather sever my own arm than tell you this. I know that your heart will never be the same."

"Did you deflower my sister? I love you, Diego, but Iíll maim you very, very painfully. You *old* pervert."

"I havenít touched her. And Iím serious. This is the hardest thing Iíve ever done." Diego paced across the room, and then said slowly, "Maria is dead. They found her body this morning. She was savaged. He - he left one of his minions there to give you a message. He said to tell you that he wonít suck you dry, heíll leave just enough for you to feel her loss."

Buffy stared at him. Diego swallowed hard, wondering if the messenger would be slaughter. He continued rapidly. "I know what she meant to you. I know that she was like a mother to you, Buffy, and I know she loved you more than anything. Know that she died with that in her heart."

"Why are you saying this to me?" Buffy finally asked. "Why are you lying? Did he get to you? He did, didnít he?"

"Did she visit you this morning, Buffy? My family saw her dream tools. I think thatís where he caught her. On the path to you."

The world tilted for Buffy. Her legs were liquid ice, but somehow she maintained her balance. How could Maria be dead? The old woman was rumored to be over five hundred years old. She had been the very lady who had driven the soul into Angel. She was immortal, wasnít she? Buffy searched Diegoís face, hoping that she would see the lie there, but all she saw was someone as broken as she was. Finally, in a low voice, she said, "How did he do it?"

Diego glanced at the others. "Buffy, I donít think-"

"How did he do it?" she whispered.

"He ripped out her heart."

"Hmmm." Buffy felt a rage boiling through her veins the likes of which she had never known. "So thatís how he dies. I had been debating with myself how to do it. But really, itís all so clear now. Youíd think someone had mapped it out for me. Oh, wait. He did."

"You have to prepare." Diego reached for her, but she held up a hand.

"Iím done preparing. Iím done waiting. He knows Iím here. The outside of this building isnít protected so I want all of you to stay here." She turned her face upward, looking toward the ceiling. "Iíll be on the roof. He knows that I want him there. I can feel it."

"Buffy." Angel reached for her, but she pushed him away. "You canít go alone."

Then she turned to face everyone, and her eyes were glowing with a deep crimson light and there were black slits where her pupils should be. "Donít worry. Iíve got this rage to keep me company."

Diego made the sign of his tribe over his chest and dropped to one knee. "All grace unto you."

"What are you doing? Get up!" She reached for him and then stopped. Buffy stared down at her hands, where long, black talons had erupted from her nailbeds. "What the hell?"

Diego slowly climbed to his feet. "Maria. She imbued you with her own powers in death. I always thought it would be me."

"I just paid for a manicure!"

"Itíll go away when the emotion subsides. When your soul quietens."

"For good?"

"No, Buffy."

"Oh, hell." Buffy cried, grabbing her weapons bag and throwing it over her shoulder. "What more can possibly happen and why the hell is my voice so deep and scary?"

Everyone was staring at her like she had grown an extra head. She was spared their comments because Fred burst through the door. "Heís here! Heís on the roof. His minions are at every entrance and ... Buffy, my god."

"Donít ask." Buffy held up a hand, felt grossed out, and shoved it behind her back. "Whereís the roof access?"

*~*~*~*~

"Listen to me closely," Diego said, as he put a satchet around her neck. "Mariaís essence will burn in you when you feel particular emotion, like anger. You will know everything that she knows at that time."

Buffy glanced at the door that led to the roof, then back to Diego. "Do I still look scary?"

"No, you look fine."

"I donít want him to know that sheís with me." Buffy examined her hand, which appeared normal at last.

"As I said, until youíre really angry or really hurt, I donít think sheíll rage up against him."

Buffy caught his arm as he started to walk away. "Iím sorry. I know that you were shocked that she gave me this ... whatever it is."

Diego squeezed her hand affectionately. "Well, you have given me a far greater gift. Dawn. You should know that I love her. You have freed me of my obligation to my people by having Maria pass this on to you."

"Wait," Buffy said. "Do I have some kind of obligation to your people now?"

"No. The cycle is broken. Maria gave her wealth to an outsider. She broke the blood bonds. Our clan is freed."

"Freed? What? You were hostages?"

"In a way, yes. Our people could only love inside the boundaries our of clan. By bestowing upon you the most powerful form of love, Maria broke the very rules that she put into place. You see, many hundreds of years ago, Maria loved a man who was not a gypsy and he loved her. But he had a family, a hateful wife, a fragile daughter, and a wayward son who took up most of his time. Maria worked in their kitchen and she had relations with this man. She bore a daughter who was destined to become the future queen of our clan." Diegoís eyes grew dark and ominous as he continued, his grip on her hand becoming painful. "The man rejected Maria and cast her out of his home with her bastard child. Maria returned to the clan and they accepted the girl, the daughter of their queen. Before the girl had wintered eighteen full seasons she was killed by a vampire and Maria cursed that vampire, the half brother of her own daughter, with a soul."

Buffy sucked in a deep breath. "Angelís father was Mariaís lover?"

"Yes, Buffy. That is why she could never kill Angel. Her love for Angelís father prevented her from seeking a blood revenge. And that is why Maria cused our entire clan, that we may never find love with those who were unaccepted by our people. People who were not gypsies. She sought to spare us all the pain that she had endured with a commoner."

Buffy leaned her head against the wall and exhaled. "This is worse than any soap opera Iíve ever seen! And Spike made me watch Passions for Godís sake!"

"Iím glad that you are taking it well, then." Diego smiled.

"This is not me taking it well!" Buffy snapped. "Iím in shock! And you suck for laying this on me when Iím about to go up there and face him."

"Your confused emotions will make it hard for him to pick one aspect of your soul to whisper. He only wants the good in you, Buffy. If he feels the anger, the disarray, the revulsion that now overpowers the love and the peace, he will surely begin to war with you and he will lose."

"Thatís what the serum did. It deadened all the good in me so that only the bad remained. He was supposed to get a mouthful of that."

"And he will. Youíre stronger than you know, Buffy."

Buffy stared at the stairwell that led to the roof access. "I guess itís time."

"Itís long past. May you be guided by a force to be reckoned with."

"Thanks. I think."

~*~*~*~*~

Everyone gathered around the security monitors in Angelís office, intently watching the screens that showed various angles of the rooftop. They could see several minions, each in ragged, dirty clothing, shambling back and forth. It was impossible to keep count of how many of the creatures were milling around. Finally, Angel was able to zoom in on The Immortal.

"Look at the bugger! He looks like Lestat! No one wears ruffled shirts and vests! And whatís with the chaps? Knee boots?" Spike shouted indignantly. "Heís not handsome at all!"

"Oh yes he is!" Willow and Fred chorused as one.

"I like the retro thing," Willow added. "Heís so ... sinister."

"And manly," Fred added. "Look at the way that dark hair falls over his forehead. So manly and charming at the same time."

"And those arms!" Willow pointed at the screen. "Have you ever seen such a broad chest?"

"Do be quiet," Giles suggested, toying with the volume. "Why canít we hear anything?"

Angel pressed several buttons and everyone jumped as static blasted from the speakers. They could hear the grunts and gurgles that came from the minions as well as The Immortalís footsteps as he slowly and meticulously paced across the middle of the roof.

"Look at his walk! What a pansy!" Xander shook his head. "Even a half blind man can see that heís a pansy!"

"Why donít you jaunt on up there and tell him that, then?" Spike crossed his arms over his chest. "Where the hell is Buffy?"

"Diego wanted a few moments alone with her to explain Mariaís powers." Willow, who had been sitting on the edge of Angelís desk, stood and nervously crossed to the windows to peer outside. "We need to be doing something."

"Like what?" Fred asked.

"I donít know." Willow turned to face the room at large. "It just seems wrong to be sitting here while sheís in so much danger."

"Sheís been in danger before," Giles said. "Even if we could do assist, which we canít, itís something she has to do for herself. I know this is a contradiction and please donít tell her I said this, but this really is *her* war."

"Plus she got all veiny on you, right?" Xander smiled. "You were freaked out to see her like that."

"Well, the last time someone, namely Willow, got all Ďveiny on meí as you so poetically put it, I very nearly died."

"It was ink!" Willow cried. "And remember how weíre leaving me out of this?"

Angel shook his head. "I really donít want to know."

"No, you donít," Spike told him. "Iím glad I missed it."

Before anyone could reply, the speakers crackled with the sound of a door opening and they all turned to face the monitors.

"Showtime," Xander said.

*~*~

Buffy stepped out into the fierce sunlight and shielded her eyes. It had been a while since she had been outdoors. The minions who were closest to her immediately ushered her forward and blocked the doorway, effectively trapping her on the roof. She saw him, his hands behind his back, standing at the edge of the roof looking into the distance. Taking several deep, calming breaths, she began the long walk toward him.

Diego had given her a few pointers to cloak the outward appearance of Mariaís power, but she felt it circulating through her with every step she took. It gave her a sense of security that she had never felt before. Maria was with her.

When she was halfway across the roof, The Immortal turned and watched her approach. Even with the sunlight making her eyes water, she could see the hatred etched across his features. He beckoned her with a hand, and in defiance, she stopped and shook her head. "You think Iím coming to the edge so you can push me over?"

"You think Iíd push you over when there are so many more painful ways to punish you?"

Buffy chuckled. "Punish me? Please!"

"If memory serves, Buffy, you like the way I punish you."

"Well, the memory is the first thing to go."

The Immortal stepped toward her and Buffy held her ground. This seemed to surprise him, for he stopped several feet from her and said, "You do not wish to flee?"

"I donít run."

"Yet you have been. I know about the serum. When I tortured your gypsy friend I read it on her pain."

"You donít have the balls to torture anyone. Remember? You make other people do that for you because you donít have what it takes to play with the big dogs."

"I wonder ... do your friends know that you did my dirty work for me?"

Buffy swallowed hard. "Anything I did for you was because you forced me. Against my will."

"If I wanted to break you right now I could let you remember all that you have done. It would drive you insane in an instant."

"You tried to break me and couldnít."

"Shall I give you a taste?"

Before Buffy could reply, he smiled, his dazzling teeth and dimples making him seem youthful and beguiling. Instantly, she felt something whisper against her cheek and ruffle her hair, and then she saw the face of a little boy staring up at her. He took her hand and said, "Youíll help me find my mommy?"

"Iíll help you," she heard herself reply.

And then the vision shifted and The Immortal was taking the childís soul as Buffy watched in a corner, sipping a glass of wine in a fluted glass.

She fought to feel no emotion, but her heart beat faster in her chest. "Youíll need to try harder."

Instantly, her mind was filled with screams and she watched herself tearing a new born baby from the open arms of the mother, who was sprawled in the back seat of a taxi. Blood covered the womanís dress and the taxi driver pleaded with her to return the child, not to hurt the baby. Buffy watched herself stuff the infant into her Slaying bag and kick the taxi driver, hard, in the face. Blood and teeth came shooting out the manís mouth and she leaned down, telling the mother, "My master will feast for days."

The vision shifted again and Buffy saw herself at a playground, watching as two small children sat side by side in a sandbox. One little boy saw her watching and asked her to play. Buffy sat next to them, taking a bucket in hand. The next instant, she was carrying the little boy into The Immortalís mansion, setting him on his feet then kicking him toward The Immortal. "You like them better when theyíre in pain," she said in a hollow voice, removing the gag from the child. "See how he bleeds for you, Master?"

Buffy shook her head to clear it. "Is that all you got? Because hereís the thing, Im ... youíre showing me lies."

"What gave it away?"

"I would never call you Ďmasterí. If I had called you Ďidiotí in those fake memories, I may have believed it. Besides, Maria prepared me, told me what youíre capable of."

"Maria died crying your name."

"Again, youíre trying to upset me so Iíll let you in. Guess what? Buffyís brain is no longer open for business." Buffy reached into her pocket, pulled out a fighting star, and sent it whistling through the air. It pierced right through his chest and exited his back. "But your body certainly is!"

"How did you-"

"Keep trying to get a taste of me!" Buffy took several steps forward and kicked his feet out from under him. "Thatís anger youíre feasting on, asshole, and it makes you ache to find something more filling, doesnít it?"

The Immortal tried to rise, and reached out toward his minions. "Stop her. Stop her now."

One corner of Buffyís mouth turned up when the minions bowed to one knee and stared up at her with a look of reverence on their mutant faces. "Aww, they donít like you." Buffy put her boot against his throat. "I made a little deal with them a long time ago. If you were the all knowing that you claim to be, that wouldnít be surprising you right about now."

"Stop!" he shouted, clawing at her foot. "You canít- I canít be-"

"Beaten?" Buffy increased the pressure on his neck and watched his eyes bulge. "This is way too easy."

One of the minions stepped forward and handed Buffy a glass that appeared to have water in it. Buffy tipped it over and poured it into The Immortalís handsome face. He began to smoke, deep ridges in his forehead. "Well, well, well, I guess itís true," she said, handing the glass back to the minion. "You are part vampire."

"I am in no way affiliated with those vile and loathsome creatures!" The Immortal raged, covering his face with his cloak. "My father-"

"Your father was a whack job who didnít love you. He created a monster where his son once stood."

"Stop it!"

"How did you do it? How are you able to walk in the sunlight, but Holy Water still burns you?"

"My secrets die with me! If you want your vampire to have this ability, let me live, and I shall teach you all the tricks!"

"Get up!" Buffy released the pressure on him and watched as he fought to stand.

"You are merciful," he said, shielding his face with his hands.

"Thatís not mercy. I just got a better aim this way." Buffy spun, the stake in her hand slicing through the air like a bomb. It landed, square in his heart and he dropped to his knees.

"No!" he cried.

Buffy bent low, pushing his hair back so she could whisper in his ear. "That wonít kill you. But it will hurt."

The Immortal drew in several, deep, raging breaths and met her gaze. "Ah, Slayer, I can feel it. You weep on the inside for your friend."

She felt his intrusion then, felt him pushing past her facade into her soul where he fought to take what he could to gain strength. Buffy felt a momentís fear, but then she smiled. She could feel Angelís heart covering hers, pushing The Immortal away. She could almost hear Spike telling The Immortal to Ďbugger offí as he stepped in the way, arms over his chest.

"Whatís the matter, Im?" Buffy asked sweetly. "Did you hit a roadblock?"

"You vile bitch!" The Immortal screamed. "I know what you did with them! Slut! Whore!"

"Ouch!" Buffy poked out her bottom lip. "That rage is gonna consume you and spoil my fun."

"You must stop this! I need sustenance."

Buffy gripped his face in her hands. "Eat all you want!" she cried, kissing him fully on the mouth.

She could feel it transferring into him, the rage, the anger. Everything bad inside her, the cold hearted warrior within, fled into his body where it ravaged him. As soon as she broke free, agony consumed her and she curled into a ball, sobbing as though her heart had been ravaged. She cried for Maria, for the Scooby Gang, for Anya, for Xander, for Kennedy and Willow. All the pain, the misery, and the torment that she had bottled up, pushed aside, erupted from her.

From some dark corner of her mind, she could hear the minions cheering and it registered that The Immortal must have withered and died. She opened her eyes in time to see a ghostly white bubble hovering overhead. "Maria?"

Part of the cloud rained down on her and the anger returned, but the biggest part kept hovering. "Shhhh," she heard Maria whisper. "Iíve given you all the anger youíll need. Iíll take the rest with me."

"Wait!" Buffy cried, pushing herself to her feet. "Maria, donít go. You - you can stay!"

"My time is short, Buffy. You put all of me inside him. You didnít need to, but I do thank you. He suffered far greater than I did."

"But Diego said that -"

"I know, child. I could stay within you forever, but you donít want that. And I grow weary. I must rest now. The curse is broken. The clan is free. And you, child, are also free."

"But-"

"Go," Maria said, her voice fading. "Your people await you."

"Thank you." Buffy reached up to touch the paling apparition, but her fingers went right through it.

"Buffy!" Giles shouted, slamming open the door. When he saw her, he began to run toward her.

Buffy raced across the rooftop and threw herself at him. He kissed her face, her hair, and held her tightly in his arms. "The cameras stopped functioning. We thought that-"

"Itís okay," Buffy whispered.

Xander rushed up onto the roof behind them, wielding an axe. "Giles, man. Youíre fast for an old guy."

Willow slammed into Xander, magic crackling from her fingertips. "Where is he!? Iíve got a little something for - oh." Straightening, she put her hands behind her back. "Nice view up here."

"Willow, were you doing magick?" Buffy asked in her best parental tone.

"Heck no." Willow waved her hand nonchalantly, saw that it still shone with mystical light, and shoved it back behind her. "So, what happened?"

Angel and Spike stood just inside the doorway, out of the sun, and surveyed the damage. Spike glared at the minions, who had silently grouped themselves together. "Are we going to kill these things?" he asked.

"No." Buffy stepped forward, bending at the waist so she could look the leading minion in the eye. "Your work is done."

"I can go home now?" came a childís voice. As soon as it spoke, the ghastly features of the minion vanished and a little boy emerged. It was the boy in Buffyís vision. He threw his arms around Buffy and hugged her. "You didnít lie to us, Buffy. You helped us! You showed us our voice."

Instantly, all of the minions began to speak and children, each varying in age and size, gathered around Buffy where the minions had once stood. "Youíre all going home," Buffy told them, a tear slicing down her cheek. "Weíre all okay now."

*~*~*~*~

"I donít get it," Xander said for the fifth time. "How did all those kids live?"

"It was a curse." Buffy sipped her hot cocoa and snuggled deeper into the blanket that Angel had draped around her shoulders. "That sounds good to me."

Xander shook his head. "Iím tired of that being the answer. Those kids were all his victims, right? He sucked their souls dry?"

"Losing a soul doesnít mean you lose your life." Willow, who was rapidly updating the demon database from Angelís computer, said. "I think once The Immortal died, all those souls went back to the people he borrowed them from."

"But he fed on babies, too. Where are the babies?" Xander asked.

"They grew up into kids!" Willow snapped. "Now shut up about it!"

Fred entered the room, securing her hair in a ponytail. "Well, the last of the kids are gone. Most of them knew their names so it wonít be hard to find their families. Can you believe how stupid the cops are? Oh, officer, we found all these kids on the roof. We think that they were in the black market or something because theyíre foreign."

"This day has been horrible." Xander stood. "Iím hungry. Anyone want food?"

Everyone said no and Xander left, forcing Spike to accompany him to show him where the kitchen was. Dawn, who had been trying to sink into the shadows, sat next to Buffy and stared at the floor. "I know why you did it," she finally said. "I mean, Iím not mad."

Buffy said, "Okay."

Dawn turned to face her. "I mean, I am mad because you donít trust me with the truth at all and you always try to do stuff like this and treat me like Iím twelve, but I understand why. Itís because weíre family and you have to protect your family because thatís your biggest gift in the world."

"Iím glad that you listen to Diego." Buffy smiled. "And heís right."

"Just donít ever, ever fuck with your soul again."

"Donít say fuck."

Angel smiled as he watched Buffy and Dawn hug. Giles stood next to him, also watching the exchange. Finally, Giles cleared his throat and said, "I wonít ask what transpired here with you, Buffy, and Spike. I will say, however, that she doesnít need to be hurt again."

"I know."

"Just checking," Giles tipped his glass at Angel. "Carry on."

The phone rang and Angel answered. "Hello?"

"Angel, Iíve been looking for you."

"Hello, Nina," he replied. Buffy caught his gaze and he saw the look on her face. "I need to speak with you."

*~*~*~

Buffy had packed her bags and purchased two very large boxes of chocolate from the kitchen. She walked slowly down the hallway, offering smiles of greeting to people who passed. She paused outside the infirmary and collected her thoughts. She could hear Mort complaining about the linens being too starched and about the food. She took a deep breath and stepped inside.

"Ahhh!" Mort cried. "What are you doing here!? You better not be here to bludgeon me to death with ... ooooh, chocolate!"

"Itís for you," Buffy said, holding out the candy.

"Did you poison it?"

"No." Buffy opened the lid on the top box and took a piece, biting into it. "See?"

"Well, give it here then! You donít buy a gift for someone and then eat it yourself!" Mort snatched it from her and stuffed two pieces into his mouth. "Oh, pure delight! You know, theyíre trying to starve me to death here."

"Yeah, hospitals do that." Buffy sat down next to his bed and watched as he ate three more pieces of the candy.

Mort realized she was sitting next to him and flinched. "What? Go away!"

"Look," Buffy began. "Iím sorry about everything. I shouldnít have hurt you."

"Oh crap!" Mort yelled. "Am I dying? Did they tell you that Iím dying?"

"No!" Buffy stood, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Youíre not dying. As a matter of fact, the doctor said you may be able to leave today."

"Oh," He ate another piece of candy and eyed her. "Are you dying, then?"

"Sorry, no," she replied. "Look, youíre Angelís friend and he trusted you to look out for me which means that he regards you very highly."

"Canít prove that by me. I think he sent me on a suicide mission when he told me to keep you safe."

"He didnít. And I normally wouldnít have attacked you ..."

"Is that what you call it? How about blinding torment? Raw torture?"

"Well, Mort, not many people can claim that theyíve been tortured by a genuine Slayer and lived to tell the tale."

"Ohhh, youíre right!" His eyes widened. "I can say that I bested you."

"Iíll agree." Buffy nodded her head vigorously. "You were just too badass for me."

Mort smiled, showing three rows of blade like teeth. "You think Angel will give me a raise for that? I really want a new Playstation."

"Iíll talk to him."

Mort chewed thoughfully on another piece of chocolate. "He loves you. Angel, I mean. He really, really loves you. When it was time for me to fly over to Italy, he took me aside and gave me this pep talk that ended with all the ways he would mutilate me if I let anything happen to you."

"Well, you were a good spy. A little obvious, but good."

"What happened with The Immortal anyway? People were all in an uproar earlier."

Buffy explained what had happened. Mort shook his head. "I guess you really are the best Slayer ever."

"You got that right."

"And I beat you." Mort reminded her. "I had you crying for mercy, man."

"Yep."

"Look, I accept your piss poor apology," Mort said. "But if you screw with Angel again, I really will beat you."

"Duly noted." Buffy stood and gathered her things.

"Youíre not so bad. I mean, as far as humans go you look okay. Your face is straight, your ears are okay, your boobs are a little small-"

"Hey!"

Mort smiled again. "Take care. I wonít be spying for Angel again. Ever."

"Well, Iíd rather have you than anyone else."

*~*~*~*~

Buffy stuck her head in Angelís office. "Knock knock."

Spike and Angel, who were in deep conversation, turned to look at her. "Hey," Angel said. "We were just talking about you. Come in."

She entered the room and closed the door behind her. "Whatever it is, I didnít do it."

"What are your plans now?" Angel asked. "I mean, you no longer have a job in Italy it would seem."

"No." Buffy sat down in one of the leather chairs that faced Angelís desk. "I think Iím fired."

Spike chuckled. "Or you could take over The Immortalís evil empire."

"Donít give her any ideas." Angel seated himself behind his desk. "Are you going with Giles, then?"

"I feel like Iím in the principalís office." Buffy smiled. "You look odd, you know, sitting in corporate America with a leather duster on."

"Are you going to answer the question."

"I donít know the answer." Buffy looked back and forth between Angel and Spike. "Giles asked me to come back with him, to actively participate in training the girls, but I have a few things to do first."

"Such as?" Spike asked.

"Iím going to go see Mariaís family, to tell them what transpired and that the curse is lifted from their lives."

"Thatíll take a day, maybe two. Then what?"

"I donít know." Buffy chewed her bottom lip.

"You could come back here." Spike plopped next to her in a matching leather chair. "We could use another abled body."

"Especially one thatís very, very abled. Such as yours," Angel added, giving her the half smile that always made her heart flutter.

"And your dad lives here." Spike supplied. "So, itís settled then. Youíll come back here."

Buffy stared from one to the other. Finally, she said, "I think Iíll pass. I mean, I love you guys, but-"

"We can share," Spike interrupted. "We talked about it and we decided that we donít want you to choose between us. We donít want to know who youíd pick or force you to do that."

"We both want you," Angel added. "And you want both of us."

"So, here we are." Spike grinned, holding his arms out.

Buffy didnít know whether to laugh at their joke or attempt to rationalize it. Or believe it and a part of her wanted to believe it. She gathered her fragmented thoughts and said, "What we did was for a purpose. We had to and if you guys didnít *have* to it would be completely different."

"No, it wouldnít." Angel walked around the desk and pulled her against him, kissing her firmly on the mouth. "See?"

"You have a girlfriend." Buffy took a step back.

"No, I donít," he replied. "I told Nina the truth."

"And I told Harmony the truth," Spike added hastily.

Buffy felt her nostrils flare. "You and *Harmony*!?"

Spike elbowed Angel in the ribs. "Isnít she cute when sheís jealous?"

"I am not jealous!" Buffy shouted. "Harmony!? God, why didnít you just call one nine hundred sluts are us?"

"Green is her best color," Angel said, smiling.

"I like her in nude." Spike looked her up and down. "Think your trip overseas can wait, pet?"

"Donít even think it!" Buffy snapped.

A few seconds later, Fred paused outside the door, listening to the giggling and the sighs that emanated from within Angelís office. She rolled her eyes and turned, staring up at Wesley. "You think we should interrupt to tell them about the -"

"Nope." Wesley cleared his throat. "Letís just handle it ourselves."

Gunn joined them. "Did you tell Angel?"

"Nope." Fred shook her head. "Letís go."

"What are they -" A look of comprehension passed over Gunnís face. "You know, there are three of us, too," he said hopefully.

"Charles!" Fred snapped, turning every shade of red and rushing across the room.

Wesley, who had been cleaning his glasses, put them back on his face. "I must say, I like it when you think that way."

Gunn watched him join Fred at the elevator and grinned. Then he knocked, hard, on Angelís door. "FIRE!"

He didnít wait around to see what happened. But the office buzzed about it for days.

And two vampires and one very happy Slayer took it in stride.


Back To Buffy/Spike Fic